Questions asked by Brazilians and My Answers

  1. So, you spent two decades traveling the world and interviewing 4,000 Adventists. Could you briefly introduce us to this massive project you carried out? Were there any general hypotheses or conclusions that arose during your research?

Towards 5,700 interviews now. 4 planned volumes, each with its theme:

I: From sect to denomination, from high tension to increasing comfort with society, governments, even other religious groups—as members rise in socio- economic status, and pastors and church leaders do too. There are two chapters introducing Adventism and its origins and early history, which spell out the great extent to which early Adventism was in high tension with society. The process of moving from sect to denomination is then measured in each of the succeeding chapters of this volume. These deal with putting down roots in society with educational and medical institutions, rising educational levels, material comfort, standards/rules, relationships with governments, other religious groups; concern for image; case study of ADRA. Note that one of the issues that I have to address throughout this volume is that because of the diversity of the global church, with different countries in different steps phases of development, that this whole process of moving from sect towards denomination is out of sync and at different stages from one region to another from one country to another within Adventism.

II: In this volume I apply the sect-denomination process to social issues, which works well and in surprising ways. Early Adventism embraced women as prophet, evangelists, pastors, and General Conference treasurers as few other groups did then because its concern for using all available forces to spread the Adventist message mattered and the thoughts of others towards us did not. Similarly, Adventists integrated their churches racially, even in the South, where this created hostility in the communities, and, unlike other missions, they baptized African converts and all their polygamously married wives, only insisting that no more wives be added. However, as they became more comfortable with society, it then came to value the approval of conservative religious groups, which became their “reference groups,” and it stopped having women pastors, integrated churches, and insisted that all wives except for one be sent away befoe a polygamous man could be baptized. What about the other social issues? Adventists assumed from the beginning that divorce, living together without marriage, children out of wedlock, sexual and physical abuse, and homosexuality were not Adventist issues—that such would not appear among their members. But here reality has intruded more and more strongly, and they have had to reckon with these issues—but they have done so very slowly. People with HIV-AIDS are a more recent example of the handling of such issues. However, abortion is different for Adventists—they saw it earlier as a Catholic issue, so not our issue, and some Adventist hospitals made lots of money from performing abortions. But then, as Adventists identified increasingly with Evangelicals, a they moved to a more ethical stance, seeing a fetus as a potential human being. They then insisted that their hospitals should only perform them in emergency situations, and potential mothers were urged to take the issue as a serious decision, but ultimately it remained her choice. Some Adventists who have been strongly influenced by the opinions not Evangelicals have pressed the GC to take a much more negative stance towards abortion, and in 2019 it looked as if Ted Wilson was planning to follow their lead. However, the Adventist medical community jumped up and down, and very little was changed.

III: This volume will focus on Adventist outreach methods, the growth and spread of Adventism and the reliability of its statistics, and will compare Adventism with Mormons and Witnesses in these things.  It will then consider the impact of immigrants from the Developing world on Adventism in North America and Europe; who Adventists are connecting with and who not (they are winning Christians and Animists, not other people from other religious groups; the poor and those wishing for something better—here or in the beyond–but not the educated). It will then consider how the Adventist structure has been modified to accommodate its globalization; the role of Adventist churches, and life as an Adventist.  Finally, it will trace tensions growing out of dramatic growth and globalization and the inevitable diversity, and changes in where Adventist wealth and the money is located. 

IV:  The final volume will consider the Impact of diversity, rising education and exposure, and the desire to have a positive image and comfort with Adventist beliefs on doctrinal debates and disagreements, such as legalism vs grace/faith, the doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary, and earlier tensions as theology teachers became better educated and raise questions; it will then examine the attempt to push all members into line by developing what eventually becomes a 28-point creed.  It will then move to more recent theological issues: re-evaluating the reliability and place of EGW; how soon is “soon”?—the long wait for the Second Coming of Jesus, and again diversity of views concerning, for example, Adventist conspiracy theories;  the battles over hermeneutics, the age of the earth and life here—that is, creation vs evolution; the Sabbath in a round world and problems in the Pacific over the international dateline; embarrassment and doubts over the doctrine of the Remnant; Adventism and Animism—where members use and yet live in fear of the spirits of the dead ancestors; and the Leadership’s fear of disunity and attempts to enforce unity of thought and belief.  It will then ask how well Adventism is working, and will consider funds, member commitment and retention, and youth retention and involvement; it will examine two test cases: when one tribe in Rwanda, a very Adventist country, butchered the others, what did the Adventists do?  And when the government of South Africa enforced Apartheid, where the Adventist church stood?  Finally, the volume asks where Adventism will go from here?—the relevance of Adventism, which is ideologically very modern, to our new post-modern world; to what extent are Adventists replacing their conspiracy theories concerning the ushering in of the world to come with following Jesus’s concern for doing good and addressing the problems of this world?;  to what extent are we adjusting our sense of mission?;  it will examine Ted Wilson’s attempts to reverse course and become more sectarian, to restore Ellen White to the position she held in the 1950s, and will ask how this is dividing and fragmenting Adventism, especially globally; The last chapter considers what will happen to the church as its leadership inevitably becomes more and more from Latin America, Africa, and Asia; whether rapid growth will continue, and whether Adventism will fragment.

2. In your texts you mention many instances of relationships held between the SDA Church and right or left-wing dictatorships, but most of the mentioned alliances are with right-wing governments. Do you see the Adventist communities as less willing to resist political abuses coming from the right? Why does that happen?

Adventists have had close relationships with regimes of both Left and Right: those with the Left included the Soviet Union under Gorbachev; and almost all of the Eastern European regimes throughout the post-war period. I think that Adventists will toady to any authoritarian government we need to protect the church, its institutions, and its structure, and that we became good at that. But when they get a choice between left-leaning and right-leaning parties in developed democracies, it is different: the church does not take a position because it has no prospect of exercising influence and fears repercussions, at least on its outreach — but Adventists tend to fear socialism and to favor the Right. This attitude goes back to at least Ellen White’s negative regard for the labor movement, and even earlier to its very beginning when Adventists hated slavery and so loved Lincoln and the Republican Party at that time. However, there are exceptions to this pattern —for example, in the US, while white Adventists have tended to vote Republican, their Blacks are very strongly Democrat. In the developing world, in some countries Adventist numbers have made them unexpectedly politically powerful, but the church has done no consciousness-raising concerning what policies Adventist politicians should pursue.

3.  Do you see any qualitative difference in the nature of church alliances     with right- or left-wing dictatorships?  

Our leaders will kiss the ass of any dictator.

4.  In the Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion (2007), you state that Adventists “became identified as strong proponents” of the separation between church and state. However, in the same document as well as in other occasions, you mention the existence of political lobbies between both for the benefit of the SDA Church. Isn’t there a contradiction between both statements?

I see 3 phases here: 1) We pursued religious liberty because we thought ourselves, and our Sabbath observance, were in danger—we did that instead of letting the Sunday Law happen to us, which we thought was the one last sure sign before Jesus would return! 2) As we became more comfortable with society, and built and controlled the International Religious Liberty Association, we became more willing to try to help other religious groups that were suffering persecution;  3) Recently Adventist leaders have come to use the cry of religious liberty to try to get political decisions that would protect Adventist doctrinal prejudice against certain minority groups, especially LGBT people. (For example, the Adventist reponse to the recent US Supreme Court decision.)

5.  You once mentioned that Robert Folkenberg, then a president for the Central America church union, “was concerned when some in his mostly impoverished flock joined the guerillas because of their hatred for the president’s policies” in Guatemala. Could you tell us more about these Adventist guerrilla fighters? How did the church deal with them?

In many Latin countries, the Adventist leadership identified with the high status people and the political Right, and therefore the military dictators, while the majority of Adventists were poor and sympathized with the Left. This was true in Guatemala: Folkenberg built the Union HQ in a snooty part of Guatemala City, while large numbers of Adventists lived in the shacks (favelas) on the steep volcanic hills around the city, and were hurt severely by the large earthquake there. Some linked up with the guerillas, and threatened the Union. So shortly after Folkenberg left the Union, it responded to the threats by packing up and moving away to Costa Rica! That is, the Adventist leaders frequently seem to see themselves as part of the elite. This included Folkenberg when he was the union president: he boasted to me that he had had such a close relationship with the general who was then president of Guatemala that he could visit him in the Presidential Palace when he wished to, and that he was the first Protestant to be given a farewell reception there when he was on the point of leaving there.

6. We have been documenting the fact that some Adventists fed, healed and lodged Fidel Castro’s guerrilla fighters, including Ernesto Che Guevara. Could you tell us a little more about the relationship between Adventists and the Cuban Revolution?

I have not been to Cuba. Can you tell me what you know, for I would love to know, please. I do know that the Cubans who came to the US hated Castro, of course, and have always supported Republican candidates very strongly.

7. In the Encyclopedia you also mentioned that ADRA has sometimes acted as an US government foreign policy tool, such as when it established a strong program in Honduras precisely when the country was fostering Reagan-funded Contras to destabilize Nicaragua. Are there more instances of ADRA acting as a government tool? What else you can tell us about the relationship between Adventists and the Sandinista Revolution?

As I understand it, this happened because of the policies of the Reagan administration here. Most of the ADRA income at that time came from a US government program, US-AID. This meant that they could only work where the US government allowed them to work. During the Sandinista period, there was no US aid to Nicaragua, so ADRA could not work there. But the US was trying to build up Honduras, for the anti-Sandinista forces were trained there. So there was plenty of aid for Honduras, which meant that ADRA obtained several USAID contracts there, which in turn made it a tool of the US foreign policy. I am sure that many American Adventists approved personally of this. It was because of the anti-Sandinista attitudes of the American missionaries there that Adventists lost their hospital and got themselves banned from operating for a while in Nicaragua. (The missionaries who were the medical staff at the hospital fled Nicaragua, leaving the hospital unable to operate.) But when I was there, only months later, a local pastor had become president of the Mission, and he was sympathetic to the Sandinistas and was trying to get the Adventists to work on the government-run community projects. He told me this when I interviewed him, and I expressed my support. This led him to ask me to preach at the largest church the next Sabbath, and to show the congregation why I felt that working with their communities in this way was congruent with the Gospel. He attended there also and introduced me. In the afternoon an additional meeting was held during which the members asked me many questions and expressed support for what I had advocated.  

8. You once mentioned that the Adventists became known throughout Chile as the “friends of Pinochet”, and even quoted an Adventist leader saying that “no Adventists disappeared” during his rule. Could you tell us more details about this alliance? Did it find any resistance in the Adventist community of the time?

The situation there was very similar to that in Guatemala—the elite union church supported General Pinochet, while most of the other churches had poor members and had supported President Allende. Pastors I interviewed explained these dynamics to me.  The church leaders kissed the ass of Pinochet and got advantages as a result—the torture and disappearance of so many of those who opposed him caused the Catholic Cardinal to condemn him, so that he sorely needed the support of other religious groups to shore up his credibility, and the Adventists helped to provide that.  For example, when he visited the Adventist college, accompanied by a full retinue of reporters and TV cameras, the college held an outdoor welcoming ceremony at which the college president, in a prayer that was broadcast on TV, thanks God for sending Pinochet to “{save the nation.”  The rewards then bestowed on the Adventists included awarding the college much-needed accreditation, finishing the road to the college, and a reputation as the special friends of Pinochet. But I was told that most of the members felt betrayed and embarrassed by what the church leaders had done. I do not know whether this led some Adventists to abandon the church. Note that the “no Adventists disappeared” statement was made about Argentina, not Chile.

9. You mention that in Argentina the church leaders prioritized Sabbath observance over the avoidance of training with weapons — to the point where they concluded that the General Conference did not understand their situation. Could you tell us more about this debate? How widespread was this position on Latin America?

I was told in several countries that it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to fight, and who lost privileges as a result—Adventists wanted to have the right to own land and run hospitals and colleges, so they joined the military comfortably because it gave them connections and advantages, and they assured me that the generals did not fight wars, they became involved in politics! But soon after I was there, and the Argentinians had told me these things, Argentina fought a war with Britain over what they called the Malvinas Islands (the Falkland Islands), and Adventist soldiers and airmen were killed in combat. Church leaders also proudly told me stories about their access to the military government, that no Adventists disappeared during the years of military dictatorship (those who sympathized with the guerillas were probably considered to be not Adventists), of missing the advantages they had had under the generals, and disliking the new power of the labor unions under the recently restored democratic regime. So once again the church leadership showed its comfort with the dictators.

10. While commenting on the SDA church statements on Adventists and firearms, you use majorly examples from the US and Europe. Latin America, on the other hand, has a history of resistance against injustices committed by colonialism and imperialism. In this case the very nature of the war would be changed, since it is promoted with the aim of the people’s liberation, and recently we found that even Joseph Bates was an active supporter of the Haitian Revolution, for example. Do you think this context demands a different approach on the involvement between Adventists and firearms?

I find this a difficult question. For me, the decision to be a conscientious objector when I had to register for military service in Australia was an important personal decision. I am a supporter of the ideas of peaceful protest, following Ghandhi and Martin Luther King—and, as I understand the Bible, Jesus. But I have become increasingly aware of how long peaceful protest can take to change oppressive situations. I should add, however, as I am very suspicious of Latin generals given the number of military dictatorship the hemisphere has seen over the years. I also feel very uncomfortable about the Adventist wish to be seen as patriots– see, for example, what I have written about Operation Whitecoat, which was when the General Conference, flattened by a request to it by the American government,  encouraged Adventist conscripts to volunteer for a program that was researching biological weapons. See also what I have written about the pain felt by Adventists in South Korea, where some Adventists refusing to use military weapons were executed at the front and many more were imprisoned for several years, when the general conference switched its position on military service in 1971.

11. Would you give us a quick summary of the SDA church stand regarding South African apartheid? What did you see changing – for the better or the worse – in these last 20 years?

I was last in South Africa in 1999. Just as I am preparing to do some extra interviews in Brazil to get myself up-to-date with what has happened to the church there in recent years, I am in the process of trying to arrange the same in South Africa. I cannot evaluate the events since 1999 very well at all. But I can tell you that separation of Adventists by race there long pre-dated Apartheid. Everything was separate, and there were two race-based unions that did not communicate with one another. For example, when it came to Ingathering, the white church collected money from the much more wealthy white people in the back church went to the poor black people, so that the white church collected much more money. However, it then helped only the white people and not the much more needy black people.  I also interviewed a gay Adventist whose family, who were farmers, treated the Blacks with dignity, which was highly unusual under Apartheid. The South African military at that time was a completely white force whose task was to combat the rebellious Blacks. When the person I interviewed reached the age for conscription, he felt that he could not serve in such a force, and therefore approached the church seeking its support in his claim to be a conscientious objector. The church in Australia had given me such support, but the South African church refused to honor this member’s conscience. Note that the South African churches were not forced to be segregated—neither Catholics nor Anglicans segregated. The Adventist General Conference eventually realized that South Africa was getting so much international attention that continued segregation could give Adventism a bad name and cause it embarrassment, and so it stepped in to force the issue at the organizational level—but were embarrassed by the questions asked about the segregated conferences in America! During my two visits to South Africa, which were 13 years apart, I saw the pain of desegregating Helderberg College and the city churches after the end of Apartheid—and the complaints received. Adventists only desegregated when they felt forced to. The sad history of segregation and the delay in its resolution also caused great damage to the Adventist work among whites, and also to the total work there because the Adventist history inevitably became known.

12. You reported many instances of organized resistance in the Adventist community against institutional alliances with left-wing dictatorships, which even led to church schisms, but none in the right-wing ones (except on Nazi Germany). Are there cases, especially in Latin America, that you did not mention or that we couldn’t find?

Remind me of those instances, please. My data show that Adventists todied two both left and right ring dictatorships. When there was opposition to the official church stance, which occurred to my knowledge only in the Soviet Union and Hungary, it came each time from groups that splintered from the official church. 

13. Here in Brazil we see many Church leaders engaged in a demonization of left-wing and Marxist political views, to a point that echoes the very Red Scares that happened in the US during the Cold War. How did the Adventists deal with it back then? Did the SDA Church endorse or stand up against it in any way?

Adventists were silent—I have found no evidence that they ever spoke out against the persecution led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the late 1940s and 1950s. This is in some ways odd, and certainly sad. McCarthy was doing to the Political Left what Adventists believed would happen soon to them, but they did not denounce it. This is another case of the dynamic pointed out by Otto Neimoller concerning Christians being silent as the Nazis removed other groups—until the Nazis came for them.  When I asked people who had been around at that time, their best explanation for this was that Adventists were distracted by the Evangelical Conferences and the fallout from Questions on Doctrine.  I would add their discomfort with the ideology and programs of the Left, and their internal focus and official disregard for politics. Other factors were Ellen White’s warnings about organized Labor, which I conclude were based on a misunderstanding of the dynamics of the capital-labor conflict in the USA in the late nineteenth century, and the fact that Adventists were not drawn from factory workers because those workers had no alternative to working on Sabbaths, but were initially mostly farmers and then, later, also professionals such as medical workers.

When I was in Brazil no one told me about the Adventist relationship with your dictators. Who can tell me? Also about the relationship with the present regime?

14. In “The Evolution and Current Issues of the SDA Church” you state that the reasons for Ellen White being wary of labor unions was that she feared committing to group solidarity could compromise the Adventists’ freedom of conscience, which is really interesting since those Ellen White passages are often used to classify labor unions as inherently evil. Could you tell us more about your view? What is the relevance of that position for Adventists today?

When I was a professor, I was always a member of the union. And I have taught about the labor movement in my protest movements course, and written about it in Australia in my book on Brisbane in the 1890s. I think Ellen White was wrong about unions. She was a small town person all her life—she wrote bad things about cities, she encouraged that Adventist institutions be built away from cities, but today in the US Adventism is primarily a city and suburban church. She was clearly very influenced by the stories of violence caused by unions, when in fact the workers were mostly responding to the violent strategies employed by the owners of the factories and the railroads and mines. My point was that she believed that by joining a union, and agreeing to strike if the majority voted to strike, that would leave Adventists not able to follow their individual conscience. I have some sympathy with that—I was happy that during my 38 years as a professor we never voted to strike, for I would have hated to leave my students without their classes. But the only way to answer the power of the boss or the landlord is collectively—that I am sure of. I feel that behind Ellen White’s talk about giving up freedom of individual conscience was her respect for the “rights” associated with property ownership, her fear of the violence then often associated with strikes, and the fact that Adventists were not factory workers. As I said, I think she was wrong.

15. In a few occasions you lament the fact that Adventists disregard Christ’s teachings when voting for some politicians. From a general perspective, what should be the basic principles followed by Adventists when choosing a candidate?

I think you have read the most recent paper to go up on my website, which deals with my political development as a Christian? That was presented at two different Zoom Sabbath School classes.  In following the teachings of Jesus, I believe in looking at both the character and the policies of a candidate. By character I mean such things as truthfulness, reliability, the way he or she treats people, etc. The policies should reflect taking special care of the poor (and so not a main concern for how they impact ourselves) and those in need, refugees and other “strangers”, and those who face discrimination and mistreatment, such as LGBT folk; not being beholden to rich donors to the campaign, not pouring funds into the military; concern for stewardship of the environment; reducing inequalities in society, including creating opportunities for the education, employment, and housing of the disadvantaged; religious freedom is important, but not the freedom of the religious to discriminate.

16. The role of Christianity in politics is being discussed nowadays more than ever. Some say religion and politics should not meet at all. Do you think it is that simple? Is it possible to follow Christ’s teachings and not be involved in politics? If not, what would you conceive as healthy or harmful ways for us to engage in politics?

When I was in Latin America I had the opportunity to speak to gatherings of Adventist university students in several countries, and really attracting their interest when I encouraged them to be involved in society and politics etc. It became obvious to me that they had been taught to be separate, isolated, and involved only in the Church. It is all part of the traditional Adventist position to focus only on the outreach of the church, and to avoid getting close to those who are not of our particular group. I disagree totally with that approach.

Christians subdivided over whether Jesus encouraged involvement in political matters. however, he lived under Imperial Rome – a brutal dictatorship. there were no opportunities then to be involved except through using violence. However, when we are part of a democracy, we are invited to participate. I believe that we should do so. I am in favor of abandoning Adventist self- absorption and separation, of waiting for Sunday laws which won’t come, and instead to apply our faith to following Jesus – to doing good. Charity is haphazard and insufficient – let us work to show what it means to have the kingdom of Christ among us, impacting the world. but let us make sure that we are working for the kingdom, and not confusing political leaders with Christ – political necessities must not muzzle us. this can cause a problem if we are working for a government as a civil servant when its policies become anti-Christian. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s