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“Many Lessons to Learn and Many, Many to Unlearn”: Early Adventists as Champions of Freedom of Conscience


The current intense discussions of unity and conformity within the Seventh-day Adventist Church are traceable to its very roots, and are an inevitable by-product of its history and evolution. It can be considered the great-great-great-grandchild of religious movements peopled by individuals who rejected the established orthodoxy of their various times; especially the right of elect church leaders and religious specialists to determine what one could or could not believe. Christianity itself was an innovation within Judaism that rejected the authority of its religious hierarchy to determine all truth and certain of its key theological assumptions and accrued traditions.

Christianity’s history, the process of its eventual consolidation of power under a single figure in the West and another in the East, was marked by struggles against numerous alternative theologies and leaders until it finally gained the authority to brand non-compliant views as heretical. Dissenters against the recognized leadership, dogma, creeds, and praxis of the universal church continued to plague the Church throughout the Middle Ages. By the earliest part of the 16th century, the Church had labeled Martin Luther, one of the most well-known of the reformers of the period, as a heretic and dangerous person, and decreed penalties not only on him, but also on any who aided or concealed him

While the Church granted certain temporary religious liberties in some German areas at the first (1526) Diet of Spires, due to the perilous political climate, it quickly began to reassert its power to control religious conversation and regulate both orthodoxy and orthopraxis as soon as the crisis passed. At the second (1529) Diet of Spires, the Church sought to limit the spread of Protestantism by crushing dissent and ensuring compliance with the mandates of the Church hierarchy, using the rationale that these were necessary measures that would cement the unity of the church, secure peace, and restore social order, and religious well-being. However, the German reformer princes were equally determined to maintain their right to exercise freedom of conscience and belief. The 1529 proposals floated for enforced compliance to the Church and the protest that the princes crafted in response to them offers a prime example of the efforts of the Roman Church to enforce submission and the reformers’ matched resolve to preserve religious liberty.

In a shocking move, at a critical point during the council proceedings, the Reformation princes disrupted the prearranged agenda by standing en force and articulating their stance against the plan to restrict freedom. Despite the severe sanctions that they anticipated ensuing from the protest, they were not intimidated. Instead, they boldly set forth their objections to the use of civil power to coerce individuals to abdicate their religious freedom, and the intrusion of Church power into the private realm of personal belief and practice, essentially forcing individuals to choose between spiritual integrity and a place within the earthly community of God. As they stated before the council,

We protest by these presents, before God, our only Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, and Saviour, and who will one day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we, for us and for our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in anything that is contrary to God, to His holy word, to our right conscience, to the salvation of our souls.1

Their conclusion was not only a rejection of the Church’s attempts to control religious conscience and limit inquiry; the reformers maintained the right of an individual to question established and commonly accepted doctrines, heed the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their study and practice, and conform their personal life to Scripture with respect to the light and understanding that they had been given. In their own words, In matters of conscience the majority hasno power.”2 They asserted that to submit to the dictates of the Roman hierarchy, the weight of tradition, or to be yoked to generally held sentiments regarding theology and religious praxis, was to stifle the necessary pursuit of further truth, surrender individual religious liberty and judgment, and forfeit their rights and responsibility as Christians. The attempts by the organized hierarchy to control the exploration of biblical or theological “truth” resulted in long-term divisions in Christianity rather than securing their objectives of universal church unity and the spiritual welfare of the masses of believers.

Protestant victory in the struggle against religious control by Rome would not end the creation of religious structures that would in turn develop their own formalized sets of practices and creeds, and gatekeepers who turned away or excommunicated those who questioned them. This would become clear once the various Protestant churches had an opportunity to institute their own creeds and dogmas.

By the end of the Second Great Awakening in America, many were ready to build upon their personal piety and belief in God and explore Scripture in greater depth, seeking further light on God’s will for both self and society, setting aside the creeds and doctrines bequeathed to them in their churches’ catechisms. Some, at least, turned to Scripture for greater understanding of the Hebrew forms of worship and prophecy as well as seeking clues in the New Testament as to early church3 models of discipleship and community.

It was into this arena that Baptist layman William Miller arrived at the conclusion, through his study of Scripture, that the return of Christ was imminent. It is significant that the crowds that he drew into packed lecture halls included individuals from a wide variety of denominations with a whole spectrum of beliefs and practices. In fact, his basic premise, that Christ would appear before the millennium (a thousand year reign of peace and prosperity on earth that would ensue as a result of the perfection of the elect) rather than at its end, as was commonly taught at the time, was an open invitation to individuals to go beyond the teachings of their churches and study Scripture for themselves carefully and without prejudice.

While scholarly estimates of the number of people who embraced what was pejoratively referred to as Millerism varies widely, all agree that William Miller launched a serious movement that involved laity, clergy, and theologians from a number of churches. Millerites met, analyzed his studies together, strategized how to best spread the Advent Near message, and mobilized hundreds of thousands of Christians in the joint enterprise of proclaiming the soon return of Jesus. The key to their success was their singular focus: they made their appeal to all to get ready for Christ’s arrival. They found their unity in that task. They did not ask for assent to any creed or dogma or doctrine beyond the embrace of that central message.

Not surprisingly, many of these “Adventists” found that the singular message that unified them created estrangement from their various churches as that message was at odds with the established theology of their denominations. They discovered that Protestants could be as yoked to their creeds and praxis as the earlier Roman Church had been. When enthusiastic Millerites continued to press their message within their churches, many found themselves ridiculed, shunned, or even removed from fellowship against their wishes and despite their protests. Although William Miller refused to establish a new denomination, insisting on remaining a movement, eventually many believers found that only those with whom they were united in “the message” were willing to worship with them.

It was not until after the Great Disappointment of 1844, when Christ did not return as predicted, that those who remained convinced as to the underlying truth of the Advent message began to review certain questions that had arisen but had been left to the side during the preparation time. Former sea captain and widely known social reformer Joseph Bates, who had served as a chair for one of the Millerite General Conferences, began to explore pamphlets asserting that the seventh-day Sabbath was a neglected part of God’s law and intention for his followers. Becoming convinced that Sabbath keeping was a vital aspect of Christian living, he self-financed a book on the topic and traveled to meet with other Adventists whom he knew from the movement. Among his eventual “converts” to sabbatarianism were young teacher turned Millerite lay-preacher James White and Ellen Harmon White, newlyweds who would eventually join with him to found the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

As the trio reached out to William Miller, and then to Reverend Joshua Himes and the other notables who had assumed leadership for Miller and were shepherding the remnant of the movement, they discovered that these leaders had neither time nor interest in the request to consider the proclamation of the seventh-day Sabbath. Further, the Christian newspapers that were the vehicles of communication between Adventists were closed to them when they wanted to make the case for the Sabbath. Advent leadership was occupied with the tasks of repairing the damage done in the communities with strong Millerite populations, encouraging believers not to lose faith or abandon the movement, and organizing material sustenance for those who had demonstrated their faith in Christ’s return by divesting themselves of all material goods.4 Finding the movement’s leadership unresponsive, Joseph Bates, the Whites, and other sabbatarians began efforts to mobilize a remnant of the remnant, those who were still open to seeking and following additional light. Thus began the period of embryonic sabbatarianism that lasted for nearly twenty years.

During this embryonic period, the sabbatarians began publishing their own literature as a vehicle to share their faith and beliefs. Their earliest publication, Present Truth, called Millerites to press forward towards their goal of conforming their lives to God’s revealed intentions. Shortly afterward, they began to publish The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald to announce their message in the very title of their paper as well as create a conversation space for sabbatarians.5 Even as the small band surveyed the Scriptural evidence for the Advent hope and the perpetual relevance of the seventh-day Sabbath, they continued to study in search of further light to free themselves from traditions and dogma that they had received in their prior religious training. Pressing onward, they depended on the individual’s commitment to careful and responsible study,6 respectful dialogue with those holding divergent views, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they examined New Testament descriptions of Christ’s community. As White addressed the question of unity in “Unity and Gifts of the Church, No. 2,” in 1857, he concluded with the following admonitions from Scripture:

‘Let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.’ 1 Pet. iii, 8. ‘Be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another; love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous’ 2 Cor. xiii, 11-14. ‘Finally, brethren, farewell, Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. Greet ye one another with an holy kiss. All the saints salute you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.7

It would have been impossible to meld together the mix of independents and the multitude of faith groups represented in the Adventist body without close adherence to the values of individual spiritual freedom and responsibility, respect and tolerance for others’ views, and a willingness to study rather than rely on tradition or creed. Employing these principles as they exploreda wide range of religious and spiritual topics, the sabbatarian Adventists emerged as a distinct movement centered on upholding their belief in Christ’s soon return for which they needed to be ready, and the primacy of individual conscience. Each individual would soon stand face-to-face with their Creator and be held accountable to the light they had been given, and their willingness to pursue inconvenient or risky truth. In White’s report on his visitation to bands of believers in the East, he noted, “We spoke to the brethren of the importance of dwelling on the great principles of truth and duty, instead of descending to the particulars of each other’s duty. This brought relief to the meeting, and it closed with an encouraging influence.”8

Few in number and often suffering deprivation in order to sustain the movement, they identified strongly with the experiences of the Protestant reformers, whom they viewed as their spiritual antecedents and models. They considered their own efforts as the next and final stage of the Reformation. They continued to meet together where possible, encourage each other through their testimonies of God’s blessings in the Review, and investigate issues of theology and church order through special study groups, district meetings, and open dialogue in the Review. They found unity in the proclamation of the foundational truths that bound them together: love and longing for Christ, belief in his soon return, and the movement that held to these building blocks that formed the foundation of the movement, and they insisted that every individual in the movement was a disciple of Christ, with all the rights and obligations that the calling entailed. Full participation in the spread of the message was expected from every believer.9

Their convictions concerning the critical importance of continued study were captured by James White when he admonished the believers, “Brethren, let us search for the truth diligently, on all points, especially on those of such great practical importance as the unity and gifts of the church."10 Ellen White, fully supporting these sentiments, would write later that those with an unwillingness to study the Bible to determine truth for themselves and embrace new light when they received it negated the principles of the Reformation that so many had suffered to bequeath to contemporary Christians:

Though the Reformation gave the Scriptures to all, yet the self-same principle which was maintained by Rome prevents multitudes in Protestant churches from searching the Bible for themselves. They are taught to accept its teachings as interpreted by the church; and there are thousands who dare receive nothing, however plainly revealed in Scripture, that is contrary to their creed, or the established teaching of their church.11

Another component of the movement’s motivation for the deeper study of Scripture was the understanding that God reveals truth incrementally. For early Adventists, this translated into a position of necessary humility: they must remain open to further truth as it was revealed to them. In 1857, Uriah Smith commented on the salutary effects of the group’s commitment to unprejudiced examination of Scripture — their growth in scriptural understanding:

We have been enabled to rejoice in truths far in advance of what we then perceived. But we do not imagine that we yet have it all, by any means. We trust to progress still, our way growing continually brighter and brighter unto the perfect day. Then let us maintain an inquiring frame of mind, seeking for more light, more truth.12

The experience of individual and group examination of Scripture, their review of church practices, the open dialogue, the prayerful sharing of hopes, blessings, and struggles, and the faith that Christ was leading created within the movement a connection and a unity that surmounted their differences on various points of doctrine. They were all students learning under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit.

The day of Christ’s return tarried, and for nearly twenty years the sabbatarians functioned as a loosely affiliated movement, gradually adding discussions on matters of how to “occupy” until his arrival. Where groups of sabbatarians lived in close enough proximity to meet together on a regular basis, the questions arose as to what kind of worship services should be provided, what kind of leadership positions might be needed, what kind of remuneration might they receive, who might lead out in teaching the Word, who was qualified to baptize new believers, bless and distribute the Emblems, or collect funds for the work? Answers to these and similar questions needed to be resolved with answers that were grounded in Scripture.

Although the Advent sabbatarians met together wherever possible and even built local churches, many were opposed to any imposed set of organizing principles due to their experiences in their former churches, and their knowledge of the Western church’s step-by-step evolution into a persecuting, beastly power. Many believed that transitioning from a loose affiliation of independent bands into an organized entity would inevitably lead to the usurpation of individual liberty by the structure. Ellen White continued to reflect this attitude through the years. Commenting on the errors of the early Christian period, she remarked that, “The very beginning of the great apostasy was in seeking to supplement the authority of God by that of the church.”13 Yet, by the late 1850s, James White and other key evangelists felt the need to start addressing these issues in the Review under the rubric of “gospel order.”14 The key question concerned how to move forward as a group, to establish mutually agreed upon practices, without altering the basic nature of the group. The unity that they had achieved through mutual respect for individual study and conscience could not be sacrificed, nor the work of the Holy Spirit curtailed, by instituting a system of uniformity that imposed the will of some on the practices of others.

James White, a champion of religious liberty and defender of the need to “obey God rather than men,” found himself in a complicated position. As a long-time leader within the movement, he was acutely aware of the need for provisions that would secure the movement’s property in times of emergency, malfeasance, or various mishaps. During its embryonic stage, the group had accumulated possessions (printing press, evangelistic tents, literature, etc.) that remained in the hands and in the names of various individuals, and were therefore subject to the range of unpredictable events that make up human experience (death, foreclosure, estate taxes, natural disasters, etc.).

White, who possessed a large dose of business acumen, was convinced that the movement needed to create a legal entity so that it could corporately hold its properties and insure them against the caprices of time and chance. This step would require that the group evolve from a coalition of individual Sabbath-keeping Christians to a formally organized group with a name and legal status. To White, obtaining legal status was simply a necessary concession to the world in which Adventists lived in order to resolve the financial jeopardy in which the current arrangement placed them. In light of his certainty and his prominent position within the group, the manner in which he advocated for organization, and the ways in which various believers responded, offer instructive insight into the mores and methods in this early stage of Adventism. As such, it provides a valuable resource for believers today who wish to maintain continuity with the roots of Adventism.

It is critical to note that while White viewed organization as the only reasonable and rational response to their situation, he did not attempt to decide the issue unilaterally, or even in private consultation with those he considered to be the most influential workers in the group. He operated within the model for Christian community that the group had adopted and his actions provide a window into that milieu. He first identified what he perceived as the problem with the situation and then initiated a process in which there was time for participation by all interested members and large-scale deliberation on viable actions. He began with an informal poll of both preachers and laity from New England to Michigan during his journeys there. After receiving what he interpreted as a favorable first response to the idea of legal incorporation, he submitted the idea to the Review’s readership.

It is critical to recognize that during this period, the Review was the forum in which significant topics were raised and views presented. The paper was the single method of inclusive contact between the scattered members of the movement. As organization was a major decision, it needed to have the support of the movement as a whole. Therefore, White laid out the case for organization in the Review. He detailed its financial and practical benefits, expounded on the necessity of proceeding as good stewards of the resources the faithful had invested in “the cause,” and then outlined the dangers of leaving things the way they were. He prompted the group to give a thorough examination of the proposal and enter into dialogue; “We call on preachers and leading brethren to give this matter their attention. If any object to our suggestions, will they please write out a plan on which we as a people can act?”15 White stimulated the interchange by publishing articles both in support and in repudiation of the proposed organization. Some articles were printed without editorial rejoinder, while others introduced questions that White or others felt compelled to answer.16 Readers could address comments made by other respondents as well as to the author of any specific article. One example of this process is a reply R. F. Cottrell made to an opinion piece written by prominent Advent leader John Loughborough, in his endorsement of organization:

[He is] recommending that we make us a name in order to have the benefits of law. He reasons that if it is right for individuals to hold property according to law, it is right for the church. To this I reply that the church now holds property by law, by entrusting it in the hands of individuals. This we can continue to do. We can trust each other, thank the Lord! and if any man prove a Judas, we can still bear the loss and trust the Lord.17

The responses White received were simultaneously strong and mixed. It was not surprising that White’s proposal met with strong opposition from several quarters considering various members’ experiences at the hands of organized religion. Many were extremely reluctant to re-establish what they had so painfully (and sometimes bitterly) left behind them. They recognized that with organization came officers, official leaders, the delegation of power, and ultimately the fight against the structure to maintain freedom of conscience and spiritual integrity. Individuals such as R. F. Cottrell, who was very active in the discussion that followed, believed that that even well-intentioned formal organization opened the door to all the evils that have plagued organized religion since the time of Christ. In his own words:

For myself I think it would be wrong to ‘make us a name,’ since that lies at the foundation of Babylon. I do not think that God would approve it.…We want no name with the two-horned beast; and it would close my mouth in regard to the spiritual fornication of Babylon with the kings of the earth, should it be retorted: ‘You look to the civil arm for aid and protection’— I should be mute.18

Cottrell suggested other ways to solve the issues. He examined previous measures James White had taken to protect church property and publications, such as sending books out to various places in different states. He concluded that,

Then the Office with what remains, after those engaged therein have performed their duty faithfully can be safely trusted in the hands of Him who owns the whole. Those that lend money to the Office, lend it to the Lord and they must trust the Lord for it. If he sees fit to let them lose it here, if they are faithful he will repay them hereafter. He will not fail. He has no lack of means. And he will do what is best for those that trust in him.19

After Cottrell’s ardent statement of his stance, he ended his piece with a statement of confidence that God “will direct in this matter.” He contended, “The message is infallible; and I am determined to go with it to the end. I believe the Lord will give wisdom to his servants. Meanwhile, it is my prayer that God will avert what I now believe would be an evil in his sight, and that we all may get the victory over the beast, his image, his mark and the number of his name.20

In a subsequent response, James White directed Cottrell’s (and other nay-sayers’) attention to the fact that God has entrusted them with the task of spreading the good news of Christ’s return to the world, but has left it to humans to determine the means most effective in their own times and places. Falling back on the basic principles of the movement, the consultation of Scripture and reason, he readily admitted that he was without texts to prove that they should organize, but asserted that that was not sufficient grounds on which to dismiss the action. He pushed the group to consider their situation from the basis of reason:

But if he asked, Where are your plain texts of scripture for holding church property legally? we reply, The Bible does not furnish any; neither does it say that we should have a weekly paper, a steam printing-press, that we should publish books, build places of worship, and send out tents? Jesus says, ‘Let your light so shine before men,’ &c; but he does not give all the particulars how this shall be done. The church is left to move forward in the great work, praying for divine guidance, acting upon the most efficient plans for its accomplishment.21

It is worth noting that in the midst of the exchange of passionately held views, the respondents often took the time to acknowledge valid points of those with whom they disagreed, their trust in the process, love for the movement, and desire to proceed in harmony and unity.22 R. F. Cottrell who was known to sign his articles, “in much love,” remained at peace with both the process and those who held differing views.23

After a lengthy period of sharing, the bulk of those who had strong objections retracted their opposition. M. E. Cornell, for example, wrote in to the paper, saying, “My mind has been for years decided that taking a name, or in any way leaning on the laws of the land, was wrong….But within the last week my mind has been changed. When I consider the subject more fully and without prejudice, it has a different aspect entirely.”24

The press was legally incorporated, and then local groups began to move from the practice of leaving their buildings and supplies in the personal name of a trusted individual to registering as a legal entity that held title to the properties. It is noteworthy that the selection of a name for the emergent church was also subject to an open discussion, with James White and some others favoring the name, “Church of God,” while others suggested alternatives such as “The Church of the Living God.”

The name Seventh-day Adventists was eventually adopted at the October 1, 1860 conference at Battle Creek. It is important to observe that even then, despite the fact that Battle Creek was the nerve center of the movement during that period, the delegates there did not presume to control the actions of the local churches. After the name was adopted by the conference, a separate motion was made by Moses Hull, “that we recommend the name we have chosen to the churches generally.”25 The conference at Battle Creek did not assume the privilege of dictating to local churches on even such a basic issue as the name. The group fervently believed that local churches held the responsibility and privilege of determining membership, encouraging the saints, baptizing new members, and overseeing their own affairs.

In the period immediately following this action, local churches began to adopt the name and compile membership rosters. Membership was open to those who shared the basic, most fundamental aspects of Adventism, even though the movement had studied several theological doctrines and were in general agreement on issues such as conditional immortality, the sanctuary, etc. Joseph Bates’ account of church organization in Michigan shows the authority of the local church and the individual believers in it and the significance of the name and the focus on the two pillars of doctrine that it expresses:

Nineteen brethren and sisters were present, all anxious to be organized into a church. At the close of our second session fifteen of the number associated themselves together as a church in Tompkins, Mich., taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.26

The case in Monterey, Michigan followed the same pattern:

Monterey, fifty brethren and sisters solemnly covenanted together to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ, leaving the way open for several that were not present, or could not attend the meeting, to unite with us, provided they come in by unanimous consent of all the members. The church then selected by informal ballot the following brethren for their officers.27

These and other records of local church organization demonstrate that at the beginning of organized Seventh-day Adventism, members simply indicated that they believed in keeping the commandments of God, including the seventh-day Sabbath, and had the faith of Jesus. They agreed that his return was imminent. This simplicity can also be observed in the Review and Herald report on the formal organization of the earliest state conference (Michigan). Rejecting any creed, the delegates there agreed to adopt a covenant proposed by James White that read: “We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.”28 Having established a common ground on which to stand in their faith in Jesus and commitment to the commandments, they remained true to their Millerite heritage in their respect for conscience and trust in the Holy Spirit to convict individuals on theological points.

As J. N. Loughborough stated at the Battle Creek conference, “The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is, to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And, fifth, to commence persecution against such.”29

As the local churches were organized into state conferences, the group began to perceive the need to create a General Conference to facilitate communication among the various territories and to coordinate the missionary efforts as a whole. They had experienced the benefits of general conferences, when as many believers as possible attended joint meetings for discussion and presentations during the Millerite phase of the movement. In the decades that followed, Adventism was flooded with new converts and began to encounter all the difficulties of a large-scale organization. It became easier to relinquish power to a few individuals in an effort to be efficient. As leaders were chosen to manage business affairs for the church, the Review offered clear instruction on the nature of leadership within the Christian community. In an 1874 article titled “Leadership,” James White took as his text Matthew 23:8, “One is your master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.”

In this very detailed address, White presses that “Christ is the leader of his people,” and he borrows a quote from Paul, “But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ.” He clearly spells out that, “Christ’s ministers are shepherds of the flock, and leaders in a subordinate sense.” Further, he says of Paul, “that he faithfully guards the church against…accepting any man as their leader or pattern of life.”

After stating that “all true ministers are Christ’s ambassadors, he goes on to say, that “the minister who submits his ministry to a superior, the bishop, the president, or one in authority in the church, to be sent out and directed in his ministry, cannot in the fullest sense, be Christ’s minister.” While White upholds the general counsel to submit to one another, he remains firm in his presentation that “officers were not ordained in the Christian church, to order, or to command the church, and to ‘lord it over God’s heritage.’”

On a positive note, James White writes, “we find the grand secret of unity and efficiency in the ministry and in the church of God.” As he so helpfully points out, “When Christ’s ministers sustain the relation to each other as exhorted in the foregoing, Christ, their glorious head and leader, will be with them in power, to lead them in unity and in love.”30

Fortunately, the movement pioneers continued to resist forming a creed or allowing elected leaders to assume pope-like authority. As James White noted in an article on organization and discipline in 1881, the final year of his life,

Human creeds cannot produce unity. Church force cannot press the church into one body. Christ never designed that human minds should be molded for Heaven by the influence merely of other human minds. ‘The head of every man is Christ.’…However important organization may be for the protection of the church, and to secure harmony of action, it must not come in to take the disciple from the hands of the Master.31

For her part, Ellen White linked submission of individual thought to church hierarchy to the Roman Catholic principles of believer orthodoxy, a grave charge among those who considered themselves as the continuation of the Protestant movement.

As she stated, “There is no excuse for any one taking the position that there is no more truth to be revealed, and that all our expositions of Scripture are without error. The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people is not proof that our ideas are infallible.”32

In the years after Miller’s death, Ellen White continued to promulgate his attitudes toward the value of honest inquiry. She reflected these same commitments when she insisted, “We should not take the testimony of any man as to what the Scriptures teach, but should study the words of God for ourselves. If we allow others to do our thinking, we shall have crippled energies and contracted abilities.”33

Throughout her ministry, she reiterated the pioneer sabbatarian Adventists’ commitments to the movement’s foundational principles. She warned the community of believers against relying on tradition, even the rapidly accruing Adventist belief set, and against resisting new ideas on the grounds that accepting them required relinquishing previously held views. She encouraged church members to hold onto their belief in “progressive revelation,” meaning that God still had more truth to reveal to them as they were ready to receive them and events unfolded in the world.

This review of Adventism, unity, and the necessity of religious liberty would be incomplete without calling the reader’s attention back once more to the critical nature of the Adventist process. From the very beginning of the movement, respect for individual conscience was the key component in the search for truth. This respect, combined with a spirit of Christian love and continued openness to God’s leading formed the bonds that unified early Adventists. Ellen White consistently urged Adventists to model Christ’s humility when discovering divergent views either inside or outside of their ranks. This attitude was a critical component of her description of appropriate methodology. As she said:

Truth is eternal, and conflict with error will only make manifest its strength. We should never refuse to examine the Scriptures with those who, we have reason to believe, desire to know what is truth. Suppose a brother held a view that differed from yours, and he should come to you, proposing that you sit down with him and make an investigation of that point in the Scriptures; should you rise up, filled with prejudice, and condemn his ideas, while refusing to give him a candid hearing? The only right way would be to sit down as Christians and investigate the position presented in the light of God's word, which will reveal truth and unmask error. To ridicule his ideas would not weaken his position in the least if it were false, or strengthen your position if it were true. If the pillars of our faith will not stand the test of investigation, it is time that we knew it. There must be no spirit of Pharisaism cherished among us.34

Ellen White’s words point Adventist believers to the importance of retaining the commitments, methods, and process of the Advent pioneers, preserving their bond of respect and affection for each other. Her words remind us what is fundamental to Adventism: the belief in Christ’s active presence among us and his gentle leading us forward as we are ready into an ever-fuller understanding of the gracious Creator and Redeemer of us all.

Until the day of his return, we will continue studying humbly as we uncover precious gems of his truth. For, as Ellen White told us, “We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed.”35


Notes & References:

1. Quoted by Ellen G. White,The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1888, 1911), 202-03.

2. Ibid, 201.

3. Alternatively, this period was referred to as “primitive Christianity” by James White and others with roots in the Christian Connection fellowship. See, for example, “Relation of Church Membership,” Review and Herald 6, no. 18 (December 19, 1854): 140, from the Sabbath Recorder.

4. For a brief description of the efforts of Himes and others, see Everett Dick, “The Millerite Movement 1830-1844,” in Gary Land, ed., Adventism in America (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1998), 24.

5. For a discussion of the significance of the Review in the successful formation of the sabbatarian movement, see Ginger Hanks Harwood, “‘Like the Leaves of Autumn’: The Utilization of the Press to Maintain Millennial Expectations in the Wake of Prophetic Failure,” Journal for Millennial Studies,

6. For a thorough description of their expectations for study, see Ginger Hanks Harwood and Beverly Beem, “‘Quench Not the Spirit’: Early Adventist Hermeneutics and Women’s Spiritual Leadership,” Spectrum 43, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 66-71.

7. James White, “Unity and Gifts of the Church, No 2,” Review and Herald 11, no. 5 (December 10, 1857): 37.

8. James White, “Eastern Tour,”Review and Herald 14, no. 19 (September 20, 1859): 148.

9. SeeGinger Hanks Harwood and Beverly Beem, “‘Not A Hand Bound; Not a Voice Hushed’: Ordination and Foundational Adventist Understandings of Women in Ministry,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 52, no.2 (Autumn 2014): 235-73. One article from the time period of particular interest is B. F. Robbins, “To The Female Disciples in the Third Angel’s Message,” Review and Herald 15, no.3 (December 8, 1859): 21-22.

10. James White, “Unity and Gifts of the Church, No 2.” Review and Herald 11, no. 5 (December 10, 1857): 37.

11. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, 596.

12. [Uriah Smith], “The True Course,” Review and Herald 9, no. 26 (April 30, 1857): 204-05.

13. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, 289-90.

14. See, for example, M. E. Cornell and R. J. Lawrence, “Tent Meetings in Lapeer, Mich. Closed,” Review and Herald 17, no. 16 (September 9, 1858): 133; James White, “Yearly Meetings,” Review and Herald 14, no. 9 (July 21, 1859): 68.

15. James White, “‘Making Us a Name,’” Review and Herald 15, no. 23 (April 26, 1860): 180.

16. The question of incorporation was complicated by the requirement to select a name by which the group could be legally identified. The “taking of a name” reminded some of the Genesis 11 story of the tower of Babel, where the inhabitants of the city rebelled against trust in God and decided to provide for their security through their own efforts. They declared that they would “make us a name.” Fear of retracing the often-repeated steps to apostasy created a reluctance to move forward by taking a name. The issue was eventually resolved at the Battle Creek conference in Michigan when organizing the group itself into a legal entity by rewriting the resolution to read, “Resolved, That we call ourselves Seventh-day Adventists.” The Proceedings of the meeting were published in the Advent Review. Joseph Bates, Chairman and Uriah Smith, Secretary, “Fifth Session. Monday, October 1, 1860,” Review and Herald 16, no. 23 (October 23, 1860): 179

17. R. F. Cottrell, “Making Us a Name,” Review and Herald 15, no. 18 (March 22, 1860): 140-41.

18. Ibid, 140.

19. Ibid, 140.

20. Ibid, 141.

21. James White, “’Making Us a Name,’” Review and Herald 15, no. 23 (April 26, 1860): 180.

22. For example, R. F. Cottrell, one of those most vehemently opposed to organizing, supported White’s concern for individual financial responsibility for church property. He agreed that no individual should be responsible for group expenses, but instead asserted that the church should raise the money and pay off any indebtedness. Where individuals needed to be repaid for money previously lent to cover emergency expenses and needed it back, he opined that there “will be no necessity of going to law ‘before the unjust’ in the case — it can be settled among ‘the saints.’” “Making Us a Name,” Review and Herald 15, no. 18 (March 22, 1860): 141.

23. See the closure of his article, “Making Us a Name,” Review and Herald 15, no. 18 (March 22, 1860): 140.

24. M. E. Cornell, “Making Us A Name,” Review and Herald 16, no. 1& 2 (May 29, 1860): 8.

25. Joseph Bates and Uriah Smith, “Fifth Session. Monday, October 1, 1860,” Review and Herald 16, no. 23 (October 23, 1860): 179.

26. Joseph Bates, “Meetings in Michigan,” Review and Herald 18, no. 25 (November 19, 1861): 174.

27. Ibid.

28. Joseph Bates, Chairman, “Doings of the Battle Creek Conference, Oct. 5 & 6, 1861,” Review and Herald 18, no. 19 (October 8, 1861): 148-49.

29. Ibid.

30. James White, “Leadership.” Review and Herald 44, no. 23 (December 1, 1874): 180-81.

31. James White, “Organization and Discipline, Review and Herald 57, no. 1 (January 4, 1881): 8-9.

32. Ellen G. White, “Christ Is Our Hope,” Review and Herald 69, no. 50 (December 20, 1892): 785-86.

33. Ellen G. White, “A Knowledge of God,” Steps to Christ (Mt. View, CA: Pacific Press, 1892), 89-90.

34. Ellen G. White, “The Necessity of Dying to Self,” Review and Herald 66, no. 25 (June 18, 1889): 385-86. Reprinted in Testimonies and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1923, 1962): 107.

35. Ellen G. White, “Search the Scriptures,” Review and Herald 69, no. 30 (July 26, 1892): 465-66; reprinted Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Assn., 1946), 37.


Ginger Hanks Harwood from La Sierra University (ret.) and Beverly Beem from Walla Walla University (ret) have worked together in mining the nineteenth-century Review and Herald to find what our pioneers said about their spiritual experience. They have published their work in Spectrum and Andrews University Seminary Studies. They wish to acknowledge the generous support given by Walla Walla University and La Sierra University for the research behind this article.



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