by Stephen Ferguson | 4 July 2023 |
In the continuing debate about whether Ellen White was a true or false prophet of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church, perhaps we have overlooked another option. Perhaps she was a true prophet of God, but like Balaam: sinful.
When I wrote an Adventist Today article on Mrs. White’s substance abuse, based on material already in the public domain published by the official White Estate, I wasn’t quite prepared for the response. Sister White’s public confession of “vinegar addiction”, which seemed a prima facie case of alcoholism, could be thought confrontational. Nevertheless, I believe it also made her appear relatable, empathetic, and gracious, showing her as a real human rather than some sort of intelligent machine.
Not all agreed. Some readers suggested I was not showing Mrs. White the deference she deserved.
What became clear to me is we Adventists still have a White addiction as strong as Ellen’s own “need of a strong cordial, but [where] there was nothing in the house but grape juice” (17MR 61.1). While I had not intended to give offense then, let me dispense with any such pretense now.
Does Ellen White deserve a pedestal?
If people think mentioning Ellen White’s vinegar addiction was upsetting, let me remind readers that other public accusations against her are legion:
- She said ridiculously false things, such as masturbation causing kidney failure and cancer (it doesn’t), or that piano tuning leads to insanity (don’t tell your church musicians or you may soon be singing a capella).
- She said things that allowed others to be misled without correction, such as implying tall people lived on the surface of Saturn (we now know the planet is made of gas), or implying certain races (most likely African-Americans) were descended from an amalgamation of humans interbred with animals.
- She used her gift and status to accumulate significant personal wealth (millions of dollars in today’s terms), demanded money for work others did for free (such as full royalties for religious books and articles), sold trinkets for profit (such as dress patterns), spent money on extravagant items (such as expensive photographs), and lived in relative luxury (including in literal mansions with a small army of servants).
- She was a hypocrite when it came to her own teachings, continuing to eat unclean meats (especially oysters), drinking alcohol (as discussed in my previous article), and wearing expensive jewelry (there is photographic evidence).
- She dishonestly passed off other people’s writings as her own, with her own editorial assistants raising serious concerns and then-Adventist leadership suspecting plagiarism.
- She weaponized her visions to destroy political opponents and bully potential rivals (William Cage, Alonzo Jones, Ellet Waggoner, Anne Rice Phillips, Fannie Bolton, John Harvey Kellogg, and even her own husband, James White).
- And in all of these instances Ellen White knew, or ought to have known (she was meant to have a gift of prophecy, after all), that what she was doing would cause a stumbling block, if not a full-blown crisis, for future followers—which of course it did.
This is not secret knowledge. These claims have already been well-canvassed by the likes of D. M. Canright, Ron L. Numbers, Steve Daily, Dirk Anderson, and others. I think it would be naïve to accept these accusations on face value, yet equal folly to reject them without an open mind.
Of course, to the extent any of these accusations are true, Ellen White was hardly a cartoon villain. Works by authors such as George Knight provide a balanced counterview.
As I attempted to explain in my previous article (the point of which many seemed to have missed), it is clear Mrs. White didn’t see herself as infallible or perfect, and did genuinely want to help people who were struggling with daily life. Moreover, regardless of debates about source materials, in books such as Steps to Christ it is clear she understood and promoted the gospel of Jesus.
The White Estate also does a fairly good job at providing some nuance and context to these claims—although it also engages in some astounding mental gymnastics. For example, when the Estate goes into great detail about the amount of zinc lost in semen, this is a sign it is time to admit Mrs. White might have shared a view which was wrong.
Am I saying Ellen White was a false prophet?
To be clear, I am not saying Ellen White was a false prophet. Quite the contrary. I do accept she had a prophetic gift, as reflected in SDA Fundamental Belief #18.
Aware of the Criterion of Embarrassment, I often put more weight on the begrudging admissions of critics. To that end, I appreciate the following statement from Steve Daily, in his excellent and well-researched book Ellen White: A Psychobiography (2020):
“They made it clear that ‘matters revealed to Mrs. White in vision were not a word for word narration of events with their lessons, but that they were generally flash-light or panoramic views of various scenes in the experiences of men, sometimes in the past and sometimes in the future’. This description of visionary experiences is certainly more in keeping with typical post-New Testament visionaries, but it was not the kind of direct revelation from God that Adventists had been taught, or led to believe, about Ellen White” (Loc. 2827).
“It is my belief that Ellen did experience some form of ‘visions’ and trances while she was in the highly emotional and charismatic community of the shouting Methodists. It is no longer this author’s view that these necessarily came from God. But when she moved into the Adventist subculture, which was generally ignorant of even suspicions of such experience, she saw her opportunity to exploit this ignorance and to make visionary claims that promoted her to a place of leadership in the movement” (Loc. 2831) (my emphasis)
As I understand his thesis, Daily believes Ellen White “may have been one of the most successful con artists in history” (Loc. 4565). Yet, even for this strongest of critics, it seems Mrs. White possibly had a genuine spiritual gift.
Personally, I feel comfortable that Mrs. White was a real prophet. As notable non-Adventist scholar Géza Vermes explains, the original biblical notion of a prophet simply means someone who has an ecstatic experience, not necessarily someone who engages in the practice of foretelling the future. (1)
Moreover, Protestant Christianity has never been particularly good at agreeing who or what a prophet is exactly. Martin Luther said in his Christmas Day sermon of 1524, “I am also a prophet”, (2) yet was cautious of direct supernatural phenomena. (3) Conversely, Methodist founder John Wesley experienced supernatural phenomena, (4) including profound dreams, (5) yet seemed cautious of claiming any prophetic office. Ellen White would meanwhile assert, “I do not claim the title of prophet or prophetess” (1SM 31).
So how can Ellen White be a prophet if she had serious moral failings?
How can I be open-minded to the many accusations against Ellen White, yet at the same time accept her prophetic gift? For me, it is important we don’t judge Mrs. White any more harshly than other prophets of history.
While the comparisons are not perfect, it seems to me Ellen White could:
- have serious mental health issues, probably including depression and anxiety, much like Elijah in his battle against King Ahab;
- could in hubris mistake God’s power for her own, like Moses striking the rock;
- could be just plain wrong, like Nathan who gave King David an erroneous message about building the Temple; and
- could be capricious, like Jonah who first ran away, and then complained his prophesy turned out to be merely a changeable warning because God did not in fact destroy the people of Nineveh.
In addition to these four models, I think there is also a fifth kind of prophethood we have perhaps overlooked as possibly applicable to Ellen White: the example of Balaam. As one commentator put it:
“Balaam was a wicked prophet in the Bible and is noteworthy because, although he was a wicked prophet, he was not a false prophet.”
As another commentary explains:
“To many Bible readers Balaam the son of Beor is an enigma. Nothing is known of him except for a brief though highly significant encounter with Israel, but that encounter reveals a disturbing and seemingly contradictory character. Is Balaam a fearless servant of the Lord, defying Balak to bless Israel? Or is he a conniving opportunist, justly slain by Phinehas’s army for collaboration with God’s enemies?”
If people remember Numbers chapters 22-24, Balaam was a non-Jewish prophet hired by the king of Moab to curse Israel. Balaam was an immoral mercenary who was willing use his spiritual gift for money. The New Testament explicitly mentions him as a warning (2 Pet. 2:15; cf. Jude 11; Rev. 2:14).
Yet despite all this, the Bible makes clear Balaam continued to have a genuine spiritual gift. This includes an encounter with an angel and a talking donkey.
Did a good Ellen make a cult, or did a bad Ellen make a Church?
For all his failings, Balaam would go on to bless Israel, prophesy under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and even predict the coming of the Messiah (Num. 24:17). He still produced good spiritual fruit, and God turned his evil intentions for good.
By analogy, the question 100 years after Ellen White’s own death is not whether she was good, bad, or (more likely) a mixture of both. The question is whether her charism was real.
I judge Mrs. White by the fruit of her impact on the Adventist movement, both in terms of its contemporary doctrinal positions according to scripture (2 Cor. 11:4) and its practical good works in the world (Matt. 7:15-20). For those who think having a contemporary prophet sounds cultish, the truth is the SDA Church today would likely be more cult-like, not less, without the ministry of Ellen White. As non-Adventist commentator Kenneth Samples explains about her role in driving the SDA Church towards more orthodox doctrinal views, such as belief in the Trinity:
“White’s writings and her advocacy for ideas widely accepted in other Christian denominations, such as a belief in the Holy Trinity, helped to remove some of the social stigma that surrounded the religion.”
As Fundamental Belief #18 also makes clear, “the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.” To the extent Mrs. White helped lead Adventism into greater scriptural truth I say, “Praise the Lord!” But to the extent she said something not sufficiently backed by scripture, I have no problem in putting her statements in a draw (if only temporarily) until confirmation from two or three others can be found (Deut. 19:15 and 2 Cor. 13:1).
The name Adventist is a reference to Jesus Christ, whom we expect to return – not any other human being. Apart from a carpenter from Galilee, Adventism is bigger than any one person. We have never been known as Whiteists in the same way as Lutherans, Calvinists, Hutterites, or Wesleyans have identified with their founders.
For these reasons, I feel comfortable defending Ellen White’s spiritual gift, even if I feel no compulsion to defend her as a person or everything she said or wrote. Even if she was a modern-day Balaam, I still thank God for sending her.
1 Vermes, Géza. 2012. Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325. London: Penguin Books, 3.
2 Brecht, Martin. 1990. Martin Luther: shaping and defining the Reformation 1521-1532. ET, 173.
3 Foller, O., 2005. Martin Luther on miracles, healing, prophecy and tongues.
4 Downing, J. 2016. Prophecy and Revivalism in the Transatlantic World 1734–1745. Prophecy and Eschatology in the Transatlantic World, 1550− 1800, 239-257; Jennings, Daniel R. 2012. The Supernatural Occurrences of John Wesley. Sean Multimedia; Rutkowski, Pawel. 2011, “John Wesley as a Dream Reader”. The Dream. Readings in English and American Literature and Culture 3. Eds. Ilona Dobosiewicz, Jacek Gutorow. Warsaw: University of Warsaw, 11.
5 The British Friend. 1863. “The Twelve Gates of Heaven”, Vol. XXI. Cited in Wesley Gospel. 2018. “No Denominations in Heaven: John Wesley’s Dream – The British Friend”.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.