By Loren Seibold  |  27 August 2021  |  

Adventists (they weren’t Seventh-day Adventists yet) had a pretty good idea back in the 1830s and 1840s. They believed Jesus was returning, and they wanted to be ready for him. 

They were wrong about the date. But they were sincerely and innocently wrong. And righteously wrong: they wanted Jesus to come to set things right on earth. And if they had some controversial ideas about precisely what “setting things right” meant, well, who doesn’t? At least they recognized that they’d had a wonderful spiritual experience during their waiting time, and they wanted to prolong it. 

The evolution to what we are today happened gradually. It began with adding more beliefs. The second coming evolved from God’s initiative to save his people, to being conditional upon a certain set of people believing certain things and acting a certain way. The investigative judgment was followed by the contemporary prophetic gift, the Sabbath, the demonization of Roman Catholicism, the state of the dead, and health reform. 

When all the new requirements were added we became, in a way, the controllers of God’s decision for when Jesus should return. If we could believe and do all the right things, Jesus would return!

Ultimate authority

All these threads somehow knotted together in the notion that it wasn’t the Roman Catholics who were the true church, but us. This was said explicitly in Ellen White’s (arguably misunderstood) statements that the General Conference (GC), not the Vatican, is God’s highest authority on earth. (The original statements said “the General Conference in session,” but those latter words are often omitted. I have heard a GC official refer to votes of the GC Executive Committee meetings of all the world’s union and division presidents as also the highest authority of God on earth, while implying strongly that the recommendations brought from the Administration Committee partake of this “highest authority” as well.) 

Power leads to arrogance. And arrogance is kryptonite to good decision-making. 

Thus, one of the worst ideas that may ever have emerged from 12501 Old Columbia Pike under Elder Ted Wilson. A few weeks ago he announced that he is spearheading a move for the church to distribute a billion full-sized copies of The Great Controversy.

Without results

You are aware, of course, that this has already begun—though not to the ambitious extent Elder Wilson has outlined. Over the past two decades Remnant Publications has mailed millions of The Great Controversys, unasked for, to homes across the United States. 

It worked, in a way: it started conversations. Newspaper articles were written. Blogs opined about it. Online discussion forums were abuzz. 

Engaging thoughtfully about the evils of Roman Catholicism, or about Sunday laws or even religious liberty? Hardly. The vast majority were annoyed that their apartment lobbies and recycle bins were filled with not just junk mail, but heavy, ponderously written anti-Catholic junk mail. Nothing cements the Seventh-day Adventist reputation as a cult like an unreadable anti-Catholic tome stuck in millions of mailboxes.

What’s the evidence that sending out even a million The Great Controversys has won a soul? Um, let’s check. There must be stories out there, wouldn’t you think? Pastors, what have you heard? Chicago? San Francisco? Charlotte? Some complete stranger who picked the book up and read through it and showed up at church because they realized that the Seventh-day Adventist Church had the truth? 

Still searching. Nada. Nothing. 

So why are we doing it? Let me tell you the three things that drive these initiatives. First:

Ellen White said it 

Yup. She did. And every word she wrote or said is a pearl of Divine wisdom that, even if taken completely out of context, will be followed by someone.

We are often reminded that Ellen White said that our publications should be distributed “like the leaves of autumn” (Publishing Ministry, 361). Would it surprise you to know that she also said just the opposite?

These tracts should not at present be scattered promiscuously like the autumn leaves, but should be judiciously and freely handed to those who would be likely to prize them.—Testimonies for the Church 1:551, 552 (emphasis mine).

Send them “to those who would be likely to prize them.” In other words, don’t witness in such a way as to waste money and time and goodwill, and irritate the heck out of people. 

C’mon, be honest. What do you think when the Jehovah’s Witnesses leave a pulpy booklet at your door? Do you read it? Do you call them up for more information? No? Why not? Because it’s a terrible way to reach people. 

Far from being an effective tool for witness, filling people’s lobbies and mailboxes with anti-Catholic books is a vaccination against ever having any respect for Seventh-day Adventists! 

Ellen White again: 

But in regard to this line of work I am instructed to say to our people: Be guarded. In bearing the message make no personal thrusts at other churches…. Let us be careful of our words. Reflecting Christ, 240 (emphasis mine).

So again, why do we do it? Here’s a second oft-used but usually unacknowledged reason.

The “no excuse” principle

The “no excuse” principle is rarely articulated. But it has justified many initiatives in Adventist evangelism. It starts with the belief that Matthew 24:14 is a causal statement: 

“This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then [that is, as a result of your success in preaching the gospel to all nations] the end will come.”

Please note: as interpreted, this doesn’t mean anyone has to accept it. We only have to preach it, and they only have to have heard it. That book handed to them is their opportunity—and once you give them the opportunity, you have removed their excuse!

Church members sometimes think that the purpose of evangelism is to build up churches. That’s only partially true. Lurking behind our aggressive evangelistic program is the notion that once people have received the brochure or the book, even if they throw it away, they’ve been warned, and they no longer have an excuse in the judgment. After all, “narrow is the gate and few there be that find it.”

You will recognize that this very much continues the conditional vein of Adventist understanding. This is something God wants us to do so Jesus can return. Do you see how much quicker it is to force Jesus to return this way, than actually building up churches of people who accept Jesus and become part of a Christian community?

Follow the money

The third reason is that it inspires big donors, and brings in money. 

Selling our books has roots in our church history. Ellen White pushed her books to be sold because she believed they had God’s truth in them. But there was also money made by selling books, including for James and Ellen. 

One source said that The Great Controversy as printed by Remnant Publications lands in people’s mailboxes for a dollar a pop. (That’s probably going to be hard to confirm, but there it is for what it’s worth.) Can Elder Wilson raise a billion additional dollars? 

I wouldn’t be surprised. I doubt he could raise a billion extra dollars for Adventist colleges. I don’t think he’d raise it for ADRA, or the support of ministers and schoolteachers. But The Great Controversy is so central to Adventist identity that I think the money will be there. There will be elderly Adventist people who will put off paying the electricity bill for a month or two in order to send more money for a few more The Great Controversys for recipients to discard. Some of the richest people in the church will dump in millions.

It’s a simple, easy way to feel like you’re a soul-winner, and you never need to leave your chair in front of the television set tuned to 3ABN. We Adventists call this “seed sowing.” And since seed-sowing and excuse-elimination (see above) don’t require cost-effectiveness studies, it’ll keep going even without any verifiable success

And we’ll continue to see stories on the internet and in the press about what a bunch of weird people those Seventh-day Adventists must be. 

Bad evangelism

To be fair, The Great Controversy made more sense a century ago. It was a time of rampant anti-Catholicism, and we were just one more voice in the “we blame Catholics” chorus. But even then, our tale of conspiratorial cardinals doing away with Saturday worship wasn’t a majority view, or everyone would have become a Seventh-day Adventist. 

But it is not a soul-winning book for today. It is not contemporary. It is far too long. It presents theories about opposition to Sabbath-keeping that have shown no evidence of happening. It is anti-Catholic. Jesus’ return, which was rightly called “the blessed hope” by our pioneers, is in this book set in a frame of such suffering and opposition that it sounds more like “the terrible dread.” 

Ask yourself: would you be won to Christ by this book?

Responsible stewardship

A friend put his pulp copy of a full-sized The Great Controversy on a postal scale and came up with a weight of 13 ounces. Not that heavy, right? But multiply that by a billion, and that’s about 400,000 tons of paper. At the general measure of 24 trees per ton, that’s 9,600,000 trees we’d be consuming—with no proof that it produces results!

Would this be a good time to remind everyone of Revelation 7:3? 

Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.

I think I’m being optimistic when I calculate that 1% will be kept and 99% of them will go into the trash—some recycled, many simply clogging landfills. And all this while The Great Controversy is available online, in many languages!

True story: when one commenter said that The Great Controversy is already online, another responded that a paper book is so much better. “Think of all the people who are homeless, living under an underpass, who don’t have a computer or a phone. They can have their marked copy of The Great Controversy with them at all times, independent of the internet!”

That even one of us sincerely believes that what a person living under a bridge needs is a copy of The Great Controversy should be a concern to us. 

Couldn’t this money be better spent to help the poor? Yes, I know I’m quoting Judas Iscariot. But we’re not talking about anointing our Savior, only about cold-mailing a book for which there is none but anecdotal evidence of efficacy. The only argument for doing it is a single statement by Ellen White, which she then contradicts. 

How would a billion dollars be received to buy Covid-19 vaccines for the world’s poorest nations—say, the Democratic Republic of Congo that has the lowest vaccination rate in the world, close to 0%? Or given to ADRA to help Haiti recover from the earthquake? 

Cost-benefit analysis

I have heard people say, “If one person is won by this, it will have been worth it.” 

But is this a wise way to make decisions? Yes, one soul is valuable, but what if you could use a better method and win 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? I ask again: where is the evidence that sending out millions of unasked-for books has won even one person to our church? 

People, we can do better. Yes, Adventist-laymen’s Services & Industries (ASI) generously gives for evangelism. But ASI’s money is not the best way to decide the church’s outreach methodologies. I beg of Elder Wilson to turn to the younger leaders in the North American Division (NAD) and elsewhere, and seek from them ways of moving the church’s outreach forward without consuming ten million trees. 

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

To comment, click/tap here.