Introductions by Bonnie Dwyer and Molleurus Couperus
Moving through the early volumes of Spectrum for this anniversary web series, we have noted the controversial nature of the Spectrum reviews of the book Prophetess of Health. In the late 1970s, Ellen G. White was a hot topic in Adventist circles. So when Dr. Molleurus Couperus read the lost minutes of the 1919 Bible Conference describing the controversy that swirled about her and her writings in the years right after her death, he knew he had to find a way to share them.
Thirty-one pages of unedited transcript were published in the May 1979 (Volume Ten, Number One) Spectrum.
“The record of the 1919 Bible Conference was lost until December 1974,” Couperus reported, “when Dr. F. Donald Yost found two packages wrapped in paper at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Takoma Park.”
Inside the packages were 2,400 pages of typewritten material, transcribed from stenographic notes taken at the conference.
Today, ninety years after the conference, the questions and exchanges among the participants seem as fresh as ever. Take this exchange between W.W. Prescott, one-time editor of the Review and then a field secretary for the General Conference, with the then editor of the Review F. M. Wilcox:
“W.W. Prescott: Can you explain how it is that two brethren can disagree on the inspiration of the Bible, one holding to the verbal inspiration and the other opposed to it, and yet no disturbance be created in the denomination whatever. That situation is right here before us. But if two brethren take the same attitude on the spirit of prophecy, one holding to verbal inspiration and the other discrediting it, he that does not hold to the verbal inspiration is discredited.
“F.M. Wilcox: Do you believe that a man who doesn’t believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible believes the Bible?
“Prescott: I do not have any trouble over it at all. I have a different view myself. If a man does not believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, he is still in good standing; but if he says he does not believe in the verbal inspiration of the Testimonies, he is discounted right away. I think it is an unhealthful situation. It puts the spirit of prophecy above the Bible.”
General Conference President A.G. Daniells participated in the conference. He was the main speaker, but rather than present a talk, he simply invited questions from the Biblical professors in attendance, so the conference unfolds as a conversation among the early leaders of the church. The Bible teachers speak of their unease in dealing with issues surrounding Ellen White’s inspiration. And Daniells admits that there are church members who question whether the leaders at the General Conference hold Mrs. White’s writings in the proper light. The frank discussion that ensures makes our history come to life.
Here, in this section of the web site, we share Dr. Couperus’ introduction to the 1919 Bible Conference and invite your comments. In the Archives you will find the entire transcript (links provided at the end).
The Bible Conference of 1919 - Introduction
From (1979) Vol. 10, No. 1
Molleurus Couperus, recently retired chairman of the department of dermatology, Loma Linda University School of Medicine, was editor of SPECTRUM during its first six volumes.
Nearly all Protestant 1 churches have had at least one outstanding leader whose dedication to what he considered his divinely ordained work and message was apparent to all. In spite of the fact that these men made mistakes and erred, their grateful and admiring followers awarded them a place of unusual authority in their church, particularly in matters of Biblical interpretation and doctrine. This was especially true of Luther and Calvin. Martin Luther, for instance, was called "an instrument of God," "a prophet of the Almighty" and an "apostle of freedom." Luther also applied the title of prophet to himself occasionally. His prophecies were gathered together by Johannes Lapaus and published by him in 1578 under the title True Prophecies of the Dear Prophet and Holy Man of God Dr. Martini Luther. This book was republished in 1846. Hans Preuss in 1933 wrote a scholarly volume entitled Martin Luther the Prophet, in which he lists the prominent theologians who called Luther a prophet, both before and after the Enlightenment. During the last century, Luther was more often called apostle or reformer. As time went on after Luther's death and scholars were able to study and compare the astounding size of Luther's writings (his published works fill more than 60 volumes), a critical evaluation was possible of the nature and extent of his contribution to the Christian church. In all this, he has remained the Reformer, the great Man of God.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been blessed by the great devotion and leadership of many individuals, both during its early history and its later development. Among these none has had a greater influence on this church than Ellen G. White, from shortly after the Disappointment of 1844 until the present, long after her death on July 16, 1915.
In spite of her limited formal education, Ellen (Harmon) White developed into a person of profound insight and spiritual stature, a wise counselor and leader, a deep Bible student and commentator. All of these characteristics are reflected in the voluminous written material that came from her pen, which has continued to extend her influence and authority in her church until the present. As early as December 1844, when she was only 17 years of age, she had a vision in which she saw the Advent people on their journey to the Holy City. This was the first of many visions, dreams and messages which she communicated to the church, nearly all of which were related to the beliefs, work and organization of her church, while others were for counsel to individual members. As Ellen White matured, she saw herself increasingly active in preaching, and traveled widely, including to Australia and Europe, to aid in the development of her church. She also became more involved in writing articles for various church periodicals and in publishing large books, even sets of books such as the five-volume Conflict of the Ages series. To aid her in this demanding part of her work, she was able to secure the help of a number of very capable literary assistants and secretaries, one of whom, Marian Davis, worked with her for some 25 years.
Soon after her visions first appeared and were publicized, questions naturally arose concerning the nature of these visions, their authority, and a little later, their relationship to the Bible. This latter question has remained a subject for discussion and even controversy in the church ever since. Ellen's husband, James, became fully aware of this problem soon after her first visions, and discussed it at some length as early as April 21, 1851, in the Review and Herald. He stated:
Every Christian is, therefore, in duty bound to take the Bible as a perfect rule of faith and duty. He should pray fervently to be aided by the Holy Spirit in searching the Scriptures for the whole truth, and for his whole duty. He is not at liberty to turn from them to learn his duty through any of the gifts. We say that the very moment he does, he places the gifts in a wrong place, and takes an extremely dangerous position. The Word should be in front, and the eye of the church should be placed upon it, as the rule to walk by, and the fountain of wisdom, from which to learn duty in "all good works." But if a portion of the church err from the truths of the Bible, and become weak, and sickly, and the flock become scattered, so that it seems necessary for God to employ the gifts of the Spirit to correct, revive and heal the erring, we should let him work.
In a second article in the same issue, James White wrote: "God's Word is an everlasting rock. On that we can stand with confidence at all times. Though the Lord gives dreams, designed generally for the individuals who have them, to comfort, correct, or to instruct in extreme trials or dangers, yet to suppose that he designs to guide in general duties by dreams, is unscriptural, and very dangerous. The Word and Spirit are given to guide us." Four years later, on Oct. 16, 1855, he wrote again in the Review and Herald on the same subject:
There is a class of persons who are determined to have it that the Review and its conductors make the view of Mrs. White a Test of doctrine and Christian fellowship. – What has the Review to do with Mrs. W.'s views? The sentiments published in its columns are all drawn from the Holy Scriptures. No writer of the Review has ever referred to them as authority on any point. The Review for five years has not published one of them. Its motto has been, "The Bible and the Bible alone, the only rule of faith and duty."
As the years passed by, some in the church claimed verbal inspiration for the writings of Ellen White, a position rejected by James White and officially by the church. Others claimed infallibility, and many called her a prophet. Both of these she denied, but felt that her work was more than that of a prophet, calling herself a messenger. On infallibility, she stated: "In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible" (Selected Messages I: p. 37). In spite of these statements, from time to time some authors in the church have claimed various degrees of infallibility for her writings. Roderick Owen, in a reprint article in the Review and Herald of June 3, 1971, assigned infallible interpretation of Scripture to her. The official position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has always been that our beliefs are solely based on Scripture, and that by Scripture all claims for religious truth must ultimately be tested. Believing that Ellen White was used by God to help guide the infant church as a spiritual leader does not imply that one can ascribe to her infallibility in her work, words or writings. Her son, W. C. White, who worked closely with his mother for many years, and for the Ellen G. White Estate after her death, wrote regarding her statements on history: "Mother has never claimed to be authority on history" (W. C. White, in The Great Controversy, 1911 Edition, p. 4; quoted by Arthur L. White in The Ellen G. White Writings, 1973). "Regarding Mother's writings and their use as an authority on points of history and chronology Mother has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority regarding details of history or historical dates. . . . When Controversy was written, Mother never thought that the readers would take it as authority on historical dates or use it to settle controversy regarding details of history, and she does not now feel that it should be used in that way" (Letter from W. C. 25 White to W. W. Eastman, Nov. 4, 1912; quoted in The Ellen G. White Writings, by Arthur L. White, p. 33, 34).
By what standards then should the writings of Ellen G. White be judged? First of all, according to her own words and those of James White: by Scripture. All other statements, historical, medical, scientific, like the statements of any other mortal, must be able to pass historical or scientific research the test of truth, as I believe Ellen White would have it. Then her message, so greatly confined to her own church by the unwarranted attitude of those who advocated infallibility for her writings, would become acceptable also for devotional and Biblical study outside her own church, which has been accused for so many years of having "an addition to or above Scripture."
The struggle that has been present in the Seventh-day Adventist Church to come to an acceptable and honest decision about the place which the writings of Ellen White should have for our church and those in other churches is illustrated by the discussions which took place at the Bible Conference in Takoma Park, from July 1-21, 1919, and which was followed immediately by a three-weeks long meeting of the Bible and History Teachers Council. In the Review and Herald of Aug. 14, 1919, W. E. Howell lists 22 delegates from our colleges attending the Bible and History Teachers Council, and other evidence indicates that the total number attending the Bible Conference was over 50. The president of the General Conference at that time, Arthur G. Daniells, reported on the Bible Conference in the Review and Herald of Aug. 21, 1919, and informs us that the meeting was attended "by editors, Bible and history teachers from our colleges and seminaries, and members of the General Conference Committee." Among those present at the Bible Conference, besides A. G. Daniells, were G. B. Thompson, field secretary of the General Conference; F. M. Wilcox, editor of the Review and Herald; M. E. Kern, formerly president of the Foreign Mission Seminary (now Columbia Union College); W. W. Prescott, formerly editor of the Review and Herald and then a field secretary of the General Conference (who had a major part in the revision of the book The Great Controversy in 1911); H. C. Lacey, religion teacher at the Foreign Mission Seminary; W. E. Howell, editor of the Christian Educator; W. G. Wirth, a religion teacher at Pacific Union College, and later at the College of Medical Evangelists; M. C. Wilcox, book editor for the Pacific Press; A. O. Tait, editor of the Signs of the Times; C. M. Sorenson, history teacher at Emmanuel Missionary College; C. S. Longacre, secretary of the Religious Liberty Association; W. H. Wakeham, Bible teacher at Emmanuel Missionary College; J. N. Anderson, Bible teacher at the Washington Foreign Mission Seminary; C. L. Taylor, head of the Bible Department, Canadian Junior College; L. L. Caviness, associate editor of the Review and Herald; and T. M. French, head of the school of theology at Emmanual Missionary College.
In his report of the Bible Conference, Elder Daniells emphasized the importance of continued and deeper study of the Scriptures by our church. He stated, "The one great object of this conference is to unite in a definite, practical, spiritual study of the Word of God." He then quotes at length from Ellen G. White where she counsels the church to a diligent study of the Scriptures, and includes the following: "The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God's people, should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves, to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition, and worship they know not what" (Testimonies for the Church, vol. V, pp. 706, 707).
Elder Daniells also reported the actions that were taken at the conference, and from this we quote: "We therefore express our appreciation of the following definite features which have marked the sessions of this Bible Conference:
5. For the incentive to more earnest Bible Study which the conference has aroused. .... We recognise, however, that there are still many mines of truth in the Holy Scriptures, and that these will yield their treasure to the earnest, prayerful, humble seeker after right. … 6. We believe that the blessings and benefits which result from Bible conferences such as we have enjoyed, should be perpetuated in the future. . . . We therefore earnestly request the General Conference Committee to arrange for another conference of this character in 1920. . . .
Such a conference, however, was not held.
The record of the 1919 Bible Conference was lost until December 1974, when Dr. F. Donald Yost found two packages wrapped in paper at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Takoma Park. The packages contained some 2,400 pages of typewritten material, transcribed from stenographic notes taken at the Conference. It seems a tragedy that this material was not made available to Adventist teachers and ministers after the Bible Conference, and that the message which the participants in that Conference wanted to share with the church membership never was transmitted.
Following, we present the transcribed record of the meetings of the Bible Conference of 1919 on July 30 and Aug. 1, which dealt especially with the Spirit of Prophecy. The discussions were open and frank, but reflect great sensitivity. There were other meetings in which this subject was discussed, but the meetings here reported were the longest and most comprehensive. In them, a number of individuals participated who had worked personally with Ellen White for many years. Because of their great historical significance, the transcripts are published complete and unedited, so that the participants of the two meetings may speak for themselves.Links to the 1919 Bible Conference, in the Spectrum Archives:
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1627