Pastor Walter Rea passed away Sabbath morning, August 30, at the age of 92. The memorial service was held Sabbath, September 13, in Patterson, California, a small town near Modesto in the Central Valley farming region where he spent the last years of his life as a grower of cherries, apricots, walnuts and almonds.
Rea is well known for a book he wrote in which he accused Ellen G. White of plagiarism despite her historic role as one of the cofounders of the Adventist movement believed by most of her cohort of early Adventists to exercise the spiritual gift of prophet. His study launched significant research which has changed the understanding of White’s writings among Adventists.
Rea was born in 1922 in Minneapolis, but lived much of his life in California. He graduated from Pacific Union College in late 1944 and in January 1945 was hired as a pastor by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. He started the first Adventist church in Lompoc, California, and served as a pastor in Lindsay and Madera before moving to Florida. He was pastor of Kress Memorial Church in Orlando, as well as in Fort Myers and Jacksonville before he returned to southern California where he led congregations in Pomona, Alhambra and Long Beach.
“He had a real reputation for being good with church finances and pulling churches together that had been fragmented,” his son, Walter Rea Jr., told the Patterson Irrigator local newspaper. “He was a tough disciplinarian, but he was a tremendous youth pastor. … He was a very practical religious person, [but] not much a preacher.”
Rea “never did really let his love of the ministry die,” the newspaper said, although “what devastated dad so much was that he was so passionate about the church,” his son was quoted. Rea was asked to resign from denominational employ after 36 years due to the controversy his book created.
For many years Rea was a promoter of the writings of White, compiling three volumes of extracts from her materials; two volumes of Bible biographies from the Old and New Testaments and a volume of material on the Bible books of Daniel and Revelation. All of these were distributed through the denomination’s book stores.
He became aware that White used information and language from books by Alfred Edersheim in a number of her books. He began to compare her writings with contemporary sources known to be in her personal library and found many places where she appears to borrow material. As a result, a number of research projects were commissioned by the denomination’s General Conference (GC).
The largest of these research efforts was the Life of Christ Research Project by Dr. Fred Veltman, at the time a religion professor at Pacific Union College. It was completed in November 1988 and found far more borrowed material than expected in one of White’s most widely-read books, The Desire of Ages. (The entire report is available at the GC online archives.)
At the same time, a study was completed by Vincent L. Ramik specifically of the accusation of “plagiarism.” He was an attorney who specialized in copyright law and a Catholic, not an Adventist. He reported that White clearly did not engage in plagiarism. Not all borrowing of material is plagiarism. Most authors use some information or phrasing that they have read from other writers.
About the same time the minutes of the 1919 Bible Conference were found in the denomination’s archives and it became obvious that these issues had been discussed by denominational leaders soon after the death of White in 1915. Participants included her son, William C. White, and the president of the GC at the time, A. G. Daniells.
The history made it clear that there have been two views of inspired texts among Adventists, one more literalistic than the other, and the more literalistic view had become dominant since the early 1920s when Christian fundamentalism emerged in America. The studies changed the denomination’s official position because the more literalistic, fundamentalist view simply does not account for the facts of the situation and creates problems of the type involved in Rea’s accusations.