Early Adventist Pioneers and the Godhead
Unlike Miller, many early Adventist pioneers rejected the Trinity teaching. James White, a former minister of the Christian Connexion,5 and Joseph Bates and Joshua V Himes who likewise came from that tradition, rejected the “trinity” because it was not a term used in the Bible. James White called it an “unscriptural Trinitarian creed” and “the old trinitarian absurdity”.6 Uriah Smith considered Jesus Christ as just a “created being” who appeared “first” in time but was not equal to God the Father.7 By 1881 he concluded that Jesus was “begotten” and not created.8
JN Andrews also postulated a similar view that Christ “at some point in the eternity of the past” had a “beginning of days”.9 Other Adventist pioneers, like JB Frisbie, JN Loughborough, RF Cottrell, DM Canright and JH Waggoner either dismissed the Trinity doctrine or opposed the scriptural teaching of the eternal deity of Christ.10 However, discussions on the person of the Holy Spirit as a member of the Godhead were missing. Adventist pioneers accepted the Holy Spirit merely as the omnipresent and pervasive “influence” or “spirit” of the Father or the Son.
Ellen White and the Godhead
A noticeable exception to anti-trinitarianism came from the pen of Ellen G White. Jesus Christ, she declares, was the “brightness of His Father’s glory and the express image of His person. He possessed divine majesty, perfection and excellence. He was equal with God”11 and was the “eternal Son of God.”12 She was unequivocal; those who denied the pre-existence of Jesus Christ had succumbed to a “dangerous error.”
“None,” she insisted, “who hold this error can have a true conception of the character or the mission of Christ, or of the great plan of God for man’s redemption.”13
To cast aside all ambiguities, Ellen White stressed that in Christ existed “life, original, unborrowed”, and “underived”.14 He was equal to the Father in every sense. But, further, in like fashion, the “Third Person of the Godhead”.15 The “Comforter” too, she added, “is the Spirit in all the fullness of the Godhead . . . 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 baptised, and these powers will cooperate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ.”16 The understanding of the triune God is explicit.
A Brief Reflection
Adventist pioneers grappled to understand the Trinity. Through the publications of Ellen White, the eternal persons of the Trinity were better realised: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three co-equal divine Persons of the Godhead, all work in harmony for humanity’s salvation. For us to understand the conundrum of God’s Self-disclosure is a remarkable blessing.
Nevertheless, we cannot be complacent. Satan’s underlying plan is to deceive people from knowing God. What an incredible privilege to appreciate the mystery of God. We may not grasp the complex personality of the triune-God completely. However, we know that we will grow and discern God better as the Bible declares Him to us. May we increase each day to know the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our eternal destiny hinges on this biblical truth.
Dr Limoni Manu O’Uiha is a pastor and theologian based in Palmerston North, North New Zealand Conference.