At Issue Index   EGW Index   Patrick Index

Ellen White, the Adventist Church, and its Religion Teachers

by Arthur Patrick, La Sierra University

ABSTRACT: The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a prophetic movement called of God to share "the truth as it is in Jesus." While truth is absolute, individual and corporate perceptions of it are always partial. Hence the church’s religion teachers must often function as catalysts for change, interpreting the past and anticipating the future in order to highlight "present truth" and duty. Therefore, the religion teacher may not always expect understanding from those in the church whose focus may be upon such alternatives as "historic Adventism" or boundless change. This fact calls the teacher of religion to give prime attention to Scripture and the church’s developing understanding of truth, aware of the way this development has occurred in the past, and avoiding the extremes of reversion and rejection in the present.

Near the climax of what may be characterized as the era of Seventh-day Adventism’s "Great Bereavement" (1970-1982), Neal Wilson observed in the church’s "General Organ" that change is "a constant factor in Adventism." Beginning in 1970, wave after wave of new information broke over the church, meaning that many Adventists were bereaved from an earlier "Great Assurance" about their spiritual identity, their religious distinctiveness, and the encyclopedic authority of their prophet. While the processes of change in this period were similar in kind to those of previous generations, the new information which powered the change was so important and so pervasive that the church is still struggling to implement it into coherent patterns of belief and practice. One current focus of interest amongst religion teachers is the decision by the Board of Trustees of Walla Walla College that henceforth the Board will monitor the way in which Ellen White’s authority is treated in the institution’s classrooms. Historical precedents illumine some of the issues which the Board may encounter as it implements its announced agenda.

Change in Sabbatarian Adventism

It is highly instructive for the religion teacher to investigate carefully the primary sources of early Adventist history. The impulse to extol "Historic Adventism" in the contemporary church is often focused upon the recovery and promulgation of the faith and practice of the people loosely designated as "the pioneers." Let us note some of the data that this "Historic Adventism" impulse might assess as it plans its emphases.

1. To surrender the Shut Door concept is to move toward outer darkness. James White, 1845: "Brethren J. and C.H. Pearson, and E.C. Clemons, have given up the shut door, and are doing all they can to drag others to outer darkness." As late as 1849, Ellen White wrote: "My accompanying angel bade me look for the travail of souls for sinners as used to be. I looked but could not see it for the time of their salvation is past."

2. To marry is to deny the Advent faith and be ensnared by a wile of the devil. James White, 1846: "Of late, the ‘Hope Within the Veil,’ has turned a short corner, and I am glad of it; for the Editor and Publisher, some weeks before the change of views, denied their faith, in being published for marriage. We look upon it as a wile of the devil. The firm brethren in Maine who are waiting for Christ to come have no fellowship with such a move."

3. To leave Adventism is to identify with the wicked world in which there is no possibility of salvation for the backslider or the world. Ellen Harmon, 1846, but reporting her December 1844 vision: "At this I raised my eyes and saw a straight and narrow path, cast up high above the world. On this path the Advent people were traveling to the City.... But some soon grew weary.... Others rashly denied the light behind them, and said it was not God that had led them out so far. The light behind them went out leaving their feet in perfect darkness, and they stumbled and got their eyes off the mark and lost sight of Jesus, and fell off the path down in the dark and wicked world below. It was just as impossible for them to get on the path again and go to the City, as all the wicked world which God had rejected."

4. To discontinue the use of swine’s flesh and advocate that practice as a test is to make "work for repentance." Ellen White, 1858: "I saw that your views concerning swine’s flesh would prove no injury if you have them to yourselves.... You are both making work for repentance."

5. To witness to other Christians is to cast pearls before swine. As he prepared for a funeral service in August 1846, James White reflected: "I shall have a congregation of hard, ugly Congregationalists and Methodists." Then he added: "Do not think Brother James is getting formal or is going to try to convert people to the Advent faith. No; it is too late. But it is our duty on some occasions to give a reason for our hope I think, even to swine." (Italics his.)

6. To discourage her husband from engaging in sexual intercourse is a duty of a Christian wife. Ellen White, 1868: "Let the Christian wife refrain, both in word and act, from exciting the animal passions of her husband. Many have no strength at all to waste in this direction." Vitalism, a long-continuing idea still considered as scientific fact in the Nineteenth Century, is no longer deemed to be valid.

7. The power of the Lord reveals itself in physical manifestations such as witnessed in the Dammon event, ecstatic utterances, and supernatural prostrations.

8. To study races of human beings now present on the earth is to find evidence of the interbreeding of humans and animals. This was Uriah Smith’s defense (applauded by James White) of Ellen White’s "amalgamation" concept.

9. The young may be directed away from masturbation by an awareness of the diseases it causes, including an array of physical deformities and "the inward decay of the head."

10. To lace a woman’s waist tightly may cause her offspring to inherit a wasp waist; for a woman to wear a headpiece may heat the blood and result in immoral behavior. Such problems in the Health Reformer of 1871 would seem too trivial to mention here except that as late as the 1970s, a publication authorized by White Estate claimed no important idea in Ellen White’s health writings needed revision, yet at the 1982 International Prophetic Guidance Workshop there was a serious proposal from White Estate personnel that Ellen White’s writings embodying such statements be separated from the works deemed to be authoritative.

While these instances of change are drawn somewhat randomly from the abundant and diverse primary sources of early Adventism, they illustrate the stance of the church’s pioneers on a number of important issues: the relation between science and religion, the early development of health reform, concepts of marriage and sexuality, as well as doctrinal understandings—the idea of unpardonable sin, Christian responsibility in view of an imminent Second Advent, the work of the Holy Spirit, and more. Some may suggest that these instances of sincerely-held beliefs illustrate ideas which were current only during the first three decades of Sabbatarian Adventism, that these concepts are now acknowledged as obsolete, and thus they no longer merit discussion. The folk who make this claim are apt to proceed as though the next four decades of Adventist history present to us an Ellen White and often a pioneer leadership of the church whose counsel and teachings can be presented as normative for today. Hence it needs to be emphasized that similar changes can be documented in every later period of Adventism.

A few examples indicate the pervasiveness of the change which is evident later in Ellen White’s experience. The movement "From Sinai to Golgotha" which Alden Thompson so well documented in his (December 1981) series of Adventist Review articles gives the church a profoundly-important window through which to observe a paradigm shift which was occurring within Adventism during the final decades of the Nineteenth Century. At the same time it must be recognized that the republication of earlier ideas in the Review kept a number of unscientific ideas alive in that era. Further, the four-decade-long process whereby Ellen White expressed her views on the life of Christ, beginning in 1858 with Spiritual Gifts, continuing in periodical articles and the four volumes entitled The Spirit of Prophecy, and culminating with three masterpieces (Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 1896, The Desire of Ages, 1898, Christ’s Object Lessons, 1900), is memorable for a number of reasons, including its demolition of the idea that an informed Seventh-day Adventist can be a Fundamentalist. This insight is confirmed by the 1907 editing of The Great Controversy, in which, for instance, W.W. Prescott gave scores of substantial suggestions which were incorporated into the revised edition. The role of Ellen White’s literary assistants was accurately known by some attendees of the 1919 dialogues; a substantial reason for the "Great Bereavement" was that these data were largely forgotten until the 1970s. The same may be said about Ellen White’s copious and often creative use of Adventist and non-Adventist authors. The questions listed for consideration by the Biblical Research Institute in 1980 offer an important perspective on the issues which were seen by the church to be important by that time. These matters were of far greater consequence than the identity of the law in Galatians or the development of the concept of clean and unclean meats; smaller issues which, however, aptly pointed toward a more viable way to understand Ellen White’s spiritual gift.

These comments on the development of Sabbatarian Adventism illustrate the fact that past orthodoxy can readily constitute present heresy. It would be easy to append a hundred examples of this fact, but two more must suffice at this point. While completing the inaugural Murdoch Lecture delivered last August at the centennial of Avondale College, I was given an item of information by Murdoch’s student assistant from the Scotsman’s early years at Avondale. The sainted Murdoch evidently believed Avondale was able to secure his services as its principal (1947-1953) because he had lost the confidence of his Northern Hemisphere brethren for moving from the then-orthodox view of Armageddon. Few Adventist exegetes would now question the direction of Murdoch’s thought at that time, though most would want to travel in a similar direction much further than Murdoch did during the 1940s. The writings of Arthur White during the 1970s, especially his "Toward a Factual Concept of Inspiration" papers and his articles on Ellen White’s writing of the Great Controversy story, demonstrate an important paradigm-shift in that decade which was relocating the theological position of Ellen White’s grandson, the main pillar of White Estate.

In hindsight, Ellen White now appears to be the most innovative agent of change in Sabbatarian Adventism during her lifetime. She gave the scattered believers a new metaphor with which to interpret their 1844 experience, and a fresh concept of their publishing opportunities in 1848. She prodded still-grieving Millerites toward forming a viable organization by 1863, opened the movement’s eyes to the relation of health and spirituality during the later 1860s, profiled far-reaching educational initiatives between 1872 and 1903, and focused the church’s attention on Jesus and salvation during and after the 1888 crisis. President Wilson was right; change is the constant factor in Seventh-day Adventism, and Ellen White lived and ministered at the growing edge of that change. Religion teachers who honor her ministry must not settle for peace at the price of "the truth as it is in Jesus."

Responses to the "Re-visioning" Paper

A crucial consideration in the present climate within the church is whether or not responsible change is a current option. My paper entitled "Re-visioning the Role of Ellen White for Seventh-day Adventists beyond 2000" was written as yet another proposal for a fresh consensus in Adventism. Over ninety per cent of the people who have responded to it — mainly scientists, historians, social scientists, educators, pastors, administrators, editors, religion teachers—seem to think it may be useful in that regard, for they have offered affirmative or mildly corrective comments. Four respondents, however, call for very different approaches.

A cautionary perspective is illumined by the following sentences:

I note with some disappointment that you have chosen to reflect the writing largely of those who are critical of Ellen White’s ministry in this church. You have chosen several areas of their concern, but have not considered all of the much larger evidence of her timely, helpful, and correct ministry to this church as a prophetic voice. The conclusions of the critics represent a minority, and should not be readily accepted as "fact."

It is not difficult to list all the authors which the paper cites; to do so is to demonstrate the need to take seriously the substantial studies of Ellen White’s life and writings. The paper neither highlights nor recommends many others (both printed and electronic) which seem negatively biased and carpingly critical. It is important to ponder the potential effects of the "negative images" which this respondent suggests the paper may convey to some readers and to ask whether the conclusions could be "stated in more positive terms." At this juncture I believe the paper is reasonably well-balanced; for instance, while it warns against eleven problematical applications of Ellen White’s writings, it also suggests how each of these may be transformed into positive applications. Then it invites the reader to explore eight other constructive applications which seem far more pervasive than any of the "negative scenarios." It is essential for the actual data to be dealt with openly, since at the push of a few computer keys students and church members now access a wide range of material which is destructively critical of Ellen White. To ignore this harsh fact is to, ostrich-like, put our heads in the sand. The Walla Walla Board probably needs to consider the fact that reversionist pressures may seek to influence its assessments.

A second cautionary response comes from a polar-opposite perspective. This response does not so much challenge the paper’s interpretation of Ellen White’s role as it questions the capacity of the church to change constructively. Several issues are raised. Is the kind of unity the paper envisions realistic, or is "the institutional church in North America ... beyond fixing"? Do not the dialogues between teachers and administrators in recent times indicate that future attempts of this nature may be "exercises in futility"? This respondent concludes that "the only viable basis of hope" in Adventism is to "refocus attention at the local church level and voluntary associations of local churches to support larger enterprises." I hope the picture is not that dark; at least I am praying and working for the unity of the church and trusting our leaders to support those who want to facilitate a viable understanding and application of Ellen White’s spiritual gift. This respondent’s cautions, however, suggest some of the other crucial issues which the Walla Walla Board could face as it engages in its task.

A third type of cautionary response comes from a medical doctor in California and an educator in Western Australia, each of whom calls for Ellen White to be discarded. After describing Ellen White as an uneducated, "schizophrenic," scheming, "plagiarist and copyist," the medical doctor says:

I do not know how a scholar of your ability and repute would attempt to integrate her [Ellen White’s] babble into the church. It needs to be set aside and looked upon as an interesting contribution to the somewhat simplistic church literature of the last century.... So, if your wonderful paper is to make EGW acceptable to the "liberal" wing of the church, which has already discarded her, it is too late. If, on the other hand, it merely represents further obfuscation of her true identity as a fraud, it is not intellectually honest. The assumption is wrong.

The professor of education expresses himself with similar vigor, stating "this is one area of SDA thought and belief where the baby needs to be thrown out."

While I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet let me warn the "people of God" as one who young people still confide in; if reasonable SDAs like you continue to support [Ellen White] you will lose the baby, the bathwater, the bath and even the bathhouse.

He continues with his observation that "young people are walking away in droves" due to the Ellen White philosophy of Seventh-day Adventism, and he claims they "will continue to do so unless you and others stop trying" to "save" Ellen White.

Except as a historical figure she is now irrelevant to Adventism, in fact worse.... The SDA[s] made a mistake in the 19th Century by accepting her teachings as inspired of God and need, as they approach the 21st Century, to finally just let her drift into history.

The educator then offers his sympathy to me, in that (he says) even he "couldn’t give up that wonderful heritage if both sets of my grandparents actually knew the Adventist prophet." He suggests this relationship between my forebears and Ellen White is "the socio-religious explanation" for the fact that I "keep trying to defend the indefensible." Perhaps the Walla Walla Board may want to benefit from and enlarge the presently-available findings of the Valuegenesis project (much of it as yet unpublished) about the actual thinking of Adventist youth, church members, and ministers with reference to Ellen White. An accurate diagnosis of the situation which religion teachers confront daily will help those who are monitoring classroom presentations to make accurate assessments.

Some Further Perspectives on the "Re-visioning" Process

Several conclusions appear useful as the responses from these four people are viewed in relation to more than sixty others received thus far.

First, the time is far past when reversionist responses are likely to do anything but further damage to the credibility of Ellen White. In the tumult of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the South Pacific Division decided to bring an experienced editor from a distant continent to edit the Division paper in a way that would stabilize the church. At the height of the discussion of Walter Rea’s claims about Ellen White’s use of sources in The Desire of Ages, this editor published an article which suggested that there may be a literary relationship of 0.002 per cent between Ellen White’s writings and those of other authors. That figure, as Fred Veltman’s painstaking study suggested for The Desire of Ages, probably needed to be set at 150 times greater than the said article claimed. It is a harsh reality that Adventists have been subjected repeatedly to apologetic writings which either denied or failed to admit facts which are now beyond dispute.

Second, there is a place for believer-participant accounts of church history. The New Testament rightly values the testimony of  "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word," Luke 1: 1-3. We would be remiss if we tried to assess the Reformation without attention to the writings of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and their followers. Just because they write from within evangelicalism, should we ignore the historiography of George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Nathan Hatch? Therefore, the Seventh-day Adventist Church should evaluate rather than summarily dismiss the interpretations of those who have participated in the events they seek to understand.

Third, historians and religion teachers must take into account the testimonies of all the witnesses which are available. We gain important insights into early Christianity from the believers themselves, as well as from Romans, Greeks, and heretics. At the outset, we need the variety of perspectives resident within the New Testament; the testimonies of both Paul and James are crucial. Marcion and Celsus cannot be ignored, nor can the gnostics, docetists, Arians, and a host of others. At the time of the Protestant Reformation there are magisterial reformers, radical reformers, and the Catholic Reformation to be considered if we are to understand Christianity in that effervescent period. The implication is clear: contemporary Adventism needs to hear well the voices of those who are outside of our community of faith, those who have left the church, those who are struggling with crucial issues, and those who are still in denial of the processes demanded in order to develop a sustainable interpretation.

Fourth, while my work is only "a drop in the bucket" amongst contemporary discussions of the role of Ellen White in Adventism, it is meeting with substantial support as a credible alternative to the reversionist and rejectionist options. One of its strengths is its comparative flexibility. For 150 years Adventist literature reveals we have more often erred on the side of dogmatism than on the side of tolerance. At this time we need to nurture an interpretation of Ellen White’s ministry which accords with all the known evidence and enables Adventists to dwell together in unity rather than seeming to be intent on destroying each other. That is one of the reasons why I have been waiting expectantly for responses from Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Richard Davidson, and Norman Gulley. We, as members of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies and the Adventist Theological Society, need to confer more effectively on how to better present the prophetic role of Ellen White, and we need to do this now, not after more publications further imperil our relationships.

Fifth, if we focus on the procedures which are most likely to enable us to understand the past and keep Adventist faith honed responsibly by all the known evidence, we will be doing our part to remember "the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history." This, of course, was the agenda of my entire "Re-visioning" paper, and cannot be reiterated here. As far back as 1980, Fritz Guy gave us a succinct prescription for keeping Adventist faith vibrant and compelling for the next generation of believers. I have, elsewhere, tried to enunciate some of the principles which are crucial if we are to effectively pursue truth in Adventism’s heritage.


There is conclusive evidence that Seventh-day Adventists often suffer from very bad memories. We frequently forget how the Lord did and did not lead us as a movement in the past. It was "the little remnant scattered abroad" who felt itself to be like Elijah, the only island of faithfulness in a raging sea of hopeless apostasy. The evidence now points us to a more comprehensive view. It was Adventism’s most articulate apologist who in 1951 sought to resolve the Shut Door and the literary relationship-debates; Nichol’s spirited defense reads as embarrassingly inadequate in the 1990s. It was a dedicated author who in 1953 declared the literary beauty of Ellen White’s writings gives conclusive evidence of divine inspiration, whereas we must take into account the now well-known work of Ellen White’s literary assistants: James White, Willie White, Marian Davis, and many others. It was an earnest pastor who sought to support Ellen White’s ministry by suggesting that her relation to other authors was perhaps 150 times less than it probably is. It took 138 years from the beginning of the Shut Door debate until the church really knew most of the story through Robert Olsen’s release of the documents in 1982. The amalgamation discussion appears to be rather superficial now, but it will not be put to rest unless we are frank about it and the variety of ways thoughtful people have interpreted Ellen White’s concept. The same might be said of many other matters, including biblical chronology and earth sciences.

Ellen White’s prophetic ministry, though negatively impacted by our false assumptions and our too-frequent denial of reality, offers Seventh-day Adventists crucial guidance for their journey into the 21st Century. My readers will note an inadequate elaboration of the Abstract given on page 1, for these eight pages are merely a footnote to my "Re-visioning" piece. This brief paper is intended to be an invitation for the church to continue its search for consensus about what Arthur White so aptly described as "a factual concept of inspiration." During that quest, one of the essentials is a mature relationship between the church (its leaders and its members) and those attempting to communicate Adventism in the church’s college and university classrooms. While religion teachers who call the church to focus on the actual rather than the imagined may not, at times, be fully appreciated, we cannot do less than nurture "present truth," indeed, "the truth as it is in Jesus."

—Draft dated 2 April 1998

At Issue Index   EGW Index   Patrick Index