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Ellen White's Spiritual Growth
All of us are on a journey. We grow in our understanding. All of us can look back and see how different we understand things now compared to how we saw them twenty years ago. Prophets are human and go through a process of growth. We saw earlier that even John the Baptist had some things to learn and unlearn regarding his special area of ministry, the coming of the Messiah and His setting up of His kingdom.
Ellen White was no different. We can see a huge difference between: The frail young girl, so timid that she would rather die than have another vision; the middle aged woman who could look church leaders in the face and carpet them; and the older woman who needed help in getting around and continue to function in her ministry.
We must allow Ellen White to be a normal human. She was no super-woman. She experienced remarkable spiritual growth during the course of her life. The young Ellen White was a sensitive person who thought of God as being cruel and a tyrant. She felt if she failed in her duties, His frown would be upon her. She suffered long bouts of depression when she wanted to die. She did not seem to enjoy the peace that comes with knowing the good news of the gospel. She certainly did not enjoy passing on the messages that God gave to her and would often soften them down. She felt envious for those who felt they only had their own souls to care for.187
She once wrote to her husband, "I wish self to be hid in Jesus. I wish self to be crucified. I do not claim infallibility, or even perfection of Christian character. I am not free from mistakes and errors in my life. Had I followed my Saviour more closely, I should not have to mourn so much my unlikeness to His dear image."188
Later in life she could reflect, "For sixty years I have been in communication with heavenly messengers, and I have been in constantly learning in reference to divine things. . . ."189
Alden Thompson observes regarding her growth in understanding, "The visions that God sent Ellen White were always designed to be understandable to her at her level of growth at the moment of reception. . . . As she became capable of seeing more, God showed her more. That is why she did not tell the great controversy story just once in 1858 but kept retelling the story throughout her life and making some significant changes along the way."190
The Early Years
In the earlier years of her work she tended to be very charismatic and had many visionary experiences. When she was called as a young girl in New England she was only one of many hundreds who claimed to have the prophetic gift. The whole atmosphere of the area was supercharged as many of the early Adventist believers had come out of the Millerite movement. Methodist connections were quite strong as well. This was in a time and area when Methodists were often called the "shouting Methodists." It was common to find among them shouting, swooning, trances, and healings. Speaking in tongues appeared at times also. Some, looking back today, might well call the cradle of Adventism a "primeval soup."
The early Ellen White did not stand apart from the community of believers. She was in harmony with the culture of the time. Prophets seem to act in a way that the people receiving their messages would expect them to act. If this were not true then they would never get a hearing.
In recent times we have learned of the Israel Dammon trial. This was brought to light with the discovery of a newspaper account of the trial of an Adventist elder, Israel Dammon, who was brought to trial in Dover, Maine, on February 1845 for vagrancy, neglect of family and disturbing the peace after leading out in an Adventist home meeting. One witness said, "I never saw such confusion, not even in a drunken frolic."191 It seems as though what was going on was real fanaticism. There was crying and shouting, people swooning, kissing
and crawling around on the floor. In the midst of it all Ellen White was lying on the floor going in and out of vision. Apparently the noise was such as to disturb a neighbor who called the police. The police came and Dammon was arrested, but only after some resistance when some women took hold of him and prevented the police from taking him.
Before we judge this incident too harshly, from a distance, remember again that God meets people where they are. From this distance, it seems like fanaticism. However, they were part of the frontier culture of North America in the early 19th century. Early Adventists were part of a religious culture with a strong Shouting Methodist influence. Some Bible prophets acted strangely at times, but they acted in harmony with the culture of their time. Likewise with Ellen White's behaviour. Importantly, no witness of the event ever accused her of any impropriety. It is a fact that some of the early Adventists did have some fanatical tendencies and she was called to witness to them. However this does not mean that she was part of their fanaticism or condoned it.
We must also bear in mind that out of these experiences she was able to emerge and lead a movement. If she had not been charismatic in the sense that they expected a prophet to act, they may have ignored her. As time went on she and others moved away from these experiences. The movement matured and she matured with it. Later she would use her influence to counter extreme manifestations such as were found in the early years. It is a tribute to her that she was able to forge a movement that would eventually envelop the world. Some two hundred other New England prophets of her time192 have disappeared from history but her work was especially blessed of God and endured.
Signs of a Maturing Ministry
The earlier part of her ministry is marked with many visions and charismatic experiences; but the visions had all but disappeared in the latter part of her ministry. As the movement became more organised and institutionalised so she matured and, indeed, she was part of the church's maturing process. When fanaticism rose again in the "Holy Flesh Movement" she stood out against the extreme manifestations and called for more balanced expressions of faith and worship.
In the early years of her ministry she, along with others, taught that the door of opportunity was closed to all who had not accepted the preaching of the Millerites regarding the soon coming of Jesus. She was part of the "Shut Door Adventist" group that emerged out of the Millerite movement.193 We have to bear in mind that prophets do not always understand what God is revealing to them in vision. We have already noticed that Peter pondered in his heart what the vision on the rooftop at Joppa was meant to convey to him. Subsequent experience at the home of a Gentile made it clear that he was to treat the Gentiles as equals with the Jews.
On the Shut Door she, like Peter, found that subsequent experiences taught her what God was saying to her in vision. As children were born to the Shut Door group and people wished to join up with them they were brought out of this error. The truth is, she often had trouble understanding what her visions were meant to teach. Willie White states that sometimes the vision was repeated to her in order to clarify the message.194 He also stresses the immense difficulty that she and others had in understanding what God was getting her to say, "Oftentimes when we go to Mother and ask her to explain the things she has written, she will say, 'I cannot explain it; you should understand it better than I. If you do not understand it, pray to the Lord, and He will help you.'"195
Bert Haloviak adds, "There were times when Ellen White herself could misinterpret a vision or misstate or imperfectly express what had been revealed to her. Note what her son, W C White stated to Kellogg: 'Sister White was not infallible in stating things revealed to her.' There are at least three examples where Ellen White apparently misstated or misunderstood something revealed through vision: Eve touching food in the Garden of Eden and death as the result; the number of generations contemporaneously living at the time of the flood; the use of Southern Publishing facilities as a depot."196
As a middle-aged woman we find her leading a rapidly growing movement. She pioneered the setting up of medical and educational work. She encouraged welfare and temperance activities. She was in constant demand as a speaker. She was a counselor to church leaders and various individuals. But above all she wanted to make the church centred in Christ and committed to uplifting Him in all areas of
its work. We find differences between her early and later writings as her own understanding of God's grace became more fully developed. Later in life she does not seem to fear God as she had when a young girl. In her later works we see a clearer portrayal of the goodness and mercy of God. An interested reader should compare her books to see the change in emphasis and style—compare Early Writings with The Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ.
The Aging Problems
Later, as a woman in her 80s, she acted as other elderly women and needed to rely on others more. Willie White once had to explain to Prescott that he had difficulty in passing on to her some information from him because she was not able to comprehend. He said he would wait for an opportune time.197
After her death S. N. Haskell wrote to Willie, "If I believed even what you have told me about having to tell your mother the same thing over three or four times in order that she might get a clear idea of things, so that she could give a correct testimony on some points, it would weaken my faith, mightily; not in your mother, but in what comes from her pen."198
Gilbert Valentine adds, "Rumors had apparently reached Mrs White that Daniells and Prescott were revising church books in order to introduce new ideas. In actuality it was W C White who was coordinating the revision of The Great Controversy, but this was another period when the aging Mrs White was not in good health. Periods of depression clouded her days, and W C White had to be very diplomatic and sensitive with regards to the various problems he brought to her."199
It is difficult to get a clear picture of her mental deterioration towards the end of her life. Jerry Allan Moon maintains that her mind was clear on spiritual matters right to the end even though she was confused on local and minor matters.200 One does get the impression, from the letters of Prescott and Crisler however, that there was an attempt by her helpers to assist and not give any impression of mental deterioration. Books were still being rushed out for publication just prior to her death, and after as well.
Many Adventists, as well as those who are antagonistic to Ellen White's writings, have failed to take into account that she did start out a young and in many respects immature girl to whom great responsibility was given. Nor do they take into account that she did grow old and suffer with the frailties that accompany those who live into their 80s. Most tend to see her as always being a woman in her prime. Failure to understand this has caused many to overlook her personal spiritual journey and growth to spiritual maturity. This accounts for the fact that some can produce statements from the earlier Ellen White and match them against the latter Ellen White, and make them appear to be contradictions.
187 This is how she describes her early experiences when called to deliver God's messages in 1T, pp. 58-74. [back]
188 Ellen G.White to James White, May 16, 1876. Letter 27, 1876. [back]
189 This Day With God, p. 76. For more information on Ellen White's spiritual journey read From Sinai to Golgotha. A five part series in the Review by Alden Thompson, commencing December 3, 1981. see www.sdanet.org.atissue/white/alden. [back]
190 Ibid., December 24, p. 8. [back]
191 For a fuller description see Jonathan Bulter's article "Prophecy, Gender, and Culture: Ellen Gould Harmon White and the Roots of Seventh-day Adventism," Religion and American Culture: Journal of Interpretation, Winter 1991, pp. 3-29. Also Scandal or Rite of Passage? Historians on the Dammon Trial, edited by Rennie Schoepflin, Spectrum, Vol. 17, No 5, pp. 38-50. [back]
192 This information was shared in "The History of Adventist Theology" Andrews University class by Dr. George Knight. It would also help to clarify why she did not particularly wish to be called a prophet but rather chose the title "messenger of the Lord". It seems the many who were claiming to be prophets (when she first began to receive visions) were bringing the title into disrepute. [back]
193 Some would argue that this teaching is an embarrassment to the Seventh-day Adventist Church today. Those who use such an argument should be reminded of the fact that a similar "Shut Door teaching" was applied by early Christians (including Peter) for the first 10 years of the existence of the newly formed Christian Church. For the first 10 years they only preached to the Jews as being worthy of God's grace. That is the purpose of the vision given by God to Peter in Acts 10: 9-34. All movements raised up by God still have the imperfections common to humanity. [back]
194 Willie states, "Several times we thought that the manuscript of the book was all ready for the printer, then a vision of some important feature of the controversy would be repeated, and Mother would again write upon the subject, bringing out the description more fully and clearly. Thus the publishing was delayed, and the book grew in size." 3SM, p. 442. [back]
195 W. C. White, "The Integrity of the Testimonies to the Church." Remarks at College View, Nebraska, November 25, 1905, F. C. Gilbert Personal Collection, Box 4, untitled fld. [back]
196 Sligo Series, Oct. 22 and 29, 1980. Unpublished paper, pp. 7- 8. A series of talks given by Bert Haloviak the General Conference archivist. [back]
197 Willie wrote to Prescott. "Sometimes I tried to talk with Mother about the things which have been such a burden on your heart, but she could not understand me, and so I put the matter off, thinking the time would come when her mind would be led out upon this matter." W. C. White to W. W. Prescott, March 12, 1915 [back]
198 S. N. Haskell to W. C. White, November 27, 1918, WEDC. [back]
199 Gilbert M. Valentine, The Shaping of Adventism, (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1992), p. 208. [back]
200 Jerry Allen Moon, W. C. White and Ellen White, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1993), pp. 344-345. [back]