August 2, 2021

The Stories We Tell

Our children and our grandchildren deserve a fuller story than we learned.

Bill Knott

Imagine, if you will, that all the stories of Adventism are represented by three brilliant clusters of blue, red, and yellow helium balloons—the kind that set our childish hearts to throbbing when we glimpsed them at the county fair or at a corner vendor in the city.

The blue cluster, arrayed against a backdrop of billowing cumulus clouds, are all the Founders’ stories. They feature the first and second generation of Adventist leaders, men (almost always) of Anglo, Nordic, or Germanic stock who sailed seas, launched colleges, and planted congregations in previously unentered lands. We know these narratives so well that they have now achieved a kind of mythic status: remember when William Miller prayed in the maple grove beside his home, or Joseph Bates once fell into the Erie Canal? And certainly you know how Ellen White helped pick the site for what is now Loma Linda University, and Andrews University, and Oakwood University. We tell these stories for good reason: they are our stories of beginning.

The red balloons are stories we have only begun to see in the last 30 years—the stunning tales of women, people of color, and those who worked a century ago in urban missions or the high reaches of Bolivia’s Altiplano. Their names and briefer versions of their deeds sometimes appear in archived versions of the Adventist Review, or even in books long out of print. Who knew that the champion literature evangelist in North America a century ago was a formerly enslaved Black woman who couldn’t read the volumes she sold to White Southerners? When did you last hear of those who served the church’s outposts in Mongolia, Iraq, and Ecuador before the global disaster of the Second World War? Their stories have been mercilessly reduced to “mentions” in our narratives of “greats,” for their color or their gender or their absence from leadership roles made their stories unworthy of keeping in our official narrative.

Our children and our grandchildren deserve a fuller story than we learned.

The yellow balloons are those of everyday Adventists whose names were never mentioned in this journal, and whose descendants didn’t go on to found colleges, plant sanitariums, or march in mission pageants. Though their faithful tithe and prayer and personal witnessing built everything we have, they usually didn’t “work for the church,” get elected as delegates to General Conference Sessions, or have their names engraved upon a donor plaque in an institutional hallway. And yet we can know much about their lives—if we want to. We can reconstruct the typical experience of Adventist herders in the hills of Tanzania or of laborers in Singapore—what their average income was; how they transported products to the markets; what opportunities they had to educate their children and hold their families together—all while waiting for the blessed hope of Jesus’ second coming. These are the unacknowledged millions of believers—men and women whose stories never took flight.

Tell me now: which cluster of balloons is the truth about Adventism in the last 190 years? Why is it that the skies above us—where winds circulate the stories we want to fly—are mostly filled with only blue, punctuated by an occasional red? Why have we failed to tell the stories that don’t easily fit our founding paradigm—a narrative that privileges Whiteness and English and church leadership positions?

The beautiful bouquet of faith—the glorious admixture of yellows, reds, and blues, and all the colors they create—will yet take flight, God willing. Our children and our grandchildren deserve a fuller story than we learned. The truth about our past is multi-hued, multi-racial, and multi-lingual.

And when we learn one day whom heaven has considered great, we will all be in for a grand surprise—a celebration where a great diversity of balloons will fly above the corners of that city “whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10).

Bring that day.

Bill Knott
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