Inspiration is a point of vital importance to Seventh-day Adventists in this day when there seems to be a waning of certainty concerning what have been understood to be God's revelations to man. Ellen White's statements concerning the Bible and her work indicate that the concept of verbal inspiration is without support in either the Bible writers' or her own word. This position was also clearly set forth at the General Conference session of 1883:
We believe the light given by God to His servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting the thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words in which the ideas should be expressed.Review and Herald, Nov. 27, 1883.
In spite of this, there are some among Seventh-day Adventists who still hold, perhaps subconsciously, the concept that the original autographs of the Bible writers must have been infallible and inerrant.
On the other hand, there are some who take the position that the Bible, not being verbally inspired, and evidently not
* This material was presented to university and college Bible teachers at Berrien Springs, Michigan, in June, 1966.
being infallible in all its details, has only relative or partial accuracy. The essential purpose of the Bible, they assert, is to make men wise unto salvation, and this guarantees absolute reliability only thus far and no further. Consequently, Bible statements in such realms as history, chronology, geography, anthropology, geology, astronomy, botany, and so on, are beyond this realm and are considered quite inconsequential. It is suggested by those who hold such views that in these realms the Bible may disappoint or even mislead. This viewpoint leaves the Scriptures serving as a dependable guide only in the field of spiritual matters, and to go beyond this would be to impose tests on inspiration stronger than are warranted by the claims of the prophets. Obviously, not both can be right.
The position one takes on the inspiration of the Bible would most likely be the position he would hold toward the inspiration of the E. G. White writings. Indeed, we find that both views, in varying degrees, have been held through the years, and are held today, in regard to the Spirit of Prophecy writings.
When we approach the question of inspiration we step on holy ground, and this behoves caution. We may well consider the words of Ellen White commenting on a presentation made in the Review and Herald and at Battle Creek College:
In the college the subject of inspiration has been taught, and finite men have taken it upon themselves to say that some things in the Scriptures were inspired and some were not. I was shown that the Lord did not inspire the articles on inspiration published in the Review [January 15, 1884], neither did He approve their endorsement before our youth in the college.
When men venture to criticize the Word of God, they venture on sacred, holy ground, and had better fear and tremble and hide their wisdom as foolishness. God sets no man to pronounce judgment on His Word, selecting some things as inspired and discrediting others as uninspired. The testimonies have been treated in the
same way; but God is not in this.Letter 22, 1889 (quoted in Selected Messages, book 1, p. 23).
These words should not preclude thoughtful, reverent study to understand how God communicates with man through His prophets, but they do alert us to the caution with which we should approach this topic. We believe that there is greater safety in arriving at conclusions based on facts than in depending on an approach largely theoretical and perhaps idealistic.
Adventists Uniquely Fortunate
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Seventh-day Adventists are uniquely fortunate in approaching the question of the inspiration of the prophets. We are not left to find our way, drawing all our conclusions from writings of two thousand years and more ago that have come down to us through varied transcriptions and translations. With us it is an almost contemporary matter, for we have had a prophet in our midst. It is generally granted by the careful student of her works that the experience of Ellen White was not different from that of the prophets of old, and that the Spirit of God in His prophetic mission did not function differently in the experience of Ellen White from the way He functioned in the experience of the Bible prophets.
What is more, rather than having in our possession only relatively few chapters or a handful of letters, as is the case with the extant records of the Bible prophets, we have the full range of Ellen White writings penned through a period of seventy years, embodying her published books, her 4,600 periodical articles, her manuscripts, letters, diaries, and so on. We have also the testimony of her contemporaries, presenting the eyewitness accounts of those who lived and worked closely with her and were well able to judge her work. Both she and they discussed many points touching on
the manner in which the light was imparted to her, and how she in turn conveyed the messages to those for whom they were intendedin other words, the operation of inspiration. Further, she wrote in the English language, so we are not confronted with problems of translation and only rarely with those of transcription.
Consequently, if we may accept Ellen White as an honest witness, then her observations concerning her work, her statements on inspiration, and her declaration as to the work of the prophets of old are particularly significant to us. These cumulative contemporary records, providing a report of the work of the prophet in action, can well form a basis for arriving at an accurate understanding of inspiration.
An examination of these practical records indicates to the careful observer that neither the first nor the second proposition concerning inspiration set forth at the outset is correct. The truth, it would seem, lies somewhere between the two. It is my purpose to set forth appropriate exhibits, primarily from the writings and experience of Ellen White, and to draw conclusions therefrom that may be of service in reaching a factual conclusion. In so doing I shall traverse a good deal of familiar ground. This seems essential, for it is advantageous to have the facts well supported.
God and the Prophets
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First of all, we should note that the Lord in His work of imparting light to the prophets does not follow any precise procedure. God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son (Heb. 1:1, 2). No one rule can be established or one uniform pattern delineated that will govern all the procedures in this matter of God's giving His messages to man.
Second, the prophet is a normal human being with all the
faculties possessed by an individual. The circumstances of his childhood days may have been different from those of another, and his educational background and occupational aptitude may vary, but he sees, hears, smells, meditates, reads, eats, sleeps, worships, speaks, travels, and so on, in the same manner as we all do. At the time of his call to the prophetic office he may be well informed in many lines of knowledge common to all men or he may not have been so well informed. All through his life subsequent to his call to the prophetic office, he may continue to gain information in matters common to all in the same manner in which we all obtain such information. Being called to the prophetic office does not blot from his mind information gained in past experiences, nor does it block his mental faculties from continuing to obtain information as he did before his call to the prophetic office.
Being called in a unique manner to the service of the Lord as a prophet, he is, through visions, given special information imparted to him by God. This may be in the fields of theology and religious experience, with man's relation to God and the plan of salvation in its fullness made clear. It may be in the field of history, recounting the special guidance of God for His people or for individuals, or warning of the perils incident to Satan's determination to destroy the work of God or the hope of souls. It may be in the field of physiology, nutrition, or hygiene. It may be in the realm of eschatology. It may be in the field of education or church administration. It may be in the opening up of hidden sins. The fields in which information may be imparted are without limit, for the work is in God's hands. This experience is uniquely that of the prophet. Although the Spirit of God may speak to the heart of each consecrated person, not all are or can be prophets. God alone selects the prophet. Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2
Peter 1:21). The prophet does not choose his work, and he has no control in the matter of the visions either as to timing or content.
Visions and Bearing Testimony
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The visions may have been given during the day accompanied by physical phenomenon or in the night season in a prophetic dream. The prophet did not write while in vision. He may have spoken a few words, indicating to any observers the nature of the revelation being received. While not in vision the prophet imparted to others what was intended for them, either orally, in interviews, or in writing.
Some of the information thus divinely received he may not have been at liberty to impart to others at once. Perhaps it had to be held until certain developments had taken place; or perhaps the light was given to fully orient the prophet, but he was not at liberty to disclose all that was revealed to him. Note this concerning Paul:
The great apostle had many visions. The Lord showed him many things that it is not lawful for a man to utter. Why could he not tell the believers what he had seen? Because they would have made a misapplication of the great truths presented. They would not have been able to comprehend these truths. And yet all that was shown to Paul moulded the messages that God gave him to bear to the churches.Letter 161, 1903.
On several occasions Ellen White stated that she was not at liberty to speak of what had been revealed to her until a certain time or until and unless there were certain developments. The vision might have been given just at the time certain information was needed, or the prophet may have been given many visions opening up to him what would take place, so that when the events occurred he would understand them and be prepared to deal with the situation. Note again a reference to the experience of the apostle Paul:
The Lord had shown him the difficulties and dangers which would arise in the churches, that when they should develop he might know just how to treat them.Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 65.
The report of a church member led to the writing of instruction to the church at Corinth.
Now observe a paralleling E. G. White experience. She was in Australia, and certain matters were brought before her in a council meeting. Of them she wrote:
As my brethren read the selections from letters, I knew what to say to them; for this matter has been presented to me again and again. I have not felt at liberty to write out the matter until now. The light that the Lord has given me at different times Southern Work, p. 72 (1966 printing).
How the Light Came to the Prophet
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The many different ways in which the light was imparted to the prophet is a study having a bearing on this presentation, but is too extended for this book, except for one later allusion. See Messenger to the Remnant, pages 9-11, for illustrations.
A summary of this chapter reveals that light came to Ellen White
1. In visions in which she was seemingly present and participating in the events she was viewing.
2. In broad panoramic views such as when the events of history past and future passed before her.
3. Viewing events with the angel standing by her side explaining the significance of the scenes.
4. As seemingly she visited institutions, meetings in session, and families in their homes, hearing all that was said and seeing all that was done.
5. As she was shown institutional buildings which had not yet been erected and then was given instruction covering
the work to be done in these institutions.
6. In symbolic representations, usually explained by the angel.
7. In contrasting views in which two situations were opened to her, neither of which had taken place, with an explanation of the results in each case.
So much for the visionthe process, first, by which the prophet received from God light through which his mind was enlightened.
The second process was the bearing of testimony of what had been revealed in vision. Having been received, the message must be imparted by the prophet in the best way and with the most accurate language at the prophet's command in an attempt to create in the mind of the recipient the thought, the idea, the picture contained in the message.
The prophet at one time might use certain words and at another time employ other words in conveying the same message. He might have at ready command words that would convey the message satisfactorily, or he might find it necessary to study diligently to find words adequate to convey the message correctly and impressively. While writing The Desire of Ages, Mrs. White declared: I tremble for fear lest I shall belittle the great plan of salvation by cheap words.Letter 40, 1892 (quoted in Messenger to the Remnant, p. 59). The transmission of the message might suffer some impairment because of the inadequacy of the prophet. Note this comment by Ellen White:
The Bible was written by human hands; and in the varied style of its different books it presents the characteristics of the several writers. The truths revealed are all given by inspiration of God (2 Tim. 3: 16); yet they are expressed in the words of men. The Infinite One by His Holy Spirit has shed light into the minds and hearts of His servants. He has given dreams and visions, symbols and figures; and those to whom the truth was thus revealed have themselves embodied the thought in human language.
Written in different ages, by men who differed widely in rank and occupation, and in mental and spiritual endowments, the books of the Bible present a wide contrast in style, as well as a diversity in the nature of the subjects unfolded. Different forms of expression are employed by different writers; often the same truth is more strikingly presented by one than by another.
As presented through different individuals, the truth is brought out in its varied aspects. One writer is more strongly impressed with one phase of the subject; he grasps those points that harmonize with his experience or with his power of perception and appreciation; another seizes upon a different phase; and each, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, presents what is most forcibly impressed upon his own minda different aspect of the truth in each, but a perfect harmony through all. And the truths thus revealed unite to form a perfect whole, adapted to meet the wants of men in all the circumstances and experiences of life.The Great Controversy, pp. v, vi.
Under the Guidance of the Holy Spirit
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Attention should be given to the expression Each, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, presents what is most forcibly impressed upon his own mind. Although the prophet must draw upon his facilities of expression in presenting his message, the work of the Holy Spirit must not be overlooked. This is a vital point. Ellen White put it this way:
Although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation.Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867 (quoted in Selected Messages, book 1, p. 37).
In 1860, in answering certain questions, she also touched on this point:
Sometimes the things which I have seen are hid from me after I come out of vision, and I cannot call them to mind until I am brought before a company where that vision applies, then the things which I have seen come to my mind with force. I am just as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in relating or writing a vision, as in having the
vision. It is impossible for me to call up things which have been shown me unless the Lord brings them before me at the time that He is pleased to have me relate or write them.Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, pp. 292, 293 (quoted in Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 36, 37).
The thought is again emphasized:
Through the inspiration of His Spirit the Lord gave His apostles truth, to be expressed according to the development of their minds by the Holy Spirit. But the mind is not cramped, as if forced into a certain mould.Letter 53, 1900 (quoted in Selected Messages, book 1, p. 22).
The prophet, then, received his message through the visions while totally under the influence of the Spirit of God. He bore his testimony under the influence of the Spirit of God, but not to the point of mechanical control, or in a forced mould. Rather, he communicated the message in the best manner consistent with his background and facility of expression. On certain rare occasions the very words to be used were called to his mind by the Spirit of God. Note this from Ellen White. In a letter of admonition, after dealing with certain situations, she stated:
I am trying to catch the very words and expressions that were made in reference to this matter, and as my pen hesitates a moment, the appropriate words come to my mind.Letter 123, 1904.
Another statement reads:
While I am writing out important matter, He [the Holy Spirit] is beside me helping me and when I am puzzled for a fit word with which to express my thoughts, He brings it clearly and distinctly to my mind.Letter 127, 1902.
The Revelation InfallibleVehicles of Thought Finite and Imperfect
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Ellen White declares of the Bible:
The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will. Every scripture inspired of God is
also profitable for teaching, for reproof The Great Controversy, p. vii.
She does not state that the wording of the Scriptures is infallible. But the Scriptures provide an infallible revelation. The revelation of God's will is authoritative and infallible, but the language used in imparting it to mankind is not infallible.
Declares Ellen White: God and heaven alone are infallible.Selected Messages, book 1, p. 37. And again in speaking of her work she says: In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible.Ibid. She further illuminates this point, saying:
The Lord speaks to human beings in imperfect speech, in order that the degenerate senses, the dull, earthly perception, of earthly beings may comprehend His words. Thus is shown God's condescension. He meets fallen human beings where they are. The Bible, perfect as it is in its simplicity, does not answer to the great ideas of God; for infinite ideas cannot be perfectly embodied in finite vehicles of thought. Instead of the expressions of the Bible being exaggerated, as many people suppose, the strong expressions break down before the magnificence of the thought, though the penman selected the most expressive language through which to convey the truths of higher education.Ibid., p. 22.
Sources of the Prophet's Information
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The fields of presentation of the inspired writers are broad and diverse. As already observed, the prophet is in possession of many lines of common knowledge, and his mind has been illuminated by the revelations received from God. To a large degree he carries the responsibility, under the impress of the Spirit of God, for the choice of the time and place and content of presentation. He exercises great care that his message shall not be influenced in its basic concepts by his own opinions or the thinking of his contemporaries, yet in its presentation he may use some items of information
that are matters of common knowledge, such as the distance between places, the location of a given happening, or the time of a commonly known event.
It is at this point that an understanding of the manner in which information often was given to the prophet is vital. We pause to review. The description of the vision of Moses just before his death is very illuminating:
And now a panoramic view of the Land of Promise was presented to him. Every part of the country was spread out before him, not faint and uncertain in the dim distance, but standing out clear, distinct, and beautiful to his delighted vision. In this scene it was presented, not as it then appeared, but as it would become, with God's blessing upon it, in the possession of Israel. He seemed to be looking upon a second Eden. There were mountains clothed with cedars of Lebanon, hills grey with olives and fragrant with the odour of the vine, wide green plains bright with flowers and rich in fruitfulness, here the palm trees of the tropics, there waving fields of wheat and barley, sunny valleys musical with the ripple of brooks and the song of birds, goodly cities and fair gardens, lakes rich in the abundance of the seas, grazing flocks upon the hillsides, and even amid the rocks the wild bee's hoarded treasures.
Moses saw the chosen people established in Canaan, each of the tribes in its own possession. He had a view of their history after the settlement of the Promised Land; the long, sad story of their apostasy and its punishment was spread out before him. He saw them, because of their sins, dispersed among the heathen, the glory departed from Israel, her beautiful city in ruins, and her people captives in strange lands. He saw them restored to the land of their fathers, and at last brought under the dominion of Rome.
He was permitted to look down the stream of time and behold the first advent of our Saviour. He saw Jesus as a babe in Bethlehem. He heard the voices of the angelic host break forth in the glad song of praise to God and peace on earth. He beheld Christ's humble life in Nazareth, His ministry of love and sympathy and healing, His rejection by a proud, unbelieving nation. Amazed he listened to their boastful exaltation of the law of God, while they despised and rejected Him by whom the law was given. He saw Jesus upon Olivet as with weeping He bade farewell to the city of His love.
He followed the Saviour to Gethsemane, and beheld the agony in the garden, the betrayal, the mockery and scourgingthe crucifixion. He heard Christ's agonizing cry, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? He saw Him lying in Joseph's new tomb. The darkness of hopeless despair seemed to enshroud the world. But he looked again, and beheld Him coming forth a conqueror, and ascending to heaven escorted by adoring angels and leading a multitude of captives. He saw the shining gates open to receive Him, and the host of heaven with songs of triumph welcoming their Commander. And it was there revealed to him that he himself would be one who should attend the Saviour, and open to Him the everlasting gates.Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 472-476.
The dramatic picture continues, but we need go no further. Enthralled, Moses watched the events take place, seeing, hearing, and participating, and in receiving the message even the sense of smell came into play. In this vivid manner the history of the future was opened up to the prophet. It is very unlikely that dates were revealed to him. It is not likely that all the cities he saw were named. Those were inconsequential details, not of primary importance to the unfolding theme.
Ellen White Views History
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It was doubtless in just this manner that history past and future was presented to Ellen White, history on which was woven the tapestry of the great controversy theme. Thus she declares in her introduction to her book The Great Controversy:
Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the scenes of the long-continued conflict between good and evil have been opened to the writer of these pages. From time to time I have been permitted to behold the working, in different ages, of the great controversy between Christ, the Prince of life, the Author of our salvation, and Satan, the prince of evil, the author of sin, the first transgressor of God's holy law.Page x.
As the Spirit of God has opened to my mind the great truths of His word, and the scenes of the past and the future, I have been bidden to make known to others that which has thus been revealedto trace the history of the controversy in past ages, and especially so to present it as to shed a light on the fast-approaching struggle of the future.Ibid., p. xi.
But was she shown in each instance in minute detail all of the names of the places and the dates of the events which she beheld? The evidence is that she was not. She saw events occur. The significant events as a part of the controversy story were the important part, the basic concept. Minor details and incidental references not basic to the account were of much less importance. Some of this information could be ascertained from the sacred writings, some from common sources of knowledge, some from reliable historians. Apparently God in His providence did not consider it essential to impart these minutiae through vision. This leads us to the point of just how much we are justified in demanding of divine revelation.
Regarding Details of Minor Consequence
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Henry Alford, the highly appreciated British theologian, in his New Testament for English Readers in discussing the inspiration of the evangelists and other New Testament writers under point 11 suggests that the leading of the minds of the apostles by the Holy Spirit in their reconstruction of the gospel story admits of much variety in points of minor consequence,* and he points out:
* Note: This statement, long known to the workers in Mrs. White's office at Elmshaven, was considered by them and their successors as summing up the subject factually in full harmony with what they had observed in their close association with Ellen White and her writings. See Appendix B for Alford's full statement.
Two men may be equally led by the Holy Spirit to record the events of our Lord's life for our edification, though one may believe and record, that the visit to the Gadarenes took place before the calling of Matthew, while the other places it after that event; though one in narrating it speaks of two demoniacs,the other, only of one.
In dealing with points of insignificance or minor consequence Alford continues:
14. And not only of the arrangement of the Evangelic history are these remarks to be understood. There are certain minor points of accuracy or inaccuracy, of which human research suffices to inform men, and on which, from want of that research, it is often the practice to speak vaguely and inexactly. Such are sometimes the conventionally received distances from place to place; such are the common accounts of phenomena in natural history, etc. Now in matters of this kind, the Evangelists and Apostles were not supernaturally informed, but left, in common with others, to the guidance of their natural faculties.
In describing the walk to Emmaus, Luke informs us, as presented in the K.J.V., that this town was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. In Testimonies, volume 9, page 173, Ellen White describes Loma Linda as about four miles from Redlands. We may properly ask, Did the Holy Spirit impart this detailed information on the conventionally received distances between the cities named, or did the prophetic writers draw this incidental and unimportant but descriptive information from the common source of knowledge available to anyone?
In discussing the number of rooms in Paradise Valley Sanitarium and the fact that in a letter she had described the building as having 40 rooms when in reality it had only 38, she stated:
The information given concerning the number of rooms in the Paradise Valley Sanitarium was given, not as a revelation from the Lord, but simply as a human opinion. There has never been revealed to me the exact number of rooms in any of our sanitariums; and the
knowledge I have obtained of such things I have gained by inquiring of those who were supposed to knew. In my words, when speaking upon these common subjects, there is nothing to lead minds to believe that I receive my knowledge in a vision from the Lord and am stating it as such.
When the Holy Spirit reveals anything regarding the institutions connected with the Lord's work, or concerning the work of God upon human hearts and minds, as He has revealed these things through me in the past, the message given is to be regarded as light given of God for those who need it. But for one to mix the sacred with the common is a great mistake. In a tendency to do this we may see the working of the enemy to destroy souls.Selected Messages, book 1, p. 38.
The point is so clear that further comment is uncalled for.
To return to the Alford statement on the inspiration of the New Testament writers:
15. The same may be said of citations and dates from history. In the last apology of Stephen, in which he spoke, being full of the Holy Ghost, and with divine influence beaming from his countenance, we have at least two demonstrable inaccuracies in points of minor detail. And the occurrence of similar ones in the gospels would not in any way affect the inspiration or the veracity of the Evangelists.
Stephen in his address in an incidental reference to the people who went down into Egypt, puts the number at threescore and fifteen souls (Acts 7: 14). The Genesis record in presenting the history, a basic account in the historical setting, states, All the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, were threescore and ten (Gen. 46:27). This record makes it clear that this number included the sons of Joseph, which were born him in Egypt.
The Genesis record is the detailed historical account; the reference in Stephen's defence is but an incidental reference. Would we require that the Holy Spirit in this crisis presentation should supernaturally guide Stephen's mind on an inconsequential
point of information that at least in its general features was a matter of common knowledge to all Jews? Would we use Stephen's statement to correct the basic historical record? In other words, would we make Stephen on this incidental point an authority on history? If we do not choose to do so, does this impair his reliability as an inspired witness?
History and the Details of History
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Elder W. C. White, addressing the General Conference Autumn Council on October 30, 1911, declared: Mother has never claimed to be authority on history. Ellen White endorsed this statement. Her son was explaining the 1911 revision of The Great Controversy to the council in a statement that, when transcribed, filled six full single-spaced pages.*
This sentence has become a classical exhibit in some discussions and in certain statements touching on the inspiration of the E. G. White writings. It is a factor that not infrequently leads some individuals to take the position that little reliance can be placed on the historical areas of the E. G. White writings. This is akin to Ellen White's statement, I did not claim to be a prophetess, made in the Battle Creek Tabernacle on October 2, 1904 (see Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 31-35). These words, standing alone, can be quite misleading. They have frequently been quoted out of context. But taken in the setting of her life experience, her many allusions to her prophetic work, and her own explanation, the matter becomes clear. Two statements from Ellen White read:
During the discourse, I said that I did not claim to be a prophetess.
* See Appendix C.
Some were surprised at this statement, and as much is being said in regard to it, I will make an explanation. Others have called me a prophetess, but I have never assumed that title. I have not felt that it was my duty thus to designate myself. Those who boldly assume that they are prophets in this our day are often a reproach to the cause of Christ.Letter 55, 1905 (quoted in Selected Messages, book 1, p. 36).
My commission embraces the work of a prophet, but it does not end there. It embraces much more than the minds of those who have been sowing the seeds of unbelief can comprehend.Letter 244, 1906 (quoted in Selected Messages, book 1, p. 36).
Likewise, the E. G. White-approved statement by W. C. White, Mother has never claimed to be authority on history, is rightly employed only in the light of the full W. C. White declaration of 1911, other statements made by him, and Ellen White's own statements.
The issues were: (1) Was it proper and right to revise The Great Controversy, an inspired book, even though the work was done by Mrs. White herself, or under her eye? (2) Did the E. G. White use of historical quotations as a part of her record impart inspiration or a seal of inerrancy to the statements quoted? (3) Inasmuch as The Great Controversy was an inspired book, would not the minute detail of historical account embodied therein settle in the minds of Seventh-day Adventists any differences that might occur in the records of various historians? In other words, would not Mrs. White's writing of history serve to correct history in all its minor details?
If we held to verbal inspiration, this should be so. The point made by W. C. White in saying, Mother has never claimed to be authority on history, was his attempt to prevent an unwarranted use of the E. G. White writings as settling the minor points of difference between historians. With his knowledge of the manner in which the light came to his mother, he felt that the course followed by some was unjustified.
Perhaps an illustration will be in place.
Ellen White described her procedure in moving toward the revision of The Great Controversy in a letter to the editor of the Review and Herald on July 25, 1911:
When I learned that Great Controversy must be reset, I determined that we would have everything closely examined, to see if the truths it contained were stated in the very best manner, to convince those not of our faith that the Lord had guided and sustained me in the writing of its pages.
As a result of the thorough examination by our most experienced workers, some changing in the wording has been proposed. These changes I have carefully examined, and approved.Letter 56, 1911. (See Appendix C.)
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One of the points called to Ellen White's attention in response to her call for an examination of the book referred to in her letter just quoted involved her account of St. Bartholomew's massacre. The Great Controversy, 1888 edition, states on page 272:
The great bell of the palace, tolling at the dead of night, was a signal for the slaughter.
She was now informed that historians differed on the point of which bell actually gave the signal, (1) the bell of the palace, (2) the bell of the Palace of Justice, or (3) the bell of the church of St. Germain. All three were within a radius of approximately a city block. The plan was that the bell of the palace would give the signal, and certain reliable historians state that it did. Others differed. Here is some of the documentation taken from our files having to do with the 1911 revision:
All the histories dealing with the French Revolution which I have been able to consult, state that it was the original plan to toll the bell of the palace as the signal, but owing to special circumstances,
the signal was given by the ringing of the bell of the church of St. Germain.
It was now eleven o'clock of Saturday night, and the massacre was to begin at daybreak. The signal for the massacre was to be the tolling of the great bell of the Palace of Justice. The Queen-mother feeling the suspense unbearable, or else afraid, as Maimbourg suggests, that Charles, greatly disturbed by the idea of the horrible butchery, would revoke the order he had given for it, anticipated the signal by sending one at two o'clock of the morning to ring the bell of St. Germain l'Auxerois, which was nearer than that of the Palace of Justice.
Scarcely had its first peal startled the silence of the night when a pistol-shot was heard. The king started to his feet, and summoning an attendant he bade him go and stop the massacre. It was too late; the bloody work had begun. The great bell of the Palace had now begun to toll; another moment and every steeple in Paris was sending forth its peal; a hundred tocsins sounded at once.History of Protestantism, vol. 2, p. 600.
Eyewitness Account: As soon as they had caused the bell of the palace clock to ring, on every side arose the cry, To arms! and the people ran, etc.Account of the Massacre by the statesman and fair-minded historian, De Thou (1553-1617), who as a young man witnessed the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.Quoted in J. H. Robinson's Readings of European History, chap. 28, sec. 6 (No. 286), pp. 180-182.
New International Encyclopedia: From the tower of the royal palace the signal was given for a carnival of blood.Art. Bartholomew.
Ellen White in vision saw and heard what took place. She heard the tolling of a bell, giving the signal, and she saw what followed. Did the angel give her minute information as to which bell tolled? Would not this point be what Henry Alford describes as certain minor points of accuracy or inaccuracy, of which human research suffices to inform men? She accepted the record of a reliable historian who indicated that it was the palace bell. When she learned that was uncertain, she reworded the statement to read:
A bell, tolling at the dead of night, was a signal for the slaughter.The Great Controversy, 1911 ed., p. 272.
The point being of no real significance, she removed from The Great Controversy the temptation that might come to some to employ the book to settle this disputed but inconsequential point.
And note the paragraph bearing the W. C. White statement:
Mother has never claimed to be authority on history. The things which she has written out, are descriptions of flash-light pictures and other representations given her regarding the actions of men, and the influence of these actions upon the work of God for the salvation of men, with views of past, present, and future history in its relation to this work. In connection with the writing out of these views, she has made use of good and clear historical statements to help make plain to the reader the things which she is endeavouring to present. When I was a mere boy, I heard her read D'Aubign's History of the Reformation to my father. She read to him a large part, if not the whole, of the five volumes. She has read other histories of the Reformation. This has helped her to locate and describe many of the events and the movements presented to her in vision. This is somewhat similar to the way in which the study of the Bible helps her to locate and describe the many figurative representations given to her regarding the development of the great controversy in our day between truth and error.W. C. White in The Great Controversy, 1911 Edition (p. 4). (See Appendix C.)
Pursuing this matter a little further, and enlarging it to include chronology, we turn to a rather enlightening W. C. White statement written a few months later:
Regarding Mother's writings and their use as authority on points of history and chronology, Mother has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority regarding details of history or historical dates. The great truths revealed to Mother regarding the controversy between good and evil, light and darkness, have been given to her in various ways, but chiefly as flashlight views of great events in the lives of individuals and in the experiences of churches, of bands of reformers, and of nations. What has thus been revealed to her she
has written out first briefly in the Early Writings, then more fully as in Spiritual Gifts and in Spirit of Prophecy, and finally in the Great Controversy series.
When writing out the experiences of reformers in the time of the Reformation and in the great Advent Movement of 1844, Mother often gave at first a partial description of some scene presented to her. Later on she would write it out more fully, and again still more fully. I have known her to write upon one subject four or five times, and then mourn because she could not command language to describe the matter more perfectly.
When writing out the chapters for Great Controversy, she sometimes gave a partial description of an important historical event, and when her copyist who was preparing the manuscripts for the printer, made inquiry regarding time and place, Mother would say that those things are recorded by conscientious historians. Let the dates used by those historians be inserted. At other times in writing out what had been presented to her, Mother found such perfect descriptions of events and presentations of facts and of doctrines written out in our denominational books, that she copied the words of these authorities.
When Controversy was written, Mother never thought that the readers would take it as authority on historical dates or use it to settle controversy regarding details of history, and she does not now feel that it should be used in that way. Mother regards with great respect the work of those faithful historians who devoted years of time to the study of God's great plan as presented in the prophecy, and the outworking of that plan as recorded in history.W. C. White Letter to W. W. Eastman, Nov. 4, 1912.
How Far Can We Depend on Mrs. White?
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Just how far, then, can we depend on Mrs. White? Where do we set the bounds? There were other points in The Great Controversy in the historical account, which even when challenged Ellen White, because of the visions, refused to surrender. Note the W. C. White statement in the same document and on the same page as the much-used Mother has never claimed to be authority on history:
On pages 50, 563-564, 580, 581, and in a few other places where there were statements regarding the papacy which are strongly disputed by Roman Catholics, and which are difficult to prove from accessible histories, the wording in the new edition has been so changed that the statement falls easily within the range of evidence that is readily obtainable.
Regarding these and similar passages, which might stir up bitter and unprofitable controversies, Mother has often said: What I have written regarding the arrogance and the assumptions of the papacy, is true. Much historical evidence regarding these matters has been designedly destroyed; nevertheless, that the book may be of the greatest benefit to Catholics and others, and that needless controversies may be avoided, it is better to have all statements regarding the assumptions of the pope and the claims of the papacy stated so moderately as to be easily and clearly proved from accepted histories that are within the reach of our ministers and students.
Here in a historical area was a basic concept brought to Ellen White by vision. Any modification in the account was made by Ellen White for reasons quite different from inconsequential details concerning which she made no claim for authority.
The Ellen White declaration that historical evidence has been destroyed is well sustained by the purging of libraries and the combing of second-hand bookstores. Andrews University holds some of the rarest of volumes, dating back to the beginnings of printing and having to do with the persecutions by the Catholic Church. They are in our possession today only because the director of a large public library in Minnesota placed these priceless works from its rare book room in the hands of Elder Christian Edwardson, with the suggestion that he check them out and not bring them back, for, said the director, I have orders to get rid of them. The author personally saw these books in the Edwardson study as he related how he came into possession of them. They are now in the university's Heritage Room.
The reader will find further discussion of The Great Controversy in Chapter 4, Ellen White as a Historian.
E. G. White Appraisal of History Presented by the Prophetic Writers
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A few quotations suffice to remind us of Mrs. White's evaluation of history as presented by the Bible prophets:
The Bible is a history that tells us of the creation of the world, and opens to us past centuries. Without it we should have been left to conjecture and fable in regard to the occurrences of the remote past.Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p. 421.
The Bible is the most instructive and comprehensive history that has ever been given to the world. Its sacred pages contain the only authentic account of the creation. Here we behold the power that stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth. Here we have a truthful history of the human race, one that is unmarred by human prejudice or human pride.Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 84, 85.
The divine mind and hand have preserved through the ages the record of creation in its purity. It is the word of God alone that gives to us an authentic account of the creation of our world.Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p. 13.
We are dependent on the Bible for a knowledge of the early history of our world, of the creation of man, and of his fall. Remove the word of God, and what can we expect than to be left to fables and conjectures, and to that enfeebling of the intellect which is the sure result of entertaining error. We need the authentic history of the origin of the earth, of the fall of the covering cherub, and of the introduction of sin into our world. Without the Bible, we should be bewildered by false theories. The mind would be subjected to the tyranny of superstition and falsehood. But having in our possession an authentic history of the beginning of our world, we need not hamper ourselves with human conjectures and unreliable theories.Medical Ministry, p. 89.
Ellen White saw the Bible as an inspired reliable history. Concerning its first records she states:
The preparation of the written word began in the time of Moses. This work continued from Moses, the historian of creation
and the law, to John, the recorder of the most sublime truths of the gospel.The Great Controversy, p. v.
Concerning the history of the life of our Lord as recorded by the apostles, she declared:
The Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to exalt the Lord alone, and guided the pens of the sacred historians.Gospel Workers, p. 286.
Of the record of the lives and work of the apostles, she refers to it as history, written under the direction of the Holy Spirit (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 593).
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Granted there are some chronological problems. The verbal inspiration concept on the basis of such problems would force us to abandon confidence in the authenticity of the Bible history. With a factual understanding of how the Lord imparted light to the prophets, do we need to permit such problems to discount the value of the record? Is the validity of the historical account bound up entirely with the chronology? Is there not some danger of our attaching too much weight to these problems?
On this point W. C. White, who for years worked closely with Ellen White, observed in his November, 1912, letter to W. W. Eastman, a leader in Seventh-day Adventist publishing work:
It seems to me there is a danger of placing altogether too much stress upon chronology. If it had been essential to the salvation of man that he should have a clear and harmonious understanding of the chronology of the world, the Lord would not have permitted the disagreements and discrepancies which we find in the writings of the Bible historians, and it seems to me that in these last days there ought not to be so much controversy regarding dates.
Considerable chronology appears in the Ellen White writings. It is worthy of examination. In the Index to the
Writings of Ellen White, under Chronology and Time Relationships, eight pages (543-551) are devoted to an enumeration of such references in the current Ellen White books. It will be observed that there are items of direct and precise treatment and there are a few references to incidental statements often couched in very general terms, as a thousand years, fifteen hundred years, and so forth.
Statements in the Field of Science and Geology
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Ellen White kept before the church and the world the fact that since the book of nature and the book of revelation bear the impress of the same master mind, they cannot but speak in harmony.Education, p. 128. Her concepts of the reliability of the Word of God in the field of science are revealed in such statements as:
There should be a settled faith in the divinity of God's holy word. The Bible is not to be tested by men's ideas of science, but science is to be brought to the test of this unerring standard. When the Bible makes statements of facts in nature, science may be compared with the written word, and a correct understanding of both will always prove them to be in harmony. One does not contradict the other. All truth, whether in nature or revelation, agrees.The Signs of the Times, March 13, 1884.
See Chapter 2 for more similar statements.
Many points in the field of science were revealed to Ellen White. Those of particular interest at the moment are largely in the area of physiology and nutrition. Just now, at a time of intensive research, her declarations of 70, 80, and even 100 years ago and more are being verified with such precision that little room is left for question or doubt.
Similarity of Concepts No Indication of Source
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Because Ellen White in her writings presents some points of historical interest found elsewhere only in tradition, or in
dealing with the subjects of health and education her counsels parallel views set forth by some of her predecessors or contemporaries, it has been assumed by some that tradition or the writings of her contemporaries constituted the source of her information. This is a subtle pitfall and not in harmony with the facts. Jude, a New Testament writer, informs us of views given to Enoch. There is no mention of them in the Old Testament. Because there is reference to this fact in certain writings of questionable source does not mean that Jude was dependent upon this source for his information.
Neither Ellen White nor well-informed Adventists have taken the position that on many points stressed in the E. G. White writings she was the first to speak or write. If a historical event is correctly reported in tradition and if Ellen White viewed this history in vision, her account would be bound to harmonize with such points in tradition. The apostle John being placed in a caldron of boiling oil is an illustration. If careful men in their research discover the laws of nature manifest in physiology and nutrition, what was shown by God to Ellen White in this field would be bound to harmonize, because God is the author of those laws. It is neither correct nor in harmony with the facts to assume that similarity of views indicates that Ellen White gained her information from men, instead of from God.
An early statement on this point is worthy of note. J. H. Waggoner, a prominent minister in our ranks, wrote as we were opening our first medical institution:
We do not profess to be pioneers in the general principles of health reform. The facts on which this movement is based have been elaborated, in a great measure, by reformers, physicians, and writers on physiology and hygiene, and so may be found scattered through the land. But we do claim that by the method of God's choice it has been more clearly and powerfully unfolded, and is thereby producing an effect which we could not have looked for from any other means.Review and Herald, Aug. 7, 1866.
The same might be said in the field of education and perhaps other areas. But Ellen White disclaims the writings of others as the source of her information:
As I introduced the subject of health to friends and spoke against drugs and flesh meats, and in favour of water, pure air, and a proper diet, the reply was often made, You speak very nearly the opinions taught in the Laws of Life and other publications, by Doctors Trall, Jackson, and others. Have you read that paper and those works? My reply was that I had not, neither should I read them till I had fully written out my views, lest it should be said that I had received my light upon the subject of health from physicians, and not from the Lord.Ibid., Oct. 8, 1867.
Her earliest writing in the field of health filled the first half of a 64-page pamphlet entitled An Appeal to Mothers dealing with masturbation. Her statement was followed by material on the same subject from men in the medical field. The publishers in introducing the material from the scientific world inserted this illuminating note:
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We have thought proper to add to the foregoing the following Testimonies from men of high standing and authority in the medical world, corroborative of the views presented in the preceding pages. And in justice to the Writer of those pages, we would say that she had read nothing from the authors here quoted, and had read no other works on this subject, previous to putting into our hands what she has written. She is not, therefore, a copyist, although she has stated important truths to which men who are entitled to our highest confidence, have borne testimony. Trustees.
There is ample evidence that she carefully avoided presenting her own personal views and that she was not influenced by her contemporaries or that her writings but reflected the concepts of the times. (See Chapter 3, Integrity of the E. G. White Writings.)
Recalled by the Aid of the Spirit
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Obviously the prophet could not accurately remember all that had been revealed in vision. An outstanding case in point is the vision given to the 17-year-old Ellen Harmon in the late summer of 1845. At family worship a vision was given to her in which a card was held up before her on which were written in letters of gold the chapter and verse of 50 texts of Scripture. (See Early Writings, pages 22-31.) After the vision she took the large family Bible and turned to all the texts that she had seen on the card. She jotted them down also as the Spirit recalled them to her mind, for they are listed in Early Writings and elsewhere. What normal individual, let alone a frail teen-age girl with three years of schooling, could unaided recall 50 texts seen in a list on a card? A few years later she wrote:
After I come out of vision I do not at once remember all that I have seen, and the matter is not so clear before me until I write, then the scene rises before me as was presented in vision, and I can write with freedom. I am just as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in relating or writing a vision, as in having the vision. It is impossible for me to call up things which have been shown me unless the Lord brings them before me at the time that he is pleased to have me relate or write them.Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 292.
In dealing with the apostles, Henry Alford names as one of the gifts bestowed upon them the ability of recalling by the Holy Spirit of those things which the Lord had said to them (op. cit., par. 8). And he hastens to point out that this was his own formal promise, recorded in John 14:26. The Gospels were written at a point many years after the events took place. The sayings and acts of the Lord are recorded. Even though they were eyewitnesses, without the Holy Spirit's recalling these facts to the mind the Gospel writers would have been involved in hopeless garbling.
Of their experience Ellen White wrote:
When the apostles of Christ were to bear His gospel to the world and to record it for all future ages, they were especially endowed with the enlightenment of the Spirit.The Great Controversy, p. ix.
Three of the Gospel writers were disciples continuously with Jesus. The fourth, Luke, was not so favoured. He asserts that he diligently traced down from the first the account of all things. In other words, as Alford puts it, he was a faithful and honest compiler (op. cit., par. 12). But this work he must have done under the leading of the Holy Spirit. The same must be said of Matthew as he presents the story of the birth of our Lord.
In The Desire of Ages Ellen White writing of Nicodemus' night visit with Jesus informs us that Nicodemus related to John the story of that interview, and by his pen it was recorded for the instruction of millions (page 177). As John records the incident and conversation in his Gospel some sixty years after the event, the Holy Spirit must have fulfilled His mission in recalling the words of conversation to the apostle's mind.
The Holy Spirit frequently recalled to Ellen White's mind what years earlier was revealed in vision, as when she visited publishing houses in Switzerland and Norway in 1885 and recognized printing presses shown to her ten years before and delivered appropriate messages of correction and reproof to employees imparted to her a decade before the plants were established. The experience was repeated in Australia six years later as she recalled instruction given her for publishing-house employees sixteen years before.
Frequently people would come to Ellen White for counsel, and she would respond immediately, presenting a message that both she and the person who approached her would consider inspired. Any question on this point is easily dissipated if the relationship to the testimony Ellen White
presented to the vision in which information was imparted to her is clearly understood.
The Relation of the Testimony to the Visions
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The testimony that Ellen White bore was related to the visions in four different ways. First the testimony she bore might be (a) a direct account of a single vision. For instance, she says, August 24, 1850, I saw, and then she tells what she saw.
It might be (b) a composite account of many visions given over a period of many years, as is true of the Conflict of the Ages series. In her introduction to The Great Controversy she explains this:
Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the scenes of the long-continued conflict between good and evil have been opened to the writer of these pages. From time to time I have been permitted to behold the working, in different ages, of the great controversy between Christ, the Prince of life, the Author of our salvation, and Satan, the prince of evil, the author of sin.Page x.
Mrs. White here informs us that from time to time she saw parts of the history transpire and then she put it together as one great composite account as we have it in the Conflict of the Ages series. This was increasingly so as she amplified the account.
The third relationship would be (c) that Ellen White is giving counsel based on one specific vision. Note: In the night of March 2, 1907, many things were revealed to me regarding the value of our publications.Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 65. Then she gives counsel, but she doesn't tell just what she was shown. The counsel was based on that vision.
Or it might be (d) counsel based upon many visions. She writes, God has given me a testimony of reproof for parents who treat their children as you do your little one.Ellen White Letter 1, 1877.
The Lord is sparing of miracles. He did not give a vision for each family, but she had been given a vision with light for parents who treated their children a certain way. When she found other parents treating their children the same way, what she had been shown regarding a similar case would fit their experience, too. She had a message for them.
Here is another illustration:
This matter has been brought before my mind, in other cases, where individuals have claimed to have messages for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, of a similar character, and the word has been given me, Believe them not.Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 63, 64.
As we understand these four ways in which the testimony that Ellen White bore is related to the visions we can see how people could come and talk with Sister White and she would give an answer to questions that was accepted as a message from God. Her answer was based on the visionsperhaps one given recently or on many given over a period of years. On the other hand, she might be strangely silent, conversing pleasantly, but having nothing to say on the pointno answer to the questions. She did not dare project herself, setting forth her own ideas.
In the Ralph Mackin case of 1908 she listened patiently, made discreet inquiries, but could give no positive word till God a few days after the interview gave her specific light that his experience of speaking in tongues was not inspired by Him.
The Question of What Is Inspired
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The question is asked, How can we know which of Sister White's writings are inspired and which are not inspired?
If Ellen White set forth her own ideas in her books, presenting them as counsel to the church, we would be in a difficult place.
Would we not quite naturally take the position that what we agreed with came from God, what cuts across our pathway was Sister White's idea, the idea of those who influenced her in reaching that conclusion? We should be honest with ourselves. If we were required to differentiate, would we not tend to use that criterion? In doing so, we would bring the Spirit of Prophecy down below the level of our intelligence.
But you may ask, Did not Ellen White think her own thoughts, make free to express her own thoughts? Didn't she write about ordinary subjects? Of course she could and did. If you were in her home you would visit with her and talk about the weather. She read the headlines of the paper and knew what was going on in the world, and you would talk about world events. You would visit about the advancement of the cause of God. You would talk of people you knew and a lot of such things. There would be no special significance in what was said. Then you might say, Sister White, in Chicago in my work there is a certain problem, and she might launch into a line of counsel for you. Both she and you would know that this counsel was based not on her ideas but upon light God had given her in vision.
She wrote letters to old friends such as Elder and Mrs. Haskell. She might say that the weather had been bad; it was raining and the prune crop was spoiled. She might say, Next Tuesday I'm going to go down to Mountain View and then on down to Los Angeles. My granddaughter, Grace, the other day fell out of the wagon and broke her arm, and so forth. Neither Sister White nor Brother Haskell would place any particular significance in those words. But she might go on and say, Brother Haskell, in your work in Chicago, so and so, and so and so, as she did in just such a letter. Both she and he would understand that this part of the message was based on the light that God had given her.
Ellen White drew the line between the sacred and the common. That is where we draw the line today.
Ellen White Biographical Writings
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In her preface to Spiritual Gifts, volume 2, a biographical work entitled My Christian Experience, Views and Labours, Ellen White states:
In preparing the following pages, I have laboured under great disadvantages, as I have had to depend in many instances, on memory, having kept no journal till within a few years. In several instances I have sent the manuscripts to friends who were present when the circumstances related occurred, for their examination before they were put in print. I have taken great care, and have spent much time, in endeavouring to state the simple facts as correctly as possible.
I have, however, been much assisted in arriving at dates by the many letters which I wrote.Page iii.
The appendix appearing in the first 400 copies carried this statement:
A special request is made that if any find incorrect statements in this book they will immediately inform me. The edition will be completed about the first of October; therefore send before that time.
These statements at times have been drawn upon as an indication of the pains taken by Ellen White in preparing her writings, and incidentally revealing the sources of her information. Such information is used rightfully only as explaining the preparation of biographical material. To apply it to her work in general is unwarranted and misleading.
We have but to turn to the preceding volume, Spiritual Gifts, volume 1, which appeared within six months of the great controversy vision of March 14, 1858. It embodies the expressions, I saw, I was shown, and so forth, more than once for each page of the book. Or we may turn to the third volume of the series, published in 1864, and read in the preface:
Since the great facts of faith, connected with the history of holy men of old, have been opened to me in vision
In the biographical account she does not say, I was shown that at the age of nine years an accident happened to me which was to affect my whole life. This information she got from her mother and from her memory.
But in Spiritual Gifts, volume 3, subtitled Important Facts of Faith in Connection With the History of Holy Men of Old she states, I was then carried back to creation, and was shown
In none of the score or more books issued during her life did she include words of the character that appeared in the Preface of her biography of 1860, for the writing was in a different field.
A factual approach, then, to the question of inspiration helps us to see that the prophet could think ordinary thoughts and could converse on ordinary topics. He refrained from confusing the sacred with the common. He was careful not to set forth in his teachings his own opinions or conclusions, nor were his messages moulded by the current philosophies or concepts, even though the messages may be couched in the phraseology of the times and deal with local conditions or situations. It was his task to correctly present the message God entrusted to him.
At times this was in marked contrast to current concepts. In presenting truths as revealed he was aided by the Spirit of God. In his presentation there was the basic concept, at times embellished by points drawn from his mind enriched and moulded by the visions, and when dealing with certain subjects, with some details drawn from sources of common knowledgeplaces, distances, dates, and so forth. The prophet's inspired message could embody an inaccuracy in a minor detail not consequential to the basic concept or on a minor point in the field of common knowledge, the accuracy or inaccuracy, of which human research suffices to inform
men. This does not in any measure diminish the weight or the authority of the statement as a whole.
Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.Selected Messages, book 1, p. 21.