The Legacy of Neal Wilson
by Carmen Holland
Neal Wilson, president of the General Conference of SDAs from 1979 to 1990, recently passed away at age 90, and several articles in denominational journals have commented on his legacy. His son, Ted Wilson, has become General Conference president, establishing what some see as an unhealthy precedent in Adventist church politics.
I have received an email from Ronald Spencer which outlined what I feel is a well-informed and respectful commentary on one aspect of Elder Wilson’s influence on the modern Adventist Church. Mr. Spencer offers the following for readers’ consideration to which I have added one paragraph (paragraph 4 in parenthesis) containing some of my own observations:
Under Neal Wilson and prior to the Global Mission program he created, it became apparent that the Adventist Church had largely exhausted its potential to attract large numbers of converts in the First World. During the 1970s, earnest efforts to interest white middle class Americans in Adventism fell increasingly short of projections—despite earnest efforts to represent them as unqualified successes.
(Classical Adventism has never appealed to most highly educated and upper middle class professionals in First World countries. However, there was and is a sociological anomaly in Adventism because of its health education emphasis. Adventists have gone into the medical profession in much larger numbers as a percentage of their membership than any other elements of the general US population with the possible exception of those of Jewish cultural heritage. By the middle of the first half of the 20th century, Adventism had created inside its subculture an upper middle and lower upper class group of relatively affluent physicians. By the 1970 and 1980s, in larger and larger numbers, the impact of their changing lifestyles and widening intellectual horizons had eroded the loyalty of significant segments of this group to classical sectarian Adventism. Thus mid-20th century Adventism in North America created a relatively small but influential group of upward mobile individuals within First World Adventism whose sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters, in larger and larger numbers, were increasingly being lost to the subculture in the succeeding generations.)
A century after sending out Adventism’s first foreign missionary, it was clearly time for Adventism to focus its attention on “where the numbers are in the Third World." To accomplish this, the church needed to articulate positions and employ curricula that would specifically advance Adventism in Third World cultures. The publication of the denomination’s first edition of its fundamental beliefs was a nod in that direction, as well as an attempt to combat Desmond Ford’s evangelical emphasis, which Wilson believed would not go over as well in the Third World, where more legalistic forms of Christianity are preferred by former Muslims and Catholics. The closing of one of three North American publishing houses and the threatened closure of a second clearly signaled that in terms of preparation of evangelistic materials, it was time for North America to move over.
Global Mission was presented to the Adventist public as a plan to “reach the unreached in difficult areas” in the most populous “10/40” window of the globe, and Wilson clearly envisioned that the Islamic states (where he ministered for many years, and where it is believed he may have picked up more administrative culture than he actually imparted) possibly could be induced to open their doors to Adventism.
However, either by intent or default, Global Mission had the effect primarily of stimulating donations and maintaining the trajectory of growth already apace in the Christianized areas of the Third World, such as Latin America and Africa and, to a less degree, in several Asian countries such as Korea. Global Mission has had little appreciable impact on so-called difficult areas, except among India’s lower class, where a widespread revolt against Hindu fatalism emerged independently of Global Mission at about that time, leading millions on the subcontinent to open their arms to Christianity in unprecedented numbers. But the fact that Global Mission and this demographic revolt occurred at about the same time has given impetus and imprimatur to the Global Mission’s fundraising outreach.
Under Neal Wilson, it was deemed essential to reach the Third World before anything resembling a large middle class emerged in these countries—especially in context of the growth of Marxist Liberation Theology in Latin America and Africa. The problem was sociological. As a general rule, individuals become less receptive to classical apocalyptic Adventism after they receive higher education. But equally salient, those in lower socioeconomic groups are far more receptive to Adventism than those who have already achieved middle class economic standing.
Initially, in America and in a number of Third World countries, because of its emphasis on education (which in Third World countries often meant learning English—thus our Adventist language schools in places like Korea), Adventism was viewed as a passport to middle class status. However, it has also been noted that once a nation develops its own strong middle class, receptivity to classical Adventism decreases. Thus, there seemed to be a relatively short time window to get ahead of the curve and convert individuals before any large middle class emerged.
In America and in most First World countries which already have a strong middle class, traditional Adventism’s appeals for growth are now largely unheeded, except among recent immigrants. Both Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower Society), which appeals to the same demographic group, report the highest percentage increases in membership in the United States over the last decade. However, it is well known that almost all of that increase has been among lower socioeconomic Hispanic and other immigrant communities. To redirect Adventism toward an educated middle class in First World countries would require a sea change at places like the Biblical Research Institute, the Geoscience Research Institute, and North American publishing houses.
Such changes would clearly alienate conservatives both in North America and overseas. In North America, this would result in larger and larger diversion of funds away from the institutional church to “independent ministries.” Thus Neal Wilson’s formula persists—concentrate soul-winning abroad where the largest numbers respond best to traditional Adventism; collect resources from local First World congregations. Pay scant heed to desires of first world churches to use a chunk of that money to reach neighbors in the homeland; and continue to discourage importation of evangelical-oriented teachings and methods, partly because of their perceived undesirability in evangelizing former Catholics and Muslims.
To most traditional elements of the church, this seems to be a winning formula. To those who probe below the shining surface, however, this strategic direction may not be sustainable much longer, unless more and more money from North America travels abroad. A call for more money likely will be answered by a rebound call for greater autonomy for the North American Division—a division Neal Wilson once led, and without which his primary legacy, Global Mission, could not have been born.
That a man so concerned with church unity should have his major opus contribute to a distancing of North America from the rest of Adventism is truly a masterpiece of irony.
Ronald Spencer writes from Portland, Oregon. Ron, a former missionary, has visited and spoken in many churches, schools, mission stations, colleges, and universities in the Third World as a foreign missionary and public evangelist to the Middle Class, where he has met with success in the Third World. The recent death of Neal Wilson, whom he met several times in foreign lands as well as at the General Conference, led him to take pen in hand for these reflections.