Early Adventism and the Apocrypha: The Question of Canonicity (Then)

Share It :

Early Adventism and the Apocrypha: The Question of Canonicity (Then)

In this article, the sixth of our Early Adventism and the Apocrypha series, a saga exploring various books contained in early Adventist Bibles (and still retained in most Bibles around the world), we will discuss and explore the overall issue of canonicity within Seventh-day Adventism, rather than any specific individual work from within it. While the past five articles have explored the major works of the Apocrypha and their contributions to Adventism, this piece will attempt to focus on the specific issue of how the Adventist church has understood these works and their role within the life and thought of the church.


The importance of this has been magnified by the fact that we are now aware that Ellen White, in a vision she experienced in 1849, proclaimed the Apocrypha as part of the Word of God. Her endorsement of the collection while in vision, regardless of her youthfulness at the time, and her same claim in that vision that it was Satan attempting to remove the works, implores the church to examine this issue with a balanced sensitivity.


Although many would likely believe that an issue such as this, the question of what constitutes the content of the Old Testament, would be a foundational and settled issue within Seventh-day Adventism, the truth is that the church has never settled or come to an agreement on the topic, even to this very day. Not once has the Adventist church ever officially denied the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament, nor affirmed it.


This is not to say that the church has not had a popular view on the issue in each period of time, but simply to recognize that whatever the church largely believed in any period was never translated into a doctrinal position. To understand this issue and gain perspective on our own place and time, an overview of the history of Adventist thought on this topic is needed. As such, this discussion is split into two parts or articles, the first of which will examine the first hundred years or so of Adventist thought.


RELATED ARTICLE: Early Adventism and the Apocrypha – The Book of Tobit


Pre-Church Formation


Before the Seventh-day Adventist church was officially named and constituted, Sabbatarian Adventists appear to have largely embraced the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras as “scripture,” due to its widespread reception during the Millerite Movement as an authentic prophecy confirming William Miller’s prediction for 1844. For a nuanced review of that background, please see my 2018 Spectrum article and Ronald Graybill’s original 1987 paper.[1]


It appears that with the rise in popularity of 2 Esdras, the other books of the Apocrypha came to garner more attention. This can be seen by the fact that between 1846-1863, aside from a near universal acceptance of 2 Esdras, the books of 1 Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon appear to be the only other major cited works from the collection. Ellen White’s earliest vision not only cites 2 Esdras, but also the Wisdom of Solomon, both of which James White called “scripture” in the reprinting of the vision in the pamphlet known as Word to the Little Flock (1847).[2]


In fact, prior to 1863, almost no other apocryphal works were cited aside from those three, with the exception of Sirach/Ecclesiasticus which was cited almost authoritatively by James White in 1851 and 1852,[3] along with a short anonymous homily on it that was published in 1858.[4] While these couple instances demonstrate a growing interest, it also demonstrates that many early Adventists were looking at the merits of each book, rather than as an entire collection. This appears confirmed by the public declaration that the editors of the Review and Herald would provide in 1858:


Concerning the Apocrypha, we regard portions of it as containing much light and instruction. If we were asked to specify, we should mention 2 Esdras, Wisdom of Solomon, and 1 Maccabees. Concerning the Wisdom of Solomon, Sears’ History of the Bible thus speaks: “although the fathers of the church, and particularly Jerome, uniformly considered this book as apocryphal, yet they recommended the perusal of it, in consideration of the excellence of its style. The third Council of Carthage, held in the year 397, pronounced it to be canonical book under the name of ‘The Fourth Book of Solomon,’ and the Council of Trent confirmed this decision.” Concerning the first book of Maccabees, it also says, “The first book of Maccabees is a very valuable historical monument, written with great accuracy and fidelity, on which even more reliance may be placed on the writings of Josephus.” The question of the inspiration of these books – the reasons that might be adduced in favor of such an opinion, and the objections that might lie against it, we have never made a subject of particular study, and are not therefore prepared to discuss.[5]


This statement is the earliest public summary of the issue found before 1863, but it is also incredibly confusing and moreover, misleading. Contrary to the statement’s conclusion, all of the editors (Andrews, White, Waggoner, Cottrell), with the exception of Uriah Smith and Stephen Pierce, are known to have believed in the inspiration of 2 Esdras as scripture at this time. Uriah Smith would later quote from 2 Esdras in his work on Daniel and the Revelation (1884), without any note on its apocryphal status, but it’s unknown what his views toward it were earlier.


Given this, it is odd that for a group that would regularly affirm the inspired status of 2 Esdras throughout this period, that they as a group chose to publish a statement that did not match well with their personal convictions. In context, then, it must be understood that the final statement does not mean that they are not prepared to affirm their belief in its inspiration, but rather that they are not prepared to discuss why. James White and many of the others may believe in the inspiration of 2 Esdras, but they are not prepared to defend it and have not undertaken a study to prove their beliefs to others (even if they have already done so for themselves in so far as they were personally concerned).


RELATED ARTICLE: What about the Apocrypha?


While this statement is odd, since one would imagine that such a question would have been quite deserving of study, it is also odd in that it is not in harmony with an even earlier statement about the Apocrypha made by Ellen White. In two visions near the end of 1849 and beginning of 1850, the young Mrs. White proclaimed that the entire collection of the Apocrypha was inspired and part of the Word of God (rather than only specific portions). Because the 1847 document is a transcription of comments she made, written as she gave them, it contains many small spelling errors. I have included my own corrections or clarifications in brackets (alongside those already made by the Ellen White Estate), but the parentheses are from the original document.


(Taking the large Bible containing the apocrypha:) Pure and undefiled, a part of it [the Bible] is consumed, holy, holy, walk carefully, tempted. The Word of God, take it…, bind it long upon thine heart, pure and unadulterated. How lovely, how lovely, how lovely… Thy word, thy word, a part of it is burned unadulterated, a part of [it,][6] the hidden book, a part of it is burned (the apocrypha).[7]


Those that shall despitefully trea[t] that remnant [the Apocrypha] would think that they are doing God’s service. Why? because they are led captive by Satan at his will. [The] Hidden book, it is cast out. Bind it to the heart. Bind it to the heart. Bind it to the heart. Bind it to the heart. Bind it, bind it, bind it… let not its pages be closed, read it carefully. Snares will beset on every side, take the straight truth[,] bind it to the heart. Bind it to the heart. Bind it to the heart. Le[s]t everything be cast out.[8]


This statement gives a blanket acceptance of the Apocrypha as an entire collection of scripture. It treats their removal from the Bible as an act of Satanic deception and furthermore implores Sabbatarian Adventists to cling to the Apocrypha, binding it to their hearts. To date, we know of no stronger endorsement of the Apocrypha than Mrs. White’s statement. No other early Adventist comes close to embracing the Apocrypha with the language and religious fervor than she does here. And to top it all off, she did so while in vision, giving her endorsement a spiritual authority unrivaled by any others.


The fact that Mrs. White’s statement is not embraced by the Review and Herald almost ten years later demonstrates the personal freedom and independence that Adventists exercised early on regarding Mrs. White’s role in the church. Although proclaiming something authoritatively from vision as true, the church accepted her counsel only as a potential reality, not a binding one.


RELATED ARTICLE: Did Ellen White Recommend the Apocrypha?


This illustrates that prior to the denomination’s official beginning, Adventists were in large agreement regarding the Apocrypha having some relation to inspiration, but also that Adventists respectfully disagreed with one another regarding the topic well enough that the Review and Herald felt it to be the right thing to avoid making any official declarations regarding the topic on the early Adventist community as a whole.


Early-Denominational Beginning


The early history of the canon post-1863 is fairly ambiguous. At no point in the Seventh-day Adventist church’s beginnings did it actually come to an agreed consensus or statement regarding the scope of scripture and its limits. The canon was, for all intents and purposes, if not open, un-delineated. This is not to say that the church had nothing to say about the canon, but only to note that what it did say was oddly unhelpful for any attempt to come to any specific agreements.


During the early years, an early version of our fundamental beliefs was published in 1871. It was intended to summarize what Adventists held in common as belief, without being seen as a creed or binding statement on Adventists. As the introduction states, they “may be taken as a summary of the principle features of their faith, upon which there is, so far as we know, entire unanimity throughout the body.” The third doctrine, regarding the Bible, has this to say about the canon:


That the Holy Scriptures, of the Old and New Testaments, were given by inspiration of God, contain a full revelation of his will to man, and are the only infallible rule of faith and practice.[9]


This statement does not explain what constitutes the Old Testament, a strange omission given the ongoing debates about 2 Esdras and other apocryphal works at this time. This appears to be intentional then, indicating a desire for allowing personal freedom on a fairly sensitive topic. Given that the list’s intention was to express unanimous agreement, it indicates something important: that while early Adventists were agreed that the Bible was the rule of faith, they were not in agreement on exactly what constituted the Bible that they were basing their faith on. Notably, this statement was subsequently reprinted in 1889 in a revised document without any changes added to it.[10]


In 1931, another document was put out listing twenty-two fundamental beliefs. Instead of listing the Bible as the third doctrine, it begins with it and largely repeats the earlier formulation with some minor changes (indicated in italics).


That the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, contain an all-sufficient revelation of His will to man, and are the only unerring rule of faith and practice (2 Timothy 3:15-17).[11]


Overall, the statement demonstrates two changes: a move towards inerrancy due to its involvement with the rising Evangelicalism movement, and a continued silence regarding the Apocrypha. The latter silence, unlike in the previous statements, is due not to disagreement over the issue.


By the 1930s, most Adventists had forgotten about the books now that they were missing from their Bibles. Mrs. White’s statements had been locked away by this point and most documents indicate that the controversy over the Apocrypha had fallen from memory in the general Adventist consciousness. As Edgar Goodspeed wrote in 1939:


The Apocrypha have long been almost forgotten by the Christian public… Most Americans know the Apocrypha, if they know them at all, only as some mysterious books which they used to see in their grandfather’s old Family Bible, but which for some unexplained reason they do not find in theirs.[12]


This means that the 1931 formulation has taken the statement regarding the canon from the previous two and preserved it due to tradition, unaware that the earlier silence about the Apocrypha was meant to preserve the freedom to include it. Given the rising hostility toward the Apocrypha at this time as a “catholic” production, it is likely that the contributors of this formulation likely assumed that the silence regarding the Apocrypha was instead a rejection of it, unaware that early Adventists understood things quite differently. Regardless, the 1931 statement does not make any conclusion regarding the Apocrypha, leaving the church with no official position on the topic for almost a hundred years since the first Millerite preachers took up the topic.




What this goes to demonstrate is that within the first part of Adventist history, the issue of the canon remained one that the church did not wish to dogmatically make a decision regarding. It was left up to the individual Adventist to make a decision as to what books constituted the Old Testament, and while many could agree about books such as 2 Esdras, other works such as Baruch were either rejected or simply left to a resigned agnosticism. This research establishes that while Adventism was formed around the conviction that Scripture is the rule of faith, it was also understood that sola scriptura was a complicated proposition, far more complicated than many within the church currently even recognize in our own time.


One can thus describe the canon of Adventism as fluid, on both an individual and communal level. The first part of our history reveals that the biblical canon had room for the Apocrypha (either parts or the whole) in the minds of most Adventists, both laity and leaders alike. While this changed in the minds of Adventists in the following years of the 19th century, the foundational policies of Adventism gave no priority to one view or the other.

Click here to read the rest of this series on early Adventism and the Apocrypha



[1] Matthew Korpman, “Adventism’s Hidden Book: A Brief History of the Apocrypha,” Spectrum 46:1 (2018): 56-65; Ronald Graybill, “Under the Triple Eagle: Early Adventist Use of the Apocrypha,” Adventist Heritage 12 (Winter 1987): 25-32.

[2] It is also possible to detect allusions to themes from 1 Maccabees in her first vision, although uncited by James White.

[3] Editors, “Dreams,” Review and Herald 1:9 (1851): 71; G. W. Holt and James White, “Dreams,” Review and Herald 2:10 (1852): 80.

[4] Anonymous, “That Lost Day,” Review and Herald 12:15 (1858): 120.

[5] Editors, “To Correspondents: Old Style and New,” Review and Herald 12:12 (1858): 96.

[6] The original statement, “a part of the hidden book,” is quite odd. It is possible, given the large amount of spelling errors in the document and the fact that it’s a live transcription, that the statement quoted here was possibly miss-transcribed, since it doesn’t agree, at least obviously, with the rest of the statements in that vision (she elsewhere states that the Hidden Book is the Apocrypha which was removed and burned from the Bible). It’s possible, if not plausible, therefore that Mrs. White actually may have simply said: “a part of [it,] the hidden book, a part of it is burned.” This simple change would make more sense and would then agree with her other statements, making the “it” refer to the Bible she was holding (as she speaks elsewhere in the same vision). It would also be clear to see how the transcriber may have missed the “it” and not providing the comma, given us the confused sentence as we now have it.

[7] Editors, “To Correspondents: Old Style and New,” Review and Herald 12:12 (1858): 96.

[8] White, “Remarks in Vision.” As a note, some may be prone to question the reliability of the transcription from 1849 due to it not being a native manuscript belonging to Ellen White (one of the reasons why it, and those like it, were kept unpublished for so long). One might wonder whether it accurately reflects the truth of what Mrs. White said that night in Maine. The answer is that the transcript itself gives evidence that Mrs. White oversaw and approved the written copy after coming out of vision. In the 11th paragraph, the transcriber notes that Ellen White gave commentary and elucidation on the visionary comments after she came out of vision. He provides her commentary and by doing so, confirms that the document was written down both while she was in vision and then was corrected to some degree afterward to reflect any changes or emendations by Mrs. White. This allows us a good reason, as the White Estate themselves believe, to know that her comments in this transcription are accurate.

[9] Anonymous, A Declaration of the Fundamental Principles Taught and Practiced by the Seventh-day Adventists (Michigan: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1872).

[10] Anonymous, A Revised Declaration of the Fundamental Principles Taught and Practiced by the Seventh-day Adventists (Michigan: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1889).

[11] Editors, 1931 Year Book of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Assoc., 1931).

[12] Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Story of the Apocrypha (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1939), vii, 1.

Share It :


About the author

Matthew Korpman

Matthew J. Korpman is a student at Yale Divinity School, pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion. He is a graduate of La Sierra University, where he worked at the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School as a Teaching Assistant. He is the upcoming author of the book “Saying No to God,” due to be released in December 2019.