"A Power That Exceeds That of Men": Ellen
G. White on Women in Ministry
Because Seventh-day Adventists have held from the earliest beginnings
of their movement that the Bible and the Bible only is their rule of faith
and practice,(2) the bulk of the monograph
of which this article forms a part, is rightly devoted to an examination
of the scriptural evidence regarding God's purpose for women in ministry.
However, the Scripture also teaches that the Holy Spirit has placed in
the church the gift of prophecy,(3) not to
add to the canon of Scripture, but to make authoritative application of
the Scripture to specific situations in the ongoing, changing life of the
church.(4) Seventh-day Adventists believe
this gift was manifested in the life and ministry of Ellen G. White, and
that "her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of
Furthermore, the divine choice, as Adventists believe, of a woman as a
prophetic messenger to the modern church, raises provocatively the
question whether it was God's intention to limit the other gifts of Eph
4:11, particularly that of pastor-teacher, to persons of the male gender.
Consequently, the question of Ellen White's personal belief, teaching, and
practice regarding women in ministry cannot be ignored or omitted from a
Seventh-day Adventist consideration of this issue.
The purpose of this article is to examine the writings and practices of
Ellen G. White with specific reference to the following questions: (1) How
did Ellen White use the term "ministry" with reference to women?
(2) Did she characterize women's participation in ministry as essential,
or merely optional? (3) What roles did she envision for ministering women?
(4) What are the implications for the question of ordaining women to
Ellen White's Use of the Term "Ministry"
with Reference to Women
Ellen White used the terms "minister" and
"ministry" to encompass a broad spectrum of meaning. Most basic,
she used the term ministry to designate the calling and work of every
Christian. In one of her most widely circulated works, Desire of Ages,
p. 822, she explains:
The Saviour's commission to the disciples included all the
believers. It includes all believers in Christ to the end of
time. It is a fatal mistake to suppose that the work of saving souls
depends alone on the ordained minister. All to whom
the heavenly inspiration has come are put in trust with the gospel. All
who receive the life of Christ are ordained to work
for the salvation of their fellow men. For this work the church was
established, and all who take upon themselves its sacred vows
are thereby pledged to be co-workers with Christ.
"The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say,
Come." Rev. 22:17. Everyone who hears is to repeat the invitation.
Whatever one's calling in life, his first interest should be to win
souls for Christ. He may not be able to speak to congregations, but he
can work for individuals. To them he can communicate the instruction
received from his Lord. Ministry does not consist alone in
preaching. Those minister who relieve the sick and suffering,
helping the needy, speaking words of comfort to the desponding and those
of little faith. Nigh and afar off are souls weighed down by a sense of
guilt. It is not hardship, toil, or poverty that degrades humanity. It
is guilt, wrongdoing. This brings unrest and dissatisfaction. Christ
would have His servants minister to sin-sick souls [emphasis
Note her assertion that "all" Christians "are ordained
to work for the salvation of their fellow men." Then she associates
the terms "minister" and "ministry" with any kind of
Christian service "to sin-sick souls." Thus her basic definition
of ministry is the calling of all Christians "to work for the
salvation of their fellow men."(6)
Within this basic concept are two subdivisions, which I have arbitrarily
labeled "category 2" and "category 3."
The second category of usage of the terms minister and ministry
designates specific vocations that support and augment the "ministry
of the word." Chief among these are "medical missionary
work" and literature evangelism, the ministry of selling Christian
literature house to house. Regarding the latter, Ellen White distinguished
literature evangelism from "the ministry," but calls it "a
part . . . of the ministry," and in "importance,"
"fully equal" to "the ministry."(7)
She describes "medical missionary work" in similar terms. The
medical work is distinguished from "the ministry of the word,"
"the gospel ministry," yet it "must not be separated"
from, but "connected with the third angel's message . . . and the
ministry."(8) She writes further that
"medical missionaries who labor in evangelistic lines are doing work
of as high an order as are their ministerial fellow laborers. . . . The
faithful physician and the minister are engaged in the same work."(9)
Category three in Ellen White's usage of "ministry" employs
phrases such as "gospel ministry," "ministry of the
word," or "ordained minister," and refers to the officially
recognized clergy of the church.(10) While
this three-part categorization may be an oversimplification of the range
of Ellen White's usage of the terms "ministry" and
"minister," nevertheless it is sufficient to give sharper focus
to the study of women in ministry. It will be shown that Ellen White used
the term "ministry" to designate the work of women not only in
category one ("To all Christ has given the work of ministry"(11)),
and category two ("men and women . . . should be . . . working as
medical missionary evangelists, helping those engaged in the gospel
ministry"(12)), but in category three
as well: "There are women who should labor in the gospel
Perhaps her most emphatic statement about women "in the gospel
ministry" comes from MS 43a, 1898, "The Laborer is Worthy of His
Hire," and has been reprinted in several sources.(14)
Here Ellen White asserts unequivocally, "There are women who should
labor in the gospel ministry."(15)
Three paragraphs earlier she refers to the same group by a shorter
expression, "women who labor in the gospel." She also speaks of
women who do "work that is in the line of ministry," and who are
"necessary to the work of ministry." The context of this
statement is a question that "several" had asked Ellen White:
"Should minister's wives adopt infant children?" To some of
these she answered, "No; God would have you help your husband in his
work." A few lines later she explains the reason for this
There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry. In many
respects they would do more good than the ministers who neglect to visit
the flock of God. Husband and wife may unite in this work, and when it
is possible, they should. The way is open for consecrated women. But the
enemy would be pleased to have the women whom God could use to help
hundreds, binding up their time and strength on one helpless little
mortal, that requires constant care and attention.(16)
She quoted Isa 56:1-5, in which God promises the childless "a name
better than [that] of sons and daughters," and then concluded,
"This is the grand and noble work that the minister and his wife may
qualify themselves to do as faithful shepherds and guardians of the
Thus, for some women who have special "ability" to "help
to give the message," the work of the ministry could be a higher
priority than child rearing. She made a similar point elsewhere when she
recognized that a woman in ministry may sometimes need to put "her
housework in the hands of a faithful, prudent helper," and leave
"her children in good care, while she engages in the work."(17)
Ellen White also shows a clear preference for team ministry. Twelve
times in five pages(18) she refers to
husbands and wives working together, strongly implying that this is the
ideal ministerial team. Nevertheless, she also refers to "young
women" without reference to marital status being trained for this
work, and widows of ministers continuing in this work,(19)
showing that while a husband-and-wife team has many advantages, it is not
the only setting in which women are called to ministry.(20)
In support of the essential role of women in ministry, she urged
General Conference President A. G. Daniells to "study the Scriptures
for further light on this point. Women were among Christ's devoted
followers in the days of His ministry, and Paul makes mention of certain
women who were 'helpers together' with him 'in the gospel.'"(21)
The "elect lady" of 2 John 1 she believed to be one of the
unnamed women leaders of the New Testament church--"a helper in the
gospel work, a woman of good repute and wide influence."(22)
Elsewhere she reiterated, "Women helped our Saviour by uniting
with Him in His work. And the great apostle Paul writes, . . . 'I entreat
thee also, true yoke-fellow, help those women which labored with me in the
gospel'" [Phil 4:3].(23) Following
the citation from Phil 4:3, she paraphrased Paul's words about "women
who labored in the gospel," appropriating the Pauline precedent in
support of "modern women who should labor in the gospel
The Need, Legitimacy, and Divine Mandate for Women
The foundational premise that undergirds all of Ellen White's counsels
about women in ministry is that neither men nor women can do alone the
quality of work that the two can do together. "When a great and
decisive work is to be done, God chooses men and women to do this work,
and it will feel the loss if the talents of both are not combined."(25)
Thus she reiterated that the participation of women in the work of the
gospel is not merely an option to be allowed in exceptional circumstances,
but is an essential element for the highest success in preaching the
gospel. "Women can be the instruments of righteousness, rendering
holy service," she wrote in 1879. "It was Mary that first
preached a risen Jesus. . . . If there were twenty women where now there
is one, who would make this holy mission their cherished work, we should
see many more converted to the truth. The refining, softening influence of
Christian women is needed in the great work of preaching the
She believed women to be indispensable in ministry, because they can
minister in ways that men cannot. "The Lord has a work for women as
well as for men. . . . They can do in families a work that men cannot do,
a work that reaches the inner life. They can come close to the hearts of
those whom men cannot reach. Their labor is needed."(27)
Elsewhere she affirmed that
There is a great work for women to do in the cause of present truth.
Through the exercise of womanly tact and a wise use of their knowledge
of Bible truth, they can remove difficulties that our brethren
cannot meet. We need women workers to labor in connection
with their husbands, and should encourage those who wish to engage in
this line of missionary effort [emphasis added].(28)
To those who questioned the legitimacy of a woman preaching to
congregations, Ellen White cited her own experience.
When in my youth God opened the Scriptures to my mind, giving me
light upon the truths of his work, I went forth to proclaim to others
the precious news of salvation. My brother wrote to me, and said,
"I beg of you do not disgrace the family. I will do anything for
you if you will not go out as a preacher." "Disgrace the
family!" I replied, "can it disgrace the family for me to
preach Christ and him crucified! If you would give me all the gold your
house could hold, I would not cease giving my testimony for God. I have
respect unto the recompense of the reward. I will not keep silent, for
when God imparts his light to me, he means that I shall diffuse it to
others, according to my ability."(29)
Furthermore, Ellen White insisted that women who devote their full time
to ministry should be paid just as male ministers are.
Injustice has sometimes been done to women who labor just as
devotedly as their husbands, and who are recognized by God as being
necessary to the work of the ministry. The method of paying men
laborers, and not paying their wives who share their labors with them is
a plan not according to the Lord's order, and if carried out in our
conferences, is liable to discourage our sisters from qualifying
themselves for the work they should engage in.(30)
Ellen White could have argued that as it is expected of every layperson
to spread the gospel without pay, women should not object to these
conditions. To the contrary, however, she urged the necessity of fair pay
for ministering women. Asking women to do full-time ministerial work
without pay, she calls "exaction," "partiality,"
"selfishness," and "robbery." "When self-denial
is required because of a dearth of means, do not let a few hard-working
women do all the sacrificing. Let all share in making the sacrifice."(31)
She warned of the danger of discouraging women from devoting themselves to
ministry as a vocation. She believed large numbers of women ("twenty
. . . where now there is one") should be "preaching the
themselves" for "the work they should engage in,"(33)
and that to hinder them would be to hinder the work of God.
"Seventh-day Adventists are not in any way to belittle woman's
work," she affirmed. "If a woman puts her housework in the hands
of a faithful, prudent helper, and leaves her children in good care, while
she engages in the work, the conference should have wisdom to understand
the justice of her receiving wages."(34)
Finally, Ellen White asserted the legitimacy of paying women ministers
from the tithe, which she elsewhere maintained is to be sacredly reserved
for the support of the gospel ministry.(35)
"The tithe should go to those who labor in word and doctrine, be they
men or women,"(36) she wrote.
Many of the pertinent quotations mention "wives" of
ministers.(37) Other references, however,
apply the same concept to women not specified as minister's wives, and to
widowed women, showing that Ellen White saw some form of ministry as an
appropriate career choice for women.
Some women are now teaching young women to work successfully as
visitors and Bible readers.(38) Women
who work in the cause of God should be given wages proportionate to
the time they give to the work. . . . As the devoted minister and
his wife engage in the work, they should be paid wages proportionate to
the wages of two distinct workers, that they may have means to
use as they shall see fit in the cause of God. The Lord has put His
spirit upon them both. If the husband should die, and leave his
wife, she is fitted to continue her work in the cause of God, and
receive wages for the labor she performs [emphasis added].(39)
Seven elements in Ellen White's call for women in ministry have been
noted: (1) "There are women who should labor in the gospel
minis-try;" (2) women's work is "essential," and without it
the cause will "suffer great loss;"(40)
(3) women in ministry should receive just wages; (4) these wages may
appropriately come from the tithe; (5) the call to ministry can in some
cases take priority over housework and child care;(41)
(6) some women should make ministry a lifelong vocation in which they earn
their livelihood; and (7) conferences should not "discourage"
women from "qualifying themselves" for ministerial work.(42)
All these factors in her appeal justify the conclusion that she considered
the call to promote and encourage the participation of women in ministry,
not merely as an option, but as a divine mandate, the neglect of which
results in dimin-ished ministerial efficiency, fewer converts, and
"great loss" to the cause, compared with the fruitfulness of the
combined gifts of men and women in ministry. Next we will consider what
roles Ellen White envisioned for women in ministry.
Role Descriptions for Women in Ministry
The purpose of this section is to examine the evidence regarding the
scope of Ellen White's call to women in ministry. What specific roles did
she envision? What place did she see for women in relation to men in
The most frequently mentioned vocations in which Ellen White called
women to minister are those of house-to-house ministry to families,(43)
giving Bible studies,(44) in either
evangelistic or pastoral contexts,(45)
teaching in various capacities,(46) and
"canvassing."(47) Also mentioned
are medicine (specifically obstetrics and gynecology),(48)
chaplaincy for medical and other institutions,(49)
personal counseling with women,(50) and
temperance leadership (particularly in connection with the Women's
Christian Temperance Union).(51)
Supporting Roles in Team Ministry
Many of Ellen White's statements regarding women in ministry are set in
the context of a team ministry in which women employ their gifts largely
but not exclusively in teaching, visiting, and counseling private
individuals and small groups, especially families. She specifically says
that women will be more successful in this area of ministry than will men.
The Lord has a work for women, as well as for men. They may take
their places in His work . . . and He will work through them. If they
are imbued with a sense of their duty, and labor under the influence of
the Holy Spirit, they will have just the self-possession required for
this time. The Saviour will reflect upon these self-sacrificing women
the light of His countenance, and will give them a power that
exceeds that of men. They can do in families a work that men
cannot do, a work that reaches the inner life. They can come
close to the hearts of those whom men cannot reach. Their labor is
needed [emphasis added].(52)
These women are called "self-sacrificing" specifically in the
sense that they most often carry supporting rather than leading
responsibilities in their respective ministerial teams. Yet despite their
relatively lesser public recognition (because they spend more of their
time in private and small-group teaching, counseling, and visitation), it
is precisely in this supporting role that they are promised "a power
that exceeds that of men," to "do in families a work that men
cannot do," and "come close to the hearts of those whom men
Ellen White's references to women as teachers were not, however,
limited to the private teaching of individuals, families, and small
groups. She also mentioned Sabbath school teachers and superintendents,
teachers of camp meeting Bible classes, and elementary school teachers, as
well as those who teach from the pulpit.(54)
During her ministry in Australia, she spoke approvingly of two Bible
instructors, Sister R[obinson] and Sister W[ilson] who were "doing
just as efficient work as the ministers." She reported that at
"some meetings when the ministers are all called away, Sister W[ilson]
takes the Bible and addresses the congregation."(55)
Women as Teachers
One of the objections sometimes raised against Ellen White's own
ministry was that women were not to "teach" men (1 Tim 2:12).
This her colleagues refuted by arguing that this "general rule with
regard to women as public teachers" did not constitute a rigid or
universal prohibition.(56) J. N. Andrews
argued that "there are some exceptions to this general rule to be
drawn even from Paul's writings," as well as "from other
Scriptures." Then he cited Paul's women co-workers (Phil 4:3);
Phoebe's position as deaconess (Rom 16:1); Priscilla's association with
Paul (Rom 16:3) and her participation in "instructing Apollos"
(Acts 18:26); Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom 16:12); Philip's
daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8-9); and others to prove that women
were not absolutely excluded from teaching roles. He concluded that Rom
10:10, which requires public confession of the faith as integral to
salvation, "must apply to women equally with men."(57)
Ellen White seldom spoke in her own defense on this point. She
generally allowed her male colleagues to formulate such responses. For
example, note her account of a meeting in Arbuckle, California, at which
S. N. Haskell was called on to explain this issue. " Before I
commenced in talking," Ellen White recalled,
Elder Haskell had a bit of paper that was handed in[,] quoting
certain texts prohibiting women speaking in public. He took the matter
in a brief manner and very clearly expressed the meaning of the
apostle's words. I understand that it was a Campbellite who wrote the
objection and it had been well circulated before it reached the desk;
but Elder Haskell made it plain before all the people.(58)
While Ellen White did not often refer to the Pauline passages on women
as teachers, she did cite the work of Aquila and Priscilla in teaching
Apollos as an example of "a thorough scholar and brilliant
orator" being taught by two laypersons, one of whom was a woman.
The educated orator received instruction from them with
grateful surprise and joy. Through their teachings he obtained
a clearer knowledge of the Scriptures. . . . Thus a thorough scholar and
brilliant orator learned the way of the Lord more perfectly from the
teachings of a Christian man and woman whose humble employment
was that of tent making [emphasis added].(59)
Thus she implicitly rejected the traditional interpretation of 1 Tim
2:12. On the contrary, she urged A. G. Daniells, then General Conference
president, to employ in public evangelism "many men and women who
have ability to preach and teach the Word." She continued,
Select women who will act an earnest part. The Lord will use
intelligent women in the work of teaching. And let none feel that these
women, who understand the Word and who have ability to teach, should not
receive remuneration for their labors. They should be paid as verily as
are their husbands. There is a great work for women to do in the cause
of present truth. Through the exercise of womanly tact and a wise use of
their knowledge of Bible truth, they can remove difficulties that our
brethren cannot meet. We need women workers to labor in connection with
their husbands, and should encourage those who wish to engage in this
line of missionary work.(60)
While Ellen White specifically commended women who served in supporting
ministerial roles, she also encouraged women with greater gifts for public
leadership to fully exercise those gifts. When Mrs. S.M.I. Henry, national
evangelist for the Women's Christian Temperance Union, became a
Seventh-day Adventist,(61) Ellen White
encouraged her to continue her public ministry.
We believe fully in church organization, but in nothing that is
to prescribe the precise way in which we must work; for all
minds are not reached by the same methods. . . . Each person
has his own lamp to keep burning. . . . You have many ways opened
before you. Address the crowd whenever you can; hold every jot of
influence you can by any association that can be made the means of
introducing the leaven to the meal [emphasis added].(62)
Notice the emphasis on the freedom and responsibility of each
individual under God to find the ministry in which her gifts can be most
fruitful, and Ellen White's belief that no one should "prescribe the
precise way in which" another Christian "must work." It
should also be noted, however, that her counsel to S.M.I. Henry does not
primarily concern participation in the organized church, but in a
parachurch women's organization.
"Women Who Should Be Engaged in the Ministry"
Three further statements deserve more detailed examination. They refer
respectively to ministry, to pastoring, and to women as administrative
leaders in the local church. The first of these, published in 1903, is
ambiguous regarding the specific roles of women in ministry.
The Lord calls upon those connected with our sanitariums, publishing
houses, and schools to teach the youth to do evangelistic work. Our time
and energy must not be so largely employed in establishing sanitariums,
food stores, and restaurants that other lines of work will be neglected.
Young men and young women who should be engaged in the ministry, in
Bible work, and in the canvassing work should not be bound down to
The youth should be encouraged to attend our training schools for
Christian workers, which should become more and more like the schools of
the prophets. These institutions have been established by the Lord, and
if they are conducted in harmony with His purpose, the youth sent to
them will quickly be prepared to engage in various lines of missionary
work. Some will be trained to enter the field as missionary nurses,
some as canvassers, and some as gospel ministers.(63)
The ambiguity occurs in the final sentence of the first paragraph.
"Young men and young women who should be engaged in the ministry, in
Bible work, and in the canvassing work should not be bound down to
mechanical employment." The reason for the ambiguity is that both
"Bible work" and "canvassing" are referred to
elsewhere as aspects of "ministry."(64)
The fact that she enumerates them individually would seem to imply that
she is distinguishing them as different vocations, hence the usage
"the ministry" most likely refers here to the pulpit preaching
and administrative office of ministry in contrast to the more individual
and family-oriented ministry of the Bible worker and the
literature-distributive ministry of the canvasser. Of Ellen White's many
references to women "in ministry," the majority refer
specifically to the ministry of evangelistic and pastoral visiting, giving
Bible instruction and spiritual guidance in families—the
calling here spoken of as "Bible work."(65)
Women as Pastors
At least two statements from Ellen White mention women in pastoral
roles.(66) The central question, of
course, is what did she mean by "pastoral"? Ellen White
sometimes used pastoral terminology to denote the personal visitation
aspects of a minister's work, as contrasted with public pulpit ministry.(67)
In this vein she denounced ministers who "only preach," or worse
yet, merely "sermonize," but "neglect personal labor"
because they lack the "watchful, tender compassion of a shepherd. The
flock of God have a right to expect to be visited by their pastor, to be
instructed, advised, counseled, in their own homes."(68)
Again, she says, "The pastor should visit from house to house among
his flock, teaching, conversing, and praying with each family," as
well as seeing that prospective members are "thoroughly instructed in
the truth."(69) This is precisely the
work Ellen White elsewhere recommends for women in team
ministry--"visiting from family to family, opening the Scriptures to
them."(70) It is in this pastoral
work that they are promised "a power that exceeds that of men."(71)
"Women to Do Pastoral Labor"
The foregoing provides the necessary background for a consideration of
two statements which indicate that the spiritual gift of pastoring is
given to women as well as men.
The first of these occurs in Testimonies, 4:390.
If there is one work more important than another, it is that of
getting our publications before the public, thus leading them to search
the Scriptures. Missionary work—introducing our
publications into families, conversing, and praying with and for them—is
a good work and one which will educate men and women to do pastoral
According to this paragraph, door-to-door "missionary work"
literature evangelism has two particular benefits: (1) "It is good
work" in itself; and (2) it is a useful preparation for larger
responsibilities. It "will educate men and women to do pastoral
labor." The same two themes also permeate the context of another
mention of women as "pastors."
"Pastors to the Flock of God"
The themes that (1) literature evangelism is itself a form of pastoral
ministry, and (2) that it also gives preparation for pastoral ministry
within a congregation, are clearly evident in a citation from Testimonies,
6:322. The sentences are numbered for ease of reference.
 All who desire an opportunity for true ministry, and who will
give themselves unreservedly to God, will find in the canvassing work
opportunities to speak upon many things pertaining to the future,
immortal life.  The experience thus gained will be of the greatest
value to those who are fitting themselves for the ministry.  It is
the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both
men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God.(73)
Sentence 1 indicates that "the canvassing work" is "true
ministry." Sentence 2 recommends this work to "those who are
fitting themselves for the ministry," i.e., ministerial
leadership of a church. Sentence 3 affirms that the Holy Spirit
"prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock
of God." The deduction seems clear that the clause "prepares . .
. to become pastors" in the third sentence stands in parallelism to
"fitting . . . for the ministry" in the previous sentence.
This theme of preparation recurs several times in the immediate
context. The chapter in which the quoted passage occurs bears the title,
"The Canvasser a Gospel Worker," and opens with the declaration
that "The intelligent, God-fearing, truth-loving canvasser should be
respected; for he occupies a position equal to that of the gospel
minister."(74) That is theme one:
literature evangelism is ministry. One concern of this chapter is to
elevate the importance of the work of the canvasser or colporteur(75)
to an equality with other forms of ministry. However, the next sentence
shows that Ellen White was not just promoting the canvassing work, she was
promoting it specifically to "young ministers and those who are
fitting for the ministry." That is theme two: literature evangelism
as preparation for "the" regular ministry.
Many of our young ministers and those who are fitting
for the ministry would, if truly converted, do much good by working
in the canvassing field. And by meeting the people and presenting to
them our publications they would gain an experience which they
cannot gain by simply preaching. As they went from house to house they
could converse with the people, carrying with them the fragrance of
Christ's life. In thus endeavoring to bless others they would themselves
be blessed; they would obtain an experience in faith; their
knowledge of the Scriptures would greatly increase; and they would be
constantly learning how to win souls for Christ [emphasis
Three paragraphs later occurs the passage under consideration.
The experience thus gained will be of the greatest value to those who
are fitting themselves for the ministry. It is the accompaniment of
the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to
become pastors to the flock of God [emphasis added].(76)
The theme of preparation and growth in evangelistic effectiveness
continues in the rest of the paragraph. Canvassers who are "fitting
themselves for the ministry" will "learn," "be
educated," "practice," "be purified,"
"develop," and "be gifted" with spiritual power.(77)
On the next page occurs another explanatory connection with the main
sentence under consideration. "The preaching of the word is
a means by which the Lord has ordained that His warning message shall be
given to the world. In the Scriptures the faithful teacher is
represented as a shepherd of the flock of God. He is to be
respected and his work appreciated. . . . [T]he canvassing work is to be a
part both of the medical missionary work and of the ministry"
Ellen White repeatedly applies to the literature ministry terms
commonly associated with the ministry of preaching, to show that the true
literature evangelist is a preacher. Similarly, she uses terms associated
with teaching to reinforce her concept of the canvasser as a teacher. Thus
the paragraph that groups the terms "preaching,"
"teacher," and "shepherd of the flock of God"
constitutes a statement that not only the regular minister, but the
canvasser also preaches and teaches, hence also deserves to be
"respected" and "appreciated" as a "shepherd to
the flock of God."
Finally, "shepherd of the flock of God" stands in direct
parallel to the expression "pastors to the flock of God" on the
previous page, showing that by "pastors," Ellen White includes
all who teach and preach the gospel, including literature evangelists.
Comparing these parallel statements suggests that the Holy Spirit
"prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors," i.e.,
"shepherds to the flock of God," but this shepherding role may
take a variety of vocational forms.
On one hand, literature evangelists who truly minister to the
individuals they visit are, through their literature and their presence,
giving immediate pastoral care. On the other hand, the experience gained
prepares the faithful canvasser to give pastoral care in other contexts as
Finally, the references to the "Holy Spirit,"
"gifts," "pastor," "teacher," and
"shepherd," as well as the focal sentence "the Holy Spirit
. . . prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock
of God,"(79) imply that the spiritual
gift of pastor-teacher (Eph 4:11) is given to both men and women.
"Adapted to the Successful Management of a Church"
That Ellen White saw both women and men as potentially qualified for
church leadership is shown by her statement that "it is not always
men who are best adapted to the successful management of a church."
The context is a scathing rebuke to a Brother Johnson who had "a
disposition to dictate and control matters" in a certain local
church, and who had only "sneers" for the work of women in the
same church. "Jesus is ashamed of you," she wrote, and on the
next page continued,
You are not in sympathy with the great Head of the church. . . . This
contemptible picking, faultfinding, seeking spot and stain, ridiculing,
gainsaying, that you with some others have indulged in, has grieved the
Spirit of God and separated you from God.
It is not always men who are best adapted to the successful management
of a church. If faithful women have more deep piety and
true devotion than men, they could indeed by their prayers and their
labors do more than men who are unconsecrated in heart and life
The words "It is not always men" point to the addressees'
assumption that in any situation, the best leader for a church would
always be a man. Ellen White asserts that there are times when the person
best qualified to lead a church is a woman. The words "best
adapted" point to personal talents and spiritual gifts, which, along
with "deep piety and true devotion," constitute the
qualifications for spiritual leadership. The primary determinant of
fitness for church leadership is not gender, but character.(81)
Set Apart by Prayer and Laying on of Hands
One further citation remains to be carefully examined in its historical
context. It comes from the decade that Ellen White spent pioneering in
Australia, and appeared in the Review and Herald, 9 July 1895. It
is the one statement where she explicitly recommends an ordination service
The burden of the article in which this statement occurs is the
noninvolvement of the majority of church members in the work of the
church. "A few persons have been selected as spiritual
burden-bearers, and the talent of other members has remained
undeveloped." To remedy this, she urges ministers to involve the
congregation both in "planning" and in "executing the plans
that they have had a part in forming." She further urges "every
individual who is considered a worthy member of the church" be given
a definite part in the work of the church. Then occurs the paragraph about
Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service
of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after
the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should
be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some
cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the
minister; but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection
with God, they will be a power for good in the church. This is another
means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out
more in our methods of labor. Not a hand should be bound, not a soul
discouraged, not a voice should be hushed; let every individual labor,
privately or publicly, to help forward this grand work [emphasis
A few observations may be made at this point. These are laywomen, who
are "willing to consecrate some of their time," not their full
time, to church work. Thus it is clear that this is not a career choice by
which they will earn their livelihood, but a part-time volunteer ministry.(83)
Regarding the terms "appointed" and "set apart . . . by
prayer and laying on of hands," there can be no doubt that these were
Ellen White's characteristic expressions for a ceremony of ordination.(84)
No extensive research has been done to discover the extent of the
church's response to this appeal. Three instances are known, however. On
10 August 1895, about a month after Ellen White's article was published in
the Review (but possibly in response to an earlier local
circulation of the prepublication manuscript), the Ashfield Church in
Sydney, not far from where Ellen White was then working, held an
ordination service for newly elected church officers. "Pastors
Corliss and McCullagh of the Australian conference set apart the elder,
deacons, [and] deaconesses by prayer and the laying on of hands."(85)
Notice that identical ordination terminology is used for all three
offices. Another record from the same church five years later (6 January
1900) again reports the ordination of two elders, one deacon, and two
deaconesses. The officiating minister was W. C. White, whose diary of the
same date corroborates the records of the Ashfield Church clerk.(86)
A third example comes from February or March, 1916, when E. E. Andross,
then president of the Pacific Union Conference, officiated at a women's
ordination service and cited Ellen White's 1895 Review and Herald
article as his authority.(87)
Both the internal evidence of Ellen White's 1895 article and the
responses of those close to her at the time--the Ashfield Church; her son
W. C. White; and E. E. Andross, who was a church administrator in
California during Ellen White's Elmshaven years(88)--seem
to confirm that Ellen White approved the formal ordination of laywomen to
a role then associated with the office of deaconess in the local church.
The work of a deaconess was not confined to ritual functions at the Lord's
Supper and footwashing, but was rather seen as a work of practical
ministry to persons in need. This is the apparent significance of Ellen
White's job description, "to visit the sick, look after the young,
and minister to the necessities of the poor."
This evidence shows, first, that Ellen White did not view ordination,
as such, to be a gender-specific ordinance, but a ceremony of consecration
that may rightly be conducted for both men and women. It includes
"designation to an appointed office," "recognition of one's
authority in that office," and a request for "God to bestow His
blessing" upon the one ordained.(89)
Second, the association of ordination with the office of deaconess
suggests a line for further investigation. In current usage, both the
office of deacon and its feminine equivalent, deaconess, have become
stereo-typed as largely ceremonial offices, expanded slightly to include
(for the men) physical upkeep of the church building and grounds, and (for
the women) cooking and cleaning and serving at social functions. However,
the New Testament word transliterated as deaconess is rightly translated
"minister" (see Eph 3:7, where Paul uses the same root word for
his own ministry), and there were women who filled this ministerial office
(see Rom 16:1).(90)
Finally, note also that of the original seven who were elected to
"serve tables" in Acts 6:2, two of them far superseded the terms
of their ordination, becoming highly successful public speakers and
evangelists. In view of Ellen White's endorsement of ordaining women as
deaconesses, perhaps the significance of the New Testament precedent needs
to be more fully explored, remembering that Ellen White's motivation for
recommending this ritual was to stimulate the involvement and mobilization
of the rank and file of church members by vividly impressing on them their
divine calling to exercise outwardly the priest-hood of every believer
bestowed on them at their baptism.(91) If
the church would even now act on the instruction given a century ago that
women "should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of
hands"—a ritual that connotes the delegation
of church authority and a request for the bestowal of divine blessing(92)—the
church should not be surprised if some of those "set apart" to
minister to the "sick," the "young," and the
"poor" would go on to evangelizing and planting churches in
which the sick, the young, and the poor would become healthy, mature, and
prosperous, and continue the expansion of the Kingdom.
Regarding Ellen White's concept of the ministerial responsibilities
that might appropriately be exercised by women, five points may be noted.
1. The combined talents of both men and women are essential for the
highest success in the work of the ministry. Therefore the ideal is team
ministry, especially by husband-and-wife ministerial teams.
2. The list of roles open to women in gospel ministry embraces a wide
range of job descriptions and vocational options, including preaching,
teaching, pastoral care, evangelistic work, literature evangelism, Sabbath
School leadership, chaplaincy, counseling, and church administration.
3. She believed that the spiritual gifts of pastoring and teaching (Eph
4:11) are given by the Holy Spirit to both men and women, and some women
possess gifts and abilities for the "successful management" of
4. Ellen White's most strongly worded recommendation regarding women in
ministry was that self-sacrificing wives who join their husbands in team
ministry should receive wages proportionate to the time they devote to
ministry. The issue of fair pay for every ministerial wife who chooses to
devote herself to ministry rather than to some other profession was
certainly a higher priority with Ellen White than ordination; yet her
strong denunciations of paying only the male half of the ministerial team
are still, with a few isolated exceptions, largely disregarded.(93)
5. Ellen White recommended the ordination of laywomen to a local
ministry that would meet the needs of "the sick," "the
young," and "the poor." Thus she showed her understanding
that ordination is an ordinance of appointment and consecration that may
rightly be conducted for both men and women. Her contemporaries understood
this as a call for ordaining deaconesses on the same basis as deacons, but
the practice was never widely accepted in the church.
Since she believed ordination is important for laywomen in
a ministry to physical and emotional needs, would she also see some form
of ordination as important for women who are laborers "in word and
doctrine"? In any case, woman's place in ministry is secure. Even if
"the hands of ordination have not been laid upon her, she is
accomplishing a work that is in the line of ministry."(94)
1. Ellen G. White, "Words to Lay Members,"
Review and Herald, 25 August 1902, 7-8. For the context of this
phrase, see p. 186.
2. See, e.g., James White, A Word to the Little
Flock (Gotham, ME: James White, 1847), 13; James White, quoted in
"Doings of the Battle Creek Conference, October 5 and 6, 1861," Review
and Herald, 8 October 1861; both reproduced in Witness of the
Pioneers Concerning the Spirit of Prophecy: A Facsimile Reprint
of Periodical and Pamphlet Articles Written by the Contemporaries of Ellen
G. White (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1961), 4, 26; see
also, Arthur L. White, "The Position of 'The Bible and the Bible
Only' and the Relationship of This to the Writings of Ellen G.
White," Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1971.
3. Eph 4:11-13; Joel 2:28-29; Rev 12:17, 19:10.
4. Ellen G. White, Great Controversy, vii.
5. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual
(Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1990),
7. Ellen G. White, Colporteur Ministry, 6,
8. Ellen G. White, Counsels on Health, 558,
9. Ellen G. White, Manuscript 79, 1900, in Evangelism,
10. Ibid., 557, 558.
11. Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People,
12. Ellen G. White, Loma Linda Messages,
13. Ellen G. White, "The Laborer is Worthy of
His Hire," MS 43a, 1898, Manuscript Releases, 5:325.
14. Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases,
5:325; also cited in Evangelism, 472.
15. White, Manuscript Releases, 5:325.
17. Ibid., 324.
18. Ibid., 323-327.
19. White, Manuscript Releases, 5:323-324.
20. For a historical example, one could hardly
recall a more illustrious figure in the annals of Adventist women than
that of Mary E. Walsh (1892-1997), evangelistic Bible instructor, author,
and sometime pastor, who never married. "Mary Walsh, Pioneer Bible
Worker, Pastor, Dies at 105," Adventist Review, 20 November
21. Ellen G. White to A. G. Daniells, 27 October
1909 (Letter 142, 1909), Manuscript Releases, 17:37. The
Scripture reference appears to be a conflation of Rom 16:3 and Phil 4:3,
possibly with 2 Cor 1:11 in the background.
22. Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles,
23. White, Manuscript Releases, 5:324.
24. Ibid, 325.
25. Ellen G. White, Letter 77, 1898, cited in Evangelism,
469; see also Counsels on Health, 544, 547.
26. Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, 2
January 1879, cited in Evangelism, 472; cf. Desire of Ages,
27. Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, 26
August 1902, cited in Welfare Ministry, 145.
28. Ellen G. White, Letter 142, 1909, cited in Evangelism,
29. Ellen G. White, "Looking for that Blessed
Hope," Signs of the Times, 24 June 1889.
30. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, 1915
ed., 452-453, cited in Evangelism, 492-493.
31. Ellen G. White, Manuscript 47, 1898, excerpted
in Evangelism, 492; see also Manuscript Releases,
5:323-327; 12:160-167; 17:36-37.
32. Ellen G. White, Evangelism, 471-472.
33. Ibid., 492.
34. Ibid., 492-493.
35. Ellen G. White, Counsels on Stewardship,
81, 101-103; Testimonies, 9:247-250.
36. Ellen G. White, Manuscript 149, 1899, cited in Evangelism,
37. See, e.g. Manuscript Releases,
38. "Bible readers" refers to persons who
give "Bible readings," a question-and-answer form of Bible
39. Ellen G. White, "The Laborer is Worthy of
His Hire," Manuscript 43a, 22 March 1898, Manuscript Releases,
40. White, Evangelism, 493.
41. Similarly, in Testimonies, 8:229-230,
she wrote that "young men and young women who should be engaged in
the ministry, in Bible work, and in the canvassing work should not be
bound down to mechanical employment."
42. Ibid., 492.
43. White, Evangelism, 459, 464, 470, 471,
44. White, Evangelism, 493, "carrying
the truth into families;" see also ibid., 456, 469, 470, 475, 477. Evangelism,
491-493, speaks of women sharing with men in evangelistic work. Though
roles are not specified, the context and SDA history imply the specific
roles of visitation, Bible studies, other teaching roles, and pulpit
preaching. See chapter by Michael Bernoi.
45. Ellen G. White, Testimonies,
2:322-323; 4:390; 8:229-230; Evangelism, 467-473,
46. White, Evangelism, 469, 473-477.
"Again and again the Lord has shown me that women teachers are just
as greatly needed to do the work to which He has appointed them as are
men." The context refers to house-to-house pastoral-evangelistic
visiting and Bible teaching (E. G. White, "The Laborer is Worthy of
His Hire," Manuscript 43a, 22 March 1898, Manuscript Releases,
47. "Canvassing" denotes door-to-door
sales of Christian books and periodicals, a vocation currently called
"literature evangelism" (idem, 469-470; Testimonies,
2:322-323; Testimonies, 8:229-230).
48. "It is not in harmony with the
instructions given at Sinai that gentlemen physicians should do the work
of midwives. The Bible speaks of women at childbirth being attended by
women, and thus it ought always to be. Women should be educated and
trained to act skillfully as midwives and physicians to
their sex. It is just as important that a line of study be given to
educate women to deal with women's diseases, as it is that there should be
gentlemen thoroughly trained to act as physicians and surgeons. And the
wages of the woman should be proportionate to her services. She should be
as much appreciated in her work as the gentleman physician is appreciated
in his work" (idem, Counsels on Health, 365, emphasis
49. White, Testimonies, 8:143-144.
50. White, Evangelism, 460.
51. Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases,
52. Ellen G. White, "Words to Lay
Members," Review and Herald, 20 August 1902, 7-8; this
paragraph is quoted in idem, Welfare Ministry, 145.
53. A pronouncement Mrs. White made with reference
to wages seems equally applicable to issues of rank and position: "As
we bring ourselves into right relationship with God we shall have success
wherever we go; and it is success that we want, not money [or rank or
position, but]--living success, and God will give it to us because He
knows all about our self-denial. He knows every sacrifice that we make.
You may think that your self-denial does not make any difference, that you
ought to have more consideration and so on. But it makes a great
difference with the Lord. Over and over again I have been shown that when
individuals begin to reach out after higher and still higher wages [or
rank or position], something comes into their experience that places them
where they stand no longer on vantage ground. But when they take the wage
that carries on the face of it the fact that they are self-sacrificing,
the Lord sees their self-denial and He gives them success and victory.
This has been presented to me over and over again. The Lord that seeth in
secret will reward openly for every sacrifice that His tried servants have
been willing to make" (Ellen G. White, MS 12, 1913, quoted in Selected
54. White, Evangelism, 469, 473-477;
Counsels on Sabbath School Work, 90-96.
55. Ellen G. White, Letter 169, 1900, cited in Evangelism,
473; names supplied from idem, "The Laborer Is Worthy of His
Hire," Manuscript 43a, 22 March 1898.
56. J. N. Andrews, "May Women Speak in
Meetings?" Review and Herald, 2 January 1879.
57. Andrews, "May Women Speak in
Meetings?" emphasis his; see also, Uriah Smith, "Let Your Women
Keep Silence in the Churches," Review and Herald, 26 June
1866; James White, "Women in the Church," Review and Herald,
29 May 1979.
58. Ellen G. White to James White, from Oakland,
CA, Letter 17a, 1 April 1880, Manuscript Releases, 10:70.
59. Ellen G. White, Sketches from the Life of
Paul, 119, emphasis added.
60. Ellen G. White to A. G. Daniells, 27 October
(Letter 142), 1909, Manuscript Releases, 17:35-36.
61. A. L. White, Ellen G. White: The Australian
Years (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1983), 346-348.
62. Ellen G. White to S.M.I. Henry, 24 March 1899
(Letter 54, 1899), quoted in Review and Herald, 9 May 1899, and
excerpted in Evangelism, 473.
63. White, Testimonies, 8:229-230.
64. White, Manuscript Releases, 5:323; Testimonies,
6:323, quoted in Colporteur Ministry, 101.
65. See, e.g., MS 43a, 1898, Manuscript
Releases, 5:325, 323-327.
66. White, Testimonies, 4:390; 6:322-323.
67. See White, Testimonies, 3:232-233; Evangelism,
68. Ellen G. White, Appeal and Suggestions to
Conference Officers, Pamphlet no. 2, 17.
69. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (1915),
quoted in Evangelism, 350.
70. White, Manuscript Releases, 5:323; cf.
71. Ellen G. White, Welfare Ministry, 145.
72. Ellen G. White, "Our Publications,"
in Testimonies, 4:390.
73. White, Testimonies, 6:322.
74. Ibid., 321.
75. The "evangelistic canvasser" (Testimonies,
6:325), or "colporteur" (ibid, 323), was a door-to-door seller
of Christian books and periodicals, who not only sold them, but read and
explained them to people, seeking to lead them to a personal and growing
relationship with Christ.
76. Ibid., 321-322.
77. Ibid., 322.
78. Ibid., 323.
79. White, Testimonies, 6:322-323.
80. Ellen G. White to Brother Johnson, Letter 33,
1879, Manuscript Releases, 19:55-56.
81. See chapters by Richard M. Davidson and Peter
M. Van Bemmelen in this book.
83. Ellen G. White, Conflict and Courage,
342; idem, Acts of the Apostles, 355.
84. See, e.g., White, Acts of the Apostles,
160-161; idem, "Separated Unto the Gospel," Review and
Herald, 11 May 1911; idem, Gospel Workers, 15, 452; idem,
Manuscript Releases, 5:29, 323; idem, Testimonies, 6:444;
idem, Manuscript Releases, 2:32, 8:189; idem, Messages to
Young People, 226; idem, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel
Workers, 188. See also chapters by Keith Mattingly and Denis Fortin
in this book.
85. Minutes of the Ashfield SDA Church, Sydney,
Australia, 10 August 1895, cited by Arthur N. Patrick, "The
Ordination of Deaconesses," Adventist Review, 16 January
86. Minutes of the Ashfield SDA Church, Sydney,
Australia, 6 January 1900, and W. C. White Diary, 6 January 1900, cited by
Patrick, "The Ordination of Deaconesses," 18-19.
87. Mrs. L. E. Cox to C. C. Crisler, 12 March 1916;
reproduced in Roger W. Coon, "Ellen G. White's View of the Role of
Women in the SDA Church." Shelf Document, E. G. White Estate, 1986.
Mrs. Cox says, "I have been a Bible worker for a number of years and
have recently been granted a ministerial license." She reports that
she "was in a recent meeting where Elder A[n]dross set aside women by
the laying on of hands. . . ." Crisler, in reply, calls the service
"the ordination of women who give some time to missionary work."
(C. C. Crisler to Mrs. L. E. Cox, 22 March and 16 June 1916, both
reproduced in full in Coon, "Ellen G. White's View of the Role of
Women in the SDA Church," Appendix H, pp. 24-25).
88. SDA Encyclopedia, 1995 ed., s.v.
"Andross, Elmer Ellsworth."
89. White, Acts of the Apostles, 162; see
also Keith Mattingly's chapter, "The Laying on of Hands."
90. See Robert Johnston's chapter in this book.
91. Ellen G. White, "Our Work," Signs
of the Times, 25 August 1898, cited by Denis Fortin, "The
Concept of Ordination in the Writings of Ellen G. White," chapter 6,
92. White, Acts of the Apostles, 162.
93. James A. Cress, "Selective
Disobedience," Ministry, June 1998, 28-29.
94. White, Manuscript Releases, 5:323.