My burden during the meeting was to present Jesus and His love before my brethren, for I saw marked evidences that many had not the Spirit of Christ.”1
With these words Ellen White summarized her thoughts and feelings about what she perceived to be the real issue of what happened at the General Conference session in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the fall of 1888. She saw that many hardworking ministers of our church were not really in communion with Christ and that our church was in grave danger of seeing its mission derailed. Above all else, she perceived her ministry at the session to have been redemptive.
For a few years before the eventful session, ministers had been debating fiercely a few concepts among themselves in the pages of the two most prominent publications of the church, the Review and Herald in Battle Creek, Michigan, and the Signs of the Times, in Oakland, California. The unsuspecting initiators of these acrimonious discussions were the two young editors of the Signs of the Times, A. T. Jones, and E. J. Waggoner. Jones, a self-educated Bible scholar and historian, taught that the northern European tribe of the Alemanni, not the Asian Huns (as taught by Uriah Smith), was one of the 10 horns or kingdoms of Daniel 7. Waggoner, like his father, J. H. Waggoner, 30 years before, taught that the schoolmaster law Paul refers to in Galatians 3:24 should be understood as the moral law of the Ten Commandments. George I. Butler, current General Conference president, opposed Waggoner’s view.
This debate was characterized as the old guard defending the true teachings of the church against new heresies. Ellen White spent numerous sleepless nights worrying over the bitter religious conflict.
When E. J. Waggoner began to teach views similar to what his father and other pioneers had taught 30 years earlier, Elders Butler and Smith were quick to point out that Ellen White had had a vision on the subject in 1854 and had written to J. H. Waggoner that the law in Galatians was the ceremonial law rather than the moral law. However, when asked to produce this document, Ellen White was unable to find it.
In a letter to Jones and Waggoner in February 1887 she recalled that she had written to J. H. Waggoner “that I had been shown [that] his position in regard to the law was incorrect,” but that she could not recall exactly what was incorrect about it. One thing was clear to her, however: the various positions on the law in Galatians “are not vital points” and they should not be made a controversial and divisive issue.2
Two months later, in a letter to Butler and Smith, she again referred to the lost letter and pointed out that the counsel may not have been on doctrine at all. “It may be that it was a caution not to make his [J. H. Waggoner’s] ideas prominent at that time, for there was great danger of disunion.”3 In other words, she claimed that her ministry in regard to this issue in the 1850s had been pastoral rather than hermeneutical or exegetical, and she still claimed the same pastoral ministry in 1887.
Butler and Smith, however, disagreed with that recollection, holding that Ellen White had seen in vision that J. H. Waggoner had been wrong theologically. Hence, in their view, not only was this issue posing a threat to the traditional Adventist teaching on the perpetuity and immutability of the Ten Commandments, and the cherished doctrine of the Sabbath, but it also threatened Ellen White’s own prophetic ministry and reliability if she changed her mind on theological issues—that is, of course, if her ministry is understood as clearing up biblical uncertainties. Ellen White was thus caught in the middle of this conflict because she was not willing to decide who was right.
Overwhelmed with discouragement, Ellen White felt she did not have the energy to attend the Minneapolis session and engage this issue in person. But remembering her words to her dying husband seven years earlier and her commitment to stand by her post of duty, she decided that “to walk out by faith against all appearances was the very thing that the Lord required me to do.”4 As she stepped out by faith, day by day she gained more strength.
Ellen White insisted that she had not been shown the answer to the question of the law in Galatians. The issue needed to be settled by prayerful Bible study. “Truth,” she claimed, “will lose nothing by investigation.”5 Some of Waggoner’s interpretations were incorrect, she found. But “the fact that he honestly holds some views of Scripture differing from yours or mine is no reason why we should treat him as an offender, or as a dangerous man, and make him the subject of unjust criticism.”6 While she did not recall clearly what she had said in the 1850s, she did not want her opinion on the matter to settle this debate. Settling matters of biblical interpretations was not how she saw her ministry. Instead she recommended a deep and humble study of Scripture.
“I take the Bible just as it is, as the Inspired Word,” she said at the session. “I believe its utterances in an entire Bible. . . . Men of humble acquirements, possessing but limited capabilities and opportunities to become conversant in the Scriptures, find in the living oracles comfort, guidance, counsel, and the plan of salvation as clear as a sunbeam. No one need be lost for want of knowledge, unless he is willfully blind. We thank God that the Bible is prepared for the poor man as well as for the learned man. It is fitted for all ages and all classes.”7
For her, Waggoner’s major contribution was in building a bridge between the law and the gospel: “I see the beauty of truth in the presentation of the righteousness of Christ in relation to the law as the doctor has placed it before us” she told the assembly in Minneapolis.8
In the months following the session, Ellen White joined Waggoner and Jones in presenting this perspective on the law and the gospel. “Holding up Christ as our only source of strength, presenting His matchless love in having the guilt of the sins of men charged to His account and His own righteousness imputed to man, in no case does away with the law or detracts from its dignity. Rather, it places it where the correct light shines upon and glorifies it. This is done only through the light reflected from the cross of Calvary.”9
In her many communications with all those involved in this bitter controversy, Ellen White’s goal was to bring people closer to Jesus and closer to one another. Her ministry sought for reconciliation and redemption. Human relationships mattered a great deal to her, and her many counsels in her letters and sermons highlight her emphasis on the love of Jesus.
One such counsel was written to William Healey, a pastor in California, who sided with Butler and Smith and likely instigated some of the rumors against Jones, Waggoner, and Ellen White herself. She wrote to him shortly after the end of the session. “I have [now] told you that my views are not changed in regard to the law in Galatians. But if we have had the truth upon this subject our brethren have failed to be sanctified through it; the fruits are not after Christ’s order, but bitter as gall.”10 Her counsels may be summarized as follows:
1. Let the Holy Spirit guide your mind. To Jones and Waggoner, many months before the Minneapolis session, as the conflict was taking speed, she counseled: “There is altogether too little of the love of Christ in the hearts of those who claim to believe the truth. While all their hopes are centered in Jesus Christ, while His Spirit pervades the soul, then there will be unity, although every idea may not be exactly the same on all points.”11 Thus the Holy Spirit desires unity in spite of variations of interpretation among believers.
2. We will never understand all Bible truth. According to Ellen White, it is mistaken to assume that any one side in a conflict over interpretation understands and possesses all the truth. To Jones and Waggoner she stated, “The Bible is but yet dimly understood. A lifelong prayerful study of its sacred revealings will leave still much unexplained.”12 And to Butler and Smith: “But let none feel that we know all the truth the Bible proclaims.”13 To the assembly in Minneapolis she acknowledged, “We are to be ever searching for the truth as for hidden treasures.”14
3. There can be dire consequences to internal conflicts. The consequences of strife and contentions are tragic and eternal. “There has been a door thrown open for variance and strife and contention and differences which none of you can see but God. . . . The bitterness, the wrath, the resentment, the jealousies, the heart burnings provoked by controversies of both sides of the question causes the loss of many souls.”15
4. We need a daily experience with Jesus. During the Minneapolis session Ellen White spoke a number of times. On Sabbath afternoon, October 13, she felt led by the Lord to speak of the love of God. “The blessing of the Lord rested upon me and put words in my mouth and I had much freedom in trying to impress upon our brethren the importance of dwelling upon the love of God much more and let gloomy pictures alone. The effect on the people was most happy,” she wrote to her daughter-in-law. “Believers and unbelievers bore testimony that the Lord had blessed them in the word spoken and that from this time they would not look on the dark side . . . but talk of the goodness and the love and compassion of Jesus, and praise God more.”16
This became her major emphasis in the weeks and months following the session. Love for Jesus will produce love toward one another. Already to Waggoner and Jones she had written that “looking to Jesus, learning of Jesus, obtaining the love of Jesus” will melt hearts “in tenderness toward each other.”17 During the conference she realized that a different spirit was animating most of the ministers. “We all know better than to do as we have done,” she wrote. “If Christ were abiding in the soul we could not but reveal Christ’s forbearance, Christ’s courtesy, and the love of Christ. All this hard, unkind, uncourteous spirit manifested toward brethren is registered in the books of heaven as manifested toward Jesus Christ.”18
5. More than anything else, we must learn to let the love of Christ abide in our hearts. “The love of Christ must be an abiding principle in the heart, that will bear fruit in love and tenderness and respect for one another. The love of the truth, the doing of the words of Christ, would soften and subdue our hearts. The purity and goodness and love of the great heart of Jesus must be reflected upon our hearts and revealed in our characters, that we may be partakers of the divine nature and have tender compassion for each other.”19
Perhaps the most compelling lesson Ellen White would have us learn from the 1888 General Conference session and its famous doctrinal conflicts is that there is never a reason that justifies an un-Christlike spirit in our conversations with brothers and sisters. Although we may not agree with each other on all points of teachings and interpretations, Christ’s Spirit must abide in our hearts.