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Re-Visioning the Role of Ellen White 
Beyond the Year 2000


Adventist Today: "Report of a Presentation by Arthur Patrick, Ph.D., at the San Diego chapter of the Association of Adventist Forums, January 1998"

Arthur Patrick, Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Religion at La Sierra University, recently spoke to Adventist Forum members about his research into the way church members have responded to new information about the role of Ellen White in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Some people have taken what he calls a reversionist stance, denying the validity of new information and calling into question the motives of those who discovered and published it. Others have taken an opposite view, what he calls a rejectionist position, using the new revelations as a reason for denouncing the whole church. Patrick, however, sees a third alternative, transformationism, where church leaders and members recognize both the valuable contributions of Ellen White’s ministry and the validity of the new research, then reformulate their ideas to accord with new data. He says that when we can get a consensus on this, we can resolve many tensions that now hinder the church’s progress.

Patrick lists seven factors that have contributed to change in the church’s understanding of its theology and heritage. These include:

1) The development of accredited educational institutions, including some with graduate education; 2) the graduate education of ministers and teachers by persons who had themselves undertaken university programs; 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) The efforts of two missionaries from the United States to Africa (Robert Wieland and Donald Short), to persuade the church from 1950 on to begin a reassessment of its presentation of the gospel, and further, during a long series of discussions with evangelical Christians in the 1950s, the understanding the Adventists gained about themselves and about their expression of cardinal doctrines concerning Christ and salvation; 5) the establishment in the 1970s of an archival center at the General Conference headquarters and a chain of research centers to serve the various geographical areas, thus making available primary sources for the study of SDA history; 6) the maturation of Adventist historiography as a result of these developments; and 7) publishing by the journal Spectrum of studies which impinged on Ellen White and her ministry. Although Spectrum 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. Critics from outside and inside the church have raised questions, particularly about the role of Ellen G. White. Beginning in the 1970s Adventist scholars began to publish their findings. For instance: 1) Richard Lewis looked exegetically at Rev. 14:12 and 12:17, questioning our use of the expression “Spirit of Prophecy”x with exclusive reference to Ellen White and her writings. 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. Then 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. 5) 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. 6) 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. 7) Late in the 1970s Walter Rea began to press upon the church substantial but sometimes exaggerated claims of Ellen White’s literary dependence.

These presentations and others 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 cards containing new information 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. This task is still a challenge.

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 as a valued source of authority in their personal lives and in the church. Because church leaders have been slow to acknowledge the new information, they may have prolonged the problems associated with this Great Bereavement. Ministers, teachers, and members urgently needed people who could quickly grasp the implications of the evidence and give constructive leadership in the discovery and adoption of viable new patterns of thought.

But church leaders seemed to give a low priority to the process, causing many members to think that they were either uncaring or dishonest. There needs to be an open dialogue in which lay people and specialists can participate in the task of redrawing a composite and comprehensive picture of Ellen White and her ministry. The leaders can facilitate this process, though they cannot control it.

The Core of the Matter

A number of conclusions may be drawn from this discussion. If the church’s mission is to be fulfilled, Ellen White cannot be secreted from the realities of the contemporary world as a private concern of Seventh-day Adventists. The long list of theses presented in many parts of the globe to credible institutions of higher learning demonstrates that her children are becoming adults. We need to carefully evaluate a whole range of issues impinging on her ministry. There is a great need to proceed with modernizing her language if we expect many of our youth to have any interest in reading her writings, or if we want more than a few new converts to actually read her books. Her writings must be interpreted in their historical and cultural contexts. In other words, Ellen White’s counsel on the need to consider the time and place of her counsels is increasingly pertinent.

We would do well to take the essence of her counsel and follow her method; for instance, being aware of the link between health and religion, we must go beyond her writings, to Scripture and science, distilling and then implementing the best that is known on how to live. In place of our backwardness in recognizing the spiritual giftedness of all God’s children, including women, we might note the significance of Ellen White’s ordination, which was so apparent that no Adventist man dared lay hands upon her. We ought to ask how Ellen White responded to the issues relating to human values and human rights, including the treatment of individuals and groups by churches and governments. Instead of engaging in endless controversies about music and worship, we should focus on worship of our Creator and celebration of his handiwork, combined with a healthy ecological concern.

There is truth that lies behind and above the errors of Ellen White’s statements on human races and geological processes. Her concern in her amalgamation statements was to illustrate the deep corruption and crime into which the race fell. The message that God is Creator is vastly more important than any nineteenth-century notions about the earth’s crust. Ellen White has influenced, profoundly, the health of millions of people, despite the specific limitations of her health-related counsels. Since she learned history largely by ordinary means, and we have access to better sources on which to establish our historical understandings, she cannot help us with the basics of history. But, on the other hand, she can help us in the far more important task of finding God in the mazes of history. We can rightly affirm her devotion to the Scriptures, and be challenged to go to the Bible with a desire similar to hers to learn the truth. We need to be as open to constructive change as she was, knowing we too have many things to learn, and many, many to unlearn. Further, we do well to avoid claims which her writings neither encourage nor sustain.

Patrick concludes that Seventh-day Adventism would become an anachronism were we to adopt the writings of Ellen White as the definitive and authoritative encyclopedia of our faith and practice. In the process, we would destroy her credibility as a prophetic witness, and damage the mission of the church which was so precious to her. We should look for a more appropriate way to portray her writings. When we can get a consensus on her role as pioneer explorer, or as mother of the church who expects her children to grow beyond her own understanding, or as a map-maker, or something else, we can achieve a unity in mind and spirit that is lacking now. He urges the church to get its scholars, theologians, editors, and others around the world to participate in open discussions of the need for change. Given that, he has faith that the dynamic nature of Adventism might yet realize its true potential.

Patrick’s 34-page paper of this name may be read online at
See the archived Adventist Today article at

[Note:  This article is referenced by Arthur Patrick in his paper, " The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White, Part 1: 1982 in Historical Perspective", in Footnote #9.]

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