At Issue Index   EGW Index   Patrick Index   Previous   Next

Ellen White After 35 Years:
A New Tipping Point in Adventist Studies

by Arthur Patrick

Thirty-five years ago a fledgling journal, Spectrum, the quarterly journal of the Association of Adventist Forums, initiated a discussion of Adventist heritage that is reaching a new level of maturity in the 21st Century. As a North American religious movement formed in a millenarian matrix and marked by otherworldly apocalypticism, it is evident that Adventism must either disintegrate or develop a better understanding of the crucial doctrine of revelation/inspiration. No longer can the church afford to be overtly apologetic and triumphalistic when defining its identity and pursuing its mission within Western society.

Although Seventh-day Adventism was born a century after the Enlightenment, it took another hundred years for it to be confronted rudely by the modern world. A change of direction for Adventist Studies can be identified unmistakably with a 1970 issue of Spectrum. The church’s journey in terms of these matters has often been stormy and slow, but its progress toward a more mature understanding is unmistakable.

Of course there are many other visible transitions in Sabbatarian Adventism that can be traced readily in the writings of historians such as George Knight and Gary Land of Andrews University. What does it mean to be Adventist? was the catalyzing question of the movement in 1844. Part of the immediate answer was to develop landmark concepts that would orientate the Adventist pilgrimage through a bewildering religious landscape. What is Jesus doing now? How does cosmology relate to eschatology? What does it mean to be human now and anticipate resurrection hereafter? Does God communicate directly with His earthly children? Equipped with five S strings (Second Coming, Sanctuary, Sabbath, State of the Dead, Spiritual Gifts), our pioneers strummed a new song on their journey toward "the land of Canaan" (SDA Hymnal, 451). But more crises were to confront them. The tumult of 1888 pressed upon a developing movement the most basic of questions, What does it mean to be Christian? In 1901 Adventism had to face another perplexing issue, What structure will better equip the church for a world mission? Then, after years of retreat into Fundamentalism, the church began to ask more explicitly (1954-7), What does it mean to be Evangelical? By1970 it was essential to enquire, How does evidence sustain faith and indicate a need for course-corrections? However, since the church found that question super-difficult, it was caught off balance by the more complex question of 1980: How does the evidence that sustains faith necessitate course-corrections in order to create maturer meaning and facilitate effective mission?

All the transitions in Adventism bear a distinct relation to its landmark ideas and theological identity. Of these, the issue of Spiritual Gifts has been one of the most perennial and pervasive. When Adventism was birthed, American society was in a state of flux, facilitating the hearing of competing religious voices raised in stentorian tones. Joseph Smith’s contribution was to offer new scriptures; Mary Baker Eddy’s was to offer the equivalent of a distinctive lens through which to read the Scriptures; Charles Taze Russell’s was a hermeneutic that would require authoritarian leaders and then a teaching magisterium to sustain it and control Bible study. The Adventist prophet proposed a different solution, even though some of her most committed followers tried devoutly and persistently to make her writings scripture, or at least to give her authority to determine the meaning of the Scriptures.

The Adventist Crisis of the 1970s

For the first 55 years after the death of Ellen Gould White (1827-1915), the Adventist conversation about their co-founder was usually devout and assured. Not long before its steep decline, this long era of certitude welcomed the articulate apologetic by F.D. Nichol (Ellen G. White and Her Critics, 1951), delivering a pristine Ellen White from murky charges about the Shut Door, amalgamation and similar miasmas. But when believers began to examine the life and writings of Ellen White from perspectives formed by training in history, literature, Scripture, theology, science, and other disciplines, unexamined certainties began to evaporate in the light of newly discovered or newly available evidence. The Adventist community needed an updated agenda if it was to preserve Ellen White as its prophet. She had become its authoritative interpreter of Scripture, its encyclopaedic definer of thought and practice. But was this God’s design or even Ellen White’s understanding of her role? So a single issue percolated to the top of the Adventist pile: What is revelation/inspiration?

Forward to the 21st Century

Are prophets human? If so, is a human prophet really a prophet? To express such questions is to employ language that only seems appropriate long after the debate began. Currently, the evidence suggests both these statements invite a three-letter response: a simple yes. If so, the Adventist dialogue and dialectic about Ellen White is set for a new level of intensity and usefulness. Indeed, five recent books by six Adventist authors, read together, indicate a crucial tipping point in Adventist Studies is already here.

Graeme Bradford’s Prophets are Human is from Signs Publishing Company, the publisher of Signs of the Times and Record, serving the South Pacific Division of Seventh-day Adventists (SPD). Released at the Ellen White Summit sponsored by the SPD in February 2004, Bradford’s book—a mere 91 pages—delivers a heavy message in light language: Ellen White is an inspired prophet and an authentic human being. Unpacked, these concepts mean she was the messenger of a loving God to a struggling Advent movement and its people even though she made some obvious mistakes. Bradford’s principal passion is to present Ellen White’s writings through the definitive lens of Scripture.

According to the back cover of his book, Bradford “is an honest seeker who writes honest answers to questions about Ellen White” (William Johnsson, editor, Adventist Review); he merits “highest admiration ... for his personal integrity and commitment to truth” (Barry Oliver, SPD secretary with an Andrews University doctorate in Adventist Studies). SPD president Laurie Evans states in his Foreword: “This book is long overdue, and will do much to restore confidence in the authority and validity of the gift of prophecy.”

Others offer contrasting assessments. A thought-leader in Ellen White matters wrote a personal, 29-page letter to Bradford from Adventist world headquarters in the United States. His concerns are similar to those made more public by Angel Rodriguez, director of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute and one of his staff, Gerhard Pfandl. The central focus of all three is the issue of inspiration: for Pfandl “Prophets are Human is seriously deficient”; for Rodriguez, Bradford’s book “makes a contribution to the development of an Adventist concept of revelation and inspiration that is not representative of what Adventists have considered to be the biblical understanding of the inspiration and authority of the Bible and the role of E.G. White.”

A strident dismissal of Bradford is attempted in Chapter 6 of a 411-page book by Russell R. and Colin D. Standish, authors since 1979 of perhaps 56 privately published books, 19 of them more-or-less focused (as is The Remnant Herald) on “the ills of God’s church.” The twin brothers in The Greatest of All the Prophets (2004) find it “incredible” that Bradford’s book “passed the scrutiny of twenty individuals” (page 30); they lament that “alas, the omega of apostasy, as prophesied by our prophet for these days, is a reality; it is here to remain until the sealing work is completed” (page 43). In its 46 chapters, The Greatest of All the Prophets offers a spirited defence of Ellen White’s writings as conveying “the infinite, inerrant knowledge of the Godhead” (15), always accurate even in the minutia of matters like chronology and science (107-133 and elsewhere), history (137-198) and health (201-235). In a more recent book, presented by the Standish brothers as an “expose of the introduction of apostasy by stealth into the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” they summarise The Greatest of All the Prophets as “a defense of the inerrancy of Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy.”

This style of inerrancy is not congruent with Adventism. Providentially, reliable help on the issue of revelation/inspiration is at hand. Pacific Press released during 2005 a winsome volume by Alden Thompson of Walla Walla College, veteran of the five-part “Sinai to Golgotha” series in Adventist Review, December 1981. Ever since 1979 when he read 4,700 pages of Ellen White’s Testimonies for the Church as partial preparation for teaching his first class in Adventist history, Thompson has been brewing his understanding of inspiration with reference to both Scripture and Ellen White’s writings. The result is a “growth model” that offers solutions for the most intense issues that have emerged during 35 years of debate. Like Bradford’s book with its focus on biblical data, Thompson’s volume is rooted in the Scriptures and written in language accessible to a wide readership under an engaging title: Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White grew from fear to joy—and helped me to do it too.

Enter McMahon and Brand

But there is more help, much more. Two new volumes present Australian research with an American “translation”: Acquired or Inspired? Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle (Warburton, Victoria, Australia: Signs Publishing Company, 2005) and The Prophet and Her Critics (Nampa, Idaho, United States of America: Pacific Press, 2005).

The Prophet and Her Critics is co-authored by Loma Linda University Ph.D. Leonard Brand and Australian medical specialist Don McMahon of Melbourne. Brand is uniquely qualified to intensify the appeal of McMahon’s research for North American readers. Brand provides a context for re-evaluating the earlier research of Ronald Numbers on health (1976), Jonathan Butler on prophetic fulfilment (1979) and Walter Rea on literary relationships (1982) in particular, and proposes that the “quality of their research” should be examined to see “(1) whether their logic meets an acceptable scholarly standard, avoiding serious logical errors; (2) whether their data support the conclusions they reach; and (3) whether their research design adequately supports their conclusions” (page 14). Then Chapter 5, entitled “The Test,” summarises McMahon’s research and suggests the value of the CD included with McMahon’s volume, making available the data that will enable others to examine his methodology and conclusions.

As far back as 1987, McMahon was re-reading The Ministry of Healing, testing his hunch "that most—if not all—modern, health/lifestyle risk factors were covered by Ellen White" (Inspired or Acquired? page 139). A long engagement with historical and scientific issues followed, as he identified "health and medical statements" that implied what should be done by the individual and why it should be done. Finally, with the help of the CD-ROM produced by White Estate, enabling him to search Ellen White’s writings on computer and date any given statement, he compared her writings with those of five other nineteenth-century health reformers. Three medical colleagues checked McMahon’s analyses; a statistician contributed a probability study that gave him his greatest surprise with reference to Ellen White’s whats: “The chances were astronomically against random chance” (page 141).

There may well be extended discussion amongst medicos and others about the specifics within McMahon’s analyses of the whats and the whys enunciated by Ellen White, and the ways in which these transcend or compare with the recommendations of such nineteenth-century health reformers as Graham, Alcott, Coles, Jackson and Kellogg. Mathematics experts and statisticians will, no doubt, pore over the proposals relating to probability and variance. But the over-arching issue is clear: whereas most nineteenth-century medical writers wilt under scrutiny, Ellen White is exceptional. McMahon concludes: “When the knowledge of the mid-19th century is taken into consideration, it is impossible to exclude inspiration from Ellen White’s writings”; indeed, these writings “should not be rejected; it is essential they be carefully studied and appreciatively implemented” (page 142).

The Sum of the Matter

Historian and sociologist Ronald Lawson of the City University of New York documents in some fifty scholarly presentations and articles the reality that sectarian Adventism is struggling toward becoming a church. This particular transition is most evident in places like Europe, North America and Australia; it is not yet impacting some of the growth areas of the worldwide communion, but it will. If Adventism is to be effective in its witness it must come to terms more fully with the nature of Scripture and the relation between the biblical corpus and its inspired prophet; otherwise its past will become a relic that fails to influence its future. Adventists can now more effectively extend the helpful portrayal of Ellen White’s life and thought offered in four slim volumes by George Knight (1996-9) and the massive tome by Herbert Douglass (1998). By applying the additional biblical and historical insights of Bradford and Thompson, by testing historical, biblical and theological conclusions in the light of Brand’s design and McMahon’s findings, Adventist Studies in the immediate future can expect to be more coherent and unifying than in the recent past.

The proposals of the Standish brothers are untenable because of the wealth of contrary data that has become public knowledge since 1970; even their passion and commitment will fail to make their formulations believable to more than the minority of Adventists who steadfastly deny evidence and resist even constructive change. A warning is essential in this regard: the church at large and individual members do lose something in view of the current research, and this reality sounds a clarion call for sensitive pastoral care. While the extreme of rejection is the polar opposite from the extreme of reversion, believers frequently move from the extreme right to the extreme left when evidence that contrasts with their belief system at last reaches their consciousness. But for the Adventist community, a positive outcome beckons: by losing an inerrant prophet, the movement regains the real Ellen White with her demonstrated openness to “present truth.”

Prophets are human. But humans are chosen by God as prophets. Anyone ignoring the groundbreaking evidence and analyses offered in the four disarmingly straightforward volumes discussed above will quickly be out-of-date by reason of this new tipping point in Adventist Studies. If the church fails to apply this research to hone Adventist identity and mission, it will limp in its awesome task of proclaiming the everlasting gospel to every nation, tribe, language and people, Revelation 14:6, NIV.

Arthur Patrick, Research Fellow
Avondale College, 
20 January 2006

At Issue Index   EGW Index   Patrick Index   Previous   Next