Good News for Seventh-Day Adventists

The Shaking of Adventism
Geoffrey J. Paxton

Off to an Inauspicious Start: 1844-1888

The founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church must have been tough and determined characters. They were survivors of a great religious shipwreck. The spectacular Advent awakening movement of the 1840's,1 sometimes called the Millerite movement, had run aground on the rocks of "The Great Disappointment" in the fall of 1844. Christ had not come as confidently predicted.—

Although forever cured of the temptation to set definite time for the eschaton, these few survivors did not give up hope in the nearness of the advent. They retained much of the elaborate prophetic framework inherited from the Millerite movement, and to this was added the belief that the final judgment hour had arrived in the heavenly sanctuary, the teaching of the non-immortality of the soul, and the keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath. They believed that the finger of prophecy marked them as the last-day "remnant" (Rev. 12:17), called of God to preach the final gospel invitation to every nation and tribe on earth in preparation for Christ's return (Rev. 14:6-14).

These pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism were like an army pitifully decimated. Most of their comrades and all of their leaders had fallen.
2 Not one notable religious figure graced their company They had no churchman of rich religious heritage to lead them. They possessed no great theological erudition. Most of them were rather poor. And they were already separated from the mainstream of the Christian church. No one, looking on, would have given them much chance of success, especially with what could appear as a disastrous start. Apart from the charismatic influence of the young Ellen White, they might have called it quits. But her contribution inspired these survivors with an astonishing sense of destiny and world mission.

The question before us is straightforward. How did Seventh-day Adventists execute their task of preaching and teaching the "third angel's message" in the 1844-1888 period? Perhaps it is best to allow Adventists themselves to answer the question, for this author is by no means the first to examine the period.

One Adventist to summarize this era was Norval Pease. In his Masters dissertation at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in 1945,3 he examined the status of the doctrine of justification in the Adventist Church prior to 1888. He concluded that it was almost entirely absent. Pease writes: "The records of this period of four decades have not been found plentiful; and instances of mention of this particular doctrine are comparatively few."4 He goes on to mention that a statement made by Mrs. White indicates that she and her husband had been alone for forty-five years in teaching this doctrine.5 Mrs. White's statement receives endorsement from the early Adventist periodicals and books, which, says Pease, "reveal a famine of material in this field."6 From August 15 to December 19, 1854, the masthead of the Review and Herald listed the "Leading Doctrines Taught by the Review," and this list "included absolutely no mention of justification, righteousness, or any related topic."7 Pease pauses in his fruitless search and observes:

Thus far, the trend of the four decades ending in 1888 is evident. Up until the middle eighties the subject ofjustification and righteousness by faith was practically untouched in Seventh-day Adventist periodicals and books, aside from occasional references by James White.8

Pease records that this condition was aptly commented upon by Mrs. White in a camp-meeting address at Rome, New York, June 17, 1889. On this occasion she stated:

I have had the question asked, what do you think of this light which these men [A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner] are presenting? Why, I have been presenting it to you for the last forty-five years, —the matchless charms of Christ. This is what I have been trying to present before your minds. When Brother Waggoner brought out these ideas at Minneapolis, it was the first clear teaching on this subject from any human lips I had heard, excepting the conversation between myself and my husband.9

The judgment of this Adventist pastor and historian is not to be questioned. In the 1844-1888 period there was almost a total failure on the part of Adventists to acknowledge the fundamental tenet of the Reformation. Except for a few cursory comments of J. H. Waggoner, the almost universal position was that acceptable righteousness before God is found through obeying the law with the aid of the Spirit of God. This was an essentially semi-Pelagian view of righteousness by faith (i.e., that acceptance with God is the result of the cooperation of human and divine effort). In other words, justification on the grounds of the imputed righteousness of Christ was subordinated to sanctification of the believer by inner renewal. There was no advance toward the position of the Reformers until that which came in 1888 under the leadership of A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner.

We shall now attempt to support this contention from the literature of the period, which reveals how justification was subordinated in a Roman Catholic fashion by the Adventist teachers of the first four decades. There were four major characteristics of the Seventh-day Adventist approach to the gospel which lead us to this conclusion:

1. Justification was subordinated to sanctification in that justification was seen to be only for the sins of the past. J. H. Waggoner,10 James White,11 and Uriah Smith12 all expounded the significance of Christ's work as being only for the sins of the past. This relegation of the righteousness of Christ to the past was aided by the fact that, in the first four decades, Adventist teaching on the gospel of the Reformation gave almost no place to the active obedience (life) of Jesus Christ. The accent was always on the death of Christ for the sins of the past.13 If the life of Christ was mentioned, it was only spoken of as exemplary.14

2. Justification is given the status of mere justification. It is not as though this is said in so many words. Rather, it is the general tendency of all the examined expositions of the period. There is an overwhelming emphasis on the law and a correspondingly lesser emphasis on the gospel. For a case in point, a book was published by Roswell E Cottrell, entitled The Bible Class: Lessons upon the Law of God, and the Faith of Jesus. On the title page the words law of God" appear in large type, while the words "Faith of Jesus" appear in considerably smaller type. This might be excused as merely a blunder on the part of the typesetter. However, the book itself devotes the first fifty-nine pages to a discussion of the law, then ten pages to the faith of Jesus, or the gospel. The life of Jesus is spoken of only as exemplary Cottrell was later to oppose the message of 1888.15

Because the overwhelming concern of the Adventists of this period was preparation for the coming of Christ and, in particular, the acquiring of a righteousness which would be good enough to see them through the "time of trouble," they stressed the imperative to such an extent that the indicative was diminished. Thus, their religion was hagiocentric (focused on the saint).

3. In the light of the above, it is not difficult to understand the emphasis that is unceasing in the time up to 1888—namely, that acceptance in the last judgment is on the basis of the believer's sanctification (and in particular, on inward grace).

J. H. Waggoner stated this strongly in his book,
Justification by Faith. He was fighting antinomianism and Calvinism. For him, judgment on the basis of works was the deathblow to both antinomianism and the Calvinist doctrine of "eternal security" He saw judgment according to works as being the opposite of justification by faith.

For Uriah Smith, Christ forgives the past and provides grace and strength to enable us to obey in the future and thus obtain acceptance before God.16

According to the writers of this period, inner renewal or transformation may be spoken of as either the righteousness of Christ or the righteousness of (or by) faith. It is the righteousness of Christ because it is His work in the heart, and it is the righteousness of faith because it springs from (is the result of) faith.17

In the early covenant theology of the Adventists, the new-covenant work of the Mediator is minimized in the interest of acquiring acceptable sanctification for the judgment.18 The fault of the old covenant lay not in the conditions enjoined on the people nor in their promises to fulfill those conditions, but in their inability and failure to keep the law. Hence, a new arrangement was necessary The grace of God is given—the law is written on the heart in regeneration—and this enables the believer to keep the law acceptably and stand in the judgment of God.19 Thus, the person freed from sin by faith in Jesus will enter the city of God as a commandment-keeper.20 So it is that justification by law, as G. I. Butler explained it under this doctrinal scheme, is taken to mean seeking acceptance with God on the grounds of one's own effort without the aid of the Spirit of God, who has come to help the believer do that (keep the law) which those under the old dispensation could not do and which he (even now) could not do "in his own strength."21 This teaching's striking affinity with Tridentine theology will not be missed.22

4. Another essential feature of the Tridentine scheme is perfectionism. Perfectionism was predominantly implicit in this period, but it becomes explicit in the following two periods to be examined. Perhaps time was needed for the logic of the theological position to become apparent. Yet it was beginning to surface even in the early decades of the movement. Though James and Ellen White had occasion to rebuke proponents of the perfectionism of the holiness movement,23 statements with a decidedly perfectionistic flavor were not lacking from James White.24 A corollary of his view that the judgment had begun was his view that, following the close of the judgment, there would be a period of time before the actual return of Christ during which men must live without a Mediator. As White considered this, he became convinced that "a consecration every way as complete as" that of the dying sinner was inadequate to see the saints through this "time of trouble." The consecration of life was higher than that of the one who dies in the Lord.25

It appears that Mrs. White did not share the same perspective as her husband in some central aspects of religion. LeRoy Edwin Froom has given a graphic illustration of how James White's primary emphasis was upon the law, while Ellen White's emphasis was on the gospel.26 Also, James White made a distinction between the preparation for death and that which is essential for translation without seeing death. But Ellen White asserted that the same preparation which prepares one for death also prepares one for translation, for just as no change is to be made in the character at the second advent, so none is to be made at death or the resurrection.27 There is some disagreement over Mrs. White's position on perfectionism. Yet this writer does not think that one is forced to read perfectionism in her work.28

If our understanding of Mrs. White is correct, then we have to say that it is her emphasis which is the most encouraging up to the General Conference of 1888. This much is clear from her writings: in the time leading up to 1888 there was a growing awareness that all was not well with the remnant church.29 According to Mrs. White, all the emphasis on the law without the gospel left the remnant caught in the grip of dry legalism:

We have long desired and tried to obtain these blessings, but have not received them because we have cherished the idea that we would do something to make ourselves worthy of them. We have not looked away from ourselves, believing that Jesus is a living Saviour.30

The remnant community was ready for a more excellent way


1. In the summer of 1844 there were 50,000 confessing Adventists by the most conservative estimate.
2. By 1849 there were only 100 Sabbatarian Adventists.
3. Norval E Pease, "Justification and Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church before 1900."
4. Ibid., p. 28.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., p. 31.
7. Ibid. Cf. p. 33.
5. Ibid., p. 35.
9. Ibid.
10. J. H. Waggoner, Justification by Faith.
11. "God's law... leads him [the sinner] to Christ, where justification for past offenses can be found alone through faith in His blood. The law of God has no power to pardon past offenses.. ." (James White, Review and Herald, 10 June 1852, p. 24).
12. In 1872, Uriah Smith published A Declaration of the Fundamental Principles of the Seventh-day Adventists. Though he was the author, it did not bear his name since it was to represent the whole of Adventism. Article 15 stated: "That, as all have violated the law of God, and cannot of themselves render obedience to his just requirements, we are dependent on Christ, first, for justification from our past offenses, and, secondly, for grace whereby to render acceptable obedience to his holy law in time to come."
13. See Uriah Smith, The Sanctuary and the Twenty-three Hundred Days of Daniel VIII.
14, pp. 245-47. From this it is apparent that Smith believed in Christ as our Substitute, but he saw significance only in Jesus' death. We have found nothing where Smith suggests that Christ was also our Substitute in holy obedience.
14. See James White, The Redeemer and Redeemed; or, the Plan of Redemption through Christ, pp. 3-13. White says: "This is redemption in its first stage. It is deliverance from the power of darkness, and a translation above the corruptions of this world into the kingdom of Christ's abounding grace" (p. 8). "The death, resurrection, and the ascension of the Son of God were events of great importance in the plan of human redemption; but with no one of these is the plan finished. The Redeemer was to make two distinct advents to this world. At the first, he lived our example, preached his own gospel, wrought miracles to confirm his divine mission, died our sacrifice, rose from the dead for our justification, and ascended to the Father's right hand to plead the cause of the repenting sinner" (p. 13). See also idem, Life Incidents in Connection with the Great Advent Movement, p. 354; idem, Bible Adventism; or Sermons on the Coming and Kingdom of Our Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 196-97.
15. See Robert J. Wieland and Donald K. Short, 1888 Re-examined, p. 62.
16. "That the new birth comprises the entire change necessary to fit us for the Kingdom of God and consists of two parts: First, a moral change, wrought by conversion and a Christian life; secondly, a physical change at the second coming of Christ....,, "That, as the natural or carnal heart is at enmity with God and his law, this enmity can be subdued only by a radical transformation of the affections, the exchange of unholy for holy principles; that this transformation follows repentance and faith, is the special work of the Holy Spirit, and constitutes regeneration or conversion" (Smith, Declaration, arts. 5, 14). We do not agree with L. E. Froom, who says that this Declaration was less representative than Smith averred (Froom, Movement of Destiny, p. 160).
17. So, in opposition to E.J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, see Uriah Smith, "Our Righteousness," Review and Herald, 11 June 1889. See also idem, Review and Herald, 10 May 1892, for Smith's view of the man of Rom. 7, which is the same as that taken by the Church of Rome at the time of the Reformation. To Smith's credit it must be said that in early 1891 he realized he had made a terrible mistake at Minneapolis, confessed his wrong, and pledged himself to support the truth he had once spurned. But even then he apparently did not realize its tremendous importance (see AN. Olson, Through Crisis to Victory: 1888-1901, pp. 92-103).
18. See John Nevins Andrews, Sermon on the Two Covenants; "M. H.," The Two Laws, and Two Covenants.
19. J. N. Andrews in 1851 recognized that Christ "was 'made under the law', kept the covenant which requires perfect obedience, then died for our transgressions, and bequeathed to us his own inheritance" (John Nevins Andrews, Thoughts on the Sabbath and the Perpetuity of the Law of God, p. 16). However, he apparently failed to see the significance of what he had written.
20. "By faith in the blood of Christ, we can be cleansed from sin—the cause of our sickness can be removed, and by obeying the laws of health, we may have right to the tree of life. But let all who have applied to the Physician of souls for a cure, be careful not to expose their health again, by breaking the commandments of God. ... Faith is nothing more than firm belief; but it is of so much importance in the plan of salvation, that the whole plan is called 'the faith.' In this sense, the faith is not merely an act of the mind, the same as belief, but it includes various requirements which are to be obeyed. [Acts 6:7; Rom. 1:5; 16:26; 2 Tim. 4:7; Rev. 14:12 quoted.] These passages show that.., all that we are required to do in order to be saved from sin belongs to the faith of Jesus. The person thus freed from sin by the faith of Jesus, will enter the City of God as a commandment keeper the same as if he had never sinned. Rev. 22.14" (Roswell E Cottrell, The Bible Class: Lessons upon the Law of God, and the Faith of Jesus, pp. 61-2).
21. "'Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by law; ye are fallen from grace.' This verse is often separated from its connection, and used as having a bearing upon our personal justification by faith for our transgressions of the moral law. ... No man can be saved by his good works alone. 'All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.' We are weak and utterly helpless of ourselves, covered with pollution, and never can remove our guilt and uncleanness by present or future efforts of obedience. Indeed, we are utterly weak and helpless; and if our sins have been forgiven, we must have constant faith in and help from a crucified Saviour, constant access to his unfailing fountain of strength, in order to obtain any real help or accomplish anything whatever that will meet God's favor in the line of good works. ... Yet ... the apostle ... is not speaking of being justified through obedience to the moral law" (George I. Butler, The Law in the Book of Galatians: Is It the Moral Law, or Does It Refer to that System of Laws Peculiarly Jewish? pp.74-5). Butler's views as quoted by Olson, Through Crisis to Victory, pp. 45-6, 86-7, should be noted.
22. That is, from the Roman Catholic Council of Trent.
23. "We are pained to learn the condition of Bro. B., and to know that Satan is pushing him on to cause disaffection in the Indiana Conference under the pious guise of Christian holiness. Both you and ourselves fully believe that holiness of life is necessary to fit us for the inheritance of saints in light. We contend that this state must be reached in a Bible way Christ prayed that his disciples might be sanctified through the truth, and the apostles preached of purifying our hearts by obeying the truth. The professed church of Christ is full of the spurious article, and one distinct feature of it is, the more one drinks into the spirit of popular sanctification, the less he prizes the present truth. Many of those who are the open opponents of God's Sabbath, the third angel's message, and the health reform, are among the sanctified ones. Some of them have reached the almost hopeless position that they cannot sin. These, of course, have no further use for the Lord's Prayer, which teaches us to pray that our sins may be forgiven, and but very little use for the Bible, as they profess to be led by the Spirit. ... We warn our brethren of the Indiana Conference and elsewhere. Our position has ever been that true sanctification, which will stand the test of the Judgment, is that which comes through obedience of the truth and of God" (James and Ellen G. White, "Bogus Sanctification," Review and Herald, 6 June 1878).
24. See James White, Review and Herald, 29 Jan. 1857.
25. James White, ed., Life Sketches of James White and Ellen G. White, p. 431.
26. Froom, Movement of Destiny, pp. 182-86.
27. E. G. White, Testimonies, 5:466-67; idem, The Adventist Home, p. 16; idem, In Heavenly Places, p. 227.
28. Norman E Douty, Another Look at Seventh-day Adventism, would not agree with my conclusion here, although Anthony A. Hoekema, Four Major Cults, would. Cf. the following Ellen G. White references: Sanctified Life, pp. 7, 51; Acts of the Apostles, pp. 560-61; Steps to Christ, p. 65, which speak against perfection; and Steps to Christ, p. 62; Review and Herald, 26 Feb. 1901; Selected Messages, 1:198, 373, which seem to speak for perfection. However, Mrs. White's perfection may be seen in the light of her emphasis on gospel to which we have already referred. Cf. the following Ellen G. White references: Review and Herald, 5 Mar. 1906; 3 Sept. 1901; Questions on Doctrine, p. 684; Selected Messages, 1:396; 2:32-3. The last citation reads: "We are not to be anxious about what Christ and God think of us, but about what God thinks of Christ, our Substitute."
29. "The church has turned back from following Christ her Leader and is steadily retreating toward Egypt" (E. G. White, Testimonies, 5:217). Cf. "The facts concerning the real condition of the professed people of God, speak more loudly than their profession, and make it evident that some power has cut the cable that anchored them to the Eternal Rock, and that they are drifting away to sea, without chart or compass" (idem, Review and Herald, 24 July 1888).
30. From a morning talk to the ministers assembled at the General Conference, Battle Creek, Mich., Nov., 1883; pub. in E. G. White, Gospel Workers (1892 ed.), pp. 411-15, under the title, "Christ Our Righteousness." Also: "In Him is our hope, our justification, our righteousness.... At this very time He is carrying on His work in our behalf, inviting us to come to Him in our helplessness, and be saved, we dishonor Him by our unbelief. ... My brethren, are you expecting that your merit will recommend you to the favor of God, thinking that you must be free from sin before you trust His power to save? If this is the struggle going on in your mind, I fear you will gain no strength, and will finally become discouraged" (pp. 412-13).

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