I have enjoyed participating in the Symposium on the Contours of Adventism in Europe, that was held this past week at Friedensau University in Germany. It was a pleasure to present my paper on The Adventist Church and the European Unionand to listen to, and discuss, more than fifteen other presentations from scholars from many different countries in Europe, Russia and the United States.
Many of the papers that were presented were of a historical nature. And indeed, looking back at what lies behind us is important. A movement needs to know where it came from and how it developed in order to face the present and the future in a purposeful and coherent manner. A few presentations focused on the enormous difficulties that Adventist believers faced in the past. In countries with an established ‘national’ church, the emergence of newcomers like Adventists was not welcome and this often translated into fierce opposition. But these difficulties do not begin to compare with what believers in many parts of the former Soviet Union had to endure. As participants of the symposium we listened to many little-known stories of true martyrdom—the personal histories of people who faced long-term prison sentences and, in a considerable number of cases, were tortured or even lost their lives. Those of us who live today, and who are Adventists in today’s world, do well to remember their sacrifices and to treasure those shining examples of heroism, when we are confronted with ugly reaction as we share our faith.
However, looking at the past of our church also reminds us that the past is a mixed bag of good and not so good things. I referred to that in my recent blog about the biography of S.N. Haskell, one of the Adventist ‘pioneers’. His story is one of success and defeat, of acts of faith and of dubious decisions, of great achievements and of serious shortcomings. This week Dr. Gilbert Valentine, a historian who teaches at the La Sierra University in Southern California, presented an excellent paper on aspects of the person and work of John Nevil Andrews—the first official missionary sent out from the USA to Europe. We were told of the problems Andrews had to face when beginning his work from Basel, Switzerland. He knew little French and soon suffered a severe culture shock. The European missionary enterprise was a heavy drain on the church’s finances, and often the needed funds were slow in arriving. His decision to put a lot of his energy (and funding) into a monthly magazine, rather than holding a series of meetings in smaller towns (as the brethren in the US had advised him to do), was ill-received at the church’s headquarters. Andrews maintained that working in Europe was far different from working in the United States and that he had to adapt to these very different circumstances.
A most interesting aspect of Valentine’s paper on Andrews was his relationship to James and Ellen White. Andrews and James White did not get along and James was extremely critical (also in articles for the official church paper) about Andrews’ work in Europe, in particular for going against the counsel of the leaders in the USA and for not following the American model of evangelism. Ellen White, who at that time had not yet been in Europe herself and had not yet gained any first-hand knowledge of European circumstances, was at times also very critical. Her last 13-page letter that was sent to Andrews when he was terminally ill, was extremely sharp and critical and one wonders whether this was what Andrews needed when he was about to die. Later assessments of Andrews’s work were far more positive, and some time later, after making a five month visit to Europe, Haskell stated that he fully understood Andrews’ approach and probably would have done the same, had he been in Andrews’ place.
Once again, the presentations I heard this week helped me to better understand that the past should not idealized. Yes, there were many beautiful things in our denominational past, but the players were all very human and we must learn from their successes, but also learn their failures and mistakes.
(I look forward to the full biography of Andrews that Gilbert Valentine has written and will be published towards the end of the year!)