We will be doing a historical analysis of the question of trinitarianism and anti-trinitarianism in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, in response to a growing movement within the church that is challenging No. 2 of our 28 Fundamental Beliefs, which states:
“There is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three coeternal Persons. God is immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, above all, and ever present. He is infinite and beyond human comprehension, yet known through His self-revelation. God, who is love, is forever worthy of worship, adoration, and service by the whole creation.”
There have been a litany of attacks upon this fundamental belief from many angles, some of which I shall discuss in this article. I want everyone to be convinced in their own mind, however, and ultimately to base their conviction upon Inspiration, which comprises both the Greater Light of Holy Writ and the Lesser Light, the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, which God has given to His Remnant people. This is a mere historical analysis to counter certain anti-trinitarian claims.
I believe the historical objections to the Triune Godhead fall seriously short, and in this article I will give a primarily historical analysis, since much of the objections given here appeal to history.
It is suggested that the Adventist pioneers were anti-trinitarian and believed that the Holy Spirit was not a divine Being and distinct Person, but only a spiritual extension like a spiritual influence from God and Christ the Son. This, for the vast majority of the most influential and vocal pioneers, is true. But to infer that anti-trinitarianism was an immovable pillar of the original Adventist faith is not historically accurate, and I will explain why.
The Millerite Movement
The early Millerites were a mix. They came from different backgrounds and denominations. William Miller himself, as a Baptist, was a Trinitarian. He wrote in 1822, "I believe in one living and true God, and that there are three persons in the Godhead—as there is in man, the body, soul, and spirit. And if anyone will tell me how these exist, I will tell him how the three persons of the Triune God are connected." - William Miller, quoted by James White, Sketches of the Christian Life and Public Labors of William Miller (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1875), p. 59.
Miller’s partner for the duration, leading up to the Great Disappointment, was Joshua V. Himes who, as a member of the Christian Connexion was an ardent Anti-Trinitarian. We will be dealing with the Christian Connexion connection in the next section. Himes and Miller worked fervently to preach the Second Advent message, and we nary hear of a moment that their work was hindered by their differences of opinion on the Godhead.
Neither made the Godhead the focal point of their work in presenting the Second Advent message. This historical evidence contradicts certain contemporary anti-trinitarian suggestions that a robust anti-trinitarian theology was a major foundational pillar of the Second Advent movement.
The “Christian Connexion” Connection
The Christian Connexion began in 1801 as a reaction to the Reformed Calvinist doctrines of predestination and unconditional election. Over time, they absorbed beliefs that were outside of traditional Protestantism at the time, and they identified closely with the anti-trinitarian Unitarians of New England.
The primary founders of the Connexion movement were Abner Jones and Elias Smith, from Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively. They emphasized a rejection of Calvinism, and after they were invited by the Freewill Baptists to preach among their congregations, a new movement formed.
At the start, the Connexion wasn’t concerned about conceptions of the Godhead one way or the other. However, by 1806, Elias Smith rejected the Trinity doctrine, writing “As for three persons being one, and one three, it never was, nor never will be”. (Smith, Christian’s Magazine, No. V, 1806, p.166.) By 1811, the Connexion had fully rejected Trinitarianism in all its forms. Because of this, they became estranged from their Freewill Baptist brethren and began to ally with the formerly Methodist Unitarians, who were themselves fierce critics of the Trinity doctrine.
During this time, anti-trinitarianism was considered a very liberal and radical idea. Because the Christian Connexion was more influential, an alliance was proposed, and by 1826 the Christian Connexion was distributing Unitarian-authored literature. (Gospel Luminary, 1826, p. 48) Universalism started gaining ground, and several Connexion leaders, including Elias Smith, wavered back and forth between Connexionism and Universalism.
It was in this historical context that William Miller came on the scene. The Millerite movement was primarily a New England phenomenon, and as the influential Connexioners became a part of it, this boosted Miller’s efforts considerably. But while the Connexion served as a vehicle for Unitarian beliefs, the same wasn’t true for Millerism. With its focus primarily on the Second Coming of Jesus in just a few years, there was simply no time to argue over the nature of the Godhead.
Thanks to the work of Joshua Himes and the preaching of the Trinitarian Miller (who seems to have diplomatically kept his trinitarianism under wraps), over a hundred churches left the Connexion and flocked to the Millerite movement. (Milo True Morrill, A History of the Christian Denomination in America, Dayton: The Christian Publishing Association, 1912, pg. 175) With them they carried their theological baggage, which was a fixture of previous theological biases and not an awakening discovered in the wake of the Second Advent message.
The Connexion’s Heavy Influence in the Post Disappointment Era
The theological baggage on the subject of the Godhead in early Adventism was heavily slanted towards the Connexion’s view. This is no surprise, since former Connexion leaders were among the most influential. James White, husband of Ellen G. White, was himself baptized into the Connexion at age 16, and later ordained a minister in that organization in 1843. It is no secret that James White was an anti-trinitarian.
Other prominent former Connexioners included Joseph Bates, who helped influence Adventists on the Sabbath. It is no surprise that the immediate post-Disappointment Adventist consensus on the Godhead contained no favorable views towards the Trinity. But because anti-trinitarianism isn’t the immovable doctrinal fixture of the Adventist movement some suggest it is, this outlook would change near the turn of the century, under the direction of God’s inspired messenger.
D. M. Canright wrote a series of articles in 1878 denouncing the Trinity.
“All trinitarian creeds make the Holy Ghost a person, equal in substance, power, eternity; and glory with the Father and Son. Thus they claim three' persons in the trinity, each one equal with both the others. If this be so, then the Holy Spirit is just as truly an, individual intelligent person as is the Father or the Son. But this we cannot believe. The Holy Spirit is not a person.”
- D. M. Canright, Signs of the Times, July 25, 1878, Vol. 4, No. 28
This was the consensus of prominent Adventists in the pre-1888 era.
Error Corrected and Reversed
The 1850s to the 1890s saw the dominance of anti-trinitarian language in our literature. However, once the post 1888 era dawned, we see a change of direction in the denomination in that area.
The Old Guard showed its unwillingness to budge on certain issues. Stern rebuke from God’s messenger, Ellen G. White, was a sobering reminder that not even hardened veterans of the Advent movement were free from error, and the 1888 Minneapolis Conference incident served as the epitome of this theme.
It was in the wake of this groundbreaking event that we see a gradual change of mind regarding the Trinity issue. By 1892, the use of the word “Trinity” was no longer a taboo. In the Church’s publication, Bible Students’ Library, was published a tract titled, “The Bible Doctrine of the Trinity” written by Presbyterian minister Samuel Spear. It signifies perhaps the first time any of our major denominational publications were positively referencing the Trinity.
“Our Saviour, in prescribing the formula to be observed in baptism, directed that converts to Christianity should be baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Matt. 28:19. Here we have the distinct element of threeness in three personal titles of the Godhead; and while this implies some kind of distinction between the persons thus designated, the language places them all on the same level of divinity.”
This represented a significant warming on the part of Adventists toward association with the term “Trinity.” It also suggested that the Holy Spirit was a distinct divine Person.
A question was posed to the Review in 1896 on whether the Holy Spirit was owed worship. Here was the response:
“WORSHIPING THE HOLY SPIRIT.”
“Do the Scriptures warrant the praise or worship of the Holy Spirit? If not, does not the last line of the doxology contain an unscriptural sentiment?" - D. H.
“Answer.--- We know of no place in the Bible where we are commanded to worship the Holy Spirit, as was commanded in the case of Christ (Heb. 1:6), or where we find an example of the worship of the Holy Spirit, as in the case of Christ. Luke 21:52. Yet in the formula for baptism, the name ‘Holy Ghost,’ or ‘Holy Spirit,’ is associated with that of the Father and the Son. And if the name can be thus used, why could it not properly stand as a part of the same trinity in the hymn of praise, ‘Praise God from Whom all Blessing Flow?’”
- Uriah Smith, Review and Herald, 1896 Vol. 73, No. 43
Afterwards our publications didn’t just peter out, but exploded into a full flurry of pro-trinitarian sentiments from that point on. The book The Desire of Ages helped this emerging movement blossom into general acceptance, even among those who had held very strong anti-trinitarian beliefs in the past. The article that serves as a confession that prior sentiments on the Personhood of the Holy Spirit were wrong was written by R. A. Underwood in an 1898 Review article:
"Is the work that has been noticed in these articles done by an influence ?—There is an influence and a power, it is true; but we should not make the mistake of believing in an influence simply, when we so much need the One who carries the influence and power. The Holy Spirit is Christ's personal representative in the field; and he is charged with the work of meeting Satan, and defeating this personal enemy of God and his government. It seems strange to me, now, that I ever believed that the Holy Spirit was only an influence, in view of the work he does. But we want the truth because it is truth, and we reject error because it is error, regardless of any views we may formerly have held, or any difficulty we may have had, or may now have, when we view the Holy Spirit as a person. Light is sown for the righteous."
- R. A. Underwood, Review and Herald, Vol. 75, Vol. 20, May 17, 1898
It wasn’t just a mere isolated opinion, but a denominational coup. That edition of the Review was edited by Uriah Smith and A. T. Jones, two of several influential individuals whom many anti-trinitarians appeal to. It didn’t stop there.
“We fear that many have tried to receive the Holy Ghost as an emotion or an influence, when according to His name and position, given Him by Jesus in introducing Him to the disciples, He should be received as a person.”
- G. B. Starr, Union Conference Record, December 31, 1906, Vol. 10, No. 26
R. A. Underwood would later write a more pointed article in the Review in 1907,
“A personal Holy Ghost in charge of the work of grace, under God and Christ, as their representative and appointed agent, to accomplish the work of regeneration of man's soul, body, and spirit, will be discounted and made to appear only as an influence. When faith in the trio of the Godhead is destroyed, and the One delegated with authority to resist and conquer man's foe is rejected as naught, we are left to the cruel buffetings of Satan, with no power to resist our adversary.”
- Review and Herald, November 21, 1907, Vol. 84, No. 47
R. Hare wrote a rather succinct article on the Trinity for the Union Conference Record, alongside an article (unrelated to the Godhead issue) by known ardent anti-trinitarian J. N. Loughborough:
“From the confusing idea of ‘one God in three Gods,’ and ‘three Gods in one God’—the unexplainable dictum of theology—the enemy gladly leads to what appears to be a more rational, though no less erroneous idea —that there is no trinity, and that Christ is merely a created being. But God's great plan is clear and logical. There is a trinity, and in it there are three personalities…These divine persons are closely associated in the work of God…”
- Union Conference Record, July 19, 1909, Vol. 13, No. 29
Stephen N. Haskell’s Bible Training School journal comments thus:
“The Holy Spirit is represented in the Bible as one of the Trinity. Of the Holy Spirit, Christ said that it 'proceedeth from the Father' ; and, 'He shall testify of Me.' John 15 : 26. In many instances in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is spoken of by the use of the personal pronoun 'He' and 'His.' From this we would conclude that the Holy Spirit has a personality…It is evident that the Holy Spirit is one of the Trinity, and fully represents God…”
- Bible Training School, 1910, Vol. 9, No. 7
All these statements were written while Ellen White was alive and still publishing. Through all this she not only didn’t rebuke these sentiments, she continued to write statements that unequivocally support the Personhood and divinity of the Holy Spirit.
“We have been brought together as a school, and we need to realize that the Holy Spirit, who is as much a person as God is a person, is walking through these grounds, that the Lord God is our keeper, and helper. He hears every word we utter and knows every thought of the mind.”
— Manuscript 66, 1899
"Now a little point. As the saints in the kingdom of God are accepted in the beloved, they hear: ‘Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ And then the golden harps are touched, and the music flows all through the heavenly host, and they fall down and worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
- Manuscript 139, 1906
Although one can still bring up objections to the (most likely correct) trinitarian interpretation, any objection would have to answer the inquiry, if Sister White were an ardent anti-trinitarian, why write statements like these which clearly outline a very trinitarian, or at least a Godhead of Three Divine Persons, understanding.
What is clear, is that these inspired statements coincided with many of the brethren's reversal of their past semi-unitarian views.
Questions on the Controversy
There are unanswered questions regarding this debate that may not be fully satisfied this side of heaven. For instance, why was the pen of Inspiration silent on the issue during the heyday of anti-trinitarian dominance in early Seventh-day Adventism? Why take so long to write statements affirming a Godhead of Three Divine Persons?
While we would discourage anyone from making her silence an endorsement of those Connexion-influenced ideas, this is a valid question to ask. Perhaps she did not receive definite light on the issue at that time. The focus of the church then and now is the Three Angels’ messages, and history shows both anti-trinitarians and trinitarians worked hand-in-hand to preach the Second Advent message.
The sudden injection of light on that topic would have been extremely controversial at the time, even more so than the Sabbath and health reform. It could have split the Church in a way God didn’t intend at the time. We do not have all the answers, but what we do know is that light was given over time, and by the dawn of the 20th century it was evident to many that the former position we took on the Trinity was erroneous. This came about not by any internal conspiracy or meddling of third parties intent on diluting our distinctive message, but because the pen of Inspiration took action—and men, such as the ones quoted above, took heed.
As can be seen in the historical exhibits posted above, the modern anti-trinitarian narrative that Trinitarianism only made inroads into Adventism after the death of Mrs. White, is forever shattered. Other strange teachings, such as the conspiracy theory that LeRoy Froom modified certain Spirit of Prophecy passages to support the Trinity, or that trinitarianism is the heresy John Kellogg indulged in which led to Pantheism (ignoring all the trinitarians outside our church and within, including the above referenced writers, who never fell into Pantheism), show poor scholarship, ignorance of history, and an agenda geared towards kindling a very strange revival.