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The dismal start of an in-depth research project

The Desire of Ages Project – 1

On October 23, 1980, Walter Rea, a pastor in the Southern California Conference, announced that large quantities of Ellen White’s writings had been copied from outside sources, most of which had been written by non-Adventists. The news, wired by Associated Press from the Los Angeles Times to newspapers across our nation, stunned our people. Many pastors and church members left, and the faith and courage of many others was greatly weakened. But gradually, with the passing of time, the untruths in Rea’s charges began to surface. The faith of those who refused to abandon confidence in the Spirit of Prophecy was confirmed.

Walter Rea may have a few strong parallels to show off, but that is all he has. In relation to the vast amount of material she wrote, he had found only a very small number of similarities. The findings of the Desire of Ages Project have greatly helped clarify the truth of the situation.

What was the Desire of Ages Project?

PREXED (the GC President’s Executive Advisory Committee) decided to ask a Bible teacher in one of our colleges to take on the assignment of analyzing a significant portion of the book, Desire of Ages,—and find out, once and for all, what the real situation is. Let the chips fall where they may. And to help the chips not fall toward favoring Ellen White—PREXED selected Fred Veltman to have total charge of the research!

That decision was made by a special committee on January 28-29,1981, at a meeting held in Glendale, California.

Where did Fred Veltman stand, in regard to Ellen White?

At the time, Fred Veltman was head of the Religion Department at Pacific Union College. If you have read our earlier papers, you may recall that it was a sizeable portion of the faculty and administration of that school which sent a signed telegram to N.C. Wilson at Glacier View, on Sabbath, the day after the Glacier View meetings had ended, demanding that he not fire Ford! Over the years since then, that faculty and administration has remained so New Theology in outlook, that they have consistently refused to disfellowship Desmond Ford, who continues as an honored member of the Pacific Union College Church.
When James C. Cox (also a New Theology advocate) turned down the Desire of Ages Project assignment, so he could accept an appointment to become president of Avondale College in Australia, Veltman was approached. To the surprise of everyone, Fred Veltman, a thoroughgoing New Theology liberal who cared little about Ellen White, accepted the position (see Adventist Review, December 25, 1980, p. 21).

The task was expected to require two full years of work; and Veltman set to work. No one had ever before done such exhaustive research into this matter. Walter Rea had only touched it with his fingertips.

At first, we hoped that Veltman might exonerate Ellen White; but then we began despairing that this would happen.

Why were you so sure Veltman would not deal with the subject fairly?

First, several months after his appointment, we learned that, three months prior to accepting it, Veltman wrote a letter to Neal C. Wilson. He requested that a study committee sit down with Des­mond Ford, attempt to see his side of the situation, and try (by all means) to get him back into the Adventist teach­ing work! (See the six-page Veltman letter to Wilson, Bradford, Warnick, and Eva, dated September 15, 1980; also see his two-page letter of April 18, 1980 to the same parties. Both letters, which are appeals to accept Desmond Ford back into the ministry, are reprinted in full in WM–37-38; now included in our 146-page White Tractbook.)

The next year two more events occurred, which convinced the faithful that the project had been put in the wrong hands:

First, Veltman gave an address at an Adventist Forum lecture in San Francisco on a Sabbath (April 18, 1981, at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school). Second, he spoke at a ministerial retreat held at Pacific Union College on a Sabbath afternoon; during this time his sentiments were just as liberal and indicated his disbelief in the Spirit of Prophecy.

The present writer was sent tapes of both speeches. Veltman spoke of the need for new prophets to interpret the Bible for our modern times, since we no longer had a prophet. He said Ellen White was dead; and, since her death in 1915, our church has had no prophet—except our college and university Bible teachers! In his view, they are our new inspired prophets!

“In brief, he made four points: (1) Prophets are only of value to us while they are alive; after death their counsels are of far less importance. (2) Ellen White died in 1915 and therefore is a dead prophet. (3) We today need living prophets, and they are in the church. They are our ‘Bible scholars,’ meaning our Ph.D. college and university Bible teachers. (4) Past prophetic guidance is not adequate for today’s needs and modern culture. We need to listen to our current prophets; the dead ones are far less important.”—The Desire of Ages Project, Part 1, WM–351-354.

When news of that lecture traveled around (we helped it on its way), N.C. Wilson wrote Veltman a letter and told him to hush up, stop accepting speaking appointments, and focus his attention on the Desire of Ages Project. This he did, and we heard no more lectures from him. But silence did not eliminate the problem. The fox was in the hen house.
By January 1981, Veltman was requesting additional funds from the General Conference, so an additional two years could be spent on the project, making it even more exhaustive. He was determined to find those “borrowings”! This would extend the project to four years.

Never before had such a thorough analysis been undertaken. Rea had not done it; neither had earlier critics, such as Canright. They were armchair complainers; but now Veltman would be able to really dig in and find the ammunition to show that Ellen White was a copycat. As for the General Conference, they just wanted the matter settled, once and for all, regardless of how it turned out.

How did the project turn out?

Frankly, we found that Fred Veltman was made of better stuff than we had imagined. What he found, he reported exactly as it was. He did not try to sway the data in accordance with his beliefs.

He exonerated Ellen White fully, completely! More on this in the next chapter.

What chapters in Desire of Ages did Veltman research? First, since the work would be so microscopic in nature, Veltman decided to limit the study to fifteen chapters in Desire of Ages. It was assumed that, if Ellen White had copied material it surely would show itself in those chapters; since many of them were quite large.

Five chapters were selected from the shortest chapters, five from the medium-sized ones, and five from the longest chapters in the book. Here are the fifteen chapters which Veltman researched: chapters 3, 10, 13, 14, 24, 37, 39, 46, 53, 56, 72, 75, 76, 83, and 84.

The text of those 15 chapters was then divided into short sections (he called them “sentence units”), most of which were sentences and a few were split-up compound sentences. The 15 chapters contained 2,624 “sentence units.” As you can see, this was done as professionally as possible.

(However, it should be noted that her most unique chapters were not included in the above listing; instead only the ones she would be more likely to copy. The following, more unique, chapters were not included: chapters 1, 2, 5, 7, 9, 12, 26, 34, 38,  41, 42, 43, 44, 47, 48, 51, 52, 54, 55, 59, 60, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 73, 74, 79, 81, 82, 85, 86, and 87. But Veltman did include chapters 3, 13, 46, 72, and 84,all of which would be somewhat more unique. Look through Desire of Ages and prepare your own list of unique chapters.)

What do you mean by “unique” chapters?

These are chapters which contain extended comment on special themes, which do not always directly describe a single incident in Christ’s life. For example, chapter 26, At Capernaum, deals with three extended topics; each of which is not focused on a single specific incident: Jesus’ manner of preaching, the nature of demon possession, and a sample 24-hour period in Christ’s life. Nowhere else in the book do we find each of these subjects dealt with as fully as in this chapter which, at first, one assumes will be about incidents during His stay in Capernaum.

By the way, page 258 mentions the cause and cure of Walter’s problem. When you criticize Scripture, you are inviting the control of demons; for the defenses of the soul are broken down. Yet it is only through the help of God, working through your faith in His Word—which can bring you deliverance. By thinking he can place himself above the holy writings, as one able to cavil at them, Walter Rea has cut himself off from salvation. Unless he openly repents and tries to undo what he has done, his future is not bright. My friend, while you still have probationary time, do not sit in judgment on either the Bible or the Spirit of Prophecy!

Did Veltman only compare Desire of Ages with other authors?

That was his basic assignment; but he did much more. One area of Veltman’s research was to examine all earlier Ellen White statements about the life of Christ, which dealt with any part of those 15 chapters.

In doing so, he consistently found that, except for grammatical improvements, Desire of Ages was essentially identical to those earlier life-of-Christ Spirit of Prophecy passages. This was a very important discovery. It meant that she had not copied non-Adventist books which had been published after those earlier Ellen White passages.
Commenting on this in his final report; Velt­man said this evidence clearly pointed to Ellen White as the researcher and author of the materials.

How many other non-Spirit of Prophecy books did he and his staff go over, four or five?

At the outset of the project, fully expecting to find that large quantities of literary parallels were going to be found, Veltman and his staff read “more than 500” books on the life of Christ, searching for parallels indicating copying by Desire of Ages! The majority of them had been published in the 19th century, but some earlier. This is a fantastic number of books!
There can be no doubt that his team covered the subject thoroughly.

Did Veltman’s research team also look at outside books, other than life-of-Christ biographies, for literary parallels or copying? Yes, they did. They covered every base as fully as they could. They even tried to locate Desire of Ages parallels in books other than life-of-Christ biographies. Sermonic and inspirational books by such men as Andrew Murray were carefully examined.

What did he discover? Did Ellen White refer to any of them? If so, how did she use them? In her books not on the life of Christ, they drew a total blank. They found nothing, no parallels at all. In the life-of-Christ books, Veltman and his helpers only found a few, scattered similarities. In the next chapter is what they discovered: