Formation of Seventh-day Adventist Doctrines and Lifestyle
The Millerite disappointment of October 22, 1844, led many Millerites to look for the reason Christ did not return as expected on that day. By studying the Scriptures, the founders of Sabbatarian Adventism discovered not only a biblical answer to the disappointment but also many other biblical teachings overshadowed by the Christian tradition. Several lines of truth were restored and integrated over time into the so-called system of “present truth.” Once the theoretical foundation (doctrines) of the emerging movement was established, efforts were concentrated in the development of the practical dimension of faith (lifestyle). Crucial in the whole process was the prophetic assistance provided by Ellen White.
Of the overall doctrinal-lifestyle contributions Ellen White left for the church, at least four foundational ones deserve special consideration. First, she helped the church to build a solid doctrinal-lifestyle platform based on the principle of “the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines, and the basis of all reforms.”3 Seeing her own prophetic mission in terms of confirming biblical truth and reproving error, White wrote in 1851: “I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice. By that Word we are to be judged. God has, in that Word, promised to give visions in the ‘last days’; not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of His people, and to correct those who err from Bible truth.”4
In the process of doctrinal-lifestyle formation, Seventh-day Adventist pioneers devoted themselves to a prayerful study of the Bible until they reached a general consensus on the topic under consideration. Then Ellen White sometimes received a vision on that subject that would “reaffirm the consensus” and “help those who were still out of harmony with the majority to accept the correctness of the group’s biblically derived conclusions.” Thus, according to George R. Knight, “we can best view Mrs. White’s role in doctrinal development as confirmation rather than initiation.”5
With many doctrinal-lifestyle components already in place, Ellen White helped the church to build a major theological framework based on the all-encompassing Great Cosmic Controversy motif (see Revelation 12). The first major step in this direction was undoubtedly her 1858 Great Controversy vision.6 In contrast to other previous descriptions of a spiritual conflict between good (truth) and evil (error), Ellen White’s vision placed obedience to God’s Law and the seventh-day Sabbath at the very core of that controversy. Satan’s continuous efforts to mislead humanity away from God are clearly reflected in the Israelite idolatry, Jewish legalism, and Christian antinomianism.
Douglass views the Great Cosmic Controversy Theme as “Ellen White’s unifying principle,” that “provided a coherent framework for her theological thought as well as for her principles in education, health, missiology, social issues, and environmental topics.”7 The prophetic gift she received from the Lord allowed her to look behind many historical events not clearly understood by mere human perceptions. Behind those scenes she could see two supernatural powers disputing the ground. On one side, God tries to save, through His loving grace, as many human beings from the bondages of Satan as possible. On the other side, Satan keeps the vast majority of humanity bound to sin, and uses a great variety of strategies to mislead, if possible, even God’s people. This controversy has cosmic, historical, and personal dimensions that permeate all doctrinal-lifestyle discussions.
Besides contributing to build a solid doctrinal-lifestyle platform and a major theological framework, Ellen White also encouraged the church to study the Bible from an exegetical-systematic perspective. The relevance of exegetical studies trying to unfold the true meaning of a passage is highlighted in her following statement: “There is but little benefit derived from a hasty reading of the Scriptures. One may read the whole Bible through and yet fail to see its beauty or comprehend its deep and hidden meaning. One passage studied until its significance is clear to the mind and its relation to the plan of salvation is evident, is of more value than the perusal of many chapters with no definite purpose in view and no positive instruction gained.”8
Systematic studies of Scripture are seen by the same author as the key to discover the “beauty and harmony” of truth. She declared: “When you search the Scriptures with an earnest desire to learn the truth, God will breathe His Spirit into your heart and impress your mind with the light of His word. The Bible is its own interpreter, one passage explaining another. By comparing scriptures referring to the same subjects, you will see beauty and harmony of which you have never dreamed. There is no other book whose perusal strengthens and enlarges, elevates and ennobles the mind, as does the perusal of this Book of books. Its study imparts new vigor to the mind, which is thus brought in contact with subjects requiring earnest thought, and is drawn out in prayer to God for power to comprehend the truths revealed. If the mind is left to deal with commonplace subjects, instead of deep and difficult problems, it will become narrowed down to the standard of the matter which it contemplates and will finally lose its power of expansion.”9
A fourth major contribution by Ellen White for the development of Seventh-day Adventist doctrines and lifestyle was her concentric concept of theological center. In Ellen White’s integrated understanding of truth, the various entities she regarded as theological centers were not of an isolated or self-exclusive nature, but rather complementary concentric centers that vary according to the level of broadness or narrowness of the theological perspective involved. Davidson regards the Great Controversy as “the grand central theme of Scripture” and the sanctuary as the “window into the Biblical System of Truth.” He displaces, from a narrower to a broader perspective, (1) the Cross, (2) substitutionary atonement, (3) Christ, and (4) the plan of redemption—all regarded as theological centers.10
Several statements by Ellen White confirm the fact that she held to a systemic-integrative view of truth. She mentioned, for instance, that “The truth for this time is broad in its outlines, far reaching, embracing many doctrines; but these doctrines are not detached items, which mean little; they are united by golden threads, forming a complete whole, with Christ as the living center.”11 “Christ, his character and work, is the center and circumference of all truth, he is the chain upon which the jewels of doctrine are linked. In him is found the complete system of truth.”12
Thus, Ellen White helped Seventh-day Adventism to: (1) build a solid doctrinal-lifestyle biblical platform; (2) develop a major theological framework based on the Great Cosmic Controversy motif; (3) study the Scriptures from an exegetical-systematic perspective; and (4) uncover a concentric concept of theological center. These four major contributions not only gave strength and coherence to the Adventist message during Ellen White’s lifetime, but also provided helpful guidelines for future refinements of that message.
Yet, the numerical growth of those who accepted the Seventh-day Adventist message generated the need for a formal church organization. The early establishment and later refinement of such organization was assisted by Ellen White’s prophetic ministry.
Formation and Organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
Ellen White played a crucial role in the formation and organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The public visions she began to receive shortly after the October 1844 Millerite disappointment placed her in evidence as a significant leader. Instead of calling attention selfishly to herself, she used her prophetic influence to unite the growing body of Sabbatarian Adventist believers around God’s Word. This means that for Ellen White, since the very beginning of her prophetic ministry, the divine message was far more important than the human messenger, and she tried to bring as many disappointed Millerites as possible to the emerging Sabbatarian platform of truth.
Early Sabbatarian Adventism was kept together mainly by the leadership of Joseph Bates, James White, and Ellen White, as well as by the circulation of publications carrying on their message. But already in 1854, Mrs. White’s booklet titled Supplement to the Christian Experience and Views had come off the press with a special section on “Gospel Order.” Without prescribing any specific form of church organization, she challenged her fellow believers to move toward the establishment of an organizational structure: “The Lord has shown that gospel order has been too much neglected and feared. That formality should be shunned; but in so doing, order should not be neglected. There is order in heaven. There was order in the church when Christ was upon earth; and after his departure, order was strictly observed among his apostles. And now in these last days, while God is bringing his children into the unity of the faith, there is more real need of order than ever before. For as God is uniting his children, Satan and his evil angels are very busy to prevent this unity, and to destroy it.”13
Significant organizational steps were taken in the late 1850s and early 1860s under the prophetic guidance of Ellen White. For example, when the Systematic Benevolence plan was established in 1859 to finance the Sabbatarian cause, she stated that “God is leading His people in the plan of systematic benevolence, and this is one of the very points to which God is bringing up His people which will cut the closest with some.”14 When the name “Seventh-day Adventists” was adopted in 1860, she declared that “No name which we can take will be appropriate but that which accords with our profession and expresses our faith and marks us a peculiar people.”15
But, by contrast, she had no difficulty in rebuking those who opposed the organizing process. In August 1861, she stated that, due to the lack of organization, “the churches in Central New York have been perfect Babylon, confusion,” and unless they are “so organized that they can carry out and enforce order, they have nothing to hope for in the future.”16 Despite such challenges, the organizing process culminated with the establishment of a General Conference in May 1863.
The fact that Ellen White did not write much on church organization during that period does not mean that she did not play a major role in the organization process. From her later reminiscences, we might infer that she influenced the process more personally and orally than literarily. In 1892 she explained, “We had a hard struggle in establishing organization. Notwithstanding that the Lord gave testimony after testimony upon this point, the opposition was strong, and it had to be met again and again. But we knew that the Lord God of Israel was leading us, and guiding by his providence. We engaged in the work of organization, and marked prosperity attending this advance movement. . . . The system of organization has proved a grand success. Systematic benevolence was entered into according to the Bible plan. . . . As we have advanced, our system of organization has still proved effectual. . . . Let none entertain the thought, however, that we can dispense with organization. It has cost us much study, and many prayers for wisdom that we know God has answered, to erect this structure. It has been built up by his direction, through much sacrifice and conflict. Let none of our brethren be so deceived as to attempt to tear it down, for you will thus bring in a condition of things that you do not dream of. In the name of the Lord, I declare to you that it is to stand, strengthened, established, and settled.”17
But already in this same document, she pointed out that “In some parts of the work it is true, the machinery has been made too complicated; especially has this been the case in the tract and missionary work; the multiplication of rules and regulations made it needlessly burdensome. An effort should be made to simplify the work, so as to avoid all needless labor and perplexity. The business of our Conference session has sometimes been burdened down with propositions and resolutions that were not at all essential, and that would never have been presented if the sons and daughters of God had been walking carefully and prayerfully before him. The fewer rules and regulations that we can have, the better will be the effect in the end.”18
Indeed, during the 1890s, she spoke more and more openly about the need of a major revision of the church’s organizational structure. Her own missionary experience in Australia and the South Pacific helped her to understand the challenges of the mission fields and to foresee structural changes that could solve those challenges. In a special meeting at the Battle Creek College Library, just before the opening of the 1901 General Conference Session, she stated to the church leaders that “new blood” should “be brought into the regular lines” and that “an entire new organization” was needed.19 The reorganization that took place at that meeting included the creation of union conferences and union missions; the decentralization of the General Conference president’s authority; auxiliary organizations became departments of the denomination’s organizational structure; and a fund-sharing plan provided “a more substantial financial base for the missionary enterprise of the church.”20
Reflecting on the organizational-structural revisions made at the 1901 General Conference Session, Mrs. White declared, “I was never more astonished in my life than at the turn things have taken at this meeting. This is not our work. God has brought it about. Instruction regarding this was presented to me, but until the sum was worked out at this meeting, I could not comprehend this instruction.”21 However, neither in the organization process of the late 1850s and early 1860s nor in the reorganization endeavors that took place between 1888 and 1903 did Ellen White provide any specific model of organization. She just presented basic principles which, when implemented adequately, helped the denomination to fulfill more efficiently its double task of keeping the faith unified and carrying the advent message to the world.
Besides her contribution for the organization and reorganization of the church, Ellen White also counseled many church leaders over the years. Not everyone accepted gladly her counsels, and sometimes the final outcome of rejecting her message was unfortunate.
Much can be learned from the contrasting attitudes of General Conference presidents George I. Butler and Arthur G. Daniells. Butler did not attend personally the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference Session, but his warnings against the teachings of justification by faith endorsed by Ellen White helped to nourish the polemic and divisive spirit of that conference. On the other hand, Daniells’ disposition to accept and implement Mrs. White’s advice brought to the 1901 Battle Creek General Conference Session an overall tenor of unity and improvement. What made the difference between both occasions was not merely a matter of attitude about personal opinions, but rather the acceptance or rejection of divine counsel communicated by a prophetic voice (2 Chron. 20:20; Luke 10:16). Although such counsel was given to specific people living in a world different from ours, they are grounded on universal principles applicable to all subsequent generations of church leaders.
Ellen White assured her fellow believers that the Seventh-day Adventist Church, although militant and faulty, would never apostatize to the point of having to be replaced by some other “holier” church or independent movement. She stated in the 1890s unambiguously that “God has a church upon the earth who are His chosen people, who keep His commandments. He is leading, not stray offshoots, not one here and one there, but a people.”22
“There is no need to doubt, to be fearful that the work will not succeed. God is at the head of the work, and he will set everything in order. If matters need adjusting at the head of the work, God will attend to that, and work to right every wrong. Let us have faith that God is going to carry the noble ship which bears the people of God safely into port.”23
Thus, the formation and consolidation of the Seventh-day Adventist message and organizational structure gave the denomination conditions to expand its outreach program. Ellen White was the key figure in transforming the Seventh-day Adventist Church from a small New England and New York state movement into a worldwide missionary denomination.
Development of Seventh-day Adventist Missiology
The mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been shaped largely by the theological-practical contribution of Ellen White. On the theological level, her missiological thinking was the convergence and interplay of three basic concepts. One is that God’s saving grace is universally accessible to all sincere Christians and even non-Christians who live according to the light available to them (Rom. 2:14). She explained, “Our standing before God depends, not upon the amount of light we have received, but upon the use we make of what we have. Thus even the heathen who choose the right as far as they can distinguish it are in a more favorable condition than are those who have had great light, and profess to serve God, but who disregard the light, and by their daily life contradict their profession.”24
“Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God.”25
Another basic theological concept is that all children of God are responsible for sharing the light they receive with those without it. Reflecting on the experience of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), Mrs. White argued that “Every true disciple is born into the kingdom of God as a missionary. He who drinks of the living water becomes a fountain of life. The receiver becomes a giver. The grace of Christ in the soul is like a spring in the desert, welling up to refresh all, and making those who are ready to perish eager to drink of the water of life.”26
A third basic concept is that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is God’s end-time remnant church with the prophetic mission of restoring and preaching all biblical truths to the entire world (Matt. 4:4; 24:14; 28:18-20; John 16:13; Rev. 14:6-12). Ellen White declared, “In a special sense Seventh-day Adventists have been set in the world as watchmen and light bearers. To them has been entrusted the last warning for a perishing world. On them is shining wonderful light from the word of God. They have been given a work of the most solemn import—the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels' messages. There is no other work of so great importance. They are to allow nothing else to absorb their attention.
“The most solemn truths ever entrusted to mortals have been given us to proclaim to the world. The proclamation of these truths is to be our work. The world is to be warned, and God's people are to be true to the trust committed to them.”27
By interrelating these basic concepts, one might conclude, first of all, that, although God’s saving grace is available to all humanity, it becomes effective only for those who follow, with integrity of heart, the light they receive from Him. However, God’s ideal for human beings is not that they remain in ignorance, but rather that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9, NKJV). While other Christians might help to restore some biblical teachings, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was called into existence by God as an end-time prophetic movement with the mission of restoring biblical truth as a whole, in preparation for the second coming of Christ. This special theological awareness moved Ellen White into the practical level of convincing church leaders to expand its missionary outreach program over the years.
After the October 1844 Millerite disappointment, many “shut door” Adventists (Matt. 25:10-12), including Ellen White, believed that their mission to the world was already fulfilled and that there was no reason to preach the Adventist message outside the ex-Millerite circles, for Christ would come very soon. But in that context she received some visions describing the preaching of the Seventh-day Adventist message in a worldwide scope. For example, on November 18, 1848, she saw the spreading of Seventh-day Adventist publications “like streams of light that went clear round the world.”28 On July 29, 1850, she received a vision showing that “others who had not heard the Advent doctrine and rejected it would embrace the truth.”29
But far beyond the mere expansion of the Adventist presence within North America, Ellen White foresaw and encouraged the sending of an increasing number of missionaries overseas. The fact that the church leaders did not support the Polish minister M. B. Czechowski in his missionary move back to Europe in 1864 was not rebuked by Mrs. White, because she knew of his financial problems and temperament instabilities. Likewise, in 1866 the leadership refused to send to Africa the newly converted missionary-experienced Hannah More, who died a few months later. Still in 1875, Mrs. White declared with deep sorrow, “Already a great deal of time has been wasted, and angels bear to heaven the record of our neglects. Our sleepy and unconsecrated condition has lost to us precious opportunities which God has sent us in the persons of those who were qualified to help us in our present need. Oh, how much we need our Hannah More to aid us at this time in reaching other nations! Her extensive knowledge of missionary fields would give us access to those of other tongues whom we cannot approach. God brought this gift among us to meet our present emergency; but we prized not the gift, and He took her from us. She is at rest from her labors, but her self-denying works follow her. It is to be deplored that our missionary work should be retarded for the want of knowledge how to gain access to the different nations and localities in the great harvest field.30
Finally, in 1874 the church sent J. N. Andrews to Europe as its first official overseas missionary. Writing to the brethren in Switzerland, who were not initially as supportive of him as they could be, Ellen White stated, “We sent you the ablest man in all our ranks; but you have not appreciated the sacrifice we made in thus doing. We needed Elder Andrews here. But we thought his great caution, his experience, his God-fearing dignity in the desk, would be just what you needed.”31 This statement reflects the fact that, in Ellen White’s mind, for mission outreach, any true sacrifice is worthwhile. So true is this that she not only encouraged others to go overseas as missionaries, but she also set the example by leaving her home country to serve as a missionary for two years in Europe (1885-1887) and almost 10 years in Australia and the South Pacific (1891-1900).
By the end of the 19th century, there was an Adventist presence in all continents of the world. But for Ellen White, the church leaders were still too narrow-minded in their missionary plans. So at the 1901 Battle Creek General Conference Session, she gave a powerful speech titled “In the Regions Beyond,” in which she spoke directly to the point: “I told the Lord that when I came to Battle Creek this time, I would ask you why you have withheld means from the work in Australia. The work there should have been pressed with ten fold greater strength than it has been, but we have been hindered on the right hand and on the left. . . . Why am I telling you this? Because we desire that at this meeting the work shall be so established that no such thing shall take place again. Two or three men, who have never seen the barren fields where the workers have had to wrestle with all their might to advance an inch, should not control matters. . . . There are many barren places in America, many places that have not been worked. What is the matter with the church here? It is congested. This is the reason why there is so little of the deep moving of the Spirit of God. There is a world perishing in sin, and again and again the message has come to Battle Creek, God wants you to move out into places where you can labor for the salvation of souls. . . . The people in Battle Creek are dying of inaction. What they need is to impart the truth which they believe. Every soul who will impart will receive from God more power to impart. This is what we are in the world for—to bring souls to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus. Before the way is hedged up, it is for every one to realize his accountability to proclaim the message that God has given him. . . . The work is one. Do not think that because you are here in Battle Creek, God is not supervising the work in any other parts of the field. The world is the field; the world is the vineyard; and every spot must be worked. God desires every soul to put on the harness.”32
So, in addition to the role Ellen White played in the formation of Seventh-day Adventist doctrines-lifestyle and in the organization and reorganization of the denomination, she was also the main ideologist and the strongest pushing leading the church into a worldwide mission enterprise. But the crucial question is: How relevant is her counsel in these areas for a church that is living close to a century after her death?
The Role of Ellen G. White’s Writings in the Church Today
The prophetic ministry of Ellen White is as important for the church today as it was in the formative period of the denomination. Her long-term prophetic ministry brought significant doctrinal, administrative, and lifestyle stability to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Even though she died in 1915, her writings should continue to provide the same stability for the denomination.
In 1907 she stated, “Abundant light has been given to our people in these last days. Whether or not my life is spared, my writings will constantly speak, and their work will go forward as long as time shall last. My writings are kept on file in the office, and even though I should not live, these words that have been given to me by the Lord will still have life and will speak to the people.”33
In the early days of Sabbatarian Adventism, she provided a helpful prophetic assistance to begin and carry on the end-time restoration of Bible truths. But today her writings are strongly needed to help contemporary believers to persevere in the already-restored biblical faith. Ellen White’s writings have served, according to T. H. Jemison, “three basic purposes: (1) to direct attention to the Bible, (2) to aid in understanding the Bible, and (3) to help in applying Bible principles in our lives.”34 Her writings were not intended to replace the Bible, but rather to free its interpretation from the large amount of unbiblical traditions accumulated over the centuries.
The need of prophetic assistance to persevere in the faith comes from the fact that all religious movements tend to lose over the years their early restorationist commitment. Such movements are usually launched with the purpose of reforming the culture in which they exist. But in the second century of their existence, after the pioneers and those who knew them have passed away, those very same movements tend to lose their own identity and to be reabsorbed by the same culture they originally intended to reform. The original message and lifestyle of the movement are reread into a new cultural setting to such extent that they lose much of their prophetic meaning. The acculturation process obfuscates, consequently, the capability of many church members to distinguish between the holy and the profane.
The fact that Seventh-day Adventism came into existence as an end-time restorationist movement does not mean that it is invulnerable to a loss of identity. But that risk can be minimized and even overcome by unconditional commitment to the same prophetic guidance that assisted the rise and early development of the movement. Proverbs 29:18 warns: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV). The Hebrew word for prophecy translated here means a “prophetic vision.”
Underlying this statement is the foundational principle that whenever God’s people disregard genuine prophetic revelations, they are susceptible to be drifted away by the unbiblical ideologies of contemporary cultures (2 Chron. 36:11-16). On the other hand, the acceptance of God’s true prophets helps the believers to overcome anti-biblical cultural temptations (20:20).
Yet, the stability fostered by Ellen White’s writings can be distorted whenever the interpreter does not distinguish clearly between the universal principles and the temporal applications of those principles. Difficulty is caused by the fact that those writings are frequently interpreted just from the perspective of the contexts in which they were penned and to which they were addressed, leaving the interpretation too open to subjective views of the interpreter. Any serious interpretation should take into consideration not only such contexts but also the interaction of those writings with the whole content of the Scriptures. While the contextual knowledge helps to understand better her temporal applications, the interaction with the Scriptures helps to identify more precisely the universal principles that flow throughout her writings.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been largely shaped by Ellen White’s prophetic guidance. In the formation of its message, she helped the church to build a solid doctrinal-lifestyle biblical platform; to develop a major theological framework based on the Great Cosmic Controversy motif; to study the Scriptures from an exegetical-systematic perspective; and to uncover a concentric concept of theological center. The full meaning of these concepts can be better understood by a more comprehensive study of her writings.
The formation and organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was assisted, first, by Ellen White’s personal charismatic leadership; then, by her efforts to convince her fellow believers to develop a church organization; later on, by her appeals and counsel in the process of reorganizing the structure of the church; and, during the whole extension of her prophetic ministry, by her counsels to the leadership of the church.
Ellen White’s prophetic legacy will be ever more helpful for those who are able to identify in her writings a constant dialogue between universal principles and cultural applications of those principles. Though the cultural contexts may vary significantly, the principles involved are applicable to all times and cultures, and are still relevant for the church today. The Seventh-day Adventist Church will be able to preserve its prophetic identity only by remaining loyal to the prophetic voice that personally guided the denomination during the first decades of its history.
Alberto R. Timm, Ph.D., is an Associate Director of the Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland.
2. George R. Knight, Meeting Ellen White: A Fresh Look at Her Life, Writings, and Major Themes (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn, 1996), p. 61.