was chasing taillights up Interstate 91 through central Connecticut the other night when the green exit sign for “Rocky Hill” emerged from the darkness. At 65 miles per hour, there wasn’t time for quiet reflection, especially when the adjacent semi seemed bent on crowding me to the shoulder. But as the miles slid away and the lights of America’s insurance capital blossomed in front of me, my thoughts doubled back to the town and history behind me.
To a hundred thousand daily commuters, “Rocky Hill” is merely an exit south of Hartford. To Seventh-day Adventists and readers of the Adventist Review, however, the name evokes the memories and heritage of the beginnings of this movement. For more than a century and a half, the journal first produced there by James White in 1849 has comforted, chastened, and informed God’s remnant people—through good times and bad, through triumph and sorrow—and always with an eye on the eastern sky.
Those who find hidden meanings in place names will note the apparent progression from difficulty to tranquility implied in several of the locations at which the Adventist Review has been published through 16 decades: Rocky Hill . . . Battle Creek . . . Takoma Park . . . Silver Spring. But no journal that first emerged on a rocky hill could ever be expected to travel a smooth path in this world. Difficulties, obstacles, even detours were all promised.
And no one knows those challenges better than the editor of that journal.
William G. Johnsson’s first article as a new associate editor of the Adventist Review in September 1980 was a multipage report of the historic meeting of the Sanctuary Review Committee held at Glacier View, Colorado, the previous month. With customary grace and brevity, Johnsson reviewed the recent history of Desmond Ford’s challenges to the church’s sanctuary doctrine, the process by which participants had prepared for the difficult conference, and the subsequent reaffirmation of the movement’s long-standing belief in the face of Dr. Ford’s challenge.
Two weeks later, his first editorial—aptly titled “Bringing Theology Downstairs”—urged readers caught up in swirling theological debates over justification to remember the gospel’s call to a living experience with Christ. “The ‘bottom line’ of theology is always a life lived to the glory of God,” he wrote, “as doctrine is embodied in daily conduct. . . . The test of theology is practical experience.”
Pastoral reminders such as these would be much needed in the months ahead. Within a year, the collapse of Dr. Donald Davenport’s investment schemes cost many church institutions and individuals dearly, and shook member confidence in leadership decision-making. In 1982, the year Johnsson became the tenth senior editor of the Adventist Review, disaffected pastor Walter Rea published his biting analysis of Ellen White that he titled The White Lie. Again, a reasoned, thoughtful, pastoral response was called for—and delivered.
To those who blanched at his straightforward approach to difficult or painful issues, Johnsson wrote: “We hold that Adventists have a right to information, that if the news is bad, it is better that they get it through the columns of the Review rather than through rumor or some privately published paper.”
Earnest, candid, warm-hearted, inclusive—these personal qualities so visible in the man increasingly became the hallmarks of the magazine and the institution he shepherded. When the news was particularly bad—when a General Conference president resigned, or the world grieved after 9/11—his pen (and yes, it was always written with a pen!) was employed to quickly deliver the information, provide helpful analysis, and point believers to the things that never change. Always leaning toward innovation, he led the Adventist Review staff through redesigns, new editions, initiatives to young adults and new believers, and ultimately, in 2005, to the creation of Adventist World, now read by more than 5 million Adventists worldwide each month.
For nearly a quarter century, he has been one of the most trusted figures in Adventism, and from that role, he can never retire.
On behalf of dozens of staff members through the years, hundreds of colleagues with whom he labored in the cause of the gospel, and untold millions who have been blessed by his well-chosen words, I say a heartfelt “thank you.”
The journal begun on a rocky hill, the magazine Bill Johnsson edited, has helped to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Valleys have been exalted; mountains and hills have been made low. Things crooked have been made straight; rough places have become plain.
And because of his ministry, one day soon, I trust, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
Bill Knott is an associate editor of Adventist Review.