Why a 130-Year-Old Event Still Impacts Adventism: Inside the 1888 Message Study Committee Conference of 2018

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Why a 130-Year-Old Event Still Impacts Adventism: Inside the 1888 Message Study Committee Conference of 2018

PC: Robert Hunsaker, president of the 1888 MSC board, speaks at the 2018 conference of the 1888 Message Study Committee/ via Steve Lucht

Some 130 years after the General Conference session of 1888 sent shockwaves throughout the Seventh-day Adventist world, what Ellen White called “a most precious message,” delivered at that historic event, is still having an impact on the movement.

 

As many as 300 people gathered recently in Berrien Springs, Michigan—this author’s front yard, so to speak—to discuss the 1888 Message and recount its impact within Adventism over the years and during the present era.

 

In this first instalment, I will present an overview of the event. A subsequent article will examine a couple of presentations which impressed this writer and many other attendees.

As befits the opening of the conference, perhaps, Jerry Finneman, vice president of the 1888 MSC board and a long-time pastor who, though retired, still serves as a chaplain, delivered the opening message on Wednesday evening, July 11. He titled it “The 1888 Message in More Than a Nutshell.” As Finneman noted, to explain anything in a nutshell is to do so with as few words as possible. His point was that whittling down the subject of righteousness by faith to a brief expression is a major disservice. We need the nut—the substance—and not just the shell, he said.

One of the noteworthy elements of Finneman’s homily was his assertion of the two-pronged nature of biblical justification. Legal justification benefits all of humanity by default because Jesus bore the penalty for our sins in our place. However, experiential justification becomes our ticket to eternity only when we accept it by faith, thus opening the door to sanctification, our fitness for eternity. He also built a case for the hand-in-hand nature of righteousness by faith and liberty of conscience. Perhaps the most moving moment is when he quoted Ellen White’s comment regarding John 6:37:

Present this assurance to Jesus, and you are as safe as though inside the city of God. (Manuscript Releases, vol. 10, pg. 175)

Thursday, Friday, and Sabbath mornings constituted a three-part devotional series titled “From the Heart.” Patti Guthrie, whom I’ll call “the Chief Operating Officer of the Guthrie household,” presented the first instalment on forgiveness. She spent some time dissecting the Laodicean profile in Revelation 3 and defining cold, hot, and lukewarm. To be cold is to be fully associated with the world and “going with the flow,” so to speak. To be hot means walking with the Lord in spirit and truth, thus doing what is right for the right reasons. The lukewarm condition is one of wearing a garment of righteousness that is humanly manufactured and no more effective at covering shame than were the fig leaf patches donned by Adam and Eve. Lukewarm people may sometimes strive to do the “right” thing, but typically for the wrong reasons.

Patti stated that Jonah’s account paralleled Laodicea in certain ways. She challenged the congregation to consider if we are guilty of leaving the world in a despairing condition like Jonah almost did with Ninevah, thus owing the world an apology for not acting upon Jesus’ pre-ascension commission. The thread of hope that ran through her message was that repentance itself is a gift from God that is instigated by His goodness and grace.

Kelly Kinsley, the treasurer for the 1888 MSC board and a practising dermatologist, covered revival as the second instalment of this series. He spent significant time on the miraculous nature of revival, as was exemplified in Ezekiel 37:1-14—the restoration of life to the dry bones. He also highlighted the Lazarus account and asked the attendees a solemn question: which stench is worse, Lazarus lying in the tomb for four days, or the Laodicean condition of God’s people over the past four or five generations? It’s difficult not to answer the latter. Kinsley capped things off with the encouragement that can be found in passages such as Ephesians 2:1-10.

Richard Kearns, a husband, father, and registered nurse from the state of Washington, discussed reformation as he closed the “From the Heart” series. The foundation of his oration was a quote from Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers: “What is justification by faith? It is the work of God in laying the glory of man in the dust, and doing for man that which it is not in his power to do for himself” (pg. 456, emphasis added).

I was actually surprised to learn that Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay), heralded by many as the greatest athlete in the history of combat sports, who typically didn’t suffer from a shortage of self-aggrandizing statements, crafted the world’s most succinct poem: “Me? Whee!!” It was Ali’s admission that as large as he was in the boxing world, he was, like the rest of us, no bigger than a grain of dirt. Kearns’ point was that we only experience effective revival and reformation when we accept our weakness and allow the Lord to be our strength.

Ron Duffield speaking at the 2018 conference of the 1888 Message Study Committee  / via Steve Lucht

Ron Duffield, a well-renowned speaker and author, shared a two-part series titled “Droppings of the Latter Rain: A Historic Look at the 1892 and 1893 Revivals” Friday evening and Sabbath afternoon. One issue he tackled was the misconception that Desmond Ford propagated in the 1970s that illegitimately marred the credibility of Jones and Waggoner’s initial trumpeting many decades earlier.

Claims from Ford and the like included the idea of the most precious message of 1888 being shrouded in mystery, as well as the public awareness of Jones and Waggoner’s flawed characters and theology (which did lead them to pantheism), developed soon after the Minneapolis General Conference session. This seemed to catalyze the resistance to the message. However, this is countered by the verifiability of Ellen White’s support of the two fellows and endorsement of the message as being directly from God. More broadly, he promoted the virtue of conducting some historical research to wade through the various misconceptions associated with what was a, dare I say, bittersweet period of the pioneer era.

In his second presentation, Duffield connected the dynamics of the 1892/1893 revivals with the story of John F. Bahler, who, as a youth, lost his actual eyes and sight due to a rampant infection. As tragic as this sounds, and is, it began his journey with and dependence on the Lord. A little later in life, in conversation with an acquaintance, he voiced the belief that if he remained faithful until the end and made to the outpouring of the latter rain, his eyes and vision would be restored. It can be said that a quote from The Great Controversy, pp. 611-612, in which she declares that miracles, healings, signs, and wonders would accompany that outpouring, gave credence to Bahler’s belief.

For quite a while, his faith was rewarded as his eyes gradually grew back and his sight methodically improved. However, a tragedy that surpassed that of his early years occurred when he passed to his rest as vision-impaired as he was from childhood. Did John reverse his trust in God? No. Oh, the widespread ramifications of spiritual blindness! Duffield’s thrust was that the extinguishment of the revivals, labelled as nothing more than sensationalism and fanaticism, arrested the potential of the latter rain.

Brian Schwartz, a cardiologist in Southwestern Ohio and the 1888 MSC board chairman, preached the Sabbath morning sermon, which he titled “Counsel to the Seventh Church.” As you have read in this report already, others spent some time in Revelation 3:14–22, but Dr. Schwartz fervently exhorted us to search our souls and honestly assess how steeped we, both individually and more so as a church, are suffering from spiritual pride.

 

Part of our mission is to lead the world to repentance, but this will prove hollow if we do not heed the call ourselves, for we fall just as short of the glory of God as anyone else. He further stated that a Laodicean form of godliness is worse than was the condition of Sodom. Though he pulled no punches, he maintained balance in highlighting the liberating nature of repentance and subsequent achievement of reconciliation, which is truly the main objective of God’s redemptive plan.

 

Robert Hunsaker, a Boston-based physician, the president of the 1888 MSC board, and Brian’s brother-in-law (their wives, Andi and Lyndi, are identical twin sisters, fellow medical professionals, and pillars of the committee’s ministry), put a delightful bow on the weekend with his message, “Final Tipping Point.”

 

Dr. Hunsaker stressed the importance of not viewing Matthew 24:14, a popular text in Adventism, to say the least, through tunnel vision, but rather within the context of verses 12 and 13. Thus, it can be said that the gospel we are to preach is that of endurance through a cold, loveless world where iniquity abounds. He supplemented this deduction with the following quote: “The third angel is represented as flying through the heavens with a banner on which is inscribed, ‘The commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.’ All who will gather warmth from the coldness of others, courage from their defections, and loyalty from their treason, will triumph with the third angel’s message” (The Review and Herald, June 8, 1897, par. 17).

 

From there he differentiated between witnessing and being a witness and underscored our need to elevate our experience, evangelism, and relationships above obligation. He covered a handful of other important subthemes, then proceeded to build what could very well be considered the framework for our entire ecclesiastical raison d’être—proclaiming to everyone we can reach, through biblical fidelity and example, the true nature, character, and image of God, thus reversing the enemy’s success in influencing distortion.

 

Other speakers included Todd Guthrie, a voting advisor of the 1888 MSC board and orthopedic surgeon, John and Monica Campbell, a banking administrator and licensed massage therapist, respectively, and operators of a ministry called Blessings From Above, and Dr. Eddie Ramirez, who has worked extensively with Dr. Neil Nedley. They addressed the tightly knitted bonds between righteousness by faith and the health message from a variety of angles.

In addition, Louis Torres, a seasoned veteran in public evangelism and the overseer of the Mission College of Evangelism near Portland, Oregon, conducted one of the weekend’s breakout sessions, emphasizing the indispensable role of the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Godhead, an affirmation he made without reservation) in guiding us, the church at large, in blanketing the globe with the everlasting gospel.

 

To the extent that this weekend was dense with valuable information, it certainly fit the mold of a seminar. However, it went beyond that: it was a worship experience, fleshed and sinewed with mission reports from areas such as Kenya and the Philippines, active engagement in the form of multiple Q&A sessions, and periods of inspiring music that included about thirty minutes earmarked specifically for early advent hymns.

Next year’s conference will be held in Collegedale, Tennessee, on July 10–13, 2019, and I would encourage all to prayerfully consider attending. In the meantime, the committee would be delighted to field your inquiries regarding how to gain access to recordings from this and prior conferences.

Click Here to Read Part 2

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About the author

John Simon, an almost lifelong Michigander, is a freelance editor and writer. He previously spent a decade working with Adventist Frontier Missions in an accounting role. Though finance wasn't exactly a hand-in-glove fit—more of a hand-in-toaster fit, frankly—it was a privilege to help advance the cause of reaching the unreached. John enjoys spectating and participating in various sports (hockey being on top of both lists), driving/road tripping, visiting his feisty yet loving and supportive family on the other side of the Mitten, and spending time with friends.

  • Ricky Kearns

    Thanks John. Can’t wait for part 2. Great to have seen you at the conference. .

  • Cathy Law

    Wish I’d been there! Thank you for the detailed report.