A.T Jones and E.J. Waggoner made waves in Adventism and earned their place in Adventist History in the mid-1880s. They were both young, Jones was 38 at the time of the Minneapolis General Conference Session and Waggoner was 33. They were also polar opposites. Jones was tall, lanky, impulsive and prone to bouts of spontaneous combustion. He had very little formal education and had been a soldier based at Fort Walla Walla. He was self-educated, brilliant and possessed a photographic memory with a near-perfect recall. Waggoner, on the other hand, was short, stocky, somewhat less charismatic than Jones and formally educated in medicine with an M.D. from the prestigious Bellevue Medical College.
Though they were polar opposites they worked extremely well together. In the early 1880s, they found themselves thrown together as co-editors of the Signs of the Times and The American Sentinel of Religious Liberty and Bible Instructors at Healdsburg College. While writing for the signs and teaching at the College they began to openly dispute some of the established views held by Seventh-Day Adventists at the time.
Jones questioned the inclusion of the Huns as one of the ten tribes of Western Europe mentioned in Daniel 2 and 7, he thought the Alemanni were a better fit. Meanwhile, Waggoner began to see that the law mentioned in the book of Galatians was the moral law and not the ceremonial law as was generally accepted by Seventh-Day Adventists at the time.
Their articles and teaching on these subjects attracted the attention of George Butler, then General Conference President and Uriah Smith, who was serving as Secretary of the General Conference. Both Smith and Butler began to actively work to counteract the influence of Jones and Waggoner by publishing tracts and a series of articles in The Review and Herald which defended the existing views regarding the issues.
This pitted the two main publications of the church against each other and called down a rebuke from Ellen White who was shown by God that the way both parties were handling the situation was less than desirable.
The situation began to simmer during the General Conference session of 1886 when George Butler prepared and distributed a tract titled “The Law in Galatians” Is It The Moral Law or Doest It Refer To That System Of The Law Peculiarly Jewish”. It was an obvious refutation of Waggoner’s views but without the direct use of his name. The gloves seemed to be coming off at this point.
The General Conference appointed a nine-member committee to review the subject of the law in Galatians. Ellen White repeatedly told them all that they were majoring in the minors and that the law in Galatians wasn’t as important an issue as they were making it out to be.
No one was really willing to listen. No one was willing to back down. They had all found a hill they were prepared to die on.
For Waggoner and Jones, the message they were preaching revolved around Christ and how Christ should be placed at the centre of Adventism at a time when Adventism was losing sight of His matchless charms. A spirit of debate had crept into the church in the years since it’s organisation and while Sabbatarian Adventism had started off firmly focused on Christ it was now shifting its focus more towards intellectual assent to the truth. Many were baptised as a result of being intellectually convinced of the truth of Adventist doctrines as opposed to having experienced the matchless charms of Jesus.
Ellen White wrote “We have preached the law till we have become as dry as the hills of Gilboa”. The message of Jones and Waggoner was a message of Righteousness by Faith and it was a message that the church desperately needed at that point in its history.
The entire issue came to a head at the General Conference Session of 1888, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota from the 17th of October to the 4th of November 1888. Writing retrospectively about the conference Ellen White said “I have been instructed by God that the terrible experience at the Minneapolis Conference is one of the saddest chapters in the history of the believers of present truth”
It was a watershed moment in the history of Adventism.
Jones and Waggoner presented the Righteousness of Christ during the almost month-long conference. They refused to enter into debate but rather presented their case through a series of Bible readings on the love of God. The message served to polarise the church. Some felt that Jones and Waggoner were trying to sidestep the issue of the law altogether and do away with its relevance while others wholeheartedly embraced the message and experienced a deep personal revival in their lives. Among those that were deeply impacted were S.N. Haskell and J.O Corliss.
Smith and Butler bitterly opposed it, with Smith going so far as to question Ellen White and her credibility as a messenger of the Lord. A few years later Uriah Smith publicly apologised to Ellen White and to the church at large for how he had responded to the issue.
Ellen White teamed up with Jones and Waggoner and led the charge in seeing the message of Righteousness by Faith preached throughout the church. The message brought a series of revivals all through the denomination. Commenting on it later Ellen White wrote “I have never seen a revival go forward with such thoroughness and yet remain so free of undue excitement”
Sadly the message that brought such deep repentance and revival to so many Adventists, ministers and laity alike, did not penetrate to the innermost recesses of the hearts of those who first preached it. Both Jones and Waggoner, for reasons that are as varied as they are complex, eventually left the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
While some of the responsibility rests with them for not allowing the message to transform them, some of the blame rests with the brethren who so strongly and so bitterly opposed them. This opposition would become a difficult and overmastering temptation to the young messengers.
In hindsight, the weightiest issue at the Minneapolis conference was not the theology that was debated but rather the spirit which inspired the brethren. The message of Righteousness by Faith will be at the centre of the final warning given to the world just before Jesus returns. May we partake of its spirit and be a part of proclaiming its beauty.