This 1869 message to the Battle Creek Church makes it seem more than just aspirational:
Had you taken your position upon the health reform;…things might have been different. But you have been only partially aroused by the iniquity and corruption that is in your houses…Do you think angels can come into your dwellings? Do you think your children are susceptible of holy influences with these things among you? I can count family after family that are almost entirely under the control of Satan. I know these things are true, and I want the people to arouse before it shall be eternally too late, and the blood of souls, even the blood of the souls of their own children, be found upon their garments. …You place upon your tables butter, eggs, and meat, and your children partake of them. They are fed with the very things that will excite their animal passions, and then you come to meeting and ask God to bless and save your children. How high do your prayers go? You have a work to do first. When you have done all for your children which God has left for you to do then you can with confidence claim the special help that God has promised to give you. ( Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2 — Ellen G. White Writings (egwwritings.org) , page 361)
Here we have the proclamation that not embracing the health message, blocks all positive spiritual influences in the home. And that when parents feed their children butter, eggs, and meat, God won’t even hear them when they plead for their children’s salvation. It doesn’t really come across as “Here’s an ideal to strive for, but nobody’s perfect so if you fail God still love you…”
Now, one can argue that she meant intemperate use of these products, and wasn’t calling for total and strict abstinence. But if you were a parent who heard this message, would you really want to gamble on just how much many animal products you could feed your family before God starts ignoring your prayers for your kids’ salvation and your home is turned over to satanic influences? One could hardly blame a parent from taking this testimony to heart and deciding abstinence was the safest course of action. If you were such a parent, it must have been disheartening to learn 40 years later that you were an extremist starving your family of good healthy nutrition and thus responsible for crippling God’s work and bringing the health reform into disrepute:
Eggs contain properties which are remedial agencies in counteracting certain poisons.
Some, in abstaining from milk, eggs, and butter, have failed to supply the system with proper nourishment, and as a consequence have become weak and unable to work. Thus health reform is brought into disrepute. The work that we have tried to build up solidly is confused with strange things that God has not required, and the energies of the church are crippled.(Review and Herald March 3, 1910 par. 12-13, reprint of sermon given May 31, 1909: The Review and Herald — Ellen G. White Writings (egwwritings.org)
If it weren’t for the idea of her prophetic infallibility, it could have been admitted that she was passing on the health ideas of her time, and some of them turned out to be harmful so she adjusted the message. But instead she was compelled to shame those who took her first message too seriously. And now we have a hermeneutic that tries to split the difference between conflicting messages like this in the name of “context.”
I was fortunate to have been raised by a family that took this approach. One of my early Adventist memories is making the mistake of reading Counsels on Diet and Foods the night before my older brother’s birthday party. I was quite dismayed to see the foods I was looking forward to eating on the next day we’re all condemned, and the the milk and sugar combo (aka cake and ice-cream) was bad because it’d turn into alcohol in the stomach. Since alcohol was strictly verboten, I connected the dots and figured cake and ice-cream were out. But my Mom assured me that because of “context” White only meant we should employ moderation in eating such things and that it wasn’t a prohibition against BD parties. As an 8 yo. looking forward to the next day’s festivities I was more than happy to accept this explanation.
But some people weren’t blessed with parents like that, and were born to families that try hard to take all EGW admonitions at face value. The problem with the context™ approach to countering this, is that it often misunderstands how context actually works. Imagine in one conversation I say “Jeremy’s a lying two-faced scoundrel,” and there’s nothing within that conversation to suggest I meant anything different than the plain meaning. Then in another completely separate conversation I say “Jeremy’s a very upstanding and honest man.” By normal rules of language I simply contradicted myself, and you can’t use the second statement to say I didn’t really mean the first statement. But by the Adventist Context™ hermeneutic we’d try to combine the two statements and come up with something like “Jeremy’s generally a decent guy who tries to be honest, but sometimes he exaggerates…”
This approach, of course, is incredibly useful. With 100,000 pages of Ellen White text to mix and match, everyone can create their own personal Spirit of Prophecy by deciding which passages are controlling context, and what kind of synthesis we should arrive at by combining them. You can have a fire and brimstone ultra-conservative Ellen White, a moderate evangelical Ellen White, or even a progressive Social Justice Warrior Ellen White, the possibilities are practically endless. But it seems spiritually abusive to blame people who don’t take this creative approach for the fact that they find EGW’s many admonitions to be a great burden.