Ellen White’s Growth in Understanding Her Own Visions
Ellen Harmon White experienced the same growth patterns as do all men and women. Human beings understand concepts in a step-by-step process, starting early in life—a principle that Jesus and Paul well understood in their eagerness to teach new truth to their hearers.1
Young Ellen, it seems, did not fully understand, at first, all the implications of her earliest visions. She had to work with the mindset of her time as well as the mental equipment of a teenager. She freely admitted that the first vision dramatically reversed her understanding of what happened in 1844.2 Later, she reflected on this phenomenon of not always understanding her own visions as soon as she received them: “Often representations are given me which at first I do not understand, but after a time they are made plain by a repeated presentation of those things that I did not at first comprehend, and in ways that make their meaning clear and unmistakable.”3
Thus, assimilating all that was intended in her early vision-messages would take time for young Ellen as it did for her contemporaries—but each vision was seen to add brick after brick, plank after plank, girder after girder to the developing theological platform—bricks, planks, and girders that were new both to her and to her contemporaries.
Ellen Harmon White was led to see, step by step, what happened on October 22, 1844, that would be of great significance in the plan of salvation; this understanding had been seen in part (and fleetingly) by a few Bible students, such as O. R. L. Crosier. As she developed the meaning of the events seen in her first vision, and her mind became sensitive to the truths implicit in certain Biblical expositions of others, her theological insights not only completely changed the direction of her life but set the agenda for the Seventh-day Adventist movement. For example, she saw in Crosier’s article certain Biblical themes that expressed well her broad outline of the significance of October 22, 1844. However, she also saw in Crosier and others, “Biblical” expositions that did not fit her broad vision-outline. Thus, the same Spirit that guided her in describing her visions was also guiding her in selecting those contemporary Biblical studies that reflected the core truths of her visions. This interaction with the Holy Spirit set the pace for the rest of her life: the same Spirit that revealed the visions was to help her differentiate between that which was faithful to her vision-messages and that which was unacceptable—even when looking at the same document.
When we review her vision-messages, we can trace this growth in understanding the theological framework that the Seventh-day Adventist Church would soon call “present truth,” and the prophetic meaning of the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14.
1. That first vision (December 1844) showed that the Seventh-month Movement was of God, that God had led in the 1844 experience, that the significance of that experience would be a strong source of confidence for multitudes in the future, that those who stayed on the path to the City were those who kept their eyes on Jesus, who would keep them from stumbling as they traveled straight ahead toward the Holy City.
2. Ellen Harmon’s February 1845 vision revealed what happened in heaven when Christ entered the Most Holy Place in the heavenly sanctuary, and what happened on earth. The “exceeding bright light” of the Millerite movement appeared to two groups “before the throne”—one “bowed down . . . deeply interested”; the other “stood uninterested and careless.” Relatively “few would receive this great light.” Many “resisted it,” others were interested but grew “careless” and the light “moved off.” Some “cherished it” and joined the first group “bowed before the throne.”
After the October 22 event when God the Father arose and went “into the holy of holies” and Jesus went “with Him,” those “bowed down arose with Him.” The “careless multitude” remained in “perfect darkness”; the once-believing Millerites still prayed to Jesus in the Holy Place but did not receive the breath of the Holy Spirit. As time passed, however, many who had joined the first group in following Jesus into the Most Holy Place, began to leave that group “one after the other” to rejoin those who believed nothing significant happened on October 22, 1844.”4 Obviously, in this vision the “door” had not been shut on those who were still making decisions regarding their spiritual commitments: probation does not close until people close their own probation.
3. Ellen Harmon’s August 1845 vision stated that the return of Jesus would occur after certain events had taken place; that His return was not imminent, but near.
4. Her April 3, 1847 vision focused on the significance of the seventh-day Sabbath, especially as linked with the sanctuary doctrine. Ellen White further defined the Sabbath as a central issue in last-day events and foretold the tensions that would follow. In this vision, the door of salvation was still open to those who had not understood the gospel message in years past (for example, the Sabbath issue).
5. In Ellen White’s letter to Eli Curtis (April 21, 1847) she laid more bricks in her developing theological structure by emphasizing the features of the two resurrections separated by 1,000 years. For the first time she mentioned “the shut door” in its symbolic reference to Christ’s entering the Most Holy Place in His final mediatorial work.
6. Her November 17-19, 1848, vision associated the significance of 1844 with the light that was breaking out, a light that would rise as the morning sun until all the earth would receive its message. Further, this light would break out in its splendor and power through the publishing work—counsel that James White immediately began to implement.
7. The Sealing vision (January 5, 1849) enlarged the picture of last-day events. Linkage between the holding of the winds (Rev. 7) with the sealing work and the close of probation emphasized the contingency of the second Advent; that is, God will wait for a people on whom He can place His seal, His approval.
8. The Open-door Vision (March 24, 1849) linked the “shut door” with the sanctuary doctrine and the significance of the Sabbath, and revealed that these truths “could not be separated.” Ellen White put in perspective the emergence of modern Spiritualism and hypnotism. She noted again the responsibility that ministers had who would prefer “strong delusion” rather than the truth about what Jesus is doing now. Here again, for her, the term, “shut door” was the code word for maintaining confidence in the significance of October 22, 1844.
9. Ellen White’s article in Present Truth (September 1849) provided another example of the brick upon brick process by which she was helping to establish the rising foundation of a coherent, integrated theology. Her key points included: God’s grace is sufficient to enable His people to be overcomers; habits form serious patterns, for good or ill; when patterns of holiness or filthiness are so established that they are fixed forever, probation closes; the sense of urgency rests on the inescapable fact that characters are being set daily, and Christ’s return occurs when all characters are sealed or marked; and the door of opportunity is still open to those who are “starving” for “present truth.”
Throughout the review of how Ellen White’s theological structure developed, we see no hint of a shut door in 1844 to all the world. Much to the contrary! Two facts should be obvious: (1) Ellen White was never shown in vision that salvation had closed for the world on October 22, 1844; (2) from her first vision at the age of 17, she nurtured those early conceptual seeds that others saw better, as time passed, as the clear meaning of God’s last-day message to a truth-starved world.
1.John 16:12; Mark 4:33; 1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:11-14; Eph. 4:14, 15; 1 Pet. 2:2.
2.See p. 503.
3.Selected Messages, book 3, p. 56.
4.The last line of this vision is omitted in Early Writings, p. 56, for one of two reasons, or both—to save space to meet press requirements or because it repeats earlier sentiments.
INDEX CONTINUE APPENDIX H