The widely popular view that the 1888 message was accepted a century ago derives from earnest, sincere, well-meaning people. Their loyalty to the church and its past leadership is commendable, and gives evidence of an enthusiastic team spirit.
Nevertheless, this view is in direct conflict with history, with numerous Ellen White statements, and, what is even more serious, with the testimony of the True Witness who gave His blood for this church. The acceptance myth insists, after even a century of delay, that we are “rich and increased with goods” in this matter of accepting and understanding righteousness by faith. Our Lord says that we are “poor.” The conflict in view is serious, for the spiritual condition of the world church is affected, as well as His honor.
In view of the fact that Ellen White’s testimony is so clear that the beginning of the latter rain and the loud cry was “in a great degree” rejected, how is it possible that the vast majority of our ministers, educators, and members world-wide believe that it was accepted by the leadership of that generation?
Part of the problem is a persistent confusion of thought that appears almost to be willful. As a people we do accept the popular Protestant “doctrine” of righteousness by faith just as Protestants profess to believe it. Therefore our apologists insist that this “doctrine” was not rejected in 1888 or thereafter. But this is not the full truth of our history. Our brethren “in a great degree” did reject the message which was the beginning of the latter rain and the loud cry. This obvious fact explains the long delay, and nothing else can explain it.
What is the source of this persistent and widespread confusion and misconception? Doubtless it is the human judgment of good men whose basic mindset is understandably Laodicean. We all partake of that same mindset, by nature. It is painful for any of us to believe what the True Witness says, that the truth of our history reveals us as “wretched and miserable,” our 1888 history in particular being a replay of the Jews’ history at Calvary. That history pinpoints our great need: denominational repentance.
This unwelcome conviction must at any cost be repressed with assurances of being “rich and increased with goods.” Hence the acceptance myth. One prime source of that myth enjoys such unique credibility that it has seemed impossible for anyone to question it.
In his The Lonely Years 1876-1891, Arthur L. White informs us that “the concept that the General Conference, and thus the denomination, rejected the message of righteousness by faith in 1888 is without foundation and was not projected until forty years after the Minneapolis meeting and thirteen years after Ellen White’s death” (p. 396). The author is a grandson of Ellen White.
We have already noted how rejection of the 1888 message was clearly recognized by Ellen White and her contemporaries from 1893 through 1901 (see chapter four of this book).
“Forty years after the Minneapolis meeting” would bring us to around 1928. It was in that era that Taylor G. Bunch at Pacific Union College publicly likened our 1888 history to that of Israel at Kadesh-Barnea rejecting the report of Caleb and Joshua. W. C. White, Ellen White’s son, remonstrated with Bunch, assuring him that such a rejection in 1888 did not take place. He was present at that conference, he said, and he knew. It is only natural that he would convey the same acceptance view to his son, Arthur L. White, who has served for so many years as secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate, and under whose supervision and endorsement some 1500 pages of books regarding 1888 have been published since 1950.
Both Ellen White’s son and grandson have rightly enjoyed great esteem in the Seventhday Adventist Church. They have been utterly sincere in their efforts to educate several generations of our people to believe that the 1888 message was not rejected. We accord to both of them the utmost respect which their unique place in our history warrants. At the same time, we must recognize that Ellen White exercised a still more unique ministry, that of an inspired messenger of the Lord whose ministry is an expression of the testimony of Jesus, the Spirit of Prophecy. Her prophetic gift endowed her with discernment that penetrated beneath the surface. Even if a thousand eyewitnesses with uninspired judgment contradict the word of an inspired prophet, we must trust that inspired word, for a “thus saith the Lord” is implicit in it. Ellen White’s testimony is so clear and straight-forward that the common man can readily understand it. The future of this church depends upon this issue of prophetic guidance being settled rightly.
An indication of how the acceptance view gained official credence is found in a statement made by W. C. White in a sermon at Lincoln, Nebraska, November 25, 1905. He is describing an incident in Avondale, Australia, a decade earlier when W. W. Prescott was visiting. The mail had come in from America, and he and Prescott were reading to Ellen White letters from the leading brethren of the General Conference in faraway Battle Creek. The letters told of alleged great progress in the cause in America and of wonderful spiritual victories in respect of the 1888 issues. W. C. White recalls the incident thus:
For years I have felt that it was my privilege to do all I could to draw Mother’s attention to the most cheerful features of our work . … I reasoned that as the Lord has chosen Mother to be His messenger for the correcting of wrongs in the church, … and as these revelations burden her heart almost to death, therefore it can not be wrong for me to gather up all the words of cheer, and all the good news that will comfort her heart, and every incident that will show the power of Christ working in the church, and that will make manifest the best side of the workings of men who are bearing heavy burdens in the work of the Lord; therefore I will endeavor to bring to her attention to the bright side of things. …
Well, one day while we were living at Cooranbong, New South Wales, we received letters from the President of the General Conference, filled with cheering reports, telling us about the good camp meetings, and how that some of these businessmen who had been reproved by the Testimonies1 were going out to various states and speaking in the camp meetings, and that they were getting a new spiritual experience, and were a real help in the meetings. …
We [he and Prescott] were made very happy by the reading of these letters. We were fairly overjoyed about it, and we united in praising the Lord for the good report. Imagine my surprise when in the afternoon of the next day Mother told me that she had been writing to these men of whom we had received the good report, and she then read me the most far-reaching criticism, the most searching reproof for bringing in wrong plans and principles in their work, that were ever written to that group of men.2 This was a great lesson to me (Spalding-Magan Collection, p. 470).
Ellen White records her heart sorrow that throws further light on this incident. It is in no way disrespectful of their memory to note that neither W. C. White nor W. W. Prescott enjoyed the larger discernment that is divinely imparted by the gift of prophecy. The gift is not hereditary. It would be only natural for them, as it would be for us, to believe at face value letters from the General Conference president containing such good news. The spirit pervading the church was always up-beat, rejoicing in progress and victories.
But the heart attitude of all human beings is naturally in conflict with “the testimony of Jesus,” unless specifically enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Writing to the General Conference president, Ellen White describes how she felt when her son and Prescott tried to assure her that glowing reports from Battle Creek were true:
Dear Brother Olsen:
Last October I wrote you a long letter … The burden upon me was very great, in regard to yourself and the work in Battle Creek. I felt that you were being bound hand and foot, and were tamely submitting to it. I was so troubled, that in conversation with Brother Prescott, I told him of my feelings. Both he and W. C. W. tried to dissipate my fears; they presented everything in as favorable a light as possible. But instead of encouraging me, their words alarmed me. If these men cannot see the outcome of affairs, I thought, how hopeless the task of making them see at Battle Creek. The thought struck to my heart like a knife. I said, I will not send the communication written to Eld. Olsen. …
For about two weeks I remained in utter feebleness. I was like a broken reed. I could not leave my room, could not converse with Brother and Sister Prescott. I did not expect to recover. … But … my strength gradually returned to me. (Letter, May 25, 1896).
Because the issue of the latter rain and the loud cry is so important, it is imperative that the church and its leadership now place unqualified reliance on the inspired testimony of the Spirit of Prophecy. When human judgment conflicts with that inspired testimony, no matter how honored the human agents, the Spirit of Prophecy must take the clear precedence.
For the better part of a century, we as a people have been prone to revel in this easily prevalent false optimism. The tragic consequence is a complementary widespread distrust of the counsel of the True Witness. Would not great spiritual blessings result from a full recognition of the truth? Rightly understood, our denominational history is one continual commentary on Christ’s words in Revelation 3:14-21, and a call to appropriate repentance.
He who controls the past controls the future. Lukewarmness and spiritual weakness are a consequence of misinterpreting history.