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Beyond Ellen White: Seventh Day Adventism in transition

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By Michael Leigh Chamberlain

Published: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-921214-25-7
Pages: 387
Imprint: Post Pressed


Michael Leigh Chamberlain melds insights from his Methodist roots and Seventh-Day Adventist affiliation in making and reporting this massive exploration... of Adventist Studies, specifically, the history, thought and practice of Seventh-Day Adventists. It ranges widely across the movement's pilgrimage, from its millenarian, revivalist, reformist and Restorationist matrix in the nineteenth century to its present status as a worldwide movement with fifteen million members.

More specifically, the book focuses upon the continuing legacy of Ellen Gould White... the longest survivor of three Adventist co-founders. White lived in Australia and New Zealand from 1891-1900, mothering the South Pacific church, helping to establish the Avondale School for Christian Workers in 1897 (re-named Avondale College in 1964) and fostering the initiatives that created Sydney Adventist Hospital in Wahroonga from 1903 onwards...

Chamberlain's book will be controversial... it crosses the lines between competing academic disciplines: history, religion, education and sociology... This book should be required reading for all persons - church members, pastors, administrators, sociologists, historians, and researchers - engaged in Adventist Studies or seriously interested in understanding the ethos Adventism. If it spurs the church to more quickly and faithfully construct and implement a mature hermeneutic for the writings of Ellen White, Michael Leigh Chamberlain's years of unremitting toil will be at least partly rewarded.

From the Introduction by Arthur Patrick

Michael Chamberlain graduated in 2002 with a PhD from Newcastle University. Beyond Ellen White is his third book, which is largely the product of his doctoral research and findings. Currently he teaches English and History at a State Selective High School in NSW. He and his wife Ingrid have one daughter, as well as three children each from their prior marriages.

Table of Contents


  • Foreword by Arthur Patrick
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Glossary of terms and abbreviations

CHAPTER 1: Methodology Employed and Some Basic Understandings

  • Introduction
  • Methodology, definitions and understandings
  • The Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Australia
  • Ellen Gould White
  • Avondale College
  • Adventist Church structure

CHAPTER 2: Embryos of Adventist Sociocultural Belief

  • Introduction
  • The Methodist legacy to Adventist identity
  • The evolution of an Adventist belief structure determining its cultural practices

CHAPTER 3: The Church and ‘Proper Education'

  • Introduction
  • The institutional pattern
  • The ‘blueprint' reaction

CHAPTER 4: Avondale - An Old Testament Institution School Home Model?

  • Introduction
  • The home model: A fortress against cultural perversion and a panacea for the non-arrival of the eschaton

CHAPTER 5: The Effects of Eschatological Emphasis on the Church's Education and Mission C.1897 - 1918

  • The Sabbath factor in eschatological time
  • Australia the church's new bastion for religious liberty?
  • The sin of sloth
  • An eschaton most imminent
  • Armageddon and World War I

CHAPTER 6: First Australian Public Criticism of Church Leaders in their Authoritarian Use of Ellen White

  • The arraignment of a principal: The context for George Teasdale's dismissal
  • Teasdale's commercial agenda
  • Claims of an authoritarian use of Ellen White

CHAPTER 7: The Figuring of the Eschaton Driving an Era of Moral Perfectionism C. 1919 - 1943

  • Reactionary and fundamentalist forces on college education
  • Moral purity driven by a hierarchy promoting a final generation theology
  • Safety only within the Adventist school system
  • Ellen White - the authority above scripture?
  • Mealtime culture was also seen as significant
  • The zenith of moral perfectionism and the obsession with Ellen White's sociocultural standards

CHAPTER 8: Post Second World War Winds of Change C. 1943 - 1959

  • A new sense of need for relationship and values focus
  • The higher education and soteriological focus of Murdoch and the church administration reaction
  • The eschatological and standards focus driven by American church leaders
  • Murdoch's struggle for college denominationalisation and an inclusive world view, against the college's ‘blueprint' resurgence

CHAPTER 9: The Maintenance of Traditional Cultural Standards at Avondale, Against the Tide of Modernistic Sociocultural Trends C. 1960 - 1970

  • The McDowell charismatic authority factor
  • Further winding back of the eschaton and a sense of need for personal standards-based judgments
  • Evidences of increasing divergence from denominationalised sociocultural standards with some American parallels
  • ‘High noon' for Avondale's sociocultural identity

CHAPTER 10: Further College Trends Towards a Soteriological-balanced Values System Paradigm C. 1970 - 1980

  • An administration attempts to hold back further winds of change
  • Magnusson begins to facilitate cultural revision
  • Traditionalist forces gather
  • Battle lines drawn in the Ford controversy over the validity of distinctive doctrines ‘supported' by Ellen White
  • A more open soteriological thrust driven by Magnusson

CHAPTER 11: The Fordian Fallout and the Decline of the Significance of the Eschaton, Ellen White's Authority and Sociocultural Standards C. 1980 - 2000

  • The 1980s commence with an annus horribilis
  • The old guard tightens its authoritarian control
  • Desmond Ford is sacked
  • The aftermath: A triumphalist hegemonial administration removes its offenders and the rank and file told to tow the line
  • Evidences of subtle discontent
  • The Madigan Factor and the open door to privatisation of a standards-based paradigm

CHAPTER 12: A New Culture Transforming Focus: An Era of Significant Revisionism

  • Analysing the heart of Avondale's sociocultural dilemma
  • The Wolfgramm revisionist model
  • Ford's revisionism of Ellen White: The new focus on soteriology and its balance with the former emphasis on eschatology
  • The servanthood management style of Ellen White

CHAPTER 13: Taboos on Attending Opera, Theatre, Dances and other Entertainment

  • Introduction
  • Entertainment venues as ‘schools of depravity'
  • Evidences of Avondale's higher education effects on the rationalisation of its entertainment standards

CHAPTER 14: Literature Censorship: Novel Notions

  • Introduction
  • The course is set
  • Conflict over the college proscription on educational books
  • The installation of secular literature is stymied by Church Administration policy
  • A commitment to academic excellence in literature over sectarian standards for character development

CHAPTER 15: Vain Dress, Plain Dress, Cosmetics and Jewellery

  • Plain and vain dress during Ellen White's era
  • The post-World War II revolution
  • The revision of apparel codes and the appeal to personal bible-based values

CHAPTER 16: Physical Activity in ‘Proper Education': The Evolution of Manual Labour Towards Competitive Sporting Events

  • Sport, ‘the curse of the colonies'
  • Stringent manual labour tasks as the only means for proper physical exercise give way to informal games programmes
  • The revisionary door is opened for internal sporting events
  • From organised internal to external competitive sporting events

CHAPTER 17: The Evolution of a Music Culture and its Revisioning with Community Welfare in the Context of Good Media Public Relations

  • Introduction: The Ellen White model for good music
  • The college interpretation
  • The feared influence of rock and roll in college worship
  • Worship formalism in Adventism
  • Music as an aid to public relations
  • Public relations and community welfare

CHAPTER 18: Audio, Visual and Print Media Dilemmas

  • The initial fear and loathing for film
  • Tensions over radio
  • The war brings revision to attitudes over communication technologies
  • Some unperceived threats to revisioned religion
  • Reynaud's analysis and paradigm prescription
  • The Bull and Lockhart view of time and space

CHAPTER 19: The Prohibition of Alcohol

  • Introduction
  • The college crusade for alcohol prohibition and its political gambit
  • The subtle revisioning of a black and white case

CHAPTER 20: Avondale's Standards for Sexual Behaviour and Marriage

  • Isolating male and female affections in a co-ed school of adult age
  • Ellen White's philosophy on courting
  • Student responsibility and trust slowly emerges
  • The McDowell era: Heavy discipline for offenders
  • A liberalisation of standards and a revisionist attitude to the sacredness of sex

CHAPTER 21: Tracing a Brief History of College Sectarian Evangelism

  • The central doctrines of Adventism: Perfectionism through the doctrine of the Sanctuary, the Sabbath, and the Second Coming
  • Struggling with transparency and lost souls
  • The ‘New Avondale' and a new theological emphasis
  • Enter, a progressive Church Board Chairman - Walter Scragg

CHAPTER 22: The Evolution of the Avondale Mission Statements and their Objectives

  • Avondale's original sectarian objectives
  • More evidence of a revisionist history

CHAPTER 23: Perspectives of Mission and the Imminent Pressure for a Paradigm Shift

  • The paradigm of the truth, the remnant and the spirit of prophecy
  • A case for defining Adventism as a sect in 2000: Who are the ‘unequally yoked'?
  • By whose authority?
  • The revisionist reality of Sola Scriptura
  • Towards a social paradigm for mission
  • A brief history of the Church's Australian welfare interest and limitations
  • The ADRA Factor: From an eschatological to humanitarian basis for mission

CHAPTER 24: The Church, Avondale and Burtchaell's Perspectives on American Religious College Comparisons in Soteriological and Eschatological Mission

  • Towards a values-based paradigm, revisited: Burtchaell's historical assessments
  • Adventist education's institutional monster
  • Can a Seventh-Day Adventist Avondale University identity be sustained?

CHAPTER 25: The Transition from an Eschatological Basis to an Ecclesiastical-Soteriological Paradigm Basis for Adventist Mission: Some Implications

  • The problem of retaining an Adventist identity, continued
  • The problem of administrative intransigence
  • The rise of Australian Adventist-inspired sociological critiques
  • Ford's contribution to the soteriological emphasis paradigm
  • Revisiting sectarianism and standards control and a more ‘mature' values-based paradigm
  • A warning: Develop a biblical and Ellen White values-based hermeneutic for a future identifiable church and education system, now

CHAPTER 26: Conclusions and Cautions

  • Introduction
  • Some problems in the denominational paradigm
  • The New Testament order for a new social paradigm revisited
  • Other evidences for revisionist thought: Motif revisioning
  • Seeking an education Utopia: The quest for transparency, honesty and justice
  • Final remarks
  • Footnotes
  • References
  • Index


The Adventist Wheel - Oct 26, 2009 - by Steve Parker

For those of us growing up Adventist in Australia, Avondale College was our mecca. I can remember, as a child, always hearing about how Avondale was the place to go to develop spiritually, physically - and find a life partner! In my younger days, I had the opportunity to briefly visit Avondale a couple of times and remember feeling awe at walking on such "sacred" ground. But, it hasn't come as a surprise that this was a very romanticised picture. Avondale is a human institution run by flawed humans and, despite the alleged supernatural circumstances around its establishment, the human has played a major part in its evolution. Contributing to our understanding of this evolution is Michael Chamberlain's deeply scholarly book, Beyond Ellen White: Seventh-day Adventism in Transition.

Although the title of the book doesn't mention Avondale College, Chamberlain's work, based on his PhD thesis, is a sociocultural analysis of the College from its inception to the present day. What his title does imply, is that Avondale College can be seen as a microcosm of the transitioning of Adventism beyond a White-defined culture as it struggles to clarify its identify in an ever-changing society.

Chamberlain traces the transitions of the College through its sociocultural standards that, he argues, have been its 'distinctive and identifying markers'. These include standards around entertainment (opera, theatre, dancing, etc); the reading of fiction novels; dress (vain vs plain dress, cosmetics, and jewellery); sport; music; audio, visual, and print media; alcohol consumption; and sexual behaviour and marriage. Arguing that the original standards, conceived in Methodism, shaped by an Old Testament fortress model for education, influenced by eschatalogical emphases, and challenged by wider societal influences, and managed by various College presidencies, have been shaped and reshaped to be what they are today - the product of revisionist thought which began around 1977.

Chamberlain chose the year 1977 because he believes that this was a:

... point in time when traditionalist elements in Adventism, namely the all-powerful administrative arm, lined up with the General Conference in an attempt to prevent the Church from further sociocultural or theological erosion. (p. 283)

A significant event, around this time, was the formulation of the Twenty-seven Fundamentals by the Church. Despite the stance of the Church to have no other creed but the Bible, the Twenty-seven Fundamentals became, to all intents and purposes, a creed to which scholars, pastors, and others were to give unconditional allegiance. The 1980s, according to Chamberlain, became a time when it was 'apparent [that] younger academics were in growing tension with Church leaders and administrators.' The fallout of the 1980s is well known to most of us and this, as well as events prior to and following that time, have been the response of the Church to meet the challenge:

... to Seventh-day Adventism, as it has been for all militant organisations, [of] understanding truth in its static and dynamic forms and being able to discern the difference. [Chamberlain's] book is, therefore, about describing the struggle of the dynamic, evident as culture, considered for a time as a landmark of the Church's ultimate identity. (pp.284-285)

This tension between the static and dynamic forms of truth has, according to Chamberlain, let to a revisioning of Avondale's original mission. As I read Chamberlain, he is not criticising or condoning this revisionism. It seems to me he wishes to place his thesis before the denomination and the College and make clear that Avondale is at a crossroads. This basically comes down to a choice to continue pursuing higher education status or remain and develop as a traditional institution sustaining a particular style of education and theology. Chamberlain clarifies the choices for Avondale:

If the history of the direction taken by American religious colleges has any valid bearing, Avondale's mother Church identity and executive powers may have an increasingly limited use-by date. At best, should it continue on its higher educational path, it may achieve, eventually, the identity of a non-denominational Adventist university and by no means a model of Seventh-day Adventist cultural idealism or control. On this basis, a post-Ellen G. White revisionist model and not a rebel implant might remain intact. Should it fail to gain continuing higher status, then as a theological and educational seminary-styled institution its traditional culture is more likely to be sustained.

Stark choice indeed. As I said at the beginning, the title of Chamberlain's book implies a broader application of his observations to Seventh-day Adventism as a whole. The transitions that Avondale has undergone (and continues to struggle with) are reflected in the larger denominational culture and history. Some would welcome this revisionism; other will not. But whatever side of that debate one may find oneself, Chamberlain's book provides superb insights for anyone thinking about Adventism today.

You can find out more about Beyond Ellen White at Michael Chamberlain's website.

- Steve Parker


This book is rigorous... In conceptual and documentary analysis it stands up very well indeed. Congratulations on the amount of work involved in this.

Professor Terry A Lovat, PhD. Pro-Vice Chancellor, Faculty of Education, University of Newcastle

This is a courageous attempt at articulating from a scholarly perspective. You have given this tension clarity, substance and a thorough research-based underpinning. You have done a great service to every church member. This work should become an important and significant reference for all who are interested in the religious/denomination destiny, and should become a compulsory text for all theology/ministry students.

Dr Paul Buschenhofen, PhD. Former Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Avondale College

It is massive, impressive and valuable. It has filled in historical gaps of my knowledge of the past. I found it fascinating.

Dr Desmond Ford, PhD (Michigan) PhD (Manchester). Former Head of Theology Department, Avondale College

I believe that the description you have provided can be very instructive for the Church and for Avondale. There is a great deal here that can assist Avondale and the Church to come to terms with its own history.

Dr Barry D Oliver, PhD. South Pacific Division of Seventh-Day Adventist's President and Former Senior Lecturer, Avondale College Faculty of Theology

Your work overwhelms me. Fascinating; worthy. A privilege to read.

Dr Robert Wolfgramm, PhD. Former Lecturer, Faculty of Sociology, Monash University

This book is a very fine piece of work and will stand as a valuable contribution to the scholarly literature in this area.

Professor Ronald S Laura, DPhil (Oxon) PERC; Fellow (Harvard); Former Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Newcastle

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