The Introduction of the Trinity Doctrine into the Seventh-day Adventist Church

by Terry Hill

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Section four

The views on the trinity of the early pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (part one)

Most of section three was spent looking at the views of James White on the trinity. It is now time to look at the views of some of the other pioneers. In this way we should get a balanced view of how the church at large, up to and through the early 1900’s, regarded the trinity teaching. I have divided the views of the rest of the pioneers into two sections because it would be too large for one section. I know that this involves a lot of reading but I believe that this is the only way to get a true picture of what we as a church once believed and taught about God.

Joseph Bates (1792-1872)

One of the early pioneers, Joseph Bates, who I am sure that most Seventh-day Adventists have heard of, was born into a family who belonged to the Congregational Church. In his autobiography simply called ‘The Autobiography of Joseph Bates’ he said that his parents hoped that he would follow in their footsteps and join the Congregational Church but he could not. He says in his book

“ But they (meaning Congregationalists) embraced some points in their faith that I could not understand. I will name two only: their mode of baptism, and doctrine of the trinity." He says later, respecting the trinity:

“I concluded that it was impossible for me to believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, was also the Almighty God, the Father, the one and same being. I said to my father 'If you can convince me that we are one in this sense, that you are my father, and I your son; and also that I am your father, and you my son, then I can believe in the trinity.' ”

Well, there it was, Joseph Bates was an out and out anti-trinitarian who blamed the trinity teaching as a source of other errors of teaching.

M. E. Cornell (1827-1893)

In 1852, Merritt Cornell became a Seventh-day Adventist through the witness of Joseph Bates. Two years later in 1854, he, with John Loughborough, conducted the first Seventh-day Adventist meetings held in a tent. In 1858, in ‘Facts for the times’ page 76, he said:

“Protestants and Catholics are so nearly united in sentiment, that it is not difficult to conceive how Protestants may make an image to the Beast. The mass of Protestants believe with Catholics in the Trinity, immortality of the soul, consciousness of the dead, rewards and punishments at death, the endless torture of the wicked, inheritance of the saints beyond the skies, sprinkling for baptism and the PAGAN SUNDAY for the Sabbath; all of which is contrary to the spirit and letter of the new testament. Surely there is between the mother and daughters, a striking family resemblance."

So M. E. Cornell says that the trinity teaching is contrary to the spirit and teaching of the New Testament.

R. F. Cottrell (1814-1892)

Roswell Cottrell was born into a Seventh-day Baptist family. Through reading the Review and Herald in 1851, be joined the growing number of Seventh-day Adventists. He immediately began to contribute his talents as a writer and in 1854 wrote a series of Bible studies for the young people. These studies were first published in the Youth Instructor. One year later, they were reproduced in book form and distributed amongst our churches as an aid to Bible study. These studies were used by our church for a number of years.

He was also another early Adventist who could not accept that the trinity doctrine was scriptural. In the Review and Herald of June 1st 1869, in an article called ‘‘The Doctrine of the Trinity,’’ he said:

“This has been a popular doctrine and regarded as orthodox ever since the bishop of Rome was elevated to the popedom on the strength of it. It is accounted dangerous heresy to reject it; but each person is permitted to explain the doctrine in his own way. All seem to think they must hold it, but each has perfect liberty to take his own way to reconcile its contradictory propositions; and hence a multitude of views are held concerning it by its friends, all of them orthodox, I suppose, as long as they nominally assent to the doctrine.

For myself, I have never felt called upon to explain it, nor to adopt and defend it, neither have I ever preached against it. But I probably put as high an estimation on the Lord Jesus Christ as those who call themselves Trinitarians."

Now here was a man, well read in the scriptures who said (as did James White), that although he could not accept the trinity, he did place Christ on a high a level as all those who were trinitarians. That should give us an insight as to how the early Seventh-day Adventist Church regarded the relationship between God and His Son.

As we have noted before with James White, it was not whether the Son was fully God that was in question, but the whole concept of the trinity teaching itself. The pioneers believed that the trinity teaching was subversive to the atonement of Jesus at Calvary.

In the same article, Roswell Cottrell says that he cannot accept the trinity doctrine not only because it is unscriptural, but is also contrary to all the sense and reason that God had given to him. He says:

“My reasons for not adopting and defending it, are 1. Its name is unscriptural. The Trinity, or the triune God, is unknown to the Bible; and I have entertained the idea that doctrines which require words coined in the human mind to express them, are coined doctrines. 2. I have never felt called upon to adopt and explain that which is contrary to all the sense and reason that God has given me. All my attempts at an explanation of such a subject would make it no clearer to my friends” (R&H June 1st 1869, “The Doctrine of the Trinity”).

One month later in the Review and Herald on July 6th 1869, J. F. Cottrell says:

‘‘We understand that the term trinity means the union of three persons, not offices, in one God; so that The Father, Son and Holy Ghost, are three at least, and one at most. That one person is three persons, and that three persons are only one person, is the doctrine which we claim is contrary to reason and common sense.’’

He says in the same article:

“But our Creator has made it an absurdity to us that one person should be three persons, and three persons but one person; and in his revealed word he has never asked us to believe it."

He also says:

“But to hold the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much an evidence of evil intention as of intoxication from that wine of which all the nations have drunk. The fact that this was one of the leading doctrines, if not the very chief, upon which the bishop of Rome was exalted to popedom, does not say much in its favor. This should cause men to investigate it for themselves; as when the spirits of devils working miracles undertake the advocacy of the immortality of the soul. Had I never doubted it before, I would now probe it to the bottom, by that word which modern Spiritualism sets at nought."

So there we are, another of the pioneers, who for a varied number of reasons could not accept the doctrine of the trinity. Amongst the reasons that Cottrell gives for his non trinitarian stance, is that if the Catholic Church is so dependant on this teaching (a claim which they still confess today) then that is enough reason in itself to regard it with suspicion.

It is true to say that the trinity teaching does teach that the Son of God did not and could not really die at Calvary. It is also true to say that the whole economy of the Roman Catholic Church does depend on what is known as the ‘immortality of the soul’ (or as some say ‘the spirit’). As I have discussed this subject with other Christians, I have come to realise that there are those, including Seventh-day Adventists, who do not believe that the Son of God did really die at Calvary. That is something that needs very serious consideration.

I believe that by now, you the reader can see that the pioneers were against the trinity teaching for far more than making Christ the second person of the trinity and thus being equal with God. The real issue was far more involved than it first appears.

J. N. Andrews (1829-1883)

Another famous name in Adventist history is John Nevins Andrews. He was the first Seventh-day Adventist missionary to be sent to countries outside of North America. He was an avid and passionate student of the Bible. He accepted the saviour at 13 years of age and at 17 years became a Sabbath keeper. In 1850 at the age of 21 he became a minister and was ordained three years later in 1853. He could read the Bible in seven different languages and claimed that he could recite the whole of the New Testament from memory. A combination of concentrated study of the scriptures and intense public ministry, much in the form of evangelism, severely affected his health. To recover his health, he spent four years working on his parents farm. In 1865 he became a member of the General Conference Executive Committee and in 1867 became the third General Conference president.

J. N. Andrews is regarded as one of the finest theologians of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Through his study of the scriptures, he made significant contributions to the theology of our church.

In the Review and Herald of March 6th 1855, he said:

“The doctrine of the Trinity which was established in the church by the council of Nice A. D. 325: This doctrine destroys the personality of God and his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. The infamous, measures by which it was forced upon the church which appear upon the pages of ecclesiastical history might well cause every believer in that doctrine to blush."

Over 14 years later, the same man in the Review & Herald of September 7th 1869 in an article called ‘Melchizedek’ explaining why Christ could not be Melchizedek says:

‘‘And as to the Son of God, he could be excluded also, for he had God for His Father, and did, at some point in the eternity of the past, have beginning of days."

So we see here that J. N. Andrews was undoubtedly anti-trinitarian. He viewed the Son of God (as did the other pioneers) as having a beginning of days.

J. H. Waggoner (1820-1889)

Lets consider now Joseph Waggoner. He was the father of Ellet J. Waggoner of 1888 Minneapolis fame. Care must be taken not to confuse the two.

The father, Joseph Waggoner, joined the Seventh-day Adventists in 1852 and had once belonged to the Baptist Church. He was also an ardent and zealous anti-trinitarian. He succeeded James White in 1881 in becoming editor of ‘Signs of the Times'>

In 1886, Joseph Waggoner was sent to Europe to aid in the establishing the work in this part of the world. He became editor in chief of the German and French semi-monthlies and contributed greatly to other periodicals. He was a great believer and preacher of righteousness by faith, in fact he wrote a book that was published in 1868 called ‘The Atonement’. In that same year, Joseph Waggoner was one of the preachers at the very first Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting held at Wright, Michigan. It was his beliefs and teachings that greatly influenced his son Ellet Waggoner and A. T. Jones to preach what they did at the Minneapolis Conference.

In the Review and Herald of Nov 10th 1863 he wrote an article saying that the trinity doctrine had taken away the true meaning of the atonement. He said:

“Many theologians really think that the atonement in respect to its dignity and efficacy, rests upon the doctrine of the trinity. But we (meaning Seventh-day Adventists) fail to see any connection between the two. To the contrary, the advocates of that doctrine really fall into the difficulty which they seem anxious to avoid. Their difficulty consists in this: They take the denial of the trinity to be the equivalent to the denial of the divinity of Christ. Were that the case, we should cling to the doctrine of the trinity as tenaciously as any can; but, it is not the case. They who have read our remarks on the death of the Son of God know that we firmly believe in the divinity of Christ; but we cannot accept the idea of a trinity, as it is held by trinitarians, without giving up our claim on the dignity of the sacrifice made for our redemption."

So those were the views of Joseph Waggoner, the father of E. J. Waggoner. As he put it, Seventh-day Adventists view the trinity doctrine as taking away the dignity of the sacrifice of Jesus and not upholding it. Notice too, that he also says that trinitarians usually see the denial of the trinity as a denial of the divinity of Jesus. That is the reason why I believe that so many people hold on to the trinity doctrine today. They believe that this is the only way to uphold the divinity and deity of Christ. It was this misconception that the pioneers were so strong in denying.

Joseph Waggoner was a respected worker in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He well understood the teachings of our denomination.

Uriah Smith (1832-1903)

Uriah Smith is another famous name in Adventist History. He gave 50 years service to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. What many people do not know is that at the age of 13, because of an infection that had set in his leg, Uriah Smith needed to have his left leg amputated above the knee. It was because his artificial leg gave him insufficient movement that he invented and patented a model with fully flexible ankle and knee joints.

Much could be said about this great man who contributed so much to our denomination. In 1852 he became a Sabbath keeping Adventist. Since a child, he had been impressed with the advent movement. In 1855 at the age of 23, Uriah Smith became editor of the Review and Herald. This was a post that he held from 1855-1861, 1864-1869, 1870-1871, 1872-73, 1877-1880, 1881-1897, and from 1901-1903, the year that he died.

Uriah Smith was the most prolific writers of the early church, although at times he was at variance with some of the other pioneers including Ellen White.

Perhaps he is best known for his great work of a commentary on the books of Daniel and Revelation. This work is simply known as Daniel and the Revelation. Unfortunately, after his death, his book was edited by a team of Seventh-day Adventists. This was because in his book, Uriah Smith presented the denominational stand of that time concerning the relationship between God and Christ which was then non trinitarian. This changed, of course, in the 1930’s when the trinity doctrine was introduced into the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

It was because of this change in theology that in the early 1940’s, it was decided to take all of these non trinitarian statements out of Uriah Smith’s book. In doing so, the book was completely rewritten. Much was added and much was removed and changed. Nevertheless, it was seen fit by the publishers to republish the book still under the name of Uriah Smith. This edited work was republished in 1944. Much more could be said about this ‘editing’ of Uriah Smith’s book, but this will have to suffice for the moment.

Like the other pioneers, Uriah Smith was non trinitarian in his views or as some would say, semi Arian.

Talking about false teachings, he had this to say about the trinity in the Review and Herald of July 10th 1856.

“The doctrine called the trinity, claiming that God is without form or parts; that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the three are one person, is another."

In his original book, Daniel and the Revelation (before it was edited), He says this on page 401 of my 1903 edition:

“To the Lamb, equally with the Father who sits upon the throne, praise is ascribed in this song of adoration. Commentators, with great unanimity, have seized upon this as proof that Christ must be coeval with the Father; for otherwise, say they, here would be worship paid to the creature which belongs only to the Creator. But this does not seem to be a necessary conclusion. The Scriptures nowhere speak of Christ as a created being, but on the contrary plainly state that he was begotten of the Father. (See remarks on Rev. 3:14, where it is shown that Christ is not a created being.
But while as the Son he does not possess a co-eternity of past existence with the Father, the beginning of his existence, as the begotten of the Father, antedates the entire work of creation, in relation to which he stands as joint creator with God. John 1:3; Heb. 1:2. Could not the Father ordain that to such a being worship should be rendered equally with himself, without its being idolatry on the part of the worshiper? He has raised him to positions which make it proper that he should be worshipped, and has even commanded that worship should be rendered him, which would not have been necessary had he been equal with the Father in eternity of existence. Christ himself declares that “as the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself.” John 5:26. The Father has “highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.” Phil. 2:9. And the Father himself says, “Let all the angels of God worship him.” Heb. 1:6. These testimonies show that Christ is now an object of worship equally with the Father; but they do not prove that with him he holds an eternity of past existence." (Uriah Smith, 1882, Daniel And The Revelation, page 430).

As I said, this statement cannot be found in the 1944 edition (the edition that you probably have on your bookshelf) because it was ‘edited out’ by that team of Seventh-day Adventists who rewrote the book.

Did Ellen White have any problems with this book? Obviously not.

She said in 1899

“The light given was that Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation, The Great Controversy, and Patriarchs and Prophets, would make their way. They contain the very message the people must have, the special light God had given His people. The angels of God would prepare the way for these books in the hearts of the people” (Special Instruction Regarding Royalties, p. 7. (1899).Colporteur Ministry, page 123).

Ellen White said this in 1899, the year after the release of the Desire of Ages, in which she was supposed to make all the pro trinitarian statements that were supposed to changed the thinking of the church. She saw no problem in promoting this book. She even said this two years later in 1901:

“Especially should the book Daniel and the Revelation be brought before people as the very book for this time. This book contains the message which all need to read and understand.
… Let our canvassers urge this book upon the attention of all. The Lord has shown me that this book will do a good work in enlightening those who become interested in the truth for this time. Those who embrace the truth now, who have not shared in the experiences of those who entered the work in the early history of the message, should study the instruction given in Daniel and the Revelation, becoming familiar with the truth it presents.
Those who are preparing to enter the ministry, who desire to become successful students of the prophecies, will find Daniel and the Revelation an invaluable help … The great, essential questions which God would have presented to the people are found in Daniel and the Revelation . There is found solid, eternal truth for this time. Everyone needs the light and information it contains. … The interest in Daniel and the Revelation is to continue as long as probationary time shall last. God used the author of this book as a channel through which to communicate light to direct minds to the truth. Shall we not appreciate this light, which points us to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, our King?” She also said:

“Young men, take up the work of canvassing for Daniel and the Revelation . Do all you possibly can to sell this book. Enter upon the work with as much earnestness as if it were a new book … The students in our schools should carefully study Daniel and the Revelation , so that they shall not be left in darkness, and the day of Christ overtake them as a thief in the night. I speak of this book because it is a means of educating those who need to understand the truth of the Word. This book should be highly appreciated. It covers much of the ground we have been over in our experience. If the youth will study this book and learn for themselves what is truth, they will be saved from many perils” (Manuscript Releases Volume one pages 61-65 "Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation," March 3, 1901.)

Ellen White did not say that Uriah Smith’s book should be changed in any respect. She only gave it praise and endorsement saying that it should be read by students and those preparing to enter the ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Yet, when the trinity doctrine was brought in to the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Uriah Smith’s book was completely rewritten to remove all the non trinitarian statements.

These last statements that you have read were made by Ellen White in 1901, three years after she wrote Desire of Ages. If as some say that it is because of what Ellen White wrote in this book that we became trinitarian, it was strange that Ellen White said that we should promote Uriah Smith’s book on the basis that it contains “ … the very message the people must have, the special light God had given His people” ‘This book contains the message which all need to read and understand’ … “Everyone needs the light and information it contains” .

Uriah Smith’s book was full of non trinitarian statements concerning God and Christ. That is why the book was edited in the 1940’s. Take the time to go back and review the glowing praise that Ellen White gave to this book and sense the urgency with which she said the book was to be promoted.

Now take the time to think about this next question. Why would Ellen White promote this book with such enthusiasm if she thought that it contained error about God and Christ, an ‘error’ that many people say that she was seeking to change in her own writings? Remember, many of these statements concerning Uriah Smith’s book were made in 1901, three years after she wrote ‘The Desire of Ages."

This editing of Uriah Smith’s book was carried out over 25 years after the death of Ellen White and 40 years after the death of Uriah Smith. They could not object to what was being done. Protests were made, but they were not sufficient to stop the editing of this classic piece of Seventh-day Adventist literature.

Returning to Russell Holt and the paper that he did explaining the introduction of the trinity teaching into the Seventh-day Adventist Church he says:

“To 1890. The field was dominated by those who saw the trinity as illogical, unscriptural, pagan and subversive of the atonement. There was development in certain writers during this period, and their concept of Christ became ever more exalted even within their anti-trinitarian framework. But anti-trinitarianism is the evident denominational stance."

Well, from the evidence that we have considered, no one can argue that anti-trinitarianism was the denominational stance of this period or even later.

Section five concerns the view of a few more well know names in Seventh-day Adventist history.

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Terry Hill

Bristol England