By Ronald D. Graybill | 22 February 2019 |
Katy was curious. As Archivist for the Pacific Union College library, while sorting through oddly shaped documents in a map drawer, she came across a handwritten letter. Someone had scrawled the name “E. G. White” upside down at the top of the letter, but the handwriting of the letter itself was much smaller and much different. Could it possibly be a long-lost handwritten letter by Ellen G. White herself?
Katharine Van Arsdale, that Librarian and Archivist, set about finding out. She consulted with James Wibberding, associate professor of applied theology and biblical studies. They scanned the document and sent it off to James’ friend, Michael Campbell, now a professor at Southwestern Adventist University, who had experience with transcribing Ellen White’s “holographs” (handwritten documents). Yes, he said, it certainly appears to be in Ellen White’s own handwriting. More experts were consulted, especially Tim Poirier, Vice-Director of the Ellen G. White Estate, a man with nearly 40 years of experience deciphering Ellen White’s “chirography” (penmanship). He agreed that the letter was authentic, even though it didn’t bear her signature. (Possibly a final page was missing.)
When I was included in a number of others asked if the letter was genuine, I readily concurred. I am even now completing a book on the textual history of Ellen White’s writings, and have had occasion to transcribe hundreds of pages of her handwriting.
So there it was: a genuine and previously unrecognized Ellen White handwritten letter. It was written on the front and back of an odd-sized sheet, 13 inches tall but only 5¾ inches wide. It was neither the size of modern legal paper nor the “foolscap” sheet of Ellen White’s day. The paper may have been some excess cut from a larger printing sheet in the publishing house and given to the ever-frugal Ellen White to use.
The letter was written to J. O. Corliss, a minister and friend of Ellen White’s. She penned it May 9, 1882, from the Southern California camp meeting in Hanford, California. The date was very close to an important date in Pacific Union College history: the school was founded in Healdsburg less than a month earlier, on April 11, 1882, and Ellen White settled into a home near the campus.
Hanford is a town in California’s San Joaquin Valley between Bakersfield and Fresno, a little west of Visalia. Although the farming community had only about 400 residents in 1882, it boasted a station on the Southern Pacific Railroad, thus allowing access for believers all over Southern California. The Hanford camp meeting was at first planned for a grove south of town. The trees in that grove proved too close together to pitch the family tents, so an open space on the west side of town was used.
Ellen White opened her letter to Corliss noting with pleasure the “intelligent words of experience” expressed in the public testimony meetings. This, she said, showed that the Lord was working upon the hearts of the people. The people were impressed, she said, by her own “straight forward powerful testimony.” She didn’t even complain about the annoying dust storm that plagued two days of the meeting.
The letter was typical of Mrs. White’s handwritten documents of the time. Corliss himself would later explain that “grammatical or rhetorical finish are lost sight of in the desire to bring out at once the thoughts that crowd upon her mind with overwhelming power.” So she gives little attention to punctuation, and her spelling is often phonetic. For instance she wrote of: “practicle godliness,” “the sacrid gift,” and “thir hearts.” She often spells “they” without the “e,” perhaps her shorthand way of rapid writing.
As for grammar, while in most of her writing she often uses the wrong tense of the verb “to be,” in this particular letter she actually corrected herself. At first she wrote, “I tell you there are licentiousness in our ranks.” But then she crossed out “are” and inserted the proper word, “is.”
As she warmed to her spiritual subjects on the second page of the letter, her writing became smaller and the lines more closely spaced. She is very much concerned about some church leaders who “are indifferent to the word of God through clay,” meaning her own writings. “If they treat them with disrespect how much easier will this . . . disrespect be accepted” by church members?
During this period Mrs. White often referred to her writings as God speaking “through clay,” that is, through a human instrument. But who was the leader she had in mind? At first historians wondered if it might be D. M. Canright. He was already having the doubts that would drive him from the church later in the decade. But a closer look at church troubles in 1881 and 1882 proved Ellen White had the attitudes of Review and Herald editor Uriah Smith in mind when she wrote this letter.
Battle Creek College was in deep trouble at this time. Many feared it was straying far from the Adventist ideals in education. A new convert, Dr. Alexander McLaren, had been made president, and a more secular, classical curriculum was introduced. Religion classes were optional, although the students attended chapel programs. Soon all of Battle Creek was awash with conflict and rumors as these new measures were debated, defended, or condemned.
Uriah Smith’s children were students in the college and liked the new direction. So Smith defended McLaren. Mrs. White sent him and the church a stern letter of rebuke and correction, asking Smith to read it at the upcoming Michigan camp meeting. Smith refused. He later explained that he had always believed that Mrs. White’s inspired statements were based on visions, and since she claimed no vision for the counsel, he felt it was just her opinion.
The letter wasn’t read publicly until the next General Conference, and then wasn’t heard by many Battle Creek residents because G. I. Butler had moved the General Conference session to Rome, New York, to avoid the swirling controversies of Battle Creek.
It is true that Mrs. White’s last public vision had occurred back in 1875, so now she realized she needed to clarify that her prophetic gift involved more than public visions:
“I understood Brother Smith took the position that my letter to the church was not a testimony, only a letter, and thus he has made efforts to make it appear [as such], and it falls helpless to the ground because Brother Smith has pronounced against it.”—Letter 29, 1882.
And she wrote later, “You might say that it was only a letter. Yes, it was a letter, but prompted by the Spirit of God, to bring before your minds things that had been shown me.” –Letter 206, 1906.
A turning point in Adventist education had been reached. The trend toward classical, secular education in Battle Creek was halted. In fact, Battle Creek College was closed for a year. Meanwhile, Healdsburg College and what became Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster were founded just at this time. Both of these were committed to the educational ideals Ellen White advocated. Specifically, they would have regular classes in Bible study, not just chapel programs, and they would provide opportunity for physical exercise.
Ronald Graybill’s early scholarship earned him an invitation to the Ellen G. White Estate to assist Arthur L. White in writing a six-volume biography of his grandmother. During his 13 years at the White Estate, Ron completed his doctorate in American Religious History at Johns Hopkins University, then taught for a decade at La Sierra University. He spent another decade preparing annual community health reports for Loma Linda University Medical Center and leading grassroots community health projects.