Out of Adventism (Jerry Gladson) -- A Review

OUT OF ADVENTISM: A Theologian’s Journey. By Jerry Gladson. Foreword by Edwin Zachrison. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017. Xx + 306 pages.

People’s experiences of religion are not monolithic. For some participation in a religious community can be very positive and life affirming. They can also be destructive spiritually, emotionally, and physically. For some a particular community can be supportive, while that same community can be spiritually abusive to others. In other words, we need to take seriously the testimony of those who have been abused, while recognizing that not everyone in a particular community has had the same experience.

This book is the testimony, the story, of a person who was deeply involved in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Jerry Gladson was a theological educator, an Old Testament scholar and theologian, who taught at one of the Adventist’s colleges. He was an ordained minister as well. At one point, early in his career, he was a rising star, but in time he ran afoul of the leadership, some of whom he had counted as friends, and of the church’s theology. After several decades of service, Gladson was forced out of the church, but not before his own family suffered from exclusion and abuse. Among the casualties was his marriage and the faith of his children. Why did he run afoul of the church’s leadership? In part it had to do with structures that sought to control the lives of its people to such an extent that freedom to think and challenge authority was not allowed. The boundaries in which one could live were narrowly defined. When you colored outside the lines, you became a problem to either be corrected or evicted. When Gladson proved not to be correctable, he was evicted. 

I have some sympathy for Jerry’s journey. I too left a faith tradition that at one point I found energizing and fulfilling, but I too ran afoul, or at least I would have had I not left my church as a college senior, and found a home elsewhere. I also didn’t have a job, a spouse, or children to worry about. But, could this have been my story? I share something else in common with the author. I too found a home in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). So, both of us are Disciples ministers. In fact, one part of the story I found fascinating was his call to serve as pastor First Christian Church of Garden Grove, CA. I think I was under consideration for that same position, at the same time. His mention of the chair of the search committee was quite familiar!

Jerry Gladson is now retired from full-time ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but he continues to teach and preach, and he’s a member of the Academy of Parish Clergy (as am I). By academic training and focus, he is an Old Testament Scholar. It was in that context, as a teacher of the Bible, at what is now Southern Adventist University, that he became deeply involved in Adventist life. Converted to Adventism in high school, he dove deep. Studied at the same college, where he would later teach. He married a fellow student, and became a pastor. Then he was recruited to teach, and afforded by the school the opportunity to further his education, which led to an MA and PhD in Old Testament from Vanderbilt University. Here is where things begin to unravel. As an Adventist he had embraced the teachings of its founder, Ellen G. White. As a student at a non-Adventist institution he began to encounter problems in reconciling the two that would fester over time. While he tried to be faithful to his tradition, and not teach anything that he considered out of line, he began to have questions, and that led to conversations with others, who also had questions. That led to further study of White’s teachings, and that of the church. Not everyone was happy with the questions. In time, Jerry became a casualty of purges of pastors and educators who couldn’t stay within the narrow lines of the church.

This book is part memoir. We learn how Jerry became attracted to this faith, how it formed him spiritually and physically (Adventism places great emphasis on healthy living, and these principles remain with him to this day). We also learn how he began to have questions, how those questions led to conflict with the church and his wife, and his eventual ouster. This led in time to affiliations with the United Church of Christ, which first accepted him into their ministry, and then into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). To this day, he maintains dual standing, though the Disciples have been his home for the past several decades. We learn about the affect of his struggles with the church on his marriage, which led to divorce, and then to an unfortunate second marriage to a Disciple pastor that ended in divorce (for several reasons). Never losing his love for Laura, his first wife, in time they found their way back to each other, and would remarry. So, a happy ending to a story that continues to this day.

That’s part of the book, but this is also a theological exploration of Adventism, as Jerry experienced it as a leading Adventist scholar. His difficulties with Adventist theology has a lot to do with how he accepted and made use of historical critical methods of interpreting scripture. While he wasn’t alone in making use of the methods, they became anathema to leadership. Anyone who embraced these methods was suspected of heresy, even if they didn’t teach anything that could be deemed heretical.

       So, with this background, Gladson introduces us to Adventist theology and practice, sharing the story of the religious ferment of the first half of the 19th century, which produced William Miller, who claimed to have figured out when Christ would return. He gathered many from the churches to his cause. He seemed to make sense of biblical texts, and capitalized on apocalyptic interest. Unfortunately, his calculations proved wrong, and his movement died after the second failure in 1844. While it died, it was reborn through the leadership of Ellen G. White, who was known to have visions, and she figured out an answer to why Miller’s prophecy did not materialize. She claimed that Jesus had come back, at least he returned to the heavenly Temple, where he was working to reconcile humanity. She came up with a   doctrine called “investigative judgment,” which defines Adventism. While it has little to do with daily life, it became the key to reading scripture for Adventism. It became the doctrine that could not be questioned. I’m still not quite sure what all this means, but if you’re Adventist theologian, you had better not question it, and he did.  He couldn’t reconcile White’s interpretation of Daniel with the scholarly interpretation of the book, and Daniel plays an essential role in Adventist apocalyptic theology. He wasn’t alone. In fact, several leading Adventist scholars had gone before him, and had been purged. The other major issue explored in the book is White’s borrowing of the work of others, and suggesting it had come to her by divine revelation. We would call this plagiarism today, and even then, it was not acceptable to borrow something and claim it as your own. The church did allow for some study of her works, when it became apparent she had borrowed widely, but they also found an answer. As a prophet, her borrowing was a work of God. Here is another issue that Jerry faced. She became an iconic person, who could not be questioned. In fact, she was the definitive interpreter of Scripture. Jerry compares her status to that of Joseph Smith within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. If you wish to explore Adventism from the perspective of one who was deeply involved, and understands the theology and history, then this could be a most useful book. Again, remember that not everyone’s experience is the same.

It is not uprisings that Jerry would become a Disciple after his experience as an Adventist. While the Adventist tradition is rather rigid and legalistic, the Disciples are fairly loose, allowing great freedom of interpretation of Scripture and in terms of spiritual practice. It is also more grassroots and democratic in its orientation. Having experienced what he came to term spiritual abuse, this became a place of healing.

Reading this as an outsider, I take his experiences as revelatory and thought provoking. I’ve also known some wonderful Adventists, who are highly educated people and seemingly open-minded. But, as Jerry notes, Adventism in California is very different from that in the South, which is where he was involved. Looking at the Adventist church today, now as an outsider, what he has noticed and heard is that the Adventist community has “congealed into at least three perspectives.” There is a faction that is largely aligned with evangelicalism, focusing on justification by faith. A second group has become even more sectarian and affirms the total reliability of White’s teachings. The third has affinity with mainline Protestantism. Some of this diversity is regional and some is connected to closeness to educational institutions. Nonetheless, as he perceives things, the top leadership remains very conservative and is unable to tolerate dissent. At least with regard to clergy, one must see eye-to-eye with the leadership (p. 288). For a person like Jerry, it became impossible to live within those confines. 

My sense is that there are many people for whom a tradition like the one Gladson describes, one that is strict and dogmatic, can provide a safe spiritual zone. For others of us, this becomes unsafe and even abusive, when you find yourself pushing on the walls and the walls push back and begin to crush you. That is Jerry's experience. He was fully invested. He bought into the system. But then, perhaps in large part due to his educational experiences outside the fold, he began to question the foundations. But even as he did so, it was difficult to let go. Even after he left or was pushed out, he was marked by his experiences. Adventism continued to have a hold of him after leaving and joining in a new faith tradition that offered him room to move and grow. Interestingly enough, we both found the Disciples to be that kind of community. 

This is one of those books that is difficult to classify. It is both memoir and theological expose. Adventism doesn't come off well in this book, though, he does commend them for their distinctive health practices, practices that have stayed with them. This is not the problem, nor is the practice of sabbatarianism. What is problematic is the inability to grow intellectually. I take that as a warning to all. If we cut ourselves off from opportunities to grow and learn then we will shrivel up spiritually. That maybe reason enough to read this book!


Bredda Nick said…
I'm still a member of the SDA church, but I constantly encounter the strong denominational aversion to inconvenient questions. What's even more disturbing is that the typical member isn't even aware of such a problem and wouldn't see it as a problem even if it were shown to them. Perhaps my biggest issue is our veneration of Mrs White. http://isitwritten.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/4/

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