Hermeneutics is defined as the science or art of the interpretation of literary productions, especially the Sacred Scriptures. It is appropriate that the term should be used in dealing with the Spirit of Prophecy writings, God's message conveyed to His people through a prophet of our day. The purpose of this presentation is to deal with some principles that may properly guide us in the study, interpretation, and application of the Spirit of Prophecy writings. Putting it simply we might head the chapter What Did Mrs. White Mean?
We are fortunate in having in our archives copies of materials from the pen of Ellen White in the form of letters, interviews, diaries, sermons, general manuscripts, tracts, periodical articles, and books. We also have a rich file of materials written by her contemporaries responding to her messages or commenting on her life and work. These combined files make our task a relatively easy one.
* This material was presented to the university and college Bible teachers at the Quadrennial Council for Higher Education held at Berrien Springs, Michigan, in 1968.
Ellen White was contemporary with the Advent Movement, living and working in what is very nearly our day. She was close to the people dealing with man and the problems of the twentieth century. She employed her native tongue, the English language, in both oral and written discourses. Innumerable examples of how those with whom she communicated understood and applied her messages are in our hands.
Ellen White and the Bible
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Ellen White often had to meet the suggestions of those who by their attitude toward the inspired message in the Bible and in her writings undercut the effectiveness of God's messages to His people. Concerning the Bible she declared:
I take the Bible just as it is, as the Inspired Word. I believe its utterances in an entire Bible.Selected Messages, book 1, p. 17.
Brethren, cling to your Bible, as it reads, and stop your criticisms in regard to its validity, and obey the Word, and not one of you will be lost.Ibid., p. 18.
Although she recognized that there were certain problems and she valued highly the revised versions, Ellen White saw no grounds for probing studies or intricate investigations to ascertain the true meaning of the Word of God as apart from its apparent meaning. She wrote:
The Lord has preserved this Holy Book by His own miraculous power in its present shapea chart or guidebook to the human family to show them the way to heaven.Ibid., p. 15.
We thank God that the Bible is prepared for the poor man as well as for the learned man. It is fitted for all ages and all classes.Ibid., p. 18.
Simplicity and plain utterance are comprehended by the illiterate, by the peasant, and the child as well as by the full-grown man or the giant in intellect.Ibid.
She saw human reasoning and the imaginings of the human heart as undermining the inspiration of the Word of God, and that which should be received as granted surrounded with a cloud of mysticism. Nothing stands out in clear and distinct lines, upon rock bottom.Ibid., p. 15.
The Problem of Communication
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Ellen White recognized the problem of communication which the prophet faces in trying to create in the mind of the hearer or reader the image that was imparted to him in vision. Thus she says:
It is difficult for one mind to give to one of a different temperament, education, and habits of thought by language exactly the same idea as that which is clear and distinct in his own mind. Yet to honest men, right-minded men, he can be so simple and plain as to convey his meaning for all practical purposes.
The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language. It was written by human men. These men were inspired of the Holy Spirit. Because of the imperfections of human understanding of language, or the perversity of the human mind, ingenious in evading truth, many read and understand the Bible to please themselves.Ibid., p. 19.
And in this connection she remarked:
This is the way my writings are treated by those who wish to misunderstand and pervert them. They turn the truth of God into a lie. In the very same way that they treat the writings in my published articles and in my books, so do sceptics and infidels treat the Bible. They read it according to their desire to pervert, to misapply, to wilfully wrest the utterances from their true meaning.Ibid.
Ellen White's frequent association of her writings with the writings of the Bible prophets indicates that it is not out of place in this study for us to do likewise.
We turn again to examples as she drew them from the Bible to further illustrate the point as she wrote of the failure of the Jews to accept God's Word exactly as it reads:
Those whom He [Christ] addressed regarded themselves as exalted above all other peoples. To them, they proudly boasted, had been committed the oracles of God. The earth was languishing for a teacher sent from God; but when He came just as the living oracles specified He would come, the priests and the instructors of the people could not discern that He was their Saviour, nor could they understand the manner of His coming. Unaccustomed to accept God's word exactly as it reads, or to allow it to be its own interpreter, they read it in the light of their maxims and traditions. So long had they neglected to study and contemplate the Bible, that its pages were to them a mystery. They turned with aversion from the truth of God to the traditions of men.Manuscript 24, 1891.
And to us she counsels:
Be careful how you interpret scripture. Read it with a heart opened to the entrance of God's word, and it will express heaven's light, giving understanding unto the simple. This does not mean the weak-minded, but those who do not stretch themselves beyond their measure and ability in trying to be original and independent in reaching after knowledge above that which constitutes true knowledge.
All who handle the word of God are engaged in a most solemn and sacred work; for in their research they are to receive light and a correct knowledge, that they may give to those who are ignorant. Education is the inculcation of ideas which are light and truth. Everyone who diligently and patiently searches the Scriptures that he may educate others, entering upon the work correctly and with an honest heart, laying his preconceived ideas, whatever they may have been, and his hereditary prejudices at the door of investigation, will gain true knowledge.
But it is very easy to put a false interpretation on scripture, placing stress on passages, and assigning to them a meaning, which, at the first investigation, may appear true, but which by further search, will be seen to be false. If the seeker after truth will compare scripture with scripture, he will find the key that unlocks the treasure house and gives him a true understanding of the word of God. Then he will see that his first impressions would not bear investigation, and that continuing to believe them would be mixing falsehood with truth.Manuscript 4, 1896.
It is clear that Ellen White in her public ministry lived
with the problem of trying to make people understand just what she meant in the spoken and written word. To facilitate this difficulty she employed the simplest, clearest, plainest, and most direct language. She did not indulge in double talk or speak in parables. No subtle mystery surrounded her words.
To her the basic problem of communications stood out in stark reality when soon after the issuance of her first book in the summer of 1851the 64-page Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen Whitein several instances she felt called upon to explain what she meant. It was not long after this that copies of the little book carried a two-page insert entitled Notes of Explanation, and when the Supplement was published in 1854 the explanations and observations were expanded. See Early Writings, pp. 85-96.
Her Choice of Words
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From that time onward Ellen White took care to be more precise in her writings as she prepared them for publication, carefully scrutinizing every word, phrase, and sentence. On only a very few occasions through the years did she find it necessary to explain the meaning of some published statement. It is clear then that she was consciously ever alert to the choice of words and forms of expression that would adequately and accurately convey her thoughts to the hearer or reader. She at times studied diligently to choose words and to combine them so as to be most effective. At times the Spirit of God gave special aid. Thus:
While I am writing out important matter, He is beside 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.
Taking into account the mass of her writings, we would
say this was the rare exception and not the rule. We cite another similar reference of this character:
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.
The General Counsels
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The fields of her discourse and writing were broad and diverse.
There were the messages of admonition, correction, and encouragement. These often opened with such expressions as:
In the view given me in Rochester, New York, December 25, 1865, I was shown that the subject of taking usury should be considered by Sabbathkeepers.Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 534.
November 5, 1862, I was shown the condition of Brother Hull. He was in an alarming state.Ibid., p. 426.
June 5, 1863, I was shown that Satan is ever at work to dishearten and lead astray ministers whom God has chosen to preach the truth. The most effectual way in which he can work is through home influences, through unconsecrated companions.Ibid., p. 449.
I was shown that Sabbathkeepers as a people labour too hard without allowing themselves change or periods of rest.Ibid., p. 514.
In the vision given me in Rochester, New York, December 25, 1865, I was shown that our Sabbathkeeping people have been negligent in acting upon the light which God has given in regard to health reform.Ibid., p. 485.
To Our Brethren in Positions of Responsibility she wrote:
God has given me a message for the men who are carrying responsibilities in Washington and other centres of the work. This is a time when the work of God should be conducted with the greatest wisdom, unselfishness, and the strictest integrity by every conference.Letter 32, 1908.
To Brother George W. Reaser she wrote:
I am instructed to say to you.Letter 34, 1908.
To Elder J. S. Washburn she wrote:
Dear Brother: Some time ago I had light that you should become acquainted with the work that is being done by the large educational institutions for the coloured people in Nashville.Letter 48 1/2, 1908.
Messages of this character constitute a large part of the Testimonies for the Church and testimony letters in the E. G. White manuscript files. The message is straightforward; the words were carefully chosen to convey the messages to those concerned. No special interpretation was needed. The hermeneutical principle here involved was that she gave the message of God to those concerned in the language they could understand.
Concerning such communications she declared:
You might say that this communication was only a letter. Yes, it was a letter, but prompted by the Spirit of God, to bring before your minds things that had been shown me. In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me.Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 67.
I shall write just as God bids me write. What I have written, I have written. Every word is truth. I am to give to the people of God the warnings given me.Letter 95, 1905.
But she was ever aware of the problem of how to write so as to be understood. She was also aware that some would misconstrue her words in spite of every effort to avoid misunderstanding. Thus she wrote:
There are many who interpret that which I write in the light of their own preconceived opinions. You know what this means. A division in understanding, and diverse opinions, is the sure result. How to write in a way to be understood by those to whom I address important matter, is a problem I cannot solve.
Owing to the influence of mind upon mind, those who misunderstand can lead others to misunderstand, by the interpretation they place upon the subjects from my pen. One understands them as
he thinks they should be, in accordance with his ideas. Another puts his construction upon the written matter, and confusion is the sure result.Letter 96, 1899.
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Akin to the messages conveyed by letter or published testimony were the sermons preached to congregations large and small. The largest congregation to which she preached was 20,000 at the Groveland, Massachusetts, camp meeting in 1877. In these sermons she usually spoke without notes. Her words were always well chosen and the style was simple. The people could easily understand the message presented in practical terms, whether admonition, reproof, doctrinal exposition, or prophetic interpretation.
Of such presentations she at times wrote:
I speak that which I have seen, and which I know to be true.Letter 4, 1896.
When I attend meetings such as this camp meeting I speak the words of the Lord, with the authority that He gives me, and then I leave the matter in His hands, knowing that I have done my duty. This I must do, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. But I am not to speak words of my own, lest I weaken the testimony God gives me.Letter 145, 1902.
There was direct communication with the people in language they could understand and apply.
Articles in the Journals
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The journals of the church through the years carried some 4,400 articles from the pen of Ellen White. These articles varied in form and content. Of them she wrote:
I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in visionthe precious rays of light shining from the throne.Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 67.
Mainly the articles were admonitions to the church, sometimes being her sermons. Some dealt with doctrine. Sometimes she reported journeys in these articles. At times they were comprised of material drawn from her manuscript files.
The Writings in Practical Fields
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Ellen White wrote much in such practical fields as:
1. Education and the development and operation of educational institutions.
2. Health and the health work.
3. The minister and pastoral and evangelistic work.
4. The publishing of the message through the public press.
5. Church finance and administration.
These counsels appear in clear, plain language, instructing, exhorting, and admonishing. No particular interpretation is called for. The reader is continually reminded that these counsels are based on the visions that God gave her. If any who have not for themselves read these counsels are tempted to think that they may reflect either Ellen White's personal pet ideas or the theories of her contemporaries, the reading of the books will remind them of the true source and, hence, the binding claims of the counsel, by such expressions as:
The Lord has instructed me that as a general rule, we place too much food in the stomach.Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 136.
Dear Brother, In the past you have practiced health reform too rigorously for your own good. Once, when you were very sick, the Lord gave a message to save your life.Ibid., p. 199.
I saw that God does not require anyone to take a course of such rigid economy as to weaken or injure the temple of God.Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 205.
The light given me was that a sanitarium should be established, and that in it drug medication should be discarded, and simple, rational
methods of treatment employed for the healing of disease.Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 303.
I have received instruction in regard to the use of flesh meat in our sanitariums. Flesh meat should be excluded from the diet, and its place should be supplied by wholesome, palatable food, prepared in such a way as to be appetizing.Ibid., p. 289.
I use some salt, and always have, because from the light given me by God, this article, in the place of being deleterious, is actually essential for the blood. The whys and wherefores of this I know not, but I give you the instruction as it is given me.Ibid., p. 344.
It is for their own good that the Lord counsels the remnant church to discard the use of flesh meats, tea, and coffee, and other harmful foods.Ibid., p. 381.
Those who use flesh meat disregard all the warnings that God has given concerning this question.Ibid., p. 383.
From the light God has given me, the prevalence of cancer and tumours is largely due to gross living on dead flesh.Ibid., p. 388.
The light given me is that it will not be very long before we shall have to give up any animal food.Ibid., p. 357.
I have been instructed that the nut foods are often used unwisely, that too large a proportion of nuts is used, that some nuts are not as wholesome as others. Almonds are preferable to peanuts Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, p. 134.
I have been instructed that the students in our schools are not to be served with flesh foods or with food preparations that are known to be unhealthful.Ibid., vol. 9, p. 157.
The light that God has given upon the subject of disease and its causes, needs to be dwelt upon largely; for it is the wrong habits of indulgence of appetite, and careless, reckless inattention to proper care for the body that tell upon people.Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 291.
An hour spent in reading the counsels given in the area of health cannot but convince the earnest seeker for truth that Ellen White in her writings on this subject is attempting to convey in clear, plain language that all can understand just what God's will is for His remnant church. The writing is not in figures or symbols or parables. This is also true of all of the practical counsels.
The Testimonies to Explain the Testimonies
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If in these counsels a given statement seems somewhat obscure, we turn to other statements that approach the same subject from a different angle, and this often makes clear the perplexing point. This Ellen White expected, for she wrote:
The testimonies themselves will be the key that will explain the messages given, as scripture is explained by scripture.Selected Messages, book 1, p. 42.
Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing and Christ's Object Lessons
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These two Ellen White books are devoted to expounding the teachings of our Lord in His parables and in the Sermon on the Mount. As she recounts these teachings she draws out the deep principles and presents the practical lessons to each child of God. In dealing with the parables she clarifies the meanings and sets forth the lessons in language easily understood.
Descriptions of the Future State and Events
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Some of Ellen White's earliest visions deal with the future state and future events. Subsequently some of her visions dealt with the same themes. In these visions Ellen White seemed to be transported, and she viewed the rewards and activities of the redeemed. As she writes of her first vision she describes a path on which the Advent people were travelling to the Holy City, with a bright light behind the travellers to keep them from stumbling. Then follows a description of the second advent of Christ; the ascension to the New Jerusalem with its sea of glass, the river of life, the tree of life by its banks; and crowns and harps given to the redeemed. Whereas, in the city she speaks of meeting Brethren Fitch
and Stockman under a tree and of conversing with them of the events that had occurred since they were called to rest in the grave just before the disappointment of 1844.
In this presentation there is intermingled the symbolic and the real. The pathway and the bright light were symbolic; were the crowns and harps real? Brethren Stockman and Fitch were real. Was the tree real, under which Ellen White, carried forward in vision, was conversing with them? She writes of the sea of glass and the river of life. Were these real or symbolic, or was one real and the other symbolic?
Milton S. Terry, in his Biblical Hermeneutics, comes to our relief:
It is an old and oft-repeated hermeneutical principle that words should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation involves a contradiction or absurdity.Biblical Hermeneutics, ch. 10, p. 247.
This position taken toward the Bible and her writings seems well sustained by several E. G. White allusions and statements that will be presented shortly.
The Presentation of the Great Controversy
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Basic to an understanding of God's character, His actions, and His purposes and basic to an understanding of the philosophy of man is the great controversy presentation that begins with a sinless universe in which God is supreme over all; the fall of Lucifer; the creation of our world and of man; man's response to evil; the steps in the redemption of the fallen race; man's preparation for translation; the climactic termination of life on the earth; the destruction of sin and sinners; and the earth restored to its Edenic state inhabited by a redeemed race immune to sin and rebellion. The various books of the Sacred Canon deal with segments of the story. To Ellen White, nearly two thousand years this side of the
last of the Biblical records, the whole picture was unveiled in great sweeps and then in more detail. The concepts permeated her entire work, and placed a certain mould on the work of the denomination. Certain segments of paramount importance were first given to her as presented in such chapters of Early Writings as My First Vision, Subsequent Visions, and so on. Then in 1848 the over-all picture was opened to her in one grand panoramic sweep. The opportunities and facilities for writing and publishing were extremely limited at the time. There is reason to believe that certain segments of the depiction were presented in chapters of her first book, Experience and Views, and now are a part of the first section of Early Writings.
In 1858 after the publishing work was well established the view was again repeated. Of this she wrote:
In this vision at Lovett's Grove, most of the matter of the Great Controversy which I had seen ten years before, was repeated, and I was shown that I must write it out.Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 270.
This she proceeded to do immediately, and within six months of the vision the 219-page Spiritual Gifts The Great Controversy Between Christ and His Angels, and Satan and His Angels appeared. It opens with the words, The Lord has shown me that Satan was once an honoured angel in heaven and closes with the triumphant declaration: The kingdom was then given to the saints of the Most High, who were to possess it forever, even forever and ever. No less than once for each page Ellen White indicates that what she was presenting to her readers had been revealed to her in vision.
As repeated and more-comprehensive visions were imparted to her down through the years and as the church grew and could absorb larger books, the great controversy presentation was made in the four 400-page volumes of The Spirit of Prophecy and later in the five volumes of the Conflict of the Ages series, comprising 3,500 pages. Getting this vital
theme before the church and the world was a task that stretched through most of Ellen White's life, from the 1858 issuance of Spiritual Gifts to her last work, on Prophets and Kings in early 1915.
Authoritative, but No Expression I Saw
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The later fuller presentation in the Conflict series carries no reminders that Ellen White viewed in holy vision that which she was presenting, for she deliberately refrained from the use of all such expressions as I saw and I was shown. She did so lest the reading public generally, who were unfamiliar with her call and work, should by the use of such expressions have their attention diverted from the topic she was presenting to questions as to the meaning of such expressions. None need, however, be in any uncertainty as to the vision source of the materials comprising the great controversy presentation. Let us cite some such evidences:
1. The frequency of such expressions in the basic presentation made in Spiritual Gifts, volume 1, in 1858.
2. Her 1864 Preface to Spiritual Gifts, volume 3, which opens with the words:
In presenting this, my third little volume, to the public, I am comforted with the conviction that the Lord has made me His humble instrument in shedding some rays of precious light upon the past. The great facts of faith, connected with the history of holy men of old, have been opened to me in vision.
3. The first of the five Conflict of the Ages books to come from the press, The Great Controversy, published in 1888, in the author's Introduction carries two significant statements:
(a) 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.
(b) 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.Page xi.
4. Commenting in 1888 on the presentation of earth's closing events and the second advent of Christ as presented in her books she declared:
Scenes of such thrilling, solemn interest passed before me as no language is adequate to describe. It was all a living reality to me, for close upon this scene appeared the great white cloud, upon which was seated the Son of man.Letter 38, 1888. (Published in Selected Messages, book 1, p. 76.)
5. In 1906 in advance of the publication of her books Prophets and Kings and The Acts of the Apostles she referred to the source of information in her works which present the great controversy.
How many have read carefully Patriarchs and Prophets, The Great Controversy, and The Desire of Ages? I wish all to understand that my confidence in the light that God has given stands firm, because I know that the Holy Spirit's power magnified the truth, and made it honourable, saying: This is the way, walk ye in it. In my books, the truth is stated, barricaded by a Thus saith the Lord. The Holy Spirit traced these truths upon my heart and mind as indelibly as the law was traced by the finger of God, upon the tables of stone.Colporteur Ministry, p. 126.
6. Then, dealing with single volumes, she wrote:
God would be pleased to see The Desire of Ages in every home. In this book is contained the light He has given upon His word.Letter 75, 1900. (Published in Colporteur Ministry, p. 126.)
Have you read volume 4?* Do you know what it contains?
* Note: The Great Controversy, 1888 edition. For a few years The Great Controversy was referred to as volume 4. When Patriarchs and Prophets was first issued it was titled Great Controversy, Volume One.
I was moved by the Spirit of the Lord to write that book.
The Lord has set before me matters which are of urgent importance for the present time, and which reach into the future. The words have been spoken in a charge to me, Write in a book the things which thou hast seen and heard, and let it go to all the people; for the time is at hand when past history will be repeated. I have been aroused at one, two, or three o'clock in the morning with some point forcibly impressed upon my mind, as if spoken by the voice of God.Letter 1, 1890. (Published in Colporteur Ministry, pp. 127, 128.)
While writing the manuscript of The Great Controversy, I was often conscious of the presence of the angels of God. And many times the scenes about which I was writing were presented to me anew in visions of the night, so that they were fresh and vivid in my mind.Letter 56, 1911. (Published in Colporteur Ministry, p. 128.)
Sister White is not the originator of these books. They contain the instruction that during her lifework God has been giving her. They contain the precious, comforting light that God has graciously given His servant to be given to the world.Review and Herald, Jan. 20, 1903. (Published in Colporteur Ministry, p. 125.)
Looking beyond the question of the use Mrs. White made of the historical writings of others as she wove the narrative and the doctrinal presentation and the prophetic forecast of The Great Controversy story on the tapestry of historyfor this is dealt with in Chapter 4and having established through her own witness the fact that what she presented in these books was revealed to her by God, let us look at some features of the presentation she gives. As we do so we recognize that certain segments are dealt with not only in these volumes of the great controversy presentationSpiritual Gifts, Spirit of Prophecy, and the Conflict series, and we might include Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing and
Christ's Object Lessons as well, for they were overflow materialbut they also appear in other of the E. G. White productions.
The Symbolic and the Real
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We come now to a point of hermeneutical interest. Although the great controversy presentation deals much with narrative of events past, present, and future, often in the light of Bible prophecy, it also abounds in doctrinal presentation and views of heavenly things. No special hermeneutical problem resides in the historical narrative. She tells the story in simple terms. The treatment of heavenly things embodies events (a) antedating Creation; (b) paralleling world history; and (c) postdating the Second Advent. On some phases of these events, at times questions are raised.
Writing of the Holy Scriptures, Ellen White makes this significant declaration:
The truths most plainly revealed in the Bible have been involved in doubt and darkness by learned men, who, with a pretence of great wisdom, teach that the Scriptures have a mystical, a secret, spiritual meaning not apparent in the language employed. These men are false teachers. It was to such a class that Jesus declared: Ye know not the Scriptures, neither the power of God.
The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed.* Christ
* Note: In narrating the experience of William Miller, Ellen White, with no suggestion that the position he took was not correct, declares:
He [Miller] saw that the prophecies, so far as they had been fulfilled, had been fulfilled literally; that all the various figures, metaphors, parables, similitudes, etc., were either explained in their immediate connection, or the terms in which they were expressed were defined in other scriptures, and when thus explained, were to be literally understood.The Great Controversy, p. 320.
has given the promise: If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine.
If men would but take the Bible as it reads, if there were no false teachers to mislead and confuse their minds, a work would be accomplished that would make angels glad and that would bring into the fold of Christ thousands upon thousands who are now wandering in error.The Great Controversy, pp. 598, 599.
Figures and Symbols
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Reference is made to symbols that God apparently often employed as an effective means of conveying truth to the prophets. Note these statements:
God Himself employed pictures and symbols to represent to His prophets lessons which He would have them give to the people, and which could thus be better understood than if given in any other way.Historical Sketches, pp. 211, 212. (Republished in Selected Messages, book 2, p. 319.)
Angels for ages have communicated to men light and knowledge, telling them what to do , unfolding before them scenes of thrilling interest, waymark by waymark in symbols and signs and illustrations.Manuscript 16, 1888. (Published in Selected Messages, book 1, p. 17.)
But the prophet gaining his knowledge in symbolic representation usually embodied the truths taught in words projecting a literal image. Ellen White in her Introduction to The Great Controversy states:
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.Selected Messages, book 1, p. 25.
However, this was not always the case. At times as a means of impressive teaching the symbols were reproduced by the prophet in his written account. Note this concerning the revelator:
In figures and symbols, subjects of vast importance were presented to John, which he was to record, that the people of God living in his age and in future ages might have an intelligent understanding of the perils and conflicts before them.The Acts of the Apostles, p. 583.
And of her own experience she wrote:
In the night season the Lord gives me instruction in symbols, and then explains their meaning.Manuscript 22, 1890.
For instance, on several occasions the ills that would result from consolidation of the publishing work of the denominationremoving from the several houses their autonomy and placing the control under one management, a course which seemed very promising to our leaders in the early 1890'swere revealed to Ellen White as trees planted too closely together, with entangled roots, resulting in their being stunted and dwarfed. The symbol gave force to the point made.
In 1903, writing to Dr. John H. Kellogg, medical superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and the natural leader of our medical work, she opened to him certain symbolic representations given to her relating to his case:
Many other scenes connected with your case have been presented to me. At one time you were represented to me as trying to push a long car up a steep ascent. But this car, instead of going up the hill, kept running down. This car represented the food business as a commercial enterprise, which has been carried forward in a way that God does not commend.Letter 239, 1903.
I saw you holding up the banner on which are written the words: Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus. Revelation 14:12. Several men, some of them those with whom you are connected in the sanitarium, were presenting to you a banner on which was a different inscription. You were letting go the banner of Seventh-day Adventists, and were reaching out to grasp the banner presented to you.Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 153, 154.
A few sentences carried a message that without the symbolic representation would have taken pages to present, and perhaps would have been less effective. But there is no mystery as to the teaching of these two representations. Rather than creating mysteries, symbols were an effective and economical means employed to convey plainly clear-cut truths. But because truths are at times presented in a symbolic framework, there are some who would tend to consider as symbolic much that we have evidence should be understood literally. This tendency gave Ellen White considerable concern, and on a number of occasions she spoke out emphatically on this point.
Consistent and Repeated Declarations on a Critical Point
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One such case relates to the personality of God and involves the Trinity. I have failed to find one instance in which Ellen White employs the term Trinity. However, she was clear on the subject of the three highest powers in heaventhe Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (Evangelism, p. 617). She had been reared in the Methodist Church with a creed, the very first tenet of which declares:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternitythe Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1888, pp. 16, 17.
Besides reacting against this doctrine she also had to meet the devastating teachings of the spiritualizers in the mid-1840's.
The point of God being without body or parts was a question Ellen White in vision discussed with Jesus. She records it in her first book, published in 185 1:
I saw a throne, and on it sat the Father and the Son. I gazed on Jesus' countenance and admired His lovely person. The Father's person I could not behold, for a cloud of glorious light covered Him. I asked Jesus if His Father had a form like Himself. He said He had, but I could not behold it, for said He, If you should once behold the glory of His person, you would cease to exist.Early Writings, p. 55 (1882 edition).
In an explanatory statement published in 1854 Ellen White defines further just what she meant:
On page 55, I stated that a cloud of glorious light covered the Father and that His person could not be seen. I also stated that I saw the Father rise from the throne. The Father was enshrouded with a body of light and glory, so that His person could not be seen; yet I knew it was the Father and that from His person emanated this light and glory. When I saw this body of light and glory rise from the throne, I knew it was because the Father moved, therefore said, I saw the Father rise. The glory, or excellency, of His form I never saw; no one could behold it and live; yet the body of light and glory that enshrouded His person could be seen.Ibid., p. 92.
And she discussed the matter elsewhere in the book:
I have often seen the lovely Jesus, that He is a person. I asked Him if His Father was a person and had a form like Himself. Said Jesus, I am the express image of My Father's person.Ibid., p. 77.
Then follows a significant statement employing the word spiritualism* in a manner not usually employed by Seventh-day Adventists, and stemming from the work of the spiritualisers, who were heard in 1845 and onward for a few years:
I have often seen that the spiritual view took away all the glory of heaven, and that in many minds the throne of David and the
* The term spiritualism as used by some of the post-Millerites in the late 1840's refers to that system of interpretation by which Biblical doctrines and prophecies were spiritualized away.
lovely person of Jesus have been burned up in the fire of spiritualism.Ibid.
Our forefathers consistently were averse to the doctrine of the Trinity as defined in church creeds, notably the Methodist. They saw in it an element that spiritualized away both Jesus Christ and God. James White in a letter sent to the Day Star and published in the issue of January 24, 1846, speaks of
A certain class who deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ. This class can be no other than those who spiritualize away the existence of the Father and the Son, as two distinct, literal, tangible persons, also a literal Holy city and throne of David. The way spiritualisers this way have disposed of or denied the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ is first using the old unscriptural trinitarian creed.
James White's use of the term spiritualisers helps to clarify Ellen White's use of the term spiritualism as it appears in the quotations above, and this is a point we shall pursue. But before doing so, let us place on the record here four statements particularly significant in the light of the words from Early Writings quoted above:
In the beginning, man was created in the likeness of God, not only in character, but in form and feature.The Great Controversy, pp. 644, 645.
God is a being, and man was made in His image. After God created man in His image, the form was perfect.Manuscript 117, 1898.
Man was to bear God's image, both in outward resemblance and in character. Christ alone is the express image of the Father; but man was formed in the likeness of God.Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 45.
When Adam came from the Creator's hand, he bore, in his physical, mental, and spiritual nature, a likeness to his Maker. God created man in His own image.Education, p. 15. They bore in outward resemblance the likeness of their Maker.Ibid., p. 20.
In laying a foundation for what is to come, we turn to
the Review and Herald Extra bearing date of July 21, 1851. Note the date. James White under the heading A Warning declares:
We feel to pity, and mourn over the condition of our honest brethren who have fallen into the mischievous error and bewitching snare of modern spiritualism,* and we would do all in our power to help them.Ellen White Present Truth and Review and Herald Articles, vol. 1, p. 16.
Ellen White Repeats and Applies the Counsel Given
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At the turn of the century when called upon to meet the pantheistic views promulgated by Dr. John H. Kellogg, the leader of the medical work of the denomination, Ellen White on several occasions alluded to the experience of early days and of how she was called upon to meet similar teachings. Note the following written to Dr. Kellogg on November 20, 1903:
After the passing of the time, we were opposed and cruelly falsified. Erroneous theories were pressed in upon us. Just such theories as you have presented in Living Temple were presented then. These subtle, deceiving sophistries have again and again sought to find place amongst us. But I have ever had the same testimony to bear which I now bear regarding the personality of God.Letter 253, 1903.
In Early Writings are the following statements:
* Note: Having taken the position that Christ had come spiritually and that, because the kingdom was in their hearts, they were in the kingdom of God, every action was therefore without sin. James White spoke out in strong language as he witnessed the fruit of such teaching, referring to those who hold some doctrines as corrupt, and as black as hell. We cannot conceive of language too pointed to express our views of that damnable heresy that leads to the violation of the seventh commandment. We mean the doctrine of spiritual union.James White in Review and Herald Extra, July 21, 1851.
May 14, 1851,* I saw the beauty and loveliness of Jesus. As I beheld His glory, the thought did not occur to me that I should ever be separated from His presence. I saw a light coming from the glory that encircled the Father, and as it approached near to me, my body trembled and shook like a leaf. I thought that if it should come near me I would be struck out of existence, but the light passed me. Then could I have some sense of the great and terrible God with whom we have to do.Page 70.
I have often seen the lovely Jesus, that He is a person. I asked Him if His Father was a person and had a form like Himself. Said Jesus, I am in the express image of My Father's person.
I have often seen that the spiritual view took away all the glory of heaven, and that in many minds the throne of David and the lovely person of Jesus have been burned up in the fire of Spiritualism. I have seen that some who have been deceived and led into this error will be brought out into the light of truth, but it will be almost impossible for them to get entirely rid of the deceptive power of spiritualism. Such should make thorough work in confessing their errors and leaving them forever.Ibid., pages 77, 78.
There is a strain of spiritualism coming in among our people, and it will undermine the faith of those who give place to it, leading them to give heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.
I could say much regarding the sanctuary; the ark containing the law of God; the cover of the ark, which is the mercy seat; the angels at either end of the ark; and other things connected with the heavenly sanctuary and with the great day of atonement. I could say much regarding the mysteries of heaven; but my lips are closed. I have no inclination to describe them.
I am instructed to say that there is nothing in the word of God to substantiate your spiritualistic theories. You have followed the enemy step by step, striving to look into mysteries too high and holy for your comprehension. Then in your teaching the Holy One has been brought down to man's scientific, spiritualistic ideas.
Heaven is not a vapour. It is a place. Christ has gone to prepare mansions for those who love Him, those who, in obedience to His
* Note: Compare this date with James White's statement and reference to modern spiritualism.
commands, come out from the world, and are separate.
Ever since I was seventeen years old, I have had to fight this battle against false theories, in defence of the truth. The history of our past experience is indelibly fixed in my mind and I am determined that no theories of the order that you have been accepted shall come into our ranks.Letter 253, 1903.
A number of other statements from sources published and unpublished could be presented here. Some of these go further than the above statements. In one such presentation published in 1904 Ellen White declared:
The spiritualistic theories regarding the personality of God, followed to their logical conclusion, sweep away the whole Christian economy.Spec. Test., Series B, No. 7, p. 54. (Republished in Selected Messages, book 1, p. 204.)
The Heavenly Sanctuary
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It is of interest to note that in this connection Ellen White not only deals firmly with the personality of God in contrast to any spiritualistic views but also mentions the heavenly sanctuary and the ark and so forth and the reality of heaven as a place. The three seem closely linked together, and indeed it is in the latter two areas that questions sometimes arise in discussions today.
The apostle John and Ellen White describe what they saw in vision. There is every evidence that Ellen White considered the sanctuary in heaven real.
While the pantheistic crisis was still raging Ellen White wrote:
They [the children of God] will not, by their works and acts, lead any one to doubt in regard to the distinct personality of God, or in regard to the sanctuary and its ministry.
We all need to keep the subject of the sanctuary in mind. God forbid that the clatter of words coming from human lips should lessen the belief of our people in the truth that there is a sanctuary in heaven, and that a pattern of this sanctuary was once built on this
earth. God desires His people to become familiar with this pattern, keeping ever before their minds the heavenly sanctuary, where God is all and in all. We must keep our minds braced by prayer and a study of God's word, that we may grasp these truths.Letter 233, 1904.
The next year at the General Conference session she warned:
In the future, deception of every kind is to arise. The enemy will bring in false theories, such as the doctrine that there is no sanctuary. This is one of the points on which there will be a departing from the faith.Review and Herald, May 25, 1905. (Quoted in Evangelism, p. 224.)
Ellen White was ever clear concerning the reality of the heavenly sanctuary and its furnishings. Note the following quotation, published in 1884:
In their investigation they [our spiritual forefathers] learned, that the earthly sanctuary, built by Moses at the command of God, according to the pattern shown him in the mount, was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices; that its two holy places were patterns of things in the heavens; that Christ, our great High Priest, is a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.
The sanctuary in Heaven, in which Jesus ministers in our behalf, is the great original, of which the sanctuary built by Moses was a copy.
The matchless splendour of the earthly tabernacle reflected to human vision the glories of that heavenly temple where Christ our forerunner ministers for us before the throne of God.
As the sanctuary on earth had two apartments, the holy and the most holy, so there are two holy places in the sanctuary in Heaven. And the ark containing the law of God, the altar of incense, and other instruments of service found in the sanctuary below, have also their counterpart in the sanctuary above. In holy vision the apostle John was permitted to enter Heaven, and he there beheld the candlestick and the altar of incense, and as the temple of God was opened, he beheld also the ark of his testament. (Rev. 4:5; 8:3; 11:19.)
Those who were seeking for the truth found indisputable proof of the existence of a sanctuary in Heaven. Moses made the earthly sanctuary after a pattern which was shown him. Paul declares that that pattern was the true sanctuary which is in Heaven. John testifies that he saw it in Heaven.Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, pp. 260, 261.
And Ellen White might have added that she too saw this sanctuary and its furnishings. In the vision confirming the Sabbath truth given in Topsham, Maine, April 3, 1847, she seemed to be carried by an angel from the earth to the Holy City. Then she describes what she saw:
In the city I saw a temple. I passed into the holy place. Here I saw the altar of incense, the candlestick with seven lamps, and the table on which was the shewbread. I passed into the holy of holies. In the holiest I saw an ark. Jesus stood by the ark.Early Writings, p. 32.
In 1858 Ellen White wrote on this point:
I was shown a Sanctuary upon earth containing two apartments. It resembled the one in heaven. I was told that it was the earthly Sanctuary, a figure of the heavenly. The furniture of the first apartment of the earthly Sanctuary was like that in the first apartment of the heavenly. The veil was lifted, and I looked into the Holy of Holies, and saw that the furniture was the same as in the Most Holy place of the heavenly Sanctuary.Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1, pp. 160, 161.
Speaking in Sweden in 1886 concerning the sanctity of the Sabbath she said:
I warn you, Do not place your influence against God's commandments. That law is just as Jehovah wrote it in the temple of heaven. Man may trample upon its copy here below, but the original is kept in the ark of God in heaven; and on the cover of this ark, right above that law, is the mercy seat. Jesus stands right there before that ark to mediate for man.The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen White Comments, on Ex. 31:18, p. 1109.
Although this matter was opened up to Ellen White in vision many times and she wrote of it for the church
and for the world, she never indicated that what was revealed on these points merely conveyed certain truths and thus was without reality. She ever contends for the reality of the heavenly sanctuary, its furnishing and its services. If what she saw was but a figure, would she not have made this known? She firmly held that God makes clear the truths He intends to convey:
God speaks to the human family in language they can comprehend. He does not leave the matter so indefinite that human beings can handle it according to their theories.Testimonies to Ministers, p. 136.
The Reality of the Reward
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Concerning the New Jerusalem and the new earth she is equally positive as to the realities:
Adam is reinstated in his first dominion. Transported with joy, he beholds the trees that were once his delightthe very trees whose fruit he himself had gathered in the days of his innocence and joy. He sees the vines that his own hands have trained, the very flowers that he once loved to care for. His mind grasps the reality of the scene; he comprehends that this is indeed Eden restored.The Great Controversy, p. 648.
A fear of making the future inheritance seem too material has led many to spiritualize away the very truths which lead us to look upon it as our home. Christ assured His disciples that He went to prepare mansions for them in the Father's house.Ibid., pp. 674, 675.
We repeat the principle enunciated by Terry:
It is an old and oft-repeated hermeneutical principle that words should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation involves a contradiction or absurdity.
Ellen White Guided to the Fundamental Principles
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We now turn to some practical related matters that may be profitable to consider here. In Ellen White's endeavour to
convey truth in such a way that it might be readily accepted she often followed the course of presenting general principles, hoping that the hearer might grasp them and apply them in his personal experience. The Spirit of Prophecy was given to make us a strong people, not a weak people merely following dictates of a higher power. We are to grasp the principles set forth and apply them in our own lives. We are a people who live by principle. In giving counsel to a physician she wrote:
I was carried from one sickroom to another where Dr. was the physician. In some cases I was made sad to see a great inefficiency. He did not have sufficient knowledge to understand what the case demanded, and what was essential to be done to baffle disease. The One of authority that has often instructed me, said, Young man, you are not a close student. You skim the surface. You must make close study, make use of your opportunities, learn more; and what lessons you learn, learn thoroughly. You go too lightly loaded. It is a solemn thing to have human life in your hands, where any mistake you may make, any neglect of deep insight on your part, may cut short the existence of those who might live. This danger would be lessened, if the physician had more thorough intelligence how to treat the sick.
I never have written this to you, but I have presented all, in a general manner, without applying it to your case. I feel now that you should know these things, that the light that has been given to the workers at the sanitarium, in some things meant you. I tell you in the spirit of love for your soul, and with an interest in your success as a medical practitioner, you must drink deeper at the fountain of knowledge, before you are prepared to be first or alone in an institution for the sick.Letter 7, 1887.
Somewhat in the same vein William C. White reports on a meeting in Australia at which certain questions on points in a sensitive area were brought to the union conference committee at which Ellen White was invited to be present:
I read the letters which you enclosed to me, and Elder Colcord read extracts from your letters to him. Then the principles were briefly discussed, but as our brethren seemed most desirous of
hearing from mother, she occupied most of the time.
As you are Well aware mother seldom answers such questions directly; but she endeavours to lay down principles and bring forward facts which have been presented to her that will aid us in giving intelligent study to the subject, and in arriving at a correct conclusion.W. C. White Letter to A. O. Tait, Nov. 22, 1895.
The Principles Are Clear
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It is well for us to study the Spirit of Prophecy counsels to find the principles involved in them, for each individual is constantly making choices, and these choices should be guided by principles. The application of these principles may change as circumstances change, but principle never changes. This fact is sometimes overlooked as certain counsels of earlier years are mentioned.
As study is given to the counsels set before the church in the Word of God and the Spirit of Prophecy it is well to search for the underlying principles that support the counsels. It is proper to ask, Why? and then to single out the fundamental elements. This having been done, the individual is prepared to make right decisions in other cases where these principles may come into play.
Although the principles are often seen through the specific counsels, they are not always singled out by Ellen White. She may write, as she did in 1903 in Education, pages 216, 217: If girls could learn to harness and drive a horse they would be better fitted to meet the emergencies of life. Looking at it several decades after the words were penned, we do not cast the counsel aside as for another age, but we see clearly the point that girls should be so trained that they will be self-sufficient and well prepared for everyday responsibilities of life. It is not difficult to apply the principle to driver training, for example.
Ellen White may write, as she did in 1894, of a bicycle
craze in which money was spent to gratify an enthusiasm. This bewitching infatuation called for time and money to gratify supposed wants. Each was trying to excel the other, and this idea led to a spirit of strife and contention as to who should be the greatest (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, pp. 51, 52).
Written at a time when the bicycle was a rich man's toy and every member of the family wanted a wheel, even at the cost of $100 or $120, they involved Adventist youth in mortgaging their incomes far into the future to buy bicycles. The counsel was timely. Within seven years the same bicycle could be purchased new for $10 to $18 and a used one for $2, and it became the most economical and one of the most useful means of transportation.
The specific application within the connotations of the 1894 counsel concerning bicycles no longer applies in the same way today. One need not search far, however, in this article to find principles valuable to the Christian as they may touch the seeking of status, undue expenditure of means, wasting of time, and the cultivation of the spirit of rivalry, et cetera.
In Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, Ellen White mentions ball games (see pp. 274, 456, 350). In the first mention, under the heading Manual Labour Versus Games, she declares:
The public feeling is that manual labour is degrading, yet men may exert themselves as much as they choose at cricket, baseball, or in pugilistic contests, without being regarded as degraded.
She speaks of Satan's delight when he sees human beings using their physical and mental powers in that which does not educate, which is not useful, which does not help them to be a blessing to those who need their help.Ibid. The principles involved stand out more boldly in the light of the closing comment that games can be set in operation which
will so confuse the senses of the youth that God and heaven will be forgotten (ibid., p. 275).
Keeping in mind that good exegesis will take into consideration all materials available on a given point, we turn to other E. G. White statements to find the basic principles clearly enunciated. They appear in Selected Messages, book 2, pages 321-324, and The Adventist Home, pages 499, 500.
I do not condemn the simple exercise of playing ball, Ellen White wrote to a young man who had made inquiry of her (see The Adventist Home, p. 499). In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with playing a game in which a ball is used. Then she continues in a statement that presents principle after principle underlying the cautions she has sounded. To these all should be alert:
But this, she continued, even in its simplicity, may be overdone.
I shrink always from the almost sure result which follows in the wake of these amusements. It leads to an outlay of means that should be expended in bringing the light of truth to souls that are perishing out of Christ. The amusements and expenditures of means for self-pleasing, which lead on step by step to self-glorifying, and the educating in these games for pleasure produce a love and passion for such things that is not favourable to the perfection of Christian character.The Adventist Home, p. 499.
As she continues she declares that the way these sports had been conducted at the [Battle Creek] college does not strengthen the intellect or refine the character. Those involved became so engrossed and infatuated that in heaven they were pronounced lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.
The Lord God of heaven, she declared, protests against the burning passion cultivated for supremacy in the games that are so engrossing.Ibid., p. 500.
Ellen White was not unsympathetic to Christian youth engaging in games in which a ball may be used. However, the young man or woman is alerted to certain perils through the enumeration of the underlying principles. The young person seeking to avoid subtle pitfalls will keep the eye single to the glory of God. A frequent review of these principles will establish guidelines in his choice of what to play and what not to play and the extent of involvement in this type of recreation acceptable in itself.
There is the statement that study in agricultural lines should be the A, B, and C of the education given in our schools (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 179). Although presented in the setting of the value of the garden and farm to the boarding school, this statement that links agriculture with education upon thoughtful perusal reveals that it has more than economic intent.
Even with mechanical farming, which reduces the raising of food crops to an ever-shrinking proportion of population, the reading of other counsels concerning the important place of gardening in the experience of the child and the adult, as well as the invalid, makes it clear that it is not the size of the venture nor its ultimate economic value but rather the basic lessons learned, the satisfaction gained, and the therapeutic value in agricultural pursuits that establish agriculture as the A, B, and C of the education given in our schools.
The quest for the basic principles in each line of counsel will yield rich returns. It will call for the reading of statements in their setting plus going back and reading beyond the statement in question. It will lead to the reading of other statements touching on the same topic. To assist in this study the three-volume Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen White is a valuable tool.
This sort of study of the Spirit of Prophecy counsels as
they touch on the many facets of life and experience will disclose principles invaluable to the Christian in making day-by-day decisions.
In conclusion it may be said that when Ellen White spoke or wrote she meant what she said.
In ancient times God spoke to men by the mouth of prophets and apostles. In these days He speaks to them by the testimonies of His Spirit. There was never a time when God instructed His people more earnestly than He instructs them now concerning His will and the course that He would have them pursue.Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 661.