The Question of Debates
By E.L. Maxwell
Public debate with ministers of other denominations was at one time a very live issue with us, but of late years this has not been the case, which is no doubt due largely to the fact that our denomination has come to be a recognized factor in the evangelization of the world. Still there are yet to be found, here and there, a few valiant spirits who feel that they can and should cross lances with Seventh-day Adventists.
When I entered the ministry, thirty years ago, in the southwest part of the United States, the social and religious state of that portion of the country was in a ferment, due to its recent settlement. Each religious worker seemed to be a law unto himself, and challenges and debates were common. It was scarcely possible to hold a religious meeting without being obliged to meet or reject a challenge. During the ten years of 1901-11 I found myself engaged in twenty-eight of these wordy struggles. In those days we sought to soften down the harshness of the word "debate" by calling it a "public discussion."
Until January, 1908, I was engaged exclusively in evangelistic work, holding meetings in many parts of Oklahoma and what was then known as Indian Territory. Many times I was challenged to debate, but after my first acceptance of a challenge, I sought to avoid any further acceptance, and in this I succeeded; so that when I refer to my contact with twenty-eight debates, it is to be understood that all but one grew out of challenges made to my brethren. Following that first debate, I made a careful- study of the instruction which the Spirit of prophecy had given concerning debates, and this led me to refuse to accept any further challenge. A brief summary of my findings in the study of the precious instruction given to the minister in this important matter, will be found on page 12, under the section "Gem Statements." If the minister who is contemplating entering into a debate, will carefully read the citations given, the result will be the acquirement of knowledge as to how to avoid debates, and the advantages to be gained by doing so. It requires a good degree of Christian tact and courage, backed by earnest prayer, to know just how to act under circumstances which usually attend the open challenge to debate by some opposer of the truth. These divinely inspired counsels constitute the best source of information and help which can be found.
Why Challenged to Debate
There are challenges which originate with people who honestly believe they are in the right and their opponent in error, and who consider that a public discussion of the reasons for their faith and the exposure of supposed error, will be doing God service. But such cases are comparatively rare. Most often debates are fostered by men who take delight in this method of securing notoriety and a certain kind of influence, or who feel that it is their duty in this manner to satisfy the demands of the laity who labor under the impression that every professing Christian who does not see through their spectacles should be more or less forcibly convinced of his error. Then there are debates which are brought about as the result of an unfortunate, boastful attitude on the part of some Seventh-day Adventist minister. One experience will serve to make this statement clear:
Some twenty years ago I was called to meet a minister of the Disciple Church who had challenged one of our brethren. On investigation I found that the challenge had been invited through an unwise statement in a sermon, which, as near as I can remember, was this: "We have been preaching this Sabbath truth for more than fifty years, and no one has yet been brave enough to stand up in our presence and deny it." Instantly there arose in the audience a man who declared, "I deny it! And I am brave enough to stand-up in your presence and challenge' you to produce the best man you have to a' debate with me on this whole Sabbath question." After such a public demonstration, the only alternative seemed to' be to meet the challenge, coming from a minister of the Disciple Church.
Fortunately, it is not often that such exaggerated, untrue, and unwise remarks are made by our ministers, but it is quite certain that nine out of every ten debates could be avoided if our workers would present truth in an attractive manner, holding up Christ as the source and center of all doctrine, rather than to indulge in the use of sharp thrusts, witty turns, and the manifestation of a challenging attitude.
When Debate Becomes Unavoidable
In case it becomes necessary to enter into debate, what attitude should the ,speaker assume, what arrangements should be made for conducting the debate, and what is the proper form in which to write up our propositions?
The usual, and perhaps the best method of conducting a religious debate, is for each disputant to choose a moderator (usually one of his own brethren, of dependable age and experience), and the moderators choose a chairman. Usually, a lawyer, a public official, a teacher, or an experienced business man, one who is fair and impartial, makes the best chairman for a debate.
The moderators' duty is to see that their respective disputants represent properly the teachings of the denominations to which they belong, and to assist the chairman in deciding questions of order. The duty of the chairman is to maintain order in the congregation, keeping time record on the disputants, and in conjunction with the moderators, settle questions of order arising between disputants.
In some debates, judges are appointed to decide on and to announce the winner; but as a usual thing this is not desirable, as such decisions mean very little to the listeners. The inconsistency of such decisions is illustrated in the case of the well-known debates on evolution, which took place in San Francisco in 1925, in which two of our ministers, A. L. Baker and F. D. Nichol, took a prominent part. On that occasion the three worthy judges decided on the first debate that evolution is untrue; and on the second, that evolution should not be debarred from the public schools. The whole case was really decided in our favor when the decision on the first of the two debates was rendered, for if evolution is untrue, it ought not to be taught anywhere. Both decisions, however, were rendered at the close of the second night. The daily newspapers saw the evident inconsistency of this, and played it up, with the use of capitals, on the front page thus: "Three eminent jurists decide that evolution is False, but should be Taught in the public schools." Thus, fortunately, in this instance the public was able to see that our side had really won the whole debate.
We must bear in mind that, whatever may be the ultimate object of our opponents in debate, we are endeavoring to preach the truth, and final decision on truth can be made only in the heart and conscience of the individual hearer, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. A vote on the question of who is the winner, either by selected judges or by the congregation, is never conclusive, and is sometimes very embarrassing.
Division of Time and Length of Discussion
An equitable method of dividing the time is to hold sessions of two hours each, the first and the third half-hours being occupied by the affirmative, and the second and fourth by the negative. Experience leads me to suggest that in debates on the Sabbath question, the nature of man, et cetera, it would be well to insist on nothing less than three, and preferably four, sessions of two hours each, for the consideration of each proposition. We have plenty of facts to present to occupy our half of all this time, while, as a rule, our opponents will make their best showing in the first half hour, and thereafter are at a loss to maintain their part of the discussion. As many as three sessions each day may be held, if the time of each session is short.
Buenos Aires, Argentina.
(To be continued)