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Rehabilitating Adventism’s Twice-Burnt Crank

Hiram Edson: The Man and the Myth

Could it be mere coincidence that Hiram Edson was so closely associated with the Burned-Over District of New York? As Brian Strayer’s Hiram Edson: The Man and the Myth (Oak & Acorn, 2023) suggests, Edson was a prototypical example of the religious, social, and political effervescence that characterized this area of New York. He was immersed in an atmosphere containing Shakers, Quakers, Spiritualists, and Mormons. These groups “claimed to communicate with the supernatural realm either directly, by talking with extraterrestrial beings, or indirectly” (35). Thus, when prior to his cornfield experience, Edson hears “the voice” giving him commands, he concludes that this “unseen power” which he perceives as a “shadowy form in human shape” was the “Lord’s angel [who] was accompanying me (Knight, 1994, pp. 123-34).”

Edson became a Promethean Seventh-day Adventist symbol. He advanced Ellen White. F. M. Bartle asserted to General Conference President William A. Spicer that “Elder Hiram Edson had visions [two months] before Ellen G. White did” (60). Froom said he’d had a “revelation,” a “veritable vision from heaven” (60). Moreover, Hiram Edson, stated that he saw “distinctly and clearly” facets of the sanctuary doctrine that would take years to develop. Thus, it was ironic that the man from the Burned-Over District documented his “revelation” in a 200-page manuscript that was twice burned (by him and his wife) with the result that only a 12-page remnant remains.

The mythic significance of the twice-burnt, undated manuscript

The most fascinating tale in Strayer’s biography is his account of how Edson’s undated, mutilated, twice-burned manuscript morphed from a document that the church refused to print, into a hallowed, popular account of how Edson’s “veritable vision” became an inspiring religious myth. A myth taught to “thousands of Adventist youth around the world” in the 1940s-1960s (60). It became indelibly tattooed into their (and my) Weltanschauung. Its revelatory imprimatur became as pivotal to Seventh-day Adventist apologists as the Shroud of Turin to conservative Catholics. Edson’s “vision” was an account that vindicated the Great Disappointment. Strayer chronicles how many Adventist thought leaders promoted the idea that Edson had a special revelation that guaranteed and authenticated the novel doctrine of the two-phased atonement.

Strayer documents that Arthur Spalding, “embellished” Edson’s cornfield experience describing it as if he felt a “hand upon him, stopping him where he was,” and “as in a vision he saw that Jesus, our High Priest, had entered that day into the most holy place of the sanctuary in heaven.” Spalding “added several elements that Edson’s account omitted.” A James Joiner wrote for a Guide article that Edson felt a [evidently supernatural] hand on his shoulder, saw Jesus, our High Priest, and “as if struck by lightning,” understood the Adventist sanctuary doctrine (61). Glen Greenwalt wrote that “Edson’s experience was truly visionary” (62). Considering that various thought leaders, added details and dramatized the cornfield scene, their accounts may be considered as something midway between history and hagiography. Strayer compiles four main interpretations of Edson’s experience. First, the “veritable vision” just described. Second, “an experience of enlightenment” (Merlin Burt). Third, “an impression” or a “firm conviction. Fourth, “retrospective elaborations” probably written “years after the fact” (63-69).

His daughter, Viah Ophelia Cross, insisted that Edson’s manuscript was written “immediately after the disappointment of 1844” (180). But given that she was born June 2, 1843, she would have been only one year-old in 1844, and not a reliable witness. Furthermore, Strayer and Fisel documented multiple anachronisms in Edson’s account. Additionally, between 1844 and 1892, not a single writer, believer or skeptic, ever mentioned Edson’s cornfield experience (69). Thus, the question arises: How many dramatizations, added details or accretions does it take to transform a historical account into an apocryphal tale?

Historians work with dates. Even an isolated date can give clues as to place and circumstances. Undated manuscripts, particularly those purporting to recount metaphysical encounters, make life for historians quite difficult. However, Strayer’s meticulous detective work provides a convincing account of Edson’s manuscript’s history and fate. His reconstruction indicates that it was initially written in the 1870s and submitted to the reading committee, consisting of J. White, J. N. Loughborough, Uriah Smith, and J. N. Andrews about 1873-74 (55, 180). They rejected the manuscript which the committee and Ellen White thought would be destructive to the church. They offered to print the autobiographical portion, but Edson was offended and refused.

He subsequently burned his own manuscript (182). However, he rewrote it and promoted his prophetic speculations, to the chagrin of Ellen White, during a period when he did not attend church services. According to Viah Ophelia Cross, he left the church (183). He was so attached to his theological speculations, which he considered to be “light” from God, equal to his cornfield experience, that he dedicated half of his last will to directing his wife, Esther Edson, to publish it posthumously. Its title: “The last great trumpet of alarm or voice of warning” (188). She resubmitted it to the committee, but they rejected it. Allegedly, she burned the part with prophetic speculations (190). Edson’s manuscript lay forgotten for decades until, like the mythical phoenix, it arose from its fiery pyre under the pen of Arthur Spalding.

What gave the phoenix life?

Hiram’s experience was archetypal of the experiences of his soulmates who were convinced of their pre-Disappointment religious journeys despite all empirical evidence to the contrary: “We wept, and wept, till the day dawn,” wrote Edson. Joseph Bates said that no one could comprehend their soul-destroying grief except those who experienced the disaster first-hand. Washington Morse said his grief was virtually “uncontrollable. I left the place of meeting and wept like a child.” James White echoed: “I left the place of meeting and wept like a child.” Henry Emmons said he “lay prostrate for two days without any pain—sick with disappointment” (49-50). But even more significant are Edson’s following words:

I mused in my own heart, saying My advent experience has been the richest and brightest of all my christian [sic] experience. If this had proved a failure, what was the rest of my christian [sic] experience worth? Has the Bible proved a failure? Is there no God—no heaven—no golden home city—no paradise? Is all this but a cunningly devised fable? (51).

Ellen White made the same appeal to the Millerites’ spiritual experience in Great Controversy chapter 22:

The conversion of sinners and the revival of spiritual life among Christians, had testified that the [date-setting] message was of Heaven.

For White’s and Edson’s soulmates, to imagine that their Christian experience was a fable was equivalent to asserting that the Bible was a failure, there was no God, no heaven, no New Jerusalem. For Edson, James and Ellen White, and the other shut door believers, this was impossible! Edson’s and Crosier’s new sanctuary explanation was infinitely preferable. Even in early 1845, they still professed a certainty that Christ’s visible Advent would happen within a few days, or by April 1845 (81), (Edson’s and Crosier’s conviction), or the autumn of 1845 like James White, or any of the other imminent twenty dates that were proposed (52).

Initially, some expositors of the new sanctuary explanation calculated that Christ’s invisible atonement in the heavenly most holy place would last only a single day whereupon Christ would visibly return. For example, Samuel Snow and James White believed “in a one-day atonement (October 22, 1844),” according to Strayer (79). As days became years, it dawned on them that the investigative judgment must be taking more time. Article X of the Fundamental Principles of Seventh-day Adventists in1872 asserted that Christ’s investigations started in 1844 and would occupy only “a brief but indefinite space . . .” (see Damsteegt, 1977, p. 303).

Edson might have been burnt over more than once but he never lost the fire in his belly. This fire was evidenced in several ways. First, he was an active participant in conferences, one of which was held in his Port Gibson barn on August 27-28, 1848, which Merlin Burt asserted constituted “the theological birthplace of the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (101). Second, he was a major donor. In 1850, he financed the itinerant evangelism of Bates, J.N. Andrews, J.N. Loughborough, George Holt, and Samuel Rhodes. In 1852 he sold his farm for $3,500 and gave $650 to James White for publishing equipment (113). Third, as late as his fifties, he walked hundreds of miles, sometimes through three feet of snow, sometimes forty miles a day, as an itinerant evangelist. One wonders how he kept his farm operating during such long absences. His “Ministerial Partners” included George Holt, J.N. Andrews, Samuel Rhodes, H.S. Case, Joseph Bates, J.N. Loughborough, Horace W. Lawrence, Frederick Wheeler, and William S. Ingraham (111-135). Fourth, he was an enthusiastic contributor to Advent literature. In 1849 he published The Time of the End: Its Final Termination. The world would terminate on May 19, 1850 (142-43). In 1856 he published his long-winded, seven-installment, magnum opus on the Times of the Gentiles (147).

2520-year, Seven Times of the Gentiles prophetic period

It is a little-known fact that William Miller first identified this 2520-year prophetic period and that he synchronized it with his 2300-year prophetic period. Knight’s 1994 compilation of primary sources titled 1844 cites the Advent Shield, May 1844, pages 46-93, in which Miller explained his method of interpreting the Bible and how he calculated the Advent for 1843 (Knight, 1994, p. 4):

I was determined to know what my Bible meant. I began at Genesis and read on slowly; and when I came to a text that I could not understand, I searched through the Bible to find out what it meant. After I had gone through the Bible in this way, O how bright and glorious the truth appeared. I found what I had been preaching to you. I was satisfied that the seven times [2520-years] terminated in 1843. Then I came to the 2300 days; they brought me to the same conclusion …

Miller’s 2520-year calculation preceded and generated his 2300-year calculation. Miller started his 2520-year calculation with 677 BC, ending in 1843. (Edson altered Miller’s calculation; his parameters were 723 BC to 1798). Miller’s 2520-year calculation appears in the 1843 chart endorsed by Ellen White. It appears in the White/Nichols 1851 chart. Ellen White says that God inspired her to make this chart which was predicted in the Bible. She states that it should only be altered by [her] inspiration. Nonetheless, James White eliminated it from his 1863 rendition of the chart (Damsteegt, 1977, p. Appendix V). In 1897 Uriah Smith denied that the “seven times” was a prophetic period and says its four-fold repetition, lasting 1080-years, would be absurd. In 2009 the Biblical Research Institute published Gerhard Pfandl’s article offering multiple reasons why the 2520-year period cannot be interpreted prophetically. Strayer postulates that Edson “had not left the church, the church had left him behind” (184), along with some of its “prophetic periods.”

Uriah Smith barely tolerated humoring Edson by publishing his speculative 2520-year series. Loughborough wrote that Edson had been “out of the church” toward the end of his life, as his daughter said. Canright wrote that both Edson and S.W. Rhodes “died confirmed cranks, and a trial to the church.” Ellen White stated that Edson’s “light” contained “erroneous theories” that would result in “dissension and discord.” That was a far cry from her 1859 evaluation when she asserted that “bro[ther] E[dson] has good judgment in matters of the church” (182-82, 33).

It is ironic that a man who had contributed so much to the church in money, time, articles, and miles-walked, died in disrepute. But like Joan of Arc, who was burnt at the stake for heresy and witchcraft, but now is venerated as a Saint, Spalding rehabilitated the “confirmed crank” transforming him into a veritable visionary who saw “distinctly and clearly” sanctuary truths two months before Ellen Harmon saw them only partially and indistinctly.

Hear Brian Strayer discuss Hiram Edson on the Adventist Voices Podcast.


Donald E. Casebolt studied in the MDiv program at Andrews University, studied Semitic languages and Protestant theology at Karl Eberhard Universitat Tubingen, Germany, and spent two years in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. He published Child of the Apocalypse: Ellen G. White in 2021. Wipf & Stock published his second book, Father Miller’s Daughter, in 2022. He is a retired nurse practitioner.

Title image: Oak & Acorn / Spectrum

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