The Case of D.M. Canright

Chapter 9 - Who Broke the Truce?

Canright’s separation from the Adventists had been marked by peace; at the time and for a short period afterwards, both sides seemed to exert themselves to show friendliness to the other. But the truce, as I stated, was to be short-lived. In a matter of months, a state of hostilities began which continued to the end of Canright’s life, over thirty years later. The important question is: Who broke the truce?

We have seen in chapter 8 that about the middle of March 1887, an article appeared in the Review and Herald which seemed to Canright to be directed against him, though it contained no mention of his name. About a month later – on April 12th – two items were printed in the same periodical that expressly named him. Both of these were written by men belonging to the Otsego Adventist Church, which Canright had left less than two months before. One was sent by the church clerk, W.W. Shepard; the other by J.B. Buck, a member.

Mr. Shepard’s report contained nothing objectionable. In reference to the one prepared by J.B. Buck, this is what Butler said in an Extra issue of the Review and Herald, which was first published in November of 1887: "Bro. Buck’s report refers to the fact that he had been laboring with Eld. C. At Pine Grove and Almena just before he left our people. ‘This,’ he says, ‘was Eld. Canright’s last work among us; and when the report of his apostasy was received, they were much shocked, but their confidence was not shaken in the present truth; for they remembered that in Christ’s time there was one [Judas] who saw the miracles he did and heard his preaching, and yet apostatized form the present truth of that time. And as the Scriptures plainly state that in the latter time some shall depart from the faith, we see in this only another sign that we are in the last days’" (R&H E, p. 1, col. 3, italics supplied).

Buck’s report agreed with what Shepard had recorded in the Church Minutes for Feb. 17, 1887. He had stated therein that after Canright, on that fateful evening, had concluded his remarks, J.B. Buck moved that Canright be excluded from Adventism because of his apostasy. (The italicized words are underscored in the handwritten record). The motion was seconded and carried. It is plain that this took place after Canright had left the meeting. It is also plain that, to his dying day, he knew nothing about it. But it is not plain that Butler, who presided, was ignorant of the action. Yet all he reports is that Canright’s name "was quietly dropped from the church roll" in response to his own earnest request. I now return to the Extra account.

Butler comments:

"We have been particular to copy every word said which could be thought to reflect upon the Elder in these reports, and we are sure the candid reader will be surprised that there is so little that could be complained of, when we consider that these words came from the very church which Elder C. Left to join those opposed to us in faith – the very place where there would be likely to be deep feeling on that point, if anywhere." (Ibid.)

Now G.I. Butler, though not a man of the schools, was no ignoramus, and so he knew very well that the term "apostate" was a very offensive one. In fact, he employs it in this sense on the very next page of the Extra. He knew, therefore, that "the candid reader," instead of being surprised that there was "so little that could be complained of," would be surprised that such charges could be so described. Accordingly, he felt it necessary to attempt a justification of this description. Here it is: "There is one word, ‘apostasy,’ used which may seem to some objectionable. Eld. Canright tries to make it appear that our using this word concerning him is very uncharitable. Webster defines apostate as follows: ‘One who has forsaken the faith, principles, or party to which he before adhered.’ We know of no other word which would so exactly describe Eld. Canright’s course. What, then, is there uncharitable in its use? It expresses in his case the exact truth. ... These reports to which I have referred were written by persons holding no positions of responsibility in the denomination, and what they say is mild indeed. ...yet he claims to have been terribly abused. This claim is utterly without foundation."(Ibid.)

Let us examine this defense of Butler’s. In the first place, would he have considered it other than objectionable if Canright had spoken of James White as "an apostate Christian minister?" Yet White tells us in Life Incidents (p. 104) that he had been ordained, at Palmyra, Maine, as a minister of "The Christian Church" (not to be confused with the one so termed today). But he subsequently left that denomination to become a Seventh-day Adventist.

In the second place, Butler quoted only part of Webster’s definition of an "apostate." The whole of it reads thus: "one who has forsaken the faith, principles, or party to which he before adhered; especially, one who has forsaken his religion for another; renegade." Since Webster has been appealed to, Butler must let Webster explain his own terms. What, then, does Webster mean by forsaking one’s faith? His fifth definition of "faith" is the only one relevant, and it says: "that which is believed; esp. a system of religious beliefs; as, the Jewish or Mohammedan faith." Hence Webster does not use the word in a denominational sense (as the Presbyterian or Baptist faith), but only in relation to radically different religions. This is confirmed by his definition of "renegade," which is: "An apostate from Christianity or from any form of religious faith." It is plain then, that when Canright was called an apostate, he was branded with a term that meant a forsaker of Christianity itself.

In the third place, Mr. Buck had made it clear that he was not using the word "apostate" in any mild sense, for he wrote of Canright’s apostasy as like that of Judas Iscariot’s and of the followers of the Antichrist (as Mrs. White interprets 1 Tim. 4:1). Now the devil himself is only one degree worse than these reprobates.

In view of these facts, for Butler to say that Buck’s charge was "mild indeed," and that Canright had only "tried to make it appear...very uncharitable," was for him to distort the truth. Moreover, when he emphasized the fact that this charge was not made by anyone holding a position of responsibility in the denomination, he ignored the weightier fact: that it had been published in the Review and Herald. So it turns out that it is Butler’s vindication of Buck, and not Canright’s protest against him, that was "utterly without foundation."

It is manifest, then, from Butler’s own account, that it was the Adventists, and not Canright who broke the truce. On the face of it, this is likely, for Canright was in a position of disadvantage – being alone, and out on an untried course – while the Adventists were in one of advantage, seeing they had numbers and temporal security. It is scarcely credible that when the mouse and the elephant have agreed not to step on each other, the mouse would be the one to break the agreement. Nevertheless, Butler blithely assumes that "the public can see clearly that we are acting wholly on the defensive in publishing this Extra in reply to Eld. C’s attacks." (Ibid., p. 2, col. 2) The truth is, it was Canright who acted "wholly on the defensive."

In the last paragraph of the introductory page of the Review and Herald Extra, Butler accuses Canright of being hypersensitive, and of imagining that general references to evil men were veiled allusions to himself. This is what he says:

"If an article was written in the Review, on general principles, never mentioning his name, condemning certain principles of conduct, he has fain to take it to himself; believed it was written for his special benefit, and felt greatly abused by it. If an article appeared warning our people of the danger of losing their hold on Bible truth, he must have been the target. We have found it impossible to please him. This is the way he puts it. ...: ‘No less than eight articles appeared in their leading paper, the Review, attacking me openly or covertly, calling me an apostate, traitor, unstable, unreliable; comparing me to Balaam, Judas, Demas and other bad men; insinuating that I left them for money or popularity; that I must have been guilty of some secret sin, as adultery or the like’ For these causes he was obliged (so he would have the public believe) to commence a war upon us through the pulpit and the press."

Now it is possible that Canright’s long experience in Adventism figures in this matter. We know, as a matter of fact, that other men, before himself, had lost faith in the movement, and had left it. The methods which had been used against them may well have given Canright the key to interpret the things he read in Adventist publications after his own departure.

One particular case is cited by Butler: the one concerning Elder S.N. Haskell’s article on "Warning to the Church," wherein he mentioned Demas and Balaam. Canright’s "wrathful letter" to Haskell was said to be entirely uncalled for, because the latter had "positively denied having him in view." The force of this denial is considerably weakened by what James White had written seven years before: "I wish Elder Haskell was an open, frank man so I need not watch him," (see chapter 7, letter #1) and by the fact that Butler and Haskell were cronies. Again, James White wrote: "Elder Butler and Haskell have had an influence over her [Mrs. White] that I hope to see broken. It has nearly ruined her." (Ibid., letters #3 and #4)

Butler’s condemnation of Canright’s reaction to the severe charges made against him, openly and covertly, brings to mind the satirical French proverb: C’est un très méchant animal; quand on l’attaque, il se défend (It is a very vicious animal; when you attack it, it defends itself). So vicious did Butler consider Canright to be that he plainly represented him as a demoniac. These are his words: "How little the poor man could realize the spirit of an apostate till he commenced to play the role! We have the charity to believe that he himself never realized the nature of the spirit which would possess him. From our very soul se pity the poor man who is taken possession of by such a spirit." (R&H E, p. 2, col. 2)

It is now time to let Canright tell his story of what happened. Here it is in a few words:

"Though I went out quietly and peaceably, and let them entirely alone, and even spoke favorably of them, they immediately attributed to me all sorts of evil motives, base sins, and ambitious designs. They seemed to feel it a sacred duty to blast my reputation, and destroy my influence, if possible. ‘Apostate’ was the epithet all applied to me. I was compared to Baalam, to Kora, Dathan and Abiram, to Judas, Demas, and a whole list of evil characters. Not one honest or worthy motive was granted me. The meanest and wickedest reports were circulated as to what I had done or said - things that I would despise even to think of. Yet all were eagerly accepted and believed as undoubted truth. But I expected it, for it is the way all are treated who dare to leave them and give a reason for it." (SDAR, pp. 55-56, emphasis supplied)

What the Adventists considered unpardonable was Canright’s self-defense. He did strike back, and he struck back hard, harder than they anticipated. But the Adventists have themselves to thank for every blow, seeing they began the hostilities. Having done so, they have had no right to complain of the hardest thrust Canright gave them, nor to expect much sympathy from onlookers, who instinctively resent seeing the weaker one attacked, and so side with him. Every well-informed Adventist must frankly acknowledge that when his church opened fire on D.M. Canright in the spring of 1887, it committed the greatest tactical blunder of its entire history.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter BACK HOME