The Way of Life engravings

The Way of Life engravings: harbingers of Minneapolis?

How the Way of Life paintings helped to make clear our way of salvation

Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

The Way of Life picture was first shown to James White by Dr. M. G. Kellogg sometime in the early 1870s.1 The original artist is unknown, but James White found the picture to be such a "vivid portrayal of the plan of salvation" that he had it published as early as 1874 and advertised it in the Review and Herald as an "Allegorical Picture "showing the Way of Life and Salvation Through Jesus Christ From Paradise Lost to Paradise Restored."2 Two years later, in October 1876, 1,000 copies of a new and improved edition, with an explanatory brochure, was published.3

What is most striking about the 1876 lithograph is the centrality of the Ten Commandments hanging from the limbs of the "law tree." Though the cross is evident, it does not stand out as the law does. Four years later James White began planning a new picture, with a change in emphasis. He wrote to Ellen White in March of 1880:

"I have a sketch... of the new picture, 'Behold the Lamb of God.' This differs from the Way of Life in these particulars: The law tree is removed. Christ on the cross is made larger, and placed in the center. In other particulars it is about the same excepting the baptism scene and the city will be very much improved."4

Throughout the remainder of 1880 and into early 1881 James worked on this new and improved edition, expanding the project to include printing the picture for other countries, publishing a book to ac company it, and enlarging the key, or explanation, already in print. He planned to entitle it Christ, the Way of Life, From Paradise Lost to Paradise Restored.

However, James White died on August 6, 1881, without completing the project. Ellen White, with the help of her sons, fulfilled her husband's plan in 1883 when she copyrighted a new steel plate engraving. The new picture placed Christ on the Cross as the dominating center of the plan of salvation.

Why the change?

What was it that caused James White to move in such a cross-centered direction in this telling instance of "Adventist" art?

While there is no direct linking of their theological unfolding with the Way of Life pictures in their correspondence, there were significant developments in the thinking of James and Ellen White from 1876 to 1883 that suggest a profound linkage.

Previous to 1883 Ellen White had had little to say, by way of theological emphasis, about justification by faith. While her conceptions were clear that justification was "pardon" and "forgiveness," it was not until the 1880s that there began to appear a sharpening focus on a more "Lutheran," by "faith alone," understanding of justification.

In fact, the first published linking of Luther and justification came in the Signs of the Times of May 31,1883. This development resulted probably from her writing of The Spirit of Prophecy, volume 4 (1884), which became the immediate fore runner of her classic The Great Controversy (1888). This work deals somewhat extensively with Luther and the Reformation in her historical/providential interpretation of the issues of the "great controversy between Christ and Satan."

In addition to her work on the Reformation, three other crucial trends in the experience and ministry of James and Ellen White during this period need to be noted.

1. In these years Ellen White had experienced some sharp confrontations with the "believe, only believe" advocates who accused Seventh-day Adventists of teaching salvation by law-keeping. Probably the most striking of such experiences took place during a voyage to Oregon from San Francisco in the summer of 1878, during which she reports overhearing a certain Elder Brown, who was claiming publicly "that it was impossible for any man to keep the law of God," and that "no man will get to heaven by keeping the law." He then went on to declare that "Mrs. White is all law, law; she believes that we must be saved by the law, and no one can be saved unless they keep the law. Now, I believe in Christ. He is my Saviour."5

She quickly corrected the elder that his statement was a "false" representation of her position. Such challenges undoubtedly helped to sharpen her understanding and expression of what "believing" really meant. Historically there has never been any factor so efficient in calling forth theological clarification as heresy—real or perceived!

2. Ellen White also seemed to have sensed that there was unwitting legalism creeping into the ranks of Seventh-day Adventists. She was concerned that a preoccupation with obedience and the law was obscuring assurance of acceptance in too many cases (including many Adventist preachers). Probably the most important expression of this concern was seen at the 1883 Battle Creek General Conference session. In fact, I would suggest that for Ellen White, this 1883 conference was a theological "Minneapolis" five years be fore Minneapolis. Note her deep concern over disturbing developments:

"I have listened to testimonies like this: 'I have not the light that I desire; I have not the assurance of the favor of God.' Such testimonies express only unbelief and darkness. Are you expecting that your merit will recommend you to the favor of God, and that you must be free from sin before you trust His power to save? If this is the struggle going on in your mind, I fear you will gain no strength, and will finally be come discouraged....

"Some seem to feel that they must be on probation, and must prove to the Lord that they are reformed before they can claim His blessing.... Jesus loves to have us come to Him just as we are sinful, helpless, dependent. We claim to be children of the light, not of the night nor of darkness; what right have we to be unbelieving?6

3. This strong emphasis on justification at Battle Creek in 1883 was probably partially inspired by developments in James White's thinking. The evidence, reflected in the changes he sought in the Way of Life picture, suggests that his experience just before his death had a rather profound effect on his wife.7

In early 1881 James White had begun to analyze the dangerous direction that the church seemed to be unconsciously pursuing. He informed the readers of the Review of his "unutterable yearning of [the] soul for Christ" and urged the ministers to "preach Christ more." He then went on to share his intention to refocus his message: "We feel that we have a testimony for our people at this time, relative to the exalted character of Christ, and His willingness and power to save."8 That he had made good on his intentions was perceived by a prominent fellow minister who noted that "wherever he preached the past few months, he dwelt largely upon faith in Christ and the boundless love of God."9

The impact on Ellen White was apparent: a month after his death, she recounted in a letter to her son Willie a dream in which she reported James to say:

"We have made a mistake. We have responded to urgent invitations of our brethren to attend important meetings. We had not the heart to refuse.... We might have done a great deal for years with our pens, on subjects the people need that we have had light upon and can present before them, which others do not have."10

Speaking to students at the General Conference Bible school in early 1890 at Battle Creek, she recalled vows taken at her husband's deathbed to stand by her duty that involved bringing "an element in[to] this work that we have not had yet."11 That the "element" referred to justification by faith is quite clear from the context of this Bible school: it was especially convened in the aftermath of the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference session to promote a clearer understanding of justification by faith. Moreover, this particular Bible school convocation was the setting for some of her most powerful expressions of justification by faith. 12

Profound theological shifts

Thus, the changes incorporated into the Way of Life engravings were not just artistic touch ups, but were reflective of profound theological shifts in the thought and ministry of James and Ellen White. Such shifts were to have their most emphatic expressions at Minneapolis and its aftermath.

For Ellen White the uplifting of the cross and a renewed emphasis on justification by faith were not matters of mere side interest or theological curiosity, but were the very heart of the great Adventist proclamation. There seems to be a direct line of influence and development arising from the period of the Way of Life engravings and the great revivals anticipated by the Whites. Such a revival of Christ-centered preaching would enlighten the earth with its glory in the setting of the proclamation of the third angel's message of Revelation 14.

It is also abundantly clear that the is sues evident in the Way of Life pictures would eventually come to a head in the crisis of Minneapolis and its controverted aftermath: For James and Ellen White, these issues were not just concerns over failed piety and lack of charity in theological discussion. Their concerns certainly involved these matters, but they also comprehended a lack of Christ-centered emphasis in Adventist preaching and a theological misunderstanding of justification by faith which was frustrating the work of the "latter rain" and the arrival of the long anticipated "loud cry."

1. A "History of the Way of Life Pictures" (no author listed) is available from the Ellen G. White Estate as a shelf document. What follows in the next three paragraphs is a condensation of this document.

2. Review and Herald, Feb. 17, 1874.

3. According to L. E. Froom, "25,000 were engraved for distribution" (Movement of Destiny [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1971], p. 183).

4. James White letter, Mar. 31, 1880.

5. Signs of the Times, July 18, 1878.

6. These remarks were addressed to the ministers at the General Conference and were published in the Review, Apr. 22, 1884.

7. For this background I am indebted to Bert Haloviak 's unpublished book-length manuscript From Righteousness to Holy Flesh: Judgment at Minneapolis, especially chapter 1, "Centrality of Justification."

8. Review and Herald, Feb. 8, 1881.

9. Ibid., Aug. 30, 1881.

10. Ellen G. White letter 17, Sept. 12, 1881.

11. Ellen G. White manuscript 9, Feb. 3, 1890.

12. Especially manuscript 36,1890, which is included in the Ellen G. White compilation Faith and Works (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1979), pp. 15-28.


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Woodrow W. Whidden, Ph.D., is professor of historical and systematic theology, Theological Seminary of the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite Province, Philippines.

October 1992

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