Uriah Smith: The Unmovable Defender of Historic Adventism

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Uriah Smith: The Unmovable Defender of Historic Adventism

A Man Who Stuck to His Guns

Uriah Smith is most famous for his book Daniel and the Revelation, which helped many Adventists understand those apocalyptic books. The volume came out in the 1870s and was revised around 20 years later by Smith. Nothing major was changed by the author, which illustrates much of the pioneer’s life.

Whether it came to his interpretation of prophecy, the Trinity, the daily, the law in Galatians or any doctrine established early on in the Adventist church, Uriah Smith never budged when someone came along with a new explanation.

This was one of the greatest strengths of Uriah, and one of his greatest weaknesses. He was one of the strongest apologists of the early church, helping others to have confidence in what they believed. But he also had struggles progressing in his understanding of truth, which caused him a lot of trouble later in life. We have valuable lessons to glean from the story of Uriah Smith.

Early Amputation  

Uriah was only 12 years old when the great disappointment took place in 1844. What many don’t know is earlier that year he had to endure the amputation of one of his legs due to a disease that threatened to spread if not taken care of.

The story gives us an illustration of the toughness and fortitude required by even young people to survive in 19th century America. “According to family tradition, the operation took place on the kitchen table and lasted 20 minutes, during which his mother held his hand.”[1] From our 21st century point of view, it’s hard to imagine how much pain he must have endured.

Uriah would prove to be a very innovative character later in life when he created his own prosthetic leg. He had written to J. N. Loughborough “how awkward it is to have a foot with no joint for the toes! It is hard to kneel and rise with such a straight foot.”[2]

Smith’s new leg with movable joints that bent more naturally was patented and manufactured. “Proceeds from the invention enabled Smith to purchase a new home next door to the Review and Herald building.”[3]

Getting Involved in the Publishing Work

Uriah Smith wouldn’t convert to Sabbatarian Adventism until eight years later, in 1852. In the meantime, he strengthened his literary skills through more schooling. When he joined the Sabbath-keepers, James White was so impressed with his writing that he asked Uriah to come and work for the Review and Herald.

Despite having a job offer that would have paid him $1000 a year (a very good sum in the 1800s), Smith turned it down, “instead choosing to work for James White without any salary.”[4]

Most of his early writings in the paper dealt with defending the new beliefs of Adventists. He was a very commonsense writer and sought to back up whatever he said with proof texts that gave his arguments biblical backing.

He worked for the Review and Herald almost non-stop up until he died in 1903. Interestingly, his works toward the end of his life remained focused on the same topics and were explained in the same way, as in the 1850s.

Daniel and the Revelation

From the late 1850s to the early 70s Smith worked hard to set before the denomination and the world a commentary that would make the apocalyptic books of the Bible more understandable.

There were many Christian leaders back then, as there are today, who preached that the book of Revelation couldn’t be understood. Uriah Smith emphatically spoke against that thought in his first book, saying, “As though God would undertake to make known to mankind some important truths and yet fall into the worse than earthly folly of clothing them in language or in figures which human minds could not comprehend!… No, the Revelation will accomplish the object for which it was given.”[5]

His book on Revelation appeared first in 1867, and the book on Daniel came out in 1872. Soon after, the books were combined into one volume and distributed widely in the 1880s through colporteurs.

The appeal of the books was that they were written in a way that anyone could read them, and yet they included many citations from scholarly sources on history and theology. This gave the books an authority and character that people in the church greatly appreciated. Daniel and the Revelation established Uriah Smith as one of the church’s foremost leaders in prophetic interpretation.

Righteousness by Faith Issues

Uriah made his mark in Adventism by holding staunchly to the doctrines established early on in Adventism. As a longtime editor of the Review and Herald, he put out many articles seeking to warn people that current events pointed to the soon coming of Jesus.

In the 1880s there was a lot of talk about Sunday Law legislation, and Smith wasted no time in pointing to this as a sure sign that prophecy was about to be fulfilled. It’s no wonder then that his feathers got a little ruffled when two young upstarts in the church, E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, began to question some long-held beliefs of Seventh-day Adventism around this time.

Jones questioned Uriah Smith’s interpretation of the 10 horns on the fourth beast of Daniel chapter 7, and E. J. Waggoner started to teach that the law in Galatians was referring to the 10 Commandments and not the ceremonial law, a different view than the church at large had been preaching for years.

Smith had two major problems with the interpretations proposed by Jones and Waggoner. For one, he thought that if he and Adventists had been wrong on these issues, then everything else they believed would come into question as well. Secondly, he felt that the two younger men were bringing confusion into the church when prophecy was soon to be fulfilled. He thought that these new teachings would hinder the church’s ability to be ready for what was coming upon the world.

Everything came to a head at the famous 1888 General Conference Session. Uriah Smith and other church leaders held a hostile spirit towards Jones and Waggoner. The two younger men had not only disagreed with the older church leaders on the previous points but also “called upon Adventists to move their emphasis from God’s law to Christ’s righteousness as the means of salvation.”[6]

Ellen White’s endorsement of the message preached by Jones and Waggoner perplexed Uriah Smith. He believed that E. J. Waggoner’s father had tried to teach that the law in Galatians also referred to the 10 Commandments back in 1856 and that Ellen White had said he was wrong. To Smith, it seemed that the prophet had now switched her position.

Dan T. Jones, then-Secretary of the General Conference, writing to another church leader about Smith said, “He cannot understand why… Sister White spoke at one time positively against a certain thing, as she did against the law in Galatians… several years ago, then turn around and practically give her support to the same thing when it comes up in a little different way, with some different associations.”[7]

Ellen White would answer Uriah Smith in many letters and personal meetings, letting him know that he was not on the right track. In one letter she related a dream God had given her of him:

“I saw you walked upon a path that almost imperceptibly diverged from the right way. A noble personage stood beside me and said, ‘Uriah Smith is not on the brink of a precipice, but he is in the path that will shortly bring him to the brink, and if he is not warned now it will soon be too late. He can now retrace his steps. He is walking like a blind man into the prepared net of the enemy, but he feels no danger because light is becoming darkness to him and darkness light. His only hope is in being undeceived.’”[8]

Uriah Smith would eventually confess to Ellen White and other church leaders that he had not manifested the proper attitude in the 1888 session. But, he never gave up his theological views that differed from Jones and Waggoner. He stuck to what he believed was the historical Adventist message.

Adhering to the Old Paths Until the End

In 1894 the General Conference thought it would be best to send Uriah Smith on a tour of Europe. Smith’s performance as editor of the Review and Herald had declined after 1888, and church leaders wanted to give Uriah a rest from the conflict that occurred due to the disagreements with Jones, Waggoner, and Ellen White.

Smith, unfortunately, contracted malaria while traveling through the middle east, which stuck with him for weeks after he returned to the States. Because of his weakness, A. T. Jones replaced Uriah as the editor of the Review and Herald until 1901.

When Smith returned as editor, he continued to allow articles to be published that contradicted the teachings of E. J. Waggoner concerning salvation and the law in Galatians, even in this late stage of his life. This drew the ire of the General Conference President, A. G. Daniels, who expressed his concerns to Willie White in a letter, saying, “It is not right. God has put His seal of approval upon the message that came at Minneapolis, and I cannot understand how a man can proclaim his unbounded confidence in the Spirit of Prophecy, and reject the Minneapolis message.”[9]

These types of disagreements led to Smith once again being replaced as the editor of the paper. Although he continued working for the Review and Herald, this final demotion seems to have been a huge blow for him. His wife wrote in a letter that he was exhibiting stroke-like symptoms the day after he got the news. A year later, in 1903, Uriah Smith suffered another stroke on his way to the office, and passed away later that day, at the age of 70.

Positive Lessons from the Life of Uriah Smith

He Devoted His Talents to God

Smith was extremely creative and gifted in the arts, as well as writing. I’ve mentioned already that he turned down a higher-paying job when he was a young man to go and work with James White.

There was a point in his life for a short time when he wasn’t able to work for the Review and Herald due to conflict. As an engraver during that time, Smith earned double per week what he had while working at the Review, but still came back into denominational work once the conflict had been resolved.

We also noticed before that Uriah received money for his artificial leg invention, but that was not the only patent that he held. He also created a better school desk for students from which he earned good money as well.

All this goes to show that Uriah Smith never needed to work for the church and had good financial reason not to. Despite that, he followed his conviction and gave most of his life to spreading the truth that he believed everyone needed to hear.

He Helped Many to have Confidence in the Prophetic Teachings of the Church

Daniel and the Revelation helped many church members to understand the historicist method of interpreting prophecy that the Adventist movement adopted. Uriah Smith’s book gave people confidence in the interpretation of prophecy that was used in the Millerite movement.

The book also helped people to clearly articulate what happened in 1844. Church members who don’t understand the church’s teachings are usually reluctant to share their faith. Smith put a tool into many hands that assisted people in teaching parts of the Bible that can be hard to understand.

Although the church does not teach some things found in Uriah’s book anymore, he was still ahead of most people in his time when it came to understanding the apocalyptic prophecies of the Bible.

Mistakes We Can Learn From

Poor Leadership Ability

Leadership does not appear to be one of Uriah Smith’s strengths. He served as editor of the Review and Herald for many years, but those years were full of conflict. Ellen White once wrote to Uriah’s wife: “The Lord would have a shrewd manager in the office, one who will reprove, one who is keenly sensitive to wrong, and who feels that the cause of God is a part of him. Uriah and you have not felt this as you should.”[10]

At another time, G. I. Butler, the General Conference President, wrote to James White concerning Uriah: “It seemed to me he was a sort of center around which all the dark overhung, and unless he would move, nothing could be done… I told him how his influence had counted against our efforts so far, by simply doing nothing when he ought to be the first on his feet.”[11]

Despite these struggles as the leader at the publishing house, Smith was chosen as a board member of Battle Creek College in its early days. Problems surfaced for him in this position as well, when disputes arose at the school over the teacher Goodloe Harper Bell. Ellen White once again wrote to him later in life, “I look back and see how you gathered darkness to your soul in the time of the college difficulties… Have you come out clean in that matter?”[12]

Good leaders are always in high demand. From Uriah Smith’s life, we can see that effective leaders have to be able to step out and reprove wrong when needed, they must take the initiative when it comes to reform, and they have to be careful not to allow spiritual darkness to cloud themselves and others.

He Refused to Progress in Biblical Understanding

Core doctrines have mostly stayed the same, but many of Uriah Smith’s beliefs are no longer what the church at large teaches today. He believed that the battle of Armageddon would literally be fought in the middle east. He was an anti-trinitarian. He believed the “daily” in Daniel 8 referred to paganism. He believed that the law in Galatians 3 pertained only to the ceremonial law. All these positions have long been abandoned by scholars in the church.

Although most of these things came into question while Uriah was still living, he never budged from any of his views. Evidence shows that Smith feared that Adventist theology would fall apart if they revised their views that were established at the beginning of the movement.

Now, there are definite pillars of Adventist faith that should not be touched. The Sabbath, the Law of God, the state of the dead, the sanctuary, and many other doctrines have and will stand the test of time until Jesus comes again. But that does not mean that our understanding of these teachings will not grow and that we will never find new ways of expressing them that make us as a church more effective in evangelism.

It also does not mean that we will never find that our understanding was a little off when it comes to certain aspects of these doctrines. Ellen White says, “God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed.”[13]

Let us learn from Uriah Smith to be humble in our understanding of the Bible, and to keep searching for a greater understanding of God’s word.

Click here to read the rest of this series on the Adventist pioneers!

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Notes.

[1] Gary Land, Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator, p. 19.

[2] Ibid, p. 60.

[3] Ibid, p. 61.

[4] Ibid, p. 25.

[5] Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Revelation, p. 8.

[6] Gary Land, Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator, p. 173.

[7] Ibid, p. 177.

[8] Ellen G. White to Uriah Smith, June 14, 1889.

[9] Gary Land, Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator, p. 231.

[10] Ibid, p. 47.

[11] Ibid, p. 82.

[12] Ellen G. White to Uriah Smith, Dec. 31, 1890.

[13] Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 37.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.