Stopping by After Forty Years — Part 1

“Dr. Heartwell”

When I learned last winter that Desmond Ford died, I wanted to find some place to pay my respects. So I wandered over to Spectrum. Reflecting on Dr. Ford’s life and ministry led me to think about my own experience in the Seventh-day Adventist world, and since. This is my modest effort to account for my teaching and thinking from when I first encountered the SDA world, and on to the present.

Over the past forty years I’ve had occasional contact with some whom I knew for the fifteen or so years I was more directly involved in the SDA experience. But I have not followed the SDA church since that time, and I have not engaged with any of the off-to-the-side ministries/groups who have themselves oriented their existence to their belief that the Mother Ship needs fixing, or offended souls who have had negative experiences with Mother and whose testimonies are intended as a warning to others.

My thinking is in three parts. First, to socially locate myself I offer a bit of my history within the SDA church, and how my experience evolved off to the side, and then afterward from my departure to the present. Here are stories of how I encountered SDA leadership and others. I didn’t find Adventism to be one thing.

Second, I wish to share something of Bowen theory, the theoretical framework that’s informed my thinking and practice (personal and professional) for the past thirty-plus years. Here is how I engage my own family system, clients, professionals, and colleagues around how I use systems theory to inform theology and biblical studies. This occurred after my SDA-related experiences were behind me. As readers engage this part of my history, perhaps some may understand why I have found this useful over time, and why it might be useful with thought leaders in the SDA community.

Third, I want to share how I approach scripture and faith, and then wrap everything around to the beginning.

When my Air Force enlistment ended (1964), and because of my experience in USAF Security Service (of which more some other time), I carried with me a sense that I would in time find an important enough cause to serve, a person to love, and a people to do it with. I found the SDA Church and Sara about the same time (okay, the Adventists I first met were aligned with Bob Brinsmead, so there was that). Throughout the 1960s, my SDA experience was deeply informed by those who believed the SDA framework mattered, and deeply so. Mine was not a trivial investment. I’m not good at trivial.

SDA experiences 1965-1980

The seeds of how I would leave SDA connections (late 1970s) were sown in the manner of how I entered (around 1965), and a whole constellation of events that occurred in that fifteen-year interval. This is a story of dissent (not personalizing it to me alone), of reflecting on a process of how differences were brokered between thoughtful — and sometimes not so thoughtful — lay-persons, clergy-types, and church authorities.

I came into the SDA Church in the mid-1960s through the influence of two kind and thoughtful SDA women who helped my mother. As it happened, both were energized by Robert Brinsmead’s Sanctuary Awakening message, a framework that deeply informed how they led Bible studies with our family. I became a Seventh-day Adventist in 1965. Entering Atlantic Union College January 1966 (I met Mark Finley there), I was soon warned that Brinsmead’s name was not to be uttered casually. At AUC I spent time mostly with seniors, some of whom wondered aloud how Bob Brinsmead’s influence could have possibly facilitated my joining the SDA Church.

I moved to Redlands, California in May 1966, and spent the next school year (1966-67) at La Sierra College (and there I believe I met Monte Sahlin). Sara and I married December 1966. At LSC it was my good fortune to learn Greek from Madelyn Haldeman. During the summers of 1966 and 1967 I worked as an orderly in the operating room suite of Loma Linda University Hospital, learning well from the OR Supervisor Maxine Darling, a truly fine professional. When OR cleanup or autoclave instrument sterilization tasks were slow, I sometimes watched Dr. Ellsworth Wareham’s team performing thoracic surgery, and pioneering open heart procedures.

In the summer of 1967, when the new hospital was just up and running, I remember meeting “Dr. Heartwell” when I returned a patient to her med/surg room from surgical recovery. Arriving at her room, I noticed this patient in distress. I alerted the desk, and a floor nurse calmly announced over the PA system: “Dr. Heartwell, room xxx.” This was how key emergency staff and a crash cart were sent racing to a problem. That patient was in her late 20s, and some day she would die. But she would not die that day. Because, Dr. Heartwell.

My wife and I returned to New York State in the fall of 1967, eventually moving to Canton, New York to raise our growing family in a rural environment. By 1970 my membership transfer got lost in the ether (being labeled a “Brinsmead” was all that was needed in New York Conference to complicate one’s SDA experience) and I was no longer a member, though I stayed within the echoes of SDA culture, but at arms-length.

Over Labor Day 1974 a few of us put together a long-weekend Bible conference at Labrador Mountain ski lodge in Central New York State. Around 150 gathered for study, music, good food, and fellowship. When we returned home, we learned that three families (mine was on that list) who regularly met with the Canton SDA Church were forbidden to attend any longer because of our “unauthorized” activities. That decision came from the then-Conference President and caused great distress for the local pastor who had to enforce the matter. The congregation predictably split. For a short time after that we met in a home.

In November 1974 a patron of Henry Foote’s natural foods store in Canton (Henry’s family was one of the three forbidden to attend) came in one day, wondering if Henry knew anyone who might like a church, to use and to have, and she handed him the keys for a very rural old church, in the hamlet of South Russell, that she had been using in recent years for children’s Sunday School activities.

As it happened (I could not make this up) the church building was erected by Seventh-day Adventists in 1892 (and used by SDAs until 1922). It was a single-story wood clapboard structure, with a vaulted roof, an off-to-the-side bell tower, a pump organ and a piano, and oak pews and pulpit. We met there every Saturday from 1975 until maybe 1983. Our congregation used the then-current SDA Hymnal, and Ellen White material was common. Henry Foote led services in rotation with others, ending only when he and his family moved out of Northern New York in 1977. Sometimes on summer Sabbath days, after the service, we would share a picnic lunch on the lawn, next to tall conifers and a wrought iron fence that bordered the cemetery. In the oldest part of the South Russell cemetery were the graves of SDA families from the 19th and very early 20th century.

When I wasn’t on the road, I led services and taught what I’d been learning as a researcher for Present Truth/Verdict. Local Christians who otherwise met on Sunday in their own churches often met with us on Saturday. Worship-leading was shared among those of us to put this project together, and our church became a nurturing environment for leadership growth for women and men, without distinction. One day an entire home fellowship of The Church of God (Seventh Day) showed up, and stayed.

I am a lifelong student and reader, and early on I sought everything I could find in print from the pen of Ellen White. Her writings were a major influence in my early years within the SDA community. Even after Bob Brinsmead moved away from the Sanctuary Awakening message towards the Protestant Reformation’s framework of justification by grace through faith (1971), many of us still wove Ellen White material into scriptural teaching and understanding (although she herself never emphasized the Protestant Reformation’s central message in any disciplined way). Throughout the 1970s, however, we shifted away from using Ellen White materials. Later we learned that her pen was routinely dipped in other people’s inkwells. When I handed off my large Ellen White collection to a self-supporting school in New England (early 1980s), SDA cultural benefits could not negate the theological and intellectual challenges I witnessed regarding how the SDA denomination handled dissent. SDA leaders seemed to want an audience rather than a conversation. In common with other fundamentalists, SDA leadership seemed allergic to questions.

I worked with Bob Brinsmead’s Present Truth/Verdict from 1975 until about 1979. My intellectual curiosity served us well, though I believe David McMahon in Australia was a more disciplined researcher than I was. (David died July 2019, his life ended as he was preparing for a PhD in Egyptology.) No matter. We all shared a common vision, living inside our ever-expanding collective sense of the New Testament’s gospel as we then understood it. Present Truth had about one hundred thousand readers in 1975, with maybe a quarter clergy or clergy types. That year the Fallbrook, California office sometimes received over two hundred letters a day. Bob Brinsmead told us then that Edward Heppenstall shared with him that Present Truth was perhaps the most influential instrument in the SDA community at the time.

My work led me to gather many hundreds of books and articles in theology and biblical studies. We subscribed to over one hundred English-language journals of theology and biblical studies from all over the world. And at five cents a page I spent perhaps three thousand dollars duplicating materials at a local university’s library copy machine (St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York) and on the road. University inter-library loan was my friend.

I traveled a lot, to seminary and university bookstores, and to meet with theologians and academics on matters of interest to PT/V. Also, I organized speaking itineraries for Bob Brinsmead, and conference gatherings for weekend and longer events. Geoffrey Paxton and I traveled for five weeks together in 1977 as he engaged enthusiastic SDA student audiences and others around The Shaking of Adventism. Towards the end of that itinerary we met with Des and Gillian Ford. Geoff was a gifted and thoughtful man whose engaging humor resonated with his audiences. Somehow he knew when playfulness mattered more than seriousness.

My last responsibility with Verdict involved extensive background research that culminated in Brinsmead’s (1979) 1844 Re-Examined. Around that same time, many of us watched from a distance as Walter Rea was rubbished by The Brethren for his compelling evidence of Ellen White’s unacknowledged literary borrowings. Desmond Ford’s experience at Glacier View didn’t go well, and of course Brinsmead himself was forever toxic. The intellectual dishonesty demonstrated by church leaders toward responsible dissenting voices was duly noted by thoughtful pastors and laity, triggering what I believe was a substantial brain drain from the denomination (even this might be an understatement).

A brief word about what I’ll call “The Cookie.” The proto-SDA Shut Door experience (1844-1851) was predicated on a deeply-held belief that a little flock remnant were especially chosen, and those who rejected the message were not, for the door of probation was shut in 1844. This small group of believers held what I’ll call The Cookie, the unshakable conviction that there was a door, a shut door, between the saved and the lost, and they were on the right side of that door. The remnant had The Cookie. Leaving aside details of the rationalizations that facilitated the transition in little flock thinking around 1851, about the earthly sanctuary in the wilderness being a “type” of a heavenly sanctuary (without a typological, proof-texting hermeneutic, this ideological transition could not have happened), what survived was a deeply-held belief in a sanctuary message and the Sabbath as a sign and seal of this people’s specialness. Remnant thinking was baked into my early SDA experience, which was something that to my knowledge colored and textured the mindset of not only every denominational publication but also every so-called self-supporting community.

So, what was it that allowed me and many of my friends and colleagues to move away from the pervasive influence of the “having-the-Cookie” mindset? How did I and others properly leave Adventism? Well, it wasn’t Bob Brinsmead. And it wasn’t strictly my work that stood back of Brinsmead’s 1844 Re-Examined (I spent three months gathering and organizing the materials Bob used to write his missive), although that was certainly one historical nail in the coffin for me. Importantly, my departure was informed by my broad and deep 1970’s work with contemporary and historic theology and biblical studies. SDA ideological roots were not really derived from theology but from the Little Flock’s Biblicist orientation. Those narrow, proof-texting foundational experiences set the stage for what was possible going forward. As The Brethren in the 1980s circled their wagons around 27 propositions, my world was expanding. I studied the emerging world of social-scientific scholarship (that importantly opened up and popularized new ways to understand the world of 1st century CE Christ-followers and their Judean forerunners), and other influences. Many social connections with SDAs survived the transition. Some did not. But I did not move to the fringes of Adventism, to live with those who continued to orient their faith around efforts to re-direct the Mother Ship.

I served three congregations as pastor in the 1980s, eventually earning a Master of Divinity degree from Queen’s Theological College, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada (a seminary of the United Church of Canada). While it was a degree for what I was getting out of, it deeply informed my personal and professional life in lasting ways. For a time in the early- to mid-1990s I provided pulpit supply for mainline Protestant congregations in Northern New York State. I suspect I’ve preached a thousand sermons in forty congregations over my lifetime, the last in 2012.

Since 1992 I have worked as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York State, in private practice for the past twenty years. Over the past thirty years, from Oregon to Connecticut, I’ve led training events and seminars with senior and mid-level professionals in human services, social services, public and parochial school systems, law enforcement, and clergy and lay religious audiences, teaching how systems theory informs one’s understanding of family and organizational leadership and why that matters to their respective personal and professional worlds.

In Part 2, I open up the family systems theory framework that has informed my personal and professional life since I discovered it in 1986. In Part 3, I explain how I engage scripture, and how I understand the ancient peoples on whose shoulders all Christians stand. I shall also revisit the SDA world of forty years ago as I experienced it, and share how I now look back on shared experiences of fear, reactivity, hope, and courage.

Look for Part 2 on December 11 and Part 3 on December 13.

Douglas Ort is a private-practice Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York State. He earned a Master of Divinity degree at Queen’s Theological College, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, a seminary of the United Church of Canada. In the 1970s he was Research Editor for Robert Brinsmead’s Present Truth/Verdict. His over thirty years of study and practice of Bowen family systems theory, combined with his life-long disciplined study of theology and biblical studies, provides him a unique perspective as a counselor and as a teacher with professional and lay audiences over the past thirty years and more.

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

On an icy weekend in 1978 my husband and I visited the Orts in New York state. Enjoyed our time there in Bible studies and discussions. My whole religious experience, from the time I was a toddler, had taken place inside the SDA church. My father is still very committed to the SDA belief system. It is with great interest I read now about Douglas Ort’s experience with Seventh-Day Adventism, and what has been engaging his fine mind for the past 40 years.

My first husband and I did not stay members of the SDA church. We went in different directions philosophically. His interest focused on extra-sensory and occult studies. Eventually we parted company.

Then I met another Present Truth/Verdict reader (he also helped publish it) who became my husband, and we explored the literature on Dead Sea Scrolls to the point of questioning the validity of all religious scriptures.

Eventually scientific thinkers such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins persuaded us to consider the concrete evidence all around us. “Come let us reason together,” was the motto in Present Truth/Verdict. My late husband and I eventually and together dispensed with Christian beliefs.

The SDA church had always discouraged reading any literature outside that published by the church. Thankfully Robert Brinsmead and Desmond Ford and others like them suggested we do otherwise.


I appreciate your taking the time to write this series for us. On this site we have lost those who’s personal stories and experiences in Adventism during crucial periods are now gone. Thank-you for sharing what your spiritual and religious journey has been. I look forward to hearing more.


Thank you Douglas Ort for such a fantastic article. Another Mental Health professional bringing good stuff to Spectrum. :wink:

YES! Many memories just surfaced as I read this article. WOW, yes, I remember reading Verdict, and of course, “1844 Re-visited.” And listening to Brinsmead’s cassete tapes. That was while I still lived in Brazil. Some time around 1980 I learned about Des Ford’s saga at Glacier View. I read his manuscript when it was published as a book. And that was an eye opener! Then I had to read so many other books as well, from Rea, Numbers, Paxton, and others. I remember the magazine Evangelica in which Smuts van Royen @Boksburg had several articles published (if I am not mistaken).

I remember translating Smuts’ articles, typing them myself, then making about 500 copies and mailing them. No wonder soon the Division secretary (Dr. Mario Veloso) landed at my home for a talk… :roll_eyes: The South America Division definitely wanted to block the spreading of information in that part of the world. I represented a threat to that endevour…

I miss Des. He was a strong pilar in my life, and he sustained my faith strong for many years, by mail! Then, when I moved to the US in 1989 I had the honor of meeting him several times. and keep in touch until the end. I hope Gill @gford1 is doing well.

Can’t wait to see the following articles being posted.


Hi Lynda and Spectrum readers

I had non-religious upbringing and was a 19yo university student when religious people (JWs) knocked on the door while my parents were out shopping one Saturday morning.This was the first time I had spoken to religious people. The following week I bought a Bible to read and started collecting info.

Not long after, just after I had gone to bed there was this palpable feeling of terrible danger in the room, which had also become freezing cold. I hardly dared to move, peering through my eye lashes. There was no sound, nothing to see. My parents were on the other side of the house watching tv.

I wasn’t in contact with religious people and had no idea what to do. However, I did know the Lord’s Prayer and that 7 was God’s number so I prayed the Lord’s Prayer seven times and went to sleep, while the demon went back to his drawing board. My theology was not quiet right, but God knew what I was trying to say. A few months later I came in contact with the SDA church via a letter box brochure. Strangely, my mum’s sister who was a not a church goer, but a bit religiously inclined, said to me, ‘Dene, did you know that Jesus gave us the example of baptism (she was thinking of sprinkling)?’. This went off like a flash bomb in my head. I knew I had to get baptised (by immersion), which meant joining a church. When I got home I rang the SDA pastor and said that I wanted to be baptised. I had no problems with anything I knew of Adventism.

While having Bible studies the pastor quoted Jesus as saying, ‘I and the Father are One.’ I was astounded. The little baby in the manger I had seen on Christmas cards for 19 years was God in the flesh! I had always been a big fan of dinosaurs so the creation/evolution issue was a serious concern for me. I settled the issue by going up to the biology level of the university library and going through every book on the shelves in one go. What I saw left no doubt that evolution had no legs to stand on. In fact it was dependent on people not knowing what the Bible actually said, as distinct from what the churches said.

In regards to EGW when the pastor mentioned her during the Bible studies I was initially skeptical. To me prophets belonged to the distant past. The pastor handed me The Great Controversy to read. As soon as I opened the book and started to read it I knew that EGW really was an inspired prophetess of God. I recognised the same spirit in her writings that had been leading me all along. I have noted that all the criticism of EGW has no basis in reality, based on either lack of reading comprehension skills and/or maybe the love of sin. I have had no problem with her writings at all.

Naturally the human’s running the church are faulty and often badly so. What we have today in Australia, Europe and North America is outright rebellion. If these ‘leaders’ and others don’t like SDA beliefs why don’t they just leave and join the multitude that are like them, instead of deviously trying to change the church?

I would urge you to wipe the board clean and start again. Read Steps to Christ and the Conflict of the Ages series plus do a beginners Bible study with Amazing Facts online or whatever. Get the simple faith for these days and be ready for the final events which the crazy things happening now are showing are very near. God be with you.

This article raises important points as regards to how as a church we have (mis)handled dissent among us. I believe that if you are right there is no need to be angry or defensive. Allowing someone to differ with you without being hot under the collar constitutes spiritual maturity.

I actually don’t think this article speaks to church leaders only. All of us struggle to understand someone who decides to go against the grain or majority opinion. I should know


I’m curious as to how Douglas will connect Bowen’s theory to a religious and SDA church setting.

Generally there’s “Don’t ask what church can do for you, but ask what you can do for your church” attitude that results in a lot of unfulfilled and disappointed people, and a revolving door for anyone who wasn’t raised with “loyalty over value” mentality. I’m not really sure how much it can be considered as “triangulation” as opposed to just plain separation with multi-generational implications for such separation.


Lynda, I can relate… not in marriage, but in some philosophical tangents that actually brought me back to church, since in my case I want from evangelical fundamentalism to atheistic agnosticism, and back to Christianity and eventually Adventist POV… perhaps not entirely from the traditional SDA perspective.

The fact that you are still here probably reflects on the idea that you are not far behind. Perhaps the biggest problem that I have with someone like Dawkins is the assumption that there is no teleological scope in which we can discuss reality. He is a materialist to the bones, and you can’t say anything otherwise to inject any philosophical nuance in his position. And it takes enormous amount of faith on his end to maintain, but it does simplify things. There’s no inherent need to connect consciousness to some transcendent context. It’s merely a fizz on top of our brain activity. Likewise, there’s no need to contextualize complex sociological progression of humanity that religion helped to build, especially in evolutionary scope of sublimating certain drives into a more productive and cooperative mindsets. He naively thinks that we don’t need religion for that, and people will just magically go along and harmonize with no inherent need to do that. And I tried to defend that position for quite a while, until I saw no coherent way of maintaining it beyond closing my eyes and ears and saying “lalalalala, you don’t have any evidence to the contrary, and evidence that you have is not the kind I’ll accept”.

I don’t think of Christianity as a scientific framework, but rather as a “baseline assumption toolkit” that allows us to explore possibilities that both, fit well in our present-day sociological scope, and can communicate transcendent ideals beyond oversimplified legal imperatives. And I think it integrates with complex philosophy quite well.

Of course, there’s also Buddhism that you can consider, but I don’t find it as coherent as certain take on Christianity that can integrate “who am I / What should I do / and why should I do it” questions. So, don’t give up. There’s more to explore beyond Dawkins.


I don’t want to compete, but my proposal is different:
"Wipe the board and start again. Read the Bible only, and plus, read the Bible only again and again."

My father read the Bible only, kept the Sabbath, never read EGW, didn’t go to church, never took a penny from others, helped others as he could. He never got any “Bible study” from others - he had his Bible… He was a much better, consistent Christian than the great majority of Christians that I know. And he knew very well those amazing facts written in the Bible - he learned them reading the Bible.

Sola Scriptura!


Hi Dene, regarding Doug Bachelor, does he support LGT - Last Generation Theology?

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I found William Lane Craig a help to me, when I reflected on the Bible and Christianity (e.g. in his Book “On Guard”). It’s not just his erudition but also his demeanor in debates and discussions that have really impressed me.

Is this a rhetorical question? :thinking:

Printed Bible Studies that are printed and broadcast like autumn
leaves, sometimes reveal the true beliefs of the author, but there are
times when they do not on the 1st introduction.
One sometimes has to WAIT for the 2nd series to come to
get a better understanding of the Author’s true beliefs.

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I believe that Doug is building his “School of Theology” in the
Central California Conference.


I think it’s more of a leading question :slight_smile:


For sure…he is! Not all that surprising is it?

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Of course, the “1st introduction” is most often a “teaser” meant to entice/scare/intrigue the reader into reading more. :wink:

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lol…same difference. :grin:

Not really. It’s more of a Y/N type of question that may never be answered… The traditional “check it out”… :wink: Always keeping an eye on LGTarianism… :laughing:

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I look forward to this series. Bowen’s Family Systems has been a useful tool for me as I observe and maneuver in life. I look forward to the next installment. Thank you.