At a Bible conference sponsored by the Adventist Church’s Euro-Africa Division in 1988, on contemporary understanding of the three angels’ messages, Raoul Dederen, a professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, presented the paper “The Three Angels’ Messages: Origin and Development of Adventist Interpretation.”* The following pages summarize the sections of that presentation that focus on how Seventh-day Adventists understood the messages before the turn of the twentieth century.—Editors.
Adventists believe they are a prophetic movement that God raised up to take the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 to the world. Appreciating this idea requires some historical context.
Millerism was neither a new denomination nor a new belief. It was a movement centered on belief in Christ’s soon and personal return. It was part of a Protestant renaissance, especially in Great Britain and the United States. At the start of the nineteenth century many Christians were becoming interested in (1) a more meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ, and (2) preparing others for His soon return. On the threshold of the Industrial Revolution, Christians thought that they could do this by reshaping their restless society according to a heavenly pattern. Their political and social way of life would fulfill the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment as they lived better with everyone, all over the world, just as the Bible prescribes.
The growth of Bible and missionary societies, as well as the spread of democratic ideals, fed their optimism, expressed in the Christian doctrine of a millennium that would precede Christ’s return. The study of Bible prophecy was one more significant contributor, following natural catastrophes and the repercussions of the French Revolution. Bible scholars of all denominations turned to the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, convinced that the end of the period of domination by the “beast” of Daniel and Revelation had arrived. Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic witnessed an unprecedented level of interest in prophecies—the 1,260 days (Dan. 7:25); the 2,300 days (Dan. 8:14); the millennium. It was “the time of the end,” “the last days”; a new era had dawned.
As early as Joachim de Floris (1202), biblical students had believed that in accordance with the year-day principle the 1,260 days would end around 1790, and the 2,300 in the nineteenth century. In England, J. A. Brown looked to the year 1843, and William Cunningham to 1867. Joseph Wolfe expected Christ’s second coming in 1847.
American pastor William D. Davis, of South Carolina, saw Daniel 9:24 as the key to identifying the beginning of the 2,300 days. Alexander Campbell, dynamic founder of the Disciples of Christ, expected the cleansing of the sanctuary, being the purification of God’s church, in about 1847. Other dates were also proposed. But whether in Germany, Switzerland, England, or the United States, the 1840s were a moment of great expectations, though the Catholic Church’s futurist and preterist interpretations challenged these explanations by disconnecting biblical prophecy from the continuous flow of history.
American biblical commentators, following Daniel Whitby, proclaimed a spiritual coming followed by 1,000 years that would see global conversion of all peoples and religions to Christ. Lay Baptist preacher William Miller (1782-1849) gave himself over to an intense and systematic search for truth and was stunned by his findings: Christ’s second coming was the focal point of Scripture, to be followed, not preceded, by the millennium. The 2,300-days chronology was to end “around 1843,” coinciding with the return of Christ.
In 1831, 50 years old, Miller began to preach on Christ’s soon return and the coming judgment. Around 1838 and 1839, kindred spirits took up his message, and its prominence grew through an ever-increasing tide of voices and published literature. Between 50,000 and 135,000 people came to believe in the imminent personal, literal, visible coming of Christ.
At first the Millerites gave little attention to Revelation 14. They saw the proclaiming angel of verse 6 as representative of Christian missionary movements that followed the fall of the Papacy in 1798. But things changed as they realized that they were proclaimers of the imminent day of judgment (Rev. 14:7). That pointed message led to increasing tension with established Christianity which, increasingly, rejected and condemned its ideas and promoters.
Charles Fitch, one of Millerism’s most respected preachers, came to see that Protestants and Catholics, having wandered from the Scriptures’ high spiritual demands, were both Babylon—spiritual corruption. God’s faithful should “come out” immediately (Rev. 18:4).
The publication The Midnight Cry of February 1, 1844, laid out the relationship between the two first messages of Revelation 14, linking the call for God’s people to come out with that of “the hour of judgment has come.” Consequently, the great majority of those who believed in Christ’s return separated from their churches, especially in the months leading up to October 22, 1844.
After October 22, many Millerites, humiliated and confused, abandoned their faith. Some returned to their churches. Others kept setting new dates. A third group, with no room for doubting their calculations, determined that their mistake concerned the event scheduled to take place at the end of the 2,300 days.
Adventism’s understanding of the three angels’ messages had not changed much from that of Andrews and Smith, apart from one significant fact: Jones sought to give first place to Jesus, and place Him at the heart of the messages.
Few in number, this third group met for mutual consolation, cherishing the powerful spiritual blessings of their recent disappointment, delving into the true meaning of the cleansing of the sanctuary, and developing a theology of the sanctuary whose focal point was the nature of Christ’s ministry in heaven: they saw that Daniel 8:14 announces the beginning of Christ’s high-priestly ministry on the antitypical day of atonement, and that His return was still future. For them, the great Millerite disappointment was primary proof that they had fulfilled a divinely ordained, prophetic assignment.
The group kept incorporating constantly improving understandings of the three angels’ messages into their developing theology. Whereas Miller interpreted “the hour of judgment” (Rev. 14:7) as the end of the world, these Adventists related their interpretation to the typical functions of the high priest in the Old Testament. The judgment arrived and announced had to take place before the Lord’s return and was distinct from His return.
The identity of the second angel’s “Babylon” continued to be discussed. James White did not think it included the Roman Catholic Church, since God’s people were not there. The view that prevailed was of apostate churches united to the kingdoms of the world.
The only Millerite preacher known to have shown any awareness of a third angel was Josiah Litch. But now the third angel’s message received significant attention from those who held to the sanctuary message. And the message clearly needed an explanation: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand” (Rev. 14:9). What’s the beast? What’s its image? What’s its mark? Everyone agreed about the beast: the “papal beast” who wages war against the saints and oppresses them (Dan. 7) was the one the third angel mentions. But what of the other s
The group’s determined pursuit of truths long obscured by tradition led them to the Sabbath. One of the first to see its relationship to the third angel’s message was Joseph Bates, who had begun observing the Sabbath even before the great disappointment of 1844, and whose encouragement had influenced many others, including James and Ellen White, to keep all God’s commandments. Bates believed that Revelation 14:12, announcing the keepers of God’s commandments, was a result of the angels’ proclamation.
Though most of their arguments for Sabbathkeeping derived from Seventh Day Baptist understanding, Adventist doctrine was now relating closely to post-1844 experience. Sanctuary theology led to Sabbathkeeping, which quickly became an integral part of the third angel’s message.
Revelation 11:19 showed that the heavenly sanctuary, as the earthly, contains an ark that holds the Ten Commandments, a clear demonstration of their perpetuity. Christ’s entry, in 1844, upon the second phase of His ministry as our heavenly High Priest, had directed their attention to the Most Holy Place. The result was a deeper understanding of the role and function of the Decalogue, explaining why the Sabbath had become a test for God’s people. In this context the first elements of the “mark of the beast” and “the false Sabbath” appear, in contrast with the “seal of the living God” (Rev. 7:2): rejecting the message means receiving “the mark.”
This important work of clarification, unification, consolidation, and gradual growth resulted from a series of conferences between April 20 and November 18, 1848, as zealous men and women met for systematic Bible study and prayer. A fundamental unity emerged with regard to the principal doctrines and the foundations of interpretation of biblical prophecy accepted by Adventist Sabbathkeepers.
The triple message had begun to take definitive shape, its central theme being stated in Revelation 14:12—the faithful who keep God’s commandments and the faith of Jesus. But a much grander plan could already be discerned. Regarding “the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12, KJV), White, through the 1850s, came to hold that it included everything Jesus said and all His inspired apostles wrote. Understanding “the beast,” however, was chiefly the task of J. N. Andrews and J. N. Loughborough. Andrews identified the beast of Revelation 14:9-11 with the first beast of Revelation 13; its image could not be other than fallen Protestantism. Loughborough saw church and state united for the persecution of heretics, such as seventh-day Sabbathkeepers. Sunday observance continued to be seen as the mark of the beast, a Protestant-imposed papal institution.
Two books by two authors provide a fair indication of Seventh-day Adventist thinking during this period. Andrews’ preface to the 1860 edition of his book, The Three Angels of Revelation XIV (first ed., 1855), states four goals: (1) to warn humanity of coming judgment; (2) to light the way for the saints and put God’s people on guard; (3) to unite the scattered saints into a single body; and (4) to restore to God’s people the Ten Commandments, thus preparing them to escape the time of trouble and enter heaven.
Andrews is clear about the time and substance of all the messages. The first is a warning to all humanity, lasting from 1840 to 1844, and the second is preached along with it when Babylon, the worldly church, collapses. Babylon’s fall is moral, prepared by its contempt for biblical doctrines (baptism, the Sabbath, conditional immortality). The third message depicts a future conflict between those who keep God’s commandments and those who defend the beast. The seven last plagues of God’s wrath are yet in the future, since the present is the time when the third angel’s warning must be given.
Uriah Smith’s Daniel and Revelation first pays attention to the three angels’ messages in its fourth edition (1885). Significant insights on the angels include that they are not beasts—earthly powers—but angels, symbolic of the heavenly nature of their power. The first message belonged to the present just as much as it did through 1840-1844, a truth similarly applicable to the second, though it first sounded in the latter months of 1844. For Smith, Babylon meant “confusion,” composed of three parts: pagan, papal, and apostate Protestant. The third angel proclaims God’s final, special message to a dying world, embracing the import of the first two while adding content unique to itself.
Seventh-day Adventism, with its devastating array of scriptures and logic supporting their Sabbath and sanctuary doctrines, came to be seen as focused more on their own good works than on Jesus Christ. At the 1888 General Conference Session, E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones engaged the church with the message that justification by faith was a vivifying, personal, spiritual experience, not mere biblical theory. Their emphasis augmented understanding of the three angels’ messages. Waggoner taught that the three were one continuous proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. Those who come out of Babylon will be perfect before God because they have heard and heeded the biblical teaching of righteousness by faith.
Jones, equally enthusiastic, was more prolific in his writing on the messages, publishing in the Review and Herald a yearlong series, January 1900 to January 1901, on Revelation 14. Its three angels bear one message on Babylon, “the gate of God,” now turned to “confusion” for having rejected the judgment-hour message (verses 6, 7). That rejection by Roman Catholicism and her daughters the Protestant churches necessitated the second and third messages. The third, in particular, reaches out to the entire world and embraces Sinai and Calvary, the law of God and the gospel of Christ. It is God’s ultimate effort to save humans and perfect all who would be ready to meet Him at His second coming, having conquered the beast and his image and kept the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.
Having established the indispensability of obedience and the faith of Jesus, Jones goes on to define the faith of Jesus: commandment keeping is inseparable from it, for that faith means nothing if not expressed in good works, i.e., in keeping God’s commandments. Commandment keeping is heaven’s free gift received by faith. This is the message of the third angel.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Adventism’s understanding of the three angels’ messages had not changed much from that of Andrews and Smith, apart from one significant fact: Jones sought to give first place to Jesus, and place Him at the heart of the messages. After the 1888 General Conference Session, there was a new perception of humanity’s total inability to save themselves, and a desire to accept only the righteousness of Christ and His power provided us to follow His steps.
*The original article, in French, may be found in a published compilation of the conference papers. See Raoul Dederen, “Les messages des trois anges: Origine et développment de l’interprétation adventiste,” in Études sur l’Apocalypse: signification des messages des tres anges aujourd’hui, Conférences Bibliques, Division Eurafricaine, 2 vols. (Collonges-sous-Salève, France: Institut Adventiste du Salève, France, 1988), vol. 1, pp. 25-56.