By AT News Team, Dec. 26, 2014: Max Gordon Phillips was a bright star in the generation of Adventist young adults that came of age in the 1960s. He wrote many short stories, poems, columns and magazine articles; successfully launched a new brand of books; and then sacrificed a promising career at Pacific Press when he supported women employed at the publishing house in what was eventually ruled by the courts to be illegal wage practices. He died earlier this week in Redlands, California, still active in a Sabbath School class at the Loma Linda University Church.
The son of an Adventist pastor in Lansing, Michigan, Phillips won the grand prize in the first literary magazine published at La Sierra University in 1964. He was one of nine La Sierra graduates from the Class of 1964 to be accepted for graduate school at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University (AU) along with several who became well-known preachers, theologians and church administrations, including John Brunt, Bailey Gillespie, Darold Retzer and Larry Veverka.
While at the seminary completing a master’s degree in theology, Phillips helped organize the Seminary Student Forum weekly discussion group together with Nils-Erik Andreasen (AU president today), Robert J. Wieland (a widely-read theologian now), Larry Geraty (noted archaeologist and retired president of La Sierra University), Melvyn Hayden (pastor of several large congregations in America’s largest cities over the years) and Dick Winn (cofounder of Weimar Institute now a key administrator for the regional accrediting body for higher education in California). Phillips was given an award by AU in 1965 for his regular columns in Student Movement, the campus newspaper.
After graduating from the seminar in August, 1966, Phillips was hired by the denomination’s Southern Publishing Association in Nashville as assistant editor of These Times, a magazine published for the general public which was later closed down but once had a circulation of more than 100,000. The appointment was approved by the denomination’s governing body (the executive committee of the General Conference) in December of that year.
By early 1969, Phillips had moved to Pacific Press, the denomination’s west coast publishing house located at the time in Mountain View, California. He interviewed Dr. Paul Ehrlich, famous for his predictions of a global population explosion but still controversial at the time in the wider society, for the March 1969 issue of Signs of the Times, the outreach magazine still published by Pacific Press today.
In 1971, Phillips was given the responsibility of being the brand manager for a new book series at Pacific Press; Agape Books targeting young adults. The first title released was Mission to Black America by Ron Graybill, the young historian who had recently been invited to join the staff of the Ellen G. White Estate in Washington, D.C., after previously authoring E. G. White and Race Relations during key years of the American Civil Rights Movement. And the second title was Inscriptions, a collection of Phillips’ short stories and poetry, perhaps one of the most sophisticated literary works ever published by an Adventist publishing house.
A special issue of Signs of the Times the following year, themed to the “youth revolution” sweeping across American society at the time, included an article by Phillips entitled, “Hope for Hippies.” It old the stories of “several one-time hippies [who] had been converted to Jesus Christ, had quit taking drugs and were studying at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, for a life of Christian ministry.”
In the fall of 1973, Phillips was the author of a news release from Pacific Press published in the union conference papers across North America telling about initiatives that the publishing house was taking to market Adventist materials in non-traditional ways, including through the Christian Booksellers Association. The press had hired a young Adventist marketing executive away from GTE-Sylvania Corporation to work specifically on getting Adventist books into the secular marketplace.
At the same time, trouble was brewing at Pacific Press which would both generate major change in the Adventist denomination and derail the career of the promising young writer and editor because of his principled stand while administrators above him were making shameful decisions.
The Merikay Silver Case
While a teenager at Grand Ledge Academy in Michigan in the 1960s, Merikay McCleod (later Silver) wrote a 45-page novella which portrayed the final events before the return of Christ based on her understanding of chapters from The Great Controversy by White. Pastor Fordyce Detamore, the leading Adventist evangelist in North America at the time, liked the story so much that he distributed more than 100,000 copies of the small book.
Phillips had met Silver when she was a freshman in college at AU and encouraged her to write for his section of the campus newspaper. In 1971 he recommended her for a job at Pacific Press and she was hired in a position parallel to his. A year later, when he husband decided to go to graduate school, Silver asked for “head of household allowance” to be added to her wages as was true for Phillips since she now would be the sole bread-winner in her family. Despite the fact that denominational guidelines clearly stated that this was to be applied “without discrimination on the basis of … sex” (among other factors) and that White had long ago told Adventist leaders not to discriminate in payment of female workers, the Pacific Press management refused Silver’s request stating that it was not available to women.
Silver was told that this violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and consulted an attorney, eventually leading to a complaint being filed by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), the Federal government agency responsible for enforcement of laws meant to end gender discrimination in hiring and wages. The case drug on for a decade with denominational leaders attempting to argue that the First Amendment exempted church entities from observing the law and maneuvering to fire both Silver and Lorna Tobler, another woman working at Pacific Press, and eventually to kick them out of the church too.
Most famously, Neal C. Wilson, then president of the denomination’s North American Division, is on record testifying that the Adventist religion has a hierarchical system of governance despite its historic stand against papal type structures and White’s specific condemnation of “kingly power” in Adventist organizations. All of this in an attempt to keep feminist ideas out of the Adventist movement at all costs; to hold on to gender discrimination in wage scales.
Of the four lawsuits filed throughout the complicated case with large amounts of legal maneuvering, Pacific Press settled one out of court, paying Silver $60,000. The EEOC won the other three cases despite appeals that ran on until December 1983. Finally the denomination’s leadership decided that it had to obey the law regardless of its inclinations and historic changes were made to assure that men and women doing the same job would have the same pay, at least in the Adventist organizations in the United States.
In September 1982, Phillips was fired by Pacific Press and given six months of termination pay signifying that he was not to be hired by any other denominational entity. He was last listed in the 1983 edition of the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook which had evidently already been prepared for publication at the time of his firing the previous fall.
For a short time Phillips worked as an editor at Stanford University and then for a number of years as a staff member at Health Scene magazine in Washington state. Adventist Today published some of his articles, but official denominational publishers would not touch his work.
Like many in his generation of American Adventists, Phillips must have developed a significant level of disappointment with the denomination. The experience did not live up to its promise. In June 2000 he wrote a response to an Adventist Today editorial and his piece was published in the online forum of the Former Adventist Fellowship. But he still maintained an Adventist identity, participating in the Sabbath Seminars group in Loma Linda where his friends reached out to him during health problems over the past year and are planning a funeral for him.
Phillips’ elegant and emotionally compelling stories and poems can still be found on the Internet if you use a search engine for his name. His body of work includes at least one poem mixed with music and moving pictures which is available on Vimeo. To the end, his work expressed his faith in a loving God. He is survived by his brother Marshal; a daughter, Jana S. Kopp, and a son, Craig N. Phillips; as well as two grandsons, Anders and Soren Kopp.