Prophetess of Health: A Fortieth-anniversary Retrospective

What do you consider the most significant book ever written regarding Adventism? Possibilities are many. Perhaps the 1950s Questions on Doctrine (to which an entire conference was dedicated a few years back). Or more recently (and certainly the most perceptive work on our church ever penned), Bull and Lockhart’s Seeking a Sanctuary. Or a title largely forgotten now, but which shaped popular perceptions of Millerism through the middle of the twentieth century, Clara Sears’s 1924 work, Days of Delusion.

I nominate Ronald Numbers’s Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White. It appeared in 1976, and for those of us who remember its appearance the fortieth anniversary of that event is a melancholy reminder of life’s passage. But it should also be a moment to ponder Numbers’s impact on Ellen White studies. I won’t revisit here the book’s quite interesting publication history or personal impact on its author; Jonathan Butler did that admirably in a preface to the second edition, which appeared in 1992. (A third edition appearing in 2008 further bespeaks the work’s staying power.)

Why Prophetess of Health? First, because it brought Ellen White scholarship to a much broader non-Adventist reading audience than previous works had. An article in Time magazine about our prophet was not something the Adventist community had known. e were being paid attention to in ways not totally comfortable.

Second, because Numbers gave White’s writings a cultural context. Non-Adventist scholars, of course, would not be surprised–indeed would expect–that White’s ideas on health would be influenced by time and place. Assumptions of cultural influence, however, were not common among life-long Adventists, for whom White and her work floated effortlessly above the social landscape.

So what impact did Prophetess of Health have on the Adventist community? Forty years later do we regard White’s work differently? I would argue, yes. Although change is slow-paced and met with resistance, there are indications of a more sophisticated grasp of her prophetic office.

To begin, let’s recall what Numbers provocatively wrote. He asserted that White’s health message was influenced by her exposure to mid-Victorian health reformers such as James Jackson, Russell Trall, and Larkin Coles; indeed, that her 1864 sojourn at Jackson’s water cure resort in Danville, New York, importantly shape her health message. Water treatments, Graham flour, dress reform, and phrenology all made their impression. The Whites determined that Adventism needed its own sanitarium where a gospel of health would be added to the message of the Sabbath and the Second Coming.

The subsequent emphasis on health and medical institution building has become a signature feature of Adventism. Moreover, we are now generally untroubled by the fact that other health reformers were promoting similar ideas. But what we weren’t ready for–and what is still troubling and disputed–was the other reformers’ degree of influence and White’s insistence that no borrowing had occurred.

It didn’t help that Numbers knew he was lobbing a grenade over the entrenchment. He made little effort to reassure the Adventist public about his startling conclusions or suggest reassuring new hermeneutics. The Adventist community had known only two sorts of writings on White: either one wrote in her defense or one wrote to attack. What were members to make, then, of Prophetess of Health’s ringing phrase in the preface that it sought “neither to defend nor to damn.” From Numbers’s perspective, writing for the general, non-Adventist public, this grandson of a General Conference president was obliged to apply different presuppositions. Scholarly conventions precluded his assuming her writings were inspired, nor could he automatically dismiss her critics as unreliable. Many in the Adventist public continue to struggle with the distinction between apologetic and objective historical treatments. In 1976 such distinctions were utterly unknown outside a small group of Adventist academics.

The hubbub resulting from the book’s publication (and, lest we forget, from previous revisionist work by Peterson and McAdams, as well as later works by Rea, et. al.) is well known. These were not just tempests in the Adventist teapot. The subsequent controversy (including the broader Ford brouhaha) led to many pastors and lay people leaving the church. Our prophetess appeared under attack, and the proper response seemed to be to circle the wagons. From the late 1970s to the present a steady flow of critique and defense has poured forth in print and on the web. Some of the attacks on White are scurrilous and not worth a response. Conversely, there has also been a widespread defensiveness that views even reasoned arguments as a threat. These folk believe that a remnant church must have a prophetess uniquely called and unerring in judgment. For paleo-Adventists, even A. G. Daniells is unforgiven generations later for having the temerity of organizing a conference in 1919 to consider the nature of her inspiration.

But the extreme reactions on either side do not define the impact of Numbers’s work. Rather, the important shift has been in the middle and right-of-center ground. The change might best be characterized by our having put behind us (in Charles Taylor’s term) a “naive” understanding of White’s work. Not that we no longer accept her prophetic role. But now we can understand it only with complexity and some effort. We have entered a more reflective phase of church self-understanding. Simple assertions of infallibility and freedom from cultural influence will no longer suffice.

Evidence of this is widespread in denominational publications of recent decades by scholars with unquestioned loyalty to church and prophet. George Knight is Exhibit A. This highly popular Adventist author has done more than anyone to nurture a realistically appraised, historically grounded Ellen White. (I develop these thoughts on Knight more fully in my Introduction to Adventist Maverick.) A thoughtful Adventist reader would gain from him a view of her writings more sophisticated than anything available before the 1970s. Prophetess of Health carved out for Knight a “safe space” in which he could extend the conversation on White in ways that both revised and ennobled our conception of her work. Similarly, the controversy Numbers endured enabled Gil Valentine to produce a book on White in her political role (The Prophet and the Presidents) that would have been previously unthinkable.

Australian Adventists (such as Valentine) have been disproportionately involved in E. G. White debates. Among the most helpful has been Graeme Bradford, who in 2007 published More Than a Prophet: How We Lost and Found Again the Real Ellen White. Bradford, a pastor, seeks to secure loyalty to White and Adventism through a nuanced definition of prophetic function and influence. Bradford incorporates a wide range of White scholarship, including Numbers’s work. He concludes that Adventism needs a prophetess truly understood as fully human (and not simply the usual lip service paid that notion) and thus limited in understanding and capable of error. He concludes that her writings must be used with “discernment,” meaning that every generation must decide which of her counsels still merit application.

Another Australian, physician Donald McMahon, responded to Prophetess of Health most directly. His Acquired or Inspired: Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle (2005) identifies White’s major health claims, compares them to other leading health reformers of mid-nineteenth-century America, and then establishes a score of comparative accuracy. McMahon concludes that White’s work stands up much better to twentieth-first century medical knowledge than does her contemporaries. I must leave it to others to judge the soundness of McMahon’s methodology. The interesting point here is what McMahon–as thorough a White apologist as one could find–concedes. In White’s explanations for how the body works, the “why” behind recommended health practices, she was no more advanced than her contemporaries. Her embrace of vitalism or her sense of mind-body relationship, for example, was thoroughly grounded in her age. This may seem common-sensical, for we understand that Bible prophets also wrote within their cultural understanding of science. But through most of our church’s history few traditional Adventists would make such a concession of her limitation. It took Numbers to nudge the needle.

Even so official a publication as The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (2013) offer evidence that naïveté has given way to complexity. There is no doubt about the editors’ commitment to a high view of White’s inspiration. But in so doing, the work covers aspects of her life and career (such as her finances) with a thoroughness that once would have been deemed not only unnecessary but unseemly. Merlin Burt’s bibliographic essay on writings about White is both exhaustive and impressively candid. One can find no better overview of both critics and supporters of White. Although he places Numbers among the critics of White, Burt offers a fair-minded review of his book’s impact. The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia represents an important moment in our church’s new efforts to present members with a complete prophet (the White Estate’s opening of previously closed files and the online access of the bulk of her writings being other evidences of this openness).

Likewise, two multi-authored apologetic works that appeared in 2015, the centennial of White’s death, betray marks of Numbers’s long-term influence. Essays in The Gift of Prophecy in Scripture and in History and Understanding Ellen White, both sponsored by the White Estate, speak to issues such as the appropriate use of sources, that have become urgent only in the wake of Numbers and Rea. The Gift of Prophecy, like Bradford’s work, opens with a series of essays on Biblical prophets, the point being to show that issues of inspiration are really no different with them than with White. Understanding Ellen White is an even more useful volume, with candid appraisals of the complexity of the prophetic gift and acknowledgments of the genuine issues scholars have raised. Jud Lake, for example, offers the most sympathetic discussion of White denouncer D. M. Canright ever given by an Adventist historian (Lake’s future biography of Canright should be well worth reading). In another essay Dennis Kaiser describes in some detail the team approach to White’s writings. If even just this had been provided to the Adventist public in 1919 much subsequent conflict might have been avoided.

I contend, then, that in the wake of Numbers’s work we are seeing greater sophistication on three points. First, most American Adventists (at least those who care to think about the issue) now accept that Ellen White borrowed significant amounts of material in writing her manuscripts. Second, most allow that the nineteenth-century culture of her day substantially affected her attitudes on many things. Finally (though less widely accepted), many perceive that her theological views changed over time, generally in the direction of a more mature, Gospel-centered message. I say “less widely accepted” (despite efforts of Knight, Bradford, Alden Thompson, and others) because for many Adventists the notion that a prophet’s teachings could change still seems tantamount to saying God changes. To these might be added a fourth. Even some staunch supporters of Ellen White’s ministry now concede that certain of her denials of being influenced by contemporary health reformers seem counter to the evidence.

Despite all my claims, the question remains: What do members in the pew believe? What is heard from the pulpit? What views of her inspiration dominate Sabbath School discussions? In the lesson quarterly? What do academy Bible teachers tell students? The answer, of course, is a wide range of opinion. Many still hold an essentially verbal inspiration model. This has the virtue of simplicity. It also supports comforting feelings of being part of the remnant. Others familiar with the controversies have quietly let Ellen White go. Probably a larger group, young and not so young, simply find the Victorian prose and categorical opinions of White to be irrelevant or even off-putting, and thus they rarely peruse her. Prophetic ennui rather than liberal attack, as I think church leadership knows, is our greatest problem. Thus, the stream of articles in the Review exhorting members to revisit their prophet.

Some might ask if serious retrospection of White couldn’t have come about without the provocation of Numbers. The answer to this is easy: No. If so stalwart a leader as A. G. Daniells felt unable—because of conservative blowback—to bring to his Adventist constituents uncomfortable truths about White’s work, then no subsequent church leader would hazard revisionism. It took an outsider, one not only unafraid of controversy but who took delight in kicking over the traces. After a half century of a largely fundamentalist/literalist understanding of White’s authority, Numbers forced official Adventism to confront difficult questions about her. In other words, he (with others) changed the conversation. There will be no going back.

In closing we should acknowledge the dilemma church scholars and leaders face. White has been so central to Adventist self-understanding that any perceived diminution of her status could only be viewed as a threat. Resistance to Numbers—or any individual who suggested a rethinking of Ellen White’s prophetic role—was inevitable. To mitigate this guardedness requires couching discussion of her gift in terms of loyalty to and enhancement of the Adventist mission. It’s not a matter of who is “for” or “against” her. We should all recognize that Ellen White is a treasure and a resource. The best use of that treasure is not as “a continuing and authoritative source of truth” (wording removed from Fundamental Belief #18 at San Antonio). Rather, her gloss on Scripture and her theological statements provide a baseline from which we continue to develop our present truths.

Prophetic inspiration remains a high mystery. But we can now say with some confidence what it is not. That understanding clears the way for a new phase in Ellen White’s ministry of spiritual nurture to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Ben McArthur is a Professor of History at Southern Adventist University who specializes in American History, especially late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultural history.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7566
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I fully endorse Ben McArthur’s evaluation of the impact of Number’s book, and like him remember well the reaction to the news that he was writing it and it was to appear published by a non-Adventist press. in the middle of the tensions at the expectations of its appearance, the Adventist Forum of New England planned a meeting at South Lancaster at which Nubmers was to give a preview of the book and its argument. Those planning the meeting could not get the administrators of Atlantic Union College to allow the meeting to take place in one of the campus buildings. They also asked the White estate to send someone to respond to Numbers presentation. The White Estate was unwilling to send anybody. No professor of an Adventist college could risk appearing on the platform with Numbers. So the planners ended up asking me to be the one giving a response to Numbers. This gave me the opportunity to read the book before its publication. When I made my presentation at South Lancaster, my message was very simple. I thanked Numbers profusely for finally giving us a human prophet. If I remember correctly, the meeting took place in the public elementary school. The White Estate send one its members to spy on the meeting and bring back a report.

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Thank you. McArthur provides a masterful summary of how this book has impacted our denomination. Sadly, it has been my observation that only a small fraction of the church membership has made an effort to understand the nuances of Ellen White’s writings and ministry that have been developed in the last 40 years. Most of the people in my sphere seem to land on extreme ends of the Spectrum—either embracing all she wrote as verbally inspired or choosing to give her writings no respect.

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I find the use of the term “borrowed”, in relation to the use of the writings and ideas of others, to be disingenuous, at best.

When I allow someone to “borrow” something from me, it is because I have been asked by the borrower, if I would let them borrow it. Taking and using without permission is usually called stealing.

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I retained Minisrty of Healing and Education-- not because they are a voice from God, but they do mark the beginning of an era in health and education. Graham, John Dewey, Kellogg, Hutchins the Mayo Brothers Etc. TZ

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I remember reading the book and wondering about its impact on loyal members. That the denomination “circled the wagons” with this bombshell, their guns were turned inward; many former loyal pastors, teachers, and members became so disenchanted more about the church’s reaction than the book and left. Naivete dies hard. Now if only TW. would quote her less in his efforts to keep her front and center of the SdA church.

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Gone are the days when EGW was universally regarded in Adventism as inerrant, infallable, sacrosanct, and every word uttered, direct from a vision.
This spurious image was propagated and fostered by church leaders, among which were the brethren who “doctored” an old photograph of an elderly Mrs White, sitting demurely in her black dress ---- the strands of her pearl necklace skillfully obliterated with black felt tip pen!

Like the Catholics in their veneration of the Virgin Mary, our esteemed church leaders clearly adulate and idolize Adventism’s equivalent. Like the Catholics, only one woman is placed on a pre- eminent pedestal/pinnacle-- all other females are decidedly second class citizens!

Ronald Numbers and Walter Rea, much derided, denigrated, and despised by ardent EGW afficianados should be honored for having humanized our prophet.

That said, EGW’s health message continues to be validated and vindicated by modern research.

I recently added two books to my library, which are cutting edge prototypes for healthy living:
THE MICROBIOME SOLUTION authored by Dr ROBYNNE CHUTKAN is a fascinating, illuminating, avant garde approach to healthful living, which emphasizes why vegetarianism is important from an entirely new perspective.
The paper back edition is coming out August ninth-- I highly recommend it!

HOW NOT TO DIE authored by Michael Gregor MD has stopped my consumption of eggs and cheese and milk— potent initiators and promoters of aggresive prostate cancer. EGW is on record as advocating the avoidance of these toxic cancer promoters. HOW NOT TO DIE is an eloquent vocal advocate of vegetarianism – much recommended.
And watch Dr Gregor’s fantastic endorsement of vegetarianism
on YouTube: MORE THAN AN APPLE A DAY. – superb!!!

Adventists everywhere, can be grateful to EGW for her health message.
Our extended life span is directly proportional to how we follow her health message!

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I am less concerned about dotting all the i’s and crossing all the tee’s about the nature of prophetic inspiration and revelation.I am more concerned about how I can use Ellen White to support my own Christian living.

So a very personal question comes to each of us - how much do I read of Ellen White? If the millions of Adventists around the world owned, regularly read, and appreciated the five volumes of the Conflict of the Ages and several other of her major works what a difference it would make to Adventists corporately. However, there are millions of Adventists who have rarely if ever seen, let alone owned their own copies of these books especially in the global south. And there are millions in the global north who let the dust gather on her works.

In an earlier era, the most treasured books of any worthy English speaking Christian household, aside from the Scriptures themselves, were the three volumes by the three John’s - John Milton, John Bunyan and John Foxe - Paradise Lost, Pilgrims Progress, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Educated and uneducated Englishmen and many others from the wider English speaking world loved and were nurtured by these three volumes for centuries. How is it then that Adventists from the global north appear to have difficulty reading and studying Ellen White’s volumes? It is said that the King of England once commented to one of his scholars that he didn’t care for Pilgrim’s Progress because it had been written by an uneducated tinker. To which comment the scholar replied, “Your Majesty, if I were able to write in such a compelling fashion I should be very happy.” The parallels between Ellen White and John Bunyan and their very rudimentary level of education are not lost on me!

Further, much Ellen White scholarship tinkers at the edges of understanding Ellen White and her theology. I have been especially pleased at Nicholas Miller’s very helpful writing on the antecedants to the “Cosmic Conflict” motif which Ellen White uses as the orienting concern of her theology. However, much more effort must yet be expended on researching the nature and dynamic of her theology!!

As far as her writings on health are concerned, our generation more than any previous one is beginning to advance the principles of health that Ellen White espoused, together with the growing evidence for these principles. I thank God for such health initiatives as CHIP, Creation Health, NEWSTART, the Nedley Depression and Anxiety Recovery Program and more!

Heaven knows our world needs these! We thrill that Loma Linda is one of the world’s most conspicuous blue zones in terms of the ratio of centenarians living in a local population. However, some believe that such a distinction may be lost, as many Adventists continue to relax the lifestyle interventions that today are more accepted than ever.

My family is plagued by lifestyle diseases aplenty, some of which threaten early death or a less than gracious end to life!

The bottom line question then is this - What lifestyle interventions are solidly based on scientific evidence? And I’m sure we will discover that Ellen White more than hinted at them all!!

AN ADDITIONAL COMMENT in reply to your dismissive comments!
@harrpa

  1. Yes! I welcome more rigorous principles of research being applied to the literary corpus of Ellen White. Yet, Ron Numbers gave himself an impossible task when he attempted to be neutral, uncommitted and laissez faire concerning Ellen White’s gift of prophecy. Far better for the quality of his research had he shown his hand and boldly stated his biases.

  2. Des Ford invited our class of 100+ at Avondale to summarize The Desire of Ages little by little throughout the semester. This was our major assignment. My wife also remembers summarizing The Great Controversy for his class in similar fashion. Almost an entire generation of Avondale students have Des to thank for presenting a winsome, mature faith in Christ to them as a huge percentage of them prepared for Adventist leadership roles.

  3. A focus on the Gospel certainly will have a prime emphasis on the life of Christ! However, the Gospel is more properly understood as the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ or the good news that Christ in his ministry, death, and ressurection came to upend the kingdom of the usurper and re-establish his right to reign as potentate of his eternal kingdom. Thus, the ‘gospel of the kingdom’ is very eschatological in nature. Christ in his ministry established a beach-head in the lives of countless individuals who were restored and made whole with life from above. He died to affirm the adherence of his eternal kingdom to the principle of love and freedom. In the moment of seeming ultimate weakness on the Cross was shown his strength to save! The ultimate end of the kingdoms of this world with their love of power was guaranteed by the power of divine, self-sacrificing love. And now the divine viceroy, the Spirit of God, seeks to empower and bless each of His disciples as we continue the ministry of Christ and bring restoration and liberation to individuals who are battered and broken and held captive by the kingdoms of the evil one.The expression The Great Controversy is surely a shorthand reference to the Gospel of the Kingdom.

  4. As a qualified librarian and a former Prof of English as well as an Adventist pastor for many years, I have a great interest in the history of literacy in the English speaking world. And yes, there is little doubt that the Scriptures were the primer of a literate population. But further, the volumes by John Milton, John Bunyan and John Foxe featured importantly in helping to form the Protestant worldview of the English speaking peoples for many centuries. In similar fashion, the “red books” have made an important contribution to the formation of the Adventist worldview. If English-speaking peoples through centuries of the modern era could hold on to a small handful of volumes in addition to the Scriptures, these assisting in the formation of a thoroughly Protestant worldview, cannot Adventists do the same?

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I do agree with the author that Ron Numbers’ book is the most significant ever written about Adventism. However it seems the author then proceeds to try to play down the real impact of this book.

If indeed there is such a thing as a “prophetic office”, I think Numbers ably demonstrated that Ellen White didn’t fit the bill.

Only those deeply invested in Adventism continue to try to shift the debate away from the obvious. Which is, that Ellen White plagiarised the majority of her writings, lied about doing so, and was told things “in vision” that later turned out to be wrong. And then lied about that also.

No amount of spin, nuance, or changed hermeneutics, can alter the facts. Yes, many Adventists continue to believe Ellen White was a prophet. Many children also believe in Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy.

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If I recall correctly from my early education days among Old Time Self-Supporters at Academy and at Madison College — Ellen White termed herself, “A Messenger From The Lord”.
If I recollect from what these “old timers” said, She. herself, never called herself a Prophet.
It has been Church Leaders, Church Administrators, who over the years have foisted the term Prophet on her. A TERM that she, herself, REFUSED to use.
And I think THIS is where the SDA church has run into difficulty with her.
As only a “Messenger of The Lord” one can be Original AND Borrowing at the SAME time. Promoting the Good, the True.
Where we run into LOTS OF TROUBLE with Ellen is in our exposition of “the Spirit of Prophecy” from the Book of Revelation. And pin this on Ellen.
We expect Prophets to be INFALLIBLE — much like the Catholic Popes when They speak.
As long as we present Ellen as a Prophet, we RAN, and will continue to RUN into problems for her.
I understand that there is a new book out on Ellen, AGAIN using the word PROPHET in the title [for the United States]. We are going to run into problems after it reaches the market, and investigators investigate.
By the way Ellen wore the BEADS in the picture because they were a SPECIAL Gift to her. And it was in appreciation of them that she memorialized herself in a picture with them on. She also liked to wear that Cameo on her dress much of the time.
With a “Messenger” we can be BOTH 19th Century AND 21st Century Christians, Seventh-day Adventists.
With a 19th Century “Prophet” we have difficulty being 21st Century Christians, Seventh-day Adventists.
If we are going to be a “Prophetic Church” the ONLY thing we have to do is Preach Christ. Paul says “we are saved by His Life”, we are made right through His death, we are assured life everlasting through His resurrection, and we wait for the fulfillment of the promise of His return.
Give up our Works Oriented behaviors, allow the Holy Spirit to help us shed all the evil ways of living and bad traits of character that Paul lists in his several epistles to the churches. And to put in their place the God-like behaviors that were our Original behaviors at the Beginning, which Paul, again lists for us.
Paul states that GREED is Idolatry.
The ONLY reason we do the 10 Commandments IS ---- 1. We love God. 2. We love our neighbor as ourself. These words are the Preface of the 10. The 10 tell us How to love God. The 10 tell us HOW to love our neighbor.
AGAIN, we get into TROUBLE because we present the 10 in the WRONG way. We become a LEGALISTIC Sounding Church. A Cult, if you please. Because we are “working” our way into God’s graces.
But legalism and “work” is so ingrained into our speech and preaching, that nothing will probably change. And we will continue to observe the Frustration and the Fear in young people as they go to Perfection Rallies, and go to the ONE Rallies. Finally give up, and leave the Church.

I think the Book would have been better titled–
Ellen White – Messenger of Good Health [optimal?]
Actually she promoted physical, mental, spiritual health.
So IF the Book [I havent seen it] DID NOT expound on ALL THREE of these areas that she promoted, then it is NOT a GOOD BOOK.
And NOT representative of her life work.

Two reasons for her caution about Cheese. 1. Unpasteurized milk 2. High fat content.
Beef and Pork. Now we know that they are Fat Exchanges and not Protein Exchanges.
Have way more fat calories than protein calories.

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Thank you Ben for this very helpful Review. At my age, I have just about seen it all from 1952 onwards. At the risk of stating the obvious, Ron Numbers and other researchers who addressed the EGW role in the church were foreordained the moment the 1919 Bible Conference minutes were “filed” away from any other eyes until SPECTRUM published them. Moreover, once SDA historians wanted to do scholarly work on EGW and cease to be apologists, this was inevitable. And in a perverse development, the SDA insistence on viewing the entirety of EGW as “inspired” by God as the prophets were–through direct visions and dreams; it forced us to view the entirety of the Bible in the same way. One fed the other. And, just as we were forced to face the reality of Ellen White’s “inspiration” we are now facing the same issues with Scripture (see my review of EWH Vicks’ book on inspiration in the current issue). That does not mean that either source of our faith is no longer authoritative, but is authoritative in a more nuanced, even different, way. As Daryll Ward once commented to me: “How do you explain what has happened in our history from the founding of magnificent health, educational and church systems if she was not used by God in some sense?”

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A more urgent question for me is regarding the “Greater Light,” the scriptures. I’m much less concerned that Adventist families own and read often the “red books” and the “Conflict of the Ages” series of books, than I am that Adventists read, study, discuss, focus on and immerse themselves in the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels and the life of Christ and focus on the Gospel.

Perhaps the days are over when students were banged over the head with “Ellen White says,” long assignments from compilation EGW books studied for semesters, and the use of her name and of her writings for warnings and prohibitions of everything from “no bowling,” ice cream is a mixture of sugar and milk, no cheese on pizza, cut back on trims on clothing, not one penny should be spent for a band of gold to show you are married, on and on and on and on. Her reach was into every aspect of life and living.

Ron Numbers’ book brought nuance, context, cultural explanations, and real academic principles of research in studying her works. Thank God.

Time spent in scripture study is precious, uplifting, powerful, and I hate to see an emphasis on regularly reading her many, many books and compilations at the expense of direct Bible study.

@petersomerset said to @harrpa:
“in reply to your dismissive comments!”

Dismissive comments? Not at all. Just adding my thoughts to the discussion. Calling my contributions “dismissive” is itself “dismissive.”

Many were not fortunate to have a Christ-centered professor directing courses focusing on Christ like you and your wife were through Dr. Ford. That would make quite a difference.

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Lots of thanks, Ben. This is arresting and will turn out, I think, to be very influential.

One problem we have is that our doctrine of “inspiration” (inspired writers get all their “thoughts” right) seems to have no plausible foundation in the Bible itself. Yes, according to 2 Timothy, all scripture is “inspired,” but that just means “God-breathed,” a term whose meaning is not at all clear in the context of this issue. (I’m going by memory, but it may be used only once in the Bible.)

So the assumption, made by both defenders and critics of Ellen White, that, in order to exert the influence of a “prophet,” she has to be right in all she says and virtuous in all she does is just unwarranted. It would be better to develop a doctrine of scripture and prophecy by attending to how things actually go with Bible writers. It turns out (think Jonah, for one, and don’t rush to dismiss the example) that even when they speak responsibly, they can nevertheless be fallible in both character and message.

Critics as well as defenders should just stop expecting so much of a (true) prophet. Prophets do speak for God, but they speak as human beings. (If they spoke perfectly–but I suppose that’s not even possible in a HUMAN language–they would BE God.)

But this point–so palpably true–has trouble catching on. Self-deception is so persistent and so blinding. We thus lose the ability to SEE, and worse, we fall into the divisiveness that the very devil loves loves.

Chuck

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The full implications of what Numbers unearthed will always be spun as a more nuanced view of the prophet by Adventist academics, because her supposed prophetic office is fully wrapped up in Adventist identity. The interpretation of Revelation 19:10, reading her into that text, and then identifying that as one of the marks of the “remnant church of bible prophecy,” is breathtaking eisegesis. Her identification as a prophet thus became a tenant upon which Adventism stands or falls.

To say that God must have used her because of the establishment of educational and medical systems through her efforts would be fine as far as that goes. With that said, Catholicism has established the most extensive private educational and medical systems in the world. Is that also an indication of prophetic authority?

The bottom line is that too much is at stake to simply say that EGW was a founder, leading early figure, and driving force of Adventism and the establishment of its ethos and institutions, as healthy as that would be, without attributing to her the title of prophet. As Tom has often said, it’s the third rail. Anyone in employment can’t publicly say otherwise without risking touching that.

We’ve seen the results before.

Thanks…

Frank


Yes Jim. What you added as a postscript is the gist of my original post.

Thanks…

Frank

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(Written after the post below: I now think I misread Frank’s intention in his post. He may have been pointing out that because her prophetic office is essential to Adventist identity too much in Adventism stands or falls if she is not seen as a "prophet. Is that correct Frank?)

Let me respond to Franks last two paragraphs, since they seem to be commenting on my post. The Catholic church (remember, it was the only church until the 16th century) did establish many wonderful institutions (and some not so wonderful) and, I would argue, God will bless even faulty efforts on behalf of the gospel. Secondly, even today, the Catholic social worker’s movement and other contemporary efforts, cannot all be dismissed as outside of any divine blessing,

On EGW as “prophet.” How are we defining the term? It was not one she coveted, but did not consistently repudiate. Was she “normative” in all things, or as Herold Weiss so aptly put it, “formative?” Not even Moses was normative in all things; only Jesus was and is. Adventists protest that Luther not a “prophet;” therefore, EGW is more authoritative than he was. But to whom? Not to Lutherans–only to us, but that does not mean she was not wrong for much of her ministry about justification by faith and Luther was right!

In fact, not even all the writings of Scripture can be called equally authoritative, so why should we be intimidated if not all Ellen White’s writings are uniformly authoritative over all other Christian writings?

She is our authority in so many ways so why do we argue about her level of authority 100 years after her passing? Her essential insights are remarkable, even if not as infallible as many would have them be. That should be enough for all of us; it is for me.

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I am really puzzled as to why this issue was and is controversial to the point of being faith destabilizing. These topics came up during Ellen White’s lifetime and were addressed openly in Selected Messages Book 3. Appendix A is well worth reading in its entirety. See W. C. White statement to the General Conference Council, October 30, 1911: https://text.egwwritings.org/publication.php?pubtype=Book&bookCode=3SM&pagenumber=433
In this statement he talks about what is now the Great Controversy and compares it to the previous release of the book.

On attribution (“borrowing”):

“‘In the body of the book, the most noticeable improvement is the introduction of historical references. In the old edition, over seven hundred Biblical references were given, but in only a few instances were there any historical references to the authorities quoted or referred to. In the new edition the reader will find more than four hundred references to eighty-eight authors and authorities. {3SM 434.4}
“‘When we presented to Mother the request of some of our canvassers, that there should be given in the new edition not only Scripture references but also references to the historians quoted, she instructed us to hunt up and insert the historical references. She also instructed us to verify the quotations, and to correct any inaccuracies found; and where quotations were made from passages that were rendered differently by different translators, to use that translation which was found to be most correct and authentic. {3SM 434.5}

On Verbal Inspiration:

“Mother has never laid claim to verbal inspiration, and I do not find that my father, or Elder Bates, Andrews, Smith, or Waggoner, put forth this claim. If there were verbal inspiration in writing her manuscripts, why should there be on her part the work of addition or adaptation? It is a fact that Mother often takes one of her manuscripts, and goes over it thoughtfully, making additions that develop the thought still further. {3SM 437.3}

From Ellen White in the introduction to the Great Controversy:

The Bible points to God as its author; yet it was written by human hands; and in the varied style of its different books it presents the characteristics of the several writers. The truths revealed are all “given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16); yet they are expressed in the words of men. The Infinite One by His Holy Spirit has shed light into the minds and hearts of His servants. He has given dreams and visions, symbols and figures; and those to whom the truth was thus revealed have themselves embodied the thought in human language. {GC v.3}

On Contextualization- This is also from Selected Messages Book 3. Here Ellen White is addressing a controversy on a school board in which one faction insists that the school should follow Ellen White’s counsel that “Parents should be the only teachers of their children until they have reached eight or ten years of age.” The second faction objected. She was brought in to settle the dispute. She sided with the second group. Here are her comments:

That is how it is, and my mind has been greatly stirred in regard to the idea, “Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.” {3SM 217.1}
God wants us all to have common sense, and he wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things. {3SM 217.2}

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Prophetic ennui rather than liberal attack, as I think church leadership knows, is our greatest problem.

Would there be such ennui if Numbers and others had not mounted their “liberal” attack? Jesus said In Luke 17:1 “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.” Celebration, really?

I’d like to make a few comments about health.

  1. The principles of healthful living are well known today. What the prophet taught has by and large been confirmed.
  2. The issue is almost never knowledge, but will to do.
  3. Religious commitment is a powerful motivating force. That is one reason Adventists live longer. They have a strong motive in their commitment. Seculars do not have such motivation, so easily “fall off the wagon”.
  4. White has saved thousands of years of people’s lives through her writings, and untold amounts of suffering. She encouraged a worldwide medical ministry, etc.

What has Numbers done in comparison that deserves celebration?

this may be an academic, somewhat hopeful, assessment…on the ground, and among church members i’ve seen, the triple whammy impact of numbers, ford and rea has not been a keener discernment and appreciation of egw’s value and contribution, or anything that can be considered healthy group growth…instead what has happened is a polarization that likely will never heal…on the one hand, many “paleo-adventists” have now placed egw on the same level as the bible, if not higher, with no intention of apologizing to anyone for that elevation (a common question i quite like is: what is more useful to you, obadiah’s diatribe on esau, or steps to christ)…looking and reflecting on the charges leveled against egw by numbers, ford and rea have convinced them that egw’s inspiration is much more paramount than previously understood or believed, and that her role will certainly be authoritative from now until the world ends…but on the other hand, it is not hard to see that some adventists, and virtually all former and partial adventists, consider egw a liar, a fraud, and definitely a false prophet…this has caused a fissure with some of our doctrines, for instance the investigative judgement doctrine, and in fact anything having to do with the earthly or heavenly sanctuary…

egw has proven to be a cleaver that has divided the church into two main segments, a condition which, interestingly, is one of her predictions (“Two parties will be developed.” 2SM:113)…

i feel sympathy for church leaders, in view of the fact that our world budget draws from both sides of the egw aisle, and they cannot avoid at least some cognizance over their own salaries and retirements…but the polarization in adventism over egw probably isn’t an example of something that can be mitigated through a nuanced reflection of church loyalty or a careful consideration of any enhancement of our mission…numbers’ legacy, along with the legacies of ford and rea, is that lines have been drawn in the sand…there doesn’t appear to be anything that any of our leaders can do to change this…

Surely, this book was a turning point for both those of us who grew up in the church and moved into the academic world and for the “educated lay reader” who bothered to read it with an open mind. Numbers’ work, well documented and well-thought out, brought up a wide variety of issues, from church politics, to the management of The White Estate, to the broad influences of Ellen White’s immediate American community on her writings. Because she was not well-educated in other languages or literatures or cultures, we can easily track those influences. I wrote a paper on this book when I took a doctoral class in 19th C. American social history and discovered that in many ways, the document is a complex apologia for Numbers—not only is the book good history, but it’s a history of an academic in search for an answer. No one should read Ellen White without a copy of this book and a copy of Nissenbaum’s Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America, close at hand. The first lays the groundwork for thinking about the woman, her times, and, by implication, how her work has been shaped and presented to the denomination, the second the causes and extent of those influences in this country. “History” is not a cause-and-effect narration but a reticulated system of influences and responses.

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I appreciate your comments and plan to read the Nissenbaum book as soon as Amazon drops it on my doorstep. Thanks for the recommendation

It surprises me (well maybe not really) that so many Adventists are still unwilling to read Numbers Prophetess of Health, or even the more recent Ellen Harmon White: American Prophetess by Aamodt. I would also include Seeking a Sanctuary by Bull and Lockhart which is essential, IMO, to gaining a fuller understanding of not just the history of the SDA church, but also the practices of the church in reality, compared to the ideal and also factions within the church which may not be obvious until they are explained in their historical context. However, when I ask graduate-school educated friends who express concern over church matters whether they have ever read these books, they have not.

Adventism’s focus on Christ’s soon return has led to a church which has bothered little with self reflection, self knowledge or gathering and cataloging of our own history. Unfortunately much of the most important information has been held by the White Estate, and as we know was kept from the view of the average person for most of the 1900s. Now we find ourselves many generations on with questions that can not be answered because we failed to record the data when it was available. We can only hope that there is information out there which will find its way into repositories like Andrews University and their excellent collection of papers, letters, photos and other early Adventist ephemera. But we can also, as you note, gain insight from authors writing on the era. The SDA church has always reflected the culture at the time regardless of how much they wished to remain aloof from it, so understanding cultural currents is important to understanding the SDA church.

I hope that Adventists and those who are looking at us from outside will continue to be interested in writing about and researching our history. From the death of EGW to the writing of Numbers book and the finding of the minutes of the 1919 Bible Conference we experienced our own short dark ages. We are probably experiencing a relatively invisible renaissance of knowledge as Adventist scholars use newly discovered or available information to write papers and dissertations which may eventually filter their way out into general knowledge.

Does anyone know if there is any attempt being made to collect dissertations relating to SDA history or other categories, regardless of where they are written? I’d love a link if such a repository exists. I’ve searched for dissertations on several subjects over the years and have had little luck.

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