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Spiritual Gifts in Early Adventism

Coauthored by Ginger Hanks Harwood

Spirits were at an all-time high among those who believed in William Miller’s proclamation of the Advent Near as October 22, 1844, approached! The Lord they loved above all else was coming to dissolve the chasm dividing earth and heaven and take them home. God was creating a new world where former things are passed away and all things made new. This was the blessed hope that freed believers from the tyranny of the ordinary and sent them forth singing as pilgrims nearing their goal. As they began this journey, they searched their hearts for anything that stood between them and God. Earthly matters were put away, and material distractions were jettisoned. They were on their way home to God, and every step was sacred.

The Advent believers shared an experience of God’s transforming presence that was central to their identity. They were no longer who they had once been, because they had a new sense of identity and purpose. The sweet countenance of Jesus filled their eyes and the sweet expectation of heaven their hearts. But prophecies failed, leaving the Millerite men and women to weep the night away. Who would they be now, without a hope or a vision?

Following the Great Disappointment, most relinquished their dreams and returned to life in ordinary time, but some prayed and revisited Scripture as they struggled to retain their faith. While praying with a small band of young women, Ellen Harmon was caught up in vision and shown that the Advent believers were on a journey toward heaven with Christ leading the way. The path was steep and led away from the world, but whatever the disappointment or hardship, they must stay firm: they were pilgrims. The Second Advent was still near.

Ellen Harmon’s vision encouraged a portion of those looking for a way to hold on to their hope. James White, recognizing God’s Spirit at work in the vision, resolved to create opportunities for her to share her message and bless the remnant remaining. After their marriage, Ellen Harmon White preached alongside him and other Adventist messengers, receiving additional communications from God. James White’s openness to Ellen Harmon’s testimony grew out of his understanding of spiritual gifts. With other Adventists, he believed in the work of the Holy Spirit and the reality of the gifts of the Spirit promised by God to comfort and edify his people. The gifts assured the community that God was with them and that he was leading the movement. The spiritual gifts manifested by the sons and daughters, the servants and handmaidens, of the Third Angel’s Message was evidence that “the day of the Lord” was at hand and the prophecy of Joel 2:28 was being fulfilled in their midst.

The Spirit of God, whose presence was demonstrated by spiritual gifts, was among them to empower them to preach the warning message to the world, to lead them to truth, and to sanctify them to live in the presence of God. In the light of the approaching Advent, those who intended to dwell in God’s presence eternally needed to accommodate themselves to the mind and life of God in the present. This, too, was the work of the Spirit in their midst. The call to stand ready to meet God, conformed to his will and filled with his Spirit, meant the sacrifice of the earthly for the heavenly, the temporal for the eternal. In the imagery of Revelation 3:18, they were to buy gold tried in the fire, white raiment, and eye-salve, the treasures of ultimate value and ultimate price. In an article titled “Buy and Sell,” A. J. Richmond sees the anointing eye-salve as the gift of the Holy Spirit, but the precious treasure of gold tried in the fire, purified of all dross, must be purchased. “Yes, bought! And don’t be surprised if in following the counsel of this Witness, and of the Holy Spirit in buying them, you are called to part with all you have in this world.”1 For the early Adventists, the journey toward God was as precious as the gold tried in the fire. It was worth all they had. The journey must be continued, whatever the ultimate timetable for the fulfillment of their hope. As Sister Tryphena N. Elliot wrote in 1858, “For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come and will not tarry.”2

With the urgent need to spread the word of the Advent Near, all who received the message were encouraged to exercise the full extent of their spiritual gifts. Young and old, men and women were enlisted in evangelistic efforts of every kind. Every church member was to take on the obligations of discipleship and accept the Master’s commission. Utilization of the spiritual gifts demonstrated humility and gratitude to God for his provisions for the Church.

The pages of the Review reported women’s evangelistic labors, as well as men’s, and encouraged them toward active and visible roles within church life. As the movement grew and new individuals were added to the Adventist family, some questioned whether Scripture allowed women to speak publicly. The public testimony and preaching of women, as well as Ellen White’s gifts and practices, were problematic to many who believed that only men should exercise the full range of spiritual gifts in the church setting.

The Church responded through the pages of the Review to assert the obligations of all to participate fully in the church setting. Various authors referred the readers to Paul’s definition of prophesying from 1 Corinthians 14:3 (“he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, exhortation, and comfort”), and cited biblical examples of such gifts exercised by men and women in both the Old and New Testaments. While the gift of prophecy is only one of the spiritual gifts, early Adventists encouraged both men and women to speak, teach, and edify the Church whenever God gave them a message.

In one article, B. F. Robbins urged “the female disciples in the Third Angel’s Message” to exercise their gifts in spite of the social pressures, cultural mores, and religious training that discouraged women’s leadership and conspired to keep them silent. After emphasizing that “here in the precious promise there is neither male nor female,” he asserted that “in some of them the prejudice against woman’s efforts and labors in the church, have crushed out her usefulness. This kind of training has in many of you caused timidity, and discouragement, and the neglect of the use of gifts designed to edify the church and glorify God.” Robbins stressed that the female disciple must overcome “the embarrassing influence of our former associations” and “conformity to the world” and fully exercise their spiritual gifts.

He appealed to readers to “go with me in imagination to the gathering of the few disciples of Jesus on the day of Pentecost. There with their brethren in humble expectation sat the faithful Marys.” He then asked, “And did not the tongue of fire descend alike upon them as upon their brethren? Assuredly it did. And think you that their Spirit-baptized lips were closed in silence in that solemn assembly? No: the servants and the handmaidens prophesied there as the Spirit gave them utterance.” He encouraged women to “seek unweariedly the endowment of the promise of the Father, the power from on high, which is alike the privilege of both the servants and handmaidens of God.” Exercising their spiritual gifts simultaneously strengthens the church and wins “the commendation of the Master, ‘She hath done what she could.’”3 Such was the hope of every disciple: That they would receive God’s promise of power and use it well so that upon completing the journey, Jesus would say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.…Enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:21).

Notes and References

1. A. J. Richmond, “Buy and Sell,” Review and Herald, Oct. 29, 1857, 206.

2. Tryphena N. Elliot, “From Sister Elliot,” Review and Herald, July 22, 1858, 79.

3. B. F. Robbins, “To the Female Disciples in the Third Angel’s Message,” Review and Herald, Dec. 8, 1859, 21–22.

For further information on this topic see the following articles by Beverly Beem and Ginger Hanks Harwood:

“Pilgrims and Strangers: Adventist Spirituality, 1850–1863,” Spectrum, 31(fall 2003):67–75.

“’My Soul Is on the Wing for Glory’: Adventist Spirituality, 1850-1863,” Adventist University Seminar Studies, 44 (spring 2006):155–71.

“’Your Daughters Shall Prophesy’: James White, Uriah Smith, and the ‘Triumphant Vindication of the Right of the Sisters’ to Preach,” Andrews University Seminar Studies, 43(spring 2005).

“’It Was Mary That First Preached A Risen Jesus’: Early Seventh-day Adventist Answers to Objections to Women as Public Spiritual Leaders,” Andrews University Seminar Studies, 45(autumn 2007):221–45.

Beverly Beem is professor of English at Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington. Ginger Hanks Harwood is associate professor of religious and theological studies in the School of Religion, La Sierra University, Riverside, California. The authors wish to acknowledge with thanks the generosity and support of the Faculty Grants Committee of Walla Walla University and the School of Religion of La Sierra University.

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