In the northern summer of 1919—100 years ago this month—a seemingly small group of Adventist Church leaders, Bible teachers and history teachers met officially and unofficially over a period of six weeks at the Church’s headquarters in suburban Takoma Park, Maryland. The 1919 Bible Conference—as it is generally referred to, despite having a longer official name—marked a significant moment in Adventist Church history. By virtue of its outcomes and non-outcomes, it would be largely forgotten for decades but would come to be regarded as a still more significant occasion.
The wider world was shaken by the tragedy of the Great War—of course, it wouldn’t be World War I until another world war some 20 years later—and the Adventists, along with other Christian groups, were reassessing their disappointed predictions that this war would herald the second coming. Their prophetic fervour was dissipating as the war subsided into a sullen peace. Particularly in the United States, much Christian attention was turning to the perceived threats represented in new scientific discoveries, a changing society and the threat of biblical higher criticism. Many Christian voices resorted to a scientific-type response that insisted on certain fundamental doctrines that increasingly narrowly defined orthodoxy and polarised believers. Ironically but perhaps unsurprisingly, what become known as fundamentalism was a distinctly modernist response to the challenges of modernism.
As much as the Adventists saw themselves as peculiar, they were not immune from these external pressures, which added to their sense of loss and their growing questions in the wake of the death of Ellen White in 1915. Few of the Adventist pioneers of the first and second generations of the Church remained, but—for the first time—the loss of their living prophet left the Church feeling the absence of what they regarded as their safety net.
What happened in 1919
The Bible Conference in 1919 covered a variety of biblical, prophetic interpretation and Church issues, but all these discussions kept coming back to two key and interrelated questions: “All of the issues discussed . . . revolved in some way or another around the twin issues of how to interpret the Bible and Ellen White’s writing.”1
This, of course, was also the key question of fundamentalism: is the Bible inerrant and/or infallible? And what do we do when other evidence, such as that discovered by science and historical research, seems to conflict with the Bible? The Adventist complications included where Ellen White’s writing and her inspiration fitted in relation to the Bible and even whether she should be regarded as inerrant.
Much of the discussion at the Bible Conference was led by long-serving General Conference president A G Daniells and Adventist scholar W W Prescott, both of whom had worked extensively with Ellen White. They urged a more nuanced use of Ellen White’s writings, the supremacy of the Bible, and an openness to growing in our understanding of how we read the Bible and engage with the society around us. There was much debate and strong opposition. Michael Campbell argues that this was the first time that Adventist “progressives” and “conservatives” were so strongly polarised.2