Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 17/1 (Spring 2006): 125–139. Article copyright © 2006 by Merlin D. Burt.
History of Seventh-day Adventist Views on the Trinity
By Merlin D. Burt*
The last decade has seen an increased anti-Trinitarian agitation within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Though this agitation is significant, it has remained on the margins of the movement. There are perhaps many reasons for the increased interest in the Trinity. I will mention three. (1) The availability of information through the Internet has provided a platform to disseminate anti-Trinitarian perspectives more effectively. (2) Several other Adventist groups that emerged from the Millerite movement have continued to hold to an anti-Trinitarian perspective. Examples include the Church of God, Seventh Day (Marion Party); the now defunct World-wide Church of God; and the Church of God, Atlanta, Georgia (formerly Oregon, Illinois, or the “Age to Come” Adventists). It should be noted that the Advent Christians, like Seventh-day Adventists, have embraced the Trinitarian view. (3) Perhaps most significant, over the last few decades some Seventh-day Adventists have thought to return to a historical Adventist faith or what might be called neo-restorationism. They argue that historic Adventism was a purer faith and that current Adventism has been drifting towards Roman Catholicism or at least away from Scripture. Part of the problem is that they do not recognize the dynamic nature of Seventh-day Adventist theology. Adventists have always sought a clearer understanding of Bible truth. Throughout their history, their doctrines have grown from their original distinctive core of the Three Angel’s Message and kindred concepts. A small though significant and growing segment of “historic” Adventists are advocating a return to an anti-Trinitarian stance.
This brief study provides a survey of the Adventist historical progression from anti-Trinitarianism to a Biblical Trinitarian view.1 History shows that Ellen White played a critical role in the development of the doctrine of the Godhead or Trinity within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It also shows that the change was difficult for Adventists and was only settled during the middle years of the twentieth Century. We will trace our topic chronologically: (1) Up to 1890—anti-Trinitarian period; (2) 1890 to 1900—emergence of Trinitarian sentiment; (3) 1900 to 1931 and the SDA Yearbook statement of faith—transition and conflict; and (4) from 1931 to the publication of Questions on Doctrine in 1957—acceptance of the Trinitarian view.
Up to 1890: Anti-Trinitarian Period
Until near the turn of the twentieth century, Seventh-day Adventist literature was almost unanimous in opposing the eternal deity of Jesus and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. During the earlier years some even held the view that Christ was a created being. Theological tension within Adventism began during the Millerite movement and is illustrated by the two principal leaders, William Miller and Joshua V. Himes.
Miller, being a Baptist, was a Trinitarian. He wrote, “I believe in one living and true God, and that there are three persons in the Godhead…. The three persons of the Triune God are connected.”2 Himes, a close associate of William Miller, was of the Christian Connection persuasion. The northeastern branch of the Christian church almost unanimously rejected the Trinitarian doctrine as unscriptural. Himes wrote, “There is one living and true God, the Father almighty, who is unoriginated, independent and eternal … and that this God is one spiritual intelligence, one infinite mind, ever the same, never varying.”3 Millerite Adventists were focused on the soon coming of Jesus, however, and did not consider it important to argue on subjects such as the trinity.
Two of the principal founders of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Joseph Bates and James White, like Himes, had been members of the Christian Connection and rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Joseph Bates wrote of his views, “Respecting the trinity, I concluded that it was an impossibility for me to believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, was also the Almighty God.”4
James White wrote: “Here we might mention the Trinity, which does away the personality of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ.”5 Arthur White, grandson of James White, correctly argued that while James White rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, he did believe in the three great powers in heaven.6 The first Hymn book compiled by James White—in 1849—contains the Doxology, “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”7 While James White was opposed to the Trinity, he did not believe that Christ was inferior to the Father. In 1877 he wrote, “The inexplicable trinity that makes the godhead three in one and one in three, is bad enough; but the ultra Unitarianism that makes Christ inferior to the Father is worse.”8
Uriah Smith, long time editor of the Review and Herald, believed during the 1860s that Jesus was a created being. He was “the first created being, dating his existence far back before any other created being or thing, next to the self-existent and eternal God.”9 By 1881 Smith had changed his view and concluded that Jesus was “begotten” and not created.10
A selective list of Adventists who either spoke against the Trinity and/or rejected the eternal deity of Christ include J. B. Frisbie, 11 J. N. Loughborough, 12 R. F. Cottrell, 13 J. N. Andrews, 14 D. M. Canright,15 and J. H. Waggoner.16 W. A. Spicer at one point told A. W. Spalding that his father, after becoming a Seventh-day Adventist (he was formerly a Seventh Day Baptist minister), “grew so offended at the anti-Trinitarian atmosphere in Battle Creek that he ceased preaching.”17
In surveying the writings of the various pioneers, certain concerns frequently appear. In rejecting the trinity, some saw the “orthodox” Christian view as pagan tri-theism. Others argued that the trinity degraded the person-hood of Christ and the Father by blurring the distinction between them. It should be noted that while the early positions on the trinity and deity of Christ were flawed, there was a sincere attempt to oppose certain legitimate errors. Early Adventists strove to be true to Scripture. When they read “first-born of every creature,” they took it at face value. Other Bible phrases, such as “only begotten Son of God,” also were understood on a literal English level.
By 1890 Adventists had come to a harmonious position that rejected the idea of Jesus as a created being and viewed Him the “begotten” or originated divine Son of God. He was seen as the Creator with the Father. The nature of the Holy Spirit was lightly discussed, though He was generally considered to be the omnipresent influence from the Father or the Son rather than a person.
From 1890 to 1900: Emergence of Trinitarian Sentiment
The period after the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference saw a new emphasis on Jesus and the plan of salvation. This emphasis naturally led to a consideration of His deity and what it meant for the redemption of humanity. A. T. Jones was among the first to use vocabulary that suggested that Christ was eternally pre-existent. Jones emphasized the idea that in Christ was the “fullness of the Godhead bodily.” At the 1895 General Conference he repeatedly emphasized Colossians 2:9.
Possibly for the first time in Adventist literature (with the exception of Ellen White), Jones described Christ as “eternal.” “The eternal Word consented to be made flesh. God became man.”18 Two days later, speaking of Christ, Jones said: “In view of eternity before and eternity after, thirty-three years is not such an infinite sacrifice after all. But when we consider that he sank his nature in our human nature to all eternity,—that is a sacrifice.”19
A. T. Jones avoided referring to the Godhead as the “Trinity.” Yet in 1899 he wrote a nearly Trinitarian statement, “God is one. Jesus Christ is one. The Holy Sprit (sic) is one. And these three are one: there is no dissent nor division among them.”20
Ellen White played a prophetic role in confirming the eternal deity of Jesus and the idea of a three-person Godhead. In Desire of Ages Ellen White wrote with clarity on the eternal deity of Christ. “[Christ] announced Himself to be the self-existent One” and “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived.”21 She also said of the Holy Spirit: “Sin could be resisted and overcome only through the mighty agency of the Third Person of the Godhead, who would come with no modified energy, but in the fullness of divine power.”22
Tim Poirier, in a paper presented on April 3, 2006, at a Symposium on Ellen White and Current Issues” at Andrews University, compared Ellen White’s published statements on the Godhead, the eternal deity of Jesus, and the personhood of the Holy Spirit with interlineated original copies and her handwritten originals.23 He has presented compelling evidence that Ellen White’s published views were truly hers and not changed by editors, publishers, or literary assistants.
Curiously, for years after the publication of Desire of Ages, the church generally avoided these and other statements. Even previous to 1898, Ellen White made clear statements affirming the underived divine nature and eternal pre-existence of Christ. While she never used the term “Trinity” in her published writings, she repeatedly conveyed the concept. A selected chronological collection of her clearer statements are provided.
 “The unworthiness, weakness, and inefficiency of their own efforts in contrast with those of the eternal Son of God, will render them humble, distrustful of self, and will lead them to rely upon Christ for strength and efficiency in their work.”24
 “This injunction is from the eternal Son of God.”25
 “Jesus said, ‘I and my Father are one.’ The words of Christ were full of deep meaning as he put forth the claim that he and the Father were of one substance, possessing the same attributes.”26
 “He was equal with God, infinite and omnipotent. . . . He is the eternal, self-existent Son.”27
 “Christ is the pre-existent self-existent son of God. . . . In speaking of his pre-existence, Christ carries the mind back through dateless ages. He assures us that there never was a time when He was not in close fellowship with the eternal God.”28
 “Christ was God essentially, and in the highest sense. He was with God from all eternity, God over all, blessed forevermore.”29
[1907/1908] “The Father is all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and is invisible to mortal sight. The Son is all the fullness of the Godhead manifested. The Word of God declares Him to be ‘the express image of His person.’ . . . There are three living persons of the heavenly trio; in the name of these three great powers—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit— those who receive Christ by living faith are baptized.” 30
From 1900 to 1931: Transition and Conflict
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the church was divided in its position on the deity of Christ. The idea of Christ as the “eternal” Son appeared in print occasionally. The first person after 1900 to prominently promote the eternal pre-existence of Christ was W. W. Prescott.
Prescott became editor of the Review and Herald in February, 1902.31 Almost immediately he began an editorial series entitled, “Studies in the Gospel Message.” Throughout this series, and in other articles, Prescott sought to lift up Jesus. In three articles toward the end of 1902 he emphasized the equality and eternal nature of God the Father and God the Son. 32 In many other published statements he promoted the equality, personhood, and eternal nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.33 During the 1890s he had been slower than Jones to embrace the full eternal deity of Jesus .34 At the 1919 Bible Conference he and others more carefully defined what they believed on the deity of Jesus.
1919 Bible Conference. The July 1–19, 1919 Bible Conference held at Takoma Park, Washington, D.C., was an open exchange of ideas between a select group of church leaders, editors, Bible teachers, and history teachers. The purpose of the conference was to discuss questions and points of difference, particularly on the “eastern question.” The frank discussions and controversial nature of some of the papers led A. G. Daniells, then president of the General Conference, to not release the transcripts. It was not until 1974 that they were found in the General Conference Archives.35
W. W. Prescott presented a series of eight devotionals for the conference titled “The Person of Christ.” While affirming the eternity of the Son, he also said that He derived his existence from the Father. He said:
There is a proper sense, as I view it, according to which the Son is subordinate to the Father, but that subordination is not in the question of attributes or of His existence. It is simply in the fact of the derived existence, as we read in John 5:26: “For as the Father hath life in himself, even so gave he to the Son also to have life in himself.” Using terms as we use them, the Son is co-eternal with the father. That does not prevent His being the only-begotten Son of God.36
During the afternoon discussion on July 6, 1919, Prescott found himself in an awkward position. Those arguing against the eternity of Christ wondered how Christ could be “begotten,” and also “co-eternal” with the Father.37 Others who agreed with Prescott on Christ’s eternity wondered about his use of the word “derived.”38 Finally, at the end of the discussion, Prescott borrowed an idea shared at the conference by H. C. Lacey with the following summary statement regarding Christ: “One with the Father, one in authority, in power, in love, in mercy, and all the attributes—equal with him and yet second in nature. I like the word ‘second’ better than ‘inferior,’—second in rank.”39 Prescott’s view was held by several at the conference.
L. L. Caviness, who came late to the discussion, expressed a fear that the church might be heading towards the Trinitarian doctrine. He said plainly,
I cannot believe that the two persons of the Godhead are equal, the Father and the Son,—that one is the Father and the other the Son, and that they might be just as well the other way around…. In praying he [Christ] said it was his wish that the disciples might see the glory which he had with the Father, and which the Father had given him. It was not something he had all through eternity, but the Father had some time given to him the glory of God. He is divine, but he is the divine Son. I cannot explain further than that, but I cannot believe the so called Trinitarian doctrine of the three persons always existing.40
Soon the meeting became so tense that A. G. Daniells, the General Conference president, suggested the “delegates not become uneasy” and requested that some of the comments not be transcribed .41 A little later Daniells reminded everyone that they were not voting a position on “trinitarianism” or “arianism” at the meeting.42 As the meeting came to a close, John Isaac blurted out in frustration,
What are we Bible teachers going to do? We have heard ministers talk one way. Our students have had Bible teachers in one school spend days and days upon this question, then they come to another school, and the other teacher does not agree with that. We ought to have something definite so that we might give the answer. I think it can be done. We ought to have it clearly stated. Was Christ ever begotten, or not.43
Daniells concluded by saying: “Don’t let the conservatives think that something is going to happen, and the progressives get alarmed for fear it won’t happen. Let’s keep up this good spirit. Bring out what you have.”44
A total of 36 delegates were seated at the 1919 Bible Conference. Others joined the conference as it continued and some left early. The following chart outlines the positions of some of the participants according to their views on the eternal deity of Christ.
1919 Bible Conference on Deity of Christ
|Supported Eternal Deity||Resisted Eternal Deity||Uncertain|
|W. W. Prescott||C. P. Bollman||A. G. Daniells|
|J. N. Anderson||T. E. Bowen||W. E. Howell|
|H. C. Lacey||L. L. Caviness||John Isaac|
|G. B. Thompson||W. T. Knox||E. R. Palmer|
|C. M. Sorenson||A. O. Tait|
|W. H. Wakeham|
|M. C. Wilcox|
Prescott clearly articulated his eternal but subordinate position on the Son of God in his book Doctrine of Christ.45 During the first decades of the twentieth century others besides Prescott published statements affirming the eternal pre-existence of the Son of God.46 It remains unclear how many also shared Prescott’s subordination view. There were of course many who continued to hold to the pre-1890s view.47
From 1900 to the 1930s, opinion on the eternal self-existent deity of Christ remained split in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The use of the word “Trinity” in describing God continued to be avoided in print except for rare exceptions. As editors of the Review and Herald, Prescott and then F. M. Wilcox promoted the new view of Christ as eternal. The opposing positions continued as a source of theological conflict in the church.
Merlin D. Burt teaches Church History at the S.D.A. Theological Seminary and is Director of the Center for Adventist Research and the Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office, Andrews University. He holds a Ph.D. in Adventist Studies from Andrews University. firstname.lastname@example.org
1 This paper is largely based on a longer document by the author. Merlin D. Burt, “Demise of Semi-Arianism and Anti-Trinitarianism in Adventist Theology, 1888–1957” (Research Paper: Andrews University, December 1996); see also Woodrow Whidden, Jerry Moon, and John Reeve, The Trinity: Understanding God’s Love, His Plan of Salvation and Christian Relationships (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2002); Erwin Roy Gane, “The Arian or Anti-trinitarian Views Presented in Seventh-day Adventist Literature and the Ellen G. White Answer” (M.A. thesis, Andrews University, 1963); Russell Holt, “The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination: Its Rejection and Acceptance,” term paper, Andrews University, June 2, 1969; Christy Mathewson Taylor, “The Doctrine o f the Personality of the Holy Spirit as Taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church up to 1900” (B.D. thesis, Andrews University, 1953).
2 Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller, Generally Known as a Lecturer on the Prophecies, and the Second Coming of Christ (Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1853), 77 –78.
3 Joshua V. Himes, “Christian Connection,” in Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. J. Newton Brown (Brattleboro: Brattleboro Typographic Company, 1838), 363.
4 Joseph Bates, The Autobiography of Elder Joseph Bates (Battle Creek: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing, 1868), 205.
5 James White, “Preach the Word,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 11, 1855, 85.
6 Arthur L. White to Hedy Jemison, July 2, 1969.
7 James White, comp., Hymns for God’s Peculiar People, That Keep the Commandments of God, and the Faith of Jesus (Oswego: Richard Oliphant, 1849), 47.
8 James White, “Christ Equal with God,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 29, 1877, 72.
9 Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Revelation (Battle Creek: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing, 1865), 59.
10 Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Revelation (Battle Creek: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing, 1881), 74.
11 J. B. Frisbie, “The Seventh Day Sabbath Not Abolished,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 7, 1854, 50.
12 J. N. Loughborough, “Questions for Brother Loughborough,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 5, 1861, 184.
13 R. F. Cottrell, “The Trinity,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 6, 1869, 10–11.
14 [J. N. Andrews], “Melchisedec,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 7, 1869, 84. This is an unsigned article, J. N. Andrews was the editor of the paper.
15 D. M. Canright, “The Personality of God,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, August 29, 1878, 73–74; September 5, 1878, 81–82; September 12, 1878, 89–90; September 19, 1878, 97.
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Copyright © 2006 by Merlin D. Burt.