In the summer of 1973, at the urging of Gordon Hyde, Director of the Biblical Research Institute, the President’s Executive Advisory Committee approved plans for a select committee to meet for the purpose of “giving through and adequate study to the role of women in the church organization.” This meeting convened at Camp Mohaven in Danville, Ohio on September 16, 1973.
I believe the Mohaven Conference, as it came to be known, was a significant event in the history of the Adventist church. Church news coverage regarding this event thirty-seven years ago was minimal and today even its name has little or no recognition.
In order to understand what occurred there, it is necessary to know what was happening in the years prior to and leading up to this conference; what were the issues and concerns facing the world at large and in the Adventist church in particular. The twenty-six papers prepared for and delivered at Mohaven were not written in a vacuum.
The Nation and Society
The decade of the 1960’s was momentous, especially for women. For me personally, it was the decade I graduated from college, got married, entered the work force and birthed my children, not necessarily in that order. In the early 60’s as I searched for my first job, the want ads in the paper were labeled, “help wanted, male”, “help wanted, female”, “help wanted colored male” and “help wanted colored female.” Applications for work were not accepted nor interviews granted based on education, experience or ability but only on the basis of one’s racial and gender identity.
I well remember the national debate on the l964 Civil Rights Act. Thinking to derail passage, a certain Southern senator proposed adding three additional letters to the legislation. Jokes were rampant regarding unisex bathrooms and women in the military. Nevertheless, prohibiting discrimination on the basis on sex became law.
In 1966 the National Organization of Women (NOW) was organized bringing women’s issues to the forefront. In l968 President Johnson issued an executive order prohibiting sex discrimination in hiring and extending affirmative action for women.
In 1971 the 26th amendment passed lowering the voting age to 18 and in 1972 the Equal Educational Act prohibited sex discrimination in educational programs that received federal funding - a recognized contributing factor to the gold medals won by women in the 1984 Olympic games!
TIME magazine did a special issue on women in 1972. At that time women were earning 58 cents for every dollar earned by a man. There were no women on the Supreme Court or in the President’s Cabinet. There were still only postmen, no mail carriers, only policemen, no police officers. The only presence of women in the board rooms and the corner offices of major corporations and fortune 500 companies was in the role of secretary or cleaning lady.
In January of 1973 the Vietnam War ended. That spring the Supreme Court banned Help Wanted Ads from sex discrimination and upheld Roe vs. Wade which in effect legalized abortion in the United States.
This was also the year that NOW created a task force which began a national campaign to redefine the laws regarding rape. Up until then rape had largely been a misdemeanor offence, seldom prosecuted and lightly sentenced. State by state, NOW worked to change laws to make rape a felony offence. Rape hotlines were starting to be set up around the county and Rape Crisis Centers established. However, centers for battered women were still in the planning stage.
By the summer of 1973 the Equal Rights Amendment had been ratified by 30 states. The Watergate scandal was making headlines. California passed the first ‘No Fault’ divorce law – giving women the right to file for divorce without having to prove that her spouse had committed adultery. College courses were being offered in Women’s Studies. The world was rapidly changing.
For The Christian Church at large it was tumultuous times.
The 60’s saw the rise of the Charismatic Movement spreading across all denominational lines. On the streets were the Jesus Freaks, peaceniks, Moonies and hippies. People were journeying to the East to seek enlightenment from gurus. Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues were welcoming women into their seminaries and their pulpits. Vatican II, called by Pope John XXIII in 1960, was a five year convocation that totally turned around the Catholic Church. Catholic women religious were given permission to wear street clothing and assume professional positions outside of their convents. Both Catholic and Protestant women were asking for, and in many cases receiving, a greater role in the governance and administration of their churches.
The SDA Church
The second half of the twentieth century saw the Seventh-day Adventist church coming of age. In the 1950’s the church published its own Bible Commentary. Adventist Colleges were attaining accreditation to offer advanced degrees and were even considering applying for university status. Adventist teachers and professors were receiving graduate and doctorial degrees from schools outside of the denomination. The cult status was receding and the church was gaining respectability. Membership numbers worldwide were growing exponentially.
Following the close of World War II, Adventist women in Finland began serving as church pastors and filling ministerial positions. In 1968 the leadership in Finland urged ordination for several of these women and sent an official request to the Autumn Council that year. A committee of three was appointed to study the issue but it never met. Its chairman, H.W. Lowe, did issue a preliminary report based on his own study. He outlined the church’s long history of using women in leadership positions and alluded to the fact that the General Conference had already voted in 1881 to ordain women who had been trained and were serving in a ministerial capacity.
In 1969 Spectrum Magazine, a journal originally conceived to connect university educated Adventists, made its debut. One significant contribution during its early years was the publication of the minutes from the 1919 Bible Conference on the nature of inspiration and use of Ellen White’s writings. For a generation of Adventists educated with a literal, fundamental approach both to Scripture and Ellen White this was a groundbreaking article that opened the door for a more critical look at scriptural admonitions on the role of women.
In 1972, the Potomac Conference, with approval from the Columbia Union, ordained a woman elder at the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland. Then in early 1973 requests came in to the General Conference from both Germany and the Far Eastern Division requesting permission to ordain women who were then serving in pastoral positions.
The 1972 summer issue of Spectrum Magazine featured an article by Leona G. Running on The Status and Role of Women in the Adventist Church. In that article Dr. Running prophetically wrote, “Someday the government will probably force the church to give women across-the-board equality of remuneration and opportunities.” Then she pleaded, “For once let the church organization do the good and right thing before the government says it has to!”
That “someday” came much sooner than many in leadership expected.
In January of 1973, Merikay McCloud Silver filed a Class Action Law Suit charging the Pacific Press with violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ms. Silver had been denied a request for head of household allowance which she was told was available only to men. There is nothing like a good lawsuit to start a fire under people! While it would take ten years before the suit would finally be settled in favor of the plaintiff, it no doubt did help precipitate the request for and approval of the Mohaven conference.
Sadly, in 2010, as memories of the Mohaven Conference slowly recede in people’s memories, the role of women in the Adventist church has yet to be resolved.
To be continued.
- Bert Haloviak, “The Long Road to Mohaven.” The Adventist Woman. Publication of the Association of Adventist Women, Vol. 12. Sept/Oct 1993. Page 2
- In 1990, I chaired a committee to honor the first women in our county to be a Probation Officer, Correctional Officer, Police Officer, Country Judge, State’s Attorney, etc. and discovered that there had been no women in any of these positions prior to 1980 and that most of these “firsts” were still employed in these positions.
- Haloviak, Ibid. page 1
- “Minutes from the Business Proceedings.” The Review and Herald. Battle Creek, Michigan. Dec 20, 1881. Vol. 58, #25
- Haloviak, Ibid. page 2
- Leona G. Running, “The Status and Role of Women in the Adventist Church.” Spectrum. The Association of Adventist Forums. Summer 1972. Page 60.
- Malcom Bull; Keith Lockhart. Seeking a Sanctuary – Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream. Indiana University Press. Bloomington and Indianapolis. 2007. Page 268.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2727