Paul Petersen is field secretary for the South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church today is a Trinitarian church. While not believing everything said about the Trinity throughout history, we have clearly expressed— as our Fundamental Belief states it—that there is “one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a unity of three co-eternal Persons.”

To many, it is a surprise to learn that a large portion of our pioneers of the 19th century did not hold to this belief. To some it is a worry. Several of our pioneers spoke strongly against the teaching of the Trinity as they understood it.1 Is it really possible for me, as a Seventh-day Adventist today, to claim to be the heir to their hope and faith if I do not share their belief on this point?

My answer to this question is a strong affirmation—not just a vague “yes.” The development of this doctrine illustrates in my view how God has led the church and, in reaching our present understanding, we build on a fundamental principle laid down by our pioneers.


In the late 1880s, R A Underwood, an associate secretary of the General Conference, wrote a series for Review & Herald entitled “Christ and His Work.” Discussing whether Christ was created and had a beginning in time, Underwood seemed to believe Jesus as the “firstborn” had a beginning. Nevertheless, he did not want to be too dogmatic about it but left it to readers to come to their own conclusion. To facilitate such conclusion, Underwood simply quoted the biblical texts and referred to the best of contemporary scholarly biblical lexicons on the meaning of words like “firstborn.”2

Underwood would most likely be characterized as a “semiArian.”3 Seventh-day Adventists today disagree with his conclusion. But Underwood wanted to base his belief on detailed study of the Word of God and with that, Adventists today fully agree.

The present Adventist belief in the doctrine of the Trinity is different from what many of the pioneers believed but it follows the principle they held as foundational. We are part of a movement. Like the pioneers, we want to build our doctrines on the Bible and the Bible only. What we know about God, we know from His self-revelation in Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Bible.

The Bible—not the views of our pioneers—is our authority. They would have been horrified if they saw how many today in misperceived loyalty and conservatism use their statements as authoritative and their positions as binding. Like our pioneers, we believe we are able to receive new light from the Bible, which will not threaten the pillars of our faith but enhance their significance in light of a deeper understanding of God.


No specific view of the Trinity and the Godhead was regarded by our pioneers as one of the foundational pillars of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. That we have gained more insight from Scripture and so now hold a different view evidences that we belong to a movement but not that we have left the foundation. This conclusion is confirmed by a number of observations.

First, the topic of the Trinity was never a major point of discussion in the early Adventist movement. Today, it is possible via computer to gather what seems, when viewed in totality, an impressive amount of anti-Trinitarian quotes from the period of 1844 to 1888, and in the following decade but when read in their historical context, along with all the other issues debated by the pioneers, Trinitarian issues quickly disappear from our radar. During this period, they did not occupy a major place in the minds of our pioneers.

Second, even some of the most open critics of Trinitarian beliefs changed their own position over the years. This holds true for influential leaders like Uriah Smith and James White. Uriah Smith first believed Jesus to be created but changed his view to think that the Son was “born but not made.” James White, who in 1846 spoke harshly about “the old unscriptural trinitarian creed,”4 in 1876-77, in a comparison of our beliefs with the Seventh-day Baptists, stated that “Adventists hold the divinity of Christ so nearly with the trinitarian, that we apprehend no trial [controversy] here.”5 The pioneers themselves moved.

Third, new members of the Seventh-day Adventist movement in these years came from many different denominations, most of them Trinitarian. These new members were not usually asked to make any changes in their Trinitarian beliefs, and most became members without being challenged in this area. When baptized, they were asked to confess their belief in the Second Coming and the prophecies, the sanctuary, the Sabbath and the nature of man but not to confess any specific position for or against the Trinity

Accordingly, when Ellen White at a later stage responds to the fear new ideas might overthrow the pillars or landmarks of our beliefs, she speaks in favor of both progressive openness and healthy conservatism but she clearly does not include a specific view of the Godhead among the distinctive pillars of our faith: “The passing of the time in 1844 was a period of great events, opening to our astonished eyes the cleansing of the sanctuary transpiring in heaven, and having decided relation to God’s people upon the earth, [also] the first and second angels’ messages and the third, unfurling the banner on which was inscribed, ‘The commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.’ One of the landmarks under this message was the temple of God, seen by His truth-loving people in heaven, and the ark containing the law of God. The light of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment flashed its strong rays in the pathway of the transgressors of God’s law. The non-immortality of the wicked is an old landmark. I can call to mind nothing more that can come under the head of the old landmarks.”6

Our move toward a Trinitarian understanding is thus based on the principle of biblical authority and an openness to new light arising from the study of Scripture. Furthermore, as Trinitarian we are walking in the footsteps of our pioneers because we continue in the direction they followed in the early period of our church’s journey. This becomes evident when we look at the development of our understanding.


How did the change come about? What concerns led the Adventist movement to reflect on various aspects of the Trinity and, by close attention to the biblical testimony, reach our present position? Three episodes in our early history pointed us in this direction: 

1844-1855: Battle with Spiritualizers

In the years following the Great Disappointment in 1844, many areas of doctrine were studied afresh. The Adventist pioneers had been kicked out of the Christian communities in which they grew up and were naturally skeptical toward established authorities. In their struggle to make biblical sense of their experience, the concept of the heavenly sanctuary created a new revolution in thinking, confirming their hope in the Second Coming and opening their eyes to the Sabbath.

One of their major challenges came from the so-called Spiritualizers, who in their description of God broke down the distinction between the Father and the Son as two different personalities. These people presented the Father and the Son as one and the same person, a so-called modalist position.7

Faced with such belief—which many of our pioneers mistakenly took to represent the official Trinitarian doctrine of the major churches—James and Ellen White, among others, spoke out. If accepted, this view would have done away with the teaching of the Second Coming as a truly historical event and with the newly found doctrine of a sanctuary in heaven. Led by God, our pioneers denounced the modalist heresy and upheld the distinction between the persons of the Father and the Son. In doing so, they created the first building block of which our Trinitarian doctrine today is made.

1888: Focus on Christ

The following period saw little immediate development in the understanding of the Godhead. The distinction between the Father and Jesus was clearly established but the exact relation between the two received little treatment. Ellen White would begin to highlight Christ’s eternal pre-existence8 but many issues engaged the growing church, such as organization, health reform, the move toward world mission and, of course, events on the world scene as they related to prophetic interpretation.

The Bible Conference, held in conjunction with the General Conference in Minneapolis in 1888, however, brought Jesus into major focus. Of the two main presenters on the topic of righteousness by faith, not least Waggoner in his description of Jesus repeatedly used expressions taken from the Nicene Creed, such as “born/begotten, not made” and Jesus as “light of light” and “God of God.”

This was quite natural, as many new members would have been familiar with such expressions from the churches they left and had taken their belief with them as they became Adventists.”9 John Matteson, for instance, who established the first non-English speaking Adventist church, brought the Adventist message to Scandinavia and organized the first non-English speaking Adventist conference, did not hesitate to express the Adventist faith in the context of the Apostolic Creed10 and claimed that Adventists agreed with Martin Luther in the three articles of faith in his catechism, which would imply a Trinitarian belief.11

Underwood’s series in Review & Herald, therefore, highlights how Adventists began to discuss how to understand the divinity of Jesus and the true relationship between the Father and the Son, including the meaning of such terms as “firstborn” and “born/ begotten.” Bible studies and discussions would go on for several decades, lingering far into the 20th century.

While never deciding the issue, Ellen White’s Christ-centered writings were significant in pointing the direction for the Adventist movement. Not least her identification of Jesus with Jahveh/Jehovah, the great “I Am” of the Old Testament, the first and the last, the eternal God, published most widely in The Desire of Ages in 1898, became an eye-opener for many Adventists. In the discussion of whether the preexistence of Jesus was eternal, statements like “in Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived”12 had tremendous impact.13

A young minister who would become one of the most influential Adventist theologians of the 20th century, M. L. Andreasen, decided to check for himself whether Ellen White had really written words like these. He travelled to California, spent three months with Ellen White, and brought a clear message back to the Adventist community in Battle Creek. The expressions were genuine.

Ellen White’s continuous exaltation of Jesus, evident in her early teenage love for her Savior, strongly expressed in the testimony “The Sufferings of Christ” in 1869, and reaching maturity in her old age in works like The Desire of Ages, helped the growing Adventist movement realize that only if Jesus is “God essentially, and in the highest sense,” “possessing the attributes of God” and being “co-equal with God,”14 is atonement truly possible.

In our study of the biblical texts about the divinity of Jesus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has arrived at the belief in the eternal pre-existence of Jesus and thus clarified the relationship between the Father and the Son. This forms the second major building blocking of our present Trinitarian doctrine.

It is important to underline that the church has reached its position by studying the biblical texts. Many argue today against our present doctrine by pointing out that if it were true, Ellen White should far earlier, and far more directly and forcefully, have told the brethren! But this line of argumentation is based on a total misunderstanding of the purpose of spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophecy.

Our beliefs are not built on Ellen White but on Scripture and God did not lead her to establish doctrine. Only when studies were made, Ellen White would speak to support or to point in the right direction. This is how other doctrines of our church were formed. The establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity is no exception. The Bible alone is our foundation for doctrine and God wants us to do our own Bible study, independent of the gift of prophecy.

1901: Kellogg crisis and pantheistic controversy

At the turn of the century, another major battle shook the Adventist movement. John Harvey Kellogg, the most famous Adventist and leader of the Battle Creek Sanitarium—one of the foremost health institutions in the world—developed views of God based on certain health-inspired philosophies, rather than on God’s self-revelation in Jesus.

Inspired by pseudo-scientific views of his time, Kellogg understood God to be like a substance present in all elements of nature. Ellen White saw in his teaching a reawakening of the heresies rejected during the earlier battle with the Spiritualizers. If Kellogg’s views of God became the teaching of the church, the distinction between the persons of the Godhead would once again disappear.

The Bible alone is our foundation for doctrine and God wants us to do our own Bible study, independent of the gift of prophecy.

In comparison with the previous theological struggle, two new aspects had become significant in the discussion— the atonement of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Ellen White was shown that if God is a substance in everything, He is in me too, and I no longer need Christ as my Savior and the cross for atonement. Further, Kellogg’s description not only blurred the distinction between the Father and the Son, it also destroyed the newly-won understanding of the distinct personality of the Holy Spirit.

The many references by Ellen White to the Holy Spirit as a distinct person during this period must be seen against this background. Her expressions used about the Holy Spirit are reminiscent of her statements about the distinct personalities of Father and Son:

• “The oneness existing between the Father and the Son does not affect the distinct personality of each. And though believers are to be one with Christ, their identity and personality are recognized through the whole of this prayer” (referring to John 17).15
• “The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, in Christ’s name. He personifies Christ, yet is a distinct personality.”16
• “The Holy Spirit is a person, for He beareth witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. . . . The Holy Spirit has a personality, else He could not bear witness to our spirits and with our spirits that we are the children of God. He must also be a divine person, else He could not search out the secrets which lie hidden in the mind of God. ‘For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.’”17

Consequently, the Holy Spirit is to be understood as a distinct person in a manner similar to the distinction upheld between Father and Son. This is the third major building block of the Seventh-day Adventist teaching on the Trinity.

Kellogg tried to save his position by claiming it to be simply Trinitarian. It was not—and no classical Trinitarian would ever be able to accept his views. But his attempt to justify his views by making such a claim clearly shows the tide was changing. He pretended to believe in the Trinity because he thought it the prevailing view of the Adventist leaders and Ellen White, and that his position, therefore, would be met with approval. However, the concept of the Trinity embraced by the church was based on God’s self-revelation in Scripture, not on philosophical speculation.

Ellen White never used the term “trinity,” yet her clear and unambiguous support of the “threeness” of the one God is evident from her numerous references to the three distinct persons of the Godhead. By using the words “three,” “third” and “trio,” she clearly rejected any position that would make the Spirit completely identical with the Father and/or the Son, or just an impersonal power or influence. The following quotes are representative of her consistent mentioning of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as three—not two or four:18

• “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 baptized, and these powers will cooperate with the obedient subjects of heaven in their efforts to live the new life in Christ.”19
• “Our sanctification is the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is the fulfillment of the covenant that God has made with those who bind themselves up with Him, to stand with Him, with His Son, and with His Spirit in holy fellowship. Have you been born again? Have you become a new being in Christ Jesus? Then cooperate with the three great powers of heaven who are working in your behalf.”20
• “The eternal heavenly dignitaries—God, and Christ, and the Holy Spirit— . . . would advance with them to the work and convince the world of sin.”21
• “We are to cooperate with the three highest powers in heaven—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—and these powers will work through us, making us workers together with God.”22

While Ellen White did not use the word “trinity,” the term was used by other prominent Seventh-day Adventists, such as F. Wilcox, editor of Review & Herald, who always worked closely with Ellen White, and who proclaimed in 1913, in a description of the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventists, that “we shall state that Seventh-day Adventists believe in the divine Trinity. This Trinity consists of the eternal Father, . . . of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the eternal Father, . . . the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead.”23

The exact implications of this belief has then been the focus of major study and reflection throughout the years since. In 1931, the annually-published yearbook included a statement of 22 fundamental beliefs, the first of these confessing the Trinity. This statement was voted by the General Conference in session in 1946, and in 1980, a more exact formulation of our Trinitarian understanding was included in the then 27 Fundamental Beliefs.


The journey of the Seventh-day Adventist Church toward a Trinitarian belief mirrors the experience of the early Christian church in many ways. We have struggled with pagan-based philosophies; and we have tried to refrain from claiming more about God than the Bible tells, thus upholding the uniqueness, majesty and mystery of God. We seek to describe God on the basis of His self-revelation in Jesus, as presented by the Spirit in the Scripture. Yet there are also differences. Though being Trinitarian, the Adventist Church has not bound itself by historical, creedal expressions. 

The understanding is growing that to know God is to know the crucified Savior and that true theology takes God at Calvary as its starting point. If we want to know who and what God is, we look at the Person dying on the cross. Our Trinitarian belief further underlines that only because the Holy Spirit has portrayed the Crucified through the Bible and comes to our aid when we kneel at the foot of the cross to meditate on the sacrifice of God, are we truly able to know God.

God has guided our church in this journey. He helped the Adventist pioneers to maintain the distinction between the Father and the Son; He guided us in our study of the Bible to understand the eternal divinity of the Son and His relationship as “co-equal” with the Father; He has helped to better understand the distinct and personal nature of the Holy Spirit, and through the Spirit to focus on the cross and the atonement as the basis for our theology.

I trust and pray He will continue to lead as we move ahead and continue to learn more about Him.

1 The historical development of the Adventist views on the Trinity has been well documented in articles by, among others, Merlin Burt, “History of Seventh-day Adventist Views on the Trinity”, Journal of Adventist Theological Studies 17 (2006), pages 125-139; and Jerry Moon, “The Adventist Trinity Debate,” Part I and II, Andrews University Seminary Studies 41 (2003), pages 213-229 and 275-292.
2 Other related words and concepts which have been studied in the course of our history, are, for instance, the expression “begotten” (from Greek monogenes), inheritance, the nature of Sonship and Fatherhood. See the first article in this series.
3 While “Arian” usually denotes people who believe Jesus was created, the term “semi-Arian” has often come to designate people who believe Jesus had a beginning though was not created. Such distinction may at times confuse rather than clarify. To the early Christians, the distinction was between those who believed Jesus had a beginning, and thus was created, and those who believed Jesus as fully God was without any beginning.
4 James White, Day-Star, January 24, 1846, page 25.
5 James White, “The Two Bodies,” Review & Herald, October 12, 1876, page 116.
6 Counsels to Writers and Editors, pages 30-31.
7 This view is not Trinitarian but actually one of the non-Trinitarian heresies rejected by the early Christian church. It is technically labeled modalism and its presence illustrates that in the Protestant world at the time, not least in the North American environment, the general understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity was limited.
8 Speaking, for instance, about Jesus in His pre-existence as “equal with God” (“The Sufferings of Christ,” Testimony 17, 1869) and as the “eternal Son” (Review & Herald, August 8, 1878).
9 It is worth noting that though confessing the doctrine of the Trinity, the major stream of Christianity at the time of the 19th century paid little attention to the doctrine. It was usually relegated to an appendix in systematic theological presentations, and widespread confusion reigned among both Catholic and Protestant Christians as to the actual meaning of the expressions used. Today it is common among theologians to characterize this period in history with expressions such as “the exile of the Trinity.”
10 See “A Summary of the Confession of the Seventh-day Adventists,” Advent Tidende 5, 1880, page 71.
11 “l also believe that the three articles of faith in Luther’s Cathecism are in agreement with the Bible,” Advent Tidende 6, 1872, page 143.
12 Ellen White, The Desire of Ages, page 530.
13 Compare these and many similar statements by Ellen White: Christ “is the self-existent One” (The Desire of Ages, page 469); “He is the eternal, self-existent Son” (Manuscript 101,1897); and “It was the Source of all mercy and pardon, peace and grace, the self-existent, eternal, unchangeable One, who visited His exiled servant on the isle that is called Patmos” (Manuscript 81, 1900).
14 Ellen White, Review & Herald, April 5,1906. “It was to save the transgressor from ruin that he who was co-equal with God, offered up his life on Calvary” (June 28, 1892, paragraph 3).
15 Letter 317, 1904.
16 Manuscript 93, 1893.
17 Manuscript 20, 1906.
18 Some modern day non-Trinitarians while maintaining that the Spirit is a person, also teach that the Holy Spirit is the personal presence of the Father and/or the Son, thus believing in either two or four persons in the Godhead.
19 Evangelism, page 615.
20 The Signs of the Times, June 19, 1901.
21 Evangelism, page 616.
22 ibid, page 617.
23 F. Wilcox in Review & Herald, October 9, 1913, page 21.

This is the third article in a series of three dealing with the issue of the Trinity in the Bible, in the early church and in the Seventh-day Adventist movement. This article has been reprinted, by permission, from Record magazine, published by SPD. 

Paul Petersen is field secretary for the South Pacific Division, based in Wahroonga, New South Wales.