|At Issue Index EGW Index|
Early last year the effervescent Seventh-day Adventist dialogue about Ellen
White in the South Pacific Division reached new heights of understanding, as
briefly reported elsewhere. However, this largely irenic process was interrupted
near the close of 2004 when Highwood Books (Narbethong, Victoria, Australia)
published 416 passionate pages entitled The Greatest of All The Prophets.
The message of authors Russell R. and Colin D. Standish is devoid of ambiguity: “Today, Babylon has all but destroyed Jerusalem and captured its erstwhile leaders and citizens” (375). “Jerusalem” in this context is the Seventh-day Adventist Church; “most workers in the church organization” have taken “the left-hand turn leading to a city called the Omega of Apostasy” (378). Specifically, the brothers reject the concept that an authentic prophet in Scripture or Adventism can be “human” enough to make minor mistakes in peripheral matters.
This book, according to the list on pages 408-411, is the 39th volume published by the Standishes since 1979. It summarises many themes addressed within their earlier tomes. 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).
The authors present their case in nine sections. “A Tragic History” declares the descent of the Church into apostasy (3-12);“Stratagems” outlines eight specific examples of this process in the South Pacific Division during 2004 (15-104). Ensuing sections reiterate aspects of the theme: “Conferences to Alter Faith” (107-133); “Divine History” (137-198); “The Health Message” (201-235); “An Ineffective Ministry” (239-255); “Was Sister White a Prophet?” (259-298): “The Remnant Church” (301-318): “From Doubt to Trust” (321-388). Following a “Scriptural Index” is a “Spirit of Prophecy Index” and an “Index of Personalities” (389-407).
With some exceptions, the “personalities” are categorised as being on the side of truth and righteousness or on that of error and unrighteousness. Nine people are mentioned in the text so often that their names are followed not by page numbers but by the expression “many references”: Ellen White, Russell and Colin Standish are on the side of truth and righteousness; A.G. Daniells, Desmond Ford, Graeme Bradford, Ray Roennfeldt, Bruce Manners and Arthur Patrick are located on the other side.
This short review offers no rejoinder to the chapters and repeated references that deal with my presentations about the life and writings of Ellen White because reports of my research are adequate and readily available for assessment in a variety of sources including Adventist Review, Adventist Heritage, Ministry, Record, sdanet.org (in the At Issue section) and on CD. While the authors have a list of 54 items that I have written, including a master-level thesis and a doctoral dissertation, it seems that they may have read only a small number of these. It is my opinion that to read these items would negate a majority of the charges levelled by the Standishes.
One is tempted to comment on numerous side issues. Many Adventists who affirm Ellen White’s prophetic ministry believe that Jesus Christ is God’s prophet par excellence. Such readers are apt to express concern that the book seems to imply Ellen White is the greatest of all the prophets. A substantial number of Adventists also view Seventh-day Adventism as a community of faith in search of how to understand and apply “the truth as it is in Jesus” rather than as a citadel enclosing all truth. Further, the Standishes seriously distort history at many points by indefensible interpretations and, at times, by statements that are factually wrong. One example of the latter problem must suffice here: to assert that Ronald Numbers wrote Prophetess of Health while at the University of Wisconsin is to miss the significance of the well known, illuminating sequence of events that occurred prior to his move to Wisconsin. However, rather than forming a long list of such matters, it may be more useful to identify and briefly describe categories that merit extended scrutiny.
I. The Use of Inspired Writings
The Greatest of All the Prophets falls short in its use of inspired writings. Many Bible passages and Ellen White references are cited and applied with little regard for their original setting. Therefore, while the language cited may suit the purpose of the authors, the message expressed is not what the inspired writers envisioned or intended. For instance, Isaiah 1:9 (54, 215, 302, 368) refers to a remnant of Judah; Isaiah 56:10-12 (244) warns of watchmen that are as “dumb dogs, that cannot bark” who take “strong drink”. Note a similar use of a passage from Early Writings (379). These inspired comments apply to both Isaiah’s time and the last days wherein the sins of Judah are being repeated or if Ellen White’s very specific and thoughtful projection during the 1850s fits the current Church, matters that are not proven. That a text without a context is merely a human pretext is obvious at many points in the book.
II. The Witness of Primary Sources
The Greatest of All the Prophets suffers seriously because the authors have not researched effectively primary sources that are germane to their specific claims. To be credible, any such volume should be aware of the treasures held in the research facilities that serve all the major geographical sections of the Adventist world. At great expense the Church has planted and nurtured these institutions since it made a landmark decision to do so in 1972. Serious authors cannot assume their work is done merely by correspondence with the staff of these institutions or by reference to published materials; there is no substitute for diligent research in files and microforms, letters and manuscripts, rare periodicals and historic books. For instance, the Standishes claim to offer a definitive account of Ellen White’s understanding of amalgamation (226-235). But they make no reference to the Uriah Smith Review and Herald articles that James White later collected, recommended, published as a book and sold widely at Adventist camp meetings. Didn’t the Adventist prophet and her husband communicate on this matter so vigorously canvassed during the 1860s? Further, it is inadequate to discuss Ellen White and oysters (328-9) without quoting what she wrote on this issue, for instance: “If you can get a few cans of good oysters, get them” (Letter 16, 1882).
III. The Relevance of Recent Research
The Greatest of The Prophets fails to engage with well informed Adventist authors whose recent writings resolve some of the principal tensions exercising the Standishes. To claim the last word on the Shut Door is perilous without giving attention to a sequence of primary sources discussed by such authors as Ingemar Linden in two books (1978, 1982), Robert Olson in a near-complete collection of documents (1980), George Knight in voluminous interpretive writings (since 1993); Merlin Burt in a superb doctoral dissertation (2002). Further, George Knight’s four volumes on Ellen White’s life and writings offer well-tested historical understandings and cogent principles for effective interpretation. Herbert Douglass in 1998 published over 600 pages entitled Messenger of the Lord. Rolf Poehler’s doctoral dissertation (1995) and published books (1999, 2001) give an unmatched overview of the constructive way Ellen White contributes to the development of Adventist theology. These publications and many others like them must not be ignored in a work of this nature, if it is to claim credibility.
IV. Evaluation of Data
Adventist literature should be evaluated on the thoroughness of the research undergirding it and by its faithfulness to all the known and available data in Scripture and history, not by the impression of the Standish brothers as to whether or not a particular writer fits their criterion of orthodoxy. I happen to know in some detail the lives and writings of a considerable number of the people that are judged wanting in The Greatest of All the Prophets. Frequently these people and their writings cannot be recognised from the descriptions given and the interpretations made, neither do they merit the judgments proclaimed upon them.
V. The Relation Between Tradition and Inspired Writings
The Standish formulation, in essence, calls Adventists to place tradition above both Scripture and Ellen White. This is the precise error that Adventists often charge against the Protestant churches after the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The creed of orthodoxy that the brothers recommend offers an immoveable tradition rather than (to reflect Ellen White’s terminology) a walk in increasing light. As early as the writing of Testimonies, vol. 1 (261) she addressed this need about which she became more explicit during the later years of her fruitful ministry: note, for example, Counsels to Writers and Editors, 28-51. If the patterns of early Adventism are to be taken as a guide, this necessity calls our community of faith to open, thorough, earnest dialogue rather than study in isolation from those who disagree with us.
VI. APOLOGETIC VERSUS APPRECIATION
Ellen White’s writings do not need nor are they enhanced by the apologetic for inerrancy given in The Greatest of All the Prophets. The beauty, integrity and relevance of her writings are becoming clearer within Adventism as research proceeds. To understand them is to appreciate them; to appreciate them is the strongest motivation to apply them. Probably some of the prophet’s best known words convey the needed message incomparably: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history,” Life Sketches, 196. An accurate understanding of Adventist history helps us to participate in the process of revival and reformation that must constantly enhance the witness of the Church throughout the world. Polemic attacks such as in this book do not further that purpose.
However, The Greatest of the Prophets can fill a role in the present discussion. For instance, it cites (379-383) the heart-rending plea of James Winston Kent written 7 May 1975. There is a great need for open dialogue in order that stalwarts like Pastor Kent may be led to appreciate the dynamic nature of Adventist faith. The Standish brothers deliver a forthright and extended account of Ellen White from a reversionist perspective; it may even be the best available apologetic from that stance. It is crucial that they be heard thoroughly in the ongoing conversation about the life and writings of Ellen White. Likewise, all the voices in Adventism must be heard clearly and respectfully if the Church is to have any realistic hope of nurturing agreement on the abundant evidence at hand, an early but major step toward developing effective unity.
Three 2005 books are already enlivening the Adventist conversation about Ellen White. Acquired or Inspired? Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle is authored by Don S. McMahon, a Melbourne medical specialist, and published by Signs Publishing Company (Warburton, Victoria, Australia). McMahon’s research offers compelling evidence that Ellen White could not have outshone nineteenth-century health reformers so remarkably without Divine assistance. Of similar content and import is a volume co-authored by Leonard Brand and Don McMahon, The Prophet and Her Critics (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press). Yet another book, by Alden Thompson of Walla Walla College, is entitled Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White grew from fear to joy--and helped me to do it too (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press). The voices of these three authors contrast with those of the Standish brothers, characterised as they are by the balance that is so lacking in The Greatest of All the Prophets.
However, the passion and commitment of the Standish brothers alerts the Church again to the necessity for the Adventist dialogue about Ellen White to proceed, fuelled by earnest prayer, diligent research and intelligent faith. Ellen White’s spiritual gift was essential in the founding and early development of Adventism; it remains crucial as we face the ultimate challenge: sharing the eternal gospel with “every nation, tribe, language and people,” Revelation 14:6 (NIV).