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From Complaints to Apostasy

One of my favorite quotations by Ellen White stands engraved above the doorway at the entrance to the offices of the Ellen G. White Estate in Silver Spring, Maryland. “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teachings in our past history” (Ellen White, Life Sketches, 196). Every time I walk down that stairway corridor, I am reminded of the important role that history plays for our own individual as well as corporate identity.
The first person to make overt comparisons between the Exodus wilderness story and the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and in particular, Ellen White, was Taylor G. Bunch. His Exodus in Type and Antitype (1929) was notable in particular because he argued that the reason for the delay of the eschaton was the same reason for the delay of Israel in entering the promised land: they complained and apostatized. Bunch famously compared the episode at Kadesh-Barnea with the Minneapolis General Conference meeting.
Although the historiography of Adventism has taken many twists and turns in the intervening years, the biblical story of Moses, and its application to our own story is important for Seventh-day Adventists today. As I write this I am in the midst of a major conference on Ellen White in Portland, Maine ( where a wide variety of papers have been given. What makes this conference different to any other event I have ever attended, is that at least half of the contributors and respondents are not from our faith tradition. What surprises me the most from some of the comments is that it seems to me many Adventist are insecure about the fact that Seventh-day Adventists claim to have a prophetess. Several of the “outsiders” have helped me to more clearly see that we should be thankful for the prophetic voice in our church.
During Ellen White’s lifetime she faced a significant amount of opposition, and at times, there was even widespread rebellion. Perhaps the best example of this during her lifetime was the “Marion party” from Iowa. During the 1860s this group was a schismatic group led by B. F. Snook and William H. Brinkerhoff, former Adventist ministers, who doubted the prophetic gift. Others who had previously doubted joined their ranks. Together they were the forerunners of what is today known as the Church of God (Seventh Day) with administrative offices in Denver, Colorado.
The focal point of the “rebellion” was the Iowa Constituency meeting of 1865. Snook came with his guns loaded figuratively speaking ready to attack James and Ellen White. During the meeting, the Whites met with both men, answered their objections, and they subsequently published confessions in the Review and Herald (see RH, July 26, 1865, 62-63). This seemed to mitigate the crisis, but only temporarily. Later that year their doubts returned and they actively worked to undermine traditional Adventist stances on eschatology, and in particular, the prophetic ministry of Ellen White.
The next summer the General Conference session recommended to the Iowa Conference that their names be dropped from membership, and the two disaffected former ministers published the first book openly attacking the prophetic ministry of Ellen White: The Visions of E. G. White, Not of God (Cedar Rapids, IA: Cedar Valley Times, 1866). Two years later Uriah Smith, the editor of the Review and Herald, published a response: The Visions of Mrs. E. G. White, A Manifestation of Spiritual Gifts According to the Scriptures, thus beginning the vast repertoire of apologetic literature defending the ministry of Ellen White. Snook and Brinkerhoff soon faded from view, but the debate between faith versus doubt remains.
Whether in the biblical story of Moses, or in the prophetic ministry of Ellen G. White, the fact remains that there are times when disenchantment occurs. I like how Ellen White handled the “Marion party” crisis: she and James listened, answered their objections, and as a result they published confessions of their errors. But when they were not re-elected back into positions of responsibility they became bitter. Ellen White made her peace with them and let them go.
The story of Moses is also the Adventist story. The study of this week’s lesson is an opportunity to discover anew our Adventist past.

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