So, What Shall We Do With the Prophet?
by Dan Appel
by Dan Appel, October 26, 2014
Whatever one thinks of the prophet and her inspiration or lack of it, one cannot deny that the founding mother of our church has had a very significant place in the thinking and acting of our church for well over 100 years.
Whether borrowed or original, compiled or ghost-written, the body of her written and spoken material is phenomenal by any standard. She was, it is increasingly acknowledged by scholars, one of the most significant women of her time. Her admonition, encouragement, prognostication and guidance have been translated into most of the languages on earth and can be largely credited with the church that she founded, along with her husband and a few others, becoming one of the fastest growing denominations on the planet.
Revered by millions of Seventh-day Adventists and others as a prophet, her wide-ranging impact on both the church and the world for over a century cannot be denied. But, much as we would like to pretend otherwise, those glory days are largely over. It would be a safe bet to say that Ellen White’s prediction, stated multiple times in various venues, that Satan’s last great work would be to make of none effect the “Testimonies,” has come true. It is very probable that at least 80% of Seventh-day Adventists have not read a whole book by the one they claim to believe spoke for God in the last 10 years. The figure would probably be closer to 90% in the last 5 years. Ellen White, for all practical purposes. has become a symbol or a figurehead, someone we will quote and defend and express loyalty and appreciation for, but who, in a real and measurable way, if anyone dared to plumb it, is irrelevant to most in the Adventist Church.
While the majority of Seventh-day Adventists would probably still defend her as a true prophet, in a practical sense she has very little impact on the daily lives of most Adventists. If they read anything at all that she wrote, it most often consists of brief snippets of her spoken or written work. These proliferate everywhere, abstracted and printed in magazine articles, compilations, whole chapters that are printed in church-sponsored journals, or screeds that are sent out by various groups promoting and trying to promulgate their particular point of view or agenda.
At the outset, I would like to say that in my opinion, Ellen White was a prophet in the same sense that any of the Biblical prophets such as Daniel, Moses or the disciple John were prophets. Anything I write will be purposed towards restoring her intended place in our church.
In the next two or three essays, I would like to consider some of the reasons why this may have happened and the implications for us as Adventists; at least some ideas of what we can do to change it; and if, indeed, we should attempt to do so.
The decline and practical demise of Ellen White’s influence can be mostly traced to the misuse and abuse of her written and spoken material by the church she founded and by the people through the years who have used her material for their own ends! While many on the most conservative side of our church would chalk the current state of affairs up to creeping compromise or a lack of spirituality in those who profess to be God’s last day people on earth, I would contend that the greater cause of her decline would be the aforementioned misuse and abuse of what she wrote by some of her most ardent supporters.
The first step we must take in divining the future of Ellen White’s influence is to consider the amazing volume of biographical and written material that is available to us today that is not available for any of the Bible writers – largely due to the advances in printing and other forms of media in the last 200 years. Because of the plethora of material available, we are forced to consider something that has not been an issue since the Old and New Testament churches had to decide how much of Daniel’s or Moses’ or John’s material was inspired.
Daniel or John either produced very little, when considering the span of their lives, or we have a distillation of their writings that the church considered inspired. From a life span of over 80 years, we have just 12 chapters of material to examine and try to understand and apply from the life of Daniel, one of the greatest prophets in history – at least half of which is biographical and historical, the rest being just five visions he had over a life-span of approximately 75 years.
The statistical percentages for John are approximately the same when you consider the whole body of material we have from his pen. The lion’s share is either pastoral or apologetics, while his vision(s) on Patmos comprise a fairly small percentage of his output.
As for Moses, assuming that he wrote all five books of the Pentateuch and Job, we still have a very small output of material from a very long life.
In Ellen White we have just the opposite problem – we have such a nimiety of material it is overwhelming and we are left with the daunting task, which must have entailed considerable work and contention in the church in the cases of Moses and Daniel and John, of deciding what is “inspired” and what is not.
The corpus of the Ellen White material we have is comprised of at least nine different types of spoken, written and the mundane comprising millions of words from an 88-year ministry life-span. They are as follows:
- Material where she explicitly states in one form or another, “God showed me” – generally in visions or as direct communication from an angel. Some of this visionary output is very literal and some is symbolic. One of the challenges we face as we work to develop a hermeneutic which we can apply to her work is to determine which is symbolic and which should be considered literal. This can be further broken down into several sub-categories. No one knows for certain how many visions Ellen White had – not because a pretty good approximation could not be created, but because no one has ever attempted to tally them.
- The first category would be material clearly intended for the Adventist Church or, before it was founded, for the group who would become the Adventist Church.
- Material focused on the “church universal.”
- Material focused on specific people, groups or situations.
- Material clearly focused on “the world” at large.
- Another type of material is based on her best research – Ellen White had a very large and extensive library for her day and was an active researcher, often assisted by a small cadre of personal assistants and researchers who combed her previous material and that written by other Christian and secular authors which they incorporated in new written and spoken material. In addition, it is apparent that she read widely and voraciously. When she decided something was of value, she never hesitated to share it as truth worth following. Some authors she relied on, subsequent research has shown, were not altogether accurate – even though their material ended up in books such as The Great Controversy and Child Guidance. A couple of examples might help:
- Ellen White, based on her research, became convinced that masturbation was one of earth’s greatest evils. She credited “secret vice” as being responsible for most insanity and disease – including but not limited to imbecility, dwarfed form, crippled limbs, misshapen heads and all other deformities, hereditary insanity, lung and liver problems, neuralgia, rheumatism, spinal problems, cancerous humors and diseased kidneys. These, she believed they brought on themselves by their secret habits. In short, masturbation would ruin life and health on earth and preclude a future existence in heaven – since, in her view, there was not one girl or boy out of a hundred who was pure-minded and whose morals were untainted, and their parents were not much better.
- Ellen White opined on a number of occasions on the make-up of the 144,000. In fact, it could be fairly stated that she was all over the map on the subject.
- To summarize, in her early works Ellen White described the 144,000 as those who went through the “Great Disappointment” and remained faithful and were sealed at that time for eternity. Later she expands this group to include those still alive or who had died at one time or another and were judged to be faithful. In one place she says that she along with the (rest of) the 144,000 would see heaven. In other places she counsels followers of God to pray that they can be in the 144,000 at the time when Jesus returns the second time to earth. And, in The Great Controversy she pictures them as those who come through the Great Tribulation and are alive when Jesus returns and who are the only ones who are allowed into the temple in heaven. She even paints them in heaven during the time of trouble, writing that she “heard the voice of God which shook the heavens and earth, and gave the 144,000 the day and hour of Jesus' coming” which is followed by Jesus’ return to earth. The most amazing statement is found in Selected Messages, Book 3, p. 51, where she states that "I have no light on the subject [as to just who would constitute the 144,000]. . . ." In other words, everything she had said previously was just her opinion – which had changed over time.
- A third example would be her reliance on the work of Uriah Smith, whose Daniel and the Revelation has had to be revised several times in order to maintain any credibility, and the work of other accepted historians of her day whose work has been discredited in some of the areas she used.
- The next type of material could be described as “My best advice is . . . ,” which can also be broken down into at least 4 categories:
- Her opinion – the opinion of even very godly people, even prophets, is just that. When they opine, it may or may not be accurate; it is just opinion.
- One cannot deny that Ellen White was affected by her Methodist Holiness upbringing – something she herself alludes to at times. Her upbringing and experiences affected her opinions – such as her early openness to and participation in “signs and wonders,” a view which changed as she was influenced by James White’s Christian Connection views, which were considerably more staid and “high church” and intellectual.
- Another form her opinion took is found in what might be called “It is accepted that” statements. When there was no immediate reason to doubt it, Ellen White often seems to have just accepted the prevailing attitudes and opinions on various Biblical subjects and often referred to these casually.
- An example would be her occasional references to the age of the Creation. At least 30 times, Ellen White mentions the earth, the Creation, etc., as being 6,000 years old. It is obvious to any impartial observer that she accepted the conservative Christian view of her day that Bishop James Ussher’s chronology was accurate and mentions it in passing as she worked to make other points – always as a casual reference. In all cases her point was something else – the effects of sin, etc. Not once does she ever state that God or the angel or any other heavenly being told or showed or revealed to her that was the case.
- A final type of opinion is found in the reams of letters filled with the advice of a godly woman of faith and a leader in her church to all manner of people in all kinds of situations and places. As was the custom of her day, far removed from the days of telephones and smart-phones, she wrote copious correspondence which was faithfully copied and catalogued by her assistants.
- A fourth type of material from Ellen White might be classified under “My best recollection is . . .” Across the board, current neuroscience and psychological research show that all memory is selective, biased by our perspective and increasingly inaccurate the further we are from the event. Even godly, inspired people’s memories are increasingly inaccurate the further they are from an occurrence. Five minutes after an accident, people start remembering details differently and the longer it has been, the more we fill in the gaps with our own ideas. The books Life Sketches and Early Writings would be examples of this kind of material in written form.
- Next we have all of the mundane material which has been able to be collected due to our proximity to the time of the prophet and our current penchant to collect even the most meaningless material from a person’s life. We have an embarrassing supply of things such as shopping lists, friendly letters, etc. While these can be informative because they reveal some of her routines late in life (such as her shopping list requesting that oysters be purchased for her when she was in Elmshaven), most people would not give them the same degree of importance as, say, her visionary material.
- An area that research continues to revealing more is the degree to which her assistants either assisted her in preparing her material or prepared it for her final approval with varying degrees of oversight and direction and involvement. Examples of this material would be the Conflict of the Ages series and the Testimonies.
- Related to this (#6) are those areas where someone collated or compiled the material. This automatically reflects the bias of the compiler and may result in skewing the material to fit the preconceptions or agendas of the compiler. Examples would be: Adventist Home, Child Guidance, The Truth About Angels, Counsels on Diet and Foods, Sons and Daughters of God, Selected Messages, and Mind, Character, and Personality.
- A rather humorous example would be “Things I Thought I Heard Ellen White Say.” This area is larger than one might initially assume because “urban legends” – both in and out of the Church – about Ellen White and what she supposedly said have always proliferated. One only has to sit in certain Sabbath School classes to hear all kinds of things the prophet supposedly said that cannot be documented. A few are mentioned at the back of Volume 3 of the Ellen G. White Indexes published before the CD ROMS were available. The list is representative but by no means exhaustive.
- Finally, there is material we have no idea what to do with. This naturally occurs in some of the above areas, but deserves special note. Examples would be her absolute affirmation early in her ministry of the “Shut Door” doctrine that contended that the door of salvation was closed for anyone who had not come through the “Great Disappointment” unscathed – a view she based on what God had revealed to her and which she later changed 180 degrees.
- Then there is her statement that the angel had told her that some in her day would be alive when Jesus came back while others would be “food for worms.” Another was her vision in 1881 where James, after his death, assures her that he will continue to be with her in her ministry and her comfort in that fact.
At this point, the question of inspiration, when it comes to her inspiration, becomes more than just an academic exercise and turns intensely personal. Often, fearing a spiritual shipwreck, we take the ostrich approach and avoid the question altogether. But pretending the submerged rocks are not a hazard in the long run is a recipe for spiritual disaster – because sooner or later we will have to face them. Better to do it intentionally when you can think clearly rather than in a time of crisis. We are in the situation we find ourselves in today when it comes to Ellen White because we have intentionally avoided or papered over the hard questions in the past. We have obfuscated and stone-walled and danced around the dilemma of her inspiration in ways that are coming back to haunt us and our church and Ellen White today.
So, take a moment and ask yourself the tough question:
Imagine the different types of material from the voice and pen of Ellen White, what we have outlined above, arranged on a continuum. Where would you draw the line between what is “inspired” and what is not, and why? What are the criterion you use to assess what is inspired, or what is not? How would you explain your position to your children, to the students in an academy Bible class? to a fellow church member? to someone who at the moment has no confidence at all in the written material from Ellen White? to a neighbor who heard about her place in our church on the internet and who wants to know your opinion on the matter?
Now that we begin to have a handle on Ellen White’s lifetime of material, in our next essay(s) we will examine three basic questions: How much of this material is “inspired? how do I decide “what is inspired and what is not”? and how should it then impact my life, my witness, and the life of my church?