This article was originally presented at the Andrews University Campus Dialogue Sabbath School Class on February 9, 2019. It is reprinted here with permission.
My theme thought this morning is this: “Deciphering Bible prophecy is like touching the third rail: it can be electrifying in the short run, but fatal to one’s career in the long run!” I’m sure Des Ford would agree with me! And when it comes to predictive prophecies in particular, our founders often disagreed vehemently with one another. I will briefly cite seven examples:
A. The 2,300 Days/Years Prophecy (Daniel 8:14)
William Miller, Charles Fitch, Josiah Litch, and the other Millerites were convinced that in fulfillment of this 2,300 day/year prophecy, Jesus would return to this earth sometime between March/April of 1843 and March/April of 1844, but He didn’t. So in the summer of 1844 Samuel Sheffield Snow predicted His return on October 22, 1844 based on the Karaite Jewish calendar reckoning for the Passover. But He didn’t come on that date either. So James White (without authorization from his wife) began preaching Christ’s Second Advent in 1845. Then John Bywater focused on 1850. Joseph Bates, taking an obscure text from Leviticus about seven drops of blood, added seven years (one year for each drop of blood!) to 1844 and said Christ would come in 1851!. Others made predictions for 1854, 1858, 1866, 1877, 1884, and 1885. They all failed — but that has not stopped Adventists from spinning time-oriented predictions even today.
B. The Ten Toes (Daniel 2:41-43) and Ten Horns (Revelation 13:1-10)
Relying largely on others’ research and Millerite writings, Uriah Smith concluded that the Huns fit one of the ten toes (Hungary was named for them). But in the 1880s, A. T. Jones loudly disagreed, stating that the Huns were a nomadic people and did not establish a kingdom; instead, the Alemanni constituted that tenth toe and tenth horn because they founded the kingdom of Germany (the French term for Germany is allemagne). In press and pulpit (especially during the 1888 General Conference Session), Smith and Jones opposed each other so acrimoniously that Ellen White rebuked them both. When Jones publicly accused Smith of not knowing anything about this matter while he himself was fully informed, White jumped up and shouted, “Not so sharp, Brother Jones, not so sharp!” But the matter of which little prophetic piggy went to market sharply divided the GC delegates, who buttonholed one another in the hallways asking, “Are you a Hun, or are you an Alemanni?”
C. The King of the North vs. the King of the South (Daniel 11:5ff)
This debate first occurred against the background of the Crimean War (1854-56) and then against wider developments in the Middle East in the 1880s which Adventists called “the Eastern Question.” As Britain, France, and Russia battled the Turks in the Crimea, Adventists saw these unfolding events as fulfillment of the great end-time conflict between good and evil represented by the King of the North (Uriah Smith said that was the Seleucid rulers of Syria) and the King of the South (Smith chose the Ptolemies of Egypt). But others disagreed, saying that the two kings in verses 5 and 6 were not the same as the two kings mentioned at the end of the chapter. Some chose Turkey for the King of the North; other opted for the Papacy. When I taught at Southern Missionary College in the early 1980s, some theology students were convinced that Richard Hammill was the King of the North while Frank Knittel was the King of the South! (I’m not making that up!)
D. The “Daily Sacrifice” (Daniel 8:11-14)
This “tempest in a teapot” pitted Uriah Smith, Stephen Haskell, George I. Butler, and J. N. Loughborough against W. W. Prescott, L. R. Conradi, and A. G. Daniells from 1907 to 1910. In the 1,335-day prophecy of Daniel 8, some said it was pagan Rome that prohibited the daily sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple; others said it was the Papacy that created a substitute (the Mass) for Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary. Tempers flared over this, especially when Review Editor Prescott refused to publish any articles that Loughborough wrote on the subject — so Haskell published Loughborough’s articles in The Bible Training School instead. When both sides tried to get Ellen White’s support for their views, she rebuked them for their harsh attitudes, for misusing her writings, and for ignoring more important issues such as mission outreach. “This is not a subject of vital importance,” she cried. But some pioneers feared that compromise could lead to a “slippery slope” into apostasy!
E. The Number 666 and Vicarious Filii Dei (Revelation 13:18)
Employing gematria (by which numerical values are assigned to particular letters of an alphabet), Uriah Smith, in his 1867 book Thoughts on Revelation, declared that the Pope’s title, “Vicarius Filii Dei” (“Vicar of the Son of God”), added up to 666, the number of the beast of Revelation 13. Citing the testimony of a Miss Emmons to an unnamed Mrs. A (quoted in an earlier article titled “The Reformation” in 1832), Smith assured readers that the words “Vicarius Filii Dei” were spelled out in jeweled letters on the Pope’s “miter or crown.” This is problematic because Latin was not used in Revelation; no such miter or crown (they are not the same headgear) has ever been found; that title is NOT the official title of the Pope; and 666 applies exclusively to the time of the end, NOT before. Furthermore, Ellen White never refers to that title to interpret 666. Ranko Stefanovic in Plain Revelation sees 666 as “Babylon’s number” applicable to all rebellious human systems.
F. The 144,000 Sealed Saints (Revelation 7:4-10)
In 1923 Loughborough wrote a 44-page sleeper entitled Questions on the Sealing Message to prove that the 144,000 would include both dead and living saints at the Second Coming and that Ellen White would “surely” be among the 144,000. Yet many Adventists a century ago believed that only those who lived long enough to see Christ return could join the 144,000. This number became problematic, however, when Church membership passed 144,000 in the early 20th Century. Over the decades, some suggested that only tithe-paying vegetarians would qualify; others felt that only sexually abstemious vegans would make the cut; while still others limited that group to those who ate raw fruits and veggies. Stefanovic argues that the 144,000 are God’s last-generation sealed remnant, but they are no holier than any previous generation of faithful, persecuted martyrs (so much for last-generation theology!).
G. The 1,260 Days/Years or 42 Months or Time, Times and Half a Time (Daniel 12:7 & Revelation 10:5-7)
Once again, Uriah Smith nailed this time prophecy down way back in the 1860s as beginning in 538 A.D., when, as the Ostrogoth siege of Rome ended, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian relegated political power over Western Europe to the popes; he said it ended in 1798 A.D. when Napoleon’s General Berthier removed the pope from the Vatican and brought him to Avignon, France where he died in captivity. However, other pioneers opted for a 533 A.D. beginning and a 1793 ending. But this prophecy, like the 2,300-day prophecy, is based on day-for-a-year reckoning (Ezekiel 4:6, Numbers 14:34), something Des Ford repudiated in a 1,000-page dissertation. This brought him into conflict with Church scholars and a confrontation at Glacier View, Colorado, in the 1980s. Subsequently, he was stripped of his ministerial credentials. He had touched “the third rail” of Adventist predictive prophecy and doing so ended his career within the Church.
H. (Pogo) “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us”
In an article entitled “Adventism’s Shocking Fulfillment of Prophecy” in the Fall 2018 issue of Spectrum, George Knight asserts that the Adventist Church is rapidly becoming the Beast of Revelation 13 for several reasons. First, because the General Conference president and ADCOM are using force to insure compliance with their wishes just as the popes have done through the centuries. Second, because ADCOM has taken on the role of the papal Curia. Third, because the next step will be to establish an inquisition to punish those conferences and institutions who disobey. Fourth, because the checks and balances on centralized authority are gradually being removed. Fifth, because book banning (in the case of the Michigan ABC’s in Lansing and Berrien Springs) mirrors Catholic book burnings in the past. Sixth, because such General Conference practices as manipulating voting, removing disagreeable subordinates, using financial threats, and monitoring in-house emails are undemocratic and unchristian.
I will close with a quote from James White himself, who learned his lesson about speculating in prophecy in 1845:
In exposition of unfulfilled prophecy, where the history is not written, the student should put forth his propositions with not too much positiveness, lest he find himself straying in the field of fancy. There are those who think more of future truth than of present truth. They see but little light in the path in which they walk, but think they see great light ahead of them. Positions taken upon the Eastern question are based upon prophecies which have not yet met their fulfillment. Here we should tread lightly, and take positions carefully, lest we be found removing the landmarks fully established in the advent movement. —James White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Nov. 29, 1877.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Why do you think our 19th century founders and pioneers got so stirred up over prophetic interpretation?
2. Why do you think Adventists in the 21st century are so blasé when it comes to prophetic interpretation and apocalyptic events?
3. Do you think evangelists should emphasize the image of Daniel 2 and the beasts of Daniel 7 and Revelation 13? Why or why not?
4. What are the perils of focusing too much on current events as fulfillments of Bible prophecies?
5. Do you think some evangelists have twisted history in order to make it “fit” or “support” their prophetic views?
6. How does the old maxim “You are entitled to your own interpretation, but not to your own facts” apply to Adventist apocalyptic prophecy?
7. To what extent do you think 21st century evangelists, theologians, and the Adventist laity view Daniel and Revelation through a “Uriah Smith lens”? What should be done to correct this?
8. Does Pogo’s famous quip, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” apply in some ways to the current power plays among top church leaders to control other Church entities?
9. George Knight in Spectrum, vol. 46, no. 4 (Fall 2018), compares ADCOM with the papal Curia, the Adventist form of organization with the Catholic hierarchy, and Ted Wilson’s recent actions with those of past popes in the light of Revelation 13:3. How do you react to this view?
10. How can Adventists live sanctified lives in preparation for eternity and yet avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism advanced by those who espouse last-generation theology?
Brian E. Strayer is Professor Emeritus of History at Andrews University.
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