As the great reformation carried on by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others in the sixteenth century actually had its beginning several centuries earlier (The Great Controversy, p. 78), so the prophesied Reform Movement among Seventh Day Adventists, in existence today, had its embryonic beginning in 1888, when the Lord sent a special message to His people.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 17 through November 4, 1888, Seventh-day Adventists held a memorable and controversial General Conference session. Ninety delegates (85 were present when the session was opened and 5 more were seated on October 26) representing a world membership of 26,968, gathered in one of the largest chapels owned by Seventh-day Adventists at that time–the church building located on the corner of Lake Street and Fourth Avenue South. The important event which took place at that conference was the presentation of a vital subject–the message of Righteousness by Faith–by two young ministers, E. J. Waggoner, and A. T. Jones, editors of The Signs of the Times.
In plain terms, the Spirit of Prophecy placed its seal of approval upon that message. Sister White wrote about it thus:
"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." –Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91, 92.
"The message given us by A. T. Jones, and E. J. Waggoner is the message of God to the Laodicean church, and woe be unto anyone who professes to believe the truth, and yet does not reflect to others the God-given rays." –Manuscript Releases, vol. 15, p. 92.
What Caused the Message to Come
As the date for the General Conference session that was to meet in Minneapolis (1888) was drawing nigh, God sent to the Adventist leadership and people specific testimonies showing the spiritual condition that had developed in the church and that made the coming of the message an urgent necessity. Sister White wrote:
"What is our condition in this fearful and solemn time? Alas, what pride is prevailing in the church, what hypocrisy, what deception, what love of dress, frivolity, and amusement, what desire for the supremacy! All these sins have clouded the mind, so that eternal things have not been discerned." –The Review and Herald, March 22, 1887.
"Spiritual death has come upon the people that should be manifesting life and zeal, purity and consecration, by the most earnest devotion to the cause of truth. The facts concerning the real condition of the professed people of God, speak more loudly than their profession, and make it evident that some power has cut the cable that anchored them to the Eternal Rock, and that they are drifting away to sea, without chart or compass." –Ibid., July 24, 1888.
The Purpose of the Message
The message of Christ’s righteousness (which includes Isa. 58:1 and Rev. 3:18, 19) was entrusted to the angel of Revelation 18 for the purpose of accomplishing a work of revival and reformation under the ministration of the Holy Spirit. That this message was to remedy the backslidden state of the church and prepare a people for the coming of the Lord can be seen from several testimonies:
"Now, it has been Satan’s determined purpose to eclipse the view of Jesus, and lead men to look to man, and trust to man, and be educated to expect help from man. For years the church has been looking to man and expecting much from man, but not looking to Jesus, in whom our hopes of eternal life are centered. Therefore God gave to His servants a testimony that presented the truth as it is in Jesus, which is the third angel’s message, in clear, distinct lines." –Testimonies to Ministers, p. 93.
"The third angel’s message must go over the land and awaken the people, and call their attention to the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. Another angel unites his voice with the third angel, and the earth is lighted with its glory. . . . What are you doing to prepare for this work? . . . You must remember that this angel represents the people that have this message to give to the world. Are you among that people?" –The Review and Herald, August 18, 1885.
"God has raised up men to meet the necessity of this time who will cry aloud and spare not, who will lift up their voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgressions, and the house of Jacob their sins. Their work is not only to proclaim the law, but to preach the truth for this time–the Lord our righteousness." –Ibid., August 13, 1889.
"Several have written to me, inquiring if the message of justification by faith is the third angel’s message, and I have answered, ‘It is the third angel’s message in verity.’ The prophet declares, ‘And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory.’ Brightness, glory, and power are to be connected with the third angel’s message, and conviction will follow wherever it is preached in demonstration of the Spirit. How will any of our brethren know when this light shall come to the people of God? As yet, we certainly have not seen the light that answers to this description. God has light for His people, and all who will accept it will see the sinfulness of remaining in a lukewarm condition; they will heed the counsel of the True Witness." –Ibid., April 1, 1890.
"The question of most vital importance for this time is, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will unite with the angel [of Revelation 18:1] in giving the message of truth to the world? Who will receive the light that is to fill the whole earth with its glory?’ Those who cherish the light that they have will receive more. Increasing light will shine about the souls who yield to the softening, subduing grace of Christ; and those who love the light, will be saved from the delusions of Satan." –Ibid., November 5, 1889.
"If we would receive the light of the glorious angel that shall lighten the earth with his glory, let us see to it that our hearts are cleansed, emptied of self, and turned toward heaven, that they may be ready for the latter rain. Let us be obtaining a fitting up to join in the proclamation of the angel who shall lighten the earth with his glory." –The Signs of the Times, August 1, 1892.
"Mystic Babylon has not been sparing in the blood of the saints and shall we [not] be wide awake to catch the beams of light which have been shining from the light of the angel who is to brighten the earth with his glory." –Selected Messages, bk. 3, p. 426.
How the Message Was Received
It cannot be said that the General Conference delegation and the majority of the Adventist membership in 1888 accepted the message of Righteousness by Faith. Among the leaders and the people there were serious differences of opinion. Arthur G. Daniells, in his book Christ Our Righteousness, p. 43, states that a complete report of the presentation and discussion of the message was never published. From subsequent writings of Sister White, however, we know that the message had a very limited reception. Therefore, the work of revival and reformation, that was called for to uproot the growing weeds of apostasy and restore the church to the favor of God, did not take place. And, as a consequence, a large proportion of leaders and members were left to walk in the sparks of their own kindling. Sister White, who supported the message and the messengers, refers to that regrettable experience and its consequences as follows:
"God meant that the watchmen should arise and with united voices send forth a decided message, giving the trumpet a certain sound, that the people might all spring to their post of duty and act their part in the great work. Then the strong, clear light of that other angel who comes down from heaven having great power, would have filled the earth with his glory." –Manuscript Releases, vol. 14, p. 111.
"When I purposed to leave Minneapolis, the angel of the Lord stood by me and said: ‘Not so; God has a work for you to do in this place. The people are acting over the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. I have placed you in your proper position, which those who are not in the light will not acknowledge; they will not heed your testimony; but I will be with you; My grace and power shall sustain you. It is not you they are despising, but the messengers and the message I sent to My people. They have shown contempt for the word of the Lord. Satan has blinded their eyes and perverted their judgment; and unless every soul shall repent of this their sin, this unsanctified independence that is doing insult to the Spirit of God, they will walk in darkness. I will remove the candlestick out of his place except they repent and be converted, that I should heal them.’" –Ibid., vol. 3, p. 191.
"Oh, for a religious awakening! The angels of God are going from church to church, doing their duty; and Christ is knocking at the door of your hearts for entrance. But the means that God has devised to awaken the church to a sense of their spiritual destitution have not been regarded. The voice of the True Witness has been heard in reproof, but has not been obeyed. Men have chosen to follow their own way instead of God’s way because self was not crucified in them. Thus the light has had but little effect upon minds and hearts."–Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 719, 720.
"For nearly two years we have been urging the people to come up and accept the light and the truth concerning the righteousness of Christ, and they do not know whether to come and take hold of this precious truth or not. They are bound about with their own ideas. They do not let the Saviour in." –The Review and Herald, March 11, 1890.
"Since the time of the Minneapolis meeting, I have seen the state of the Laodicean church as never before. I have heard the rebuke of God spoken to those who feel so well satisfied, who know not their spiritual destitution. . . . I feel sad when I think how for long years there has been a gradual lowering of the standard. I have been shown that very few realize the constant presence of the Divine Watcher who declares, ‘I know thy works.’ Through the indulgence of sin, many have forfeited the favor of God, misrepresented Jesus, forgotten His presence, forgotten that they are living in His sight, and so have added evil to evil. All such are foolish virgins. . . . The reasons why the churches are weak and sickly and ready to die is that the enemy has brought influences of a discouraging nature to bear upon trembling souls. He has sought to shut Jesus from their view as the Comforter, as one who reproves, who warns, who admonishes them, saying, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it.’" –Ibid., August 26, 1890.
"The influence that grew out of the resistance of light and truth at Minneapolis tended to make of no effect the light God has given to His people through the Testimonies." –Manuscript Releases, vol. 15, p. 305.
"Instead of leading the world to render obedience to God’s law, the church is uniting more and more closely with the world in transgression. Daily the church is becoming converted to the world."–Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 119 (1903).
If the church, that was "steadily retreating toward Egypt" (Ibid., vol. 5, p. 217), had actually accepted the message "Christ Our Righteousness," she would have made a U-turn in her itinerary, and would now be moving in the opposite direction–with Christ to the heavenly Canaan. And she would not have been accused, in 1903, of having become a harlot (Ibid., vol. 8, p. 250), nor would she become "a cage of every unclean and hateful bird" (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 265) as a result of her progressive unity with the world. In 1903 the Spirit of Prophecy made this startling declaration about the condition that had developed in the church:
"Why is there so dim a perception of the true spiritual condition of the church? . . . Who can truthfully say, ‘Our gold is tried in the fire; our garments are unspotted by the world’? I saw our Instructor pointing to the garments of so-called righteousness. Stripping them off, He laid bare the defilement beneath. Then He said to me: ‘Can you not see how they have pretentiously covered up their defilement and rottenness of character? "How is the faithful city become an harlot!" My Father’s house is made a house of merchandise, a place whence the divine presence and glory have departed! For this cause there is weakness, and strength is lacking.’ " –Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 248, 250.
Jones and Waggoner Leave the Church
Soon after 1903 A. T. Jones was taken in the delusions of Dr. J. H. Kellogg and was finally separated from the church. In 1909 a special effort was made to restore him. Several meetings were held with him. He seemed to be moved and prepared for a reconciliation. When Elder Daniells, the General Conference president, extended his hand to him, pleading, "Come, Brother Jones, come," he stood up, slowly reached out his hand too, but suddenly pulled it back and said, "No, never," and sat down again.
E. J. Waggoner also had a negative experience when domestic problems led him to resort to divorce, and then he remarried. He nevertheless advocated the fundamental SDA beliefs to the day of his death.
This was not the first or the last time that those especially chosen by the Lord apostatized after having faithfully given the message. The Spirit of Prophecy, however, warns us that this unfortunate backsliding should not be used as an argument against the light of Heaven that came through them to the people of God. Messengers may draw back, but this will not turn the truth that they have preached into a lie. We have been warned:
"It is quite possible that Elder Jones or Elder Waggoner may be overthrown by the temptations of the enemy; but if they should be, this would not prove that they had had no message from God, or that the work that they had done was all a mistake. But should this happen, how many would take this position, and enter into a fatal delusion because they are not under the control of the Spirit of God. . . . I know that this is the very position many would take if either of these men were to fall, and I pray that these men upon whom God has laid the burden of a solemn work, may be able to give the trumpet a certain sound, and honor God at every step, and that their path at every step may grow brighter and brighter until the close of time."–Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, pp. 201, 202.
The message brought by these two brethren set up an important landmark in the history of the SDA Church. "It marked the beginning of a great reform."–Department of Education, General Conference of SDAs, The Story of Our Church, p. 246.
A Fatal Choice and Its Consequence
God had placed two possibilities before the Adventist Church–either to accept the message of "Christ’s Righteousness," and be transformed, and finally become the triumphant church, or to reject the message, and consequently become like one of the popular churches.
1. If the church accepted the message of 1888 which demanded a revival and reformation . . .
"If the church will put on the robe of Christ’s righteousness, withdrawing from all allegiance with the world, there is before her the dawn of a bright and glorious day. God’s promise to her will stand fast forever."–The Acts of the Apostles, p. 601.
2. If the church acted contrary to the light of heaven and allowed the apostasy to grow and take over . . .
"If most earnest vigilance is not manifested at the great heart of the work to protect the interests of the cause, the church will become as corrupt as the churches of other denominations." –Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 513.
The repeated denouncements which came through the ministry of Sister White, accompanied by factual evidence marking the downward trend of the church after 1888 (especially the great changes witnessed since World War I), show which of the two alternative routes was taken by the denomination. And the final consequences of this fatal choice have been clearly pointed out in the prophetic picture referring to the end of probation. All those who do not heed the counsel of the True Witness and refuse to wear the white raiment of Christ’s righteousness (Rev. 3:18) must be left without the seal of God and without protection against the seven last plagues. Unfortunately, since very few have accepted the remedy offered in 1888, the great majority will suffer a denominational disappointment. This can be read in Ezekiel 9, which is explained by Sister White as follows:
"Those who receive the pure mark of truth, wrought in them by the power of the Holy Ghost, represented by a mark by the man in linen, are those ‘that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done’ in the church. Their love for purity and the honor and glory of God is such, and they have so clear a view of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, that they are represented as being in agony, even sighing and crying. Read the ninth chapter of Ezekiel.
"But the general slaughter of all those who do not thus see the wide contrast between sin and righteousness, and do not feel as those do who stand in the counsel of God and receive the mark, is described in the order to the five men with slaughter weapons."–Ibid., vol. 3, p. 267.
"Here we see that the church–the Lord’s sanctuary–was the first to feel the stroke of the wrath of God. The ancient men, those to whom God had given great light and who had stood as guardians of the spiritual interests of the people, had betrayed their trust."–Ibid., vol. 5, p. 211.
There Were Some Revivals
After the Minneapolis General Conference session of 1888, Sister White traveled with A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner from place to place, taking part in the presentation of the message, which was attended by the power of God. She reported:
"In every meeting since the General Conference, souls have eagerly accepted the precious message of the righteousness of Christ. We thank God that there are souls who realize that they are in need of something which they do not possess–gold of faith and love, white raiment of Christ’s righteousness, eyesalve of spiritual discernment." –The Review and Herald, July 23, 1889.
"We have seen souls turned from sin to righteousness. We have seen faith revived in the hearts of the contrite ones." –Ibid., May 27, 1890.
Especially informative is the description of the revival meeting held in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, shortly after the Minneapolis conference. That memorable gathering is an example showing how the Lord wrought through the message for the conversion of souls. Sister White reported:
"I have never seen a revival work go forward with such thoroughness, and yet remain so free from all undue excitement. There was no urging or inviting. The people were not called forward, but there was a solemn realization that Christ came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. The honest in heart were ready to confess their sins, and to bring forth fruit to God by repentance and restoration, as far as it lay in their power. . . . There were many who testified that as the searching truths had been presented, they had been convicted in the light of the law as transgressors. They had been trusting in their own righteousness. Now they saw it as filthy rags, in comparison with the righteousness of Christ, which is alone acceptable to God. While they had not been open transgressors, they saw themselves depraved and degraded in heart. They had substituted other gods in the place of their heavenly Father. They had struggled to refrain from sin, but had trusted in their own strength. We should go to Jesus just as we are, confess our sins, and cast our helpless souls upon our compassionate Redeemer. This subdues the pride of the heart, and is a crucifixion of self." –Ibid., March 5, 1889.
These individual or local revivals, however, did not benefit the Adventist leadership and people in general. The church as a church continued sliding deeper and deeper into apostasy. This is clearly revealed in the writings of E. G. White, who testified at the turn of the century:
"On every hand we see those who have had much light and knowledge deliberately choosing evil in the place of good. Making no attempt to reform, they are growing worse and worse." –Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 62.