Ellen White 1888 and the Christian Connexion – Brendan Knudson
There are two matters of Seventh-day Adventist history about which there has been some debate in the past. The first is the question of the extent to which Ellen White endorsed the 1888 message given by Waggoner and Jones, specifically with regard to their teachings on the Godhead. The second is whether or not Ellen White’s views on the Godhead were closer to her Methodist background, or were impacted by the Christian Connexion background of her husband.
One of the main reasons that there is so much debate in Adventism on the issue of the Godhead is that there seems to be support either way in the writings of Ellen White. Those who believe the trinity will point out statements such as the “three living persons of the heavenly trio” or “three powers of the Godhead”, while those who adhere to the pioneer beliefs will point to her visions where she saw only the Father and Son and her writings about these Two. As shown in the article “Is the Heavenly Trio a Trinity?” by this author, it may be that new information on her literary borrowing may help to clear the matter up.
To outline the problem, trinitarians believe that Christ is co-eternal with the Father. In short, this means that as long as there has been the Father, there has been the Son. All references to Father, Son and begetting therefore are to be interpreted in the light of the incarnation. The Pioneers, however, saw that not all references could be interpreted thus. For the first 50 years, from the Sabbath Conferences to the beginning of the 20th century, they were in unity that Christ was begotten of the Father before anything was created, and that together, these Two created all things. While some have in the past attempted to make this out to be a minority position, most Adventist historians admit that this was the general, if not unanimous, teaching. The controversy surrounds whether Ellen White was an exception to this or not.
In 1888, the church reached a crisis point. At the General Conference Session in Minneapolis, two brethren, Waggoner and Jones, preached a rousing message of Righteousness by Faith. Of this message, Ellen White wrote: “The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God… This is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel’s message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure.” (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 91,92)
While no record of these presentations from Minneapolis is extant, the teaching on the subject may be gained from books printed by these two men including “Christ and His Righteousness”, “The Glad Tidings” and “The Gospel in Creation” by Waggoner and
“Consecrated Way to Christian Perfection” and presentations at subsequent General
Conference sessions by Jones, as well as various periodical articles.
In the above quote from Ellen White, she said that the message brought “more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour”. It is interesting then that when we turn to Waggoner’s teachings on Christ at this time, we find them to present clearly the Pioneer position that Christ was begotten in eternity.
“Christ and His Righteousness” is the Australian title of a booklet that was printed two years after the Minneapolis session. As the very title suggests, it is an examination of the person of Christ, and the Righteousness He brings. Leroy Froom wrote of it: “An increasing stream of literature setting forth the clear principles and provisions of Righteousness by Faith continued to flow from our publishing houses following 1888- conspicuously that of Dr. E. J. Waggoner’s The Righteousness of Christ (1890), a 98- page Pacific Press book setting forth his precise teaching and phrasing at Minneapolis, based upon shorthand reports of Jessie F. Moser, taken down at the Conference, which book was likewise reprinted in Australia in 1893, and then in Continental Europe in Hamburg and Basel as well.” (Eternal Verities Triumphant, p. 61)
In the first chapters of this book, Waggoner establishes the divinity of Christ, showing Christ to be our God and Creator and while spending a whole chapter establishing that Christ is not created, makes such statements as the following: “The Word was “in the beginning.” The mind of man cannot grasp the ages that are spanned in this phrase. It is not given to men to know when or how the Son was begotten; but we know that he was the Divine Word, not simply before He came to this earth to die, but even before the world was created… We know that Christ “proceeded forth and came from God” (John
8:42), but it was so far back in the ages of eternity as to be far beyond the grasp of the mind of man.” (E. J. Waggoner, Christ and His Righteousness, p. 9)
“The Scriptures declare that Christ is “the only begotten son of God.” He is begotten, not created. As to when He was begotten, it is not for us to inquire, nor could our minds grasp it if we were told…There was a time when Christ proceeded forth and came from God, from the bosom of the Father (John 8:42; 1:18), but that time was so far back in the days of eternity that to finite comprehension it is practically without beginning.” (ibid, p. 21)
Now let us compare these statements with some from Ellen White.
“But while God’s Word speaks of the humanity of Christ when upon this earth, it also speaks decidedly regarding his pre-existence. The Word existed as a divine being, even as the eternal Son of God, in union and oneness with his Father… Before men or angels were created, the Word was with God, and was God… The world was made by him, “and without him was not anything made that was made.” If Christ made all things, he existed before all things. The words spoken in regard to this are so decisive that no one need be left in doubt. Christ was God essentially, and in the highest sense. He was with God from all eternity, God over all, blessed forevermore.” (RH, 5-4-1906)
“Here Christ shows them that, although they might reckon His life to be less than fifty years, yet His divine life could not be reckoned by human computation. The existence of Christ before His incarnation is not measured by figures.” (ST, 3-5- 1899)
“From the days of eternity, the Lord Jesus Christ was one with the Father; He was “the image of God,” the image of His greatness and majesty, “the outshining of His glory.” (Desire of Ages, p. 19)
There is some striking resemblance in these quotes about the fathomless ages. The statement that Christ’s divine life “could not be reckoned by human computation” matches very closely Waggoner’s statement that Christ was begotten “so far back in the ages of eternity as to be far beyond the grasp of the mind of man.” But the most striking resemblance is to be found in the following quotes:
“It is true that there are many sons of God, but Christ is the “only begotten Son of God,” and therefore the Son of God in a sense in which no other being ever was or ever can be. The angels are sons of God, as was Adam (Job 38:7; Luke 3:38) by creation; Christians are the sons of God by adoption (Romans 8:14, 15), but Christ is the Son of God by birth.” (Waggoner, op. cit., p. 12)
“A complete offering has been made; for “God so loved the world, that he gave his only- begotten Son,”– not a son by creation, as were the angels, nor a son by adoption, as is the forgiven sinner, but a Son begotten in the express image of the Father’s person, and in all the brightness of his majesty and glory, one equal with God in authority, dignity, and divine perfection. In him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (ST,
Apart from the clear parallel here, this statement is clearly set in the context of the pre- incarnate nature of Christ. In this article, entitled “Christ Our Complete Salvation”, Ellen White is setting forth the completeness of the sacrifice that was made on our behalf. Christ’s being begotten is pointed to as part of the evidence of His divinity, which is the surety of the sacrifice. Also, “the express image of the Father’s person” is a quote from Hebrews 1, where Paul writes of Christ in His pre-existence and then contrasts that with His humanity in chapter 2. Finally, when Christ was begotten in the incarnation, He was not “in all the brightness of His [Father’s] majesty and glory”, for this He had veiled. It is true that He is called the Son in the context of Bethlehem, but this was only in a “new sense”.
“In His incarnation He gained in a new sense the title of the Son of God. Said the angel to Mary, ‘The power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). While the Son of a human being, He became the Son of God in a new sense. Thus He stood in our world–the Son of God, yet allied by birth to the human race.” (ST, 2-8-1905)
“He was born of the Holy Ghost. In other words, Jesus Christ was born again. He came from heaven, God’s first-born, to the earth, and was born again. But all in Christ’s work goes by opposites for us: He, the sinless One, was made to be sin in order that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. He, the living One, the Prince and Author of life, died that we might live. He whose goings forth have been from the days of eternity, the first-born of God, was born again in order that we might be born again.” (A. T. Jones, RH, 18-7-1899)
Now we see the paralleling thoughts between Mrs White and the other 1888 messenger. It should be clear by now that her endorsement of the 1888 message extends to the understanding of Christ’s pre-existence.
But what connection does this all have to the Christian Connexion? Well, a number of our prominent pioneers came out of this movement. These include Fred L. Mead, the Farnsworth’s, Uriah Smith, and James White. Looking at the quote earlier regarding Christ’s being begotten, not created or adopted, we find a parallel thought within the writings of the Christian Connexion:
“Because he is God’s son, in a peculiar sense applicable to no other being in the universe. In the scriptures angels and men are called sons of God, but Christ is called his “own son,” “his only-begotten son,” “his beloved son,” to distinguish him from others who are sons of God by creation, and regeneration.” (James Williamson, editor of the “Gospel Herald” in History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States, 2nd Edition, Harrisburg, PA: John Winebrenner, 1848, p. 165)
And so we see Ellen White using language which mirrors that of non-trinitarians, declaring that Christ is the unique, divine, eternal Son of God, begotten and possessing a life that can “not be reckoned by human computation”, “not measured by figures”. Even these last quotes are redundant if Christ had always been, as the trinitarian speculates. As more evidence like this becomes available, we are fast approaching the time when the myth (that Ellen White alone of the Pioneers held to a trinity) can be laid to rest.