The 2019 ASRS Conference, Part 1
by Loren Seibold & Carmen Seibold | 24 November 2019 |
The Adventist Society for Religious Studies has been in existence since 1979. For all of those years we’ve had jobs that kept us close to home: Loren was a parish pastor, and Carmen a nurse and then a chaplain. So attending this year, as journalists for Adventist Today, was a new experience for us and a very rewarding one.
We’d invite you, before you read our reportage on five papers below, to reflect on ASRS’s mission statement:
The Adventist Society for Religious Studies (ASRS) is a Seventh-day Adventist scholarly community whose purpose is to provide intellectual and social fellowship among its members and encourage scholarly pursuits in all religious studies disciplines, particularly with reference to the Seventh-day Adventist tradition.
This may seem to be a fairly simple and open definition, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a schism in the late 80s. Dr. Richard Davidson writes here about the founding of the Adventist Theological Society (ATS), but doesn’t mention that it broke away from the ASRS because the parent organization just wasn’t focused enough on protecting and defending Seventh-day Adventism. The key statement from Davidson is probably this one: “Charter members in that first organizational meeting also recognized the need to focus upon key biblical doctrines under attack within Adventism and the Christian church at large.” ATS seems to want to be protective and apologetic, where ASRS is somewhat more adventurous.
Now the ATS meets concurrently, but not with, the ASRS, except for a meal together on Friday night.
The ASRS papers this year were focused on the year 1919, particularly the 1919 Bible Conference, whose notes questioning the nature of Ellen White’s inspiration were hidden away and rediscovered in the 1980s.
The papers presented are, for the moment, secured behind a password. There are two ways you may learn more about them. First, we’ll give you some short summaries here over the next few days. Second, Adventist Today has asked for permission to publish some of the papers, and I suspect Spectrum will publish others.
Jeffrey Gang, Loma Linda University
“Apocalypse When? Seventh-day Adventist Eschatological Pessimism in the Aftermath of World War I”
Dr. Gang begins with reference to Philip Jenkins’ book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. He notes recent studies by Michael Campbell and others that Adventists of that era studied and to some extent embraced the fundamentalist movement. How did Adventists’ unique eschatology respond to the events and theological currents of this era? While one would expect pessimism from a group anticipating the end of the world, there was also a surprising optimism. General Conference (GC) President A.G. Daniells acknowledges in the lead article in the Review and Herald (R&H) in 1919,
“momentous events” taking place in the world, while “startling” and “ominous,” even “dangerous,” they are also “full of promise and hope for all mankind.” Daniels praises progress, writing, “Leaders of labor federations, Socialists, suffragettes, and prohibitionists all believe that this reconstruction period is their hour of opportunity to build into the new world situation the great principles which they represent.”17 Daniels goes on to write about the millions of people being “delivered from the oppression of heavy-handed, despotic governments under which they have lived and groaned through decades and centuries.” He believes, “with this new freedom in civil or political affairs will come a larger measure of religious liberty.”
“Seventh-day Adventist eschatology is dialectical, being both pessimistic and optimistic.… Despite the growing popularity of premillennialism in the war years and the influence of fundamentalism on many Adventist leaders, Adventist eschatology is infused with an optimism that has continued to guide SDAs [Seventh-day Adventists] in relating to world events. SDA eschatology is an eschatology of hope while remaining pessimistic about the present age. This may be one reason why Adventists have continued to build hospitals and universities for the good of the world, to advocate for religious freedom, and to work toward the good of society, all the while realizing their work will not usher in the Kingdom of God, but only serves in the here and now to join God in His work of overcoming evil with good.”
John Webster, La Sierra University
“Bombshells in the Playground: 1919 Paradigm Shifts on Hermeneutics”
Webster draws on one of Karl Barth’s unused prefaces to the Epistle to the Romans (Der Römerbrief) to try to inform Adventists’ interpretation of Scripture. What might Barth have said to the 1919 gathering?
- We must seek to hear the Word in the words. Barth would have urged us not to get hung up on the mere letters and words, e.g., the ‘king of the north,’ ‘the daily,’ the ‘seven trumpets’ or the historical discrepancies in the writings of Ellen White. For Daniel, Matthew, John and Ellen were all human, and therefore not beyond making mistakes, or being conditioned by their culture or time and place—this is obvious and inevitable. But we should press on to seek to hear what they are trying to say. The differences between then and now, the historical discrepancies, no doubt require careful investigation and consideration. But the purpose of such investigation can only be to demonstrate that these differences are, in fact, purely trivial. … our whole energy of interpreting needs to be expended in an endeavor to see through and beyond the words in the text into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit. What was once of grave importance, is so still. What is today of grave importance—and not merely crotchety and incidental—stands in direct connection with that ancient gravity. If we rightly understand ourselves, our problems are the problems of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of these witnesses, those answers can be ours.
- That we recognize the ‘Advent’ itself as die sache [the subject] of both the Bible (as Primary Witness) and of Ellen White (as Secondary Witness). … Barth would have asked us to struggle to hear for ourselves the Word in the words. And then to say that Word in our words, in our time and place in the theodrama of the Coming God. I think Barth would have agreed that “The Advent” would be a good way to say that indeed… The words of the Bible are a witness or pointer to the Advent itself, which is God’s self-disclosure in human history!
- That we Exercise the Theological Freedom (and Responsibility) to Give a New Articulation of the Advent for our time. Mere repeating what we said in 1844 or 1919 will not do. We want to give voice to the same subject-matter, the same Object, the same promise of the Coming God—but to do it faithfully will mean saying it quite differently from how we said it back then! It will mean hearing afresh, and speaking afresh. Mere repeating of old discoveries, rehashing of old debates, and re-warming of old truths, will not ensure that we have anything real and vital to say to the world of today. We need a ‘present truth’!
Webster ends with “a much later word from Karl Barth”: “Theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!”
Heidi Campbell, Baylor University
“Adventist Reactions to Women’s Suffrage, 1912-1922”
The official response of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to women’s suffrage reflected the ambivalence of many Christians in English-speaking countries due to a desire for respectability and the church’s eschatology. However, Adventist responses were not as uniform as has been assumed. In Ellen White’s correspondence, her view for more equal women’s rights appeared to expand. Other individual prominent church members [US., Canada, New Zealand, and, undoubtedly, elsewhere] were more supportive of women’s suffrage than has previously been acknowledged. A strong link was the hope of women’s votes on behalf of social reformation. For example:
“Women involved in the temperance movement often became active in women’s suffrage. Through involvement in the WCTU, women saw moral imperative for women’s involvement in social reform and recognized their strength in changing society. Thus, the WCTU became an entering wedge into the fight for women’s rights. … Ellen White urged participation in the WCTU. In 1908, she wrote that ‘The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is an organization with whose efforts for the spread of temperance principles we can heartily unite.’
“Ellen White’s advocacy of WCTU bore fruit with the conversion of Mrs. S.M.I. Henry, a prominent WCTU preacher. Henry favored women taking leadership roles and to be ‘ready to occupy all posts, to lead all charges, to storm all strongholds of the enemy to fight all battles.’ Upon the death of Frances Willard, the founder of the WCTU and famed for her promotion of temperance and women’s suffrage, Henry wrote a hagiographical piece on Willard for The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald extolling Frances Willard as ‘the greatest woman’ and God’s ‘appointed agent.’ Following her conversion, at Ellen White’s urging, Henry remained active in the WTCU.”
The church’s acceptance grew once women’s suffrage was legislated and became culturally acceptable. Publications correlated it with democracy, especially with the imprimatur of some within the Fundamentalist movement. Campbell encourages more scholarship on the subject of Seventh-day Adventism and the women’s suffrage movement, deeming it is “a glaring lacuna in Adventist scholarship, relegated largely to a scant footnote.”
Michael W. Campbell, Southwestern Adventist University
“The Haunting of Adventism: Ghosts from the 1919 Bible Conference”
Campbell is recognized for his study of the 1919 Bible Conference in light of the growing fundamentalist movement. This conference, in its failure to give clear guidance on how to interpret the Bible and Ellen White, ended in a “Fundamentalist vision for an inerrant Ellen White, one that placed her writings above the Bible,” that “would become extremely problematic for Adventism.”
He says the failure to attend to this problem meant that four “ghosts” have “haunted Adventism”: race, gender, lifestyle, and Last Generation Theology.
Race: While “Seventh-day Adventists began as rather socially progressive,” by 1944 the church was effectively segregated. “It is no accident that some of the most vociferous advocates for the inerrancy of Ellen White’s writings were also leading proponents of race bifurcation during the time surrounding the 1919 Bible Conference.” Leading Adventists, such as A.W. Spalding, were complimentary of the Ku Klux Klan. Many were enamored of its anti-Catholicism in particular.
Gender: “What is not as well-known is how Adventism moved from a movement in which women were active in church leadership and pastoral ministry to become extremely marginalized,” most of this happening “in the time surrounding the 1919 Bible Conference.” The “narrative of Hazen Foss and William Foy as precursors to Ellen White became popularized within the Adventist historical narrative during this time,” suggesting that “God preferred either a white or black man, over a woman. Adventist historiography was being re-written during this time to exclude, or at best marginalize the role of women in our Adventist past. Adventist publications furthermore frequently reprinted literature during the 1920s emphasizing the sphere of women as being in the home. One of the most prolific authors advocating for this was once again A. W. Spalding.”
Lifestyle: Adventists were attracted to prohibitionism, and broadly supported the 18th amendment, but were tepid about the 19th. “Broad similarities can be observed as the Fundamentalist movement became increasingly militant both in theology and in the regulation of Christian behavior. In a similar way Adventists, as society changed in terms of media and entertainment consumption, with a similarly strong reaction regulated Adventist lifestyle. At least in terms of motion picture films, Adventists should avoid them at all costs, and if necessary, be threatened with losing their church membership.”
Last Generation Theology: “The Fundamentalist 1920s and 1930s created the fertile environment for the birth of Last Generation Theology,” says Campbell. It was M.L. Andreasen who was most responsible for “This shift of focus… away from Christ in the heavenly sanctuary to the work of God’s people, who must become perfect in order for Christ to return. This theology would over time morph into a much more militant and new form of Adventist Fundamentalism.”
“It is imperative to recognize how the Seventh-day Adventist Church was radically altered as a result of the rise of Fundamentalism. At the actual 1919 Bible Conference, both the progressives and the traditionalists hailed the rising Fundamentalist movement as a model for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. … Yet the rising Fundamentalist movement, for all of its good, also came at a great cost because it radically changed Adventism in ways beyond which any of them could have recognized. … In addition to promulgating an inerrant and infallible Ellen White, it radically changed Adventism in terms of race, gender, lifestyle, and created the crucible for the formation of Last Generation Theology that continues to haunt the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
Matthew J. Korpman, Yale Divinity School
“Antiochus Epiphanes in 1919: Ellen White, Daniel and the Books of Maccabees”
The 1919 Bible Conference discussion and other references reveal a significant role the Apocrypha played in early Adventism. Korpman traced the evidence for Ellen White’s possible acceptance of a dual fulfillment of the little horn of prophecy: the first in Antiochus Epiphanes, and secondly in future end-time events. He suggests that not only were some early Adventists open to a combined preterist/historicist interpretation of Daniel, but so it appears was White herself.
C. Lacey proposed at the 1919 Bible Conference such a dual fulfillment based on 1 Maccabees. When GC president A. G. Daniells strongly objected, someone unidentified in the minutes stated that a number of Adventist ministers were already claiming Antiochus was the little horn, likely revealing the influence of the Apocrypha among Adventists.
Lacey later responded to Daniells, appealing to Ellen White’s support:
“I do not see why you [Daniells] object to taking this in a small way as referring to Antiochus Epiphanes,—as a wheel within a wheel view of this prophecy. Living in those times we would have thought that the prophecy met its fulfillment, but in this time we see it has a larger fulfillment, we get a present message from it; and we read any chapter and make other slight allusion to those days and how it applies today. Sister White herself recognized the double application method.”
In Desire of Ages (31, 1898) and in “The Day of the Lord is Near, and Hasteth Greatly” (R&H 81.47, 1904), as well as on other occasions, Korpman notes evidence of Ellen White’s familiarity and exegesis of 1 Maccabees. She also seemingly alludes to a previous fulfillment of Daniel which Revelation would indicate would be repeated. Her view of the authority of the Apocrypha is key:
“Why might Mrs. White have accepted a dual fulfillment or a partial fulfillment view of Daniel’s prophecy? Likely the answer lies in the fact that she had, as we now know, explicitly affirmed the Apocrypha as the Word of God in her vision of 1849. There, she exclaimed in vision that Satan was trying to remove the Apocrypha and that Sabbatarian Adventists must ‘bind it’ to the heart and never let its pages close because it was ‘thy word.’ Soon after, she would note that the Apocrypha was something ‘the wise of these last days should understand.’ James White’s reference to them as scripture in Word to the Little Flock was likely, given this context and her own usage, not reflective of only his own estimation of the work, but most around him, including Mrs. White herself. Given that 1 Maccabees identified Antiochus Epiphanes’ work as connected with Daniel, Mrs. White appears to have wanted to honor that identification, while avoiding a strictly preterist understanding of the prophecy that denied the Papacy its role in prophecy. A high view of the Bible as a whole, apocryphal and canonical, appears then to have led to this balanced approach of dual fulfillment which she applies to Daniel.”
Korpman concludes that in ignoring or minimizing the Maccabees and Antiochus, we today may not be understanding prophecies as earlier Adventists did, and lose perspective by not wrestling with them as both preterist and historicist. “The two views do not necessarily need to compete with each other.”
Loren Seibold and Carmen Seibold are part of the editorial team of Adventist Today’s magazine, website, and social media outreach.