Monthly Archives: September 2020

James White between the mules

James Springer White (1821-1881) was one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He was barely twenty years old when he was already a full-time preacher in the small community of people who had, totally disappointed, come out of the Miller movement, and were now trying to make sense of their recent experiences. Within a few years James became one of the leaders of this group which organized itself in 1863 as the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Three times—between 1867 and 1880—he served a term of two years as president of the General Conference. In 1880 this meant that he was in charge of a church that had grown to just over 15,000 members.

James was not only the “president” of the church, but he was also the leader of its publishing branch, first in the East of the USA, but later also in California. He was one of the church’s most important authors and played an important role in establishing the church’s first health institutions and its first schools. In addition, and perhaps this was even more important than all the tasks mentioned, he was also Ellen White’s husband. His influence on the prophetess of the church should not be underestimated.

One could say that James White was a genius. He had many talents and an enormous zest for work. With his wife and a number of other “pioneers” he made unprecedented sacrifices in the early days of the church. But there is another side to the story as well. James experienced periods of depression and total exhaustion. He had at least five strokes, after which he struggled to regain his strength. His personality was affected in an unfavorable way and this often made him an extremely difficult person to deal with. He had an extraordinarily sharp tongue and pen, and he would often severely criticize or even humiliate closest colleagues. Moreover, there were periods in which the relationship between him and his wife Ellen was under great strain; they did not live together for a considerable time.

What would always haunt James White were his financial activities. In the first few decades the preachers in the Advent Movement were often poverty-stricken. There was hardly any regular salary system and the workers often experienced outright poverty. It is understandable that they were looking for ways to earn some extra money and this brought little or no criticism from the church members. But James was, despite all the activities for the church, constantly busy with trade–much more than any of the other preachers. He always saw opportunities to make some money, by acting as an agent for certain products, or by buying and selling real estate or goods. Twice the church’s leadership conducted a thorough investigation into James’ business dealings. The outcome was in both cases in James White’s favor, but that he was a shrewd businessman is beyond question.

I knew a lot about James White’s extra-ecclesial activities, but only very recently did I read about an episode I hadn’t heard of before. Many Adventists of the first generation, including their leaders, lived very unhealthy lives and had to struggle with illness time and again. The State of Colorado, with its mountains, had a reputation for being a place where one could regain one’s health. In 1876, a group of Adventists in North Texas decided to migrate to Colorado for health reasons. Somehow James White became involved. He would help these people to make the challenging journey. But he also immediately saw dollar-signs. Mules were in great demand in Colorado, because of the fast growing mining industry, in which large numbers of mules were needed. James discovered that he could buy a mule in Texas for $80, and that in Colorado it could bring around $200. And so, in March of 1876, a small colonne of eight covered wagons, and the 2-seater carriage of James and Ellen White, departed from Dallas with a herd of mules (how many is unclear). Three or four cowboys were hired to help with the transport, over about 700 kilometers, along the Chisholm Trail that was often used for such animal transports. It was an adventurous journey of several months. James was the leader of the expedition, while Ellen and her assistant Marion Davis took care of the catering. Ellen kept anything but pleasant memories of this experience. Immediately after arriving at their destination, she left by train for California, while James remained behind to sell the mules, and stayed for some time in the “cabin” that the Whites now owned in Colorado.

It’s a strange story. The president of the General Conference is traveling with a herd of mules through an area that was largely still inhabited by indigenous tribes. And one of the travel companions, who apparently had a great talent for herding animals and keeping them together, was young Arthur Daniels, who would later become president of the church, like James White.

What is the moral of the story? It illustrates that the ‘pioneers’ were not otherworldly saints, but people of flesh and blood, who could do rather unexpected things. They command admiration for their tremendous sacrifice and their commitment to their ideal, but they are not the undisputed “role models” for us, as some maintain, who think that the Church can only prosper if we take these leaders of the first hour as our guide in everything we say and do.

Wandering along the edges of heresy suits me well

My friend and (emeritus-) colleague Bram van der Kamp is rather good in remembering birthdays. When we met a few days ago, he had a birthday present waiting for me. It was a collection of poems by Szeslaw Miloz (1911-2004), a Polish poet who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Bram predicted that I would find phrases in these poems that would touch me. It turned out to be true. The third poem in the collection starts with these words:

I’m not and don’t want to be the possessor of the truth.
Wandering along the edges of heresy suits me well.

In the past I often heard my Adventist fellow-believers say: “We have the truth.” That was not an exclusively Adventist claim. Many adherents of other religious movements also knew for sure that they had “the truth.” Nowadays churches tend not to express themselves that strongly anymore. But many individual Christians still think that they “have” the truth, and that, if others disagree with them, these people do not “have” the truth. I concur with Szeslaw Miloz: “I am not a possessor of the truth and I cannot (and do not want to) be such a possessor.” Any Christian who says that he/she “has” the truth, suffers from a boundless overestimation of himself/herself. God’s truth is infinitely greater than a person can grasp. Dogmas or Fundamental Beliefs can never adequately express “the truth.” Our speaking about God is at most a kind of human stammering. The reason is that Truth cannot be reduced to human words, because Truth is a Person: Jesus Christ. Therefore: “I am not a possessor of truth,” but am grateful that Truth wants to “possess” me.

I can also agree with the second sentence of Szeslaw Miloz’s poem. It suits me, too, to “wander along the edges of heresy.” In the Dutch language the word “heretic” (ketter) comes from the name Cathars–a group of Christians who in their theology in many ways deviated from the views of medieval Roman Catholicism, and who were often barbarously persecuted. The English language uses the words “heresy” and “heretics”, which are derived from Greek (the language of the New Testament). The basic meaning of “heresy” is “being able to choose” and a “heretic” is someone who has views that deviate from established opinion.

One could say: Heretics are believers who do not simply accept the established ideas of the majority and the ecclesiastical tradition, but ask questions, and thereby search for greater spiritual depth. They want to look at things from a different angle and do not need to know everything for certain. They sometimes come up with proposals that the majority would prefer not to have heard or with criticism that is painful. For church leaders these “heretics” are, of course, a challenge. They form a thorn in the flesh of their venerable hierarchy. But the “heretics” must remember that they always remain co-responsible for the welfare of the Church and that, therefore, they cannot just spout their “heretical” ideas everywhere and under all circumstances.

Johannes van der Ven, who passed away last year, was a long time professor of practical theology at the University of Nijmegen (Netherlands), and was highly appreciated internationally. He was of the opinion that the church always stands in need of reformation and that reformation does not happen without conflict. If there are no controversies in the church it is not proof that everything is all-right, but rather the opposite. “Heretics” who “wander along the edges of the church” force the church to examine itself and to consider whether these “heretics” may perhaps be right in certain respects. A church, therefore, does well to create, or allow for, channels through which “heretics” can ventilate their insights.

Most “heretics” are not enemies of the church but love their church and are intensely loyal to their church. The church needs them. That is why I don’t mind sometimes being called a “heretic.” The words of Szeslaw Miloz appeal to me: “Wandering along the edges of heresy suits me well.”

Rules and fines

While in many countries governments are taking initiatives to stop the proliferation of regulations and rules for the business world, we are facing in this Corona-era a multitude of new (and ever changing) rules as a result of the current pandemic.

Last Monday I drove from Denmark through Germany back to the Netherlands and had to wear a mask in the German roadside restaurants, and fill in a form with my personal details. During our church visits in Denmark strict Corona rules applied. Shaking hands – let alone more intimate greetings – of friends was not allowed. This will also be the case when I preach tomorrow in the Adventist church in Amersfoort. There will be no hymn-singing by the congregation, while in Denmark this was allowed (even a hymn with no less than ten stanzas!).

So far, I have not received a Corona-fine. But this morning I found an envelope in our mailbox, sent by the Landkreis Ammerland (near Bremen). A four-page letter with complicated bureaucratic language made it clear (?) to me that I have to pay thirty euros because I drove with a speed of 97 km on a stretch of road where the speed limit had just changed from 100 to 80 km. I will pay the fine, although I don’t feel that I have endangered anyone by reckless driving. It feels strange to be fined for failing to immediately reduce your speed to 80 km, in a country where on freeways cars pass you with a speed of over 200 km.

In recent weeks rules and fines have received a lot of attention in the Netherlands, with two cases, in particular, standing out. Six years ago Geert Wilders, the leader of one of the two Dutch populist parties (which, fortunately, still have a minority of less than 25 percent in parliament), made inflammatory and discriminating remarks about Moroccan immigrants during a political rally. He was taken to court for this and very recently the appellate court finally found him guilty of insulting an ethnic group. However, he did not receive any punishment. It seems to me that this was a good outcome of this long-running case. It must be clear that discrimination will not be tolerated. But punishment would make Wilders a martyr and that is undesirable.

Another well-known Dutchman, Ferdinand Grapperhaus (our minister of justice), did not always follow the one-and-a-half-meter distance rule during his recent wedding. A photographer sent pictures to the media to prove this. As predictable, this led to a political scandal. Precisely the man who carries the final responsibility for monitoring compliance with the Corona rules and for fining offenders, allowed a group photo of the wedding guests to be taken while ignoring the required “social distance.” He also made an error of judgment in kissing his brand new mother-in-law. I was pleased that there was sufficient understanding for these failures to stick to the Corona-rules, and that this incident did not lead to a premature end of Grapperhaus’ ministerial career.

These illustrations confirm that it remains difficult to always make the right choice whether or not to impose a punishment. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to punish people. But often mildness can also prevail, and a clear disapproval does not always have to be immediately followed by punishment.

PS. It’s a pity that the Landrat of the Strassenverkehrsambt in the German Ammerland region will most likely not read this blog and will not consider turning my punishment into a warning.

Adventism’s past: a mixed bag

The book had been on my reading list for some time, but other reading—related to a current writing project—took priority. Last week, as I was considering what books to pack for our short holiday in Denmark, I decided that the 733-page biography of J.N. Andrews by Gilbert Valentine would be one of them. I am keenly interested in the history of our denomination and of the American context in which the Advent movement was born. And I admire Valentine as a gifted historian. I found his book on W.W. Prescott very much worth reading, but I enjoyed, in particular, The Prophet and the Presidents and his recently re-published account of the complicated arrangements regarding the literary heritage of Ellen G. White. Valentine is a meticulous researcher who tells a story as it, with the good things and the bad things that he encounters.

As I write this week’s blog I have almost finished the Andrews biography, and my high expectations have certainly been met. It is fascinating reading, and, although I think I am reasonably well-read in Adventist history, every chapter contains information that was totally new to me. The book provides a meticulous description of Andrews’s life—of the kind of person he was, his background, his family relationships, and his career as a preacher, author, scholar and missionary. But its value is hugely increased by a wealth of background information about the beginnings of Adventism and the way in which the key personalities in the church—in particular James and Ellen White, Joseph Bates and Uriah Smith—related to each other.

It remains a fascinating and inspiring story how in a few decades a small disjointed, discouraged group of people grew into an organized denominational entity, with a few hundred congregations spread over the Northeast of the United States and beyond. It is a story that has strengthened the conviction of millions of people around the world that their church is not just any religious organization, but that it constitutes a movement called by God for a special mission at the end of times. Valentine tell this story of faith, commitment, personal sacrifice, and of the steady growth of the church against all odds. But he also tells another story that must also be heard. The “pioneers” were no saints, who always operated in total harmony, and the doctrinal development was not as smooth as has often been suggested. Fanaticism and extremism often raised their ugly heads. Controversies about organizational and other practical matters could turn quite nasty. Interpersonal relationships between the leaders of the fledgling movement were frequently marred by jealousy, misunderstandings and suspicions. The question whether or not the visions of Ellen White were of divine origin remained a hot issue for many Adventist believers in the early decades.

Why is it important that the positive as well as the negative elements of our church’s history are carefully chronicled? The answer to that question is that a balanced view of our history will help us deal with the challenges we face today. A sizable group of Adventists believes that the past of our church must guide us in our dealing with the present. Our present-day doctrinal views and our policy decisions must reflect those of the pioneers. This is what the defenders of “historic” Adventism tell us. They maintain that the only safe way to stay on course is to remain true to what the founders of our movement have modeled for us! This way of thinking is based on a highly romanticized view of the past, as if the church of the first half century of its existence was a period of unmitigated brotherly and sisterly love, when all were united in their search for truth and allowed themselves to be led by the Spirit in all their practical decisions. The reality is that Adventism’s past is a mixed bag of lots of inspiring things, but also of many elements that showed all too clearly the human weaknesses of the leaders and their followers.

The past can inspire us but it also provides us with warnings and case studies of what went wrong. Moreover, the context in which early Adventism developed differs so greatly from our twenty-first century world that the beliefs and actions of our early leaders cannot furnish us with clear-cut answers for all present challenges.”Historic Adventism,” with its one-sided view of the past, cannot be our compass for the present and for the future. Those who believe that it can, should carefully read Valentine’s biography of J.N. Andrews. All others will, however, also benefit greatly from this captivating book.

Digital “cities of refuge”

Numbers chapter 35 informs us about an interesting feature of life in ancient Israel. God instructed Moses, we are told, to arrange for six “cities of refuge,” three on each side of the Jordan River. A killer was in great danger of becoming the victim of revenge. But in these six cities people, who had inadvertently killed someone, could find asylum and be safe until their case would come to trial.

The “city of refuge” institution has inspired other asylum-models. Many countries have a tradition that a house of worship may serve as a “city of refuge,” where law enforcement officers will not enter or, at least, act in a very restrained manner. That is why in recent times undocumented immigrants have sometimes sought and received asylum in a church building. When the refugee crisis was at its height, some Dutch churches organized permanent church services, so that refugees who had found asylum in the church would be relatively safe. The police would hesitate to arrest anyone during a church service!

It occurred to me, as I was thinking about possible consequences of the Corona-crisis for the church—and for the Adventist Church in particular—that we currently are seeing a kind of ‘city of refugee” model developing. I am referring to the growing number of digital sabbath schools, where the program is quite different from that of “traditional” sabbath schools and which are mainly “visited” by church members who consider themselves “progressive.” I am now regularly receiving information of where I might find these “progressive” sabbath schools—in the United States but also in other parts of the western world. I have been invited to attend several of them and have actively participated by giving a number of presentations in three of them, with more being planned for the coming months. In none of these sabbath schools I have seen a traditional lesson quarterly. The leaders of these digital groups, which may have in excess of a hundred participants, decide on the topics that will be discussed and then find people who are willing and able to introduce such a topic by giving an introduction. Before the pandemic erupted many of the participants were members of non-traditional sabbath school classes that have long been a feature of several of our larger churches, especially near major SDA institutions. But in this Corona time these alternative classes see also others joining, who feel at home in an environment where real live issues, and topics that are often avoided, are discussed. Most presenters are of a more liberal ink. In an open atmosphere traditional viewpoints may be queried and existential questions can be probed along unorthodox paths. Since there have lately been few, if any, physical church services, these sabbath schools usually last much longer than the “normal” one hour period. In one of these sabbath schools which I recently participated in, one of the “members”, when asked about a return to “normal” church services, said: “Actually, this has become my church.”

Could it be that, as the Corona-crisis is subsiding, there may be a significant number of people who want these digital sabbath schools to remain, and want to be church members in this digital environment. Could it be that there are quite a few persons who have come to experience these digital sabbath schools as ‘cities of refuge.” They have often not felt “safe” in the traditional churches where they hold membership, and where they experienced that their questions were not welcome. They have often concluded that the things that are discussed in the traditional sabbath schools in their local church, and what they heard in many of the sermons, has very little, if anything, to do with their everyday life. The Corona-crisis has made it possible to escape from a narrow kind of Adventism, and they have found a safe haven in one of these “progressive” sabbath schools. Could it be that this is a phenomenon that will spread? And should, perhaps, even the church administrators be happy that there are places where members, who might otherwise sever all links with Adventism, can be together with like-minded people and have their church? (For well over a decade in the Netherlands two “cities of refuge” have been in operation, where Adventists gather, who are often at the “margin” of the church, and now consider this their church. They operate with full support of the Dutch church leaders.)

Is this a good development? It certainly is not the ideal situation. The fundamental idea of being church is that we can all meet together and worship together, regardless of where we come from and who we are. The church must in its very nature be totally inclusive. It should be a place where people can find spiritual nurture and grow in different ways and at their own speed. It must be a place of love, and true love includes patience, respect and tolerance when ideas and customs differ.

That is the ideal. But, unfortunately, our time is characterized by a polarization as we have never seen before. This is what we see in society, and perhaps never as bad as in these pre-election days in US politics. The differences between adherents of different parties are so sharp and cause so much hatred and violence that constructive discussion has become virtually impossible. We must fear that something similar is happening in too many places in the Adventist Church. There is an ever-deepening divide between various segments of the church. One the one hand we see a determination to stay with the past. Popular (and populist) speakers inundate the church with their conspiracy rhetoric and their sensational dvd’s. Many feel that this is the good “old-time religion” we should protect. But, on the other hand, we see those who want to find new ways for living and expressing their Adventist faith, and who want to connect their Adventist heritage with the world of the 21st century in which they live. The tragic reality is that communication has broken down between those two “parties” in the church. With the result that in many places the “progressives” (for want of a better word) have been leaving the church in droves. It may be a very good thing in our present circumstances that there are and, for the time being, remain some digital or physical cities of refuge, where those people, who feel that the traditional local church, where they used to attend, does not provide then with enough breathing space, can find spiritual safety, until the polarization subsides, and we can become the kind of inclusive church as Christ intended.