Inspiration Of Ellen G. White
Seventh-day Adventists believe church co-founder Ellen G. White (1827–1915) was inspired by God as a prophet, today understood as a manifestation of the New Testament “gift of prophecy”, as described in the official beliefs of the church. Her works are officially considered to hold a secondary role to the Bible, but in practice there is wide variation among Adventists as to exactly how much authority should be attributed to her writings. With understanding she claimed was received in visions, White made administrative decisions and gave personal messages of encouragement or rebuke to church members. Seventh-day Adventists believe that only the Bible is sufficient for forming doctrines and beliefs, a position Ellen White supported by statements inclusive of, “the Bible, and the Bible alone, is our rule of faith”.
- Infallible, inerrant, or verbal dictation. Some Historic Adventists in the church argue that she is inerrant. Various contemporaries of Ellen White argued for an even stronger view of verbal inspiration.
- Confirming doctrinal developments. The mainstream and most common Adventist view is that White’s writings had a “confirming” not “initiating” role in the doctrinal development of the church, following the group’s conclusions based on Bible study.
One of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the church is
- “18. The Gift of Prophecy:
- One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen. G. White. As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested. (Joel 2:28,29; Acts 2:14-21; Heb. 1:1-3; Rev. 12:17; 19:10.)”
Fundamental Belief number one, “Holy Scriptures”, states in part,
- “The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are… the authoritative reveler of doctrines…”
The Adventist baptismal vows do not mention Ellen White specifically yet the set of 13 vows includes:
- “8. I accept the biblical teaching of spiritual gifts and believe that the gift of prophecy is one of the identifying marks of the remnant church.”
The General Conference in session made supportive statements in 2010, 2005, and 1995: “Her writings continue to be a most positive influence in the life of the Church, providing for it comfort, guidance, instruction, correction, and theological stimulus. Their study will constantly lead the Church back to the Bible as the very foundation of faith and practice.”
An earlier, unofficial list of 22 foundational beliefs first printed in 1931 served as a de facto standard placed less emphasis on White.
- “19. That God has placed in His church the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. That these gifts operate in harmony with the divine principles of the Bible, and are given ‘for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.’ Eph. 4:12. That the gift of the Spirit of prophecy is one of the identifying marks of the remnant church. (1 Cor. 1:5–7; 1 Cor. 2:1–28 Rev. 12:17; Rev. 19:10; Amos 3:7; Hosea 12:10, 13.) They recognize that this gift was manifested in the life and ministry of Ellen G. White.”
White’s own views
Mrs. White’s opinions regarding her own inspiration maintain a distinction between her own common fallible opinion as compared to the infallible opinion of God when He communicates a message to mankind. When speaking of God and His message given to prophets she strongly affirms infallible inspiration but when speaking of her own opinions she does not claim infallibility, and cites the Bible and God as the only source of perfection. In some cases she’ll make statements such as:
“I speak that which I have seen, and which I know to be true.”
“I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision–the precious rays of light shining from the throne.”
“God is either teaching His church, reproving their wrongs and strengthening their faith, or He is not. This work is of God, or it is not. God does nothing in partnership with Satan. My work… bears the stamp of God or the stamp of the enemy. There is no halfway work in the matter. The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil.”
“I testify the things which I have seen, the things which I have heard, the things which my hands have handled of the Word of life. And this testimony I know to be of the Father and the Son. We have seen and do testify that the power of the Holy Ghost has accompanied the presentation of the truth, warning with pen and voice, and giving the messages in their order. To deny this work would be to deny the Holy Ghost, and would place us in that company who have departed from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits.”
“Many times in my experience I have been called upon to meet the attitude of a certain class, who acknowledged that the testimonies were from God, but took the position that this matter and that matter were Sister White’s opinion and judgment. This suits those who do not love reproof and correction, and who, if their ideas are crossed, have occasion to explain the difference between the human and the divine. If the preconceived opinions or particular ideas of some are crossed in being reproved by testimonies, they have a burden at once to make plain their position to discriminate between the testimonies, defining what is Sister White’s human judgment, and what is the word of the Lord. Everything that sustains their cherished ideas is divine, and the testimonies to correct their errors are human—Sister White’s opinions. They make of none effect the counsel of God by their tradition.”
Ellen White also addresses the subject of common ordinary opinion and that every word spoken at the breakfast table (“every word spoken in public or private”) is not inspired not even if spoken by one who has at times been given prophetic messages from God.
In response to a letter by a Dr. Paulson she says:
“But now I must respond to the letters received from you and others. In your letter you speak of your early training to have implicit faith in the testimonies and say, “I was led to conclude and most firmly believe that every word that you ever spoke in public or private, that every letter you wrote under any and all circumstances, was as inspired as the Ten Commandments.” My brother, you have studied my writings diligently, and you have never found that I have made any such claims, neither will you find that the pioneers in our cause ever made such claims.”
And thirdly Ellen White addresses the combination of the message given in vision vs the way or style in which one who has been given a vision chooses to convey that message. She appears to state this as a general principle applicable to all prophets whether they be Bible writers or not.
“Although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation.”
“It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual [human] mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.”
“In the testimonies sent to __________ I have given you the light God has given to me. In no case have I given my own judgment or opinion. I have enough to write of what has been shown me, without falling back on my own opinions.” Please notice “In no case have I given my own judgment or opinion.” (Testimonies to Battle Creek Church, 1882, p. 58, Emphasis supplied) “Permit me to express my mind, and yet not my mind, but the word of the Lord.”
In one instance, Ellen White said, “I have no light on the subject [who would constitute the 144,000]. Please tell my brethren that I have nothing presented before me regarding the circumstances concerning which they write, and I can set before them only that which has been presented to me.” That is a major responsibility of a prophet. A prophet cannot give his own opinion. A prophet cannot suggest what he thinks is true, because his listeners would assume that his opinion is the word of the Lord on that subject. So if the Lord has not spoken, the prophet must not speak.
In writing to an individual wanting guidance, she said, “I am not at liberty to write to our brethren concerning your future work. . I have received no instruction regarding the place where you should locate… If the Lord gives me definite instruction concerning you, I will give it to you; but I cannot take upon myself responsibilities that the Lord does not give me to bear.”
“This morning I attended a meeting where a select few were called together to consider some questions that were presented to them by a letter soliciting consideration and advice on these subjects. Of some of these subjects I could speak, because at sundry times and in diverse places many things have been presented to me… As my brethren read the selections from letters, I knew what to say to them; for this matter has been presented to me again and again… I have not felt at liberty to write out the matter until now.”
“It does not become anyone to drop a word of doubt here and there that shall work like poison in other minds, shaking their confidence in the messages which God has given, which have aided in laying the foundation of this work, and have attended it to the present day, in reproofs, warnings, corrections, and encouragements. To all who have stood in the way of the Testimonies, I would say, God has given a message to His people, and His voice will be heard, whether you hear or forbear. Your opposition has not hindered me; but you must give an account to the God of heaven, who has sent these warnings and instructions to keep His people in the right way. You will have to answer to Him for your blindness, for being a stumbling block in the way of sinners.” “I saw the state of some who stood on present truth, but disregarded the visions,–the way God had chosen to teach in some cases, those who erred from Bible truth. I saw that in striking against the visions they did not strike against the worm–the feeble instrument that God spake through–but against the Holy Ghost. I saw it was a small thing to speak against the instrument, but it was dangerous to slight the words of God. I saw if they were in error and God chose to show them their errors through visions, and they disregarded the teachings of God through visions, they would be left to take their own way, and run in the way of error, and think they were right, until they would find it out too late.”
“What reserve power has the Lord with which to reach those who have cast aside His warnings and reproofs, and have accredited the testimonies of the Spirit of God to no higher source than human wisdom? In the Judgment, what can you who have done this, offer to God as an excuse for turning from the evidences He has given you that God was in the work?”
Some of White’s statements on how inspiration or revelation from God works are found in the introduction to The Great Controversy and pages 15 to 23 of Selected Messages volume 1.
Role As Modern Messenger
Ellen White has stated:
- “Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.”
There is debate in regards to what she means when she uses the term lesser light, to explain her relationship to the Bible:
“The written testimonies are not to give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart the truths of inspiration already revealed. Man’s duty to God and to his fellow man has been distinctly specified in God’s word, yet but few of you are obedient to the light given. Additional truth is not brought out; but God has through the Testimonies simplified the great truths already given, and in His own chosen way brought them before the people to awaken and impress the mind with them, that all may be left without excuse.”
Modern Interpretations & Viewpoints
Roy Graham, an Adventist scholar has explained his interpretation of what Ellen White’s statement on being a lesser light means. He writes “The moon is called in Scripture the ‘lesser light’. We know that it shines with ‘borrowed light’ from the sun. But this does not make the moon any less ‘authoritative.’ It has its sphere and its appointed task in God’s creation. So when Ellen White uses this term to describe her work, she is not just being modest or humble; she is not saying that she is a second-class prophet; she is not saying that her messages are of a less important or less urgent nature than those of the Biblical prophets. Rather, she is emphasizing the function of her role and her messages. The work of any one prophet cannot be compared to the cumulative light that shines across the centuries from the many prophets whose works are found in the Holy Scriptures. But the source of her ministry is the same as theirs, and while her work was primarily for the Seventh-day Adventist church, this in no wise diminishes the importance of her role to that people. . . . She is one and the canonical prophets are many. But both she and they were commissioned by the Holy Spirit to accomplish specific tasks for God’s people. It is important to discern the distinctive function of both.”
Sola Scriptura and Ellen White
The Seventh-day Adventist position does not deny Sola Scriptura, because Scripture itself points to the continuance of prophecy in the church. Adventists state that they will have further messages coming from God in the same way that messages came through Bible prophets, according to First Thessalonians 5:20-21 where it is written: “Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (KJV)
Sometimes it is suggested that Ellen White herself said that her writings were not necessary for our salvation. This statement may clarify her meaning. “If man had kept the law of God, as given to Adam after his fall, preserved by Noah, and observed by Abraham, there would have been no necessity for the ordinance of circumcision. And if the descendants of Abraham had kept the covenant, of which circumcision was a sign, they would never have been seduced into idolatry, nor would it have been necessary for them to suffer a life of bondage in Egypt; they would have kept God’s law in mind, and there would have been no necessity for it to be proclaimed from Sinai or engraved upon the tables of stone. And had the people practiced the principles of the ten commandments, there would have been no need of the additional directions given to Moses.” (PP 364)
Degrees of Inspiration regarding Ellen White’s Writings and Doctrinal Authority
Critics have debated between whether Ellen White is authoritative on devotional and counseling levels, but not on the doctrinal level. Adventists believe that as a prophet, Ellen White was able to give direction at many levels but that it is only God Himself that dictates doctrine, faith, and practice through His Holy Spirit. So in their view once she is found to pass the Bible test of a prophet and then makes a claim that God has revealed some point to her that point must be accepted as something other than personal opinion. Even so, all of the statements of belief (the 28 Fundamental Beliefs) promoted by the Seventh-day Adventist church rest on the Bible alone as the test of the validity of each belief (as published on their official website). The church claims that it is in response to the Bible command to accept God’s prophets – to not despise prophetic statements or quench the Holy Spirit – that so many Seventh-day Adventists tend to follow Ellen White’s counsels
Adventists think of her inspiration as a manifestation of the spiritual gift of prophecy described in the New Testament. In particular, the 18th fundamental belief, titled “The Gift of Prophecy,” mentions Ellen White’s ministry.
White recounts one situation where she said before a large congregation that she “did not claim to be a prophetess.” (emphasis in original) This statement generated much discussion and has been misunderstood since, to which she replied,
- “Some have stumbled over the fact that I said I did not claim to be a prophet; and they have asked, Why is this? I have had no claims to make, only that I am instructed that I am the Lord’s messenger… Early in my youth I was asked several times, Are you a prophet? I have ever responded, I am the Lord’s messenger. I know that many have called me a prophet, but I have made no claim to this title.”
- “Why have I not claimed to be a prophet? — Because in these days many who boldly claim that they are prophets are a reproach to the cause of Christ; and because my work includes much more than the word ‘prophet’ signifies.”
However, she did not object to others calling her a prophet. Instead, she preferred the term “messenger” because her task involved many lines of work. This is also the term used in Fundamental Belief #18.
The term “pen of inspiration” has been used as a colloquial phrase for White’s writings, although the church’s news body recommends against it for public usage.
Spirit of prophecy
The term “spirit of prophecy” is sometimes used by Adventists to refer to Ellen White, her ministry, and her writings. (Adventists also accept it refers to the Holy Spirit). An article by the White Estate gives the two definitions of (a) the Holy Spirit, or (b) the essence or heart of prophecy.
The term appears just once in scripture, in Revelation 19:10, “…for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” However, Gerhard Pfandl argues it was well known to the readers of John’s day, via Aramaic translations of the Old Testament (“targums”). He defines, “For the early Christians the “spirit of prophecy” was a reference to the Holy Spirit, who imparts the prophetic gift to God’s messengers.” Comparing Revelation 19:10 and 22:8,9, the parallel passages compare “your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus” with “your brethren the prophets”.
Ellen White’s enlargement of Spiritual Gifts was titled Spirit of Prophecy (four volumes), which in turn became the Conflict of the Ages series (five volumes) (see also: The Great Controversy). However the title was chosen by the editors, not by White herself.
The official statement “A Statement of Confidence in the Spirit of Prophecy” applies the term to White. Also, the segment of Adventist World which reprints an Ellen White article is titled “Spirit of Prophecy”.
See also “The Spirit of Prophecy” by James White and “Spirit of Prophecy” in the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia.
Sources and plagiarism charges
See also: Ellen G. White § Criticism
Ellen G. White’s status as a modern day prophet has often been criticized. A common criticism of Ellen White, widely popularized by Walter T. Rea, Ronald Numbers and others, is that she plagiarized material from other authors. A Roman Catholic lawyer, Vincent L. Ramik, undertook a study of Ellen G. White’s writings during the early 1980s, and concluded that they were “conclusively unplagiaristic.” When the plagiarism charge ignited a significant debate during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Adventist General Conference commissioned a major study by Dr. Fred Veltman. The ensuing project became known as the “‘Life of Christ’ Research Project.” The results are available at the General Conference Archives. Dr. Roger W. Coon, David J. Conklin, Dr. Denis Fortin, King and Morgan, among others, undertook the refutation of the accusations of plagiarism. At the conclusion of Ramik’s report, he states:
“It is impossible to imagine that the intention of Ellen G. White, as reflected in her writings and the unquestionably prodigious efforts involved therein, was anything other than a sincerely motivated and unselfish effort to place the understandings of Biblical truths in a coherent form for all to see and comprehend. Most certainly, the nature and content of her writings had but one hope and intent, namely, the furthering of mankind’s understanding of the word of God. Considering all factors necessary in reaching a just conclusion on this issue, it is submitted that the writings of Ellen G. White were conclusively unplagiaristic.”
Critics have especially targeted Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy arguing in contains plagiarized material. However, in her introduction she wrote…
In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject. In narrating the experience and views of those carrying forward the work of reform in our own time, similar use has been made of their published works.— The Great Controversy, p. xi.4 1911 edition
Miracles and tests
Supportive arguments which are used include claims of miraculous physical signs which were present, the accuracy of her health message, predictions, the character of her life, and so on.
J. N. Loughborough, who had seen White in vision fifty times since 1852, and her husband, James White, listed several physical characteristics that marked the visions:
- “In passing into vision, she gives three enrapturing shouts of “Glory!” which echo and re-echo, the second, and especially the third, fainter but more thrilling than the first, the voice resembling that of one quite a distance from you, and just going out of hearing.”
- For a few moments she would swoon, having no strength. Then she would be instantly filled with superhuman strength, sometimes rising to her feet and walking about the room. She frequently moved hands, arms, and head in gestures that were free and graceful. But to whatever position she moved a hand or arm, it could not be hindered nor controlled by even the strongest person. In 1845, the 80-pound White held her parents’ 18.5-pound family Bible in her outstretched left hand for half an hour.
- She did not breathe during the entire period of a vision that ranged from fifteen minutes to three hours. Yet, her pulse beat regularly and her countenance remained pleasant as in the natural state.
- Her eyes were always open without blinking; her head was raised, looking upward with a pleasant expression as if staring intently at some distant object. Several physicians, at different times, conducted tests to check her lack of breathing and other physical phenomena.
- She was utterly unconscious of everything transpiring around her, and viewed herself as removed from this world, and in the presence of heavenly beings.
- When she came out of vision, all seemed total darkness whether in the day time or a well-lighted room at night. She would exclaim with a long-drawn sigh, as she took her first natural breath, “D-a-r-k.” She was then limp and strengthless.
Mrs. Martha Amadon added: “There was never an excitement among those present during a vision; nothing caused fear. It was a solemn, quiet scene.”
George I. Butler stated that when going into visions, “…there is no appearance of swooning or faintness”, yet “…Often she loses her strength temporarily and reclines or sits; but at other time she stands up.”
The White Estate wrote, “Such experiences should not be considered proof of divine inspiration, as prophets must meet the tests set forth in the Scriptures; but this experience, as well as other remarkable physical phenomena, were seen as evidence by many early Adventists that Ellen Harmon’s visions were of supernatural origin.”
White made no claims to work miracles. One claim was to White’s prayers enacting healing.
History of views
There has been much debate regarding the nature of her inspiration, both within and without the Adventist church. There have been many particularly significant developments since the 1970s when the discussion was particularly fierce. Throughout the history of the debate both more progressive/liberal and more conservative factions are clearly identifiable.
Ellen White’s support from the early Sabbatarian Adventists grew over time, although there were major detractors also. Even during Ellen White’s lifetime Adventists had different views regarding the nature of her prophetic ministry. She corrected both people who downplayed her writings, and those who elevated them too highly. She rebuked both those who downplayed or rejected her writings, such as A. T. Jones and also those who elevated her writings too high, such as Dr. D. Paulson (see above) During her life she constantly fought for her followers to focus on Scripture, and not to use her writings as the arbiter of truth.
One opponent to White during her lifetime was the “Marion Party” in the 1860s, led by B. F. Snook and W. H. Brinkerhoff, which split from the church in 1866. In the same year, they published the first book critical of White’s prophetic ministry – The Visions of E. G. White, Not of God. (Together with others, they constituted the forerunners of the Church of God (Seventh Day)). Uriah Smith replied with The Visions of Mrs. E. G. White: A Manifestation of Spiritual Gifts According to the Scriptures (1868), “thus beginning the vast repertoire of apologetic literature defending the ministry of Ellen White”, according to one historian.
Her first vision was in December 1844. She also experienced powerful dreams, including two earlier in 1842.
J. N. Loughborough’s early history Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists (DjVu format) is one of the early Adventist historical books documenting the rise of the movement.
Tension between fundamentalism and liberalism
F. C. Gilbert edited Divine Predictions of Mrs. Ellen G. White Fulfilled in 1922.
In 1926 the General Conference even published a college textbook that argued for so-called verbal inspiration, while rejecting verbal dictation and Ellen White’s several statements of thought inspiration. Daniells, Prescott and Willie White were sidelined. The loss of the moderate position has caused problems for the church that continue to the present day. Prescott expressed some serious concerns in a letter to Willie in 1915. H. M. S. Richards saw her as fallible, and when accusations such as plagiarism arose decades later, he reported that he was not disturbed because he had heard them all before at the 1919 Conference.
Willie White addressed faculty and students about “How Ellen White’s Books Were Written” in 1935.
The 1919 Bible Conference was a significant theological milestone, arguably the first scholarly conference in Adventist history (its attendees were the best-trained group of leaders and educators up to that time),but the significance of the discussions about Ellen White were not recognized until the rediscovery of the conference transcripts in 1973. Led by A. G. Daniells, the discussion occurred within the context of issues related to prophetic interpretation, and how to relate to change after her death. What has become known historically as the Fundamentalist movement had an influence on the 1919 Bible Conference as it was reaching its heyday during the 1920s. Many members held fundamentalist views and at conference it served to polarize Adventist theology into what some call “liberal” and “conservative” camps that continue to impact the church today. Today’s views were evident at the 1919 Conference and remain today.
Detailed study of Adventism by doctoral candidates has been occurring since at least Everett N. Dick’s 1930 dissertation.
Other books published during this period include The Abiding Gift of Prophecy by A. G. Daniells (1936) and Believe His Prophets by Denton E. Rebok (1956). In 1951 Francis D. Nichol published the classic apologetic work Ellen G. White and Her Critics. According to the White Estate, this book
- “…after 50 years is still the most comprehensive response to various charges against Ellen G. White. Though on a few points it may not reflect the current state of our knowledge, its reasoning is incisive and its perspectives helpful.”
In 1955 Thomas Jemison published A Prophet Among You, which became a standard college textbook for decades.
Conservative scholar Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, and Historic Adventists Colin and Russell Standish, produced self-published works around 1991.
The first quarter 2009 Adult Bible Study Guide covers the gift of prophecy, particularly as it relates to Ellen White.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia