“Seeking a Sanctuary”

In a recent comment, Ryan Bell mentioned the chapter on women in Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, by Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart (recently reviewed by Gary Land). I don’t have the new edition, so can only comment on the 1989 original edition (Harper & Row).

Bell had noted their take on the feminine nature of the church. Land summarizes:

Adventism, according to Bull and Lockhart, is a women’s movement that goes against traditional male values; as a result men find entering into the church bureaucracy the only acceptable way to express their masculinity.

I’ve noted before the problem many churches have with men; these are documented by David Murrow, Leon Podles, and others. But Bull and Lockhart are misguided historically and sociologically on this point.

Their historical inaccuracies begin with the first sentence of chapter 14: “Seventh-day Adventism is the largest Christian denomination to have been founded by a woman.” I think it grossly inaccurate to say that Adventism was founded by Ellen White. Yes, she played a significant role, and might properly be considered among the founders but she was not “the founder.” That circle of founders would include her husband, James White, along with Joseph Bates, J. N. Andrews, Uriah Smith, J. H. Waggoner, J. N. Loughborough, John Byington. Those men (known to all Adventists) all feature prominent roles at the first GC session in 1863–she’s not even mentioned. In fact, in the first dozen years of GC sessions, she’s mentioned only a couple of times, once in connection with financial reimbursements and once in connection with the death of her husband. We certainly can’t minimize her unique role–but we can’t overemphasize it, either.

Bull and Lockhart start, though, with the assumption that she founded the church, and then proceed to document how the church is thereby different–more feminine. It’s the usual, “women … play caring, healing, and nurturing roles.” Adventism is defined through time, “not through the monthly cycle of menstruation, but by the weekly observance of the Sabbath. Even in the arts, Adventists have elected to pursue the traditional feminine accomplishment of music.”

Let’s stop there. If any denomination is characterized by its contributions to music, it would be Lutheranism, especially through the contributions of Luther, Nicholai, Gerhard, Bach, etc.–all men. To speak of the Sabbath as somehow “feminine” ignores the fact that Judaism, is one of the few religions where men outnumber the women. The leader in the church’s medical work was John Harvey Kellogg–and the medical profession in Adventism and without has been dominated by men. Some women can be “caring, nurturing, etc.,” while others are known for their leadership, aggressiveness, warlikeness (Elizabeth I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton).

Ellen White went well beyond the traditional female roles of her day, engaging in a form of ministry that tended to be male dominated–preaching, teaching, leading, etc. She was an aggressive evangelist, traveling throughout the American frontier, and then to Europe and Australia. She corrected men in public and in private.

The authors note many things that contradict their thesis–the dominance of men in the bureaucracy since the beginning, the emphasis in the writings of Ellen White and others on traditional female roles in the home, etc. They then get into issues of primary concern to them, ordination of women and issues of equal pay (the Merikay Silver case).

So it seems to me they want to articulate a liberal agenda, and they think they can do so by citing Ellen White as founder and suggesting that there are unique feminine traits to the church. But I don’t think they succeed in this.