Dear Brethren Who Shall Assemble in General Conference: We are impressed that this gathering will be the most important meeting you have ever attended. This should be a period of earnestly seeking the Lord, and humbling your hearts before Him.”1
Such were the words of Ellen White on August 5, 1888, in a letter circulated to the delegates who would be attending the forthcoming session of the General Conference in October at Minneapolis, Minnesota. She not only highlighted the importance of the meetings but also hinted at tensions among the delegates and their need for serious and faithful Bible study.
The tension didn’t take long to surface. “Elder Smith,” A. T. Jones blurted out early in the meetings, “has told you he does not know anything about this matter. I do, and I don’t want you to blame me for what he does not know.” Ellen White responded with “Not so sharp, brother Jones, not so sharp.”2 Unfortunately, such harsh words and pompous attitudes provided part of the backdrop for the conflict that characterized the 1888 General Conference session.
Jones had no monopoly on the harsh-words front. Ellen White repeatedly faulted General Conference president George I. Butler and Review and Herald editor Uriah Smith for what she labeled as the spirit of the Pharisees. Those leaders and their friends repeatedly expressed an attitude that “burdened” her, being “so unlike the spirit of Jesus.” Its sarcastic, critical, self-righteous aspects, she noted, stirred up “human passions” and “bitterness of spirit, because some of their brethren had ventured to entertain some ideas contrary to the ideas that some others . . . had entertained, which were thought . . . to be inroads upon ancient doctrines.”3
The battle lines of the 1888 session had arisen earlier in the decade over two theological points, and involved certain major participants. On one side were the two young editors of the California-based Signs of the Times—Ellet J. Waggoner and Alonzo T. Jones [see fuller biographies on pages 20, 21]. A trained physician who preferred the work of gospel ministry, Waggoner was probably the most gentle and sophisticated of the major male leaders in the struggle. His colleague, A. T. Jones, had been a sergeant in the United States Army and had all the attributes of his first profession. Jones never ran away from a battle, whether it be a frontier confrontation or one in the halls of Congress over church/state issues or with his fellow church leaders.
Of somewhat the same mold were George I. Butler and Uriah Smith, president and secretary, respectively, of the General Conference. Smith was also editor of the Michigan-based Review and Herald and the denomination’s authority on the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Butler and Smith viewed themselves as defenders of traditional Adventism, especially in the face of the new ideas being set forth by Jones and Waggoner.
A fifth major participant in the Minneapolis meetings was Ellen G. White, Adventism’s prophetic voice. At first it appears that she sought to remain neutral in the developing struggle. But by April 1887 she had come out openly in support of the younger men from the West. She not only realized that they had something to say that the denomination desperately needed to hear, but she also had concluded that they were being wrongly treated in a very unequal struggle. She would dedicate herself to making sure that Jones and Waggoner and their ideas would get a fair hearing at the forthcoming General Conference session.
The rumbles of disharmony had begun in the early 1880s along two lines that would build in intensity as the denomination rolled toward the Minneapolis meetings. The first point of contention formed up around the seemingly minor topic of the identity of the 10 horns of Daniel 7. The 1884 General Conference session had commissioned Jones to “write a series of articles gathered from history on points that showed the fulfillment of prophecy,”4 a task that led him to study the book of Daniel.
Smith initially expressed joy over the idea of Jones having the time to undertake a more complete examination of the 10 kingdoms, but suggested that it would be a difficult task—somewhat like “hunting the pieces of a building” after it had been “struck by a hundred pounds of dynamite.”5
The cordial relationship between the newcomer to the study of Daniel and the established author of Daniel and Revelation rapidly deteriorated after Jones concluded that Smith’s published list was incorrect on the identity of the tenth kingdom, with Jones asserting it was the Alemanni rather than the Huns. The difference of opinion mattered, because getting prophecy right mattered to Adventists anticipating the world’s imminent end. Throughout the 1880s Adventists were being arrested in such states as California, Tennessee, and Arkansas for the “crime” of working on Sunday. Some Adventist ministers in the American South were even serving on chain gangs with hardened criminals. The tension would build on the Sunday front until the spring of 1888, when H. W. Blair introduced a bill into the United States Senate to promote the observance of “the Lord’s day” “as a day of religious worship.”6 Blair’s national Sunday bill was the first such legislation to go before Congress since the establishment of the Adventist movement in the 1840s. The denomination connected that move with the forming of the image to the beast of Revelation 13 and the giving of the mark of the beast. The end was clearly near, and accurate prophetic interpretation was clearly crucial.
Smith argued aggressively that if Adventists began to change their understanding on points of prophetic interpretation that had stood for 40 years, “thousands would instantly notice the change. . . . ‘If we give you time enough,’ they would then say, ‘you will probably come to acknowledge finally that you are mistaken on everything.’ ” Jones shot back that it was more important to be right than to maintain a faulty position that would be exposed publicly by the denomination’s enemies.7
But if the crisis over the 10 horns was intense, the issue of the identity of the law referred to in the book of Galatians was literally explosive. With the Sunday crisis right upon them it was bad enough to be tinkering with the validity of Adventist prophetic interpretation, but to be making major changes in the denomination’s theology of the law could spell total disaster.
An important text that Adventists had to deal with was the “added” law of Galatians 3:19-25. For three decades the denomination had interpreted that law as the ceremonial law. Such an interpretation, Adventist leaders held, was important in guarding the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments. After all, did not Galatians 3:25 plainly teach that once an individual had faith, he or she was “no longer under a schoolmaster”?
The law in Galatians had become a controversial issue between 1884 and 1886, when Waggoner began to teach that Galatians had the Ten Commandments in mind rather than the ceremonial law. That understanding was met head on by Butler and Smith, who held that the new interpretation undermined Adventism’s traditional position on the end-time importance of the law of God. As might be expected, the national Sunday crisis heightened the importance of the topic.
Butler sought to solve the problem at the 1886 General Conference session, but failed. His next move was to block Jones and Waggoner from presenting their views at the 1888 session. But Ellen White outmaneuvered him by publicly coming to the support of the younger men. The stage at that point was set for the controversial Minneapolis meetings.
The 1888 General Conference session convened in the newly constructed Adventist church from October 17 through November 4. A ministerial institute lasting from October 10 to 16 preceded the formal conference session. The agenda contained two categories of items: business matters and theological concerns. While official action on the business items was restricted to the official session, action and reaction on the theological issues flowed from the institute into the regular session as if they were one meeting.
As expected, the major issues of substance in the conference centered on three issues—two controversial and one agreed upon. In the latter category were Jones’ lectures on church and state in relation to the Sunday law crisis. The conference voted to publish his presentations. They came off the press, with some editing, in 1889 as Civil Government and Religion, or Christianity and the American Constitution.
In the controverted realm, Jones and Smith each spoke several times on the 10 horns and related prophetic topics. But the major subject of contention and importance was the lectures of E. J. Waggoner on righteousness by faith. Interestingly enough, his focal point was not on the law in Galatians (although he did not neglect that topic) but on issues related to salvation. For him the connection between the law in Galatians and righteousness by faith is the fact that experientially the 10 commandments point out sin and lead individuals to Christ as Savior.
Contrary to Waggoner’s approach, J. H. Morrison (who stood in for the emotionally exhausted Butler who was too ill to attend the meetings) presented at least eight lectures focused on the nature of the law in Galatians.
Ellen White joined Waggoner in his focus on Christ and issues in salvation. “My burden during the meeting,” she wrote, “was to present Jesus and His love before my brethren, for I saw marked evidences that many had not the spirit of Christ.”8 On October 24 she cried out: “We want the truth as it is in Jesus. . . . I have seen that precious souls who would have embraced the truth have been turned away from it because of the manner in which the truth has been handled, because Jesus was not in it. And this is what I have been pleading with you for all the time—we want Jesus.”9
Three days before she noted that “the Lord desires us all to be learners in the school of Christ. . . . God is presenting to the minds of men divinely appointed precious gems of truth, appropriate for our time. God has rescued these truths from the companionship of error, and has placed them in their proper framework.”10 That proper framework, she would note in other connections, was the third angel’s message, which united both the law of God and righteousness by faith.11
At Minneapolis in 1888, Seventh-day Adventists locked horns over biblical interpretation in a way that threatened to lock out the spirit of graciousness that gives evidence of the presence and control of Christ. But truth has prevailed and grace continues to conquer. The most important teaching to flow out to posterity from those sessions was the emphasis on Christ and faith in Him as Savior and Lord. That teaching and its implications for the end-time message of the third angel is what gives the Minneapolis meetings their ongoing significance.