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A decade ago Adventists entered a period of ferment concerning Ellen White and her writings. It seemed as though a whole filing cabinet full of cards bearing previously-unknown information had been upended on the Adventist table. The sorting process appeared an unnecessary diversion to many, daunting to some, and disillusioning to others.
In hindsight, this painful experience has forced us to answer crucial questions we had ignored for far too long. Some questions centred on the church's best-loved life of Christ, The Desire of Ages.
Was The Desire of Ages trustworthy? Or is it a conglomeration of ideas plagiarised from other nineteenth-century authors? In November 1988, the Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre at Avondale College received a 100-page document that helps answer these questions.
Ellen White's first depiction of the controversy between Christ and Satan, published during 1858, included eight chapters on the life of Christ. She expanded this in two of her four volumes entitled The Spirit of Prophecy, in 1877 and 1878.
The life of Jesus became the high point of her writing during her nine Australian years, culminating in three books: Thoughts^ From the Mount of Blessing (1896), The Desire of Ages (1898), and Christ's Object Lessons (1900).
It's evident that early in this century some Adventists understood how The Desire of Ages was written and how it should be understood and used. It became a point of discussion after the 1919
Bible Conference at Takoma Park during meetings of Bible and history teachers. Transcripts of those dialogues were stored away for six decades. The church largely forgot numerous important insights.
Late in the 1970s when Walter Rea and others deluged us with new questions, we had to search anew for the answers. During 1980 the General Conference officers chose Dr James Cox to investigate Ellen White's use of other authors in her writings on the life of Christ. Dr Cox was appointed as principal of Avondale College while still in the early stages of the investigation.
Dr Fred Veltman replaced him. He came to the task well-equipped as a pastor and Bible teacher with a strong background and training in the language, text, interpretation, and theology of the New Testament.
Dr Veltman's "Summary and Conclusions" fill 100 of his 2,500-page report. He has completed his assigned task in a thorough and professional manner, with the help of a corps of research assistants.
Why should one of the church's best New Testament specialists devote much of seven years of his life to a project of this nature?
The Desire of Ages is an important work within Adventism. It also helps illustrate the nature of Ellen White's other writings. And the claims and denials of the late 1970s demanded painstaking evaluation.
Some observations from the report are worth considering. It proved a huge task. Fifteen of the 87 chapters in The Desire of Ages were selected for detailed scrutiny. Some 500 books on Christ's life and related topics presumed to be available for Ellen White were collected. Less-permanent potential sources, such as sermons and journal articles, couldn't be traced effectively.
The research isolated 32 works from 28 authors yielding "literary parallels" within 15 selected chapters; 23 proved to be more influential than the others.
Ellen White used as sources William Hanna's book on the life of Christ in 13 of the 15 chapters given special scrutiny. Two volumes by Daniel March were used in four chapters; the work of John Harris was used in another two chapters. The other sources were concentrated largely in one chapter each.
Dr Veltman believes about 31.4 per cent of The Desire of Ages is verbally parallel or similar to the sources she used. Beyond this literary relationship, a given chapter may reveal a broader "similarity of ideas" or "reflect the same thematic development as found in the sources."
The picture of Ellen White emerging from this study is different to that held by most Adventists until recent years.
Ellen White, though "not strong physically and had only minimal formal education," was "a person of great natural intelligence and through the years became widely read." "Over and over she demonstrates that she was able to take the essence of the source commentary and adapt it to her purpose." She shows "her ability to recognise the better literary construction of her helpers and of the sources from which she borrowed."
The Veltman research helps to identify the distinctive character of the writings of Ellen White. Her original writings exhibit a high level of readability, clarity and literary force. But, the "peculiar character" of her writings includes a practical approach to Scripture, a stress on "spiritual realities," a sense of certainty, and "devotional, moral, or Christian appeals."
To ponder Dr Veltman's comments is to conclude that God has not given in The Desire of Ages what some expected, but what we most needed as a religious movement.
Now that this report is available we can better address some of the other significant questions about Ellen White's writings. What is the nature of her inspiration? How did she use Scripture? What's the proper use of her writings in meeting the various needs of the church and of the individual Christian?
We can thank God that in Ellen White he chose a "voracious reader" and a writer with creative talent. "She, with the aid of her literary assistants, built out of the common quarry of stones not a replica of another's work but rather a customised literary composition which reflects the particular faith and Christian hope she was called to share with her fellow Adventists and the Christian community at large."
We can thank our church leaders for commissioning Dr Veltman to spear head this study on our behalf, The assurances this research has given means we can seek to proclaim more winsomely the essential message of The Desire of Ages: "to know God is to love Him."
(Unless otherwise indicated, all expressions placed in quotation
marks in the above article are drawn from Dr Fred Veltman's
"Summary and Conclusions," pages 858-958.)
At the time of writing Dr Patrick was on study leave from Avondale
College to complete a PhD in history.
[Note: This article is referenced by Arthur Patrick in his paper, "The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White, Part 1: 1982 in Historical Perspective", in Footnote #16. http://www.sdanet.org/atissue/white/patrick/egw-inspired.htm]