An Adventist watershed
By Gerhard Pfandl
For more than 100 years Seventh-day Adventists have looked back at the 1888 General Conference session as a milestone in their history, a major turning point in their theological development. It is considered the most important theological conference in the church’s history. Though lasting less than a month, both the Minneapolis session (Oct. 17-Nov. 4) and the ministerial institute that preceded it (Oct. 10-16) changed the shape of Adventism.
Events Leading Up to Minneapolis
After the great disappointment in 1844 our pioneers con- centrated their preaching on the proclamation of important truths, the so-called landmark truths: the sanctuary, the spirit of prophecy, the three angels’ messages, conditional immor- tality, the Second Advent, and the Sabbath. Salvation and righteousness by faith were kept in the background, because these truths were taught by most other churches. Why teach a Baptist or Methodist about salvation, with which they were familiar anyway? What they did not know was the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the sanctuary truth, etc. Thus our pioneers majored in those doctrines that set us apart—especially the Sabbath and the Ten Commandments.
Unfortunately, because of the heavy emphasis on the law, spirituality waned and not a few became decidedly legalistic. Pride, self-assurance, and complacency entered our ranks. What was missing was a living experience with Christ—the joy and peace that comes from a relationship with Christ. The law and keeping the law became all-important. Ellen White, looking at the situation, wrote, “As a people we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain. We must preach Christ in the law.”1
The Ministerial Institute, October 10-16, 1888
When we think of Minneapolis 1888, two names come to mind—A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner. They were close friends and both were editors for Signs of the Times in California. Alonzo T. Jones (38) had served in the U.S. Army and was largely self-taught. Elliot J. Waggoner (33), by contrast, had had a classical education, had trained to be a medical doctor, and had worked at Battle Creek Sanitarium for a time, but his heart was in evangelism, so he switched careers and became a minister.
In the week-long workers’ meeting that preceded the General Conference one issue that divided the ministerial workforce was the conflict over the law in Galatians 3:24. The question was: Which law is the schoolmaster, the moral or the ceremonial law? In 1886 O. A. Johnson had published an article in the Review and Herald entitled “The Two Laws,” in which he stated “that the law in Galatians is the ceremonial law.”2 A few months later E. J. Waggoner ran a series of nine articles in the Signs, in which he claimed that the law in Galatians is the moral law. Ellen White, living in Basel, Switzerland, at the time, wrote a letter of rebuke to the two editors in California for publishing articles that revealed to the world that our two church papers were at variance on certain teachings. She did not take sides; she simply did not like the way things were done.
Who was right? The answer is, of course, both. Both laws lead to Christ. Eight years later, in 1896, Ellen White wrote, “In this scripture [Gal. 3:24], the Holy Spirit through the apostle is speaking especially of the moral law. The law reveals sin to us, and causes us to feel our need of Christ and to flee to Him for pardon and peace.”3 In 1888, however, she refused to give an answer—probably because she herself didn’t know at the time.
The Minneapolis Conference
The conference convened Wednesday, October 17. About 90 delegates represented 27,000 church members. The progress of new mission fields, the distribution of labor, city evangelism, a new ship for the South Pacific (Pitcairn), and many other items were taken up. But today, all the ordinary business of the conference is largely forgotten. What we still remember is that “the Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones…. It presented justification through faith in the Surety [Christ]; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God.”4
Waggoner was asked to present a series of lectures on righteousness by faith. We do not know exactly what Waggoner said, because beginning only in 1891 were all Bible studies at General Conference sessions recorded, but from what he wrote before and after Minneapolis we know approximately what he taught.
Until 1888 it was largely thought that righteousness acceptable to God could be achieved (with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course) by obedience to the commandments. In other words, sanctification was seen as the basis of salvation.
The work of Christ in justification was seen primarily in regard to our sins of the past. An unsigned article in an early Signs of the Times stated, “As all have violated God’s law and cannot of themselves render obedience to His just requirements, we are dependent on Christ, first for justification from our past offenses, and, secondly, for grace whereby to render acceptable obedience to His holy law in time to come.”5
Now, Waggoner came along and said: (1) man’s obedience can never satisfy God’s law; (2) Christ’s imputed righteousness alone is the basis of our acceptance by God; and (3) we constantly need the covering of Christ’s righteousness, not just for our past sins.
What was the reaction of his listeners? Some accepted the message and supported Waggoner (E. G. White, W. C. White, S. N. Haskell, etc.); others rejected the message (U. Smith, J. H. Morrison, L. R. Conradi, etc.); but the majority was undecided; they did not know what to believe. Those who opposed the message were quite vocal. At one stage Ellen White was so discouraged she wanted to leave, but the angel of the Lord told her, “Not so; God has a work for you to do in this place. The people are acting over the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”6
Eventually most of those who opposed the message changed their attitude and accepted the message of righteousness by faith, though some left the church.
After the Minneapolis session Mrs. White joined A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner in carrying the message of righteousness by faith to the churches. From coast to coast they visited camp meetings, workers’ meetings, and Bible schools. In 1889 she could write: “I have never seen a revival work go forward with such thoroughness, and yet remain so free from all undue excitement.”7 Following Minneapolis many books dealing with righteousness by faith were produced, for example, Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages.
To understand what happened at Minneapolis is important because some people today claim that the church rejected the message of Minneapolis and call for corporate repentance. Others claim that the nature of Christ was the main point of Waggoner’s message. Since in his book Christ and His Righteousness (1890) Waggoner suggested that Christ took sinful flesh with sinful tendencies, it is claimed the church has rejected the message because it has never officially accepted that Christ had sinful tendencies. However, there is no evidence that Waggoner dealt with the nature of Christ in Minneapolis. His emphasis was on the relationship of Christ’s righteousness to the law.
Minneapolis 1888 was a turning point in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Through Waggoner and Jones, supported by Ellen White, the church was saved from an incomplete understanding of the gospel.
1“Christ Prayed for Unity Among the Disciples,” Review and Herald (March 11, 1890).
2“The Two Laws,” Review and Herald (March 16, 1886).
3Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 234.
4Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, pp. 91, 92.
5“Fundamental Principles,” Signs of the Times (June 4, 1874).
6Letter 2a, 1892.
7Review and Herald (March 5, 1889).
Gerhard Pfandl, a native of Austria, is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.