E. J. Waggoner: The Gospel Doctor

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E. J. Waggoner: The Gospel Doctor

The Preacher of Righteousness by Faith

E. J. Waggoner’s name has become almost synonymous with the famous General Conference Session of 1888. His messages, along with those of A. T. Jones, were highly commended by Ellen White. She made it clear that “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 Savior, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world…. It invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ.”[1]

Waggoner’s message was precious in the sight of the prophetess but caused division and controversy among many of the church leaders and laypeople of the day. It would be nice if the contention was put to rest in the 1800s. However, the unfortunate truth is that aspects of Waggoner’s messages are still a cause of dispute amongst church members today. The fact that this one-time Adventist preacher and teacher ended up apostatizing from the church in his later years only adds difficulty to the debates.

E.J. Waggoner’s story is an interesting one. Hopefully, it can help to shed light on the vital message of righteousness by faith.

From Doctor to Minister

Ellet Joseph Waggoner was born in January 1855 in Wisconsin. He was the son of the prominent Adventist minister J. H. Waggoner, who was an evangelist and writer for the church for most of his life. Not much is recorded about the early life of E. J. Waggoner until his days at college and beyond.

He studied first at Battle Creek College, where he studied anatomy and physiology from Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Being interested in the medical field, he went on to Ann Arbor to study at the University of Michigan. After finishing medical school, he was soon married to his wife Jessie, and the two were called to California to help out with the new Rural Health Retreat in St. Helena.

Waggoner and his wife worked in St. Helena from 1880-83. In 1882 a significant shift occurred in the doctor’s life. During a sermon at the Healdsburg camp meeting, he describes, “Suddenly a light shone about me, and the tent seemed illuminated…. I saw Christ crucified for me, and to me was revealed for the first time in my life the fact that God loved me, and that Christ gave Himself for me personally.”[2]

This experience was so moving to Ellet that he completely changed his career path and became an Adventist minister. Since James White died in 1881, Waggoner’s father had taken over as editor of the Signs of the Times publications in California. Ellet began working with his father there, along with becoming a pastor in Oakland and teaching at Healdsburg College.

Tension Building Before 1888

E. J. Waggoner quickly became known for his sermons emphasizing the grace and forgiveness of God. His preaching began to draw the older church leaders’ ire because it differed from the typical Adventist approach of focusing on the law and sanctification in those days.

As early as 1884, Ellet was teaching students at Healdsburg that the law in Galatians chapter 3 was the moral law of 10 Commandments. This went against the traditional stance of Adventism, which claimed that the chapter was referring to the ceremonial laws of the sanctuary. Adventists had taught this to combat other Christians’ beliefs that Jesus did away with the 10 Commandments on the cross.

Leaders such as G. I. Butler (the General Conference President) and Uriah Smith believed that Waggoner’s father had tried to teach the moral law idea back in the 1850s and that James and Ellen White had shut it down. These men even alleged that Ellen had been given a vision showing her that the ceremonial law teaching was the correct view. Although they never produced proof that this vision had taken place, beliefs like these caused many to become antagonistic toward Waggoner.

G. I. Butler and Uriah Smith eventually threatened to leave the church if Adventists accepted Waggoner’s view on Galatians 3. They thought that if he was right, then Adventism had been built upon error, and Ellen White’s prophetic gift would be brought into question. Such was the heated attitude that Ellet faced going into the famous 1888 General Conference Session.

1888 in Minneapolis

Unfortunately, transcripts of E. J. Waggoner’s presentations at the conference are not available to us. But the titles of his messages and the scriptures used were recorded by W. C. White and another man who was present. Most of what people today understand as the “1888 Message” comes from what Ellen White said about Waggoner and A. T. Jones’s sermons during the meetings and their writings.

The majority of Waggoner’s nine public lectures in Minneapolis focused on the fact that righteousness is only found in Jesus Christ, not by any works of the law. His final sermons centered on the difference between the old and new covenants and the law in Galatians.

As simple as they might sound, these messages received some of the most positive endorsements Ellen White ever gave in her life. Looking back on them, she claimed:

“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….

The message of the gospel of His grace was to be given to the church in clear and distinct lines, that the world should no longer say that Seventh-day Adventists talk the law, the law, but do not teach or believe Christ.”[3]

Whatever the emphasis was that Waggoner tried to get across to the audience at the conference, it was understood by the prophet to be a departure from the tendency of Adventists in her time to exalt the law above Christ. Although Ellen White was ecstatic about these messages, most of the leading brethren still held a negative attitude toward the messengers.

“There had been considerable heckling of Waggoner during his presentations. Though Waggoner was short in stature, he could be plainly heard. However, someone called out tauntingly: ‘We can’t see you.’ There was marked ‘antagonism by some,’ and a few even ‘turned their heads away when Waggoner was seen approaching.'”[4]

Since the leading ministers still would not support the righteousness by faith doctrine, Ellen, Ellet, and A. T. Jones set out on their own after the conference to spread this “most precious message” to the churches.

Years of Revival

E. J. Waggoner returned to Oakland first to handle his pastoral and editorial duties for a few months before joining Ellen White and Jones in their revival efforts. In April and May of 1889, Ellet suffered the back-to-back deaths of his father and 9-month-old child. He would have to carry his grief with him to join his partners in the righteousness by faith movement.

Waggoner traveled through Pennsylvania, New York, and other places helping the revival meet with success. His most prominent contribution to helping the church at large to accept the new emphasis on justification by faith came later at the newly formed ministerial institutes.

In 1889, W. W. Prescott, the then president of the church’s educational department, started up the precursor to what many know today as the seminary. He felt that Adventist ministers were in dire need of further biblical training, so he came up with the idea to gather them together for 20 weeks of intensive Bible instruction.

At the first of these institutes, Waggoner decided to present his teachings on the covenants in the Bible. This was still a sensitive topic since he differed from other leading ministers of the time. His lectures were received positively by most, even though Dan Jones (General Conference Secretary) and Uriah Smith tried to stop him from being able to present.

Whidden sums up Waggoner’s main point in his understanding of the covenants in his biography: “Would it be Christ who was uplifted as the complete Savior from sin, or would the emphasis be placed on the law, human obedience, and the promises of a weak and sinful people who were doomed to failure outside of the eternal covenant of grace…?”[5]  Ellet’s focus was again on uplifting the power of God’s grace.

At the second ministerial institute in 1890-91, Waggoner was allowed to teach on the books of Galatians and Romans. His lessons, especially on Romans, were received with even greater enthusiasm than his covenant teachings the year before.

Ellet also preached a 16-part series on Romans at the General Conference Session of 1891, right after completing his teachings at the institute. The lessons became so popular that they were moved from 9 am to the more primetime slot of 7 pm. Ellen White said at that time that she had “never attended a General Conference where there was manifested as much of the Spirit of the Lord in the study of His Word, as on this occasion.”[6]

E. J. Waggoner was instrumental in keeping the righteousness by faith momentum moving forward in the few years beyond 1888. The 1891 General Conference was probably the pinnacle point of his career and influence as an Adventist minister. His ministry was soon to take a turn in a new direction the following year.

Editor in England

In 1892 Waggoner was given the position of editor of the British Present Truth magazine in London. He had visited England in 1891 to teach similar lessons that he had at the ministerial institutes in the States. His success led the General Conference to select him as an able minister to give much-needed help to the work in Europe.

On top of his work as an editor, Ellet also served as pastor of the congregation that met in Duncombe Hall. He also traveled extensively to conduct more Bible teaching institutes. He was instrumental in starting up the Duncombe Hall Missionary College, which was “the effectual beginning of what has evolved into Newbold College, the major institution of higher learning of the Seventh-day Adventist Trans-European Division.”[7]

Unfortunately, during his time in England (1892-1903), Waggoner developed some extreme views on Sunday laws, church organization, and the literal indwelling of Christ in humans that would eventually lead him out of the church. The preacher of righteousness by faith was drifting toward darkness.

Apostasy, Adultery, and the End

Waggoner returned with his family from England to a job as a teacher at Emmanuel Missionary College in Berrien Springs, Michigan. For unknown reasons, he only lasted one school year before he and his family moved to Battle Creek.

In 1905, Jessie Waggoner filed for divorce from her husband. The grounds for the divorce were revealed to be adultery. Ellet had allegedly developed an inappropriate relationship with Edith Adams, who had been his editorial assistant back in London. He had arranged for her to come to Battle Creek and work at the sanitarium there at the same time that he had returned to the States.

Although Waggoner went on to deny the allegations of adultery, evidence from both Ellen White and a close friend of Ellet, J. H. Washburn, speaks heavily against him. Ellen wrote very frankly to Waggoner in 1903 that, “You are being imprisoned with a dangerous sentimentalism, and this has nearly spoiled you and the one also who has permitted you to make her your favorite.”[8] Other excerpts from this letter make it clear that Waggoner was headed down the path of adultery.

J. H. Washburn testified years later in a letter that Ellet had come to some bizarre conclusions theologically concerning marriage. Washburn described Waggoner’s ideas as follows:

“He said that nearly all marriages were mistakes, only human marriages. But somewhere in the world God had made a certain woman for every man and a certain man for every woman. If they were led by the Spirit they would find the right one. But if they had been mistaken in the choice for a companion, if they were led by the Spirit they would first see that they were mated wrong. And that God had revealed to him that the woman he had married was not his true wife. So it would be sin, adultery for him to live with Jessie Moser as his wife.”[9]

Waggoner’s new theological understandings, which we will talk about at the end of this article, seem to have led him down immoral paths and then to dishonesty. It didn’t help his case that in 1907 he went ahead and married Edith Adams. Ellet’s ministerial credentials were revoked, and his membership in the Adventist church ended sometime around the divorce proceedings.

Waggoner went on to work for the Battle Creek Sanitarium after J. H. Kellogg was also disfellowshipped, mainly as a laboratory assistant. His life came to a sudden and unexpected end in 1916, when he had a massive heart attack at the young age of 61. A. T. Jones conducted his funeral and focused on the positives of the life of this one-time preacher of righteousness.

Positive Lessons from the Life of E. J. Waggoner 

He Helped to Restore the Church’s Focus on Christ as the Central Pillar of Theology

One of the greatest fears of early Seventh-day Adventists was that their explanations of justification by faith would come off as a cheap grace teaching. This anxiety led them to give too high an emphasis to the 10 Commandment Law of God rather than Christ’s ability to save.

Woodrow Whidden gives a summary of Waggoner’s main contributions to the church during the critical years of 1888-1891:

“(1) His call to uplift Christ as Savior (not just lawgiver); (2) a strong focus on justification by faith in Jesus; (3) the intimate connection between the righteousness of Christ and obedience to God’s commandments; (4) the need for Adventists to focus on Jesus; (5) that Christ’s righteousness or ‘righteousness by faith’ has an intimate relationship to the third angel’s message of Revelation 14:9-12; (6) that Jesus has special covenant blessings for His children; (7) that Seventh-day Adventists had been emphasizing the law but neglecting Jesus and the importance of faith in His sacrifice; and (8) that God had raised up him and Jones to redirect the gaze of Adventists to Jesus and to faith in His sacrifice and merits.”[10]

If these sound like fundamental things that you’ve heard about often during your Christian life, Waggoner’s willingness to be used by God during these times is largely responsible. More important than the intellectual understanding of these things is the practical experience of them in our lives.

Mistakes We Can Learn From

Bad Theology Can Lead to Bad Ethics

It seems that Waggoner’s belief in the indwelling Christ, when taken to an extreme, became his greatest weakness. In the 1890s, it is evident that Ellet embraced what we now call today panentheistic beliefs (God is an essence pervading every living thing).

At the 1897 General Conference, he is quoted as saying, “God Himself is personally present in all His works. He Himself is the energy that is manifest in all creation. God Himself is force, the force that is manifest in all matter.”[11] At the next conference, he went on to say, “O, I delight in drinking water, as I never have before; I delight in bathing…. A man may get righteousness in bathing, when he knows where the water comes from, and recognizes the source.”[12]

Waggoner’s idea that God literally dwelt in his body led him to two erroneous beliefs: 1) That God would accomplish total perfection in His end-time saints in order to vindicate His character before the universe; and 2) that whatever the indwelling God told him was true, even if it contradicted the Bible.

The first of these ideas were expressed by Waggoner in 1897 in these words:

“The power of God in us seeks for utterance and expression. It has been too long repressed. The Lord still waits for us. He does not become impatient with us; and bears with us because He has His character at stake. The only way in which He can demonstrate the perfection of His character, and take away His reproach, is in perfecting a people to His praise. He is able to accomplish this in us. Shall we let God have a chance? Shall we let the people know that God is with us, that they may see Him and know Him?”[13]

This type of theology can lead people to despair if they do not see this type of perfection happening in their lives. Or it can lead to a legalistic Christianity, such as was witnessed in the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.

The second idea mentioned above manifested itself in Waggoner’s belief that God had shown him that he should have a different woman as his wife. Even though this goes directly against the seventh commandment, that didn’t matter to Ellet because God spoke from inside of him. His friend J. H. Washburn testified that Waggoner “believed that he was led by the Spirit. He would say unusual, strange things, and I would ask him how he knew those things, things not in the Bible, and he would say God made it plain to me or ‘God told me.'”[14]

Waggoner’s story is a heart-wrenching one. How someone so blessed to give a message the church was so in need of could fall so far is a mystery better left to God. Let us hold fast the legacy of righteousness by faith left to us by this pioneer, and leave off the extremism that developed in his later years.

Click here to read the rest of this series on the Adventist pioneers!



[1] Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 91-92.

[2] Woodrow W. Whidden II, E. J. Waggoner: From Physician of Good News to Agent of Division, p. 19.

[3] Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, p. 91-92.

[4] Ron Duffield, The Return of the Latter Rain, p. 115.

[5] Woodrow W. Whidden II, E. J. Waggoner: From Physician of Good News to Agent of Division, p. 168.

[6] Ibid, p. 180.

[7] Ibid, p. 226.

[8] Ellen G. White, Letter 231, 1903.

[9] J. H. Washburn to G. B. Starr, Jan 1, 1942.

[10] Woodrow W. Whidden II, E. J. Waggoner: From Physician of Good News to Agent of Division, p. 364.

[11] “Studies in Hebrews—No. 18,” General Conference Bulletin, First Quarter, 1897, p. 13.

[12] “The Water of Life,” General Conference Bulletin, Mar. 6, 1899, p. 79.

[13] “Witnesses for God,” General Conference Bulletin, First Quarter, 1897, p. 57.

[14] Woodrow W. Whidden II, E. J. Waggoner: From Physician of Good News to Agent of Division, p. 327.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.