Who were the SDA Pioneers? Why is it important? Should you read what they wrote? Were they inspired? Read on for answers.
At the time of the Great Disappointment in 1844, a small group arose who would eventually become known as the Seventh-day Adventists.
This list includes such names as these (not an exhaustive list):
- James White (1821-1881) – writer, preacher, administrator
- Ellen G. White (1827-1915) – writer, messenger of the Lord
- Joseph Bates (1792-1872) – author, retired ship’s captain
- Stephen Pierce (1804-1883) – Bible student, author
- Hiram Edson (1806-1882) – preacher, author
- John N. Andrews (1829-1883) – author, preacher, missionary
- E. Cornell (1827-1893) – preacher, evangelist
- Stephen Haskell (1833-1922) – evangelist, administrator, missionary
- N. Loughborough (1832-1924) – evangelist, administrator
- Uriah Smith (1832-1903) – editor, administrator, preacher
(Thanks to the Adventist Pioneer Library, who have compiled biographies of many of the pioneers.)
These believers, who went through the experiences of those early days, are known as the Adventist Pioneers. They are first-generation pioneers, and most properly deserve to be known as the pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventists.
“After the passing of the time, God entrusted to His faithful followers the precious principles of present truth. These principles were not given to those who had had no part in the giving of the first and second angels’ messages. They were given to the workers who had had a part in the cause from the beginning.” Selected Messages, bk. 2, p. 389:3.
The Pioneers Must Speak
Many years later, when a doctrinal crisis enveloped the growing church, Ellen White referred to these pioneers from the early 1840s, and urged that they speak out, and that the writings of those who had passed away be reprinted.
Who are the best spokespersons for the old landmarks?
“Those who passed through these experiences are to be as firm as a rock to the principles that have made us Seventh-day Adventists. They are to be workers together with God, binding up the testimony and sealing the law among His disciples. Those who took part in the establishment of our work upon a foundation of Bible truth, those who know the waymarks that have pointed out the right path, are to be regarded as workers of the highest value. They can speak from personal experience, regarding the truths entrusted to them. These men are not to permit their faith to be changed to infidelity; they are not to permit the banner of the third angel to be taken from their hands. They are to hold the beginning of their confidence firm unto the end.” Selected Messages, bk. 2, p. 389:4.
“When men come in who would move one pin or pillar from the foundation which God has established by His Holy Spirit, let the aged men who were pioneers in our work speak plainly, and let those who are dead speak also, by the reprinting of their articles in our periodicals. Gather up the rays of divine light that God has given as He has led His people on step by step in the way of truth. This truth will stand the test of time and trial.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 1, p. 55:1.
“The very same Satan is at work to undermine the faith of the people of God at this time. There are persons ready to catch up every new idea. The prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation are misinterpreted. These persons do not consider that the truth has been set forth at the appointed time by the very men whom God was leading to do this special work. These men followed on step by step in the very fulfillment of prophecy, and those who have not had a personal experience in this work, are to take the Word of God and believe on ‘their word’ who have been led by the Lord in the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels’ messages. These messages, received and acted upon, are doing their work to prepare a people to stand in the great day of God. If we search the Scriptures to confirm the truth God has given His servants for the world, we shall be found proclaiming the first, second, and third angels’ messages.” Selected Messages, bk. 2, p. 111:2.
How should the dead pioneers speak?
“A few are still alive who passed through the experience gained in the establishment of this truth. God has graciously spared their lives to repeat and repeat till the close of their lives, the experience through which they passed even as did John the apostle till the very close of his life. And the standard-bearers who have fallen in death, are to speak through the reprinting of their writings. I am instructed that thus their voices are to be heard. They are to bear their testimony as to what constitutes the truth for this time.” Counsels to Writers and Editors, p. 32:1.
“We are to repeat the words of the pioneers in our work, who knew what it cost to search for the truth as for hidden treasure, and who labored to lay the foundation of our work. They moved forward step by step under the influence of the Spirit of God. One by one these pioneers are passing away. The word given me is, Let that which these men have written in the past be reproduced….
“Not long ago I took up a copy of the Bible Echo. As I looked it through, I saw an article by Elder Haskell and one by Elder Corliss. As I laid the paper down, I said, These articles must be reproduced. There is truth and power in them. Men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” Review and Herald, May 25, 1905, pars. 21, 22.
Were they inspired?
Some have read the last sentence of the statement quoted above, and thought that Sr. White meant that these brethren wrote under inspiration. However, this conclusion is not to be drawn.
“A brother asked, ‘Sister White, do you think we must understand the truth for ourselves? Why can we not take the truths that others have gathered together, and believe them because they have investigated the subjects, and then we shall be free to go on without the taxing of the powers of the mind in the investigation of all these subjects? Do you not think that these men who have brought out the truth in the past were inspired of God?’ I dare not say they were not led of God, for Christ leads into all truth; but when it comes to inspiration in the fullest sense of the word, I answer, No. I believe that God has given them a work to do, but if they are not fully consecrated to God at all times, they will weave self and their peculiar traits of character into what they are doing, and will put their mold upon the work, and fashion men in religious experience after their own pattern. It is dangerous for us to make flesh our arm. We should lean upon the arm of infinite power. God has been revealing this to us for years. We must have living faith in our hearts, and reach out for larger knowledge and more advanced light.” Review and Herald, March 25, 1890, par. 4.
So, while the pioneer writings are very important, we are not to place them on the same level as the Testimonies, written under inspiration.
This also means that just because a pioneer believed or wrote something, does not make it automatically the truth. We are to take it on its merits but it does not have the same authority as what is divinely inspired.
What about Jones and Waggoner?
Alonzo T. Jones and Ellet J. Waggoner are well known among Seventh-day Adventists for their preaching of the message of Righteousness by Faith, which featured at the 1888 General Conference Session.
Although these men are very respected because of this contribution, they are not pioneers in the strictest sense – they were not even born until the 1850s and so they did not experience the early days of the Advent Movement (although E. J. Waggoner’s father was an active SDA when E. J. was born). Nevertheless, they are not to be overlooked and so their work is of great interest to any Seventh-day Adventist.
Because Ellen White endorsed their 1888 message, even amidst opposition and controversy, and issued supporting statements regarding their message, some people have also concluded that they were “inspired.” Others have stated that her endorsement covered everything they said or wrote, at least around the 1888 message of righteousness by faith.
However, these conclusions overreach Ellen White’s intent. Speaking in 1890 at a Bible school, she said,
“I believe without a doubt that God has given precious truth at the right time to Brother Jones and Brother Waggoner. Do I place them as infallible? Do I say that they will not make a statement or have an idea that cannot be questioned or that cannot be error? Do I say so? No, I do not say any such thing. Nor do I say that of any man in the world. But I do say God has sent light, and do be careful how you treat it.” EGW 1888 Materials, p. 565.
In fact, there were some elements of Waggoner’s message in 1888 that she did not regard as correct.
“Some interpretations of Scripture given by Dr. Waggoner I do not regard as correct. But I believe him to be perfectly honest in his views, and I would respect his feelings and treat him as a Christian gentleman. I have no reason to think that he is not as much esteemed of God as are any of my brethren, and I shall regard him as a Christian brother, so long as there is no evidence that he is unworthy. The fact that he honestly holds some views of Scripture differing from yours or mine is no reason why we should treat him as an offender, or as a dangerous man, and make him the subject of unjust criticism….
“I know it would be dangerous to denounce Dr. Waggoner’s position as wholly erroneous. This would please the enemy. I see the beauty of truth in the presentation of the righteousness of Christ in relation to the law as the doctor has placed it before us. You say, many of you, it is light and truth. Yet you have not presented it in this light heretofore. Is it not possible that through earnest, prayerful searching of the Scriptures he has seen still greater light on some points? That which has been presented harmonizes perfectly with the light which God has been pleased to give me during all the years of my experience.” EGW 1888 Materials, p. 164.
Of course she spent much more time speaking positively of the points which she saw light in, and encouraging the people of God to take them up. It would not do to highlight some points of disagreement, as there will always be these, but the message which was most needed then was in danger of being overshadowed.
“The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. Many had lost sight of Jesus. They needed to have their eyes directed to His divine person, His merits, and His changeless love for the human family. All power is given into His hands, that He may dispense rich gifts unto men, imparting the priceless gift of His own righteousness to the helpless human agent. This is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel’s message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure.” Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91, 92.
Unfortunately, both of these men eventually became separated from the Seventh-day Adventists. However, despite this later experience, the gems of truth highlighted in the 1888 message have lost none of their precious relevance.
So go read them!
Today, many years after the events which gave rise to the Seventh-day Adventist movement, after generations of Adventists have come and gone, the writings of the pioneers are even more relevant.
Thanks to the partnership of the EGW Estate and the Adventist Pioneer Library, the words of the pioneers are available on virtually every computer, smartphone and tablet. See the links on our Resources page.