Our fundamentalist knots

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Two of the most interesting books of Adventist history published in the past year offer alternative views of the relationship between Adventist faith and fundamentalism. It is one of those arguments that we might be tempted to dismiss as merely academic or primarily semantic, but this topic matters because of the direct connections to many issues we continue to wrestle with in the Church today—and also some of the things we don’t wrestle with, that we take for granted as just the way the Church or the world is and ought to be.

As a sequel to 1919 and his study of the pivotal Adventist Bible conference of that year, Michael Campbell’s 1922* traces the further development and effects of a turn to Adventist fundamentalism in the 1920s.1 Influenced by similar movements in the wider culture and particularly among Christian churches in the United States, Dr Campbell argues that key theological, cultural and even political developments within the Adventist Church constituted a significant fundamentalist turn, albeit with some uniquely Adventist features, which has profoundly shaped the development or not of Adventist faith and life in the century since.

Offering an alternative assessment is Ostriches and Canaries—Gilbert Valentine’s study of the tension between fundamentalists and progressives, between administrators and academics, in the Adventist Church in the 1960s and ’70s.2 Dr Valentine argues that Seventh-day Adventists have always been fundamentalist, an assumption that has re-asserted itself at key points in Adventist history including the 1920s and ’30s, the 1970s and ‘80s, and perhaps again in the past decade. Of course, this paints early Adventists as proto-fundamentalists, given that the term only came into common usage with the larger cultural trends of the early part of the 20th century, but the argument is that key planks of fundamentalism, such as the inerrancy of the Bible, were assumed by many of the earliest Adventist pioneers and have been largely maintained throughout most of Adventist history.

Perhaps I am exposing my Adventist nerd-dom, but I find it an intriguing point for friendly debate. There is a sense in which both perspectives are helpful to our understanding. Putting aside questions around the use of terminology, there was the possibility and practice of fundamentalism in our earliest Adventist thinking, but there are aspects of our Adventist fundamentalism that were not possible until the 1920s. There might also be a recency bias in this assessment, but it seems that our fundamentalist turn 100 years ago has had a more profound influence on what Adventism is today and—perhaps more significantly—what it is not.

The history between

The history between Adventism’s proto-fundamentalism and the adoption of a more fundamentalist identity in the early part of the 20th century was spanned and guided by the ministry of Ellen White. Her life and work gave Adventists an up-close perspective on key questions of inspiration, demonstrating how God works through people to speak and guide in the community of His people. The presence of this phenomenon affirmed the reality of inspirational influence, reminded them of how it could be awkward and confronting, and guarded against the excesses of expectations of inerrancy. At least it should have—and then Ellen White was working among them to offer a corrective voice, as needed.

Looking back on Ellen White’s ministry and experience, it is also possible to trace the maturation of her spirituality, thinking and leadership. In some aspects, this was sketched a few years ago in Alden Thompson’s book Escape From the Flames3 and it is a theme that has seen more academic attention in recent years. It can also be observed anecdotally in surveying Ellen White’s books and the sharpening focusing on the centrality of Jesus to our Adventist faith in her writing of her later decades, particularly the 1890s and 1900s.

Unquestionably, Ellen White urged and maintained a high view and understanding of the Bible. As General Conference president A G Daniells summarised her work and focus in his eulogy at her funeral in 1915—perhaps with some hyperbole—“No Christian teacher in this generation, no religious reformer in any preceding age, has placed a higher value upon the Bible. . . . Those who still believe that the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of the living God will value most highly the positive, uncompromising support given this view in the writings of Mrs White.”4

However, the early Adventists also sought what they described as “present truth”, expecting that they would continue to learn and seeking to apply biblical principles to the changing realities of their times and places in ways that would be practical and transformative. This was an approach to truth and its practices also championed by Ellen White. Quoting Daniells’ eulogy again: “Through the light and counsel given her, Mrs White held and advocated broad, progressive views regarding vital questions that affect the betterment and uplift of the human family, from the moral, intellectual, physical, and social standpoint as well as the spiritual.”5

This perpetual seeking after and progressive application of truth was a substantial moderation of Adventism’s proto-fundamentalist assumptions, leading them beyond the narrow certitude of its earliest days. It was only after Ellen White’s death—with her matured, Christ-centred, progressive voice diminished—that a turn to 20th-century fundamentalism was possible. We could have responded differently to the questions and pressures of the 1920s, but this was a turn that caused the most damage to the ongoing influence and legacy of even Ellen White’s ministry, as both her fiercest supporters and harshest critics demanded yet more from her writings. This was a turn that continues to shape the Church today.

A conservative progressive church

While there is a spectrum of thought, belief and practice within the Adventist community, this entire spectrum fits firmly within a small slice of the conservative spectrum of the larger Christian world. When we are arguing about different ways of reading and applying Bible verses, it is almost always a conservative position arguing with a more conservative position. But the tendency—or temptation—to turn to fundamentalism has stifled our ability to think broadly and engage positively with social issues and needs in the world around us.

Our drift toward fundamentalism has led us to spend undue time defending not so much the indefensible, but the unnecessary. In “defending” both the Bible and the writings of Ellen White, apologists have mounted elaborate and sometimes disingenuous arguments that have created ever more problems, twisting ourselves into fundamentalist knots.6 This tendency has also seen our public witness too often co-opted by conservative political assumptions and attitudes.

By nature, we are a conservative Church. But to be most true to our tradition, we are also called to be progressive, in learning and in responding to the world around us, and in including everyone we can in the invitation of God (see Revelation 14:6). If this sounds like mere academic debate or even just an argument about defining technical terms, it might be because we have not yet put what we say we believe into practice and set about that humble task of changing the world. As Ellen White herself put it, “If God’s word were studied as it should be, men would have a breadth of mind, a nobility of character, and a stability of purpose rarely seen in these times.”7

In the 1920s, we had a choice to be different; in the 2020s, we have a choice to make a difference.

*If you would like to watch an interview about 1922 with Dr Michael Campbell, watch the Record Live broadcast ”The rise of Adventist Fundamentalism”.

1. Michael Campbell, 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2022.

2. Gilbert Valentine, Ostriches and Canaries: Coping with Change in Adventism, 1966-1979, Oak & Acorn Publishing, 2022.

3. Alden Thompson, Escape from the Flames, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2005.

4. Life Sketches of Ellen G White, page 471. Note that he used the word infallible, not inerrant.

5. Life Sketches of Ellen G White, page 473.

6. For example, consider the defence of slavery as part of making a case against the ordination of women as happened in the Theology of Ordination Study Committee or see an examination of another example of this tendency: Ronald Osborn, “True Blood: Race, Science, and Early Adventist Amalgamation Theory Revisited,” Spectrum Magazine, Vol 38, No 4, Fall 2010.

7. Steps to Christ, page 90.

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