May 2013

"Nothing to Fear:" William Foy and the Gift of Prophecy

Note to the reader: This month marks the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of the General Conference and thus the official establishment of the Seventh-day Adventist church. The year 2013 has been set aside to commemorate this century and a half with reflection and recommitment to our mission and reason for existence. It is in this spirit that this essay was written.

Throughout a century and a half of existence, Seventh-day Adventists most basic, fundamental, identifying passage of Scripture has been Revelation 12:17:

     And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.

In this text the movers of this movement ascertained a prophecy of who they were, their place in history, and what was occurring around them in the great controversy.

God's people are presented as a metaphorical woman—specifically after 1798 the "last of her children"—whom the dragon, the sworn perpetual adversary of God and his church, was furious with and would wage war against.  This remnant or last piece would be identified dually:

They would obey God's commandments, and possess the testimony of Jesus Christ. 

Revelation 12:17 was always quoted as a couplet with Revelation 19:10:

      The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

The spirit of prophecy: God's remnant would be characterized as a people of prophecy, a movement based on prophecy, a church founded on prophecy, recognizing itself in the forward pronouncements of Daniel and Revelation, warning the world of what was to come.

And so the great second advent movement arose from a renewed focus on Daniel, especially chapters 8 and 9.  After 1844 the last phase of Christ's work in the heavenly sanctuary was emphasized, embedded in His final warning message to the world delivered in Revelation 14.

God's remnant would have the spirit of prophecy; they would be actuated and animated by Bible prophecy; and they would be forward thinking to the final scenes Jesus testified of in Revelation.

But there is another aspect to this spirit of prophecy.  As with His chosen people Israel, and the early Christian church, God’s pleasure was to have an ongoing conversation with His children.  By speaking to select individuals, he would convey to His contemporary believers His will, information, correction, love.

And so, the people of the great second advent movement were blessed by communications from God via select persons. We have always primarily identified one individual, Ellen White, as being the vessel through whom this occurred.  And indeed she was.

But in an interview with her assistant Dores Robinson on August 13, 1906, Ellen White recalled that numerous people held prophetic status at one discreet time or another.[i]  In the frenetic final phase of the Millerite movement, and right after when believers were disappointed to the point of heart wrench, God needed to give His people abundant evidence that He was ever near them when the world was against them.  And so He communicated to them in sundry times and in divers manners, simultaneously delivering His tailor-made message to them for that time, and by doing so affirming the prophecy of Revelation 12:17.

There was the Baptist minister Elder Brown, a feeble man, who recognized the power of God, and on whom the Spirit rested.  While the gathering prayed, he would lose strength, Ellen White recalled, "just as I did," and at the moment when the believers thought he was dead he would proclaim "Glory" and praise God.

Once the Spirit fell upon two men called Harris and Rich and resultantly many were converted.

What about old Father Pearson?  Pearson had rheumatism and rubbed alcohol on his arms and legs for relief.  One day Robert Harmon, Ellen White's father, visited him to deliver a bottle of alcohol to his house and the power of God came on the Pearson family and no strength remained in them.  The Pearsons did nothing but pray and prophesy, while Robert Harmon retreated with the alcohol.

But the first major prophet, if you will, of the advent movement—the initial in a triptych that comprehended the major demographics in the Northeast at the time: black, white, and female—was one William Ellis Foy.

William was born in a rural setting, just north of Augusta, Maine, in 1818, to African American parents, Joseph and Elizabeth Foy. As was often the case during that time, the Foys lived among a small collective of black families, and owned real estate which they farmed. Foy converted to Christianity at age 17 at which time he learned to read and felt called to the ministry. He married, and he and his wife Ann had a daughter, in 1840 moving to the historic Beacon Hill district in Boston where he set out to obtain credentials for the Episcopalian clergy. It was around this time in Boston that Foy became acquainted with Millerite teachings.  Although initially averse to it, Foy soon embraced the doctrine of the advent.

William Foy had his first prophetic experience during a religious gathering on January 18, 1842, at age 23, in the Twelfth Street Baptist church on Southark Street.  In this vision Foy was given a tour of the Christian's heaven, unfolding its remarkable sights and impressions. After beholding the unspeakable glories of heaven, Foy sank into depression and despondency, feeling that he should share what he had seen (even though his "guide," never explicitly told him to), but not doing so.

Foy had a similar vision not much later on February 4, 1842, at the African Methodist Episcopal church in Beacon Hill in Boston.  This time the sanctuary was standing room only, and Foy, giving up his seat to a friend, "immediately fell to the floor, and knew nothing about this body, until twelve hours and a half had passed away, as I was afterward informed."  This vision depicted a solemn judgment scene in which some whom Foy knew were refused entrance into heaven.  Juxtaposed with this was a subsequent awesome scene of those who entered heaven in surreal panoply.  This time Foy's guide instructed him to share what he had witnessed.

William Foy again entered a state of upset, struggling with thoughts of inadequacy and trepidation when considering the social condition of blacks in the United States at the time: "...knowing the prejudice among the people against those of my color, it became very crossing."  Nevertheless, when asked to relate his visions, Foy complied; his first engagement at the Broomfield Street Church on February 6 was an ordeal for him, but he survived it and soon, similar to the reluctant William Miller years earlier, Foy's calendar was booked with speaking appointments to large crowds. 

After three months, fearing that his family was not being provided for, Foy began "to work, laboring with my hands" for another three month period, but "could find no rest day nor night, until again I consented to do my duty."  Foy commenced touring, attesting that although he "suffered persecution," his guide was with him.

William Foy had a third vision in which three fiery steps ascended up a pathway; on each step were multitudes of people who begin falling off into oblivion while some advanced to heaven.

The content of Foy's fourth vision is unknown, although Ellen White adamantly insisted in her 1906 interview that Foy had four and she might have been privy to the details of the final revelation now lost to us.

It is truly fascinating to read Ellen White's recollections some 60 years after those all-consuming Millerite years:

"Then another time, there was Foy that had had visions. He had had four visions. He was in a large congregation, very large. He fell right to the floor. I do not know what they were doing in there, whether they were listening to preaching or not. But at any rate he fell to the floor. I do not know how long he was [down]—about three quarters of a hour, I think—and he had all these [visions] before I had them. They were written out and published, and it is queer that I cannot find them in any of my books. But we have moved so many times. He had four.

Robinson: Did you ever have an interview with him?

White: I had an interview with him. He wanted to see me, and I talked with him a little. They had appointed for me to speak that night, and I did not know that he was there. I did not know at first that he was there. While I was talking I heard a shout, and he is a great, tall man, and the roof was rather low, and he jumped right up and down, and oh, he praised the Lord, praised the Lord. It was just what he had seen, just what he had seen. But they extolled him so I think it hurt him, and I do not know what became of him.

His wife was so anxious. She sat looking at him, so that it disturbed him. "Now," said he, "you must not get where you can look at me when I am speaking." He had on an Episcopalian robe. His wife sat by the side of me. She kept moving about and putting her head behind me. What does she keep moving about so for? We found out when he came to his wife. "I did as you told me to," said she. "I hid myself. I did as you told me to." (So that he should not see her face.) She would be so anxious, repeating the words right after him with her lips. After the meeting was ended, and he came to look her up, she said to him, "I hid myself. You didn't see me." He was a very tall man, slightly colored. But it was remarkable testimonies that he bore.

I always sat right close by the stand. I know what I sat there for now. It hurt me to breathe, and with the breaths all around me I knew I could breathe easier right by the stand, so I always took my station.

Robinson: Then you attended the lectures that Mr. Foy gave?

White: He came to give it right to the hall, in the great hall where we attended, Beethoven Hall. That was quite a little time after the visions. It was in Portland, Maine. We went over to Cape Elizabeth to hear him lecture. Father always took me with him when we went, and he would be going in a sleigh, and he would invite me to get in, and I would ride with them. That was before I got any way acquainted with him.

Robinson: Where did you see him first?

White: It was there, at Beethoven Hall. They lived near the bridge where we went over to Cape Elizabeth, the family did."[ii]

Another Adventist pioneer, John Loughborough, provides even greater detail on the impact of William Foy:

            In the year 1842 there was living in Boston, Mass., a well-educated man by the name of William Foy, who was an eloquent speaker.  He was a Baptist, but was preparing to take holy orders as an Episcopal minister.  The Lord graciously gave him two visions in the year 1842, one on the 18th of January, the other on February 4.  These visions bore clear evidence of being genuine manifestations of the Spirit of God.  He was invited from place to place to speak in the pulpits, not be Episcopalians only, but by the Baptists and other denominations.  When he spoke, he always wore the clergyman’s robe, such as the ministers of that church wear in their services.

            Mr. Foy’s visions related to the near advent of Christ, the travels of the people of God to the heavenly city, the new earth, and the glories of the redeemed state.  Having a good command of language, with fine descriptive powers, he created a sensation wherever he went.  By invitation he went from city to city to tell of the wonderful things he had seen; and in order to accommodate the cast crowds who assembled to hear him, large halls were secured, where he related to thousands what had been shown him of the heavenly world, the loveliness of the New Jerusalem, and of the angelic hosts.  When dwelling on the tender, compassionate love of Christ for poor sinners, he exhorted the unconverted to seek God, and scores responded to his entreaties.

            His work continued until the year 1844, near the close of the twenty-three hundred days.  Then he was favored with another manifestation of the Holy Spirit—a third vision, one which he did not understand.  In this he was shown the pathway of the people of God through to the heavenly city.  He saw a great platform, or step, on which multitudes of people gathered.  Occasionally, one would drop through this platform out of sight, and of such a one it was said to him, “Apostatized.”  Then he saw the people rise to a second step, or platform, and some there also dropped through the platform out of sight.  Finally a third platform appeared, which extended to the gates of the holy city.  A great company gathered with those who had advanced to this platform.  As he expected the Lord Jesus to come in a very short time, he failed to recognize the fact that a third message was to follow the first and second messages of Revelation 14.  Consequently the vision was to him inexplainable, and he ceased public speaking.  After the close of the prophetic period, in the year 1845, he heard another relate the same vision, with the explanation that “the first and second messages had been given, and that a third was to follow.”  Soon after Mr. Foy sickened and died.

            With such manifestations of the power of God in connection with the preaching of his coming “at the doors,” and with the rejoicing of thousands who were turning from sin to serve the Lord, and to wait for his coming, the people were doubly assured that this was indeed the Lord’s message to the world.”[iii]  

William Foy did not die shortly after 1845, however.  Instead he lived roughly a half century longer.          

In 1845 William Foy collaborated with two Millerite brothers, John and Charles Pearson—sons of the aforementioned one-time prophet Father Pearson and minor pioneers in their own right—and published the 24 page pamphlet, The Christian Experience of William E. Foy in which Foy shares his conversion experience and then describes his first two visions.  On the last page is a testimonial of ten individuals vouching for the authenticity of Foy's visions, as well as a copy of his certificate of church membership, persuasive bona fides in that day.[iv]

Taking residence alternately in Augusta, Maine; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Chelsea, Maine, Foy, like William Miller, Joshua Himes, and many other notable Millerites, never became a Sabbatarian or Seventh-day Adventist, but instead pastored interracial and predominately white Baptist congregations.  Foy ultimately had 3 children: Amelia, Lauraitta (1856) and Orrin (1852); and three wives: Ann, Caroline Griffin (m. 1951), and Parcentia Rose (m. 1870-1873).  He endured frequent and intimate losses, however: his first wife, Ann, and father died around 1850; his second wife, Caroline, died in the late 1850s; his 7-year old daughter, Lauraitta, died in 1863; and his mother died in 1870.[v]

In Sullivan and Sorrento since Seventeen-Sixty, lay genealogist Lelia Clark Johnson remembers Foy as being "esteemed and beloved," and holding religious meetings in various places.[vi] 

William Foy died on November 9, 1893, and is buried in Birch Tree Cemetery in East Sullivan, Maine.  On his tombstone is chiseled the epitaph:

            I have fought a good fight,

            I have finished my course,

            I have kept the faith:

            henceforth there is laid up

            for me a crown of righteousness.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow!   He has graced this movement with every indication of His guidance and supreme regard, and has given us in William Foy the promise that his remnant people will be of all ages and colors, and that he will use them all mightily and pivotally.

Truly, "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."[vii]

-Benjamin J. Baker

[i] “Interview with Mrs. E.G. White, re Early Experiences, August 13, 1906, Manuscript 131, 1906.

[ii] Ibid, 4-6.

[iii] John N. Loughborough, The Great Second Advent Movement (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1905), 145-146.

[iv] William E. Foy, Christian Experience (Portland, Maine: J. and C.H. Pearson, 1845), 21.

[v] Delbert Baker, The Unknown Prophet (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1987), 155-159.

[vi] Lelia A. Clark Johnson, Sullivan and Sorrento since Seventeen-Sixty (Ellsworth, ME: Hancock County Publishing Company, 1953), 65-66.

[vii] Ellen G. White, General Conference Daily Bulletin, January 29, 1893.