You could say that Rachel Williams-Smith lived through parts of three centuries. Today, she is a PhD and directs the Department of Communication at Andrews University. She has one book published, has a website, Facebook page, and cell phone, and in short, is reasonably expert in getting along in the 21st century. She was born in the 20th, but from the time she was about five years old, life began to change for her so that by 9, she was living as if in the 19th. That’s strange enough, but it’s the reason that makes the story most powerful. Her parents had begun to believe in an extremely strict, narrow, and unbalanced view of Ellen White’s writings, added to and confused by teachings from many more modern “back to the Good Old Days” sources.
“There was also,” Williams-Smith says, “a strong element of family dysfunction. Often religious extremism and family dysfunction go hand in hand.” But as a child, she never would have believed that she would one day write a PhD. dissertation on adaptation from her isolated, extreme religious culture to the wider world, and then a memoir that could not only help others, but would also educate those to whom her past is completely foreign. (Visit www.rachelwilliamssmith.com to see more about the book.)
Williams-Smith’s father was in the military during the Viet Nam era, so she and her two older brothers started out living “all over,” including Massachusetts, Alabama, and Spain. It was in the latter country that the foundation for the change in their lifestyle was laid. Williams-Smith says her parents, unable to understand the Spanish services, “began to read a lot of Spirit of Prophecy books. A lot of Spirit of Prophecy books!” When they came back to the states, they also became involved in many of the doctrinal issues being raised in the late 60s to early 70s, especially by Robert Brimsmead’s teachings. Their views on everything from to the nature of Christ to soy versus animal milk were challenged. Williams-Smith remembers being about five when her parents began to follow the strictest of diets. “All the stuff I loved, like eggs and pastry, were gone. But my parents said we’d be healthier —and we were.”
When she was a little older, her mother came to her room and said, “Mrs. White says we should wear long dresses.” Later it was home-schooling and then head coverings. Williams-Smith says, “Two principles shaped every detail of our lives because of our belief in Jesus’ soon coming: separation from the world and preparation for the Time of Trouble. Like many Adventists of that era, I was told I’d never get to be a teenager. Jesus would be here before that. I have to admire that they believed so strongly that Jesus was coming that they were willing to give up things most people are not, in preparation for that,” she adds.
At one point, her parents were reported for home schooling, which was not legal in Alabama. Her military father, she says, was not about to be told what he could or could not do. He took his family and disappeared during the night. For a while the family lived in a bus—at one point, in a state park for about a year. When she was nine, they bought 50 acres in the hills of Tennessee. In fact, the place they lived came to be called The Hill. It was “very remote, hard to get to, surrounded by steep rutted roads and far from any paved roads. There was no running water, no electricity, and only one way in or out.”
In an old, abandoned house, the family began to “carve out a living there, preparing for the soon coming of Christ.” They grew their own food, taught their own children from books that advocated this lifestyle, carried water, chopped and carried wood—in short, Williams-Smith says, “Things back in the 19th century were more real to me than the things in the century in which I was living.” They also began strict observance of all the biblical feast days. Their primary modern luxury was a car.
For the most part, they lived in relative isolation, but visitors did come, and there was one more house up the road. Over time, the family became mentors and teachers of their lifestyle, so people came for training from time to time. At one point, the family sold some property to two brothers, each with a family and they lived up there for a while. And then there was one woman and two children lived on their property in a bus at times over several years.
Apparently these parents did not read all of Mrs. White’s writings, because they missed the many places where she says things like the following [about reform dress, for example]:
“Some who adopted the reform were not content to show by example the advantages of the dress, giving, when asked, their reasons for adopting it, and letting the matter rest there. They sought to control others’ conscience by their own. If they wore it, others must put it on. They forgot that none were to be compelled to wear the reform dress” 4T 636.
Williams-Smith’s parents were not content unless everyone with whom they came in contact knew exactly what they were doing wrong. Williams-Smith describes in graphic detail one meal she remembers not eating. A woman had invited them to dinner and done her best to follow the family’s dietary restrictions, but the family interrogated her and learned she had used the wrong oil, the wrong salt, the wrong kind of pots, and even the wrong water, so they “couldn’t eat it.” “My parents lectured her, giving her an entire study on each of these items. I remember feeling both proud that we knew so much and were willing to stand up for our beliefs, and also disturbed because we had lost sight of what seemed more important—the lady was trying to do something for us. It didn’t seem to me quite like Jesus.” She also saw and heard many verbal fights among those who came—if there was one single detail of difference in belief, people would refuse to eat or worship together, or even to speak.
This was around the time that Williams-Smith, now fourteen, “committed my life to God in a new, more purposeful way. This was pivotal in my life. God began to move into my life in new ways to move me forward. Now I was looking to understand God and his way, and I began to see things that made me question. I knew I wasn’t free to make changes while I lived there. I began to realize things were unbalanced or extreme. I didn’t necessarily process it in that way then, but I knew something was wrong.”
One of the most pivotal events was when one of her brothers was seriously burned, and “going to the doctor was out of the question!” It was clear that her parents were guessing on how to treat him, trying one thing and then another. Her brother almost died. Williams-Smith felt strongly that something was not right. Her greatest prayer was to learn—to somehow get out so she would be able to go to school.
Her opportunity came in a way she did not expect. When she was fifteen, her father unexpectedly left, taking her oldest brother. Her mother and the two children made it through one more winter (“and that winter was awful—the coldest ever!”), then her other brother left to join his brother and father. The lifestyle they had could not be done by two women alone, so they came down off The Hill. At sixteen, Rachel Williams-Smith was pitchforked into the modern world, where she was frightened by passing cars, causing her to run and hide.
But her prayers were answered. She was able to go to what is now Fountainview Academy, but was at the time Fountainview Farms. “Many young people would probably think a self-supporting boarding school was next door to a prison, but to me, oh, my goodness, it was so amazing! I had sought for a place like this to go. I really wanted to learn. I had a thirst for knowledge.”
During her three years up there, Williams-Smith found “a conceptual bridge I had never known existed. I was taught about principles. I had only been taught the laws and rules. You had to do everything exactly right. I was now introduced to principles, those underlying concepts that don’t change when rules do. For the first time, I was able to change. That was amazing to me. It helped me to understand things that never made sense.”
From there to Oakwood to being the chair of the Department of Communications at Andrews was not an easy journey. Having been given very limited tools for dealing particularly with certain social aspects of life, Williams-Smith struggled, and made a lot of mistakes, sometimes serious ones. You can read her entire story in her book Born Yesterday: The True Story of a Girl Born in the 20th Century but Raised in the 19th. The book is available now in ebook format at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and at www.rachelwilliamssmith.com. She hopes the hard copy will be out this month.
“I have come to see,” Williams-Smith told me, “that my life is a gift that has been given to me that can be used for others. I don’t believe God made everything be the way it was—I don’t mean that. But he can bring beauty out of anything and he has. I really have a longing for some way to help, to make a difference. I really feel for people coming out of repressive cultures. I want parents to be aware,” she adds, “that what is precious to you can be damaging for your children depending on how you impart it. Yes, God honors his promises that he will contend with those who contend with you and save your children. But the struggles we put our young people through, especially in families who are extremely religious and rigid, cause much future difficulty, most of which could be avoided.”
By Debbonnaire Kovacs