For more than 130 years, Seventh-day Adventists have looked back at the 1888 General Conference session as a milestone in their history, a foremost turning point in their theological development. It is considered the most important theological conference in our history. Though lasting less than a month, both the Minneapolis session (October 17–November 4) and the ministerial institute that preceded it (October 10–16) changed the shape of Adventism. Adventists are still sharply divided over the meaning and the significance of the 1888 meetings. Some regard Minneapolis as a major victory (the message was accepted), while others view it as the denomination’s greatest tragedy (the message was rejected).
Before we look at what happened at Minneapolis, we must look at what happened during the decades leading up to it. After the Great Disappointment in 1844, our pioneers concentrated their preaching on the proclamation of the so-called landmark truths: sanctuary, spirit of prophecy, the three angels’ messages, conditional immortality, the second Advent, and the Sabbath.
Salvation and righteousness by faith were in the background because these truths were taught by most Protestant churches. Why teach a Baptist or Methodist about salvation? They knew it anyway. What they did not know was the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the sanctuary truth, etc. Our pioneers majored on those doctrines that set us apart—especially the Sabbath and the Ten Commandments. James White in the first issue of Present Truth wrote: “The keeping of the fourth commandment is all-important present truth; but this alone, will not save anyone. We must keep all ten of the commandments, and strictly follow all the directions of the New Testament, and have living active faith in Jesus.”1
This was the theme of the first 40 years of our church history: Keep the commandments, and defend the Sabbath. Our pioneers built up an apologetic front. They had to defend themselves against attacks from other churches.
Adventist ministers were good at debating other ministers especially on the law and the Sabbath. They argued their cases like lawyers and usually defeated their opponents. But spirituality waned, and not a few became decided legalists. Pride, self-assurance, and complacency entered our ranks. What was missing was a living experience with Christ—joy and peace. The law and keeping the law became all important. Thus, Ellen G. White wrote: “As a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain. We must preach Christ in the law.”2
Pre-Session—Ministerial Institute October 10–16, 1888
When we think of Minneapolis 1888, two names come to mind: A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner. They were close friends, and both were editors of Signs of the Times in California. Jones (38) had served in the U.S. Army. He was largely self-taught. One of his acquaintances (A. W. Spalding) said: “He was a towering, angular man, with a loping gait and uncouth posturings and gestures.”3 But he was a powerful speaker.
Waggoner (33) was just the opposite of Jones. He was short in stature and a cultured man. He had a classical education, had trained to be a medical doctor, and had worked at Battle Creek Sanitarium for a time, but his heart was in evangelism, so he became a minister.
Conflict over the 10 horns in Daniel 7. In the week-long workers’ meeting that preceded the General Conference, two issues divided the ministerial workforce: One of the questions was, who is the 10th horn in Daniel 7? Uriah Smith in the Review and Herald and in his book on Daniel & Revelation claimed that the 10th horn were the Huns. A. T. Jones in a Signs article stated that the 10th horn were the Alemanni.
At this ministerial institute both presented their views. Uriah Smith, in his characteristic modest way, stated that he did not claim originality in the view he held, that he had accepted the view of Bible commentators like Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, and Thomas Scott.
In opening his reply, A. T. Jones, in his characteristic style, said “Elder Smith has told you he doesn’t know anything about this matter. I do, and I don’t want you to blame me for what he does not know.” Ellen White got up and rebuked him. This kind of talk did not endear Jones to many ministers.
Conflict Over the Law in Galatians. “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24, KJV).
Which law is the schoolmaster—the moral law, i.e., the Ten Commandments; or the ceremonial law? O. A. Johnson in 1886 published an article in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald entitled “The Two Laws,” in which he asserted, “The law in Galatians is the ceremonial law.”4
A few months later, E. J. Waggoner ran a series of nine articles in the Signs in which he claimed that the law in Galatians is the moral law.
In 1887, Ellen G. White wrote from Basel, Switzerland, a letter of rebuke to the two editors in California for publishing articles revealing to the world that our two church papers were at variance on certain teachings. She did not take sides, she simply did not like the way things were done. But the controversy did not die.
The answer is, of course, that both laws are meant. Both laws lead to Christ. At that time, however, the leading brethren thought Waggoner was undermining the Sabbath truth. In 1896, Ellen G. White wrote: “In this scripture [Gal. 3:24], the Holy Spirit through the apostle is speaking especially of the moral law. The law reveals sin to us, and causes us to feel our need of Christ and to flee unto Him for pardon and peace.”5
In 1888, however, she refused to give an answer—she did not know herself. Waggoner gave some studies on the atonement and the law at this ministerial institute, but the unresolved issue of the law led to a spirit of division and debate. This background is necessary to understand what happened at Minneapolis.
The conference convened Wednesday, October 17. About 90 delegates represented 27,000 church members. The progress of new mission fields, the distribution of labor, city evangelism, a new ship for the South Pacific (Pitcairn), and many other items were taken up.
But today, all the ordinary business of the conference is largely forgotten. What we still remember is that “the Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. . . . It presented justification through faith in the surety [Christ]. It invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God.”6
Waggoner was asked to present a series of lectures on righteousness by faith. We do not know exactly what Waggoner said, because not until 1898 were all Bible studies at General Conference sessions recorded. Some Seventh-day Adventists claim Waggoner’s lectures are found in the book Christ and His Righteousness, but this is doubtful. The first half of the book deals with the nature of Christ, the second half with righteousness by faith. The issue of the nature of Christ is not mentioned in the reports printed in the General Conference Daily Bulletin. Though, not every bulletin mentions Waggoner’s lectures.
A. V. Olson in his book, Crisis Years, 1888–1901, From the Minneapolis Meeting to the Reorganization of the General Conference, summarized the message: “The real burden of the message on righteousness by faith as presented by them, but primarily by Elder Waggoner, at the Minneapolis session was to affirm the truth that the only way righteousness can be obtained is through a living faith in the Lamb of God, whose blood was shed on Calvary’s cross as a propitiation for the sins of the world. No one can enter the kingdom of God without being clad in the spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness. This robe can neither be purchased with silver or gold nor earned by good works. This message was a clarion call to make Christ and His righteousness the center of all our living and our preaching. It placed special emphasis on righteousness by faith as a real personal experience rather than a mere theory.”7
Until 1888 it was thought that righteousness acceptable to God could be achieved by obedience to the commandments, with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course. Some had difficulties getting rid of this idea even afterwards. Uriah Smith, for example, wrote: “The law is spiritual, holy, just, and good, the divine standard of righteousness. Perfect obedience to it will develop perfect righteousness, and that is the only way anyone can attain to righteousness. . . . There is not a Seventh-day Adventist in the land who has not been taught better than to suppose that in his own strength he could keep the commandments, or do anything without Christ.”8 Less than a week later, Ellen G. White told him that he did not see matters clearly.
But this idea was deeply entrenched in Seventh-day Adventists: I invite the Holy Spirit into my life, He helps me to keep the law, and in this way, God will accept me in the judgment. In other words, sanctification is seen as the basis of salvation. The work of Christ in justification was seen primarily in regard to our sins of the past: “As all have violated God’s law and cannot of themselves render obedience to His just requirements, we are dependent on Christ, first for justification from our past offenses, and, secondly, for grace whereby to render acceptable obedience to His Holy law in time to come.”9
Now, Waggoner came along and said:
1. Man’s obedience can never satisfy God’s law.
2. Christ’s imputed righteousness alone is the basis of our acceptance by God.
3. We constantly need the covering of Christ’s righteousness—not just for our past sins.
In his book, Christ and His Righteousness, Waggoner wrote: “Let the reader try to picture the scene. Here stands the law as the swift witness against the sinner. It cannot change, and it will not call a sinner a righteous man. The convicted sinner tries again and again to obtain righteousness from the law, but it resists all his advances. It cannot be bribed by any amount of penance or professedly good deeds. But here stands Christ, ‘full of grace’ as well as of truth, calling the sinner to Him. At last the sinner, weary of the vain struggle to get righteousness from the law, listens to the voice of Christ, and flees to His outstretched arms. Hiding in Christ, he is covered with His righteousness; and now behold! he has obtained, through faith in Christ, that for which he has been vainly striving. He has the righteousness which the law requires, and it is the genuine article, because he obtained it from the Source of Righteousness; from the very place whence the law came.”10
What was the reaction of his listeners? There was a division: Some accepted the message and supported Waggoner, e.g., Ellen. G. White; some rejected the message, e.g., Uriah Smith; the majority was undecided, not knowing what to believe.
Eventually most of those who opposed the message changed their attitude and accepted the message of righteousness by faith. After the Minneapolis session, Ellen White joined A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner in carrying the message of righteousness by faith to the churches. From coast to coast, they visited camp meetings, workers meetings, institutes, and Bible schools.
In 1889 Ellen G. White could write: “I have never seen a revival work go forward with such thoroughness, and yet remain so free from all undue excitement.”11 Following Minneapolis, many books dealing with this topic were printed, among them Ellen White’s Steps to Christ, The Desire of Ages, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, and Christ’s Object Lessons, classics on righteousness by faith.
NOTES AND REFERENCES