From Sect to Church
On July 16, 1915, Ellen G. White died. The prophetic voice was silenced. It was now no longer possible for church members and leaders to ask her for “advice from the Lord.” Her voice and her pen were silenced. But what she had written would continue to exert a great influence on the life of the church.
At her death, there were 24 books in circulation that she had written, along with about 4,500 articles published in various church magazines. Already, during her lifetime, but especially after her death, the question of her inspiration and the relationship of her writings to the Scriptures arose.
In the more than 100,000 pages of her writings that Ellen White left behind, she often wrote about the same topic, but not always in the same way. Thus, sometimes contradictory interpretations arose, and the question of the role and interpretation of her writings became even more important.
Even though Ellen White had clearly explained that her writings were no substitute for the Bible, some Adventists believed that they were verbally inspired. Others believed that she had written all her visions without help from other books, with the exception of those books which she expressly mentioned.
At the Autumn Council of the General Conference in 1911, her son, W. C. White, had clearly and explicitly refuted both of these opinions: “Mother has never laid claim to verbal inspiration, and I do not find that my father, or Elder Bates, Andrews, Smith, or Waggoner, put forth this claim. If there were verbal inspiration in writing her manuscripts, why should there be on her part the work of addition or adaptation? It is a fact that Mother often takes one of her manuscripts, and goes over it thoughtfully, making additions that develop the thought still further.”1
He explained that she described in her own words what was shown her and that she often used other books because they offered a good summary of what she had seen, without citing them.
In 1919, about 50 administrators and editors, as well as Bible and history teachers came together in Takoma Park, Maryland, from June 1-21 to a Bible conference, followed by a three-week meeting of Bible and history teachers. The question of the inspiration of Ellen White as well as the relationship of her writings to the Bible were discussed at the meeting of the Bible and history teachers.
General Conference President A. G. Daniells spoke briefly on this topic and then invited those present to ask questions. In his answers, he repeatedly rejected the verbal inspiration of Ellen White’s writings, but stressed the practical value of the Spirit of Prophecy in the development of the church, e.g., doctrines, mission, health, and education. These things convinced him of the authenticity of the gift. It was also repeatedly confirmed that, concerning historical facts, Ellen White was not considered to be an authority.
In conclusion, Daniells advised the participants to use their common sense when using the writings of Ellen White. He published a short report in the Review and Herald and hoped to be able to hold a further conference the following year. This did not occur, however, until 1952.
The transcript of the 1952 conference includes 2,400 pages. They were at first not published, but so well stored that they were only rediscovered by accident in 1974. The section dealing with the discussion about the Spirit of Prophecy was published in 1980 in Spectrum.2
In 1920 the church had 185,000 members; in 1950 there were 756,000. About half of this number lived in Europe and America. Most of the members of the developing world were found in Central America and South Africa.
On the theological front in the 1920s, the church was focused primarily on two major issues: righteousness by faith and the theory of evolution.
The discussion on justification focused primarily on the question of the victorious Christian life. Victory over sin was in the forefront. Eighteen Sabbath school quarterlies between 1921 and 1930 dealt with the topic of justification, and a series of books dealing with the same topic were published. The best known of them was the book Christ Our Righteousnessby Arthur Daniells.
Prior to and after the First World War, there developed within Christianity a confrontation between Fundamentalists and Modernists (liberal Christians). Conservative Christians attempted to counteract the influence of Modernism with the publication of a series of 12 booklets (“The Fundamentals,” 1910 to 1915), which contained the most important Christian teachings.
Seventh-day Adventists agreed with Fundamentalists on a number of doctrines, especially in regard to the theory of evolution and higher criticism. Seventh-day Adventists, like the Fundamentalists, stressed the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. Together with the Fundamentalists, they also supported the prohibition of alcohol in the Unites States from 1919 to 1933. Seventh-day Adventists also had one of the leading anti-evolutionists, George McCready Price, in their ranks. Through his influence Fundamentalists accepted a worldwide flood and a six-day creation approximately 6,000 years ago.
The Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War caused the church financial difficulties. Many mission fields were cut off from church administration because of the war. Missionaries had to return to their homelands, forcing the local members to take over the leadership of the church in their home countries. In spite of these difficulties, the membership grew from 314,000 in 1930, to 600,000 in 1946.
In order to revive and organize the worldwide work after the war, many conferences, youth congresses, seminars, and ministerial meetings were held; e.g., in 1951 a European youth congress was held in Paris in which 5,000 young people from all over Europe participated.
In September 1952, the first Bible conference since 1919 was held. For two weeks more than 500 participants studied and discussed the topics of salvation and the end-time doctrine. At the end of the two weeks, F. D. Nichol (editor of the Review) summed up the conference with these words, “It is an impressive fact that our theology has not changed. . . . Once again it is clear to us that Christ is the heart and center of our doctrine.”3 The lectures of the conference were published a year later in two volumes entitled Our Firm Foundation.
Shortly after this Bible conference, the General Conference appointed the Committee on Biblical Study and Research, which in 1969 became the Biblical Research Institute Committee, to deal with challenges to the Adventist faith.
Volume Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary was published, followed a few years later by a Bible Dictionary, a Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, and in the year 2000, the Handbook of Adventist Theology. Thus the seven volumes were expanded to 12 volumes. The Bible commentary was important for the church, but not really suitable for introducing our theology to non-Adventists. Such a book appeared in 1957 as a result of a dialogue between evangelical and Adventist theologians.
In 1955, Walter Martin, a Baptist preacher, wrote a letter to the General Conference, asking for books about our doctrines and requesting an interview with church leaders. Martin was an associate editor of the Protestant paper Eternity and had already written books about Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Christian Scientists. In 1955, he was working on a book about Seventh-day Adventists and wanted to give a fair representation of the church.
After reading a number of our books, Martin met with a group of Adventist leaders over a period of approximately 18 months. Walter Martin was accompanied by his friend George Cannon, professor of New Testament at the St. Paul (Minnesota) Institute, and Donald Gray Barnhouse, the editor of the magazine Eternity.
The reason for these meetings in the offices of the General Conference, each lasting one to three days, was to give a clear picture of our doctrines. The results of this conference were a few articles in the paper Eternity and the publication of the books Questions on Doctrine4 and The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism.5
In their publications, Martin and Barnhouse wrote that Adventists were converted Christians who taught salvation by faith and not salvation by works. Therefore, the Seventh-day Adventist Church should be accepted as a Christian church rather than a cult. In response, they received many negative letters from their readers and the list of subscribers to the magazine Eternity became noticeably smaller.
Nevertheless, Martin and Barnhouse maintained their position and defended the Seventh-day Adventist Church against attacks by other Protestants who continued to describe Adventists as a cult. Since then, most Protestant churches have accepted Seventh-day Adventists as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
1. Selected Messages, Book 3, p. 437.
2. Mollerus Couperus, “The Bible Conference of 1919,” Spectrum 10:1 (1979):23-57.
3. F. D. Nichol, “Looking Back on the Bible Conference,” Review and Herald (October 23,1952):10, 11.
4. Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine: An Explanation of Certain Major Aspects of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1957).
5. Walter R. Martin, The Truth About Seventh-day Adventism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1960).