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Re-visioning the Role of Ellen White
for Seventh-day Adventists Beyond 2000

by Arthur Patrick, La Sierra University, D.Min., Ph.D.1

ABSTRACT: If a large amount of new information about its heritage comes to a religious movement within a short space of time, three reactions are likely to occur: reversion, rejection, and transformation. An unprecedented quantity of fresh data about the life and writings of Ellen White and the history and thought of the Seventh-day Adventist Church emerged between 1970 and 1982. Preliminary historical analysis suggests that reversionist, rejectionist, and transformationist stances developed during that period and persist in the present. For the unity of Adventism and the coherent fulfillment of its mission, administrators, teachers, pastors, and laity need to maximize the potential of the transformationist stance.


Christianity offers a saving knowledge of God through Jesus Christ (John 17:3; 1 John 5:20), taught of the Holy Spirit (John 14-16). Libraries of books can be consulted about the process of disclosure (revelation), its trustworthy communication (inspiration), and the help of the Spirit for those who seek to understand and apply the message (illumination). 2 Christianity has witnessed creative and destructive battles over these doctrines, few more intense than those within the United States during the first three decades of the twentieth century as Fundamentalism 3 and Modernism4 engaged each other. Seventh-day Adventists belong in neither camp. 5 However, with a valid concern about Modernism and an ambiguity with reference to Ellen White, many Adventists aligned themselves with the Fundamentalists. Especially since 1970, when Ellen White studies entered a new phase, this lack of clarity has threatened the unity and mission of Adventism.

Unrealistic concepts of inspiration caused many Adventists to adopt extreme positions 6 with reference to Ellen White's ministry, including reversionist attitudes. The Adventist of Fundamentalist inclination, confronted with a massive amount of new information, tends to elevate an idealized past as normative for the present, requiring a strong continuity (even identity) with that past. Therefore, historical data may be seen as the cause of unnecessary problems; primary sources may appear to initiate doubt about the leading of God; probing questions may seem threatening, with even their asking categorized as evidence of lack of faith. Thus judgmental groups tend to form on the edges of the church and mount a guerrilla war, firing salvos at people and institutions.

The polar opposite to reversion is a rejectionist stance, which declares the past is so unreliable in view of present knowledge or so irrelevant to present needs that separation from it is essential. Historical data may be grasped as a weapon with which to attack the church (as in the writings of Gregory Hunt and Wallace Slattery); primary sources may be used by the rejectionist in an attempt to discredit claims about God's leading. During the resultant confusion some people quietly slip out of the church because they perceive the church as dishonest, or congregations may divide when the advocacy of opposing ideas fragments relationships, or militant individuals may leave Adventism in anger and direct long-range missiles back at them body of Christ.

Meanwhile, the church and its institutions experience turmoil. At a time when there is an enormous need to comprehensively support creationism, great effort may be expended to prop up a peripheral idea--the chronology of Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656). When health and educational institutions need creative help to express Adventist values to patients and students, they may be threatened by well-meaning authors and administrators responding to negative reports which often turn out to be rumors. With unity under threat, bewildered leaders may grasp promising solutions offered in books like Omega and Receiving the Word, only to witness intensified conflict and a tarnishing of the church's credibility.7 Adventist ministers, historians, scientists, and religion teachers at times find hazardous the professions for which they prepared with great effort and outlay. Accountability is essential, as is a creative tension between academic freedom and academic responsibility. But to be effective, these professionals and their institutions also need accurate understanding from laity and leaders if the church is to proceed coherently with the fulfillment of its mission.

Consensus on the role of Ellen White would go a long way toward resolving many such tensions within Seventh-day Adventism. All the evidence needed to facilitate this objective is on the church's corporate desk; in fact, it has been there for fifteen years. A need remains in the church for a more faithful, informed, and unifying application of the writings of Ellen White. To that end the church needs to understand the reversionist and rejectionist options, and consciously adopt and promote a transformationist stance.

During her seventy-year ministry Ellen White developed a symbiotic relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. From 1915 to about 1970, partly because of unresolved issues in the conflict between Fundamentalism and Modernism, many Adventists came to use Ellen White's writings as an all-encompassing and authoritative encyclopedia of faith and practice. The years 1970 to 1982 brought to light a wealth of fresh information which, lacking adequate interpretation/application, created a "Great Bereavement" in Adventism. Therefore, from 1982 to the present, diversity has marked the Adventist understanding and application of the writings of Ellen White. Thus it seems appropriate to seek to enhance the church's future by a more consistent and unifying approach to this crucial subject.

I have tried to understand and apply Ellen White's writings during forty years of ministry--as pastor, evangelist, religion teacher, director of an Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Center, academic administrator, historian, and hospital chaplain. Nothing in this paper claims qualitative newness, only urgency. Surely all who lead the church want to find common ground on which to press forward together, fulfilling the mission given us by Jesus Christ.


*Please Note: At the time these articles were written, Arthur Patrick was Visiting Associate Professor of Church History and Pastoral Ministry La Sierra University. He is no longer at that institution. Readers who wish to respond to these articles should contact At Issue via e-mail.

1  This is a script for oral presentation, so it is often personal rather than passive. It assumes an awareness of the matters under discussion, with reasonable access to resources for Adventist studies, such as an institutional library and Heritage Room. Ellen White books are referred to by title only, and footnotes are minimized, since bibliographies in well-known volumes by Richard Schwarz, Gary Land, and George Knight are adequate, along with the Seventh-day Adventist Periodical Index and the interpretive framework offered in my thesis ["Ellen Gould White and the Australian Woman, 1891-1900" (M.Litt. thesis, University of New England, 1984)], dissertation ["Christianity and Culture in Colonial Australia: Selected Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan and Adventist Perspectives, 1891-1900" (Ph.D. thesis, University of Newcastle, 1991)], and an article ["Seventh-day Adventists in the South Pacific: A Review of Sources," Journal of Religious History 14 (June 1987): 307-326]. In addition, Ellen G. White Estate offers a 19-page brochure entitled Documents Available (1995); a vast number of periodical articles have been assembled by Roger Coon; and other relevant theses, dissertations, and research papers have been listed by Gilbert Abella and Vera May Schwarz.

Critiques of these ideas are invited, mailed to me at the School of Religion, La Sierra University, Riverside, CA 92515; faxed to me at (909) 785 2199; telephoned to my office (909) 785 2098 or home (909) 353 2823; or e-mailed to At Issue. My articles in Adventist Heritage, Adventist Review, Ministry, Record, and Lucas, as well as chapters in denominational books, are better suited to the general reader; this presentation is designed for those who seek an historical overview, analysis, and projection from research relating to Ellen White undertaken by Seventh-day Adventists since 1970. In a short paper on such a broad subject, summary statements may leave room for ambiguity. Thus I am happy to document more fully any statement made herein, should that be desired by a reader. [back] [top]

2  I acknowledge the formative influence of Dr. Raoul Dederen on my thought in these areas while I undertook M.A. and M.Div. studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 1970-1972. [back] [top]   

3  Fundamentalism is well defined in volumes by J.I. Packer (1958), James Barr (1977), Martin Marty (author and ed.), George Marsden, and Mircea Eliade (ed.). It has many positive elements; the verbal inerrancy of the Bible is not one of them. Such other Fundamentalist doctrines as dispensationalism, secret rapture, Keswick holiness, immortality of the soul, and an eternally-burning hell do not cohere with Adventism. Steve Daily's M.A. thesis situates the debate about the role of Ellen White in relation to the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy. [back] [top]

4  Some observers suggest that "Modernism is dead," and the present threat to Adventism is "the pluralistic, postmodern world view." See the Adventist Theological Society Newsletter 8 (September 1997): 1-2. [back] [top]   

5  Evangelical is a more applicable term, as defined in volumes by David Bebbington and Brian Dickey. For a North American perspective, see Leonard Sweet (ed.), The Evangelical Tradition in America (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, c. 1997). [back] [top

  6  I am indebted, for a way to name these three categories, to Robert M. Johnston, "Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Biblical Period: Reflections on an Elusive Category," address to the Andrews Society for Religious Studies (December 1981):10 [back] [top].   

7  Omega is skilfully written, but is based on grossly inadequate historical research. Receiving the Word has a penchant for naming people and placing them in negative categories without due care as to their actual position. [back] [top]

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