Wrangling with history

Ervin Taylor recently wrote an article in Adventist Today that contained a proposed apology letter from Elder Ted Wilson to Pope Francis. It purports to apologize for the mass mailing of "The Great Controversy" in the city of Philadelphia in anticipation of Francis’ visit to the United States. It is unclear what the author thought would be accomplished by publishing this, as it seems such a far-fetched proposal. What is clear, however, is that there is a sentiment within Adventism that seeks to apologize for every unpopular church belief and doctrine. If this sentiment is left unchecked within the Church, it could spell disaster for up and coming generations taking leadership positions and lay work. 

The article appeals to the sentiment that our classical interpretation of Christian history and prophecy is archaic and nothing more than useless drivel. That we find many that disagree with our classic beliefs is not surprising. What is disconcerting is that there are those that disagree with our fundamental foundations and yet choose to remain associated with the Church in varying degrees. To avoid the unhelpful and oft times fallacious ad hominem stratagem we will not speculate on individual motives, but we will dissect the thought process behind this erroneous sentiment and hope that it quells others’ temptation to succumb to it.


There are hosts of varying worldviews that have different modes of expression. Historically there has been no better major nation tailored to the freedom of expression than the United States. Codified as a right in our law, expressing our worldview is nothing to be ashamed about. It is interesting to note that opposition to freedom of expression, at least in print, was the brainchild of the Roman Catholic Church in an attempt to curb “heresies” that could be disseminated via literature (Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies of Freedom, 14). While the letter Taylor proposes does not call for censorship, it certainly encourages a capitulation of thought and that our expression must be curbed to respect the sensibilities of those that hold to a different view. Unless the thoughts we circulate in print were to be proven as some sort of hoax, an apology should not be in order. And given that Francis is actually beginning to fulfill some of the predictions contained in The Great Controversy, there’s even more reason to not be apologizing, but rather informing others of the growing validity of its claims. 


Taylor suggests that our views regarding the Catholic Church were a product of the 19th Century Anti-Catholic Nativist movement. Loren Seibold suggests a similar vein of thought in an Adventist Today article published January 4, 2010 entitled, “Letting Roman Catholics Off the Hook”. It would be a historical and theological fallacy to ascribe our views on Catholicism to the growing political turmoil and anti-immigrant sentiments of the era. Our Pioneers’ objection to Roman Catholicism is almost purely on theological terms. In fact, if there was anything political it was sentiments in favor of freedom of conscience that were an issue not just with the Catholics but also with many Protestants of the day. Ellen White never wrote against the growing tide of Catholic immigration, and was content for the battle against erroneous dogma to be spiritual, not political and physical as the 19th century American Nativist movement often succumbed to. 

Furthermore, since the Great Irish Famine did not commence until 1845 and the mass emigration occurred after that, it would be hard to attribute the rise of the Millerite movement to the political Nativist and Know Nothing movement. Since Adventism is a direct descendant of the Millerite movement, it inherited William Miller’s historicist view of prophecy, which revealed the Papacy as the Beast of Revelation and the Little Horn of Daniel before the political anti-Catholic movement came to a head, not to mention that the historicist interpretation of prophecy has a heritage going all the way back to the Reformation. 


If the proposed letter were to be adapted by any General Conference, present or future, it would only signal apostasy at the top. Unlike the Roman Catholic hierarchical ecclesiastical system that is top down, the SDA Church system is bottom up. Ted Wilson, as faithful to the Word as I believe he is, is not representative of the whole denomination. Wilson himself acknowledges this and says, "The Adventist Church is not an organization that promotes 'kingly power'. We don't just have someone at the head who says, 'That's it, do it,' and it happens ... The best way is to come together in prayer in a setting where a multitude of counselors brings wisdom." In other words, Wilson does not issue “encyclicals” that become policy of the church at large.

The problem arises when the sentiment of this proposed letter is held by a growing number of Adventist members themselves. The largest group of Adventists is lukewarm and indifferent, and as such is more easily susceptible to the fallacious and illogical reasoning behind this proposal letter. We need to think through the consequences of opening ourselves to this method of thinking. If we need to express an apology to the Pope for expressing our understanding of prophecy, we might as well close up shop. It sets a damaging precedent for our future attempts at evangelism, popular or unpopular. Catering in this way to the world will relegate God’s Word as a mere embarrassment, our convictions as dispersible as grains of sand in the wind. 

While it is easy to just say we shouldn’t take Ervin Taylor’s proposal letter seriously, the reasoning behind it, if grasped by more and more Adventists, will be a worrisome prospect. The letter itself reveals a shallow, naïve understanding of our historical position and if we are not careful we, in our indifference, can allow subsequent generations to believe that we have reason to apologize for the circulation of a book written by one we believe was inspired by God. Let the book stand to reason and scrutiny. Let it circulate freely like the “leaves of autumn” with no apologies. Past and current events have been validating its prophetic claims, one by one.