Historical Focus Can Shape
Future Adventist Generations
White Estate, Adventist Review, team to emphasize church’s history for youth
BY ANSEL OLIVER, Assistant Director for News, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
ome people collect stamps. James Nix says he collects Adventism.
Nix, 61, has served as director of the Ellen G. White Estate since 2000, doesn't separate his hobbies from his work. Fun for him is collecting old newspapers with references to the early nineteenth-century Millerite movement – the chief precursor to the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- or leading tours of church history in the northeastern United States, where Adventism began.
He laments, though, that his generation hasn't passed on much knowledge of the woman who is largely responsible for the church's emphasis on education, healthful living and human rights.
White, who died in 1915, is believed to be the world’s most widely translated female author and is considered by the Adventist Church to be a modern prophet who was inspired by God through visions which influenced early church work and highlighted certain biblical truths.
In August, the church in North America partnered with Adventist Review to launch a monthly church heritage publication for distribution to every Adventist elementary school student in grades three through six. Education and White Estate leaders, who will oversee a portion of the content, hope the initiative will increase awareness of church history and recognition of a global denomination.
HISTORICAL EMPHASIS: Jim Nix, director of the Ellen G. White Estate, says he hopes a new initiative launched this month will teach church history to a young generation of Adventists. Many in his generation, Nix says, haven't passed along much knowledge of the church's heritage. [photo: Megan Brauner/ANN]
Nix recently discussed the role and goals of the church's international Ellen G. White-SDA Research centers as well as the risks to the church of losing Ellen White’s focus on biblical teachings. Excerpts:
Adventist News Network: Is archiving church history recognized as a component of mission?
James Nix: It takes a commitment to say that this is an important part of this church. As exciting as evangelism is -- and I'm the first to say "Praise the Lord" for all people that are coming in -- you also need to preserve the story of God's leading to inspire the next generation.
ANN: How many research centers does the White Estate operate?
Nix: In addition to our main office here [at the Adventist Church world headquarters] we also operate three branch offices. They're located at Andrews University, Loma Linda University and Oakwood University. We also have Ellen G. White-SDA Research Centers in each of the [church's 12 other divisions] besides North America.
ANN: What is a research center? Is it just for the White Estate or is it an archive for any church materials?
Nix: Even their official name, "Ellen G. White-SDA Research Centers," indicates they are intended to be more than centers for just Ellen White materials. Actually, from the beginning the research centers have been tasked with preserving the history of the church in the [area] where they are located. When they started these back in [church President Robert] Pierson’s day, his idea was, “Why should everybody have to come here [to the General Conference] if they want to research the history of the church? Let's get the materials out where the members are.”
ANN: What do they contain?
Nix: Copies of all of Ellen White's books that have been published in English and local languages used where the centers are located; photocopies of her unpublished letters and manuscripts; ... microfilm and microfiche copies of many early Adventist materials -- books, pamphlets and periodicals, that otherwise wouldn't be available due to their rarity.
ANN: Are they still necessary now with the availability of the Internet?
Nix: Well, since everything is not yet online, at least for the present such facilities are still necessary. The same question can be asked about libraries and archives in general. My guess is that due to the vast volume of materials that need to be scanned before being put on the Internet ... it will be many years before serious consideration might be given to doing away with research centers.
ANN: What are your future plans?
Nix: We've just embarked on a project which we hope results in every Ellen White book in every language being digitized and eventually made available on the Internet. Most of her books are not yet in electronic format. Just that project is a mammoth undertaking.
ANN: What are your thoughts on the paraphrase version of her book, "Desire of Ages," called "Messiah," published a few years ago?
Nix: If you read my statement on the back of "Messiah," you will see I am a strong supporter. There are others who don't agree with me. But when I see young people struggling to read and understand Ellen White's 19th century literary style, or I hear about those for whom English is a second language facing the same challenge, I am all for anything that will help them discover the insights given by God to Ellen White as she prepared the original "Desire of Ages." Currently, "Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing" is also in preparation as another paraphrase.
ANN: Do you think church members' knowledge of Ellen White has changed?
Nix: When I started working for the White Estate in the 70s I could speak at a camp meeting and assume they knew who Joseph Bates was, they knew he was a sea captain and one of the founders of the church. I assume nothing when I go to a camp meeting now beyond an awareness of Ellen White. If I say James White, I'll usually identify him as the husband of Ellen White. I think, by and large, our membership is often unaware of the history and heritage of the church. That's unfortunate.
ANN: You've said many people in your generation were rebellious against most authority. For those who did stay in the church, some felt Ellen White was sometimes used in a legalistic way. How do you respond?
Nix: I grew up in the late 1950s and 60s so I recall what you're talking about. Unfortunately, there was a tendency by some in those days to use Ellen White as a club. I wasn't raised in such a family, thank goodness, so I didn't feel like Mrs. White was being crammed down my throat. How people responded probably also reflected their own personality and what was going on in their own family, their church and school. And also, the emphasis on grace and righteousness by faith in our church has moved back and forth through the years since 1888 like a pendulum. From what I have heard, the 1920s and 1930s were years when people took everything Ellen White wrote quite literally. In more recent years, there has been more of an emphasis on understanding the principles contained in Ellen White's writings. That probably reflects the stronger orientation on grace in our church.
ANN: This church was founded on a prophetic mission. Are there concerns that it could become just another evangelical Protestant denomination -- one that simply worships on Saturday instead of Sunday?
Nix: I've heard some people express such concerns. The fact of the matter is that if our church continues growing at the same rate as we have in recent years, those who look into such matters tell us that by 2020 over 85 percent of our members worldwide will have belonged to the church for less than twenty years. If that happens, then in essence our church will be a "new" church by 2020. That's where the White Estate, along with others, will find a real challenge as well as an opportunity. If we want our church to maintain its long-standing prophetic emphasis, helping it understand and accept that sense of prophetic mission and message is not an option: it is an absolute necessity.