Why Ellen White Seemed to Reach Out Only to Shut-door Advocates
The immediate challenge for Ellen White after her first two major visions (December 1844 and February 1845) was to find an audience. But who would listen to her? Before six months elapsed after October 22, most Millerites had repudiated their time calculations that focused on that date—thus renouncing any validity to October 22, 1844. Further, they rejected all appeals to find significance in that day of great disappointment. Those who maintained the significance of October 22 were essentially the Shut-door Millerites. In addition to rejecting that viewpoint regarding October 22, the majority of the Millerites scorned the fanaticism of some Shut-door Millerites, including any activity generated by the several “prophetesses” among them.1
Thus it was to the Shut-door Millerites that young Ellen Harmon, the timid, eighty-pound, frail teenager, went on her first “missionary” journey—because they were the only Millerites who would listen to her. Her challenge was to break new ground for the Shut-door Millerites without violating their core conviction regarding the validity of Daniel’s 2300-year prophecy ending on October 22, 1844.
Before Ellen Harmon’s messages reached the Shut-door Millerites, two notions were inseparable: for Shut-door Millerites, the validity of the “shut door” (Matthew 25:10 or Luke 13:25), assumed and required the notion that probation had closed for the world on October 22. After young Ellen’s visions, she retained the term “shut door” as “code words” for “validity” of the Midnight Cry, but now with an added meaning; instead of looking back only, she urged believers to look to the future for the significance of what happened in the heavenly sanctuary on October 22, 1844.
This contemporary religious “map” explains why Ellen Harmon went first to the Shut-door Millerites, such as those meetings in Exeter and Atkinson, Maine—groups where Israel Dammon was one of the leaders.2 These groups welcomed her because of their mutually shared confidence in the validity of their Midnight Cry message and experience. What they soon learned was that Ellen White was trying to lead them away from “their” interpretation of the shut door to a “larger” understanding of the shut door; that is, while holding on to the validity of the Midnight Cry, they now must turn toward the opening future and accept God’s unfolding truth regarding the whole truth of the Midnight Cry message and experience.
This understanding of the Millerite world of 1845 explains why the records of the period (scanty at best) seem to indicate that Ellen White dedicated her time to bringing good news only to shut-door advocates and their children. Who else would have listened to her?
This understanding also explains why only a few responded to her new direction. She had opened a view of the future that involved further commitments and a definite break with all Millerites, including Shut-door Millerites. If the latter agreed with Ellen White, they could no longer rest in the confidence that probation had “closed” favorably for them on October 22. No longer could they say, “Jesus has come to us spiritually,” or “We are already saved!” First of all, many of them (the “no-work”group) would have to get a job and support their families, rather than continue to live off the alms of others. Some, of course, did respond and join the growing, vision-directed band.
To put Ellen Harmon White’s personal challenge in focus we must try to imagine how enormously difficult it must have been even to get a hearing. She and her few supporters saw the doors shut to her messages when she declared the validity and significance of October 22, 1844, in terms of the sanctuary doctrine: (1) they received the ridicule of the “wicked world” that had rejected the Millerites prior to October 22; (2) they received the scorn of the majority of those Millerites who repudiated the significance of the October 22 date; (3) they received the rejection of the extreme shut-door advocates because the sanctuary doctrine forced them to realize that the Advent was “near” but not “imminent”; (4) furthermore, all groups rejected Ellen Harmon because of the negative connotations concerning “visions,”especially from an eighty-pound, emaciated, teen-age girl. For most people, to claim the prophetic gift was the same as announcing some new foolishness. All this added up to a very unfavorable environment to launch a worldwide movement with last-day messages to truth-seeking men and women.
Something similar had happened in the beginning of the Christian church.3 When Jesus sent forth His disciples, He sent them first to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6).4 Why? For at least three reasons: (1) the disciples needed time to formulate their message; (2) the Jews would be the most logical people to talk to first; (3) and the disciples did not want to offend them by showing favor to “contemptible” Gentiles.
Given the circumstances facing Millerite Adventists after October 22, 1844—scorn, ridicule, disappointment, grave doubt regarding Biblical interpretation—time was needed to move from confusion and embarrassment to an understanding of “what happened.” It would take time for those early Seventh-day Adventist pioneers to not only find a new Biblical base but to grasp its authenticity and distinctiveness—even as the post-resurrection disciples needed time.
Surely the post-resurrection disciples, in spite of their enthusiasm, wondered who would listen to them. For all that others knew, they were now worshiping a dead Teacher. How ridiculous, it seemed! Any talk of a resurrection of their Master would seem like a face-saving, forlorn exercise in futility! Who would believe them? For the disciples, it was not only reluctance to share their new insights; common sense dictated that they must go where people would be most apt to listen. Also, it would take time to formulate not only their message but their evangelistic approach.
How similar was the post-October 22, 1844 experience for disappointed Millerites! Little or no evidence exists, some point out, that Ellen White reached out to anyone outside their Shut-door Millerite circle. Neither is there any evidence that Ellen White refused to share her vision-messages with anybody who might be interested—regardless of that person’s spiritual condition on October 22, 1844. How many outside this small circle would have listened to a sick, unschooled teenager proclaim in her early visions a totally new Biblical interpretation of what happened on October 22, especially when her message sounded like (to those working with the presupposition that Jesus completed the atonement on the cross without any further phases related to the Most Holy Place in heaven) “the most colossal, psychological, face-saving phenomenon in religious history”?25
But in a few short years, the vision-messages of Ellen White established a coherent, though new, theological grasp of salvation history, clear enough for her and her colleagues to speak convincingly to an increasing number of wary believers who did not want to go through another Disappointment.
1.Knight, Millennial Fever, p. 256.
2.See p. 474.
3.Similarities exist between the rise of Seventh-day Adventists and the launching of the early Christian church, including an enormous disappointment, a renewed search of the Scriptures to determine the meaning of the disappointment, and the guiding of the young group by prophetic ministry.
4.See Nichol, Critics, pp. 235, 236.
5.Donald Gray Barnhouse, “Are Seventh-day Adventists Christians?” Eternity, Sept. 1956.
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