The early Seventh-day Adventists were a body of believers in need of a core set of doctrines. This group, remnants of the Millerite Disappointment of 1844, consisted of fifty to one hundred
individuals and a young prophetess, Ellen Harmon (later Ellen White). Members of this group had come from a variety of churches. Therefore, they desperately needed doctrinal consensus if they were to
establish a church of their own. The consensus which they reached would become the foundational doctrines of the modern Seventh-day Adventist Church.
How were the Seventh-day Adventist doctrines developed? Here is the story, as related by Ellen White:
“Many of our people do not realize how firmly the foundation of our faith has been laid. My husband, Elder Joseph Bates, Father Pierce, Elder Edson, and others who
were keen, noble, and true, were among those who, after the passing of the time in 1844, searched for the truth as for hidden treasure. I met with them, and we studied and prayed earnestly. Often we
remained together until late at night, and sometimes through the entire night, praying for light and studying the Word. Again and again these brethren came together to study the Bible, in order that
they might know its meaning, and be prepared to teach it with power. When they came to the point in their study where they said, ‘We can do nothing more,’ the Spirit of the Lord would come
upon me, I would be taken off in vision, and a clear explanation of the passages we had been studying would be given me, with instruction as to how we were to labor and teach effectively.
Thus light was given that helped us to understand the scriptures in regard to Christ, His mission, and His priesthood. A line of truth extending from that time to the time when we
shall enter the city of God, was made plain to me, and I gave to others the instruction that the Lord had given me.
“During this whole time I could not understand the reasoning of the brethren. My mind was locked, as it were, and I could not comprehend the meaning of the scriptures
we were studying. This was one of the greatest sorrows of my life. I was in this condition of mind until all the principal points of our faith were made clear to our minds, in harmony with the Word
of God. The brethren knew that when not in vision, I could not understand these matters, and they accepted as light direct from heaven the revelations given.” (1SM
According to Ellen White, the early doctrines were established through a combination of Bible study and visionary revelation, which they believed was from God. However, the practice of relying
upon visionary experiences to settle scriptural disagreements is unbiblical. Adventists claim that their doctrines are based on scripture alone, but from the history, it is clear that they couldn’t
arrive at doctrinal agreement based on scripture alone. The visions of Ellen White seem to be the most powerful influence upon SDA doctrinal development.
The Nature of Christ
Of particular interest is Ellen White’s statement that her visions revealed the nature of Christ to the early Adventists: “Thus light was given that helped us to understand the scriptures in
regard to Christ, His mission, and His priesthood.”
What was the historic Adventist belief about the nature of Christ—the belief that must have come from the visions as just described? The early Adventists were Arians, meaning that they did not
accept Christ’s eternal pre-existence as God, which is a denial of the Trinity.
The anti-Trinitarianism of early Adventism is not a point of debate among informed Adventists. In a book entitled The Trinity, three Adventist scholars state that “most of the leading SDA
pioneers were non-Trinitarian in their theology….” (Whidden, Moon, and Reeve, The Trinity, p. 190). Adventists became so doctrinally absolute that they re-wrote many Christian hymns,
scrubbing all traces of orthodox Trinitarianism from SDA hymnals (Guy, Thinking Theologically, p. 88 note 68).
Early Adventist Anti-Trinitarian Quotations
“Respecting the trinity, I concluded that it was impossible for me to believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, was also the Almighty God, the Father, one and the same being” –
Joseph Bates (qtd. in Trinity, p. 190).
“To assert that the sayings of the Son and his apostles are the commandments of the Father is as wide from the truth as the old Trinitarian absurdity that Jesus Christ is the very and eternal God”
– James White (qtd. in Wheeler, James White, p. 33).
“As fundamental errors, we might class with this counterfeit sabbath [worshipping on Sunday] other errors, which Protestants have brought away from the Catholic church, such as sprinkling for
baptism, the trinity, the consciousness of the dead, and eternal life in misery.” – James White (Review & Herald 9/12/1854, qtd. in Beachy, What did the Pioneers Believe?).
“The Scripture . . . represents Christ as a created being” – Uriah Smith (qtd. in Durand, Yours in the Blessed Hope, Uriah Smith, p. 156).
“[W]e cannot accept the idea of a trinity, as it is held by Trinitarians, without giving up our claim on the dignity of the sacrifice made for our redemption” – J. H. Waggonner (qtd. in Beachy,
What did the Pioneers Believe? p. 8).
“If Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are each God, it would be three Gods” – J. N. Loughborough (qtd. in Trinity, p. 193).
Teachings of Ellen White Regarding the Nature of
Adventists now affirm that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man.
But, as we have seen, the early Adventists, including Ellen White’s husband, could not affirm the full divinity of Christ as a person of the Trinity from all eternity.
According to Ellen White, SDA teachings regarding “Christ, His
mission, and His priesthood” were settled by a vision given to her in the early days of the Adventist movement. How could the true nature of Christ’s divinity have been omitted from this vision, IF
it was a true revelation from God?
According to the SDA scholars who wrote The Trinity, “Some of [Ellen
White’s] early statements are capable of being read from either a Trinitarian or non-Trinitarian perspective” (p. 206). However, there are some very iffy quotes from Ellen White with respect to the
Ellen White and the Trinity
The following quotes from Ellen White seem incompatible with any Trinitarian interpretation:
“The man Christ Jesus was not the Lord God Almighty, yet Christ and the Father are one” (5 SDABC 1129).
No solid Trinitarian would pen the main clause of the preceding quotation….
“And in order that the human family might have no excuse because of Satan's temptations, Christ became one with them. The only Being who was one with
God lived the law in humanity….” (TMK 363).
“The Sovereign of the universe was not alone in His work of beneficence. He had an associate—a co-worker who could appreciate His purposes, and could share His joy in
giving happiness to created beings. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.’ John 1:1, 2. Christ, the Word, the only
begotten of God, was one with the eternal Father—one in nature, in character, in purpose—the only being that could enter into all the counsels and purposes of God” (PP
If Christ is the “only being” who could fully commune with God, what happened to the Holy Spirit?
“Cumbered with humanity, Christ could not be in every place personally; therefore it was altogether for their advantage that He should leave them, go to His father,
and send the Holy Spirit to be His successor on earth. The Holy Spirit is Himself [Christ] divested of the personality of humanity and independent thereof. He would represent
Himself as present in all places by His Holy Spirit, as the Omnipresent” (14MR 23).
The above quotation seems to identify the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of Jesus Christ rather than as a person of the Trinity. Scrubbed versions of this quote remove
the Trinitarian difficulties (see DA 669).
In her days of Trinitarian confusion, Ellen White had a vision in which the Father elevated His Son to a position of equality with the Father. According to the vision, Satan rebelled against God
because Satan refused to obey the Son of God. Here is the vision:
“The great Creator assembled the heavenly host, that He might in the presence of all the angels confer special honor upon His Son. The Son was seated on the throne
with the Father, and the heavenly throng of holy angels was gathered around them. The Father then made known that it was ordained by Himself that Christ, His Son, should be equal with
Himself; so that wherever was the presence of His Son, it was as His own presence. The word of the Son was to be obeyed as readily as the word of the Father. His Son He had invested
with authority to command the heavenly host. Especially was His Son to work in union with Himself in the anticipated creation of the earth and every living thing that should exist upon the
earth. His Son would carry out His will and His purposes but would do nothing of Himself alone. The Father's will would be fulfilled in Him.
“Lucifer was envious and jealous of Jesus Christ…. He did not understand, neither was he permitted to know, the purposes of God. But Christ was acknowledged sovereign
of heaven, His power and authority to be the same as that of God Himself….
“He left the immediate presence of the Father, dissatisfied and filled with envy against Jesus Christ. Concealing his real purposes, he assembled the angelic host…. As
one aggrieved, he related the preference God had given Jesus to the neglect of himself. He told them that henceforth all the sweet liberty the angels had enjoyed was at an end. For had not a
ruler been appointed over them, to whom they from henceforth must yield servile honor? ….
“There was contention among the angels. Lucifer and his sympathizers were striving to reform the government of God. They were discontented and unhappy because they
could not look into His unsearchable wisdom and ascertain His purposes in exalting His Son, and endowing Him with such unlimited power and command. They rebelled against the authority of the
“Angels that were loyal and true sought to reconcile this mighty, rebellious angel to the will of his Creator…. They clearly set forth that Christ was the Son
of God, existing with Him before the angels were created; and that He had ever stood at the right hand of God….” (SR 13-15).
Through this early vision, Ellen White teaches that the Son of God was elevated to a position of equality with the Father prior to the creation of the world, and that the angels somehow didn’t
know that the Son was eternally God. (Even the loyal angels could only state that the Son existed “before the angels were created.”) According to this vision, Satan and the disloyal angels
essentially rebelled due to a misunderstanding of the nature of the Trinity. However, it was actually the prophet and her followers who were confused about the nature of Christ and the
Ellen White Changes the Doctrine of Christ
According to the Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, Mrs. White “eventually rejected” anti-Trinitarian teachings with Adventism (p. 614). The rejection of erroneous doctrines of Christ came in 1898, with
publication of The Desire of Ages. The change was a long time coming, as she had been a prophetess since late 1844.
In The Desire of Ages, she made the following statements:
“In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived” (530).
“The Spirit was to be given as a regenerating agent, and without this the sacrifice of Christ would have been of no avail. The power of evil had been strengthening for
centuries, and the submission of men to this satanic captivity was amazing. Sin could be resisted and overcome only through the mighty agency of the Third Person of the Godhead, who would come with
no modified energy, but in the fullness of divine power” (671).
When these statements were published, M. L. Andreasen, a young minister who would become a leading Adventist writer and theologian, traveled to Ellen White’s home and demanded to see the original
manuscripts, as he was certain someone had tampered with The Desire of Ages. After being satisfied that the prophetess had indeed written those words, Andreasen departed to spread the
revised doctrine (Steinweg, Without Fear or Favor, p. 75-78; Thompson, Escape from the Flames, p. 78).
Although Ellen White eventually became Trinitarian, she never retracted her early teachings on the nature of Christ (or anything else), insisting that “there is one
straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence, in that which I have written” (3SM 52).
How did Adventists become confused about the nature of Christ? It all began with reliance upon visions to settle differences in scriptural interpretation. Instead of studying the Bible until they
could agree upon its interpretation, the early Adventists took a shortcut. They trusted the revelations of Ellen White, and these revelations misled them about “Christ,
His mission, and His priesthood”—leaving them thorough anti-Trinitarians until late in Ellen White’s prophetic career.
If Ellen White was so tragically wrong about the nature of Christ for so many years (after specifically claiming a revelation on the topic), then how can one trust any other doctrines formulated
by scripture plus visions?
Beachy, Lynnford. What did the Pioneers Believe? Welch (WV): Smyrna Gospel Ministries, 2006.
Durand, Eugene F. Yours in the Blessed Hope, Uriah Smith. Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald, 1980.
Fortin, Dennis, and Jerry Moon, eds. Ellen G. White Encyclopedia. Hagerstown (MD): Review & Herald, 2013.
Guy, Fritz. Thinking Theologically: Adventist Theology and the Interpretation of Faith. Berrien Springs (MI): Andrews UP, 1999.
Steinweg, Virginia. Without Fear or Favor. Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald, 1979.
Thompson, Alden. Escape from the Flames. Nampa (ID): Pacific Press, 2005.
Wheeler, Gerald. James White: Innovator and Overcomer. Hagerstown, (MD): Review & Herald, 2003.
Whidden, Woodrow, Jerry Moon, and John W. Reeve. The Trinity: Understanding God’s Love, His Plan of Salvation, and Christian Relationships.
Hagerstown (MD): Review & Herald, 2002.
Joseph Rector, August 29, 2015