Post 50: Interpreting 1888, 1950-1980: Thirty Years of Adventist War

The General Conference session of 1946 drew 828 delegates to Washington, D.C., and the 1950 event brought 943 delegates to San Francisco. Urgent issues were on the church’s agenda at both world sessions as the carnage and disruption of 1939-1945 gave place to renewed organisational links and fresh mission initiatives. There was a notable focus upon “Christ-centred preaching” at the 1950 session but two United States missionaries on furlough from Africa listened with increasing disquiet. It seemed to Robert Wieland and Donald Short that the growing emphasis was “anti-Christ centred preaching” by reason of its (perceived) failure to embrace the message of Jones and Waggoner.

Such a serious allegation could not be taken lightly. Church leaders asked Wieland and Short to express their convictions in written form for careful consideration. Further, in response to a cluster of issues relating to Adventist teachings, a Bible conference was convened in 1952 and its presentations were published the next year, in two reassuring volumes entitled Our Firm Foundation. To read these books is to hear the church declaring all is well, confidently, without it identifying the actual concerns hovering in the background. Even though Wieland and Short’s manuscript (entitled “1888 Re-Examined”) was studied on three separate occasions over eight years, church leaders could find no substance in its core allegation or its call for corporate repentance (see the 396-page compilation of documents, A Warning and its Reception, 1959). Meanwhile, the missionaries returned graciously to their posts in Africa without circulating their manuscript. However, without permission from the authors, well-intentioned individuals reproduced “1888 Re-Examined” and distributed it widely. In partnership with other issues, that activity re-energised the long struggle over 1888 and raised it to unprecedented levels of intensity.

What Fuelled the Renewed Conflict?

Controversy often thrives on ambiguity, in part because earnest souls are ready and willing to offer certainty. There was a continuing element of mystery surrounding the message of Jones and Waggoner: after sixty-two years nobody still alive knew what was said at the epochal General Conference and detailed bulletins had not been issued in 1888. Even the results of LeRoy Edwin Froom’s research, commissioned by the aging A.G. Daniells late in the 1920s, was largely unknown before Movement of Destiny was published (1971). Not until the centenary of the 1888 session would researchers like Dr Milton Hook (see the 1989 volume edited by Arthur Ferch, Towards Righteousness by Faith) convincingly conjecture the content of the Jones and Waggoner presentations. Scholars, helped by fragmentary notes made by attendees at the 1888 session listing Bible verses cited by Jones and Waggoner, reconstructed what was most likely said by assembling, comparing and contrasting their written comments on those Scriptures prior to and after the General Conference session. In the 1950s no such objective research had been done. Conflict flourished as diverse individuals presented their ideas authoritatively, often citing later writings of Jones and Waggoner and claiming that these expressed the message given in 1888.

More than that, the church was becoming more aware that dynamic processes of change were operating within its communion and beyond its borders. Graduate education that commenced intermittently two decades earlier was bearing fruit in a new generation of Bible students, better equipped by the original languages for close study of the Scriptures. Biblical exegesis and other relevant modes of enquiry, like historical studies, were starting to mature in Adventism. Between 1954 and 1957, the seven-volume Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary was produced, leading the church to a fuller acknowledgement of Scripture in its entirety and facilitating a more comprehensive understanding of biblical thought. Outside Adventism, Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians were studying Adventism more objectively than before, even consulting with Adventist leaders as part of the process. Baptist Walter Martin and Presbyterian Donald Grey Barnhouse, in particular, concluded that despite some aberrant ideas, Adventists were in fact their fellow-believers rather than a dangerous cult—a welcome assessment for some of the Adventists who had looked out from Zion’s fortress and identified all other Christians as besieging armies.

Times of change are apt to stimulate reaction; forthright reactionary forces were coalescing in the Seventh-day Adventist Church of the 1950s. For many earnest believers, all other Christians were the Babylon from which Adventists were called out. If they acknowledged we were genuine Christians, we must be in the process of watering down our message, compromising “the truth”! Battle lines that were sketched in 1919 were drawn more firmly inside Adventism. Milian Lauritz Andreasen at seventy-four-years-of age, long a stalwart teacher and thought-leader, a delegate at the General Conference of 1950, heard a list of retiring workers read. Andreasen was astonished that, without consultation with him, his name was read out for retirement. Later, he was more deeply hurt when he was not amongst more than 200 persons consulted over the landmark volume, Questions on Doctrine (1957). A spirit of dissent began to focus around Andreasen, especially when his trenchant Letters to the Churches were published and became a de facto manual for those opposing church leadership. (Consult Virginia Steinweg’s approving biography of Andreasen on sdanet.org/AtIssue). It would be decades before doctoral dissertations and responsible publications could tell faithfully and fully the inside story of the escalating conflict. Wieland and Short’s warning, the Andreasen Letters and similar critiques were scattered worldwide by such committed reformers as Al Hudson and the Brinsmead brothers.

A Few Historical Perspectives

If the defection of Canright was an important factor in the background at the 1888 General Conference, opposing elements were likewise scary for the church of the 1950s. Adventist leaders were not only acutely aware of the factors mentioned above, they faced the ongoing problem of the Seventh-day Adventist Reform movement that originated within the turmoil of World War I and escalated during and after World War II. On another tack, Louis Were, an Australian minister, was questioning a literal Armageddon fought between East and West in Palestine’s Valley of Megiddo. I wrote a paper on the War of Armageddon in 1954 and concluded Were was essentially correct: Armageddon will be a far greater conflict than any clash between Western powers and Asiatic nations. While Armageddon includes unparalleled conflict on earth, it is the climactic engagement between the forces of good and evil. No astute Theology student would be seen reading Were’s books at the Australasian Missionary College during the 1950s. Although Were was summarily dismissed from ministry, he was only two decades ahead of his contemporaries. Indeed, his books were assigned reading for selected Seminary classes that I undertook while studying and teaching at Andrews University from 1970 to 1972.

George Knight and other historians point out with arresting clarity the fact that Adventism is wonderfully illumined when we identify the principal issues the church has faced at the various stages of its development. The great issue of 1844 was, What does it mean to be Adventist? The big question of 1888 was, What does it mean to be Christian? In 1957 the overarching matter was, Is Adventism Evangelical? We must not minimise the difficulties faced by church leaders in earlier generations simply because the actual concerns seem clearer to those of us who look back. Rather, we must be as faithful as our forebears tried to be as we respond to the light God sheds on our pathway, remembering well the way the Lord has led and taught us in the past.

By mid-century, Adventism was entering an era of accelerating change. Ripples evident on the surface of life in the Australian church by 1950 would become contrary waves within a few years. Robert Greive, as president of the Queensland Conference, had long opposed the reformist propositions of the Brinsmead family. However, as the new president in North New Zealand, Greive imbibed ideas from the Adventist/Evangelical discussions in the United States too overtly and extended them too rashly in the opinion of other leaders. Painfully, Greive and a small group of his ministers were dismissed and his struggles toward a better grasp of justification were, thereby, discredited. By 1958 Robert Brinsmead concluded Greive’s “errors” were being embraced by the entire church; thus began the public phase of his controversial career, including an emphasis on the sinful nature of Christ during His incarnation. Within a few years, Brinsmeadian publications were scattered amongst Adventists like the leaves of autumn. Congregations were harried and even divided; ministers, teachers and members were dismissed.

One case amongst many illustrates the tensions of the time and the need that church leaders perceived for clarity of allegiance during the years of conflict. During 1960, a minister and his congregation came under serious question for wanting to restore the church membership of a person disfellowshipped a few years previously for opposing Robert Greive in North New Zealand. In the troubled climate of the time, this raised the question whether or not the minister was “soft” on Brinsmead and his teachings. The minister, relocated so as to have a reliable supervising pastor, was asked by the Conference committee to state six words without qualification, “Robert Brinsmead is of the devil.” Since the minister could only say that (like himself), “Robert Brinsmead has done some devilish things,” it took ten months leave-of-absence for the dilemma to be resolved. Probably the tipping point was counsel given to the Committee on Special Study (forerunner of the current Biblical Research Committee in the South Pacific Division) by Desmond Ford, one of its promising younger members. (It would take almost two more decades for Ford to lose his own employment as a minister/teacher, in part because he could not in good conscience parry an inaccurate affidavit by anathematising Brinsmead in the Review.)

Here Are the Questions: Where Are the Answers?

By 1950 the forces that would energise thirty years of war in Adventism were becoming apparent but it would take another two decades for most of the crucial questions to be articulated clearly. The world church breathed a sigh of relief in 1951 when Francis Nichol penned Ellen G. White and Her Critics, thereby putting to flight the alien armies that had attacked an Adventist landmark, the doctrine of spiritual gifts and its application in the life and writings of Ellen White. However, by 1970, a new set of questions and fresh evidence exposed the inadequacy of Nichol’s well-intended apologetic of 1951. As part of the magnificent endeavour to write the Bible Commentary series, Adventists discovered that the Scriptures didn’t say some of the things we had presumed they said. One result was an illuminating volume, Problems in Bible Translation (1954). At the first Seminary Extension School in Australasia (December 1957, January 1958), Edward Heppenstall demonstrated that the King James Version did not adequately infer the rich meaning of Daniel 8:14; soon a new journal, Andrews University Seminary Studies, would reinforce that concept, powerfully.

These remarks are intended to illustrate the fact that the questions relating to the Adventist understanding of Righteousness by Faith were not being asked in a theological vacuum. Throughout the crisis during the last dozen years of the nineteenth century, the most important issue for Adventism was the doctrine of Christ and salvation. The same was true during the thirty years of war from 1950 to 1980. However, in the perception of over-worked administrators and worried members from 1888 to 1901 there was such a plethora of important matters to be solved that only sometimes was salvation by grace through faith seen as paramount. That situation was repeated in the 1950s as Adventist thought from creationism to eschatology came under review, increasingly.

In such hard times, administrators wisely seek for reliable support. By 1957, Australasian leaders had selected an Avondale graduate of 1950 for further study and a teaching career. Whenever difficult questions were referred to him, Desmond Ford’s solutions seemed balanced and insightful. Ford relished all the equipping the Seminary in Washington could offer him and then completed a doctorate in rhetoric at Michigan State University. Back in Australia, he built a solid reputation as the most effective “answer man” for all the complex biblical and theological problems that confronted Adventism. By the time Ford had completed a second doctoral degree, this time under the supervision of F.F. Bruce at Manchester University in 1972, church leaders were much comforted that he could resolve effectively questions arising from whatever source, including “the Brinsmead agitation.”

However, that was not the conclusion of a growing number of mainly retired missionaries, ministers and others who idealised the Adventism of former generations when most discussions could be settled with the help of three words, “Sister White says ….” They deemed any extension of a literal six thousand years since creation to be out of kilter with the genealogies of Genesis. They cherished a form of perfectionism that was derived in part from The Consecrated Way to Christian Perfection, published by A.T. Jones in 1905, honed by the “last generation” theology of M.L. Andreasen, influenced by the Brinsmeads (with not a little help from Wieland and Short) and presented afresh by the Review and Herald of the 1970s as the authentic Adventism. While the church declined to accept Brinsmead’s “final atonement” concept (advocating “a miraculous, punctilear, moral cleansing” said to occur in the investigative judgment) as the way to ultimate perfection, many Adventists favoured the perceptions of the Review over against those of Ministry magazine. By 1975, Southern Publishing Association would choose four American authors to articulate two contrasting views in a volume entitled Perfection: The Impossible Possibility.

Meanwhile, tensions were deepening in Australia, so selected leaders gathered during 1976 in the quiet of a Californian desert (Palmdale) to provide answers. The conferees affirmed the essential equivalency of Righteousness by Faith and justification, as well as the primary importance of justification by faith. But the tensions were not resolved for such groups as the “Concerned Brethren.” Because Desmond Ford was the highest profile exponent of the updated Adventism, developed from asking and answering the difficult questions of the past two decades, these brethren intensified their efforts to effect to his dismissal. The resolve of retired workers was supported in the writings of younger men as well, including two medical doctors and an educator: John Clifford, Russell Standish and Colin Standish. (More than a third of over 60 books published by the Standish brothers focus on what they term “the ills of God’s Church.”)

Within the first half of the thirty years of war that was incipient by 1950, many of the important questions that would face Adventism during the latter half of the twentieth century were already on the corporate desk of the church in Australia. Constantly Australasian Division officers sought counsel from Washington, as well as from their own Biblical Research Committee. A new Division president was appointed soon after the Palmdale conference. Keith Parmenter decided not to consult his Biblical Research Committee on the continuing issues, but he did communicate with the newly appointed president of the General Conference, Neal Wilson.

The Dynamics of Salvation

Wilson and his colleagues at world headquarters envisioned the need for a representative gathering of administrative and thought leaders from all regions of the world to study the issue of salvation. They appointed 145 persons to a Righteousness by Faith Consultation that convened in Washington on 3-4 October 1979. A working group of 24 members re-assembled the following February, drafted The Dynamics of Salvation statement and later incorporated suggestions received from the full membership of the Consultation. This was not a creedal statement but a study document that attempted “to set forth what Seventh-day Adventists believe about salvation through Jesus Christ.” Published in Adventist Review on 31 July 1980 for worldwide reference by church members, the statement sought “to combine theological accuracy with clarity and practicality, so that the reader may experience the benefits of salvation and not merely grasp the theory.” Further, in the words of the Director of the Biblical Research Institute:

Certain aspects of the inexhaustible theme, such as the nature of Christ, perfection, and original sin, are not dealt with in detail in this paper. They may be taken up later as subjects of the church’s ongoing discussions. “The Dynamics of Salvation” should be considered as a whole, in order that the balance of the various parts may be discerned.

By this consultation, the church demonstrated the importance of the subject and acknowledged its responsibility to provide the coherent leadership required to solve the long-standing conflict calmly and thoroughly in the light of Scripture. Many Adventists had attempted to achieve this purpose by making Ellen White’s writings the source of authority, against her specific counsel and her consistent stance during 1888 and thereafter. They had also tried to make the issue a purely Adventist discussion, without reference to the way God led Reformers, Puritans (see, for example, the analyses of James Packer), Evangelicals and others. Here, at last, was a viable way for Adventists to express consensus and build community on the core concern of Scripture.

A Note for Those Who Want to Read More

We commenced this series of five articles with the promise to explore the idea that Adventist teachings have developed constructively over time and to use the doctrine of Christ and salvation as a case study of that process. This article mentions respectfully the names of selected individuals who influenced the course of events. Some readers may want to know more about the ideas under discussion, wherein they were orthodox or otherwise, why some persons were disciplined and so on. The “big picture” is far better elaborated in longer treatments that are available, many of them written by scholars whose names are amongst 350-plus listed in the current directory of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, a list I keep near my computer as a convenient way to unearth reliable research. To identify a wealth of treasures, access the SDA Periodical Index online and enter names such as Rolf Pöhler, author of a 1995 dissertation published in two volumes, 1999 and 2001; Fritz Guy, author of Thinking Theologically, 1999; or the names of a host of Old Testament specialists like Alden Thompson (see, as well, Alden Thompson.com), or New Testament devotees like William Johnsson (editor, Adventist Review) and Norman Young. My published writings, including those available electronically on www.sdanet.org in the At Issue section, review some of the related issues that press for attention, especially the role of Ellen White. See, as well, Spectrum and Adventist Today articles in which I spell out how peripheral concerns once again eclipsed the importance of Righteousness by Faith after 1980. For an introduction to sources that facilitate historical and contextual study of the issues, see my Journal of Religious History article (Volume 14, Number 3, June 1987), available in most scholarly libraries and on CD, now updated by a document entitled “Adventist Studies: An Annotated Introduction for Higher Degree Students” (2006, re-titled and updated 2009) and a Journal of Religious History published in September 2010. While some of the principal sources alluded to in this series of articles can be accessed on a home computer, all of them and countless others are available for study in the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre, Avondale College, Cooranbong, NSW 2265, Australia. By opening this facility in 1976 and giving it ongoing support, our church demonstrates its commitment to helping all of us better understand “the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”

Arthur Patrick, 15 March 2012

About adventiststudies

Arthur Nelson Patrick, DMin, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education, New South Wales, Australia
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