Sabbatarian Adventist ministers held the protocol in Matthew 18:15 to 17 as a guide for administering most types of church discipline.
Kevin M. Burton
In 1976, Milton Raymond Hook stated in his M.A. thesis that on April 6, 1870, the membership of the Adventist church in Battle Creek, Michigan, “was reduced to an apostolic twelve.”1 Hook thus became the first to note that essentially every person in Seventh‑day Adventism’s largest congregation had been disfellowshipped. Though Hook published his work in Flames Over Battle Creek a year later,2 subsequent scholars did not acknowledge his findings for nearly four decades. Gary Land was the next to mention the Battle Creek purge in his book, Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator, which appeared in 2014.3
Scholars have probably been cautious because Hook glossed over the event in a single paragraph and cited only one source in support. Such limited treatment raised vital questions; namely, did this event occur as claimed, or did Hook misread his source? Assuming that Hook was correct, what events led to this purge, and why were so many members removed? Though he cited only one source, Hook’s brief presentation was essentially accurate. He relied on George Washington Amadon, an Adventist leader who witnessed the event personally and wrote about it in his diary at the time it occurred. When, in 2014, Land readdressed this topic, he relied heavily on Hook’s published work (not quoting the diary directly), but also added one more important source (a letter written by Harriet N. Smith to James and Ellen White in 1870) and attempted to provide relevant background information to the purge in Battle Creek. Land’s assessment was still limited, however, and questions regarding this event remain unanswered.
The Laodicean Church Trial
Since the late 1840s, Sabbatarian Adventist ministers held the protocol in Matthew 18:15 to 17 as a guide for administering most types of church discipline. In the mid‑1850s, a minister named Joseph B. Frisbie explicitly outlined three broad categories of disorderly walking (2 Thess. 3:6) that could culminate in church trials—personal offenses, incorrect theology, and living in known sin. Though Frisbie provided additional scriptural advice, he asserted that all church trials should follow Matthew 18:15 to 17 “out to the letter.”4
This text advised that, in a conflict, the offended party was to confront the offender privately. If this did not resolve the issue, the offended was to include one or two others for a second confrontation. If the conflict remained unresolved, then the matter was to be brought to the church. If the offender would not listen to the church, then he or she was to be cast out of the congregation. Sabbatarian Adventists may have, at times, carried this process out “to the letter,” but it was usually altered.
One type of church trial that deviated from the Matthew prescription was that of a Laodicean trial. These trials convened when the entire church found itself to be in a spiritually apathetic, Laodicean state (Rev. 3:14–22). They were unique because every member of the church was investigated. In such cases, an itinerant minister (or perhaps two) came to the church to interrogate each member in the meetinghouse individually in the presence of the congregation, asking questions like: Do you have any personal difficulties with other church members? Are you in harmony with the Adventist teachings, and do you keep the Sabbath day holy? Have you adopted the health-reform message and agreed to abstain from tea and coffee? Are you fervent in your personal devotions and “secret” prayer? Do you have confidence in the Testimonies for the Church? (It should be noted that James and Ellen White heartily disapproved of her visions being made a test of fellowship.) As these questions were addressed, a scribe typically wrote down the individual’s responses in the church record book. After all the members were directly examined, the congregation decided who was retained and who was disfellowshipped. The remnant then proceeded to reorganize the church, usually by adopting a new covenant or series of resolutions.5
Church trials of various types occurred frequently in the early Seventh‑day Adventist Church, and an Arminian perspective colored these events. By rejecting the Lutheran and Reformed concepts of predestination, Arminian Christians have historically been faced with a tantalizing paradox: How are people redeemed by grace alone if they can accept or reject salvation on the basis of their free will? Roger E. Olson states, “Arminius’s solution to this thorny problem lay in the key concept of ‘prevenient grace.’. . . It is the grace God offers and extends to everyone in some degree, and it is absolutely necessary for fallen sinners—dead in sins and in bondage of the will—to believe and be saved.”6 Humans are therefore saved by grace alone because it is considered a prevenient gift from God. This theological outlook creates a razor‑sharp line between faith and works that is difficult to balance: If someone leans too hard to the left, grace is cheapened; if he or she goes off to the right, grace is crowded out by human effort.
Arminian Christians have tried to balance faith and works in day‑to‑day life through guilt regulation. Methodist minister Zachariah Taft explained the conversion (and reconversion) process as follows: “the work . . . is always one;—always originating in conviction,—and compromising repentance, faith, and conscious freedom from guilt and thralldom of sin.”7 In other words, a person is converted once he or she is convicted of sin and finds freedom from this guilt through faith‑filled repentance.
Theorist of emotions Fraser Watts unpacks the concept of guilt, stating, “It is tempting to assume that guilt is an unpleasant emotion with psychologically harmful effects.” The confusion is cleared up, however, “by distinguishing between different kinds of guilt.” Though guilt can be excessive and neurotic, “there can also be guilt that is realistic in the sense that it is a proper response to inappropriate or maladaptive conduct.” In relation to Christianity, Watts explains, “religious teaching on guilt sometimes draws attention to problematic conduct, but it does so in the context of also emphasizing that there is a solution to the guilt to which it leads.”8 Ministers therefore sought to prick the consciences of the members, convicting them of their guilt and bringing about thorough repentance from sin for the purification and edification of the individual and the church.
Arminian Christian ministers, including Adventists, have historically drawn attention to problematic conduct through jeremiad sermons. The term jeremiad is derived from the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, in which the prophet exhorted the Israelites to escape doom through recognition of their sin, repentance of guilt, and reconciliation to Jehovah. Throughout history, jeremiads have been used as a type of rhetoric to condemn wrong and call for reformation and revival. Sacvan Bercovitch states, “The American jeremiad was a ritual designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal, public to private identity, the shifting ‘signs of the times’ to certain traditional metaphors, themes, and symbols.”9 In short, the jeremiad was (and still is) a device utilized for guilt regulation, often in, but not limited to, the Christian context. Early Adventist ministers relied on jeremiads heavily during the investigation that led to the Laodicean trial that occurred in April 1870.
Jeremiads were particularly common during the years surrounding the Civil War. The war was a major shifting point in American history, and many Christians observed its demoralizing effect on people. One citizen lamented in 1864 that “every kind of iniquity is on the increase,”10 while another reported in 1866, “vice and immorality of almost every kind have been rapidly on the increase during the last five years, and, what is still worse, public sentiment has become so much demoralized that many things are now thought right, or at least admissible, which formerly all men agreed in pronouncing wrong.”11 Christians in general were deeply impacted by perceived shifts in moral standards and, as in times past, ministers relied on jeremiads to regulate guilt and inspire conversions.
The Rise of Controversy: 1865–1869
The Civil War deeply impacted Sabbatarian Adventists. James White prodded Adventists throughout the 1850s and early 1860s to officially organize. This venture was completed in May 1863 (the midst of the war) when the General Conference of Seventh‑day Adventists was established with John Byington as president. In the midst of this struggle, White also faced two more challenges: growing contention with a congregation in Marion, Iowa, and the military draft. In 1865–1866 the Marion congregation eventually became the Church of God (Seventh Day). In regard to the draft, White helped Adventists gain non‑combatant status in late 1864, but complications with conscription persisted until the war ended. Ellen White explained that these issues kept her husband’s “mind constantly strained” and that his “physical energies were utterly exhausted.”12 This led to physical collapse, and on August 16, 1865, James White suffered a major stroke, his first of many.
Though White survived this stroke, it took him years to recover. Difficulties arose in the church during this time in part because other leaders were unprepared for the responsibilities thrust upon them by White’s sudden collapse. Since White had been the foremost leader of the church since the late 1840s, his absence caused a major jolt in church governance. Ellen White was also inactive during this period because she was taking care of her husband. Though she carried no formal authority within the church, her visions and writings deeply impacted the spiritual life of the community. As a result, the church operated without two of its key leaders for more than a year and, when the Whites returned, they perceived that problems had developed at the Adventist headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, during their absence.
A primary source of contention arose during this time: the attempted construction of a large new building for the Western Health Reform Institute. The institute opened its doors on September 5, 1866, and before the end of the year—long before the new business was firmly established—the directors planned for extensive expansions, calling specifically for $25,000 to erect a sizeable new building in early January 1867. Construction began during the summer of 1867 but, due to inadequate funding, the elaborate project was abandoned on June 2, 1868.
This issue became very problematic for Adventists because they were all aware that building had commenced, and many had seen the site personally when they came to Battle Creek for the 1867 General Conference session. When church members throughout the U.S. found out that the project had been abandoned, some felt defrauded—it was their money that had been poorly managed. This led some non-Battle Creek Adventists to lose confidence in the leaders at headquarters. In order to save face, some of the directors blamed James White for the embarrassment, even though he had not been a part of the enterprise.
In 1867 and 1868, the Whites actively addressed the problem of fiscal mismanagement and general “worldliness” in the church. As they fought against this rise in immorality, however, other leaders countered the Whites’ efforts by casting doubt on their moral authority. As a result, many Adventists began to interpret White’s stroke as a judgment from God for being too strict and overbearing in his management of church affairs. Furthermore, a number claimed that White had actually utilized church monies for personal gain. Similarly, some belittled Ellen White’s visions by mocking their contents and discrediting their importance. The Whites’ influence was therefore hindered, which created tension between them and other denominational leaders that would continue, off and on, for several years.
Though some Adventists began to distrust the leadership in Battle Creek, others viewed the town as a Promised Land. According to Ellen White, there was “with many of our brethren and sisters . . . a strong inclination to live in Battle Creek” and, by the summer of 1868, many families had already come “from all directions to reside there, and many more [had] their faces set that way.”13 The Whites viewed this as problematic primarily for missiological reasons. After her June 12, 1868, vision, Ellen White stated: “Missionaries are wanted to go into towns and villages and raise the standard of truth, that God may have His witnesses scattered all over the land, that the light of truth may penetrate where it has not yet reached. . . . The brethren should not flock together because it is more agreeable to them, but should seek to fulfill their high calling to do others good, to be instrumental in the salvation of at least one soul.”14
Unlike other new religious groups in the 19th century, such as Mormons or the Oneida Community, the Whites did not want Adventists to gather in one location. Rather, they wanted Adventists to disperse and follow the “great commission” by taking their message out to the ends of the earth.
In the midst of this dilemma, Ellen White received another vision in October 1868. The key component found in the subsequent Testimony read: “There are needed faithful and picked men at the head of the work. Those who have not had an experience in bearing burdens, and do not wish to have that experience, should not, on any account, live there.”15 As more Adventists moved to Battle Creek, White suggested a twofold solution for problems in the Adventist sector of town: First, some Adventists who resided there were needed in other localities so the message could spread, while others (particularly those who were responsible for fiscal mismanagement at headquarters) needed to move away so that their influence would no longer keep the Adventist institutions from working effectively; and second, talented and responsible Adventists were encouraged to move to Battle Creek so that ministerial and missionary labor could be more effectively organized and confidence in Adventist leadership at headquarters through the influence of trustworthy representatives from different states. In the months following this vision, however, Adventists began to interpret White’s suggestive, “should not,” as an imperative, “could not.” During the summer of 1869, events transpired that jolted Adventists, allowing them to admit that problems existed. Re‑impassioned with missionary zeal and an eschatological sense of urgency, key leaders latched onto this component of the vision and sought to use it to correct the situation and push the work forward through unbalanced guilt regulation.
During the summer of 1869, the interpersonal struggles between Seventh‑day Adventist leaders became public knowledge. On July 27, 1869, the Voice of the West began to publish a long article by T. M. Preble titled, “Ellen G. White and Her Visions!” This front-page exclusive ran for six weeks, ending on August 31.16 While the title does indicate that Ellen White was the central focus, James White was also denounced, along with all Seventh‑day Adventists in general. In particular, the Battle Creek church and prominent ministers were vilified, including J. N. Loughborough, M. E. Cornell, D. T. Bourdeau, and especially, J. H. Waggoner.
The leaders in Battle Creek were shocked by the article and anxious to respond. This screed gave leaders undeniable proof that the conflict that transpired between 1867 and 1869 had damaged the reputation of the Seventh‑day Adventist Church. Significantly, all of Preble’s sources for his article were taken from the Testimonies and confessions published during these years, and Adventist leaders now realized that they needed to fight for respect and address the key issues in Battle Creek so that Adventism could spread throughout the world.
The 1869–1870 Investigation of James and Ellen White
In early October 1869, the Battle Creek church decided to hold an investigation to address various concerns that Preble’s article had raised. The precise day that this began is unknown, but before the end of the month, it was in full swing and continued with increasing intensity until the end of April 1870. James and Ellen White were both active participants throughout this process, beginning with James White’s sermon on Sabbath, October 16, when he preached from 1 Peter 4:18, which states, “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (KJV). This unpublished jeremiad was probably directed at the backsliding members in Battle Creek and apparently had a humbling effect.
From the Whites’ perspective, the investigation began well. Ellen White wrote to a friend on October 25, “A great work is going forward in this church at the present time, a work of humiliation and confession. This work should have been done years ago . . . . The work is ahead of anything that has ever yet been in Battle Creek. May the Lord pity and save His people.”17 Ellen White wrote this shortly after the church decided to re‑investigate the business career of her husband. On October 26, a committee requested through the Review that “every one who can speak of any unjust transaction [made by White] of which he has personal knowledge, to report the same to this Office.” While the primary purpose of this examination was to vindicate the course of James White, the article also stated: “We also believe that God has given to Sr. White what the New Testament calls the gift of prophecy. The importance of her position in this work is, therefore, very great.”18 Preble’s article had touched a nerve, and Adventist leaders sought to defend Ellen White through an investigatory process as well.
The committee elected to lead this investigation included three prominent leaders: J. N. Andrews, Goodloe Harper Bell, and Uriah Smith. Though Smith proved to be ineffective throughout this long investigation, J. H. Waggoner became highly involved. In addition to his desire to vindicate the Whites, he was also motivated by personal reasons. Ellen White was the feature of Preble’s attack, but Waggoner was condemned more than any other minister. That Waggoner took this defense personally may help explain his harshness during the Laodicean trial in April 1870. While the Whites and the church needed vindication, Waggoner also had cause to regain self‑respect within his community.
J. H. Waggoner and J. N. Andrews began crafting a response to Preble in late October or early November. By December, their article was finished and ready for publication. They had been in communication with Joshua V. Himes, editor of the Advent‑Christian Times (the Voice of the West had taken this new name in September 1869), hoping that their response would be printed in the same paper that featured Preble’s article. On January 4, 1870, Waggoner and Andrews traveled to Buchanan, Michigan, to deliver their rejoinder to Himes personally and on January 11, it was published in the Advent‑Christian Times.19
This published response was significant, but Waggoner and Andrews had not yet finished their work of vindication. By the end of January, a new tract, “Defense of Eld. James White and Wife: Vindication of Their Moral and Christian Character,” was in progress and, in late March, it was published at the close of the 1870 General Conference. Shortly before this, in early December 1869, Ellen White had published Testimony for the Church, No. 18, which included her October 1868 vision about “picked men” and her suggestion that certain people move from Battle Creek. This publication contributed a key component in the investigation, because, as Adventists at headquarters read the work, they presumably wondered if they should or should not remain in Battle Creek. Growing discomfort was felt as numerous meetings and church trials were held between January and April 1870. By the beginning of March, meetings were held almost daily (morning, afternoon, and evening) until the end of April.
On February 18, James White stated that he wanted to hold a revival in the Battle Creek church the week before the General Conference as “a special season of seeking God, and in putting away the sins and faults that have grieved the Spirit of God at Battle Creek.”20 It would not be a public affair, however—people had to be invited. In total about one hundred selected Adventists “from Maine to Iowa”21 attended the revival. They began to arrive on Friday, March 4, and most were in Battle Creek by the next day. An account of the proceedings for this series of meetings was made by George Washington Amadon, an Adventist leader who witnessed the event personally and wrote about it in his diary during the time that it occurred. On Sabbath, after the afternoon service, James White called for a preparatory meeting to convene that evening, beginning at 6 p.m. During this time White spoke plainly and “dwelt on former wrongs & the present duty” of the Battle Creek church “in view of the [General] Conference.”22
The revival officially began on March 6, with meetings in the afternoon and evening. People were hopeful and excited, and it seems that the first day was very successful. The revival began with a tone of vindication. On March 8, “Bro. White spoke of the want of confidence in the visions, [and] that but few believed that God was speaking to them.”23 On March 10, an investigation ensued regarding “business matters.” Once again, James White’s management was found to be ethical and aboveboard. The defense committee concluded that “after much patient investigation, it was made apparent that the cause had not been well sustained, and its interests had not been properly guarded by those who bore the responsibilities of the work in Battle Creek during the period of Bro. White’s absence on account of his sickness.” In response, those present confessed and unanimously adopted several resolutions, promising to support White in his leadership.24
By Friday, March 11, the meetings gained a more typical revival tone and were “of remarkable interest.” James and Ellen White both spoke in the morning. It was reported that “those who heard Sr. White during the forenoon and afternoon meetings” were stirred by her solemn words. She dealt harshly with sin and error, but spoke with “tender pity and compassion toward the erring and the sinful.” In response, “deep confessions were made through the day.”25
Though Ellen White’s jeremiad was reportedly balanced with “pity and compassion,” those preached on Sabbath, March 12, centered exclusively, it would seem, on holiness and perfection. In the morning, G. I. Butler preached a solemn sermon on Hebrews 12:14. A glimpse of his tone can be observed from the passage itself: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (KJV). W. H. Littlejohn gave another grave discourse in the afternoon on Revelation 22:14, which reads, “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (KJV). It seems that Butler and Littlejohn both emphasized the same point in their sermons—that salvation is dependent upon holiness and that entrance into heaven is made possible by obedience to the law of God. These sermons received mixed reviews. While the Review reported ambiguously that these sermons were “memorable in the experience of those who attended them,”26 others privately felt that “not much of the Spirit” was present and that the meetings were downright “awful, awful.”27 More importantly, these sermons were preached at a pivotal time—at the end of the revival. Laden with guilt and fear, Adventists now sought to achieve unity and perfection by human effort, no matter the cost. It seems that grace, the necessary companion to religious guilt, was essentially forgotten.
James White had preached liberally on grace prior to these final sermons, however. Between the first of January through March 12, he delivered the majority of the Sabbath sermons (morning or afternoon) in Battle Creek by a wide margin. Though White defended himself and his wife, his sermons reflected the Arminian balance. In fact, his primary emphasis throughout his discourses was grace. On February 5, James White “preached on ‘The Kingdom’ [and] took some new positions on several texts: Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:5; Rom. 14:17 and Matt. 13:33, applying them all to the ‘Kingdom of grace.’”28 Unlike the isolated passages selected by other ministers, such as Butler and Littlejohn, these texts all reflect a message of redemption through Christ, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, and especially the love and grace of God the Father. On the next Sabbath (February 12), White preached “a rehearsal of his new light on the Kingdom” and those who heard it considered it “most excellent.”29 The day before the revival began (March 5), White preached another Sabbath morning sermon. He chose to speak from Hebrews 4:16, which states, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (KJV). This was a message that was “very clear & encouraging” and helped to set a positive tone as the revival commenced.30
Adventists failed, however, to incorporate the concept of grace into this investigation. Other sermons, such as those preached by Butler and Littlejohn, were instrumental in causing the Arminian equilibrium to be thrown off balance, and the message of grace that had been preached by White was essentially forgotten. After Butler and Littlejohn’s sermons on March 12, the congregation held a business meeting that was “terrible important.” The meetings continued throughout Sunday and Monday and, as Amadon stated, they were “awful solemn” and “very important.”31 In a similar fashion, John Byington wrote in his diary that the “labour with the church [was a] great trial” and even though “the ‘powers’ of hell seem[ed] determined to hinder” he believed that “some victory” was gained.32 Similarly, it was publicly announced, “We have good reason to hope that these meetings [on March 12 and 13] will mark a new era in the experience of the Battle Creek church.”33
Convicted with guilt, the Battle Creek church drafted and adopted a series of 13 resolutions that reflected an extreme emphasis on perfection. The first four resolutions stressed that salvific assurance was obtained by bearing good fruit (Matt. 7:17); that is, by human works. A clear distinction was also drawn between authentic Christians and unauthentic Christians. After outlining these tenets, Resolution 5 stated, “That those who are not accepted of God are not his children, and should not belong to the church.” Resolutions 6 through 9 stated that the Battle Creek church was in a “backslidden state, fitly described by the message to the Laodiceans” and that through their condition of “blindness and waywardness,” they had all “committed great and grievous sins” and “brought dishonor upon the cause of God.” The document further admitted that “the principal cause” of their “wicked and reckless course” was disregard, indifference, and even contempt by some for “the testimonies given through the gift of prophecy.” Resolution 9 then made it clear that the church believed there was only one “way of escape” from their “deplorable condition.” They needed “a heartfelt confession” of their “wickedness in the past” and “a strict compliance” from that “time forward.” This all led to the most important statements, found in Resolutions 10 through 13.
In Resolution 10, the congregation affirmed: “That the salvation of this church depends upon immediate and decisive action, to the end that each of its members give good evidence of conversion, or be promptly disfellowshipped.” Resolutions 11 through 13 expressed an eisegetical reading of Ellen White’s vision about “picked men” and recommendation that certain people move away from Battle Creek. Though White had suggested that certain people relocate for missionary advancement, those in Battle Creek read into her statements that “all such persons as are not qualified in both mind and heart to bear the responsibilities peculiar to the post” of leadership should be removed by church mandate. No one, it seems, anticipated the drastic results that would come from this interpretation, and so the people freely surrendered their cases to the General Conference executive committee. The final resolution stated, “we do hereby severally pledge ourselves to cheerfully submit to the action of the General Conference, in our individual cases, whether it be decided that we ought to remain in, or remove from, this place.”34
Not only did these resolutions specify that the General Conference should have the authority to determine whether or not each person could remain in the church, but also the congregation gave this small group the power to determine whether or not each person would be allowed to live in the town of Battle Creek. It should be noted, however, that the Battle Creek church did not have the authority to surrender their fate to the General Conference. Since this matter fell outside of General Conference jurisdiction, it needed to be voted by the General Conference in session. The General Conference voted to approve this request (including the eisegetical reading of Ellen White’s vision about “picked men”) on March 15.35 Though this was “unanimously adopted” by the General Conference in session, it still needed to be ratified by the Michigan State Conference, which took place the following day. After going through this system of checks and balances, the General Conference now had control over the situation.
The 1870 General Conference re-elected James White (president), J. N. Andrews, and J. H. Waggoner as the General Conference executive committee. Since the current investigation in Battle Creek involved James White, he did not participate in the final weeks of the church trial. Therefore, the situation was left entirely with J. H. Waggoner and J. N. Andrews. The trial had been on hold during the General Conference, and this hiatus continued during the ministerial training course that took place between March 27 and April 2. J. N. Andrews preached on Saturday evening, April 2. The trial resumed the next day.
As indicated by the resolutions crafted by the Battle Creek church, this was a Laodicean church trial, yet since the General Conference handled it exclusively, standard procedures were modified. Unlike other Laodicean trials in which the congregation voted the outcome of each individual, this responsibility was put into the hands of only two people. Beginning on April 3, Waggoner and Andrews sat in the meetinghouse as each member came forward one by one to be interrogated. Ellen White seems to suggest that Waggoner was the prime inquisitor, and, as he and Andrews interviewed each member, John Harvey Kellogg wrote down each person’s response, as well as the verdict, into the church record book. Kellogg, who was only 18 at the time, later stated with disgust: “I had to sit there and make a record as they [Waggoner and Andrews] brought the cases up—'Well, Sister So‑and So, we have heard that you are not as strict in the discipline of Will as a mother ought to be; and Willie sometimes disobeys you and is not punished as he ought to be.’ Etc. etc.” ‘And now, Brother Jones, we have heard that you are not as careful as you ought to be on the question of health reform. I had to take this all down and write it out.”36
At this time, the Battle Creek church had approximately 250 to 300 members, and it took four days for the members to be interrogated. If every member appeared for a hearing, and if the process was perfectly streamlined, then Waggoner and Andrews would have had to interview about 70 people each day. If they worked 10 hours per day at this rate with no breaks, each interview would have been less than 10 minutes in duration—a remarkably short period for such decisions. If the church record book had survived, then these speculations could be verified. It burned in a fire in December 1902, however, and George Washington Amadon later stated, “I am glad of it.”37
On April 3, only “6 were cut off” while more were likely disfellowshipped over the next two days as well. The purge concluded on April 6 during a “‘Last Call’ meet[in]g of [the] ch[urch]” in which “[a]ll were cut off but 12.” George Washington Amadon lamented in his diary, “Oh Lord, what times are these[!]”38 Since the church record books were destroyed, only six of the “apostolic twelve” are currently identified: James, Ellen, and William White (James Edson was apparently disfellowshipped); John Harvey Kellogg, Goodloe Harper Bell (and probably his wife, Harriet E. Bell), and Nellie Richmond (and probably her husband, G. F. Richmond). The Whites were retained because the trial was primarily held for their vindication; Kellogg, as he later stated, was retained not because he “was so good, but because they [Waggoner and Andrews] wanted somebody for a clerk”39; Bell was retained because he fought alongside Waggoner and Andrews to make the church perfect (he was ordained as the new church elder on April 23); Richmond was apparently retained because she falsely testified against other church members, which gave Waggoner and Andrews the impression that she was a very pious Christian.
Waggoner was pleased with the outcome and publicly reported, “Discipline is necessary to the life and growth of a church, and members who disregard correct rules of a church are no benefit to it, but rather a detriment.”40 He was unabashedly determined to make the church perfect. Since denominational headquarters were located in Battle Creek, Waggoner fought hard to end all conflict. Shortly after the Laodicean trial concluded, he proudly proclaimed in the Review that the Battle Creek church was “now in working order” and that “union prevails.”41 By the end of the month, the Defense of Eld. James White and Wife was revised, updated, and republished with a new subtitle: The Battle Creek Church to the Churches and Brethren Scattered Abroad. Though the new version of this tract did not provide details of the trial itself, it did include the Battle Creek church’s list of 13 resolutions, which helped other Adventists make sense of the bizarre event. As a result, this second edition was more than a defense of the Whites—it was an implicit defense and explanation of Waggoner and Andrews’ severe judgment of the Battle Creek church.
All did not share Waggoner’s optimistic outlook, however. On April 9, the Battle Creek church began to reorganize. Though a few members were reaccepted, most waited months—even up to a year—if they were readmitted at all. George Washington Amadon stated in his diary, “Oh, how careful the Brn. seem 2 move in taking in members. I handed in my name but it was not accepted.” Amadon was not alone, and on April 10, a large group of former members moved out West. Amadon rented out his house the same day and moved to Ceresco village in Newtown Township, Michigan, on April 11.42 Since Adventists interpreted Ellen White’s October 1868 vision through a coercive lens and gave the General Conference the authority to determine who could live in Battle Creek and who could not, this mass exodus is not surprising. Nevertheless, it added insult to injury and this twofold judgment—the disfellowshipping and the eviction—was very painful for those on the receiving end. According to Ellen White, the extreme stress of these events caused Addie James to lose her sanity.43 Though others did not suffer to this degree, the situation was still exceptionally distressing. George Washington Amadon lost his job at the Review office when he was disfellowshipped. Similarly, after Dr. Horatio S. Lay was cut off, he was subsequently fired from the Western Health Reform Institute on May 1, 1870. By contrast, and for reasons unknown, Uriah Smith retained his church positions of Review and Herald editor, General Conference secretary, and Michigan Conference president after being disfellowshipped. In light of these responses, Amadon perhaps summed it up best when he stated coolly, “The tail‑board of the cart was pulled out and the contents were dumped.”44
Though they were retained, James and Ellen White were quite displeased with the outcome of the Laodicean trial. Though they supported the trial, they did not expect the harsh results. In fact, this draconian affair strained James White’s relationship with J. H. Waggoner and J. N. Andrews. White was particularly frustrated with Waggoner, who was primarily in charge and “cautioned and held [him] back from engaging in church difficulties.” Waggoner was offended by this, however, and interpreted “the cautions, advice, and reproof of Bro. White” as a way of “restricting his liberties, and controlling his labors.” According to Ellen White, “Brn. Andrews and Waggoner sympathized together in reference to these things,”45 and, by the end of the year, James White accused them both of the dereliction of their duties.
Equally frustrated, Ellen White also spoke against this unwarrantable raid. She wrote, “In the work done for the church at Battle Creek in the spring of 1870, there was not all that dependence upon God that the important occasion demanded. Brn. Andrews and Waggoner did not fully make God their trust, and move in his strength, and with his grace, as they should.”46 She warned that Waggoner and Andrews “had too much of a spirit of cold criticism in the examination of individuals who presented themselves to be received into the church.”47 Devoid of love and sympathy, “[t]he investigation of cases in Battle Creek was very much after the order that a lawyer criticises a witness, and there was a decided absence of the Spirit of God.”48
Ellen White was particularly direct with Waggoner. “When Bro. Waggoner thinks a person is wrong,” she wrote, “he is frequently too severe.” Since he lacked an adequate portion of compassion and had erred in judgment, she believed that “Bro. Waggoner should shun church trials, and should have nothing to do in settling difficulties.” In spite of this, White affirmed that Waggoner had “a valuable gift” that was “needed in the work of God.”49 Nevertheless, this did not excuse the situation. In a sobering turn of phrase, Ellen White wrote, “Bro. Waggoner has held aloft the gospel whip, and his own words have frequently been the snap to that whip, which has not had the influence to spur others to greater zeal, and provoke to good works; but has aroused their combativeness to repel his severity.”50 In this statement, White contrasted Waggoner’s cleansing of the Battle Creek church to Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem temple in the New Testament. The point was clear: At the cleansing in Jerusalem, Jesus only removed hypocritical Jewish leaders; at the cleansing in Battle Creek, Waggoner evicted the innocent and the guilty. The former was motivated by holy anger, the latter by severity devoid of the Holy Spirit.
Though church trials took place frequently in early Adventist history, no one enjoyed them. Two years prior to the purge in Battle Creek, R. M. Kilgore stated that church trials often resulted in “coldness, formality, and a lack of brotherly love . . . [and] consequently division in the churches.”51 Brotherly love was apparently lacking in Battle Creek in April 1870, yet surprisingly, this Laodicean trial did not result in a schism, and it was never reported in the public press. Nevertheless, it took years for the Battle Creek church to recover. Though it had regained its status by 1871, the congregation did not reach its former size (275 members) until about 1877.
The events that transpired in Battle Creek, Michigan, between October 1869 and April 1870 are complex, but there are two interpretations located in surviving documentation that are helpful—perspectives from John Harvey Kellogg and Ellen G. White. Kellogg recounted these events in a private interview held on October 7, 1907, in which he stated that this trial “was purely machine politics.” According to Kellogg, “Brother White had a little campaign against Brother Amadon, Brother Smith, and others.” The 12 who remained were nothing but “a few old standbys to hold the fort, who were ready to do whatever the Elder [White] asked them to do.”52
Though some might interpret this Laodicean trial as James White’s “machine politics,” it is important to note the context of Kellogg’s statement. First, at this time Kellogg was on trial for heresy and currently running his own political machine by attempting to wrest the Battle Creek Sanitarium from denominational control. Earlier in 1907, the Battle Creek church had asked Kellogg voluntarily leave the congregation and, on November 10, he was disfellowshipped.53 Simply put, Kellogg was very antagonistic toward the Seventh‑day Adventist Church at the time of this interview, willing to discredit its historical and current fidelity.
Second, Kellogg’s interpretation failed to capture White’s missiological motivations. White did believe that it was best for certain individuals to move from Battle Creek and for other leaders, who possessed the leadership skills needed at headquarters, to move to the town. At that time, he wanted the Adventist message to spread outside of the United States, beginning with Europe, and then to the ends of the earth. Driven by an eschatological sense of urgency, White believed that if Adventists continued to centralize in Battle Creek, the work would suffer. He did attempt to control the situation in Battle Creek for missiological reasons, but Kellogg’s interpretation of “machine politics” implies that White simply wanted more power and prestige. Evidence to support Kellogg’s claim is lacking, and, to the contrary, when the General Conference gave James White supreme authority over the church in 1873, White fought against it persistently until the policy was revoked.
Though Kellogg’s perspective is misleading, James White was actively involved in the events that led to the Laodicean trial. White supported the unanimous decision to put the fate of the Battle Creek church in the hands of the General Conference, yet he did not expect the severe outcome. Though White was partially responsible, it was Waggoner and Andrews who rendered harsh judgment; James White was uninvolved in the actual trial. Nevertheless, White preached numerous jeremiads during this period, and though they were balanced with grace, he failed to relate this message to Waggoner and Andrews in such a way that would have prompted them to extend mercy in their judgments. White also failed to consistently practice what he preached. He had a strong personality and was a forceful leader, and Adventists in Battle Creek oftentimes fell short of his unachievable expectations and were the victims of his mood swings.
Similarly, Ellen White also failed to relate this message of grace to Waggoner and Andrews in the heat of the moment. On April 8, 1870, two days after the purge, yet one day before the Battle Creek church began to reorganize and reinstate its former members, Ellen White wrote a private letter to Waggoner, which began, “Dear Brother Waggoner, I have felt for two weeks that I had ought to write to you or talk with you. I will do so now if I can put upon paper that which have burdened my mind.” After prefacing her letter in this fashion, White then expressed her dissatisfaction with current events, the purge foremost in her mind: “You are sympathetic, and yet when you are upon the track of a person you believe to be in the wrong, you are in danger of being too severe and overbearing.”54 Ellen White evidently observed a problem with Waggoner’s judgment at least two weeks before the trial began, but she did not raise her concerns in time to prevent the draconian outcome. Though she recognized a problem, she apparently delayed her confrontation because she was unable to foresee precisely how severe Waggoner could be in church trials. In this manner, both of the Whites struggled to relate their message of grace to the people; in their exchanges, something was lost in translation. As a result, Kellogg had some cause to cast blame in their direction, yet it does not appear that they operated a political machine, and other leaders were certainly culpable as well.
The leaders most obviously at fault were Waggoner and Andrews. According to Ellen White, the trial was handled poorly because grace was subverted to human works. She exhorted Waggoner and Andrews: “There is such a thing as overdoing the matter in doing strict duty to individuals. Duty, stern duty has a twin sister, which is kindness. If duty and kindness are blended, there will be decided advantage gained; but if duty is separated from kindness, and there is not mingled with duty tender love, there will be a failure, and much harm will be the result. Men and women cannot be driven. Many can be won by kindness and love.”55
She also explained, “The perfection of Christian character depends wholly upon the grace and strength found alone in God. Without the power of grace upon the heart, assisting our efforts, and sanctifying our labors, we shall fail of saving our own souls, and in saving the souls of others.”56 According to Ellen White, Waggoner and Andrews failed to maintain a balanced theology, which led to their severe judgments. Though they were not always imbalanced, they failed to show mercy and compassion at this crucial juncture. Others did contribute to the spirit that led to the trial, but Waggoner and Andrews were the only two responsible for its final outcome.
It should also be noted that Laodicean trials could be carried out with more equanimity if a proper balance were maintained. Though the defense of James and Ellen White was centered in Battle Creek, two other churches in Michigan were inclined to followed suit. The cause for these Laodicean trials was similar to that in Battle Creek, yet a different minister was in charge, and the church handled its own affairs.
Beginning on May 3, 1870, W. H. Littlejohn led out (with H. M. Kenyon serving as clerk) in a Laodicean trial in Monterey, Michigan. Notably, this church was much smaller than the one in Battle Creek, yet with 96 members, it was much larger than most other churches at the time. Between early May and the end of August, a total of 12 members were disfellowshipped. Whereas in Battle Creek about 96 percent of the congregation was cut off, only about 12 percent of the congregation in Monterey was disfellowshipped. Many factors contributed to this difference, particularly the length of the trial and the protocols that were taken. Whereas the larger trial in Battle Creek lasted only four consecutive days, the smaller trial in Monterey continued for 17 days over a four‑month period; whereas two men were given absolute authority over the congregation in Battle Creek, the church collectively voted on each individual case in Monterey. Though other differences existed, this comparison highlights an important point: Laodicean trials could be handled with a greater degree of justice.
Though only two men rendered the judgments in Battle Creek, the church also played an important role in determining its own fate. It was, after all, the entire congregation that voted to turn the case over to the General Conference executive committee. Furthermore, this request was approved by the General Conference in session and ratified by the Michigan State Conference. As a result, the representative bodies of the Adventist Church were also responsible for the Laodicean trial to a significant degree. The events that led to this decision indicate that denominational representatives voted for the trial primarily because of their desire to defend Ellen White and her visions. It is evident that once Seventh‑day Adventists recognized that the visions were not being taken seriously in 1869, they became determined to defend the authority of the visions, no matter the cost. When unity was threatened, the representatives added to Ellen White’s recommendation that certain people voluntarily leave Battle Creek—that the General Conference should carry this out with an injunction.
All Adventists present in Battle Creek between October 1869 and April 1870, from the common layperson to the General Conference president, were responsible for the Laodicean trial and its extreme outcome in one way or another. At its foundation, the Battle Creek purge of 1870 was motivated by the desire for missionary growth. People were centralizing in one place for convenience, and Adventist leaders sought to correct this problem through guilt regulation. Grace and forgiveness, the balance to guilt and fear, were crowded out by a desire for perfection that was fueled with an eschatological sense of urgency. In the end, Adventists sought to control the mission of the church through means of coercion. Such measures, in turn, proved ineffective for missionary expansion, and denominational membership plummeted by 16 percent in 1870 to 1871—the lowest period of “growth” in Seventh‑day Adventist history.
Kevin M. Burton, PhD candidate, Florida State University, and instructor of history and political studies at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, U.S.A.