January 12. Another meeting at the office.... I was spoken of very sharply.... Uriah Smith was spoken of some."
"January 20. Meetings today by the ministers for the crooked.... Votes of censure passed on 'several.'"
"January 21. The committee are after the crooked."
"February 19. Martha reproved for the birthday party.... I believe it is now or never with us all, especially us 'crooked ones.'"1
So appear a few of the early 1870 entries in the diary of George Amadon, an interesting figure in mid-nineteenth-century Adventist history. It is intriguing to note that the forebodings expressed in the February 19 entry became reality shortly after they were written when Amadon, a printer at the Review and Herald, was put out of the Battle Creek church along with a staggering proportion of the members of that congregation, "In three months the official membership of about four hundred was reduced to an apostolic-like twelve."2
The issues in the Battle Creek purging
It seems that members who were unenthusiastic about adopting certain reforms were subjected to this discipline. What is most disconcerting as one tries to revisit this striking little corner of Battle Creek history is that clearly, even those of a moderate bent came under the scrutiny of a group of people who sincerely believed they were only doing the right thing in pressing for their reforms as they did.
Another thing that strikes me about this historical vignette is that the issues by which these people were judged were, though pressing, not crucial in terms of the great essentials of Adventism or the Christian faith. Yet somehow at Battle Creek they were given an inquisitorial weight seriously disproportionate to their actual significance.
With exceptional insight Jacques Ellul observes the tendency in sincere Christian people to make dominant in the church that which is in fact secondary or even erroneous, "All that one can say is that originally the teaching was almost completely in conformity with the truth of God ... almost, because for some reason or other, whether intellectual or spiritual, there was a small addition, a slippery interpretation, an elision, an overemphasis on a practical theme; yet always very close to a correct understanding of the biblical text.... In the ensuing evolution, it is the mistake or elision, that is, the wrong aspect, that achieves dominance. When there is in theological thinking an element of error, a fragment of ambiguity, some dreg of laxity or syncretism, these are the things that capture attention and become the focus of interest. These are the things that Christian people have retained and prized."3 I might add that these are the things that are often enough used to measure the loyalty and theological correctness of one's fellows. It is this disproportion of issue and attitude that dominated at Battle Creek in 1870.
A significant observation
One more observation growing out of the Battle Creek incident is most significant. Though struggles such as the one at Battle Creek are heavily laced with behavioral, theological, or prepositional issues, the underlying realities often have much more to do with the spiritual, attitudinal, and personal dynamics of the situation. It is a common human longing in all of us to be part of an elite group, one of the truly initiated, one of those who really "know." Once this elitism grows into a defining way of life within a given group, it often becomes only natural for the group to take things just one step further. That is, not satisfied with their present degree of distinctiveness, they come to advocate in one way or another the existence of a remnant within the remnant, an even more elite elite.
To create this spiritual or theological upper crust, it is necessary to define certain pet issues so precisely that only the select few are seen to be true believers. Again, often the fastidious expression of a relatively obscure aspect of theological teaching (or that of some admired teacher) becomes the inquisitorial criterion applied to everyone. Those who come to believe in it are vulnerable to developing into well-meaning though frighteningly destructive investigative specialists. If the faith once delivered to the saints is seen by them to be significantly threatened from any quarter at all, the stakes immediately go up, and the chances of this kind of attitude swinging into action rise proportionately. This is the kind of context that inspired the horrors of Golgotha.
These same dynamics were part of another more consequential ecclesiastical skirmish in Minneapolis a number of years after the Battle Creek incident. A candid and powerful letter was written to a significant ministerial player in the midst of this later situation. Here are words of unusual wisdom that I know my soul needs to embrace: "You are not even to allow yourself to think unkindly of them, much less to climb upon the judgment seat and censure or condemn your brethren.... If a brother differs with you on some points of truth ... do not misinterpret his words and wrest them of their true meaning.... Do not present him before others as a heretic, when you have not with him investigated his positions, taking the Scriptures text by text in the spirit of Christ to show him what is truth. You do not yourself really know the evidence he has for his faith, and you cannot clearly define your own position. Take your Bible, and in a kindly spirit weigh every argument that he presents, and show him by the Scriptures if he is in error. When you do this without unkind feelings, you will do only that which is your duty and the duty of every minister of Jesus Christ."4
Here a profoundly significant "duty" is identified for us in the midst of what we so commonly experience in our world and in our church. It is resoundingly true that we are surrounded by issues that need correction and thus deserve the full impact of our Christian courage. But God grant me the wisdom to discern what is indeed substantive and what is not. And when I step out to correct, let me do it in "the spirit of Christ," "a kindly spirit," "text by text," and maybe even with tears in my voice.5
1 Milton Raymond Hook, Flames Over Battle
Creek (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1977), p. 62.
3 Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity
(William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986), pp.
4 Ellen G. White, G. I. Butler, Oct. 14,1888, in
The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, vol. 1, p. 98.
5 ———, Steps to Christ (Mountain View
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 12.