1. While we need to discern and acknowledge the divine element in history, we must also recognize the human element. As in the sanctification of the individual, corporate sanctification does not altogether cancel out human weakness and sinfulness.
The pioneer Seventh-day Adventist Movement was marked by the results of a crushing and bitter disappointment. This left a deep imprint on the pioneer psyche. In fact, the Disappointment has left a mark on Seventh-day Adventism to this day.
The result of the Disappointment was a severe withdrawal from association with the world. The unfortunate shut-door mentality, shared by all the pioneers for about ten years, was at least to some extent a psychological reaction to the Disappointment. In reading the literature of that period, one becomes acutely aware that the pioneers were deeply hurt by their rejection by other Christians and by the collapse of their fond expectations. They wrote much about persecution, suffering and ridicule—in fact, far too much. Yet there were no martyrs, no dreadful privations. The pioneers gave far too little evidence of a down-to-earth sense of humor. Luther's humor might have helped them in their hour of trial. It has been said that all good theologians have some sense of humor.
The severe shut-door doctrine of the pioneers was certainly not an expression of the mind of God toward what they too often called "the wicked world." God had not shut the door on sinners. To some extent the pioneers reflected Jonah's attitude toward Nineveh. They should have been glad that God was extending further opportunity to the world to repent.
2. For the first several years after the Disappointment, "present truth" to the pioneers consisted essentially of two points—the seventh-day Sabbath and the shut door of 1844. One searches in vain for any clear expression of the gospel in the pioneer literature. The gospel was not their preoccupation.
The earliest pioneer publication, A Word to the "Little Flock", contains no instruction on the way of salvation. This is quite understandable when we remember that they thought God was no longer saving sinners but was only concerned with saints. A Word to the "Little Flock" does contain this remark by Joseph Bates: "I believe her [Ellen G. White] to be a self-sacrificing, honest, willing child of God, and saved, if at all, through her entire obedience to His will."3
If Bates had a clear grasp of the New Testament gospel, none of his booklets and papers give any indication of this. Perhaps the clearest statement on the pioneers' concept of salvation was made in the Present Truth by James White:
The keeping of the fourth commandment is all-important present truth; but this alone, will not save any one. We must keep all ten of the commandments, and strictly follow all the directions of the New Testament, and have living active faith in Jesus. Those who would be found ready to enter the saint's rest, at the appearing of Christ, must live wholly, WHOLLY for Jesus now.4
This hardly qualifies as gospel! The Present Truth issues cover eighty-eight pages of fine print, but one searches in vain for anything like an expression of the gospel. Yet this small shut-door group of less than one hundred souls thought they were the only ones who possessed "the everlasting gospel." We admire their courage for believing that they alone had the everlasting gospel—if only they had told us what it was. This reminds us of the professor who asked his class, "Can anyone tell us what electricity is?" A young man put up his hand. "Fine, Jack," acknowledged the professor, "tell us what it is." "Ah, um . . . I've forgotten," said Jack. "Isn't that terrible," replied the professor. "Only two persons in this whole universe know what electricity is—God and Jack. God won't tell, and Jack has forgotten."
We have been prone to idealize the pioneers. It has often been suggested that the dry, legalistic period began in the 1850's or even in the 1860's. But the evidence indicates that the pioneers did far better in preaching the gospel in the 1850's than in their first ten years. During the 1850's they at least began preaching and witnessing to real sinners. Our examination of early pioneer literature leads us to conclude that despite their continuing legalism, they made progressive improvement.
3. The use the pioneers made of Scripture was often unsatisfactory. The Old Testament was not interpreted in the light of the New Testament. In fact, deductions from Old Testament types and prophecies were used to overrule the plainest revelation of the New Testament. For example, it was said that the atonement was not made on the cross, that the last days did not begin until 1798 or 1844 and that the remnant did not appear until 1844. The pioneers apparently did not understand that the apostolic revelation was God's final and definitive revelation, which must interpret the meaning of the Old Testament, including the book of Daniel.
The parables of Christ, especially the parable of the ten virgins, were used as allegories to be interpreted in literal detail. Interpreting Matthew 25 as if it were a prophecy literally describing the events of 1844 caused much of the difficulty over the shut door. This was a far-fetched method of handling parable. A parable is not an allegory. Every detail of a parable does not have a meaning to be deciphered. A parable is a story illustrating an essential point. Thus, the parable of the virgins illustrates preparedness for Jesus' coming. It is not an allegory of historical events in 1844.
Parables should not be used to establish doctrine. They simply illustrate doctrine. "Mixing" parables together is worse than mixing metaphors! To this day, Adventists tend to treat parables as allegories. Of course, we make a notable exception of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus!
The Millerites and the pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism based much of their reasoning on analogy. Damsteegt has shown that:
We should not exclude the use of analogy. For instance, we used the
analogy between Jonah and the pioneers. But analogy must not be used
for proof. One can "prove" practically anything by analogy.
4. Early literature of the Seventh-day Adventist pioneers was overwhelmingly preoccupied with apocalypticism and with typological and parabolic speculation on the details of last-day events. In this period Adventism was not preoccupied with apostolic religion. It was definitely sub-New Testamental.
Those accustomed to reading the mighty outpouring of New Testament gospel exegesis by the sixteenth-century Reformers would be acutely conscious of the severe deficiencies of the pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism. This should temper the triumphalistic Adventist attitude and the "remnant-church" superiority complex toward other Christian movements.
5. The pioneers were theologically unlearned and immature. They had no great theological heritage, and they had no experience in leadership. They entertained serious heresies. Many of them were Arian. And James White, for example, rejected the Trinity. They were a few survivors from the shipwreck of the Great Disappointment. Adventism was born in a barn, and its founders were as unlearned as the Galilean fishermen, Peter, James and John. We do not make these observations to damn the pioneer memory but to truly honor the divine leading despite human weakness.
6. If Daniel 8:14 only points to what happened in 1844, we might conclude that the 1844 event was a "fizzle." In the light of history the 1844 movement certainly looks feeble compared to the Reformation of the sixteenth century. But we have to say that "1844" is not finished yet. The 1844 event was not a static event. We must see that Adventism is a dynamic movement. Wisdom will be justified by her children. If we try to freeze Adventism—as if the revelation of nineteenth-century light is all there is—we are not really following in the footsteps of the pioneers, who dwelt in tents like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our God will become the God of the status quo. Holding to the forms of the pioneers, we will reject their spirit!
If the shut-door formulation of the first ten years was not the final revelation of truth about the 1844 event, perhaps the investigative judgment doctrine, also formulated in the nineteenth century, was not the final word on the meaning of 1844.
7. In the providence of God perhaps the heavy pioneer dependence on the Old Testament was used to prepare for something beyond their own dreams. A framework was developed in which the New Testament gospel could eventually be proclaimed.
1. They saw the Sabbath as "the final test."
2. William Miller had 666, the seven years of Nebuchadnezzar and Usher's chronology all mixed together in some very ingenious speculations.
3. Joseph Bates, "Remarks," in A Word to the "Little Flock, "p. 21.
4. James White, "Dear Brethren and Sisters," Present Truth, July 1849, p. 6. A letter.
5. P. Gerard Damsteegt, Foundations of the Seventh-day Adventist Message and Mission, p. 17.
6. Ibid., p. 38.
7. Ibid., p. 52.
8. Ibid., p. 104.
9. Ibid., p. 123.
10. Ibid., p. 124.
11. Ibid., p. 125.
12. Ibid., p. 143.