(Before reading this blog, at least scan “Mount Exmouth and Adventist Teaching” and “Salvation: Courage to Face the Tough Stuff,” posted 2 and 10 March 2012.)
The prophetic charts cherished by the Baptists, Methodists and other Christians who peopled the Second Advent Movement marked out no dates beyond the Jewish year 1843. The Great Disappointment on 22 October 1844 decimated what had been a cohesive movement; Advent believers retreated back to their former churches, fled into deserts of unbelief, or formed movements with new names. After seventeen decades, only one of the new movements looks viable: Seventh-day Adventism, with its 16 million members in over 200 nations.
After 1844, the journey forward for Sabbatarian Adventists was a daunting one. They knew not what to call themselves and their numbers were miniscule, anyway. To some, “The Little Flock” seemed a fitting name. There were small groups of believers in different parts of New England and elsewhere, so “The Little Remnant Scattered Abroad” seemed appropriate for a while. Proposals like “The Church of God” and “The Church of Christ” failed to attract lasting support. Descriptors like “Friends of the Sabbath” and “Those With An Interest in the Third Angels Message” were used briefly. Sometimes concepts relating to the Sabbath and the Shut Door were united so as to form a colourful title, but that no longer suited the movement after 1851.
The Five “S” Landmarks
The great truth that had brought the Advent Movement into being was The Blessed Hope, often described as “the message of the Advent near.” To that big S, Second Advent, four other capital S concepts were added: Sabbath, Sanctuary, State of the Dead and Spiritual Gifts. Together, those five ideas formed comforting landmarks that orientated the Sabbatarians’ pilgrimage. By 1860 they finally agreed on a lasting name for themselves, Seventh-day Adventists; within another three years they had overcome the strong objections to organisation sufficiently to form not only state conferences but a somewhat Methodist-style General Conference.
In 2012, we understand all this history so much better than I did in the 1950s when a great stirring of interest began with reference to the 1840s. Back then, the best sources available to me included Nichol’s The Midnight Cry (1944) and Froom’s The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (1954). Later, as a penniless (should that be centless?) student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Michigan (USA), I cherished the resources of the Heritage Room (now the Center for Adventist Research) at Andrews University and contrived a way to legitimise further research at Aurora College in Illinois during 1972. The treasures in the Advent Christian Church archive at Aurora included about 800 letters from or to William Miller. I still feel a warm glow as I remember the excitement of first seeing those brittle documents. But let’s keep things in perspective: a host of excellent studies have since been published, so the whole picture is decidedly clearer now. Especially is that so since 2002, when Merlin Burt completed an entire doctoral dissertation focused on the period 1844 to 1849. In the early 1970s I was excited by the opportunity to do research in two archives; Merlin Burt did his explorations in seventeen archives!
The church had grown to include perhaps 3,500 members when, from 1863 to 1865, the United States experienced the consummate disaster of a civil war that killed more than six hundred thousand men. American society would never be the same after that; the attitudes of people shifted dramatically. Jon Butler describes the change as from Millerite “boundlessness” to “consolidation.” The early years of Adventism were characterised strongly by a search for truth; for the next generation, the greater need seemed to be to preserve and defend the truth. Adventist evangelists did that very effectively, with their King James Versions of the Bible, open. Armed with the Sword of the Spirit, they put to flight the armies of critics seeking to attack and destroy the Sabbath and other landmark truths they cherished.
A prevailing idea in Sabbatarian Adventism was that time was very short indeed, so it was essential to give a warning message to a Christian world that needed to know the Adventist distinctives above everything else. Why spend time telling Christians about Christ and the cross when they were convinced about the First Advent already; what they really needed, it was assumed, was to know the hour of God’s judgement has come-and that judgement was based on obedience to the eternal Ten Commandments. The “sealing message” focused on the Sabbath as the seventh day of the week. Spiritism was growing, so the “State of the Dead” as knowing nothing was a crucial truth that guarded people again Satan’s deceptions, as was the concept that the Lord was speaking anew, in the way He had done in earlier ages, through a chosen “messenger.” Even late in the 1850s it was assumed there was no time to tell the gospel to all the world; the reference in Revelation 14:6 about the everlasting gospel for “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” would be fulfilled in the melting pot of the nations (the United States) alone.
From Certitude to Crisis
However, by the 1880s there was evidence that a storm was gathering within Adventism. Joseph Bates, perhaps (as contended in George Knight’s scintillating book “the real founder of Seventh-day Adventism”) had died in 1872; James White, the foremost builder of Adventism and its institutions succumbed in 1881. Of the three co-founders, then, only “the messenger of the Lord” remained. The need for consolidation that permeated American society had infused Adventism, thoroughly. George Ide Butler, General Conference president, cherished his association with the founders who had participated in the providential rise and remarkable development of Seventh-day Adventism, as did Uriah Smith, General Conference secretary. Since 1850, the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald had reviewed God’s leading in the Millerite and Sabbatarian phases of the Second Advent Movement and heralded the Sabbath with vibrant faith and great energy. The watchmen on Zions’s walls were confident that all was well. Years before his last sickness, James White had confirmed the central truth of Adventism by commissioning a graphic engraving that pictured “The Way of Life” as focused on obedience to the Ten Commandments.
However, before the death of James, the White’s were already revising the depiction of “The Way of Life” to focus on Christ and the cross rather than human obedience. Next, two young ministers in California, a converted soldier and a medical doctor, began to catch glimmerings of how Righteousness by Faith related to Adventism’s landmarks. They used the church’s missionary magazine, The Signs of the Times, to share their convictions. From a study of Galatians, they started to move toward the understanding that the problem Paul was addressing was not the ceremonial law but the wrong use of law, that is, legalism. The former soldier, A.T. Jones, began to discern that the Adventist interpretations of the symbolic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation may not be as absolute as stalwarts like Uriah Smith had presumed them to be.
It is clear, now, that the debate over the law in Galatians and the interpretation of symbolic prophecy were red herrings that drew attention away from the real issue, the way of salvation. Conflict intensified, however, when Butler published his convictions about the law in Galatians. Battle lines were drawn more tightly when the young doctor, E.J. Waggoner, wrote about the gospel in Galatians, and Jones lectured on the ten horns of the fearsome beast portrayed in Daniel 7.
The Pioneers: Butler and Smith
Bert Haloviak gave effective definition to the terms “pioneer” and “progressive” in a consultation paper delivered in 1980. Both these terms, as employed by Haloviak, are useful for understanding the period. Uriah Smith and George Butler during 1888 epitomised the “pioneer” stance within Adventism in general and amongst the 96 Minneapolis delegates in particular. Butler and Smith were born in 1831 and 1834, respectively, thus they became 57 and 54 years of age during 1888. Both of them had long been suffused with the sense of urgency and the sacrificial spirit so often evident within early Adventism. They were possessed by the same prophetic certainties that galvanised the movement’s founders. They were convinced their church was led directly by God through the ministry of Ellen G. White (1827-1915), and they believed their doctrinal positions shared a comforting consensus amongst its worthiest proclaimers. Landmark truths were many and readily identifiable within their schema. Hence Smith and Butler epitomised the stabilising influences within Adventism and the determination to maintain its continuity, factors usually (and rightly!) characteristic within the central corps of the church’s thought-leadership and administration.
Smith was present when the historic move to Battle Creek took place during 1855. He was the most outstanding editor of the movement’s flagship periodical, the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald; the first elected and most often re-elected General Conference secretary; the most authoritative writer on the interpretation of biblical apocalyptic, especially since 1867 and 1873 when his volumes on Revelation and Daniel were first published. Also, he taught at the church’s premier college in Battle Creek.
Butler, man of the “rugged heart,” was a self-made leader who at a young age drew the scattered believers together as Snook, Brinkerhoff and the “Marion Party” defected in Iowa. He was, up to 1888, the longest-serving president of the General Conference, under whose leadership during 1874 the first college was established at Battle Creek and Pacific Press was initiated on the West Coast. Hence Smith and Butler were the men at the centre of things best fitted to steady the church in a time of crisis.
In contrast to these pioneers, Alonzo Jones and Ellet Waggoner were second-generation “progressives.” Born in 1850 and 1855 respectively, their perspectives on Adventism were different from those of the founding pioneers and their associates. The year after Jones was baptised, John N. Andrews went as the first official missionary to Europe, thus beginning the internationalisation of Adventism, and changing its internal mood. Waggoner attended Battle Creek College, the institution that Butler had founded, before proceeding with his medical studies. Jones and Waggoner became 38 and 33 years of age respectively during 1888. They had only begun editorial careers within the previous five years, and then only on the West Coast, on the rim of the denominational wheel, far from the hub, Battle Creek. Hence Jones and Waggoner were fitted to be innovators rather than stabilisers within Adventism.
Some years after Minneapolis, in Smith’s mind, the General Conference session of 1888 still could not be separated from the controversy over the law in Galatians. For Smith it was “the greatest calamity that ever befell our cause.” Butler continued to speak of “the Minneapolis fiasco,” adding: “I can never believe myself, that God led Waggoner to deluge the denomination with the Galatians controversy.” Both these pioneers were dismissive of the need for any fresh emphasis upon righteousness by faith. Indeed, for Smith and Butler neither that doctrine nor its practical application seemed to be the real issue confronting the church during the last half of the 1880s.
At the time Smith and Butler entered Adventist leadership, stability was the crucial need of the movement. The demand for continuity was constantly being addressed by reviewing the leading of the Lord during the founding years of “The Great Second Advent Movement,” by the development of organisation and by buttressing the doctrine of the seventh-day Sabbath and other landmark ideas in debate with a hostile Protestant world. The final defection of Dudley M. Canright in February 1887 was still painfully fresh in the church’s mind. Both Butler and Smith were able apologists for the principal tenets of sabbatarian Adventism. And they stood tall amongst those who were enunciating Adventist reforms in health and education, Scripture-based emphases that had created a sanitarium and then a college in Battle Creek. Such men spoke with living certainty of a God-led movement based on a theology forged upon the anvil of the Word amidst trying circumstances.
Smith and Butler represented, therefore, a seemingly immovable posture within Adventism. Their determination to foster continuity came into direct confrontation with powerful forces calling for change. There had to be an adjustment in the expression of Adventist faith, a far-reaching reorientation, adequate to accommodate the movement to its new situation. No longer could Adventist evangelists assume it was their main role to warn North American Christians about landmark truths like the judgment, the Sabbath, and the Second Advent. As the towering crisis of 1844 became less dominant with the passage of time, it was crucial for Adventists to redefine both their relationship to what the nineteenth century termed “common Christianity” and their mission to the unchurched within society. The internationalisation of Adventism intensified its need to be seen, unmistakably, as a Christian movement. It was crucial for it to be identified as an evangelical denomination amongst the other branches of Christianity following on from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. Only thus would it be believable as it declared its unique message. Seventh-day Adventists could never expect the world to heed their distinctive doctrines adequately unless, first of all there, was a comprehensive accord with other earnest Christians concerning salvation in the crucified Christ. The movement’s literature prior to 1888 had not denied this imperative; it had either assumed it, or deemed its real task was to declare Adventism’s uniqueness.
This neglect within nineteenth-century Adventism submerged the fact that the movement is by nature an evangelical one, with the inescapable responsibility to emphasise first of all the central message of Christianity. Ellen White ably stated this in her writings, compiled during 1946 into the book Evangelism. The faith of Smith and Butler was born and nurtured in a climate of burning expectancy, in which the Second Advent was seen as so imminent and so urgent that the distinctives replaced the basics. Indeed, the Adventist superstructure was being made to stand without an adequate foundation. Adventism could never fulfil its commission if it remained a North American sect, for it must proclaim “the everlasting gospel … to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.” The forces calling for change in 1888 were powerful ones. When they met an entrenched posture opting for continuity, there was bound to be a destructive collision.
Given their lifetime orientation, it was crucial for Smith and Butler to stand by the landmarks, and it was understandable that they stretched this emotive term to include peripheral issues. Even the identity of the ten horns of Daniel 7 and the law in Galatians could be elevated into non-negotiables within such a system. Both were part of the “present truth,” and the Galatians issue appeared to be (especially for Smith) settled by the Spirit of Prophecy, and thus beyond debate. There seemed to be a latent threat that the message of Jones and Waggoner would lead Adventists into the clutches of the churches that would constitute the last-day Babylon. Thus, for Smith and Butler, the preaching of the progressives sounded perilously like a dilution of the third angel’s message and a move toward ordinary Protestantism. Contrastingly, Ellen White wrote in 1890 that the message of justification by faith is “the third angel’s message in verity.”
In the aftermath of Minneapolis, Ellen White published Steps to Christ (1892) and The Desire of Ages (1898), and much more about the believer’s standing and experience in Jesus Christ. This wealth of material was in continuity with what she said during the conference, but the pioneers experienced mainly pain in response to her stance. Their comments indicate they were confused, they felt bruised, almost betrayed. The high point of Ellen White’s ministry at Minneapolis, her sermon entitled “A Call to a Deeper Study of the Word,” must have intensified their dilemma. Was the one who had a unique responsibility, in a distinctive movement, herself accommodating to change? Our answer, a century later, is an affirmative one. For Smith and Butler, seeking to be faithful within their context, the answer had to be “God forbid!”
A Note on Sources for Further Study To understand this subject more fully, the extensive writings of George Knight are helpful, especially Angry Saints: Tensions and Possibilities in the Adventist Struggle Over Righteousness by Faith (1989). See also the earlier book edited by Arthur Ferch, Toward Righteousness by Faith: 1888 in Retrospect (1989). I have drawn a portion of the above article from my chapter in the Ferch volume.
Arthur Patrick, 10 March 2012