How Contemporaries Understood
Ellen White’s Authority“Our position on the Testimonies is like the keystone of the arch, take that out and there is no logical stopping-place till all the special truths of the message are gone. . . . Nothing is more sure than this, that this message and the visions belong together, and stand or fall together.”1
In 1947 L. H. Christian, church administrator for decades, summarized the thinking of Adventists for a century: “Adventists have never regarded Mrs. White as infallible. They think she was inspired as Ezekiel and other prophets were inspired, and they accept her messages as counsels from the Lord. What our leaders and believers in earlier years thought of Mrs. White was well expressed in 1922 by O. A. Johnson, one of our respected Adventist college Bible teachers: ‘While neither Mrs. White nor any of her most devoted followers ever claimed that she, as a human being, never erred, yet she claims that what she wrote under the direction of the Spirit of God was to be regarded as nearly perfect as could be given through human agency.’”2
Difference Between a Creed and Gifts of the Spirit
Although it may seem strange today, many Adventists in the early 1860s were resistant to plans for church organization. A contributing editor to the church paper declared that even selecting a name for the scattered Adventist groups would be “wrong” and that such an action “lies at the foundation of Babylon.”3
At the bottom of this vocal and stiff resistance was the keen memory of how the Millerites were rejected by the Protestant churches in 1844. Adventists at that time called all church organizations “Babylon” and they experienced what it meant to “come out” of church organizations (Rev. 18:4). In 1860 some Adventists believed that church organization would again lead to Babylonian tactics.
After much discussion, however, Adventists in the early 1860s chose their name, organized conferences, and provided for a system to credential ministers. But there was another fear that some saw—with organization would come a creed!
In Battle Creek, October 5, 1861, when the Michigan Conference was organized, the wording of the resolution included “covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ.” Some felt strongly that even these words suggested a creed.
J. N. Loughborough declared that “the first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth is to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such. I plead that we are not patterning after the churches in any unwarrantable sense in the step proposed.”4
After others spoke, James White, in his inimitable fashion, made a comprehensive statement that had lasting significance. It included: “I take the ground that creeds stand in a direct opposition to the gifts. Let us suppose a case: We get up a creed, stating just what we shall do in reference to this thing and that, and say that we will believe the gifts too.
“But suppose the Lord, through the gifts, should give us some new light that did not harmonize with our creed; then, if we remain true to the gifts, it knocks our creed all over at once. Making a creed is setting the stakes, and barring up the way to all future advancement. God put the gifts into the church for a good and great object; but men who have got up their churches, have shut up the way or have marked out a course for the Almighty. They say virtually that the Lord must not do anything further than what has been marked out in the creed.
“A creed and the gifts thus stand in direct opposition to each other. Now what is our position as a people? The Bible is our creed. We reject everything in the form of a human creed. We take the Bible and the gifts of the Spirit; embracing the faith that thus the Lord will teach us from time to time. And in this we take a position against the formation of a creed. We are not taking one step, in what we are doing, toward becoming Babylon.”5
Pre-1870 Attitudes Toward Gifts of the Spirit
From its inception in 1850 the Review and Herald,6 the church paper, has served as the denomination’s mirror of contemporary thought. Often the role of Ellen White was discussed in its pages, either in response to readers’ questions or in rejoinder to opponents of “gifts” in the church.
Especially significant is the early affirmation of Joseph Bates. In 1849 he wrote: “More than two years are now past since I proved them [the visions] true. Therefore I profess myself a firm believer in her visions so far as I have witnessed, and I have seen her have many. In every instance they have been in accordance with God’s Word: setting the promises of God, and the closing scenes around us in harmonious, Scriptural order, leaving the hearers the privilege of searching the Scriptures for the proof, and also in rebuking sins of omission and commission, without partiality to friend or foe, always causing the hearts of the righteous to rejoice, and the wicked to tremble: exactly the reverse of what God taught Ezekiel was false visions.”7
In the April 21, 1851, Review, James White wrote a clear and forceful presentation of why the church should expect the “gifts of the Spirit” as set forth in Ephesians 4:11-14 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. He closed his article with the question: “Can we believe that the saints are to pass the perils of the last days, the time of trouble such as never was, unaided by the power of the Spirit?”8
A Troubling Editorial
In White’s editorial, October 16, 1855, he tried to escape the charge that Adventist theology consisted of “vision views.” In doing so, he made a few statements that greatly disturbed many Adventists, including other leaders.
To clear the air, a committee of three was delegated to report back to a gathering of leaders in Battle Creek on the topic of how the Seventh-day Adventist Church was to relate to the prophetic ministry of Ellen White. Their report, which was unanimously approved, said, in part: “Nor do we, as some contend, exalt these gifts . . . above the Bible; on the contrary, we test them by the Bible. . . . While we hold these views [Ellen White’s messages] as emanating from the divine mind, we would confess the inconsistency (which we believe has been displeasing to God) of professedly regarding them as messages from God, and really putting them on a level with the inventions of men. We fear that this has resulted from an unwillingness to bear the reproach of Christ . . . and a desire to conciliate the feelings of our opponents; but the Word and our own experience have taught us that God is not honored, nor His cause advanced, by such a course.
“. . .While we regard them as coming from God, and entirely harmonizing with His written Word, we must acknowledge ourselves under obligation to abide by their teaching, and be corrected by their admonitions. To say that they are of God, and yet we will not be tested by them, is to say that God’s will is not a test or rule for Christians.”9
The significance of this statement seems self-evident. Here were leaders who had witnessed the fruits of the Spirit flowing from the gift of the Spirit—the public witness of Ellen White. As the report said so clearly, “the Word and our own experience have taught us.” This report proved to be a pivotal moment in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church: God’s last-day revelations through Ellen White were formally recognized by the church as having theological authority.
Even more interesting and compelling, several days after this report was accepted, on November 20, 1855, Mrs. White had a significant vision on such subjects as the time to begin the Sabbath, how to deal with opposers to the truth, and preparation to meet the Lord. 10 When this vision was written out first for printing as a broadside, and then to be reprinted in a small pamphlet, the leaders of the emerging church expressed their affirmation in small type at its close: “We, the undersigned, being eyewitnesses when the above vision was given, deem it highly necessary that it should be published, for the benefit of the church, on account of the important truths and warnings which it contains. (Signed), Joseph Bates, J. H. Waggoner, J. Hart, G. W. Amadon, Uriah Smith.”11
One year later David Arnold, one of the early Seventh-day Adventists from Volney, New York, reviewed the work of the Spirit of prophecy in Biblical times and applied those principles to these latter days. He closed with the exhortation: “O be intreated by one who from eight years’ experience and close observation of this mode of teaching, believes it to be from God, to be careful how you reject these Gifts of the Church, lest haply you be found fighting against God.”12
D. T. Bourdeau authored an article that answered some of the basic questions that people sometimes raise against women having visions as well as women speaking in church. He ended his study with this appeal: “We have these productions which we consider as sacred, and before we consent to reject them, our opponents will have to present palpable proofs that they are spurious.”13
In 1863 Uriah Smith wrote his oft-quoted editorial, entitled, “Do We Discard the Bible by Endorsing the Visions?” He focused on the meaning of the Protestant principle, “The Bible and Bible Alone,” the same motto that James White presented in his October 16, 1855 editorial. He used the illustration of the ocean liner nearing port. The ship must stop for the harbor pilot to board, to insure a safe journey through the perilous waters nearing shore. His analogy was clear: “The gifts of the Spirit are given for our pilot through these perilous times, and wherever and in whomsoever we find genuine manifestations of these, we are bound to respect them, nor can we do otherwise without in so far rejecting the Word of God, which directs us to receive them. Who now stand upon the Bible, and the Bible alone?”14
J. N. Loughborough was asked to write out some of his observations after witnessing Ellen White in “about fifty visions.” He reviewed two instances especially which demonstrated to all present that hidden information known to no one but those involved was fully revealed by Mrs. White: “Works of sin and darkness were reproved, and it seemed to us indeed like the work of the Lord.”15
A significant editorial over Uriah Smith’s name appeared in 1868. The editor was responding to the charge that any clairvoyant could do what Ellen White did. Conceding that a clairvoyant might have ability to describe situations “one thousand miles away,” Smith said that Mrs. White’s visions had nothing in common with what clairvoyants claim to see in vision. Her “testimony is to reprove sin and correct wrong; and by their fruits, says the Saviour, we shall know them. . . . Nor have we yet to learn of the first instance in which a mesmerized subject, has brought to light hidden iniquity, and exposed sin and wrong. . . . This is just the difference between the two manifestations. . . . Ever bear in mind that the work of the visions is to correct error, restrain from sin, expose hidden evils, and tear self-deception from the sinner and the careless professor, and then say if you can that they are the work of mesmerism, or of demons.”16
J. N. Andrews provided twenty points that have instructed the church since 1870 as to how Adventists understand their belief in “the doctrine of spiritual gifts, and particularly of the visions of Sister White.” In this article he raised the question of making a “test” of the “gift,” and made it plain that “the gifts of the Spirit pertain almost wholly to the household of faith. Men who have no acquaintance with them cannot be affected by them.”
Further, he said, “We therefore do not test the world in any manner by these gifts. . . . Upon none of these persons do we urge these manifestations of the Spirit of God, nor test them by their teaching.”
However, he believed that when men and women have the “opportunity to become acquainted with the special work of the Spirit of God, so that they shall acknowledge that their light is clear, convincing, and satisfactory. . . [to such] we consider the gifts of the Spirit are clearly a test.”
In reference to “the reception of members . . . we desire . . . to know two things: 1. That they believe the Bible doctrine of Spiritual gifts; 2. That they will candidly acquaint themselves with the visions of Sr. White. . . . And those who occupy this ground, are never denied all the time they desire to decide in this matter.”17
The General Conference session, March, 1870, voted a strong affirmation of Ellen White. This meeting, held in Battle Creek where wild allegations against the Whites had been carefully investigated and thoroughly rejected, signaled a clear advance in recognizing her authoritative counsel. It spelled out some of the reasons why Mrs. White’s work had been wrongfully accused and why others would arise in the future attempting to diminish her authoritative voice.
The list of “facts” included the admission of “worldliness and selfishness” that pervaded those who professed “to believe the Testimonies,” including a “licentious” and “deplorable case of depravity” in a particular minister. These leaders also acknowledged that, in spite of the warnings of the Testimonies against unacceptable policies in the publishing house, the house leaders continued “exactly the course against which they were warned, thereby contradicting their profession and wounding the cause.” They also recognized that “those who disregard these Testimonies, whether in private or public life, have shown themselves to be lamentably weak in judgment, and have wounded themselves and the cause by their unfaithfulness.”
In their resolutions they voted, “That we will humble ourselves before God for these things, and endeavor to so walk in harmony with the teachings of the Spirit, as no longer to present such inconsistency in our lives, and to grieve God’s Spirit away from us.”
Further, “That we recognize the wisdom of God in the ‘Testimonies to the Church,’ and that it is dangerous and destructive to disregard or neglect their instructions; and we confess our weakness and inability to carry on this sacred work to divine acceptance, without their aid.”18
Three years later, in 1873, at another General Conference session, it was voted “That our confidence is increasing in the gift of the Spirit of prophecy which God has so mercifully placed in the third angel’s message; and that we will endeavor to maintain an affectionate regard for its presence and its teaching; and we hereby request our Executive Committee to prepare or cause to be prepared a work giving our reasons for believing the testimonies of Sister White to be the teachings of the Holy Spirit.”19
Here were strong, hardy, resilient men and women, living in the swiftly changing turbulence of the nineteenth century, sensitively aware of those who challenged the presence of “prophets” in modern times—here were men and women fully aware of what they were voting, on the basis of their Bible study and their own experience. They knew of what they were professing.
One year later, in 1874, George I. Butler, president of the General Conference, wrote several powerful articles for the church paper, but written with the general public in mind. The lead sentence was: “Perhaps there is nothing in this age of the world that excites greater prejudice than the claim that visions and miraculous manifestations of God’s Spirit are to be witnessed in our time.” He than proceeded to examine the claims of
contemporary prophets including Swedenborg, Ann Lee, Joseph Smith, and the Spiritualists. His argument for the legitimate claims of Seventh-day Adventists for Ellen White has rarely been surpassed.20
In 1883, Butler, as president of the General Conference, had an excerpt from Uriah Smith’s book, Objections to the Visions Answered, printed in the church paper. The article began: “Every test which can be brought to bear upon such manifestations, proves these genuine. The evidence which supports them, internal and external, is conclusive. They agree with the Word of God, and with themselves.”
After reviewing the various objections to Ellen White’s writings, Smith concluded: “This covers the whole ground of the opposition; for we have never known any objection to arise which could not be traced to one or the other of these two sources. The opposer is always a person who has either been reproved for wrongs himself, or is in sympathy with those who have been so reproved, or he is a person who is openly hostile to the
positions of S. D. Adventists as a whole. But neither of these positions is, in our mind, very well calculated to enlist the sympathy of any sincere lover of honesty and uprightness, or any true friend of the cause.”21
Probably to firmly establish the truths expressed by Uriah Smith, in that same issue Butler wrote: “They [the visions] have exerted a leading influence among us from the start. They have first called attention to every important move we have made in advance. . . . We have found in a long, varied, and in some instances, sad experience, the value of their counsel. When we have heeded them, we have prospered; when we have slighted them, we have suffered a great loss. . . . The majority of our people believe these visions to be a genuine manifestation of spiritual gifts, and as such to be entitled to respect. . . . When we have Scripture and uniform experience in their favor, we have a strong case.”22
Ellen White’s contemporaries saw an integrated conceptual coherence to her thinking, that the distinctive message of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was integrally connected to inspired counsel: “Our position on the Testimonies is like the keystone of the arch, take that out and there is no logical stopping-place till all the special truths of the message are gone. . . . Nothing is more sure than this, that this message and the visions belong together, and stand or fall together.”23
W. C. White’s statement before the General Conference Council, October 30, 1911, reflects the respect Adventist leadership had for the authority of Ellen White. He presented to denominational leaders the guidelines used by Mrs. White and her associates in the 1911 revision
of The Great Controversy. This revision provided one more occasion for all to note how the process of revelation and inspiration works. Improving language to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding or offense, updating historical references, replacing historical references with even “more forceful” ones—all was done with the participating approval of Ellen White.24
At the General Conference session, May 30, 1913, W. C. White again presented a significant contribution to the education of Adventists regarding his mother’s prophetic ministry. Topics were dealt with such as what Ellen White thought about a possible successor, his own role as his mother’s “helper and counselor,” more information about his mother’s editorial help through the years, examples of how his mother saw strangers in vision prior to giving much-needed counsel, background information on how The Desire of Ages was written, the reason for “rubber-stamp signatures,” and the alertness of his mother during her last years as she worked closely with her associates.25
Later, in that same session, he was asked to give further background on his mother’s ministry. The leaders had reached the time when they knew they would never again hear Ellen White’s voice.26 Responding to some questions that may have been asked earlier, White spoke to the charge that his mother had been influenced by others (notably the president of the General Conference and the editor of the church paper), and not by the Holy Spirit, in some of her testimonies. He spoke decisively, using Mrs. White’s own comments, regarding whether all her articles were inspired and whether each of her words was divinely chosen.
It could be strongly argued that if denominational leaders in all areas, including schools and medical institutions, had listened closely to W. C. White in these public messages and read carefully his scores of letters on these subjects, later misunderstandings and crises regarding his mother’s prophetic ministry would not have arisen. No doubt many ministers and laypeople generally did not have many, if any, of Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts on how revelation and inspiration works. We have today an ample collection of her many comments on how she received and conveyed messages from the Lord. But her son, W. C. White, surely made the record clear on many occasions.
F. M. Wilcox, editor of the church paper for more than three decades, and one of the five original trustees of the Ellen White Estate, Inc., wrote often on the contribution of Ellen White to the Adventist Church. An editorial in 1921 is typical of his consistent position: “As God has spoken to His church in past ages by prophets and special messengers, so to the remnant church He has sent by His own chosen servant many special messages of warning, reproof, instruction, and exhortation. These messages are contained in the writings of Mrs. E. G. White. . . . They do not constitute for the remnant church a new Bible, as our opponents sometime charge. . . . Rather, they constitute a spiritual commentary upon the Scriptures, a divine illumination of the Word, expressing in detail many of its great principles.”27
Again, in 1928, Wilcox represented the thinking of the church: “The writings of Mrs. White were never designed to be an addition to the canon of Scripture. They are, nevertheless, the messages of God to the remnant church, and should be received as such, the same as were the messages of the prophets of old. As Samuel was a prophet to Israel in his day, as Jeremiah was a prophet to Israel in the day of the captivity, as John the Baptist came as a special messenger of the Lord to prepare the way for Christ’s appearing, so we believe that Mrs. White was a prophet to the church of Christ today. And the same as the messages of the prophets were received in olden times, so her messages should be received at the present time.”28
Kenneth H. Wood, Adventist Review editor for 16 years, observed in his September 15, 1977, editorial: Each succeeding generation “that lauds the ancient prophets and rejects contemporary ones becomes guiltier than the preceding one, since it has greater light and additional lessons from history. How great, then, is our guilt today if we fail to study and apply the counsels given to us by God through Ellen White.” The editorial, entitled “Stoning God’s Prophets,” ended with this admonition, “This is no time to stone God’s prophets. It is time to heed them.”
In 1980 Neal C. Wilson, president of the General Conference, offered five points regarding the characteristics that are associated with the prophetic office, whether in Biblical times or in the ministry of Ellen White: “Originality is not a test of inspiration. . . . God inspires people, not words. . . . The Holy Spirit helps the messenger to select his material carefully. . . . The prophet’s use of existing materials does not necessarily mean that the prophet is dependent upon these sources. . . . Whenever we recognize similarities we must also see the dissimilarities.”29
1. G. I. Butler, president of the General Conference, cited in Review and Herald Supplement, Aug. 14, 1883.
2. Christian, Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts, pp. 53, 54.
3. Review and Herald, March 22, 1860. See p. 182 for a discussion of how the Seventh-day Adventist Church organized itself.
4. Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1861.
6. On Jan. 5, 1978, the name was changed to Adventist Review.
7. A Seal of the Living God (New Bedford, 1849), p. 31.
8. Review and Herald, April 21, 1851. See also Ibid., Feb. 28, 1856.
9. Review and Herald, Dec. 4, 1855.
10. This vision became Pamphlet No. 1 of the Testimonies, now found in Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 113-126.
11. Testimony for the Church (No. 1, 1855), p. 8.
12. Review and Herald, Feb. 28, 1856.
13. Ibid., Dec. 2, 1862.
14. Ibid., Jan. 13, 1863.
15. Ibid., Dec. 25, 1866.
16. Review and Herald, Sept. 29, 1868.
17. Ibid., Feb. 15, 1870.
18. Review and Herald, Mar. 22, 1870.
19. Ibid., Nov. 25, 1873.
20. Ibid., May 12, 19, 26; June 2, 9, 1874.
21. Review and Herald, Aug. 14, 1883.
22. Review and Herald Supplement, Aug. 14, 1883. However, one year later, in a series of "maverick" articles for the church paper, G. I. Butler, still president of the General Conference, "meticulously argued that parts of the Bible were less fully inspired than other parts. Even though Butler himself did not abandon any essential characteristic doctrine, Ellen White in 1889 vigorously opposed his proposal, and it does not appear to have been openly adopted by any contemporary Seventh-day Adventist writer." —Mervyn Maxwell, "Brief History of Adventist Hermeneutics," Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, Autumn, 1993, p. 212.
24. Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 433-440.
25. General Conference Bulletin, June 1, 1913.
26. The last General Conference session she attended was in Washington, D.C., in 1909.
27. Review and Herald, Feb. 3, 1921.
28. Ibid., Oct. 4, 1928.
29. Adventist Review, March 20, 1980.
INDEX CONTINUE 38