The Biblical Fiction of Ellen White

Editor’s note: this article appears in the latest issue of the Spectrum journal (volume 50, issue 3). Subscribe to support Spectrum in publishing scholarship and independent journalism.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/12066

Rather than fictional, her writings are epistolary, homiletical, devotional and pastoral in my opinion. Neither exegesis nor commentary. Quoting her is like borrowing someone else’s sermon.

this is an interesting take, and also an interesting process of analysis…i tend to agree with aspects of it, but i would point out that Desire of Ages, and egw’s other narrative works, cannot be classed with Testimonies for the Church, or any number of short articles that illuminate the specific mechanics of faith that are of intense interest to a born again person…within the corpus of egw, there are clearly categories that veer noticeably from Desire of Ages

as i see it, what ties egw’s writings together isn’t fictional liberties or literary genres so much as their eye witness supernatural quality…all of the egw writings, whether narrative, homiletic, or reproof oriented, present a type of perception that clearly evidences ongoing familiarity with the unseen spiritual world…this is what sets egw apart…it’s why so many spend countless hours studying and parsing her words…

the phenomenon of egw can be seriously compared only to what Israel had in it’s OT prophets, or what the NT had in its apostles…her writings are a staggering legacy that will likely never be equaled, even though there is reason to expect that our Church will see more prophets in the future…

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Perhaps if EGW’s fiction existed in a spiritual, economic and philosophical vacuum, this case could be made.

But when one travels the world characterizing all other fiction in a negative, even satanic light, it can be reasonably asserted that rather than being motivated by the HS, Mrs. White’s fictions were just as likely pumped out, propped up and made “fresh” for the primary purpose of making money.

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Early in my teaching experience (SDA), I found novels with a focus on nature and adventure being categorized under “science” (Dewy Decimal System) in the library. There were no books under “fiction”. Stories with a focus on morality etc. were classified under religion.

“A rose by any other name, smells the same”.

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Well… there must be different ways of alluding to one’s perspective or understanding of an event.

Fiction, in my mind, suggests elements that make it interesting and entertaining. Though Ellen White’s literary assistants must be credited for the significant improvements in the finished product, I’m not sure they intentionally considered the fictional elements of a fascinating narrative.

Reading about the compositional and editorial history of the OT and NT writings in general, and of the Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) in particular has been helpful to me. Dr Trenchard must have done some work in regard to redaction criticism, like this:


Stephen S. Smalley, Redaction Criticism
New Testament Interpretation

i think Warren is assuming that the Gospels are the original, definitive text, and that egw’s narrative is necessarily a derivative embellishment…he doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that her narrative is an original production that overlaps with aspects of the Gospels purely because she’s telling the same basic story they are…

i tend to think the view that Matthew and Luke must be basing their narrative on Mark suffers from the same presumptive arbitrariness, and for this same reason…there’s nothing preventing the possibility Matthew and Luke could be telling original stories that overlap with Mark only because they’re all telling the same story…the fact they likely wrote after Mark is neither here nor there…it certainly doesn’t prove they knew the book of Mark existed, and if they did, that they had access to it (Luke’s intro could just be general recognition of the commonly understood fact that many people were writing out their recollections of Christ, nothing more…in fact he implies his account is an original recounting of his own recollections)…

if five random people recount a shared experience, there will obviously be overlap to the extent their recollections are accurate…but this doesn’t mean they’re borrowing from one another, or basing what they’re saying on the person who happened to say things first…basic litigation and witness cross-examination proceed on the assumption that commonality in testimony establishes truthfulness, not behind the scenes collusion…

The arbitrary usage of the word “only” in this statement is an attempt to establish an unsubstantiated false dichotomy as EGW can also be seriously compared to Joseph Smith, The Fox Sisters, Mary Baker Eddy, Edgar Cayce, Orel Roberts, Pat Robertson, et. als.

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This much is clear as far as redaction critics are concerned. The Gospel writers’ dependence on previous accounts, in written form or orally received by them, did not result in a cut-and-paste kind of product (Luke 1:1-4).

Insofar as Ellen White is concerned, “I saw…” or “I was shown…” doesn’t mean she received fresh first-hand, eyewitness information–as in a vision–does it? It was her way of saying, "As I see it…? Though she may have read about it somewhere. “In my mind…” (a picture or idea that seemed real to her)…?

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i agree that these expressions don’t necessarily refer to an explicit vision…my understanding is that egw was continually illuminated through visions, dreams, trances and implanted thoughts, just like the OT prophets and NT apostles would have been, and that all of these forms of inspiration generate an eye witness quality because they are the product of eternal wisdom that was indeed present and all-knowing when a particular event occurred…this type of continual illumination is supernatural (and rare)…it can be a one-time occurrence, eg. Stephen, Hiram Edson, or it can be ongoing, throughout a lifetime or ministry, eg. Samuel, Paul, egw…the important point is that it’s distinct from any human origin…it isn’t a euphemism for artistic inspiration, for example…

i think it is also clear that egw, like all seers before her, had a clear understanding of the difference between this supernatural revelation and her own thoughts (see Paul, for example, in 1Cor 7:6,12, 25; 1Tim 2:8)…when egw uses the preface “I saw”, or “I was shown”, i believe she is indicating a divine, revelatory provenance - which can include a vision, but not necessarily - over and above anything she may have generated on her own, or as the result of consulting others, or of perusing the sources she had access to…

i think our Church needs to understand the value of the resource we have in egw, and in the implied promise of future prophets, who will likely also demonstrate this ongoing, continual illumination…i don’t think attempts to position the egw output in terms of literary genres, as if what she represents is simply another instance of what other writers have contributed, advances this understanding…

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Funny thing about Ellen White and the biblical prophets- I have heard many sermons in which the faults of bible apostles, prophets and patriarchs are listed off- Noah got drunk, Abraham withheld the fact that Sarah was his wife, Jonah ran from his duty, Jacob deceived his father to gain a blessing, Peter acted impulsively, various apostles argued amongst eachother about power dynamics, David and the adultery and murder, etc, etc. I don’t recall ever hearing Ellen White brought up alongside those from the OT and NT to have her faults listed.

Surely it wasn’t due to her lacking in faults. The content of her many published letters attests to that and with some letters having a libelous character- which is much like slander, something that is condemned in the bible.

It might be that those pastors don’t consider Ellen White to be equal with the bible prophets, or they might be afraid to say anything about her as unlike the prophets in the bible, she seemed to insinuate that those who disagreed with her on points were in serious error, sometimes to a degree that even their salvation was in danger.
Many of the people Ellen White had censured left or were kicked out of the church, or if they weren’t in the church they chose not to join- but that’s okay because they still had the bible.

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The issue (problem) is not how we interpret the phrase (although it is a problem) as we interpret as we wish. The problem is how EGW intended it.

What is apparent in regards to the topics of inspiration, was she a prophet, and the “I saw/ was shown” is the ambiguity. She didn’t claim to be a prophet, but was happy to have others claim it for her. “I saw” can be interpreted as a vision experience or as you have interpreted.

The ambiguity gave EGW plausible deniability. I the situation didn’t pan out as stated or expected she could fall back on the lesser interpretation of “I saw”. The ambiguity also allows her adherents the wriggle room they need to continue to believe despite the issues circulating her writing and life.

As much as the ambiguity is a problem, it is something she appears to embrace.

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From the beginning, I think there has been uncertainty over exactly what egw’s gift is…the Bible writers and characters, of course, have had the advantage of having long passed from the scene, with only a bare minimum of personal facts known about them…it’s been relatively easy for people to take them for granted, and not question them too closely…

egw, on the other hand, although she is deceased, is really only a few generations removed from our time…in addition, many, many details of her life are known, including many of her doubts, her depression, her struggles to trust and believe, her lack of control over appetite, and her taking the easy way out in her writing by using the words of others…in addition, a study of her life shows a steady progression from literally fainting at the thought of reproving someone to engaging in withering, devastating reproofs that match anything in the bible…

nothing about egw can be covered up, or glossed over…for those who study her life, a complex, intensely earnest, intelligent personality emerges, one that didn’t always factor in the feelings of others…towards the 2nd half of her ministry, particularly, she was definitely anything but a wilting wall flower…yet it is possible to see remarkable caring for others, remarkable life-long sacrifice, and remarkable trust in and love for Jesus throughout her life, including her closing yrs…

personally, i think egw is interesting precisely because the facts of her life, warts and all, are so evident…and i think she’s fascinating because many of her writings convey an understanding that is unique, including her signature teaching that it is our unavoidably faulty sanctification that Jesus justifies…to this day, none of our theologians have bridged the gap between James’s justification by works and Paul’s justification by faith as naturally as this singular teaching does…and there are many, many other unique insights to be found in her writing…

without a doubt, egw is the first person, after Christ, that i hope to meet in heaven…she is so painstakingly detailed in her descriptions, and her feelings about those descriptions…what kind of person takes the time, and thought, to do that, but an intensely artistic person…

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If this article is correct:

I think you might be in for a bit of a let down if and when you get the chance to meet EGW, particularly given what she and the Bible have said about people with your “abominable” predilection!!!

I doubt I’ll be there to witness that encounter so all I can say is “Good luck with that!” as I suspect you may find yourself on the receiving end of another of her “devastating reproaches”!?!?

:flushed:

But then again, maybe EGW will change her tune when-I mean “if”- she finds out that Jesus’ “love” for the 12 guys he hung out with wasn’t purely platonic.

:wink:

It comes under the genre of ‘Plagiarists’.

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Books by Walter Wangerin, Jr would be classified under Old Testament and New Testament, (in SDA libraries)?

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Assuming “heaven” is as anthropomorphic as you seem to think, after meeting ChrIst IN HEAVEN, what possible desire would you have to meet EW - what, you need her to explain what you may have missed in the translation. That’s like a bunch of people gathered around the freezer in the kitchen, while the ice cream is being served on the patio.

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lol…yes, i see heaven as being completely and literally anthropomorphic, made for and inhabited by humans for a thousand yrs upon our literal ascension into heaven at the 2nd coming (this could also be for 360,000 yrs, or some non-specific period of time), where we’ll reign with Christ and mete out punishment for the lost…at the end of this time in heaven, we’ll witness the lake of fire and the execution of our judgement, and then the recreation of earth, where we’ll move and live forever in literal mansions being built for us now…i totally believe we’ll meet both Christ and our guardian angel; that we’ll be reunited with loved ones; and that we’ll have all eternity to meet new people from history that we’ve learned and benefitted from, like egw, and many of the bible heroes, not to mention holy angels beside our guardian angel, and people from worlds that have never fallen, who could be billions, if not trillions, of earth yrs old…

this is what the bible implies, and egw spells out…i don’t doubt any of it in any particular…:slightly_smiling_face:

I suspect this is perhaps the most appealing aspect of EGW’s Adventism; the arrogance to think that one day the prohibitions against judging and killing others will be lifted and SDA’s revenants will officially become gods with the power to decide who should live forever or die an agonizing and eternal death.

Sounds like a good time for all, or at least for those who cling to such illusions despite an utter lack of evidence to support the belief that EGW’s dreams (which used to cause my nightmares :flushed::rofl::sleeping:) will ever come true.

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Her dreams and visions were bizarre and disturbing- Jesus yelling out to her as He passed by in a golden chariot, the sex lives of those in the early church, beings on other planets, the inner workings of other people’s bodies.She wears a haunting expression in many of her photographs too.

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