Do Prophets, Including Ellen White, Make Mistakes?

Could one be a prophet and still get some things wrong? My answer, Yes!

Prophets are imperfect human beings trying to do God’s will. On the whole they carry their responsibilities well, but occasionally human considerations intervene rendering their counsels antithetical to God’s ideals. The Bible bears this out, especially in the Old Testament (OT) where prophetic activity was most prevalent. Even in the New Testament much of Jesus’ ministry centered on correcting his contemporaries’ misconceptions of the true intents of the Mosaic code. This was important because in his time people incurred the death penalty or were maimed as retribution – “an eye for an eye” – for their part in killings or maimings. So not getting it right had real life and death consequences.

I contended in a previous article that Samuel got it wrong about his purported directive from God ordering Saul to “kill everything that breathes,” in their war against the Amalekites. I do not know exactly how or what he got wrong. What I know is that during war, especially if perceived as existential, it is difficult to view one’s enemies as fully human, and moral considerations are put aside in the pursuit of victory. During those times we drape ourselves in ethnic garb, and even prophets, thinking God is exclusively on their side, could confuse their wishes for God’s orders. Some of the most regrettable ethical lapses in the Bible are debasing actions perpetrated against ethnic minorities or “others” at the “commands” of their prophets, or God himself.

The OT often portrayed the Hebrew God as a domesticated warrior god, a faulty depiction that has made it easier for some to conclude that such a god can order, or at least condone, genocide. Though one could reject such reasoning on ethical grounds alone, it is the solid witness of Jesus about his father’s character that persuades. An important reason for Jesus’ first advent was to show us who his father is: not the jealous village chieftain who delighted in warfare or relished destroying his enemies.

The idea that God loves, not only one’s tribe, but all humanity – Jews, Gentiles and all in between – was a radical concept to his first hearers. This simple truth was so alien to Jewish thinking it took Calvary to break through. It was only after that “new” imagery of a universally loving God gained currency that they started grasping the absurdity of God ordering the killing of vulnerable innocents – children, elderly, animals – because they were “alien.”

So if we disapprove of genocide today, it isn’t necessarily because we are better than those who came before us. It shows the power of the better example Jesus demonstrated. It is for the same reason that we no longer approve of zealot pastors like Nehemiah, who resorted to violence, restraining the Hebrew people to preserve their bloodline. When some in Nehemiah’s community inched toward social integration with their non-Hebrew neighbors, his reaction was swift. In his own words: “I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God's name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.’” (Nehemiah 13:25)

This was normalized behavior when done at God’s command or on his behalf. And in OT times many priests and prophets proclaimed their statements and deeds as God-directed. This went on for so long that common human shortcomings – pettiness, retribution, boorishness – became indistinguishable from actions attributed to their God. But Jesus showed us differently. When angered because the merchants had turned the temple from “a house of prayers for all nations” into a “den of robbers,” (Mark 11:15-18) he directed his “violence” to the furniture housing the offenders’ wares. There is no record of Jesus hitting people, not even when they spat on him and treated him poorly. Over time, it is his example, not that of Ezra or Nehemiah, that has inspired and transformed.

The issue then is not that prophets did occasionally misrepresent God. Humans always will. The problem is that prophets are perceived as inerrant. For some reason, religious leaders and their communities tend to conflate the prophetic role with inerrancy and are reluctant to call out offending prophets even when their behaviors are clearly inconsistent with what a good God does. So we feel obligated to justify reprehensible behavior when the offenders are prophets. Then they, and we in tow, do the next bad thing: attach God’s name to this conduct. When we make our prophets incapable of error we drag down God’s name and character along with their reproachful actions.

This, it seems to me, is part of our Ellen White (EGW) problem: we have made her an inerrant prophet. And it is exacerbated by the sheer volume of her writings. Because no prophet wrote half as much as she did, her writings are a fertile ground for factually inaccurate statements or erroneous claims. But we resist conceding that she made mistakes. Of course we deny that she is inerrant, but the ways we use her writings contradict such refutations.

We have used seemingly innocuous but, when viewed over time, insidious ways to project her as inerrant. It flows from our pulpits when preachers use her as an expected clincher in their sermons. In church publications writers are careful to lace their positions with vintage statements from her writings. What would the Sabbath School lessons look like if her “counsels” were absent? She inhabits the weekly lessons in a way that reduces her voice into a formula. Then there is the ease with which we let her in as “Sister” White. By that endearing gesture the church has “sisterized” her into an eternally youthful presence in Adventist lore, not unlike Mary within Catholicism.

Ellen White, like Samuel, had moments in her long life where she proved that even prophets make mistakes. This is evident in her theological evolution, where some earlier positions conflict with later ones. Or in areas where her assertions have been contradicted by science. For example, her claims about earthquakes and volcanic formation:

[R]ocks are heated, limestone is burned, and iron ore melted. The action of the water upon the lime adds fury to the intense heat, and causes earthquakes, volcanoes, and fiery issues. As the fire and water come in contact with ledges of rock and ore, there are heavy explosions underground…. The air is hot and suffocating. Volcanic eruptions follow; and these often failing to give sufficient vent to the heated elements, the earth itself is convulsed, the ground heaves and swells like the waves of the sea, great fissures appear, and sometimes cities, villages, and burning mountains are swallowed up.(Patriarchs and Prophets, chapter 8, p. 108/9)

have no scientific validation. Today we know that volcanoes/earthquakes occur due to collision of tectonic plates and not interaction between “water and lime.”

These are evidential human shortcomings, especially common in people with such long writing careers. But in the arena of social relations – how Christians from different ethnic or racial backgrounds should interact – we would expect a post-canonical prophet to echo Jesus’ call to inclusive community. Instead, EGW’s 19th century counsel on the subject was not only wrong and reactionary, but might have contributed to prolonging segregation, certainly within the church.

Ellen White grew up in Maine and was therefore brought up in the New England Abolitionist culture. Her disdain for slavery was deep so she took every opportunity to promote black empowerment. But as the pioneering work progressed in Southern black communities, predictable personnel conflicts surfaced along racial lines and the need for an administrative model – integrate or isolate – became pressing. It was at this pivotal point that EGW gave her blessing to the policy of administrative segregation leading to Regional – euphemism for Black – Conferences. Her directives:

Let the colored people work chiefly for those of their own race. ...The best thing will be to provide the colored people who accept the truth, with places of worship of their own, in which they can carry on their services by themselves.... Schools and sanitariums for colored people should be established. (Testimonies, vol. 9, pp. 206, 207) Let white and colored people be labored for in separate, distinct lines. (p. 210)

Much energy and ink has been poured – mostly by black leadership interests – into defending this obvious apartheid-like arrangement. Some point to her support for racial equality and justice, particularly in her younger more “militant” years, as a better gauge of her overall commitment on the race question. They see in her “separate but equal” organizational endorsement a tactical retreat of sorts, a moderating gesture dictated by the circumstance. They insist that with the passage of time the arrangement has served the equality and justice interests of black Adventism better than it would have without it.

But I think she was wrong. And her apologists miss the larger point. There is no unity in separation. We cannot preach that racial differences will be immaterial in heaven but practice segregation here on earth. Race/ethnic relations have been the central and most enduring conflict point throughout history, and those who have advocated for separation have misunderstood the Christian call to unity. Jesus said, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), not just Israel, as his contemporaries believed. Paul echoed this with his call for a genderless nonracial Christian community.

In the United States, the 1960s was defined by the dismantling of Jim Crow. Ensuing Civil Rights legislation did not completely eradicate underlying systemic racism, so entrenched racial attitudes prevailed. The recent multiracial worldwide protests against police brutality, following the killing of George Floyd is, at some level, a knock against segregation. South African Apartheid, the most elaborate segregationist structure in history, is no more. Yet Black Conferences in the SDA Church are still untouchable sacred cows. And Black Church leaders are as determined to keep this structural relic in place as ever. But why?

The reasons go back to EGW’s involvement in creating these Conferences in the 19th century. And in any other situation, with any other person, we would acknowledge this and move on toward a principled solution to an embarrassing problem. But we have neither acknowledged nor moved on, even when the winds of change are gathering speed and bearing down on us. We are paralyzed, because we have not come to terms with the reality that her prophetic role did not confer on her or any prophet, infallibility. We have not given her the permission to be human, to err. Instead we have burdened her (or did she assume this burden?) with an inerrant prophetic mantle, which is now our Adventist albatross.

 

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate, Inc.

 

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

 

 


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10595
3 Likes

As I am rereading the 9 volumes of the Testimonies, I am faced with other issues, as well as those pointed out by the author above, that Ellen seems to be out of touch on. As I am approaching the middle of volume 2, she writes copiously about “self abuse” (euphemism for masturbation), reflecting the popular medical opinion of her day that such practices create mental and physical deterioration. Accordingly she asserts that the practice is offensive to God and will prevent salvation. However, perhaps because of her female experience, which is different physically from the male one, she does not explain the issue of involuntary nocturnal emissions (wet dreams) that result when other means of release are not available and the fact that such emissions may be accompanied by lurid dreams that would likely shock her Victorian era sensibilities. It begs the question as to how those uncontrollable processes relate to God’s will and why they would not result in similar deterioration over time.

In discussions of this topic I have participated in, women, who apparently do not have such issues often see little problem with Ellen White’s counsel on the matter. But men struggle with guilt over the issue and how little control they have over this natural process. I have never had a woman ask about this issue in a counseling setting, but I have had multiple men, who have either left the church or are contemplating doing so for the simple reason they cannot prevent their bodies from functioning normally and the sexual dreaming that often accompanies it, guilt being exacerbated by Ellen White’s writings.

Because of the ongoing Victorian aspects that were culturally appropriated to our faith, this is a subject that is most often avoided because 1) we still, in many respects, remain a 19th century denomination, and 2) it challenges the authority of our received prophetess in an area where she wrote pointedly and left little room for interpretation, especially for those who see her as literally infallible, a problem identified in the article above. This is also exacerbated by our failure to maintain the attitude of Sola Scriptura that we often claim, when in reality what we practice is Prima Scriptura. The first allows us to freely challenge the writings of prophets and point out their inconsistencies. The latter allows them to have a special relevance that may be extremely unassailable. The flow of grace from the primary source being imparted to the lesser ones.

7 Likes

Early Adventists go many things wrong. They had no way of knowing much about history, for one. So they talked blindly. So they thought natural occurrences were some Biblical phenomenon. They also forgot many things about the catholic church. They did not like the trinity, and certainly tithing was not even in the picture. We seem to read her and quote her more than Paul or John, who both thought Jesus was coming back, well, in their lifetimes. Of course she was wrong about a whole slew of things. From the Civil War to the US in prophecy. As history unfolds, Adventists will need a clearer picture. But then she herself never told anyone to quote her like The Bible, and not to make any doctrines from it. We are the ones who have erred, not her. https://the-undercover-adventist.blogspot.com/2018/08/why-do-we-read-bible-differently-than.html

5 Likes

If you believed the Genesis 2 story, EGW was grossly in error when she proclaimed masturbation was “offensive to God and will prevent salvation.” First Adam was created including his genitals even before God determined “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” What was the reason for creating his genitalia? Second, masturbation is a laboratory on how to cope with enormous deep feelings before entering into long-term commitment. Ask our mental health professionals George @GeorgeTichy, Kim @cincerity and Patti @pattigrant

Just an opinion. :wink:

9 Likes

Undoubtedly,some may say that was why it “was not good that man should be alone.” :wink:

2 Likes

That must have been true in the OT but not since after 1844. Every prophecy since 1844 was fulfilled, either on earth or in heaven. Therein lies the key to our dilemma.

2 Likes

How do you know the prophecies have been “fulfilled in heaven?” Seems a little difficult to prove. Right?

3 Likes

Who are we to question God’s blueprint. :wink:

3 Likes

With just enough mental gymnastics, our founders determined that the end of the world occurred in heaven when God began His investigative judgement.

8 Likes

The SDA church has the problem of admitting that prophets are not God. They want so very badly to elevate EGW to God. Rather than say prophets can and have made mistakes, a long time ago they promoted her to God. When it’s proven that she was mistaken it paramount to saying God made mistakes. Rather than back track they continue this position that she was God which destroys both her and the church.

So now they are stuck in this uncomfortable position where they have made her God while seeing that things she said does not work either from science or from Biblical findings . The longer this position persists, the less people will accept them.

9 Likes

"…while seeing that things she said does not work either from science or from Biblical findings . The longer this position persists, the less people will accept them."

In many ways, Adventism/EGW probably worked best (grew more) in a day and time where there was less education and “snail mail”, the telegraph, and various periodicals, were the basic forms of mass communication.

Today, with higher levels of education and instantaneous communication it is harder for most organizations/denoms to maintain their “public face” without constantly monitoring.

I do agree that if the SDA Church hadn’t been so bent on preserving Ellen as a “saint” then there might have been some hope in “saving face”. But…this was not the pathway chosen and the inevitable happens when many Post Moderns think critically in their own century and not in EGW’s. She appears less and less relevant to them.

11 Likes

"But then she herself never told anyone to quote her like The Bible, and not to make any doctrines from it."

She wrote many “authoritative” things of which she did expect people to heed/follow…some might say this was the first mistake. The second mistake is that there isn’t a big leap from “Prophetess” to “enlightening” and “enlarging” upon the Bible. This Big Leap was done during her lifetime and has continued up to this day. I have never seen that she actually corrected it.

9 Likes

"…but I have had multiple men, who have either left the church or are contemplating doing so for the simple reason they cannot prevent their bodies from functioning normally and the sexual dreaming that often accompanies it, guilt being exacerbated by Ellen White’s writings."

Maladaptive “Perfectionism”…is an ugly thing leading to poor self esteem and even depression (or more).

I once knew a man in his early 40’s who had attended a strict Adventist “Self-Supporting” school. At some point and time, he left and eventually married. It wasn’t until he married that his mental health issues really started to surface. According to his wife, he started to withdraw from the outside world and was unable to leave their home because his anxiety was so great.

Eventually, he sought treatment and then it was discovered that it all traced back to his experiences in that very strict SS (EGW infused) environment. The “outside” world held too much danger and he was only “safe” in the comfort of his own home. Needless to say, since these issues were so large there was not going to be any children brought into the marriage.

Of course I have another story or two…but this gets the point across I believe.

11 Likes

The stories that I have heard, and read from former (and present) Adventists is mind-boggling. I know you have heard and read them too.

The even weirder thing to me, is the minimizing of the dysfunction and damage that occurs in the SDA church. It’s so normal, that many people just shrug, or laugh it off. That to me is the even more disturbing part of it all.

10 Likes

It can happen…but not just in Adventism, though I believe that the most conservative churches/denoms are the most prone. One of the big issues is that there is a tendency to “protect” the organization and unfortunately this becomes most important. You see this happening particularly with sexual abuse in churches where the “abuser” is protected over the “abused”.

What have you seen/heard that you feel is particularly egregious?

8 Likes

Please say that was TIC.

(Tongue in cheek.)

7 Likes

I have acquaintances whose parents forbade masturbation under severe (Y’all smart alecs please note the edit to add the final “e” :rofl:) penalty, and who also had their bedding inspected regularly for evidence of “nocturnal emissions” and who were severely punished for those as well.

And I remember growing up as an adolescent young man fearing, myself, the eternal consequences of either development, thanks in large part to “dear old Ellen”… sigh…

8 Likes

And it will continue to be the path not chosen right up until there’s nothing left to deny because none of it will matter any longer.

4 Likes

This could be the outcome…however, for True Believers, there will be nothing that will dissuade them from “the path”.

3 Likes

And you know my view on your “True Believers”, right? They’re ALWAYS suspect! LOL

4 Likes