Early Adventist worship, Ellen White and the Holy Spirit:
Preliminary Historical Perspectives
By Arthur Patrick
Pentecostalism with its openness to "signs and wonders" and its enthusiasm for charismatic phenomena is
probably the fastest-growing religious movement on earth. In Australia, it has grown from a minimal presence
in the 1970s to be next in size to the largest Christian denomination, the Catholic Church. Seventh-day
Adventism is likely to experience increasing pressure from pentecostalism in the immediate future. Thus
it seems opportune to assess the situation in the light of Scripture and history.
This paper begins to explore attitudes and experiences within nineteenth-century
Seventh-day Adventism toward the person and work of the Holy Spirit. First, it observes
the charismatic stances of three founders of Sabbatarian Adventism: Hiram Edson, James
White and Ellen Harmon/White. Then it seeks to understand why such attitudes changed
radically from the era of Millerite "boundlessness" to that of Seventh-day Adventist
"consolidation." By these two endeavours, this paper blazes a trail from which to explore
later Adventist attitudes toward and experiences with the Holy Spirit. A second paper
grasps this nettle-like subject as it developed a new intensity during the 1890s and
reached a climactic phase in 1900-1901. Both papers issue an invitation for contemporary
Adventists to neither exalt nor disparage the stances of their founders and forebears as
they seek to understand and apply the guidance which God has made so freely available
through Scripture and history.
Sabbatarian founders and the Holy Spirit
It is usually accepted that three people--Joseph Bates, James and Ellen White--are the cofounders of
Seventh-day Adventism. However, Adventism's most articulate apologist,
F.D. Nichol, claims that "Seventh-day Adventists, as a distinct religious body, most correctly
could be described as beginning at the moment" on the morning of 23 October 1844 when Hiram
Edson gave "a new interpretation ... to the prophecy of the 2300 days." If that is the case,
surely Edson is a cofounder of the Church, too. Be that as it may, it is at least relevant for
us to explore Edson's experience with reference to the Holy Spirit.
Edson's undated, incomplete manuscript presents a very clear stance in this regard. For instance, consider
(as one of a number of potential examples) his experience during the Seventh Month movement of 1844 as he
circulated literature through the day and conducted meetings in his home at night. The story is best conveyed
in Edson's own words.
As we were about to commence our evening meeting on one occasion, a two-horse wagon load of entire
strangers came; and after preparing seats for them we commenced our meeting by singing, "Here o'er the
earth as a stranger I roam, Here is no rest, is no rest." It was sung with the spirit and with the
understanding, and the spirit which accompanied the singing gave it a keen edge, and before the hymn was
sung through, the entire company of strangers were so deeply convicted that rather than bear the reproach of being convicted, or converted at a Millerite meeting, they all started to leave the house. One man and his wife succeeded in getting out of doors; but the third one fell upon the threshold; the fourth, the fifth, and so on, till the most of the company were thus slain by the power of God. And such agonizing cries and pleading for mercy, is not often witnessed. Some thirteen, or more, were converted before the meeting closed. The man and his wife who left the house labored hard to persuade the rest of their company to leave at once for home; but not succeeding, and rather than remain through the meeting they went home on foot in a dark night, a distance of five, or six miles, carrying a child a year old. But this was not their heaviest burden. Their conviction was too deep to be easily shaken off; they were back again at the next evening meeting found pardon, and peace in believing. And, "so, mightily grew the word of God and prevailed."
Clearly, Edson saw such manifestations of the Holy Spirit as legitimate components of worship and
evangelism. We also gain from James and Ellen White letters and related sources a clear impression that
the Holy Spirit manifested Himself mightily over a period of about three decades from the epochal date,
1844. "Last night," James White wrote in 1860, "I felt more of the power of God than I have at any one
time for three years." His account continues:
The room was filled with the power of God. I was standing, but with difficulty. I fell upon my face,
and cried and groaned under the power of God. Brethren Sandborn and Ingraham felt about the same. We all
lay on the floor under the power of God.
It merits notice in this letter to "Dear Ellen," dated 6 November 1860, James White implied that the
intense experience he had described was not a qualitatively new one, nor did he infer that it needed
explanation. Evidently standing "with difficulty," crying, groaning and then lying on the floor "under
the power of God" were, in his view, components of a positive event matching his earlier experience.
Indeed, James White could have drawn attention to many similar, awesome occasions during the early years
of Sabbatarian Adventism. These manifestations persevered within Sabbatarian Adventism for almost the
ministerial lifetime of James White; that is, until at least the 1870s.
Ellen Harmon notes that, in order to be able to breathe freely, she "always sat quite close to the
stand" in Portland's Beethoven Hall, amongst the "rich and poor, high and low, ministers and laymen" who
crowded into the pre-Disappointment Millerite meetings there. She describes an occasion when Elder
Stockman was preaching and "Elder Brown, a Christian Baptist minister" was listening intently. Ellen
Harmon's account continues:
He [Elder Brown] became deeply moved, suddenly his countenance grew pale as the dead, he reeled in
his chair, and Elder Stockman caught him in his arms just as he was falling to the floor, and laid him
on the sofa behind the desk, where he lay powerless until the discourse was finished.
He then arose, his face still pale, but shining with light from the Son of righteousness, and gave
a very impressive testimony. He seemed to receive holy unction from above. He was usually slow of speech,
with a solemn manner, entirely free from excitement. But on this occasion, his solemn, measured words
carried with them a new power.
That was the way in which Ellen White (for she had married James White on 30 August 1846) recalled the
experience in a Signs of the Times article published 23 March 1876. The whole experience was still
vividly imprinted on Ellen White's mind when, over six decades later (that is, on 13 August 1906) she again
described the scene (this time in a recorded interview) implying that Elder Brown did not believe in holy
prostration by the Spirit but "he had a taste of it right there." Then the aging Adventist prophet added
an enigmatic sentence, "We had a deal of this, but we never can tell it." Compare these descriptive
sentences from Jon Butler's extensive research on the early period:
In the late summer of 1844 these Millerites enjoyed as purely millenarian an expectation of the world's
end as any movement in American history. Their expectation predisposed them to the powerful outpourings of
charismatic prophesyings, tongues, healings and other "signs and wonders," which fulfilled the biblical
promise for the "last days"....
Their gatherings convulsed with shouts, praises, weeping and "melting seasons of prayer."...
While Millerite leaders largely opposed charismatic phenomena, their inability to dampen the spirits
of the rank and file betrayed itself in the fact that outsiders commonly criticized Millerites for such
"fanaticism" as healings, speaking in tongues, visions, and prophesyings.
Long before 1906 Seventh-day Adventism was so changed that accounts of (let alone the phenomenon of!)
holy prostration and such perceived manifestations of the Holy Spirit were no longer welcome. By the
1980s, it was hard for many church members to even acknowledge well-documented instances of charismatic
enthusiasm which had been viewed as validating experiences during the early years of the Second Advent
One of these early experiences, reported at length in New England newspapers, seemed quite startling
to Dr Fred Hoyt, a painstaking historian of early Adventism who re-discovered it about 1983 and
re-published it four years later (1987). Early in 1845, Elder Israel Dammon was leading out in ongoing
meetings in the town of Atkinson. People were "setting and laying on the floor promiscuously and were
exceedingly noisy" according to one eyewitness, William C. Crosby; at least, the meetings so troubled
the local community that a deputy sheriff came to arrest Elder Dammon. James Moulton, the arresting
officer tells the story in court:
When I went to arrest the prisoner, they shut the door against me. Finding I could not gain access
to him without, I burst open the door. I went to the prisoner and took him by the hand and told him my
business. A number of women jumped on to him--he clung to them, and they to him. So great was the
resistance, that I with three assistants, could not get him out. I remained in the house and sent for
more help; after they arrived we made a second attempt with the same result--I again sent for more
help--after they arrived we overpowered them and got him out door in custody. We were resisted by both
men and women. Can't describe the place--it was one continued shout.
During 1860, Ellen White describes this event which made memorable one of her early journeys.
She also gave her view of why the deputy sheriff had such difficulty arresting Elder Dammon:
The officer cried out, "in the name of the State of Maine, lay hold of this man." Two seized his
arms, and two his feet, and attempted to drag him from the room. They would move him a few inches only,
and then rush out of the house. The power of GOD was in that room, and the servants of GOD with their
countenances lighted up with his glory, made no resistance. The efforts to take Eld. D. were often
repeated with the same effect. The men could not endure the power of God, and it was a relief to them
to rush out of the house. Their number increased to twelve, still Eld. D. was held by the power of GOD
about forty minutes, and not all the strength of those men could move him from the floor where he lay
helpless. At the same moment we all felt that Eld. D. must go; that GOD had manifested his power for
his glory, and that the name of the Lord would be further glorified in suffering him to be taken from
our midst. And those men took him up as easily as they would take up a child, and carried him out.
Ellen White's autobiographical accounts of her early years abound with supernatural events, including
healings. God not only "manifested his power for his glory" in the Dammon event; he also did it constantly
for the White's ministry and for that of their associates. Hiram Edson, James White and Ellen White clearly
had comparable attitudes toward the work of the Holy Spirit in this early period. Seventh-day Adventists
often quote the declaration of the Millerites at their Albany Conference during 1845 when Miller and his
most-trusted associates expressed their lack of confidence in charismatic manifestations. But it is vital
for us to note that this was the attitude of those Millerites who went into "outer darkness" (according to
the Sabbatarians), denying the Shut Door and the Sabbath (to reflect James White's words). Whereas
charismatic experiences had strongly marked Millerism, particularly during the Seventh Month movement of
1844, the main group who continued association with Miller and Himes moved away from such manifestations.
Instead, such charismatic experiences continued amongst the Sabbatarians who accepted them as validating
the presence and approval of God in their midst.
Transition, and the consequent questions
It is perilous to think that these few examples from the early decades of Adventism portray adequately the
element of enthusiasm in the group's spiritual life. However, they do indicate the reality of a large mass
of data; in other words, they are like the visible part of an iceberg.
From our perspective one of the most important things to do is to ask, Why did these manifestations
decline and finally disappear in Seventh-day Adventism?
There are two reasons which deserve primary attention, both fruitfully explained within Jon Butler's
insightful chapter in The Disappointed. First, American society which favoured Millerite
"boundlessness" up to 1844 changed rapidly in the 1850s and beyond, especially as a result of the Civil
War which devastated the country from 1861-1865. Secondly, the transition from Millerism to Sabbatarian
Adventism involved much change, a process which formed a new denomination with a distinctive name,
closely-knit organisation and successful institutions to implement Adventist ideas and values through
literature, health reform and education. As the new church matured, it would come to accept many of the
advances made by its surrounding culture, such as the development of scientific medicine as being compatible
with Adventists' penchant for natural remedies. It would, in due time, even approve the quest for
accreditation by its educational institutions. During the twentieth century the Second Advent Movement
would mature in its homelands and plant its mission amongst most of the nations on planet earth.
Its structure and ethos were no longer compatible with the charismatic exuberance of the early period,
even as adulthood may move a person away from the radicalism of youth.
By the 1890s the consolidation of Seventh-day Adventism was so well advanced that a skilful and
energetic attempt to foster an early form of pentecostalism on the North America continent failed miserably.
A chief proponent of this initiative, A.F. Ballenger, would become one of the Church's prominent ministerial
heretics early in the new century. Ballenger is remembered for unorthodox ideas to do with the Sanctuary
but, hopefully, when Dr Gary Land's forthcoming biography of Ballenger becomes available we will much better
understand the meaning which his catch-cry held at the time, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost." But more of
Ballenger and the Holy Flesh emphasis in the next paper.
There is an additional reason why Seventh-day Adventism developed a great reticence with reference to
enthusiastic manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Every time these have flowered, fanaticism has been clearly
in evidence. Statements about this problem form a refrain in Ellen White's accounts of the early period,
and both Stephen Haskell and Ellen White interpreted the Holy Flesh heresy as another instance of a problem
akin to that of early Adventist times. It is well for us to ponder the implications of this tendency for
enthusiasm to get out of hand, a task which is best suited to the end of the second paper.
Why should we, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, give attention to such matters as the church's
nineteenth-century experience with the person and work of the Holy Spirit? I suggest there are a number of
First, it is important for Adventists to know the way in which their spiritual family has developed
from its early years. Many of our pioneers experienced the joys of "enthusiastic religion" in ways that
embarrass many of us now. But we need to be able to understand and accept them as our ancestors; otherwise,
we will never fully understand ourselves. We can learn from their Bible study, but at the same time we must
be diligent in our own study of the Word. The Adventist attitude in these matters is best expressed in well-
known Ellen White sentences: "We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the
Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history." "The truth is an advancing truth, and we must walk
in the increasing light." "We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn."
One important example of the unlearning process has to do with the personhood of the Holy Spirit.
Nineteenth-century Seventh-day Adventism was often decidedly against the concept of the Trinity, and
thought of the Holy Spirit as a power, an influence, an agency, even an aura, but not a Person of the
Godhead. Continued Bible study enabled the church to clarify this doctrine fruitfully.
Second, it is crucial for contemporary Seventh-day Adventists to be aware of the variety which
now characterises their ten-million-member Church. This variety speaks with profound eloquence to
those who plan and deliver pastoral care, and calls us to a conscious attempt to minister to the "multiple
intelligences" present in the church. Surely we should seek an awareness, too, of the cultures which
surround us and which register a profound impact on the contemporary church. For instance, "there are
over 461 million Pentecostal Christians with congregations in most countries of the world," constituting
"the second largest communion in Christianity." The World Council of Churches estimates that by the year
2000 "about 90% of all Christians in the so-called 'Third World' will be Pentecostals." The great majority
of Seventh-day Adventist growth is in places like Inter-America, South America, Africa and New Guinea,
where we will continually rub shoulders with Pentecostal Christians. Add to that reality the fact that
newer converts in Europe, North America, New Zealand and Australia are more likely than long-term Adventists
to embrace Pentecostalism, and we have a set of factors powerful enough to fragment the Church as we know
it, and that quite soon.
Thirdly, it may be important for us to ask ourselves if, since our founders were what we might
broadly describe as charismatic believers, should we tolerate such people in the Church 150 years later?
I offer this as a useful question, even though I am an historian whose faith and worship identifies with the
reasonableness of Adventist thought and practice rather with its enthusiastic effusions. The issue is a
serious one; effective answers will also become more urgent with each passing year. Adventists have always
been an upwardly-mobile people, which fact divorces some of them constantly from the ethos of many new
converts even in places like Australia, to say nothing of the way it isolates them from the vast, young
(both spiritually and chronologically) membership in the Developing World. To consider strategies before
a crisis becomes unmanageable seems to be a first principle of effective leadership. A starting-point for
fruitful discussion may be found in considering three related questions. Were the manifestations,
interpreted by early Adventists as validating the presence and approval of God in their midst, Satanic
deceptions? Were these manifestations childhood or juvenile experiences which early Adventists outgrew
as a result of continued Bible study and the guidance of the Spirit? Was God meeting a need amongst early
Adventists with genuine manifestations of the Holy Spirit? Whichever question leads to a safe understanding
in the present, the pastoral approach will be similar, including prayerful Bible study and calm reliance
on the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Further, we would do well to ask if we who think of ourselves as cerebral Adventists have well
understood the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Think of the inspiring vision our Church's "Mother"
has given us:
The angel who unites in the proclamation of the third angel's message is to lighten the whole earth
with his glory. A work of world-wide extent and unwonted power is here foretold. The advent movement of
1840-44 was a glorious manifestation of the power of God; the first angel's message was carried to every
missionary station in the world, and in some countries there was the greatest religious interest which
has been witnessed in any land since the Reformation of the sixteenth century; but these are to be exceeded
by the mighty movement under the last warning of the third angel.
The great work of the gospel is not to close with less manifestation of the power of God than marked
its opening. The prophecies which were fulfilled in the outpouring of the former rain at the opening of
the gospel are again to be fulfilled in the latter rain at its close....
Servants of God, with their faces lighted up and shining with holy consecration, will hasten from
place to place to proclaim the message from heaven. By thousands of voices, all over the earth, the
warning will be given. Miracles will be wrought, the sick will be healed, and signs and wonders will
follow the believers. Satan also works with lying wonders, even bringing down fire from heaven in the
sight of men. Revelation 13:13. Thus the inhabitants of earth will be brought to take their stand.
To read such material thoughtfully is to be faced with multiple questions. Has the doctrine of the
Latter Rain been used to always locate this great outpouring of the Holy Spirit in some future time?
Has the Adventist penchant for dwelling on "Last Day Events" caused us to both shelve our present
opportunity/responsibility while we try to manufacture enough perfection of character to be ready
for the Latter Rain? Should we, in an age marked by both pentecostal and demonic manifestations,
emphasise more clearly than ever before that the unusual is not necessarily supernatural?
Finally, is it not time for a constructive dialogue and dialectic to occur in the Adventist
community of faith with reference to the Holy Spirit? During the past thirty years, Forums and
their journal, Spectrum, have frequently proposed agendas and ideas which have been constructive,
even formative, in Seventh-day Adventism. During February this year I accepted the opportunity to present
to the Sydney Adventist Forum an earlier draft of this paper without any direct knowledge of what the
sessions other than mine would propose. But it seems to me that by inviting us to think of the Holy
Spirit and our heritage, the Holy Spirit and the Gospel, the Holy Spirit and the End Time, and the
Holy Spirit in the Contemporary Charismatic Scene, Sydney Adventist Forum put some of the most essential
questions out on the table. The September 1999 "Discerning the Spirit" conferences in the Trans-
Australian Union of Seventh-day Adventists presented a greatly-needed and much wider opportunity to
explore the relevant issues coherently. However we (the Church) need to do more than assent to the
contemporary importance of a balanced doctrine and experience of the Holy Spirit. It is not an overstatement
to declare that the future of Seventh-day Adventism--its unity and its mission-- depends on effective
understandings and responses. Therefore my second paper will attempt the taking of another step toward
that goal from an historical framework.
25 October 1999
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