Seventh-day Adventists take some pride in being called a “peculiar people,” which indeed they are. They are among the few remaining church groups that believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. They hold fast to a personal second coming of Christ—soon—and envision their task as preparing the earth for his return. Their health practices, rather strictly observed, were once considered foolish and quaint. Now ample scientific support is found for a large share of them.
As Christians all over view with alarm the churches’ slipping hold on their members, Adventists maintain a steady increase in numbers. Their evangelistic programs flourish in many countries, and their hospitals are financially sound and well operated. A measure of the commitment of a Seventh-day Adventist is his faithfulness in contributing a full 10 per cent of his net income to the church as well as his liberality in supporting church-related projects, including an extensive parochial school system. Adventist giving for 1969 was $350.96 per member, the highest of forty-eight churches reporting in a recent study published by the National Council of Churches.
How does a church with these strict practices survive in a day of permissiveness? The answer lies chiefly in the guidance given the church by its prophetess, Mrs. Ellen G. White. But herein lies a problem.
Adventists believe that the writings of Mrs. White have the same authority as the Bible. The justification usually given is that she has never written anything not in keeping with conservative theology; her messages explain and amplify biblical truth. But this is missing the point. Adventists are told by church leaders to regard her publications as having the same degree of inspiration as the Bible.
The Seventh-day Adventist church emerged out of the intense interest in the advent of Christ predicted for 1844. It was formally organized as a body in 1863 with John Byington as the first General Conference president. During its early years the church benefited greatly from the genius of Mrs. White’s leadership and counsel. She had an uncanny business sense, and she was capable of inspiring men to commit themselves to a life of service. A word from her could alter the attitudes of church brethren as they deliberated over critical issues in the General Conference.
Many of her counsels and visions dealt with specific issues of the day. An example is her attitude toward the widespread medical misuse of harmful drugs. In those days it was common practice for physicians to use liberal quantities of strychnine, arsenic, mercury, purges, and emetics in dealing with an already weakened patient. Mrs. White stated that drugs had no part in the treatment of disease and recommended hydrotherapy and the healing qualities of fresh air, sunlight, and simple foods.
However, losing sight of the historical situation to which Mrs. White addressed herself—the drug abuse that was common practice among physicians of her day—ultra-conservative Adventists of today still oppose the use of drugs. They bemoan the fact that Adventist hospitals are like other hospitals. In other words, they believe that what Mrs. White said in a particular situation a century ago applies with equal force today, no matter how much times have changed.
To cite another example: in Mrs. White’s day the country was rife with stage hypnotists, phrenologists, and self-styled psychologists, and so she warned her followers against being conned by these charlatans, using language and thought current in her time. The conservative Adventist now reads her writings and concludes that all hypnotism is a work of the devil.
New currents of understanding may bring some changes in the rigid stance of the Adventist Church. Two publications, Spectrum (sponsored by the church) and Perspective (an Adventist laymen’s publication), are raising questions and self-criticisms. But the main issue of reorienting the church to a more rational attitude toward Mrs. White is evaded; it’s too loaded a topic.
In the minds of many Adventists, to disagree with one of her messages or visions opens the floodgates to a rejection of her counsel on all matters, including theology. For reassurance, such members read where Mrs. White anticipated such a movement and clearly labeled it a manifestation of the evil one. In other words, any serious study of Mrs. White’s theological writings that is more than a literal interpretation is considered by the rank and file of Adventists to be a hostile attack by “liberal elements.”
Consider where this puts anyone wishing to search in depth on doctrinal matters. He may study the Bible carefully, but the final word rests with Mrs. White. Her opinions are considered untouchable if she prefaces her remarks with “I was shown …” or “In a vision I saw.…”
This doesn’t stop thinkers in the church from weighing carefully the age of the earth, a new mission of the laity, the remnant-church concept, attitudes toward the Catholic Church, and a host of other matters. Yet they discuss these topics without comfort and with a sense of guilt. Unfortunately, personal feelings work their way into such discussions, and what is said may indeed become a hostile attack, as church leaders label it.
On the other hand, free-thinking Adventists may be wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They cherish conservative habits and practices; they are pleased that their children are growing up removed from the atmosphere of protest and drug abuse. Yet they long for the opportunity to speak out on issues that might ultimately destroy the very thing they cherish! Some are satisfied to read and stay abreast of current Christian thought, turning off this part of their knowledge when they go to church and hear enshrined doctrines. Church means primarily a fellowship, a clinging to the conservative past. Others sit in discomfort and mentally disagree with what is going on. They fear to make their opinions known because of the social ostracism they would suffer. Still others carry on a vendetta severely critical of everything Mrs. White ever wrote or did. As the conservatives hang on Mrs. White’s every word to support their dogmas, so these critics tear her writings apart sentence by sentence in an attempt to prove her inconsistent, cantankerous, and mentally ill.
Both attitudes do her a grave injustice. By her creative leading the Adventist church became a stable organization. It is too bad that Adventists can’t pay her the respect she deserves and then continue where she left off. But this would mean seeking answers to difficult questions. It is easier to go on with the task of reconciling her statements to the present and finding out that after all she did have the answer; all that was needed was the research to ferret it out.
A current trend in the church is to compile from Mrs. White’s voluminous writings her statements on a certain topic and then set this compilation forth as the guide. What she said on the mind can be a guide to psychiatric practice. A compilation of her statements on child-rearing take the place of Dr. Spock in the Adventist home. Computers open up all sorts of possibilities for books like these on what Adventists should believe and do. Currently series of meetings called “Testimony Countdown” are held in the churches to encourage church members to read and meditate on what Mrs. White has said.
Adventist literature displays the slavish use of her comments to support almost any point the writer wishes to make. The method is like that of the dogmatist who artfully manipulates Bible texts to support his own views. The church paper, the Review and Herald, is filled with sentences and paragraphs from the pen of Mrs. White. Adventists are to accept all such statements as being a product of inspiration; thus they must go unchallenged.
The Adventists face the challenge of accepting the fallibility of Mrs. White while at the same time preserving the church’s commendable characteristics. This predicament simmers in the minds of many and threatens to erupt in a rift-creating encounter. Let us hope that extremes can be avoided and Mrs. White’s contributions can find their rightful place as a historical guide to the church and a source of inspiration to its members.
Who am I? What am I like? Of what evil am I not capable, in either deed or word or will? But you are good and merciful, Lord. Your right hand reached to the bottom of my heart and emptied out its dregs of death and corruption. All you asked was that I cease to want what I willed, and begin to want what you willed. But where had my free will been hiding during all those years? From what secret cranny did you summon it at a moment’s notice, so I might bend my neck to your easy yoke and my shoulders to your light burden. Christ Jesus, my strength and my redeemer? How good it felt to be done with the delectable trifles of life! Those things 1 had been afraid to let go, it now became a joy to dispense with. You drove them away from me, you who are the true and highest joy. You drove them away and came in yourself with a sweetness beyond all pleasure (though not to flesh and blood), brighter than every light (though the most hidden of all lights), and higher than every honor (but not to those who build up their own). My mind was free at last from the corroding anxiety of running around trying to get somewhere, and continually scratching the itch of lust. I talked to you freely as a child talks to its father, Lord my God, my light, my treasure, and my salvation.—From St. Augustine’s Confessions as translated by Sherwood Eliot Wirt in Love Song (Harper & Row; © 1971). Reprinted by permission.
Stanley G. Sturges is a medical doctor with a practice in Dayton, Ohio, and a psychiatry instructor at the Cincinnati University School of Medicine. He formerly was a Seventh-day Adventist medical missionary in Nepal.
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