At Issue Index   White Index    Table of Contents    Previous   Next

MORE THAN A PROPHET ... by Graeme Bradford

Chapter Twenty Two

Adventist Historians Come of Age

The accreditation of Seventh-day Adventist universities and colleges, led to trained historians in denominational ranks for the first time. In the early 1970s they were beginning to do their work. Don McAdams, as seen earlier, tells of how the first generation of a religious movement establish the group, the second generation's task is to hold it together and "inevitably, a third generation arises—a generation that has been reared in what is no longer a young and struggling movement, but a well-established and apparently indestructible party, nation or church. Secure in the stability and strength of the organization, the third generation will commence the critical examination of the movement's origin. If this paradigm is even a little accurate, by 1970 the time had come for Adventists to conduct a critical examination of Ellen White's spiritual gift."370 

McAdams explains how these historians were educated in the 1950s and 1960s unaware of the long history of past criticisms of Ellen White and her writings, and certainly not aware of the events of the 1919 Bible Conference. They first acted as true believers trying to reconcile what appeared to be historical inaccuracies in her writings. From their own study they became aware of her borrowings. This problem was destined for resurrection as one that was going to continue to haunt Adventism. McAdams continues, "William S. Peterson's article, 'A Textual and Historical Study of Ellen White's Account of the French Revolution' was the first article to examine critically Ellen White's sources. . . . He concluded that all were anti-Catholic and anti-Democratic, strong on moral fervor and weak on factual evidence . . . she used them carelessly, sometimes simply misreading them, other times exaggerating them, and occasionally leaving out crucial facts, thereby distorting the significance of the event. . . .


"The ironic aftermath to the entire Peterson affair was an article by Ron Graybill, a research assistant at the White Estate. . . . Graybill undermined crucial aspects of Peterson's hypothesis and made irrelevant many of the criticisms put forth by John Wood and others. A study of the notes left by Clarence C. Crisler, Ellen White's secretary when the 1911 revision of The Great Controversy was being prepared disclosed that the literary source for the chapter on the French Revolution was not a collection of historians, whether good ones or poor ones, but primarily one writer, Uriah Smith. His Thoughts on Daniel and Revelation was the basic source for the chapter. One discovers, wrote Graybill, that Ellen White . . . used nothing from Scott, Gleig, Theirs, or Alison that Smith did not have. Every time Smith deleted material, she deleted the same material. So it was not Ellen White who selected poor historians and misread or distorted the evidence found in them. It was Uriah Smith!" (emphasis added).371 

This was a new era in the study of Adventist history. In the past the authorities on Ellen White such as Loughborough, Willie White, F. D. Nichol and Arthur White were not trained historians. They tended to be more apologists than historians. When Arthur White tried to discredit the findings of the 1919 Bible Conference minutes, Gilbert Valentine defended the findings and demonstrated the differences between an apologist, and that of being an objective historian. And it must be admitted, the fact that Willie White and Arthur White were descendants of Ellen White added to their subjectivity.

Gary Land noted a further important development: "The next major contribution came from a historian of medicine and science, Ronald L. Numbers, whose Prophetess of Health: a Study of Ellen G. White re-examined the development of Mrs. White as a health reformer. In his preface, Numbers noticed that he was parting from traditional Adventist scholarship in that he did not presuppose inspiration or ignore witnesses who rejected Ellen White as inspired. . . . First he argued that Ellen White drew upon the ideas of health reformers such as James C. Jackson and R. T. Trall, although she had consistently denied any relationship of that sort. Second he pointed out that Ellen White had changed her ideas on whether an Adventist should consult physicians, don 'reform' clothing, or adopt a two meal a day plan among other matters. Her historic function, he concluded, had been to make 


a religion out of health reform. Even before its publication, Numbers' book aroused a storm of controversy. . . ."372 

Following Number's publication, McAdams researched parts of Ellen White's book The Great Controversy. He recalls his experience: "During the summer of 1973, while reading letters and documents in the White Estate on the history of the Adventist publishing work, I became acquainted with several Ellen White manuscript fragments that appeared to be portions of the first half of the 1888 The Great Controversy.  The longest manuscript . . . turned out to be the rough draft for the half chapter on John Huss. . . . I was now able to present in a revised paper in one column James A Wylie's account of Huss from the History of Protestantism, in a second column Ellen White's rough draft, and in a third column her account as published in The Great Controversy. . . ."

"Ellen White was not just borrowing paragraphs here and there that she ran across in her reading, but was in fact following the historians page after page, leaving out much material, but using their sequence. . . . The hand-written manuscript on John Huss follows the historian so closely that it does not even seem to have gone through an intermediary stage, but rather from the historian's printed page to Mrs White's manuscript, including historical errors and moral exhortations. . . .

"Study of the Huss manuscript also revealed that Mrs. White's literary assistant, Miss Marian Davis, not only improved Mrs. White's English usage but also played a very significant role in deleting a large amount of original material dealing with the spiritual significance of events and adding additional material from Wylie."373 

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to record comprehensively the work of all Seventh-day Adventists historians as they revised the early history of Seventh-day Adventism. For those who wish a concise summary I have included in appendix A, a paper by Arthur Patrick. Some significant work was done by Jonathan Butler, associate professor of church history at Loma Linda University who produced an important paper "The World of Ellen G. White and the End of the World" published in Spectrum. Butler suggests that Ellen White's understanding of Bible prophecy about last day events was a reflection of her knowledge of religious currents in nineteenth century America. Implicit, but not explicit, in his article was the conclusion that Ellen 


White's apocalyptic views were not based only on visions and need to be revised by contemporary Adventists.374  The reader who wishes to pursue this subject further should read the articles by Benjamin McArthur in Spectrum.375 

Raymond F. Cottrell maintains that during this period the church leadership and the White Estate were given six opportunities to face up to the evidence and handle it in a manner that would not cause serious disruption. However, these opportunities were not taken.376  The openness of the Fighur administration had been replaced by a more conservative reactionary administration.377 

During this period, when the White Estate was responding to the trained historians, a church pastor began to discover the borrowings of Ellen White. Walter Rea, pastor of the church at Long Beach, California, discovered that not only had Ellen White borrowed material for The Great Controversy, but also the other books in the Conflict of the Ages series. Having a verbal and inerrant understanding of inspiration, this devout follower of Ellen White's writings was seriously disturbed. Several times he reported his findings to the White Estate and each time he was assured that they would follow it up and make sure that the subject was handled openly and honestly. When it appeared to him that this was not happening as promised he began to take matters into his own hands and went public on the issue.378 

The effect of what he revealed devastated many in Adventism. Eventually the General Conference president, Neal C. Wilson, wrote in the Adventist Review, "In her writing Ellen White used sources more extensively than we have heretofore been aware of or recognized."379  The discoveries of historians and the work of Walter Rae led to a response from the church in convening an International Prophetic Guidance Workshop sponsored by the White Estate in Washington DC on April 11-12, 1982.


370 McAdams, "Shifting Views of Inspiration", Spectrum, Vol. 10, No. 4, p. 27. [back]

371 Ibid., pp. 29-31. [back]

372 Gary Land, "From Apologetics to History: The Professionalization of Adventist Historians, Spectrum, Vol. 4, No. 10, pp. 93-94. See also an excellent summary account in "The Historian As Heretic" by Jonathan Butler in Prophetess of Health, Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventist Health Reform, rev. ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. xxv-xviii by Ronald Numbers. Butler outlines the fierce opposition encountered by Ronald Numbers and others as they tried to objectively uncover the work of Ellen White from history. In the end they were somewhat vindicated by the discovery of the 1919 Bible Conference minutes and even Numbers' own father [who had previously been ashamed of his son] after having read them, was reconciled as to what his son had been trying to do. [back]

373 McAdams, "Shifting Views," p. 34. [back]

374 Ibid., p. 38. See also Butler's article "The World of E. G. White And the End of the World",  Spectrum, Vol. 10, No. 2. where he states "Within her own lifetime, Mrs White allowed for the conditional nature of prophecy. Christ might have come `long ere this', she remarked. He might have come in the civil war era when slavery was the sign of a failing democracy. . . . He might have come about 1888 when a beleaguered Adventist minority in Tennessee chain gangs and jails indicated America's doom and the world's demise. In both cases, the prophetess spoke eschatologically with one eye on the morning newspaper. . . . This continual reapplication of Adventism of new times and places was vital to her prophetic ministry, and remains absolutely essential to the life of the movement since her time. . . 

. . .The prophetess stimulated this interactive process in her own time. It would be only sadly ironic if her writings were now used to stultify the creative process they once stimulated. . . .

. . .The Adventist prophetess did not look forward to another decade for the end to materialize. Her own decade held all the ingredients of the Apocalypse. In our time, Adventists embody the spirit of Ellen White's message by preserving her sense of urgency. . . . An Apocalyptic people—to remain Adventist—must prophesy the end of the present world, not a past era or a remotely future one. . . . By insisting on only the "signs of the times" of an earlier Adventism, one may actually weaken belief in an imminent end in our time. . . .

Since Ellen White provided an eschatological perspective for her own time, in her spirit it is now up to us to provide one for our time." [back]

375 Spectrum, "Where are Historians Taking the Church"? Vol. 10, No. 3. and A "New Look at the Old Days: Adventist History comes of Age". Vol. 18, Number 3. A recent article by Jonathan Butler "The Historian As Heretic" also gives a concise summary of the progress made by Seventh-day Adventist historians who eventually find that the discussions recorded at the 1919 Bible Conference are facing the same questions that they are pondering. Butler shows the difficult times faced by the historians. Some of them were treated so poorly that they left they church. Spectrum, Vol. 23, No 2. [back]

376 Raymond F. Cottrell. unpublished manuscript: "Architects of Crisis; A decade of Obscurantism." pp. 18-21. [back]

377 Elder Pierson graduated from southern Junior College in 1933. . . . In 1936 he responded to a call to service overseas...but his lifetime of service overseas proved to be a severe handicap when he returned to the United States as President of the General Conference . . . . For most of his life out of touch with the church in North America he was not aware of, and experienced considerable difficulty in understanding and relating to changes that had taken place during his absence. . . he considered it his duty to restore to the status quo ante 1936. Ibid., 23. "During the time of Fighur scholars and administrators could talk openly and freely about their convictions. But that all changed when R. H. Pierson became General conference President" Interview with Raymond F. Cottrell March 1993. Gary Land has also an account of this in detail and is worth consulting; Adventism in America. pp. 225-228. [back]

378 Walter Rea gives his account of his pilgrimage and experiences in his book, The White Lie, (Turlock, CA: M and R Publications, 1982). [back]

379 Neal Wilson, "This I Believe About Ellen G. White" Adventist Review, March 20, 1980, p. 8. [back]

At Issue Index   White Index    Table of Contents    Previous   Next