Good News for Seventh-Day Adventists

Ellet Joseph WaggonerEllet Joseph Waggoner:
The Myth and the Man

David P. McMahon

Exploding the Myth

Ellet Joseph Waggoner (1855-1916) was one of the most illustrious individuals in second-generation Seventh-day Adventism. His name will always be associated with the historic twenty-seventh General Conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from October 17 to November 4, 1888. Together with Alonzo T. Jones, Waggoner there spearheaded a revival of justification by faith which ignited vigorous controversy within the Adventist community.

Although the "crisis" (1) subsided after 1903, the question of 1888 has flared repeatedly. Numerous efforts have been made to dampen the issue. But each new book on 1888 has only added more fuel to the fire. (2)

The subject of 1888 has now returned to agitate the Adventist community. Conferences such as those at Palmdale (3) and Washington, D.C., (4) highlight the fact that justification by faith is once again the great issue in the church. As a result, there is considerable interest in the central figures of the 1888 episode, and particularly in E. J. Waggoner.

Robert J. Wieland has recently collected nearly two hundred Ellen G. White statements which appear to endorse the message of Waggoner and Jones. (5) Perhaps her best-known statement is this:
    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. (6)
The eschatological implications which Ellen G. White associated with the Minneapolis General Conference have heightened interest in Waggoner and the message of 1888. Adventism is an eschatological community. It has waited expectantly for the Holy Spirit in latter-rain power to "finish the work" and bring Christ's second advent. And it seeks to hasten His return by preaching "the third angel's message." Mrs. White's statements about the 1888 message are too emphatic to be misunderstood. She affirmed that the final events would have shortly ensued if that message had been accepted. (7)

The conviction has grown that there is no hope of finishing the work unless Adventism returns to 1888 and accepts what was there spurned by the majority of the church's representatives. This is why the Adventist consciousness is obsessed with 1888.

During the 1950's Robert J. Wieland and Donald K. Short urged the Adventist leadership to make the special light of 1888 available to the church by reprinting some of the writings of Waggoner and Jones. (8) The leading brethren did not then respond to this suggestion. (9) Some of Waggoner's material, however, has recently been republished. Two titles were officially reissued in 1972. (10) Dr. John 0. Ford has prepared and widely distributed a selection of Waggoner's writings. (11) Other works by Waggoner have also been made available through independent sources. (12)

In 1977 Wieland published a brochure entitled An Introduction to the 1888 Message Itself. (13) This book drew on the following Waggoner sources: Signs of the Times articles from 1889 to 1891, Christ and His Righteousness (1890), The Gospel in Creation (1894), Waggoner's articles in the British Present Truth, studies presented at the General Conference session of 1897, The Everlasting Covenant (1900) and The Glad Tidings (1900). (14)

Despite this resurgent interest in Waggoner, however, there has never been a thorough study of his works. Statements and claims made, even by men of stature, show that essential research has been neglected. Numerous myths about Waggoner have helped mold opinion for many present-generation Seventh-day Adventists. A reexamination of this field is urgently needed.

Waggoner's entire relationship to the revolutionary article of justification by faith is highly significant. If we are to properly judge the theological issues now confronting Adventism, we dare not ignore his contribution. It is therefore essential to know what he actually believed and taught. We must distinguish between the Waggoner of history and the Waggoner of Adventist mythology.

There is the myth that the message of justification by faith in 1888 was far more advanced than that taught by Luther or Wesley. (15) Wieland audaciously claims that the message of 1888 was "a preaching of 'righteousness by faith' more mature and developed, and more practical than had been preached even by the Apostle Paul." (16)

Then there is the myth that Waggoner's writings after 1888 best represent his message at the historic Minneapolis conference. (17)

Despite Waggoner's personal moral aberration and defection from organized Adventism, there is the myth that he remained basically sound "in the faith." (18) We will present explicit evidence that Waggoner became lost in the fog of pantheism. Even those aware of his pantheism generally accept the myth that it did not develop until about 1900 or later. (19) We will show that pantheistic sentiments began appearing in Waggoner's writings in the early 1890's.

Further, there is the myth that the pantheistic sentiments in Waggoner's works have no intrinsic, connection with his views on the human nature of Christ, the mystical atonement, the righteousness of God and "effective" justification. We believe that the historical record clearly demonstrates that Waggoner's pantheism was integral to his theological system.

There is also the myth that any of Waggoner's material can be identified with the message of 1888 merely because he was the author. But his theological thought gradually evolved. To ignore the difference between the early and late Waggoner is like failing to distinguish between the early and later teachings of Luther.

Finally, there is the myth that Waggoner's teachings enjoyed the full endorsement of Ellen G. White.

If Waggoner had merely historical interest, we might regard these myths with benign indulgence. But since his teachings have now been revived and thrust into prominence, we cannot treat this matter casually.

We believe Waggoner made a positive contribution to Adventist thinking. What he said in and around 1888 was the beginning of great light for Adventism. Ironically, many rejected Waggoner when he was basically sound and followed him when he became unsound. It is difficult to resist the thought that this strange turn of events may have been a divine judgment on that generation.

Employed as a denominational writer from 1883 to 1903, Waggoner was one of Adventism's most prolific authors. He wrote a number of books, numerous pamphlets and hundreds of journal articles. He dealt largely with topics related to the law of God and the gospel, including expositions of Isaiah, the Gospel of John and the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. In undertaking our research, we have recovered nearly everything Waggoner published. We have also read virtually every major work on 1888.

Waggoner was at least partly the product of his times. He espoused ideas which had historical antecedents in theologians far more prominent than himself. That his developing pantheism coincided with similar theological developments outside Adventism emphasizes the need to explore possible external influences on his thought.

Dr. James Buchanan noted that "it would be difficult to invent a new heresy." (20) Some of Waggoner's views may have seemed startlingly new to members of the small and isolated Christian body to which he belonged. But anyone examining the history of theology can trace the record of those who previously held the same ideas. And they can observe the eventual consequences of those concepts.

In many respects Waggoner's history is lamentable. His star rose suddenly and shone but a few dazzling moments before plunging into pantheistic darkness. We do not dwell on Waggoner's aberrations with pleasure. But we believe they hold special lessons for our time.

Although this may well be the first thorough historical examination of Waggoner, we do not presume it will prove the last or the best. We freely admit that problems remain to be resolved. But we hope this effort will stimulate others to investigate this crucial phase of Adventist history. There is, for example, the tantalizing problem of Mrs. White's apparent change of position on the law in Galatians and her lost "testimony" to Joseph H. Waggoner. (21)

One of the impediments to objective research on E. J. Waggoner has been a superficial reliance on what Ellen G. White said about him. But to quote Mrs. White's endorsement of Waggoner is like quoting her endorsement of 0. R. L. Crosier's article on the sanctuary. (22) Some have tried to use this endorsement to support everything Crosier wrote in the article. But careful investigation will show that Mrs. White took a number of positions decidedly contrary to Crosier. There is a great difference between full and qualified endorsement.

Admittedly, this raises questions on Ellen G. White's relationship to Waggoner. If he began to seriously depart from the faith after 1891, why did not Mrs. White issue a warning much earlier? Some refuse to believe Waggoner was enmeshed in serious error during the 1890's solely because Mrs. White continued to hold him in high esteem.

How could Mrs. White urge Waggoner to accept a Bible-teaching position at Emmanuel Missionary College (1903) when he had been teaching pantheistic sentiments for nearly a decade? This is a problem for Ellen G. White scholars. Rather than closing our eyes to Waggoner's teaching, we suggest possible explanations for Mrs. White's protracted silence over his errors. Perhaps she was impressed that the Lord did not want a confrontation until the issue had fully developed. Maybe she earnestly hoped Waggoner would regain his former soundness. Perhaps she knew that many of Waggoner's critics were only waiting to chortle, "I told you so,"and therefore said nothing. Maybe she did not know or, dare we suggest, was mistaken on some things—unless we wish to contend for her personal infallibility. Perhaps, most seriously of all, allowing even leading brethren to follow Waggoner was evidence of divine wrath upon those who had spurned the gracious invitation of 1888. Thus various possibilities could illuminate Mrs. White's relation to Waggoner. But her endorsements refer to the 1888 period anyway. It is not our purpose to explain Ellen G. White's statements here. We intend to use the primary sources in presenting what Waggoner actually taught.

In executing this task, we will follow Waggoner's theological development chronologically. His theological pilgrimage apparently occurred in three stages. First, there was the early Waggoner, who blazed into denominational prominence from the time he began working at the Signs of the Times around 1883 until he reached the zenith of his distinction at the Minneapolis conference of 1888. Next, there was Waggoner in transition from 1889 to 1891. In this brief period a vital shift of emphasis took place in his thinking. Finally, there was Waggoner's awful descent into pantheism after going to England in 1892 to become editor of the British Present Truth. There is no evidence he ever regained his former soundness.

We do not say this to deprecate Waggoner's character. His humility and graciousness were impressive to the end. He was deceived on some things. But he appeared transparently honest in his beliefs. He confessed Christ in spite of his confusion. His last plea seemed to have the spirit of him who cried, "God be merciful to me a sinner. And if indeed, as we fondly believe, this was Waggoner's final confession, then his life was not in vain—not because his life was justified by what he did or did not do, but because it was justified by that Infinite Love who, before Waggoner was born, rewrote his history in the holy history of Jesus Christ.

Justification by grace does not mean damnation to those with any sinful theology. If that were true, no one could be saved. As Robert MacAfee Brown reviewed the history of the church, he ventured to say:
    There must therefore be a place within the church for "dangerous" ideas. This is the risk Protestantism must run in the name of devotion to the truth it is always stultifying. The compensating weight of heresy may be necessary from time to time to keep the listing ship of orthodoxy from foundering. If so, we can hazard the guess that God has a special kind of affection for heretics, and even that he raises them up to fulfill his purposes when his usual means have been hampered by human self-sufficiency. (23)

If this be so, then God must have a special love for Ellet Joseph Waggoner. He used him to stir the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1888. And He is using him for the same purpose today.


1. "Crisis" is A. V. Olson's expression. See A. V. Olson, Through Crisis to Victory: 1888-1901.
2. Lewis H. Christian, The Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts: The Influence and Guidance of Ellen G. White in the Advent Movement; Arthur G. Daniel's, Christ Our Righteousness; LeRoy E. Froom, Movement of Destiny; A. L. Hudson, ed., A Warning and Its Reception; Olson, Crisis to Victory; Norval F. Pease, By Faith Alone; Arthur W. Spalding, Captains of the Host.
3. On April 23-30, 1976, a group of nineteen leaders and theologians met at Palmdale, California, for a conference on the meaning of the gospel of righteousness by faith. A joint statement from the conference appeared under the heading, "Christ Our Righteousness," in the Review and Herald, 27 May 1976, pp. 4-7. Some of the papers presented at the conference were published by Jack D. Walker as Documents from the Palmdale Conference on Righteousness by Faith. This publication includes Dr. Desmond Ford's paper, "Ellen G. White and Righteousness by Faith," prepared for possible presentation at Palmdale. But it was not, in fact, delivered there. Furthermore, Walker does not include any papers presented by the North American participants.
4. For a brief summary of the Righteousness by Faith Symposium, held in Washington, D.C., from August 6 to 11, 1978, see the resume by Gordon M. Hyde in Ministry, Oct. 1978, p. 13.
5. Robert J. Wieland, An Introduction to the 1888 Message Itself, pp. 111-26. In 1950 two missionaries, R. J. Wieland and D. K. Short, presented a manuscript entitled 1888 Re-examined to the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They asserted that the church had rejected the 1888 message and that there must be corporate repentance.
6. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, pp. 91-2.
7. See the following statements by Ellen G. White:
"If those who claimed to have a living experience in the things of God had done their appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would have been warned ere this, and the Lord Jesus would have come in power and great glory" (Review and Herald, 6 Oct. 1896; cited in Froom, Movement of Destiny, p. 581).
"Had the purpose of God been carried out by His people in giving the message of mercy to the world, Christ would have come to the earth, and the saints would ere this have received their welcome into the city of God" (Australian Union Record, 15 Oct. 1898; cited in Froom, Movement of Destiny, p. 582).
"If all who had labored unitedly in the work of 1844 had received the third angel's message and proclaimed it in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord would have wrought mightily with their efforts. A flood of light would have been shed upon the world. Years ago the inhabitants of the earth would have been warned, the closing work would have been completed, and Christ would have come for the redemption of His people" (Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, 8:116; statement published in March, 1904).
"If every watchman on the walls of Zion had given the trumpet a certain sound, the world might ere this have heard the message of warning. But the work is years behind. While men have slept, Satan has stolen a march upon us" (idem, Testimonies for the Church, 9:29; statement appeared in 1909).
8. "A re-print of both Jones' and Waggoner's studies on the subject of Christ's righteousness, as presented during the time when the Spirit of Prophecy recognized them as the Lord's special messengers, would be to this generation as streams of life-giving water in a weary desert. There need be no fear of extremism if their writings are utilized from 1888-1892, including a part of the 1893 General Conference Session studies. We believe that the world itself has never had the privilege of reading such clear teaching concerning the everlasting gospel as is presented in these buried sources" (Hudson, Warning and Reception, pp. 143-44).
9. For the Defense Literature Committee's comment on the suggestion by R. J. Wieland and D. K. Short for a republication of the works of E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, see ibid., pp. 251-52. By 1975, however, a different position was taken. In February of that year, the Righteousness by Faith Committee, meeting in Takoma Park, Maryland, made the following resolution:
"Although a complete and adequate message of righteousness by faith is available in the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White, ... we recognize that the Lord sent Jones and Waggoner to call attention to certain truths that had been lost sight of or that had not previously been fully comprehended.
"Because we believe that a restudy of their distinctive emphasis would be helpful today, we suggest that our denominational publishing houses seriously consider republication of selected sermons, articles, and books that are relevant today and representative of the messages on righteousness by faith given during the 1888 era by Elders Jones and Waggoner" ("Righteousness-by-Faith Report," Ministry, Aug. 1976, p. 6).
10. E. J. Waggoner, Christ Our Righteousness; idem, The Glad Tidings, ed. and rev. Robert J. Wieland, 1972 ed.
11. John 0. Ford, comp., Lessons on Faith.— A Selection of Articles and Sermons by A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner.
12. Within the last two years, the Judgment Hour Publishing Company, 309
Chevallum Rd., Palmwoods, Queensland, Australia, has republished E. J. Waggoner's The Gospel in Creation, The Glad Tidings (unrevised) and The Gospel in Galatians.
13. This is a transcript of six sermons presented by Robert J. Wieland between 1971 and 1976.
14. Ibid., "Author's Foreword."
15. Kenneth H. Wood, "F. Y. I.-4" [For Your Information], Review and Herald, 18 Nov. 1976, p. 2.
16. Hudson, Warning and Reception, p. 50. The thesis that Paul preached only a "partial" gospel has been revived as recently as 1978. In the August, 1978, Signs of the Times the following declaration appeared under the heading, "Your Bible Says This About—The Three Angels' Messages": "Paul did not preach God's last-day message.... It is extremely unlikely that you will hear the message of Revelation 14 proclaimed, except in this magazine" (pp. 6-7). We should remember that the people at Galatia, Colosse and Corinth thought the same way. Of course, if the last-day message is to be beyond what Paul offered, we would not really expect that that message could be proved by the greatest New Testament writer. And if not by the greatest New Testament writer, then certainly not by the lesser ones. We believe, in contrast to the above statement, that God gave a full disclosure of the gospel to the apostle PauL The faith which he delivered to the Romans, to the Thessalonians, to the Colossians and to the Corinthians was sufficient to equip them for life and to prepare them for death, judgment and the coming of Christ. The tragedy was that the early church did not really believe Paul gave them "the whole story." Wherein they looked at Paul's message as "mere," they had a passion for "more." They succeeded only in manufacturing another way, until the temple of truth became cluttered with human devisings and aberrations.
17. See Froom, Movement of Destiny, pp. 188-217; Hudson, Warning and Reception, pp. 143-44; Robert J. Wieland and Donald K. Short, An Explicit Confession . . . Due the Church, p. 33; Wieland, Introduction to the 1888 Message, "Author's Foreword."
18. Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, art. "Waggoner, Ellet J.," p. 1385; Froom, Movement of Destiny, p. 530. It is interesting to note that the revised (1976) edition of the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia omits the section, "He believed and advocated the fundamental SDA doctrines to the day of his death."
19. Froom, Movement of Destiny, pp. 349, 355, 529-30. Even Robert Haddock, who deplores the scarcity of availability of source material dealing with the pantheism crisis and is critical of the lack of detail in the theological controversy over pantheism, places the surfacing of Waggoner's pantheistic sentiments too late (see Robert Haddock, "A History of the Doctrine of the Sanctuary in the Advent Movement: 1800-1905," p. 285). Others who have dated the commencement of Waggoner's pantheistic ideas around 1899 are Dores E. Robinson, The Story of Our Health Message, pp. 312 ff., and Christian, Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts, p. 280.
20. James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture, p. 64.
21. See Ellen G. White, Letter 37, 1887, dated February 15, 1887, written to E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones from Basel, Switzerland. Mrs. White's changed opinion regarding the law in Galatians can be noted in Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, 1:234-35.
22. Ellen G. White, in A Word to the "Little Flock," p. 12. 0. R. L. Crosier (1820-1913), a Millerite lay preacher and editor of Day-Dawn (Canandaigua, N.Y.), began an intensive and extended study of the sanctuary question after the disappointment of October 22, 1844.
23. Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, p. 128.

SDA Home Page   Article List   Next Article