Where Run “the Paths of Rome”?

In 1896 Ellen White saw the “Paths of Rome” running through Battle Creek.

As has often been noted, in the late 1890s Ellen White lost a great deal of sleep over her fears that the leading brethren of her church were exerting far too tight a control over the affairs of the movement. In 1896 she protested vigorously the plans of the leaders in Battle Creek to “invent regulations through which they compel men to be ruled by their own ideas and not by the Holy Spirit.” Plans “to obtain control of human minds and ability” she considered as “strange fire.” Righteously indignant, she protested that leaders, through various means, were attempting “to control the consciences of their fellow men.”1 It was at this time that she uttered one of her sharpest rebukes ever given to General Conference leaders. From her perspective, they were beginning to act like the papacy. To those who served on the Book Committee in particular she asserted that they were “following in the tread of the paths of Rome.”2

As David Larson has recently noted, Adventists have deep roots in the soil of anti-Catholic apologetics and he expresses a valid concern about the dangers of Adventists resorting to cheap anti-Catholic rhetoric in our present dialogue about church structure and governance. “Adventism will never become Roman Catholicism and we shouldn’t scare each other into thinking that it might,” he argues. “Theological and liturgical differences would remain,” he suggests, even though the church might become more centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian. It is important that we respect the faith traditions of other Christians and that we should be able to applaud Catholicism “for its many contributions to human wellbeing.”3 Agreed.

But what were the specific issues that lay behind Ellen White’s fears that Adventist leadership would become like the papacy? Can we learn anything from her anxieties? Is there a legitimate concern about the drift to centralized control?

It is clear that Ellen White’s worry did not concern matters of liturgy or theology. It was not candles on the communion table, crosses on the top of churches, or preachers wearing clerical garb that worried her. Her apprehension concentrated on two more important emerging trends. The developments that deeply troubled her were first, the creation of an authoritarian culture of dominant leadership that involved submission, loyalty, and the loss of independent thought and action. Second, she was also deeply concerned about leadership falling into the pattern of coercing the consciences of others in the church.

The immediate occasion of this sharpest of all rebukes was a pointed dispute between church leaders in Australia and the leadership in Battle Creek about a particular biblical teaching. The teaching, which was being promoted by Professor W. W. Prescott in Australia in 1895-1896, had proved to be highly effective in forwarding Adventist mission in Australia. Ellen White had been deeply impressed and had recognized the work of the Spirit in Prescott’s preaching. The teaching had greatly enhanced the church’s appeal to a more educated class of converts.

A brief review of the historical context of this dispute and of White’s statement of rebuke and warning helps to clarify and elucidate the particular burden of Ellen White’s 1896 concerns. There are two prominent strands to be noted in the historical context.

A Dispute between the Regions and Headquarters

In the mid-1890s Professor W. W. Prescott was in Australia helping with evangelism and with the establishment of a new college. One of his most effective sermons at a very successful evangelistic camp meeting in Melbourne in November 1895 had been a new Christocentric presentation of the Sabbath truth: “The Law in Christ.” His sermon was based on the new interpretation of Galatians 3:24 (“The law in Galatians”) that had been the cause of so much debate and disruption at the Minneapolis Conference in 1888. Out in Australia the sermon was viewed as vital present truth. It had been highly effective in the church’s mission to non-Adventists and local church leaders prepared it as a pamphlet and advertised it prominently in the Bible Echo — the regional church magazine.

When, however, Prescott sent the article to Battle Creek in the hope that they might also find it useful, the General Conference Book Committee bluntly rejected it because they viewed it as communicating “some fundamental errors.” The Book Committee, it seems, was dominated by one mind — that of Review editor Uriah Smith who had not changed his mind on the law in Galatians and was convinced that the teaching was a dangerous undermining of the foundations of Adventism. He felt he was protecting the church. The other men on the committee either agreed or apparently just followed along not wanting to challenge the authority of the influential editor.

When Prescott received the reply from the committee, he expressed himself as finding it “a trifle peculiar” that a sermon could be orthodox in Melbourne but not in Battle Creek. But when Ellen White heard of the Book Committee’s decision, she found it more than peculiar. It was deeply disturbing. In fact she was highly indignant.

She wrote: “When Professor Prescott’s matter was condemned, and refused publication, I said to myself this committee needs the converting power of God upon their own hearts, that they may comprehend their duty. They do not know themselves. Their ideas are not to control the ideas of another.” Then she added, “it is not for these men to condemn or control the productions of those whom God is using as His light bearers to the World.”

She recommended, rather subversively, that the work of the church “would go forward more perfectly if their [the book Committee’s] counsel were omitted.”4 This was a subtle suggestion that the committee should be simply ignored or bypassed. Prophets could do that. In fact, as a result of this episode the General Conference Book Committee was later disbanded.

Learning from the Mistakes of Others

At this very same period, in the mid-1890s, when Ellen White was writing to General Conference president O. A. Olsen to protest about the alarming drift to authoritarian leadership and centralized control, her regional church paper, the Bible Echo was vigorously discussing the issues of religious control and the dangers of binding the consciences of others. Ellen White, it seems, was a close reader of these discussions. The Echo had reported extensively on recent attempts by Pope Leo XIII to seek reconciliation with the Anglican Church in Great Britain in particular and with other Christian churches. In 1895 he had issued an encyclical boldly calling for a reunion of the churches. The big question of the day discussed in newspapers in the UK and around Australia was whether reconciliation would involve the pope endorsing the validity of the Anglican clerical orders with its married clergy. Such an issue mattered in Australia. Half the population was Anglican.

In early June, in an open letter to the Vatican, William Gladstone, the noted British Statesman (a four-time liberal party British prime minister who had also spent ten years as Chancellor of the Exchequer) had urged the pope to recognize the Anglican clergy and that such a move would be an indication that the Catholic Church was really changing and it would be a gesture of good faith. The editor of the Bible Echo had interpreted this Gladstone initiative as “a hand reaching across the gulf” supporting Ellen White’s prediction of a union between Protestantism and Catholicism. Had the British leader caved in?

Twenty years previously in 1875, Gladstone had written a strongly anti-Catholic pamphlet protesting the recent (1870) claim of papal ex cathedra infallibility by the Vatican. The cardinal virtue for Gladstone was the freedom of individual conscience. The infallibility doctrine and the requirement of loyalty to the pontiff would have dire consequences for his country he argued in 1875. Parliamentarians would not be able to vote their conscience on important social issues. Gladstone charged that those who gave homage to the Pope “gave up their mental and moral freedom” and “placed their civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another.” He accused the Vatican of condemning “liberty of speech and liberty of the press.” John Henry Newman would later argue that this was not the case, but Gladstone was not persuaded.

Now, two decades later, and a month after Gladstone’s June 1, 1896 open letter, the Roman pontiff had issued another encyclical on the reunion of the churches declaring this time that supremacy of the pope was still essential. “No relaxation of the doctrine of discipline held by the Roman Catholic Church will be allowed by his Holiness in order to secure the reunion of the churches.”

The encyclical was published prominently in the London Times, June 30, 1896. The editor of the Bible Echo, down in Melbourne, very much aware of his largely Anglican context followed the events very closely. He saw a Vatican that was not prepared to change and that still wanted to dominate. He republished extracts from Gladstone’s earlier 1875 protest across the front page of the Bible Echo. For many weeks in the middle of 1896 the debate sizzled in the Australian press and in the Bible Echo. It touched on what was taught in public school curriculum and the role of Catholic members of parliament. The central issue was freedom of conscience. The need to avoid “the domineering action of a purely central power” was discussed repeatedly. And Ellen White was reading. In fact, in the middle of the discussion, the Bible Echo published as its major article the first half of Chapter 3 of Great Controversy — her discussion of “The Roman Church.”5

When, in the midst of all this ecclesiastical drama, Ellen White heard of the events in Battle Creek and the way that her own church was dealing with dissenting views, overriding the consciences of others, she was horrified. When she heard that the General Conference had condemned Prescott’s article she saw a danger of her church “following in the tread of the paths of Rome.” In her letter to the Book Committee she reported that she had just been reading the Bible Echo about those who would command the consciences of others. She recommended that the men themselves should read the article. She gave the title, “Gladstone and the Papacy,” and the reference. “Read the whole article,” she insisted to the committee. “Their ideas were not to control the ideas of another.”6


If it was, at least, once possible for General Conference leaders to tread the paths of Rome — until Ellen White called them out for it — might it not be possible for them quite inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, to do so again now? Today we have not the voice of Ellen White as a living charisma to protest. Who will do so now?

What is at stake at the Annual Council in October 2018 is the coercion of the consciences of large constituencies of the church. What is being proposed is a very un-Adventist centralization of power. In this coercion and centralization do we not hear the echoes of the 1890s?

In 1896, Ellen White saw the Paths of Rome running through Battle Creek. Will they run through Battle Creek again in October 2018?

Notes & References:

1. EGW to O. A. Olsen May 22, 1896. (Ltr 83); EGW to “The Book Committee,” October 26, [1896] 1898. (MS 148). There are strong reasons to view this manuscript as having been written in October 1896 rather than 1898. Internal reference is to a mid-1896 article. Furthermore, the Book Committee to whom the manuscript is addressed was disbanded in March 1897. It did not exist in 1898. See General Conference Bulletin March 27, 1897, 230.

2. Ellen G. White to “The Book Committee,” October 26, [1896] 1898.

4. Ellen G. White to “The Book Committee,” October 26, [1896] 1898.

5. The Bible Echo, June 29, 1896, 193, 194.

6. Ellen G. White to “The Book Committee,” October 26, 1896. The article appeared on the front page of the Bible Echo, July 27, 1896, 225, 226.

Gilbert M. Valentine lives and writes in Riverside, California. He is author of a scholarly biography on W. W. Prescott (2005), a history of the White Estate titled The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage (2006), a study of the political influence of Ellen White in The Prophet and the Presidents (2011), and coedited, with Woodrow Whidden, a Festschrift for George Knight entitled Adventist Maverick (2014).

Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9052

I’ve read a lot of articles about this lately. I’m struggling to understand it, but if I’m getting it right, this issue is extremely concerning to me.

If you have read some of Ellen White’s books, and you know just a touch of Catholicism’s history you’ll see that Catholicism has not had a good history. I mean everything from slaughtering those who disagree to the very recent sex abuse scandal. Over 300 priests sexually abusing people.

To me, their history is so incredibly dark and evil that to even try to glean anything good out of it is extremely dangerous to our church. I worry it could take us down an incredibly dark road. I definitely don’t suggest adopting their hierarchy as the head guy believes he speaks for god and the church as a whole can change the laws. This is also where the Sunday sabbath issue came in.

Very helpful and thought-provoking context, Gilbert–a lot of information I did not know about Ellen White or about the relationship between the Catholic and Anglican churches during her time.

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We need to prayerfully consider our conscience. We exhort people who are new to being a Bible student to read for themselves, reach their own conclusions, seeking God’s Holy Spirit guidance. Should it be any different for people who are long term Christians?

Whilst not guaranteeing that heresy won’t creep in, such methods - applied with a willingness to be shown, taught, by our Divine Guide - reduce the risk of error mixing with truth.

Long ago, I read of a military strategist who advised generals to know their enemy. I’m sorry I do not recall the person. It seems best to me that we do understand where dissention arises. Why and what is behind any disagreement. With the idea of acceptance of people as we respectfully listen/read their ideas.

Truth is not static. We see Mrs White slowly accepting Sabbath doctrine. First, as to the day, then to timing. God leads as He knows how we will best learn. A brand new truth probably won’t eclipse present understanding, nor be isolated to any one individual - or group.

We do need to be wary of the charismatic person, those who present forcefully, with little love. However, might is not necessarily right either. From me, the average pew warmer, through to the President of the General Conference, we can be stunningly incorrect in our sincerity.

How do we discern what is accurately divinely inspired, when it is possible to argue opposing views from the same Bible references? I’d suggest that group think, conformity, is NOT the solution. Rather, that each person thinks for themselves, deeply meditates on Godly principles, is genuinely open to Holy Spirit leading - healthy loving prayerful debate, discussion - setting aside wanting to be “proven right”.

Would Jesus endorse coercion? Would Jesus insist His way was the only method by which to complete tasks? Or would Jesus present information then allow, even encourage, free will thinking - WHEREVER those thoughts led His hearers? And, further, would Jesus excommunicate anyone for questioning God? After all, my Bible has God inviting me to reason with Him.

IF congregations were alert, not sleepy, any teaching, preaching that was controversial would be challenged, perhaps leading to counselling and MAYBE a local Union request to step down after understanding the various points of view. This is very different from how next month’s proposal appears to me.

As an aside, the Bay of Pigs fiasco occurred due to nobody in positions of power opposing the USA President. I would prefer lively debate over timid concurrence.

Perhaps so would Jesus because then we would be active Christians seeking truth - however misguidedly - instead of being virtually nothing. Think about whether you are on fire for the Gospel, indifferent, actively opposed, or merely going with the flow? Your response could mean the difference between second death and life everlasting.

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The precise issue is not whether the Seventh-day Adventist Church will begin to tread the paths of Rome during Fall Annual Council in 2018 in Battle Creek. The Church has already taken steps on those paths. Indeed, the Church began to tread the paths of Rome during the GC Session in 2015 in San Antonio, when a slim majority of the delegates trampled upon the collective personal conscience of a large minority of the delegates.

Ellen White’s words quoted in this essay are applicable: Ted Wilson and his like-minded colleagues need the converting power of God upon their own hearts, that they may comprehend their duty. They do not know themselves. Their ideas are not to control the ideas of another. It is not for these men [and women] to condemn or control the productions of those whom God is using as His light bearers to the World. The work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church would go forward more perfectly if the San Antonio vote in 2015 were omitted.

Thank you for this excellent essay. I have now benefited from reading thoughtful essays of four highly distinguished Seventh-day Adventist church historians–Gilbert M. Valentine, Denis Fortin, Nicholas Miller, and George Knight–who are opposed to the GC’s massive committee oversight system.


I thank Gilbert M. Valentine for reading and responding to what I wrote. Afraid that I would express myself too forcefully, I softened the tone of the article so much that it bores even me. I should have at least stuck with an earlier title: “We Can Be Pro-Women Without Being Anti-Catholic.”

This is my understanding of this article’s argument:

Major Premise: Whatever Ellen White did in debates like this one is permissible for us to do.

Minor Premise: Ellen White utilized anti-Catholic rhetoric in her criticisms of making denominational governance in her time more centralized, hierarchical and authoritarian.

Conclusion: It is permissible for us to use anti-Catholic rhetoric against making denominational governance more centralized, hierarchical and authoritarian in our time.

The minor premise is not debatable; however, the major one is. All those who agree with it are logically required to accept the conclusion. This article is right about this.

I do not agree with the major premise and therefore I am not logically required to accept the conclusion.

Here’s an idea. Let’s let the individual church member vote on these things. Then live with the results. The delegates don’t express the will of the individual church member. Just their own emotionally charged decision at the moment.

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Well said, Phil, though the church seems to have been for much longer striding along the paths of Rome. For me, the most telling step was taken by the current denomination’s president’s father 38 years ago and just 18 months into his own denominational presidency in 1980 when N. C. Wilson personally caused the denomination to vote a statement of ‘fundamental beliefs’ for the first time in Seventh-day Adventist history. And denominational growth has been slowing every since.

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The fundamental premise of Christsinity is Christ came, lived, died, rose again and sit on the throne next to His Father to save individuals not institutions. The Wilson mind set would see it other, to hurt some of the very people Christ gave His life to redeem. He is marshaling troop to shame real Christians. It would take an Edgar Allen Poe to fully describe the fowl ness of the Fall Agenda.

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What we believe has always been a topic of discussion, if not argument. In the early days of the church it was a generalized effort to study, discuss and define what we should believe and the first Wilson’s support of publishing a detailed list of beliefs codified it. However, the concept that we must believe 28 or 29 specific things in order to “be a believer in Christ” or to become a church member is greatly in excess of what Jesus said. I’ve been studying to find God’s list of what He requires us to believe and I have found only three things. First was if the blind men who came to have their sight restored believed he was able to do it (Matthew 9:28). Second was that he was the messiah (John 9:35). Third was about the promise of the resurrection (John 11:26). Paul adds a fourth item in Acts 26:27 when he asks King Agrippa if he believes the prophets. That’s all.

I like that list! Jesus simplifies issues of faith and doctrine. He invites us to believe and follow. To persuade us he entices us like a young man seeking to win the affections of the woman he loves. So the effort by church leaders to force compliance is acting contrary to the nature of Jesus.

I used to believe allegiance to the church and allegiance to God were one and the same. Now I know otherwise and my greater loyalty is to God so the concept of forced compliance could force me to separate myself from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I pray that God will intervene and prevent that from becoming necessary because leaving will be painful. Still, it is He who saved, not the church, so I will act in full confidence that God is leading me.

Our challenge is to keep the paradox from becoming a full-fledged revolt. Unfortunately, revolutions are often far more easily started than prevented and one of the quickest ways to start one is take significant action to limit or counter what is popular. So the seeds of revolt have been sown.

I agree that the warriors are perilously excited, however Pastor Tom Lemon made it clear that his research did not point to revolution.

We have patient saints seeking reformation at risk of heavy handed authoritarians.

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Thank you for your further reflection on what it means to be a Christian. I was baptize more than 60 years ago, in a Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath afternoon baptismal service … back when baptism was a separate service, rather than squeezed in between announcements and musical numbers during the worship service.

The Baptismal service was independent from and prior to my being invited to join the Seventh-day Adventist. church. That invitation was made the following Sabbath, during worship service at the time memberships were handled.

What I remember about the baptism was that all of the ministers that afternoon said exactly the same words: “… because you have accepted Jesus as your savior, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

Today, the denomination will not continue to hire a minister who does not formally interrogate a baptismal ‘candidate’ to personally confirm that the candidate specifically and wholly agrees to affirm their personal embrace of all 28 of the fundamental beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists as a condition of baptism. And further more, the candidate will be refused baptism if they do not agree to also become a tithe-paying member of the Seventh-day Adventist church.

While this requirement may be honored in the breach rather than the keeping every so often, every Seventh-day Adventist minister knows full well that their continued employment is a risk should they deviate from this requirement openly or flagrantly.

Has baptism become another one of the paths of Rome embraced by the Seventh-day Adventist denomination? It seems so.

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On Catholic Online, there is the baptismal vows.
Do you reject Satan and all his works, and empty promises.
[shortened Nicene creed] Do you believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ,
the Holy Spirit?
Prayer – God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth
by water and the Holy Spirit, and forgiven all our sins. May He keep us faithful to our
Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever. Amen.
[that is all I could find.]

Really? This is happening now? My goodness…


Like you I used to think that being saved was being baptized by an SDA minister and that membership was the requirement of salvation. Any notion of leaving was tantamount to abandoning God.

It is what we were taught, it is what we sincerely believed, but the Bible does not demand this does it.

Later in life I chose to remain an Adventist as the message of Present Truth and other aspects where more in harmony than other denominations that I explored.

Tom –
Edgar Allen Poe OR,
J. Edgar Hoover?

This is the net effect and obvious corporate intention of requiring incorporation of all 28 fundamental beliefs as constituting the heat of the currently accepted versions of the Seventh-day Adventist baptismal ‘vow.’ You can confirm this easily enough by simply inquiring of any Seventh-day Adventist minister anywhere in the world.

Baptism is not and has no biblical basis for being made into some kind of reward for belief or behavior, right? Yet the way it has been repurposed within the current Seventh-day Adventist denomination is intentionally indistinguishable in benefit to the the denomination from the sale of indulgences over which Luther took his stand, not against the church, but for truth within the church. The defense of a church against revealed truth contrary to its current practice is always excommunication. Another of the Paths of Rome.

The Seventh-day Adventist denomination is organized in such a way, though, that no church official or conference level or above committee can excommunicate a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church. So we have a much more secure community of members in which to explore present truth, if you will. Still. This is no small gift from our founders. Gratitude remains in order, perhaps now more than ever.


Absolutely not! Nor does being in any specific group/denom/church have anything to do with salvation. If anyone has been taught otherwise by their group, they should shake the dust off their shoes and move on.

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Fascinating account from the Christian perspective of post-1888 history ! Truly, world events at the time were all inter-relating in the run-up to a crisis which might have ended in the ‘second coming of Christ’.

When I first learned of SDA ‘1888’ history, it was from Graham Maxwell’s and the Kirks’ ‘Study Tapes’. In the times preceding the 100-year anniversary of ‘1888’ Dr. Graham Maxwell and Dr. Kenneth Hart gave a lecture together in which Dr. Hart provided a review of the historical context of related events before, during and after the actual meetings. One of the highlights of that review was the mysterious ‘June 6, 1896 Cooranbong Letter’ to Uriah Smith, regarding which a sick Ellen was aroused from rest at night to dictate to her secretary and get the message sent off to Uriah Smith on the next Mail Ship to the U.S. Dr. Hart asked the haunting question, “Why?” Why right then ? Couldn’t it have waited until Ellen was better and out of bed ?

This letter from Ellen to Uriah essentially described that close relationship between Christ and the Law which the Jews had also been unwilling to see some 1,860 years earlier. Curious, I visited the local public library reference section and found a ‘year-book’ that included 1896. In the brief list of significant events was mentioned the publication by Theodor Herzl (the father of Zionism) of ‘Der Judenstaat’ – The Jewish State – early in the year, after he had witnessed the European antisemitism (centered in Paris) surrounding the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ during 1895, at least. (Dreyfus was a Jewish, French military officer who was wrongly accused of treason.)

Later in 1896, Theodor Herzl made a train trip to Istanbul where, with the help of a bankrupt Polish aristocrat he hoped to gain an audience with the Ottoman Sultan. In return for help in settling the large debts of the Ottoman Empire, Theodor Herzl hoped to obtain Palestine as a ‘secular’ Jewish homeland. The mission failed, though at whistle stops along the way Herzl was hailed by adoring groups of Jews as the ‘Messiah’. Then, shortly after, Herzl died, leaving the prediction that in 50 years, the Jews would have their homeland.

His prediction came true in 1948, shortly before 1949 when Robert Wieland caused events leading to the ultimate discovery and first-ever publication of the ‘Letter 96, 1896 “Sunnyside” Cooranbong Letter’ to Uriah Smith in the Review and Herald in 1952. This all began in earnest, due to Wieland’s all-too-brief visit to the ‘White Estate’ vaults during Arthur White’s absence, and as Wieland was on his way out of the Washington, D.C. area after having been expelled from the SDA Seminary for questioning the latest teachings of SDA authority figures.

But, back to the ‘Why?’:

I couldn’t find exact dates for Theodor Herzl’s trip to Istanbul, so I asked the local librarian for his ‘Diaries’, which soon came from the James White Library at Andrews University. In those diaries I found that the mail ship trip of Ellen’s letter to Uriah, and Herzl’s train trip to Istanbul while hailed as the Messiah of the secular ‘Jewish State’ – without any reference to the ‘Law’ of God – coincided. And now, of course, through 2 earlier World Wars, the Jewish Holocaust, and now into this 3rd Middle-Eastern perpetual war, that ‘Jewish State’, supported by English royalty’s ‘Jerusalem’ mythology, and the current American Evangelical fervor for Israel and the 3rd Temple in order to bring in the ‘Anti-Christ’ . . . that ‘Jewish State’ is, and will continue to be, at the center of world events which could have been derailed in the 1896-era by SDA leaders encouraging – not discouraging – the understanding of Christ in relation to His Law which sick Ellen dictated to her weary secretary in order to get it on the next mail ship to Battle Creek, where it was, instead, hidden away for over 50 years.

The leading Jews penalized Christ because they had a ‘Law’, by which they condemned Him, the Law-giver. And, Uriah Smith’s enduring influence has kept the SDA church leaning in that same direction for 130 years. Yet, what SDA historian points to Uriah Smith’s deadly apostasy from ‘Christ Our Righteousness’ as they do so eagerly point to Jones’ and Waggoner’s, who once preached that Christ and His Righteousness. . . .

Why ?