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Crosscurrents in Adventist Christology

by Claude Webster

Chapter Three


In this chapter we set ourselves the task of outlining the Christological views and convictions of E. J. Waggoner. Showing ability as a writer, he commenced in this field in 1883 and continued using the pen as a denominational worker until 1903. One of Adventism's most prolific authors, he wrote a number of books, numerous pamphlets and hundreds of journal articles.1 Rising to prominence at the historic twenty-seventh General Conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1888, he along with A. T. Jones, made an indelible mark on the church by their theological presentations at the session. Up to the present these two men have haunted the conscience of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, resulting in numerous and continued attempts to uncover and unravel their messages, to analyze the truthfulness of their positions and to relate the present situation of the church to their theological views.2

We wish firstly to place E. J. Waggoner into his historical context and then to look at his Christological contributions and development in chronological periods. The first period will be from 1883 to 1887 with E. J. Waggoner in editorial work with The Signs of the Times. The second period will be from the Minneapolis Conference of 1888 to the end of his editorial work at the Pacific Press in 1891. The third period will cover his years of service in England where he was editor of The Present Truth (1892-1902), and will include his years of decline from 1903 until his death in 1916.3 The final section of the chapter will be devoted to an evaluation and critique of the Christology of E. J. Waggoner.

I. The Historical Context

Ellet Joseph Waggoner was born on January 12, 1855, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and was the sixth child of Joseph Harvey and Maryetta Hall Waggoner. His father had joined the Adventist cause in 1852, eight years beyond the 'Great Disappointment' and eleven years before the adoption of the official name 'Seventh-day Adventist Church.' The senior Waggoner became a leading Seventh-day Adventist preacher and writer, remaining active until his death in 1889.

E. J. Waggoner attended the Battle Creek College in Michigan, earliest Seventh-day Adventist educational institution, dedicated on January 4, 1875. After gaining a classical training he proceeded to the Bellevue Medical College in New York City and obtained a medical degree. For a short period he served on the staff of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. About this time he married Jessie Fremont Moser whom he had met at Battle Creek College. With his heart really in evangelism Waggoner left the sanitarium and entered the ministry.4

Notice should be taken of a remarkable experience which Waggoner had in October 1882, while attending a campmeeting in Healdsburg, California. This experience is of significance for his later Christological emphasis. He describes the incident in his book, The Everlasting Covenant (1900), and again just before his death in 1916.5 Waggoner relates that one rainy afternoon he was sitting in a tent listening to the preaching of the Word. He did not recollect the text or the topic but suddenly he experienced what he considered a "revelation."6 Let us hear him in his own words:

"Suddenly a light shone round me, and the tent was, for me, far more brilliantly lighted than if the noon-day sun had been shining, and I saw Christ hanging on the cross, crucified for me. In that moment I had my first positive knowledge, which came like an overwhelming flood, that God loved me, and that Christ died for me. God and I were the only beings I was conscious of in the universe. I knew then, by actual sight, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself; I was the whole world with all its sin. I am sure that Paul's experience on the way to Damascus was no more real than mine."7

Waggoner relates that there and then he resolved to spend the rest of his life making known to others the Biblical message of God's love for individual sinners and he testified that the light which shone on him that day from the cross of Christ had ever been his guide in Bible study; that wherever he turned in the sacred Book, he found Christ set forth as the power of God unto the salvation of sinners.8 No doubt this experience should be seen as a key to his Christological development and emphasis.

In 1883 Waggoner was called to the Pacific Press to assist his father, who was editor-in-chief of The Signs of the Times. Thus began his editorial experience. In 1884 he met A. T. Jones and together they were destined to play an important role in the theological development of the fledgling movement. In 1886 E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones became joint-editors of the magazine and Waggoner remained at the post until May 1891.

At the Minneapolis General Conference session held from October 17 to November 4, 1888, E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones were the main speakers. Because no official records were kept of the messages delivered it has been difficult to discover the full Waggoner message of 1888. While it is generally accepted that justification by faith was a key theme, variant views have been expressed.9

During the next few years Waggoner along with A. T. Jones and Ellen White endeavored to spread the message of righteousness by faith in the churches and amongst the ministry. From November 5, 1889, to March 25, 1890, Waggoner participated in a Bible school for ministers at Battle Creek.10 The next year this school was repeated. The publication of his book, Christ Our Righteousness, in 1890, would clearly indicate the Christological burden of Waggoner. At the General Conference session in 1891 Waggoner presented sixteen studies on the book of Romans.11

The General Conference invited Waggoner to become editor of the British Present Truth and thus he with his family went to England in 1892, remaining there until 1903. During this time he visited the United States in 1897, 1899, 1901 and 1903 to attend the General Conference sessions and at all of these, except the last, he was a prominent speaker at the Bible study sessions. Returning to his homeland in September 1903, he connected with Emmanuel Missionary College (now Andrews University) in Michigan as a Bible teacher during 1903 and 1904 In 1904 he left the college and went to Battle Creek to become co-editor of the magazine, Medical Missionary.

Experiencing domestic difficulties, Waggoner was divorced from his wife in 1905, resulting in his withdrawal from church employment. In 1906 he married Miss Edith Adams whom he had known during his stay in England. Waggoner and his new wife spent several years in Europe and returned permanently to the United States in 1910.12 The last six years of his life were spent at Battle Creek assisting Dr. J. H. Kellogg in medical and spiritual work associated with Dr Kellogg's school and sanitarium.

E. J. Waggoner died on May 28, 1916, from a heart attack at the age of 61.His Confession of Faith was discovered on his desk after his death and is rich in Christological content, giving his basic views at the end of his life.13 The funeral service was conducted in the Battle Creek Tabernacle and the sermon was preached by his old friend, A. T. Jones.14


1 See David P. McMahon, Ellet Joseph Waggoner: The Myth and the Man, Fallbrook, California: Verdict Publications, 1979, p.14. The following are Waggoner's main books: Fathers of the Catholic Church, Oakland, California: Pacific Press Publishing Company, 1888; Christ and His Righteousness, Oakland, California: Pacific Press Publishing Company, 1890; The Gospel in Creation, Battle Creek, Michigan: International Tract Society, 1895; The Glad Tidings, Oakland, California: Pacific Press Publishing Company, 1900; The Everlasting Covenant, London: International Tract Society, 1900. [back]

2 We list a sampling of the attempts: A. G. Daniells, Christ our Righteousness, 1926; L. H. Christian, The Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts, 1947; B. W. Steinweg, "The Developments in the Teaching of Justification and Righteousness by Faith in the Seventh-day Adventist Church after 1900," 1948; A. W. Spalding, Captains of the Host, 1949; D. K. Short and R. J. Wieland, 1888 Re-examined, 1950; A. L. Hudson, ed. A Warning and its Reception, [1960?]; N. F. Pease, By Faith Alone, 1962; A. V. Olson, Through Crisis to Victory.: 1888-1901, 1966; L. E. Froom, Movement of Destiny, 1971; G. J. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism, 1977; D. P. McMahon, Ellet Joseph Waggoner: The Myth and the Man, 1979; R. J. Wieland, The 1888 Message An Introduction, 1980. [back]

3 We believe that this is the most natural method, Waggoner's life and work lending itself to this scheme. The 1888 Minneapolis Conference is an important dividing mark between the developing Waggoner and the prominent church figure. The second period naturally fits between Minneapolis and his departure to England. The third period is fairly long, but the major developments took place between 1892 and 1903 with little change thereafter. While there are some inconveniences in this method we feel it warrants consideration. [back]

4 Richard W. Schwarz, Adventist historian and vice-president of Andrews University, admits to the lack of a good authoritative biography of E. J. Waggoner. He is not certain as to when Waggoner attended Battle Creek College, but suggests that it would be at the very start of the school. He believes that Waggoner probably had very little theology other than the regular lectures given by Uriah Smith several times a week. Most of the subjects were classical at the time. Schwarz has no idea when Waggoner studied medicine at Bellevue or how long he was on the staff at the Battle Creek Sanitarium after his return. In those days one had to spend at least three years in medicine at Bellevue to obtain the doctor's degree (see Letter Richard W Schwarz to E. C. Webster, June 23, 1982). If McMahon is correct in stating that Waggoner and his wife moved to California about 1880 (see McMahon, Ellet Joseph Waggoner, p.19), then the experiences above had to be packed in between 1872 and 1880. We do know that Waggoner was in California at the Healdsburg campmeeting in 1882. [back]

5 See E. J. Waggoner, The Everlasting Covenant, p. v.; also Confession of Faith, n.p., [1916?], pp.5,6. The manuscript of this letter was the last thing written by Waggoner and was addressed to M. C. Wilcox. Found on Waggoner's desk after his sudden death, May 28, 1916, it was published posthumously at the request of friends. [back]

6 Waggoner calls it "an impersonal, extra-Biblical revelation;" (see Confession of Faith, p.6). [back]

7 E. J. Waggoner, Confession of Faith, pp.5,6. [back]

8 See E. J. Waggoner, The Everlasting Covenant, p. v. [back]

9 When we come to the section dealing with the 1888 Conference in greater detail we will take note of these different views. See footnote 56 of this chapter. [back]

10 In Schwarz' letter, he states that a recent doctoral student who has just completed a dissertation on W. W. Prescott, informs him that during this Ministerial institute, Waggoner lectured on the covenants and the book of Galatians (see Letter R. W. Schwarz to E. C. Webster). [back]

11 These 16 studies on Romans are recorded in the General Conference Bulletin of 1891 and can be found in the James White Library, Heritage Room. [back]

12 While Waggoner was living in England (1892-1903), he periodically did some Bible teaching in Denmark. His daughter mentions the summer of 1897 and then again for two or three months in 1902 (see Pearl Waggoner Howard, "Biographical Sketch and Background," obtainable E. G. White-S.D.A. Research Centre, Newbold College, England). Waggoner and his new wife returned to Denmark in 1907 until 1910 where he gave English lessons to university students, probably in Copenhagen (see Ibid., and letter of R. W. Schwarz). [back]

13 A copy of Waggoner's Confession of Faith can be obtained from the James White Library, Heritage Room. [back]

14 For details on the life and work of E. J. Waggoner see Froom, Movement of Destiny, 1971, pp.188-217, 239-252, 269-299, 343-348, 518-526, 529-540; Pearl Waggoner Howard, "Dr. E. J. Waggoner: Biographical Sketch and Background," 7 pages (obtainable from E. G. White-S.D.A. Research Center, Newbold College, Bracknell, Berkshire); McMahon, Ellet Joseph Waggoner: The Myth and the Man, 1979; Richard W. Schwarz, Light Bearers to the Remnant, Mountain View, California: Pacific Press, 1979, pp.183-196, 470-475; Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, 1966, p.1385; Emmett K. Vande Vere, The Wisdom Seekers, Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1972, pp. 61,62,114,122. [back]

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