It’s clear from the opening chapters of Stories from Sunnyside, that this book was a labor of love for author Marian de Berg.
De Berg is an administrative assistant at the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre at Avondale College of Higher Education, where she has served for two decades. She also leads tours and trains volunteers at Ellen G. White’s Australian home, “Sunnyside.” This makes her uniquely qualified to capture the everyday life of White’s nine years in Australia, from 1891 to 1900.
Drawing from primary source material, including the personal correspondence, manuscripts, and other materials that Ellen White wrote during this nine-year period, de Berg paints a robust portrait of the beginnings of Adventism in Australia and White’s direct role in building a thriving Adventist community, complete with numerous churches, schools, and sanitariums.
Seventh-day Adventism had arrived on the shores of Australia in 1885, just six years before Ellen White’s own arrival. With a fledgling membership of just 450 Australian Adventists, White had her work cut out for her. Though in her seventies when she came to Australia, White traveled extensively during her stay, attending and speaking at various camp meetings and newly established churches. By the time White left Australia, membership had grown to 2,100 strong.
As an American, I knew very little about Ellen White’s time in Australia. I knew only that she hadn’t wanted to go and did not feel God calling her there, but the General Conference made the decision for her. De Berg touches on this, including the stern letters White sent to GC President O.A. Olsen. In one such letter, White tells Olsen,
“The Lord was not in our leaving America…The Lord did not plan this, but He let you all move after your own imaginings…There was so great a willingness to have us leave that the Lord permitted this thing to take place. Those who were weary of the testimonies borne were left without the persons who bore them. Our separation from Battle Creek was to let men have their own will and way, which they thought superior to the way of the Lord” (74-75).
Despite the circumstances surrounding Ellen White’s arrival in Australia, after returning to America, she reminisced:
“…I may never see Australia again, though if it were the Lord’s will, it is the place where I should most prefer to be…I know of no place where I would rather be than Cooranbong…I know of no place on earth so dear to me as Avondale, where we fought so many battles and gained so many victories” (302-303).
Those “battles and victories” are woven throughout Stories from Sunnyside, though it is White’s day-to-day activities, which de Berg captures so well, that most drew me in. It was in reading about White’s daily life that I was able to see not the enigmatic prophet, but rather Ellen White the human being: woman, evangelist, and matriarch.
Ellen White’s hospitality, care, and compassion are all on display in this book. I enjoyed learning more about her Sunnyside home and the individuals who graced its doorstep: White’s family members, large staff, and visitors who needed both quick assistance and long-term care. I imagine de Berg must be a fantastic tour guide at the Sunnyside estate, because her ability to guide the reader through White’s home and expertly craft an accurate narrative for the comings and goings based on White’s own words is truly impressive.
With just ink and paper, de Berg has shaped Ellen White into a whole person for her readers. Within Stories from Sunnyside’s pages, we learn of a woman who personally invested in each new church (303), wore patched and frayed clothes because she gave away every new garment and piece of fabric to those in need (281), and who fed and offered work to every “tramp” who stopped by — of which there were many due to the depression in Australia at that time (214).
One of my favorite chapters in Stories from Sunnyside was Chapter 21: “Ellen White’s Table.” Here we learn that White, along with her family and staff, spent the summer months canning fruit from the orchard, harvesting fresh vegetables from the garden, picking wild blackberries, and baking bread and pies, “thirteen or fourteen pans at a time” in the outdoor oven (148). De Berg also shares the importance White placed on “making mealtimes a happy time together,” which White expressed in the following words:
“How many families season their daily meals with doubt and questionings! They dissect the characters of their friends and serve them up as a dainty dessert…When [you] gather about the table to partake of God’s precious bounties, make this a season of cheerfulness. Do not make it a season of grave decorum as though they were standing about a coffin, but have it a social season where every countenance is full of joy and happiness, where there is naught but cheerful words spoken” (149-150).
Truly, both the Sunnyside estate and the life of Ellen G. White come alive in de Berg’s capable hands. In the foreword, Dr. John Skrzypaszek, director of the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre at Avondale College of Higher Education, sums up the importance of this book best when he says:
This book does not provide an explanatory framework of Ellen White’s prophetic role, nor a theological charter for argumentative debates. It recalls the narratives in the life of a person engrossed in the depth of God’s love. It recalls the memories, the colours and the sounds highlighting qualities such as personal uniqueness, giftedness and value. Perhaps it’s in the places where the rubber meets the road that one finds the authenticity of the prophetic voice—a voice that does not only speak but acts the part of God’s extended hands in the community” (vi).
I would encourage anyone with an interest in learning more about Ellen White’s life in Australia to read Stories from Sunnyside.
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
Image Credit: Signs Publishing
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