Whidden on Waggoner

During the fretful hours during and after hurricane Ike, I spent some time reading E. J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to Agent of Division, a 400 page biography by Woodrow Whidden. It’s the latest volume in the Adventist Pioneer Series edited by George Knight and published by Review and Herald, and the first scholarly biography of this influential Adventist writer, editor, evangelist, and physician.

Ellet Joseph Waggoner rocketed to prominence in the late 1880s as editor of the Oakland, CA, based Signs of the Times, and then as a proclaimer of righteousness by faith at the 1888 General Conference session in Minneapolis, MN, together with Alonzo Trevier Jones. It was the most contentious meeting in Adventist history, with some in leadership opposing the emphasis, fearful that preaching the law would be neglected, but with Ellen White enthusiastically supporting what she called “a most precious message.” In the years that followed, Jones and Waggoner traveled across the US with Ellen White, proclaiming the good news of justification by faith to Adventists who, in White’s words, had “preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain.”

In 1950, two missionaries on furlough from Africa, Donald K. Short and Robert J. Wieland, were shocked by a gospel emphasis at that year’s General Conference session that seemed little different from popular evangelicalism; they quickly wrote a manuscript, “1888 Re-Examined,” accusing the denomination of having rejected the message brought by Jones and Waggoner, and calling for corporate repentance. Sidelined for years afterward, their books began to be published by denominational presses in the 1980s. Today, it seems the tide has turned against them again; Whidden’s biography can be seen as a refutation of their analysis of both the history of the period and of Waggoner’s message itself. Specifically, Whidden seeks to undermine Wieland and Short’s emphasis on Christ having assumed fallen human nature, a final generation of Christians who overcome sin, and the cleansing of the sanctuary as involving an effective cleansing of believers.

That said (and affirmed by Whidden himself), Whidden tells a compelling story of Waggoner and–the story within the story–of his own search to understand him.  I most appreciated this aspect of the book. Whidden doesn’t hide his methodology or the difficulty of putting together some pieces of the puzzle in the footnotes. He tells of doing research like a genealogist in census records to find out information about the Waggoner family. He has chapters that are biographical, and a summary chapter at the end of each section looking at Waggoner’s theological development in that period.

The story of Waggoner’s theological development is one important element of the book. Following 1888, Waggoner shifted from a Reformation emphasis on the external, imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, our substitute, to a mystical theory of infused righteousness through the indwelling Christ reminiscent of the theology of Andreas Osiander. By the mid to late 1890’s this mystical indwelling of Christ became, in Waggoner’s theology, not the blessing of the Christian, but a basic statement of the relationship of God with his creatures–the panentheism that also infected another Adventist physician, John Harvey Kellogg. Waggoner came to believe that as Christ’s divinity made it impossible for his fallen human nature to sin, so his divine life within us would keep us from sin, too–and from disease. This dangerous line of thought led him to a bizarre teaching regarding “spiritual affinities”–the idea that God has one person in mind as your ideal companion (your “soul mate,” in today’s lingo), and that it isn’t adultery if you break off a merely human relationship to join with that partner. That was his rationalization for an adulterous relationship that led to public scandal and his separation from church employment.

We learn much about Waggoner’s family of origin (which also includes marital dysfunction and  unfaithfulness) and his first wife, Jessie Moser Waggoner (a pioneer in the development of Adventist Sabbath Schools) and children. Herein are some powerful lessons for ministers to pay attention to their own family duties and relationships and not to sacrifice them for “the Lord’s work.”

This is an important volume, and takes us far in understanding Waggoner. Yet it suffers because of Whidden’s own dogmatism on the controverted issues. He seeks, it appears, to discredit contemporary figures by linking them with Waggoner, seeming to suggest that certain positions must lead to certain conclusions. He suggests that Waggoner created “last generation theology,” that it has no basis in the writings of Ellen White or Scripture. Others will disagree, and should be able to provide strong evidence to the contrary.

I think he’s correct in pinpointing the key moment in Waggoner’s theological shift as his adoption of a mystical theory of infused righteousness and a disparaging of the objective, propitiatory, substitutionary merits of Christ. But I don’t see Wieland and Short and other 1888 partisans as following Waggoner here. Nor do they follow through with his Christology–they do not claim that the union of his divine and human natures made it impossible for him to sin. Quite the contrary: they emphasize the reality of his struggle and the possibility of a fall, rooting this in Scripture–“For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Heb. 2:18). I’d suggest Whidden do some reading in non-Adventist theologians such as Karl Barth and Colin Gunton on this point.

One thought on “Whidden on Waggoner

  1. Bill,

    Thanks for the review. I have not read the book yet, but plan to in the future (it may be distant future). But I would just say this: Waggoner’s views on justification in and around 1888 were anything but the Reformation view of external, imputed righteousness. I don’t believe Waggoner ever limited it to that.

    Notice, for example, what he says in “Christ and His Righteousness” (written in 1889): “And so we find that when Christ covers us with the robe of His own righteousness, He does not furnish a cloak for sin, but takes the sin away. And this shows that the forgiveness of sins is something more than a mere form, something more than a mere entry [read: legal/imputed] in the books of record in heaven, to the effect that the sin has been canceled. The forgiveness of sins is a reality; it is something tangible, something that vitally affects the individual. It actually clears him from guilt; and if he is cleared from guilt, is justified, made righteous, he has certainly undergone a radical change. He is, indeed, another person” (p. 74).

    For Waggoner all along, justification was more than a mere “legal fiction.” Justification for him meant an actual change in the person, not just in the record books of heaven.

    Unfortunately, my good friend Dr. Whidden has his blinders on! He has too much of an agenda.

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