We are often unable to think outside the parameters that someone has laid at the beginning of a discussion.
The General Conference session in Minneapolis in 1888 stands as a paradigm for many other struggles in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We may perceive the clash between the young Signs of the Times editor, Ellet J. Waggoner, and General Conference president George I. Butler over the nature of the law in Galatians 3:24, 25 as a play- book of human personalities, a study guide for conflict resolution, and a primer on various views of salvation. The dynamics of that conflict repeat- edly play out today.
A new theology?
Some critics regard the 1888 General Conference session as a watershed moment in which Adventists became truly Christians. Since there are no minutes of the session, some people have studied the writings of Waggoner and his associate A. T. Jones to unearth the true message of 1888. When Ellen White was asked shortly after the session what she thought of the new light presented by those young ministers, she replied, “Why, I have been presenting it to you for the last 45 years—the matchless charms of Christ.This is what I have been trying to present before your minds.”¹ In her view this message did not constitute new theology.
At the 1883 General Conference session she had preached 14 sermons that were not only a clear presentation of the gospel but also a passionate critique of legalism and the doubts, fears, and lack of assurance that are its natural consequence.² That some perceived the message of Waggoner and Jones as new theology, and that she had addressed Adventist legalism already five years earlier, nevertheless exposes the sad reality that not all ministers and members in the church preached and shared those “matchless charms of Christ.”
Different perceptions of the law
Since 1846 Seventh-day Adventists have proclaimed the third angel’s message as describing those who keep the commandments of God and have the faith of Jesus (Rev. 14:12). A basic agreement on the perpetuity of the law did not, however, prevent early Adventists from disagreeing about its role. Thus, whereas Joseph Bates considered obedience a prerequisite to the reception of the gospel,³ James White emphasized that repentance, forgiveness, and obedience are made possible through a reception of the gospel.⁴
Interpretations of the nature of the law in Galatians 3 in the 1850s laid the basis for the discussions in the 1880s. Several Adventist writers had argued that Galatians 3 presents the moral law (Ten Commandments) as a mirror that shows us that we are sinners in need of a Saviour.⁵ That position was close to the view of many Protestants who maintained that Galatians 3 talked about the abolishment of the commandments. Stephen Pierce’s emphatic reply in 1857, that it had to be the ceremonial law that had been abolished, not the Ten Commandments, seemed to serve as a better argument against the prevalent Protestant view of the text.⁶ His argument became the standard position among Adventists for the next three decades.
Over the years Adventist ministers became experts in debating with other Protestant ministers about unique Adventist beliefs. Listeners often converted to Adventism because Adventist ministers evidently knew their Bibles well and often won those debates. Naturally, those competitive debates focused on Adventist peculiarities rather than Christian commonalities. Further, some Adventist converts may likely have thought they obtained salvation by keeping the right day and doing the right things.
The Law and the Gospel in the 1880s
Since at least 1884 Waggoner and Jones taught in the Signs of the Times and at Healdsburg College the old Adventist interpretation, that the law in Galatians 3, which leads us to Christ, was the moral law rather than the ceremonial law. The 1880s were not an optimal time to present that interpretation to Adventists, though. Other Protestants inspired political campaigns to enact and enforce Sunday legislation on all levels—local, state, and national. Many people saw those endeavors as promoting American morality. When (Roman Catholic) Cardinal James Gibbons added his influence in support of a national Sunday law,
Adventists believed the prophecies of Revelation 13 and the “mark of the beast” persecutions were about to materialize.⁷
Since Waggoner’s interpretation of the law in Galatians seemed precariously close to the widespread Protestant view on that passage, one can understand why Butler and others felt Waggoner’s “new” interpretation was the wrong message at the most unfortunate time.
Considering Pierce’s position on Galatians 3 as a landmark doctrine, Butler felt he had to tackle this issue. First, he tried to solicit Ellen White’s support by obtaining a letter she had sent to Waggoner’s father on the issue 30 years earlier. She replied that she was unable to find the letter, adding that she would not have given it to him even if she had found it. She told Waggoner that he should refrain from agitating the subject in public.
Feeling justified, Butler published a book, The Law in the Book of Galatians (1886), in response to Waggoner’s view,⁸ and circulated it among the delegates of the 1886 General Conference session. Butler sensed he was proven right when D. M. Canright, a prominent Adventist minister, became a seeming casualty of Waggoner’s view by rejecting the perpetuity of the law two months after the 1886 session. To his chagrin, Ellen White rebuked Butler for that move and stressed that since he had taken the freedom to advertise his view, Waggoner too should have a chance to explain his view. This Waggoner did two years later, in the book The Gospel in the Book of Galatians.⁹
Waggoner and Jones were given an opportunity at the 1888 General Conference session to present their views on the law in Galatians. Butler, who was unable to attend because of sickness, prepared his allies to oppose the supposed heresy. Ellen White saw the real problem of the meeting not so much in the theological differences but in the irreconcilable and hostile spirit of the Butler party. That spirit “was not the spirit of Christ.”¹⁰ The message preached by the two young ministers revealed the “precious thought” of Christ’s righteousness “imputed to us not because of any merit on our part, but as a free gift from God.” Satan did not want this message to be heard because “his power will be broken” “if the people receive it fully.”¹¹
The law in both forms leads to Christ
We are often unable to think outside the parameters that someone has laid at the beginning of a discussion. Sometimes those very parameters constitute a false dichotomy. Yet when we feel passionate about a topic, we may fail to recognize the futility of the discussion.
For years, members and ministers saw only two opposing options. The law in Galatians 3 was either the ceremonial law or the moral law. More than a decade later Ellen White made a stunning remark that broke the parameters of the discussion. She noted that “the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” was “both the ceremonial and the moral code of Ten Commandments.” Whereas the latter shows us that we are sinners in need of a Saviour, the first shows us how and through whom God gets rid of the sin problem.¹²
Shortly after the 1888 General Conference session Ellen White reminisced that Adventists had certainly promoted “the commandments of God,” “but the faith of Jesus Christ has not been proclaimed . . . as of equal importance.” While the faith of Jesus was “talked of,” it was “not understood.”
Yet what constitutes the faith of Jesus? She replied, “Jesus becoming our sin-bearer that He might become our sin-pardoning Saviour. He was treated as we deserve to be treated. He came to our world and took
our sins that we might take His righteousness. Faith in the ability of Christ to save us amply and fully and entirely is the faith of Jesus.”¹³
¹ Ellen G. White, manuscript 5, 1889, in Ellen G. White, Sermons and Talks (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estates, 1990), vol. 1, pp. 116, 117.
² Published intermittently in the Review and Herald from March 4 through July 22, 1884.
³ Joseph Bates, A Seal of the Living God: A Hundred Forty-four Thousand, of the Servants of God Being Sealed in 1849 (New Bedford, Mass.: Benjamin Lindsey, 1849), pp. 60-66.
⁴ [James White], in Present Truth, August 1849, p. 16.
⁵ J. N. Andrews, in Review and Herald, Sept. 16, 1851, p. 29; J. N. Andrews, Thoughts on the Sabbath, and the Perpetuity of the Law of God (Paris, Me.: James White, 1851), pp. 22, 25.
⁶ S. Pierce, in Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1857, pp. 180, 181.
⁷ W. W. Whidden, E. J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to Agent of Division (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2008), pp. 92-94.
⁸ G. I. Butler, The Law in the Book of Galatians: Is it the Moral Law, or Does it Refer to That System of Laws Peculiarly Jewish? (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1886).
⁹ E. J. Waggoner, The Gospel in the Book of Galatians: A Review (Oakland, Calif.: n.p. 1888).
¹⁰ Ellen G. White, letter 50, 1889, in Ellen G. White, The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987),
vol. 1, p. 295).
¹¹ Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Sep. 3, 1889, p. 546.
¹² Ellen G. White, manuscript 87, 1900, in Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 1, p. 233.
¹³ Ellen G. White, manuscript 24, 1888, in Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1993), vol. 12, p. 193.