A recent new book by reporter Tom Kizzia highlights a supposedly religious family on the frontier of Alaska with a dark past. Although they try to give others the illusion that they are a model Christian family, they are in reality hiding physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. With time the patriarch, “Papa Pilgrim,” grows more bizarre and erratic. He becomes a spiritual madman.
Ellen G. White had to deal with some pretty crazy situations. One such situation is mentioned in Testimonies for the Church, volume 5, pages 137-148, titled “Agents of Satan.” According to the manuscript version (Ms. 9, 1880) and a reference in an unpublished letter she met a man by the name of McComber at the West Boylston, Massachusetts Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting.
That next night “while pleading with God in the night season a vision given years ago at the time when the course of Nathan Fuller was reproved was distinctly revived in my mind. At that time I was shown three men whom I should meet who would be pursuing the same course of iniquity under the profession of godliness. This man was one of the three” (5T, page 138).
Who was Nathan Fuller? He was a minister during the 1860s in what was at that time the “New York and Pennsylvania Conference” who carried on an illicit affair. Once things came out into the open, it revealed a dark undercurrent to his ministry. His defection, a little more than a decade earlier, brought forth the longest Testimony by Ellen G. White in the entire nine volumes! (see 2T pages 439-489, which was published in 1870).
Now fast forward back to 1880 with McComber. This particular Testimony has two parts: the specific situation (pages 137-139) and general counsel (pages 139-148).
In the first section, Ellen G. White highlights that the most successful “agents of Satan” are “professed Christians.” They are led to profess God while living a life of sin. In this particular instance, McComber, professed to believe the fourth commandment (the Sabbath) while breaking the seventh (sexual faithfulness within marriage). McComber had gathered “a company of women who followed him from place to place.” The next day (Aug. 28, 1880) “I felt led out to rebuke this man in the name of the Lord and to call upon the women who were with him to separate from him and withdraw their misplaced confidence. . . . Such men ought to be rebuked and discountenanced at once, that they may not bring a continual reproach upon the cause” (page 139).
In the second part, Ellen G. White warned that such “perils and dangers” will only “thicken around us” as time goes on. It is not enough to profess godliness. “There must be a living connection with God, that we may have spiritual eyesight. . . . The greatest sins are brought in through those who profess to be sanctified and claim that they cannot sin. Yet many of this class are sinning daily and are corrupt in heart and life. Such are self-sufficient and self-righteous, making their own standard of righteousness and utterly failing to meet the Bible standard” (page 139).
In essence, this man was an early version of David Koresh. Ellen G. White described McComber as an individual who had no conscience. He twisted the Scriptures to justify his satanic work. “He mixed with truth his own defiling heresies and tried to make others believe that God had given him new light upon the Bible” (page 140). If he had come out with his views openly, people would have readily renounced such “damnable heresies” but instead, he won the confidence of people gradually. “He really tries,” she noted, “to make sensible women believe it not offensive to God for wives to be untrue to their marriage vows” (page 141). These women “become accustomed to breathe the atmosphere of impurity and almost insensibly become permeated with the same spirit. Their identity is lost; they become the shadow of their seducer” (page 144).
“The nearer we live to Jesus,” admonishes Ellen G. White, “the more will we partake of His pure and holy character; and the more offensive sin appears to us, the more exalted and desirable will appear the purity and brightness of Christ” (page 141). Jesus is our only safety!
Ellen G. White warned against those who claim to have new light. There are some who are actually using that light to cover up hidden sin in their life. “There is always a bewitching power in heresies and in licentiousness.” Minds become “deluded” and “confused.” “This is a species of witchcraft” (page 142). Even ministers are not immune (another echo of the earlier situation with Nathan Fuller) because ministers have greater responsibility. Such professed reformers come and “are not satisfied with the spiritual condition of the churches” but in reality intend to draw others “from the path of right” (page 144). They do not love the truth or the law of God. They allow themselves to be deluded by Satan, and their extreme views lead others into being deluded, too.
“As Christ’s ambassador,” she warns again, “I entreat you who profess present truth to promptly resent any approach to impurity and forsake the society of those who breathe an impure suggestion. . . . . You should not for one moment give place to an impure, covert suggestion; for even this will stain the soul, as impure water defiles the channel through which it passes” (pages 146, 147).
“When the individual members of the church shall act as true followers of the meek and lowly Saviour, there will be less covering up and excusing of sin. All will strive to act as if in God’s presence” (page 147).
There appears to be a principle at stake here: the litmus test of our lives needs to be Scripture, and specifically, the law of God. We need Jesus to be the standard of our lives. He is our only safety.
At the same time, there are those who use the Bible to cover their sin. Ellen G. White writes that the most successful “agents of satan” are those who profess Christ but in reality deny Christ through sin. Thus through their profession they deny Christ.
As a pastor, I see a psychological principle here, too. I well remember the health reformer who chastised church members while his wife cried in my office because he was addicted to pornography. The church leader who wanted me to denounce young people because of their jewelry, but whose beating of his wife put her into the hospital. People sometimes fixate on outward behaviors in order to cover up sin in their own lives. In fact, in my experience, the more militant they are about the outward behavior of others, the greater the likelihood that they are hiding something. Just like Papa Pilgrim.
The example that sticks out the most in my mind was the vegan who supervised food at potlucks. I once asked the person about what they did with the fact that Jesus ate fish. The person looked directly into my eyes and said: “But Jesus didn’t have all the truth. He didn’t have the Spirit of Prophecy!”
I stood in disbelief. Incredulous.
Did the person realize what was just said?
[12/24/13 Updated edition with special thanks to some editorial assistance from my favorite editor, Beverly Jean Rumble]