Relevancy of EGW--a presentation at La Sierra University, May 9, 1998
by Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D.
Ellen White has never been more relevant than she is today. And she will be even more relevant in 2000 A.D. But, after saying that, we must quickly ask, which Ellen White are we talking about? From many standpoints, she is not the person that many have made her out to be. The most fundamental questions involving Seventh-day Adventists today are simply: Will the real Ellen White stand up? And what is her message?
No matter what anyone thinks, or wants to believe, we are where we are. And where we are calls for a repackaging, or a re-imaging, or a just plain, laser-clear image of Ellen White--whatever words one chooses. A generation or two of Seventh-day Adventists are suffering from either historical amnesia or conceptual hi-jacking when it comes to who she was and what she contributed to the development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and to the millions who have found God as their Friend through her ministry.
Without Ellen White, it is unlikely that the Seventh-day Adventist Church would have lasted a hundred years, if even fifty. She was the unifying steel cord that counseled and charted the development of a unique, world-wide church organization, the largest Protestant educational system in the world, a global circle of publishing houses and a system of literature distribution, a distinctive system of interactive, integrating principles of health that has stood the test of time, and health institutions that have ringed the earth. Ellen White and the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church are as interconnected as the warp and woof of a beautiful rug, or the indissoluble union of the Anglo-Saxon languages into the English we know today.
But she was more than an organizing genius. Without her distinctive theological message, there would have been no motivation, no rationale, no particular reason for all this effort. To motivate a few hundred relatively poor men and women more than 150 years ago to forsake ordinary conveniences, material security, and often the approval of their friends, to launch a movement that they were convinced was God’s special plan to prepare a people for the soon-coming Lord--that took something that this world has not seen very often since Creation.
And, in case no one has noticed lately, Ellen was a frail teenager whom physicians gave only months to live when her first assignment was given her by the Lord. That message from the Lord came at a time when New England had its share of aspiring women prophetesses. If this were a race for recognition, young Ellen Harmon started out several laps behind those whom we would have chosen to lead a people in fulfillment of such responsibilities envisioned in Rev. 14.
And in a way, that is the point: men and women who knew her well, who traveled with her in those early years, who watched her in vision and heard her messages, who saw her carry almost impossible loads as a young mother and intrepid traveler in the worst of weather, who listened to guidance that turned their brains toward clear-headed Bible study--they developed a confidence in her that went to base rock. And as her 70 years of ministry went on, strong, hard-nosed men and women learned to trust her guidance, even when it meant radical changes in their personal lives. The acid test of integrity is whether a person walks the talk, practicing what is preached--and she surely passed that test. That record is unimpeachable. What her contemporaries want us to know today is that she can be listened to with confidence. In other words--trust her.
So here we are 83 years after her death. Does she need repackaging? Some say Yes, and some, No. And both are right. It all depends on what is going on in each person’s experience.
If any of the following ideas are believed by anyone, Ellen White needs to be repackaged:
1. She wrote her major books from start to finish, as most authors do today.
2. She wrote as God gave her the words for such classics as The Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ.
3. Prophets shouldn’t use the writings of others to add color and facts to their messages.
4. Prophets shouldn’t need the expertise of others in preparing their writings.
5. Prophets were meant to be inspirational counselors, not theological teachers.
If anyone believes any of the following descriptions of Ellen White, she needs to be repackaged for what she really was:
1. She was a sick woman who was driven by neurotic compulsions.
2. She was a power-hungry leader who used religion as her guilt club.
3. She was a cranky kill-joy.
4. She was a literary kleptomaniac.
5. She devised a legalistic religious system that missed the gospel by light years.
6. She projected her own contemporary world into a last-day scenario.
Now timeout, for a little perspective. The last 25 years especially have been learning years for us all. Some have been surprised somewhat, others have been disappointed a lot, depending on one’s paradigm as to how revelation and inspiration works. In fact, for some the disappointment has led to hurt, perhaps to rejection of all they once knew about Ellen White.
In writing Messenger of the Lord I tried to speak to all--to the surprises, the disappointments, the cynicism, the hurt, and possibly the rejection--wherever one is on the continuum. For those second-generation kids who heard from well-meaning parents that Sister White was a wet-blanket, Ellen needs to be repackaged. For those who understood, from well-meaning teachers and parents that Ellen was a polished, porcelain saint, ten-feet tall, with superhuman attributes, Ellen needs repackaging. For those who heard the swish of a theological club whenever they heard Mrs. White quoted, she surely needs repackaging. If her literary genius was given as one of the strongest evidences of her inspiration, bad packaging. If her writings were understood as exactly the way the angels gave her the messages so that each word must be regarded as an unmovable pearl, she surely needs repackaging.
In the writing of Messenger, I don’t think I missed any rocks in the road that had to be turned over if I were to keep my own sanity and integrity. I worked with a sense of identity with those who heard those strange noises and felt the sting of those allegations and strident charges. And to some extent I felt like Ezekiel: "I sat where they sat, and was . . . astonished" (Eze. 3:15)
My first step was to discover for myself the real Ellen. I wanted to read for myself what her contemporaries thought of her. What kind of a wife and mother was she? What did the general public think of her? How did she handle tough times and towering disappointment? How did she do her writing? What about assistants and her great love for reading? How did she deliver her sermons? What about those extemporaneous sermons that were taken down verbatim without those phantom editors who supposedly did the writing for her?
My next step was to get into contemporary documents to see the extent of her involvement in the development of core Adventist teachings. Just what was her contribution to institutional history and how did she make any difference--and there was plenty to review.
I took a long, sympathetic look at the various factions that developed in the 1850s and on. What was the real problem with the early dissidents? A pattern soon emerged that exists to this day.
But the searing truth that overshadowed everything else I was putting away for the forthcoming pages was the simple concept that the message is more important than the messenger, even though the messenger glowed with remarkable assets. I thought of Biblical prophets. No one knows very much about even the best known writers. But we have their time-tested messages. The bottom line became laser sharp: the content is more important than the container.
With that simple, indisputable concept, the book came together fairly easily. What was that message? For Ellen White the Great Controversy Theme was the conceptual "key" to understanding humanity’s greatest questions. For her it was the "central theme of the Bible," and its aim was the "restoration in the human soul of the image of God." (See Ed:125, 190). For Ellen, the one word, "restoration," summarizes the purpose of the gospel, moving far beyond merely "forgiveness," as wonderful as forgiveness is to weak sinners.
This theme evolved in her writings as the emerging oak sapling from the acorn. It formed the sturdy trunk out of which came the great branches we call the Adventist principles of education, health care, environmental responsibility, government relations, and many other concerns.
Too often, however, we may have emphasized the branches and forgotten that it was that great trunk of the Great Controversy Theme that has made the Seventh-day Adventist Church into a distinctive theological voice. To those who say that she lifted this Theme from others, we can only ask, "From whom?"
The Great Controversy Theme forms the integrated, coherent and distinctively Adventist way of looking at such topics as evil and suffering in this world and beyond, the deeper and higher view of the atonement, the ethical norms for goodness and badness, the highest responsibilities for meaningful living and the rationale for life after death in an orderly universe.
Her charming focus and insistence on understanding the character of God became the framework for understanding oft-confused aspects of the plan of salvation. Getting the character of God right, something that Satan had done a remarkable job of misrepresenting, would not only be the drama behind the Great Controversy Theme, but serve as the highest motivation for changing sinners into saints. Where in the theological world will anyone find such conceptual architecture as we find in the Conflict of the Ages Series? And she did it so often with uncomplicated simplicity--a simplicity that professional theologians often overlook.
We are not suggesting that Adventist doctrines are derived from the visions of Ellen White. Far from it. But there is a time-tested relationship. On one hand, core Adventist doctrine is derived from the Bible; on the other, the writings of Ellen White are a consensus of Scripture . Nothing is clearer in Adventist history.
But in the nineteenth century, the seeker for Biblical truths had one huge problem: Which church, which religious leader, should one follow? All Protestants contended that they believed in the Bible, and the Bible only. Yet, the religious scene was nothing better than a circus. How could God use any one of the established churches in 1844 to tell His story of how He planned to bring this world to a close?
God did what He had to do. He broke into the human stream as He had done many times before when He needed a fuller understanding of truth to be proclaimed. One time it was Moses, then an Isaiah, than a John the Baptist and a Paul. This time God spoke to a deeply spiritual teenager and gave her an enormous assignment. Part of that assignment was to correct the theological errors of the time and to comfort the saints.
How did He help Ellen do it? By leading her along in visions as fast as her maturing mind could grasp her responsibilities. By participating in Bible studies with others, such as with her husband and Joseph Bates, and then those remarkable Sabbath and Sanctuary Conferences in 1848.
What happened in those Bible studies? When Brother A and B and C and D found themselves in deadlock situations, with no union or peace in sight, they would stop and pray and pray some more. And Ellen would have a vision. You can imagine their eagerness to know what she had learned. She would turn to Brother B and say, "I have been instructed that we should listen to you again." Then Brother C and A and D would turn to Brother B and say, "Brother B, would you please go over your study again." And when he finished, they all said, "Thank you, Brother B, it all makes sense now. And thank you, Ellen for pointing out the correct Biblical path."
Ellen was not the originator of distinctive Adventist doctrines, she was the confirmer. That’s what prophets have always done: Bible study plus confirmation by the prophet equals present truth.
What does all this have to do with the relevancy of Ellen White? Much in every way! Absent Ellen White’s writings, no one today would have the foggiest understanding of how this world is to end and what that message is that God wants the whole world to hear before He comes. The message is more important than the messenger, the content more than the container.
Another way to observe her relevancy is to note the fruit of her messages.
Who are the Bible students in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Who are the front-line sharers of gospel truth in the Adventist Church today? Researchers conducted a study of church growth, surveying 8,200 Seventh-day Adventists attending 193 churches throughout the North American Division. One of the survey areas dealt with the degree of involvement in regular study of Ellen White’s books: The following categories of this section of the survey are very instructive:
A. Relationship with Jesus-- 85 percent of the readers chose one of the two strongest possible responses to indicate their intimate relationship with Jesus; only 59 percent of the nonreaders did so, a difference of 26 percent.
B. Assurance with God-- About the same difference between the two groups existed here: readers of Ellen White apparently have more assurance of salvation.
C. Funds for public evangelism-- A ten percent difference indicating a moderate tendency for readers to be more supportive.
D. Daily family worship-- 70 percent of the readers versus 47 percent of nonreaders.
E. Daily personal Bible study-- 82 percent of the readers of Ellen White compared to 47 percent of nonreaders.
And there were many other comparisons. The researchers concluded: "Seldom does a research study find the evidence so heavily weighted toward one conclusion. In the church growth survey, on every single item that deals with personal attitudes or practices, the member who regularly studies Ellen White’s books tends to rank higher than does the member who reads them only occasionally or never. . . . And these differences are found not only in the total profile but in each of the ethnic components. White, Black, and Hispanic readers, as groups, are each superior to nonreaders. . . . [Readers] actually bring more people into the church. . . . The church is especially challenged to seek ways to involve younger members and newer converts in this study [of Ellen White’s writings]. For it is these groups that hold the future of the church, and it is precisely these groups that are the least involved at the current time in the regular study of these writings." Ministry, October, 1982.
Our young people need to hear the "weight of evidence" that has brought Adventist joy to millions over the years. That "weight of evidence" would include:
A. There is something about Ellen White’s messages that promotes faithful Bible study and Christian service.
B. There is something about her messages that has made the difference in making theology accessible to the average church member without graduate degrees, making them conversant on theological subjects normally reserved for professional theologians.
C. There is something about her messages that continues to provide certainty regarding last-day events. All this contrary to our annual, check-out stand "prophets" who give their "ten best predictions" every January, or the perennial Nostradamuses who state their predictions so vaguely that they can be reinterpreted and "made to fit" as time passes.
Ellen’s preview of closing events has never been contradicted by events. That is an astonishing record! Today’s economic insecurity that bedevils the keenest economists, our unending political strife after two wars to end all war, social unrest across the planet, the staggering decline in moral values, the New Age revival of spiritualism, the worldwide interest in and amazing steps toward religious unity, the revival of papal influence, the remarkable front-page interest in vegetarianism, exercise and all the other "natural remedies," --all are an awesome fulfillment of her predictions and principles. Predictions that were boldly contrary to the optimism of her time. For example, some faulted Ellen for overlooking Communism; they declared her eschatology outmoded. But now it is obvious that in following the Biblical outline and her special illumination, she was true to fact.
D. There is something about Ellen White’s writings that provide greater confidence in the Bible. With Ellen we have a very recent prophet under the microscope of her contemporaries. We see how prophets receive their messages and do their writing, whether a modern prophet or Biblical prophets. Many now see how God speaks through prophets. They no longer are puzzled or in doubt about the trustworthiness of the Bible when they see discrepancies here and there in their Bibles.
Prophets are inspired, not their words. Their thoughts unfolded the messages that God wanted revealed as present truth in their day. Each prophet added to previous prophetical messages as fast as people were ready to understand them. Human discrepancies in this process are nonessential concerns. The container is not important, the content is all important.
E. There is something about Ellen White’s writings that still inspire young people, even though they have never heard her speak. When properly packaged, she is still the catalyst and encourager for elementary students as well as thoughtful collegians. Not only do youth sense her spontaneity, freshness, and call for courage in mastering tough personal circumstances, they sense her dynamic principles relating to career possibilities and personal achievement that would not be even considered without her prompting. I think of the first time I read such concepts as "Self-development is the first duty we owe to God and man ( COL:329; TE:137)." Or, "The truths of the divine word can be best appreciated by an intellectual Christian (CT:361)." Or "Higher than the highest thought . . ." and you know the rest. Without Ellen White, who in this world can give our youth a clear picture regarding the future or to make any sense regarding the present?
F. There is something compelling about Ellen White herself. Surprising as it may be for students of nineteenth-century religious movements, Ellen White left no monument to herself, no appeal for adulation, or for the amenities she deserved. She did her assignment as Biblical prophets did theirs Her life was driven by a sense of destiny wrapped up in her call to be God’s messenger. She focused on making God better understood as she relayed to others His messages to her. One of her favorite, often repeated themes, was to present the truth "as it is in Jesus."
G. Underneath all this weight of evidence is the way Ellen White has steered Seventh-day Adventist thinkers through the white-water theological rapids that have afflicted all other churches. She did this, not by introducing strange speculations and theological novelties but by introducing the big picture that has been called the Great Controversy Theme. Whenever anyone tries to graft theological notions based on other paradigms onto the Great Controversy tree, we should hear the storm sirens or see red lights blinking. Whenever religious concepts are imported from Babylon, that is when Adventists get into their internal bickerings. Truth flows out of the Great Controversy Theme and the attached errors we observe from time to time does not make the tree stronger. Attempted grafts lead to much damage. In other words, staying close to Ellen White’s writings is the safest way to find both the assurance of salvation and the clearest way to present the gospel, especially to even the Christian world that has yet to recover the fullness of the apostolic gospel. If others have the everlasting gospel in its fullest sense then why, pray tell, did God need another voice to proclaim it more fully since 1844?
For me and others, Ellen White answers the basic questions of a seeker’s mind and heart. I have discovered Hosea’s message to work out in my life: "Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets (6:5)." I have seen Jehoshaphat’s conviction work out in the lives of thousands in my day: "Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe His prophets, and you will succeed" (2 Chron. 20:20, RSV).
Copyright © 2000 Herbert E. Douglass. All rights reserved.
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