I read this book in one breath. Not only because it is relatively short and well written, but because it is filled with historical research that helps contextualize a major challenge of our church: biblical interpretation. If you think our hermeneutical struggles are recent, you may be surprised to discover that some core dissensions go at least one century back.
Michael W. Campbell, professor of church history and theology at Southwestern University, delves into the 1919 Bible Conference in order to retrieve historical data of relevance to our current discussion on hermeneutics. The book is structured in three parts: Part 1 contours the context in which these significant meetings took place, Part 2 goes more in-depth on the major issues discussed, and Part 3 is a concise summary of this historical episode’s aftermath and legacy.
Campbell notes several major events that set the stage for the 1919 Bible Conference: Ellen White’s recent death (in 1915), the rise of the fundamentalist movement, and two consequential global events: the first world war, which cost us sixteen million people, and an influenza pandemic that killed another twenty-five million by the most modest estimates. This massive decimation fed the belief that the end of the world was drawing near, so eschatological hopes easily filled the vacuum left by the widespread disillusionment with human progress.
The message of Christ’s second coming grew swiftly under the work of a cross-denominational movement later termed “Fundamentalism.” Campbell lists four characteristics of those who joined the movement: a revivalist heritage, interest in end-time events, some affiliation with the Holiness movement, and a combative effort to defend the Christian faith. The growth of fundamentalism is also largely due to the publication and free dissemination of over three million copies of “The Fundamentals” – a collection of ninety articles dealing, among other things, with the inspiration of Scripture, and endorsing infallibility and verbal inerrancy.
Naturally, the eschatological message resonated deeply with Adventists. Given the two movements’ shared high view of Scripture, our church found itself drawn to fundamentalism, despite doctrinal differences, and despite Ellen White promoting thought inspiration as opposed to verbal (word by word) inspiration. Adventist leaders regularly attended and reported on fundamentalist conferences, although no Adventist was ever invited to speak at these meetings.
The challenge of understanding the inspiration and interpretation of Scripture was heightened by Ellen White’s death. The Adventist church had to learn how to live without a living prophet who been a major guiding force since its inception. It also wrestled with grasping the authority of her writings and their relation to the Bible. Three difficult questions were raised in the church and addressed at the 1919 Bible Conference concerning these issues:
- What validated Ellen White’s prophetic voice: the infallibility in her writings (including historical infallibility), or the overall trajectory of her life and ministry?
- Should Ellen White’s writings be used to settle biblical debates?
- Should Ellen White’s writings be used to settle historical questions?
Campbell does a great job at contouring the opposing main views: a traditionalist view leaning towards verbal inspiration and inerrancy in the Bible and in the writings of Ellen White, and a progressive view that generally understood truth as progressive and endorsed thought inspiration both in the Bible and in Ellen White. In the following paragraphs I will dwell mostly on the latter view, which was held primarily by the older generation of church leaders who knew White personally and even assisted her in the writing process. These individuals emphasized that she always strived for historical accuracy and was comfortable revising her writings based on new research.
With the specialization of knowledge, historical research was becoming an identifiable discipline in its own right, and White instructed her literary assistants to do thorough library research (for example two assistants spent six months at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkley doing research for The Great Controversy). Thus, for some Adventist thought leaders, White’s revisions (for example in The Great Controversy), rather than diminishing her authority, pointed to her reliance on historical sources, and to the fact that her authority as prophet did not lie in infallibility or even primarily in the supernatural phenomena accompanying her visions. Instead, “the general spirit attending her life is evidence of her divine call from God as the messenger of this denomination.” Or, as Campbell puts it,
The greatest proof of her inspiration was the overall trajectory of her life and ministry, which brought about church unity even as the church grew and changed positions on some issues.
Some notable names who held this view were A. G. Daniells (the General Conference president), W. W. Prescott, F. M. Wilcox, and W. C. White. Ellen White herself indicates her interest in historical accuracy. For example, in a letter to Wilcox, she writes:
When I learned that ‘Great Controversy’ must be rest, I determined that we would have everything closely examined, to see if the truths it contained were stated in the very best manner, to convince those not of our faith that the Lord had guided and sustained me in the writing of its pages. As a result of the thorough examination by our most experienced workers, some changing in the wording has been proposed. These changes I have carefully examined, and approved.
When she was sure about something, Ellen White insisted on it. For example, Daniells recalls her saying:
Why, I know what was shown me, that this period of 2300 days [in Daniel] was fixed, and that there would be no definite time after that. The brethren were right when they reached that 1844 date.
However, when she was not clear, she also indicated that:
Why, Brother Daniells, I do not know what that ‘daily’ is, whether it is paganism or Christ’s ministry. That was not the thing that was shown me.
Concerning the second and third questions, the progressive group largely advocated for White’s writings not being used to settle historical questions or biblical debates. Instead, the church should teach that the Bible interprets itself and “derive their beliefs form the Bible itself.” While two opposite views were more clearly contoured at this conference, with the “’progressives’ united in their belief that Ellen White’s writings were not inerrant,” there was some diversity of views within this group concerning the inspiration of Scripture.
According to Daniells, confidence in the Bible should have never been built upon the idea of verbal inspiration and infallibility (of the Bible and Ellen White), and the accusations of plagiarism might have been averted if ‘we had understood this thing as it should have been.’ Even a prophetic voice has a human element when a human is the channel used, and Daniells was comfortable with human fallibility in White’s work, as exemplified in her use of sources:
The poor sister [White] said: ‘Why, I didn’t know about quotations and credits. My secretary should have looked after that, and the publishing house should have looked after it.’ … There I saw the manifestation of the human in these writings.
This is only a small piece of what the book offers, but one that I think is very important to understand. The same issues are raised today, and knowledge of the historical context in which they first arose is helpful in our conversation, especially since voices that knew White personally can be a witness to her writing process and her affirmations. Other topics addressed at the conference were the Trinity (particularly the deity of Christ and whether He had a beginning or was co-eternal with the Father), prophetic interpretation, teaching history, and pastoral training, all of which offer helpful perspectives on our growing identity as a church in those formative years.
These conferences lasted for about five weeks. I regularly attend annual conferences on religion that last for one full week and, while they are the highlight of my year, they are certainly quite demanding. As I read this historical piece I found the dedication of our church leaders to dialogue (even heated dialogue) and discovering truth impressive. I also realized that conversation has been a core approach in our church since early on. Sometimes I get tired of how slow things progress, but caution is also warranted, and I certainly value dialogue over an imposing authoritarian approach. I encourage you to read the book and consider how knowledge of this historical episode might contribute to your understanding of the current debates on biblical interpretation and help you frame your own views on the inspiration and interpretation of the Bible and the writings of Ellen White.
 Page 27.
 Page 81.
 Pages 79-85.
 F. M. Wilcox, Report on the Bible Conference, July 10, 1919, 560, cited on page 81.
 Page 83.
 Ellen White, Letter 56, 1911, mentioned in the Report on the Bible Conference, July 10, 1919, 558, cited on page 80.
 A. C. Daniells, Report on the Bible Conference, July 30, 1919, 1206, 1207, cited on page 88.
 A. C. Daniells, Report on the Bible Conference, July 30, 1919, 1206, 1207, cited on page 88.
 Page 86.
 Page 89.
 A. C. Daniells, Report on the Bible Conference, August 1, 1919, 1242, 1243, cited on page 93.
 A. C. Daniells, Report on the Bible Conference, August 1, 1919, 1243, 1244, cited on page 93.