The Great Pastor of the Church

Calling members to a higher level of spirituality

Merle Poirier
The Great Pastor of the Church

Someone mentioned they thought this Review series might focus too much on the editors and not enough on the Review itself. I’ve pondered this observation and concluded that to write about the Adventist Review without some focus on its editors would be an incomplete picture. More important, I have discovered that “as the editor goes, so goes the Review.” In other words, the paper strongly reflected its editor—their interests, passions, and commitment to “the cause.” But what, I believe, confirms this most is the editorship of F. M. Wilcox.

To sum up Wilcox’s impact, we begin at his retirement. F. D. Nichol, longtime associate, summed up Wilcox’s leadership in these terms:

“Never in robust health, often beset by afflictions, he [Wilcox] made up in spiritual resources what he lacked in physical. For one third of a century he was the editor of the Review. His time of editorship added to that of James White and Uriah Smith, spanned almost one hundred years from the founding of the journal in 1849. . . . Elder Wilcox was a man of great convictions. He stood for something. He kept the faith. To guard and to promote Adventist beliefs and standards was to him more than an editorial duty, it was a passion. No subtle speculations tinctured his writings. No question marks punctuated his declarations on doctrine.”1

F. M. Wilcox was a long time editor of the Review and Herald magazine, the general church paper of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Photo: CENTER FOR ADVENTIST RESEARCH

Lest one think he was high-handed and righteous in tone, the pages of the Review, particularly toward the last half of his tenure, were warm, inviting, and pastoral. In a three-page letter to W. P. Elliott, Review and Herald Publishing House manager, Wilcox wrote:

“Will you bear with me while I ask you to kindly consider several serious questions which concern my mind? There is one leading question, and then other questions naturally growing out of this leading one. Why is it that this work in which we are engaged is not finished and the people of God already in His kingdom?” He then wrote a list of 18 questions, ending with this:

“I feel burdened over this question of the condition of the church in my relationship as editor of our general church paper. That paper [the Review] should be a great pastor of the church. It should minister to the needs of the church. It should point out constantly the dangers threatening the church from within and from without. It should call the church to a higher plane of spiritual life.”2

And point out dangers he did. Authors were solicited to write on a variety of topics seen on the front pages of the newspapers of his day. But Wilcox’s concern never lost his pastoral approach—direct words written with kindness and encouragement toward a relationship with Jesus and righteous living.

Issues of the Day

Prohibition, the prevention by law of the manufacture and sale of alcohol within the United States, began in 1920. Adventists, who espoused a temperate lifestyle, rejoiced. But in 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt, candidate for president of the United States, ran on a platform that included legalizing alcohol again. Up through and continuing after Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933 there was increased urgency in the Review to encourage the continuation of prohibition either through articles or ads.

This ad ran in the February 16, 1933 Review. It encouraged members to purchase tracts to share across their state. Sold only in packages of 1,000, the idea was to spread the tracts far and wide so that people would vote for Prohibition to continue.

The inauguration of Roosevelt in 1933 brought the banking crisis to the forefront, although people had been suffering for years because of the Great Depression. Wilcox wrote “The Haunting Specter of Fear,” an editorial expressing deep feelings for those who had lost everything either through poor investment or loss of a job including those in church employment. “I think often of the severe blow which the present situation in the country has dealt to our various church organizations. Many of our institutions and conferences have been compelled to lay off tried and faithful workers. My heart aches for some of our ministers who, after years of faithful effort, find themselves out of regular employment.”3

The 1930s also saw an increase in editorials and articles on the theater. The first movies with sound as well as color were introduced into theaters in the early thirties. People looking for an escape from life’s burdens could watch a movie allowing them to escape reality, if only for an hour or two. According to the New York Times, about 88 million people went to the movies each week.4 Considering the population of the United States was 124 million,5 this was a little more than 70 percent. Adventists were also found in that number as the temptation to attend loomed large.

The Great Depression first began with the crash of the stock market in 1929 and extended into the early thirties with the banking crisis. Many were out of work and life was difficult for many. Photo: NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

Wilcox wrote two articles for the Review entitled “Theatricals in Our Churches,” which he first sent to C. H. Watson, General Conference (GC) president. Watson replied: “I have no criticism of the articles. The facts which they give have shocked me. I had no idea of such doings in any of our schools and churches. . . . I believe that decisive steps should be taken to protest the sort of thing you describe. It cannot possibly do any good. Its harmful effects on young and old are beyond our calculations. It should not be. It is just wicked worldliness, and has nothing at all to do with getting a people ready for their Lord.”6

Watson went on to counsel that the articles might be “too disturbing” for readers of the Review and that perhaps the contents should be shared with GC leaders as well as leaders of our colleges, academies, unions, and conferences. At this point I should add that if the Review reflected its editor, the paper also was often influenced by which GC president was in office. Wilcox served under four, all with whom he seemed to have a good working relationship.7

While those articles weren’t published, others were. A column for young girls called Girls’ Problems Discussed by Mother Naomi started in May 1933. Mother Naomi, a pen name, discussed any number of questions submitted by young women, including whether it was permissible to attend the theater.

Questions Welcome

The idea of engaging readers through the submission of questions was encouraged by F. M. Wilcox. It was another way to personalize the Review. The questions came directly to Wilcox or columnists on topics related to young people, health, children, theology, and more. Wilcox changed his editorial in 1931, calling it Heart-to-Heart With Our Readers. Loosely started in 1921, he formalized it 10 years later.

“We have thought for some time that we would like to open a column in our church paper where we could talk over some questions in a heart-to-heart way with our readers—questions relating to their own personal experiences, to family problems, to church relations, etc. We hoped that this would bring us into closer personal touch with some who needed help.”8 In this, Wilcox used this editorial approach to reach readers, but also to deliver Bible truths he felt so important. Reading Heart-to-Heart editorials was like taking a walk with a friend. Wilcox would often start by writing an observation from his daily life, such as a trip to the grocery store or a walk in his neighborhood. He’d then move to something in the headlines or answering a question from a reader.

“We receive from the field letters of all kinds,” Wilcox wrote in one editorial. “They bring to us various requests. Some are filled with hope and courage for the future, with praise and thanksgiving to God for His abundant goodness to the children of men; others express the great heart sorrow which the writers feel. It is particularly these last letters that touch a responsive chord in my heart.”9

By the late 1930s, articles dealing with Adventist education began to appear more frequently. In a letter to GC president J. L. McElhany Wilcox wrote: “I feel that there is thrown upon me, as editor of the church paper, a solemn responsibility to hold back as far as possible the flood tide of worldliness that is sweeping in upon the church. I feel deeply concerned over our education situation.”10

By August 1938 Wilcox wrote again to McElhany: “I feel, Brother McElhany, a great burden over our educational situation. Perhaps this is a misplaced burden and one which I need not carry. And yet it is continually thrust upon me. I know that many of our dear people through the field feel that we are traveling a wrong road and they feel that the end of the road will mean destruction to many of our boys and girls, even to some of our teachers.” He ended the letter by advising McElhany of two articles already in production for the Review: “Safeguarding Our Youth” and “Safeguarding Our Schools and Teachers.”11 “I feel quite sure that this will arouse some criticism among some of our educational leaders,” he wrote. “But I feel under God that these things should be said in our church paper.”12

Subscriptions, Please

While the Review was serving as a “pastor” for some, not all Adventists were subscribers. Subscriptions were the bane of an editor’s life. An analysis of circulation between 1921 and 1939 reveals subscriptions peaking at approximately 28,000 in 1928 but averaging closer to 22,000. In 1939 this equaled one Review per just under 8 members.13 While not a poor ratio by any means compared to more recent years, the desire was always: “a Review in every Adventist home.”

Several strategies were engaged to entice more readers. Only 24 pages, content was maximized to provide interesting but concise articles on theology, mission, the home, and the worldwide field. Few illustrations or photographs were used, but a redesign of margins, columns, and a larger font offered easy readability. Testimonies by either lay members or church leaders were published explaining why the Review should be everyone’s top reading choice. I. H. Evans, GC vice president, wrote an article listing 10 reasons one should subscribe to the Review.14

There were annual subscription campaigns. One creative idea was a subscription offer of $1 for one year for a new subscriber. This meant operating at a loss, but it was suggested the GC, Review and Herald Publishing House, unions, and conferences would pitch in to make up the difference. Whether this idea was accepted and whether it was successful I was unable to discover.15

Another marketing tool was to “forecast” what was planned for the following year. The idea, not original to Wilcox, was to alert subscribers that if they let their subscription lapse, the reader would miss out. What was unique to Wilcox was the detail in titles, authors, and more listed several months before the new year began, demonstrating not only his planning skills but office organization.

Something else introduced was the idea of author payments. C. H. Watson, GC president, was asked to write six articles for the coming year. But Wilcox added: “We have not been in the habit of paying for articles for the Review in the past, but this year we are departing somewhat from this plan. We shall be glad to give you $3.00 an article for these six articles, not as pay, because I know that they will require earnest thought and labor, but as an expression of our appreciation.”16 By 1943, writers were offered $10 per article.17

As Wilcox aged, his health declined. Several letters mention suffering from the flu, physical disabilities, or depleted strength. He would decline an invitation to speak, but always include that if duty required it, he would do whatever was asked. This announcement appeared in 1944: “All will regret to learn that because of advancing years and the imperative need for both him and Mrs. Wilcox to seek a warmer winter climate, Elder Wilcox has felt it wise to resign his editorship.” The announcement by McElhany went on to say: “The Review ministers to our worldwide field. More than any other one of our publications it is the voice of the denomination.”18 Because of this they arranged for W. A. Spicer to once again step in temporarily until an editor could be selected.

Elder Wilcox shaped and guided the Review for 33 years. His loss would be felt by the members he cared deeply for. While I’m persuaded the editor influences the Review, I can also agree with J. L. McElhany, who wrote at the time of Wilcox’s retirement, “The Review must always speak to our people. Editors have come and gone through the years, but this journal still stands as a faithful minister working in behalf of this cause.”19

1 Review and Herald, Sept. 13, 1951, p. 24.

2 F. M. Wilcox to W. P. Elliott, Sept. 20, 1942.

3 Review and Herald, Mar. 23, 1933, p. 2.

4 “Celebrating the 30’s, When Nearly Everyone Went to the Movies,” New York Times, Oct. 28, 1979.

5 http://demographia.com/db-uspop1900.htm

6 C. H. Watson to F. M. Wilcox, May 5, 1933.

7 Wilcox was the editor under A. G. Daniells, W. A. Spicer, C. H. Watson, and J. L. McElhany.

8 Review and Herald, July 2, 1931, p. 2.

9 Review and Herald, Jan. 19, 1933, p. 2.

10 F. M. Wilcox to J. L. McElhany, May 5, 1938.

11 These articles were published in the August 25, 1938, and September 1, 1938,  issues in the Review and Herald.

12 F. M. Wilcox to J. L. McElhany, May 5, 1938.

13 Exhibit 2, Review Circulation in North America in Relation to Church Membership, General Conference Archives, General Files, 1939, Francis M. Wilcox.

14 Review and Herald, Jan. 26, 1933, pp. 19, 20.

15 F. M. Wilcox to J. L. McElhany, Sept. 26, 1939.

16 F. M. Wilcox to C. H. Watson, Dec. 6, 1932.

17 F. M. Wilcox to J. L. McElhany, Sept. 13, 1943.

18 Review and Herald, Dec. 28, 1944, p. 16.

19 Ibid.

Merle Poirier

Merle Poirier is the operations manager for the Adventist Review.