Denis Fortin: Lessons from the 1919 Bible Conference
2 June 2021 |
[Ellen White] had written numerous books and articles on biblical history, biblical themes, and biblical and Christian history. How were her writings to be used in matters of biblical and historical facts? Were her inspired writings the needed sword to cut the Gordian knots of their difficult challenges? Many teachers and evangelists used her writings to settle points of historical accuracy and biblical interpretation. In this, their position was similar to the Mormons who viewed the writings of their prophet as superseding the Bible. Their view of inspiration gave a hierarchical authority to Ellen White’s writings. The Adventist position, supported by Ellen White, that there is no degree of inspiration between canonical and non-canonical prophets — a prophet is either inspired by the Holy Spirit or he is not — favored a predisposition toward the inerrancy and infallibility of all inspired writings.
But there were some attendees in the room at this Bible Conference who knew better than to ascribe inerrancy and infallibility to Ellen White’s writings. The problem, though, with this opinion is that if one were to say Ellen White’s writings are not infallible or inerrant, what does this imply for the Bible? Holding the view that there is no degree of inspiration between canonical and non-canonical prophets inherently posed this unavoidable comparison and consequent conclusion. If one is not inerrant or infallible then neither is the other. As evangelical fundamentalism sought to organize a resistance to inroads made by modern critical biblical scholarship, for Seventh-day Adventists to challenge the inerrancy and infallibility of Ellen White’s writings was tantamount to siding with modern critical methodologies. Thus, almost inevitably, Seventh-day Adventist teachers and evangelists had no other moral and religious choice than to ally themselves with the evangelical fundamentalist perspective. What else could they do?
But how honest would this position be?
Daniells and Prescott knew a lot more than they were willing to share. But what they shared with the attendees was earth-shattering and unnerving for those who already leaned toward fundamentalism. And as the Bible Conference proceeded and discussed some of these issues, rumors and insider revelations of the discussions were leaked to church members and leaders. An atmosphere of suspicion was obvious, which also created a hesitation to share more.
Daniells and Prescott had seen first-hand how Ellen White’s books were prepared and they could not espouse their inerrancy and infallibility. The education of church members about Ellen White’s writings, or lack of education, more accurately, was a major point of concern. Many of the facts about her inspiration, how her writings were prepared, and their purpose had not been clearly and honestly presented to church members. This in turn had led to a faulty view of their inspiration and the purpose of her writings.
On July 30, 1919, attendees held a special session to discuss with A. G. Daniells the use of Ellen White’s writings in the teaching of Bible and history. Daniells began the conversation with the attendees by stating, “First of all, I want to reiterate what I stated in the talk I gave some evenings ago on this subject, that I do not want to say one word that will destroy confidence in this gift [of prophecy; i.e., Ellen White’s writings] to this people. I do not want to create doubts. I do not want to in any way depreciate the value of the writings of the spirit of prophecy.”2
But some things needed to be said about Ellen White’s writings, and the facts about their composition should demonstrate that her writings were not inerrant and infallible, nor were they intended to be the last word on matters of biblical interpretation, history, science and health. Yet, Daniells was well aware that for some church members learning about this information could lead to a loss of faith and he knew he could then be branded as an unbeliever in Ellen White’s ministry. He took the risk nonetheless and discussed how some books of Ellen White had been prepared to illustrate that she was not inerrant or infallible, and that her books were not to be the last word in matters of interpretation or history.
First, take her book Sketches from the Life of Paul, published in 1883. Soon after its publication the book had been criticized for its heavy dependence on Conybeare and Howson’s The Life and Epistles of the Apostle Paul (1855). Entire chapters of her book followed the same sequence of events or commentaries as given by Conybeare and Howson. Many paragraphs and sentences were almost identical. The level of dependency was a shock to many readers. Of course, Ellen White had not intended to deceive anyone — she had recommended Conybeare and Howson’s book “as a book of great merit, and one of rare usefulness to the earnest student of the New Testament history.”3 But there had been rumors of a lawsuit for plagiarism. For Daniells this book and how it had been prepared demonstrated to him that Ellen White’s inspiration was not a verbal inspiration but rather an inspiration at the level of unique guidance of what to select from another author to use as a spiritual commentary on biblical stories of the life of Paul. Conybeare and Howson’s book was a work of careful scholarship — but not Ellen White’s book and it should not be taken as one, unless people were willing to claim indirectly that Conybeare and Howson’s writings were somehow inspired as well.4
The preparation of The Great Controversy had also raised the same questions. After visiting Europe from 1885 to 1887, Ellen White had decided to revise Spirit of Prophecy, volume 4 (published in 1884), and make it a stand-alone book. The book came out in 1888 with a few extra chapters and many other chapters revised and/or expanded. By 1909, the printing plates for the 1888 edition were worn out and needed to be redone. Ellen White decided to revise the book again and asked a few pastors to search for new quotes from known historians to replace the ones found in the 1888 edition. She wished to insert quotes that could be more easily found to support her historical and interpretational claims. In the introduction to the 1911 edition, she explained this process and the purpose for these historical quotes and her dependence on them. Prescott was the colleague who provided her with the most revisions to historical quotes and recommendations to edit offensive wording (if the book were to be offered to the non-Adventist public). At first, he explained, he had not wanted to do this research for her because he could not understand how his assistance could be incorporated into a book that claimed to be inspired. If Ellen White did not do all the work in the preparation of a book, including the selections from other authors, how could this book be considered “inspired”?
Prescott explained to the attendees at the Bible Conference that he had talked this over with W. C. White and said to him, “Here is my difficulty. I have gone over this and suggested changes that ought to be made in order to correct statements. These changes have been accepted. My personal difficulty will be to retain faith on those things that I can not [sic] deal with on that basis.” Prescott then commented to the attendees, “But I did not throw up the spirit of prophecy, and have not yet; but I have had to adjust my view of things.”5
As I see it, a major part of Prescott’s concerns and difficulties had to do with the inspiration of a book that had been put together by people other than Ellen White. For Prescott, Ellen White was certainly not verbally inspired. But his work on the last edition of The Great Controversy also challenged his understanding of thought inspiration. How could it even be “thought inspiration” when Ellen White’s thoughts in a book did not come from God but from books she selected materials from, and from an assistant who provided her with quotes from other books? If Adventists have rejected degrees of inspiration are there then levels of inspiration? And consequently, what is the purpose of the writings of a prophet who evidently has a level of inspiration that is even less comprehensive than thought inspiration?
Denis Fortin is professor of historical theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and a teaching pastor at One Place Fellowship on the campus of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Phil Muthersbaugh is a pastor, youth worker, and mental health counselor, now retired in the Walla Walla area.
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