Gary Land, Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2014. 247 pp. + 3 pp. Appendix + 6 pp. Index. Hardcover, $22.99.
The late Gary Land was a master of the craft of history. After four decades of teaching history, he left two posthumous jewels, a third edition of his Dictionary of Seventh-day Adventism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014) and this latest contribution to the Adventist Pioneer Series. Land utilizes many unpublished materials that Eugene F. Durand for whatever reason did not incorporate into his dissertation (later published in 1980 as Yours in the Blessed Hope, Uriah Smith). However, the real contribution by Land is his ability to contextualize Smith’s life and background, which in turn gives the modern reader a special opportunity to critically, yet empathetically, understand the world of early Adventism.
Smith was a naturally conservative individual, both in terms of theology and temperament, who once he staked out a position, stuck with it. Perhaps one of the foremost contributions of Land is to clearly identify Smith’s use of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, something that William Miller and other early exponents of historicist prophetic interpretation also used in their approach to Scripture. Smith remained committed throughout his life to the idea that all people, once they study the Bible, will ultimately come to the same conclusion. He did not find this in tension with his concomitant position to progressive truth (30-31).
One of the highlights of the volume is Uriah Smith’s relationship to Ellen G. White’s prophetic gift. Early on he argued that Ellen White is not an addition to the Bible (71). Despite biting testimonies directed at him and his family, he took a posture of resistance followed by confession and submission (84, 137). Ultimately he became a stalwart defender of the prophetic gift, noting that critics misinterpret, ignore context, or overlook relevant facts (72). Land observes that the church could have benefited by Smith’s understanding “that her writings were subordinate to the Bible and his distinction between her writings based upon visions and those that were not” that could have alleviated later problems within the denomination at the 1919 Bible Conference and later in the 1970s (245).
Land does not pull any punches by holding back from Smith’s flaws. Apparently Smith was an eloquent writer, but not the best public speaker (139-140). He was also a workaholic who traveled a great deal, but still missed his family (157). This created a severe strain on his wife, Harriet. Perhaps Smith’s greatest weakness was his inability to say “no” to church leaders who often pushed him into administrative positions where he was not comfortable. Smith was a “man of the pen rather a decisive executive” (83). In this way, Land believes, that the church dragged him into conflict he would have preferred to avoid. During the 1860s and 1870s there were a series of conflicts with James white, then later with a power struggle at Battle Creek College between two educators that culminated in the closing of the school for a year, and finally with the Minneapolis 1888 controversy. The modern reader will find insight as Land deftly introduces the reader to personalities and issues, and how often many of these conflicts were intertwined.
Smith’s greatest contribution was his role as the editor of the Review and Herald. As the flagship periodical of the denomination he guided the church during its formative years in its doctrinal thinking (143, 243). He helped to develop a continuing education program for ministers (106) that developed into regular ministerial institutes (110-111). His role as editor morphed to also include that of Bible teacher at Battle Creek College. His articles and books helped to define Adventist beliefs, but no area did he make a great contribution than in publishing commentaries on Daniel and Revelation (revised later on into a single volume). As a leading exponent of Adventist doctrine he represented the denomination at Seventh Day Baptist General Conference sessions and articulated the first unofficial list of Adventist beliefs (107). He wrote major treatises on the sanctuary and the state of the dead, although according to Land, no doctrine was more important than the seventh-day Sabbath (156-157).
Land notes that what surprised him the most after studying his life was despite the fact that Adventism, and American culture, changed so much that Smith changed very little in terms of his general outlook upon life and Scripture. Beyond doctrine Smith also warned against Adventism drifting toward popular amusements, but, although he avoided pork, he also grew concerned that Adventists might take rigid stances in lifestyle that could create a backlash. He was especially concerned that Adventists be flexible in eating fish, for example (192). In fact, he worried, that some vegetarian foods were nothing short of “Hygienic” terror (198).
Altogether Smith was a “complex individual (246). He was both friendly and liked to make new friends, but could place a somber picture outside his office to remind people that he should not be disturbed and to allow him to concentrate upon his writing. He was a creative individual who invented two forms of the prosthetic leg, a very practical invention since he lost his one leg due to an infection as a boy, but earned some notoriety for invention a horse’s head for automobiles (224-225). Altogether, Smith was a man who anchored his roots within an Adventist worldview, and guided the denomination even as he saw the church drift away into territory that made him uncomfortable. I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in better understanding the life and thought of Uriah Smith, and thereby obtain a much better understanding of the development of the Seventh-day Adventism.