(Note: This is the second part of 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. For the first part of Part 3, click here.)
As I wrote in my last post, by far the prevailing view among Adventists in general, and leading historians specifically, is that there is very little we can actually learn from the 1888 General Conference session. This is for a number of reasons, chief among them being the fact that by 1901 – at the latest – the church was fully on board with the message of righteousness by faith. Thus, the thinking goes, if the church fully accepted that message back then, it must obviously mean that we are preaching it now. And if we’re preaching it now, what use is there for studying what they shared then? Such an exercise would simply be superfluous.
Before getting to the next “nothing to see here” view, I wanted to share one more reflection on the previous issue I addressed – the idea that Jones and Waggoner’s message was ultimately accepted by the church. I’ve recently read most of the late LeRoy Froom’s opus Movement of Destiny, which focuses mostly on the development of righteousness by faith within Adventism. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Froom’s book, since its publication in 1971, has been the single most influential perspective on 1888 and its aftermath within Adventism – perhaps eclipsed only by a few recent works that have been written by Adventism’s most well-known contemporary historian.
Much could be said about Froom’s work – as well as some personal correspondence of his that I recently became privy to – but I wanted to file this thought: Froom’s basic thesis is puzzling, to say the least. His basic thesis about 1888 is that the major and most significant contribution that Jones and Waggoner made to the church was their insistence that Christ was fully divine and that He finished the act of atonement at the cross. This is, supposedly, what we owe them.
Prior to 1888, Froom suggests, Adventists were confused about the deity of Christ – which is why we couldn’t preach Christ much. There was so much disagreement about whether Christ possessed full and eternal deity that we were unable to formulate a coherent message about Christ to present to the world. In fact, Froom’s favorite moniker when it comes to the message that Jones and Waggoner proclaimed was “Righteousness by Faith in Christ as ‘all the fullness of the Godhead.'” He repeats this expression over and over and over again.
So with such a thesis about the content of their message, it was almost self-evident for Froom that of course their message was accepted. After all, he was writing in 1950s and 1960s Adventism, when no Adventist doubted the full deity of Christ. Further bolstering his thesis was the fact that, for the first time in Adventism’s history, the denomination had finally agreed on a list of “Fundamental Beliefs” in 1931, within which the full deity of Christ was – again, officially for the first time – fully affirmed.
Froom then also viewed the incredible opportunity that arose in the 1950s, when Evangelicals approached the church to ask Adventists what they believed, as a providential opportunity that was only possible after the church both agreed on Christ’s full deity and the act of the atonement finishing at the cross. So Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, the book that resulted from the interactions with Evangelicals that Froom co-authored, was the church’s shining moment, when the Evangelical world fully embraced Adventists – removing us from the “cult” list – because we finally demonstrated that we fully embraced Christ’s complete deity and His finished act of atonement at the cross.
So that’s why Froom could say without any hesitation that of course the church embraced Jones and Waggoner’s message. The proof was in the pudding!
There is much more that I could write about Froom – an opportunity to which I may return in the future – but the long and short of it is that, as I shared in my last post, the thesis that the church has accepted Jones and Waggoner’s message is just patently false, no matter the angle from which one tries to come (including Froom’s curious – and largely unique – angle).
But let me now – finally – move on to the next view which some propose as a way of minimizing the impact and importance of the history and theology of 1888.
2. The “Personality” View. While admitting that something unfortunate did happen at the 1888 General Conference in Minneapolis, a number of historians take an unfortunate turn: they say, in essence, that the main problem in 1888 was not a theological one but an interpersonal one. That is, all the conflict – or at least most of it – revolved not around particular theology or doctrinal issues, but interpersonal friction.
Of course, such historians are willing to concede that many of the brethren – Uriah Smith, G. I. Butler, et al – acted very unchristlike toward Jones and Waggoner and Ellen White. But the blame for this conflict, they propose, does not lay solely on their doorstep. Indeed, Jones and Waggoner were as much to blame for the interpersonal fireworks as much as anyone else. They – especially Jones – were quick-tempered, confrontational, rash, self-confident, pompous, high-handed, egotistical, belittling, and on and on it goes (these are all actual descriptors that one historian has used to describe Jones).
Thus, with such a surfeit of these adjectives to describe the two young “upstart” preachers, the only conclusion one can draw is that they, in essence, made their own bed. The rejection of their message – and more specifically, them as messengers – was ultimately their own doing. Any rejection that resulted from Minneapolis had as much to do with Jones and Waggoner’s gruff personalities as anything else – and again here, Jones and Waggoner’s theological views were not really what was so staunchly opposed, but the way with which they presented them.
So the summation of the event is that the church didn’t reject their theology; rather, it rejected their pompous and bombastic attitude.
The problem with this perspective, as with any other objection, is that there is a smoking gun – as usual. And that smoking gun is, as usual, Ellen White. All other testimony from other witnesses (which, even here, tends to be from secondary sources that weren’t even at Minneapolis), as helpful as it can be filling in some of the blanks, cannot trump the testimony of an inspired witness and a prophetic voice.
In this case, Ellen White, while acutely aware of Jones and Waggoner’s weaknesses, repeatedly noted the heavenly credentials they bore and the grace with which they conducted themselves. Writing a month or two after the GC session, for example, she recalled how “Elder Waggoner had taken a straightforward course, not involving personalities, to thrust anyone or to ridicule anyone. He conducted the subject as a Christian gentleman should, in a kind and courteous manner.” And then she even added this rather telling remark, “This was acknowledged to be the case by those who were holding opposite views” (1888 Materials, p. 222).
When it comes to the case of A. T. Jones there can be little doubt that he had what could perhaps be labeled a “zealous” personality. In fact, the word Ellen White used to describe him was “ardent.” And this ardency is perhaps best epitomized by a misstep he took, along with W. W. Prescott, in 1893, when they began promoting a young woman named Anna Rice Phillips as a prophet.
Without getting bogged down in all the details, Ellen White caught wind of this while in Australia and quickly corrected Jones and Prescott for their misfortunate views. And evidently, the two men quickly repented of the mistake (which literally brought Jones to tears) and retracted their promotion of her. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and many of the leading brethren seized upon the opportunity to stick it to Jones all the more.
Writing to S. N. Haskell in 1894, she shared these revealing thoughts about Jones. She noted how he was “so ardent in his faith, and does not manifest the caution he should in his statements by pen or voice,” and that he had “carried certain matters in too strong a manner.” But, she continued, the church actually had “need of these ardent elements; for our work is not a passive work; our work is aggressive.” Again, she wrote, “Truth is always aggressive it is not a passive, dead element; it is a working power. . . . God will accept no sleepy, tame message at this time.” She even said that, after the whole incident and in light of Prescott’s and Jones’s repentance, she had “more confidence” in them than she “had in the past” (the whole letter can be found in 1888 Materials, pp. 1240-1254; it’s worth reading the whole thing).
Perhaps most revealing of all, however, is where she laid the bulk of the blame for Jones’s misstep. Instead of leaving it on his doorstep, she actually pointed the finger back at the leaders, noting how they
refused to fill the position for which they were fitted, and failed to do the work for which God had qualified them, and they stood as criticizers and thought they could discern many flaws in the men whom God was using. The chosen agents of God would have been rejoiced to link up with the men who held aloof from them, questioning, criticizing, and opposing. If the union had existed between these brethren, which Christ in his lessons has enjoined upon his disciples, some mistakes and errors which have occurred would have been avoided. But if the men who should have used their experience in furthering the work, have labored to hinder it, and mistakes have occurred that would not have occurred if they had stood in their allotted place, whom will God hold accountable for these late errors? He will hold the very men accountable who should have been gathering light and united with the faithful watchmen in these days of peril. But where were they?—They were holding themselves in the position of those who were non-receivers of the light for themselves, and intercepting the light that God would send to others. They placed themselves between God and the light, and they have lost the precious light and peace which they did have, and have lost also, the most precious draught from the fountain of light and life. (Ibid., p. 1244).
What a crazy turn of the tables! Instead of fingering Jones who, with an “ardent” personality, wasn’t as cautious as he should have been, she pointed her finger right back at the leadership (and specifically, Uriah Smith and G. I. Butler, whom she had mentioned earlier in the article), saying they were the ones to blame for Jones’s aggressive behavior. Indeed, they stood as “criticizers” of Jones, Prescott, and Waggoner, trying to “discern flaws in the men whom God was using” (is it any different today, by the way, when we have histories being written that go to great lengths to highlight Jones and Waggoner’s personality flaws, thus discrediting their message? History has a way of repeating itself when we refuse to learn from it).
This type of testimony is repeated throughout Ellen White’s reflections on Minneapolis and its aftermath. Over and over again she referred to Jones and Waggoners heavenly credentials, and the mighty way God was using them, and over and over again she lamented about the way they were being treated by church leadership.
Sadly, we have not learned our lesson – over 125 years later. We are still picking out “flaws in the men whom God was using,” and think such flaws – if they are really even that – some how neutralized and neutralizes the God-ordained mission they had. And we think it gives us license to ignore the theology and history of 1888.
But perhaps this thought from Ellen White sums up the whole issue the best. Notice, especially, the last line, which serves as a solemn warning for all of us:
Some have turned from the message of the righteousness of Christ to criticize the men and their imperfections, because they do not speak the message of truth with all the grace and polish desirable. They have too much zeal, are too much in earnest, speak with too much positiveness, and the message that would bring healing and life and comfort to many weary and oppressed souls, is, in a measure, excluded for just in proportion as men of influence close their own hearts and set up their own wills in opposition to what God has said, will they seek to take away the ray of light from those who have been longing and praying for light and for vivifying power. Christ has registered all the hard, proud, sneering speeches spoken against his servants as against himself. (1888 Materials, p. 673).
I think Ellen White’s testimony speaks for itself.
Lastly, in my final part of “Part 3,” we will look at one more view that reflects a “nothing to see here” attitude. But that will have to wait for another day.