The Ear: Terrie Dopp Aamodt on Ellen Harmon White

(system) #1

With two colleagues — the late Gary Land, who taught history at Andrews University, and Ronald L. Numbers, Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — Terrie Dopp Aamodt edited the volume of essays, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, just published by the Oxford University Press.

Aamodt, whose interests focus on American literature and history, joined the English faculty at Walla Walla University (where she still works) in 1979. Since 2003 she has also been a member of the university’s history department.

She earned a bachelor’s degree at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University), a master’s degree (in English) at the College of William and Mary, and a doctorate in American and New England Studies at Boston University. Asked what prepared her for editing Ellen Harmon White, she explained that her doctoral studies “led me to examine intersections of literature, history, and religion, from the Puritan founders of New England through the Civil War. It taught me how examining context helps the past to come alive.”

Aamodt wrote the chapter in Ellen Harmon White on Ellen White as public speaker, and is currently working on a book for the Adventist Pioneers biography series entitled Ellen White: Voice and Vision. In 2002 the Mercer University Press published her book, Righteous Armies, Holy Cause: Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War. Her scholarship has included an examination of the House of David religious commune in Benton Harbor, Michigan, which played a role in integrating baseball (outside the major leagues) before Jackie Robinson.

During her childhood, Aamodt’s family followed her pastor father, Matthew “Bud” Dopp, to assignments in Alaska, California, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Aamodt saw Alaska celebrate statehood in 1959 and spent six summers at Camp Wawona in Yosemite National Park.

She lives in Walla Walla, Washington with her husband, Larry, a member of the University’s electrical engineering faculty, and their two college-age children. The family enjoys skiing, backpacking, running, and cycling.

Question: With two colleagues, you edited the volume of essays, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, just published by the Oxford University Press. The book is at once an appreciation and a criticism of Ellen White’s ministry. How was the book conceived and put together?

Answer: The book project began in a series of conversations among Adventist historians during four or five of their triennial meetings. We noted that Ellen White is little known outside her own denomination, and her role in American religious history had never been systematically investigated. We identified historians who had previously done work on Ellen White — most of them were Adventist historians, some were former Adventists, and two have never been connected to the denomination — and invited them to prepare chapter drafts for a conference in Portland, Maine, in 2009. We spent the next three years editing and polishing the chapters, and the book was accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in April 2013. It was published about a year later, in April 2014.

Question: What are some main areas of investigation into Ellen White’s ministry that the book covers?

Answer: The book is a collaborative biography, and it examines various facets of Ellen White’s life, beginning with a biographical portrait and several subsets of her life story — her visions, testimonies, reception as a prophet, writing and speaking careers, and role as an institution builder. Then it looks at her treatment of various themes — theology, eschatology, science, society, culture, race, and gender — and finally it looks at her legacy and the range of historical and biographical approaches that have been applied to her, primarily within the denomination.

As we began our work at the conference, we heard a plenary lecture, “Writing a Woman’s Life,” by Joan Hedrick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Afterward, one of the Adventist historians asked her, “You clearly admire your subject, but what do you do about the flaws?” Hedrick replied that for the biographer, flaws are “what bring a person into sharp focus. Nobody is human without having flaws. To see the flaws as well as the virtues, and how they intersect — we can all see in ourselves that our strengths also have a downside. Seeing the human is seeing the human being whole. I don’t see it as a problem but I see it as a possibility. I see it as great literary material and sometimes as great didactic material.”

While we cannot claim to have seen Ellen White whole in one volume, which is a woefully inadequate space to examine such a long and complex life, we did try to examine as many facets as we could. Interestingly, seeing a subject whole looks different depending on who is doing the looking. Historians who were not connected to Adventism — conference respondents, grant and manuscript referees — typically thought this project was conceived by the highest levels of the Seventh-day Adventist church to promote a positive image of her. Some Adventists, accustomed to the modes of discussion within the Adventist church structure, thought the project set out to be critical of her. At least one disillusioned ex-Adventist dismissed the book as hagiography. What we told conference participants again and again was that we sought to steer clear of extremes of either iconoclasm or hagiography. If we had fallen into either of those extremes, we could not have expected to be taken seriously by either academic publishers or scholarly reviewers.

Preparing for the conference, which included one SDA and one non-SDA respondent per chapter, felt a little bit like setting up a blind date. Many of the non-SDA respondents had not heard of Ellen White before, and the others knew very little of her. We wondered what they would think of her and how seriously they would take her historical role. It was humbling and a bit startling to see how warmly and enthusiastically they responded to this story of a life. They welcomed the opportunity to learn more about a major figure who, in their eyes, was curiously neglected in the larger story of American religious history. We do not expect our book to be the final word on this vast topic but rather an invitation for additional angles of investigation and further research.

Question: You have lectured on Ellen Harmon White to several audiences in major centers of North American Adventism. What themes come out in positive responses to your report on the book? What come out in negative responses?

Answer: While the primary purpose of the book is not to address Adventist angst about Ellen White, other than to document it in the “Legacy” chapter, it inevitably will draw responses from Adventists from a whole range of perspectives. When I’ve talked with Adventists about the book, I remind them that the book was designed for a general academic audience, not for an Adventist audience who is already deeply familiar with Ellen White as one of the leading figures in their own denomination. I have asked them to keep that in mind as they read. Adventists who are accustomed to seeing Ellen White as somehow above human frailty can be startled and sometimes angered by an effort to see her whole. And, of course, there can be honest differences of opinion on how to interpret historical evidence. On the other hand, some Adventists gave up on Ellen White a long time ago. Many of those folks who have made an effort to engage with our book have been encouraged to revisit her life and work. I don’t know which has been a bigger surprise — her warm reception by the non-SDA scholars at the conference, or the renewed interest in her in some Adventist places where I least expected to see it.

Question: Although a somewhat negative review did appear in The Adventist Review, no one can yet say, as a generality, whether Adventist leaders will give the book a fair and thorough reading. But we know they are deeply committed to protecting the loyalty of members to church mission. If leaders did give the book a fair and thorough reading, how might the perspective they gain be put to constructive use in the church’s life?

Answer: At times Adventists have put up a dismal showing in their internal discussions of Ellen White. Perhaps we have felt free to savage each other on sensitive topics because we thought no one else was watching. I fully expect that we will learn a lot as scholars from outside the Adventist fold turn more scrutiny on the life and times of Ellen White. Their perspectives will raise new questions and new angles of inquiry, and the possibility that someone “out there” might actually be paying attention to what Adventists say to each other about their collective history ought to raise the quality of our internal discourse. We have a lot to look forward to.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Pagophilus) #2

Regardless the merit of the work, it is inviting controversy by having a controversial figure like Ronald Numbers involved in this work. Is it any surprise that there was a negative review in the Review? Is it not like having the wolf at the sheep’s dinner table?

(Robert Sonter) #3

Thank you Charles Scriven, for this interesting background & interview.

I actually obtained the book (American Prophet) as soon as it was published, though I’ve not read it cover to cover - more just bits and pieces here and there. I’ve browsed the chapters where the subheadings look interesting, and have read some sections in detail.

I likely will read the entire book one day, but my initial impression has been “somewhat underwhelmed”. Any scholarly book about the life of Ellen White is bound to be controversial, given some of the information that has come out over the past 35 years or so. But it’s almost as though the authors have very deliberately tried to steer away from controversy. They’ve acknowledge the controversy and her major critics, but only in a relatively oblique manner.

Having said that, the sections I’ve read appear to be excellent history. The book seems to paint a picture with a fairly broad brush, but it’s a realistic picture. Probably my biggest disappointment is that the book doesn’t attempt to ask or answer the key question “Was Ellen White a real/genuine prophet?”, through any analysis of the actual evidence mounted by her critics (or for that matter, any analysis of the evidence on the side of the apologists.) Rather, the book calls her a prophet at the outset, and continues thus throughout, via the apologetic voice of popular Adventist acclaim.

Just one example of where I think the authors were much too kind to Ellen White: The reference to the trial of Israel Dammon in the Chapter 2 (“Visions”) really does gloss over the differences between Ellen White’s account of the events, and the sworn court testimony of the sheriff. Quoting from page 41: “What Adventists find troublesome in the newspaper account are details that White left out or glossed over. These details do not so much contradict what White said as force modern Adventists to read her writings differently.”

In fact the details are highly contradictory, particularly as regards just what “force” prevented the arrest of Mr Dammon for a period of time. Per Ellen White: “Elder D. was held by the power of God about forty minutes, and not all the strength of those men could move him from the floor where he lay helpless.” Per the sheriff: “When I went to arrest prisoner, they shut the door against me. Finding I could not gain access to him without, I burst open the door. I went to the prisoner and took him by the hand and told him my business. A number of women jumped on to him–he clung to them, and they to him. So great was the resistance, that I with three assistants, could not get him out. I remained in the house and sent for more help; after they arrived we made a second attempt with the same result–I again sent for more help–after they arrived we overpowered them and got him out door in custody. We were resisted by both men and women. Can’t describe the place-it was one continued shout.”

(Rheticus) #4

Interesting quote from the sheriff - especially since he had three assistants to verify his words.

In general one hopes that academic studies of EGW will bring to light more facts and less spin than the White Estate engages in.

Is the White Estate going to open the vaults to the academics?

(Elmer Cupino) #5

"Regardless the merit of the work, it is inviting controversy…"

To a certain extent, I have to agree with you. It is a sad state of affair when EGW becomes a “Rorschach test” to invite controversy in our church. I doubt that was her intent in life. What is important to understand is how she was used by the early church administrators to promote their own agenda for the church and seemed to have stuck with her. She needs a “teflon coating.”

(Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13) #6

Robert, I’m not sure how this question can be addressed in this type of book, a historical survey. It’s a biography written because EGW has historical significance due to being considered a prophet, which gave rise to a denomination. A similar treatment of Joseph Smith would also concede his standing as a prophet for people who believed him to be one & consequently grew into a world-wide church. This crucial difference is why non-Adventists could contribute to EGW’s biography.

Notice that the book’s being criticized for not being about establishing belief in EGW as prophet. Belief in any prophet is a religious & polemical question, which can’t be addressed without a whole lot of theological background on inspiration & the human prophetic gift. Even then, whatever the proposed answer is it is going to be contested by those who disagree on the meaning of the evidence. Many people believe in Smith despite what I find to be incontrovertible & well-known facts against him.

(Robert Sonter) #7

Thanks your your comments, Hopeful.

On reflection I agree. I’m not an academic or a historian, and probably approached the book initially with the wrong expectations. I’ve read another chapter since I posted my comment, and am now starting to engage with the book, with an understanding similar to what you’ve just articulated so well.

(Bill Garber) #8

Robert Sonter shows interest in the book’s describing Ellen Harmon White as a prophet, though it does not attempt to assess whether prophet is the proper description. Hopeful cautions as to whether a history book can properly address the validity of the term prophet.

Over lunch after church today four of us were discussing what held the community of faith together in 1845, as there were no doctrines, no church, let alone General Conference. We concluded that what held the community together in 1845 must have been a common conviction that their sense of God’s presence in their community in 1845 had not only survived October 22, 1844, but was growing day by day.

That is when the Jewess and relatively recent Seventh-day Adventist in our group noted, as though it was self-evident, Ellen White’s role as the living and ongoing confirmation of God’s literal presence among them.

Today we may well be asking the wrong question with regard to whether Ellen White was a true prophet. Of course she was. She confirmed God’s presence in human reality for the community of faith for the rest of her life. The community treated her representation of God’s presence among them in exactly this way. She continued this role through the inherent turmoil of sorting out what of necessity it must mean to become and to be a church.

A useful path forward today, it seems, is to look back at the times and life of Ellen White and her role as divine confirmation of God’s very real presence in the run up to and aftermath of Millerism, and in turn the rise of the Seventh-day Adventist church. This volume appears to be a landmark effort in this regard. I look forward to the full experience.

(jeremy) #9

i do feel that our pioneer church regarded egw’s visions as an ongoing confirmation that god himself was with them, and that they were carving out an identity and purpose that would eventually open to them the gates of heaven…this is how i regard egw’s meaning even now…i am not at all amused or impressed with efforts to denigrate her influence and authority in our church…adventism, i believe, is the final depository of unfolding truth that will decisively separate the saved from the lost…from it’s inception, adventism has been guided and shaped by the visions of egw…there is no point pretending otherwise…there is a line of biblical interpretation filtered through egw that is exhilarating, energizing, intuitive, and awe-inspiring…egw is the heart of true adventism, and always will be…

(Rheticus) #10

It is interesting that EGW and JFK share this characteristic - that history was kinder to them than reality.

EGW was an important figure but not the dominant figure that you make her out to be - she was controversial, and did not hold the sway over the denomination that you credit her with.

However leadership requires authority, and after she was safely dead the SdA leadership could start invoking her and her writings to gain credibility just like the RC invoke the apostolic succession and the writings of the fathers.

The net effect of this was to change the denomination from one that was searching for truth come what may to one that was preserving the historic landmarks, right or wrong.

When this approach began to fall apart in the 1950’s and 1980’s with the discovery of deceit being practiced by the White Estate and the SdA leadership about how the EGW Writings were actually composed, the response of the leadership was to stick their heads in the sand, deny the crystal clear evidence, and out-last those who couldn’t like the lie.

In 1950’s, there was no good duplication media, it was easy to outlast them

In the 1980’s, cassette tapes and photocopiers made it easy, and an entire generation left the SdA church. In Australia basically everyone born between 1930 and 1950 (ie: 30-50 years old at the time) left the denomination. You can see it today in the Australian SdA demographics.

In 2000 the leaders started on the same campaign again to deal with yet another generation that has discovered the truth. But with the Internet - forums like this one, email, Google, … - the leaders no longer have the monopoly on the bulk publishing media in the West. They have only got away with what they have because the Third World SdA are large enough and disconnected enough to be supporting Ted Wilson et. al.

But that will change too, and the denomination will have to change - either become like the LDS and deliberately playing a known charade, or return to searching for truth.

(George Davidovich) #11

Bill and Jeremy: Nice point about EGW as the confirmation of God’s presence and guidance of the incipient Adventist movement. I don’t feel that EGW was the only guidance God provided nor the sole recipient of shaping truth for Adventism however. Although her visions do play a pivotal role later in the formation of the church, it was God’s vision to Hiram Edson in a cornfield and the prophecy study of O.R.L.Crossier that allowed the Great Disappointment to transcend into an uncovered prophetic truth. It was on this very pillar doctrine (Investigative Judgement) that 50 remaining Millerites will endure and go on to become the SDA Church with one of the other pillars, the Sabbath light, coming from Rachel Oakes.
I also agree with Jeremy that Seventh-day Adventism is “the final depository of unfolding truth”, God’s timing is perfect raising a prophet at the start of the “time of the end” I expect all the still unknown details of Daniel’s and John’s prophecies to be revealed soon.

(jeremy) #12

rheticus, naturally i disagree…whatever leadership thought, the people held egw in veneration while she lived, which is why so many came to hear her wherever she took to the pulpit…we must remember the incredible amount of personal letters of reproof and guidance she wrote to people throughout the church…her opinion was part of every major decision in the church - everything from whom to send into the cities, to which parcel of land to purchase for a sanitarium or school…her home was the regular scene of “interviews” with various leaders, precisely because she was viewed as a prophet of god…it is true that battle creek, as with all large centers, had it’s own downward momentum, despite numerous testimonies written sometimes under a cloud of illness and anguish, and it is probably possible to imagine that egw was not appreciated in this particular location…but if the full written record is any indication, and i think it is, egw was far from being as meaningless during her lifetime as you suggest, even in battle creek, which means this plot you are outlining on the part of church leaders to engage in an extreme makeover after egw’s death, in which the white estate, despite exposed deliberate deception, was complicit, is pure fantasy…and even after it became apparent that egw’s output, in terms of books, was not what had been assumed, there has always been a very loyal following when it comes to the inspiration and centrality of egw…

as for australia, i see the situation there to be the result of the influence of desmond ford, who in my hearing insisted that egw’s free use of the writings of others meant that we couldn’t use her to establish or confirm doctrine, which i believe is an invention he came up with purely to create credence for his own views on the heavenly sanctuary, the little horn of daniel 8, justification-only salvation, a complete atonement at the cross, and other evangelical views manifestly out of harmony with egw…i have seen videos of ford claiming his demotion of egw to “pastoral prophet” status was not a denigration of her inspiration or importance - that he himself viewed her as a prophet of god - but the proof is in the pudding: none of his followers have any time for egw, and i believe this general dissing of a prophet of god has taken over the continent of australia, despite the influence of independent personalities like the standish brothers…

and your dismissal of third world adventism is not helpful…adventism in the third world, in the context of poverty and deprivation, is of course going to be different than what we see in more affluent areas…if anything, it is a more authentic adventism, because all the conspiracies attached to anything leadership does to increase our identity and mission do not occur to a mind thankful for whatever blessing in life it receives…personally, i feel no sympathy for first world adventists who have made no effort to uncover the truth of egw for themselves, but instead are ready to take up every species of report that denigrates our prophet in order to do away with the very strong testimony that comes through in her writings…this type of “searching for the truth” is not what we need, in my view…

(Graeme Sharrock) #13

Ron Numbers is not considered a controversial but a creative and substantial academic figure among the audience for whom the book was written.

(Rheticus) #14

Assumed? EXPLICITLY AND LOUDLY STATED, and repeatedly stated even after it had been proven, and repeatedly lied about to this day by the White Estate - go look at their website and all its references to books “from the pen of” EGW.

Since you weren’t in Australia, and have almost zero knowledge of what happened there, it is not surprising your opinion is a personal fantasy. My wife and I lived through it. We know what material our older friends were reading, and the reasons that they walked out the door.

Your idea that “poverty and deprivation” leads to a “more authentic Adventism” is an interesting commentary on your view on Adventism. Personally I think that the Third World Adventism is going to wake up and realise just how much the GC and their own leadership has been lying to them any day now - the internet reaches deepest Africa these days

(Graeme Sharrock) #15

Many Adventists are naturally concerned with the question of whether White was a “true Prophet”, just as Mormons have similar concerns that History confirm their beliefs about Smith as a prophet. But I think it unfair to judge the new book on the basis of whether it answers your question. Rather it is a description of White as an “American prophet”.

Nor do I think histories should be written primarily to clear up controversies, especially religious ones. Matters of faith and conviction will always be beyond the capabilities of historians as we are too busy painting the canvas in front of which the action takes place. The book had a purpose and this is not it.

The question to ask is: Do we understand her better as an American prophet from this new Oxford book? If you look, for example at my chapter on the “Testimonies” you will see me do nothing but place her in the historical and cultural context of the American midwest in the 1850s. In view of the fact that no SDA scholars have ever written about the testimonies in this way before, what else would you like to me to consider?

(Graeme Sharrock) #16

How is thousands of hours of dissertation research and writing, and many published books and articles, evidence that “none of his followers have any time for egw”?

Such brazen ignorance from someone who knows nothing about Australia. Readers here can name you half a dozen possible “followers” of Ford who have produced some of the very best research on White’s life and writings. On the other hand, did the so-called defenders of the faith in Australia produce any new research on White during the same period? 'Nuf said.

(Cfowler) #17


Does this same view regarding EGW apply to Joseph Smith as well? He seems to have done the very same thing for the LDS Church.

(Allen Shepherd) #18


I have supported EGW since a youth, and continue to see her as a genuine prophet. However, in a work like this, without some like Numbers, the work would have no credibility, and would be considered propaganda. I sense the book received an excellent review by some who nothing of White. Numbers is being used by God in spite of himself.

(Allen Shepherd) #19

You are right on this one, hopeful, I have always been impressed by EGW’s wisdom, but that is me. I think the recent encyclopedia has even increased my respect, especially the section about those she touched in various ways. Really interesting.

(Allen Shepherd) #20

Very insight Bill. I am getting this orange screen again because I am posting to several at different times. I guess they want to cut down on posts… But I liked what you said, and how you said it. She is just as powerful today as she was then.