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The Ellen G. White writings and the church
By Neal C. Wilson

The testimonies from the Lord's 
"special messenger" constitute an
 inspired commentary on the Bible 
and hold a treasured place in the
 religious life of the church.

The world of Adventist believers enjoys a real sense of "family." To be sure, there are differences of culture, language, nationality, economics, social experience, and educational background. Then, too, generally speaking, we as Adventists are a people of strong wills. To resist pressures in areas of entertainment, to honor the seventh day in a first- and sixth-day world, to give a tenth and more of our incomes in these inflationary times—all these, and many other distinctive life-style characteristics, require strong commitments.

It seems to me, however, that there are unifying elements that overarch these differences and pressures that at times would appear to strain our church unity. We share a common Christian faith, built on the supremacy of the Scriptures. We identify with the past experiences and present hopes of the Advent Movement and message. The Adventist family also shares a closely knit organizational structure that permits many friendships to develop and keeps us in touch with one another through educational experiences, ministerial fellowships, and our conference and regional meetings. We treasure all of these ways by which fellowship in Christ and love for one another is nurtured.

There is a pervasive spiritual dynamic, however, that has played a singular role in tying the Seventh-day Adventist Church together. It is through the influence of this factor that we have maintained a global unity in doctrine, faith, and practice, share a common "world view," and hold similar attitudes toward health, education, and the use of leisure time. For those who are Seventh-day Adventists, it is already evident that I have in mind the writings of Ellen G. White.

Many of us have had the happy experience of being nourished on the words of Scripture and the choice devotional passages from the writings we call the Spirit of Prophecy. The testimonies from the Lord's "special messenger" constitute an inspired commentary on the Bible and hold a treasured place in the religious life of the church. The counsels of Ellen G. White still guide the church in the application of Biblical teachings and principles to concrete practical life experiences.

During the past few decades the statements of Ellen White on the topic of inspiration have helped the Adventist Church steer a course somewhere between the verbal inspiration of Scripture position of some fundamentalists on the one side, and the noninspiration of Scripture of extreme liberals on the other side. Our knowledge of how the Lord worked in the life and experience of Ellen White helps us understand how the Bible writers functioned under the Spirit's influence.

In recent years an increasing interest in Biblical interpretation has included a concern for a proper method of understanding and interpreting the writings of Ellen White. Ellen White's death, the subsequent passing of many of her contemporaries, and the increasing distance between our times and the life and times of Mrs. White make it necessary for the church to give attention to the best methods of interpreting these writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, which continue to play an important role in our individual and corporate church life.

The current concern over Ellen White's use of sources, the charges of plagiarism, and Ellen White's use of literary assistants are not new to those who have read such church publications as the 27-page pamphlet of W. C. White and D. E. Robinson entitled Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White (1933; included as an insert in the June 4, 1981, REVIEW); Ellen G. White and Her Critics, by Francis D. Nichol (Review & Herald, 1951); and The Ellen G. White Writings, by Arthur L. White (Review & Herald, 1973). There are many in the church, however, who have not read these publications and who have not been adequately instructed from our pulpits or in our educational institutions. For these members, many of whom have not looked carefully at the Scriptures from the point of view of their production and composition, this information can be unsettling.

In the past decade or so, additional studies have provided us with further insight in regard to the E. G. White writings. Articles in the REVIEW and other journals have enlarged our knowledge of Ellen White's use of sources and how her viewpoints in certain areas correspond with contemporary attitudes and knowledge. Walter Rea, a former pastor in the Southern California Conference, has shown that E. G. White borrowed more extensively from contemporary sources than we had thought previously. The White Estate has discovered a previously unknown letter book of one of Ellen White's secretaries. This book, together with recent study in the letter files of the White Estate and in documents of the General Conference archives, has increased our knowledge of how these associates of Ellen White participated in the publication of articles, testimonies, and books.

The combination of all these facets has led many in the church to take a greater interest in what we may find from a wider, and in some cases a more thorough, study of the evidence that is available on how Ellen White wrote her articles and books. In response to this general concern and in order that we might have a sound basis for answering the questions being asked in regard to Ellen White's literary methods, the General Conference officers have initiated several study projects.

As a people we have always been open to the discovery of further information in all fields of knowledge. Our educational system, with doctoral degrees being offered in theology, education, and biology, with medical and dental schools, with the theological seminary, and with such research programs as the Geoscience Institute and the Biblical Research Institute, all testify to the church's commitment to the discovery of truth in all areas. The history of this Advent Movement is a story of the proclamation of the everlasting gospel in the context of intellectual, cultural, and social change. While not all change is progress, our own extraordinary growth worldwide in a little more than one century is testimony to the Lord's blessing and to the church's willingness to meet the questions and issues of each succeeding generation of people who need to hear in their own "language" the changeless truths of the gospel.

No serious student of Adventist history can study our past without noting that one constant factor in Adventism has been its willingness to change, to grow with the times and with the leadings of the Lord. This does not infer or mean that we are unsure of the pillars of our faith or that our message is not built upon a sure foundation. Ellen White reminded us that "in reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history."—Life Sketches of Ellen White, p. 196.

Life of Christ Research Project

With this undergirding faith in God's leadership of this movement from its founding until the present time, we need not fear the fuller knowledge of truth that such study and research may provide. A serious review of the way the Lord has used Ellen White in the communication of His will to us as a people as He has sought to guide this movement should not only confirm our faith but strengthen it against the attacks of those who would distort the proper understanding of this prophetic gift in the Adventist Church.

On July 1 of last year (1980), the Ellen G. White Life of Christ Research Project was launched under the direction of James C. Cox, professor of New Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, located at Andrews University. The research will seek to compare the text of The Desire of Ages with various nineteenth- century evangelical writers who wrote on the life of Christ and from whom Ellen White borrowed to some extent. The study will include a review of the nature and extent of this borrowing and how Ellen White used and shaped the words and expressions of others in the construction of her own compositions.

When Dr. Cox accepted a call last August to be president of Avondale College in Australia, we felt it was fortuitous that Fred Veltman, chairman of the religion department of Pacific Union College, was willing to take a two-year leave of absence in order to give full time to the study. Dr. Veltman is known as a careful researcher and scholar. He has complete access to the White Estate documents and has been given some part-time assistance. In addition to fifteen volunteer part-time assistants working out of their homes across the United States, the project will probably require the use of computer specialists to design and execute computer programs to index the texts and provide data for the necessary textual analysis. Once the study has been completed, it will be reviewed by an eighteen-member advisory committee selected to provide counsel for Dr. Veltman. The results will be communicated to the General Conference leadership, who in turn will determine in what form this can best be shared with the general church membership world- wide.

A separate investigation into the life and work of Ellen White is being conducted by Richard Lesher, director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference. Dr. Lesher is working with a number of Adventist scholars who will be writing a series of research papers on such topics as: The Office of Prophet in the Old Testament; The Office of Prophet in the New Testament; E. G. White in Context of American Church History; E. G. White's Sociological Context; Science and Religion in the E. G. White Writings; E. G. White's Use of Scripture; Authority of E. G. White; Theology of E. G. White; E. G. White's Experience as a Prophet; Development of Thought in E. G. White; Is It Ethical for a Prophet to Borrow Ideas and Claim Divine Origin'?; and A Proper Hermeneutic for Use of E. G. White.

A message to proclaim

The various studies relating to the Ellen G. White writings have led many in the church to give further consideration to the more fundamental question of the nature of inspiration. The need for further study in the area of inspiration and revelation surfaced in the doctrinal discussions at Dallas and in earlier church dialogue over the various problems being faced by the Geoscience Institute, In order to assist church members in their further study of the doctrine of inspiration, a team of Bible scholars and theologians is being formed to prepare a study document on the topic. Once the statement has been developed and reviewed, it will be circulated so that the church body at large can have an opportunity to respond and share their views. 

We are living in the last days of earth's history. We must not let ourselves be sidetracked from the main purpose of the church. We have a message to proclaim, a witness to make, and a world to warn. At the same time, we are being asked to make this witness to a twentieth- century world on the borders of yet another century. It is very possible that a study of these issues could assist the church in its ever-present task of packaging its product in such a way as to provide the most effective witness. Our Lord and His disciples, as well as the pioneers of this Advent Movement, took great care to proclaim present truth in such a way as to meet the needs of men and women in the context of their human experience. We need not fear the discovery of truth in any area. The church has done well by holding to the primacy of Scripture and heeding the counsels of the Lord's special messenger to this movement.

Long ago the prophet Samuel took a stone and placed it on a dividing line in recognition of God's mighty works on behalf of the people of God. He "called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us" (1 Sam. 7:12). If we will take time to review our past history and to note how God has led us in the past, and if we could all be privileged to watch the way the Lord is providentially leading and blessing this Advent Movement around the world today, we will find plenty of "stones" to mark God's saving power. We have good reason for our faith in God, this movement, and in one another. We are family. We share a common task. Let us draw near to the Lord and to one another in prayer, in study, and in witness.

At the time of writing, Neal C. Wilson was president of the General Conference.
Published in the Adventist Review, July 9, 1981, pp 4-7.
See the whole July 9, 1981 issue 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 #14. ]

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