In 1896 Ellen White saw the “Paths of Rome” running through Battle Creek.
As has often been noted, in the late 1890s Ellen White lost a great deal of sleep over her fears that the leading brethren of her church were exerting far too tight a control over the affairs of the movement. In 1896 she protested vigorously the plans of the leaders in Battle Creek to “invent regulations through which they compel men to be ruled by their own ideas and not by the Holy Spirit.” Plans “to obtain control of human minds and ability” she considered as “strange fire.” Righteously indignant, she protested that leaders, through various means, were attempting “to control the consciences of their fellow men.”1 It was at this time that she uttered one of her sharpest rebukes ever given to General Conference leaders. From her perspective, they were beginning to act like the papacy. To those who served on the Book Committee in particular she asserted that they were “following in the tread of the paths of Rome.”2
As David Larson has recently noted, Adventists have deep roots in the soil of anti-Catholic apologetics and he expresses a valid concern about the dangers of Adventists resorting to cheap anti-Catholic rhetoric in our present dialogue about church structure and governance. “Adventism will never become Roman Catholicism and we shouldn’t scare each other into thinking that it might,” he argues. “Theological and liturgical differences would remain,” he suggests, even though the church might become more centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian. It is important that we respect the faith traditions of other Christians and that we should be able to applaud Catholicism “for its many contributions to human wellbeing.”3 Agreed.
But what were the specific issues that lay behind Ellen White’s fears that Adventist leadership would become like the papacy? Can we learn anything from her anxieties? Is there a legitimate concern about the drift to centralized control?
It is clear that Ellen White’s worry did not concern matters of liturgy or theology. It was not candles on the communion table, crosses on the top of churches, or preachers wearing clerical garb that worried her. Her apprehension concentrated on two more important emerging trends. The developments that deeply troubled her were first, the creation of an authoritarian culture of dominant leadership that involved submission, loyalty, and the loss of independent thought and action. Second, she was also deeply concerned about leadership falling into the pattern of coercing the consciences of others in the church.
The immediate occasion of this sharpest of all rebukes was a pointed dispute between church leaders in Australia and the leadership in Battle Creek about a particular biblical teaching. The teaching, which was being promoted by Professor W. W. Prescott in Australia in 1895-1896, had proved to be highly effective in forwarding Adventist mission in Australia. Ellen White had been deeply impressed and had recognized the work of the Spirit in Prescott’s preaching. The teaching had greatly enhanced the church’s appeal to a more educated class of converts.
A brief review of the historical context of this dispute and of White’s statement of rebuke and warning helps to clarify and elucidate the particular burden of Ellen White’s 1896 concerns. There are two prominent strands to be noted in the historical context.
A Dispute between the Regions and Headquarters
In the mid-1890s Professor W. W. Prescott was in Australia helping with evangelism and with the establishment of a new college. One of his most effective sermons at a very successful evangelistic camp meeting in Melbourne in November 1895 had been a new Christocentric presentation of the Sabbath truth: “The Law in Christ.” His sermon was based on the new interpretation of Galatians 3:24 (“The law in Galatians”) that had been the cause of so much debate and disruption at the Minneapolis Conference in 1888. Out in Australia the sermon was viewed as vital present truth. It had been highly effective in the church’s mission to non-Adventists and local church leaders prepared it as a pamphlet and advertised it prominently in the Bible Echo — the regional church magazine.
When, however, Prescott sent the article to Battle Creek in the hope that they might also find it useful, the General Conference Book Committee bluntly rejected it because they viewed it as communicating “some fundamental errors.” The Book Committee, it seems, was dominated by one mind — that of Review editor Uriah Smith who had not changed his mind on the law in Galatians and was convinced that the teaching was a dangerous undermining of the foundations of Adventism. He felt he was protecting the church. The other men on the committee either agreed or apparently just followed along not wanting to challenge the authority of the influential editor.
When Prescott received the reply from the committee, he expressed himself as finding it “a trifle peculiar” that a sermon could be orthodox in Melbourne but not in Battle Creek. But when Ellen White heard of the Book Committee’s decision, she found it more than peculiar. It was deeply disturbing. In fact she was highly indignant.
She wrote: “When Professor Prescott’s matter was condemned, and refused publication, I said to myself this committee needs the converting power of God upon their own hearts, that they may comprehend their duty. They do not know themselves. Their ideas are not to control the ideas of another.” Then she added, “it is not for these men to condemn or control the productions of those whom God is using as His light bearers to the World.”
She recommended, rather subversively, that the work of the church “would go forward more perfectly if their [the book Committee’s] counsel were omitted.”4 This was a subtle suggestion that the committee should be simply ignored or bypassed. Prophets could do that. In fact, as a result of this episode the General Conference Book Committee was later disbanded.
Learning from the Mistakes of Others
At this very same period, in the mid-1890s, when Ellen White was writing to General Conference president O. A. Olsen to protest about the alarming drift to authoritarian leadership and centralized control, her regional church paper, the Bible Echo was vigorously discussing the issues of religious control and the dangers of binding the consciences of others. Ellen White, it seems, was a close reader of these discussions. The Echo had reported extensively on recent attempts by Pope Leo XIII to seek reconciliation with the Anglican Church in Great Britain in particular and with other Christian churches. In 1895 he had issued an encyclical boldly calling for a reunion of the churches. The big question of the day discussed in newspapers in the UK and around Australia was whether reconciliation would involve the pope endorsing the validity of the Anglican clerical orders with its married clergy. Such an issue mattered in Australia. Half the population was Anglican.
In early June, in an open letter to the Vatican, William Gladstone, the noted British Statesman (a four-time liberal party British prime minister who had also spent ten years as Chancellor of the Exchequer) had urged the pope to recognize the Anglican clergy and that such a move would be an indication that the Catholic Church was really changing and it would be a gesture of good faith. The editor of the Bible Echo had interpreted this Gladstone initiative as “a hand reaching across the gulf” supporting Ellen White’s prediction of a union between Protestantism and Catholicism. Had the British leader caved in?
Twenty years previously in 1875, Gladstone had written a strongly anti-Catholic pamphlet protesting the recent (1870) claim of papal ex cathedra infallibility by the Vatican. The cardinal virtue for Gladstone was the freedom of individual conscience. The infallibility doctrine and the requirement of loyalty to the pontiff would have dire consequences for his country he argued in 1875. Parliamentarians would not be able to vote their conscience on important social issues. Gladstone charged that those who gave homage to the Pope “gave up their mental and moral freedom” and “placed their civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another.” He accused the Vatican of condemning “liberty of speech and liberty of the press.” John Henry Newman would later argue that this was not the case, but Gladstone was not persuaded.
Now, two decades later, and a month after Gladstone’s June 1, 1896 open letter, the Roman pontiff had issued another encyclical on the reunion of the churches declaring this time that supremacy of the pope was still essential. “No relaxation of the doctrine of discipline held by the Roman Catholic Church will be allowed by his Holiness in order to secure the reunion of the churches.”
The encyclical was published prominently in the London Times, June 30, 1896. The editor of the Bible Echo, down in Melbourne, very much aware of his largely Anglican context followed the events very closely. He saw a Vatican that was not prepared to change and that still wanted to dominate. He republished extracts from Gladstone’s earlier 1875 protest across the front page of the Bible Echo. For many weeks in the middle of 1896 the debate sizzled in the Australian press and in the Bible Echo. It touched on what was taught in public school curriculum and the role of Catholic members of parliament. The central issue was freedom of conscience. The need to avoid “the domineering action of a purely central power” was discussed repeatedly. And Ellen White was reading. In fact, in the middle of the discussion, the Bible Echo published as its major article the first half of Chapter 3 of Great Controversy — her discussion of “The Roman Church.”5
When, in the midst of all this ecclesiastical drama, Ellen White heard of the events in Battle Creek and the way that her own church was dealing with dissenting views, overriding the consciences of others, she was horrified. When she heard that the General Conference had condemned Prescott’s article she saw a danger of her church “following in the tread of the paths of Rome.” In her letter to the Book Committee she reported that she had just been reading the Bible Echo about those who would command the consciences of others. She recommended that the men themselves should read the article. She gave the title, “Gladstone and the Papacy,” and the reference. “Read the whole article,” she insisted to the committee. “Their ideas were not to control the ideas of another.”6
If it was, at least, once possible for General Conference leaders to tread the paths of Rome — until Ellen White called them out for it — might it not be possible for them quite inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, to do so again now? Today we have not the voice of Ellen White as a living charisma to protest. Who will do so now?
What is at stake at the Annual Council in October 2018 is the coercion of the consciences of large constituencies of the church. What is being proposed is a very un-Adventist centralization of power. In this coercion and centralization do we not hear the echoes of the 1890s?
In 1896, Ellen White saw the Paths of Rome running through Battle Creek. Will they run through Battle Creek again in October 2018?
Notes & References:
1. EGW to O. A. Olsen May 22, 1896. (Ltr 83); EGW to “The Book Committee,” October 26,  1898. (MS 148). There are strong reasons to view this manuscript as having been written in October 1896 rather than 1898. Internal reference is to a mid-1896 article. Furthermore, the Book Committee to whom the manuscript is addressed was disbanded in March 1897. It did not exist in 1898. See General Conference Bulletin March 27, 1897, 230.
2. Ellen G. White to “The Book Committee,” October 26,  1898.
3. David Larsen, “We can be Progressive without Exploiting Anti-Catholic Feelings,” Spectrum Website, September 20, 2018. https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2018/we-can-be-progressive-adventists-without-exploiting-anti-catholic-feelings
4. Ellen G. White to “The Book Committee,” October 26,  1898.
5. The Bible Echo, June 29, 1896, 193, 194.
6. Ellen G. White to “The Book Committee,” October 26, 1896. The article appeared on the front page of the Bible Echo, July 27, 1896, 225, 226.
Gilbert M. Valentine lives and writes in Riverside, California. He is author of a scholarly biography on W. W. Prescott (2005), a history of the White Estate titled The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage (2006), a study of the political influence of Ellen White in The Prophet and the Presidents (2011), and coedited, with Woodrow Whidden, a Festschrift for George Knight entitled Adventist Maverick (2014).
Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash
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