(Note: This is Part 3 of a 3-part series I’m doing on “Three Wrong Views of Minneapolis,” which discusses three of the most prevalent wrongly-held views among Adventists about what happened at the 1888 General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For my introductory thoughts on this entire topic, click here. For Part 1, entitled, “Too Much Jesus?” click here. For Part 2, entitled “Sanctification by Faith,” click here.)
Chances are, if you pick up the histories of 1888 that are published by official Adventist publications, about 99% of them will say – when you cut through everything else – something to this effect: nothing of lasting significance really happened at the 1888 General Conference that has any relevance for us today. Indeed, there is “nothing to see here,” so we may as well move on to more pressing and relevant topics.
To be sure, such a bottom line takes many different forms. But the common thread throughout all of them – which is, by far, the most commonly-held perspective among Adventists today, especially those in the “mainstream” – is that there is not a whole lot to be gained from studying 1888 – be that its history, theology, or personalities.
But here are the most common manifestations of this attitude:
1. The “Acceptance” View. By far, the prevailing view among many Adventists is that the “most precious message” that Jones and Waggoner proclaimed in 1888 was ultimately accepted – if not at the Minneapolis General Conference session itself, then in the years that immediately followed the session (perhaps by the 1893 General Conference session in Battle Creek, and definitely by the GC session in 1901).
Such a perspective would seem to be supported by many facts: 1) Both Jones and Waggoner were given wide opportunity to preach their message in the decade that followed, traveling around the United States, preaching at many Camp Meetings and Weeks of Prayer. 2) Jones became editor of the Review and Herald, the church’s flagship publication, until 1901, and even had one of his main antagonists at the 1888 session – Uriah Smith – serving as associate editor. 3) In the years that followed 1888, many of the leaders who opposed Jones and Waggoner in Minneapolis apparently made decided confessions – sometimes publicly – about their wrong attitude, including two of the most outspoken critics (the aforementioned Uriah Smith, and GC President G. I. Butler). 4) You would be hard-pressed to find a Seventh-day Adventist alive today who said he or she didn’t believe in “righteousness by faith” or that salvation was by grace through faith.
While each of these points deserves extensive responses in their own right, they are, to a large degree, merely “red herrings” that distract us from the smoking gun: the testimony of Ellen White. Her testimony is unequivocally clear. In 1896, for example, she wrote in a letter to Uriah Smith that “Satan succeeded in shutting away from our people, in a great measure, the special power of the Holy Spirit that God longed to impart to them,” adding that the “light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted, and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world” (1888 Materials, p. 1575).
Notice, especially, the tense with which she wrote: the light that was to lighten the whole earth with its glory “has been in a great degree kept away from the world.” The verb “has been” is what is known as the “present perfect progressive” tense, which “describes an action that began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future.” Meaning, in plain English, that – eight years after Minneapolis and three years after the epic General Conference session of 1893 – the rejection of Jones and Waggoner’s message was still a present reality within Adventism in 1896.
So, whatever positive things may have been going on within Adventism by 1896 – be it Jones or Waggoner’s opportunities as speakers and editors, or apparent repentance by antagonists – Ellen White could still write with great regret that something was still greatly amiss.
The same was true of 1901, even after the alleged turning point at the General Conference session in Battle Creek that resulted in revolutionary denominational reorganization. Many Adventist historians look at that GC session as pivotal in the denomination’s history of righteousness by faith. Such a view seems to be sustained by some positive statements Ellen White made during the session. But these historians either aren’t aware of her other reflections on the experience, or they deliberately ignore it altogether.
Writing two years later, she shared these sobering reflections:
[God’s] power and grace sustained me. His power was with me all the way through the last General Conference, and had the men in responsibility felt one quarter of the burden that rested on me, there would have been heartfelt confession and repentance. A work would have been done by the Holy Spirit such as has never yet been seen in Battle Creek. Those who at that time heard my message, and refused to humble their hearts before God, are without excuse. No greater proof will ever come to them.
The result of the last General Conference has been the greatest, the most terrible, sorrow of my life. No change was made. The spirit that should have been brought into the whole work as the result of that meeting was not brought in because men did not receive the testimonies of the Spirit of God. As they went to their several fields of labor, they did not walk in the light that the Lord had flashed upon their pathway, but carried into their work the wrong principles that had been prevailing in the work at Battle Creek.
The Lord has marked every movement made by the leading men in our institutions and conferences. It is a perilous thing to reject the light that God sends. . . . So today upon those who have had light and evidence, but who have refused to heed the Lord’s warnings and entreaties, heaven’s woe is pronounced.” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 13, p. 122).
Such a testimony seems to hardly give credence to the thesis that she thought the 1901 GC session was a great victory for the church. In fact, so negative was her experience at that GC session – the first she attended after her decade “exile” in Australia – that she vowed she’d never attend another session again.
Such a thought was pressed home all the more poignantly when she saw, in vision, an experience that God was waiting to give His people at the session instead of what they did experience. There was great conversion, confession, and joy in the experience of all who attended the session – as she witnessed in vision. But then these sobering words came to her ears: “This might have been. All this the Lord was waiting to do for His people.” With great sadness, she thus wrote, “An agony of disappointment came over me as a I realized that what I had witnessed was not a reality” (Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 106).
The sobering reality of Ellen White’s reflections, spanning from 1888 to 1901, and beyond, stands in stark contrast to the picture that many Adventist histories paint. Those 13 years, it is posited, were a period that went Through Crisis to Victory, as one well-known Adventist history was entitled.
But the proverbial fly in the ointment when it comes to all postulations about how those years resulted in great victory, is the testimony of Ellen White. Her testimony serves as a standing and open rebuke to those who would claim that that “most precious message” was embraced by church leadership and given to the church and world.
Of course, beyond this, perhaps the greatest evidence that the message was not embraced is that, per Ellen White, the “earth” has not been lightened with God’s glory – or at least I don’t think it has (but perhaps I just can’t see it).
Though a lot more could be said – and has been said, for example, in Ron Duffield’s two books The Return of the Latter Rain and Wounded In the House of His Friends - the sum total of the evidence, both from Ellen White and that which is self-evident, is that the message has never been accepted by church leadership (including the author of this post) and been given full exposure among the laity and world-at-large. If it had been, we wouldn’t be here.
So, with this myth debunked, we will turn to a couple other views that have been promulgated in relation to the overall thesis that, when it comes to 1888, the contemporary church doesn’t really have a lot to learn from its theology or history.