Ellen G. White and the 1873 revival: A case study in revival and reformation
Editors’ note: This manuscript merited one of two third-place prizes in the most recent Ministry Student Writing Contest.
Church growth in the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist Church came to a virtual stop during the early 1870s. By1871, the trend of rapid growth reversed so badly that church membership actually declined that year.1 Two years later the Seventh-day Adventist Church, after its first formative decade, had reached a crisis point.
The condition of the church
Perhaps one of the most obvious symptoms that things were not all well was that members failed to practice what they believed. Part of this challenge to Adventist life in 1873 is reflected by the resolution made by church leaders at the 12th General Conference, held in Battle Creek, Michigan. They observed the “opposition of many of the Advent people to the Sabbath and the law of God.”2 While in theory these were foundational truths of Adventism, the reality is that church leaders noticed that belief in foundational doctrine such as the Sabbath and law of God did little to change the spiritual climate.
Seeing the problem, Ellen G. White warned: “It is difficult for those who feel secure in their attainments, who are believing themselves to be rich in spiritual knowledge, to receive the message which declares that they are deceived and in need of every spiritual grace.”3 She developed her concerns regarding spiritual life more succinctly in Testimony No. 23 about the “Laodicean message.” She went on to articulate these concern sin a series of articles in the Review and Herald, from September to October of that year.4 She urged: “I have been shown that the greatest reason why the people of God are now found in this state of spiritual blindness is because they will not receive correction. Many have despised the reproofs and warnings given them.”5
Resistance to the warnings by Ellen White was causing spiritual darkness. She warned them that they did not even recognize their spiritual peril. This spiritual apathy carried over into other pragmatic aspects of their lives, most notably a blatant disregard for Adventist lifestyle, with new light about the importance of healthful living and “dress reform.”6
In late 1872, as Ellen White initially wrote Testimony No. 22,7 she specifically warned about the lack of health reformat the Battle Creek church. Members from this congregation, according to Ellen White, did not recognize the light that they had received even though they had learned “firm religious principles.” They had not implemented lifestyle changes. Many treated dress reform “with great indifference and . . . with contempt.”8
Another area of blatant disregard surrounded the fledgling educational system. Church leaders had not supported the new school and, therefore, “did not then see the significance of the little church school started in Battle Creek by Goodloe H. Bell.” Ellen White called upon church members to wake up and see the importance of education for the youth.9
Before 1873, evangelism primarily centered upon North America. At this early stage some early “missionaries” began to travel to California.10 The publishing house needed “renewed effort” to expand beyond America “to people of other tongues.” This was the situation during the 11th General Conference in March 1873, where several decisions had been made to go forward. However, the action was not immediately followed. The mission of the church was in jeopardy. Revival was needed to return the heart of the people to God and for them to become freshly motivated in doing His work.
Appeal from the Rocky Mountains
On April 22, James White experienced another stroke, the worst of at least four successive debilitating events. 11 While on retreat in the Rocky Mountains in order for James to recover, the Whites were not idle. They continued to write for church periodicals, especially about the deep concern for the progress of God’s work and the spiritual welfare of the church.12 During this time they also focused on their personal relationship with God. Ellen White described their time: “We devoted to prayer and to writing. We cried earnestly to God to know our duty in reference to Battle Creek.”13 The Whites spent time meditating and drawing themselves nearer to God, reflecting upon the work they had done, the spiritual condition of God’s people, and the overall direction of their lives and the church.
As they opened their minds to God and asked for His guidance, God led them to write Testimony No. 23 and An Earnest Appeal, which expanded upon their views of the progressive ministry of the church. Ellen White, in Testimony 23, focused at length about how the self-righteous, self-sufficient, and unwilling do not receive correction and become barriers to God’s people for spiritual growth.14 James White wrote about the need of the people to be corrected by an instrument of God. Meanwhile, he addressed his tract An Earnest Appeal to church leaders, saying that they should not depend on a single person as a leader. He appealed to all leaders to unite and work together. He offered ideas about how to advance the work in education, health, and publishing ministry.15
James White focused on practical issues related to management; Ellen White focused on the hearts of God’s people and their relationship to God. Her counsels gave fresh energy by challenging church leaders to remember their work in terms of service for the Lord. The reaction of some leaders showed the positive impact of the Whites’ combined efforts.
Response from church leaders
The work of the Whites touched a few key persons in different areas. S. N. Haskell responded that the two combined pamphlets, Testimony No. 23 and An Earnest Appeal, were important because “we have reached an important crisis in the history of his work.” He concluded that “it seems to me that all who believe this work to be of God, should be stirred to new engagedness by the solemn admonition given in Testimony No. 23. It should be read with prayer and meditation by every Seventh-day Adventist in the land.”16
G. I. Butler resonated with Haskell when he observed that spiritual disease was permeating the denomination. He was convinced through the message of the Whites that such spiritual disease was a hindrance for the church. He admitted: “we are mostly asleep; and when we do receive a warning, either directly from the Lord, or from those whom the Lord has called to act as watchmen, we appear very much like a person in a dozy, stupid state.” Butler did not just talk; he reacted rapidly by rushing to Battle Creek from Iowa and arranging the next General Conference .17 James White suggested the date of the meeting, and it was approved.18 Now, the church was ready for the 12th General Conference.
Revival begins at the 12th General Conference
The meeting that was held at Battle Creek on November 14–18, 1873, was an extraordinary assembly because it was the second General Conference session held in that year. During the actual meeting, a significant revival took place. The spirituality of the church was paramount as the first resolution noted: “We deeply regret the opposition of many of the Advent people to the Sabbath and the law of God.”19 Corporately church members affirmed their need to obey the truths that God entrusted to Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Another topic for discussion at the 12th General Conference was an acknowledgment by church leaders and an affirmation of the gift of prophecy as manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. As a result, the General Conference executive committee needed to prepare several reasons “for believing the testimonies of Sister White to be the teaching of the Holy Spirit.”20
As the meeting took place, a shift occurred from their needs alone toward the needs of others, especially those who did not speak English. This session encouraged the spread of the material where there were many people waiting for the message of truth from Adventist publications. The case of publishing ministry was presented, where all the conferences and the publishing societies could go together in spreading Adventist publications to both church members and non-Adventists.
Another area of evangelism centered upon the need to educate Adventist young people for a life of service. The General Conference formed a committee of four persons in which they would discuss the development of Adventist education. Another important issue was the awareness of the church not to depend on one person in leading God’s work and that there should be some persons elected to help the leader. The idea of collective leadership was confirmed.21
The characteristics of revival
What was happening was that the climate of the church had changed. They now had a sense of their spiritual need and collectively affirmed the importance of counsel from Ellen G. White. Butler, president of the session, gave his testimony about this meeting: “I regard it as one of the most important meetings ever held among S. D. Adventists.” Butler concluded the situation of the session as: “Never were there such clear evidences that God’s Spirit was cementing hearts which have been more or less divided. Never were the principles so plainly seen before, upon which true union must be founded.”22 The revival environment felt by Butler was described as unique compared to any previous General Conference meeting he had attended.
J. N. Andrews, the first official denominational missionary, commented on the “extraordinary” session, writing that “the hearts of the servants of God are more closely united in the bonds of Christian love, and probably there has never been a time when such perfect unanimity of feeling and of judgment has existed as at the present time.”23 He knew that the Spirit of God was working in the 12th General Conference meeting and revival was occurring in the hearts of the attendees.
J. H. Waggoner, another early Adventist minister present, said that all people, including him, rejoiced. He felt all the meetings “were profitable. The utmost harmony prevailed throughout. Those who had doubted were confirmed in the faith, and the distrustful became confident. The preaching was practical and stirring, and the social meetings were marked with deep feeling.”24 He was impressed with the atmosphere and that this conference brought a great advancement of the Adventist work.
The gift of prophecy, as manifested through the life and ministry of Ellen G. White, combined with the strong spiritual leadership of James White, played a pivotal role as a catalyst for revival. When the early Adventist leaders ignored correction, they fell into deep spiritual darkness. However, as they paid attention to inspired counsel, a significant spiritual revival took place. The revival and reformation in 1873 demonstrate that as the pioneers humbled themselves and received guidance from Ellen White, revival took on dimensions that expanded to include reformation in education, publishing, and health branches of the work.
The revival occurred in 1873, after Ellen G. White wrote Testimony No. 23, containing the Laodicea message, which was addressed to Adventist people. The same situation occurred in the early Christian church, when the church of Laodicea felt rich and increased with goods and did not realize her spiritual weaknesses (Rev. 3:14–18). The message delivered to the church in Laodicea was repeated to the Seventh-day Adventists in 1873. The ingredients that triggered revival and reformation in the past could be the same ingredients that can cause revival and reformation today.
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1 James White, “Business Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Session of the General Conference of S. D. Adventists,” Review and Herald, February 14, 1871, 68. See also Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking the Sanctuary (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 138.
2 G. I. Butler, “Business Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Meeting of the S. D. A. General Conference,” Review and Herald, November 25, 1873, 190.
3 Ellen G. White, “The Laodicean Church,” Review and Herald, September 16, 1873, 109.
4 The message appeared in the Review and Herald on September 16, 23, 30, and October 7, 1873.
5 Ellen White, Testimony No. 23 (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1873), 5, 12.
6 G. I. Butler, “Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the General Conference of S. D. Adventists,” Review and Herald, March 18, 1873, 108.
7 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: Biography (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn. 1981), 2:376.
8 Ellen G. White, Testimony No. 22 (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press 1872), 57, 65.
9 Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 5, 131.
10 In the membership report of 11th General Conference meeting. G. I. Butler, Review and Herald, March 18, 1873, 108.
11 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 6, March 22, 1873, Ellen G. White Estate.
12 A. L. White, Elen G. White, 2:386.
13 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 12, October 11, 1873, 6.
14 Ellen G. White, Testimony No. 23, 3–71.
15 James White, An Earnest Appeal, in Testimony No. 23, 1–47. See also A. L. White, Elen G. White, 2:389.
16 S. N. Haskell, “Testimony No. 23,” Review and Herald, October 21, 1873, 152.
17 G. I. Butler, “Testimony No. 23 and Bro. White’s Address,” Review and Herald, November 4, 1873, 164.
18 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 12, October 23, 1873, 9.
19 Butler, “Business Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Meeting,” 190.
22 G. I. Butler, “The Conference and the Work at Battle Creek,” Review and Herald, November 25, 1873, 188.
23 J. N. Andrews, “The General Conference,” Review and Herald, November 25, 1873, 188.
24 J. H. Waggoner, “Blessings Acknowledged,” Review and Herald, November 25, 1873, 188.