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Building an Inerrant Ellen White
Don McAdams describes this occurrence the following way: "It is the task of the second generation leaders to hold the movement together without the charisma and prestige of the founding fathers. Faced with the possibility of disintegration, the second-generation leaders elevate the symbol of the movement on to a lofty pedestal and claim great virtue, wisdom and authority for the now dead founder. Nothing gives the second generation leaders more authority than to claim all wisdom for the founder and claim for themselves the exclusive right to interpret his legacy."313
Increasing Authority for Ellen White's Work
It is possible also that they were still living too near the point of time to the criticisms of Ellen White made by men like A. T. Jones and J. H. Kellogg. Perhaps they saw how the church, having recently escaped from pantheism, was now facing another attack from higher criticism, which was undermining not only the Bible but also Ellen White. They could see the eroding influences of higher criticism in mainline churches and were determined not to allow this to come into the Seventh-day Adventist church.
Gary Land describes the attitudes of church leaders toward Ellen White in the period just prior to and after her death: "Besides criticizing the ideas of Jones and the Kellogg circle, church leaders over the next few years began to instruct readers through the pages of The Review about Ellen White's role in the church. Comparing Jones's criticism of Mrs. White with 'higher criticism of the Bible' implied equating
White's writings with the Bible. Church leaders fought against this implication; yet their fear that these testimonies might be taken lightly moved them, however unconsciously, toward regarding the statements of the Bible and those of Ellen White as of equal force. The protests that Seventh-day Adventists did not regard Ellen White's writings as equal to the Bible were many. In replying to Jones, The Review stated that 'we do not place the Testimonies above the Bible.' (emphasis mine in bold print) "To explain the phenomenon of this modern prophet more clearly, Daniel H Kress compared the work and message of Ellen White with that of John the Baptist. Other writers said much the same thing: that Ellen White only 'magnifies the truths of the Bible' and confirms 'believers in conclusions they had already reached from a study of the scripture'.
Francis M. Wilcox played a significant role in defining the Adventist position on Ellen White. During his Review and Herald editorship of thirty-three years, he wrote many articles and editorials affirming the prophet's inspiration and role in the church. Wilcox argued that White served God the way, Samuel, Elijah, and John the Baptist did. She was a woman, he said, 'whose work has been to point mankind to Christ, the Saviour of men, to lead them to search the scriptures of Truth with greater diligence.' "Furthermore, her writings 'constitute a spiritual commentary upon the scripture, a divine illumination of the word.'
"Despite the protests against equating Mrs White's writings with the Bible, many statements implied otherwise—or said otherwise straight out. Roscoe Porter wrote that 'the Testimonies sent are God's word.' Many published statements admonished church members "to study the written word and the spirit of prophecy."
"Although these writers probably did not realise it, they implied by their arguments that the Bible alone is insufficient to guide the believer into all truth. In their effort to defend Ellen White's work from criticism, they began to emphasise her work to a degree considerably greater than in previous years. Although it is difficult to document precisely, the years after 1906—as reflected in the contents of The Review—show rapid increase not only in the number of articles about the spirit of prophecy but also in the number of times the magazine's writers referred to White for support of their arguments on theological issues of all kinds.
"When Ellen White died in 1915, it appears that many church members wondered whether God would choose another prophet for His people. . . . In her absence, Wilcox advised, the church should continue to follow the Bible and her writings.
"Four years after her death, the debate, begun publicly by Alonzo T. Jones in 1906, came to a close. In the summer of 1919, the church called its leading ministers and college teachers together for a Bible conference. . . . On the second day, however despite their apparent agreement in rejecting both the verbal inspiration and infallibility of Ellen White, the participants backed off from taking any concerted action. Fearing that the membership would be shaken, they concluded that caution was advisable . . . . as a result, the discussion remained essentially unknown. . . . Thus the 1919 conference ended the public discussion that Jones had initiated. The debate closed ambiguously, however, and Jones' questions were left dangling, unsatisfactorily answered. Nevertheless, Adventist leaders affirmed their belief in Ellen White's prophetic gift and placed increasing emphasis on her writings. Although they made the Testimonies theoretically subordinate to the Bible, they also considered them indispensable to Seventh-day Adventists. As a result, Ellen White continued to gain greater theological authority within the church." (emphasis added). 314
Herold Weiss agrees: "After Ellen White died, her son W C White took over the production of her books, continuing to do what she had done before her death. Her own books had been compilations of paragraphs from testimonies, letters and articles; the only thing now missing was the approval of the final draft by Mrs White herself. But another very significant change took place as well. The demand for her authoritative word began to come from a new quarter. She had produced her books to meet the demands of the general reading public. Now they were being produced to meet the demands of a General Conference committee that had decided the church needed something about a particular subject, such as stewardship or parenting. Now others were handling the formal authority Mrs White had formerly employed for herself. Those who needed an objective authority had found one in her.
"During the 1920s and the 1930s many of those who had worked with Mrs. White in the production of her books were still alive. But with the death of that generation the claims made on her behalf gained new heights" 315 (emphasis added).
The discussions on inspiration at the 1919 Bible Conference are almost buried and forgotten for the next few decades. Daniells had been so upset by the conservative reactions to the conference he did not even circulate the minutes. They were lost amidst a multitude of other documents in the General Conference. Those who knew the most on the subject were intimidated into going quiet. In fact the whole denomination appears to have been dominated by Fundamentalist thinking during this time. With this came an anti-higher education attitude.
Terrie Aamodt's history of Walla Walla College records the suppression of theological faculty members who were viewed with suspicion because they had outside doctoral degrees. She shows how difficult it was for many to accept that the church may need to go outside its own ranks in order to receive an education. It is obvious from what she records that Fundamentalist minds dominated the thinking of others during this time. This was particularly true regarding the subject of inspiration and the function and authority of Ellen White.316
M. L. Andreason describes the attitudes of the ministry in 1942 in a letter to the General Conference: "If my experience as a teacher in the Seminary may be taken as a criterion, I would say that a large number of our ministers have serious doubt as to the correctness of the views we hold on certain phases of the sanctuary. They believe, in a general way, that we are correct, but they are as fully assured that Ballenger's views have never been fully met and that we cannot meet them. Not wishing to make the matter an issue, they simply decide that the question is not vital—and thus the whole subject of the sanctuary is relegated, in their minds at least, to the background. . . . The ever present question of the position which Sister White should hold among us is a prolific cause of difficulty"317 (emphasis added).
Richard Hammil once stated that he was taught "thought inspiration" by O. Schilling while at Walla Walla at a time when verbal inspiration was commonly taught in the denomination. "Inerrancy was not discussed by Schilling; but everyone thought inerrancy was correct. However because of the troubles, teachers like Schilling were forced to 'clam up.' It was dangerous to teach thought inspiration during the 1930s. Although other issues dominated the scene at the time such as the Daily, Armageddon, and the identity of the king of the north. Verbal inspiration and inerrancy were the ideas commonly held."318
Raymond C. Cottrell states "After the removal of Daniells from the General Conference presidency the church also moved away from his position on inspiration. The material that Ellen White had written on inspiration found in Selected Messages, Vol. 1, 15-21 was not available. For years the White Estate would not release it. Not even when it was requested to be made available for printing in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary series." It was only in the late 1950s, Cottrell stated, that the manuscripts were finally released.319
Robert Olsen, retired secretary of the Ellen White Estate, states that "the two leaders who contributed heavily towards a Seventh-day Adventist view of verbal inspiration and inerrancy for EGW were S. N. Haskell and J. N. Loughborough, both well respected and living till the early 1920s. Each had experienced the days of EGW and were looked upon as authorities. During the 1930s and 1940s there were many who did believe as did Daniells, but they dared not raise their voices. In 1935, D. E. Robinson and W. C. White wanted to get a pamphlet out and tell the Seventh-day Adventist people the truth about the subject, but it was squashed by the incumbent administration because it was so different from what was generally believed."320
H. M. S. Richards Recalls Another Side
There is evidence that some pastors in North America did remember the 1919 conference and retained a clearer understanding of Ellen White's work. Such a person is the highly respected H. M. S. Richards. In his biographical account of Richards, Robert Edwards (once a member of the Voice of Prophecy Quartet) states, "Although the writings and the character of Ellen White powerfully influenced him, he also had common sense enough to know she was a fallible human being, that she made mistakes.
"When all the furore over the accusations that she had plagiarized from other authors shook many in the church some years ago, Richards remained unperturbed. 'They haven't discovered anything new,' he said. 'All those charges are old. I heard them all 40 years ago. They were all discussed at the 1919 Bible Conference.'. . . In addition, they examined Ellen White's statements on history and science, some of which had been shown to be incorrect. They referred to Willie White's
statement in which he said, 'regarding Mother's writings and their use as an authority on points of history and chronology Mother has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority regarding details of history or historical dates.' . . .
"Elder Arthur Daniells wanted to bring these things out in the open, but some of the more conservative leaders were afraid if would shake the faith of the people. Against the advice of Daniells, the General Conference president, they elected to keep the whole issue quiet (a decision Richards always thought was wrong. It was his view that the Adventist people have a lot of common sense and can be trusted with the truth). 'If they had opened the issue up in 1919, much of the trouble that plagued the church in the 60s would have been avoided,' he said."321
"Not long after the 1919 Bible Conference, the next General Conference session voted Elder Daniels [sic] out as General Conference president. Many think it was at least partly because of the stand he took at the 1919 Bible Conference. Richards recognized that Ellen White was a human being, subject to human frailties and mistakes. Even in her writings she sometimes made errors.
"He was aware that Ellen White read history and science books widely, and that she sometimes quoted passages that were incorrect. . . . And it didn't shake his faith in her prophetic gift that she didn't understand the underground workings of volcanoes. . . . He recognized that she used material from those books in an intelligent way to form a bed on which she presented God's messages to her.
"He applauded F. D. Nichol's 1951 book on Ellen G. White and her critics, but felt it was not necessary to try and show that she never erred. . . . H. M. S. Richards accepted her for what she was and what she herself claimed to be. It protected him from the disappointments some men and women experienced who held an unreal view of what a prophet and prophecy should be."322
Ellen White's Position Is Clear
How many others believed as Richards and could remember the 1919 conference we have no way of knowing. It would be difficult to believe that there were none, but the prevailing view of the conservatives
certainly held sway over the denomination. It is amazing indeed that Daniells was removed partly for his views on the subject of inspiration which in reality were very similar to that of Ellen White's. She had written, "The Bible is not given to us in grand superhuman language. Jesus, in order to reach man where he is, took humanity. The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect. Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea. The Bible was given for practical purposes. . . .
"The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God's mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God as a writer is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God's penman, not His pen. Look at the different writers.
"It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God."323
Tragically, this material did not become generally available until Selected Messages was printed in 1958. More was released with the printing of the third volume in 1980. Although some significant material regarding her views on inspiration are found in the introduction to The Great Controversy and, as such, has long been freely available, up until recent years the other material has gone relatively unnoticed.324
Her views on this subject are very important for Seventh-day Adventists. She places herself neither in the camp of the liberals or fundamentalists of her day. She likens the process of inspiration to that of the incarnation of Jesus: that is, God condescends to reveal His thoughts through fallible human minds and methods of expression. She also has a balance between faith and reason and never tries to depreciate one against the other. We are still to use our minds; while we must realise that there will still be some things in God's word that will always remain a mystery to us.
Roy Graham states some important concepts as he summarises her attitudes toward the Bible, particularly as it relates to her own function. "The early SDAs were sensitive to some of the problems created by their acceptance of EGW as one who received visions, and thus, through this means, what she and they considered as counsel from God. They had to deal especially with the question, 'How can you maintain your avowed position of "the Bible and the Bible alone" while you give EGW's writings a significant place in your faith?'
"Their response was to reaffirm their stand on 'the Bible and the Bible alone as our rule of faith and duty,' and then to emphasize the following points. First, the EGW writings were not placed above the Scriptures but were in fact to be tested by them. 'Every Christian, declared James White, 'should pray fervently to be aided by the Holy Spirit in searching the Scriptures for the whole truth, and for his whole duty. He is not at liberty to turn from them to learn his duty through any of the gifts.' . . . Third, there was no intention that spiritual gifts, and thus in their evaluation the writings of EGW, should take the place of initiative and personal Bible study. . . .
"A careful study of her writings indicates that throughout her life she maintained this position. The Bible is supreme. 'The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the revealer of doctrine, and the test of experience . . . the spirit was not given—nor can it ever be bestowed—to supersede the Bible;' she declared, 'for the Scriptures explicitly state that the word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.' . . ."325
Jerry Hoyle states that the subject of the inspiration of the Bible is not one that has had a lot of treatment in Adventist circles over the years. Apart from Ellen White and G I Butler no one else seems to have paid much attention to it. The inspiration of the Bible has always been assumed, but never spelt out in detail. Possibly because it has tended to be "overshadowed by other more pressing issues."326
In 1926 a significant book appeared in which, for the first time, Seventh-day Adventism began to give a treatment of the subject in detail. The book, edited by Benjamin L. House, included contributions by H. S. Bunch, J. N. Anderson, Meade McGuire, C. A. Burman, E. H. Emmerson and others who were part of the General Conference
Education Department. This publication, Analytical Studies in Bible Doctrines for SDA Colleges. A Course in Biblical Theology was sponsored by the General Conference Education Department and was destined to have a moulding effect upon the thinking of large numbers of Seventh-day Adventist ministers in the twentieth century.327
House rejects the idea of dictation inspiration as well as the other idea of thought inspiration (the view of Ellen White as referred to previously in this manuscript) and settles on what he terms verbal inspiration. By this he means, "This view, sometimes called verbal inspiration holds that all scripture is inspired, 2 Tim. 3:16, that the selection of the very words of scripture in the original languages was overruled by the Holy Spirit. . . . (He then quotes from Great Doctrines of the Bible by William Evans.) We may therefore, safely say that in a very real sense the words as well as the thoughts have been given . . . that infallible guidance was given to those who wrote it, so as to preserve them free from error in the statement of facts . . . that God in the fullest sense is responsible for every word. . . ."328 (emphasis added). In the 1928 edition he claims that Seventh-day Adventists do not believe in thought inspiration.329
There is not much to go on by way of denominational material in print during this time and college lecturers do not usually print their class notes. However, one gains the impression what is in print and from comments by older, retired pastors that the position taken by House was generally accepted. Ministry,330 the magazine for Adventist clergy, ran one article in 1931 under the monthly feature "Valuable quotations from reliable sources," which was printed without comment from the editors: "[The Bible] is a book of divine information concerning the way of salvation, and without a flaw or error in the documents as written by the inspiration of the Spirit. Not only is every word of the document true, but there is also no mistake in the historical data offered nor in any point of divine human knowledge."321
313 Donald R. McAdams, "Shifting Views of Inspiration, Ellen G. White Studies in the 1970's", Spectrum, Vol. 10, No. 4, p. 27. [back]
314 Gary Land, Adventism in America. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), pp. 158-161. [back]
315 Herold Weiss, "Formative Authority, Yes; Canonization, No," Spectrum Vol. 16, No. 3. p. 9. [back]
316 Terrie Dopp Aamodt, in her book Bold Venture; A History of Walla Walla College. (Walla Walla, WA: Walla Walla College Publication. 1992). Has an extensive account of the trials of the theology faculty of the college in chapter 6 "Keeping the Faith". The suspicions raised against some men on the theological faculty simply because they had advanced doctoral degrees from outside universities shows a mind set against advanced education which is typical of many Fundamentalists of the day. Harold Bass, Frederick Schilling and William Landeen are interesting case studies. While we would hesitate to judge each case from such a distance yet it is interesting to note the mind set of one board member of the college Lemuel Esteb who said to Harold Bass. "Harold, if Mrs. White had written that your black hat is white, it would be white to me". "Lem", I answered, "God gave me eyes to see things white and things black and things in between, and as long as I am normal I will not substitute the word of Mrs. White or anyone else for what my eyes tell me. If I do not use the senses with which I am equipped, I cease to function as a man." p. 104. [back]
317 M. L. Andreason letter to J. L. McElhany and W. H.. Branson, December 25, 1942. Andrews University Heritage Room, Andreason file 5. [back]
318 Interview the writer had with Richard Hammill March 1993. He also stated the difficulty so many of our theology lecturers had in getting approval to take doctoral degrees in outside Universities. Most tended to get degrees in history or archaeology. Edward Heppenstall was one of the few to get a doctoral degree which involved theology. The actual degree was in the area of religious education. [back]
319 Interview the writer had with Raymond C. Cottrell, March 1993. Cottrell was one of the editors of the SDA Commentary series. [back]
320 Interview the writer had with Robert Olson, March 1993. [back]
321 Richards no doubt is referring to the theological issues over the sinful nature of Christ and the teaching of sinless perfection and the special experience available to believers since 1844 as was being promulgated by an Australian Robert Brinsmead. Brinsmead's main thrusts were built upon key Ellen White statements. [back]
322 Robert E. Edwards, H.M.S. Richards, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1998), pp. 35-37. [back]
323 2SM, pp. 20-21. [back]
G White, in The Great Controversy states in the introduction, pp.
v-vii. "The Bible points to God as
its author; yet it was written by human hands; and in the varied style of its
different books it presents the characteristics of the several writers...The Ten
commandments were spoken by God Himself, and were written by His own hand. They
are of divine, and not of human composition. But the Bible, with its God-given
truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the
human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and
the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that `the
word was made flesh and dwelt among us.' (John 1:14).
325 Roy Graham, E. G. White Co-Founder of the SDA Church, (Peter Lang, NY: American Uni Studies, 1985) 140-151, The attitude of Ellen White towards this subject is well summarised by Roy Graham in these pages. [back]
326 Jerry Hoyle, "An Historical Study Of The Development Of The Doctrine Of Inspiration In The Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 1869 -1966". This project towards an M. A. Degree Loma Linda Uni; La Sierra Campus May 1973 is a worthwhile document to read as he shows how over our history we have not given much attention to this subject. Because of this, we have often produced conflicting positions in our publications. On page 42 he states that we did not have an official statement until 1966 when in our SDA Encyclopedia we rejected verbal inspiration and upheld thought inspiration. [back]
327 B. L. House [ed.], Bible Doctrines for Seventh-day Adventist Colleges (Washington, DC: General Conference Dept. of Education, 1926). [back]
328 Ibid., p. 66-67. [back]
329 Ibid., 1928 edition, p. 71. [back]
330 Olson interview. He stated that he graduated from PUC in 1943 and Walter Rae in 1944. Both were taught verbal inspiration and inerrancy by W. R. French who was also an Arian and had great influence. Not until the 1960s did Robert Olson begin to understand the subject of inspiration differently. [back]
331 Ministry, (Washington, DC: General Conf. Min. Assn., June 1931), pp. 20-21. "F. M. Wilcox also has a statement which echoes the conviction of many regarding EGW. "The writings of Ellen White constitutes a great commentary on the scriptures. . . they are inspired commentaries, motivated by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and this places them in a separate and distinct class, far above all other commentaries." Review and Herald, June 9, 1946. p. 62.
No doubt for many years the influence of Haskell's Bible Handbook which clearly reveals a verbal view of inspiration was also having an effect. [back]