Shall the Adventist Fundamentalists Win?

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Published:
November 11, 2019

What is the relationship status between Adventism and fundamentalism?[1]

Status update: It’s complicated.

Twenty years into the twenty-first century seems like an odd time for Adventists to talk about fundamentalism. Secularism, not the waning, ghostly wisp of fundamentalism, is the struggle of our century. Fundamentalism is yesterday; a movement we think best misremembered, then forgotten. The word “fundamentalist” conjures up images of religious terrorism, a grim over-seriousness, intellectual mistrust, sectarianism, skepticism of science, and patriarchal preferences — characteristics which enable us to damn fundamentalism simply by labeling it “unmodern.” (And the hubris of our presentism means that it is hard for us to respect any group we cannot picture enjoying an iPhone.)

I feel obliged to mention that the Christian fundamentalists of the 1920s would be just as horrified by this definition as we are. As fundamentalism’s meaning has soured, Adventist leaders have spent the past fifty years distancing themselves from it. Writing in Ministry in 1965, Adventist administrator Wilbur K. Nelson looked down on the term “fundamentalist,” arguing that the fundamentalists of his day had fundamentally departed from their former faithfulness, and had become perceived as dangerous dispensationalists and professors of a pious peevishness. The dispensationalist label alone, Nelson argued, “would of course destroy the usefulness of the term for Seventh-day Adventists.”[2] General Conference president Neal C. Wilson agreed in 1980 that, theologically, Adventists do not qualify as fundamentalists: “The word fundamentalist in itself is not a good description of Seventh-day Adventists today, because theologically it has implications that really do not harmonize with our position.”[3]

This consistent rejection of the word “fundamentalist” by Adventist leaders over the past fifty years is understandable, given how any gene of virtue had been bred out of its meaning. Yet the rejection also hints at a past intimacy between Adventism and fundamentalism; a time when dispensationalist differences didn’t “destroy the usefulness of the term” for Adventists at all. On the contrary, Adventists used to love calling themselves “fundamentalists.”

Okay, so what was this fundamentalist movement?

Adventist historian and exceptional cat-namer Michael Campbell has given us the best language for framing this Adventist-fundamentalist relationship in his book 1919: The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism. Campbell says Adventists “flirted,” had a “fling,” and “struggled” with fundamentalism. Those words are apropos, not just to understanding Adventism and fundamentalism, but also to understanding the awkward dating life of many collegiate Adventists. “Flirt, fling, frustration” — this is the language of a passionate naivety where both parties are afterward relieved that it didn’t work out. This also makes it easy to forget it ever happened.

We shouldn’t forget. Despite fundamentalism’s present caricature as uncouth beast, the movement arose as a coalition of the concerned to defend the maiden honor of orthodox, evangelical Christianity from modernism’s Schleiermacher-shaped skepticism. At issue were "fundamental" doctrines like the authoritative inspiration of the Bible, the physical death and resurrection of Christ, and the existence of miracles. (An anti-evolution component was added later, championed by the Adventist George McCready Price, though, despite brief public enthusiasm, the issue seldom made it on any list of fundamental doctrines.[4]) There was some difference in this fundamentalist coalition. Leaders like Curtis Lee Laws (who gave the movement its name) and Augustus Strong, who had taught alongside Walter Rauschenbusch, rejected dispensationalism, which was often seen as an identifying characteristic of a fundamentalist faith.[5]

Fundamentalism’s commitment to championing core evangelical orthodoxies against modernism, together with the lack of any centralized leadership, gave Adventists an opening to jump on board. With typical confidence, Adventists publicly declared themselves “the only true fundamentalists,” “fundamentalists of the fundamentalists,” and “chief of fundamentalists.”[6] Perhaps no statement was as sweeping as that made by General Conference President William A. Spicer, who revised Adventist history in terms of fundamentalism: “All through the years, from 1844 on down, the whole teaching of the advent message has been fundamentalism itself.”[7] As late as Questions on Doctrine (1957), Adventists doubled down on this idea of Adventism as fundamentalism par excellence: “If we find ourselves differing with most fundamentalists and all modernists, that is because they have abandoned the historicist position… Our view represents the position once held by their spiritual ancestors.”[8] These were no empty declarations from on high. The opening night of an evangelistic series in New Brunswick, Canada, was advertised as "a fundamentalist sermon by an Adventist.”[9] In Merced, California, a sign read: “The Fundamentalist Tent of Seventh-day Adventists.”[10] Adventists even went so far as to declare that the Apostle Paul had been an original fundamentalist.[11]

George McCready Price was the primary means through which Adventism influenced the fundamentalist movement. An amateur geologist, Price pushed fundamentalists at the highest level into a Young Earth Creationism. Price’s prestige is illustrated by a turning point at the famous Scopes Trial of 1925, where the agnostic Darrow forced the famed fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan to admit that his Creationist views rested on Price. Darrow went for the kill, claiming (falsely) that “every scientist in the country knows [Price] is a mountebank and a pretender and not a geologist at all.” Francis D. Nichol afterwards wrote to Price: “You are the leading champion in the fundamentalist ranks today, and… fundamentalism owes more to you than to any other man."[12]

This “debt” doesn’t mean that Adventists were accepted by the fundamentalist movement. Adventists experienced what minorities of all types are overfamiliar with: the majority’s acceptance of the individual (e.g., George McCready Price) while rejecting the group they represent. H. L. Lukens, a Canadian Adventist, attended the Congress of World Fundamentalists and reported: "In private conversation it was easy to detect a bitterness against our movement on the part of some of the leading speakers, which exceed the publicly expressed bitterness against Modernism. In this, as in all other questions, Seventh-day Adventists stand alone on the platform of real truth.”[13]

With their Wesleyan-Arminian background and peculiar pedigree, Adventists would never be confused for or welcomed by mainstream Presbyterian and Baptist fundamentalists, who tended to be Calvinists. Occasionally, Adventists could garner, in the words of the editor of The Baptist, “both admiration and anathemas” from fellow fundamentalists, though it wasn’t always easy to tell the difference. As The Baptist griped about Adventist quirks, for instance, the writer couldn’t help but admit that Adventists “can out-fundamentalize the Fundamentalist” as well as “fairly argue one’s coat off his back.”[14] So there was some recognition from other fundamentalists, however begrudging, that Adventists were at least allies, if not (odd) cousins, to the fundamentalist cause.

This awkward fling that resulted was what Paul McGraw calls the “unique hybrid” of “Adventist Fundamentalism.” Adventist fundamentalism wasn’t a doctrinal departure from their past, but a spiritual one. Adventists “used fundamentalist rhetoric to accuse Adventist church leaders of moving the church toward modernism.”[15] Fear of this insurgent spirit kept more moderate church leaders from publishing the discussions at the 1919 Bible Conference, for instance.[16] Adventists also followed the wider fundamentalist movement in marginalizing women from positions of authority. Burton notes that of the twenty female conference treasurers and thirty conference secretaries in 1905, there were none a few decades later. To justify these postures, Adventists began adjusting their own history in startling and strange ways.[17]

Understanding Adventist fundamentalism

By 1926, the fundamentalist movement jumped the shark and began its descent into a bitter and lonely senility. Fashionably late as always, the funeral for fundamentalism had been over for some time before Adventists began disavowing the very thought that they could in any way be connected with such a movement. Denied in name, fundamentalist Adventism yet remained, if less corporeally than spiritually. A new iteration of Adventist fundamentalism rose during the 1990s, bided its time during the 2000s, and has returned in the 2010s. Ronald Lawson identifies this new Adventist fundamentalism in areas of the world church which are “intent on enforcing the teachings that were common during the period when Adventism embraced much of fundamentalism,” such as in hermeneutics, King James Onlyism, and male headship.[18]

Adventist fundamentalism survives, in part because its theology is often “close enough” to official church positions. Edward John Carnell, the evangelical former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, famously claimed fundamentalism was “orthodoxy gone cultic.”[19] Which is to say, fundamentalism takes some good ideas and twists them, either by taking them too far or prioritizing them out of place. Ironically, the importance of getting our beliefs in the right order was the subject of William Miller’s dream.[20]

How then do we identify Adventist fundamentalism today? At its core, it can be seen by fundamentalism’s trademark: militancy toward modernism. Really, the man who coined the word “fundamentalist” simply defined his fundamentalists as “aggressive conservatives.”[21] Samuel Jordan Kelley writes that “this militancy was the most salient and unifying feature of fundamentalism,” and it wasn’t just for the sake of playing hard to love.[22] Historian Mark Noll calls fundamentalism (along with early Pentecostalism and dispensationalism) “evangelical strategies of survival” in the face of modernism.[23] David Bentley Hart curiously describes fundamentalism as “soothing”; a means of reducing the terrible tensions of the modern world into a simple grammar that offers clear boundaries and high-certainty.[24]

Finding fundamentalism

More specifically, there are a number of other tendencies which can help us identify Adventist fundamentalism. Evangelical scholar Roger Olson offers a few identifying characteristics, which I’ve paraphrased and expanded:[25]

First, a tendency to make non-essential doctrines into essential ones. Adventists, who had always discouraged patronage of the theater, suddenly began threatening to disfellowship Adventists who frequented them in the fundamentalist era.

Second, a tendency to hunt for heresies among fellow conservative Christians, and to make celebrities of those Christians who expose those heresies. This includes “a tendency to place doctrinal ‘truth’ above ethics such that misrepresenting others’ views in order to exclude or marginalize them, if not get them fired, is considered justified.” Which is to say, fundamentalism becomes an ideology, not a belief system.

Third, “a tendency to be obsessed with ‘liberal theological thinking’ that leads to seeing it where it does not exist along with a tendency” to explain every challenge in terms of liberalism. This obsession with liberal thinking completely dwarfs any corresponding concern with conservative extremes. People and institutions are often guilty by association. Judson S. Washburn is a prime example of an Adventist who was routinely rude, cruel, and unjust in pursuit of his aim to cleanse the church for Jesus.[26] Simply labeling an opponent “liberal” is also effective, as opponents of church union in Canada did, even though most of their opponents were by no means liberal.

Fourth, a tendency to mistrust higher education as a trojan horse of liberalism, as well as to be intellectually resistant to new ideas. Claude Holmes, an Adventist fundamentalist, once lambasted the idea of the Adventist university, calling it a “scheme for conferring popish degrees” upon God’s people and a pretext to introduce higher criticism into the church.[27]

Fifth, a tendency to present certain theological innovations as historic and authentic. Holmes, who held to a verbal “dictation” model of inspiration and held Ellen White’s writings to be scripture, believed he was merely upholding the historic Adventist faith, when the church had decades before decided against verbal inspiration.[28]

Sixth, a tendency to see the world in black and white, not allowing for variations. To quote Carnell:

Though David danced before the Lord (II Sam. 6:14), the fundamentalist will not.... Although many nations perpetuate their traditions through the dance, the fundamentalist takes a harsh and unfeeling attitude toward the institution: all dancing is worldly; there is no stopping point between abstinence and night-club lust.[29]

Seventh, a tendency to see separatism as a virtue. To live outside urban areas (centers of liberalism) is a badge of honor. The less the fundamentalist participates in public rituals or knows of popular trends, the more virtuous he feels. Ethically, the fundamentalist finds virtue not only in doing right but in the wrong she doesn’t do.

It goes without saying that a fundamentalist mentality is not suggested by one or two of these tendencies, but a cluster of them. For example, there’s an Adventist ministry today that has all of the hallmarks of the fundamentalist mentality. The ministry sells a book warning against “mixed swimming” (men and women swimming together) and which teaches that meat eaters by definition despise the writings of Ellen White. (You’ll find neither of these teachings appearing before the fundamentalist era.) The ministry consistently criticizes Adventist institutions of higher learning, and promotes its own unaccredited school as an alternative, offering a “seminary-level education.” This ministry promotes books and produces videos which hunt down the latest “modernist heresy” in the church. This ministry elevates issues of minor importance into tests of True Adventism, such as women’s ordination and certain styles of worship music (again, largely non-issues before fundamentalism). It promotes conspiracies (something that would feature in fundamentalist circles in the 1930s). And while this ministry teaches many good and true things and has undoubtedly resulted in the salvation of many, I believe it nevertheless has enough of the “tendencies” of the fundamentalist mentality to be labeled, I believe, “Adventist fundamentalism.”

Understanding even this brief history of Adventist fundamentalism can help us to realize just how much of our conversation has been driven by fundamentalist talking points. From women in ministry to movie theaters to drums to the near worship of Ellen White — all have their roots, not in original Adventism, but in fundamentalist Adventism. Fundamentalist Adventism has been so dominant in Adventist culture that we think it is the definition of conservatism. On the contrary, there are other, healthier ways of interacting with the world as a conservative.

We owe it to all who have found Adventist theology captivating and brilliant, but have been dismayed at how devastatingly obtuse fundamentalist critiques of culture are, to consider the role of fundamentalism within Adventist culture. Can all of the great truth and tradition of Adventism do no better than to produce ham-handed, buckshot attacks on “Hollywood”? In the twenty-first century, must we, as Adventist Review editor Bill Knott apparently felt necessary, have to explain to our people that it’s okay to read non-Adventist books? After 175 years as a movement, is this the limit of our intellectual and moral progress as a people?

The twenty-first century is a great time to talk about Adventist fundamentalism because the issues which marked the fundamentalist era of Adventism are still dominating Adventist conversation today: Creation and evolution, the role of women in church, Bible versions, movies and pop culture, etc. These were hot and relevant topics for the church to address in the 1920s, but have since cooled. We need to free up conversational bandwidth to discuss issues germane to this century.

We also need to talk about Adventist fundamentalism because its militant spirit continues to haunt us. It’s been 100 years, and yet, as in 1919, many church leaders who should be leading us in frank conversations about our future, instead must calculate the cost of provoking fundamentalist forces. Led by certain monarchs of media ministries, these forces have proven themselves willing to abandon their evangelistic calling and throw their weight around in church politics when necessary. The rhetoric of labels is still their stock in trade. Being labeled a “liberal” is still — somehow — a damning indictment in 2019. Certain ministries and members stake their entire existence on preserving an antagonistic posture toward the modern world. As the Internet continues to connect our world, it’s never been easier for Adventist fundamentalism to be the first face of Adventism which people encounter. Scroll through a YouTube search for “Adventist” and you’ll see what I mean.

In the early twentieth century, a comfortable Christian world had been turned upside down and it was only natural to react to this change with hostility. But we’ve had 100 years to calm down and many Adventists have adopted a more nuanced, engaging approach toward culture. There’s simply no excuse for Adventist fundamentalism today. Fundamentalism has failed at keeping worldliness out of the church; it can only be said to have succeeded at keeping the church out of the world. The Adventists who prop up the fundamentalist corpse have meant well; they love their church and they have been right to warn us of giving everything up in order to make peace with modernism. But it’s over. And we’re never, ever getting back together. Like, ever.

 

Notes & References:

[1] As fundamentalism was primarily an American phenomenon, I will use "Adventist" to specifically refer to Anglo-North American Adventism in this article for efficiency.

[2] Wilbur K. Nelson, "Are Adventists Fundamentalists?", Ministry, April, 1965; 16-17.

[3] "53rd General Conference Session," Adventist Review, April 24, 1980; 18 (546).

[4] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press: 2006), 168-169.

[5] Ibid., 165. Laws also rejected verbal inerrancy. See LeRoy Moore, Jr. “Another Look at Fundamentalism: A Response to Ernest R. Sandeen.” Church History, 197.

[6] General Conference Bulletin, May 30, 1930 (Vol. 107, No. 23), 5. Cf. I.A. Crane, “Are You Really a Fundamentalist?,” Southwestern Union Record (March 23, 1926): 2. I. A. Crane, “Are You Really a Fundamentalist?,” Columbia Union Visitor (April 22, 1926): 8. W.W. Prescott also declared himself a fundamentalist. W.W. Prescott, “The Gospel of a Fundamentalist,” Signs of the Times, (April 29, 1924): 2.

[7] W.A. Spicer, “The Message That Answers the Need,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (July 4, 1929): 11.

[8] Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Review and Herald: Washington, D.C., 1957), 315-216.

[9] F. W. Stray, “St. John, N.B.,” Eastern Canadian Messenger, Jan. 15, 1924, 3.

[10] Henry de Flutier, “City Evangelism in Central California,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 29, 1927, 16.

[11] Cover of Signs of the Times, April 29, 1924.

[12] F.D. Nichol to George McCready Price, March 10, 1926.

[13] H. L. Lukens, “World’s Fundamentalist Congress,” The Ministry, July 1, 1928, 15.

[14] F. M. Wilcox, “Why Seventh-day Adventists Give and Grow,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 20, 1929, 3.

[15] Paul McGraw, “Born in Zion? The Margins of Fundamentalism and the Definition of Seventh-day Adventism,” PhD diss., George Washington University, 2004, 101.

[16] See Michael Campbell’s 1919: The Untold Story of Adventism's Struggle with Fundamentalism (Pacific Press), 2019.

[17] See Kevin M. Burton’s peer-reviewed article, “God’s Last Choice,” Spectrum Magazine, June 15, 2017 (vol. 45). Cf. Lynelle Ellis, “Seventh-day Adventists and the Movies: An Historical and Contemporary Exploration of the Conflict Between Christianity and Visual Media,” PhD diss., Regent University, 2019.

[18] Ronald Lawson, “Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism Entry on Seventh-day Adventism,” Adventist Today, November 6, 2018 (online). https://atoday.org/encyclopedia-of-fundamentalism-seventh-day-adventism/ (accessed 10-29-19). Note: King James Onlyism was sparked by a minority of Adventist fundamentalists who did not enjoy General Conference support.

[19] Edward J. Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1959), 113. 

[20] Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1882), 81ff.

[21] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, second edition (Oxford University Press: 2006), 169.

[22] Samuel Jordan Kelley, “J. Gresham Machen and the End of the Presbyterian Controversy,” MA thesis, Boise State University, 2013, 78.

[23] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 24.

[24] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), XII.

[26] Consider Washburn’s portrayal in Douglas Morgan’s book, Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America. Cf. The Adventist History Podcast, “Color Line” episodes.

[27] C.E. Holmes to H.C. Lacey, May 17, 1920.

[28] For a helpful overview of this topic, see Timm, Alberto R. (2008) "Adventist Views on Inspiration," Perspective Digest: Vol. 13: Iss. 3, Article 2.

[29] Carnell, 124.

 

Matthew J. Lucio is husband to a formidable wife, Laura, and together they parent two amazing girls: Aerith and Arwen. Matthew pastors in Peoria, Illinois, where he is director of their innovative digital church on YouTube, Peoria Adventists. Matthew also enjoys narrating Adventist history as the host of the Adventist History Podcast for the past 5 years.

Photo by Ronni Kurtz on Unsplash

 

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