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I cherish many aspects of life, especially those that relate to my spirituality, family and friends. Two of the most important spiritual ones can be set down in a few words: God calls me to be a Christian; He convinces me to be a Seventh-day Adventist. From the beginning of time, “faithful souls have constituted the church of God on earth.” Now, so close to the climax of earth’s history, it’s my supreme privilege to belong to the age-long yet continuing body called “the church of the living God.”
When Joan and I were first pastoring churches in the United States, our members taught us a new term, “pot-luck.” This descriptor soon leapt across the Pacific Ocean. For decades now it has been common in Australia, evoking times of good food and precious fellowship. Almost always an Adventist pot-luck presents an abundance of beautiful foods that tempt the appetite.
There is also an abundance of religion in the culture that surrounds us. For many years I have been interested in what forms and sustains a religion, and why people choose to belong to such an entity. During my years as a hospital chaplain I traveled with many people into the Valley of the Shadow of Death: people of all faiths and of no faith at all. Is it healthy for each of us to test our religion in the crucible of life; some of us claim to think most clearly when the crucible is heated to intensity by illness and the realisation that our time is short.
Being a Christian is for me a matter of choice. Our culture presents us with a vast religious smorgasbord. Some options are highly attractive. But God calls me to follow “the faith of Jesus.” He has been doing that from as far back as I can remember. My mother was a believer; for many years I thought my father was not, but I valued the support he gave my belief. As a child I made a conscious choice to follow God’s call, “My son, give me your heart.” The Holy Spirit renews that appeal momentarily, at each fork in life’s road. Even as God calls constantly, I respond. I am Christian by conscious choice.
As a church historian I have spent many years studying the history of Christianity. The people of The Way were scorned with a new epithet, Christian, meant to shame them with the memory that their leader was crucified as a common criminal. I am deeply attracted by the manner in which a host of Christians lived and expressed their faith. My soul stirs with Paul’s focus on “the righteousness of God” and John’s declaration that “God is love.” With Luther I find security in the Christian faith: “A mighty fortress is our God.” Along with the Anglican preacher, John Donne, I speak to God about Jesus: “So, in His purple wrapped receive me Lord.” I am gripped by the faith of the Wesleys, “Love divine, all loves excelling.”
My heart also warms at magnificent expressions of evangelical faith that abound in recent writing. Just fifty years ago I began the serious study of Christian thought; since then I have earned three degrees in Adventist institutions, another one in an ecumenical seminary in the United States and two others in Australian universities. All of that study has in some way centred on the Bible, its meaning and application. I thank God for the richness of the opportunities He has given me to explore some of the dimensions of Christianity, to observe what the Christian faith has meant to believers during twenty centuries. So in the vast pot-luck of religious choices I choose Christianity. Then, as I assess the smorgasbord of denominations, I choose again. I am a Seventh-day Adventist by conviction.
More than any other person outside the Bible, Ellen White has helped me be both Christian and Adventist. The story runs like this.
My dad was an infant in 1893 when his pregnant mother was devastated by the untimely death of her Irish husband and, soon after, by the death of her newborn daughter. She had three small boys to raise amidst the droughts and depressions of the 1890s; a daunting task for a widow. New hope grew in Amelia Patrick’s heart as Arthur Daniells and others shared the Adventist message with her. Then, at the 1898 Brisbane camp meeting, Amelia met Ellen White, who advised her to bring her sons to the place where the Avondale School for Christian Workers was carved out of the bush.
John Pocock was an earnest Baptist until early 1893 when Robert Hare spoke about the Bible Sabbath during an evangelistic series in Parramatta. John studied a tract, Elihu on the Sabbath, all that night. He kept the next Saturday as Sabbath, even though for a time his wife thought he had lost his reason, and keeping the Sabbath cost him his job. After Ellen White came to live in the Sydney region, she loaned John some of her books, thus helping him share the Adventist message more effectively with his neighbours, a number of whom were baptized in Berowra Waters. Then she invited John to help with the daunting task of developing the Avondale School: for seven months he lived in Sunnyside, as one of her big and bustling family. Next she advised him to bring his wife and children to Cooranbong, loaned him her tent to live in while he built a modest house, and loaned him a cow so his children would have milk. The White “family” battled to save the life of little Albert Pocock, but his grave became one of the earliest in the Avondale Cemetery.
So, during August 1900, the Pococks and Amelia Patrick, my three living grandparents, penned a couple of pages in the memory album presented to Ellen White as she embarked for her homeland. They wrote as her neighbours, people deeply influenced by her friendship as well as by her talks on the Great Controversy theme and her writings on Christ’s life. Grandmother Amelia died when I was four, Grandfather John when I was twelve, Grandmother Charlotte when I was seventeen. Aunty Annie, who until she was eight years old loved to ride in Ellen White’s sulky and pick maidenhair fern to put in Sunnyside vases, lived until 1990. I grew up with a host of family memories about Ellen White being a loving and lovable Christian.
Three experiences at Avondale College in the 1950s shaped my understanding of Ellen White. First were class presentation and sermons about her. Some were by people, like A.H. Piper, who knew her well and had even received a strident letter of rebuke from her. Then I contracted mumps and was put in quarantine, in the sawn-off building near the Music Hall, where in about five days I read The Desire of Ages from cover to cover and rejoiced in its panoramic view of Jesus’ life and ministry. Thirdly, in December 1957 and January 1958, I was enthralled by Pastor Arthur White’s Prophetic Guidance lectures at the first Seminary Extension School held in Australia.
So, by 1958, under the teaching of Ellen White’s grandson and Dr Edward Heppenstall, I had decided seminary in the United States was a must. It took twelve years before further study was financially possible. In today’s currency, it cost, in lost wages and direct expenses, well over two hundred thousand dollars to earn three degrees in the United States, but it was worth every cent. Precious indeed was the privilege of exploring, for the first time, primary sources relating to Adventist heritage, beginning with William Miller’s time and moving to the present.
As a young pastor, one of my aims was to own everything that was printed and available from Ellen White’s pen. I wanted to translate from Hebrew and Greek all the Bible passages on which I preached and then read everything Ellen White had written on those Scriptures. That was a good but impossible ideal. What a help it was to have the three-volume index to her writings, published in 1962-3. Then, in 1976, the church appointed me as curator (later the title was changed to director) of the newly established Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre at Avondale College. Suddenly, tens of thousands of pages of her unpublished letters and manuscripts were under my care, as well as a huge body of primary documents illumining the study of Adventism.
This month (January 2004) I’ve spent a few dozen hours preparing a lecture to present next month (February) about the way in which Ellen White and her ministry have been understood and applied by Adventists within the South Pacific Division. As part of that task I’ve reviewed fifty theses, papers, chapters and articles I’ve written since 1980 that try to illumine Ellen White’s life and writings in the context of our Church’s history and thought. Therefore, now is a good time to try and express a few of the ways that she has impacted my own spiritual journey.
First of all, Ellen White helps me understand what it means to focus my life on a saving knowledge of God. She begins her Conflict of the Ages series with these words: “‘God is love.’ His nature, his law, is love.” Some 3,903 pages later she writes: “The controversy is ended…. From Him who created all flow life and light and gladness throughout the realms of illimitable space. From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love.” So, in five big books, in others like Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing and Christ’s Object Lessons, plus scores of articles, she applies a compelling idea best expressed in The Desire of Ages: “to know God is to love Him.”
Now of course when I speak of God in this sense I include Jesus and the Third Person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit. Ellen White wrote for many years on the Life of Christ, a popular passion of Christian writers in the nineteenth century. Only as one of her main books on that theme was about to be published did she settle on a title for it, The Desire of Ages. Grandfather John Pocock remembered that at Sunnyside up to forty pages were ready for Ellen White’s secretaries when he arrived for the family breakfast at 7am. Often from two or three in the morning she’d been writing as quickly as her hand could trace the words across the page. I like to read the diaries she wrote about that engaging task. But the books themselves tell me about falling in love with God as revealed by Jesus, as well as the gracious power of the Holy Spirit. Such emphases help me hear God’s constant call to be a Christian.
But Ellen White also gives me a second kind of help. I am, by conviction, a specific kind of Christian. I must go beyond Luther, Wesley, William Miller, Jaroslav Pelican and even Philip Yancey, though I am grateful to each of them and expect to meet all of them on the Sea of Glass. In writing just fifteen of the eighty-seven chapters of The Desire of Ages, Ellen White used the writings of at least twenty-eight authors. This reminds me how Christian our faith is at its core. Beyond that, she is at pains to tell how God worked with the Jewish nation and the early Christian church to reveal His truth to the world. Constantly, then, her writings confront me with what it means to interpret the Bible and thus hear the call of God to be a Christian.
Ellen White started to write in 1844 in the United States, at a time when restorationism was a popular and powerful idea. Wesley had worked on it, especially with his concept of Primitive Christianity. Great revivals had fostered it. Joseph Smith built his movement on the idea from 1830, as did Mary Baker Eddy from 1866. Ellen White was a committed restorationist, believing God calls His people to participate in His purpose “to restore all things.” For her, that meant recovering lost truths and focusing them in preparation for earth’s climax, the Second Coming of Christ.
Ellen Harmon once rebuked her own mother for even thinking hell might not be eternal, imploring her mother never to let anyone know of this “strange theory” lest “sinners gather security from this belief, and never desire to seek the Lord.” But then, like Charles Fitch, she came to love the message of Christ’s appearing and the truth of the resurrection. She came to see the danger of spiritism, and embraced the wholeness of what we believe about the nature of persons and what we call the state of the dead. She also transferred her commitment from Sunday to Sabbath and set her wondering eyes on Jesus, “a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched” in heaven.
Ellen White thus helps me understand my Adventist identity in Jesus and His disclosure of that wonderful cluster of truths that begin with S: Sabbath, Sanctuary, State of the Dead, Spiritual Gifts, Second Advent. She makes them into a five-stringed musical instrument on which to play the joyous songs of salvation for the end-time. In so doing she nurtures my identity as both Christian and Adventist.
Central to both these aspects of my spirituality is the Bible. Joseph Smith offers me another Bible. Mary Baker Eddy wants me to read the Bible through her writings. The Jehovah’s Witness who calls at my door wants me to accept the Watchtower interpretation of the Bible. Ellen White challenges me to go to Scripture and discover there the truth about Jesus and the will of God. She declares that her writings are “a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.” Constantly she focuses on what the Scripture says and challenges me to apply what it means.
How, then, can I symbolise her role in my experience of being Christian and being Adventist? Remember the pioneer explorers who found the way from Sydney to what is now Melbourne, and from east to west and south to north of Australia. Ellen White has helped identify the course of Christianity and of Adventism though the vast landscape of these last days. I agree with the landmarks of truth and duty that she points out from Scripture and orientate my spiritual pilgrimage thereby. Sometimes I’ve tried to explain this symbol in terms of landscape and landmarks.
There is another symbol that I find rich with meaning. To fly in a small plane from Cooranbong to Moree is to see a panorama of ocean, lakes, rivers, mountains, slopes and plains. Ellen White helps me understand the “big picture” and thus to better cope with the “surface travel” that consumes most of my time and effort.
About thirty years ago I was sitting in the College Chapel listening to Dr Noel Clapham tell the fascinating story of the discovery of the Avondale Estate and the building of a co-educational college there during the 1890s. He upset me by saying that a tree Ellen White called a Red Gum was probably an Angophera, and the piers for the Village Church that she called Swamp Mahogany were a different species of Mahogany that would last much longer in the ground. I was hurt: the man I respected as my history teacher from two decades earlier was questioning what my Adventist prophet said!
Since then I’ve read tens of thousands of pages: Ellen White books, articles, letters, manuscripts; theses, dissertations, papers, books, pamphlets and articles about her. I’ve looked at supportive and hostile websites. My work has called me to read the best and the worst about Ellen White, and everything in between. So far as I know there is no important truth and no vile slander about her that I have not read. What do I now believe?
She was given a gift like that of Hazen Foss and William Foy, to be “a messenger of the Lord,” and for the next seventy years she exercised that gift. Supernaturally, on the screen of her mind, she saw “scenes, “views”, “representations” that gave her important ideas expressed within her voluminous writings, perhaps 25 million words. This vast body of material shares what the Holy Spirit showed her, shaped by the culture in which she lived, the Adventist community she prized and the literature she read. While the Spirit helped in this communication process, she was still an authentic human being. Her writings are those of a nineteenth-century woman, raised in Maine, who traveled unusually far: to Europe, to the South Pacific, as well as back and forth across North America.
Ellen White was not a mathematican, so I don’t recommend her work as a maths text book for my grandchildren. She was not an engineer, so I don’t press my engineer friends to find in her writings specifications for building bridges. Nor was she an earth scientist, physicist, chemist or doctor. She even had to use histories to better understand scenes she was shown, to find dates, names and other details.
Thus it is Ellen White’s messages that are so important to me. I read The Desire of Ages because it helps me fall in love with the God whom to know is to love, not because it can give me the last word on the sequence of events in Christ’s life. I read The Great Controversy for its panorama of redemption, not to sort out the history of the Albigenses. I read Ministry of Healing to better understand God’s purpose for my health, not to diagnose and treat malaria.
Perhaps I used to expect Ellen White to give me the equivalent of a lighted highway on which I could glide into the Kingdom of God in a speed-controlled vehicle. Now, I thank God for the gift He has given me through her ministry: a blazed trail that meets my need as I search the Scriptures for guidance in an exciting journey of faith and discovery; that is, with being Christian and Adventist in Century 21.