Coronavirus, global pandemic, mandatory shelter in place, social injustice, protests, pros and cons of facemasks, the new norm, future waves of virus outbreak, and on it goes. We are truly living in an extraordinary period of history. If there was ever a time for believers to look heavenward for divine intervention, it is now.

And a single battle during the Civil War in the United States reminds us that God’s hand is more involved in our world than we may sometimes realize.

Advance and Retreat

During the afternoon of July 21, 1861, the First Battle of Manassas took a sudden and dramatic turn. Throughout most of the day Northern troops had experienced relative success in attacking Southern troops entrenched by the stream called Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia.

By 3:30, however, things started to go rapidly downhill for the North. The commanding general, Irvin McDowell, put his last hopes in the two brigades of Colonel William T. Sherman and Colonel Oliver O. Howard. As Sherman sent his brigade up the hill, regiment by regiment, they suddenly broke in disorder and began to retreat. Soon Henry House Hill was full of Union troops retreating from the field, some in orderly fashion and others in a wild panic. Howard sent his troops up Chinn Ridge, only to be repelled by fierce Confederate fire and flee back down the ridge. By 4:30 the entire Union army was in retreat, and the battle was over.

The North reeled in shock and despair. The public outcry was: “How could this have happened?” “What caused our troops to become suddenly panic-stricken and leave the field?” Reports from the battlefield were varied and inconsistent. But all agreed that whatever initiated the retreat, the end result was a disaster. Historians have studied official reports of the battle and concluded that the retreat was most likely caused by Union troops feeling overwhelmed by Confederate countercharges.

There was so much mass confusion toward the end of the battle that no one can be absolutely sure what exactly happened. Five days afterward, the New-York Daily Tribune proposed an interpretation that many of that day accepted: “The secret of that panic will perhaps never be known. All essay to explain it, and all fail.”1

Another Explanation

On August 27, 1861, a little more than a month after the battle, Ellen White explained in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald that although “the sudden falling back of the Northern troops is a mystery to all,” they didn’t realize “that God’s hand was in the matter.”

Her interpretation of the retreat was unique. Based on a vision given her in Roosevelt, New York, on August 3, she identified the origin of the panic. “Northern men were rushing on,” she said, but “just then an angel descended and waved his hand backward. Instantly there was confusion in their ranks. It appeared to the Northern men that their troops were retreating, when it was not so in reality, and a precipitate retreat commenced. This seemed wonderful to me.”2

The old spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” is worth singing again as if for the first time.

Interestingly, at the moment of demoralization among the Union troops, Confederate Colonel William W. Blackford was atop Chinn Ridge with a cycloramic view of the battlefield. He later recorded this vivid memory in his published war journal:

“But now the most extraordinary spectacle I have ever witnessed took place. I had been gazing at the numerous well-formed lines as they moved forward to the attack, some fifteen or twenty thousand strong in full view [the actual number of Union troops on the field was much less, around 12,000], and for some reason [I] had turned my head in another direction for a moment, when someone exclaimed, pointing to the battlefield, ‘Look! Look!’ I looked, and what a change had taken place in an instant. Where those ‘well dressed,’ well-defined lines, with clear spaces between, had been steadily pressing forward, the whole field was a confused swarm of men, like bees, running away as fast as their legs could carry them, with all order and organization abandoned. In a moment more the whole valley was filled with them as far as the eye could reach.”3

The panic that caused the retreat was apparently identified by Ellen White but graphically detailed by Blackford. She saw the backward wave of the angelic hand; he observed its effect on the Union troops. She witnessed the confusion in the ranks; he saw “a confused swarm of men, like bees.” She observed a “precipitate retreat”; he was surprised at the complete loss of military organization as the army ran off the field.4

God’s Activity in Human Action

This fascinating vignette of angelic involvement in the first major battle of the American Civil War is a feature that Adventists have appreciated over the years. But the real heart of the testimony lies in the explanation given to Ellen White about the angelic intervention. Immediately following the description of the angel, she wrote: “Then it was explained that God had this nation in His own hand, and would not suffer victories to be gained faster than he ordained, and would permit no more losses to the Northern men than in His wisdom He saw fit, to punish [the North] for their sins [of compromising with Southern slavery].”5

In her explanation we find Ellen White’s most significant theological statement about the American Civil War. The angelic intervention was the context in which she understood how God would involve Himself in the entire war.

The angel on the battlefield was thus an illustration of how God “had this nation in His own hand” and would guide the ultimate outcome—a Northern victory. This victory would come slowly and painfully, however, for God “would not suffer [allow] victories to be gained faster than He ordained.” As one studies the Union patterns of wins and losses throughout the war, it’s obvious that as the emancipation of the slaves gained momentum, so did Northern victories.

Twice in this testimony Ellen White stated that God had this nation and its destiny in His hand.6 When Adventists and all other Northerners feared the fate of the nation during this hour, she assured Adventists that God had this nation in His hand and was in control of its future.

This theological assertion has a wider application than to just the Civil War period of American history. During the Revolutionary War period, for example, one could say that God blessed the patriots with military success and in His providence established the United States. Decades later, when divine patience had reached its limit with American slavery, divine punishment came in the form of the Civil War. The nuanced idea is that God will bless or punish this nation as His providence deems best, because He has its destiny in His hand.7

To be sure, Ellen White’s theological assertion finds its true meaning in the biblical teaching that God holds all the nations of the world in His hand (Dan. 2:21; Ps. 24:1; 75:7).

When God intervened in David’s battles with the Philistines and gave him victory, the new king exclaimed, “The Lord has burst through my enemies before me like a bursting flood” (2 Sam. 5:20, ESV).8 He called the place of the victory “Baal-perazim,” which means “Lord of breaking through” (1 Chron. 14:11, note, ESV). David recognized that God’s hand overwhelmed his enemies like a flood breaking through a dam, and He would establish His kingdom in its present geopolitical situation.

As God broke through David’s battles to establish his kingdom, broke through the battles of the Civil War to deliver the slaves, broke through the battles of World War II to rid the world of the Nazi regime, so He will break through and address the pandemic, social injustice, a
nd intense geopolitical crises we find ourselves in today. He has the destiny of this nation, the destiny of the whole world, in His capable hands. The old spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” is worth singing again as if for the first time.9

Even more encouraging is the fact that God has each individual human life in His hand. The psalmist offers this testimony: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Ps. 34:4-7, ESV). These encouraging words assure us that when we cry out to the Lord, He will help us in our troubles, and even, if necessary, send an angel to intervene.

Ultimately, the greatest way God has intervened in this world and our individual lives is through His Son as expressed in the words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). This is the supreme act of divine intervention! God sent His only Son into this world to die on the cross and offer the gift of eternal life to “whoever” accepts it. When you and I embrace this gift, our lives are truly in His hand—now and for eternity!

Long ago, Ellen White pulled back the curtain between the visible and invisible at the outset of one of the most crucial moments in American history and showed how God had this nation in His hand. Her writings still speak today and point human hearts to the promises of Scripture, where God assures us that He has the whole world, as well as our individual lives, in His hands.

  1. “The War for the Union,” New York Daily Tribune, July 26, 1861, p. 6.
  2. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, p. 267. The word “wonderful” should be understood as “astonishing.”
  3. William W. Blackford, War Years With Jeb Stuart (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1945), p. 34.
  4. See Lee Ellsworth Eusey (“The American Civil War: An Interpretation” [master’s thesis, Andrews University, 1965], p. 60), who first researched the First Battle of Manassas in light of Ellen White’s vision.
  5. E. G. White, Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 267.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The above paragraphs are adapted from my book A Nation in God’s Hands: Ellen White and the Civil War (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2017), especially chapter 5.
  8. Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  9. See on the enduring nature of this classic.

Jud Lake, Th.D., D.Min., is a professor of religion at Southern Adventist University.

It was October 22, 1844, and thousands of Millerites were searching the skies for the sign of Jesus’ coming. William Miller had taught from his key text, “unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed” (Dan. 8:14; KJV), that the sanctuary was the earth, which would be cleansed by fire at Jesus’ second coming.

Cast Down but Not Destroyed

All through that unforgettable day believers waited for the cleansing fire, but to their great disappointment, they never saw its flame: Jesus did not return. “What happened?” they wondered. In the confusing aftermath, some of the heartbroken saints knew they should not doubt the soundness of their historical calculations. So they determined to find biblical answers for what really happened on October 22, 1844. This group of Bible-believing truth seekers would eventually develop into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the 1860s.

Their investigation began the day after the disappointment. Hiram Edson, a Methodist farmer from Port Gibson, New York, “wept, and wept, till the day dawn” because Jesus did not come. On this morning after the disappointment, he and several friends spent a season of prayer in his barn and found courage to venture out to share their hope with others.

According to his own handwritten account, as he and a fellow Millerite were passing through a large field, it occurred to him with great clarity that on the day before, October 22, instead of coming to cleanse the earth, Jesus, our high priest, for the first time entered into the Second Apartment of the heavenly sanctuary. He thus began a work there that needed to be completed before He would come back to the earth. This new insight became a topic of vigorous discussion between Edson and his fellow believers, F. B. Hahn, a medical doctor, and O.R.L. Crosier, a preacher and editor.

Over the next year these three collaborated in a detailed study of the Bible on the subject of the sanctuary, focusing on such books as Hebrews, Leviticus, Daniel, and Revelation. By early 1846 their position had matured and provided answers to what happened on October 22, 1844, and the sanctuary that needed cleansing. On February 7, 1846, Enoch Jacobs published their findings in the Day-Star Extra with the title “The Law of Moses.”1

This article was a significant milestone in early Seventh-day Adventist history. The combined study of Edson, Crosier, and Hahn set forth fundamental principles of what would eventually become a major pillar in Seventh-day Adventist theology. At the heart of their conclusions was the reality of the heavenly sanctuary and its cleansing by blood rather than the earth’s cleansing by fire, as William Miller taught. Furthermore, just as earthly priests had a two-phase ministry in the earthly sanctuary, so Christ has a two-phase ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. The first phase began in the holy place at His ascension, while the second began October 22, 1844, when He moved from the first apartment of the heavenly sanctuary to the Second. The first phase of Christ’s ministry focused on forgiveness, whereas the second involved the blotting out of sins and the cleansing of the sanctuary.

The doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary, including its pre-Advent investigative judgment, has been, and will continue to be, the heart of Adventist theology.”

Christ would not return until He completed His work in the Second Apartment of the sanctuary. Henceforward, the focus was on Christ’s high-priestly ministry in the heavens.

Advancing Together

From 1848 to 1850 groups of Sabbatarian Adventists met together in what they later called Sabbath Conferences, in which they established the pillars of their faith, wonderfully integrated together through the doctrine of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. By the late 1840s they were in agreement on the nature of the sanctuary, and further clarified the meaning of “cleansing the sanctuary” through the following decades. During this time Elon Everts first proposed the idea of an “investigative judgment” on the righteous dead. “I solemnly believe,” he wrote in the Review and Herald, January 1, 1857, “that the judgment has been going on in the Heavenly Sanctuary since 1844, and that upon the righteous dead . . . judgment has been passing.”2

Within a month James White used the same term. Both the wicked and the righteous, he wrote, “will be judged before they are raised from the dead. The investigative judgment of the house, or church, of God will take place before the first resurrection; so will the judgment of the wicked take place during the 1,000 years of Revelation 20, and they will be raised at the close of that period.” He further explained that in the great day of atonement taking place since 1844, “the sins of all who shall have part in the first resurrection will be blotted out.” This time of blotting out sins is not the “time when they are forgiven.” Rather, “we must look to the great day of atonement as the time when Jesus offers His blood for the blotting out of sins. It is at the time of the cleansing of the Sanctuary.”3

This cleansing of heaven’s sanctuary involved cleansing the record of sin, according to pioneer educator Goodloe Harper Bell in 1878.4 Thus, by the later 1800s there was basic agreement on several fundamental points: the judgment began on October 22, 1844, and therefore occurs before the second coming of Christ. It is investigative in nature; it includes the righteous; it involves cleansing the records of sin; and Christ is at the center of it. Adventists would expand and develop these concepts in the next century and beyond.

Visions and Disputants

Ellen White had at least 11 visions on the subject of the sanctuary between the years 1844 and 1851, visions that functioned mostly as confirmation rather than initiation. The appeal in doctrinal study on the sanctuary was always to the Bible. Ellen White’s visions served mainly to confirm the importance of the subject they were studying.

Some years ago Paul Gordon, former director of the Ellen G. White Estate, collected in a volume all the sanctuary-related articles in Adventist publications  between the years 1846 to 1905 (more than 400). A careful reading of this 1,007-page document reveals how anchoring, developing, and clarifying the sanctuary doctrine was consistently an exploration and explication of Bible truth.5

Nonetheless, from the beginning there have been detractors of the sanctuary doctrine, such as D. M. Canright, Albion Fox Ballenger, Louis Richard Conradi, and more recently Desmond Ford and Dale Ratzlaff.

The most scholarly and influential of these was Ford, whose concerns mirrored similar issues of earlier detractors. In August 1980 he presented his conclusions at a special gathering of church administrators and scholars at Glacier View, Colorado. The October 1980 issue of Ministry magazine, a special double issue, provides a thorough summary of this event, including context, procedure, arguments and counterarguments, and even relevant correspondence between parties involved. Though his major positions were found unpersuasive, and he lost his ministerial credentials, the benefit of Ford’s challenge is that it provoked Adventist scholars to deeper Scripture study, with the resultant enhancement of critical understandings on the subject of the sanctuary and judgment.

Growing in Grace

Since the early 1980s the 1844 judgment has received significant published attention from Seventh-day Adventist scholars.6 Building on the careful foundation laid by the pioneers, these scholars have opened new vistas and depths from the biblical data on Christ’s ministry in heaven. These include the thrilling and reassuring recognition that the verdict of the pre-Advent judgment favors the righteous (Dan. 7:22).7 Today’s scholars continue to serve up these new insights from their careful study. Their findings serve to validate the fundamental conclusions of those who first plowed through the Scriptures in ways that strengthen faith in God’s inspired Word and deepen our love for Christ, the focus of the doctrine, the center of our assurance, and the climax of our hope.8 The doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary, including its pre-Advent investigative judgment has been, and will continue to be, the heart of Adventist theology.9

  1. O.R.L. Crosier, “The Law of Moses,” Day-Star Extra, Feb. 7, 1846.
  2. Elon Everts, “Communication From Bro. Everts,” Review and Herald, Jan. 1, 1857.
  3. James White, “The Judgment,” Review and Herald, Jan. 29, 1857.
  4. Goodloe H. Bell, “The Cleansing of the Heavenly Sanctuary, Continued,” Review and Herald, Dec. 12, 1878.
  5. Paul Gordon,  “Pioneer Articles on the Sanctuary, Daniel 8:14, the Judgment, 2300 Days, Year-day Principle, Atonement: 1846-1905” (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1983).
  6. See, for example, the Daniel and Revelation Committee’a seven-volume set at; Frank Holbrook, The Atoning Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1996); Roy E. Gane, Altar Call (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Diadem, 1999); Ray E. Gane, Who’s Afraid of the Judgment? (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2006).
  7. See Gerhard F. Hasel, “Divine Judgment,” in Raoul Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), p. 834.
  8. See Richard Davidson, A Song for the Sanctuary, forthcoming graduate textbook on the doctrine of the sanctuary, commissioned by the General Conference’s Biblical Research Institute.
  9. See Roy Adams, The Sanctuary Doctrine: Understanding the Heart of Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1993).

Jud Lake is professor of preaching and Adventist studies at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.