The Walla Walla Jesus
by Jack Hoehn | 21 January 2021 |
What happens with great expectation or with great disappointments? How are Americans reacting to life post-elections? How are Adventists feeling about our expectations? Did you know there was once a “Walla Walla Jesus?”
The town of Walla Walla and its Seventh-day Adventist Walla Walla University (in the suburb called College Place) are both in a river valley whose sources are to the east from our Blue Mountains. Last week on a beautiful sunny fall day, we drove to Mill Creek and looked at the many Canadian geese camping there, and then we drove over 5-Mile Road to Russel Creek. Turning away from the town we drove east up into the foothills of the Blue Mountains along the fittingly named Scenic Loop Road. Where the pavement ends and the graded road begins, we saw a roadside sign we had not seen before. It told us that this was the site of a one-time religious commune that boasted having a “Walla Walla Jesus.”
The sign was new this year, but already someone (surely young and male) had exercised their Second Amendment rights to own and display guns by vandalizing the new sign with both shotgun pellets and bullet holes. I suppose they missed hitting a deer and had to take it out on the sign. Nevertheless, as I was quite interested in Jesus, I stopped and could still read the sign, and later looked it up on the website it referred us to.
There I learned the story of a 19th-century religious movement with a visionary prophet. As I am a member of another 19th-century religious movement with a visionary prophet, it caught my attention.
William W. Davies is said to have been born in 1833 in Wales and to have become a convert to Mormonism. This led to his immigrating to Utah, where he first was a follower of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young but later became a follower of a Latter-day Saint schismatic called Joseph Morris. Morris had challenged the spiritual leadership of Brigham Young with a new doctrine that the second coming of Christ was soon (setting several dates in the 1860s) but that this “coming” would be by the novel means of reincarnation.
Morris convinced enough Mormon followers for them to be called “Morrisites,” and they formed a commune of hundreds waiting for the reincarnated Second Coming. Utah’s Mormon government ended up settling these doctrinal and leadership questions, as men seem wont to do, with their guns. A 200-man “compliance committee” from Salt Lake City came to the Morrisite commune on June 13, 1862. “Warning shots” from the posse then killed two women and shattered the jaw of a third. Returning firearm “arguments” from the Morrisites killed one member of the posse and led to a three-day standoff. On June 15 further “negotiations” led to the death of Joseph Morris, two more women, and at least one more man. The posse returned to Salt Lake City 30 miles away, marching on foot 90 Morrisite prisoners.
William Davies does not appear to have been among those prisoners, but in any case, the non-Mormon federal governor (whom Abraham Lincoln had placed in charge of Utah Territory, replacing Brigham Young) pardoned all the prisoners three days after the Mormon-controlled court had found them guilty, and the Morrisites scattered.
But some, including Davies, held onto their doctrines of the Second Coming of Jesus by reincarnation. Davies himself began to have “revelations,” including a vision of the great white throne in heaven, with God and his Son instructing him that he was their new chosen messenger (replacing Morris, who replaced Brigham Young, who replaced Joseph Smith) to establish “the Kingdom of Heaven” on property near Walla Walla, Washington. He later recounted that he had seen a vision of a young man with a scepter in his hand moving through space and “destroying whom he wished.” Some of the scattered remnant of the Morrisites accepted his leadership, and signed over all their possessions and loyalty to Davies to live together in a commune.
Davies and 40 followers moved here near Walla Walla and he announced, upon seeing this land, “This is the place” he had seen in vision (words previously used both by Brigham Young on seeing what would become Salt Lake City, and later by Ellen White on her first visit to Loma Linda). Here Davies built a commune on 80 acres of what is now just wheat fields. He and his wife had a sixth child, called Arthur, in 1868 but Davies announced that this son was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and thereafter Arthur was known to the community as the “Walla Walla Jesus.” A seventh child, David, born in 1869, was announced as the reincarnation of God the Father. Although they denied they were Latter-day Saints (their property was held as owned by The Kingdom of Heaven), the road running beside their commune is still called Mormon Grade today.
Davies had an assistant named Grover Andrews who was tasked with enforcing conformity amongst members of the commune. He was known by fellow Daviesites as “The Destroying Angel” but the historians say he limited his activities to non-fatal use of his “fists and feet.”
Although initially he presented himself as the reincarnation of Michael the archangel, Davies later was upgraded himself to being a reincarnation of the Holy Spirit (perhaps to maintain an equal footing with his “divine” sons?). His claims grew that he could heal diseases and even bring back the dead to life. “I can throw my coat on a sick person, and death can not take him or her while my coat is on.” Sadly, the coat did not help his wife, Anne (Davis had changed her name to Sarah), who died of diphtheria in 1879. And even worse, the next year their 18-year-old son, David (the Daviesite “God the Father”), got the same diplococcal infection covering his throat and tonsils with the thick grey membrane, and died in spite of his father’s coat. I have only seen that diphtheria membrane once in my life—in an unvaccinated child in Lesotho when it responded to antibiotics. Tragically, David’s younger brother, Arthur, our Walla Walla Jesus, in that pre-antibiotic world died of the same infection a week later. So now the Daviesites have lost the reincarnated Sarah, God the Father, and the Walla Walla Jesus. What happens now to disappointed believers?
Latter-day or Seventh-day?
So you and I are part of a 19th-century religious movement whose leader was a person who in 1844 (at age 17), 1846, and 1847 began to have visions where God and angels spoke to her and told her she was to be God’s messenger. We were not asked to become communists, although special places on earth (like Loma Linda) were designated by revelations as “this is the place.” Our leaders claimed to have been healed from diseases by prayer, and prayed for others who were ill, but two of our messenger’s own children did die. Ellen White never claimed to have brought the dead back to life (although some of her believers did think she could have). Our male church leaders, like the Mormons, still try to deal with doctrinal deviations but so far only by public shaming and disenfranchisement through Compliance Committees, not by heavily armed mounted posses or use of a designated “Destroying Angel’s fist and feet.”
Am I trying to make Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Joseph Morris, William Davies, and Ellen White on the same level? Of course not; they were all male, and Ellen White was female, so how could she be equal to those “godly prophetic male leaders”? (I’m sorry, this paragraph is obviously sarcasm. I have scores of reasons to explain why I accept that God did use Sister Ellen G. White to speak for him to Adventists. I have scores of examples in both teaching and behaviors why I am sure God did not use those male Mormons as heaven’s messengers.)
The existence of a “Walla Walla Jesus” does not make me doubt that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth. All believers know there will be “false Christs and false prophets” as foretold by Jesus. And dubious revelations by self-proclaimed prophets do not negate that “in the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy’” (Acts 2:17,18, emphasis added).
Happily Ever After?
But this is not why I am retelling this story. I am not concerned right now with who are “false Christs and false prophets.” What I am interested in is what happens to those who followed the “false Christ and false prophets.” What do believers do after their belief and trust are shown to be misplaced? How do disappointed believers deal with a new reality?
What do Latter-day Saints do after their prophet Joseph Smith dies with a pistol in his hands? What do Morrisites do after the posse kills Joseph Morris? What do the Daviesites do after the young Walla Walla Jesus and the Walla Walla incarnation of God the Father both have died of diphtheria? What do believers that God in his sovereignty placed Donald Trump as president of the United States do after God allows Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to replace him?
Many Latter-day Saints disapproved of polygamy and Joseph Smith’s becoming a theocratic king, so they left Mormonism. But others transferred their belief and trust to Brigham Young and followed him to Utah. Others could not stomach the Mountain Meadows Massacre they believed to be instigated by Brigham Young, and like William Davies they transferred their belief and trust to Joseph Morris. After Joseph Morris’s death many left any form of Mormonism, but we have traced the small remnant who came to Walla Walla and became Daviesites. I have met some families in Walla Walla whose ancestors were Daviesites. They are good, kind people who have never mentioned their family histories to me!
Disappointed Millerites on October 23, 1844, had different reactions. Some eventually went back to their previous churches and abandoned the Millerite doctrine. Others held tightly to their spiritual joy in the face of the “Great Disappointment” by changing their interpretation of the 2300-day prophecy, and eventually became Seventh-day Adventists holding on to Jesus, but abandoning the doctrine of a prophesied date for his return.
God Still in Control?
When a young Ellen Harmon was accused of having visions due to hypnotism or self-hypnosis (mesmerism) she responded by protesting, “I would go away alone in the wood, where no eye or ear but God’s could see or hear, and pray to Him, and He would sometimes give me a vision there. I then rejoiced, and told them what God had revealed to me alone, where no mortal could influence me. But I was told by some that I mesmerized myself. Oh, thought I, has it come to this that those who honestly go to God alone to plead His promises and to claim His salvation, are being charged with being under the foul and soul-damning influence of mesmerism? …These things wounded my spirit, and wrung my soul in keen anguish, well-nigh to despair, while many would have me believe that there was no Holy Ghost and that all the exercises that holy men of God have experienced were only mesmerism or the deceptions of Satan.” (Early Writings, p. 21,22, emphasis added)
When our beliefs have been challenged, our hopes disappointed, an outcome we did not believe was possible has happened—when our trust seems to have been misplaced, like young Ellen we surely feel “wounded in spirit,” our souls in “keen anguish,” and “well-nigh to despair.”
Does the Most High still “rule in the kingdoms of men?” If President Trump was God’s anointed, who was President Obama, who was George Bush, who was Bill Clinton? And what is God now telling us about President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris? Is their plan for modest socialism, higher taxes, demanding we all have health insurance, wear masks in public places and vaccinate a Satanic plot (along with Social Security, Medicare, and seat belt mandates)—to be fought against with voice and vote and militia? Is Roman Catholic Joseph Biden the long-anticipated anti-Christ about to do what John F. Kennedy didn’t do? Is it now time to flee to the mountains?
God Still Here
You may have believed Joe Biden was best. You may have believed in Donald Trump was God’s plan. You may have been unable to believe in anything, and congratulate yourself on your skepticism and the high moral ground you have taken by not voting.
Many of us in the past thought our church infallible and its prophets to be followed without question. Some of us believe in the Bible, but not the Spirit of Prophecy. Some of us may believe that truth comes from many sources including the Bible. But all of us have had beliefs of some kind. I am suggesting that at some time all beliefs of every kind will be challenged in part or in whole by reality. All of us will at some time in life become “wounded in spirit,” in “keen anguish,” or “well-nigh to despair.” If it has not happened yet, you may believe me at my age; it will. But after “the wounds, anguish, and despair” she experienced in her youth, a matured Ellen White has this advice for us all:
“We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same… The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing. So frail, so ignorant, so liable to misconception is human nature, that each should be careful in the estimate [she/he] places upon another…Bitter experience gives [us] knowledge… Experience teaches [us] sympathy…”
“We are prone to look to our fellow men for sympathy and uplifting, instead of looking to Jesus. In His mercy and faithfulness God often permits those in whom we place confidence to fail us, in order that we may learn the folly of trusting in man, and ‘making flesh our arm.’ Let us trust fully, humbly, unselfishly in God… Whether we choose Him or not, we have a companion… wherever you are, whatever you do, God is [still] there.” (Ministry of Healing, pp. 483, 484, 490, emphasis added.)
Now that is something to believe in. Our understanding will expand;, some things we used to believe we may have to unbelieve. But it is not God that is changing; it is not reality that changes; it is our beliefs that change. Holding our beliefs lightly and provisionally, remaining humble and unselfish in whatever we think we believe, learning from our disappointments and growing more gracious as time goes on—that is something believable.
Jack Hoehn is a retired physician. He writes from Walla Walla.