In his most recent book, Wounded in the House of His Friends, Ron Duffield continues examining the theme of the “latter rain” within Adventism, tracing its historic development. The bulk of his attention centers on the General Conference session in 1893, held in Battle Creek, Michigan. Unlike the 1888 General Conference session in Minneapolis, where the message of justification by faith presented by Jones and Waggoner was chiefly met with resistance, the 1893 session was a great victory and was essentially the highpoint of Adventism’s experience with this “most precious message.”
In fact, Ron presents quote after quote from people who felt they had experienced drops of the “latter rain” at the event, and many confessions were made by key leaders who resisted the message in Minneapolis. This incredible revival continued over the next few months at various Camp Meetings and Weeks of Prayer. Almost everyone who experienced the revival felt that it would soon usher in earth’s final scenes.
But, sadly, they didn’t come.
And one of the most intriguing parts of Ron’s research is his unearthing of some of the underlying factors that contributed to the undermining of this movement. His reflections are sobering. The one that caught my attention the most, however, is also the one that brings the most conviction to me on a personal level.
What was it?
Essentially simultaneous to the development of this latter rain movement in Adventism was another movement gaining momentum in the colleges of America, including Adventism’s own Battle Creek College. American Football was first introduced at Princeton, and by the early 1890s it had reached Battle Creek. Although it was banned there in 1891, it was re-introduced in 1893, reaching a feverish pitch just months after the 1893 General Conference, in the very same city in which the conference was held. In fact, in the summer of 1893 (the GC session was held in the winter), the college found itself playing the local high school, an event that was reported on in the local newspaper. And apparently, the Adventists didn’t carry themselves too well, protesting vehemently when the game ended in a tie due to what they perceived to be a bad call.
Through a series of events, news of this got back to Ellen White, who was living in Australia at the time, and she was sorely distraught by what she heard. Her distress was not simply over the events themselves, however, but in their relation to the revival work that had started just a few months before. Through articles in the Review, and letters to W.W. Prescott – who was the college president at the time, as well as one of the key presenters at the GC session a few months before – she drew out the incredible implications. Speaking not only of football, but all the frivolous recreational activities that were happening at Battle Creek College, she sharply asked,
Has not the playing of games, and rewards, and the using of the boxing glove been educating and training after Satan’s direction to lead to the possession of his attributes? What if they could see Jesus, the man of Calvary, looking upon them in sorrow, as was represented to me. Things are certainly receiving a wrong mold, and are counteracting the work of the divine power which has been graciously bestowed . . .
“Satan and his angels are laying their snares for your souls, and he is working in a certain way upon teachers and pupils to induce them to engage in certain exercises and amusements which become intensely absorbing, but which are of a character to strengthen the lower powers, and create appetites and passions that will take the lead and counteract most decidedly the operations and working of the Holy Spirit of God upon the human heart.
“What saith the Holy Spirit to you? What was its power and influence upon your hearts during the  General Conference and the conference in other states? Have you taken special heed to yourself? Have the teachers in the school felt that they must take heed?. . . The amusements are doing more to counteract the working of the Holy Spirit than anything else, and the Lord is grieved” (first paragraph, taken from this letter to Prescott; other two from Spalding and Magan Collection, pp. 69-70)
What catches my eye the most is that last sentence: “The amusements are doing more to counteract the working of the Holy Spirit than anything else, and the Lord is grieved.” She repeated similar sentiment on numerous occasions, noting how all the great that had been accomplished at the 1893 GC session was being counteracted by the indulgence of these amusements and games.
But could it be true? Of all the things that could counteract the deep movings of the Holy Spirit that reached a crescendo a few months before, could a simple game of football really have been the greatest factor?
Apparently so – at least in Battle Creek (which just happened to be the center of the Adventist world at the time).
Of course, to be clear, elsewhere Ellen White says that she does not “condemn the simple exercise of playing ball,” yet even here we need to keep reading the sentence: “but this, even in its simplicity,” she continues, “may be overdone” (Selected Messages, vol. 2, p. 322). So an innocent, casual game of ball can be enjoyable, healthy, and re-creational; but it can often get carried away and become too consuming, intense, or competitive.
Such a message is sobering for those of us who both have an incredible burden for Christ’s “most precious message” and the heralding of it in end-time proportion, while also being plagued by the proclivity to “overdo” the “simple exercise” of playing and watching ball. When we allow these amusements to overtake us, it completely counteracts all the good that God has done in our hearts through the gospel. It’s like the seed that is cast by the wayside in Jesus’s parable, only to be devoured by birds.
It’s even more sobering for me because I’ve read Ellen White’s counsel on football before but never stopped to notice the context. To see a direct historical connection between sports and the delay in the proclamation of the “most precious message” is a connection that is too convicting for me to ignore. It hits close to home.
Of course, such a convicting message may sound discouraging to some of us; after all, a life that is devoid of these “innocent” amusements sounds boring. How are we going to fill those three hours on Sunday afternoons? Going door-to-door instead, asking people if they want Bible studies, is an unattractive alternative!
Yet Christ is not asking us to do anything that isn’t more exciting (and it may not even include going “door-to-door”). Life in Christ is not characterized by gloom, doom, boredom, or sadness. “The gospel,” in E.J. Waggoner’s words, “is a message that brings joy” (The Everlasting Covenant, p. 7).
Indeed, when we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), we will find greater fulfillment, excitement, and joy than we ever have before – causing the “the things of this earth,” to quote the old hymn, “to grow strangely dim.” Or, to quote the late Robert Wieland, “The person who knows he has a million dollars in cash will never stoop to look for a nickel lost in the street mire” (taken from “Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?” Signs of the Times July : 11).
And then, when this happens, the latter rain will once again begin to fall.
(Just a note of clarification: the picture above was not from Battle Creek College.)