The late historian Barbara Tuchman, in her provocative account of political folly through the ages, laments that “learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced” by political leaders (1). Unfortunately, this observation is as true—perhaps even truer—among institutional and intellectual leaders in the faith community than it is in the realm of secular politics.
Historical ignorance seems especially to be a recurrent American problem, which perhaps explains why the late novelist Gore Vidal once spoke of America as “the United States of Amnesia.” (A television newscast some years ago reported that according to at least one survey, a majority of Americans at the time thought the Battle of Gettysburg was fought during World War II!) But a general ignorance of history is sometimes a less egregious problem than the tendency of some to focus on lessons derived from particular historical events, while lessons derived from the study of other events are effectively ignored. This can create a phenomenon one might call “historical tunnel vision.”
For example, many American politicians and policy-makers during the Cold War era tended to view U.S.-Soviet tensions entirely through the lenses of the World War II experience, which many of them had personally endured. Communism, wherever it appeared, was seen as a reincarnation of Hitler’s Germany—thoroughly evil, monolithic, and bent on global conquest. (Undeniably evil though Communism was and is, to assume uniform adherence to Leninism among those wearing the Communist label is as foolish as assuming that anyone wearing the Seventh-day Adventist label is a firm believer in the church’s fundamental doctrines and the prophetic authority of Ellen White!) Much of the dominant Cold War reasoning insisted that to temporize with any occurrence of the Communist ideology—even when embraced by Third World insurgents with no agenda but freedom from colonial dominance—qualified as “appeasement” of the Munich/Neville Chamberlain kind.
Fundamental differences in time, place, and circumstance were given no heed. Broad-brush generalization was the order of the day. Anyone under the Marxist-Leninist banner—or perceived to be—was automatically viewed as a mortal foe of America, part of a mercilessly efficient global conspiracy with profoundly malevolent aims toward American values, who could understand no language but brute force.
Thus the stage was set for the disaster and humiliation of the Vietnam War.
But not all international crises are created equal, and not all controversies within the church are created equal. The particular dynamics and challenges of one controversial situation are not necessarily identical to those of every other. Merely because certain issues in the past were viewed as more serious than the inspired consensus, time, and logic demonstrated them to be, does not mean every issue the church confronts can rightfully be viewed as similarly inflated.
Merely because certain calls in church history to “preserve the landmarks” have lacked validity, doesn’t mean all such calls lack validity. Sometimes landmark teachings actually come under threat—quite often, in fact, if we believe the Sacred Record. The Bible and subsequent church history offer countless examples of the faith community riven by struggles which without question involved the compromise of doctrinal and moral faithfulness as defined by the written counsel of God, brought about through concessions to worldliness buttressed by an easy, self-accommodating spirituality. Merely because some at certain times may by hypersensitive to such threats cannot gainsay the decisive testimony of both the inspired record and the human story in general—namely, that attacks on landmark Biblical truths arising from ease-loving, compromising, popular culture remain by far the overwhelming, ubiquitous spiritual challenge faced by God’s people through the ages.
Obsession With the Pharisee Threat
The danger of extreme moral rigidity often associated with the Pharisees of old has become an especially popular focus in modern and postmodern Adventism. One lone Adventist professor over forty years ago was featured in a Review and Herald cover article, warning the church against excessive attention to the Pharisaic problem while largely ignoring the opposite problem (2). Judging from the course of First World Adventist history in the years since, it would appear not many were listening.
In his book Sail Your Own Seas, largely directed at the non-Adventist public, the late George Vandeman cited an encounter in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters where a demon urges one of his less-experienced colleagues to get people “’running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood. Get people to crowd to the side of the boat that is already nearly under. When people are lukewarm and apathetic, get them stirred up about the dangers of enthusiasm and emotion. If they are lazy, talk to them about the hypocrisy of the working community. If they are cruel, warn them against the evils of sentimentality. . . . In other words, let them hear loudly and repeatedly the warnings they don’t need” (3).
Some years later, a book addressing a number of hot-button Adventist issues acknowledged at one point, “Most of our churches are infected by permissiveness” (4). Yet in not a single chapter of this book, or in a subsequent book addressing similar topics (5), did this author address in depth the widespread permissiveness he recognized to be pervasive in the church. Every chapter in both of these books focused on the alleged faults of conservative Adventists, often peppered with extreme language.
A notable, even iconic denominational writer and speaker (now deceased), modeled a similarly disproportionate attention to the flaws of those seeking to rebuke permissive, self-indulgent trends in the church, while at the same time giving breathtakingly little attention to those contentedly afflicted by these problems. In one prominent book this author included a chapter titled, “Good News for Legalists” (6) and another titled, “Good News for Pharisees” (7). As no chapters offering “good news” to either liberals or Sadducees were included, the thoughtful reader was led to wonder whether the author still maintained—despite ubiquitous contrary evidence—that legalism and pharisaism remained the church’s most menacing spiritual danger.
Historical Tunnel Vision Among Contemporary Adventists
The unbalanced focus of so many in contemporary Adventism on the perils of extreme spiritual rigidity as distinct from the opposite peril, is reflected to a large degree in the disproportionate focus of some on certain episodes in denominational history to the neglect of others. The focus of a significant group in the church on the history and lessons of the 1888 era offers one conspicuous example in this regard.
Make no mistake about it. The 1888 crisis represents one of the most pivotal and decisive moments in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Many of us are familiar with such inspired accolades as the following regarding the message delivered at the Minneapolis General Conference of that year by A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner:
The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God (8).
Elsewhere she writes of how this message brought to God’s people the beginning of the Loud Cry message of the last days:
The time of test is just upon us, for the loud cry of the third angel has already begun in the revelation of the righteousness of Christ, the sin-pardoning Redeemer. This is the beginning of the light of the angel whose glory shall fill the whole earth (9).
No one, studying the history of that period and the inspired counsels that attended the proclamation of the righteousness by faith message at that time, can underestimate the importance of either the message then delivered or the dynamics of the controversy that accompanied the message. But the 1888 controversy is not the only such episode in the history of Adventism. Other controversies, involving different issues and different spiritual dynamics, have marked the progress of the great Advent movement. All such incidents in our past merit close scrutiny and careful discernment, especially when applied to the church’s present circumstances.
There are those in contemporary Adventism who tend to view every theological, ecclesiastical, or moral controversy in the church through the lenses of the 1888 crisis, often paying little or no heed to other crises in denominational, Biblical, or Christian history in general as possible templates for what Adventism is now enduring. Such persons fail to consider the differing (though not contradictory) counsels inspired writers have given the church in different settings regarding different issues of contention.
The Old Landmarks
In 1888, those who opposed the Jones-Waggoner message stressed the need to “stand by the old landmarks.” Ellen White spoke of how this concern was misguided:
In Minneapolis God gave precious gems of truth to His people in new settings. This light from heaven by some was rejected with all the stubbornness the Jews manifested in rejecting Christ, and there was much talk of standing by the old landmarks. But there was evidence they knew not what the old landmarks were (10).
The principal point of controversy at Minneapolis was the scope of the law of God as described in the book of Galatians—whether the law depicted as “our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24) was the ceremonial law alone, or whether it also included the moral law of Ten Commandments. Ellen White’s position on this point was consistent throughout her ministry (11), yet as the controversy raged over this issue she was inspired to say:
The question at issue is not a vital question and should not be treated as such. The wonderful importance and magnitude of this subject has been exaggerated (12).
But when, a number of years later, John Harvey Kellogg’s pantheism and A.F. Ballenger’s attack on the sanctuary doctrine produced conflict in the church, Ellen White’s attitude was very different. Far from rebuking those who spoke of standing by the old landmarks, as she had in the wake of Minneapolis, she recognized that now the old landmarks were in fact under assault, and she now used favorably the very language she had disputed when it was employed by opponents of the Jones-Waggoner message, because the issues now were different:
God never contradicts Himself. Scripture proofs are misapplied when forced to testify to that which is not true. Another and still another will arise and bring in supposedly great light, and make their assertions. But we stand by the old landmarks (13).
In other words, according to the inspired pen, the dispute over the law in Galatians—regardless of who was right—was not a vital question. But the sanctuary doctrine, according to the same inspired voice, was and is a vital question. Thus the imperative of standing by the old landmarks was very real in view of the challenge by Kellogg and Ballenger, even if it wasn’t real in the case of the law in Galatians.
Spirit and Tone
Regardless of the issue, a godly, civil, and charitable spirit must attend all our dealings. Whether the erring one is a child molester, an ax murderer, an embezzler, a teacher of doctrinal or moral heresy, or just an annoying disrupter of church order, the love of Christ must constrain all our words and actions. Be the offense large or small, the spirit and tone with which we approach the offender is non-negotiable.
But we note with interest that Ellen White’s rebukes to her brethren regarding the negative spirit and tone with which they confronted issues, occur far more frequently with regard to the 1888/law-in-Galatians controversy—where by her own admission the points of contention were not vital (14)—than in the context of such vital doctrinal challenges as Kellogg’s pantheism and Ballenger’s disputing of the sanctuary message. While this can hardly be understood as implying that one’s spirit and tone don’t matter so long as the issue is important, one is intrigued by the more frequent presence of such warnings in the context of debates over non-vital issues. A wrong spirit on the part of would-be reformers will certainly mean the loss of salvation on the part of those indulging such a spirit. But the loss of the church’s distinctive message would likely cost the salvation of multitudes more.
Conclusion—Historical Tunnel Vision
The legalism of the ancient Pharisees and the rigid spirit of those who opposed A.T. Jones, E.J. Waggoner, and Ellen White during the 1888 era have wreaked untold spiritual havoc in the hearts and lives of God’s professed people at various times in sacred history. Most assuredly this mindset and approach to issues are not extinct in the church today. But neither the inspired forecast of end-time spiritual challenges nor the prevalent circumstances in Adventism just now—particularly in First World countries—lend credence to the notion that pharisaic, legalistic rigidity is the predominant peril facing the church at the present moment.
The lessons to be learned from the 1888 controversy are certainly priceless. But so are the lessons to be learned from the Kellogg-Ballenger controversy of the early twentieth century, the Questions on Doctrine controversy of later years—not to mention the numerous religious controversies recounted throughout the Biblical narrative. God’s truth in all these circumstances is changeless and eternal, but the emphasis applied by God’s messengers to different issues in various settings is not necessarily the same. The apostle Paul, for example, didn’t spend much time admonishing the sexually immoral believers in Corinth about the danger of trusting their own works for salvation. Neither did he spend much time—aside from a passing reference (Gal. 5:19)—admonishing the Galatian believers against sexual immorality. The principle of “meat in due season” in ministering to the Lord’s flock is underscored in both Old and New Testaments (Psalm 104:27; 145:15; Matt. 24:45; Luke 12:42).
I confess to being deeply concerned about those in contemporary Adventism who persist in viewing the issues we face in the church just now through the lenses of those issues which divided God’s people during the New Testament period as well as those dominant during the 1888 crisis. For every incident in Bible history of the pharisaic approach to law-keeping, one finds numerous other incidents in which the law was compromised for the sake of easy spirituality and concessions to a self-indulgent popular culture. The issues which divided Adventists at Minneapolis and during its immediate aftermath are not the issues dividing Adventists today. To be sure, the prideful spirit, resistance to correction, and similar problems occurring during that era do remain among us. But the law-in-Galatians issue—the only substantive theological dispute that divided the brethren during that period—has long since been settled by Ellen White’s clear testimony following Minneapolis:
I am asked concerning the law in Galatians. What law is the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ? I answer: Both the ceremonial and the moral code of ten commandments (15).
To the present writer’s knowledge, not since that time has this issue risen to vex the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The clarity of the above inspired testimony has effectively settled this controversy.
But the issues of righteousness by faith presently dividing many Seventh-day Adventists were not points of conflict in 1888. Let’s be clear: the emphasis of the 1888 messengers—Jones, Waggoner, and Ellen White—included clarity regarding such contemporary questions as the nature of sin, the humanity of Christ, the nature of justification, and the possibility of sinless obedience through heaven’s power here on earth. But no evidence exists that these doctrinal issues were significant points of dispute during that era. Indeed, evidence from both sides of the salvation/Christology dispute in modern and postmodern Adventism have affirmed the consistent testimony of leading denominational thinkers regarding these issues during the first century of our history, including the 1888 era (16).
And most assuredly, the attacks on Biblical authority we find in the church today relative to gender authority, sexuality, and the origin of life would have repulsed and quickly united the Minneapolis combatants. J.H. Waggoner, father of E.J. Waggoner, wrote in the Signs of the Times in 1878:
The divine arrangement, even from the beginning, is this, that the man is the head of the woman. Every relation is disregarded or abused in this lawless age. But the Scriptures always maintain this order in the family relation. ‘For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.’ Eph. 5:23 Man is entitled to certain privileges that are not given to woman; and he is subjected to some duties and burdens from which the woman is exempt. A woman may pray, prophesy, exhort, and comfort the church, but she cannot occupy the position of a pastor or ruling elder. This would be looked upon as usurping authority over the man, which is here [1 Timothy 2:12] prohibited (17).
Despite the recent claim of some that the concept of spiritual male headship is relatively new in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, none other than A.T. Jones wrote in the American Sentinel in 1891:
This word does indeed speak to man of his son, his daughter, his manservant, his maidservant, etc., not because it contemplates his duty to man, but because it contemplates his duty to God; contemplates man as the head of the family, and as such responsible to God for the conduct on the Sabbath day, of those under the jurisdiction which God bestowed upon man in his headship of the family (18).
In short, I believe it is fair to say that if the Minneapolis protagonists from both camps were resurrected in the midst of today’s Adventism, they would likely be united on all the major issues presently vexing the denomination—from the various issues comprising what has come to be known as Last Generation Theology to the questions of inspired authority, gender roles, sexuality issues, the creation/evolution debate, and a host of others.
At the bottom line, the collective witness of God’s written counsel—whether doctrinal or historical—must remain the benchmark of our spiritual and theological worldview. We must learn from the totality of sacred history, not merely a part of it. The perils of laxity and legalism are equally injurious to the soul, but when we study the whole of the Sacred Record, it becomes clear the former has bedeviled the spiritual journey of God’s people far more often than the latter.
1. Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 383.
2. Jerry M. Lien, “Let’s Give the Pharisees a Rest,” Review and Herald, June 10, 1976, pp. 1,6-7.
3. George E. Vandeman, Sail Your Own Seas (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1975), p. 71.
4. Martin Weber, Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1991), p. 64.
5. ----More Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1992).
6. Morris L. Venden, Never Without An Intercessor: The Good News About the Judgment (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Assn, 1996), pp. 115-127.
7. Ibid, pp. 129-137.
8. White, Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91-92.
9. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 363.
10. ----Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 30.
11. ----1888 Materials, vol. 1, p. 21; Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 233-235.
12. ----Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 175.
13. Ibid, vol. 1, p. 162.
14. Ibid, vol. 3, p. 175.
15. Ibid, vol. 1, p. 233.
16. See J.R. Zurcher, Touched With Our Feelings: A Historical Survey of Adventist Thought on the Human Nature of Christ (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1999); Ralph Larson, The Word Was Made Flesh: One Hundred Years of Seventh-day Adventist Christology, 1852-1952 (Cherry Valley, CA: The Cherrystone Press, 1986); Geoffrey Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism (Wilmington, DE: Zenith Publishing Co, 1977), pp. 88,113,114; Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventists and the American Dream (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), p. 87.
17. J.H. Waggoner, Signs of the Times, Dec. 19, 1878.
18. A.T. Jones, American Sentinel, June 25, 1891.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.