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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.