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Why, near the dawn of the 21st Century, when the Seventh-day Adventist Church has grown to a worldwide communion of ten million persons, do audiences assemble in sophisticated North America to discuss a diminutive woman, who was born in a Maine farmhouse during 1827, and died in Northern California way back in 1915?
For the same reasons that articles, papers, theses, dissertations, and books continue to discuss Ellen Gould White. Her writings are highly important for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and they are consistently used in a constructive way by many Adventists. However, in the 1990s many Adventists seriously misunderstand, greatly misuse, constantly neglect, or openly reject Ellen White's writings.
From Great Disappointment to Great Bereavement
From 1844 to 1915 Ellen White had a symbiotic (that is, mutually beneficial) relationship with the church as it developed from the fragments of the Great Disappointment to a world movement with some 130,000 members. One of the three co-founders of Sabbatarian Adventism, Ellen White lived the longest and did the most to shape the movement. She helped some of the disappointed Millerites coalesce and identify new landmarks of truth and duty. She visualized institutions for publishing, health-care and education, which would express Adventist values and create the church's most visible face for its world. She directed Adventism's attention to Christ and the gospel, shaped its piety, and steadied it against the turbulence of a number of seemingly-attractive aberrations.
In the words of an Encyclopedia Britannica article, Ellen White was "the most powerful single influence on the church during her lifetime." More than any other person she signposted the course of Sabbatarian Adventism. Or, to change the metaphor, she drew the sketch-map which enabled the Adventist pioneers to journey successfully through enormously-difficult terrain. Her writings provided much of the vocabulary which enabled the church to describe its identity and mission. Without the trail she blazed, it is highly unlikely that Adventists would have found a route for their journey through a forbidding spiritual wilderness.
In essence, Ellen White led Adventism from a Great Disappointment to a Great Certainty. After her death, and especially in 1919, some Adventist leaders showed that they knew well how she did her work and what its significance was for the church. But in the violent 20th Century war between Fundamentalism and Modernism a great many Adventists became confused. They knew they didn't belong with the Modernists: and, since it seemed perilous to be a tiny minority in a no-man's land, they identified with the Fundamentalists. This led them to adopt an indefensible view of Scripture which in turn made many of them and large numbers of their children unable or unwilling to be truthful about Ellen White.
Thus it was that after her death Ellen White was given a greater influence, a more pervasive dominance in Adventism. Instead of a signpost, many in the church seemed to demand that she become a road. Instead of a sketch map, she was expected to be a contour map. Instead of a descriptive dictionary she was pressed to be an all-encompassing encyclopedia of truth and duty. In place of a blazed trail, the church appeared to want her to give it a highway.
What were some of the practical effects of this? By the 1950s, F.D. Nichol could write a 703-page volume diminishing the humanness of Ellen White; for instance, he used 125 pages to separate her from the early, inadequate notion of the Shut Door and related issues, and 17 pages to declare she didn't really mean to say animals and humans amalgamated after the flood, and so on. In the 1970s, White Estate used quotes like Jackson Saxon's statement about his experience as a medical doctor as one more indication that no important concept in Ellen White's writings on health required revision. In 1982, a statement by Robert Wieland was used to parry the claim by Walter Rea that Ellen White used Adventist and non-Adventist authors extensively. Wieland suggested a literary relationship of 0.002 per cent; six years later the painstaking Veltman study suggested about thirty per cent, some 15,000 times more than Wieland allowed for the church's best-loved masterpiece, The Desire of Ages.
Therefore, Don McAdams said it well in 1980: the 1970s seemed to threaten Adventism with "an element of chaos" due to fresh information about Ellen White's life and writings. Ellen White had been an effective mother of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, trying as every good mother does to ready her children for adulthood. Because the church too often failed to heed her counsel on how to use her writings, its immaturity became so terribly apparent that for many, a Great Certainty became a Great Bereavement as Adventist understandings were seen to require radical adjustment.
When New Information Registers
The 1970s painfully but thoroughly presented Adventism with a fresh opportunity to re-image Ellen White. It was as though a huge basket of new information cards had been dumped on the church's desk. The church needed to sort these, and make sense of all the data. After all, it now had newly-available primary sources in its headquarters archive and in a chain of research centers around the world. It had developed Bible scholars well able to help it define inspiration, scientists equipped to acquaint it with fresh data about the natural world, historians with well-honed skills able to interpret its past, and social scientists who well understood how individuals and groups function. The challenge facing Adventism was, essentially, whether its emphasis on Ellen White's spiritual gift would lead it to disregard her counsel and her example with reference to the other spiritual gifts God has given His people.
Numerous studies indicate what happens to religious movements when a large amount of fresh information comes to them in a short space of time. Some people are apt to throw up their hands in horror and call for open discussion to stop; that is, they revert to the seeming safety of their original position and draw up inflexible lines of defense to protect themselves from unwanted reality. Others throw up their hands in horror and declare there is poison in the pot, so they leave the church and encourage others to do the same; that is, they reject their original position entirely, to the extent that some of them even abandon Christianity. Others ask what the new data means, and how they might respond to it adequately; that is, they revise (or transform) their original understanding in the light of new evidence.
Adventists have taken each of these stances; that is a prime reason why the church is afflicted with unhealthy tensions at present. Ninety per cent of those who have responded to my "Re-visioning" paper are generally supportive or overtly enthusiastic about its proposals. The other ten per cent, divided in about equal numbers, severely criticize it from the reversionist or the rejectionist perspectives toward which they are moving or at which they have arrived.
The Shape of Change
By 1980, the Biblical Research Institute and White Estate were in substantial agreement on the agenda which needed to be followed through with reference to Ellen White, and the General Conference president relayed that comprehensive agenda to the church via the Adventist Review. The topics which President Wilson outlined covered much of what the church needed to know about Ellen White and her writings in 1981. Seventeen years later we can say the findings of the subsequent research indicate most of what the church needs to incorporate into its thinking and doing now; however, recent events in the church clearly and painfully demonstrate that many leaders and members are either unaware of the relevant data or resistant to taking action in view of it. By 1982, I profiled for a specially-appointed committee in the South Pacific Division the kind of change which the newly-available data suggested.
Between the Great Disappointment of 1844 and the time of Ellen White's death, the mutually-beneficial relationship which developed between the church and its prophet was characterized 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 and which sustained it until about 1970. As a minimal commitment, any well-informed, loyal Adventist might be expected to believe and teach seven ideas.
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.
This 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, and highlights the problematic nature of books like Receiving the Word. Eight years after these ideas were proposed, they were published in Ministry. Between 1992 and 1995, some implications of these concepts were explored at a South Pacific Division inter-departmental meeting and in Union Conference seminars. Last November they were suggested to a wider audience, and since then have received some discussion in North America, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Japan, and elsewhere. They are made with no claim of originality, only urgency for the current well-being of the church.
How Shall We Respond?
The need to address these issues more comprehensively is still with us. All Adventists seem to agree that values are crucial for the church's educational institutions. However, there is strong disagreement about the mission of Adventist colleges and universities, to the point where what some earnest believers say and do threatens the existence of the church's educational institutions and the employment of dedicated educators. More than that, historians of the church continue to be marginalized, with some of their most-needed insights condemned, ignored, or denied publication. Some of the church's finest biblical scholars and theologians are presented as untrustworthy in Pipim's ill-informed book—not officially published by the church, but vigorously marketed by the Review and Herald Publishing Association, sold widely in Adventist book centers and bought by the boxful for free distribution by some administrators. At a time when the church needs all the help it can get to affirm the doctrine of creation and the continuity of the Sabbath as creation's memorial, Adventist scientists are often discouraged from engaging in open discussion of the data which daily confront many secondary school, college and university students. A mis-perception of the nature and authentic use of Ellen White's writings is basic to each of these conflicts. Further, it should be noted that, against stiff opposition, Ellen White helped the church develop its organization from 1860-3, and to reorganize between 1901-3. Yet, when there is widespread recognition of a need for constructive reorganization and more creative worship, the church is tempted to use Ellen White to justify why it cannot continue similar processes to those in which she engaged. This is a prime reason why there is a significant trend toward congregationalism at a time when Adventism greatly needs unity.
These issues are large enough for the church to call for the active support of the General Conference President, White Estate, the Biblical Research Institute, editors, publishing houses, pastors, teachers, and all of us — every member. We need, right now, to seek and implement the use of fresh symbols which fit all the known data about Ellen White's ministry.
Speaking Positively: The Big Picture
But, what is the big picture as far as Ellen White is concerned? What is the panorama she has given the Second Advent Movement? It is not easy to summarize the contribution of her fruitful life in a few words, but we must try.
Seventh-day Adventist faith is enveloped by two expressions in Revelation 14, "the everlasting gospel" and "the faith of Jesus." We live near the conclusion of the great war between righteousness and sin, identifying with Jerusalem over against Babylon. Ours is the faith of Israel: we are to worship the God of creation and exodus with the openness of the psalmists and the faithfulness of the prophets. But the promise of the Old Testament meets fulfillment in the New. Thus, ours is the faith of the new Israel, centered in Christ and faithful to the eyewitness testimony of the apostles. We are, therefore, to be "catholic" in an authentic sense: our message is for every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. Not only is it shaped by an understanding of those who first spread the faith, it is taught by those who preserved the truth during ages of darkness, reformed it in the sixteenth century, and revived it in the eighteenth. In addition, behind us is the glow of Millerite Adventism, before us is Jesus, Author of our guidebook and Finisher of our faith.
To be God's remnant in Ellen White's terms is to be inclusive of both Jewish and Christian faith, to be reformist in relation to our culture and to be mission-focused in all that we do. To be faithful to her nurture is to orient ourselves by the timeless landmarks of truth which guide God's pilgrim people from Eden lost to Eden restored: creation (the Sabbath), covenant (Sinai), Calvary (redemption), Olivet ("Go ye into all the world"), and Mount Zion (the Kingdom of God). It is to make truth more precious than life, as did the faithful souls of past ages, yet to identify with the "present truth"—that Jesus is the Lamb slain, the Mediator of the tabernacle which God pitched, and the Advocate to which all judgment is committed. Our life-quest is "the truth as it is in Jesus," our life-style is to be one of "disinterested benevolence" in this needy world as we pray, "Come, Lord Jesus."
A letter published in the Adventist Review, 9 April 1998, decrying the use of "Non-Adventist Commentators," would probably resonate with millions of the ten million Adventists of 1998, but its sentiments are in several respects contrary to both Ellen White's example and her counsel. Long ago the Apostle Paul warned that "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life," 2 Corinthians 3:6. Often, to read Ellen White literally (note the eleven examples in my "Re-visioning" paper) can blind us to the Spirit's guidance through her, in the same way as Judaism was blinded to the ultimate meaning of the Old Testament. This fact poses the dilemma of church leaders and members who are aware of current thought in Seventh-day Adventism. Should we seek and proclaim truth, adopting the attitudes and recommendations which Ellen White so aptly portrays, for instance, in Counsels to Writers and Editors, pages 33-51? Or should we revert to inadequate models of thought and practice because well-meaning but uninformed people call for us to do so, and threaten us if we do not? Put in the simplest way, considerably because of their commitment to Ellen White, Adventists in 1998 are choosing between two different ways of understanding God's Word, God's leading in their history, appropriate worship, effective organization, "true" education, and biblical mission. These two ways are aptly illustrated in print by Receiving the Word and The Bible Amplifier Series. How we respond to Ellen White's prophetic gift will in considerable measure determine the shape of the Seventh-day Adventist future.
Those who are interested in a more adequate discussion of these issues can readily access my other papers in this section on At Issue or in the La Sierra University Heritage Room, and explore the ample resources which the church has provided since 1970 to assist our quest for a viable understanding of Ellen White and her prophetic ministry.
Pacific Press has published a new textbook on Ellen White, entitled Messenger of the Lord. Its author, Dr. Herbert Douglass, believes his volume will present Ellen White in a fresh, common-sense way, so that her spiritual gift can better support the church and its mission at the dawn of Century 21.