Wandering Down Watchtower Way
by Edwin A. Schwisow
By Edwin A. “Ed” Schwisow, Guest Blogger
AT Secretary of Development
Submitted August 15, 2013
Dense doom swirled through the billows of rancid smoke that engulfed the frontier boom-city of Battle Creek, Michigan. It was the final day of 1902, and one of the mightiest religious publishing houses in the western US was burning to the ground.
The Review & Herald Publishing Association (R&H) had been following the trends of the American Gilded Age, compensating its executives luxuriantly and placing great emphasis on growing R&H to a point where it would be too large to fail. But the fire that consumed it showed no regard for either executive compensation or sales output, and grew so intense the Battle Creek fire department could do nothing to save either structure or content.
Chastened by this catastrophe, the small Adventist community in Battle Creek determined to decentralize and rebuild the R&H on a new foundation on the East Coast, and in the East it remains today; a second publishing house in North America stands today near Boise Idaho, and is now far larger than the venerable R&H. Both Pacific Press and Review & Herald are solvent, but pressures are being exerted from the very highest levels to combine North American publishing work into a single enterprise. Will the denomination follow the lead of its distant cousin, the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Will it create a central enterprise to try to produce intellectual material broad enough and deep enough to represent the complexity of thought of one of the most diverse, highly educated, and intellectually far-ranging denominations on the North American continent?
Warnings from the Watchtower
One look at the effect of the billion-dollar Watchtower Corporation in Brooklyn should raise serious flags of caution. The content of its two primary magazines is planned by a single board of nine males (women are apparently not deemed spiritually capable of contributing centrally to the editorial enterprise).
A prevailing style of unsigned articles created under the heavy editorial supervision of elderly males gives the product a generic tone and appearance, like a timepiece from 1965. In fact Watchtower executives require this level of uniformity. All publications are printed on similar paper, an oddball stock that sets the publication apart as assertively impersonal. So, though The Watchtower prints 40 million copies of its main magazine each month, the accession rate of those who receive the publication is exceedingly low, and readership is a negligible percentage of its circulation.
The Watchtower was founded in the early 1930s, at the same time strong-fisted central control over all congregations was established from the East Coast under the new name “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” with imposition of strict standards of living and a requirement that all able members knock on doors and give out copies of The Watchtower’s output.
This protocol continues yet today among members, though door-to-door literature work has reportedly become increasingly non-productive among Anglo-Americans. Clearly the act of consolidating has inhibited rather than expanded its long-term versatility and effectiveness (though other factors contribute to this decline, not least of which is a continual dabbling with time-setting prophecies of Christ’s super-imminent return).
We can see this to a lesser degree in the Adventist Church, when the thriving Southern Publishing Association in Nashville was closed in 1980, on the reported assumption that preserving the Review & Herald was more important than safeguarding one of the more influential and creatively sophisticated ones, in the South.
Moving Toward the Watchtower?
Proposals were recently made by the General Conference to merge and consolidate Adventist publishing houses in North America, and though public outcry has led to the disbanding of the task force empowered to accomplish this work, the goal appears essentially the same. Yes, the publishing world has changed immensely, and is changing still, and the two publishing houses in North America are vastly oversupplied with printing capacity at this time (as has indeed been the case for a long time). But the apparent preference by Church leaders to merge and consolidate, rather than employ tactics gentler to the creative soul, that preserve creative competition between the two houses—this continuing penchant sends out alarming signals. There seems to be a Watchtower mentality in play, in the face of clear evidences that of the three main denominations created in 19th-century US, the Adventist Church (the least centralized of the three) has fared best in growth, in dispersion, in intellectual development, and in ability to integrate itself into local communities. We have thrived best by offering a home to a wide variety of members—scientists, intellectuals, and other professionals, as well as newcomers to Christianity from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
What if This Trend Continues?
Insistence on uniformity and centralization in the discredited mode of the late 19th and early 20th centuries could produce an Adventist Church that reverts to days when even relatively small matters nearly tore the denomination apart, as happens quite regularly today among Jehovah’s Witnesses. We know reliably that their attrition rate is extremely high, much greater than ours,
What We Must Do
We must recognize that under the current Adventist Church administration, consolidation and corporate standardization are highly favored. And we must further recognize that this tendency will place heavier and heavier responsibilities on the independent Adventist press to share needed information and analysis, to maintain the vibrancy of a Church long on record as opposed to creedal dryness. This is already happening, and Adventist Today is “reading the signs of the times,” as it were, and adding staff and writers to meet the task ahead. As it is today, most of the content of corporate communication is public relations in form and tone, and either is highly commending of traditional ways, or ignores controversial or negative information almost entirely. A Church built on a thirst for knowledge and understanding like ours cannot stand, or long endure, while paternally sheltered from reality.
Adventist Today receives absolutely no funding from tithe dollars or donations to local Adventist congregations. Our income sources come about evenly from subscriptions and donations, which means those who believe in us and our mission contribute up to $100,000 a year. Now, at midyear is a great time to help Adventist Today replenish its resources. Our vital signs are good, our subscribership is moving upward, and our focus on reaching the younger and young-in-mind, inquiring Christian is undiminished.
“Remember the Watchtower” and consider what you can do to help guarantee that you, your children and grandchildren will have access to the kind of open and free reporting and opinions represented by Adventist Today, now one of the most versatile and credible sources of information for thinking Church members in North America and around the English-speaking world.
Remember the Watchtower, yes. But even more apropos, remember Adventist Today this summer, while expenses may be lower for you, and as AT recharges its financial and intellectual batteries for the challenges ahead. Click here to remember Adventist Today!