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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Eleven

 The Significance and Meaning 
of Minneapolis and 1888

Because of the controverted nature of the meaning of Minneapolis, I feel that a separate chapter is needed to present evidence for what this momentous General Conference session meant to Ellen White and her ministry. I know that volumes have been devoted to this subject, but I ask the reader to indulge me this review, because it is crucial if we are to get a clear grasp of Ellen White's balanced view of salvation.

For Ellen White, Minneapolis was not primarily about perfection, better relations among ministers, points of prophetic interpretation, or even the nature of Christ's humanity. Minneapolis was primarily a great turning point in the intensity and further clarity of her expressions of justification by faith.

But once again I must emphasize that there were no major reversals of her previous teaching. It is not that she came to Minneapolis and admitted to the assembled brethren that she had been tragically legalistic in her ministry for the previous 45 years. To the contrary, she claimed to have preached the "matchless charms of Christ" all those years. But she did say that there was an urgent need to uplift (for special consideration) the subject of justification by faith in Christ's saving merits. This subject needed special attention not only because of the spiritual needs of God's people but also because of doctrinal confusion as to the real meaning of justification by faith.


I realize that this interpretation is a conclusion about 1888 that has not had wide support. Therefore it behooves one to present some rather compelling evidence to sustain a position that flies in the face of long-head, seemingly established interpretations. What is the evidence that in Ellen White's thinking Minneapolis was primarily about justification?

Ellen White and 1888

What did Minneapolis mean to Ellen White? The answer to this question is not easy to find. Two further questions arise at this juncture: 1. Is Ellen White's reaction to Minneapolis to be judged by the more immediate impact it had on her preaching and writing, or by the way it affected her thinking during the balance of her career? 2. What was her relationship to the views and teachings of Jones and Waggoner?

The Long or the Short View of 1888?—As becomes evident in this study, the 1890s presented two major emphases: the strong accent on justification in the three to four years immediately following 1888, and the strong emphasis on perfection during the last half of the 1890s. Which is the "1888 Ellen White"?

It should already be abundantly evident that Ellen White did not want to deny either side of the justification-sanctification balance. It is also clear from her own writings that she commented on the Minneapolis crisis for the rest of her life.

When all factors are considered, however, the bulk of the evidence strongly suggests that the main message of Minneapolis had special application to the immediate aftermath of the conference—the following three years of her ministry before her departure for Australia. It is quite evident that Ellen White saw the church in a great crisis. This crisis had its roots in both doctrinal misconceptions about justification and an obvious failure to experience what the doctrine sought to describe.

As becomes abundantly clear in succeeding sections of this chapter, the immediate impact of Minneapolis on Ellen White resulted in the most intense period of emphasis on justification by faith in her entire career.

Following Minneapolis, Ellen White never denied the high goals of sanctification and perfection. But the major theme of her ministry was


a message to the church that believers were to quit trying to merit salvation by good works and obedience to the law and accept the wonderful forgiveness of Jesus that "is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God."

She would go on to contend that "many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family" (TM 92).

Doctrinal Confusion Over Justification—There was definite doctrinal confusion about salvation that had led to a period of spiritual dryness and unintentional legalistic discouragement. The problem clearly involved doctrinal dispute, not just deficiencies in personal Christian experience. This understanding, I recognize, goes against some of the conclusions of R. J. Wieland, one of the major interpreters of Minneapolis. Wieland declares that the issues of 1888 were certainly doctrinal, but the evidence, as I read it, suggests that he identifies the wrong doctrines. While he has acknowledged that justification was a major emphasis, the thesis that receives his major accent seems to go like this: 1888 represented a great emphasis on the truth that Jesus had a sinful nature, just like fallen humanity, and this deep identity with sinners enables them to reproduce His character in a profound experience of sanctification (Wieland, Introduction 19-54). Such a position might be attributed to Jones and Waggoner, but this was not what 1888 moved Ellen White to emphasize.

Wieland's position on the nature of Christ as a central emphasis of 1888 is seriously undermined by the very stubborn fact that in all the 1888 Materials recently published by the Ellen G. White Estate, only three or four isolated references to the nature of Christ can be found. George Knight is right on target when he contends that none of the records of Minneapolis "demonstrate that the divinity of Christ, the human nature of Christ, or 'sinless living' were topics of emphasis or discussion at the 1888 meetings. Persons holding that those topics were central to the theology of the meetings generally read subsequent developments in Jones and Waggoner's treatment of righteousness by faith back into the 1888 meetings" (Knight 37).


In essence it appears that the positions of Wieland and his admirers have missed the central point of the whole 1888 emphasis—making sanctification and the nature of Christ the major thrusts, rather than justification.

1888, Jones and Waggoner, and Ellen White—Regarding the question of her relationship to the ministry of Jones and Waggoner, it is also interesting that Wieland and Short contend that the 1888 message is what Jones and Waggoner defined it to be (not Ellen White). But they then go to great pains to seek to prove that Ellen White was in full agreement with Jones and Waggoner (Wieland and Short 63).

The question then becomes Did Ellen White agree with Jones and Waggoner enough on the issues of 1888 so that it can be said that they were in substantial agreement?

Ellen White's hearty support of Jones and Waggoner is unquestioned. The key issue, however, seems to be whether this strong support meant total support for all their theological positions. For instance, did she support their view that Christ was a created god (Arianism)? Did her support of Waggoner mean that she agreed with his later views on "spiritual affinities," a doctrine which taught that one could have a "spiritual" relationship to someone not his or her spouse, but be married to that person in heaven? I think the answer is obvious.

But it might be argued that it was her support of their views on salvation that was clear, not these other issues. Even here, however, it is evident that her support was not some sort of blank check (Knight 72). Ellen White was indisputably clear when she told the delegates assembled at Minneapolis that "some interpretations of Scripture, given by Dr. Waggoner, I do not regard as correct" (MS 15, 1888, in Knight 72). Fifteen months later she declared: "Without a doubt . . . God has given precious truth at the right time to Bro. Jones and Bro. Waggoner. Do I place them as infallible? Do I say that they will not make a statement, nor have an idea that cannot be questioned? or that cannot be error? Do I say so? No, I do not say any such thing" (MS 56, 1890, in Knight 72).


It thus clearly becomes an open question whether she held similar views on perfection and Christ's humanity. One cannot simply say, "Ellen White gave great and extended endorsement to Jones and Waggoner, and thus everything that they said on the nature of Christ, justification, and perfection was her position and the infallible message of the Holy Spirit!"

Again, it must be emphasized that the central concern of this study is What did 1888 mean to Ellen White's understanding of salvation (not to Jones and Waggoner's) ?

In the entire scope of Ellen White's ministry, the nature of Christ and sanctification were of central importance, but the urgent need of Seventh-day Adventists in 1888 (and its immediate aftermath) was to understand that they were accepted by faith in the accounted merits of Christ—and not because of their good works. Only as they shed this unwitting legalism (and its false doctrinal basis) could they make any significant progress in the life of holiness and perfection.

The Experiential Interpretation of 1888
—On the other hand, some have contended that the "main issues in the 1888 righteousness by faith meetings were not doctrinal but experiential" (Knight 65). These interpreters seem to be following in the wake of A. G. Daniells' interpretation of 1888 (in Christ Our Righteousness).

Daniells, a longtime associate of Ellen White's and a former General Conference president, claimed that "the essence of Ellen White's concern regarding 1888" "was not doctrinal but experiential" (Knight 67; Daniells 21, 11). This position is demonstrably not supported by the primary documents of Ellen White during the three or four years immediately following 1888.

It is abundantly clear that Seventh-day Adventist ministers were not conducting their doctrinal discussions in a very charitable spirit, and there was an apparent need for a deeper level of spirituality to be manifested in their ministry as a whole. But this did not deny Ellen White's forcefully insistent call for doctrinal clarification, especially on objective justification.

For Ellen White there was undoubtedly more involved than the mere "subjective application of an undisputed doctrine" (Haloviak, "Review


of Knight" 24). There was important doctrinal dispute, and she was a disputant, albeit one who called for charitable discussion.

Ellen White: The Unique Champion of Justification?—Further evidence that there was doctrinal confusion in the church was Ellen White's declaration that what Waggoner presented at Minneapolis "was the first clear teaching on this subject from any human lips I had heard, excepting the conversations between myself and my husband" 1888 Materials 349). Was she the only person in Seventh-day Adventism who had had a clear conception of justification by faith?

Careful research by Bert Haloviak has not been able to uncover anything in Adventism before 1888 that came close to Ellen White's clear teaching of objective justification, and he has concluded that she was indeed the unique champion of objective justification in Adventism before 1888.1

Consistent with the evidence presented in successive sections of this chapter, Haloviak persuasively contends that "Christ's work as mediator is always implicit in Ellen White's concept of acceptable obedience. Christ's mediation makes our imperfect, but sincere, works acceptable. It is here where Ellen White far transcended the theological system of both the pioneers2 and Jones and Waggoner" ("From Righteousness to Holy Flesh: Judgment at Minneapolis," 23).

The evidence thus strongly suggests that the crisis of 1888 definitely involved doctrinal confusion on subjects that had to do with salvation—especially justification. And Ellen White would spend the next three years in extensive travels, seeking to clarify the issues of Minneapolis.

The Four Years After 1888

The clarity and intensity of her expression on justification was evident in a number of striking ways. The rest of this chapter will seek to document this remarkable emphasis on justification by faith. It will also demonstrate not only her efforts to relieve the arid spiritual conditions in dry hills of the Adventist Gilboa, but also her attempts to clear up doctrinal confusion.


The Great Mass of Material on Justification—Of the body of material on justification by faith gathered for this book (what she wrote from 1844 to 1902), roughly 45 percent of the entire mass was recorded between December 1888 and December 1892. Let that sink in for a moment! In other words, nearly half of all her writings on this aspect of salvation was recorded in one four-year span of a 58-year ministry (1844-1902).

Think of it this way. What if you had a pastor for four years in your church and nearly half the sermons he preached during that time were on justification? Would you not remember this preacher as the "justification by faith" pastor?

Furthermore, this astonishing mass of material on justification came forth from her pen and preaching with constant regularity during this entire, critical four-year period—not just the few months after November 1888.

Strenuous Preaching Tours in Support of Justification—Her travels during the three years between Minneapolis and her departure for Australia were largely given to tours around the United States in support of a clearer understanding of justification by faith and a deeper experience of the love and acceptance of God. Approximately the first year and a half after Minneapolis were particularly intense (ALW, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years 417, 418).

In just about every meeting she attended across North America, her burden was pardon through faith in Christ's imputed merits. Note the impressive sampling that follows.

Battle Creek, Michigan, December 8-22, 1888. During a sermon she urged the people to "plead the blood of a crucified and risen Saviour by living faith, that pardon may be written opposite our names" (RH, Dec. 18, 1888).

South Lancaster, Massachusetts, January 11-19, 1889. After exhorting the people on the "necessity of obeying the law of God," she went on to observe that "many, even among the ministers" were understanding the truth "as it is in Jesus in a light in which they had never before viewed it." Jesus was seen to be "a sin-pardoning Saviour." Many were struggling with the idea that they had a "great work to do themselves 


before they can come to Christ," thinking "that Jesus will come in at the very last of their struggle, and give them help by putting the finishing touch to their life-work."

Ottawa, Kansas, May 7-28, 1889. In a sermon preached to the ministers of the Kansas Conference she defined "belief" as fully accepting "that Jesus Christ died as our sacrifice; that He became the curse for us, took our sins upon Himself, and imputed unto us His own righteousness" (FW 63-79).

In a report of the camp meeting that followed the ministers' meeting, she told of "light" flashing "from the oracles of God in relation to the law and the gospel, in relation to the fact that Christ is our righteousness." That this was not primarily sanctifying righteousness was made clear when she spoke of one of the "young ministering brethren" who testified that "he had enjoyed more of the blessing and love of God during that meeting than in all his life before. . . .  He saw that it was his privilege to be justified by faith; he had peace with God, and with tears confessed what relief and blessing had come to his soul."

Ellen White sensed a large, collective sigh of relief spontaneously coming forth from Seventh-day Adventist souls as they received the "tidings that Christ is our righteousness" (RH, July 23, 1889).

This same theme runs through the sermons and reports of numerous other camp meetings, the 1889 General Conference Session, and the important Bible School for ministers held in Battle Creek during the first half of 1890 (ALW, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years: 453).

Seventh-day Adventism was alive with interest in the subject of "justification by faith." Ellen White was uniting her efforts with Jones and Waggoner in strenuous tours to promote the good news of the sin-pardoning Saviour. While these tours began to slacken in 1890, the basic theme of justification continued to find forceful expression in her writings (published and unpublished) until her departure for Australia in late 1891.

"The Matchless Charms of Christ"—Ellen White declared that the ideas which Waggoner presented at Minneapolis were "the first clear teaching on this subject from any human lips I had heard, excepting the conversations between myself and my husband."


There is good evidence for the truthfulness of her claim, especially among Seventh-day Adventist leaders. But what is not clear from her testimonies about 1888 were her time references—what she meant when she declared that what she had been "presenting" to the people "for the last 45 years" (italics supplied) was "the matchless charms of Christ"—a clear reference to Waggoner's presentations on justification at Minneapolis (1888 Materials 348, 349).

It is obvious that she had understood justification by faith from her early days and that during the 15 or so years previous to Minneapolis she did present some excellent material on justification. But I was hard pressed to find such an accent on objective justification in the time frame of "the last 45 years" to which she referred. This is especially evident when compared to what she began presenting in the late 1870s, the 1883 General Conference session presentations, and the flood of material that came after 1888.

She felt she had uplifted Christ, and certainly the statement which declared that "for years" "the matter has been kept so constantly urged upon me" (ibid. 810) has more special reference to the 1883-1890 period. In the light of this statement, what is to be made of the claim that she had emphasized justification since the beginning of her ministry?

Some might suggest that she was simply given to exaggeration in her claim. But a better explanation seems to go more along the following lines. 

First, we need to recognize that an explicitly doctrinal reference to justification by faith (using technical terms such as justification and imputation) is almost impossible to find before 1868. But what she seemed to have had in mind in claiming to present "the matchless charms of Christ" "for the last 45 years" was her overall Christ-centered ministry.

Undoubtedly she was referring to the sum total of her doctrinal and spiritual impact, not just the technical precision of her theological expression on justification.

Even in her early ministry she often spoke of pardon and forgiveness, expressions of justification that were less theological than such terms as imputation and justification. Haloviak is helpful at this point: "It should be observed that Ellen White did not present the points alluded to (objective justification) in a conscious theological manner. . . .  Her conclusions


seemed to spring from an objective view of Christ that she maintained from the earliest days of her ministry" (Haloviak, "From Righteousness to Holy Flesh: Judgment at Minneapolis," 5:6, 7).

This concept of an "objective view of Christ" advocating for us as our high priestly mediator was explicit in Adventist theology from the very beginning. But among Seventh-day Adventists it appears that only Ellen White was exploiting its possibilities to the fullest for the expression of objective justification.

What is most striking about these testimonies to her past, professedly unique understanding of justification (among Seventh-day Adventists) is that they were all in the immediate aftermath of 1888. Nothing like them is found in any other period of her ministry. Minneapolis was certainly an inspiration to a great call for Christ-centered ministry in the setting of justification by faith.

"Let the Law Take Care of Itself
"—The charge that this great emphasis on justification by faith would destroy the authority of God's law was particularly intense during the early months of 1890. This probably arose from the presentations that were being made at the lengthy "Bible School" in Battle Creek that had been called to promote the understanding of justification by faith. It was quite likely that most of these charges were generated by such persons as Uriah Smith and his supporters, who had been the main opposers of Jones and Waggoner (and, more subtly, of Ellen White) at Minneapolis and afterward.

It is significant that Ellen White (no mean defender of the law herself) was not deterred by such suspicions of anti-law sentiments. It was in this context that she made her startling challenge to the law partisans to "let the law take care of itself. We have been at work on the law until we get as dry as the hills of Gilboa. . . . Let us trust in the merits of Jesus" (1888 Materials 557).

She went on to amplify this response: "Some of our brethren have expressed fears that we shall dwell too much upon the subject of justification by faith, but I hope and pray that none will be needlessly alarmed; for there is no danger in presenting this doctrine as it is set forth in the Scriptures. If there had not been a remissness in the past to properly instruct the people of God, there would not now be a necessity of calling especial attention to it. . . .


"Several have written to me, inquiring if the message of justification by faith is the third angel's message, and I have answered, `It is the third angel's message in verity"' (1SM 372).

To many Seventh-day Adventists, especially the partisans of the Battle Creek establishment preachers, these words must have seemed rather shocking. But Ellen White was not to be deterred. She kept moving ahead in her strong advocacy of justification with the bold declaration that she "could see no cause for alarm" and that "this fear [of destroying the law] was cherished by those who had not heard all the lessons given." She continued: "Many remarks have been made to the effect that in our camp meetings the speakers have dwelt upon the law, the law, and not on Jesus. This statement is not strictly true, but have not the people had some reason for making these remarks?" (1888 Materials 890, 891).

This strong denial that justification by faith would downgrade God's law is potent evidence of the forcefulness with which she and others were promoting justification in this period immediately following Minneapolis.

As was noted at the beginning of this section on justification, when the gospel is preached in all its power, it will sometimes sound like an attack on the law and true obedience. But for Ellen White it really was not an attack on the law. For her, in the legalistic setting of late nineteenth-century Adventism, it was an attack on the misuse of the law as a means of gaining merit for salvation.


Ellen White can never be accused of improperly downgrading the essential importance of sanctification, perfection, and character transformation. She can in no wise be charged with doing away with the authority of God's law and the redeemed person's obligation to obey it in grace. But there is abundant evidence that the great need of God's people during the years around 1888 was a clearer understanding of the much neglected subject of justification by faith.


For Ellen White, Minneapolis was a great incentive to uplift Christ as the sin-pardoning Redeemer. She did not denigrate subjects related to obedience. But she clearly sounded a clarion note that God's people will not be able to move forward in their Christian experience unless they have a clear view of the assurance of His marvelous acceptance through Christ's justifying merits.

1 This conclusion has been reached by Haloviak in "From Righteousness to Holy Flesh: Judgment at Minneapolis." His presentation in chapter 5 is especially informative. [back] [top]

2 Here Haloviak uses the term pioneers to refer to the established ministers at Battle Creek headquarters—especially Uriah Smith and G. I. Butler. [back] [top]

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