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Ellet J. Waggoner: Beyond the Myth, the Man

AP1888 — the six characters on my auto license plates — are often read as a statement about Adventist heritage. Yes, Arthur Patrick is known to breathe "the fetid air and gritty" of history. Yes, 1888 is arguably the most-recognised Adventist date, since 1844. So, I often have to explain the plates were a gift from a generous businessman. He simply asked for my initials plus as many 8 digits as were available, because his Chinese clients link the number 8 with good fortune.

The year 1888 has a deeper-than-magic fascination for many Adventists. We long to understand its elusive significance. Ellen White declares God sent "a most precious message" to His church at the General Conference held during that epochal year in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She defined it as "the third angel’s message in verity." She wrote glowing affirmations about "the messengers" (Alonzo T. Jones, 1850-1923); Ellet J. Waggoner, 1855-1916) that are deeply imbedded in the psyche of countless believers. Did Jones and Waggoner offer the Seventh-day Adventist church a direct route to the proclamation of "the loud cry" that ushers in Christ’s glorious return? Did we so reject the message that the end could not come? Therefore, are we Adventists really responsible for two global wars and all the other bloody conflicts that ravaged the planet during the twentieth century? Did we so muff our God-given opportunity that corporate repentance is essential?

No wonder a huge myth has grown up around the names of Jones and Waggoner. We’ve needed the newest volume in the Adventist Pioneer Series for a very long time: Woodrow W. Whidden II, E.J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to Agent of Division.

Woody Whidden, Ph.D., is well known as a professor of historical and systematic theology at Andrews University and more recently, half a world away, at the Philippines-based Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies. At the click of a few computer buttons, we can access articles that show Dr. Whidden thinks outside conventional squares but is not a wild-eyed, irresponsible stirrer.

The biography begins with "The Early Years" of Waggoner’s life, 1855 to 1888; it proceeds through Minneapolis and its aftermath, 1888-1892; it crosses the Atlantic to chart Waggoner’s course in Britain and Europe, 1892-1903; it closes with "The Years of Decline," 1903-1916. The style is honest but respectful when it deals with human frailties: adultery that may have marred more than one generation; aberrant teachings like the panentheism that is more subtle than routine pantheism; the dangerous claim that because Christ lives within the believer, the believer is made sinless by the internal, transforming work of Christ — and is thus declared just because the person has been made actually just, not justified by a legal declaration. It takes Woody thirteen chapters to narrate the engrossing story he undertook to tell "with some fear and trepidation."

I’d have liked to get closer to Waggoner: Battle Creek College student, medical doctor, editor, revivalist, evangelist, teacher, preacher, author, and conference president. It isn’t Whidden’s fault that fires destroyed the sort of memorabilia some of us yearn to include in the interpretive process. The really important thing is the believable intellectual history that is recounted so skillfully. The primary documents for that are abundant, almost overwhelming–that’s why we need a competent guide through the mazes.

In Chapter 1, Whidden introduces us to Waggoner as "Servant of the Vision, Child of the Midwest, and Son of the Pioneers." A heavenly "vision" came to the young Ellet on a "dismal, rainy afternoon" at the Healdsburg camp meeting of October 1882; it is depicted well in his own words:

Suddenly a light shone about me, and the tent seemed illuminated, as though the sun were shining. I saw Christ crucified for me, and to me was revealed for the first time in my life the fact that God loved me, and that Christ gave Himself for me personally. It was all for me. If I could describe my feelings, they would not be understood by those who have not had a similar experience, and to such no explanation is necessary. (Emphasis in original.)

This "revelation direct from heaven" turned the young Waggoner’s attention to the Bible, in search of "the message of God’s love for individual sinners." A meteoric rise readied him for the Adventist spotlight at Minneapolis, and thereafter for unprecedented opportunity to share the message of righteousness by faith with earnest voice and facile pen.

Whidden is unashamed but sensitive to the dilemmas that leap from his pages. There is the sad saga of conflict between young men (Jones and Waggoner) and stalwart leaders, like General Conference president George I. Butler and Uriah Smith. There is the stirring reality of Ellen White’s years of courageous but risky support for Jones and Waggoner, leading to her exile in Australia and New Zealand from 1891 to 1900. She portrays that experience as banishment and as being sent-of-God to the lands Down Under. There is the obvious pain of Ellen White’s dis-endorsement of Waggoner when his personal beliefs and his personal life suffered shipwreck.

Perhaps the most difficult issue of the biography arises from the need to determine when Waggoner, a spiritual giant of small physical stature, began to become unsafe in his teaching about salvation. Did the process begin as early as 1889? Was its core derived from the Scottish heresy of Edward Irving regarding Christ’s sinful nature? Waggoner’s loyal supporters who reproduce and cherish his writings in Century 21 need Whidden’s thoughtful account lest they follow the erring witness rather than the Lord.

I took Whidden’s book on a family, beach-side holiday. It fit in well with six days of Aussie sun and salt water. Reading it recalled for me a host of apologies for this or that view of 1888 and its major theme of righteousness by faith: studies by Arthur G. Daniells, Robert J. Wieland (with Donald K. Short), Milian L. Andreasen, Robert D. Brinsmead, A.V. Olson, LeRoy Edwin Froom, David McMahon, and others. The book also enriches the more recent analyses edited by Arthur J. Ferch or written by scholars such as Gilbert M. Valentine and George R. Knight — including Knight’s worthy tome on A.T. Jones.

Whidden’s biography is, in essence, about all of us rather than being focused merely on a man who died in 1916. Waggoner’s biography unpacks a crucial part of the Adventist story, our long struggle to understand "the most precious message" destined "to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour." We see panoramas of visionary hope, of stiff opposition, of promising progress and cruel reversal, of human winsomeness yet vulnerability. At the end of this good read we are better equipped to understand what Ellen White refers to as "the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history." Whidden’s biography of Waggoner moves beyond the pervasive myth, disclosing the man who did so much for the church we love, despite the harsh fact that he became an unreliable "agent of division."

Arthur Patrick writes from Cooranbong, Australia, where he is an honorary senior research fellow at Avondale College. He has served in evangelism and parish ministry in New Zealand, the United States, and Australia and as a religion teacher at Andrews University, Avondale College and La Sierra University. He was also the director of the Ellen G. White/SDA Research Center in the South Pacific Division for eight years.

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