Wrestling With the Angel at Bull Run: The Story of Adventist History

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Spectrum print journal (volume 50, issue 2). 

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11917

I deeply appreciate this factual article. I am in full agreement with the author.

Yes, based on my own research I would say that she was :100: dependent on Milton and Merle, and to some extent on Hastings.


It’s strange in light of Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) that a historian would think that history can be differentiated from metahistory. All history is metahistory, as White so clearly demonstrates. Thucydides did not believe in the gods, so he chose a mode of representation that reflects his naturalistic point of view. That’s fine, but his chosen mode of representation does not make his history more objective or rigorous than Ellen White’s history.

It’s not strange, I suppose, but still completely wrong to suggest that history cannot incorporate the supernatural. History is not a natural science and is not committed to methodological naturalism as the natural sciences are. Instead, as indicated by Dilthey, history and the other human sciences are governed not by the scientific method but by hermeneutics. I’m reminded of Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Platinga’s hermeneutical error in his attack on methodological naturalism (in connection with Creation/evolution issues) in which he invokes the legitimate need of a Christian psychologist to incorporate non-naturalistic faith ideas in therapy. This attack by Platinga, who is not a hermeneutist, fails because he confuses and conflates the human sciences, such as psychology, with the natural sciences. Should the human science of theology also dispense with the supernatural? No. Contra the Jesus Seminar, the attempt to differentiate the biblical Jesus from the historical Jesus is hermeneutical error. Yes, human sciences have on occasion tried to behave like natural sciences (speaking of history, see the absurd “The Function of General Laws in History” by Carl G. Hempel), and there is a body of literature (that I think is dubious) that tries to incorporate hermeneutics into the natural sciences, and Gadamer moves hermeneutics from methodology to ontology, but Dilthey continues to persuade.

I think this essay is so highly informative, rich in insights, and important that I hesitate to offer this limited critique. We need more Seventh-day Adventist thinking at the high level this essay offers. History is a subsidiary discipline of hermeneutics and philosophy of history is history’s hermeneutical expression. Seventh-day Adventism is experiencing a dawn of hermeneutical consciousness and this book review and the book itself offer some hope that this dawn, which has lasted for over 170 years, might progress into the light of day.

Does this mean all accounts of the past and their interpretations are equal? Don’t natural and social scientists first make sure they obtain verifiable evidence before interpreting the same? I did some searching regarding Hayden White and here;s one direct reply to him I found in a book by a professional historian.

This is from p. ix of the Preface of Hayden White’s book Metahistory:

“In this theory I treat the historical work as what it most manifestly is: a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse. Histories (and philosophies of history as well) combine a certain amount of “data,” theoretical concepts for “explaining” these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation as an icon of sets of events presumed to have occurred in times past. In addition, I maintain, they contain a deep structural content which is generally poetic, and specifically linguistic, in nature, and which serves as the precritically accepted paradigm of what a distinctively “historical” explanation should be. This paradigm functions as the “metahistorical” element in all historical works that are more comprehensive in scope than the monograph or archival report.”

On page xi-xii, he draws seven conclusions as follows:

“(1) there can be no “proper history” which is not at the same time “philosophy of history”; (2) the possible modes of historiography are the same as the possible modes of speculative philosophy of history; (3) these modes, in turn, are in reality formalizations of poetic insights that analytically precede them and that sanction the particular theories used to give historical accounts the aspect of an “explanation”; (4) there are no apodictically certain theoretical grounds on which one can legitimately claim an authority for any one of the modes over the others as being more “realistic”; (5) as a consequence of this, we are indentured to a choice among contending interpretative strategies in any effort to reflect on history-in-general; (6) as a corollary of this, the best grounds for choosing one perspective on history rather than another are ultimately aesthetic or moral rather than epistemological; and, finally, (7) the demand for the scientization of history represents only the statement of a preference for a specific modality of historical conceptualization, the grounds of which are either moral or aesthetic, but the epistemological justification of which still remains to be established.”

In a nutshell, the problem is that you can have a terminal degree in history and not know what history actually is. (It’s also true that you can present yourself as a specialist in biblical law, as many SDA theologians do, and not know what law actually is). Compounding this problem is the reality that SDAs in general do not possess what the hermeneutics literature refers to as historical consciousness. Joselito, it’s an uphill climb and Mount Everest is a tall mountain, but if you proceed one step at a time in your study, you will achieve some satisfactory measure of success.

When Prophetess of Health was about to come out, the New England Chapter of the Adventist Forum planned a meeting in which to discuss the book. They had asked several people to give a reply to the argument of the book, but not one was willing to do it, including people from the White Estate in Takoma Park. So, finding no one employed by the denomination willing to give an assessment of the book, the organizers of the Forum asked me. The administration of Atlantic Union College would not let the Forum use one of their facilities for the meeting. So, the meeting took place in the auditorium of the local High School. I accepted the invitation and got a pre-publication copy of the book in order to prepare my response. It was a big surprise to see that, when the White Estate realized that the Forum meeting on Numbers book was going to take place, they asked Ron Graybill to travel from Maryland to AUC to give back a report of the meeting. My reaction to the book was rather simple. I said, It is high time for Ellen White to be seen as a member of the human family.


In reference to the understanding of historical methodology as scientific, I consider Paul Tillich’s book “The Dynamics of Faith” as most helpful. In it, he differentiates the truth of science and the truth of history, which are built on different foundations, from the truth of faith.


I’m listening and willing to learn. Just trying my best to comprehend what you’re actually saying. Native speakers of English, I was told, are prone to say one thing though they mean something else.

In my mind, metahistory is what plot is to a good story. A theoretical construct. In a clinical setting, it may be referred to as an “initial impression” or working diagnosis. That said, I’m curious: Would you admit as valid historical evidence, depending on some particular metahistory of your choice, the presence of an angel at the Battle of Bull Run that significantly impacted its outcome?

The angel at the Battle of Bull Run is valid historical evidence. But most historians in their appropriate cherry-picking of facts would not mention the angel, because they are conveying a viewpoint that is different (and much more limited in scope) than the viewpoint conveyed by Ellen White. Keep in mind that Ellen White’s historical writing is an ambitious reflection on the entire sweep of time from before Lucifer’s fall to the New Earth. She treats this entire sweep of time as a text that can be interpreted. Gadamer held, contra the great historian Leopold von Ranke, that history is not a text, because pages are continually written as time goes on and we can’t interpret something that keeps changing and enlarging upon itself from minute to minute. (The hermeneutical circle under these circumstances does not exist). But Ellen White was able to do this, because she had knowledge of the future. She knew what all of the extra pages of the text would say before they were ever written.

As per the great historian Droysen, there are three kinds of historical data: remains, sources, and monuments. But for the Christian historian, there is also data from the future. History and eschatology are one and the same. An effective Christian historian studies the future as much as he or she studies the past. I could say more about this, but I think you get the point.

I am puzzled. Are you suggesting that the Angel at Bull Run is “valid” historical evidence in the same sense that, say, an N. T. Wright would argue using generally acceptable historical methodology that the bodily resurrection of Jesus “happened” and was seen (and therefore recorded in oral tradition or writing)? If only EG White and a few others say it happened, or that they saw it happen in a “vision,” is that not different than the claims to hear, see and even touch the literal body of the resurrected Lord? Help me understand whether you think they are identical, similar or different?


BTW: Clear, comprehensive and invaluably thoughtful. About the best “Butler” a church possesses!

Yes, the angel at the Battle of Bull Run is valid historical evidence–but only valid historical evidence that Ellen White believed she had seen a vision of it, not valid historical evidence that it actually occurred. My M.A. in history achieved in 1975 from Andrews University may be covered in dust, but I still know what constitutes valid historical evidence. I much appreciate the work of Jonathan Butler, Ronald Numbers, and Donald McAdams.


Knowledge of the future? This I believe ceased with the prophets of the Bible, as all that we ever needed for salvation has been revealed by them.
This future knowledge and extra information, she got from other writers before her. This is no secret.
She passed off all this as inspired by God!


What I have written is that supernatural data can be regarded as valid historical evidence. But I have not opined about the strength of this evidence offered by Ellen White for an angel at Bull Run. And I do not opine whether that evidence is stronger or weaker than the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

I don’t do apologetics for various reasons I don’t care to discuss right now. But I found an interesting article written in Adventist Review by Jud Lake, professor of religion at Southern Adventist University. He offers this quote from Confederate Colonel William W. Blackford, who relates in his journal what he saw as he stood atop Chinn Ridge:

“But now the most extraordinary spectacle I have ever witnessed took place. I had been gazing at the numerous well-formed lines as they moved forward to the attack, some fifteen or twenty thousand strong in full view [the actual number of Union troops on the field was much less, around 12,000], and for some reason [I] had turned my head in another direction for a moment, when someone exclaimed, pointing to the battlefield, ‘Look! Look!’ I looked, and what a change had taken place in an instant. Where those ‘well dressed,’ well-defined lines, with clear spaces between, had been steadily pressing forward, the whole field was a confused swarm of men, like bees, running away as fast as their legs could carry them, with all order and organization abandoned. In a moment more the whole valley was filled with them as far as the eye could reach.” ​God’s Hand in History | Adventist Review.

During your time at Andrews University, was there ever any mention of Luke? It is hard to imagine that you were taught that the supernatural data in his historical writings do not constitute valid historical evidence.

Thank you, Spectrum, for publishing Jonathan Butler’s article on the website, too, so as to make it possible for us to respond and say thank you to the author. Let me admit that I struggle to find the right words–all superlatives rarely used–for such an amazing article. It is informative, winsome, irenic, constructive, honest, painful, extremely well written, and deserving of an all-day follow-up that should include many of the people mentioned in the review. I hope to read Gabriel Masfa’s book soon, as well; it will be on my to-do list.

The article convinces me that there is still work to do to explain the the church and to people like me the constraints that apply to writing history as a historian and to accept its value unstintingly. Many of the Adventists pioneering academic historiography are known to me: Ronald Numbers was on leave from Loma Linda when I came there to study medicine, but he never returned. I heard Don McAdams as a student at Andrews; I had Gary Land as a most beloved history teacher there; I went to Walter Rea’s house to witness first-hand his strident exposé. And, not to be left out, I read Jonathan Butler’s essay in Spectrum more than forty years ago, entitled, “The World of Ellen White and the End of the World.” I thought of that essay as I do of this one that both are extremely well written.

And then the skeletons in the closet: that Everett Dick’s work was suppressed by F. D. Nichol, that Arthur White did not tell the truth about Ellen White and phrenology to Ronald Numbers, that C. Mervyn Maxwell tried to get Butler fired, that Don McAdams’ work was accepted only to be attacked and suppressed by the mercurial and unkind ways of Gerhard Hasel. And more: that those who showed support for a more truthful and nuanced version of history felt it necessary to go on tours of penance, that SDA-historians were at risk of losing their jobs and some did. And that talent and dedication were repudiated and squandered because they did not echo established convictions.

The last exchange between God, Job, and Job’s friends came to mind as I reached the end of the article. Job’s friends had good intentions; they meant to defend God, come what may, and they felt that Job put piety at risk (“If you have your way, Job, no one will pray to God any more.”) Then God speaks, surprising everyone in the story and most of us reading it today (a surprise that will be even greater if we take Edward Greenstein’s new translation into consideration). But God commends Job, as the honest observer, the fact-based historian, the person who does not allow conventions of piety to stand in the way of telling the truth. “He has said of me what is right,” God says.

So, perhaps, as I see it, with the many whose careers were affected and their efforts unappreciated, seeking to be faithful historians in the world, in the church, and for the church. I imagine God’s commendation to Job to be for them, too.


This is a veritable oxymoron in that the supernatural is not falsifiable and thus cannot be considered factual or data.

Further, if you’re seriously suggesting, based on one of EGW’s ubiquitous dreams, that the outcome of the battles near Manassas were the direct result of divine intervention, I suggest that you not be surprised when no scholarly historian feels compelled to rewrite his well-researched account of those events due to either your claim or Mrs. White’s.

BTW, it seems every SDA should be interested in EGW’s other pronouncements, supposedly from god, in regards to Mr. Lincoln’s War as detailed by Canfield who, as a 20 year old convert was personally very deeply invested in the question:

Predictions About the Civil War

The Civil War of 1861-65 placed Seventh-day Adventists in a trying position. They could not engage in war and keep the Sabbath. The draft threatened them. Now, what? I was one of them, twenty years old - the right age to go to war. So I remember it all distinctly.

Something had to be done. We hoped Mrs. White would have a revelation. And she did have - several of them, covering thirty pages of printed matter in Volume I. Of “Testimonies for the Church.” At the time, we read these revelations with great anxiety, hoping for light ahead. We were disappointed. They simply told just what everybody already knew, reflecting the sentiments of those opposed to the Government and the war.

It was a forced attempt to say something when she had nothing to tell. Read in the light of today, it is seen to be mere guess work, mostly wrong. She says, “It was necessary that something be said” (“Testimonies,” Vol. I., p. 356). It was all directed to us, a little handful of about ten thousand, half women, none of any influence in the Government or in the war. Bible prophets went directly to the king and told him how to conduct the war, and what the end would be. Our prophet had no such message. She says: “Jan. 4, 1862, I was shown some things in regard to our nation” (p. 253). It is all a bitter denunciation of Lincoln’s administration and his management of the war. Every move had been wrong, and only defeat was prophesied. But the verdict of history is that Lincoln was one of the wisest and most successful men who ever led a nation through a crisis. The whole world honors him. With the most tremendous odds against him on the start, he conducted the war to a glorious victory, preserved the union, freed the slaves, and benefited even the South. During the dark hours of that awful struggle, how he needed the encouragement of a prophet of God, if there was one, as Mrs. White claimed to be. But her whole message was one of opposition, faultfinding, condemnation, and a prophecy of defeat and final failure - exactly that of the opponents of Lincoln and his management of the war. Listen to her:

"The rebellion was handled so carefully, so slowly, that many. . . joined the Southern Confederacy who would not, had prompt and thorough measures been carried out by our Government at an early period. . . How little has been gained! Thousands have been induced to enlist with the understanding that this war was to exterminate slavery; but now that they are fixed, they find that they have been deceived; that the object of this war is not to abolish slavery, but to preserve it as it is." “The war is not to do away with slavery, but merely to preserve the Union” (pp. 254, 258).

This was only a few months after the war began. Like her, some unwise hot-heads urged Lincoln to immediately declare slavery abolished. General Fremont had to be removed from his command because he began that very thing in the West. It was premature. The general sentiment of the nation was not ready for it. Lincoln only waited and watched for the proper time. Then it was a success. Now all see the wisdom of his course.

Mrs. White goes on: “They [the soldiers] inquire, ‘If we succeed in quelling the rebellion, what has been gained?’ They can only answer discouragingly, ‘Nothing’” (p. 255). Fine language to encourage Mr. Lincoln, the soldiers and the North in the dark hour of their need!

She continues: “The system of slavery, which has ruined our nation, is left to live and stir up another rebellion” (same page). A plain, false prophecy. No such thing happened, as all now know.

Again: “The prospects before our nation are discouraging” (same page). Yes, as far as humans could see. But she claimed to have divine revelations of the future. Had her claim been true, she would have seen the victory at the end, disproving her words.

Hear her again in the same gloomy tone: “As this war was shown to me, it looked like the most singular and uncertain that has ever occurred. . . It seems impossible to have the war conducted successfully” (p. 256). Yes, to her it was uncertain, impossible to succeed. But was that all God knew about? All he could tell her? Remember, she is writing by God’s inspiration; writing the words he tells her! Everything she writes, whether in a private letter or newspaper article, she says, is inspired. Thus: “God was speaking through clay. . . In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper, expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision - the precious rays of light shining from the throne” (“Testimonies,” Vol. V., p. 67). There you have it, Simon-pure - every word she writes is a ray of light from the throne of God! So, to God it was an uncertain war, impossible to succeed! So the Lord must have been greatly surprised when it did really succeed!

Mr. Lincoln, in his need, asked the prayers of all Christians, and appointed days of fasting and prayer. Of these Mrs. White said: “I saw that these national fasts were an insult to Jehovah. . . A national fast is proclaimed! Oh, what an insult to Jehovah!” (“Testimonies,” Vol. I., p. 257). That was the way she sympathized with Mr. Lincoln and the nation in the hour of need.

A day before the awful battle of Gettysburg, on which the destiny of the nation would turn, Mr. Lincoln spent the night in agonizing prayer to almighty God. So his biographer testifies. But neither Mrs. White nor any of her followers offered a single prayer for him or the nation. I was with her - and with them - and know. During the entire twenty-eight years I was an Adventist I never offered one prayer for the President, for Congress, for a Governor, or any one in authority. I never heard Mrs. White, Elder White, or any one of them, do it. I have often attended their large meetings since then, but never heard a prayer offered for any Government official. Yet one of the plainest commands of the gospel is that we should pray for kings, rulers and all in authority (1 Tim. 2:1, 2). Since Mrs. White died, Adventists have begun to pray for Government officials.

Again Mrs. White said: “This nation will yet be humbled into the dust. . . When England does declare war, all nations will have an interest of their own to serve, and there will be general war” (p. 259). For awhile this is what seemed probable, and what was feared; but it never came. Here, again, her prophecy was a complete failure. Our nation was not humbled into the dust. England did not declare war. All along it is clear that Mrs. White simply saw things just as circumstances at the time seemed to indicate, and wrote as those around her talked. If it had been true, as she claimed, that she was not writing any of this out of her own mind, but was simply recording what God told her, would he have told her that way? Did not the Lord know that England would not declare war? Surely. If her predictions were not reliable then, they are not now. If she was not God’s prophet then, she never was at any time.

Here is another blunder: “Had our nation remained united, it would have had strength; but divided, it must fall” (p. 260). No such thing happened. It was not divided, nor did it fall. Did not the Lord know better than that? Yes. But she did not.

Mrs. White interpreted the Civil War as a sign of the end of the world, just as Adventists have been interpreting the European war. She says: “The scenes of earth’s history are fast closing” (p. 260). Under the heading, “The Rebellion,” she says: “The one all-important inquiry which should now engross the mind of every one is, Am I prepared for the day of God? Time will last a little longer” (p. 363).

Since then a generation has gone. Mrs. White, Elder White, and nearly all who then preached and heard that warning, are laid away. They needed no such warning, for they did not live to see that day, as she then predicted. Failure, failure, failure is marked by ineradicable letters against all her predictions.

Notice now how she forbade her followers taking any part in sustaining the Government in the struggle to save the Union and free the slaves. “I was shown [that is, the Lord showed her] that God’s people, who are his peculiar treasure, can not engage in this perplexing war, for it is opposed to every principle of their faith” (p. 361). Hence not a single Seventh-day Adventist took any part in the effort to save the Union and free the slaves - not so much as to go as nurses. Had all the people done that way, the nation would have been divided, and slavery would be with us now.

During those dark days of the Civil War, Mrs. White privately warned our married people not to have any more children. Time was so short, and the seven last plagues were so soon to fall, that children born then would be liable to perish. But children born since then are now grandparents!

The horrors of the great Civil War, she, in her vivid imagination, interpreted as proof that the end of the world was right at hand, as already stated. In the same manner she interpreted the great war and revolution in Europe in 1848. It will be remembered that in that year there was quite a general war in Europe, in which several nations were engaged. In January, 1849, Elder Bates published a pamphlet entitled “Seal of the Living God.” He interpreted that was as the beginning of Daniel’s time of trouble (Dan. 12:1), and as fulfilling Rev. 11:18: “The nations were angry, and they wrath is come.” On page 48 of his pamphlet he says: “The time of trouble, such as never was (Dan. 12:1), has begun.” In proof of this he names several of the powers at war, thus: “Prussia, Hanover, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, Venice, Lombardy, Tuscany, Rome, Austria,” etc. On page 15 he says: “And now the trouble has begun, what is our duty?” On pages 24 and 26 he relates how, while he and others were discussing this question, Mrs. White had a vision in which she saw the same thing! She said: “The time of trouble has commenced, it is begun. The trouble will never end until the earth is rid of the wicked.”

Elder Bates then says: “The above was copied word for word as she spoke in vision, therefore it is unadulterated.”

Notice here, again, how she is influenced by Bates to see in vision just what he was arguing in her presence. Both were wrong.

Aug. 3, 1861, Mrs. White had a vision in which she was shown the Civil War, then just fairly begun. She says:

"I was shown the inhabitants of earth in the utmost confusion. War, bloodshed, privation, want, famine and pestilence were abroad in the land" (“Testimonies,” Vol. I., p. 268)

This was exactly what all faultfinders at that date predicted - famine and pestilence. But nothing of this kind happened. There was no famine, no pestilence. Her predictions utterly failed. Where, then, did she get that “vision”? not from God, surely, but from the ideas of those around her, the same as she got all her “visions.” The event proved this.


Bruce, your research here is astounding. Well -researched and very convincing. Thank you.

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