Questions on Doctrine Incites Liberal-Conservative Conflict
Following the great disappointment of 1844 when Christ did not come as expected, many Adventist abandoned their expectations as a delusion. Many others decided they had mis-calculated the 2300 day/year time prophecy. Three other very small groups, with a focus upon Christ, continued to seek for truth even as they affirmed both His prophecy and its calculation. Within two years these converged, each providing an essential element to a re-proclamation of that message, in fulfillment of Revelation 10 and 11.
The very morning after the disappointment, after earnest prayer of commitment and breakfast, three friends proceeded to visit and encourage their fellow believers. En route, Hiram Edson suddenly saw Christ passing from the Holy Place in heaven to His Most Holy Place ministry, which seemed to suggest that Daniel 8:14 did not predict the cleansing of the earth by fire but the cleansing the heavenly sanctuary by its High Priest. After more than three months of study to determine the Bible teaching, one of the three men, an editor, published the Bible evidence for the beginning of the great Day of Atonement in heaven.
Meanwhile, Joseph Bates received and began to publish that the seventh day is the Sabbath; while God gave to Ellen Harmon a vision affirming the “midnight cry” proclamation. After a time, representatives of these three discovered each other and, after earnest study and prayer realized that each had a vital aspect of “the third angel’s message, Christ’s last message to the world;
(a) the sanctuary message;
(b) the law of God and the Sabbath, pointing to the Creator;
(c) and the gift or spirit of prophecy, promised to God’s last day emissaries of truth.
For some time the focus remained upon Christ, High Priest of the sanctuary, Lord of the Sabbath, and the One of Whom Ellen Harmon White became a messenger, and this to proclaim the Day of Atonement, or judgment hour message and Christ’s soon coming. This message was simple, harmonious, and powerful. But, as in Christ’s day, religious leaders rose up in opposition to it and, in their attempt to prevent its spread, began challenging its adherents to debate.
To their dismay and to the delight of the small Sabbath, sanctuary group, the mighty goliaths were quickly slain by the sling shot of God’s Word and its clear and manifold evidence, the primary conflict being over the perpetuity of the law of God and continued sanctity of the Sabbath. In view of the overwhelming evidence for their position, the seventh day Sabbath Adventists turned the tables and challenged their opponents to debate, with continuing success.
In the process, the focus inevitably shifted from Christ as the central feature of each doctrine, to the necessity of obedience to the moral law and the Sabbath. They did not deny the insistence of James White, that we are not saved by Sabbath keeping but by Christ, but as the decades pass the proclamation was increasingly of present truth doctrines rather than of Christ. As a result, charges of “legalism” which they earnestly denied became ever more true in experience, even though the doctrines in proper focus were a tremendous hedge against legalism, that is an imbalanced focus on human obedience and the tendency to seek merit by obedience, and thus to become self-righteous.
As early as 1852 to 1853 Ellen White was thus led to apply to the “little flock” of Sabbath keepers the reproof given to the church of Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22), which they had applied to the Sunday keeping Adventists. By the latter part of that decade a strong “straight testimony” was being given to Sabbath keepers, calling for repentance. There was a strong and hearty response, but with the focus turning ever more sharply upon “present truth” doctrines and a competitive spirit of debate intensifying, attention shifted ever further away from Christ, “faithful and true Witness,” and His appeal to receive from Him the needed spiritual gifts, including His robe of righteousness.
For the next three decades message after message calling for repentance was heard, calling for a focus upon Christ, as Himself the central theme of every doctrine; but no change of focus permitted the messages to transform their experience or their proclamation. The problem was not a lack of sincerity, but a lack of capacity to internalize its principles while continuing a doctrinal focus that fostered a gratification in having the truth and being able to “prove” it.
Since leaders and people assumed they received the Laodicean message, but failed to apply it, and were grateful to have the messages sent by Christ through His servant, Ellen White, yet failed to grasp and apply the principles, God chose a new channel through which to speak. Two young men, E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, called for a shift of focus from the law to Christ-crucified, Author and embodiment of the law.
Unfortunately, their Christ-centered message was mistaken for antinomian (against the law) heresy and intense conflict had already begun by 1885, a year of some of Ellen White’s most intense calls to repentance. That conflict came to an initial climax in 1886. and a far more intense climax in 1888, at the Minneapolis General Conference, where Christ Himself and His representative, the Holy Spirit, were unwittingly resisted.