Dr. Michael Campbell has done the Seventh-day Adventist Church a great service with his newest book: 1919—The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism (Pacific Press Publ. Ass., 2019). Campbell, who recently returned from mission service in Thailand and joined the theology faculty at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas (USA), has filled an important gap in our knowledge of the love affair of the Adventist Church with Fundamentalism. The book describes how this love relationship did not always retain the same fervor, and telss the story of why and how many Adventist scholars, church leaders and members in the pew, continued to feel attracted to the main tenets of the fundamentalist movement.
One of the most important events in Adventist history, that has had a major impact on the Adventist view of inspiration, was a Bible Conference in 1919. Important though this meeting was, it was soon largely forgotten and the transcripts of the meetings strangely disappeared—either by accident or on purpose—and remaioned lost until they were re-discovered in the General Conference archives in 1974. Knowledge about the content of these transcripts became public when Dr. Molleurus Couperus published parts of them in the May 1979 issue of Spectrum. (I met dr. Couperus several times when he visited his elderly mother, who was a member of a small church in the Northern part of the Netherlands. I was pastoring there at the very beginning of my career in the church. Dr. Couperus was of Dutch descent. I remember playing an occasional game of chess with his mother, a delightful, spirited old lady.)
The segments of the transcripts of the 1919 Conference that Spectrum published focused on the inspiration of Ellen White. She had died just a few years earlier and the denominational leaders and college professors had to define the nature of the prophet’s inspiration, and to come to a consensus about the continuing authority of her writings. I vividly remember how, when I first read this Spectrum article in 1979, I was struck by the ‘modern’ questions the participants at the 1919 Bible conference were asking. While some maintained that the ‘fundamentalists’ were correct in defending verbal inspiration, with its characteristics of inerrancy and infallibility, others (some of the key-leaders among them) rejected this conservative view of inspiration. When speaking about the work of Ellen White they maintained that Ellen White herself had never claimed that her work was correct in every historical and theological detail, and that she quite openly used a multitude of other sources in her writings.
It was recognized by those who wanted to portray a more realistic view of Ellen White and her work that many of the church members tended to be very ‘fundamentalist’ in their opinion of Ellen White and would be shocked when they heard ‘the truth’. Although some—as for instance the General Conference president, A.G. Daniels—emphasized the need of educating the church members, this did not happen in any serious way through official church channels. It is noteworthy that in 1979 it was an independent Adventist journal that published parts of the newly discovered transcripts of the 1919 Conference.
In recent years the church has been more open than in the past in recognizing some of the ‘hot’ issues regarding the person and work of Ellen G. White. I do not think that today Ronald Numbers would have been fired by the church for publishing his Prophetess of Health, in which he showed how much Ellen White was indebted to the ideas of other health reformers of her time. Nonetheless, most of the new information about the life and work of Ellen White still comes through non-denominational media. More even than in the 1919-era there is a need of informing the church at large about the things that have been uncovered. This will not deny the contribution Ellen White has made to Seventh-day Adventism. But it will dispel myths that have been passed on for too long. These have strengthened many in a mistaken belief in the infallibility of Ellen White and, just as unfortunately, have also led many to lose confidence in her work and to turn away from her. Only total openness will ensure that church members will continue to read and interpret her writings in such a way that it will build their faith and that they will continue to appreciate her role in past and present Adventism.