An Aussie/Kiwi Perspective is Needed on Des Ford

In defense of Des Ford, I seek to provide Spectrum readers a wider context of happenings in the South Pacific Division from the 1960s until Glacier View in 1980. Most have a fair understanding of what occurred subsequently. I’m an Australian who has lived in the United States for almost 30 years and am now a U.S. citizen. I have read Spectrum since the 1980s and subscribed for many years. Now I click on Spectrum weekly, essentially to read Barry Casey’s essays! I’m also an Adelaide boy like Bill Johnsson. What follows presumes you have read Bill’s essay published by Spectrum on March 13, 2019, Des Ford: The Perils of Being Right.

I appreciate Bill’s thoughts on Des Ford’s life and career. He writes so many accurate and telling statements to amplify the extraordinary ministry of Desmond Ford. However, Bill drops off the planet with his replaying of the interchange between Margit Heppenstall and Des. What was Bill thinking? In the comments following the article, Gill Ford says it was “a joke between friends,” Milton Hook calls it “banter,” Norman Young comments it was “obviously facetious,” and Angus McPhee reminds us of an expression often used by Des: “50% of what I say is wrong, but I don’t know which 50%.” My email has worked over-time ever since!

Perhaps a few comments will help in explaining the socio-organizational aspects of the South Pacific Division (SPD), known as the Australasian Division until 1985. The bulk of SPD’s current membership is to be found in the south Pacific island territories, with the homelands of Australia and New Zealand having around 100,000 church members (about the same size as the Columbia Union Conference). There are nine conferences in Australia and two in New Zealand. Historically, annual camp meeting in each of these conferences was a big event. Church members typically enjoyed listening to the key evangelists of the day hold a series of meetings, or at least speak on the two Sabbaths which bookended a camp meeting session. Each evangelist developed a certain following and was treated with a degree of deference. After the early 1960s, when Des Ford had returned from study leave and was now chair of Theology at Avondale College, he rapidly became a preferred camp meeting speaker requested by most conferences. With his emphasis on the Gospel and the personal assurance of salvation by faith, the evangelists were quickly relegated to the side line. Ford had extracted a new message of hope and joy from within traditional Adventism. The aging evangelists were no match for this youthful, engaging preacher. “Dead Men Do Tell Tales” had run its course!

Overtime, jealousies arose and, combined with the perfectionist controversy, the Adventist church in Australia and New Zealand embarked on what has been dubbed “The Righteousness by Faith” era. For many of us in the homelands, and for denominational workers in the south Pacific island territories, the 1960s and 1970s were exciting days to be Adventist. Yet, there was conflict. The lines were drawn, and it was difficult to remain neutral. You were either in the legalist camp (traditional Adventism, active or stultified) or part of the grace team (believing in salvation by faith, and not works). I was a boarding school administrator at the time and, on one afternoon, I stopped a student with suitcase in hand from getting into a taxi to go home. Why? Because he could not see himself achieving perfection of character as promoted by one of his teachers. One conference president reported to a union committee after attending an inter-denominational association for all clergy in Melbourne. One of his peers from another denomination said, “Ken, I envy you with your church controversy. At least you have members who are reading Scripture and asking questions.” Unfortunately, if you were an Adventist in some parts of Australia or New Zealand, and you asked too many questions, you could be censored. It all seems so long ago now, but it was that intense. We even nick-named one rigid administrator as the Ayatollah.

The challenge during these years was understanding the biblical meaning of the Gospel, and all its implications for living Adventism until Jesus came. To be sure, there were doctrinal issues and matters of prophecy called into question, but the greatest need of church members was a closer walk with Jesus. Where was the joy, the dynamism, in being Adventist and the promise of finding the “abundant life”? The answer was to be found at Avondale College, which had a plethora of talented lecturers/professors in numerous disciplines, but there was none better than Desmond Ford to expound upon salvation by faith. Here was new synergy and it was eagerly embraced, but not by all. The discord between the Concerned Brethren (CBs) promoting traditional Adventism and the grace team continued. A change of SPD administration occurred in 1975 and, suddenly, the CBs gained a foothold of power and influence over senior leadership. It became intense, and in 1977, Des Ford and family were transferred to Pacific Union College for a brief interval, or that is how the story went.

What followed the PUC Forum meeting to Glacier View is commonly known by Adventists. What is less known is that Aussies and Kiwis made Des Ford our hero. Compared to the size and grandeur of the North American Division, SPD lacked a plethora of preachers like Des Ford. He was one of a kind. He was personable, he smiled and readily spoke to all who approached him. He emphasized the need to care for the whole person and healthful living was modeled by him as he walked or jogged visibly on camp grounds, or wherever he found himself. Often, if you wanted to talk with him, you walked and tried to keep up. He was gracious and he always enjoyed a good laugh. Once in his Life and Teachings class, there was discussion on temptation when an overly zealous theo student came back with a slightly misguided quote from Mathew 5:30 and he called out, “As Scripture says, ‘If it offends you, cut it off!’” In an instant, the 60-some students in the lecture theater and their professor dissolved into laughter. I have never seen Des Ford laugh so much and so heartily. Honestly, Bill Johnsson, what were you thinking in not recognizing the banter in the exchange with Margit Heppenstall?

In the mid-1980s, I was at the University of Maryland pursuing my PhD. I worked part-time at Columbia Union College. Here I came across the final throes of perfectionism as promulgated by Australian Colin Standish. I became friends with Richard Fredericks who had made the journey from perfectionism under Colin Standish’s tutelage to an understanding of righteousness by faith under Des Ford. Like Des, Richard had a presence which attracted members and non-members to his preaching. Eventually, Richard decided to depart the ranks of Adventism and established a non-denominational church with a sustainable congregation even to this day.

In 1994, I went back to Columbia Union College as academic dean and I bought Bob Spangler’s home, which was next door to Neal Wilson. For almost five years, I shoveled snow and raked leaves with my new neighbor. We talked and talked, or I should say, Neal talked and I listened. There have been so many comments written over what he did or did not do and knew or did not know. Suffice to say, I valued Neal. He was the consummate politician. He knew where I was coming from and I do believe him when he said he had hoped for a better outcome at Glacier View. This may have been his wish, but it was not in favor of Des Ford. To this day, I believe the two senior officers of SPD and the GC had made the decision on Des Ford before Glacier View. I cannot prove this, but I believe it. (How I would like to see archival correspondence by SPD and the GC on the matter.)

I have written enough! It is good to reflect on the fact that we all are God’s children. (May Bill Johnsson forgive me if I have been too harsh.) Des survived the ire of the brethren better than anyone I know. His stock standard answer for those who suggested retribution was clear and final: there’s no good to come of it! He wasn’t arrogant in any shape or form. He was convicted that the time had come to speak up after seasoned leaders and scholars had talked to him since the 1950s about the need to correct Adventist doctrine. He was nudged by many to pressure Adventism to address its skeletons. It was a pity his case was caught up in a sordid witch hunt pressuring for his defrocking. We can only hope that the precepts of professional human resource management and good organizational behavioral practice are inculcated more urgently into the operation of global Adventism. How different this saga might have been!

As Bob Parr, the legendary editor of the Australasian Record and close friend of Des Ford, would say on the back page of the weekly divisional paper, “Finally Brethren.” In other words, one more thing: After Glacier View, church leadership did what all organizations do after a controversy, they tightened their control. At a workers’ meeting in one conference in Australia, a union ministerial leader was conducting a workshop. He went on about the Des Ford controversy and he warned fellow pastors to beware of church members speaking about “cheap grace.” He continued until one pastor could take it no longer and spoke up and said, “Excuse me, Pastor, it’s not cheap grace, it’s free!”

Desmond Ford taught us that! If he has no other legacy, that is enough.

Lyn Bartlett has been an educational administrator for over 40 years; 34 in Adventist education. Now semi-retired, Lyn writes from Charlotte, North Carolina. He has a novel being launched in April. Email him at lynraybartlett@gmail.com

Image courtesy of the Desmond Ford Facebook page.

Further Reading:

Reflections on My Time at Avondale under Des Ford by W. John Hackwell

Dr. Desmond Ford Passes to His Rest by Alisa Williams

Des Ford: The Perils of Being Right by William G. Johnsson

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9504
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Following Glacier View, The Southern Union held a constituency meeting in which Neal Wilson presided. Early on they had a number of subcommittees, one of which was on the leadership at Southern Misdionary Of Erich I was a member of the Board. The majority wrote the report without noting my exception that there needed a correction in the Department of religion. Before the vote was called I asked for the floor which was granted. I told the story of the worker at a cotton mill who prided himself on not contributing to United Way. A new comtroler made a vow to get 100 Percent contributors… When it vpcame this man’s turn. He boasted never. At the meeting the comptroller put two papers into front of the worker and said One is a pledge to United Way the other is your resignation. I don’t care which one you sign but you will sign one.The man signed and left. As he came out his friends asked—Did you sign up for United Way.He said yes. they asked Why.? he said no one had ever explained United Way the way he did. I said this committee report is asking for an ultimatum without knowledge of theology. I strongly suggest it be rejected.Neal smiled and called for the vote, which gave him the support he needed for his intent to purge. of course I resigned my position on the Board and my membership as an elder and my membership in the church. As a board member of the Augusta United Way I was invited to teach a Sunday School class at Saint Johns Baptist Church later at St Marks Methodist Church and finally at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church were Betty and I found a Gospel Pastor and a Church home.,

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As a student at Avondale College at the time Lyn is writing about I can agree with whit he has to say about Des Ford’s teaching and the way most students appreciated his message about salvation. I would correct Lyn on his illustration about the over zealous theo student’s misguided quote story. The event Lyn describes didn’t occur in one of Des Ford’s lectures but in a Psychology unit common to a number of degree courses which was being taken by Colin Standish. This lecture was talking about possible aberrations of various human drives, including the sex drive. I happen to be sitting next to the theology student who was from New Zealand at the time he made this comment. He genuinely believed that the Bible had an answer to this deviance. His comment left the class initially gobsmacked, Colin Standish included, before we all were convulsed with laughter. In some later lectures he came out with a number of other gems of a similar genre but it was this one that entered the folk lore of Avondale.

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Touche, David. Time can obviously play tricks on memories. Several of us were reliving College Daze recently and General Psychology had becomes Life and Teachings. Thank you for the correction. The point relating to Des Ford is that many of us saw him enjoy a joke and laugh heartily. Did Colin? Clearly, I forget. I did spend a day at Hartland in 2012 and now Colin rests in peace. Blessings.

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As somebody from the South Pacific Division - I resonate strongly with what Lyn has shared. I enjoyed and was inspired by doing four years of Theology under Des. He lived his Christianity.

If I was asked who modeled Christianity the best at College - Des would have to be near the top.

If I was asked who modeled Christianity through out the Glacier View saga - Des would again be at the top.

If I were asked who has modeled Christian grace and forgiveness in the almost forty years since Glacier View - I would have to say that Des has shown that far better than my church has.

What a legacy!

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Thanks Lyn for responsibly fleshing out some more of the local context as it pertains to Des’s story…

Phil van der Klift
(Australia)

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Good to hear from you again Lyn. Whole heartedly agree with you that Des enjoyed a good joke. During a stint of lecturing at Avondale I just happen to be there when Des’ dismissal came up. It was quite fascinating to listen to leaders from the Division and the then TAUC explain why. I also took some reasonably extensive minutes of that meeting.

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Actually I can recall Des using that joke in 1976 in a New Testament/DA class at Avondale, where he gave an example of someone doing their private worship by opening their bible to a random page and reading the text as their motivation for the day. But what they read has rather morbid so they turned to another random page and their eyes fell on the text ‘Go and do likewise’. Yes it was a good joke.

Des Ford’s memorial service will be conducted at the Avondale College church, this Sabbath afternoon, at 3 pm AEDT.

Yes, more than one Aussie/Kiwi perspective is needed on Des Ford. Perhaps my perspective may be valuable. My father’s family of orgin and Des’ family of origin both came from Townville, a tropical garrison city. Both families listened to Adventist evangelists. My grandfather, the former Anglican diocesean secretary to the Bishop used to heckle them. But my father, Raglan Rowntree Duff Marks and Des were the only one’s of their respective families to embrace the Adventist message. My father graduated from Avondale in 1931 and Des in 1950. By 1950 my oldest brother was a student at Avondale, the first of us seven siblings to graduate from Avondale. (Probably a record). I graduated in 1982, and had Des as my lecturer in early 1977. Each of my siblings, except my oldest sister, had Des as our lecturer, or in the case of my oldest brother as a friend and peer. We can all vouch for his positive influence in our lives. Our parents valued education, especially Adventist education. My brothers went on to graduate from Harvard, London and Toronto. My father’s cousin was Chancellor of the University of Tasmania. My mother’s brother-in-law was chancellor of the University of Western Australia.

Des and his Avondale colleagues did much to transform Avondale College from a bible college to become Australia’s premier Christian institution of higher learning.

From 1975 to 1980 my mother served on the Avondale College Board of Management. In 1980 she served on the SPD Executive. She retired in 1990 having attended the regular fortnightly or monthly Committee Meetings. During this time she was noted as a woman who would speak her mind and speak truth to power. During this time she contributed to the way both the Avondale College Board of Management and the SPD Executive Committee dealt with Des, first by sending him on exchange to Pacific Union College in 1977 and then in terminating his employment in 1980.

Meanwhile, my father was one of the twelve or so original concerned brethren. It is right to say that these men for the most part were composed of Adventist evangelists. All of them valued what may well be described as a traditional understanding of Adventist doctrine. It is certainly not correct to label them all perfectionists. More than one of them really had questions concerning the traditional Adventist doctrine of the fallen nature of Christ. One or two of them were qualified to research both Adventist theology and Protestant historical theology. These were the men who met regularly to lead the movement opposed to Des Ford’s theology of Righteousness by Faith, his understanding of the heavenly sanctuary and apocalyptic prophecy, his characterization of Ellen White and his theories concerning the age of the earth. These men were active from around 1973 into the 1980’s. They sent correspondence to the brethren in Wahroonga and in Washington DC. They distributed literature opposing what became known as the ‘New Theology.’

My older brother doesn’t tire of the ‘cut it off story.’ It was said by Graham Chick, no less.

I really do believe that Lyn Bartlett’s characterization of the Australasian Division’s leadership as opposed to Des Ford’s theology after 1975 is incorrect. Des went into exile to Angwin in 1977 with their full support. The brethren wanted the theological ferment in Australia and New Zealand to die down as it had reached fevour pitch. Pr Robert Frame, Australasian Division President in the early 1970’s had resigned in 1973 or 1974 because by his own admission he couldn’t handle the theological ferment. Pr Keith Parmenter replaced him and was supportive right up till October 1979 and the Forum meeting in Angwin.

Had Keith Parmenter and the Division personnel seen light in opposing Des Ford’s theology before that time, much anguish and loss may have been avoided. What made it tough both for Des and for the Division brethren was the fact of this theological backflip, which was achieved almost overnight. Before 1979 Des had always sought to minimize his divergence from mainstream Adventist doctrine. After October 1979 he abandoned all this. Keith Parmenter died prematurely as a direct result of the stress of the theological conflict. His widow, Heather is a grand old lady at 97. For some years she was a near neighbour of mine. She now resides in a nursing home and is doing a little poorly at the present.

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This whole Ford saga with the church’s allergy to honest discussion is a case study of the unreflective, militant irrationality on which religious dogmatism thrives. Christopher Hitchens must be turning in his grave.

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Speaking of Des Ford, Lyn Bartlett, wrote on March 25, 2019:

“Often, if you wanted to talk with him, you walked and tried to keep up. He was gracious and he always enjoyed a good laugh.”

Des was the “milk of magnesia” that the “theologically compacted” SDA church needed at a certain time. I told him that personally when I first met him at PUC many years ago. We laughed. To my surprise he remembered the compliment. Years later at a Bible conference he wisely reminded me of my illustration and said “not to expect a cure by just using laxatives”.

Des was an icon we need more like him!

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Dear Peter, your view of the Australasian Division’s actions at the time of Glacier View is quite out of touch. You have listened to one side and believed it because you disagree with Des on historicism. I am not interested in going on and on about this, just making the point that I believe your account is inaccurate.

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I am truly perplexed by your assertion that my view of the Australasian Division’s actions at the time of Glacier View are out of touch.

I had made no specific comment about the Division’s attitude to Des’ theology at Glacier View. I did suggest that up until the October 1979 PUC Forum meeting the Division was very much in support of Des’ theology.

Yes, I have expressed it badly. I meant from before Glacier View. But I disagree with almost everything you say because it comes from the viewpoint of the group(s) who hunted Des down, in a very malicious way. So much so that I don’t consider it worthwhile responding to you.

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Gill,

For the Record

It is almost 40 years since the Forum meeting at PUC. I will long treasure the gracious way Des engaged with my siblings and I through the years.

It is now round 30 years since I graduated with an MA (Religion) from Newbold College with a major in Systematic Theology. This gave me additional tools with which to examine my Adventist theological heritage. My theological convictions have matured through the years based on my own study. I have attempted to keep up to date with the best of mainstream Adventist theology.

The viewpoint of the ‘Concerned Brethren’ was very poorly represented by Lyn Bartlett as traditional Adventism/ perfectionism, which was opposed to grace.

I have often wondered what would have become of the Adventist movement had we accepted rather than rejected Des’ theological stances on a handful of our core pillar doctrines!

END OF DISCUSSION

You have added to the conversation, Peter, and probably this is a good factor. However, despite your recall of Mother’s committee work, you are patently incorrect if you push the line that SPD leadership supported Des Ford up until 1979. I was in Victoria during these years and it was before Twitter, cell phones or the Internet. Yet, news traveled fast and I was frequently around TAUC and Vic. conference people (thank God for leaders like SM Uttley, Claude Judd, Clive Barritt, Ken Low and many more) and the Signs Editor was a close colleague (Des and Gill Ford adored Robert Parr, as did I). When does the conflict, the hurt, the pain and the alienation caused by the caring church stop? After 50 years of conflict over understanding the Gospel, the reasonable role of EGW within Adventism, the Age of the Earth and WO, will it ever stop. Over these same 50 years Adventism has built bureaucracy at the expense of spirituality. I say enough is enough. I will not respond further!

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Not sure whether you or Spectrum put in END OF DISCUSSION. But here’s my rejoinder. We all attest to the sincerity and the great character of your family, including yourself, Peter. There is no intent to sully the Marks name—we admire(d) them all. I have no doubt you are sincere. I am just saying you live in a very different stratosphere to us. Des was hunted down systematically with furtive behind-the-scenes tactics. You aren’t going to comment, but you cannot explain, as the brethren at the top could not understand, why the scholar’s consensus statements at Glacier View went in a dozen points towards Des’s position. Of these seven were key. Larry Geraty used the same statistics. The problems that Des raised were well known among the scholars. He was not an innovator. The way PREXAD handled this (Des’s acknowledgment of the consensuses) was to say it was all in his mind. They used the ten point statement to fire him which only compared his views to the traditional view and did not engage with his arguments. The Concerned Brethren and the Standish Brothers hounded Des until they got him. On the Concerned Brethren’s side it was about Turkey being the King of the North, Des not being hard enough on the Catholics, a literal Armageddon, a literal two-apartment sanctuary in heaven. For the Standishes it was the sinful nature of Christ, perfection in this life—a bald works righteousness, also not accepted by the mainstream church. They got Des on 1844, a doctrine that a number of his Bible teachers at the SDA university at Washington did not believe in the 1950s. And many do not believe now. There has been an outpouring of love for Des because of his teaching and preaching of the gospel and the witness of his life. It’s been going on for years. Des (and others) did change the church to focus more on Christ.

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I wrote ‘END OF DISCUSSION.’ That was my offer to you.

Gil,
Thanks for your kind regard for our family and me. I appreciate it so much.

I have no wisdom to offer as far as the details and outcome of Glacier View beyond believing that it would have been good for everyone concerned if things had happened differently. I am on record as saying this previously on this blog.

And I want to live in a different theological stratosphere from you. I want to believe in the evangelistic and the nurturing value of apocalyptic prophecy. It provides the big picture for the gospel of the kingdom. My parents taught me well to question the wisdom of detailed outlines of the end-times. My parents taught me to eschew any breed of date-setting.

As much as you dislike Des’ theology to be misrepresented, I dislike it when others misrepresent the beliefs of the ‘Concerned Brethren.’ I never heard talk of Turkey being King of the North, or of a literal Armageddon from these men. [The head elder of our congregation believes in a literal Armageddon. I find this dfficult to stomach]. I believe they had got beyond this. Yes, they did wish to be real and straight forward Protestants in their theology. All of them believe in a literal heavenly temple, as do I. Many of the ‘Concerned Brethren’ did believe in a literal two-apartment sanctuary in heaven. I would be surprised if Frank Breaden did!

Yes, Des did change the church to focus more on Christ. I wish you and your family peace and love as you attend the memorial service tomorrow afternoon. I wish the venue had not changed.

Ah…, when we detect this kind of things happening… that is usually the end of any interaction, isn’t it? I understand very well your dismissal of further interaction with people who apparently were not totally transparent or intellectually honest in the past. I also had to deal with some of them in the past.

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Peter,
Some of us older Adventist remember evangelist slide shows from the 50’s well into the 70 's showing tanks aligned for battle among nations.
The concerned brethren, I suggest, real concern was to save face on the sure word of prophecy which was not so certain. To challenge it was a direct challenge to them and their view that must not prevail.