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How Our Pioneers Discovered the Sanctuary Doctrine

© P. Gerard Damsteegt

Adventists Affirm, Fall 1992


Today many Christians believe that Christ upon His ascension went into the most holy place (often equated with heaven itself) to begin His work as Intercessor.

This view is not new; Christians through the centuries have advocated it. Most of those connected with the Second Advent Movement of the 1830s and 1840s held such a view.

Those who would become Seventh-day Adventists, however, deliberately departed from this understanding after 1844. Bible study convinced them that this view was not accurate and led them to new insights regarding Christ's heavenly ministry.

Controversies over this topic burgeon among Seventh-day Adventists today because many have lost sight of the pioneers' insights into the sanctuary doctrine. Often without realizing it, Seventh-day Adventist members accept views of Christ's ministry held by non-Adventist Christians, in some cases as a result of using interpretive Bible translations which promote these views.

Ellen G. White reminded us that "We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history."1 "How did the Lord lead us in the unfolding of the sanctuary truth? To what conclusions did He lead our pioneers, and on what scriptural basis? What did they find about Christ's heavenly ministry which led them to forsake the popular views and proclaim a unique message? As we near the coming of Jesus, we need to be clear on these important, distinctive teachings which give us identity and define our message and mission.


Before 1844

Popular Ideas.

At the time of the Great Second Advent Movement in the 19th century, many Christians believed that Christ as high priest had entered into the most holy place, or heaven itself, upon His ascension to perform His mediatorial work.

Some Christians felt that the annual Old Testament fall festivals shed further light on Christ's second advent. They saw the Day of Atonement as a type of the final judgment and concluded that the high priest's coming out of the Holy of Holies represented Christ's coming to judge the disobedient, to raise the righteous dead, and to change the righteous living.

So it was not surprising that William Miller's followers, who belonged to the various Protestant churches, entertained similar ideas. They felt that just as the high priest came out of the most holy place on the Day of Atonement to bless the Israelites after completing his special ministry for them, so Christ would come out of the most holy place to bless His people at the end of His intercessory ministry. At the end of the 2300 years of Dan 8:14 Christ would cleanse the sanctuary by cleansing the earth as I well as the church.

Time for the Advent.

While many Christians expected the 2300 years to climax between 1843 and 1847 in events such as the beginning of the earthly millennium, Christ's spiritual advent, the return of the Jews, or the liberation of Palestine, Miller focused his attention on literal second advent.

During 1843, Miller's followers searched eagerly for the most likely time for Christ's return by focusing on the various facets of Christ's ministry. Their extensive study of the Scriptures revealed a close relationship among the sanctuary concepts in Leviticus, Daniel, and Hebrews.

Josiah Litch, an Adventist Methodist minister, was the first to note this relationship. He pointed out that the last event of the seventy weeks of Daniel, the anointing of the Most Holy (Dan 9:24), was nothing less than the inauguration of the heavenly sanctuary of the Book of Hebrews. As Leviticus indicates that Moses anointed the earthly sanctuary before its services began,2 he I said, so Christ anointed the true tabernacle, heaven itself, immediately following His ascension. Since Christ's ascension marked the beginning of His heavenly ministry, Litch expected that His ministry would end and Christ would return on the anniversary of His ascension, in the spring of 1843.3

One month later William Miller drew attention to the antitypical significance of the Lord's feasts (Lev 23), especially the Day of Atonement. The cleansing on the Day of Atonement, he said, affected the sanctuary as well as the worshipers. This atonement was a type of Christ's present atonement in heaven. Just as on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish year the high priest came out of the Holy of Holies to bless the people, so Christ would do also. Miller therefore suggested the time of the Day of Atonement as the most likely time for Christ's return.4


During 1844

Correction to 1844.

In 1844 Adventists discovered that their time calculations were not as accurate as they had thought. They had assumed that the end of the 2300 years of Daniel 8:14 could be determined by simply subtracting 457 (the B.C. designation for the seventh year of Artaxerxes and the beginning of the prophecy) from 2300, the total number of years involved. Thus they calculated the ending year as 1843. Toward the end of this period some discovered that this method was inaccurate because it did not include 2300 complete years. They had failed to note that in historical dating there is no year "zero." Moving from B.C. to A.D. involves only one year, not two as they had previously assumed. This adjustment in calculation resulted in relocating the endpoint of the prophetic time period by one year. Now 1844, not 1843, became the termination of the 2300 years.

Date Selected.

Next Samuel S. Snow connected this new insight with Miller's understanding of the antitypical significance of the Day of Atonement. Snow asserted that Christ would cleanse the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement, the tenth day of the seventh month as reckoned in the ancient manner by the Karaite Jews. The equivalent date in our calendar was October 22, 1844.

Building on Miller's understanding, Snow concluded that "the high priest went into the most holy place of the tabernacle, presenting the blood of the victim before the mercy seat, after which on the same day he came out and blessed the waiting congregation of Israel. See Lev.9:7, 22,23,24, and Lev.16th chap; Heb. 5:1-6, and 9:1-12, 27, 28. Now the important point in this type is the completion of the reconciliation at the coming of the high priest out of the holy place. The high priest was a type of Jesus our high priest; the most holy place a type of heaven itself; and the coming out of the high priest a type of the coming of Jesus the second time to bless His waiting people. As this was on the tenth day of the 7th month so on that day Jesus will certainly come, because not a single point of the law is to fail. All must be fulfilled."5


When October 22 passed with no appearance of the High Priest, the Adventists felt acute disappointment. Why had Christ not come? Was their method of Bible study incorrect? Was their study of prophetic time off? Did anything significant happen to Christ's mediatorial ministry on October 22? What was the precise nature of His ministry in heaven? What was His role as Priest? Was the delay in His return caused by some kind of preparatory work He had to perform before His return? Was there anything relevant in the Old Testament typical sanctuary ministry that they had overlooked regarding Christ's antitypical service?

After their sweet advent experience, the crushing blow of Jesus' non-appearance caused many to give up their belief that prophetic time was fulfilled, and others to give up their Christian experience altogether. Still others, however, remained faithful to their earlier convictions. They felt that it was the Lord who had led them thus far and that He would give them light to solve their biblical and spiritual perplexities. They were convinced that more study of the Word of God would bring the solution. In time, the results of this earnest quest for truth proved very revealing and deeply satisfying.

The Adventists' daily searching and praying was not in vain. Beginning with Hiram Edson's remarkable experience of perception regarding Christ's sanctuary ministry on the very morning of their disappointment, they went on to discover in the Bible amazing light that gave them strength, comfort and profound insights into Christ's closing work for the salvation of humanity. Some of their important discoveries are listed below.


New Doctrinal Developments

Two "Comings."

The first new insight that brought hope was that the Bible speaks about two dimensions of Christ's coming instead of just one, as Christians generally had assumed. The first dimension pictures Christ coming to the Ancient of Days to receive the kingdom (Dan 7:13-14);6 the other portrays Him coming to the earth to gather His elect and bestow His kingdom on them (Dan 7:27). These events are two successive phases of Christ's coming.

The coming of Christ to the Ancient of Days before His return to earth implied His involvement in some kind of preparatory work as High Priest. The believers next explored the type of work this entailed and whether anything in the Old Testament priestly ministry could explain it.

Atonement Reexamined.

The Adventists thoroughly investigated the nature of Christ's atoning ministry. The prevalent view that Christ had entered "the holiest of all" at His ascension (Heb 9:8) had led to the logical conclusion that He was involved in an atoning ministry similar to that of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Now the question to be settled was, What did the fulfillment of the 2300 years really mean for this atoning ministry?

This question led to the following inquiries: Was the atonement really completed on the 22nd of October? Did Christ come out of the "holiest of all" on that day and go to the Ancient of Days? Or perhaps did Christ enter the "holiest of all" that day to make atonement? If He entered it, did He come out of it that very day? Or did Christ continue His atoning work for some time? In other words, did He begin His atonement on the Day of Atonement by entering the most holy place, or end it by leaving? Or both?

After intensively studying the Bible on these questions for nearly a year and a half, O. R. L. Crosier, with the help of his friends Hiram Edson and F. B. Hahn, published the following new insights into Christ's sanctuary ministry.7 These ultimately had a profound impact on Adventists and provided the theological foundation for the establishment of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

1) Two Priesthoods.

The Book of Hebrews associated Christ's priesthood under the new covenant with two types of priesthood, each illustrating a particular dimension of His heavenly ministry.

First, Christ's ministry was related to the priesthood of Melchizedek. This link provided Him the legal right to be priest (Heb 7). Second, He was connected to Aaron's priesthood, which provided the pattern for His heavenly ministry (Heb 8-10). This meant that Christ's heavenly ministry was the antitype of the Old Testament priestly ministry.

2) Real Sanctuary in Heaven.

Exodus revealed Moses' commission to build a sanctuary from a pattern shown him in vision on Sinai (Ex 25: 8-9, 40). The New Testament taught that the earthly sanctuary was a copy of the true tabernacle in heaven where Christ began to minister after His ascension (Heb 8:2, 5; 9:24). This demonstrated convincingly the existence of a literal heavenly sanctuary.

Crosier showed that the Book of Hebrews did not support the view that Christ's ministry after His ascension was associated with the most holy place. According to the literal translation of James Macknight, the original expression translated "holiest of all" (Heb 9:8 KJV) indicated that Christ entered the "holy places" or the sanctuary&emdash;not specifically the most holy place&emdash;to begin His heavenly ministry. The same was found to be true in Hebrews 9:12, 24-25, and 10:19. All these texts should simply be translated as the "holy places" or "sanctuary." The plural form of "holy places" in the Greek clearly pointed to a two-apartment sanctuary. Thus the New Testament affirmed that, like the earthly sanctuary, the heavenly also has two apartments. (For more about the importance of translations, see the accompanying piece, "The Role of Bible Translations.")

This meant that since His ascension, Christ had been ministering not in the most holy place, as widely believed, but in the heavenly sanctuary as a whole.

3) Heavenly Sanctuary Cleansed.

Crosier further pointed out that Hebrews 9:23 showed the necessity of cleansing the heavenly sanctuary even as the earthly sanctuary had been cleansed with sacrifices: "Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these [blood sacrifices], but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these." The earthly cleansing referred to was an obvious reference to the cleansing on the Day of Atonement. The heavenly sanctuary, however, must be cleansed with a better sacrifice than that of animals, namely the sacrifice of Christ Himself.

As the high priest cleansed the earthly sanctuary to close his annual ministry, so Christ the High Priest was to perform a cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary to close His ministry.

After Aaron had finished cleansing the sanctuary, he came out to bless the people. So Christ, after cleansing the heavenly sanctuary, would come out of it to this earth to bless His people. Before the second advent Christ would perform a ministry similar to that of the high priest on the Day of Atonement.

4) Two-Phase Ministry.

Crosier continued by noting that Hebrews presents the priestly ministry in the sanctuary as a shadow of Christ's ministry (Heb 8:5). This priestly ministry had two phases during the year, each taking place in a different location or apartment of the sanctuary. Because the priestly ministry on earth foreshadowed Christ's ministry after His ascension to the heavenly sanctuary, His work also would consist of two phases, each to be performed in a different place.

The first phase of the earthly priestly ministry&emdash;the daily ministry&emdash;transpired in the holy place. In harmony with this, Christ's daily ministry after His ascension was to be fulfilled by His work in the holy place of the heavenly sanctuary. The second phase of the Aaronic priestly ministry&emdash;the cleansing of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement&emdash; took place in the most holy place. So Christ's Day of Atonement ministry was to be fulfilled by the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary just before the second advent.

5) Significance of the Cross.

The cross played a vital role in early Adventist prophetic interpretation: it was the dividing line between the old and new covenants. This meant that when prophecy pertained to a time after the cross within the Christian era, the prophetic symbolism must be interpreted in relation to the new covenant.

The time element of Dan 8:14 (2300 days, each day representing a year) demonstrated that the cleansing of the sanctuary spoken of in that verse involved an event far into the Christian era. Therefore the sanctuary to be cleansed must be the new covenant sanctuary in heaven and not the church, or the earth, as had been previously thought.8

The insights into the sanctuary obtained from Exodus, Leviticus, Hebrews and Daniel led the Adventist believers to the inescapable conviction that the cleansing of the sanctuary at the end of the 2300 years was nothing less than the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary on the antitypical Day of Atonement. Daniel 8:14, they concluded, prophesies the beginning, not the end, of the antitypical Day of Atonement.

6) Fulfilled Over a Period of Time.

This conclusion found reinforcement in another observation about the Jewish festivals. Before the disappointment Miller had noticed that each of the major annual Israelite festivals had special Christological significance. The festivals in the springtime pointed to Christ's first advent and were fulfilled, not only with the corresponding event, but also at the corresponding time. The antitype of Passover occurred when Christ died as the true Passover at the precise time of the killing of the Passover lamb. The sheaf of first fruits waved before the Lord in the temple on the morning after the Passover Sabbath had its antitype in Christ's resurrection on the morning after His Sabbath rest in the tomb. The feast of Pentecost experienced its antitypical fulfillment in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From this Miller incorrectly concluded that the festivals relating to the second advent would also have their antitypical fulfillment at an exact point of time corresponding to the festival days. Thus Adventists anticipated that Christ would return as high priest on October 22&emdash;the Day of Atonement date in 1844.

After the disappointment, a careful reexamination of this subject with the help of two principles of Bible interpretation&emdash;the analogy of Scripture and typology&emdash;brought a further refinement of the Adventist understanding of the antitypes of the Old Testament typical festivals.

The Adventist believers found that the antitypical fulfillment of the spring festivals was not completed at the first advent but began at a precise point and continued throughout the Christian era. Passover and Pentecost are still being fulfilled. The virtues of Christ's death are still enjoyed every time the Lord's supper is celebrated. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit did not complete the antitype of Pentecost. It was only the beginning of Pentecost's fulfillment which would continue throughout the history of the Christian church, culminating in its most powerful manifestation at the outpouring of the latter rain just before the second Advent. Similarly the antitype of the Day of Atonement did not end on October 22, 1844, but began on that date, and Christ's special atoning ministry would continue until He had finished His work of mediation in the sanctuary.9


Effect of the New Insights

These discoveries had a significant impact on the disappointed advent believers. The insights they gained enabled them to maintain the prophetic foundation of the Reformation, which rested on a historicist approach to prophecy. Adventists were filled with joy and gratitude when they noted that the prophecies of Christ's return were instrumental in shedding new light on the doctrine of Christ.


By contrast, many other Christians who had looked to significant happenings at the end of the 2300 years became disillusioned with their method of interpreting prophecy. In search of a solution, Protestants gradually gave up the prophetic basis of the Reformation, leaving Seventh-day Adventists standing essentially alone in holding to the principles of prophetic interpretation which gave birth to the Protestant movement.

Today Seventh-day Adventists can still rejoice in the blessing of the prophetic heritage of Protestantism, which brought them new light and understanding of Christ's saving work for the world in the time of the end. With an understanding of Jesus' work unequaled in Christianity, Adventists have a powerful motivation to share with others the good news that Christ is completing His most solemn Day of Atonement ministry just before He comes to establish His kingdom of glory.



1. Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 196.

2. See Lev 8:10-11, 15; for the command to carry out this anointing, see Ex 40:9-11.

3. Josiah Litch, "Where Are We?" Advent Herald, April 17, 1843.

4. Letter, William Miller to Joshua V. Himes, Signs of the Times, May 17, 1843.

5. Cited in P. Gerard Damsteegt, Foundations of the Seventh-day Adventist Message and Mission (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977; reprint ed., Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1990), pp. 95-96, italics original.

6. See also The Great Controversy, p. 424, for a later reflection on this event.

7. O. R. L. Crosier, "The Law of Moses," Day-Star Extra, February 7, 1846.

8. See Crosier, "The Law of Moses."

9. For further development of the sanctuary doctrine, see P. Gerard Damsteegt, "Continued Clarification," in F. B. Holbrook, ed., Doctrine of the Sanctuary: A Historical Survey, Daniel and Revelation Committee Series, vol. 5 (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1989), pp. 57-117.