In a new video created by the Revival and Reformation Committee of the General Conference for the 100 days of prayer preceding the General Conference session, the point is clearly made that Jesus has not come because the Seventh-day Adventist Church members and leaders have not surrendered fully to the leading of Jesus. Consequently the work has not been completed. This startling message and the truncated history portrayed to make the point concern a number of church workers who are digging into historical writings and asking questions.
Do we truly hold the key to the second coming? Is the whole world waiting for us to get our act together? Did all the wars of the 1900’s occur because of the lack of humility of the little Adventist band in the 1800’s?
Drawing on a two page letter published in Testimonies Volume 8, the video begins with a dramatized recreation of Seventh-day Adventist church history placing it in 1901. Prophet Ellen White sits at her desk writing. Next the video dissolves to a scene with George Irwin, then president of the General Conference, talking with Arthur G. Daniells, the administrator who was soon to replace him. The conversation happens just before the scheduled session of the General Conference that year. “It is our fault that the Lord has not come, as leaders we have let the Lord down,” he says. The two men pray a prayer of confession, pleading with God to “forgive us and change us.”
The scene shifts to another conversation between Stephen Haskell and former GC president George Butler as they go into what appears to be the Battle Creek Tabernacle. Inside the church with the brethren assembled for meeting Haskell steps up to the pulpit and reads Psalm 106, and its lament “We have sinned, O God.” Another prayer follows, with Haskell telling the Lord that we cannot continue as we have been.”
Screen capture from the film: Haskell and Butler speak together.
President Irwin addresses the group and says that this 34th session of the General Conference is the most important one ever to be held. He says that it is essential for all to call on God for forgiveness, confess sins to one another, and discover oneness of heart. One by one men in the audience rise to confess their sins and to ask specific brethren for forgiveness. Someone breaks into song and “Bless be the Tie that Binds” echoes as the screen turns to black.
Then we learn that what we have just watched was but a dream of what might have been as Ellen White awakens from vision. Apparently, the General Conference brethren did not humble themselves, and Mrs. White dissolves into tears. That concludes the historical recreation portion of the video.
Current General Conference Vice President Ben Schoun appears next and provides the segue from what might have been a revival in 1901 to the present day. Revival is still needed he suggests, and invites those watching to join in a prayer “to make me willing to be made willing.” He is followed with a similar plea first from GC Vice President Armando Miranda, who chairs the Revival and Reformation Committee, and then by President Ted N. C. Wilson. But it is Mrs. Nancy Wilson who gets the final say. She refers to Ellen White’s vision that Christ was ready to come, but we failed, and pleads with those watching to pray for their leaders at the upcoming session of the General Conference.
Screen capture from the film: Nancy and Ted Wilson.
Jim Ayer, vice president of Adventist World Radio and a member of the Revival and Reformation Committee, says the inspiration for the video came to him during a retreat the committee held in December 2014. Four days after sharing his idea with the committee, he was given a green light and a budget of $47,000. He ran the script past the Biblical Research Institute and the Ellen G. White Estate and incorporated the minor suggestions that were made. Everyone who read the script was very enthusiastic about it, he adds. People volunteered to pay for their own costumes and bought their airline tickets to San Francisco where the movie was filmed. The way everything seemed to come together easily made Ayer feel that God was in the making of the video.
However, students of the 1901 GC session, like Gerry Chudleigh, who have watched it question the interpretation given, specifically by using the words from Ellen White that “no change was made” in 1901. Since Ellen White called for major decentralization at the 1901 session and later praised God when those changes were voted, it is clearly misleading to suggest that this vision was meant to question the experience of everyone at the 1901 session. The words “no change was made” make it obvious that she was referring to a small group of people who did not change, not to the whole church or even all leaders because most did make important changes,” he says. That GC Session is famous because autonomous union conferences were created, departments were created at all levels of church structure, the General Conference Executive Committee was enlarged, with representatives from around the world, and the office of General Conference president was abolished and replaced with a chairman of the GC committee. (The presidency was restored in 1903.)
Author and historian Gil Valentine notes that the video gives the impression that the dream on which the drama is based, took place at the time of the 1901 conference. But in actuality it is related in a letter written almost twenty months later and after two calamitous fires in Battle Creek. Valentine is the author of “The Prophet and the Presidents,” a book which goes into this period in depth. He points to the explanation for the vision that was given by Ellen White’s grandson, Arthur White, in his six volume biography of his grandmother. The vision concerned the problems surrounding Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his continuing struggle to keep the medical work separate from the church’s work.
Screen capture from the film: Ellen White receives a vision.
“To take this 1903 dream and consider that it applies to the whole church seems to be a serious misunderstanding and a misuse of it. It seems to constitute an attempt to reshape the past to support a particular theology of explaining the long delay in the Advent. The dream actually concerned a specific situation that emerged later in 1902 and 1903, and it was a lament about 1901 in the light of those specific problems,” Valentine says.
The records of the 1901 conference show that at the end of the meetings Ellen White was actually delighted and hugely relieved by the outcomes and achievements of the historic session. She felt that the changes voted there to the structure of the church organization had exceeded expectations beyond measure.
In his biography of his grandmother, Arthur White quotes her as saying in her concluding speech, “I was never more astonished in my life than at the turn things have taken at this meeting. This is not our work. God has brought it about. Instruction regarding this was presented to me, but until the sum was worked out at this meeting, I could not comprehend this instruction. God’s angels have been walking up and down in this congregation. I want every one of you to remember this, and I want you to remember also that God has said that He will heal the wounds of His people” ("Ellen G. White: A Biography," Volume 5, page 110.2).
This enthusiastic account by Mrs. White sees God as having guided the conference with angels walking its aisles. What happened to change her mind twenty months later? Had God led and then somehow not led?
Valentine explains that the background of the 1903 vision is an accumulation of intervening developments that changed Ellen White’s perspective. By 1903 the Kellogg dissension problem had not been solved – it had grown worse. At the autumn council of 1902 there had been an attempted coup d’etat when Kellogg and his colleagues tried to unseat Arthur Daniells (elected in 1901) from the presidency midway through his term.
Then as the 1903 GC session approached after lengthy correspondence with Daniells and others it became clear to Ellen White that the issues of re-organization would have to be worked through again in order to arrive at a lasting workable arrangement for the relationship of the GC to the Sanitarium and Dr. Kellogg’s work. It is really Kellogg that she is having trouble with. That is why the January 3, 1903 letter in which the vision is recorded is addressed to the Battle Creek Church.
During the 1903 General Conference session she took the opportunity to relate the dream to the delegates as an appeal to resolve the disagreements with Kellogg and his supporters. In response, delegates engaged in two lengthy earnest seasons of prayer, confession and repentance. In that sense the dream very effectively achieved its immediate purpose. A new organizational constitution was subsequently voted at the 1903 session. That problem was resolved. But the specific larger problem of Kellogg and his desire for the Battle Creek sanitarium to be a non-denominational institution completely separate from the church could not be resolved so easily.
Valentine suggests the video’s very focused retelling of Ellen White’s dream takes it out of context. He feels that applying the dream to the whole church in 2015 “requires a leap and seems a serious misrepresentation of the purpose of the testimony. To use it as a basis for blaming church members for the delay in the return of Jesus seems a sad and mordant misuse of it,” he says.
What producer Ayer wanted to get across in the video was the need to humble ourselves before the Lord. “Surrendering to God and allowing God to drive (our lives) is what this movie is all about. What might have been, can be,” he says. And the feedback that he has received from people who have seen the beta test version of the video that was shown at churches in Georgia, Michigan, California, and West Virginia pick up on that. One pastor told him that a church member came to him after seeing the movie with a concern about the pastor and the two of them were able to work through things. A healing of relationship occurred.
Others who have seen the video question the implied theology of saying that it is our fault that Jesus has not come. Do we truly hold the key to the second coming?
Screen capture from the film.
In the 1986 book “Pilgrimage of Hope,” Roy Branson laid out three responses to the delay in Christ’s second coming that various Adventists have proffered over the years. The first is the expansionist view that Christ’s return is dependent on the gospel going to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. The second is the moralist view that God is waiting until he has a people whose faith makes them “perfectly safe to save.” Both of these approaches are similar to the social gospel which tries to create a perfect society, Branson suggests. It confuses good works with redemption. “The problem with the ecclesiastical gospel (which includes the expansionist and moralist views) is not that the church thinks it should witness to what Christ has done or that the church believes that God works ever more fully in the lives of members—it is that the church thinks that its good works achieve the salvation of the world. Too often the church regards itself as the hinge of history. It is not. The center of history is the cross and resurrection of Christ.”
The third response to Christ’s delay is a cosmic understanding of the second coming. In this view, “when the Lord will return and exactly what will bring His return is beyond our finite human knowledge. Like the problem of evil ‘this problem of delay’ is a mystery to be acknowledged.”
Today in many theological circles the conversation about eschatology has changed somewhat from what it was in the time of William Miller when the focus was on predicting precisely when the Lord would return. As Jesus scholar William Johnsson put it in his speech at the recent Weniger Awards ceremony at Loma Linda University, the important thing is not when the Second Coming will occur but who it is that will come.
In his reflection about the Second Coming and the video, Branson suggests that, “the most important question is whether something so enormous as hope can rest on something so fragile as one group of human beings. Hope depends on God.”
And that is something upon which both the producers and the critics of the movie can probably agree.
The movie is scheduled to be shown during the General Conference Week of Prayer next week, according to Ayer.
WATCH: "What Might Have Been Can Be"
Bonnie Dwyer is Editor of Spectrum Magazine.