When people end up in charge, they are easily tempted to demand obedience from others. That can lead to an array of undesirable reactions and circumstances. Something like that had been happening in the young Seventh-day Adventist Church as it approached the 1901 General Conference. As an editorial in the General Conference Bulletin put it: "Hardly a delegate appeared at this session who did not anticipate worry, and even disaster. . . .Whispers of disintegration were borne from ear to ear."1
This is a story of how Ellen White con fronted this unstable situation and how God led in meeting its challenges.
This was Ellen White's first General Conference in ten years, but she was not pleased to be there. "I did not want to come to Battle Creek," she said. "I was afraid the bur dens I would have to bear would cost my life."2
Nine years in Australia might explain her absence from the four preceding biennial meetings. But the tumultuous 1891 session, her last before the brethren asked her to go to Australia, had probably reinforced her resolve to stay away. But now she was back and first to the podium when President George Irwin opened the session for business:
"I feel a special interest in the movements and decisions that shall be made at this Conference regarding the things that should have been done years ago, and especially ten years ago, when we were assembled in Conference, and the Spirit and power of God came into our meeting, testifying that God was ready to work for this people if they would come into working order."3
Her forceful message was printed word-forword in the Bulletin. Some striking excerpts:4
"Year after year the same acknowledgment was made, but the principles which exalt a people were not woven into the work...."
"At the last Conference which I attended here, there was gossiping and controversy in every house. ..."
"Slow to speak, slow to wrath. It only takes a word to fire up a man who has not made a practice of talking with God. This spirit is as contagious as the leprosy. . . . God is not in any of this work. Brethren, before we have finished we shall know whether or not God is handling this Conference. .. ."
"All who are educated in the office of publication should see there exemplified the principles of heaven. I would rather lay a child of mine in his grave than have him go there to see these principles mangled and perverted. ..."
"O, my very soul is drawn out in these things! Men who have not learned to submit themselves to the control and discipline of God, are not competent to train the youth, to deal with human minds. It is just as much an impossibility for them to do this work as it would be for them to make a world. That these men should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be that is past. What we want now is a reorganization. We want to begin at the foundation, and to build upon a different principle...."
"There are those who have . . . not man aged after God's order. Some have served on committees . . . and have felt free to dictate just what the committee should say and do, claiming that those who did not carry out these ideas were sinning against Christ. . . .When it is [becomes] evident that the managers are themselves controlled by the Holy Spirit of God, then it is time to consider that you are safe in accepting what they may say, under God. . . ."
"Let every one of you go home, not to chat . . . but to pray. Go home and pray. Talk with God. Go home and plead with God to mold and fashion you after the divine similitude...."
"I want that every one who has an impetuous temper, that will flare up and lead him to act like a frantic man I want him, as he begins to speak in this way, to remember Christ, and sit right down and hold his peace. Say not a word.. . ."
"The voice ... is not lent to you that you may swear; but every one, who gives way to an unholy temper might just as well swear. God help us to submit to Jesus Christ, and to have his power right here and now."
End of speech. Mrs.White sat down.
What can a General Conference president say as he steps back to the podium after words like that have just been spoken? Not a lot. What President Irwin actually said was: "These are certainly very plain words."
Indeed. There had been assent without reform. Scheming instead of praying. Dictating in the name of God. Angry public outbursts. No longer the voice of God. An 1895 testimony had declared that "the General Conference is itself becoming corrupted with wrong sentiments and principles."5 Mrs. White warned against "the spirit of domination," declaring that the brethren were "following in the track of Romanism."'6
How did it all happen? We'll explore that question. But first two other questions with brief answers:
1. How did it affect God's work? Significantly. Yet the Lord still blessed. In the 1890s, the decade when things were worst at Battle Creek, the Church witnessed explosive growth in church schools, jumping from 13 to 245,7 along with dramatic growth in missions.
2. How did the Church escape or did it? It did escape, miraculously and briefly. A season of prayer followed Ellen White's appeal and the session was transformed. The same editorial in the Bulletin which had spoken of potential "disaster" called it "the most peculiar, yet the very best General Conference ever convened," characterized by a "quiet, deep-seated calm." "Not one unkind word was spoken on the floor."8
Ellen White was also moved: "Every time I think of that meeting," she wrote, "a sweet solemnity comes over me, and sends a glow of gratitude to my soul. We have seen the stately steppings of the Lord our Redeemer."9
Now a closer look at the path leading up to the awful struggles of 1901.
En route to 1901
The "spirit of domination" in Adventism did not develop overnight or in a straight line. But key "moments" in Adventist history flesh out the picture.
The 1850s: From Babylon to Gospel Order. Still smarting from the way the established churches had treated the Millerites, many early Adventists opposed the idea of church organization. George Storrs declared in February of 1844 that a church "becomes Babylon the moment it is organized."10
In 1853, however, James White began nudging Adventists towards "gospel order" through a series of Review and Herald editorials. The editorials had their influence. Michigan was organized into the first local conference in 1861; the General Conference was organized in 1863.
1873: Butler on Leadership: Slipping Toward Babylon. G. I. Butler, General Conference president from 1871- 1874 and again from 1880-1888, was involved first in an alarming move toward "the spirit of domination."
In 1873 Butler published his "Leadership" essay which argued for giving James White preeminence in deciding Church polity. Though the essay was officially endorsed by the General Conference in session, James White's uneasiness along with cautions and a rebuke from Ellen White called forth a remarkable "Confession" from Butler, published in the Review. At Butler's request, the next General Conference also rescinded its endorsement of his essay.11
1875: Highest Authority. Surprisingly, an Ellen White quote often used to support centralized church authority at the General Conference actually affirms diffusion of authority, rather than its centralization.12 In 1875 Ellen White commended a brother for his progressive attitude toward Church leadership. God had given him "a genuine conversion" so that he no longer held "marked, decided views in regard to individual independence." But he had gone to the opposite extreme and deferred completely to James White, who was then General Conference president.
Listen to the group, not the man, Ellen White counseled: "I have been shown that no man's judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any one man. But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private judgment must not be maintained, but must be surrendered."
1883: Holding Firm: Church Manual Rejected. The 1882 General Conference authorized a committee to create a church manual and to serialize it in the Review so that the Church could be exposed to the material and vote on it at the next session.
The committee did its work, but then recommended that the manual be rejected, arguing that a manual would seem to many like "a step toward formation of a creed" and might tempt some, "especially those commencing to preach," to seek guidance from the manual rather than from the Bible. "Our tendency should be in the direction of simplicity and close conformity to the Bible, rather than in elaborately defining every point in church management and church ordinances."13 The Conference agreed and rejected the manual. Not until 50 years later, in 1932, would Adventists formally and fully adopt a church manual.
1888: Landmarks vs. Present Truth. A hardening "spirit of domination" became painfully obvious at the 1888 General Conference. Symptomatic was the telegram which the ailing and absent President Butler sent to the delegates in response to the right eousness by faith emphasis from A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner. "Stand by the landmarks,"14 urged Butler. Ellen White had other ideas:
"Away with these restrictions. There is a God to give the message His people shall speak. . . . That which God gives His servants to speak today would not perhaps have been present truth twenty years ago, but it is God's message for this time."15
In 1896 Ellen White wrote from Australia: "I have been shown that it is a mistake to suppose that the men in positions of special responsibility at Battle Creek have wisdom which is far superior to that of ordinary men. Those who think that they have, sup posing them to have divine enlightenment, rely upon the human judgment of these men, taking their counsel as the voice of God. But this is not safe."16
Ellen White's warnings crescendoed, climaxing in her address at the 1901 General Conference.
A personal perspective
This troublesome but enlightening chapter of Seventh-day Adventist history needs to be framed within or directly related to the story of Jesus, showing the powerful parallels between the two. But a glimpse at my own story is helpful as precursor to drawing this parallel. Why does explaining Ellen White's experience with the turn-of-the-century Seventh-day Adventist Church play such a crucial role in my outlook and experience?
Back in the 1970s when I was much younger and more bombastic, I found myself becoming very upset with the "brethren." I am a hard-driving, energetic person, generally respectful of authority but, like many preachers, more competitive and egocentric than I would like to be. So when at times I was told in effect to sit still and be quiet and simply listen to those who were running the Church, I did not respond very constructively.
About the same time, a colleague in ministry mentioned that it was Ellen White's Testimonies to Ministers that moved him from pre-med to ministry while he was in college. I began reading this volume and was delighted, even gratified. In the testimonies comprising large portions of the book, and mostly written from Australia in the 1890s, Ellen White was trying to put the stubborn brethren in Battle Creek in their place! I relished her strong words and found myself exclaiming, "That's right, Sister White! Hit 'em harder." I was assembling a fine collection of missiles.
Then, to my horror, I realized I was destroying my soul. So I made a conscious (and initially quite selfish) choice to follow the way of Jesus and seek to love my "enemies" for my own benefit, primarily, not theirs. I found that the missiles I'd been gat ering so enthusiastically were not in fact for others, but for me. In this way the power of Jesus' idealism began to strike home, reinforced by the firm counsel of Ellen White.
Here's one, for example, good for every minister: "Those who do not learn every day in the school of Christ, who do not spend much time in earnest prayer, are not fit to handle the work of God in any of its branch es, for if they do, human depravity will surely overcome them and they will lift up their souls unto vanity." 17
That one struck my soul squarely.
And what of Mrs. White's vision for the Church?
"When men cease to depend upon men, when they make God their efficiency, then there will be more confidence manifest in one another. Our faith in God is altogether too feeble and our confidence in one another altogether too meager."18
No wonder Ellen White was troubled by what was going on around 1901.
But where does Jesus come in to all of this? Another crucial part of my story is the transformation that began in my life when I realized that Jesus was not just someone sent from God, but was and is God in the flesh. I am tempted to parallel my "late" awakening to the full divinity of Christ with Ellen White's.
Church publications are now saying more clearly that only with the publication of The Desire of Ages (1898) did a full trinitarian theology burst upon the Adventist scene. M. E. Andreasen, for example was so "astonished" when he read that "in Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived,"19 that he actually went to Elmshaven to see Ellen White and check the original manuscript to see if that sentence had come from her own hand. It had.20
My hunch (it's moving toward conviction) is that Ellen White's vision for the Church became even more vivid as she realized what it meant for Jesus to be God in the flesh. So here is a brief commentary from an "obedient rebel" on how knowing Jesus might shape our thinking about "authority" within the Church and how it might have shaped Ellen White's.
Jesus and authority
From my study of Scripture two convictions have emerged:
First, that perhaps the most devastating result of sin is its distortion of our understanding of authority.
Second, that one of the most significant results of the Incarnation is the way it transforms our understanding of authority and restores the divine ideal.
For clarity's sake we may contrast two extremes: "Demonic" authority is anchored in the coercive use of power. Its goal is self-preservation. It appeals to fear and ultimately resorts to violence to gain its ends.
In contrast, "divine" authority is anchored first in the prosperity of true goodness, that is, using power only in support of goodness. Its goal is reciprocal love. It appeals to joy and seeks to win through a demonstration of goodness rather than through coercion by a show of force.
Some might argue that the Old Testament God often appealed to fear and resorted to violence. At Sinai, for example, God said: "'Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death'" (Exod. 19:12, NRSV). And Moses explained the divine purpose to the frightened people: "'God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin'" (Exod. 20:20, NRSV).
True, in the Old Testament, God did appeal to fear and He used violence. But how does that coincide with the approach and work of Jesus? The Old Testament was Jesus' Bible and the God of the Old Testament was His God. Indeed, even more pointedly, when Jesus said "'before Abraham was, I am'" (John 8:58, NRSV), His Jewish audience clearly understood that He was claiming to be God, the God of the Old Testament.
So between the old and the new we do confront a certain contrast, not between the demonic and the divine, but between two manifestations of the divine: At Sinai God came to kill, at Golgotha God came to die. Jesus never flinched at such contrasts. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, He told audience again and again, com paring His "new" way with the "old": Don't kill don't even hate (Matt. 5:21, 22); don't commit adultery don't even think the lustful thought (Matt. 5:27-28); an eye for an eye? No, rather, turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:38-41)! He even contrasted hate for an enemy with love for one's enemies (Matt. 5:43-44).
The way these contrasts meet in the life of Jesus help us understand why He is so basic to our understanding of God and His plan for the universe and for His church. Quite frankly, I could not interpret the Old Testament the way I do if it were not for my conviction that Jesus is the clearest and best revelation of God yet a revelation thoroughly consistent with God's way in the Old Testament.
For me the story only makes sense by placing it within the framework of the great battle between good and evil. It is the book of Job in cosmic perspective: Evil seeks to prove that selfishness is more powerful than love, and attacks God's people to prove it. The God of love so values the freedom of His creatures that He allows evil to have its day in the sun, to "prove" itself. The ugly results are there in the Bible for all to see.
God allowed Lucifer to show how pure selfishness engenders fear and violence. It began in Eden when Adam and Eve hid from God. From there, humans became ever more fearful of authority and the authorities ever more violent.
The gods, too, were seen to be increasingly violent. By the time of Abraham, child sacrifice the ultimate violence had come to be seen as the gift to the gods. The true God of heaven daringly adapted to that perverted view by commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac but then intervened at the crucial moment to teach Abraham that only God can provide such a sacrifice, a foreshadowing of Golgotha.
So Jesus comes, God in the flesh, to show us what God is really like. Note how the ideal contrasts with the old: Violence? None. He did not defend Himself, but turned the other cheek.
He killed no one; never laid a hand on anyone. As one scholar put it, even when He cleansed the temple, Jesus attacked the furniture, not the people.
Violent punishments? None. Go and sin no more.
Enemies? Father, forgive them.
Authorities? He treated them with respect, but challenged them when they overstepped their power (cf. John 18:19-23).
And finally, how did Jesus model authority when He came as the Authority, as God on earth? He came to serve, winning devotion, not demanding it.
And that brings us to the two key passages in which Jesus tells us about authority in the church. In Matthew 23:8-12, He contrasts His way with that of the honor-hungry scribes: "The greatest among you will be your servant'" (NRSV), He said. Even more striking are His words to the mother of James and John when she requested the two highest places for her boys: '"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many'" (Matt. 20:25-28, NIV).
The God of all creation came among us to serve. He calls us to fol low Him within the Body of Christ and has promised His Spirit to help us make it happen.
That was the vision of the Church which drove Ellen White to plead with the General Conference delegates in 1901: "Let every one of you go home, not to chat, chat, chat, but to pray. Go home and pray. Talk with God. Go home and plead with God to mold and fashion you after the divine similitude."21
When obedient rebels follow Jesus, it changes everything. They do not exercise authority over their brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray that I'll ever remember that truth.
1 General Conference Bulletin \CCl!\, 25 April 1901, 457
2 GCB, 12 April 1901, 204
3 CCli, 3 April 1901, 23
4 Cited from GCfl, 3 April 1901, 23B27
5 Ellen White, Testimonies' to Ministers ami Gospel Worker* I'JM] (Nampa, Idaho Pacific Press Pub. Assn, 1923, 1944), 359 11895].
6 TM 362.
7 See George R. Knight, "Spiritual Revival and Educational
Expansion," Adventist Review, 29 March 1984.
8 GCB, 25 April 1901, 457.
9 Review and Herald M, 26 November 1901, 761.
10 The Midnight Cry, 15 February 1844, cited in Mervyn Maxwell, Tell It to the World (Nampa, Idaho Pacific Press Pub. Assn, 1976, 1977), 127
11 RH, 25 Feb. 1875, 26 Aug. 1875
12 Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub Assn , 1948), 3:492 .
13 RH, 20Nov 1883,733.
14 Cited in Olson, Thirteen Crisis Yean, 282n
15 Ibid, 282, [Ms. 8a, 1888].
16 TM, 374 (July 5, 1896)
17 TU, 169 [1892)
18 TU, 214
19 Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), 530.
20 Cited in George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub Assn., 2000), 116, 117.
21 GCB, 3 April 1901, 26