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

by Arthur Patrick, La Sierra University

Section I. Ellen White Studies Since 1970

Ellen Gould Harmon White was born in a Maine (USA) farmhouse on 26 November 1827, and died in her California home (Elmshaven) on 16 July 1915. Between 1844 and 1863 she "helped the sabbatarian Adventists to keep their Advent hope alive and coalesce as a group; between 1863 and 1888 she expanded Adventist understanding of religion to include health, education, and missions, among other things; and between 1888 and her death in 1915 she turned Adventist attention toward Christ and prevented the church from pursuing several theological aberrations that had arisen in its midst."8

Historians are wary about "what if" questions, but it is useful to meditate on what might have happened to the early sabbatarians without Ellen White's first vision; her counsels on publishing, organization, health, and education; her mediation on the issue of salvation during the 1888 crisis and thereafter; and her stabilizing counsel in the first difficult decade of the twentieth century. Furthermore, the church has been deeply influenced by the "great books" in which Ellen White revised and expanded her earlier writings on such themes as the war between Christ and Satan (The Conflict of the Ages series, 1888-1917), Christian education (Education, 1903), and the health message (The Ministry of Healing, 1905).

Although her voice was silenced in 1915, Ellen White's writings continued to speak powerfully to the movement of which she was a co-founder. Currently more than 100 of her book titles are in print; over 4,600 periodical articles have been republished; near 60,000 typewritten pages of letters and manuscripts are available in a chain of research centers serving the major geographical areas of the world. More recently, computer technology has made most of Ellen White's writings readily available for research in institutional libraries and individual homes; thus the process of discovery has been democratized. At the present time some people claim that this little lady (Ellen White was a mere five-feet-two inches tall!) should be dismissed from any significant role in the Adventist movement. Others still contend that her writings are a definitive encyclopedia on every topic that is essential for last-day Christians. Neither of these views is adequate. A wealth of research impinges so dramatically on our understanding of Ellen White's life and ministry that there is an urgent need to reassess and present her role coherently in the light of facts largely unknown before 1970.

The unprecedented developments which occurred during the 1970s and 1980s relating to Ellen White were influenced by a cluster of powerful forces. Too often Adventists assumed, when they spoke of "the truth" or "the message," that their church's beliefs formed a fixed body of doctrine. It is important to list for consideration some of the factors which initiated or sustained the processes of change which have occurred in recent years:

1. The development of accredited educational institutions in the early decades of this century, and particularly the provision of graduate education beginning in the 1930s.

2. The graduate education of ministers and teachers by persons who had themselves undertaken university programs. This became a significant factor by the middle of the twentieth century.

3. The publication of the SDA Bible Commentary between 1954 and 1957. Thereafter the church at large began to interpret the Scriptures more faithfully in the light of the meaning and syntax of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages in which they were written, and to demonstrate a growing respect for the context and historical setting of the biblical statements which were quoted in Sabbath Schools, sermons, and church publications.

4. Two missionaries from the United States to Africa (Robert Wieland and Donald Short) were among those who forced the church from 1950 to begin a reassessment of its presentation of the gospel.9 Further, during a long series of discussions with evangelical Christians in the 1950s Adventists accelerated the process of honing their self-understanding and their expression of cardinal doctrines about Christ and salvation.

5. During the early 1970s the General Conference moved to establish an archival center at its headquarters and to create a chain of research centers to serve the various geographical areas of the earth. Thus, for the first time, primary sources for the study of SDA history become quite widely available. This new reality was bound to have a creative influence on the thought and practice of the church.

6. By 1970 these developments were becoming influential in a number of spheres, not least in the maturation of Adventist historiography. The need for a comprehensive reassessment of Adventist history would become apparent from the writings of a group of well-trained historians: Jonathan Butler, Everett Dick, Ron Graybill, George Knight, Gary Land, Don McAdams, Ron Numbers, and Richard Schwarz, to name a few. The work of biblical scholars, scientists, systematic and historical theologians would have similar importance.

7. However, the church was not welcoming to those who saw a need to revise certain aspects of its self-understanding.10 More than any other organization, the Association of Adventist Forums took responsibility for publishing the studies which impinged on Ellen White and her ministry. By presenting a variety of perspectives, Spectrum informed the ongoing discussion. Although it was blamed for some articles which seemed experimental or even rejectionist, time has shown that the church greatly needed to keep at the forefront of the dialogue and be involved in the processes of discovery and interpretation which were occurring.11

Between the Great Disappointment of 1844 and the time of Ellen White's death, a mutually beneficial relationship developed between the church and its prophet, marked by a remarkable degree of consensus in the church's understanding of her ministry. The following seven statements suggest some of the important ideas on which this symbiotic relationship was based. As a minimal commitment, any well-informed, loyal Adventist might be expected to believe and teach that:

1. Ellen White's writings make a striking appeal to timeless truth.

2. They contain many unique elements.

3. Her writings on health placed Seventh-day Adventists on vantage ground by relating bodily health to basic spiritual well-being and by pointing out numerous paths to right living.

4. She made copious and effective use of the Bible in her writings.

5. She often helped the church develop and express its theology.

6. She retained control over her literary output.

7. Her writings reveal a remarkable literary beauty.12 During the first century of the church's existence, plenty of difficult questions were posed about the life and ministry of Ellen White, often by people outside of or on the fringes of Adventism. By 1951, Francis Nichol had gathered these questions and appended answers in a large volume entitled Ellen G. White and Her Critics , to the general satisfaction of the church. Nichol's book renewed an earlier wall of defense about Ellen White, built by Uriah Smith during the 1860s through articles in the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald and republished in a similar book, entitled The Visions of Mrs. E.G.White. But Nichol's wall, which seemed adequate in 1951, crumbled in the 1970s. Why? A few illustrations of the new questions, this time mainly asked by people within the church, show how some of the factors noted above impinged on the church's understanding of Ellen White and her ministry.

1. Richard Lewis looked exegetically at Rev. 14:12 and 12:17, questioning our use of the expression "Spirit of Prophecy" with exclusive reference to Ellen White and her writings13

2. Frederick Harder suggested that Ellen White "was not writing history, she was interpreting it," and that she learned history "by ordinary means, but the activity of God in the historical situation was seen by revelation."

3. Roy Branson and Herold Weiss called for Adventists to "discover the nature of Ellen White's relationship to other authors" and to "recover the social and intellectual milieu in which she wrote."

4. William Peterson highlighted the reality of problems in Ellen White's selection and use of historical materials relating to the French Revolution.

5. Ron Graybill, after a careful analysis of primary sources, concluded that Ellen White did not engage in historical research on the French Revolution; instead she followed one major source, Uriah Smith.

6. Donald McAdams carefully evaluated manuscripts which revealed how Ellen White constructed sections of The Great Controversy, noting that she made extensive use of historical sources.

7. Ronald Numbers, after an exhaustive investigation of Ellen White's writings on the theme of health, concluded that she derived important health reform ideas from contemporary health reformers. The strong contrary opinions which Numbers' book evoked did not invalidate this major conclusion from his research.

8. Late in the 1970s Walter Rea began to press upon the church substantial but sometimes exaggerated claims of Ellen White's literary dependence. In a 1957 thesis, Ruth Burgeson noted in some detail the literary relationship between John Milton's Paradise Lost and Ellen White's depiction of the same events. Later, in 1971, Raymond Cottrell wrote a long paper on historical conditioning in the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. Because we failed to observe the warnings which were implicit in such studies as those by Burgeson and Cottrell, we were not prepared for the more extensive revelations which Rea broadcast in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These presentations and others similar to them uncovered a large quantity of data previously unknown even to serious students of Ellen White's life and writings. Indeed, by early 1982, when the first International Prophetic Guidance Workshop convened at the church's world headquarters, it was as though a huge basket of new information cards had been dumped on the church's corporate desk. These cards required careful sorting and interpretation so that the new information could be fitted into coherent patterns, a process which remains to some extent as a challenge for the immediate future.14 During the last two decades, many in the church have experienced a form of bereavement due to the breaking of their long-held and cherished picture of Ellen White and the consequent attenuation of a pervasive yet valued source of authority in their personal lives and in the church. All the classic symptoms of grief have been painfully evident in the church, including, in particular, denial, anger, and depression.

The history of this period demonstrates our slowness as a church to create a coherent alternative to the traditional picture of Ellen White; thus we have prolonged the problems associated with the "Great Bereavement." There was an urgent need to provide sensitive pastoral support to ministers, teachers, and members. For those of us who led the church to provide this, we needed to quickly grasp the implications of the evidence and give constructive leadership in the discovery and adoption of viable new patterns of thought. The lapse of time allowed the already-mentioned extreme responses to flourish: reversion and alienation/rejection. The first of these responses claimed that the new research and discussion were evil, that they raised questions which should not be asked, and thus such investigations should be prevented or discontinued. Alienation/rejection, on the other hand, claimed that the new evidence exposed Ellen White and her ministry as a great deception, a cause for disregarding her writings or leaving the church entirely.15

Clearly the far better response, transformation,16 needed to be adopted with energy, involving a comprehensive reassessment of Adventism in general and Ellen White in particular.17 Of course, every generation must reformulate its religious tradition for itself if it is to adequately "own" its faith. However, a cluster of factors made this process more urgent than usual, beginning in the 1970s. But the need to actively lead the church toward a comprehensive new picture of Ellen White and her ministry was given such a low priority that for many the church seemed either uncaring or dishonest, factors which in part account for the loss of 180 ministers in the South Pacific Division alone. There needed to be an open dialogue in the church in which lay people and specialists participated in the task of redrawing a composite and comprehensive picture of Ellen White and her ministry, a need which remains as a priority for the twenty-first century. Church leaders can facilitate but they cannot control this process. Our hesitancy to give active leadership in this process thus far has allowed the understanding and consequent benefit of Ellen White's prophetic ministry to decline markedly. To lose an understanding of our heritage is to lose a clear sense of our identity.

The summary of what a loyal Adventist might be expected to believe and teach before 1970 is no longer viable for any well-informed person who tells the truth. Modification of the seven statements along the following lines is essential in order to fit now well-known facts.

1. Ellen White's writings make a striking appeal to timeless truth even though they are historically conditioned to a significant degree.

2. They contain certain unique elements even though they are related in an evident way to both the Adventist and the non-Adventist literature of her time.

3. Her writings on health placed Seventh-day Adventists on vantage ground by relating bodily health to basic spiritual well-being and by pointing out numerous paths to right living, even though she reflected some of the inaccurate ideas of her Adventist and non- Adventist contemporaries.

4. She made copious and effective use of the Bible in her writings even though she employed Scripture in a variety of ways, not all of which express the meaning and intent of the Bible.

5.While she often helped the church develop and express its theology, her doctrinal understandings underwent both growth and change during her seventy-year ministry.

6. She retained a position of control over her literary output, but her literary assistants and advisers had more than a minor, mechanical role in the preparation of her writings for publication.

7. Her writings reveal a remarkable literary beauty, but her use of sources and the role she assigned her assistants/advisers indicate that this literary excellence should not be used as a proof of her divine inspiration.

The need for such adjustments rings a death-knell for Adventist Fundamentalism.18 We cannot proceed effectively as a movement without Ellen White, nor can we retain her credibility and ours without addressing the known evidence. Clearly, the past informs the present, thus continuity with it is essential. Historical data is to be welcomed as a basis for accurate understanding. Primary sources may enable the believer to search for a better understanding of the interaction between the human and the divine. Hence, the church needs to prize research into its heritage as a means for effective growth in knowledge and faith.

In closing this brief chapter it may be useful to cite, without further comment, an earlier attempt to symbolize the ministry of Ellen White in a realistic yet constructive way.19

In April 1982 I flew again across the United States. For the first time in my flying experience there, visibility was excellent. From the warm sky above Los Angeles I saw the serene Pacific Ocean and the vast sprawl of the City of the Angels hugged by mountains. I saw the blot of Las Vegas; the life-giving waters of the Hoover Dam; the huge scar of the Grand Canyon; the Rocky Mountains wrapped in white; ribbon-like rivers; billiard-table prairies; the stain of Chicago whitened with snow; the vast waters of Lake Michigan; the confused land-forms of Pennsylvania. So upon this journey I saw a panorama of a vast continent bounded by ocean, contoured by mountains, watered by lakes and rivers, enriched by plains, scarred by human technology.

You may ask me to draw a street map of Las Vegas; to state the depth of the Grand Canyon; the location of the John Hancock Center in Chicago; the types of trees in the Appalachian Mountains. In response, my mistakes would be numerous.

You may ask a thousand other simple questions about the continental United States which I could not answer. You might, therefore, be tempted to deny my experience. You may discount my claim that I saw a panorama of a great country absolutely beyond the vision of a surface traveler. You may, therefore, discredit the fact that through the miracle of jet transport I was shown a useful vista of landmarksand can now better interpret a vast landscape.

I believe that for the benefit of Seventh-day Adventists Ellen White was given a jet-aircraft vision of crucial realities in an age of spiritual surface travel. She saw landmark truths: God as the One whom to know is to love;20 health as the right arm of the third angel's message;21 education as having to do with the whole person and "the whole period of existence possible to man";22 history as moving toward a supreme confrontation between good and evil that will climax in the universal declaration that God is love,23 as well as other distinctives precious to Seventh-day Adventists. She was shown these features of truth so that she could encourage and guide the Advent people in charting their journey heavenward.

It is a tragedy that some Seventh-day Adventists are either claiming too much or too little for Ellen White's ministry. Those who claim she gives us an authoritative, detailed, surface survey in all respects have no way to handle certain data clearly present in her writings. Those who deny her spiritual gift and assess her as a fraud and a false prophet, forfeit the enduring value of her prophetic vision. Either way there is a conflict and disillusionment at the end of the road.

Ellen White ever wrote with an attitude of urgency, with a sense of an imminent end for all things earthly. Since her death Seventh-day Adventists have benefited from many attempts at surface exploration: into the historical background of Scripture: the causes of volcanic eruptions; the principles of genetics; the history of Albigenses; the causes of cancer, cholera, tuberculosis, and so on. Adventists have had almost a century-and-a-half to reflect on The Shut Door in relation to their mission; on the identity of the law of Galatians; on the biblical doctrine of salvation. While responding to the detailed insights of painstaking investigation, we must remember the abiding usefulness of Ellen White's direction-setting, panoramic vision, and those instances in which she maps in a detailed way segments of our spiritual journey. To deny a role to either her panorama or our detailed investigation is to reject part of God's gift of knowledge to humanity.

End Notes

8 Gary Land, Student Movement, Andrews University (6 May 1982): 4 [back] [top]

9 This process came to a constructive climax with the publication of the "Dynamics of Salvation" statement in Adventist Review, 31 July 1980:3-8. [back] [top]

10 The narrative documented in Jonathan Butler's introduction to the 1992 edition of Ronald L. Numbers Prophetess of Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventist Health Reform (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press) illustrates some of the perils inherent in the vocation of the historian of Adventism. [back] [top]

11 Seventh-day Adventists, despite the excellence of Ministry and the transformed Adventist Review, must still depend on such publications as Spectrum: The Journal of the Association of Adventist Forums and Adventist Today for some vital aspects of the information they need about the church they love and support. [back] [top

12 For a discussion of these points in the context of Adventist history, see my article, "Does Our Past Embarrass Us?" Ministry, April 1991: 7-10. Note that one correspondent stated this article was "dangerous" and "deceptive"; the editor suggested that "Credibility is enhanced when the church is candid about the problems it faces." See Ministry, August 1991, 2; December 1991, 4. Cf. Ministry, June 1992, 27. [back] [top

13 For a fuller discussion and documentation of this and the following six points, see Donald R. McAdams, "Shifting Views of Inspiration: Ellen G. White Studies in the 1970s,"Spectrum 10 (March 1980): 27-41. [back] [top]

14 One of the issues is whether or not Ellen White is "canonical." See Patrick, "Ellen Gould White and the Australian Woman," 120-1, and Roy Adams, "A Prophet for Our Time,"Adventist Review, 4 June 1992: 8-11. [back] [top]

15 These responses are placed in an historical context by my unpublished paper, "The Minister and the Ministry of Ellen White in 1982." [back] [top]

16 Fritz Guy has cogently outlined the procedures which facilitate the process of transformation. See his unpublished paper, "The Future of Adventist Theology; A Personal View" (Berrien Springs: Andrews University, 1980), and note the way in which these ideas are being shaped for publication.  [back] [top]

17 For a constructive early attempt, see George R. Knight, Myths in Adventism: An Interpretive Study of Ellen White, Education and Related Issues (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1985).[back] [top]

18 When these revisions were discussed by the Spirit of Prophecy Resource Committee of the South Pacific Division in 1982-3, consensus was reached that they were accurate, but (after a statement by a Union Conference president) it was decided that no one outside the Resource Committee should have access to them. [back] [top]

19 For a shortened form of this statement, see my "Landmarks and Landscape," Adventist Review, 27 October 1983: 4. [back] [top]

20 The Desire of Ages, 22.  [back] [top]

21 Testimonies, 1, 486. [back] [top]

22 Education, 13. [back] [top]

23 The Great Controversy, 678. [back] [top]

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