Enthusiasm in early Adventist worship
One cold Saturday night in February 1845 found Ellen Harmon in a crowded farmhouse in northern Maine. As singing and shouting soared around her, she was struck down in vision. She lay unconscious on the floor while a young Millerite preacher, James White, held her head in his hands until a pillow could be found. From time to time she would arise to deliver the messages she was receiving.
As she spoke, a line of lanterns be came visible in the darkness outside.
"It's Sheriff Moulton!" someone shouted as the line drew closer. The worshipers barred the door.
Moulton knocked. The crowd inside ignored him, striking up another song. He knocked again, more insistently. Shouts of "Hallelujah" rang out, and the singing grew louder.
At this, Moulton sent his men into action. Throwing stout shoulders at the door, they snapped its latch and burst it open. After a few hurried questions, Moulton was pointed to Israel Dammon, the leader of the meeting.
Pushing his way through the crowd, Moulton confronted the flushed, shouting Dammon. "In the name of the state of Maine, lay hold of this man," the sheriff yelled. But after his men were unsuccessful in several attempts to do so, the sheriff gave up and called for reinforcements.
Returning with increased forces, the sheriff succeeded in arresting Dammon and carrying him off. The charge? Disturbing the peace.
There can be no doubt that the meeting that Saturday night in Atkinson, Maine, was exciting, and that the Adventists gathered there were praising God with such energy and volume that the neighbors were offended. At Dammon's trial a local farmer testified, "I have been young, and now am old, and of all the places I ever was in, I never saw such a confusion, not even in a drunken frolic." 1
But despite all the noise and confusion, Ellen White believed the Holy Spirit was present in that meeting. 2
Beating back the enemy
Before long, James and Ellen White had split with Dammon, but neither they nor other Adventists soon abandoned the enthusiastic style of early Adventist worship. "I saw," wrote Ellen White, that "singing to the glory of God often drove the enemy, and shouting would beat him back and give us the victory. I saw there was too little glorifying God in Israel and too little childlike simplicity." 3
In the 1840s and 1850s many Sabbathkeeping Adventists, like their Methodist neighbors, were busy "beating back'' the enemy with their enthusiastic singing and fervent shouts of "Glory!" "Hallelujah!" "Praise God!" and "Blessed Jesus!"
Hiram Edson told of a Friday night meeting where "free and full 'Hallelujahs' ascended to God and He was glorified in praise, love, and adoration." 4 Another believer reported a Vermont meeting where "the Holy Spirit fell upon us, and shouts of victory ascended while tears of joy flowed freely from many eyes." 5 James White wrote that "while Mrs. W[hite] was speaking on first-day, the house rang from full shouts of praise from several in the congregation. This refreshing season seemed a foretaste of heaven, sweet heaven." 6 Elias Goodwin told of a meeting during which "the loud praises of God ascended from most, if not all, in the house; and continued until after midnight.'' 7
In Paris, Maine, in 1850, enthusiasm rose even higher. Ellen White noted: "Sunday the power of God came upon us like a mighty rushing wind. All arose upon their feet and praised God with a loud voice; it was something as it was when the foundation of the house of God was laid. The voice of weeping could not be told from the voice of shouting. It was a triumphant time; all were strengthened and refreshed. I never witnessed such a powerful time before." 8
"None of you should keep silent in your meetings," she wrote in a report of this experience. "Surely everyone who has tasted of the powers of the world to come can say something in honor of the lovely Jesus." 9
On another occasion Mrs. White ob served that "religion is made to dwell too much in an iron case. . . . The outpouring of the Spirit of God will lead to a grateful acknowledgment of the same; and ... we shall not hold our peace, we shall sacrifice to God with the voice of thanksgiving and make melody to Him with our hearts and voices." 10
Shouting and singing were not the only ways in which early Adventists expressed their enthusiasm. "The Spirit caused Clarissa to laugh aloud," Ellen White reported. 11 And a Sister Eliza Smith told how, overcome by a sense of Jesus' love, "before I was aware, I was clapping my hands, and shouting, 'Glory to God.'" 12
On a few occasions Advent believers spoke in tongues. Ellen White recounted that a Brother Ralph "broke out in a new tongue, unknown to us all." The interpretation of the utterance was that Ralph should accompany Mrs. White on a visit to reclaim a Brother Rhodes from discouragement. 13
Early Adventists never encouraged speaking in tongues, but they did accept some instances of it as genuine. The interpretation of tongues, however, did not always prove to be reliable. In 1848 Adventists were debating when to begin the Sabbath. Some thought sundown was the proper time; some argued for 6:00 p.m. At one meeting "the Holy Ghost came down," and "Brother Chamberlain was filled with the power." 14 He "cried out" in an "unknown tongue." The interpretation was rather prosaic. "Give me the chalk; give me the chalk," he insisted. Chalk was produced, and Chamberlain drew a clock face on the floor and proceeded to argue for the 6:00 p.m. time. Later Bible study settled the group on sundown as the time to begin the Sabbath.
In addition to singing, shouting, laughing, and speaking in tongues, early Adventists often experienced prostration, or being "slain by the Spirit." For instance, James White reported of a meeting in Wisconsin in 1860: "Last night I felt more of the power of God than I have at any one time for three years. Brethren Ingraham, Sanborn, and I were praying in another room. While a brother was anointing his wife, the room was filled with the power of God. I was standing, but with difficulty. I fell upon my face, and cried and groaned under the power of God. Brethren Sanborn and Ingraham felt about the same. We all lay on the floor under the power of God. We are perfectly free." 15
Early Adventists also practiced the "holy kiss," or "salutation," when meeting and parting. In her first vision Mrs. White saw that God loved those who "could wash one another's feet and salute the brethren with a holy kiss." 16 Ellen White reported that "Brother Baker was healed, and he glorified God with a loud voice; he had a baptism of the Holy Ghost. . . . Brother Baker has come into the salutation and washing the saints' feet, which he never believed in before." 17
Mrs. White's visions were sometimes given amid the cries and shouts of the saints: "The place was filled with the Spirit of the Lord. Some rejoiced, others wept. All felt that the Lord was drawing very near. . . . When seated, Mrs. W[hite] began to praise the Lord, and continued rising higher and higher in perfect triumph in the Lord, till her voice changed, and the deep, clear shouts of Glory! Hallelujah! thrilled every heart. She was in vision." 18
Except for speaking in tongues and laughing in the Spirit, dozens of examples could be cited of any of the types of experiences cited above. Music evinces exuberance The music of early Adventism also contained evidence of the movement's youthful exuberance. ''There was in those days a power in what was called Advent singing, such as was felt in no other," James White recalled. 19 White spirituals such as "You Will See Your Lord a-Coming" were carried over from the Millerite hymnal, providing an occasion for the expression of deep feelings. White used the song during his journeys as a Millerite evangelist, sometimes entering the hall singing it and accompanying him self by beating time on his Bible. 20
On one occasion James White and his sisters sang "You Will See Your Lord a-Coming" to introduce a Communion service. As they reached the chorus of each verse, "a good Brother Clark" would rise, "strike his hands together over his head, shout 'Glory!' and immediately sit down." Each chorus brought Clark to his feet with the "same shout of 'Glory.' " "The influence of the melody, accompanied by Brother Clark's solemn appearance and sweet shouts, seemed electrifying," White recalled. "Many were in tears, while responses of 'Amen' and 'Praise the Lord' were heard from almost everyone who loved the Advent hope." 21
Early Adventist hymnwriters were by no means averse to writing religious words for popular songs of the day. For instance, Uriah Smith turned Stephen Foster's "Way down upon the Swanee River" into "Up to a land of light we're going," and Foster's "Round ye meadows am a-ringing," became "Round the world alarm is ringing." 22 James White published these adaptations in his 1855 hymnal at a time when Foster was at the height of his secular popularity. 23
Even "Dixie" was pressed into service as a hymn:
"We're traveling toward a country bright
"Where all is peace, and love, and light,
"Look away, look away, look away
"To that bright land." 24
Over the years the secular connotations of these songs overwhelmed their religious usefulness, and they were dropped from Adventist hymnody. But the current Adventist hymnal retains some of the songs that were based on secular music popular at the time of their composition those that did not remain popular outside the church. For instance, "How Sweet Are the Tidings" is based on "Bonny Eloise," an 1858 love song that began "How sweet is the vale where the Mo hawk gently glides." 25
The use of instruments was limited among early Adventists, a few of the more straitlaced discouraging it altogether. 26 As late as 1877, J. N. Loughborough and other church leaders had to introduce biblical arguments to ease the acceptance of the first organ used by Adventists in California.
Ellen White's sons played the melodeon, 27 a small portable organ, and in 1886, during a visit to Sweden, Ellen White commented favorably on the use of a guitar: "A lady . . . was a skillful player on the guitar, and possessed a sweet, musical voice; at public worship she was accustomed to supply the place of both choir and instrument. At our request she played and sung at the opening of our meetings." 28
Moderating the early enthusiasm
Fervent enthusiasm marked Adventist religious experience during the 1840s and 1850s, and joyous outbursts continued to occur on occasion even in the 1860s and 1870s. 29 But by the 1870s religious feelings were apt to be demonstrated in a more sedate manner--by the "tearful eye and earnest looks" that Mrs. White spoke approvingly of observing at a camp meeting. 30
How did the church get away from its enthusiastic roots? In part, it was a natural process as members became more educated and sophisticated. Change in the culture also had its influence, which Adventists were not the only ones to experience. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Methodists were often known as "shouting Methodists," but after the Civil War, enthusiasm waned in that denomination.
A third factor in this sobering of the Adventist Church was the abuses of some enthusiasts. In Wisconsin the Mauston fanaticism of 1861 was linked to ecstatic manifestations and extreme views of sanctification. One woman who believed she experienced visions lost her reason during the excitement. 31
As early as 1850 Ellen White had begun sounding cautions about religious enthusiasm. She "saw that there was great danger of leaving the Word of God and resting down and trusting in exercises. I saw that God had moved by His Spirit upon your company in some of their exercises and their promptings; but I saw danger ahead." 32
She warned one brother that his habit of shouting was no evidence that he was a Christian: "Half the time he himself knows not what he is shouting at." 33 The "holy kiss" sometimes lost its holiness, as in the case of Brother Pearsail, who was "indiscreet" in its practice and made "but little difference as to the time and place." 34
By the 1890s Ellen White seemed to be discouraging any vocal expressions of enthusiasm. She spoke approvingly of some of the revival meetings of that decade in which "there were no wild demonstrations, for the praise of God does not lead to that. We never hear of any such things as that in the life of Christ, as jumping up and down and around, and screaming and hollering. No; God's work appeals to the senses and reason of men and women." 35 "Softly and silently the power of the divine Spirit does [His] work," she wrote in 1889, "wakening the dulled senses, quickening the soul, and arousing its sensibilities." 36
The holy flesh fanaticism in Indiana in 1901 also called forth condemnations of religious enthusiasm, which again was linked to theological heresies.
How then does one reconcile Ellen White's early encouragement of shouting in worship with her later preference for a Holy Spirit who works "softly and silently"? Certainly the church and the culture had changed much between 1845 and 1885. What was appropriate to the rough and ready woodsmen of northern Maine was not appropriate or appealing to the earnest, sober farmers of the Midwest during America's Gilded Age. Does this suggest, perhaps, that what is appropriate for one congregation today might not be appropriate for another?
All who are interested in the current debate over worship styles must take seriously the fact that in its early history, the Adventist Church experienced, endorsed, and encouraged a more exuberant form of worship. The hazards of that form of worship trusting experience above Scripture and thus falling into false teaching--also speaks to us from the pages of Adventist history.
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1 James Rowe testimony, in Piscataquis
Farmer, Mar. 7, 1845, reprinted in Frederick
Hoyt, ed., "Trial of I. Dammon, reported for the
Piscataquis Farmer," Spectrum, August 1987, p.
2 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek,
Mien.: James White, 1860), vol. 2, pp. 40, 41.
3 Ellen G. White to Arabella Hastings, Aug. 4,
1850 (letter 8, 1850).
4 Hiram Edson, "Brother Hiram Edson writes
. . .," Review and Herald, February 1851, p. 48.
5 George W. Holt, "Dear Brother White,"
Review and Herald, Sept. 2, 1851, p. 24.
6 James White, "Eastern Tour," Review and
Herald, Dec. 1, 1859, p. 13.
7 Elias Goodwin to Editor, Review and Herald,
Mar. 6, 1866, p. 110.
8 Ellen G. White to The Church in Brother
Hastings' House, Nov. 7, 1850 (letter 28, 1850).
9 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister Loveland,
Dec. 13, 1850 (letter 30, 1850).
10 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister Loveland,
Jan. 24, 1856 (letter 2a, 1856).
11 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister Howland,
Aug. 15, 1850 (letter 12, 1850).
12 Eliza Smith to Editor, Review and Herald,
Feb. 3, 1853, p. 151.
13 Ellen White "Beloved Brethren, Scattered
Abroad " Present Truth, December 1849.
14 James White to My Dear Brother, Berlin,
Connecticut, July 2, 1848.
15 James White to Ellen White, Nov. 6, 1860.
16 Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1945), p.
17 Ellen White to Brother and Sister Howland,
Nov. 12, 1851 (letter 8, 1851).
18 James White, "Report of Meetings!" Review
and Herald, Oct. 22, 1857, pp. 196, 197.
19 James White, Life Incidents (Battle Creek,
Mich.: Steam Press of the SDA Pub. Assn.,
1868), p. 94.
20 William A. Spicer, Pioneer Days of the
Advent Movement (Washington, D.C.: Review
and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), p. 147.
21 James White, Life Incidents, p. 107.
22 Ron Graybill, "Uriah Smith on the Swanee
River," Insight, Apr. 24, 1979, pp. 9-13.
23 Dwight's Journal of Music said Foster's
"'Old Folks at Home' ... is on everybody's
tongue, and consequently in everybody's mouth.
Pianos and guitars groan with it night and day;
sentimental young ladies sing it; sentimental
young gentlemen warble it in midnight serenades,
. . . boatmen roar it out stentorially at all times; all
the bands play it,... the 'singing stars' carol it on
the theatrical boards and at concerts" (ibid.).
25 Ibid.; The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1985), No. 442.
26 Lucinda M. Hall, "Camp Meeting," Signs of
the Times, Sept. 27, 1877, p. 292; see also [J. N.
Loughborough] "Present Truth on the Pacific
Coast, L," Pacific Union Recorder, Jan. 10,
1907, p. 1.
27 Adelia P. Patten, "Brief Narrative of the Life
... of Henry N. White," in Appeal to the Youth
(Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press of the SDA
Pub. Assn.), p. 22.
28 Ellen G. White, in Historical Sketches of the
Foreign Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists
(Basel, Switzerland: Imprimerie Polyglotte,
1886), p. 195.
29 Writing to Edson and Willie White in 1872
about an occasion of prayer for the healing of
James White, Mrs. White said: "The healing
power of God came upon your father. . . . We
shouted the high praises of God" (Ellen G. White
to Edson and Willie White, Dec. 7, 1872 [letter
30 Ellen G. White to G. I. Butler, June 6, 1875
(letter 16, 1875).
31 See Ellen G. White, "Jealousy and Fault
finding," Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1
(Mountain View, Calif.: 1948), pp. 311-323; T.
M. Steward, "A Delusion Confessed," Review
and Herald, Jan. 22, 1861, pp. 77, 78.
32 Ellen G. White, Dec. 25, 1850 (manuscript
33 Ellen G. White to Brethren and Sisters at
Bedford, c. 1861 (letter 14, 1861).
34 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister Pearsall,
July 12, 1854 (letter 3, 1854).
35 Ellen G. White, "Sermon at Ashfield,
Australia, camp meeting," Nov. 3, 1894 (manuscript
36 Ellen G. White to My Dear Brethren, c. April
1889 (letter 85, 1889).