Ellet Joseph Waggoner:
The Myth and the Man
David P. McMahon
A Biographical Sketch
Our central concern is an analysis of E. J. Waggoner's evolving theology. Yet that theology developed in a historical context. It will therefore be helpful to outline his career before following the course of his emerging ideas.
Born on January 12, 1855, Ellet Joseph Waggoner was the sixth child of Joseph Harvey and Maryetta Hall Waggoner. His father had joined the Adventist cause in 1852. Soon thereafter he became a leading Seventh-day Adventist preacher and writer, and remained active until his death in 1889.
Ellet J. Waggoner attended Battle Creek College and later graduated as a physician from Bellevue Medical College in New York City. For some time he served on the staff of Battle Creek Sanitarium. About this time he married Jessie Fremont Moser, whom he had met at Battle Creek College. We do not have a detailed record of these early years in Waggoner's career. But we do know that he and his wife moved to California about 1880.
In October, 1882, Dr. Waggoner had a remarkable experience while attending a camp meeting at Healdsburg, California. Here is his personal account:
Many years ago, the writer sat in a tent one dismal, rainy afternoon, where a servant of the Lord was presenting the Gospel of His grace; not a word of the text or texts used, nor of what was said by the speaker, has remained with me, and I have never been conscious of having heard a word; but, in the midst of the discourse an experience came to me that was the turning point in my life. Suddenly a light shone about me, and the tent seemed illumined, as though the sun were shining; I saw Christ crucified for me, and to me was revealed for the first time in my life the fact that God loved me, and that Christ gave Himself for me personally. It was all for me. If I could describe my feelings, they would not be understood by those who have not had a similar experience, and to such no explanation is necessary.
I believed that the Bible is the word of God, penned by holy men who wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, and I knew that this light that came to me was a revelation direct from heaven; therefore I knew that in the Bible I should find the message of God's love for individual sinners, and I resolved that the rest of my life should be devoted to finding it there, and making it plain to others. The light that shone upon me that day from the cross of Christ, has been my guide in all my Bible study; wherever I have turned in the Sacred Book, I have found Christ set forth as the power of God, to the salvation of individuals, and I have never found anything else. (1)
When Waggoner died in 1916, his friends found a letter which he had written to his old friend, M. C. Wilcox. In this letter he repeated the account of his remarkable experience in 1882. (2) Apparently it was a profoundly important event in Waggoner's life. It stimulated his deep interest in the subject of justification by faith, on which he wrote and preached incessantly for many years.
In 1883 Waggoner was called to assist his father in editing the Signs of the Times. He met Alonzo Trevier Jones in 1884. They became lifelong friends and shared a passion for justification by faith. In other ways the two men seemed quite different. Jones was tall, awkward, abrupt, aggressive, and a self-taught man who had served in the United States army. Waggoner was short, articulate and much more irenic in temperament.
This same year Waggoner began to manifest his talents as a writer. The Signs of the Times carried numerous articles from his pen during the five crucial years preceding the historic Minneapolis conference of 1888. It was at this conference that he presented the lectures on justification by faith which had such profound repercussions on the young church.
The next year Waggoner traveled widely with A. T. Jones and Ellen G. White. They were united in an effort to revive the church with the message of righteousness by faith. From November 5, 1889, to March 25, 1890, Waggoner participated in a Bible school for ministers at Battle Creek. This school was repeated the following year. During this time he was located at Battle Creek and employed by the General Conference. The Signs of the Times meanwhile continued to publish his articles. At the General Conference of 1891 held at Battle Creek, Waggoner presented sixteen studies on the book of Romans.
In 1892 the General Conference appointed Waggoner editor of the British Present Truth, and he lived in England from 1892 to 1903. During those years he returned to the United States for the General Conference meetings of 1897, 1899, 1901 and 1903. He was a principal speaker at the Bible study sessions for all but the last of these conferences.
Between 1903 and 1904 Waggoner served as Bible teacher on the faculty of Emmanuel Missionary College, Berrien Springs, Michigan. Here he proposed that the Bible should be the only textbook used in teaching history, language, natural science, physiology, chemistry and astronomy. (3) The administration, however, had broader views of the students' educational needs. So Waggoner's rather bizarre approach to education was never implemented. At the end of the summer term in 1904 he left the college and went to Battle Creek to become co-editor of the magazine, Medical Missionary, with G. C. Tenney.
While in England Waggoner had become friendly with a Miss Edith Adams. Shortly after he returned from England, she arrived in Battle Creek as a patient at the sanitarium. Her recovery was rapid, and Waggoner soon arranged for her employment as a nurse in the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Later he arranged her appointment to the editorial staff of the Review and Herald. In 1905 Mrs. Waggoner divorced her husband on the ground of adultery. The next year Dr. Waggoner and Miss Adams were married. This terminated his membership with the church.
For several years before the breakup of Waggoner's marriage, he had been advocating "spiritual affinity." His view was that one not rightfully a marriage partner here might be one in the life to come and that this allowed for a present spiritual union. Mrs. White called these views "dangerous, misleading fables" similar to the fanaticism she encountered after 1844. She also said Waggoner had been sowing the seeds of these Satanic theories in England "for a long time." (4) These remarks cast a cloud over Waggoner's ministry in England. (5)
After several years in Europe with his new wife, Waggoner returned to the United States in 1910 and spent his final years in Battle Creek. He worked in the laboratory of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, acted as chaplain and taught in the Sabbath School.
On May 28, 1916, Dr. Waggoner died suddenly of heart disease at the age of sixty-one. Elders A. T. Jones and G. C. Tenney presided at his funeral service, conducted in the Battle Creek Tabernacle. Waggoner's old friend, A. T. Jones, delivered the funeral sermon. (6)
1. E. J. Waggoner, The Everlasting Covenant, p. v.
2. E. J. Waggoner, A "Confession of Faith," pp. 5-6. Found on Waggoner's desk after his sudden death on May 28, 1916, this confession of faith was published posthumously by friends.
3. Emmett K. Vande Vere, The Wisdom Seekers, p. 114
4. Ellen G. White, Letter 121, 1906; cited in A. V. Olson, Through Crisis to Victory: 1888-1901, p. 313.
5. E. J. Waggoner was prostrated with "brain fever" in December, 1885, while serving as his father's assistant at the Signs of the Times office in Oakland, California. He was hospitalized at the St. Helena Rural Health Retreat until early February, 1886. In a biographical sketch of her father's life, Pearl Waggoner Howard records another critical episode of "brain fever" during the period of his ministry in England. She stated that "Many prayers went up, and the Lord answered." One wonders, however, whether residual complications of Waggoner's illness contributed to his later theological and personal aberrations.
6. The proceedings have been preserved in the November, 1916, issue of the Gathering Call.