An Historic Event II
The conference on Ellen White took place in Portland, Maine from October 22-25. In terms of background, the participants brought two radically different worlds of study to the conference. On the one hand were the Adventists and "Adventist alumni" who were as familiar with the life and writings of Ellen White as most people are with breathing. Many had written books on the subject and virtually all had written something and/or lectured in relation to the life and writings of Ellen White. On the other hand, the non-Adventists at the conference were largely ignorant about the life and writings of Ellen White but instead brought a vast and diverse expertise regarding the religious world of 19th Century America. Many of us were concerned that the conference might get bogged down with all this diversity of knowledge, that people might just talk past each other and everyone go home convinced that they had just wasted a good weekend.
In addition there was an unspoken "elephant in the room." The Adventists, in particular, were well aware that some of the attendees had written books and articles that were severely critical of the life, writings, claims and motivations of Ellen White. Would Ellen White’s claims to inspiration become a point of contention, splitting the attendees into warring camps that would set Ellen White studies back for a generation? Scholars are not immune from the fearful emotions that sometimes make people overly cautious or slow to take decisive action. I, for one, felt from the beginning that the conference was absolutely necessary and a huge opportunity, but I nevertheless wondered what the outcome would be. Conferences like this are not risk free.
Well, we need to wonder no longer. The conference is now history and I am aware of no attendee who feels that it was a failure or a waste of time. While leaving open the question of inspiration (which is what diverse scientific historians do when they talk with each other), the overall outcome of the conference was an increased appreciation for the amazing contributions of a frail woman who could easily have spent her life as an invalid whose impact on the world was limited to a close circle of family and friends. There was also an increased appreciation for how skillfully Ellen White worked within the thought world and history of 19th Century America.
The process in general was if the person reading the paper was an Adventist, the paper would be critiqued by an Adventist and a non-Adventist with expertise in the specific area of the paper. If the paper was presented by a non-Adventist, there were usually two responses, one by an Adventist and another by an "Adventist alum." The process meant there were no "free rides." Every paper had to pass muster with individuals who had specific expertise on the topic and in many cases had expressed divergent perspectives in the past. While such a procedure can be frightening to people of faith, it makes sure no one gets away with nonsense or incompetence. Every presenter and respondent needed to "have their game face on" if they wanted their work to be respected.
The non-Adventist scholars present faced a steep learning curve as paper after paper was presented by Adventist scholars who were often accustomed to in-house audiences and in-house language. Adventist presenters were often criticized for not connecting their work to the wider context of the times and not making reference to the historical and literary scholarship that already exists in regard to those times. Several Adventist presenters were criticized for not using inclusive language in a paper about a woman! But in spite of these valid criticisms the overall sense was that the non-Adventist scholars were drinking in the content of these papers and rapidly developing a great appreciation for the contributions of Ellen White within her time and place. Scholar after scholar stood up during discussion times and said, in effect, "I have never in my life attended a conference in which I learned as much as I have in this one." Statements of appreciation overwhelmed statements of concern. The non-Adventists took home a treasure-trove of new knowledge about Ellen White and they seemed universally enthusiastic about what they learned. Many seemed determined to find ways to "put Ellen White on the map" of 19th Century religious leaders in America. It was even suggested that at some point it would be interesting to have another conference focusing on Ellen White’s contribution to the world outside North America.
A sideline to the "elephant in the room" was how to characterize the division among attendees with regard to Ellen White’s inspiration. It was humorous to see Adventists try to express that divide without offending anyone. Adventists have often been told that the term "non-Adventist" is offensive, so some Adventist speakers instead threw out the terms "believer" and "unbeliever" to characterize the divide. The non-Adventists in the room quickly rebelled! They much preferred to be called simply "non-Adventists." There was a general understanding that all attendees were interested in Ellen White as a person and a historical figure and that we could all contribute to the understanding of who she was and of the world in which she lived.
For their part, the Adventists at the conference were amazed at the relevance of the vast historical knowledge that the non-Adventists brought to the subject. Time after time, non-Adventist respondents brought up individuals and historical trends that illuminated Ellen White’s writings and actions. Each attendee brought both a body of knowledge and many gaps in understanding. Because the bodies of knowledge were so diverse, nearly every comment at times was an "aha" moment for someone. The Adventists came away with a sense that there were new worlds to explore and that the journey would shed a flood of light on issues that are heavily debated among us. Adventists were also taken aback by the enthusiasm with which these great non-Adventist scholars expressed their appreciation for the Ellen White they were discovering. They were coming to see her as a hugely important figure in her time, not just for the Seventh-day Adventist church, for a much wider audience.
Due in part to the vitriol of recent internet debates regarding Ellen White, many Adventists have been tempted to downplay her role and authority for the church. To see the admiration with which these great scholars addressed the same issues was a surprise to me and a great encouragement. While triumphalism is never appropriate, Adventists do have a "treasure" that we have often been reluctant to share with others. The attitude of most of the non-Adventist scholars seemed to be "bring her on, this is good stuff!" So a surprising outcome of the conference may be a greater willingness of Adventist scholars to share what they know with a wider world that can use all the help it can get. Ellen White was not an embarrassment at the conference, she was a source of great learning and much delight. The extreme views on the internet, both for and against her, did not get any encouragement at this conference.
Since the conference was by invitation only, many are wondering when the wider world of people interested in Ellen White will be able to get their hands on these "treasures." Stay tuned.