By Alden Thompson | 9 March 2021 |
Anyone familiar with Steve Daily’s previous writings on Ellen White, would likely be unprepared for the vivid language of Ellen White: A Psychobiography. Daily admits that he has always been captivated by Ellen White’s writings and experience. His MA thesis in history for Loma Linda University (How Readest Thou, May 1982) and his MDiv. thesis for Claremont School of Theology (The Irony of Adventism, 1985) both focused on Ellen White and were well received.
But a check of key words and phrases via the Kindle version of Ellen White: A Psychobiography reveals that this book is full-blown exit literature. Here is the tally:
- fraud 49 times
- lie, lied, lying 42 times
- plagiarism 126 times
- sociopath 43 times
- manipulate 29 times
- deception 54 times
- pathology 49 times
The book doesn’t really tell us what triggered the earthquake, though there are a few clues suggesting that life-style limitations credited to Ellen White may have been a key factor. Daily admits that when he transferred from public schools to Adventist schools his love of sports was immediately cauterized.
But turning from questions of “why” to questions of “what” is a worthwhile exercise, and that is where I will focus my attention in the remainder of this review.
The dominant thesis of the book is that from beginning to end, Ellen White’s life was a self-serving fraud. A key argument in the book is his contention that the income from her voluminous writings, the result of massive plagiarism, was directly for her personal benefit. The nature of the on-line interview implied that the accusations were justified.
I want to cite two pieces of evidence that counter that accusation. One is a surprising testimonial from a quite unexpected source, namely, Walter Martin, the well-known evangelical cult expert and author of The Truth about Seventh-day Adventists (1960). While unconvinced of Ellen White’s prophetic gift, Martin offers this overall assessment: “After reading the publications of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination and almost all the writings of Ellen G. White, including her Testimonies, the writer believes that Mrs. White was truly a regenerate Christian woman who loved the Lord Jesus Christ and dedicated herself unstintingly to the task of bearing witness for Him as she felt led” (Martin 112). Against the backdrop of that overall assessment, his view of her literary borrowing is of interest: “Careful reading of the life and works of Ellen G. White convinces me that she did not intend to plagiarize for profit” (Martin 100).
The other piece of evidence becomes especially meaningful when considered in the light of James and Ellen White’s overall finances.
And in that connection, I should note that during his life, James White, more than his wife, had come under fire for “profiteering.” While he was still alive, the church launched two formal inquiries into the Whites’ personal finances, both of which resulted in published exonerations of James and Ellen.
But perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the story is what happened at James White’s funeral in 1881. Breaking all the rules of funeral etiquette, Uriah Smith, in the funeral homily itself, tackled head on the criticisms against James: “No individual has been wronged, and not a dollar has been taken unjustly from the treasury of any branch of this work; while he has himself, within the last eight years, put into the different branches of the cause, the sum of twenty thousand dollars of his own means.”
The $20,000 amount becomes even more significant in light of the fact that for nearly two years James had accepted no money at all from the Review, an observation he made in a letter to Willie and Mary White, dated Feb. 17, 1881. Based on the average figures of an annual wage of $500 then and $50,000 today, that would mean that the Whites gave to the work of the church the equivalent of $2 million dollars over an 8-year period.
In short, the Whites did not write to benefit themselves financially, but to further the work of the church.
But now, in an attempt to be constructive in this review, I want to lay out a model for understanding the harsh language that undoubtedly marked much of Ellen White’s early writings.
And here I will use my own experience as a kind of template. As a result of my personal pilgrimage I now have a model which allows me to be absolutely honest with Scripture and with Ellen White. And underlying this approach is the conviction that we should see Ellen White’s writings (and Scripture) as “illustrative,” not “absolute,” and that has rolled a great burden off my soul, for until I had worked out a general perspective on “inspiration,” I was always a bit fearful that turning the page could lead to a faith-destroying discovery.
My salvation came from discovering the movement from Old Testament (OT) to New Testament (NT) during my doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh, a move from fear to joy, from external to internal motivation, from an emphasis on God’s power to an emphasis on his goodness.
When I finished my doctoral studies, I knew that if I was going to share what I had learned with my church I would have to become more familiar with my own heritage. So I determined to read through the entire nine volumes of the Testimonies in preparation for teaching the history of Adventism for the first time – Spring, 1979. I took copious notes and finished the last page on the very day that classes began. What I had discovered in the Testimonies matched what I had discovered in the Bible. And that was exciting. And the model I was using brought everyone in the class together on common ground. The cynics on the left simply wanted to make sure that I was being honest. I had no difficulty on that point. And the devout conservatives on the right (including several SDA self-supporting types) simply wanted to see the hand of God at work. And I had no trouble affirming that. The powerful sense of community that I experienced in that class of some 80 students is what gives me courage and keeps me going.
As a devout young Adventist, I had tried to read the Testimonies on several occasions, but hadn’t gotten far. Yet I had never tried to find out why. I simply laid them aside. But with my OT/NT model in place, I was ready to roll – and soon discovered why I couldn’t read the Testimonies – the dreadful frown of Christ loomed large over the first two volumes – I could almost see the smoke curling up from the pages! But then I began to notice the movement toward God’s goodness, grace, and love. The fact that the Testimonies were published in chronological order (through vol. 5) made it easy. That approach meant that I could keep the focus on Jesus as the clearest revelation of God – while being absolutely honest with everything, including this astonishing quote from 1856:
“God will have a people separate and distinct from the world. And as soon as any have a desire to imitate the fashions of the world, that they do not immediately subdue, just so soon God ceases to acknowledge them as His children. They are the children of the world and of darkness” – Testimonies 1:137 (1856)
That grim starting point is reflected throughout Ellen White’s writings in the early years.
Note this progression in her telling the story of John the Baptist.
In 1858, “John’s life was without pleasure. . . . I was pointed down to the last days, and saw that John was to represent those who should go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah, to herald the day of wrath, and the second advent of Jesus” (Spiritual Gifts 1:29-31).
But by 1877, John the Baptist could at least taste a touch of joy at work: “John’s life, with the exception of the joy he experienced in witnessing the success of his mission, was without pleasure” (Spirit of Prophecy 2:69.
And by 1897, “John enjoyed his life of simplicity and retirement” – Youth’s Instructor, 7 Jan. 1897. As one of my students quipped, “You mean the more Ellen White enjoyed her walk with the Lord, the more John the Baptist enjoyed his!” Precisely! Our experience with God is reflected in all that we do and say.
But we’ll never come up with the truth if we simply believe that we can dip a finger anywhere in Ellen White’s writings and come up with the same result. If we want to learn how to enjoy a life of simplicity (as John did), Ellen White can be a helpful guide.
But if one becomes frustrated and angry enough to leave the community and even write a book debunking the messenger, the resulting “exit” literature can easily overdrive the evidence. For example, both in the book and in the Adventist Today on-line interview, Daily reported that Ellen White had said that “God hates children” (Kindle 2017; interview 5:47). But that’s not what she says. What she does say in a letter to young Willie is this: “The Lord loves those little children who try to do right, and He has promised that they shall be in His kingdom. But wicked children God does not love…. When you feel tempted to speak impatient and fretful, remember the Lord sees you, and will not love you if you do wrong” (An Appeal to the Youth [letter to her children, 1860], 62).
But that’s not the end of the story. Fast forward 32 years to an article in Signs of the Times. There she wrote: “Do not teach your children that God does not love them when they do wrong; teach them that He loves them so that it grieves His tender Spirit to see them in transgression”(Signs of the Times, 2/15/92). Here is strong evidence for Christian maturity. I cite a number of similar “growth” examples in my book Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White Grew from fear to joy and helped me do it too (PPPA 2005) – See especially pp. 137-150.
Such an approach assumes, however, that one can accept growth (= change) in an inspired writer. But for many devout conservatives, change would mean that the author could not be inspired. Thus, if I am arguing for change in print, I have to convince denominational editors and presses that the case is strong enough to warrant their angering of a large number of church members.
And there is also a practical problem in the teaching of unconditional love to children. A colleague once told me about his young daughter who very much wanted to do something that was “forbidden.” So she asked her mother, “Will Jesus still love me if I do. . .?” The mother paused, sensing a potential booby trap, but finally answered, “Yes, Jesus always loves us.”
“Good!” came the spritely response. “I’ll just do it and ask him to forgive me.”
But all those careful nuances can easily go missing in the face of deep-seated anger. Daily’s book deserves thoughtful reviews by qualified academics. This could turn out to be an important growth point for Adventism and help us return our focus to the fruit of the Spirit: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23, NRSV).
Alden Thompson is a Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University. His classic book Inspiration is again available on Amazon.