Was Ellen White an Infallible Theologian?
by Richard W. Coffen | 6 August 2022 |
One day during the 1980s I visited my friend Robert W. Olson in the White Estate office at the General Conference Headquarters. During our conversation, he confided that because of the evidence in the vault, he’d had to adjust his understanding of Ellen White’s authority. He had concluded that she had made errors regarding history, biology, geology, astronomy, etc.
Then, using the adversative “but,” Bob concluded, “I don’t believe she made any theological errors.”
My assessment has gone one step beyond Bob’s. It appears to me the evidence indicates that Ellen White did publish some theological mistakes—perhaps not many, but some.
In a letter written on Christmas Eve 1857, Ellen White told “My Dear Children” to “love God and you will have his approving smile”. Three months later (March 2, 1858) she wrote to “My Dear Henry and Edson.” “God . . . cannot love those [children] who are dishonest” (An Appeal to Youth, p. 36, 62)
What about son Willie? She wrote: “Be good all day, and the Lord will love you” (Ibid., pp. 47,48). And on March 14, 1860, when he was about 5½ years old, she told “Dear Little Willie” that “the Lord loves those little children who try to do right, . . . but wicked children God does not love. . . . Remember the Lord sees you, and will not love you if you do wrong. . . . When you do wrong, he puts a black mark against you” (Ibid. p. 49).
If such sentiments are not theologically problematic, then I don’t know what might be! What sort of picture was she embedding in her sons’ minds?
That this appeared in personal letters doesn’t let her off the hook. In 1864, these letters were reprinted in an 80-page book, the aforementioned An Appeal to Youth which remains available from the White Estate.
Sometime during the intervening three-and-a-half decades, Ellen White got her theology correct. In Signs of the Times, February 15, 1892, she admonished:
Do not teach your children that God does not love them when they do wrong. . . . Do not terrify your children by telling them of the wrath of God, but rather seek to impress them with His unspeakable love and goodness.
Years ago, in a private conversation with retired NAD president Charles E. Bradford, the topic of White’s authority came up. What Brad said surprised me. On the one hand, he acknowledged that she did much to encourage the education of African-American slaves. But on the other hand, what she wrote about the origin of Blacks has kept contemporary African-American Seventh-day Adventists from being entirely comfortable with her.
In Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 3, pages 64 and 75, Ellen White talks about the dire effects of the “amalgamation of man and beast.” This sounds, taken at face value, as though some of Noah’s descendants had mated with primates—and many at that time understood it that way. However, in 1868, Uriah Smith published a defense of White’s assertion: The Visions of Mrs. E. G. White, A Manifestation of Spiritual Gifts According to the Scriptures (pp.102-105).
Smith claimed to clearly understand what she had meant. Smith insisted that White had not intended to teach that Blacks were subhuman. She did mean, however, argued Smith, that she accepted what many scientists of her day believed: that some dark-skinned peoples originated after the Noachian Flood when certain unnamed postdiluvians had engaged in coitus with apes. The results were “the wild Bushmen of Africa, some tribes of the Hottentots, and perhaps the Digger Indians of our own country.” Smith continued: “Naturalists affirm that the line of demarkation [sic] between the human and animal races is lost in confusion.”
White’s contemporaries all understood the words “amalgamation of man and beast” as some naturalists did. She had carefully chosen her words.
F.D. Nichol in Ellen G. White and Her Critics, (pp. 306-322) later wrote an apologetic defending this statement by insisting that what she really meant was the “amalgamation of man and of beast”—not that man mixed with beast, but that beasts were bred with other beasts unlike them (which is still not possible even today in most cases) and that men bred with other humans of other races (which, from a racist point of view, is only marginally better than the original.)
But Nichol’s was an attempt to modernize her real theology. Who would know better what she meant—her contemporary Smith, who wrote just four years after her statements, or Nichol, who claimed to know what she should have written more than 80 years afterward?
The two oars
One summer during the 1950s, I spent hours rowing a boat along the waterfront along a shore in Maine, where the Hayward family vacationed. At first, the boat went in circles. It took many attempts before I was able to maneuver the boat in a relatively straight line. After a couple of weeks thus exercising, my skinny frame began to show small bicep bulges.
One of Ellen White’s favorite metaphors for the Christian life, repeated in various publications, was that of a rowboat. In 1875, she wrote:
No man can remain converted unless he watches unto prayer, keeps his soul firmly united to Christ, . . . forcing his passage heavenward against the current of sinful indulgences, rowing against wind and tide, using both oars—faith and works (Ms. 2, 1875, par. 11; Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 2, p. 1.4865).
Fourteen years later, and merely two months after the 1888 General Conference, during which Jones and Waggoner emphasized the preeminence of faith, she repeated the metaphor. “Faith and works are the two oars with which we are to make our way in the Christian life” (Gospel Health, January 1, 1889, par. 1).
Then about a decade later she modified the metaphor, equating both oars with faith. “Take the [oars] of faith and row for your life” (Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 13 (1898), p. 1.2203; Lt. 120a, 1898, par. 6).
Soon, however, she reverted to the older phraseology. “Faith and works are two oars which we must use equally [emphasis supplied] if we press our way up the stream against the current of unbelief” (Review and Herald, 1901, par. 9). Four more years elapsed before she penned that “faith and works are the two oars with which we are to make our way in the Christian life” (Australasian Union Conference Record, October 15, 1905, par.1).
Many would say that this theological metaphor clashed with the doctrine portrayed in Paul’s epistles. His letters began with theology, doctrine which emphasized the primacy of faith. Lifestyle—works—came at the end of his epistles.
Paul made works subsequent to and not equal with faith. Christian theology has, since the first century, differentiated between the significance of faith and works. Faith comes first; behavior follows. They are not coequal.
If you haven’t viewed the 1990 movie Home Alone, starring Macaulay Culkin, you’re likely in the minority. (In the opening week, Home Alone grossed $17,000,000.) It’s about a child whose family inadvertently left him home alone when they went on vacation overseas. The film portrays the hilarious plight of an 8-year-old all alone in a bustling city.
Fortunately, Home Alone was just a movie—not a real-life experience. A large proportion of the movie’s popularity is probably attributable to our primal fear of abandonment. Think of the many little children lost in department or grocery stores! Feeling alone can be terrifying.
Ellen White’s scenario of the end of time has plagued numerous Seventh-day Adventists! She wrote:
Those who are living upon the earth, when the intercession of Christ shall cease in the sanctuary above, are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a Mediator. (Great Controversy, p. 425).
That sentence, just one out of the several thousand in that book, has sent chills up and down the spines of even mature men and women. It speaks directly to our primal paranoia of being “home alone” on Planet Earth, without the mediatorial work of Jesus.
White apparently had focused on a single prooftext.
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still (Revelation 22:11).
From this verse, she appears to have deduced that immediately prior to the Parousia, Jesus would have left his people “home alone.”
However, there are at least three strikes against this understanding.
First, the passage in Revelation doesn’t specifically address Jesus’ mediation, continued or discontinued. Instead, it refers to the character developed by earthlings.
The evildoer must continue to do evil, and the one who is morally filthy must continue to be filthy. The one who is righteous must continue to act righteously, and the one who is holy must continue to be holy” (Revelation 22:11, NET).
In short, we reap what we’ve sown. Character remains just as we’ve developed it, regardless of circumstances.
Second, Scripture assures us that Jesus our Mediator “always lives [Greek: pantote] to intercede” (Hebrews 7:25, NET). No need for paranoia on our part! Jesus continues his role not only as long as we live but also as long as he lives! That puts no time limit on our Lord’s work for us. No need, therefore, to be fearful about being “home alone.”
Third, the passage occurs in the very last chapter of Revelation, after all of the end-time events are assumed to be concluded and the saints are safely on the new earth. It cannot be with integrity be made to comment on something that happens near their beginning.
As insightful as White’s voluminous writings have been, even as an inspired writer, she sometimes missed the mark. As she said of herself, only God is infallible (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 37). “In regard to infallibility,” she wrote in a letter to her nephew, “I never claimed it.”
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association. He writes from Green Valley, Arizona.