Home   About Us   Holiness Library   Bible Prophecy   Listen to Sermons  History of the Holiness Movement   Early English Bibles   Bible Studies   Links





Where Did the Church of God Get the Message?


That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)


The Church has pondered the meaning of the Book of Revelation throughout its history. At first the Book of Revelation was considered not worthy to be part of the New Testament. When it was admitted into the New Testament cannon, many church leaders were skeptical of the Book. Yet, some of the early Church Fathers quoted from it and made practical applications of passages from the Revelation.

It was almost universally held by the Church during the first few centuries that the 1000 years mentioned in the Revelation meant that Christ would return in the year 1000 a.d. Some enthusiasts came up with strange explanations and interpretations of some of the things in the Revelation, most of which served to discredit them with the Church at large.

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther preached loud and long that Papalism was the anti-christ and the worker of much of the evil shown in the Revelation. Even men, such as John Wesley, saw the same and this view of Papalism followed the theological development of Protestantism. However, it was not until the writings of Uriah Smith in the 1870s that the Revelation was actually analyzed and placed into the context of the history of the Christian Church.

As much as the Church of God may want to believe that its explanation of the Revelation originated with D. S. Warner and such notables as F. G. Smith, that is simply not the truth. John E. Stanley wrote a paper titled “Unity Amid Diversity: Interpreting the Book of Revelation in the Church of God (Anderson)”. This paper was written for the Wesleyan-Holiness Study Project sponsored by Asbury Theological Seminary. This paper explores the facts that influenced Warner and the early Church of God expounders of the Revelation. It also goes into the eventual differences that arose within the Anderson movement concerning the interpretation of the Revelation. It does not explore any of the divergent interpretations of any of the groups that separated from Anderson. It is a good read for persons who seriously study the Revelation, especially those associated with the church of God. The paper draws no conclusions as to what a correct interpretation of the Revelation should be. (This paper is available to read in this web site.)


Enter, Uriah Smith


The church-historic interpretation of the Revelation evolved over time. It was Uriah Smith, the Adventist writer, who first published a critical analysis of the Book of Revelation, which established the template for his interpretation of the Revelation. This book is essentially a verse by verse analysis of the Revelation. Those familiar with the Church of God presentation of the Revelation will see a great deal of similarity in Smith’s writing and the traditional teaching of the church of God. For example, the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are said to represent seven church ages. “Like the seven stars, the seven candlesticks must denote the whole of the things which they represent. The whole gospel church in seven divisions or periods must be symbolized by them.”[1]

Smith wrote many books and articles, but the following are the most significant to his explanation of the Revelation:

1867, Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Revelation,

1873, Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Daniel,

1877, The Sanctuary and The Twenty-Three Hundred Days of Daniel 8:14 (The Sanctuary and its Cleansing),

1882, Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Daniel and the Revelation, and

1897, Daniel and Revelation.

It can be seen clearly that Uriah Smith predated Warner and the Church of God Reformation Movement on this type of interpretation of the Book of Revelation.


Smith’s Interpretive Principles


Uriah Smith developed three interpretive principles which he applied to his interpretations of the books of Daniel and Revelation. The first principle was that in prophecy a day equals a year. The second principle was that the baseline year for interpreting Daniel and the Revelation is 457 b.c., the year in which the Jews began rebuilding the temple under the leadership of Ezra. Combining these two principles with the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14 and the 490 sabbath years of Daniel 9:24–27, Smith arrived at the year 1844 a.d. This was the year of the Great Disappointment; however, Smith understood that this year was not the year for the return of Christ; this was the year in which the work of cleansing the sanctuary began. Smith defined the sanctuary as the heavenly temple or sanctuary in which are recorded all human deeds.

The third principle of Smith’s interpretive method divides church history into three periods:


Pagan Rome from a.d. 31 to 538,

Papal Rome from a.d. 538 to 798, and

Protestantism from 798 a.d. onward.


Smith’s principles for interpretation were not necessarily original but they were influential and among those who were influenced by them was D. S. Warner. Warner’s personal journal shows that he was aware of Adventist teachings as early as 1874. Warner owned a copy of Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Daniel and the Revelation which he heavily annotated, especially with points on which he did not agree. The strongest point of his disagreement concerned Smith’s interpretation of the sanctuary as the heavenly temple. On the contrary, D. S. Warner was adamant that the sanctuary of Daniel 8 is the church.

Warner passed away on December 12, 1895. At that time he had written about 400 pages in reply to what he called Smith’s disgusting theory. Herbert Riggle picked up where Warner left off and completed the book The Cleansing of the Sanctuary refuting the errors of Adventism and exploring what he called the “Church of God in type and antitype, and in Prophecy and Revelation”, which was the original subtitle of the book.


Similarities, But Different Conclusions


While there are marked similarities between Adventist thought and the Church of God teachings, they take different doctrinal paths leading to much different conclusions. Warner adopted the day for a year system of Uriah Smith in explaining prophecy. He also believed strongly in applying this method to the 2300 days of Daniel chapter 8, but instead of arriving at 1844 as did the Adventists, he arrived at the year 1880 in which he saw the re-establishment of the true church of God.

Warner also accepted Smith’s division of history into pagan, papal, and Protestant periods and added a fourth period in which the church was re-established. Based on his understanding of Zechariah 14:7, Warner called this fourth period the Evening Light.

The strongest point of disagreement Warner had with Smith was the meaning of the two-horned lamb-like beast of Revelation 13. Earlier Adventists held that this represented their Saturday Sabbath. Smith rejected that interpretation and saw it as a symbolic representation of the United States. Warner believed it represented Protestantism.

The key element church of God writers built into their understanding that made it different from the Adventists, and in our time from all other interpretations, is their insistence on the exclusivity of the church. Stanley writes in his paper:


The Church of God understood the prophecy of the “cleansing of the sanctuary” to refer to God’s work in purifying and reforming the church from denominationalism, “sectism”.


Their understanding was that the church had gone into bondage in Babylon and became confused and contaminated, and now in 1880, God began to call and gather believers out from the bondage of Babylon into holiness and unity in the emerging Church of God.

This disposition put the Church of God movement at odds with the Holiness Movement. They applauded its emphasis on holiness but criticized its failure to call people out of established denominations, which were corrupted by Babylonian captivity. On page 265 of The Cleansing of the Sanctuary, Warner starts a 4 page section on EXCLUSIVENESS. On page 267 he writes quite plainly, “God’s church is exclusive, like himself.”


Divine Destiny


Warner’s view of the Revelation, and that of subsequent Revelation teachers in the church of God, gave the Movement a sense of divine destiny with its characteristic exclusivism. E. E. Byrum, the editor of The Gospel Trumpet following Warner, wrote the following in the June 1, 1889 edition of the Trumpet:


Many think they belong to the best denomination on earth and perhaps they do belong to as good as any, but it is far from being the genuine true Church of God. Praise the Lord the evening light is now shining forth in the glorious splendor of God’s true church.


The people of the church of God movement were convinced “that they were participants in the fulfillment of a segment of divine destiny for humanity,” quoting Byrum again. To them, this was a true reformation movement within Christianity, not just a religious novelty. Their understanding of what they believed to be the truth of prophecy led to an inevitable dichotomy: Their reforming ideal was holiness and the unity of all believers; but their implementation of this ideal actually sowed seeds of separation and exclusiveness. Their interpretation of the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation projected the date for a new and final reform of the church. Here they formed their self-understanding as God’s called out people in the final era of church history.

Did the Church of God get its message on prophecy from Uriah Smith and the Adventists? The answer is “yes” and “definitely not!”


A Criticism of the Church Historic Method


One criticism of the church-historic interpretation of Revelation is that each group that follows it sees itself as the object and fulfillment of the prophecy. It may be that D. S. Warner initially did not have this viewpoint. I think it is clearly seen that as he studied the works of Uriah Smith and argued against the exclusiveness of the Adventists, he fell into the same trap. Warner set the ground rules for the church of God understanding of prophecy, but it was F. G. Smith that picked up the baton and effectively made it part of the theology of the church of God.

As we pursue the historic interpretation of the Revelation, we certainly do see the presence of the Church of God as built by the Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly, that same church has a presence in our time—the end time—and while we can see ourselves as being part of that church, we must be honest enough to accept the fact that, while the biblical church does exclude those without salvation, it does include all that are saved from sin.


[1] Smith,  Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Revelation,  Steam Press: Battle Creek, MI,  1875,  pg 14