The prophet’s writings were centered on Christ and immersed in the Bible
By Merlin D. Burt
Second Kings 22:8–11 contains the story of King Josiah and the finding of the scroll of the law. It is one of the more remarkable stories in the Bible. Somehow everyone had misplaced a book that was given under inspiration for God’s people. The Bible reads:
“Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.’ And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. So Shaphan the scribe went to the king, bringing the king word, saying, ‘Your servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of those who do the work, who oversee the house of the Lord.’ Then Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, ‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.’ And Shaphan read it before the king. Now it happened, when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, that he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:8–11, NKJV).1
How could it be that they had lost the book of the covenant (23:2)? It is thought by some scholars that this was the Book of Deuteronomy. It was God’s special revelation for His people. How could it be that they had strayed so far that they no longer knew of their covenant with God or even of the book written that contained Moses’ words?
In various places throughout North America, Europe, and Australia, a somewhat similar condition has developed as it relates to Ellen G. White and the distinctive message and mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There is a varying degree of understanding, but the trend is toward ignorance. Generally, people have questions and uncertainties, but there is a silver lining. Most people do not have a well-formed negative perspective on Ellen White. It is possible to present her in the right way to establish her prophetic credentials.
Seventh-day Adventists have historically referred to Ellen White’s writings as “the Spirit of Prophecy.” This has sometimes been challenged, but it is essentially accurate if understood correctly. Revelation 19:10 refers to prophetic revelation as the “testimony of Jesus” or “the spirit of prophecy.” There is something profound in the words “testimony of Jesus.” In the Book of Revelation, John is given the testimony of Jesus for the churches. The words literally convey the meaning that Jesus Himself is communicating with His people through the prophetic messenger. Ellen White understood her own ministry to be of this character. It was Jesus who was seeking to share a testimony or counsel with His people. The entire process is intrinsically Christ-centered.
A Focus on Jesus and Scripture
If one compares two key Adventist pioneers, Ellen G. White and William Miller, it is clear that both had similar passions—they fervently loved Jesus and were immersed in the Bible. William Miller, raised in a devout Baptist home, questioned his faith and experienced 12 years of wandering in the uncertainty of deism.
He then turned to the Bible, and his poignant recollection was: “l saw that the Bible did bring to view just such a Savior as I needed; and I was perplexed to find how an uninspired book should develop principles so perfectly adapted to the wants of a fallen world. I was constrained to admit that the Scriptures must be a revelation from God. They became my delight; and in Jesus I found a friend. The Savior became to me the chiefest among ten thousand. . . . The Bible now became my chief study, and I searched it with great delight.”2
In the Bible, Miller found that his Friend and Savior was coming again soon. He reluctantly became the leader of the American Second Advent movement during the 1830s and 1840s, His health failed soon after the 1844 disappointment, and he died in December 1849.
Ellen White came from a devout Methodist home. Her tragic injury at about the age of 9 launched a childhood-long struggle that brought her to a place of passionate commitment to Jesus and the Bible. She accepted the Second Advent message during the early 1840s and looked for Jesus to come in 1844. Before she had her first vision in December 1844, she was already passionately in love with Jesus, and Scripture was central to her life experience. Her first visions were centered on Jesus and the Bible, Throughout the remainder of her life, this passion remained. The fulfillment of prophecy in 1844, the Sabbath, and the sanctuary message were and are intrinsically centered on Jesus and His redemptive ministry.
Too often, Ellen White has been presented as having two other passions—rebuking sinners and outlining rules. While she did find herself obligated to do the latter, these were neither the emphasis of her personal life, nor the focus of her ministry. Seventh-day Adventists and others who have a negative view of Ellen White need to reframe their understanding in terms of who she really was, what she truly thought, and what she actually said. Two golden threads are woven through her entire life and experience that are central to who she was and what she accomplished.
Ellen White grew up in an intensely religious home. Her father was a class leader in the Methodist Church and even helped establish a branch congregation on the south side of Portland, Maine, during the early 1840s. Ellen’s childhood and teenage personality was introverted and melancholy. She had an intense inner life with high personal expectations. Probably her principal fault as a child was keeping things bottled up inside. This resulted in a lengthy emotional struggle without answers to critical questions. Her conversion spanned a period of about seven years and went through three phases. She experienced a deathbed conversion, wrestled with justification and forgiveness of sin, and finally the issue of sanctification and holiness in terms of the second coming of Jesus. Her accident, which probably occurred in 1836 or 1837, set a new course for her life. A stone thrown by an older classmate broke her nose and made her a virtual invalid for the remainder of her childhood. It interrupted her educational plans and produced bitter thoughts toward God. The two pivotal experiences of her to conversion were realizing that Jesus could forgive her sins, which she experienced at an 1841 Methodist camp meeting in Buxton, Maine; and finding that God was a loving Father through her interview with Levi Stockman, probably in 1843.
At the lowest point in her experience, she had a dream of seeing Jesus. “As His gaze rested upon me,” she recollected, “I knew at once that He was acquainted with every circumstance of my life and all my inner thoughts and feelings. I tried to shield myself, . . . but He drew near with a smile, and laying His hand upon my head, said, ‘Fear not.’”3 This view of Jesus was not a prophetic dream but rather a personal dream that gave her courage to talk with her mother about her doubts and fears.
Eunice Harmon arranged for Ellen to talk with Levi Stockman, a Methodist Adventist minister whom she trusted. Then dying of tuberculosis, Stockman was a man of deep spiritual experience. Perhaps for the first time, Ellen Harmon opened her heart and told all of her troubles. When she had finally poured out all of her sorrows, doubts, and fears, she saw that Stockman was weeping as well. The critical help he gave her would affect her for the rest of her life. He changed her view of God from a stern tyrant to a loving Father. She wrote of this interview: “My views of the Father were changed. I now looked upon him as a kind and tender parent, rather than a stern tyrant compelling men to a blind obedience. My heart went out towards him in a deep and fervent love. Obedience to his will seemed a joy; it was a pleasure to be in his service.”4
In later years, the paternal love of God became Ellen White’s favorite theme. She also taught that it was Jesus’ favorite theme.5 One of her favorite hymns was “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” by John Wesley.6
“All the paternal love,” she wrote, “which has come down from generation to generation through the channel of human hearts, all the springs of tenderness which have opened in the souls of men, are but as a tiny rill to the boundless ocean when compared with the infinite, exhaustless love of God. Tongue cannot utter it; pen cannot portray it. You may meditate upon it every day of your life; you may search the Scriptures diligently in order to understand it; you may summon every power and capability that God has given you, in the endeavor to comprehend the love and compassion of the heavenly Father; and yet there is an infinity beyond. You may study that love for ages; yet you can never fully comprehend the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of God in giving His Son to die for the world. Eternity itself can never fully reveal it. Yet as we study the Bible and meditate upon the life of Christ and the plan of redemption, these great themes will open to our understanding more and more.”7
Her entire Great Controversy theme is framed by this premise. She wrote on the Great Controversy from 1858 until the end of her life. She published three sets of books, culminating in the five-volume Conflict of the Ages series that is so beloved today. Ellen White framed this series in terms of the love of God.
Early Visions and Prophetic Experience
Sometimes people do not realize that Ellen White’s first three major visions centered on Jesus. In her first vision, the “midnight cry vision,” it is Jesus whom the Advent people are following on the path. When they become discouraged, Jesus raises His arm and a light “waved over the Advent band.”8 In her second major vision, the “bridegroom vision,” it is Jesus who leads His people from the Holy to Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary. In her third major vision, the “new earth vision,” it was Jesus who showed Ellen White the future glories of the new earth.
During the first half of 1845, Ellen Write resisted the influence of an Adventist minister and editor named Joseph Turner. Turner became involved in mesmerism/hypnotism, and Ellen White rebuked him in vision on at least two occasions. Because of her fear of this man’s psychological manipulation, she wondered if her visions might actually be the result of mesmerism. One time as she began to have a vision, she resisted:
“While at family prayers one morning, the power of God began to rest upon me, and the thought rushed into my mind that it was mesmerism, and I resisted it. Immediately I was struck dumb and for a few moments was lost to everything around me. I then saw my sin in doubting the power of God, and that for so doing I was struck dumb, and that my tongue would be loosed in less than twenty-four hours. A card was held up before me, on which were written in letters of gold the chapter and verse of fifty texts of Scripture. . . . After I came out of vision, I beckoned for the slate, and wrote upon it that I was dumb, also what I had seen, and that I wished the large Bible. I took the Bible and readily turned to all the texts that I had seen upon the card. I was unable to speak all day.”9
God’s way of answering Ellen White’s doubt was with Scripture. The 50 texts shown her were indelibly imprinted in her mind and are reproduced in the book Early Writings. Throughout her life, the Bible remained integral to all of Ellen White’s experience. On at least four occasions during the early years of her prophetic ministry, Ellen White held Bibles in vision. She appealed to the Scriptures as the authority for her own prophetic experience. On the last page of her first published tract she wrote: “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.”10
Writings Up to 1888
It has often been said that it was not until later in her life that Ellen White truly came to understand righteousness by faith. It is true that her writings do show greater breadth and eloquence in the last decades of her life. Yet she wrote at the 1888 Minneapolis, Minnesota, Seventh-clay Adventist General Conference: “I see the beauty of truth in the presentation of the righteousness of Christ in relation to the law as the doctor [E. J. Waggoner] has placed it before us.”11 A year later when asked about the “new light” on righteousness by faith as presented by A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner, she remarked: “Why, I have been presenting it to you for the last forty-five years,—the matchless charms of Christ. This is what I have been trying to present before your minds.”12
Peter van Bemmelen has written a helpful article on the theological significance of this phrase “the matchless charms of Christ.”13 He observed that during the 1850s, Ellen White repeatedly used this phrase and others like it.
• “If Christ be in us the hope of glory, we shall discover such matchless charms in Him that the soul will be enamored. It will cleave to Him, choose to love Him, and in admiration of Him, self will be forgotten.”14
• “They will look to the blessed Saviour who has given himself for them, and, with admiration and love for him who is smiling upon them, raise their voices and sing to his praise and glory, while they feel and realized the matchless depths of a Saviour’s love.”15
• “I lay down the pen, and exclaim, O what love! What wondrous love! The most exalted language cannot describe the glory of heaven, nor the matchless depths of a Saviour’s love.”16
Ellen White’s publications reveal that her grasp of Christology was more clearly defined than that of her peers. In particular, her writing ofThe Great Controversy is profoundly Christ-centered. When one examines the first little book she wrote on this theme, the chapter headings speak for themselves. They include: “The Fall of Satan,” “The Fall of Man,” “The Plan of Salvation,” “The First Advent of Christ,” “The Ministry of Christ,” and so forth. The first 80 pages largely emphasize the life and death of Jesus. Ellen White first presented the Great Controversy theme on Sunday, May 23, 1858, while in the midst of writing her book. The effect was profound.
Uriah Smith reported: “When the course of the narration had brought us down to the days of the first advent, the humiliation, the suffering, and finally the crucifixion of the Saviour, especially then did not only the silent tear but even the audible sobs of many in the congregation announced their hearts were touched by the sufferings of the Son of God for rebellious man,”17 The initial focus was on Jesus and the plan of salvation. So affected were the people that they stayed and listened until 10:00 p.m. that night and then continued with testimonies until 11:00 p.m. The meeting closed reluctantly.
During the 1860s and early 1870s, Ellen White focused on the connection between Christ’s divine and human nature. In 1869 she wrote: “He is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions. As the sinless One, His nature recoiled from evil.”18 She remained consistent throughout her life that though Jesus had innocent infirmities, He had no sinful propensities.
Regarding His divine nature, Ellen White was the first Adventist writer to describe Jesus as “eternal.”19 She wrote this in 1887. In 1890, even E. J. Waggoner was presenting Jesus as having a beginning at some point in the ages of eternity.20
Her personal correspondence reveals a passion for Jesus and His saving power. An example is a letter she wrote to her son Willie from a camp meeting in Oakland, California, in 1874: “I spoke to the people last Sunday afternoon upon the sufferings of Christ. . . . Christ crucified, Christ arisen, Christ a living Saviour, Christ our Advocate in the heavenly courts, Christ coming again, is the power and the wisdom of God. . . . The cross of Calvary is God’s power and wisdom, His way of saving sinners. The light reflected from the cross of Calvary makes the plan of salvation so simple that children may understand it, so powerful that none but those who are controlled by the power of Satan can and will resist it.”21
Perhaps the most compelling statement Ellen White made about her passion for Jesus is in the form of a picture rather than with words. In 1873, M. E. Kellogg designed a graphical representation of the history of the world that he had published in lithographic form titled: The Way of Life From Paradise Lost to Paradise Restored. Placed side-by-side in the center of the picture was the law of God hung upon a tree and Jesus hanging upon the cross. James White had it revised slightly in 1876 to remove the inclusion of the “Eye of Providence,” similar to that seen on the back of today’s U.S. one-dollar bill, over concern that has also been a common symbol in secret societies. After her husband’s death, Ellen White finally had the picture re-engraved in a major revision. The new lithograph placed the cross of Christ central to the picture and removed the equal position of the law of God. She also re-titled it, Christ the Way of Life. This picture was published in 1883, five years before the 1888 General Conference.
Ellen White’s Statements About Jesus After 1888
Ellen White was nearly 61 years old at the time of the 1888 General Conference Session. The remaining 26 years of her life were her most productive. During these years, she published her greatest literary and spiritual masterpieces. These later books give particular emphasis to the life of Jesus and gospel themes. Books include: Steps to Christ (1892),Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (1896), The Desire of Ages (1898), and Christ’s Object Lessons (1900). Other major books written during this time, such as Education (1903) and The Ministry of Healing (1905), also emphasize Christological and soteriological themes.
During the 1890s while she was in Australia, Ellen White did most of the writing for The Desire of Ages. The work on this book brought out strong emotions that were expressed in her personal diary and in her correspondence. These comments reveal the depth of her feeling toward Jesus.
• “Oh, how inefficient, how incapable I am of expressing the things which burn in my soul in reference to the mission of Christ! . . . I know not how to present subjects in the living power in which they stand before me. I tremble for fear lest I shall belittle the great plan of salvation by cheap words.”22
• “My whole being longs after the Lord. I am not content to be satisfied with occasional flashes of light. I must have more.”23
• “In writing upon the life of Christ I am deeply wrought upon. I forget to breathe as I should. I cannot endure the intensity of feeling that comes over me as I think of what Christ has suffered in our world.”24
One of Ellen White’s most touching and spiritually compelling letters was written to her sister the year she died. Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was called, did not live as a Christian through most of her adult life. The letter was never published and was intended to be personal, but it reveals Ellen’s spiritual longing for her sister and her love for Jesus.
“I love to speak of Jesus and His matchless love and my whole soul is in this work. I have not one doubt of the love of God and His care and His mercy and ability to save to the utmost all who come unto Him. . . . Don’t you believe in Jesus, Lizzie? Do you not believe He is your Saviour? That He has evidenced His love for you in giving His own precious life that you might be saved? All that is required of you is to take Jesus as your own precious Saviour. I pray most earnestly that the Lord Jesus shall reveal Himself to you and to Reuben. . . .
“Dear sister, it is no wonderful thing that you have to do. You fell poor, suffering, and afflicted, and Jesus invites all of this class to come to Him. . . . Friends may feel sorrowful, but they cannot save you. Your physician cannot save you. But there is One who died that you might live through eternal ages. Just believe that Jesus will hear your confession, receive your penitence, and forgive every sin and make you children of God. . . . Will you give yourself in trusting faith to Jesus? I long to take you in my arms and lay you on the bosom of Jesus Christ. . . . With Jesus as your blessed Friend you need not fear to die, for it will be to you like closing your eyes here and opening them in heaven. Then we shall meet never more to part.”25
Ellen White’s Writings and Scripture
Ellen White’s writings are filled with scriptural quotes both direct and indirect. Particularly in the later years of her life, her writings seem to seamlessly integrate with the Bible. She used biblical words and allusions to illustrate her points and for her descriptions. A random examination of chapters from some of her books reveals the following;
1. Patriarch and Prophets, chapter 37, titled “The Smitten Rock,” has eight pages of text. The chapter is based on Numbers 20:1–13. Besides this topical connection to the Bible, there are 30 direct scriptural quotations and many linguistic inferences.
2. Prophets and Kings, chapter 5, titled “Solomon’s Repentance,” has 12 pages of text with 22 direct quotations from the Bible. It also contains lengthy quotes from Ecclesiastes. Roughly five of the 12 pages are direct scriptural quotations.
3. The Desíre of Ages, chapter 17, titled “Nicodemus,” is based on John 3:1 to 11 and contains almost continuous textual reference through the commentary. Additionally there are 13 other direct references to Scripture.
4. The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 51, titled “A Faithful Undershepherd,” is based on the first Epistle of Peter. Apart from repeated reference to verses in the Epistle, there are 13 other direct references.
5. The Great Controversy, chapter 27, titled “Modern Revivals,” begins with the words “Wherever the word of God has been faithfully preached, results have followed that attested its divine origin.”26 The 18 pages of this chapter contain 65 direct quotations from Scripture. These quotes come from 24 books of the Bible—seven books of the Old Testament and 17 New Testament books. There are dozens of other brief quotes and allusions to Bible texts. The chapter is truly saturated with Scripture.
6. Testimonies for the Church, volume 2, “A Birthday Letter,” pages 261 to 268, was written July 27, 1868, to her second-born son James Edson White. It is a testimony encouraging him to give his life entirely to Jesus. Part of her conclusion is, “Educate your mind to love the Bible.”27 There are fewer direct scriptural quotes (only three), but she includes another 13 scriptural allusions or Bible phrase references. Though not saturated with Scripture, as are many other parts of her writings, the Bible is nevertheless seamlessly interwoven in her letter, and it is a part of her final appeal.
7. Education, “Business Principles and Methods, pages 135–145 contains 61 direct quotes from Scripture, many from Proverbs, but all together she quotes from 20 books of the Bible–13 from the Old Testament and seven from the New Testament. She begins the chapter with the following words: “There is no branch of legitimate business for which the Bible does not afford an essential preparation.”28
8. The Ministry of Healing, “Mind-Cure,” pages 241 to 259, contains 23 direct quotes from the Bible.
9. Steps to Christ, “God’s Love for Man,” pages 9 to 15, contain 31 direct and indirect references to the Bible. This chapter like, some others listed above, is permeated with Scripture.
Adventists today, and particularly young people, need to see Ellen White as a person who was passionately in love with Jesus and who was immersed in Scripture. Perhaps the best conclusion would be one further illustration. It is a recollection from Ellen White’s eldest granddaughter, Ella M. Robinson. Ella was in her 30s when Ellen White died in 1915. She had a young adult’s perspective. When asked her favorite recollection of Grandma, she said:
“I see grandma standing in the pulpit, dressed in her loose-fitting, black sack suit, narrow cuffs of white, narrow white collar secure at the throat by a small brooch. She’s been telling of the matchless love of Christ in suffering ignominy and death and even running the risk of eternal separation from His Father in heaven by taking upon Himself the sins of the world. She pauses, looks up, and, with one hand resting on the desk and the other lifted heavenward, she exclaims in a ringing voice, ‘Oh, Jesus, how I love you, how I love you, how I love you.’ There is a deep hush. Heaven is very near.”29
Merlin Burt, Ph.D., is Professor of Church History, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES