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americanprophet

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. Edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt , Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. Buy here

I just did something I would never have imagined myself doing: I just finished reading a book about a woman I spent a good part of my life disliking intensely: Ellen White. Before I go on, let me give you the link information. The book is Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, and it’s edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. Actually, Dr. Aamodt is the reason I read the book in the first place. I had the privilege of sitting in her American literature classes while I was in college, and working for her in the Writing Center at Walla Walla College (now University). In those years I came to respect her scholarship a great deal. Her name on the cover, and my respect for her academic integrity, prompted me to do something I would never have done otherwise: I bought a book about Ellen White.

For those of you familiar with Seventh-day Adventism Mrs. White needs no further introduction. For others a brief explanation is in order. In the early to mid-1800’s America experienced a surge of religious fervor. During that period a number of spiritual movements gave rise to new, uniquely American religions: Christian Scientism, Adventism, and Mormonism all arose out of that spiritual awakening. Ellen White, arguably the most powerful force in the formation of Seventh-day Adventism, came from a Methodist background by way of Millerism, a splinter Methodist movement that held that Bible prophecy predicted Jesus’ return around 1844. As the time grew nearer the Millerites got a great deal more specific than that. Eventually they pinned the date down to October 22, 1844. Obviously, something went grievously wrong, and instead of departing in glory the Millerites were left with what came to be known as the Great Disappointment–surely an understatement, if ever there was one. (By the way, several of these links will take you to Wikipedia; I’m trying to stay away from apologists or critics here. American Prophet covers the subject in far more detail, and it’s fully sourced and endnoted, if you’d like to explore further. Or if you’d like to read a pretty sacrilegious account with no citations at all you can go here.)

In the wake of the Great Disappointment the Millerites began searching for some explanation. Eventually disappointed Millerite Hiram Edson got a vision in which a heavenly being told him, “The Sanctuary is in heaven.” Ellen White confirmed this. The nice thing about this interpretation was that it meant all that time doing calculations and preaching about the importance of October 22, 1844 hadn’t been wasted. Indeed, for a time the Advent believers preached that only those who had accepted their message by October 22 would be saved–that on that day Jesus walked from one room in the heavenly temple into another room, and closed the door behind him. The work remaining, they believed, was to keep each other strong in the faith, not win new converts. As time passed and there was no Jesus the “closed door” doctrine was abandoned (more about this later).

It was during this period–just before 1844 and then shortly after–that Ellen White rose to prominence based on her visions, which spanned topics as diverse as ancient history, scriptural interpretation, doctrine, land purchases, diet, education, health, how the world would end, and masturbation. The woman wrote. A lot. She wrote books (more about that also later). More to the point, she wrote “testimonies,” letters directed to churches, organizations, and private church members, recounting what she said God had shown her in vision (more about this later, too). The testimonies often dealt with matters that the recipients would have preferred remain private–something that in fact many people cited as proof of their holy origins (I would think first of gossip, but that’s just me). Enough of her “testimonies” were “right on the money” to convince the fledgling Adventist church that her visions were “of God,” (and more of this later, too.) The letters were gathered, edited, and published as a collection of books which were widely read in Adventist homes, and even more frequently quoted by the devout in my own childhood–often inaccurately and/or out of context–to support personal opinions. Not to put too fine a point on it here, I came to regard Ellen White as a bully, and her writings as a club. I was not alone.

Growing up in the Adventist church, I had heard about Ellen White’s more educated detractors, generally as examples of “the devil working hard in these last days.” I never heard any official church response that went beyond “of course she was a prophet, so of course her visions came to her from God, just like she said.” When I left the Adventist church I left the controversy behind me; I was just so darned grateful to not have Ellen White weighing in on my every action that did my best to forget. And then, because the Internet is a remarkable and sometimes wonderful place, I stumbled across the writings of some Ellen White’s detractors. What I read didn’t sound so much like “the devil working hard” as it did like legitimate concerns about scholarship, ethics, and personal and professional integrity. But then again, these were her “detractors,” right? I read. I said, “Hm.” But hey, I wasn’t an Adventist anymore; the controversy no longer had any real immediacy for me. I had already decided that the Ellen White I knew best wasn’t someone I cared to continue knowing. Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy this book out of any warm and fuzzy feelings for Ellen White or her books; I bought it because Dr Aamodt contributed considerable time and effort to it, and if anybody could put Ellen White into some sort of realistic perspective it would be she.

I found out about the book because I happened to read an interview in Spectrum’s blog, and then the comments, which reminded me of the three bears: Some found the book too hard; some found it too soft; others found it just right. So when I started reading I didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t take long for me to figure out one of the sources of controversy: the book is the combined work of a number of scholars and, while all document and source their work extensively, each has a unique perspective. Some of the writers seem to support White as a prophet; others focus on other aspects of her life: her literary work, her speeches, her health reform, her educational activism, and her promotion of the temperance movement, and simultaneous rejection of women’s suffrage. Yet others deal with the controversies around her use of undocumented sources in producing materials she came in visions from God.

I found myself fascinated by the complexity of a woman I had seen from one point of view–my own. As several of the scholars acknowledge, studying Mrs. White is  studying paradox. Any book that attempts to deal with Mrs. White as a person, a prophet and visionary and woman rooted in and shaped by her times is going to be something of a Rorschach test.

Which is sad, because the scholarship that has gone into this book is impressive, and the very thing that a number of Spectrum’s responders found most annoying–that the authors didn’t take a hard enough line on the question of Mrs. White’s divine inspiration–is the thing I found most worthy of respect–ultimately, I finished the book precisely where I wanted to be–far more informed about a subject about which I should have known much, and really knew very little, and able to form my own opinions.

And what opinions did I form? None, really–but I’m asking better questions. Here are some of them:

1. Where did Mrs. White’s ideas come from? Nearly from the beginning critics have noted that Mrs. White’s “visions” seemed derivative. Certainly her health reform message owes much to other reformers of her day. The problem reaches epic proportions in her later books, particularly the “Conflict of the Ages” series, which scholars–including scholars from the White Estate–have demonstrated is largely plagiarized from other writers.

Attempts to defend the books have tended to fall back on the “people didn’t look at plagiarism then like they look at plagiarism now” argument, but that argument fails when one realizes that the charges were brought while Ellen White was still fully capable of explaining her source use–but she chose not to respond. Later editions of one of the books most heavily criticized was revised to include some source documentation, and Mrs. White included a note indicating she had used other sources as well, but since God, and not the writer she was citing, was the authority, she had seen no reason to credit the previous scholar’s work, ideas, or words.

I find this enormously troubling. Because Adventism was so heavily shaped by Ellen White’s writings, the question of where she derived those ideas is central to her authenticity. Her ideas and the books that many Adventists regard as next thing to canonical were clearly heavily shaped by other writers–even the portions that she claimed to have seen in vision. This poses an important question about how inspired her works may or may not be. If she had ever claimed that God inspired her to copy others’ work, there might be a basis for claiming an alternative, though suspect, form of inspiration. But she didn’t. She claimed the messages and images came to her in visions, and that she had deliberately not read others’ work precisely so she could not be said to have been influenced by anyone other than God himself. The scholarship shows that unless her visions featured God reading her others’ books slowly enough for her to get everything down that simply isn’t the case. If I were still an Adventist, the question I would be asking is, “So what do we do with this?”

2. How heavily were Mrs. White’s visions and testimonies influenced by self-interest? A number of her “testimonies” had to do with people not giving enough to support “God’s work”–the spreading of the Advent message. Other testimonies decried the money donated going to people she felt were unworthy. It all sounds very high-minded until one realizes that in writing those testimonies she was basically using her position as God’s messenger to wring funds out of people who might very well be less well-off than she was. The same thing applies to other visions, which seem to dovetail rather nicely with the White’s business aspirations. Were those testimonies from God, or were they prompted by something more personal?

While it would be going too far to say that she never sacrificed for her cause, it is also true that she lived much of her life in comfortably affluent circumstances: She had an estate in Australia, another in California, and a summer home in Colorado. She earned enough from the sale of her books–which God conveniently instructed her to tell people to buy by the gross to spread the word–to not only keep herself comfortably but to be able to donate generously to causes. She could afford servants–and advocated that women do as she did: hire servants to care for their homes and children so they could go on the road for God. She could afford to take “water cures.” Sacrifices there might have been, but there were also financial rewards–many of them enhanced by the very best celebrity endorser of them all–God Himself, through the voice of his humble servant Ellen White.

Likewise her denigration of others’ claims of prophetic gifts. American Prophet paints a picture of Adventism’s early roots in the “shouting Methodist” tradition–a tradition that included a number of people prophesying, speaking in tongues, falling into trance states, and so forth. Ellen Harmon was by no means the only person claiming visions–and being regarded as divinely inspired. More that one writer notes that her husband, James White, played a key role in her rise to prominence–and that during a time period when he refused to publish her visions and testimonies in the fledgling Adventist periodical he edited her public career languished, and her visions virtually ceased. When he was replaced as editor by someone who began publishing her words again the visions came back. James learned his lesson, and again promoted her as God’s special messenger. In the beginning a number of people experienced visions and contributed to the formation of Adventism. Before many years passed, though, all the prophetic voices other than Ellen White’s had either ceased–or been condemned as “false prophets” by God, via Ellen White.

When she defamed others who claimed to have Word direct from the Mercy Seat, was she doing God’s will, or shoring up her position as Adventism’s sole prophet? I don’t know, but I am troubled by her willingness to declare others whose vision of godliness didn’t dovetail with hers false prophets, even as she herself was demanding that her visions and utterances about everything under the sun be accepted as God’s words. We are left with the Rorschach test–either she was exactly what she said she was or she was a consummate career woman who parlayed a tenuous position into enormous success.

3. About those “signs” that proved her visions were really visions: People claimed that she was weak and sickly, and certainly she spoke often about how sickly she was, and how difficult the charge she had been given, but after reading American Prophet I wonder. She was healthy enough to travel the world. She was healthy enough to preach regularly. How sick was she, really?  Certainly she self-reported a laundry list of illnesses, but her constant activity tells another story. Maybe she really was sick, and God constantly intervened, shoring her up so she could preach, travel, and write–or maybe she was stronger than she thought.

4. How different was she really from the “false prophets,” mesmerists, and hypnotists she so decried? Maybe those who found similarities between her visionary trance state and mesmeric and hypnotic trance states were onto something. Certainly holding an 18-pound book at arm’s length for an extended period of time is amazing–but people are capable of amazing feats, given the right motivation and circumstances. Perhaps the trance state allowed a woman who saw herself as weak and sickly the opportunity to be something more. Certainly, she was part of an era where people were primed and ready to see signs and wonders. Again, we find the Rorschach test. Those who believe will see God’s hand; others will see a story  it is impossible to prove, perpetuated by those with a vested interest in its veracity.

5. What about the prophetic visions that didn’t pan out? And with the visions God didn’t give her?  (One would think that somewhere He would have thought to whisper, “Take the cornflakes patent.”) She explained them away by saying the God’s people had failed–that they had not worked hard enough, been devout enough, sacrificed enough for the furtherance of his work (and incidentally the support of the Whites). But again, we’re faced with a central issue–if this is God speaking through his servant Ellen White, and if he “knows the end from the beginning,” as Ellen White maintains time after time, why would he give her information he knew to be false?

6. What do we do with the evolution in her visions? Certainly we would expect her views to change and evolve as a person, but she was claiming to be God’s spokeswoman. Things she was “shown” early in her life (I’m thinking particularly of the “closed door” doctrine, which held that no one who had not accepted the Advent message by 1844 could be saved) she disavowed later, when motivating the faithful to continue supporting “the work” dictated that there be some point to continuing that work. Obviously, if salvation was impossible for everyone who had not seen the light by 1844, there was no point in continuing proselytizing. Nor would there be any point to further church growth. Adventism might have continued as a health and education reform movement, but as a religion it would be defunct.

So what do the Rorschach inkblots say about me? I find myself going back to two issues that for me, discredit her. The first is that she lied about how she wrote her books. This is about more than just unauthorized borrowing. This is about her own descriptions of her process. She claimed that she had gotten her information in vision, straight from God, and that she had subsequently “found” the same information in others’ books, and appropriated it for her own. This might have explained a few isolated instances of plagiarism, but when estimates of appropriated material run from 30 to more than 70 percent of some of her books it simply no longer is credible. The reality is that Ellen White hired researchers and editors to both mine her previous writings and the writings of others, and then repurposed  or simply regurgitated the work for her current book. While I believe inspiration can take many forms, and one can indeed be inspired by something one reads, the central fact remains that when Mrs. White denied that she had been inspired by reading others’ work (or having others seek it out and then present it to her) and instead claimed that everything came to her directly in a vision from God she lied about her manner of inspiration. For me, that fact casts doubt on her other writing, particularly her testimonies, where so very often what God ‘showed’ her proved spiritually, professionally and financially advantageous to her personally.

And that, of course, begs the larger question: If Ellen White was less prophet than savvy enterpreneur, what happens to the religion that was so profoundly shaped by her words? Does it simply ignore its prophet’s feet of clay, or does it examine itself, excavate its own “present truth,” and find a way of being a positive influence a troubling world by moving beyond one of its central, if increasingly questioned, foundations?

And the final question: What if it wasn’t a case of either/or, but both? What if Ellen White did receive information in visions (leaving aside the question of where they may have come from) at some points–but then, when visions failed her, what if she resorted to other, less savory, methods? Would such a person be worthy of the veneration she still, in many cases, receives? Is it possible to determine what material was inspired by God, and what was inspired by perceived financial need, by the drive for power, by the need to protect one’s income, by the need to continue to be relevant? I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Placing Ellen White in her historical context reveals a fascinating woman who truly achieved remarkable things. But I am not sure the picture I saw revealed a convincing prophet.

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Just in case anybody was wondering how much Ellen White and Adventist history still shape those of us who grew up in the faith, here’s a little snippet from one of my novels for all you religious history buffs. It’s fiction–made-up events about made-up people, but it’s based solidly in history. The Narrow Way is fictional sect I invented so I wouldn’t run afoul of Organized Religion. Enjoy.

In the 1830’s and 1840’s America saw a huge surge in religious interest. New churches opened every other Sunday—and sometimes on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, as well. For a while the Narrow Wayers, the proto-Seventh-day Adventists, the Midnight Cryers, the New Lighters, and the Millerites worshipped together, but then they fell out over some damn thing or other and went their separate ways. I don’t remember it all now, but I do know that when the Advent believers and Millerites and Midnight Cryers decided that Jesus was coming in 1844 Narrow Wayers jumped on the bandwagon and headed for glory right along with them. Among them was Andrew Smyth. He dragged his wife and sixteen kids with him.

Since Jesus was coming before harvest Andrew decided he didn’t need to plant crops. His wife put in a garden so they’d have something to eat in the meantime, but Andrew spent his time reading his Bible and pestering—he called it “exhorting”—his wife, children, and neighbors to shape up or they’d miss the cloud. He gave away his oxen and draft horses. He gave away the milk cow. He gave away the plow. He gave away the farm, although he arranged for his family to stay in the house until Jesus showed up. He gave away the furniture. He gave away their winter clothes.

The day came. Jesus pulled a no-show. Andrew and the other men got together and checked their daytimers. They re-read the prophecies. They checked their math. At first they thought Jesus had just gotten the date wrong, but they went back to mangling those prophecies that deal with good women and whores and horny beasts and horses and skeletons and stuff and figured out that there was another way to look at everything, if they held their Bibles up to the light, closed one eye and squinted just a little.  And it was a date that worked for them, too, which was nice. They got out their daytimers and penciled Jesus in again. It was only a few months; the garden truck would see them through.

I can see it now. Andrew’s wife goes back to gardening, trying to keep the kids clean and fed, and figuring out where the hell to sit in her empty house. Andrew goes back to reading his Bible and pestering people. The day arrives. And Jesus pulls another no-show. At this point Andrew’s getting a little peeved. I mean, Jesus is God’s son and everything, but like ministers’ kids everywhere he’s turning out to be just the teensiest bit unreliable. Of course, Andrew doesn’t say that. He and the boys get together, go over everything again, and irritably re-schedule Jesus one more time, this time for late fall. And they hope to hell he shows, because winter’s coming on and like Andrew, none of them have planted crops, most of them have given away their winter clothes, many of the have given away their farms and emptied their savings accounts and used the money to spread the gospel, and they’ve eaten the last of the garden produce. To do otherwise would show a lack of faith, right? The children are hungry. Surely Jesus wouldn’t stand up hungry children! Jesus loves children, right? They’ll give him every opportunity to redeem himself.

It’s November. Andrew stands on the hilltop with his family and stares up into the heavy autumn sky. The fields lie around them choked in gray, frost-coated weeds. His children have wrapped thin, tattered quilts over their ragged summer clothes. They shiver and wait for Jesus. They stare toward the middle star in Orion’s sword—Andrew and his friends have pinpointed that as the spot Jesus will emerge into Earth’s airspace. They watch, full of anticipation—and possibly just a lingering touch of irritation. After all, they’ve done this before. Andrew stands straight and tall, staring into heaven, willing Jesus to appear. A light streaks across the sky. One of the children screams, “It’s Jesus!”

But it isn’t. Their eyes follow the light’s long arc until the falling star winks out. They let out their breath and go back to watching Orion. “Let’s sing,” Andrew’s wife finally says to take their minds off the cold. They sing “Oh who will come and go with me/ I’m bound for the land of Canaan,” and “We see the gleams of the golden morning piercing through this night of gloom.” But they don’t see any gleams. The wintry night wears on. One of the children, perhaps chillier than his brothers, or perhaps just braver, suggests  singing, “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

“You know better than that,” Andrew says sadly. “I didn’t raise you up to mock the Lord.” Midnight comes. Icy stars twinkle overhead. Andrew looks around at his blanket-wrapped, shivering children, and at his wife. She holds their youngest inside her shawl. The baby’s sick and there’s no money left for the doctor, but Jesus is coming, and they’ve been praying for healing, so it’s all right. Except that Andrew finally understands that Jesus isn’t coming. He looks at his empty barn, the barren fields, and the stripped house, and knows he has been betrayed for the third and final time.

Of course he won’t admit it to anyone, but he feels a sudden, unwilling sympathy for Judas Iscariot, who faced the same disappointment in his Redeemer, and salvaged what he could—thirty pieces of silver. Andrew himself will be lucky to come out of this fiasco as well. Though he never admits it the letters he writes tell the story.

They lived that winter with Andrew’s brother and his family, who pointed out rather more often than the Smyths would have liked that they were here and Jesus wasn’t. The baby died. Worn out from hard work and sorrow, Mrs. Smyth went into a decline and died, too. Andrew came west to “preach the message,” but ended up panning for gold instead. The streets of gold might be beyond his reach, but the gold fields of California weren’t. He struck it rich, or at least well-off, sent for his children, and set about establishing a colony of Narrow Way believers in California.

He married again and had yet more children before his new wife died as well. Before he died himself he’d managed to establish a Narrow Way colony—many of whom were related to him by blood or marriage—and a substantial personal fortune, which he willed intact to his oldest son, cutting the other children out completely. The letters end shortly before his death, so I don’t know if the son actually got all the money, but it fascinates me that a man who would began by beggaring himself for faith would end up so intensely practical. Maybe after Jesus stood him up for the last time he decided that he’d better rely on his own resources. He may have worshipped God, but he sure as hell didn’t trust him.

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Here’s a little taste of On Fire for the Lord.It’s one of my favorite bits, though at the time I was living it I very much wished I weren’t. Enjoy!

The summer I turned four I realized that the women in our church fell into two groups: the Good and the Wicked. The Good wore pointy brassieres on their high, cone-shaped breasts, neat fluffy sweaters over the pointy brassieres, and neat modest pencil skirts over flat, girdle-smashed bellies and backsides. They formed trios, had their hair done weekly downtown at the College of Beauty, wore matching dresses and scarves, and played the piano or the organ as opposed to the guitar or the drums. Their daughter arrived early for Sabbath School. They petticoats were starched, and their ringlets perfect. They ate only vegetarian foods, and quoted Ellengy White, who they referred to as “Sister White.” They pressed their flattened palms together, bowed their heads, and closed their eyes when we prayed like the children in Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, and called God “Our Dear Kind Heavenly Father.” The Wicked were something else again.

Theaters were forbidden, so naturally none of the Good Adventists would admit to having seen The Sound of Music, but word of the Family von Trapp had penetrated even our closed society, and family musical groups became all the rage. Such groups were known simply as “The Allen Manuel Family,” “The Dave Swanson Family,” or even more simply, as “The Singing Andersons.” These groups achieved some degree of local fame and sometimes even went on tour to other Adventist churches, as long as they were less than a Sabbath Day’s Journey away.

A few families cut records, which they marketed before sundown on Friday nights at Missionary Volunteers and after sundown on Saturday night at Vespers; buying and selling between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday was forbidden. More of the groups got reel-to-reel tapes of church services where they provided special music, spliced them together, and distributed them to their friends, gratis.

When a family friend asked Momma if we girls and Matt could sing special music for the Young Adult Sabbath School class Momma, flattered, said, “Of course. They’ll be happy to.” She did not consult us.
Pam was mortified at having to sing at the Junior High students, many of whom took pleasure in tormenting her. Marie didn’t want to sing, either, though she denied that it was for social reasons. She put a lot of effort into seeing to it that no one dared to torment her. For me, the thought of standing up in front of anybody, even without actually trying to sing, was terrifying, though I was flattered to have been asked, and my dreams of becoming Deldelker enjoyed a brief renaissance. My illusion that this was the start of bigger and better things for us didn’t last long; Pam saw to that. “We can’t sing,” she said bluntly.

“We can, too,” I said hotly. “Sally and I sing like Deldelker.”

“No, you can’t,” Pam said again. “None of us can. We’re flat.”

I looked down at my chest. “So what?” I asked, a bit defensively. “So’s everybody else.”

“No they’re not,” Pam said. “We can’t stay on key, and our voices wobble.”

“Deldelker wobbles,” Sally said defiantly.

“You’re not Deldelker,” Pam said. And that was that. She took organ and accordion lessons; she knew.

I started listening to us with Pam’s ears, and realized she was right. We sounded lost, lonely, and ragged, our thin voices piping out the high notes and chanting monotone through the chorus with none of Deldelker’s round, fruity tones. We had the wobble down pat, though. The song was “Wonderful Words of Life.” Every night after worship, Momma lined us up and drilled us.

“Sing them over again to me
Wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see
Wonderful words of life
Words of life and beeyooty
Teach me faith and d-o-o-o-o-t-y
Beautiful words,
wonderful words,
wonderful words of li-hi-hife
Beautiful words,
wonderful words,
wonderful words of life.”

Marie elbowed me. I elbowed her back, a little harder. Momma glared at us. “Sing nice,” she ordered. “At least try to follow the tune. You could sing nice if you wanted to. Now sing it again.”

We sang it again, sighing heavily between stanzas, yipping out the li-hi-hifes like lovesick coyotes, injecting a little of Deldelker’s wobble when we thought we could get away with it. We sang the wonderful words of life over and over again to the indifferent living room until we were letter perfect and the words had lost all meaning, and then we sang them some more so we wouldn’t forget them before Sabbath.
When we started practicing three weeks before our gig I didn’t care about the song one way or the other; by the beginning of the second week I hated it. By the beginning of the third week I simply stood and chanted sounds loud enough to satisfy Momma.

The Thursday before our musical debut Momma loaded us into the car and drove us over to a Wicked woman’s house to practice. Though she had agreed to be our accompanist, she looked no more pleased about the arrangement than we were. When we filed in her front door I looked around curiously, trying to spot something I could clearly identify as Wicked, but  it was just a tiny old house, both a little nicer and a little messier than ours. I wouldn’t have suspected she was Wicked at all if I hadn’t known that she was divorced and wore miniskirts.

She sat down at her organ and began thumping out our song. We straggled in on the third measure. Momma made us stop and start again until we all came thumping solidly in on “SING them ovER aGAIN to ME…”

After two repetitions the Wicked woman slid off the organ bench and said, “That’s enough; they’re as good as they’re going to get.” And we were, which was too bad.

“They’re going to laugh at us,” Pam muttered as we drove home.

“So what?” Momma shot back. “They laughed at the Lord.” Pam had no answer for that—everything that hurt us, Jesus had had, and worse. What right had we to complain about anything?

Friday night Momma ironed our matching lavender gingham cross-stitched skirts and wound pink spongie curlers into our hair, as she did every Friday night. We each had an assigned hairstyle. Pam’s was a sort of log that ran around her head, topped by a donut on her forehead. Marie’s was ringlets, or a ponytail surrounded by a doughnut. Mine was the log with straight bangs. Sally alone didn’t have to suffer rollers; she had Momma’s naturally curly hair. That Friday when Momma wound the rollers into our thin, fine hair, she swathed our heads in scarves and hair nets, and threatened us within an inch of our lives if we lost even one roller.

The next morning I got up and pulled off my hair net. Three rollers lay in it. My heart sank. I scurried into the bathroom and looked. Straight muddy blonde hair dangled over my right ear. Pink rollers clung to my scalp above my left ear. Momma poked her head into the bathroom, took one look, and yanked the curlers free. She ran a comb through my hair, wound as much of the log around her finger as she could, then rolled the straight part and sprayed it hopelessly.

Finally she sighed, said, “That’s the best I can do,” and turned to Pam, whose doughnut had smooshed into a flat tire. When we were done she looked at us, tight-lipped. Our hair had become an Act of Outright Defiance. We could have had pretty curls, like she and Sally did. We just hadn’t tried hard enough. “Sing it through just once more,” Momma said. “Just to be sure.” We started half-heartedly. “Not like that,” she interrupted us. “Like you’ll sing it for the Young Adults.” We started again, floundered, forgot the words.

“Sounds like you didn’t make’em practice enough,” Daddy observed, jingling the car keys. “Sounds like they spent too much time outside playing.” Guilt swamped us.

“You kids get in the car,” Momma said. We drove to church in silence. Momma herded us down the long flight of crumbling steps to the school, where the Young Adults worshipped. I was too frightened to relish the fact that I was skipping Sabbath School, something I had long yearned to do.

Momma opened the door to the Young Adults’ Sabbath School room. Her friend, the class leader, came bustling back to us, smiled her infectious smile, said “hello,” then bustled back up to the front. “Today we have a special treat,” she said brightly. “The Dan Parkhurst Family will sing ‘Wonderful Words of Life’ for us.”

And it hit me. The Young Adults thought we were a musical group. Boy, were they ever in for a surprise. The Dan Parkhurst Family shambled to the front of the room. They darted a quick glance at the lanky bepimpled high school boys lounging in their chairs in their Mandarin-collared shirts, and at the teased-and-hair-sprayed high school girls in their miniskirts, go-go boots, black eyeliner, and white lipstick.

As one, the Dan Parkhurst Family dropped its eyes to the floor, where they remained throughout the performance. My own particular memory of that experience is of a pee-colored stain shaped something like what I later learned was Florida.

The Wicked woman teetered over to the piano in her tight little miniskirt and spike heels. The bepimpled boys in their Mandarin collars gaped, open-mouthed, as she shimmied onto the stool and spun it experimentally. Then she pounded out our introduction, and we were….ON.

“Sing them over again to me…” we whispered. “Wonderful words of life.”

Momma and Daddy’s friend smiled encouragingly from the back of the room. The Young Adults were silent—apparently equally stunned at the sheer improbability of five tone-deaf children in a single family, at our nerve in attempting something for which we were clearly unfit, and at the Wicked woman’s tiny skirt.

We stared at the floor, our mouths opening and closing like goldfish. I assume at least some sound came out; it could not have been good. I have a dim memory of our old family friend hustling us out of the room when it was over. We had been granted our five minutes of fame and we had squandered them.

Momma chivvied us back up the hill in time for our Bible Study classes. On the way home after church Daddy asked, “How did it go? Did you remember all the words?”

“Yes,” Pam replied. I couldn’t have told him if I remembered all the words or not.

“See, you can do it if you try,” Daddy said smugly. “I told you so.”

“But we were awful,” Pam burst out. “We sounded awful.”

“But at least you tried,” said Daddy.

“But we were awful,” Pam protested again. “They laughed.”

I was surprised; I had been too terrified to see anything except for the pee stain.

“So what?” Daddy asked. “You did your best.”

“But we were awful,” Pam muttered sadly. “They laughed.”

Marie folded her arms and set her jaw. Her blue eyes were steely. “I’m never doing that again,” she announced.

“Yes, you will,” said Daddy. “The church is full of people who won’t help out because they can’t do something perfectly. If you’re asked again, you’ll do it again, young lady. And you’ll keep on doing it every time you’re asked. I’m not going to have my girls saying ‘no’ when they’re asked to do things.”

There is this to be said for doing something very, very, badly: People don’t ask for an encore. Perhaps the truest measure of the Dan Parkhurst Family’s musical career lies in its brevity; we were never, ever, invited to sing anywhere again. The moral of the story lingered on, though. We understood that, no matter how good the reason, and no matter how painful we found a thing, we could not say “no.”

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So I’m publishing another memoir–I’ve got the preview online for curious readers–such is the magic of CreateSpace–and will have the final corrected version up in the now-foreseeable future. I’ve published a number of books now, and I think it’s safe to say that they tend to raise eyebrows, and sometimes hackles. This is funny, because if you met me in person you’d think I was so nice as to be nearly invisible–really. I went to boarding school for two years. At graduation I had classmates tell me, “I didn’t know you were in our class.” In grad school a fellow student informed me that I was “the easiest person on the world to ignore.”

It’s called “protective coloration,” and all the smartest animals understand its value. Protective coloration allows those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t have the tools or stamina to win brutal confrontations to survive by stealth. It allows us to blend, to disappear into the background, to become invisible. Sometimes we manage to evade detection long enough to discover our writers’ voices, and, like explorers returning from unknown lands, tell our stories.

Some of those stories are lulus. That protective coloration works precisely because it allows us to be overlooked, forgotten, dismissed. We become the “fly on the wall.” Because our survival depends on it, we become master observers, and while we don’t remember everything, we remember far more than those whose stories we have shared–however peripherally–like to think. And then we find our voices. It’s not that what we’re saying isn’t true–although that’s a common accusation–so much as that we tell uncomfortable stories. Writing truly can be like that. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” None of which makes our critics any less irate.

All of which brings me to my latest memoir, On Fire for the Lord, and Other Scalding Tales. I almost published it as fiction. But I didn’t. This is my story, and as Anne Lamott says, I “own it.” It’s part of what has made me who I am. To call it fiction is to betray myself, to say that what I remember isn’t true, that those who preferred to dismiss my uncomfortable memories as examples of my “weak grip on reality” and attempts to garner an unfair share of praise and/or sympathy were right. I would have probably been a happier child had I had less of a death grip on reality, and as for praise–well, this book isn’t likely to get me much of that, either. I was not a particularly admirable person. Sometimes I wasn’t even a very nice one. This book isn’t about nice, or admirable, or victimization. It’s about growing up as part of a strict Seventh-day Adventist family, in a home where there were too many secrets.

This was not an easy book to write. The stories reflect my my life as I remember it, though I’ve changed names and identifying characteristics to protect the privacy of others whose lives my story touches. The act of writing anything involves selection and pruning if the writing is to have any meaning. These stories are true–but they are not the whole truth. My siblings have stories they could tell–and I wish they would. I think we’d all understand each other better.

I hope that those who wish to understand Adventism will look further than my story, mostly because it is my story. It’s a personal experience, shaped by a unique set of influences. It doesn’t reflect the reality of every Adventist home–a fact I was recently reminded of when I participated in a group studying the effects of Adventist children’s literature in general, and Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories in general. Though all of us who participated had grown up in “good Adventist homes,” our childhood experiences differed radically. My story is not the whole story. But it’s part of it. And worth telling. And so I did, because while we were perhaps not typical, neither were we unique. And most of all, we were Examples. And we were broken. If for no other reason, that makes understanding our story worthwhile, because the things that broke us were things that we found in our family history, in our church, and in the face of God we were shown.

But I found other things there as well. I found truly lovely moments. I found a love of scholarship. In some of my teachers I found inquiring minds and a willingness to look hard at ideas. Ultimately, I found the tools I needed to make one of the biggest decisions of my life–the decision to be honest about what I believed and what I didn’t, where I found comfort and where I didn’t. The tools Adventist education gave me were the tools I used to break down the prison that Adventism had erected around me. While On Fire for the Lord is a simple book at first glance–it’s just a collection of short stories grouped around a single theme–it explores a complex situation to which there were only complex answers.

 

 

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