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.

Post 18, Poetry and Religion: Josef Greig, Henry Lawson, John Donne and More

Graeme Sharrock epitomises something that is so good about the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Oh yes, he is passionate about “religion” in the widest sense. Or should that be faith? Or the “Divinity” that is implied in the name of “his” part of the University of Chicago? Or all of the above and much, much more?

For over a quarter-century Graeme has been a “people-helper” in Chicago, listening to human beings in distress and journeying with them in their search for meaning. But he is as omnivorous as the Divinity School: he is “into” literature, social science, photography, as well as theology, history, and poetry. Why mention Graeme Sharrock in a blog about Adventist Studies?

Because Graeme is well along in writing a PhD dissertation about Ellen White and her “testimonies.” How does this genre of writing resonate with American culture in the mid-nineteenth century? What form does it adopt and develop? To whom are the testimonies addressed? When I read his draft of a chapter on this theme for “The Ellen White Project” (see the earlier blog about that subject) I was thrilled by its insights. Now I hope that Graeme will let me read and review his dissertation on the testimonies, when it is complete.

But the real reason why I am hurrying off this blog on a glorious Spring morning is that in an e-mail just received from Graeme, he has alerted me (and others) to a website ( that makes available some of the poetry written by Dr A. Josef Greig, not long retired as a professor of Old Testament at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Some of my readers will remember Joe as an insightful member of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, as a writer of articles (not least in Spectrum), and as a teacher capable of thinking outside the square. During all the years that I have known Joe and cherished his biblical exegesis, I was unaware of his skill with poetry.

Anyway, I have just read Greig’s fourteen verses entitled “Day Break on the Jabbock: Talking to Myself.” It starts this way:

I am an old man now, beyond three score years 
and ten, if that counts for anything. Have I not 
entered the circle of the wise? I can take my hand 
off my mouth and speak. I have a history with God.
 The journey was first paternal, then stormy, 
at last seismic. The model that I first took 
for God was my earthly father. He was loving,
 dependable, fair, faithful, self-sacrificing, 
though not a professed believer; a difficult 
act for God to follow. I would not have been
 so disappointed had the roles been reversed.

The poem speaks to me because its author is a highly-skilled biblical scholar so, like the Book of Revelation, his verses are a mosaic that presents Scripture in a new and arresting way. There is a starkness about the lines that reminds one of Psalm 22, or the poetry of Dr John Knight of “Post Pressed” and universities in Queensland, Australia. Yet there is more. “Day Break on the Jabbock” refers to “The Latter Rain, “The Time of Trouble,” and numerous other terms known only to Adventists, or at least narrowly-defined by us.

Earlier this year I presented a sermon on the religious verse of Henry Lawson (1867-1922), an Australian balladist much loved by common people. Lawson’s life was an unmitigated disaster, but he could look into the souls of his fellows in ways that most others found impossible. Often Lawson is totally wrong theologically, but so “true” biblically. (Ever read Dr Gottfried Oosterwal on the significance of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ?) In his poem, “Saint Peter” Lawson declares:

When I reach the great head-station⎯Which is somewhere “off the track”⎯
I won’t want to talk with angels Who have never been Out Back;
They might bother me with offers Of a banjo⎯meanin’ well⎯
And a pair of wings to fly with, When I only want a spell.

Lawson’s desire to be understood is a powerful application of the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation. I admit a far greater depth in the sublime poetry of John Donne. There is, for instance, majestic meaning in his expression, “in his purple wrapped receive me Lord.” Or in his “A Hymn to God the Father.” We Adventists define the theology of such works-of-art as “Righteousness by Faith.”

So, thank God for Graeme Sharrock, Josef Greig, John Knight, Henry Lawson and Alexander Carpenter (who facilitated the posting of Greig’s poetry).

Arthur Patrick, 6 November 2011