Over the last few years, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been emphasizing revival. As far back as 1887, Ellen White proclaimed, “A revival of true godliness among us is the greatest and most urgent of all our needs.”1
But what does revival look like? How do we know what the fruits of revival are? And most important, what will it take for us to finally realize the revival that God wants us to experience?
Ellen White’s own experience can give us insight into evaluating modern revival movements. Less than two years after urging for revival among God’s people, Ellen White reflected upon a most glorious event that had her so overwhelmed with excitement that she proclaimed: “We seemed to breathe in the very atmosphere of heaven.”2 In fact, she could not sleep at night, joyous over the fact that “the Lord had visited his people.”
Although the revival Ellen White participated in was not a lasting one, perhaps a study of her testimony might give us insight into how to recover the experience she rejoiced over and reclaim what began in her day.
Meetings in South Lancaster
Soon after the controversial General Conference Session in Minneapolis in 1888, Ellen White joined A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner on the road. Because the “light that is to lighten the whole earth with its glory was resisted” in Minneapolis, according to Ellen White, “and by the action of our own brethren has been in a great degree kept away from the world,” she thought it prudent to take the message directly to the people.3 The message she bore was “right in harmony with the very message” Jones and Waggoner were sharing,4 and the first place they brought that message was South Lancaster, Massachusetts.
The meetings, which began on Friday, January 11, 1888, were supposed to last three days. The Holy Spirit had other plans, however. “The mighty movings of the Spirit of God were there,”Ellen White later reflected. 5 “Every one [sic] had a living testimony to bear,” she added.6 This caused administrators at South Lancaster Academy to close down the school. “Nearly every student was swept in by the heavenly current,” she recounted, “and living testimonies were given that were not surpassed even by the testimonies of 1844 before the disappointment. Many learned . . . what it meant to surrender their hearts to God—what it meant to be converted.”7
Thus, the three-day conference turned into a ten-day event. They met from early morning until late at night, with A. T. Jones speaking two or three times a day.8 Ellen White presented the morning messages and spoke on Sabbath. “I have never seen a revival work go forward with such thoroughness,” she recalled.9
But what made the meetings so effective to the point that school administrators were willing to close down their school? What message was shared that caused attendees to proclaim that they had “obtained an experience beyond anything they had known before”?10
Ellen White later reflected on a number of occasions about that experience in South Lancaster, obviously longing for such an experience to be replicated. When one can sense that “angels were indeed hovering around,”11 why would one not want to reflect frequently upon such an event, with hopes that it could be repeated? Based on a number of articles she and S. N. Haskell wrote about the event and on transcribed sermons Ellen White preached during her time in South Lancaster, we can put a few of the pieces together to construct a picture of what was preached.12
When one surveys the evidence from South Lancaster, the overwhelming thread woven throughout Ellen White’s various reflections is the great emphasis that was placed on the love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace of God. “The knowledge of God’s love is the most effectual knowledge to obtain,” she wrote.13 Thus, in her Sabbath morning talk on January 19, she started the sermon by proclaiming, “I am so anxious that all should drink in the mercy and the love of Jesus. The more we talk of his love and power, the more we shall have to tell of his tender compassion and truth.” Continuing, she wondered out loud, “Why is it that our hearts have been so insensible to the love of God? Why have we had so hard a judgment of our Heavenly Father? From the light that God has given me, I know that Satan has misrepresented our God in every possible way. He has cast his hellish shadow athwart our pathway, that we might not discern our God as a God of mercy, compassion, and truth.” With compelling pathos, she appealed, “Is there a heart here that will not be subdued by the love of Jesus?”14
Such wonderful news was music to everyone’s ears, causing many to sing, “The Lord hath put a new song in my mouth, the matchless love of Jesus.” They understood Christ as a “Saviour who was not afar off, but nigh at hand.”15 Souls began to delight in Jesus, and many “testified their joy that Christ had forgiven their sins . . . and felt that they could rest in the love of God.”16
On the first Sabbath afternoon, January 12, Ellen White rejoiced that she had freedom to talk of “the necessity of obeying the law of God,” and the importance of having a “genuine faith which works by love.”17 She pointed to the law as the perfect standard of righteousness, which convicted many that they were transgressors of that law. “They had been trusting in their own righteousness,” she testified. “Now they saw it as filthy rags, in comparison with the righteousness of Christ, which is alone acceptable to God.”18
This coupling of the law and love of God is what Ellen White so often referred to as the “law and the gospel going hand in hand.”19 Upholding the law of God as the perfect standard by which humankind is judged, and the fact that human obedience falls infinitely short of this standard, men and women were convicted of their sinfulness and thus prepared to receive the righteousness of Christ. The heart was melted by the love, forgiveness, and grace of God, and drawn into fellowship with Him. With the heart changed, Christ could now live His life in the sinner.
This was not a try-harder paradigm, however. Ellen White, A. T. Jones, and E. J. Waggoner did not encourage such a mentality. Ellen White, for example, shared in her last Sabbath sermon that there are those who “think they must make themselves a little better before they can come to Jesus.” She continued emphatically, “But we cannot do this. Our only hope is to look and live.”20 Reflecting back on the meetings, she told of attendees who testified that “they had struggled to refrain from sin, but had trusted in their own strength.” Such attempts were futile, and she encouraged all to “go to Jesus just as we are, confess our sins, and cast our helpless souls upon our compassionate Redeemer.”21 When one goes to Jesus, he or she can then “have peace in believing that what God has promised he is able to perform.”22
Repeatedly, Ellen White spoke of the “power of God [that] attended the message wherever it was spoken.”23 Rather than being merely a sentimental power that tickled people’s emotions, however, souls were converted and hearts were reconciled to one another.
“As fallen men and women beheld Christ,” she recounted, “they were changed, taking the impression of his image upon their souls.”24 Confessions were made, wrongs were righted, self was crucified; hearts, once alienated, were brought back into harmony with one another. This was because “the plan of salvation was so plain that a child in its simplicity could understand it,”25 causing Ellen White to say that “you could not make the people believe in South Lancaster that it was not a message of light that came to them.”26
Interestingly, these fruits were not forced or compelled. The meetings remained “free from all undue excitement,” she reflected. “There was no urging or inviting. The people were not called forward.”27
Writing a few weeks later for the Review and Herald, S. N. Haskell verifies this same idea—and more—in one of the most compelling reflections on the meetings. He explained
that the great desire manifested was for purity of heart, and all seemed to realize that we are in the investigative judgment, and that everything should be made right with God and with our brethren. The work went deep and thorough. There was a freedom in confession that is seldom witnessed, and nothing appeared to be forced. No pressure was brought to bear upon any; but when the sin was confessed, the song of praise and thanksgiving which followed was refreshing indeed. Expressions like the following, even from old Sabbath-keepers, were frequently heard: “I never experienced anything like this.” “It seems we have a new gospel.” “I never understood the love of God as I do at the present time. His character appears so different to me from what it ever did before,” etc. . . . A solemn impression rested upon many that it was a few drops of what will be experienced by those who have a part in the closing work,—in the loud cry of the third angel’s message that will ripen off the grain for the harvest.
This “intense self-examination” and the deep confessions could happen only because attendees were able to rejoice in the reality that Christ had forgiven their sins. Self-examination is safe to do only when one is assured of God’s forgiveness and love—else it leads to despair. Again, it was a perfect blending of the law and gospel.
Haskell concluded his article by wondering out loud, “Can it be true that we are really in the midst of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? which will increase in power and extent until it swells into the loud cry of the third angel’s message? Do we realize that we are on the very verge of the time of trouble, and the scenes of the eternal world?”
Almost unable to believe it himself, he exclaimed, “These things are true!”
When the meetings drew to a close, 17 souls were baptized, with many more considering the matter.28
Lessons for modern revival movements
While some might claim that the landscape of Adventism, more than 120 years later, has drastically changed, and that what was once relevant to souls in South Lancaster is no longer relevant to us today, Ellen White would disagree. They bore in South Lancaster, as well as in numerous other towns and cities in the months that followed, a message of the love of Jesus and the righteousness of Christ. This twin emphasis was able to guard against the extremes of legalism—of trying to establish one’s own righteousness and earn God’s love—and lawlessness—of proclaiming that God loves us so much that it does not matter what we do. Such a balance is still needed and relevant to us today.
A year after South Lancaster, Ellen White shared this reflection: “This message as it has been presented, should go to every church that claims to believe the truth, and bring our people up to a higher stand-point.”29 Sadly, her desire has still not been fully realized.30
What can we learn for our own emphasis on revival, and how might we replicate what happened in South Lancaster? To begin with, the adage is true: we cannot give what we do not have. We ourselves thus need to be intimately acquainted with that same gospel that stirred Ellen White’s heart. It would then behoove us to expose ourselves to some of the original materials. Read E. J. Waggoner’s The Glad Tidings or Christ and His Righteousness,31 or Ellen White’s Steps to Christ frequently. Approach Scripture afresh, tracing Christ and Him crucified throughout all its pages.
When we thus become absorbed with the message of Christ’s boundless love and His empowering grace, it will be reflected in our preaching. We will then seek ways to preach all our messages—no matter the topic: stewardship, prophecy, the health message—through the lens of this motivating gospel.
On a wider scale, what would happen if we devote our workers’ meetings or take a two-or three-day retreat to pursue a study of this all-consuming topic—this “one subject [that] will swallow up every other,” according to Ellen White?32 We have done this in the Northern New England Conference for the last few years, spending a few days in the fall at our youth camp simply praying and studying the Bible together as pastors, and it has been some of the sweetest times of fellowship, leaving us revived and refreshed, and better equipped to present the bread of life to our church members and communities.
When we ourselves experience revival through such experiences, it will flow out to the laypeople, and together we will move forward to victory, enjoying the revival that God desperately wants us to experience.
1 Ellen G. White, “The Church’s Great Need,” Review and Herald, March 22, 1887, 177.
2 Ellen G. White, “Meetings at South Lancaster, Mass.,” Review and Herald, March 5, 1889, 146.
3 Ellen G. White Estate, comp., The Elen G. White 1888 Materials, vol. 4 (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), 1575.
4 Ibid., vol. 2, 542.
5 Ibid., vol. 2, 543.
6 White, Review and Herald, March 5, 1889, 146.
7 Ellen G. White, “Draw Nigh to God,” Review and Herald, March 4, 1890.
8 Based on the available data, it does not appear as though E. J.
Waggoner was present at the meetings in South Lancaster.
9 White, Review and Herald, March 5, 1889, 146.
12 The reader would be greatly blessed to read these articles in their entirety. Besides the articles cited in this article by Ellen White, S. N. Haskell’s article, “The General Meeting at South Lancaster, Mass.,” Review and Herald, January 29, 1889, 73, is a fruitful read. It can be accessed on the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research Web site at http://www.adventistarchives.org/docs/RH /RH18890129-V66-05__B/index.djvu.
13 White, Review and Herald, March 5, 1889, 145.
14 Ellen G. White, “In Him Is Light,” Review and Herald, February 26, 1889, 129.
15 White, Review and Herald, March 5, 1889, 145.
16 Ibid., 146.
17 Ibid., 145.
18 Ibid., 146.
19 See, e.g., 1888 Materials, vol. 1, 217.
20 White, Review and Herald, February 26, 1889, 130.
21 White, Review and Herald, March 5, 1889, 146.
22 Ibid., 145.
23 Ellen G. White, “The Present Message,” Review and Herald, March 18, 1890, 161.
24 White, Review and Herald, March 5, 1889, 146.
25 1888 Materials, vol. 1, 371.
26 White, Review and Herald, March 18, 1890, 161.
27 White, Review and Herald, March 5, 1889, 146. The “urging” and “calling forward” (what we might label an “altar call”) was also noticeably absent in subsequent revival meetings that took place over the next few years.
28 Haskell, Review and Herald, January 29, 1889, 73.
29 White, Review and Herald, March 18, 1890, 161.
30 For further reading on this important topic, see Ron Duffield, The Return of the Latter Rain: A Historical Review of Seventh-day Adventist History From 1844 Through 1891 (n.p.: 4th Angel, 2010).
31 E. J. Waggoner, The Glad Tidings (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1900); E. J. Waggoner, Christ and His Righteousness (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890).
32 Ellen G. White, “Be Zealous and Repent,” Review and Herald Extra, December 23, 1890, 2.