Perspective: "GC Session 1901: What Might Have Been, What Was and What Still Is"

Perspective: "GC Session 1901: What Might Have Been, What Was and What Still Is"

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Published:
April 9, 2015

The recently released video “What Might Have Been” has sparked a renewed interest in the epochal General Conference Session of 1901. The film has been reviewed on Spectrum by Bonnie Dwyer and Gerry Chudleigh. I would like to consider one aspect in particular of the 1901 General Conference that has been absent from these discussions.

The 1901 Session has fascinated me for a long time. My interest in this session is due to the fact that it was on that occasion that Ellen White addressed the infamous “holy flesh movement” which rocked some Adventist churches in Indiana at the turn of the century with a mix of emotional worship, musical instruments and perfectionism. As a musician-theologian, you can understand why this event is interesting to me.

So here’s a little bit of the history behind the holy flesh movement and its connection to the 1901 GC Session.

What was going on then?

A. T. Jones and A. F. Ballenger were making quite a stir in rural Indiana and other Midwestern states in the late 1890’s, preaching the “Receive Ye The Holy Ghost” message. The movement was a corollary of the 1888 message of justification by faith, which by this time had deteriorated into faith healing and tendentious views of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Indiana Conference evangelist, S. S. Davis had been heavily influenced by Jones’ and Ballenger's messages, which seemed to resonate well with his own “Laodicean message.” Davis had also been enamored by the local Pentecostals who according to him seemed to have “the Spirit” while we had “the truth”. Together, he thought, they could do wonders for Adventism.

R. S. Donnell, the promising, new president found the Indiana conference in dire straits in 1899. The conference was deeply in debt, churches were struggling to grow and legalistic views of Adventism predominated. Donnell was able to drum up funds to pay off the debt; the lukewarmness of the people took a little longer to deal with. So, in order to bring revival to the Indiana congregations, Donnell and Davis propagated the “Laodicean message” (a motto taken from a recent RH article by Ellen White) as a statewide revival. As part of this campaign, three campmeetings were planned for the summer of 1900, in Sullivan, Lafayette and Muncie.

Unfortunately by the summer of 1900, the “Laodicean message” had been coupled with the “cleansing message,” an effort to “cleanse” Adventists from sin in order attain sinless perfection. In the months leading up to the summer of 1900, prayer meetings had turned into full-blown sessions of ecstasy. During emotional meetings in some churches, people would sing and shout themselves to exhaustion. When a few actually fainted and fell lifeless to the floor, others would gather around and continue to shout and pray. When those who had fainted finally came to, they had attained holy flesh and could no longer sin. They would call this the “Garden experience.”

It appears that reports of these events had reached the General Conference office in Battle Creek. A. J. Breed had already seen some strange things in the Alexandria campmeeting of 1899, although it is not clear exactly what happened. Breed, Stephen Haskell and his wife made the long trip south to the Muncie campmeeting in September 1900. They were in for a surprise. The GC officials were alarmed by a style of worship that was quite jarring to their conservative Adventism. Suspect theological positions, such as the pre-lapsarian view of the nature of Christ (Christ in Adam’s nature) and the “cleansing message” were driven home by long altar calls, shouting, emotionalism and a lot of singing and instrumental music. The reports of the meetings by Haskell and his wife to Ellen White and Sarah McEnterfer are extensive. They not only rejected the theological positions of the group but were alarmed by the addition of musical instruments such as drums and a Pentecostal hymnal in Adventist worship. 

Already back in California from her stay in Australia, Ellen White was alarmed by the reports of the events in Indiana. In a letter to the Haskells she condemned what she saw as a return of the fanaticism she had seen in the early period of the movement. She frowned upon the marriage of good music, emotionalism in worship and sinless perfection, which created a dangerous, almost irresistible concoction to lead people into extremism.

It was not the first time that the winds of “holy flesh” had blown upon this movement. Ellen White had dealt with it in the 1840’s and 1860’s. The “old spirit of blind Sammy Hancock”—a tongue-speaking, singing preacher of that periodhad become proverbial in Adventism. “Holy flesh” seemed to be a persistent problem for Adventism. And Ellen White said we should probably expect it to continue to resurface in our midst in “different ways” (See Selected Messages Vol. 2, pg 44). And as we will see below, she was right.

Ellen White was determined to stamp out any inkling of fanaticism from her beloved church. The showdown was going to occur at the GC Session, in April 1901. Speaking to the assembly, Ellen White condemned the goings on in Indiana as “an error”. When she sided with Haskell, Breed and others against the “new light” from Indiana, Donnell and his troupe offered full confessions and the Holy Flesh movement was snuffed out.

But this was not the last Adventism would see of “holy flesh.”

What is going on now?

There’s little doubt that Adventism rejected the noisy worship of the Indiana churches in 1900. Because Ellen White mentions “music” and “drums” in her letter to the Haskells, the events in Indiana have been mostly connected with music and styles of worship. We actually went to the other extreme by banning the use of drums for most of the 20th century in our worship because of their association with Indiana. We simply couldn’t run the risk. Drums have become the culprit for the abuses of the group; Adventist worship has become constrained as a result. However, very little attention is paid to the fact that it was the theological views of the holy flesh movement that originated the need for emotional worship and not music or the big bass drum they used in the campmeetings.

In fact, the music of the Indiana campmeetings was quite traditional! The hymnals used, even Garden of Spices, the Pentecostal hymnal used, contained traditional hymns which in the campmeeting in Muncie were accompanied by a choir and a small band. There’s a lot of superstition and misinformation as to what occurred in the worship in Indiana. The facts point to a rejection by the GC leadership of the use of musical instruments in Adventist worship (a novelty at the time) and an overreaction to worship that includes emotional elements such as verbal expression, crying and prostrating on the floor.

But despite the fact that Ellen White was crystal clear in her condemnation of “holy flesh” and its perfectionistic tendencies, the church has never really come full circle in repudiating that theology. In the short decades after 1901, holy flesh reared its ugly head in the writings of Andreasen, the originator of “last generation theology,” a theological concept that refuses to leave Adventism alone and finds support in the highest levels of denominational leadership.

From a historical standpoint the leaders of the holy flesh movement in Indiana were probably the first to espouse the notion that Jesus had come in Adam’s unfallen nature, a concept foreign to Adventist theology at the time but which from the late 1950’s is considered the mainstream Adventist position. In his exchanges with the Indiana brethren, Haskell disagreed with their views and complained to Ellen White about them. The problem with the Indiana version of pre-lapsarianism is that they took it to another extreme and stated that the Christian can attain the holy flesh Adam and Jesus had if completely surrendered to the Holy Spirit. While Alonzo T. Jones was preaching sinless perfection by considering Jesus as our example in sinful flesh, the Indiana brethren preached the same thing based on Jesus as our example in sinless flesh. The perfectionism we see in Adventism today is a mixed bag, with most firmly within the “sinful nature” of Christ camp.

It was in the context of the Indiana debacle of 1900 that Ellen White has the strongest statements against sinless perfection and fanaticism. The paragraphs below read by Ellen White at the 1901 GC session are unequivocal. I have added in brackets what she would say today were she confronted with our modern day “holy flesh movement,” i.e., last generation theology. As readers will see, there is really no change in meaning.

“The teaching given in regard to what is termed “holy flesh” [last generation theology] is an error. All may now obtain holy hearts, but it is not correct to claim in this life to have holy flesh [sinless perfection]. The apostle Paul declares, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). To those who have tried so hard to obtain by faith so-called holy flesh [sinless perfection], I would say, You cannot obtain it. Not a soul of you has holy flesh [sinless perfection] now. No human being on the earth has holy flesh [sinless perfection]. It is an impossibility” (Selected Messages, Vol. 2, pg. 32).

“When human beings receive holy flesh [sinless perfection], they will not remain on the earth, but will be taken to heaven. While sin is forgiven in this life, its results are not now wholly removed. It is at His coming that Christ is to “change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body” (Selected Messages, Vol. 2, pg. 33).

The greatest tragedy about the history of the reception and the rejection of the holy flesh movement is that the church was quick to reject the style of music and drums in worship of Indiana, but continued to flirt with holy flesh. Ironically, it is mostly the folks of the last generation camp who frown upon the use of drums in Adventist music as a “fulfillment of the Indiana prophecy” while ignoring Ellen White’s message that “we cannot attain holy flesh in this life.” Our modern-day holy flesh movement finds itself in “dignified” worship and music. In their meetings, you don’t hear the sounds of drums, let alone people shouting or fainting. Like the Indiana movement, our updated version of holy flesh has neatly intertwined itself with Adventist eschatology. Proponents claim that if you reject one, you reject the other. Dissenting theologians and administrators are fiercely checkmated by Ellen White quotes or barraged with ubiquitous You Tube videos. Unlike our Indiana brethren of yore, none of the current proponents of holy flesh claim to have actually achieved it, which is curious since they do defend it as a possibility. Which makes one wonder what is the use of a “theology” that has no tangible impact in one’s present experience.

My Own Experience

I know firsthand the nefarious effects of perfectionism and last generation theology. Until about six years ago, my views on salvation and last day events was firmly grounded on the writings of Andreasen, Douglass and other perfectionists whose writings were promoted by the main publishing house in Brazil in the 80’s (and still are).

My liberation from this theology came in the months and years after my mother’s passing. She had been a faithful Seventh-day Adventist for the better part of four decades. She was introduced to Adventism while working for a German family in southern Brazil in the late 50’s and went on to become a dedicated Bible worker. In the early 80’s, my thirteen year-old brother drowned in a river and a couple of years later, my father passed away after falling from a tree. These traumatic experiences galvanized her deep commitment to doing her part to hasten the Second Coming. She wanted to see her son again and hoped that my father, who was not an Adventist, had been saved. She immersed herself in evangelism for the last 3 decades of her life. She loved to talk about the Second Coming, her blessed hope.

As we spent her last weeks together battling an aggressive, metastasizing lung cancer, I realized that after all these years as a faithful Adventist, my mother had not reached the “perfection” that I hope she would have. I thought she was part of the last generation. But no, she was still very much a sinner. This was a problem for me only because she herself did not believe in perfectionism. She trusted fully in God for her salvation. “My life is in God’s hands,” she would say repeatedly as the pain medication wore off. When she passed away, I was devastated. Her dream to see Jesus come back did not come through. It wasn’t fair.

For some time after her passing, I dove into the study of eschatology to convince myself that I would soon see her again. I eagerly participated in sensationalist prophetic series at our small, local church in order to soothe my pain. But as I dove deeper into Adventist theology, I also came across the writings of theologians such as Edward Heppenstall, Helmutt Ott and Desmond Ford who rejected the perfectionism I had for so long espoused. This came as a surprise as I thought end-time perfectionism was absolutely inseparable from Adventism. Not so, they said. I was sold.

The feeling of freedom from perfectionism was incredible. I had finally discovered what “grace” was. This took a huge load off my shoulders. I could finally breathe spiritually; the Christian walk took on a new meaning, I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. I could simply take hold of Christ’s righteousness and live a life of surrender and obedience, thankful for the salvation I had already received.

Today, looking back at my experience and realizing how insidious this theology was in my life, my suspicion is that the majority of baby-boomers and gen-Xers in the church are in the perfectionistic camp. Most of them may not even be aware of it but once you start digging their eschatological views, the implications of last generation theology in their thinking are quite clear. And now GYC with its strong institutional and independent support threatens to indoctrinate a new breed of Adventists in this detrimental theology. And this would be tragic, no matter how “good” the numbers may seem.

Conclusion

Although Ellen White condemned the perfectionism of the holy flesh movement in the GC Session of 1901, Adventism did not fully break off its love affair with “holy flesh.” It is alive and well in Adventism. What could have been in 1901, i.e., a full repudiation of perfectionism, never was.

No doubt of the root causes for this an unbalanced apocalypticism that constantly stretches its hand to grasp the hand of perfectionism in an insane, symbiotic relationship. The current video seems to hint at the fact that today we have a chance to make things “right” and finish the work. But if we are to be respectful of Ellen White’s ideals for the church in 1901 and beyond, I’d say, let’s take a firm stand on perfectionism; let’s strongly repudiate perfectionistic ideas which place on the shoulders of this (or any other generation) the responsibility of hastening or delaying the Second Coming. Not only is sinless perfection an “impossibility” this side of heaven but Jesus was clear in his last discourse to the disciples (Acts 1:6) that human beings have no impact on the timing of the the end. The when and how of his coming are none of our concern; there’s nothing we can do to hasten the Second Coming, much less by signing up to the salvation-by-works camp. Such a view may actually have the contrary effect for I suspect God is not very eager to take to heaven self-righteous human beings.

A church that expects the parousia in 2015 should know that the Second Coming will happen in God’s time, not ours. And when it does, I look forward to being saved by grace alone, “not by works, so no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9).

 

André Reis has a BA in Theology from Adventist University of São Paulo, a Masters in Music from the Longy School of Music in Boston, MA and is currently pursuing a PhD in New Testament at Avondale University.

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