The July 13, 1847, Letter to Joseph Bates
Modern critics point to this letter from Ellen White to Joseph Bates as the clearest evidence supporting the view that Mrs. White believed in the same shut-door understanding that prevailed among Shut-door Millerites, including Joseph Bates.1
The history of this letter is fascinating. In the twentieth century it first appeared as a first-page facsimile on page 104 of the 1915 edition of Life Sketches. At that time its purpose was merely to add a sense of history by showing an early letter in Ellen White’s handwriting and then to note that the letter specified December 1844 as the date of her first vision. The significance of the letter was heightened when it was “re-discovered” by Ingemar Lindén while doing research in the White Estate vault in the 1960s.2
Nineteen-year-old Ellen White was at Gorham, Maine, eight months pregnant with her first child, when she wrote this letter to Joseph Bates on July 13, 1847, in response to his request for information. Bates wanted to know if, before her February 1845 vision, she had been aware of Joseph Turner’s teaching regarding the significance of October 22.3 On that date Turner, a prominent Millerite, believed that Christ had “come” as the Bridegroom to God the Father to receive His bride, the church—and that He would soon return to the earth as the Millerites had proclaimed.4
Ellen White responded that she was aware that one of Turner’s papers was in her parents’ home but said that she had not read it.5 During December she was “very sick” and had “no interest in reading.” After the December vision that had changed her mind about the validity of the 1844 message and experience, God had made it clear to her that she was “to deliver it to the band.” She shrank from this challenge.
Hearing of a meeting in her parents’ home that night, she hustled herself away to find seclusion in a friend’s home—only to find Joseph Turner at that home. But she said nothing to him. Why? Because she feared that she would “come out against his views, thinking he believed with the rest.” What did the rest believe? That the Millerites had been in error in teaching that there was any significance in October 22.
In distress all day, Ellen Harmon returned home after the meeting was over. Early the next morning, Turner stopped by, requesting that she “should tell him all that God had shown me in vision.” Turner then said that her vision-message was essentially what he had related to the group in her parents’ home the evening before. This was a great relief to the reluctant teenager. Because only a few attended that meeting, Ellen was asked to relate her vision at the next meeting where approximately sixty “confessed their error, and acknowledged their 7th month experience to be the work of God.”6
Thus, Turner and Ellen Harmon, agreeing that the events associated with October 22, 1844, involved salvation history, were now able to restore confidence to hitherto disappointed Adventists. They disagreed, however, as to what happened on that date. Ellen Harmon’s December vision did not relate to the Bridegroom topic although Turner, at that time, did use the Bridegroom analogy to explain what happened on that memorable date. The disagreement between Ellen and Turner over what the Bridegroom analogy meant in connection with October 22 was very clear after her Bridegroom vision at Exeter, Maine, a few weeks after their December meeting.
Continuing in the Bates letter, Ellen White next turned to a few highlights of her visit to Exeter “about the middle of February, 1845.” The post-Disappointment Millerites were in confusion, often despair, most everywhere.7 The Exeter group was no exception, for young Ellen remembered that “unbelief seemed to be on every hand.”
As the meeting progressed, she recognized that “a division had risen in the band on the shut door.” That is, confusion existed here as elsewhere (as it was in the Portland group before she helped to settle the matter in December 1844). During the confusion of the meeting, Ellen was given her Bridegroom vision wherein she “had a view of Jesus rising from His mediatorial throne and going to the Holiest as Bridegroom to receive His kingdom.”8 In relating this vision to the Exeter group, “they all said it was entirely new to them.”9
The result? Ellen continued: “Most of them received the vision, and were settled upon the shut door.” Further, she assured Bates: “I know the light I received came from God, it was not taught me by man.”
Bates, the careful thinker, following closely each line in her letter, chose to put aside his earlier thoughts about a possible “borrowing” of her material from Turner. Her memory of that period was true to the facts as he had studied them. Comparing Turner’s article in The Advent Mirror and Ellen White’s description of the vision, one finds few essential thoughts in common, even as Bates concluded.10
But what did Ellen White mean by saying that the Exeter group was “settled upon the shut door”? Contemporary records, though few, help us to understand what she meant when she gave that group new light.
Her first vision, December 1844, emphasized that the Shut-door Millerite Adventists were wrong in believing that the “door was shut” on all people on October 22, 1844. Her Bridegroom vision, February, 1845, noted that many had been kept in ignorance by Satan’s deceptions. Is it not possible for people in ignorance to break out of their deceptions when clear light is properly presented? No hint of a shut door on all unbelievers was mentioned in this vision.
On April 3, 1847, Ellen White received the Halo of Glory vision which she had described to Bates in her letter of April 7, ten weeks before this letter to him on July 13, 1847. Here she focused on the Sabbath, once more enriching the understanding of the shut-door issue. Again, no hint of a shut door on unbelievers.
On the contrary, Ellen White was most emphatic: “I saw that God had children who do not see and keep the Sabbath. They had not rejected the light on it. At the commencement of the time of trouble. . . . God’s chosen all saw clearly that we had the truth, and they came out and endured the persecution with us.”11
In the fuller description of this vision,12 as presented in A Word to the “Little Flock,” these words were included (coming after the paragraph ending, “God’s dear waiting saints”): “And if one believed, and kept the Sabbath, and received the blessing attending it, and then gave it up, and broke the holy commandments, they would shut the gates of the Holy City against themselves, as sure as there was a God that rules in heaven above.”13
Here Ellen White spoke explicitly regarding her concept of the shut door. The principle of rejection14 seems to have been clear to her ever since her first vision (although she no doubt experienced a growing understanding of how it applied in all circumstances.) In 1847 she unambiguously linked the shut-door concept (the close of probation) with willful rejection of Bible truth; that is, people shut their own doors and close their own probation.
On April 21, 1847 (less than eight weeks before her letter to Bates on July 13) Ellen White wrote to Eli Curtis, a strong shut-door Adventist, noting clearly what she understood the “shut door” to mean to her: “The Lord has shown me in vision, that Jesus rose up, and shut the door, and entered the Holy of Holies, at the 7th month 1844; but Michael’s standing up (Dan. 12:1) to deliver His people, is in the future.”15
For some time Ellen White had been connecting the code word, “shut door,” with the sanctuary truth which completely redefined that phrase for Shut-door Millerites—a redefinition that many refused to accept. (They preferred to believe that, in some way, those who retained their confidence in the message of 1844 were already sealed.) For Ellen White in 1847, the code word, “shut door,” meant that the message of 1844 was valid and that the most significant part of that message opened the door to a fresh, unfolding understanding of Christ’s change of ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. The double emphasis on validity and Christ’s change of ministry (in sanctuary terms) now functioned as the two sides of the same coin.
Such was the immediate context, the contemporary understanding of the Shut-door concept that Ellen White had in mind when she penned this July 30, 1847 letter to Joseph Bates. But there is no evidence that she had any different understanding in February 1845. A fuller understanding in 1847, no doubt, but nothing in the records remotely suggests that she had changed her mind during that two-year period. No records exist that suggest that she believed that only those who retained their confidence in the 1844 message and experience could be saved, all others remaining behind the door of mercy that was supposedly shut on October 22, 1844.
What exactly Bates was thinking after he received this July 13, 1847 letter may never be known, but what Ellen White meant, in her reference to the shut door, can be determined by contemporary documents.
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1.Douglas Hackleman, “Picking the Shut-door Lock,” Adventist Currents, July, 1984.
2.Lindén, The Last Trump, pp. 94-96. William C. White had quoted from this letter in a review of his parents’ early ministry, in Review and Herald, Mar. 14, 1935, but with no reference to its shut-door implications.
3.Because no copies of the December 1844 issue of Turner’s paper, Hope of Israel, now exist, it is not certain when Turner first taught his Bridegroom views. Those views were presented in the January issue (only issue) of his new paper, Advent Mirror, co-edited with Apollos Hale.
4.Bates had noticed a similarity between Ellen White’s vision and Turner’s views as implied in his own handwritten notes on her July 13, 1847, letter which suggested that he was aware of Turner’s viewpoint from both the Hope of Israel and Advent Mirror.
5.Which issue of Hope of Israel was in the Harmon home in December 1844, is not known. It could have been any one of its earlier issues. For the December issue to be in the Harmon home prior to the incident Ellen White related in the Bates letter would seem unlikely, although it may have been in her home before the February vision.
6.“When she received her first vision, Dec. 1844, she and all the band in Portland, Maine, (where her parents then resided) had given up the midnight-cry, and shut door, as being in the past. It was then that the Lord shew[ed] her in vision, the error into which she and the band in Portland had fallen. She then related her vision to the band, and about sixty confessed their error, and acknowledged their 7th month experience to be the work of God.”—James White, A Word to the “Little Flock,” p. 22, cited in Nichol, Critics, p. 582 and Knight, 1844, p. 176.
7.See p. 39.
8.This vision was first printed in Day-Star, Mar. 14, 1846 and reprinted in Early Writings, pp. 55, 56.
9.Though Turner’s interpretation of the Bridegroom analogy was probably well-known to that group, Ellen Harmon’s view was “entirely new.” This response would indicate that she not only did not “copy” Turner’s viewpoint, but that her vision-message broke new ground in opening the “door” for a fresh look into the future and their new duties.
10. We do not find in Ellen White’s description anything that refers to Jesus “coming as the King of glory” in 1844, or any references which “supposes the church to be the bride,” or that those “who were ready have gone in with him to the marriage, and that the door is shut.”
11. Early Writings, p. 33.
12. Bates himself, after receiving this April 7, 1847, letter, collaborated with James White in having it placed, along with two of Ellen White’s earliest visions, in A Word to the “Little Flock,” on May 30, 1847. Connected to this printing of the Sabbath Halo vision, Bates added this recommendation: “I do not publish the above vision thinking to add or diminish from the ‘sure word of prophecy.’ That will stand the test of men and wreck of worlds! . . . It is now about two years since I first saw the author, and heard her relate the substance of her visions as she has since published them in Portland (April 6, 1846). Although I could see nothing in them that militated against the Word, yet I felt alarmed and tried exceedingly, and for a long time unwilling to believe that it was anything more than what was produced by a protracted debilitated state of her body.
“I therefore sought opportunities in presence of others, when her mind seemed freed from excitement, (out of meeting) to question, and cross-question her, and her friends which accompanied her, especially her eldest sister, to get if possible at the truth. During the number of visits she has made to New Bedford and Fairhaven since, while at our meetings, I have seen her in vision a number of times, and also in Topsham, Me., and those who were present during some of these exciting scenes know well with what interest and intensity I listened to every word, and watched every move to detect deception, or mesmeric influence. And I thank God for the opportunity I have had with others to witness these things. I can now confidently speak for myself. I believe the work is of God, and is given to comfort and strengthen his ‘scattered,’ ‘torn,’ and ‘pealed people,’ since the closing up of our work for the world in October, 1844. The distracted state of lo, heres! and lo, theres! since that time has exceedingly perplexed God’s honest, willing people, and made it exceedingly difficult for such as were not able to expound the many conflicting texts that have been presented to their view. I confess that I have received light and instruction on many passages that I could not before clearly distinguish. I believe her [Ellen White] to be a self-sacrificing, honest, willing child of God, and saved, if at all, through her entire obedience to His will.
“At a meeting in Fairhaven, 6th of the last month, I saw her have a similar vision, which I then wrote down. It may be said that I send this out to strengthen the argument of my late work on the Sabbath. I do in the sense above stated. Respecting that work I entertain no fears. There is no scriptural argument to move it.”—Cited in Nichol, Critics, p. 581, and Knight, 1844, p. 175.
13. Reproduced in Nichol, Critics, p. 579 and Knight, 1844, p. 174.
14. See p. 558 for a discussion of the principle of rejection.
15. A Word to the “Little Flock,” p. 11, cited in Nichol, Critics, p. 571 and Knight, 1844, p. 170.
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