No one can question the genuineness of the spiritual experience of those who passed through the 1844 movement. Jesus was “precious” to the believers who looked for His soon coming, and their hearts were united in deep, sincere devotion. They recognized the Holy Spirit as unmistakably present in that movement.
It was this conviction, transcending mere reliance on theological correctness, that held the confidence of “the little flock” through the Great Disappointment. The Seventh-day Adventist Church was conceived in an experience of genuine love and was born in a travail of soul by those few who risked everything on their recognition of a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. Thus she was well born, conceived in true faith and not in legalism.
In her early years, she loved the Lord with a true heart, and appreciated the presence of the Holy Spirit. Her later difficulties stem from a tragic leaving of that “first love,” and a consequent failure to recognize the true Holy Spirit.
As early as 1850, this warmth of devotion for Jesus began to be gradually replaced in the hearts of many by a “stupid and dormant,” “half awake” condition, according to the young messenger of the Lord. An insidious love of self began to replace true love for the Saviour, producing lukewarmness. Pride and complacency in possessing a system of truth gradually crowded out much of the simple heart-felt faith in Jesus which led to its acceptance originally.
Thus, soon after the Great Disappointment of 1844 and the gathering of the “little flock” who held their faith, there developed a deficiency in their understanding of the import of the three angels' messages. The deficiency was not theological but spiritual. The church was like an adolescent who grows physically but remains a child otherwise.
The “truth” made phenomenal progress and was found invincible in debate, but “the servants of the Lord have trusted too much to the strength of argument,” said Ellen White in 1855 (1T 113). This made it difficult for them to resist the unconscious but subtle temptation to indulge a spiritual pride—had they not seen and accepted truth, and sacrificed for it? There seemed to be merit in such sacrifice. Ministers and evangelists would pitch their tent in a new community, stir up the other ministers and the popular churches, win the arguments and debates, gather out their “best” members, baptize them, raise up a new church, and move on to more victories almost everywhere. There enjoyed a euphoria of success.
Opposition led them to cherish the hope of personal or corporate vindication at the second advent more than love’santicipation of meeting the Beloved, whether such a meeting included vindication or not. Their faith became to them more an act of belief in doctrinal truth and obedience to it, motivated by a self-oriented concern for reward rather than a heart-felt appreciation of the grace of Christ. Instead of walking humbly in utter dependence on the Lord, “we” began to walk proudly with our indisputable doctrinal evidence of “the truth.”
The result was inevitably a form of legalism. The same experience has been repeated often in the individual lives of new Adventist converts. Rightly understood, the history of the Advent movement is the story of our own individual hearts. Each of us is a microcosm of the whole, as each drop of water embodies the essence of the rain. In all that we say about the experience of past years, we remember that we are no better than our forefathers. As Paul informed the believers at Rome, “we” do the same things (Romans 2:1). Only through an insight which recognizes corporate guilt can the failures of our denominational history be resolved with positive, encouraging value.
Ellen White early recognized that our problem was a leaving of our “first love,” a loss of intimacy with Christ through not appreciating His sacrifical love. She herself apparently never lost that first love, for she was always keen and quick to recognize manifestations of the true Holy Spirit. But “we” were not so readily perceptive.
We could sing joyfully with W. H. Hyde, “We have heard from the bright, the holy land, we have heard and our hearts are glad,”yet there was a constant tension between recognizing or appreciating the living gift of prophecy, and our natural-born human resentment against its reproof or correction. While the power of the Spirit of God attending Ellen White’s ministry often constrained church leadership to recognize the divine authority of her message, they were seldom as a whole in true heart-sympathy with its deep spiritual probing. Such inner resentment is not surprising for us humans. It was evident all through Israel’s ancient history.
This almost continual neglect to heed Ellen White’s earnest appeals to return to a contrite “first love” resulted in the darkest hours of our history. An increasing but unconscious self-love of ministers and believers crowded out real faith, and as a consequence the ability to discern the working of the Holy Spirit faded away. A development so horrendous as to be unimaginable to the pioneers (and nearly so to us today) finally took place. The time would come in 1888 when that mighty Third Person of the Godhead would actually be “insulted” by the responsible delegates at an official General Conference Session (cf. Ms. 24, 1892; Special Testimonies, Series A, No. 7, p. 54; see chapter six). How could Seventh-day Adventists do such a thing?
Had it not been for Ellen White’s continued ministry, it is doubtful that the movement could have survived other than as a legalistic cult like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Worldwide Church of God. This in itself—usually recognized as true—is a strikingly plain commentary on the nature of our deep seated unbelief. We were repeating in a few decades history which ancient Israel took centuries to traverse. No Seventh-day Adventist would deny that the church was “Jerusalem.” But she was still the old city, not yet the New.
We failed to see the three angels’ messages as “the everlasting gospel.” The doctrines were true. But ministers and members were blinded to a proper discernment of the third angel’s message in verity, as the blindness of the Jews prevented them from discerning the true message of the Old Testament. That verity which the Jews couldn’t see was the place of the cross in their sanctuary services and in the ministry of their long-expected Messiah. Likewise, the place of the cross in the third angel’smessage eluded our late-nineteenthcentury brethren.
As early as 1867, Ellen White spoke of the principle of the cross (rather than dress reform) as the fundamental motif inspiring all of our Seventh-day Adventist commitment and lifestyle:
We have been so united with the world that we have lost sight of the cross, and do not suffer for Christ’s sake. … In the acceptance of the cross we are distinguished from the world. (1T 525).
And in 1879 she wrote:
“There is too much bustle and stir about our religion, while Calvary and the cross are forgotten” (5T 133).
What made our spiritual state even more difficult to understand was the fact that the church did enjoy a prosperous growth numerically, financially, and in prestige. This was reflected in a steady increase of institutional, financial, and organizational strength. The fledgling movement, starting from less than nothing in the face of the world’s post-1844 scorn, had assumed the form of a permanently established denomination, well respected. We had what was widely recognized as the finest health institution in the world, and one of the most advanced church printing plants in the “west.”
Of course, there was nothing wrong with such material progress. Most of the advances made were at the insistence of the agent of the gift of prophecy. It was right and proper that institutions be established, that the work spread into new regions and churches everywhere be raised up. But ministers and laity alike mistook this growth for the true end and purpose of the Advent movement—a spiritual preparation for the return of Christ. Confusion resulted, and self-esteem and complacency began to surface in the weekly reports of “the advance of the cause” as published in the Review.
The spirit evident in those reports of “progress” contrasts with the fervent messages of counsel which Ellen White sent out at the same time. Many of the brethren expressed almost incessant optimism about the results of their work. True, God was leading, and the movement was His. But inspiration and history report that the most remarkable aspect of the “work” was not its material progress, but its lack of spiritual maturity.
The primary purpose of the Advent movement has always been to develop the Christlike character of a remnant which vindicates His sacrifice. No other community of saints in all history have welcomed such a maturity of experience, symbolized in Scripture as the Bride making “herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). This last remnant will become the population of a “New Jerusalem,” having overcome the backslidings of all previous generations. In their character will be seen the practical results of the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary. The plan of salvation is to reach its culmination, and the doubts and objections of Satan and his hosts are to be forever answered. The unfallen universe itself is to be reassured by watching a grand demonstration of the complete success of the plan of salvation in its final hour. The gospel is to be demonstrated as “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16).
Bound up with the attainment of this primary objective is the realization of a secondary one: finishing the gospel program of world mission. The attainment of the secondary goal is represented in Scripture as virtually assured once the primary one is realized (Mark 4:2629; Revelation 14:15; John 13:35).
Had “we” not been blinded by self-love, a true understanding of the verity of the three angels' messages would long ago have ensured genuine progress toward the attainment of that primary goal of Christlikeness of character. Instead, there has been an imagined progress in the fulfillment of the secondary goal.
But a serious problem immediately becomes evident. Other denominations are making the same kind of numerical and institutional “progress,” even far better, which suggests that such growth means little so far as Heaven’s real blessings on our work are concerned. In the process we have largely lost sight of the primary goal in this illusory fulfillment of the secondary one. Official reports reach ill-advised conclusions based on financial or statistical advancement. One example follows, the tip of an iceberg of pride and complacency:
The financial success of this vast denominational undertaking cannot be stronger than the faith and zeal which animate God’s chosen people. These combined resources, under the generalship of the Captain of the Lord’s hosts, will lead to the early triumph of the great Second Advent Movement in all the world (Thirty-seventh Financial Report, General Conference, December 31, 1948, p. 9).
In other words, the spiritual faith and zeal of God’s chosen people are measured by their statistical records! It may be said that this is an extreme and outdated example. But it illustrates a mind-set predominant at the time, and recognizable almost everywhere today. The language of our hearts claims that we are “rich and increased with goods.” The Author and Finisher of our faith says the opposite, however.
Such was the spiritual condition of the church in the decade preceding the 1888 General Conference Session. The messenger of the Lord had often decried the love of self that became so painfully evident in an all-pervasive lukewarmness. In desperate efforts to help, she sent burning messages of entreaty to “us” in the years preceding the 1888 Conference, messages to motivate ministers and people to recover the deep, heart-felt love for Jesus that had become nearly lost. She worked hard, but for some reason the appeals largely fell on deaf ears and were not successful.
Could some dynamic message, some simple “word,” penetrate to Laodicea’s heart and accomplish for the church in a short time what decades of Ellen White’s earnest spiritual ministry had failed to do?
The answer is yes, according to the Lord’s plan. He would send such a “word” through humble instruments in 1888, a message to be the “beginning” of the latter rain and the loud cry. The circumstances of its coming would be as lowly as the “worm” that caused Jonah’s vine to wither, and as humble as the birth in Bethlehem’s barn. God sent two young, obscure agents with a fresh presentation of pure truth. Ellen White was delighted with their message. She saw how it provided the missing link of Adventism, the motivation that transformed the heavy “oughts” of legalism into the joyful imperatives of apostolic devotion.
But she was righteously indignant with leading brethren who could not see what was happening and who reacted to it negatively. She spoke about the two messengers thus:
The priest took [the infant Jesus] in his arms, but he could see nothing there. God did not speak to him and say, “This is the consolation of Israel.” But just as soon as Simeon came in, … he sees there that little Infant in His mother’s arms, … God says to him, “This is the consolation of Israel.” … Here was one who recognized Him because he was where he could discern spiritual things. …
We have not a doubt but that the Lord was with Elder Waggoner as he spoke yesterday. …
The question is, Has God sent the truth? Has God raised up these men to proclaim the truth? I say, yes, God has sent men to bring us the truth that we should not have had unless God had sent somebody to bring it to us. … I accept it, and I no more dare to lift my hand against these persons [than] against Jesus Christ, who is to be recognized in His messengers. …
We have been in perplexity, and we have been in doubt, and the churches are ready to die. But now here we read [quotes Revelation 18:1] (Ms. 2, 1890).
A century later, with a more ponderous world-wide machinery of organization, the difficulty of rectifying the same lukewarm, “ready to die” condition appears even more perplexing than it was in 1890. Denominational pride and lukewarmness in many nations and cultures present a staggering problem. It can no longer be hoped that the mere passage of time will provide a remedy. Even God’s patience may soon be at an end. The effects of our lukewarmness will not, cannot, be tolerated by the Lord Himself forever. It is He who says that we make Him so sick that He feels like throwing up (this is what the original language implies in Revelation 3:16, 17).
The key to understanding our present baffling position lies in a true appraisal of what happened at the 1888 Session and its aftermath. We must recognize the reality of its spiritual fall-out in our denominational character world-wide today. The latter rain and the loud cry began among us as a simple, unspectacular message of miraculous power, but these priceless blessings were shut off because the Holy Spirit was “insulted.”
How this could happen we must consider in our next chapter.