Ellen White’s Doctrinal Role Challenged



by Dr. Barry R. Harker




In an editorial in the official paper of the South Pacific Division, introducing a series of four conversations with Dr. Arthur Patrick, concerning the ministry of Ellen G. White, Pastor Bruce Manners suggests that the evidence is clear that we have to understand Ellen White differently from the way we have in the past.[i][i] It is inferred that the “traditional” understanding of her role is not consistent with the role and purpose that Ellen White envisaged for herself. If that is true, corrective action is indeed necessary, for it is important that the church adhere to the role that Ellen White defined as that given to her by God. Such a standard should be accepted by all loyal church members, as it constitutes the only basis upon which true agreement on Ellen White’s role can be achieved.


What then are the changes that Pastor Manners and Dr. Patrick suggest are necessary to bring the church into line with this agreed standard? The indications are clear that the suggested changes involve at least a radical reduction of her doctrinal role, while retaining her role as a devotional writer. For example, Dr. Patrick says that he no longer relies upon the factual basis of the Desire of Ages but reads it more for its spiritual significance.[ii][ii] In defining the issues at the 1919 Bible Conference, Dr. Patrick raises the questions of the reliability of Ellen White’s writings in relation to mundane details like chronology and history and “the way in which her writings speak to the heart more than the head.”[iii][iii] The third conversation is explicit that Ellen White’s authority is more specific than that accepted a few decades ago.[iv][iv] In the final conversation, Dr. Patrick agrees that limits need to be put on Ellen White’s guidance.[v][v]


Pastor Manners and Dr. Patrick clearly fit into the category defined by Dr. Herbert Douglass as those “who believe that the Bible and the writings of Ellen White are generally inspired but their value is more pastoral than theological.”[vi][vi] What is the likely impact upon the church and individual members if that position is widely adopted and how defensible is it? These questions deserve serious consideration and I will address each in turn, dealing with the second question in two parts; first establishing Ellen White’s view of her role and then evaluating the claims made in the editorial and conversations that underpin the call for change.


Impact of Shedding Ellen White’s Doctrinal Role


Dr. Herbert Douglass writes: “The attempt by some to praise Ellen White for her devotional contributions but to deny her role as a theological messenger separates her life from her ministry. Her theological contribution is precisely the reason why Adventists have had an integrated program of evangelism, education, and health ministries. It was her visionary insights into the everlasting gospel and God’s plan for a world movement that inspirited a few hundred people to become the vanguard of a world movement.”[vii][vii] If Ellen White’s theological role is crucial to the coherence and success of the Seventh-day Adventist church and its institutions, it seems reasonable to conclude that shedding Ellen White’s doctrinal role will lead to a loss of coherence, with resulting fragmentation. Is this so? Importantly, the evidence suggests that this is the case.


For some years, Ellen White has been consigned to the periphery of our corporate experience. The majority of church members, at least in the Western world, no longer accept a doctrinal role for Ellen White and many of these people do not read her for devotional purposes, probably because it is impossible to separate her theological and devotional insights. This trend is coextensive with the development of diverse views and practices within Adventism on doctrine, worship, evangelism, lifestyle and standards. The trend has reached the point where the identification of the Seventh-day Adventist church as the remnant church of Bible prophecy is openly and widely questioned. It hardly needs to be pointed out that such a situation presents a grave challenge to the future of Adventism.


The shedding of Ellen White’s doctrinal role is a major contributing factor in the weakening of the Seventh-day Adventist worldview. Will formal recognition of Ellen White’s greatly diminished role in a revised fundamental belief on the Gift of Prophecy[viii][viii] restore unity and coherence to Adventism or will it lead to further fragmentation? The evidence is that it cannot but further entrench existing divisions and weaken the position of those who reject the prevailing liberalism. It is but a short step from revising the fundamental belief statement to imposing penalties upon those who continue to accept Ellen White as a theological messenger.


Ellen White’s View of Her Role


In relation to her role within the Seventh-day Adventist church, Ellen White wrote: “Besides the instruction in His Word, the Lord has given special testimonies to His people, not as a new revelation, but that He may set before us the plain lessons of His Word, that errors may be corrected, that the right way be pointed out, that every soul may be without excuse.”[ix][ix] Ellen White said that her writings were not to take the place of the Word of God,[x][x] but she did indicate that they came from the same source, the Holy Ghost.[xi][xi] Her role is a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.[xii][xii] In stating her role as a lesser light, Ellen White is not suggesting that her testimonies are less inspired than the Bible for she writes that her testimonies do not contradict God’s Word and should be studied in conjunction with it.[xiii][xiii] 


Ellen White was given an important role in defining doctrinal truth and error: “At that time [after the 1844 disappointment] one error after another pressed in upon us; ministers and doctors brought in new doctrines. We would search the Scriptures with much prayer, and the Holy Spirit would bring the truth to our minds. Sometimes whole nights would be devoted to searching the Scriptures and earnestly seeking God for guidance. Companies of devoted men and women assembled for this purpose. The power of God would come upon me, and I was enabled clearly to define what is truth and what is error.”[xiv][xiv] In 1905, Ellen White wrote that “there is one straight chain of truth and not one heretical sentence, in that which I have written.”[xv][xv]


In the context of this evidence, the Seventh-day Adventist church is on solid ground in assigning a role to Ellen G. White in which her writings provide comfort, guidance, instruction and correction to the church. Such a role is consistent with Ellen White’s part in the formation of Seventh-day Adventist doctrine and her ongoing role in protecting the church from doctrinal deviations unsupported in God’s Word. There is nothing in her writings to support the idea that her influence on doctrinal or theological matters in Adventism should be in any way downgraded. Why, then, are we being asked to understand Ellen White differently from the way we have in the past?


Evaluating the Call for Change


The editorial by Pastor Bruce Manners and his conversations with Dr. Arthur Patrick focus on some perceived differences between our “traditional” understanding of Ellen White and the supposed reality. While the editorial and conversations are heavy on insinuation, they contain no specific examples of the “many”[xvi][xvi] supposed mistakes in the material she borrowed. It appears that external attacks on Ellen White’s credibility; supposed factual errors in The Great Controversy, including supposed errancy in her writings, and her literary borrowings underpin the call for change. It seems to me that these issues assume importance only when our “traditional” understanding of Ellen White is equated with either verbal inspiration or inerrancy or both.


It is questionable that verbal inspiration has ever been accepted at a level within the church that would make it our traditional understanding of Ellen White’s writings. Ellen White never claimed verbal inspiration, according to her son, W. C. White.[xvii][xvii] If Ellen White’s writings were verbally inspired, revision of manuscripts, which Ellen White undertook on occasions, would be inappropriate. In relation to inerrancy, Ellen White did not claim infallibility,[xviii][xviii] which is the basis for inerrancy. Thus, as Dr. Herbert Douglass points out, infallibility is not on trial in the prophet’s words, either in the Bible or in Ellen White’s writings.[xix][xix]


The most defensible position in relation to Ellen White is one that would immediately resolve the issues under consideration. Dr. Douglass identifies it as one of the four positions held in Adventism in relation to inspiration. He describes this position as follows: “The Bible and the writings of Ellen White are divinely inspired by God impressing thoughts on the prophets’ minds who would then convey the message in the best language and thought frames at their disposal.”[xx][xx] If external critics understood this view of inspiration, it would prevent them applying evaluative criteria to Ellen White that, if applied to the Bible, would force rejection of its authority.


No example is given by Pastor Manners or Dr. Patrick when the claim of factual errors in The Great Controversy is made.[xxi][xxi] W. C. White stated that his mother never claimed to be an authority on history.[xxii][xxii] Yet that is not to say that her selection of historical sources is faulty. Ellen White claimed to be outlining historical facts in The Great Controversy. [xxiii][xxiii] The recent history wars in Australia,[xxiv][xxiv] and the ongoing debate over holocaust history, should also make us careful about claiming inaccuracies in her treatment of history. If events that have occurred in the lifetimes of some of those alive today are still subject to dispute, the disparagement of historical sources far closer to the events under consideration in The Great Controversy is fraught with considerable risk. Inspired history is the only history free of human bias.[xxv][xxv] Historical claims are not made in an intellectual vacuum. When confronted with claims about historical inaccuracies in Ellen White’s writings, we need to ask, “Whose factual errors?”


When anyone claims factual errors in Ellen White’s writings, we need to ask other searching questions. For example, does the claimant accept the historical claims of the Bible? A person who does not accept the historicity of the Genesis account of creation is not someone in whom we should place confidence in relation to matters of sacred history. We also need to ask whether the claimant holds doctrines that are denied by Ellen White. If so, any attempt by that person to diminish Ellen White’s legitimate doctrinal and theological authority should be seen for what it really is. Any doubt as to the spirit motivating these recent attempts to diminish Ellen White’s authority should be dispelled by the offensive cartoon of Ellen White in the advertisement for Dr. Graeme Bradford’s book, Prophets are Human, which accompanies the second conversation. 


Ellen White reminds us that: “Only the religion that comes from God will lead to God.”[xxvi][xxvi] We have clear instruction from God through Ellen White in relation to the role that her writings are to have in the church.[xxvii][xxvii] If we take seriously the role that God gave Ellen White, it is clear that it is not Ellen White who should be reassessed,[xxviii][xxviii] but those who set themselves up as judges of Ellen White’s inspiration and authority. As Ellen White says: “God sets no man to pronounce judgment on His Word, selecting some things as inspired and discrediting others as uninspired. The testimonies have been treated in the same way; but God is not in this.”[xxix][xxix]


This is an updated version of an article that appears in the March, 2004, issue of ALMA Torch.




[i][i] “An Ellen White reality check,” Record, February 7, 2004, p. 2.

[ii][ii] “Ellen White for today—1,” Record, February 7, 2004, p. 9.

[iii][iii] Ibid., p. 10.

[iv][iv] “Ellen White for today—3,” Record, February 21, 2004, p. 10.

[v][v] “Ellen White for today—4,” Record, February 28, 2004, p. 10.

[vi][vi] Douglass, Herbert E., 1998. Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White. Nampa: Pacific Press Publishing Association, p. 441.

[vii][vii] Ibid., p. 524.

[viii][viii] The current Fundamental Belief, 17, states in relation to Ellen G. White, “her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction and correction.” It is clear that the views that Pastor Manners and Dr. Patrick are promoting are a marked departure from this statement and, if accepted, require its modification.

[ix][ix] Selected Messages, Volume 3, p. 31

[x][x] Ibid., p. 29.

[xi][xi] Ibid., p. 30

[xii][xii] Ibid.

[xiii][xiii] Ibid., p. 32.

[xiv][xiv] Ibid., pp. 31, 32.

[xv][xv] Ibid., p. 52.

[xvi][xvi] “Ellen White for today—3,” Record, February 21, 2004, p. 10.

[xvii][xvii] Ibid., p. 437.

[xviii][xviii] Manuscript Release, Volume 20, p. 23.

[xix][xix] Douglass, p. 376.

[xx][xx] Ibid., p. 441.

[xxi][xxi] In the third conversation, reference is made by Dr. Patrick to a study by Don McAdams in relation to Ellen White’s use of supposedly faulty sources in the chapter on Huss and Jerome in Great Controversy. However, these supposed faults are not identified.

[xxii][xxii] Selected Messages, Volume 3, p. 347.

[xxiii][xxiii] The Great Controversy, xii.

[xxiv][xxiv] The factual basis of a series of recent works by Australian historians on the treatment of Aboriginal Australians, since European settlement in 1788, was recently challenged in Australia by a conservative historian. The ensuing public debate has been quite acrimonious.

[xxv][xxv] I am indebted to Dr. Russell Standish for this observation.

[xxvi][xxvi] The Youth’s Instructor, September 11, 1902, paragraph 6.

[xxvii][xxvii] See Section 1, Selected Messages, Book 1.

[xxviii][xxviii] “Church leaders reasses (sic) Ellen White,” Record, February 21, 2004.

[xxix][xxix] Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 23.


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