Seventh-day Adventist journalists and communicators should increase dialogue and consultations with pastors, evangelists, and administrators to build up God’s church, long-time Adventist Review editor Bill Knott said. Doing so will help both parties to fulfill their mission, which is one and the same, namely, “to see men and women make choices for Jesus Christ and become members of His remnant church.”
Knott’s statements were part of his keynote address during the 2022 Global Adventist Internet Network (GAiN) Europe convention in Bucharest, Romania, on October 16. This year, the four-day event gathered more than 180 Adventist professionals working in journalism, radio, TV, social media, and IT for reflection, training, and networking.
Informed by Adventist History
According to Knott, who will leave his current position on December 31, old issues of the 173-year-old Adventist Review magazine include the “most fascinating archive” the church possesses. A careful reading of those yellowing pages reveals that those who led and wrote in the Review during the publication’s first years were often ready to choose sides regarding the pressing issues of the day. For instance, during the first decade of the magazine, John Nevins Andrews and Uriah Smith wrote decisively against slavery. When the United States passed a law requiring every citizen of the free States to assist in the capture and imprisonment of escaped slaves, Ellen G. White wrote, “The laws of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey, and we must abide the consequences of the violation of this law” (Spiritual Gifts, 4b 1864, p. 43).
White also spoke vigorously against the sale of alcohol, and Smith against government lawlessness and the lynching of Black men, Knott said. And in the 1921 Annual Council, the three executive officers of the church signed a letter addressed to then President Warren G. Harding, calling for “a limitation of armaments” and “the abolition of all wars” (Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 8, 1921, p. 2).
Knott said that while we should avoid getting involved in partisan politics, we should never eschew the moral commitments of Adventist editors and writers during the first 70 years of the movement. “It will always be our business to do the work of Jesus in this world, who was called, as the Gospel of Luke remind us, ‘to proclaim release to the captives … [and] let the oppressed go free’” (Luke 4:18).
A Need for Balance
The fact that James and Ellen White, Uriah Smith, J. N. Andrews, and A. T. Jones went after the controversial issues of their day doesn’t require us to do the same today, Knott said. “We cannot make it a mandate to do in one era what the intellectual leaders and the journalists and communicators of another era did under the impression of the Holy Spirit,” he explained.
At the same time, Knott emphasized, “It would be equally false and misleading for anyone to deny that Adventists have the same moral responsibility in today’s world.” He added, “It is self-evident that the Adventism of the first 70 years of the church’s history thrived on addressing the big moral questions of its society with passion and wit and even moral outrage.”
For years leading up to the passage of the Volstead Act in the U.S. Congress in 1919, the Review and Herald actually printed “battle maps” of the various U.S. states that had voted in favor of the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. “And when the Amendment passed, Adventists everywhere celebrated,” Knott reminded his listeners. “The Adventist Review celebrated!”
A Gradual Shift
Knott explained that in the decades after Ellen G. White death, the notion arose that the primary form of the church’s engagement with society was public relations — “the careful management of the public’s perceptions of the church by making certain there were no strong public stances on anything.”
And so, the Adventist Church didn’t protest when segregation laws were reintroduced. In fact, the church segregated African Americans at the General Conference cafeteria and wards in Adventist hospitals, Knott said. “Internationally, Adventist leaders began to find nice things they could say about strong men and dictators who were arising on the European scene and in South America, all in the hope that by not standing out in their society, the church could continue going about its mission unhindered.”
In the United States, GC president J. L. McElhany refused to intervene when hundreds of Adventist Japanese American U.S. citizens were illegally incarcerated at the outbreak of U.S. participation in World War II — even though they made a special appeal to him to stand up for their rights as U.S. citizens, Knott said. McElhany dismissed the issue as being only a “political matter.”
“The goal of being inoffensive … in a morally offensive environment became so much a given that it took the extraordinary efforts … to reposition the church as calling its culture to account for unequal treatment and denial of promised rights,” Knott said.
The Role of Journalists
Knott explained that his goal was not to offer even a brief history of the church’s response to controversial issues. His goal was “to affirm that its editors and journalists and communicators and innovators have always recognized the right to speak to the issues in the denomination and the society that required the consciences of Christians,” he said. “Right up to the present, we are still engaged in the great question that hangs over the church’s editors and journalists and communicators: Does being loyal to the church mean hiding and suppressing information that church members have the right to know — and which they can now easily get from a dozen other media sources? Is it more loyal to the church to tell the difficult truths about the times when the church makes mistakes — in the name of transparency — or should we make the church journalists and communicators an extension of its public relations service?”
While acknowledging there is no easy answer or one that works in every situation, Knott invited his audience, at minimum, to follow some common sense rules. “Adventist journalists do not have a different mandate than do Adventist pastors, evangelists, and administrators,” he said. “Their job, like that of others, is to build up the church of Christ through the way they go about their work as professionals who practice both excellent journalism and excellent faith. Their work will not look the same as a sermon, or a policy statement, or a baptismal service. But it must have as its goal the desire to see men and women make choices for Jesus Christ and become members of His remnant church.”
A Coalition to Tackle Difficult Issues
As a second rule, Knott urged that the Adventist Church’s journalists and administrators must form a coalition of interest to talk through the likely difficult issues before those issues arise. “Having an authorized and functioning Crisis Management team in place that includes both administrators and journalists, decision-makers and communicators, will guide church entities through many difficult moments,” he said.
Regular consultation should be the norm, Knott emphasized, adding that it should include “experienced administrators, loyal journalists, trained legal talent, and persons skilled in crisis management.” He added, “We all function better, and we make better informed decisions when we don’t surprise each other, when we don’t stage unnecessary and pointless arguments to claim our piece of turf.”
Genuine Respect, Active Cooperation
Knott called administrators to practice a genuine respect for those who perform the important journalistic work for the church, and journalists and communicators must move past any anti-establishment inclinations and actively cooperate with church administrators to provide timely, accurate, and edifying content to the membership of the church. “There have always been — and there will always be — intense discussions — even arguments — about just how much to say, and just how much truth can be shared with those have committed themselves to the Lord of truth,” Knott said. “But these are righteous discussions — righteous arguments — that ought never to be ended with raw administrative power or destructive journalistic ‘truth-telling.’”
“Adventism was never given the task of moving smoothly through this world, or being so blandly inoffensive that everyone speaks well of the movement. You cannot pledge to keep the commandments of God and have the faith of Jesus and expect that all people will speak well of you.”
Knott reminded communicators that dialogue has been one of the distinguishing marks of the Seventh-day Adventist Church since before there was a Seventh-day Adventist Church. “Do not settle for a lesser church,” he said. “Be men and women whom the Lord of justice, the Lord of truth, will fully recognize and call His own on that day when He … honors those who stand for the right though the heavens fall.”