The early twentieth century witnessed Seventh-day Adventists wrestling with change. Many of the early pioneers had passed away, marking the end of an era. Of particular note was the passing of Adventist cofounder and prophet Ellen G. White in 1915. The denomination had to wrestle with issues without a living prophet.

That same year a German U-boat torpedoed the British ocean liner Lusitania, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, including 128 Americans. It appeared inevitable that America would be pulled into a global conflagration that eventually mobilized 60 million people and left 10 million dead. World War I was a major turning point in world history as humanity harnessed technology to kill and destroy more effectively than ever before: a “Christian” war, fought between overwhelmingly “Christian” nations. Christianity now faced a world that was rapidly changing.1

One way the Seventh-day Adventist denomination dealt with this change was to call for a Bible conference. The earliest Adventist pioneers had wrestled with the development of distinctive theological beliefs during the earliest “Sabbath and Sanctuary Conferences” between 1848 and 1850.

As early as 1913 church leaders started calling for such a meeting. The desire was to gather influential thought leaders and administrators to study issues within the church brought about by a change in society and in the world in general.2

The Prophetic Conference Movement and Fundamentalism

During the late nineteenth century a revival of premillennialism arose that was associated with a series of prophetic conferences. Some Seventh-day Adventists attended the 1878 Niagara Falls meeting, but conference participants distanced themselves from Adventists by affirming their belief in eternal hellfire.

By World War I a cross-denominational movement focused on the Second Advent precipitated a number of major prophecy conferences held in major cities across the United States. Once again Seventh-day Adventists attended these meetings, noting, almost with a bit of envy, their success at gathering the attention of the masses about Christ’s return.

F. M. Wilcox, editor of what was then called The Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, described these meetings as among some of the most important in Christian history, right up there with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses. Wilcox and others, however, noted that although they shared many commonalities, the two movements embraced some significant theological differences.

These same conservative Christians who rallied around these prophecy conferences were also becoming known for a widely circulated series of pamphlets titled, The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-1915). Thanks to Lyman and Milton Stewart (who sold their oil company to Standard Oil Company), they shared a vision to make sure that all American Christians were warned against a number of new and insidious teachings that were infiltrating some circles of Christianity, especially within Christian higher education.

The Stewart brothers were generous philanthropists promoting major missionary endeavors and funding a number of Bible teachers at colleges. They became concerned when they heard that at one school, Occidental College, where they had funded the entire religion department, such teachings as those were being promulgated by modernist or liberal theologians.

When they found out that their worst fears were realized they withdrew their funding. What were the Stewart brothers concerned about? The infiltration of certain ideas, known as “higher criticism,” that minimized the role of the supernatural and dissected the Bible the same as any other piece of literature.

This conservative reaction within Christianity became known as “fundamentalism” after 1922 when Curtis Lee Laws coined the term to describe this specific historical movement. Unlike some people who might use the term “fundamentalist” in a pejorative sense to describe someone seen as an anti-intellectual or extremist, the historical fundamentalist movement had a rich intellectual background. It was firmly rooted within modernist constructs of right and wrong, and militantly opposed to anything that might undermine the divine authority of Scripture, Christ’s virgin birth, the atonement of Christ, belief in miracles, and the inerrancy of Scripture, i.e., the belief that Scripture is without error or fault in words or teaching.

While Adventists could easily affirm the first four points, the last point become problematic within Adventism by the time of the 1919 Bible Conference.

Authority and Change

Early on during the 1919 Bible Conference delegates raised a wide variety of issues that related to prophetic interpretation. During World War I some Adventists had predicted that the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) would capture Jerusalem. Even though church leaders officially warned against sharing such speculations, the temptation to speak about the “Eastern Question” seemed almost irresistible. Thus many Adventist exponents of Bible prophecy had their hopes dashed when on December 11, 1917, General Edmund Allenby, commander of the British Egyptian Expeditionary Forces, entered Jerusalem, wrestling control from the Ottoman Empire.

This sense of authority and change came up in various forms as evidenced by the wide variety of topics brought up during the 1919 Bible Conference.

Another  was the question of Bible translations. At one point, H. Camden Lacey, a religion teacher, praised the Totherham translation of the Bible. When questioned, Lacey remarked that “no translation is infallible.” This was controversial because this translation was based upon Wescott and Hort’s Greek edition of the New Testament that was missing some words and even verses not found in the earliest manuscripts.

While Adventists, including Ellen White, had used a variety of Bible translations, this raised the question about how one should relate to these Bible translations. It similarly raised the question as to whether, if Ellen White used a particular translation, that was the one correct translation. Was Ellen White the arbiter to determine the correct Bible translation?

Delegates realized these issues were complex, even though they recognized that Ellen White did not consider herself as the arbiter of correct Bible translations.

Progressive Truth

Another important topic raised during the 1919 Bible Conference was the Trinity. Lists of beliefs from the early twentieth century began to include the word “Trinity” as Adventists became less afraid of the word and embraced Trinitarian beliefs. Still, the concept remained controversial.

Some early Adventist leaders, particularly Uriah Smith and James White, had embraced a semi-Arian position reflecting the idea that at some point Christ was created. This prompted some candid conversations as to whether it is permissible to disagree with some of the early Adventist pioneers. Church president A. G. Daniells reassured delegates: “Now let’s not get a bit nervous nor scared. Don’t let the conservatives think that something is going to happen, and the progressives get alarmed for fear it won’t happen.”3

Transcripts of the conference show that although the topic of the Trinity was still controversial at this meeting, Adventism remained on a course trajectory that continued to affirm its adoption (thanks in large part to Ellen White’s strong affirmation of the three coeternal divine persons of the Godhead during the last part of her life).

Another eschatological issue was the “daily” (referring to the “daily sacrifice” in Daniel 8:11). Some delegates understood this to refer to pagan and papal Rome, whereas another view popular during the 1890s argued that this referred to the ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. This latter view gained traction, but some saw this as a sellout because Ellen White made statements that appeared to affirm the earlier position.

In 1908 Ellen White made a strong appeal to Adventist thought leaders not to use her writings to settle this controversy. Yet after her death rumblings continued as some argued that to adopt the “new view” of the “daily” revealed a lack of respect, and therefore, effectively undermined a more traditional respect for Ellen White’s prophetic writings.

Other delegates raised questions about whether it is permissible to revise Uriah Smith’s predictions in Daniel and Revelation when there were errors in facts. Some leaders, such as W. W. Prescott, had actively worked with Ellen G. White to revise her last and final edition of The Great Controversy. What if these works by church pioneers might need further revisions? What does one do when there are differences between these editions? Which one remains authoritative? Matters related to authority and change raised questions about the nature and authority of Ellen White’s writings.

Crucial Conversations

Although not officially on the docket of topics for examination, the nature and authority of Ellen White’s prophetic writings were discussed early at the 1919 Bible Conference. Such crucial conversations would, after their discovery, become the reason these minutes became famous within the church.4 As participants discussed various issues, largely eschatological, they soon appealed to Ellen White’s writings to settle their differences.

As they did so, it created an opportunity for self-reflection as participants discussed, for the first time after her death in 1915, the nature, authority, and legacy of Ellen White’s prophetic ministry. The denomination was forced to grapple with how they would continue without a living prophet.

The topic of Ellen White’s prophetic authority came up at several crucial points during the 1919 Bible Conference. Both the traditionalists and progressives appealed to Ellen White’s writings to settle their disagreements.

The first discussion happened on July 10, 1919, when church leaders appealed to her writings to settle their disagreements. Daniells felt that in light of this conversation he should follow up, since many of the participants were not personally acquainted with Ellen White while she was alive. Daniells shared his own experiences with her prophetic ministry, and how it had impacted his life.

Although some had criticized him for not supporting Ellen White’s prophetic ministry enough, he believed that if participants knew about his personal interactions with her, they would know that was simply not true.

As the Bible Conference wound down, a much smaller group of educators (no more than half of the participants) gathered for follow-up questions. At this “round table” discussion they spent two days with Daniells, dialoguing about the significance of, and how to interpret, Ellen White’s prophetic ministry. This was one of the first major discussions of the significance of her writings since her death.

Some of the younger traditionalists pushed the idea of applying the Fundamentalist understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture to Ellen White’s writings. Participants recognized that they needed to educate the church on this crucial topic, and if they did not, that this could become extremely troublesome in the future for the denomination.

Some of the differences over biblical interpretation raised at the 1919 Bible Conference remain with us. The theological tension that shaped much of the debate still exists. How will it be resolved? Perhaps if today’s Adventists can learn from this conflict, it might just be possible to use these insights from the past to construct bridges of dialogue, understanding, even healing.

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Ellen White by the Numbers

  1. See Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014), pp. 5, 17.
  2. For a more detailed description of the conference, including references, see my book, 1919: The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism (Nampa, Id: Pacific Press, 2019).
  3. July 6, 1919 minutes.
  4. To read the minutes of the 1919 Bible Conference visit where all of them have been digitized.

Michael W. Campbell is an associate professor at Southwestern Adventist Academy. His book, 1919: The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism, was released earlier this year.

The first Seventh-day Ad-ventist to visit Asia was the indefatigable Abram La Rue (1822-1903). He left as a self-supporting missionary from San Francisco, California, traveling through the Sandwich Islands (today the state of Hawaii), finally arriving on May 3, 1888, aboard the ship Velocity. He worked across various parts of Asia over the next 15 years, traveling to, among other places, Singapore.1

Adventism took deeper root thanks to the literature evangelistic ministry of H. B. Meyers, an early convert in India, who sold books throughout Malaysia around 1900. Such efforts were followed up in 1902 by Edward H. Gates (1855-1940), the intrepid missionary boat captain who baptized the first Adventist in Singapore, a British soldier, thanks to contact made by La Rue.

By 1904 Griffiths Francis Jones (1864-1940) and his family, along with Robert Caldwell (1879-1966), a colporteur, were instrumental in organizing the work of the church.2 After a series of six moves during their first 18 months, they eventually settled into a two-story home called Villa Hatsu. The mission was organized in 1906 into the Malaysian Mission.3

The fact that Singapore was a large port city and center of commerce made it a natural location as a center for Adventism across Asia. Church membership grew from 50 in 1909 to 332 by 1932. Part of this new growth involved a new school (begun in 1905), that matured by 1915 into the Singapore Training Institute.

In 1919 the Malaysian Publishing House was begun to help facilitate evangelistic literature. World War II closed the publishing house, and in large part curtailed the work of the denomination. But the publishing house reopened in 1950 with equipment from the Signs of the Times Publishing House in China (subsequently shut down because of the revolution in China). The training school expanded into Southeast Asia Union College.

Steady Growth

As growth continued, the church in Singapore became increasingly a center of the Seventh-day Adventist Church across Asia. In 1930 the work of the denomination was divided into the China Division and the Far Eastern Division, comprising Japan, Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indochina. It was located in Baguio, Philippines, with the understanding that this was a temporary headquarters. “It was finally voted,” reported C. L. Torrey, “that the headquarters be located in the tropical but beautiful city of Singapore. It may be of general interest to mention here that Singapore is situated approximately 50 miles from the equator, but the daily 30-minute shower and the prevailing breezes make the city a lovely place in which to live.”4 In 1936 the Far Eastern Division moved to nine acres of property, located “in a very desirable location, at an attractive price, and at a substantial savings to the mission.”5

A significant aspect of the developing work concerned medical outreach. As early as May 1905 E. C. and M. Davey came from Australia to begin a medical clinic. A small treatment room was set up at the mission home. These early efforts ended in 1915, but were restarted in 1936. Workers were miraculously given permission to move into the closed campus of the Malayan Signs Press during World War II.

On May 15, 1948, the medical work was organized into the 48-bed Youngberg Adventist Hospital, located on a 1.8 acre (. 7 hectares) site just a block away from the church headquarters. Named after Gustavus B. Youngberg (1888-1944), a veteran missionary to Borneo who died in an internment camp during World War II, it was the premier medical facility in Singapore during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1996, citing eminent domain, the government purchased and amply compensated the church for the property.6 Some facilities, such as the college, were forced to close; others relocated. The hospital transitioned into a wellness center.

Growing Still

In 1997 the Far Eastern Division was divided in two. The Northern Asia-Pacific Division was located in Korea; and the Southern Asia-Pacific Division was established in the Philippines.

Today the denomination continues to maintain a significant presence in Singapore, which continues to be the headquarters for the Southeast Asia Union Mission. The territory includes 356 churches and 94,771 members spread across the countries of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.7

  1. For a popular biographical overview of Abram LaRue’s life, see Eileen E. Lantry, Dark Night, Brilliant Star (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2012); May Carr Hanley and Ruth Wheeler, Pastor La Rue: The Pioneer (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1937).
  2. The Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, rev. ed. (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1996), vol. 11, pp. 614, 615.
  3. Wu Chook Ying, “Singapore-Malaysia,” in Light Dawns Over Asia, ed. Gil G. Fernandez (Silang, Cavite, Philippines: Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies Publications, 1990), p. 199.
  4. C. L. Torrey, “Far Eastern Division Headquarters,” The China Division Reporter, November 1937, p. 3.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Singapore Government to Acquire Adventist Properties,” Adventist Review, Mar. 28, 1996, p. 6.
  7., accessed Dec. 13, 2017.

Michael W. Campbell is an associate professor of church history at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in Silang, Cavite, Philippines.

An article in the early nineteenth century decried the invention of the stovepipe. The author predicted that this new contraption would almost certainly bring about the dissolution of the family. Simply put, the fact that families huddled together around the family hearth (or candles) in the evening was being eroded simply because tight-knit families could now spread out through any number of heated rooms in the home. Such new, modern technology was initially considered a threat, although this first major domestic appliance was quickly adopted throughout America. After all, it saved time and energy. Doomsayers had to look elsewhere to find reasons for the breakup of American families.1

In today’s world it’s easy to pine after an earlier, simpler time. One must, at times, wonder if some of today’s problems could simply be alleviated, or even eliminated, by simply going back to a more pristine time. Such notions are evident within mainstream culture with television shows that feature a return to the wilderness, the many books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, or the promises of politicians. So what would it be like to go back in time? Let’s imagine living in the days of the early Adventist pioneers.2

Daily Life

Dirt was the most obvious feature of daily life in antebellum America.3 The potent mix of constant fires, trash, and refuse could rankle the nose. Americans tended to put up white picket fences around their houses—not to keep pets inside their yard, but rather to keep street animals out! It was just difficult to stay clean. Since local modes of transportation required mostly the use of horses, this meant that roads were very dirty places. Any significant rain could mix mud with manure to create soggy filth, resulting, at times, in roads that were downright impassable.

America was largely composed of rural farms. A step back in time would undoubtedly reveal that most daily conversations revolved around the rhythms of agriculture. Since books were expensive, most people owned only (in addition to the Bible) a copy of the Farmer’s Almanac—the best-selling book in pre-Civil War America.4

Agriculture dominated daily life in many other profound ways. Even the planning of weddings was timed to coincide with agricultural rhythms (most often conducted in the farmhouse of the bride’s family—it was not until the later Victorian period that people adopted the fashion of wearing a white wedding dress with a minister officiating at a church). People tied the knot in the early spring or late fall, because of planting or harvesting. The preferred nuptial time was around Thanksgiving.

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Historians have noted a significant spike in the birth of children in late winter or early spring that corresponds with the early stages of planting—the time when most adults had the least amount of work on the farm.5 Children typically received an education during the coldest weeks of winter in “reading, writing, and arithmetic.”6 Most children had only a few years of education before their labor on the farm outweighed their “school learning.”

If farm life was difficult, American health care was positively dangerous. In perhaps the most striking divide between past and present, illness “was a matter of virtually certain occurrence but uncertain outcome.”7 Virulent diseases swept across America with very few cures available. Malaria, yellow fever, and the dreaded consumption (tuberculosis) ravaged homes. Most parents expected that at least one or more children would not survive to adulthood (the child mortality rate was 10 times what it is today).8 Adults fared not much better, with the danger of accidents, and, for women, the high mortality rate associated with giving birth.

“Most people did not survive much past the beginning of today’s retirement age.”9 Many marriages were torn asunder, not by divorce, but by premature death. In a time of heroic medicine, as people looked to restore balance to the body, most treatments were downright dangerous. It is no wonder that the life span of people during this time would remain constant until the adoption of public health and antiseptic measures still decades in the future. Adventist historian George Knight remarked that no person in their right mind would choose to be born in the nineteenth century!10

Diet and Doctrine

Despite such travails, what if one could belong to an earlier and somehow purer version of Seventh-day Adventism—a time during which the early pioneers thrived and held the leadership of the movement?

Unfortunately, most people today would scarcely recognize the world of the early pioneers. Ellen White was rather hesitant when she first heard about Joseph Bates and the seventh-day Sabbath. She thought he “erred in dwelling upon the fourth commandment more than upon the other nine.”11 After intense Bible study she adopted the same position.

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Similarly, the diet of most early pioneers consisted of lots of grease, spice, and meat. Even the position on clean versus unclean meats did not really develop until the 1890s. Not until this latter period did Ellen White finally adopt a completely vegetarian diet. Many people today might feel rather uncomfortable if they could go back in time to share a meal with these early believers.12

Conversely, many early pioneers would similarly be uncomfortable with today’s current Statement of Fundamental Beliefs. Some, such as Uriah Smith, had trouble with belief 5, about the personhood of the Holy Spirit. In the first portion of his long career, Smith not only denied the Trinity and the eternity of the Son (like many of his fellow believers), but he pictured the Holy Spirit as “that divine, mysterious emanation through which they [the Father and the Son] carry forward their great and infinite work.” On another occasion Smith pictured the Holy Spirit as a “divine influence” and not a “person like the Father and the Son.”13

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This wasn’t the only position with which pioneers would sense discomfort. Early on, the pioneers struggled with the “shut door” theory that probation closed after October 1844. Ellen White initially shared this perspective, but later repudiated it. Even the time for when to begin the Sabbath was open to debate. Some (like the seafaring Joseph Bates) advocated for a set time (6:00 p.m.), but it was only after a detailed Bible exposition by J. N. Andrews that the church eventually adopted the position of sunset to sunset as the only biblically defensible position.14

From the very beginning, the pioneers who eventually formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church adhered to the conviction that truth is progressive. The very name of the Sabbatarian Adventist periodical, the precursor to the Adventist Review, was titled The Present Truth. Adventists upheld a dynamic concept and commitment to biblical truth as expressed in the Bible. It was such a spirit that caused J. N. Andrews, after his discovery of the Sabbath truth, to exclaim that he would gladly “exchange a thousand errors for one truth.”15 This does not mean that pillar doctrines established through Bible study would erode away, but instead it was through careful Bible study that the denomination would continue to grow in its understanding of truth. In fact, God’s truth as manifested in the person of Jesus Christ and revealed in His Word will be a topic that God’s people will study throughout all eternity!

Historical Myopia

A favorite book of mine is titled simply The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible! Life was tough in nineteenth-century America. The early Sabbathkeeping Adventists who eventually formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church faced incredible challenges, both in terms of the development of their theology as well as lifestyle. No person aware of all of these challenges would willingly go back!16

George Knight points out that all societies suffer from, what he calls, “historical myopia.”17 People romanticize the past, whether it is certain people, events, or places from “long ago” and “far away.” They dream about the “good old days” when life was simple and unspoiled. Unfortunately, such a time never existed. In fact, such a mythology distorts truth.

So why do people suffer from “historical myopia”? The answer is simple. The human mind plays “tricks” on us “through the psychological process of repression. Repression allows our minds to forget the unhappy events of the past while remembering much of the good.”18 Such a view of the past is particularly destructive because it does not deal with the stark realities of the past and present, or the challenges of today or tomorrow. It has a tendency to create a view of the world, the church, or even lives that everything is “going to pot” despite our best efforts.19

What is the greatest danger that Adventism faces today? Ellen White admonished, in the wake of the Minneapolis saga of 1888, that it is “if we are not constantly guarded, of considering our ideas, because long cherished, to be Bible doctrines and on every point infallible, and measuring everyone by the rule of our interpretation of Bible truth. This is our danger, and this would be the greatest evil that could ever come to us as a people.”20

A careful study of the past reveals the need for a candid appraisal of both the challenges as well as an admiration for the Adventist commitment to “present truth.”

  1. Based upon my reading of historical newspapers. For a larger discussion of the cookstove in American history, see Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840 (New York: Harper, 1988), pp. 52ff.
  2. I use the expression “Sabbathkeeping Adventist” pioneers to refer to the formative time after the Great Disappointment in 1844 up through the time of the organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1863.
  3. Larkin, p. xv.
  4. Ibid., p. 18.
  5. Ibid., pp. 66, 67.
  6. The phrase, also known as the “three R’s,” refers to basic education that goes back at least to 1818.
  7. Larkin, pp. 72, 73.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., p. 75.
  10. George R. Knight, Myths in Adventism: An Interpretative Study of Ellen White, Education, and Related Issues (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1999), p. 28.
  11. Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 95.
  12. For an overview, see “Vegetarianism,” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, ed. Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2013), pp. 1246-1248.
  13. See 1891 General Conference Bulletin, p. 146; Review and Herald, Oct. 28, 1890, p. 664. I am indebted for these examples to George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), p. 18.
  14. Knight, p. 28.
  15. In Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich.: James White, 1860), vol. 2, p. 117.
  16. Larkin, p. 73.
  17. Knight, p. 27.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., p. 28.
  20. Ellen G. White, The 1888 Materials (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), vol. 2, p. 830. I am indebted for this citation to Nicholas P. Miller, The Reformation and the Remnant: The Reformers Speak to Today’s Church (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2016), p. 61.

Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D., serves as an associate professor of Adventist Studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in Silang, Cavite, Philippines.