Post 83, The Relevance of Ellen White’s Writings for Contemporary[1] Adventist Life, Thought, Identity and Mission

“When memories exceed dreams, the end is near” (Thomas L. Friedman).

Abstract Ellen White Studies is a subset of the emerging discipline of Adventist Studies; it seeks to understand the life and writings of Ellen Gould White (1827-1915) in terms of all the known and potential data. Ellen White’s historic contribution to Seventh-day Adventism is being better understood since about 1970 when fresh questions began to be asked by researchers with increasing access to primary sources in addition to a growing number of secondary studies. This process replaced the certitude of the 1950s with the uncertainty of the 1970s and the conflict of the 1980s, until a new consensus began to develop during the 1990s. Currently, Adventists have an attractive opportunity to explore and express the relevance that Ellen White’s writings have for their lifestyle, teachings, identity and mission in Century 21.

Richard Osborn, president of Pacific Union College, writing in Adventist Review’s last issuefor 2007, cited “one of the most discussed books of the twenty-first century” and its view of “the flattened earth” that “empowers individuals through the synergy of the personal computer, the microprocessor, the Internet, and fibre optics.” The church of the future, Osborn suggests, will be increasingly “a flat church,” one that is “less vertical, more horizontal and collaborative in relationships.” It will demand leadership that adopts effectively “the role of a servant” and models “the way Jesus related to people.” Osborn applies his message with the help of Thomas Friedman’s warning: “In societies that have more memories than dreams, too many people are spending too many days looking backward.” Hence the arresting question: “Does your society have more memories than dreams or more dreams than memories?”[2]

Osborn asks, “What can we imagine for the future?” It is about the Adventist future that he enquires with this pertinent question. Segments of our church have developed a profound interest in specific aspects of the past. Note the energetic ministry of Glad Tidings Publishers (, the devoted efforts of the Adventist Pioneer Library project (, the commitments of various “Historic Adventist” groups and the Standish brothers, the anti-Trinitarian and other impulses that effervesce in various parts of the world. The church we love is impacted by both constructive insights and recycled heresies such as Arianism and even panentheism. Far be it from any would-be Adventist historian to disparage the study of the history. But every emphasis on the past needs to be evaluated coherently in the light of all the available information.

An Altered Context

The church in Century 21 must perform this challenging evaluation within a context that has changed radically in just four decades. Until about 1970, the church’s leaders had a significant measure of control over the primary sources relating to Adventist heritage in general and the life and writings of Ellen White in particular. The major questions about Ellen White posed during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century are well illustrated by two volumes. The first of these was written by Uriah Smith and trialled as articles in the Review and Herald before being published as a book (1868) that James White distributed widely. The second—a much larger tome—was written by Francis D. Nichol (1951).[3] Remarkably, spurred by a cluster of contributing factors from 1970 onward, it took only twelve years (that is, until 1982) to undermine the credibility of Nichol’s book. A huge volume of information, dumped unceremoniously on the church’s corporate desk, demonstrated the inadequacy of Nichol’s research. The mass of essentially fresh data was acknowledged as significant by the church at its first International Prophetic Guidance Workshop (1982), but the worldwide Adventist community is still in the process of fully embracing its implications.[4] Whereas before 1970 the processes that were developing Adventist theology could rely rather much on controlled documentation, now the earth is “flat” (to use Osborn’s term), with most of the essential information available to everyone at the press of a few computer buttons. Because of this, the Adventist future will be distinctly different from even the recent past, and a call for a fresh expression of servant leadership is appropriate.

Perhaps there is a need to be quite specific in contrasting the present state of Ellen White Studies with the way things were when many older Adventists were students at Avondale College. Back in 1950 and 1951 at the Australasian Missionary College, Russell and Colin Standish were two of my fellow students. A few months ago I completed an article (“Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism,” available on the Avondale College website) that Russell Standish kindly read in draft form; he wrote to me about it on 27 February 2008, saying (in part): “I frequently pray for you that you will see that your present course has taken you far from the faith of your youth and far from the inspired words of both Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy.”

I have nothing but gratitude for the prayers of both the Standish brothers up to the time of Russell’s tragic death. But I find it instructive to meditate on “the faith of my youth” with respect to the inspired writings of both Scripture and Ellen White. Of course today’s presentation gives attention only to the “red books,” since the development of biblical hermeneutics within Adventism is a related but separate subject.

The Ellen White of the SDA church at the beginning of the third quarter of the twentieth century is Russell and Colin Standish’s Ellen White still, but not mine. She offered an absolutely constant voice in a fast changing world. She was largely uninfluenced by the wider culture of her time and even (mostly) uninfluenced by her Adventist contemporaries. Hers was the definitive word on biblical history and chronology. Her writings gave Adventists the only fully reliable harmony of the four gospels. She told us the true history of the crust of the earth in a definitive manner, including the source of volcanoes. Her health writings, unlike those of all others, needed no revision. She used very few literary sources; what sources she did use were selected under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and thus were as authoritative as the visions that she recorded—in many pages spiced with numerous “I saw” statements. The literary beauty of her writings provided compelling evidence that she received direct, Divine inspiration. Her theology was without a flaw, despite the fact that growth and change characterised the movement with which she had a symbiotic relationship. In a word, Ellen White’s writings were what the Standish brothers identify as “inerrant in the autographs.”[5]

Not one of the statements in that last paragraph is sustainable in 2009 in the manner of the 1950s. My paper entitled “The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White” (Part 2) notes five of the many potential examples of how documented evidence requires us to adjust the orthodoxy of the 1950s (see The substantive question is, therefore, a very simple one: Will we tell the truth about Ellen White or will we seek to sustain the Ellen White of The Greatest of All the Prophets (2004), albeit in some modified form. I have wrestled long with the essence of that task, ever since it was overtly assigned to me by the leadership of the South Pacific Division in a letter written during the latter half of 1979. Initially that request from the church’s headquarters created a paper entitled Ellen White in the 80s; scores of other articles and papers have followed, seeking to detail the evidence and off sustainable interpretive comment.

Truth for Today

It may be helpful, therefore, to reflect on how we might “improve our light” (Ellen White’s term) in order to maintain the essentials of the faith of yesterday as “present truth” for today. There are some fundamental “givens” that undergird the process of understanding and applying Seventh-day Adventist faith. Seven of them may be worth listing at this point.

1. Jesus as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6, NIV) is the prime focus of everything Adventist.

2. Scripture, the word of God, is truth (John 17:3) and our “only rule of faith and practice.”

3. At its core, Seventh-day Adventism is a quest to understand, apply and share the message of Scripture, “the truth as it is in Jesus.” Ellen White uses that expression 740 times (according to the index on the White Estate 2005 CD) and she does so in a variety of settings. We need to note the fact that (as is always the case) quite a number of the 740 statements are used more than once; that is, an identical statement may be repeated in more than one publication. But the import of this mass of statements is arresting indeed.

4. This truth grows in clarity as the church and individuals “walk with the Lord/In the light of His word” (“Trust and Obey” is how Hymn 590 describes the process). Rolf Pöhler has written a masterful study (the best, by far, but only the solo of our chorus) showing how that phenomenon operates in Christianity and Adventism.[6]

5. A central purpose of truth is to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15). This point is so misunderstood that we might well pause on it for a moment.

The “science of salvation” relies upon revealed truth; its focus is upon Deity (God/Christ/Holy Spirit) in relation to humanity (our origin, nature and destiny). This revealed truth is at the centre of the message that the inspired Ellen White seeks to convey to us. Non-salvific truth is also important, but it relies principally upon the capacities that God has given us whereby human beings (made in the image of God) discover the realities that they classify (for instance) as mathematics, physics, geology, astronomy and a host of other branches of science. Where saving truth and human knowledge intersect, we often need supernatural assistance to define the relationships accurately. For instance, revelation discloses to us the reality of God as Creator; the purpose of God for human well-being; the conflict between good and evil, and so on. It is in such areas that Ellen White’s prophetic role has some of its greatest importance and most direct applicability to Adventist identity and mission.

6. Biblical truth is always understood and applied in a specific context; thus it is illumined by historical experience (as in Ellen White’s expression of the Great Controversy Theme or in her writings on education, health, mission, etc.).

7. Therefore, SDAs are called to be faithful to “present truth,” a term that Ellen White employs in 1,911 of the 38,963 times she uses the word “truth” in her published writings.

More About “Present Truth”

One of the remarkable aspects of Ellen White’s literary corpus is the way it creates a balancing tension between the past and the future. Take a statement that she wrote during the turbulent 1860s, the decade in which Adventists selected their denominational name, organised conferences and their General Conference, began more fully to “hear” the message of health reform and, with the American nation, experienced the horrors of Civil War.

Greater light shines upon us than shone upon our fathers. We cannot be accepted or honored of God in rendering the same service, or doing the same works, that our fathers did. In order to be accepted and blessed of God as they were, we must imitate their faithfulness and zeal,—improve our light as they improved theirs,—and do as they would have done had they lived in our day. We must walk in the light which shines upon us, otherwise that light will become darkness. Testimonies, vol. 1, 262.

Statements such as this could be multiplied readily, especially by the inclusion of those that advocate faithfulness to the concept of “present truth.” A seminal article by a New Testament exegete suggests that “the most striking characteristic of Adventism” is its quest for truth.[7] For Ellen White, our understandings must be continually honed in terms of fresh evidence and the ongoing guidance of God as we search the Scriptures. This is a demanding process that involves both unlearning and learning. It will never be complete on this earth and it will continue throughout eternity.[8]

Ellen White in the Adventist Past

This paper assumes at least a nodding acquaintance with but a sustained interest in Adventist history. Historically, Ellen White helped us coalesce after the Great Disappointment, identify and declare the four other landmark ideas that go with the Second Advent, structure our community, affirm practical emphases on health, education and world mission, better focus on Christ (both Advents, not just the Second), and avoid tempting aberrations (like holy flesh, pantheism and even panentheism—in the notable experience of Ellet J. Waggoner).[9] Her work is greatly illumined in terms of her relation to the Bible over against the patterns within other religious movements that sprang up in nineteenth-century North America. For instance, Joseph Smith offered new scriptures; Mary Baker Eddy gave her followers a “key” to the Scriptures; Charles Taze Russell’s movement flourished under the authority of two other leaders before it developed the teaching magisterium now known as the Watchtower Society. In contrast with each of these patterns of authority, Ellen White claimed she was simply “a lesser light” to lead us to “the greater light,” the Bible. Bert Haloviak’s paper on demonstrates the peril of requiring Ellen White to exercise exegetical control over Scripture. Recently George Knight described the constant temptation for Adventists to expect this exegetical authority from Ellen White.[10] By contrast, Gilbert Valentine describes the real Ellen White as one who valued the interaction of her spiritual gift with the spiritual gifts of the Adventist community, a matter so well illustrated by Prescott’s contribution. Alden Thompson applies the evidence together fruitfully on his voluminous website.[11]

So, we can summarise the big picture along the following lines. A symbiotic relationship developed between Ellen White (1827-1915) and Sabbatarian Adventism during the first seventy years after the Great Disappointment of 22 October 1844. Several recent studies (by Michael Campbell, Mark Pearce and Gilbert Valentine) infer the creativity yet complexity of the church’s ongoing relationship with Ellen White’s literary legacy during the early decades after her death.[12] By the middle of the twentieth century it was evident that she had helped Seventh-day Adventism develop from a tiny minority of Millerism that, after 1844, was suffused by great uncertainties, into a coherent movement that exemplified great assurance. However, the optimism of Adventism’s golden age of apologetics was eroded from 1970 as scholars and members asked fresh questions about Ellen White’s life and writings, and delved into newly-available archival resources to find the answers. The resulting controversy moderated during the 1990s; indeed, by 1999 the South Pacific Division (SPD) was able to create a strategy document that moved beyond the by-then-diminishing conflict of thirty years, implying the possibility of a more cohesive future.

An example of the fresh approaches trialled during the 1990s is a Trans-Tasman Union Conference initiative that explored the appropriate use of Ellen White’s writings.[13] Within the first decade of Century 21, there have been frequent indications that the church recognises it is essential to build a fresh appreciation for the relevance of Ellen White’s writings. Sabbatarian Adventism, birthed in the nineteenth-century, has become a world faith that is acutely conscious of an enormous task: heralding “the everlasting gospel” to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (see Revelation 14:6-7, KJV).[14] Now that we are under worldwide scrutiny by both religious and secular thinkers, a coherent sense of identity is even more crucial for the realisation of this demanding mission.

The Summit and the Coordinating Committee

The issue of relevance[15] lay behind the Ellen White Summit of 2004[16] and has influenced the agenda of the Ellen G. White Coordinating Committees that convene twice each year at the headquarters of the SPD. The minutes of the most-recent meetings (held 22 July 2008 and 18 February 2009) illustrate the committee’s ongoing attention to “a major challenge” that was aptly described during 2007:

The issue of the present and ongoing relevance of Ellen White’s writings and ministry is a major challenge for the Church. It was discussed at our recent meeting in the Ellen G. White Coordinating Committee, and the committee decided “to ask a small group of John Skrzypaszek (chair), Ray Roennfeldt, and Sally Hall to write a 2-3 pages succinct summary of the role of Ellen White today, containing points of contact with present culture” (E-mails, John Skrzypaszek to Arthur Patrick, 6 September and 8 November 2007).

The committee’s initiatives currently include the efforts of Sally Hall, a pastor in Coffs Harbour who is working in cooperation with the Field Secretary and the Adventist Media Network. Hall is listening to young people in her congregation and seeking to develop DVDs that address their interests. This process illustrates one of the many ways that the issue of Ellen White’s relevance is being addressed currently on various continents. It needs to be explicitly stated that all the observations made in this paper merely reflect aspects of a pervasive conversation that is occurring within the global Adventist community.[17]

Ellen White and “Present Culture”

A basic issue that we should address is the nature of “present culture.” The SPD initiatives embrace Australia, New Zealand and the island nations of the Pacific. Needs in the first two arenas are apparent; however, recent events in two island regions of the Pacific suggest that the dilemmas impacting the homelands since the 1980s are already appearing in the mission fields. Nor should we assume that even Australian and New Zealand cultures are the same in all respects.

Present culture in both Australia and New Zealand is multi-faceted, not least because of its growing ethnic diversity,[18] a matter that Ronald Lawson has explored well in Europe and the United States, and reported in cogent journal articles. It may be helpful to identify the many important characteristics of contemporary culture, perhaps noting salient features such as the following:

1. There is a passion for family history.

2. There is an unprecedented focus on health and physical well-being.

3. There is a sustained interest in personalities.

We might, then, apply these and other segmented but powerful impulses to the task in hand. Some Adventists can be interested in Ellen White through the narrative of her role in the Adventist family. An article, “Ellen White: Mother of the Church in the South Pacific,” Adventist Heritage 16:3 (Spring 1993), 30-40 illustrates this approach in a limited way. Further possibilities along this line are many and they are attractive.

For Ellen White’s role in Adventist health or lifestyle, we need to adopt a very studied but non-traditional approach if we are to connect with present culture. A few of the many ways in which we might proceed are intimated in my sdanet/atissue article, “Ellen White: Pioneer of Adventist Health Emphases” that is currently being revised under the stimulus of many e-mail communications between Don McMahon (Melbourne) and T. Joe Willey (Loma Linda). This task is part of my broader preparation for a conference in Maine and several presentations that will be delivered in West Coast locations during October and November 2009.[19]

The Ellen White Summit (2004) spawned a series of articles by well-known Adventists, reflecting upon their personal journeys with Ellen White—a theme that John Skrzypaszek is reapplying with increasing success. These personalised narratives have not yet made it into print. It is still my hope that the benefits of this initiative will be made widely available, at least in an electronic form. The effectiveness of such approaches may well be determined by the accuracy of our perceptions of present culture and the variety of ways we apply such insights. Culture is so pluralistic that it challenges us to be creative in finding ways to interact with various age groups, educational levels, employment types, and so on. One size does not fit all.

Now that the church has such effective Internet options at the level of the SPD and its various entities (see, for instance, “RECORD website receives virtual makeover,” Record, 21 February 2009, 7), we can more realistically address the needs and interests of various groups within our community of faith. A cluster of Record articles seem to indicate a serious interest in research relating to Ellen White in the context of Adventist history. Rick Ferret’s doctoral thesis (“Exploring the Adventist journey,” 3 March 2007, 11-12) is a case in point; more recently Record has noticed major studies by Michael Campbell and Woodrow Whidden (24 January and 7 February 2009). But our “Official Paper” can only be expected to achieve a very small part of what is needed or what is possible. Perhaps it may be fruitful to select a small group of qualified volunteers to referee articles for a dedicated section of the church’s website that could function as a stimulating resource for Adventist ministers, teachers and members. While any specific interest-group will be relatively small, over time the initiative could have an important trickle-down effect.

Relevance: Some Further Options

A cluster of rather random suggestions may be worth considering. Probably the most important mistake the South Pacific Division made during the Ellen White crisis that began in 1970 (and required much of two decades to move beyond destructive controversy) was to fear, curtail, condemn or ignore serious research. As a case in point Ronald Numbers, the first trained historian to seriously explore Ellen White as a health reformer, received few accolades from his community of faith. The church was aghast that his research showed we could not provide him, at that stage, with a viable concept of Ellen White’s inspiration, in view of his findings. So, we ejected him from fellowship. However, thirty-two years later, with the publication of a third edition of his book (2008), an extensive literature illustrates the fact that Numbers, more than any other author, has “not only contributed to a reevaluation of White within Adventism but elevated her from a virtually unknown historical actor to a minor star on the stage of American religious history.”[20]  In the light of this experience, the church needs to foster a relationship with graduate students and PhD candidates at Avondale and other South Pacific institutions. We can now read with pleasure and profit the thesis by Mark Pearce contextualising issues that effervesced in the years immediately after Ellen White’s death; a number of other relevant studies are in process.

Conferences on a Division-wide level are expensive. But the church has personnel able to travel to local conferences, city or regional events that could be innovative and beneficial. The Questions on Doctrine conference at Andrews University (2007) was conceived and birthed by volunteers; presenters and attendees mostly paid their own way (over 200 of them). Aspects of that venture indicate possibilities the church might tap in terms of its present agenda.

The church needs to think strategically and grasp opportunities in a timely fashion. For instance, Graeme Bradford was able to identify and express (in three books) a towering need to present the real Ellen White.  There have been cautions from the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) of the General Conference, Ellen G. White Estate, individual Andrews University professors and Ministry. But, with the recent completion of Michael Campbell’s dissertation, the church has a new opportunity to move forward in understanding. Of course some details in Bradford’s three books required detailed assessment. It is one of the roles of effective publishing to expose data and potential interpretations for careful analysis by the community at large. Undue delay in any such process may militate against the effectiveness of the outcome: intensified apathy on the part of many believers is likely to impact the thought and mission of the church even more profoundly than actual controversy.  This lesson was writ large in the wake of the 1982 International Prophetic Guidance Workshop, a matter that I address briefly in the two papers entitled “The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White” published on

We might fruitfully ask a series of what if questions. What if we engaged young people more intentionally in the task, as in the Redbooks drama produced recently at Pacific Union College? Or, with less risk: What if we intentionally listened to larger numbers of representative young people, building on Sally Hall’s initiative? What if we engaged other groups, in line with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers? What if we digested and applied Pastor Gary McCary’s sermon from 22 September 2007 entitled “Ellen,” tracing “his experience in understanding EGW—from Sister White, to Mrs. White, and now to Ellen—affirming that she made a major contribution in establishing the SDA church but that she was human, very human, neither inerrant nor infallible” (AAF Newsletter, San Diego Chapter, November 2007, 2). What if we produced a single feature article or pamphlet (like the South Pacific and North American Signs series on Wycliffe, Huss, Luther and Tyndale, 2007) to present Ellen White briefly but winsomely?

Any short presentation such as this can suggest only a very few of the significant opportunities available to us in the present tense. Our initiatives may well be enhanced and even multiplied if we discuss Ellen White as relevant in terms of both who for (touched on briefly, above)and what for.

Relevant for what? Selected examples

At the heart of Seventh-day Adventism are teachings that seek to articulate major biblical themes, such as those expressed in the church’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs. The long history of these doctrines offers fruitful insights into their contemporary significance.[21]

The doctrine of the Trinity is a case in point. We can now see clearly why so many of Adventism’s co-founders and pioneers were at least semi-Arian in the beliefs, and why it took almost a century for an Adventist form of Trinitarianism to prevail.  The same data help us to be aware of the reasons why currently there is worldwide opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as to discern how this divisive impulse may be counteracted.

The evidence suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity illustrates aptly Ellen White’s role in relation to Adventist teachings. Scripture for Adventists in Century 21 is exactly as it was defined in A Word to the ‘Little Flock’” on30 May 1847: “our only rule of faith and practice.” In recent years, sociologists have helped us better understand Ellen White’s role in legitimising doctrinal change.[22] About three decades ago, Ron Graybill initiated a discussion of Ellen White’s role in such matters, employing the Scriptures as “normative” and her role as “formative.” Her writings are highly relevant for any minister who wants to lead her/his flock beyond destructive conflict in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The development of the Adventist understanding of mission again illustrates the ongoing relevance of Ellen White’s writings. When the broadside “TO THE LITTLE REMNANT SCATTERED ABROAD” was published in Portland (Maine) on 6 April 1846, anti-mission was still the stance of “Little Flock” who deemed that “all the wicked world” was rejected by God. By 1851 this “Shut Door” doctrine was being replaced by an “Open Door” that first invited the children of Millerites, then those who had not heard Miller’s message, and then representatives of other nations resident in the United States—to heed the Advent message. Further development during the 1860s laid a basis for John Nevins Andrews in 1874 to be the first official overseas missionary of the young movement. Gottfried Oosterwal suggests that 1950 marks a point at which Adventists were asking a fresh question: Why should some people hear the gospel twice when so many have never heard it once? Many of us remember when the term “Global Mission” arrested our attention during the 1980s. To make sense of this development from anti-mission to Global Mission in connection with the role of Ellen White is to remove obstacles from the path of effective understanding.

Although the centennial history of Sydney Adventist Hospital (2003) is a coffee-table book, serious historical research lies back of its popular-level narrative. One of the convictions that descended upon me as I read the primary documentation was that Ellen White was able to open her spiritual family intelligently to the benefits of scientific medicine, contrasting with the pattern of another nineteenth-century health reformer, Mary Baker Eddy. This laid an ideological basis for the 168 sanitariums and hospitals, plus 442 clinics and dispensaries that now offer their services to million of patients each year. Elsewhere I have suggested that in a similar way Ellen White opened Adventism to the challenges and rewards of accredited education. Studies of our worldwide health-care and educational systems demonstrate Ellen White’s dual relevance as a founder (in the there-and-then) and sustainer (in the here-and-now).[23]

The doctrine of revelation/inspiration is crucial for the future of Christianity in general as well as for the denominated church we love and serve. We are a hundred years past the rise of Fundamentalism in its current form. When new information deluges a community of faith, especially when uncertainty prevails in the surrounding culture, the fearful carry what Morris West describes aptly as “a heavy load of unexamined certainties.” For some, faithfulness to received understandings of the past (reversion) is the norm, irrespective of any evidence that may be newly available. (I explore these matters at some length in a paper delivered at the Questions on Doctrine conference last October and in the Journal of Religious History article mentioned above.) Perhaps we should clearly state the fact that reversionists are God’s people facing the stress of uncertainty.

Many reversionists that I know are deeply sincere. Colin Standish is one of the most committed of them. During January 2008 I spent a couple of hours with him, just before he flew back to Hartland. I had wondered if there was something that I had missed during our 58 years of interaction. So I asked many questions. His reflections demonstrated clearly to me, yet again, that he has almost no knowledge of what church leaders have given the Adventist world in the chain of Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centres that serve the various geographical sections of the planet. He is honestly and deeply committed to the 1950s Ellen White, a construct of pious imagination. This Ellen White is about as historically accurate as the Catholic picture of Mary. She is not the Ellen White of Arthur G. Daniells, W.W. Prescott, William Clarence White, William A. Spicer, H. Camden Lacey and a host of more recent, careful students who have tried to embrace all the evidence that is now so freely available. Such dedicated believers as the Standish brothers have sacrificed millions of Adventist dollars to their cause and are “heartbroken” (Russell’s term) by reason of their perception of what they identify as “the ills of God’s Church.”

For other Adventists, cognitive dissonance is so painful that they reject the faith of the community whenever the dissonance becomes acute. There are many of these folk in Australia and New Zealand but they are both more in number and more visible in the United States. Both these responses (reversion and alienation) can be tabulated unmistakably as powerful impulses that have been operative within our church, during the past forty years in particular.

By contrast, the transformationist response beckons us winsomely. Note the five examples cited in “The Inspired and Inspiring Ellen White” (Part 2), taken together (many others might be added fruitfully), point toward answers to some of the most persistent questions currently on the Adventist corporate desk, such as: How did Ellen White do her work? How does this historical understanding show the ways in which she experienced growth and change? How did she relate to history (note the insights of “Willie” White, Robinson, Peterson, Harder, Graybill, McAdams and many others)? What does the demonstration of the ways she used the writings of others teach us about her inspiration (note the instructive input of Bryan Ball when, as a faculty member at Newbold College, he explored the literary context of Ellen White’s writings while she was in Britain/Europe)? Again in this context, what does the way she valued her literary assistants teach us? And the way she engaged specialists like Prescott to help clarify issues and revise her books? Further: What were the ways in which she related to Scripture? Cherished the spiritual gifts of the community of faith within which she worshipped and ministered? And so on.[24]


Ellen White’s relevance for contemporary Adventist life and thought emerges naturally from an accurate understanding of her life and writings. She does not need defending, she simply needs accurate understanding in the light of all the evidence: biblical, historical, theological, sociological and so on.

When, during the 1920s, Seventh-day Adventists retreated into the Fundamentalist camp, they longed for the continued security Ellen White had helped them develop after the Great Disappointment. So, gradually but increasingly, they elevated Ellen White’s writings to a very high position as the all-inclusive, authoritative encyclopedia of Adventist faith and practice. With a lot of help from other sterling leaders, Australian Francis Nichol reshaped Uriah Smith’s 1868 apologetic for Ellen White and put to flight the alien armies of her critics (1951). But the ink was scarcely dry on Nichol’s tome before new evidence eroded the foundations of the defensive wall he built so painstakingly; his work is now an Adventist equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

Ellen White is to be understood, first of all, as a Christian with a deep interest in the called people of God that we refer to as Jews. As a Christian, she nurtured a lifetime engagement with the formation, de-formation, re-formation, and consummation of the church. Next she was a Methodist with an abiding concern for John Wesley’s New Testament (primitive) Christianity, evangelicalism, and health reform. But Ellen White is also a Millerite, with a distinctive interest in the Second Advent. Finally, she is an archetypical Adventist of the nineteenth century, meaning her ultimate passion was for “the truth as it is in Jesus” that she expressed so well in the series of books published during her “decade of Christ,” following the 1888 General Conference.

It may seem trite to quote yet again what may be Ellen White’s best-known sentence: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (Life Sketches, 196).The history of Seventh-day Adventism demonstrates that we have done quite a bit of forgetting and that such memory-loss has brought dire consequences. In an article that is due for publication in the near future, Fritz Guy (see footnote 8, above) includes an appendix that demonstrates Ellen White’s attitude to both the un-learning and the learning processes with which the church must engage, constantly. This paper suggests that the continuing relevance of her writings might be explored fruitfully in terms of the part-paragraph cited above, from the first volume of Testimonies for the Church. Its simple message is that we should diligently “improve our light,” now.

Appendix: Notes for Further Consideration

A few suggestions may be appropriate for the church and its ministry to discuss, as potential action steps in the near future.

1. Consider again the value of a mature focus on Adventist history and the light this discipline throws on present dilemmas (for example, note the significance of the 1919 and 1982 conferences), in terms of the 1999 “strategy” and the essence of the presentations given at the 2004 Ellen White Summit.

2. Offer our ministers, teachers, and members a short, illustrated, accurate overview of Ellen White’s life and writings. (If we can do that in the Australian and the American Signs for major Christian reformers in 1,500 words, we ought to be able to do it for Ellen White in less than three thousand words!)

3. Study and apply George Knight’s and Gilbert Valentine’s recent articles that further explicate the Adventist struggle to be true to Scripture and Ellen White’s inspiration. Then we must move from the consideration of historical understanding to a focus on present duty and continuing opportunity. The reflective stance of Alden Thompson is helpful in this context.

4. Identify how an enhanced use of the Internet may better present Adventist history in general, and Ellen White’s life and writings, in particular. Note, for example, for the text of illustrative papers and note how the editors enhance some of them with links to relevant sources.

5. Engage the range of disciplines and specialists implied in the 1980 Biblical Research Institute/White Estate vision statement as we move into the immediate future.

6. Ask the church’s educational administrators how they might need support as they lead the teachers in the three levels of Adventist education who meet daily the scientific challenges that still too often cause shipwreck of faith.

7. Think laterally about how we might embrace, again, at least some of those individuals who were ejected from our communion by the centrifugal forces that operated so powerfully in earlier times, such as the 1980s.

By 1982, the main body of evidence that now enables Adventists to understand coherently the life and writings of Ellen White was already on the Adventist corporate desk. Currently we can better understand the forces that opted for reversion and alienation before, during and after that time. We cannot for a moment afford to deny evidence; we must faithfully interpret it, remembering well “the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”

Probably all the above is rather well known to most leaders and ministers.  We might consider its implications fruitfully in relation to a cluster of matters that are on the corporate Adventist desk. A frame of reference is provided by the studies cited in the “Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism” article (cited above). The intent will be to rejoice in the fruitage of Ellen White’s spiritual gift as we engage the spiritual gifts of the community that we cherish. The church might discuss such matters as the following (each of which needs a separate article to unpack its full potential).

1. Health. Let’s take the use of salt, as one of a thousand examples. Cf. Fraser (a New Zealander at Loma Lind University), Terry Butler and ARI, along with “Does Salt Affect Blood Pressure?” Adventist Review, 24 January 2008, 16.

2. Christian history. Note the content of Paul Landa’s teaching and the emphasis of the series he fostered “Great Disappointment, Greater Hope.”

3. Millerism. Note Gary Land on Everett Dick. Ellen White was a participant in Millerism. The study of the movement has gone through three stages. We now see the issues far more clearly, not least in the light of Kai Arasola’s dissertation.

4. Technology. See the Osborn AR article cited above.

5. The interpretation of Genesis. Laurence Turner (the text), Fritz Guy (theological meaning), Lynden Rogers (science). Cf. “Disagreeing Faithfully,” Adventist Review, 28 June 2007, 8-11.

6. The interpretation of Leviticus: Roy Gane, note Jenkins.

7. The interpretation of Hebrews: Young, Johnsson, Thiele. Not an Adventist tract but a New Testament one, with a profound message for Adventism.

8. The interpretation of Revelation: Jon Paulien and Graeme Bradford.

9. The doctrine of inspiration. Don McAdams, Bert Haloviak, Gilbert Valentine, Alden Thompson, Ray Roennfeldt and many others re Ellen White.

9. Adventist identity: the Bible in the end-times. Contrast the three religious movements noted above, the seven-volume SDA Bible Commentary, and the Ellen White who was open to the spiritual gifts of the community she served.

To follow along these lines will engage us with the Ellen White who helped Adventists  move from the limiting Shut Door concept toward that of Global Mission, who embraced the possibilities of the new translation of the Bible that occurred in her day, utilised the new-fangled technology of calligraphs (typewriters) when they became available, travelled by car after a lifetime using horse-drawn vehicles (see AR 17 January 2008, 23-25). But, most of important of all, we will be in tune with the Ellen White who directed us to the Bible in terms of “present truth.”

My wife of fifty years makes the best apple bread in the world. She goes to the same supermarket as others to buy ground grain, sweetening, apples and spices. The eggs are from her own free-range hens. But in the insightful mixing and cooking, the ingredients are transformed into a nourishing, tasteful loaf.

Adventism is a “loaf” with which the Lord wants to nourish Christianity and facilitate its mission in these last days. Adventists use the same essential ingredients (especially the Scriptures) as other Christians do. We also have a distinctive flavouring: the specific ministry of one who directed us not to herself, but to the light of Scripture. There are powerful impulses within our church that press us to make Ellen White’s writings into a new scripture. Others want her to be a “key” to the Scriptures. Others demand a teaching magisterium that will interpret for all the rest of us both the Bible and her writings (in contrast to Osborn’s concept of flatness that the Protestant Reformers described as “the priesthood of all believers”). The integrity of Adventism in the Western world now (as will soon be the case in the rest of the world also) depends considerably on the faithfulness and maturity of the church’s response (servant leadership) in view of these complex challenges.

Arthur Patrick, 10 March 2009, posted 29 November 2012

This paper was prepared for a group of about thirty associate degree students who were undertaking the subject “Seventh-day Adventist History and Ministry of Ellen White.” Since it was written in late February and early March 2009, for inclusion on a CD of reference materials that the students would use, it lacked the usual level of scrutiny that my papers receive before they become public. If any matter is unclear or if further documentation is needed, the reader is invited to contact me by e-mail: The entire paper should be read as a footnote to the pamphlet “Adventist Studies: An Annotated Introduction for Higher Degree Students,” May 2006, revised and re-titled in 2009 and placed on the Avondale College website.

[1] The word “contemporary” in the title of this paper is an important descriptor. During the turbulence of an earlier era, I wrote a much longer paper entitled “The Minister and the Ministry of Ellen White in 1982” that also attempted to meet the strictures of being “contemporary.” While little within the 1982 paper requires revision in 2009 and its content offers data that inform the present discussion of Ellen White, the two papers are vastly different. It is important to recognise that this presentation assumes an understanding of previous history rather than restating that history in detail. Therefore, the reader may choose to consult a number of the articles and papers listed in “Ellen White and South Pacific Adventism: Retrospect and Prospect,” 5 February 2004, the paper I presented at the Ellen White Summit, available on the CD: “Adventist Heritage Lecture Notes, Database and Resources,” see “Section E – Important Documents, Patrick-Arthur Papers,” Ellen G. White/SDA Research Centre, Avondale College. An earlier article, “Does our past embarrass us?” Ministry, April 1991, 7-10, offers a brief historical overview that was updated by “Ellen White in the 1990s,” a summary article available on issue.

 [2] Richard Osborn, “Is the Church Flat?” Adventist Review, 27 December, 2007, 9-13.

[3] Uriah Smith, The Visions of Mrs E.G. White: a manifestation of spiritual gifts according to the Scriptures  (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1868); Francis D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics; An answer to the major charges that critics have brought against Mrs. Ellen G. White (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, c. 1951).

[4] While I was writing this paper, earnest friends from overseas urged me to examine the websites of Sydney Cleveland (; cf other sites about his book White- Washed) and Ronald Parmele, a fourth-generation (but now former) Seventh-day Adventist: The Internet sites that present pro and con arguments relating to Ellen White are prolific; see, for instance. On 4 March 2009 I typed the name “Ellen White” into GOOGLE and in thirteen seconds I was notified of 7,310,000 options, including my brief article “Surfing the Ellen White Information Wave in 2006.” So I typed in “Arthur Patrick: Re Ellen White,” and, within 0.18 of a second, 211,000 options were offered. The volume of information is confusing for the uninitiated; hence the need for the church to provide succinct, reliable pointers toward sustainable interpretive options.

[5] Russell R. and Colin D. Standish, The Greatest Of All the Prophets (Narbethong, Vic: Highwood Books, 2004).

[6] Pöhler’s 1995 Andrews University doctoral dissertation has developed into articles and books, including Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching: A Case Study in Doctrinal Development (Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 2001).

[7] Robert M. Johnston, “A search for truth,” Adventist Review 160:37, 6-8

[8] Cf. The Great Controversy, 678, with the article by Fritz Guy, entitled “Change, Scripture, and Science: good news for Adventist thinking in the twenty-furst century,” Spectrum 37 (Summer2009), 50-55.

[9] See my review, “Revisiting Waggoner and 1888,” Record, 7 February 2009, 10.

[10] George R. Knight, “Visions and the Word: The Authority of Ellen White in Relation to the Authority of Scripture in the Seventh-day Adventist Movement—Part 1,” Adventist Today 15:5 (September/October 2007), 22-25; “Part 2,” Adventist Today 15:6 (November /December 2007), 19-22.

[11] Dr Alden Thompson teaches at Walla Walla University: his website is available at

[12] Note my reviews of Michael Campbell’s lectures at Avondale College during November 2008 in terms of the content of his dissertation: and my article, “Lectures share research on 1919 conference,” Record, 24 January 2009, 7. See also Gilbert M. Valentine, “The Church ‘Drifting toward a Crisis”: Prescott’s 1915 Letter to William White,” Catalyst 2:1 (November 2007), 32-94, also on The thesis by Mark Pearce (2007) is available in the Ellen G, White/SDA Research Centre at Avondale, along with all the other items cited in this paper (and much other data relevant to the subject in hand).

[13] Note, for example, the articles by Gerhard Pfandl and Arthur Patrick in Adventist Professional 7:2 (Winter 1995), as contextualised by the editorial “About this issue,” 3.

[14] Observe how this concern is reflected in Adventist World, the magazinethat replaces the regular issues of Adventist Review and Record once each month.

 [15] While the word “relevance” does not occur in the index of Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1998), the wide-ranging content of the book creates an effective framework for the present discussion.

 [16] See Nathan Brown, “Ellen White book launched at summit,” and Nathan Brown and Bruce Manners, “Church leaders reassess Ellen White,” Record, 21 February 2004, 1, 5. Cf. the series by Bruce Manners and Arthur Patrick, “Ellen White for today,” Record, 7 February 2004, 9-10; 14 February 2004, 3-4; 21 February 2004, 9-10; 28 February 2004, 10-11. Note the editorial “An Ellen White reality check,” Record, 7 February 2004, 2, plus the long series of letters that these Record articles evoked.

 [17] Roger W. Coon, “Anthology of Recently Published Articles on Selected Issues in Prophetic Guidance (1981-1985)” is 190 pages in length (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, 1986). Coon’s anthology illustrates the fact that during the first half of the 1980s, the matter of relevance was present but largely submerged beneath historical, literary and theological issues.

 [18] For Australia, the output of the Christian Research Association offers useful perspectives: see, in particular, Australia’s Religious Communities: A Multimedia Exploration (2000).

 [19] For a context relating to this endeavour, see my paper entitled “Religious History in Century 21: Reflections on the Demand for Credible Historiography,” 16 January 2009, since made available on the Avondale College website.

 [20] “Religious History In Century 21,” 7. At the present time there is fruitful work being done on the subject of health reform and its history that is validating the historical research of Ron Numbers and helping us to better contextualise the efforts of Don McMahon. The input of T. Joe Willey is important in this process; I contextualise this process more adequately in the “Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism” article.

 [21] See, for instance, my paper entitled “The Investigative Judgment: A short, Documented History of an Adventist Teaching,” 1 November 2008. While a paper of similar length might be written about the historical development of each fundamental teaching, as well as many related themes, the framework-of-understanding provided by Rolf Pöhler (see footnote 6, above) is essential.

 [22] See the thesis and subsequent book (2008) by Rick Ferret as profiled in my forthcoming article in Journal of Religious History. The article isalready available on the Avondale College website as“Recent Tensions in Seventh-day Adventism.”

 [23] This brief paper leaves many potential topics unexplored. Perhaps the most important of these is the way in which Ellen White’s “decade of Christ” writings (SC, MB, DA, COL in particular) shaped and continue to influence the Adventist understanding of Jesus.

[24] Note the insightful list of topics that the Biblical Research Institute and White Estate agreed upon in 1980.

About adventiststudies

Arthur Nelson Patrick, DMin, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Avondale College of Higher Education, New South Wales, Australia
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