The Messenger of Truth
The First Anti-Sabbatarian Periodical and Its Aftermath
By Theodore N. Levterov
Afew years ago I came across the name of a periodical called the Messenger of Truth. It was published by the “Messenger Party,” the first offshoot that emerged from the Sabbatarian group, largely over controversies about the gift of prophecy during the 1850s. The periodical is significant because it is the first known official publication against the Sabbatarians (later Seventh-day Adventists) and Ellen G. White’s prophetic claims.1 Despite its critical nature, the periodical helped Sabbatarians examine their attitude toward Ellen White and develop a more biblically based foundation for their belief in the modern manifestation of the prophetic gift.
While searching for these rare historical periodicals, I discovered three existing copies of theMessenger of Truth at the state library of Pennsylvania.2
Origins of the Rebellion
The Messenger Party originated in Jackson, Michigan. Led by two Adventist ministers, H. S. Case and C. P. Russell, the rebellion resulted from a controversy over the validity of the prophetic gift of Ellen White.
While visiting the church in Jackson, Ellen White received two visions concerning a disputed situation. While the accused confessed her wrongdoing and asked forgiveness, Case and Russell turned against Ellen White and condemned her visions as false and unreliable. Consequently, in June 1853 the two ministers formed the so-called Messenger Party and started to publicize their ideas in the Messenger of Truth.
The Objections of the Messenger Party
The three extant issues reveal several charges that the Messengers brought against Ellen White’s visions and her prophetic claims. First, they claimed that the Sabbatarians had another rule of faith and practice in addition to the Bible.
A second charge was related to the manifestation of the prophetic gift in the “last days.” The Sabbatarians argued, based on the prophecies of Joel 2 and Acts 2, for the modern manifestation of the gift of prophecy just before the second coming of Christ. While theMessenger Party agreed that they were living in the last days, they asserted that the gift of prophecy ended with “the end of the apostles’ day.”3
A third objection related to the “remnant” question and Ellen White’s prophetic gift. The Sabbatarians claimed, based on Revelation 12:17, to be the true remnant people of God because they “kept the commandments of God” and had the “testimony of Jesus” (referring to the prophetic gift of Ellen White).4 For the Messengers, however, the spirit of prophecy was the spirit of Christ that the true remnant had to represent and had nothing to do with the gift of prophecy.5
A fourth objection given by the Messengers was that the Sabbatarians made Ellen White’s prophetic gift a “test of fellowship” and a “rule of action.” 6
The Sabbatarians disagreed with these and other charges and began developing a more systematic defense of their belief in the prophetic gift.
Outcomes of the Publication
One outcome was that the Sabbatarians became more conscientious regarding the relationship between the Bible and Ellen White’s prophetic gift. In 1854 James White republished an important article that he had penned in 1851. It noted that “the gifts of the Spirit should all have their proper places. The Bible is an everlasting rock. It is our rule of faith and practice. . . . Every Christian is therefore in duty bound to take the Bible as a perfect rule of faith and duty. He should pray fervently to be aided by the Holy Spirit in searching the Scriptures for the whole truth, and for his whole duty. He is not at liberty to turn from them to learn his duty through any of the gifts. We say that the very moment he does, he places the gifts in a wrong place, and takes an extremely dangerous position. The Word should be in front, and the eye of the church should be placed upon it, as the rule to walk by, and the fountain of wisdom from which to learn duty in ‘all good works.’ But if a portion of the church errs from the truths of the Bible, and becomes weak, and sickly, and the flock becomes scattered, so that it seems necessary for God to employ the gifts of the Spirit to correct, revive and heal the erring, we should let Him work.”7
Sabbatarians never claimed equality between the Bible and the gifts of the Spirit; they had different functions. In 1854, because of the Messenger critics, James White republished the article.
Another outcome was the development of biblically grounded arguments defending belief in the prophetic gift. In addition to Joel 2 and Acts 2, Sabbatarians began using a wider variety of biblical texts such as Acts 9 and 10, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and Matthew 28:18-20, arguing for the perpetuity of spiritual gifts (including the gift of prophecy) and their “last days” manifestations.8 They also saw the prophetic gift as a necessary characteristic of the end-time people of God based on Revelation 12:17 and 19:10.9
A third outcome was the Sabbatarians’ examination of the relationship between the gift of prophecy and the “test of fellowship.” Contrary to the claims of the Messengers, the majority of Adventists, including Ellen White, believed that the acceptance of her prophetic gifts was not a test of fellowship. Their position was related to the principle that the Bible was their only rule of faith and action.
A fourth outcome was the beginning of a more intentional publishing work of Ellen White’s writings. In August 1851 James White wrote, “Now the door is open almost everywhere to present the truth, and many are prepared to read the publications who have formerly had no interest to investigate. Now we may all do something for the Lord who has done so much for us.”10 For that reason he wanted to make the Review and Herald a tool for evangelism. In order to preserve the fundamental Sabbatarian belief that “the Bible only” was their rule of faith, and at the same time to escape any form of prejudices against the visions, White and the Sabbatarians decided not to publish the visions in the main issues of the Review. As an alternative, the visions were published in what they called the Review and Herald Extra.
While the policy of not promoting the visions through the Review continued for several years, we do not find any other issue of the Review and Herald Extra. The reason seems to be an offer by certain Sabbatarians to pay for the publication of a small pamphlet containing the visions of Ellen White.11 In 1851 Ellen White’s first booklet, A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White, was published. Ellen White’s Supplement to the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen White appeared in 1854. A year later Ellen White’s “testimonies” began to be published individually in a small booklet format. The work of making these writings widely available has continued to be part of Seventh-day Adventism since that time.
Despite its critical nature, the Messenger of Truth has helped Adventists to develop a much more systematic defense of the gift of prophecy doctrine. Interestingly, most of the arguments for or against Ellen White’s prophetic gift today are mere repetition of those used in the 1850s. Adventists can learn from the Sabbatarian approaches to objections as we deal with similar critical issues concerning Ellen White’s role for the church today.
1 The gift of prophecy as manifested by Ellen G. White became one of the five major doctrines of the Sabbatarian movement. The others were: the Second Coming, the Sabbath, the sanctuary, and the state of the dead.
2 The issues are dated October 2, November 2, and November 30, 1854.
3 R. R. Chapin, “Who Are the Remnant?” Messenger of Truth, Oct. 19, 1854.
4 See, for example, James White, “The Testimony of Jesus,” Review and Herald, Dec. 18, 1855, pp. 92, 93; R. F. Cottrell, “Spiritual Gifts,” Review and Herald, Feb. 25, 1858, p. 126. The Sabbatarians made a connection between Revelation 14:12 and 19:10 and claimed that the “testimony of Jesus” meant “the Spirit of prophecy.”
6 J. B. Bezzo, “Test of Fellowship,” Messenger of Truth, Oct. 19, 1854, pp. 2, 3.
7 James White, “The Gifts of the Gospel Church,” Review and Herald, Apr. 21, 1851, p. 70. (Italics supplied.)
8 See, for example, David Arnold, “The Oneness of the Church and the Means of God’s Appointment for Its Purification and Unity,” Review and Herald, June 26, 1855, pp. 249-251 ; [James White], “Perpetuity of Spiritual Gifts,” Review and Herald, Feb. 18, 1862, pp. 92, 93.
9 Some examples are: James White, “The Testimony of Jesus,” Review and Herald, Dec. 18, 1855, p. 92; M. E. Cornell, Miraculous Powers: The Scripture Testimony on the Perpetuity of Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1875); R. F. Cottrell, “Spiritual Gifts,” Review and Herald, Feb. 25, 1858, p. 126.
10 James White, “Our Present Work,” Review and Herald, Aug. 19, 1851, p. 13.
Theodore N. Levterov is director of the Ellen G. White Branch Office at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California.