Ellen White’s Afterlife: Author Interview with George R. Knight

Dr. George R. Knight discusses his new book Ellen White’s Afterlife: Delightful Fiction, Troubling Facts, Enlightening Research.

Question: Dr. Knight, as church historian, you have written more about Ellen White and her ministry than probably any other person. What prompted the writing of yet another book?

Answer: My previous books on Ellen White have dealt with her life, ministry, and the interpretation of her writings. There has been a great need to understand the treatment that she and her writings have undergone since her death. This book seeks to fulfill that need.

You are known for some of the startling book titles you’ve had over the years. This is no exception — Ellen White’s Afterlife. Could you elaborate on that?

I have often said that any idiot can write a book. The big challenge is to get people to read it. And the first step in that direction is to get people to pick up the book and check out its contents. Challenging titles perform that function. Of course, catchy titles must be true to the content of the book if they are to be more than a gimmick.

What is the unique contribution this book makes in understanding Ellen White and her writings?

The unique contribution of Ellen White’s Afterlife is to trace the history of how Ellen White and her writings have been treated since her death. And that story isn’t always a pretty one, but it is essential for the church to understand if it is to truly comprehend the prophet and her meaning for the 21st century.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Bible Conference. One of the significant issues at that conference was how to view and relate to Ellen White's writings. What did the conference get right and what are some of the major issues in regard to her writings that the church is still dealing with 100 years later?

The 1919 meetings were significant for their openness in discussing Ellen White and the nature of her inspiration. Such openness, if it would have continued, would have saved the church from an “Ellen White crisis” in the 1970s and early 1980s. But due to the fundamentalist/liberal confrontation of the 1920s, the openness came to an end, to a large extent due to the threats and accusations of those Adventists who had swallowed the fundamentalist views on such topics as verbal inspiration and inerrancy — topics explicitly denied by Ellen White herself. The end result is that the denomination moved away from Ellen White’s understanding and that of her closest colleagues and created a mythology that caused a crisis when the facts began to come to light in the 1970s. One result is that Adventism is still struggling with topics openly discussed in 1919 related to the nature of inspiration and the place of Ellen White and the role of her authority. The leaders in 1919 were closer to the mark on those topics than we as a denomination were in the 1960s.

Following up on the previous question, in your view what is the most widespread misconception in the church today regarding Ellen White’s ministry and writings.

Probably the most widespread problem with the church today regarding Ellen White’s ministry and writings is that her writings should be used as a Bible commentary and as a source from which to do theology — two ideas she rejected in her lifetime.

One of the dynamics in play at the 1919 Bible Conference was the fact that Ellen White had passed away just four years earlier — the church was coming to grips with no longer having a living prophet. Is it inevitable that a church's relationship to a prophet living in its midst will be different than its relationship to one who has been dead 100 years? If so, what differences would you expect?

As a church without a prophet, Adventism was challenged to face more seriously the nature of her work and her role in theological discussion. Since she was no longer alive to state her opinions and modify excesses, it had (and has) fallen to Adventism’s thought leaders to go back to her writings and church history to gain an understanding. Not to do so is to move forward in ignorance — an ignorance that can be destructive due to the power of prophecy in both the Bible and the history of the church.

Ellen White and church leaders didn't always see eye to eye when she was alive. What do you think the relationship would be between her and church leadership should she be alive and ministering to the church today?

If Ellen White were alive today she would be performing the same role as she did during her 70-year ministry. One aspect of that ministry was to confront leaders who were overstepping the bounds and to direct them back to balanced principles in harmony with God’s Word.

What have Ellen White’s writings meant to you personally over the years, and in your ministry?

Ellen White has meant and continues to mean a great deal to me in my life and ministry. At the top of the list is that she has always pointed me to the Bible and to Jesus. Beyond that, her insights into the plan of salvation and the issues in the great controversy between good and evil have done much to enrich my understanding and life. I find her writings supercharged with biblical wisdom and spirituality.

Ellen White’s Afterlife: Delightful Fiction, Troubling Facts, Enlightening Research is available from the Adventist Book Center and Amazon.com. Call the ABC (1-800-765-6955) or visit their website to order the paperback copy. The ebook is available from Adventist-ebooks.com in a variety of formats and from Amazon.com for Kindle.

Dale E. Galusha is president of the Pacific Press Publishing Association. This interview was provided by Pacific Press.

Image courtesy of Pacific Press Publishing Association.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9502
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Thanks, Dale–distant cousin–and SPECTRUM, for these comments on the new book. I like Geo. Knight’s very realistic remarks about the 1919 Bible Conference and how some folks paid no attention.

Based upon 5 generations of respect for EGW and yet realistic understandings, this cousin was quite astonished at all the smoke and light of the1960s and 1970’s.

Scrutiny of world religions show the dangers of rigid orthodoxies or fundamentalist thinking about religions systems, and, yes, messengers of love, grace, covenant.

The Seventh-day Adventist Movement has been no exception from what I see.

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I would love a statement from the church that aims at informing the membership:

  • EGW wrote many inspiring, uplifiting articles and texts
  • EGW also assumed positions based on her visions that were not correct (e.g. shut door)
  • Sometimes, Ellen White made written statements that in actual fact were not correct/ true (e.g. denying that she told the shut door based on visions, the “food for worms” statment, etc.)
  • Some of EGW’s counsel are outright unbiblical (e.g. “it is a sin to be sick”, her views on alcohol and coffee, …)
  • EGW’s “literary dependance” is not the big problem - her denial of it is

Wouldn’t it be lovely, if church leaders could move from EGW as the proof of any given position to a “Thus says the Lord”?

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She did. More to muddy the waters of the Gospel. The church would be far better off with just Paul and John. Certainly her take on Daniel was a disaster.
Betty and I were guests at Reid Memorial Church several months before we joined. We were early and were visiting in the library. I spotted The Life Of Christ by Edershiem. I opened tothe chapter In The Temple. I asked Betty to read it and then tell me which book it was. she read and said Desire of Ages.

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I am pleasantly surprised that George Knight has not been blackballed enough to prevent him from publishing his book through a church publishing house. I hope the conferences’ Book and Bible Houses will follow the example set by Pacific Press Publishing Association.

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I was indoctrinated very strongly in the Adventist culture. Ellen White was once part of my religious/spiritual experience. When I was in college studying theology, I read all her books that were available in Portuguese - the great majority were published in Portuguese (Brazil) at that time. But then… I read Walter Rea’s “The White Lie.” Twice!!! And other books that came up in those days (Numbers, Paxton, Ford, and many others).

With such a background, nobody should be surprised that at that time I became a "Sola Scriptura" SDA. :wink: :wink:

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Here lies the crux of the GREAT dilemma for the SDA Church. It has wrongly based its foundation on EGW. So its foundation is faulty. If it had been biblically based from the start it would not be in such a quandary about her in the past or in 2019. It will only get worse as time advances. I am amazed that this is not realized by those of leadership and influence in the church. (Or maybe they do, and are just hoping no one else sees what they have known all along.-Kind of like the emperors new clothing.)

If the foundation is wrong, the building will never be right no matter what you try and add to it. What a great and growing tragedy this is. This short interview only serves to help me see it even more clearly.

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Maybe EGW has a lot of influence in theology classes, but on the ground, its the legend of EGW that sometimes holds some influence. Most SDA people (or christians in general, are quite ignorant when it comes to the bible) are ignorant when it comes to EGW. People generally do what those around them do. Consequently if we want to change culture in the our community, its not about downgrading or battling the bible or EGW, we just have to find ways of creating a culture that we think is viable and healthy. The air we breathe affects our health. in the same way the atmosphere of any community affects the spirituality of the members. Love does not grow in combat, but in companionship and solidarity. So I find discussions about validity of the bible or EGW very weak points. Mature people should not argue the healthiness of something purely on the basis of an authoritative text. it is experience in real life that counts. thats what proves something to be right or wrong. If we as a community follow the fundamentalists in seeking to prove right sorely on the basis of any text that would be sad. What we need is a dedication to what is healthy and life-giving. We have to make that the standard by which to judge any sacred text. If a person is seating in the dim light of a candle and someone turns up with a bright torch. To argue about which source of light is most helpful is a total waste of time. I propose the the person in the dark use the light to make life a worthwhile journey.

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Another perspective…I have no problems with EGW writings. I have no problems with Biblical writers. Time, place and current knowledge. God did not speak every word written down in the Bible and not a claim, far as I know. Ancient writers thought the Sun traveled across the sky, its in the Bible. Not true. EGW used her life experience to explaine what she understood. Did she use other sources for information? Yes, discovered that on my own. Do we use Google today to find info for ourselves? Yes. Do we spend our time giving credit to that? No. Some people worship the Bible and not the author and if that happens, one is going to find a lot of conflicts within it. Do people understand that it is not always about the author but about the ideas, thoughts and insights that a book may contain? That is how I view EGW writings. True, that is not what our schools, preachers, etc taught me but I have a brain and I try to always use it. Life goes on and what is past is past. She never asked to be anyones guiding light, counseled against that idea. If we see individuals or organizations useing her in that manner, they are wrong, my opinion. What I am trying to say is this, time to get over the obsession with the rights and wrongs of the use of her writings and live for today and the future. Makes for a much happier life.

Hey, the above is my opinion and I’m sticking to it! Works for me!

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Perhaps the works of Dr. Knight function as a bridge for conveying information about her vulnerabilities to an audience who reject outright the straightforward historical telling by Numbers and others By accessing information in a sympathetic setting fundamentalist Adventists may be more willing to accept that she had feet of clay.

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Ellen White was always a second guesser. from The Corn Field, and the Sea Captain on. Trace the original and it predates Ellen White. The closest to the Truth came at the 1919 Bible Conference. We had the good fortune to be a close neighbor to one who participated.

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"Consequently if we want to change culture in the our community, its not about downgrading or battling the bible or EGW, we just have to find ways of creating a culture that we think is viable and healthy."

How do you see this being accomplished within the SDA church?

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Yes, and denied it. She claimed that it all came from God. That’s a bit different from me using Google. To claim her info came in a vision from God, or from angels, (who seemed to visit a lot), is quite different. It’s not as innocent, or simple, as you seem to be describing here. There was a whole lotta shenanigans going on…and not good shenanigans. :wink:

As to EGW not asking to be anyone’s guiding light…well, she sent out a lot of letters and testimonies to people who disagreed with her. Most especially those who no longer believed in her visions.

I think being honest about EGW would be the place to start, but I believe being honest would signal the end of Adventism, just as it would for the LDS Church to be really honest about Joseph Smith.

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That’s a very nice way to put it. I think the vulnerabilities are actually big problems

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It starts with you–us.

Well…I can find no source in her writings where she makes the claim that everything she wrote came from God. I do believe that is a long standing SDA myth and not a good one. Yes, I believed that also, at one time in my younger days, but as time went by and I began to build my own life experience and read what she wrote, I came to a different conclusion. Of course she wrote to different people giving out her opinion. But again, did she always “God told me to tell you this…”, nope. So, regardless of what I was led to believe, I am still ultimately responsible for my belief system.
Everyones experience is different, so for me, EGW is not the an issue anymore. But of course I don’t see EGW=SDA. WE are a church .org, like many others all claiming to have the ultimate truth. I see Gods church as being any person who chooses to believe in him and living that life as led by God. Some may see me as being on the edges of Adventism but I just prefer to say “my experience is mine and yours is yours”.

I think, for the most part, SDA’s are being honest about EGW. Top leadership, maybe not, but I don’t follow them or any other human, been there-done that!!

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She denied being a commentator on Scripture…partially. When she felt that the church’s core pillars were under siege, she became the voice of defense, the arbiter of meaning, if you will. It didn’t matter if Canright or Ballinger presented biblical rationale and evidence to contest the highly contestable. They were deemed agents of Satan. She offered no Scriptural rebuttal. She claimed the Holy Spirit’s leading in the formation of the pillars, and in her own testimonies. That was the deciding factor. In these cases, she, and Adventist traditional belief, were the ultimate arbiter of Scriptural meaning.

Additionally, her claims of total originality in the bulk of her writings are well documented. James White made the same claims. This gets soft-soaped today… along with her endorsement of the shut door error for six years, which she never admitted to, and other imbalanced and erroneous statements that she offered as the voice of God to his church.

Pointing to all the good she did, and there is plenty of good, without real admission of these real problem issues amounts to, as you said, simply watered down hagiography. It helps explain why many have exited. The emperor having no clothes comes to mind. My apologies to George Knight.

Thanks…

Frank

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I don’t believe in infallibility. At the same time I don’t see such denial as a big part of what EGW wrote. The preface to GC seems to negate such an idea. Is this denial based on one comment that could be taken different ways? It would seem to be a small percentage of her “quotes” or opinions. Yet the skeptic in us wants to ignore the good to obsess on this one statement(s). I can’t imagine feeling I had a legitimate message to give, and then having everyone think every off-hand remark, defensive or otherwise was inspired and feel betrayed if it weren’t. Obviously she took at face value the misinfromation of the age such as the cause of earthquakes. How many today accept everything that comes down the road from science without question?

The poor woman couldn’t seem to have a personal opinion. Has anyone ever written about the persona/psychological side of being a “prophet” a term she never used. Yes, one’s character and caring works do outweigh defensive comments probably made to protect the “message.”

Her detractors tend to be adversarial and that is a red flag. Suppose a new church came together today and saying God told them to follow certain health protocols similar to what is out there now? Would that negate their inspiration on the subject? Numbers thought so in his book that should have been scholarly and balanced but turned out to be adversarial and a stepping stone to a successful career in the secular history world who found quaint religions interesting targets. I am sure Mormons experience the same. Just looking for some rational fairness!

My opinion–we still don’t understand the meaning of inspiration.

I see it as a generalization but probably true in many cases.

The questions for me re EGW revolve around her statements about angels showing her (“I was shown…”) then what follows is directly and obviously “borrowed.”

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