Post 23, Waggoner and 1888: An Excellent Biography

“The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones,” Testimonies to Ministers (page 91). That sentence is still one of the best-remembered statements from the copious writings of Ellen White about the epochal General Conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA), during 1888.

During the 1960s, such statements awakened an intense discussion amongst Adventists in Australia and New Zealand, stimulated by the writings of Robert J. Wieland, Donald K. Short, Milian L. Andreasen and Robert D. Brinsmead. Ellen White’s affirmations were used to highlight the crucial importance of the “most precious message” given by the two young ministers, A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner.  Constantly, we were warned: “If you reject Christ’s delegated messengers, you reject Christ” (page 97).

The church has long needed the book, one of the ongoing Adventist Pioneer Series: Woodrow W. Whidden II, E.J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to Agent of Division (Review and Herald, 2008).  George R. Knight as the series editor ensures the quality of the series. There are a number of strengths in this biography of Ellet J. Waggoner (1855-1916); we will notice just three.

First, to understand history, authors must have sources, especially primary sources.

In 1950, Wieland and Short began to ask important questions about 1888. Between 1958 and 1970, spurred by Wieland and Short’s writings as well as those of Andreasen, Brinsmead wrote and spoke about 1888 with intense passion. But all four men were bereft of essential documentation. In 1966, A.V. Olson’s Through Crisis to Victory helped somewhat, as did Froom’s Movement of Destiny in 1972. David McMahon gave us some remarkably good insights in his book Ellet Joseph Waggoner (1979), following his detailed analyses of some of Waggoner’s articles. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that comprehensive progress was made with the full range of complex issues, as a wealth of primary sources was mined by well-trained historians and other researchers. Three of many studies illustrate the clearer understanding that was developing: Eric Webster, Crosscurrents in Adventist Christology (1984); George Knight From 1888 to Apostasy: the Case of A.T. Jones (1987), and a slim volume edited by Arthur J. Ferch, Towards Righteousness by Faith: 1888 in Retrospect (1989).

Second, it was not until 1980 that most of the important biblical questions were widely understood amongst Adventists. Brinsmead radically changed his focus from about 1970, as he and others asked what Adventists needed to learn about Righteousness by Faith from the Protestant Reformation. Desmond Ford had long struggled with the scriptural issues, but by the mid-1970s he was encountering strong opposition from a group of ministers and laymen who would sign their protest as “Concerned Brethren,” and whose ideas would be supported in the copious writings of Russell R. and Colin D. Standish. Clearly, careful Bible study was required, so church leaders put in place two important initiatives: a conference at Palmdale in the high desert of California during 1976, and a Righteousness by Faith Consultation that reported in Adventist Review, 31 July 1980. At last the church was developing a better grasp of the questions that needed asking and answering from Scripture.

Third, Dr Whidden had far more than the combined benefits of all the primary sources, all the secondary studies and the biblical data listed above. With fuller documentation than that available to all the authors just mentioned, plus the added help of a number of recent, detailed studies of Waggoner, his book offers us mature perspectives. Much that is now clear was quite beyond our ken as recently as the 1970s. We can now better understand Ellen White’s endorsement of Waggoner, and her sorrowful dis-endorsement of him–when both his theology and personal morality became unacceptable.

Those earnest Adventists who focus upon and diligently promote some of Waggoner’s writings need Dr Whidden as a competent tour guide through the whole maze. It is now evident that, as early as 1889, the loved “messenger” was becoming unreliable as a spiritual guide. His decline was probably accelerated during the 1890s by the heresy of a Scottish author, Edward Irving, who advocated the teaching that Christ had a sinful human nature. While Dr Waggoner avoided some of the pantheistic ideas of his colleague Dr John Harvey Kellogg, he developed an even more subtle error, a form of panentheism. As he diminished his early focus on justifying grace, he emphasised the Christ within, to the point where his doctrines of “perfection” and “spiritual affinities” ended his effectiveness as a minister.

With Dr Whidden’s biography, we can better celebrate God’s gift to us through Ellet J. Waggoner, cherishing “the most precious message” and avoiding the perils that beset “the Physician of Good News.”

Arthur Patrick, posted 17 November 2011

 For more information about the biography see my earlier online review,, January 2009.