The Tyranny of Precedence: Why the 1919 Bible Conference “Punted”

Precedence and tradition - we have always understood or done things a certain way - have caused otherwise well-educated and sincere adherents of the Bible and Ellen G White (EGW) to ignore anomalous ethics in these writings. Progress is an enemy of orthodoxy and takes place only when we question long established but flawed positions. Whether in metaphysics or empirical science, we must continually search for what’s better. Ongoing or periodic evaluation of assumptions happens as human understanding evolves. But in religious thought, there is a perception that what an earlier generation believed is forever true and should never be reimagined. This view is flawed and contradicted by the Bible itself.

Consider the five early Bible books, the Pentateuch, as an example. Who wrote them and when were they written? There is near universal acceptance by Christians, including most Adventists, that these books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - were written by Moses. We trace this belief to the Talmud and have dutifully transmitted it generationally to adherents of all three Abrahamic religions. Yet none of the books names an author. Like the gospels, attribution of authorship for the Pentateuch was a much later addition.

Even a casual comparative reading, particularly of Genesis and Deuteronomy, reveals too many contradictions to make a purely Mosaic authorship tenable. Deuteronomy, characterized mostly of speeches and actions of Moses at the cusp of the Promised Land, is written in the third person. We find no compelling reason for Moses to render his own speeches and actions in the third person or as past events. But this is precisely what the beginning of the narrative depicts: “East of the Jordan, in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying….” (1:5 NIV) Add to this the incredulity of Moses describing his own death ahead of time. Or the patently self-serving assessment by Moses while he was still alive concerning the aftermath of his death: “Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses.” (Deut. 34:10)

The sum total of the internal evidence for Deuteronomy is that someone other than Moses was recounting the Jewish experience with their God. And this someone is far removed from the events of his telling. This writer’s affirmation that no one alive at his writing knows where Moses was buried was his way of saying Moses had been dead a long time.

I’ll indulge a little aside.

(Our preachers and theologians know about these facts from their education and private reading. And yet they continue to pedal Mosaic authorship for these books. A lack of candor, in such “little” areas of biblical literacy by our spiritual leaders, creates mistrust about other biblical truth claims when our youth come of age and learn otherwise. It makes it easier for them to transition from believing the Bible in the same way as they come to disbelieve the existence of Santa Claus.)

But now back to Pentateuch authorship. If Moses did not write Deuteronomy, who did? As early as the 4th century CE, church father Jerome dismissed Mosaic authorship in favor of two exilic/post-exilic minor prophets – Ezra and Nehemiah. An attribution that still enjoys healthy consensus in OT scholarship. Situating the composing of Deuteronomy (and much of the Pentateuch plus a considerable number of OT writings) in the exilic/postexilic community has profound implications. Traditionally, many Christians, especially Evangelicals, have viewed the Pentateuch as lineal/chronological accounts of Israel’s history, documented in real time. And they rely on Mosaic authorship of these scriptures for unity and authenticity.

However, if this is not the case and the accounts we now have were filtered through the unique prism of Israel’s traumatic exilic period, and through the hands of countless redactors over many centuries, then that awareness has to be brought to the forefront of readers’ consciousness when we study the text. Because the context in which a group tells its story may impact how the story is told: what is emphasized, glossed over, invented or denied.

The question the exiled elites faced was both definitional and existential: Who are we? How “big” is our God? How did we end up in this predicament? And how do we reconstruct our story to present a hopeful future? If the texts that have come down to us were principally written from oral history or edited from extant rudimentary documents by characters immersed in the exilic/post-exilic communities, that could partly explain some content asymmetry in duplicate stories in OT narratives.

The blithe denial of obvious facts by church leaders was not limited to Bible times. A hundred years ago last year – fifty-six years after we incorporated as a denomination, and barely four years following the death of the church’s matriarch, co-founder and “prophet” – the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church convened a Bible conference in Washington, DC. At stake was the direction of the church, in particular several difficult doctrinal issues that were percolating in church circles to which our leaders had no convincing answers or common approach. Chief among the brewing concerns was the definition and contours of the prophetic role of the recently deceased EG White.

To a lesser extent, but comparable in importance to Israel’s exilic experience, the 1919 SDA Church at the time of the Bible Conference was at a similar crossroad. They sought to understand who they were, but this time the context was the Second Coming proclamation and Remnant identity. Many of the original church founders who anticipated the physical return of Jesus in their lifetimes were dead. And now, with the passing of the church’s “Deborah” and only a scant few of her contemporaries and confidants left, there was urgency to reassess what the church stood for.

Attending the six-week gathering were close associates of EGW who were also intimately aware of her unacknowledged indebtedness to others in her voluminous writings. And some sought to narrow how the church defined her prophetic role. But there also were others – administrators, educators, pastors – who saw in her the replica of an OT prophet who not only proclaimed God’s word but also predicted the future. This latter group perceived that her writings were at par with canonical scriptures and saw no need to roll back the perception that her writings were inerrant.

In the first group were such conflicted church stalwarts as AG Daniels, WW Prescott and GB Thompson. These leaders were torn between their deep loyalty to the church and their personal integrity. They worried about the upheaval that might ensue if the pew members learned the true extent of EGW’s borrowing and literary help. The background to the deep concern by those who knew about her heavy dependence, especially in the historical sections of The Great Controversy, was the biblical inerrancy debate raging in other Bible communities at the time. Gradually, the notion of inerrancy was being extended to her writings, which added to the urgency by those concerned to set the record straight.

In the end, the conference would be a monumental missed opportunity. The leaders would kick the proverbial can down the road. They did not believe the rank and file membership was ready for an EGW with diminished prophetic endowment. Sixty plus years later, in the 1980s, almost as a direct result of their inaction, the church would be rocked by the twin works of Desmond Ford and Walter Rea. It was the failure to deal forthrightly with, not only her literary indebtedness, but more importantly what we mean when we call her a prophet(ess), that roared back with unrestrained fury. In 1919, the brethren leadership just punted. And in doing so they created the environment for a posture of inerrancy to flower around her writings, which has also dogged her legacy in the intervening century.

What then might we learn from our leaders’ unwillingness to tell the truth, in small and large matters, fearing it might be disruptive? The answer ultimately is no different than what we tell our children: Even if it hurts, tell the truth! No doubt speaking the truth could be disruptive in the short term, but over time truth always wins. In the Deuteronomy and 1919 Bible Conference examples, being cagy with the truth has created long ongoing problems for the Church. And regrettably our leaders’ struggle to tell the truth has created two types of members – educated leaders who know the truth, and the general membership who are deprived of, or even lied to, about the truth.

Such an attitude about the average member’s inability to handle the truth is offensively paternalistic. In this, some educators, pastors and administrators, either deliberately or through indifference, have created a systemically under-informed membership. Deliberate because these leaders, by virtue of their education, are privy to knowledge kept from the members.

A second sad result of keeping the truth from the church is that it creates a worse backlash when the truth comes out than if it had not been withheld. And for our youth, when they stumble on the truth as they almost always do, they end up mythologizing both scripture and EGW. Unless we are ready to argue that our belief sets or way of life is flawless, we have to leave a door open for self-critique. And we don’t do that by claiming inerrancy for the leaders of our subculture. We place ourselves in this moral superiority quandary at our peril.

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10283
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You are so right! I still remember the negative impact I suffered when in the early 80’s I found out that the Church had withheld truth and information (about 1844) from the lay and clergy since the beginning.

I was only 30 at that time, but had been involved in church very actively for many years. actually, my first degree in college was in Theology (four years as full time student). Then, when Ford & others at that time revealed so many hidden issues, BAM, it hit me hard. Many others, including hundred of ministers, did not endure the BIG BAM (…) and left the Denomination for good.

This why my only allegiance since has been to a local church, not to the Denomination.

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Yes, but they still hang out the stockings at Christmas. I think we discredit our young people. There is more to them than meets the eye.

When it comes to the back pews where the grandparents nod off every week - it’s too late for re-education. They have spent a lifetime with EGW, and they “shall not be moved”. We can only hope they glimpsed, along the way, Christ crucified, and Christ resurrected.

It’s the middle group that needs some shaking up - those that know, but won’t tell; and those who don’t want to know, so they can’t tell. Unfortunately, these are guys who set the standards. These are guys that need a good dose of reality. There is a solution though - reduce the size of the “28 Points of Doctrine”, and leave the rest to God to deal with on an individual basis.

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When in 1965 the professors of the New Testament Department at the Seminary, Earle Hilgert, Sakae Kubo and myself, started a new curriculum taking advantage of the new requirement that ministers should hold a B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity) rather than an M.A. and would be sponsored for two years by their employer Conferences, rather than one, students were required to take a course in Introduction to the New Testament where they confronted the arguments surrounding matters of authorship, time of writing, and basic content of each New Testament book with some objective seriousness. The idea behind the curriculum was to let some fresh air come into the classrooms so that the New Testament could be read without an oppressive stuffy atmosphere preventive open discussions. Those efforts were repelled forthrightly by the ecclesiastical authorities that were paying for the tuition, room and board or our students. All three of those professors soon left the classroom, and Gerhard Hassel became the Seminary Dean. I am delighted to see that Dennis Fortin has been able to bring to the table a realistic reappraisal of the 1919 Bible Conference, and that Matthew Quartey is pointing out the price to be paid when the truth is swept under the rug. As he very perceptively points out the exodus of the young from the church is the price being paid for the serious blunders that mark the course of Adventist ecclesiastical history.

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There is the other issue, besides the dishonesty of the SDA Church, there is the dishonesty (IMO) of Ellen White.

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Herold… I spoke today with Earle Hilgert and he remembers well this short chapter at the Seminary. I think I heard him chuckle as I read highlights from your post. Yes, he remembers the swift push-back to the suggestion, which quickly negated its implementation. (BTW, he plans on enjoying his 97th birthday in May!)

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One thing that the author neglects to state–is that EGW often expressed herself in terms of unquestioning inspiration. She never second guessed her advice, she always led others to believe that God told or showed her was the truth. She never retracted her advice or let others to hold her counsel as mere human suggestions.

I have my suspicions that AG Daniels was more motivated by desire to un-throne EGW due to her many reproving letters. He wanted to go on record that EGW misled others in the authorship of her books. That was her weakest point he could object in which he could have collaborators. She could be blunt in her personal letters, often sending copies of her letter to others to be read to the intended. She was not very private in her reproofs, even her husband James was recipient of her harsh reproofs.

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Sure, am a first year Adventist Student in South Sudan at a Catholic University pursuing a bachelor degree I’m English and literature . I was just fascinated the fall of 2019 when we were taught looking at a book or any literature in the context and the setting it was written under. The Bible as a book of Literature also has such rules in it which our pastors undermine. So sad. Thanks Spectrum!

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I am delighted to know that people keep up with Earle. He is, without a doubt the best New Testament professor the SDA church ever had, wise, lever-headed, humble, caring of all those around him, and a great scholar. There are not many such. I visited him in Virginia some years back and keep in touch. He has been a model and mentor to me. I owe him a lot.

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Thank you Dr. Weiss for this post. It means a lot when honorable and honest academic authorities speak truth.

The “price” is indeed high, not only for the Church but for people as individuals. I remember the price I paid when I realized, in the early 1980’s that my Church had been untruthful and deliberately dishonest with the members and most clergy. I was living in Brazil at that time. The impact of learning that you have been lied to, by your own Church, is tremendous. No wonder such a great number of people abandoned ship! (I am a member at LSU Church).

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Daniels certainly became not only a dangerous person among the “flock,” but also persona non grata, obviously. Those people didn’t have Spectrum or A Today (@lorenseibold) , so they had no option in terms of sharing truth freely.

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Hey, I am a g-parent and your description does not fit, like a lot of other g-parents that we are well acquainted with! No worries though…:laughing:

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So am I. Just reporting what I see. It’s a mixed bag, though. Age, quite often is misleading. At college reunions, it’s amazing how many older SDAs have ended up changing course. It also depends on “location, location, location”. Thanks for standing up for our generation. Generalizations often don’t work.

Welcome to Spectrum!Indeed it is a great mystery and shock to me and many others that the contextual component is ignored. It is the root cause of many problems we face now and as a ‘remenet people’ must be laid bare and avoided as we move forward. I think it is certainly, as the article points out, the strong desire to retain familiar concepts and ideas in spite of obvious error and avoid change at any cost.

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Regarding the Gospels and Jesus before and after the Resurrection,
N. T, Wright and Marcus Borg provide good insights into HOW and
WHY the Gospels were written.
Are they biography, memory of the 1st century church, and how, what the
life of Jesus pre- and post- resurrection meant to them at those
dates they were written down?
Majority of the 4 Gospels were written to post-destruction of the Temple
and Jerusalem Jews and Gentiles.
This week is the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. John has
Jesus telling her that people will NOT worship God at Jerusalem or at
Girizim. But will worship in Spirit and Truth.
Is this John helping Jewish believers to understand they do not need the
rituals only done at the Temple for forgiveness, for restoration, or they can
now approach God directly, individually and corporately in whatever meeting
venue they have?
It is not big, but the Gospels have Jesus saying, “The Temple has to go.”
I have never heard any SDA pastors or teachers ever bringing this question up.

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I often wonder what causes this strange phenomenon. Maybe it has to do with the “power of the ego” when people are not genuinely humble but rather pride prevails. (Pride in being wrong??..)

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That’s correct Steve. Paul tells us: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you”? 1 Cor. 3:16

And, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need”. Heb 4:16

And, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks”. Romans 14: 5-6

Paul had a perfect opportunity, and I would say duty even, to correct those keeping the days he just mentioned if they were in error and would have instructed them to keep the seventh day Sabbath, but he did not because God accepted their worship as is.

The same with the food laws: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean”. Romans 14:14

And, with Peter’s vision: “I saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common”. Acts 10: 11-15

And just prior to these things Paul warns: “Who art thou that judges another mans servant? To his own master he standeth, or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up of God is able to make him stand” Romans 14:4
But does not the SDA Church do precisely that?

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It seems that once the SDA Church declared (by self-appointment) to be “The Remnant,” anything became permitted… :roll_eyes:

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Yes indeed. How much we lost when we lost him.

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It is clear to those of us who keep track of these matters, that a “Battle for the Bible” and a “Battle for EGW” has been waged in this denomination for at least 100 years; and over the very same issues in many respects. Our current most conservative scholars, who train our pastors in the Seminary and many colleges, supported by our current GC president and the BRI, have insisted on a view of inspiration that is indefensible on any grounds except a deductive argument whose major premise is erroneous. It would take an article, many already written in earlier issues of SPECTRUM, to explain this. For example: See Richard Rice’s excellent essay on “Inerrancy, Adventism, and Church Unity” in Vol. 42:1, Winter 2014. One cannot read that without feeling that we are riding unnecessarily into a storm that will erode our confidence in the Bible and Ellen White if we do not change direction.

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