What Shall We Do With Ellen White?

(Spectrumbot) #1

“Very simply—I want honesty.”—Søren Kierkegaard If the person who is forgiven much can love much, as Jesus said, such a person can also face self-deception and begin to overcome it. The virtues grow in the soil of grace. What is true for the individual, moreover, is true for the community: grace can burn away our sins. And now, with the new flowering of Ellen White scholarship, it is high time—again—for honesty about the church’s prophet. What Kierkegaard said in his criticism of the church in Denmark, each of us must also say.

In October, the editors of the Adventist Review published, in the monthly edition called Adventist World, an important sermon that declared the “Spirit of Prophecy”—Ellen White’s prophetic ministry—to be “absolutely reliable.” This phrase is admirable for its clarity and does produce, as good prose will, a shock of recognition. But what we recognize is that the claim the phrase expresses is not true. Given all we’ve learned since the 1970s, it comes across as sheer denial, even as willful disregard of truth. And you cannot read "Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet," the recently-published Oxford University Press volume edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, the late Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, without realizing all of this anew.

This book was written mainly by persons with links to Adventism. Nineteen of the 22 contributors are Adventist by current practice or background. More than half have given their lives to the church and its mission. The 18 essays and illuminating foreword peek into corners of Ellen White’s life not yet fully explored and constitute an undoubtable challenge to the convention that grants her, as one contributor puts it, “a status very close to fundamentalist inerrancy.” You can’t think this challenge comes to nothing without willing to look away.

These scholars describe a woman who was, especially by the standards of her day, truly remarkable. Ellen White was insightful and visionary; confident, ready to stand up to men, gutsy in the face of controversy; tenacious and effective as a leader. She was and is our prophet, and the book gives us great reason to admire her. But Ellen White was also flawed. She said things there were wrong; used passages from other writers (including the historical errors) as if they were her own; fell short of sufficient humility and openness about her own finitude and brokenness.

Some were aware of these things even while she was alive, and vigorous debate concerning Ellen White’s authority followed her death in 1915. The winners, as we all know, were the ones who ascribed to her a kind of “fundamentalist inerrancy.” Their influence, moreover, kept the transcript of the 1919 Bible Conference, where key conversations took place, hidden from general view. So most of today’s older Adventists grew up not realizing there was any doubt about what had come to be Ellen White orthodoxy. But the transcript from that conference eventually became public; and even before that, scholars began to review her life and work using the standards of contemporary historiography. Now everyone who reads with an honest heart knows that the old orthodoxy fails. Although Ellen Harmon White underscores the substantial reasons to appreciate its subject, the book also reinforces the perception we now have that she was a fully earthen vessel, deficient and incomplete.

But disagreements about all this—disagreements amounting to communal brokenness—will doubtless persist. Paradigm shifts are like dream monsters, scary and beyond our control. What shall we do?

Part of the difficulty is that the church came to have an unhealthy dependence on Ellen White’s advice. In a paper presented last summer to a conference at Friedensau Adventist University on Adventists and World War I, Gilbert Valentine, a professor at La Sierra University, described the frustration church leaders felt when Ellen White could not help settle questions related to the demands of the military. Eighty-six years old at the outbreak of World War I, she was too weak to come to the table, and confronting life without a functioning prophet was bewildering. For many, the prospect of life without an infallible prophet is alike bewildering. Whatever we do, then, we must do with studied pastoral sensitivity.

A good first step would be to cut the overstatement. Traits attributable to God alone should not be attributed to Ellen White or anyone else. And not only must we stop using phrases that mislead, we must explain why. Ellen White herself said that “God and heaven alone are infallible” (Selected Messages, 1:37). And from the greater light of Scripture we learn the same: “God is in heaven” and we “upon earth” (Ecclesiastes 5:2); God’s “ways” and “thoughts” are “higher” than ours (Isaiah 55:8, 9); here and now we “know only in part, and we prophesy only in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9, 10). I don’t know what could be clearer, except that it’s still not clear to conventional Adventism. From the press and the pulpit, these passages should be repeated again and again—not to discourage us but make us truthful as well as passionate in faith.

Another step would be to grant, again repeatedly, the brokenness of many of the great heroes of our faith. David, the beloved composer of many Psalms, was at one point a murderous adulterer. Jonah ran away from responsibility, and after a second response to the divine calling, pouted over an outcome he did not expect or want. Or consider these examples from later than biblical times: Martin Luther heaped venom on the Jews and supported violence against his Christian enemies; Martin Luther King cheated on his wife and plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation. Most of us admire these people and quote them without reluctance. We’re troubled, to be sure, but we adjust to the reality that those who speak for God fall short.

Still another step would be to tell the good stories and quote the best quotes with open, grateful hearts. No one should roar into the Michigan camp meeting bent on sledgehammer iconoclasm. Such a thing would do needless harm and be itself dishonest. Ellen White was a smart, persuasive, and farsighted leader. She stood tall when women were deemed undeserving of the vote, let alone leadership in society and church. As the key shaper of our heritage she offers wisdom we need to hear. We can no longer listen uncritically, but we can still listen, and we should. Her guts, for one thing, could inspire us to show some guts. Biff Loman, the elder son in Death of a Salesman, bursts out angrily, “We haven’t told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” The Loman house was dysfunctional, and dysfunction threatens ours. We cannot fool our way—or lie our way—into faithfulness and flourishing. We have to tell the truth.

Dan Jackson, the North American Division president, ended a sermon at the Division’s 2014 year-end meetings by saying emphatically: “I love the Seventh-day Adventist movement. It. Will. Not. Fail.” But it will fail—unless we tell the truth. He and his fellow leaders, and all those, like you and me, whose sway is some smaller corner of the church’s life, have an ever-more urgent responsibility, and it is this:

We. Must. Tell. The. Truth.

Charles Scriven is board chair of Spectrum and the Association of Adventist Forums. This editorial first appeared in the current issue, Volume 42, Issue 4, of Spectrum Magazine.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6544

A Primer on the Three Angels of Revelation 14
(Aage Rendalen) #2

In the winter of 1978-79, I gave Leona Running a copy of the then unpublished 1919 Bible Conference. I was working at the copy office at AU. She had no idea what it was, but next day she came back, full of emotion, to thank me and she went on to pour out her immense frustration about the unnecessary misery and suffering the suppression of that document had caused. “Just imagine if we had known this years ago,” she said.

To some people, these revelations complicated life immensely, but for others it answered so many of the questions that had tormented them and the church. Truth in scholarship at first is a shockingly cold shower. It’s understandable why many recoil from it in horror. Eventually, though, the truth does set you free.

(Kevin Paulson) #3

I speak as one who experienced the loss of his entire immediate family from the church, on account of the Fordian gospel of the late 1970s and early '80s as well as the Walter Rea attack on Ellen White’s credibility.

My family didn’t realize it, but in the years that followed their exit from Adventism, I went about my own search for the facts, examining carefully the charges against our distinctive teachings in general and Ellen White in particular. I needed to know, for myself, whether or not I had been taught a cluster of fables, as my parents were insisting. I read articles in Spectrum, Rea’s The White Lie, and numerous other screeds against our theology and our prophet. As a result, there are likely few if any allegations against our faith and against Ellen White with which, through the years, I have not become intimately familiar.

Most recently I prepared a lengthy series of responses to Graeme Bradford’s books Prophets Are Human, People Are Human: Look What They Did to Ellen White, and More Than a Prophet. The author of these books, in nearly every case, accepts the accusations against Ellen White’s authority and accuracy as if they lie on the level of Newtonian physics.

But in my own investigation, I have consistently found the allegations against Ellen White and her authority to be either based on false or inconclusive evidence (e.g. alleged contradictions in her theology, such as the shut door saga), or irrelevant to the argument being made (as in the case of the plagiarism charge or peripheral discrepancies in her historical narratives). In truth, the more I have studied and analyzed the charges against Ellen White’s prophetic gift and writings, the more persuaded I have become that the true “myth-makers” so far as Ellen White is concerned are her critics, not her apologists.

Like every prophet in the sacred past, Ellen White has her detractors. Prophets have never been popular. And most of Ellen White’s critics across the decades have, like opponents of prophets in ancient times, given considerable evidence that their real objection to Ellen White’s authority is breathtakingly simple, needing little scholarly acumen to ascertain—the age-old resistance of the human majority to having one’s spiritual toes stepped on.

Certainly the latter was true of A.G. Daniels and W.W. Prescott, who at times chafed under the counsel of the prophet—Daniels in particular. Taking their 1919 Bible Conference grievances against Ellen White as seriously as many liberal Adventists do would be comparable to someone trying to produce a “non-apologetic” biography of Elijah after having unearthed a copy of Ahab’s or Jezebel’s memoirs in the ruins of ancient Samaria.

Character flaws, even moral shortcomings, such as those noted in this editorial in the lives of Biblical prophets, are beside the point. The issue is the reliability of a prophet’s inspired testimony. David did not defend his adultery in his inspired writings, nor did Jonah write under divine inspiration in defense of his attempted flight to Tarshish. And so far as Martin Luther and Martin Luther King are concerned, neither claimed the inspiration or authority of a Biblical prophet, so their misguided views or wrongful deeds are another diversion from the core issue of prophetic trustworthiness which this editorial raises.

I fully agree with Chuck that genuine truth-telling is needed in this conversation. That means we place under scrutiny all of the charges against Ellen White and ask if they truly measure up to the evidence certain ones have long taken for granted. We need to inquire, at long last, whether or not liberal Adventist “whistle-blowers” truly have the credibility of a Daniel Ellsberg or a John Dean, or whether—like a host of other conspiracists of many persuasions—their alleged “facts” just don’t add up.

Most of all, we have to realize this is truly an “all or nothing” dilemma, something intellectuals despise so thoroughly. Ellen White herself gives us no choice. To claim on the one hand that she is a true prophet of God, while simultaneously claiming she taught unscriptural error or lied about her direct connection with God, runs counter to her own insistence that none of her writings contain her own opinions or suppositions. Statements such as those in 3SM 68-70 do not allow such flexibility. Nor does her declaration that “there is one straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence in that which I have written” (3SM 52).

I would not dare to utter such statements about my own teachings or writings. Anyone making statements like the above is either divinely-inspired, deluded by Satan, or mentally unstable. No middle-ground understanding of such declarations is possible. It is like those who have rightly insisted that when one considers the claims of Christ, He is either “Lord, liar, or lunatic.” In light of Ellen White’s claims about herself, she is either inspired and fully authoritative, deceived, or delusional.

As with the ordination controversy, there is no “third option” possible.

(Loren Seibold) #4

What an admirably succinct way to express it! It didn’t occur to me until you said it this way that that’s what we’ve often done: made Ellen White as infallible as God.

(Marcelo) #5

Kevin, I’m very interested in reading your rebuttal to Graeme’s books. I found his book “More than a Prophet” very insightful and honest, despite the myriad of grammatical and editorial errors.

“Messenger of the Lord” on the other hand, fails to treat the accusations so seriously as to completely dismiss some of her most “interesting” statements entirely.

For example, who was lying during the Dammon trial, the police officer or Ellen Harmon, who said that God was holding Dammon to the ground, versus the police who said it was a few women?

There are a lot of other issues that I did not find satisfactory answers to as of yet.

The bible also talks in no uncertain terms about the wicked being tormented day and night for ever and ever. We choose to interpret those words in light of the context of the entire bible, why shouldn’t we treat White’s words with the same care, rather than fundamentally believing any statement as absolutely authoritative without interpreting it in the light of her life, age and cultural context?

(Kevin Paulson) #6

Marcelo, I thank you for writing. If you communicate with me privately, I will happily share with you my review of Bradford’s book Prophets Are Human. As to my review of his other books, I am having trouble finding that version of the original copy which contains all 836 references. The website where this review was hanging for so long is presently under reconstruction.

But the first book review will give you an initial look at my analysis of Bradford’s work. Hopefully I can get the other copy into your hands once I lay hands on it. I will await your private e-mail at kevindpaulson@gmail.com

Regarding the Israel Dammon trial, I’ll take the word of a prophet over a police officer any day. Prophets speak for God; police officers—as recent events in our land have again made manifest—are not by any means immune to error.

Let me also say there is a major difference between letting the Biblical consensus explain the language of problem passages like the one about eternal torment of the wicked (Rev. 20:10), and interpreting the Bible in the light of its cultural and historical context, which is definitional higher criticism. Like the Bible, Ellen White’s writings explain themselves: “The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture” (1SM 42). Scholarly awareness of culture and history are not needed to understand inspired writings. Inspiration explains itself.

(Brad(Luna)) #7

It seems a bit strange that EGW is the only person post NT to be recognized as a prophet. Although I suppose this is a result of perfectionism and very narrow ideas of what makes a prophet a prophet.

(Marcelo) #8

I hope you don’t take any prophet word’s over other people words at face value… it ALWAYS bears investigation.

“And he said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke
to me by the word of the LORD, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into
your house that he may eat bread and drink water.’” But he lied to him.” 1 Kings 13:18

(Kevin Paulson) #9

Who says Ellen White is the only post-New Testament prophet? I’ve never heard anyone make that claim.

(Kevin Paulson) #10

Marcelo, that false prophet to whom you refer in I Kings 13 is an easy case. The prophet that cursed Jeroboam’s altar should have known not to accept that pretender’s word, for the simplest of reasons—what the false prophet said explicitly contradicted God’s Word to the true prophet. Nothing complicated there in the least.

(Brad(Luna)) #11

Can you point to any post NT prophets that the SDA church recognizes or you recognize?

(Marcelo) #12

How do you define that the old prophet was wrong? After all he was old and possibly more experienced. Remember, we have the benefit of understanding he’s lying, but not the younger prophet. He basically said, “Well, God said it, I believe it, that’s all there’s to it”. Since both testimonies contradicted, what was the younger prophet to do, if not go back to the Lord and investigate the matter further?

Let’s say any prophet gets confronted with error, are they to presume they know the voice of God so absolutely well that they should not investigate? It was wise for the younger prophet to do so and it is wise for us to do the same, for we cannot know whether EGW was a true prophet from her claims alone.

(Carolyn Parsons) #13

I have an example of being critical in a constructive way in looking at EGW writings.


The poor say, when health reform is presented to them, “What shall we eat? We can not afford to buy the nut foods.” As I preach the gospel to the poor, I am instructed to tell them to eat that food which is most nourishing. I can not say to them, “You must not eat eggs or milk or cream. You must use no butter in the preparation of food.” The gospel must be preached to the poor, and the time has not yet come to prescribe the strictest diet.

Great advice. There was and still continues to be a problem of getting nutritious food to those living in poverty. Milk, butter and eggs are excellent sources of complete protein, essential fatty acids, fat soluble vitamins and major minerals such as calcium and phosphorus.

But this, not such good advice:

You should be teaching your children. You should be instructing them how to shun the vices and corruptions of this age. Instead of this, many are studying how to get something good to eat. You place upon your tables butter, eggs, and meat, and your children partake of them. They are fed with the very things that will excite their animal passions, and then you come to meeting and ask God to bless and save your children.

Don’t come crying to me if you feed your kids milk and butter and they masturbate. You should have known better.

(Marcelo) #14

Also, you fail to realize that the bible never called the old prophet a false prophet, for he actually prophesied the young man’s death and that came straight from the Lord at the dinner table to the old prophet.

So again, the old prophet was not a false prophet, even though he lied to the younger prophet.

When you put this evidence against the “accusations” made by people (who I think most of the time merely point out facts), she could very well be a prophet but either be misguided, or flat out lying. After all, the point of the bible is to say that even prophets err and are human.

(Kevin Paulson) #15

Anyone claiming to be a prophet who contradicts God’s Word to another prophet, can be assumed to be a false prophet. The Biblical measure for prophets is consistency with prior revelation (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11).

(Kevin Paulson) #16

Fascinating, Carolyn, how those who so often urge that we consider the context of inspired statements, fail to do so themselves. Why do you see inconsistency in the counsels you cite? Some people have access to better food than others. That is all Ellen White is saying. You should be lauding Ellen White for balance, instead of damning her for non-existent contradiction.

(Carolyn Parsons) #17

The “excite their animal passions” is the important difference. This is merely a belief of the time that eating rich food would lead children to masturbate. I know that this isn’t true so I am critical of this statement That’s all.

(Bille) #18

Thank you Marcelo for calling positive attention to Graeme Bradford’s book, More than a Prophet. It sounds as though you must have gotten one of the first printing which, through a misunderstanding between the author and the publisher as to who would provide the final edit, came out without being edited at all. That was orrected for both the second printing and the on-line edition. See and read it at http://sdanet.org/atissue/books/bradford/

(k_Lutz) #19

Kevin Paulson wrote: [quote] “Lord, liar, or lunatic.” In light of Ellen White’s claims about herself, she is either inspired and fully authoritative, deceived, or delusional.
… there is no “third option” possible. [/quote]

Intriguing conundrum! We are present with three alternatives on both Jesus and Aunt Ellen and then told there is no “third option” possible.

Trust God.

(Bille) #20

Those interested in additional information on the 1919 Bible Conference, as well as the debates among church leaders after Ellen White’s death in 1915, may find several helpful items listed on the SDAnet At Issue main page.

These include not only the actual transcripts of the significant 1919 meetings, but a fairly lengthy introduction to Michael Campbell’s recent doctoral dissertation, completed at the SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University, entitled The 1919 Bible Conference and Its Significance for Seventh-day Adventist History and Theology. There are also articles by Bert Haloviak, Arthur Patrick, and Gilbert Valentine that shed additional light on the issues introduced in Scriven’s editorial.

Select these from those listed at http://sdanet.org/atissue/ .