by Arthur L. White
What has Ellen G. White actually done for the Seventh-day Adventist church?
David declared in Psalm 16:6, "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage." We, too, may say with David, "We have a goodly heritage." Remembering this heritage will give us courage for the future and direction in how to meet its challenges.
Our roots as Seventh-day Adventists are found in the great Advent awakening of the 1840s. October 22 each year marks a very important anniversary for all Seventh-day Adventists. On this day in 1844 Jesus Christ, as our divine High Priest, entered into the Most Holy Place of the sanctuary in heaven to commence a special ministry there on our behalf.
The fulfilling time prophecies and the promise that Jesus would soon return to this world stirred people deeply. The Spirit of God attended the proclamation of the solemn yet glad tidings. At that time, however, our spiritual ancestors failed to see that the hour of God's judgment in the message of the first angel of Revelation chapter 14 pointed to a special work of judgment immediately preceding the second coming of Christ. In spite of many evidences of heaven's special blessing as they proclaimed the glorious message of Christ's soon return, their dearest hope was rudely shattered when Jesus did not appear on the day they expected Him. Some 100,000 earnest believers who had waited in confident expectation were plunged into bitter disappointment andfor somedisillusionment.
"Why didn't Jesus come?" they cried. "Will He still come in a day or two? Or is it all just a delusion?" They wept and wondered what lay before them.
Then, at this time of anguish among the Adventists of 1844, a voice was heard in their midst the voice of a maiden only 17 years old "As God has shown me, in holy vision . . . ." The gift of prophecy had been restored to God's people!
The effects of this gift linger to our very day. We will consider three ways in which the prophetic ministry of Ellen G. White has guided our church: in our doctrinal formation, in our organizational development, and in helping us avoid disastrous snares of Satan. Reviewing these things will help to keep us in the right path now and give us courage for the future.
I. Laying Doctrinal Foundations
Return of Jesus.
That first vision given to Ellen Harmon (soon to become Mrs. James White) portrayed the Advent believers as traveling to the city of God. Christ was leading them safely on their journey to the New Jerusalem, which was said to be "a great way off." But their pathway was illuminated by a bright light behind themthe message of Christ's soon coming.
To those who could believe, it was most reassuring. Light and comfort came to their hearts as young Ellen related this and subsequent visions from the Lord. And in establishing confidence in their Advent experience, this people laid down the first plank in a firm foundationthe conviction that Christ would yet come and that the Millerite movement of which they had been a part was indeed of divine origin and direction.
Of course, they couldn't yet see the full structure that would be erected. But it was enough that the God who had led them was continuing to lead them as long as they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus.
Gift of Prophecy.
These ex-Millerites were not gullible, and they were keen Bible students. Some wondered aloud, "Did not visions cease with the close of the Scripture canon?" Study of both Old and New Testaments, however, led them to see that they should expect the gift of prophecy in earth's last days. Ellen's godly life, the absence of fanaticism, and the very practical and timely nature of the messages convinced many that they were actually witnessing a manifestation of the genuine gift of prophecy.
The number of Adventists so convinced increased as this young woman traveled from place to place at God's bidding and met with various companies of believers. Carefullyand prayerfullythey examined every shred of evidence critically. None of these canny New Englanders was about to be taken in as credulous. And as Ellen's work met every scriptural test, the believers cautiously accepted a second plank in their sure foundation: that the gift of prophecy might genuinely be expected in post-New Testament times.
One of the most prominent Scriptures proclaimed by our forefathers was the time prophecy of Daniel 8:14: "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed."
In the mid-19th century, Bible scholars and studentseven some who opposed the Advent teachingwere in general agreement that the Millerite movement's mechanical reckoning that the 2300 days would end in 1844 was itself accurate. Nearly all agreed that some momentous event would take place then. But what event would it be? Opinions differed. And what was this "sanctuary" that was to be "cleansed"?
On October 23, the very first day after the disappointment, farmer and Bible student Hiram Edson and editor-preacher O. R. L. Crosier, searching their Bibles in upstate New York, became the first to conclude that the "sanctuary" was not this earth (as Miller and they had supposed) but rather was in heaven above. And an important work was to transpire there before Jesus could return. But was their conclusion sound? With care they checked and rechecked the Bible evidences of their position and concluded that they were right.
Interestingly, hundreds of miles away in Maine, with no knowledge of this investigation being made in upstate New York, Ellen Harmon was given a majestic vision in mid-February, 1845, graphically portraying Christ's entry into the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary, where He had begun a special, final phase of His High Priestly ministry.
When the two were put togetherthe Bible study and the visionbelievers recognized that God had miraculously confirmed the conclusions reached from diligent Bible study by giving special divine revelations to the youthful Ellen.
Still later the Lord showed His prophetess that "Brother Crosier had the true light, on the cleansing of the Sanctuary" (A Word to the Little Flock, p. 12).
Thus the third basic timbera correct understanding of the doctrine of the heavenly sanctuaryhelped unlock the mystery of the Great Disappointment.
The laying of a fourth timber of doctrinal truth involved several different people.
Rachel Oakes Preston, a Seventh-day Baptist, visited her daughter who taught school in Washington, New Hampshire, in 1844. While there she called the attention of the Millerite Adventists residing there to the importance of observing the seventh-day Sabbath. Shortly thereafter, down in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Joseph Bates, a "born-again" sea captain, began keeping the Sabbath as a result of careful Bible study. And he began pressing the binding claims of the fourth commandment upon others, including schoolteacher-turned-preacher James White and James's fiancée, Ellen Harmon.
At about the time of their marriage (August, 1846), and based solely upon the convincing scriptural evidence Bates had gathered, the Whites accepted the seventh day Sabbath and began themselves to teach it. Not until seven months later did Ellen receive her first vision upon that subject, confirming the significance and obligation of this Bible truth. On Sabbath, April 3, 1847, in vision she was taken into the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary. Jesus opened the Ten Commandments, which lay folded like a book inside the ark of the covenant. Ellen immediately noted a halo of light around the fourth commandment, indicating its significance.
Jesus showed her that God had never changed the Sabbath, for He never changes. Rather, the Sabbath is the great issue which unites the hearts of God's waiting people. It was revealed to her that the Sabbath will be the great test in the final conflict before Jesus returnsthe question upon which all mankind must take its stand. The final issue will be one of loyalty: either for the unchanging truth of God, or for the tenets of an apostate power.
Thus, four basic doctrinesthe second coming of Christ, the gift of prophecy in the last days, Christ's ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, and the Sabbathbecame the nucleus around which an emerging body of believers was beginning to form. These doctrines did not come from visions. They grew out of diligent, painstaking Bible study, and the Holy Spirit confirmed them through the visions of Ellen White. But at first only a few held these truthsperhaps just a hundred or more, largely in New England and in the state of New York.
The doctrinal framework of the Seventh-day Adventist church developed further in a series of weekend convocations held from 1848 to 1850 and called Sabbath Conferences, or Sabbath and Sanctuary Conferences. And here again we see the function of the Holy Spirit, through His special messenger, not in initiating doctrinal teaching, but rather in confirming and corroboratingwhen the believers were on the right track and correcting them when they were headed in the wrong direction. But the Holy Spirit always waited until these students of Scripture had gone as far as they could go before stepping in, in a dramatic, forthright, most impressive manner.
The gathering at David Arnold's barn at Volney, New York, in August, 1848the second of six conferences held that yearwas fairly typical. Some thirty-five people gathered on Friday, hardly any two of them agreeing upon any doctrinal position. Each was anxious to advance his own peculiar sentiments. Each insisted that his views alone accorded with Scripture.
The strange and conflicting positions contending for acceptance rolled a heavy weight upon Ellen White. She lost consciousness and was taken off in vision. Writing about it afterward, she said:
"The light of Heaven rested upon me. I was soon lost to earthly things. My accompanying angel presented before me some of the errors of those present, and also the truth in contrast with their errors. That these discordant views, which they claimed to be according to the Bible, were only according to their opinion of the Bible, and that their errors must be yielded, and they unite upon the third angel's message" (Spiritual Gifts, 2: 98, 99).
The result? "Our meeting ended victoriously. Truth gained the victory" (ibid., p. 99).
Still later, Ellen White looked back with deep satisfaction upon those seasons of intensive Bible study and prayer, sessions that would run late into the night, and sometimes all night long. The men and women in attendance had been determined to understand the meaning of Bible truth, so that they might teach and preach it with power. Mrs. White recalled:
"When they came to the point in their study where they said, `We can do nothing more,' the Spirit of the Lord would come upon me, I would be taken off in vision, and a clear explanation of the passages we had been studying would be given me, with instruction as to how we were to labor and teach effectively. Thus light was given that helped us to understand the scriptures in regard to Christ, His mission, and His priesthood. A line of truth extending from that time to the time when we shall enter the city of God, was made plain to me, and I gave to others the instruction that the Lord had given me" (Selected Messages, 1:206, 207).
Interestingly, Mrs. White described this period, in which the doctrinal framework of Seventh-day Adventists was hammered out on the anvil of intense prayer and Bible study, as "one of the greatest sorrows of my life"! Why? Well, when she was not in vision, Ellen White's mind wasto use her term"locked." And "I could not comprehend the meaning of the scriptures we were studying." During this entire period, she said, "I could not understand the reasoning of the brethren." She remained in "this condition of mind until all the principal points of our faith were made clear to our minds, in harmony with the Word of God."
It was precisely because of her inability to enter into the discussions, other than to tell what the Lord had just shown her in vision, that those present "accepted as light direct from heaven" the revelations which were given her (ibid., p. 207).
Neither Mrs. White nor those present with her in these unforgettable meetings had any doubt regarding either the source or the authority of those visions. Writing at another time about this same experience, she said movingly,
"The power of God would come upon me, and I was enabled clearly to define what is truth and what is error. As the points of our faith were thus established, our feet were placed upon a solid foundation. We accepted the truth point by point, under the demonstration of the Holy Spirit. I would be taken off in vision, and explanations would be given me" (Gospel Workers, p. 302).
And so it was that Ellen White could declare unequivocally, "The leadings of the Lord were marked, and most wonderful were His revelations of what is truth. Point after point was established by the Lord God of heaven. That which was truth then, is truth today" (Selected Messages, 2:104).
Just five years before her death in 1915, Mrs. White urged that her writings, with their God-given light, should continue to "come before the people," because they contained information "given to correct specious errors and to specify what is truth" (Selected Messages, 3:32).
Our pioneers clearly understood the importance of the prophetic ministry in developing and guarding the doctrines we hold. J. N. Andrews, the scholar in whose honor and memory our first university was named, declared that the visions given to Ellen White "constituted the means whereby God preserved His people from confusion by pointing out errors, by correcting false interpretation of the Scriptures, and causing light to shine out upon that which is in danger of being wrongly understood, and therefore of being the cause of evil and division to the people of God. In short, their work is to unite the people of God in the same mind and in the same judgment upon the meaning of the Scriptures.
"Mere human judgment, with no direct instruction from Heaven, can never search out hidden iniquity, nor adjust dark and complicated church difficulties, nor prevent different and conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures. It would be sad indeed if God could not still converse with His people" (Review and Herald, Feb. 15, 1870).
In these experiences in laying our church's doctrinal foundation, we see the unique manner in which God led His latter-day children with direct and timely communication, providing them with a heritage without parallel. It is a treasure we should indeed accept, appreciate, and cherish.
Each year thousands make pilgrimages to the mountain village of Fatima in Portugal, seeking healing and other spiritual blessings. Why? It is reported that many years ago, three children playing under an oak suddenly saw an angel in the branches of the tree. The angel is said to have spoken a few words to them.
Today, because of the witness of three children who said they saw an angel who spoke with them, millions of earnest Christians have been drawn to that mountain village.
By contrast, during the first 70 years of the experience of the Seventh-day Adventist church, God sent His angel with definite, clear-cut messages to His church, to its leaders, its members, and its youth, not just once, but some 2,000 times! These messages have been published and we may read them today. Ironically, one cannot help but wonder if we Seventh-day Adventists really appreciate what God has done for us!
Visitors to Elmshaven, Ellen White's last home, nestled among the vineyards of northern California's Napa Valley, are shown the upstairs bedroom in which the prophet of the Lord was awakened from sleep by an angel many nights during the last 15 years of her life. And they stand right on the very spot where the angel often stood as he gave messages of instruction, encouragement, and warning. Do we fully sense the significance of all of this today?
II. Guiding in Organizational Development
The hand of the Lord has led and preserved Seventh-day Adventists just as much as Israel of old. Concerning this, Hosea wrote: "And by a prophet the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, and by a prophet was he preserved" (Hos 12:13). This experience of guidance and protection by means of a prophet was not just for ancient Israel alone.
With the earliest of the Sabbath and Sanctuary Conferences concluded and the principal beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists well on their way toward united acceptance, Ellen White received a vision in November, 1848. In it she was "given a view of . . . the duty of the brethren to publish the light that was shining upon our pathway" (Life Sketches, p. 125). Afterward, turning to her husband James, she said:
"You must begin to print a little paper and send it out to the people. Let it be small at first; but as the people read, they will send you means with which to print, and it will be a success from the first. From this small beginning it was shown to me to be like streams of light that went clear round the world" (ibid).
That was in 1848, the year James White mowed a hundred acres of hay with a hand scythe for eighty-seven and a half cents an acre to earn funds for traveling to some of the Sabbath and Sanctuary Conferences. But the next year they made a start, publishing a little eight-page sheet on a charge account. After three issues had gone out, James White received enough to pay the printer not only for the first three but for a fourth as well. The total bill came to $64.50, and the original receipt for the transaction (dated September 3, 1849) is in the vault of the White Estate in the General Conference headquarters today!
And today we have a network of more than fifty publishing houses around the globe, printing more than 100 million dollars' worth of literature each year in some 270 different languages!
The middle decades of the nineteenth century were a time of great ignorance in the areas of physiology and hygiene. Ill-informed and poorly-trained physicians performed surgery with unwashed hands. They prescribed blood-letting to relieve congestion and tobacco for throat difficulties! Incredibly (to us today), the Jan. 13, 1863, Review and Herald even suggested to its readers during a diphtheria epidemic that the application of pulverized Spanish flies mixed with Venice turpentine would be a helpful remedy to combat this contagious disease (p. 51). Other poisons were also administered freely in those days.
Joseph Bates, a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist church (with James and Ellen White), was early impressed with the need for reform in abandoning harmful practices. As a result of his own careful observation, and reasoning from cause to effect, Bates progressively eliminated tea and coffee (1836), alcohol (1842), flesh meats and rich foods (1843), and tobacco (1844) from his own life. But his experience was unique, and it had little influence upon his fellow Adventists.
Then, on June 6, 1863a scant sixteen days after the organization of the General ConferenceEllen White was visiting in the home of an Adventist layman, Aaron Hilliard, at Otsego, Michigan. That Friday evening, as she would later recount, "The great subject of health reform was opened before me in vision" (Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867).
The counsels from that vision and a host of others on healthful living which followed it appear today in such books as Counsels on Diet and Foods, Counsels on Health, Temperance, and The Ministry of Healing. They brought about nothing short of a revolution in the lives of those who accepted them. Today, with continuing research funded by the United States government among others, scientists studying Seventh-day Adventist men and women in the United States, the Netherlands, and Norway have demonstrated that they live six to eight years longer than the average citizen in those countries. Documentary evidence shows that Adventists have substantially less cancer, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and diabetes than do non-Adventists. Today it is obvious that the counsels given this people more than a century ago have paid handsome dividends for those who believed and practiced them!
In a vision on Christmas Day in 1865, God opened to Ellen White His interest not only in healing the sick but also making known preventive principles. She later reported, "I was shown that we should provide a home for the afflicted and those who wish to learn how to take care of their bodies that they may prevent sickness" (Testimonies for the Church, 1:489).
And, again, "Our people should have an institution of their own, under their own control, for the benefit of the diseased and suffering among us who wish to have health and strength that they may glorify God in their bodies and spirits, which are His" (ibid., p. 492).
What was the response? With this appeal ringing in their ears, the very next year our spiritual ancestors set about to establish the Western Health Reform Institute. In 1877 it was renamed the Battle Creek Sanitarium, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg himself coining the word "sanitarium" to indicate a "place where people learn to stay well" (Richard W. Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., p. 62).
This sanitarium became the forerunner of scores of health-care facilities which would make Seventh-day Adventists internationally famous for superior institutions providing dedicated service. Today the church operates a world-spanning network of 166 hospitals and sanitariums; some 224 treatment rooms, clinics, and dispensaries; and 45 medical launches and airplanes.
It didn't just happen!
After launching a far-reaching health-care program, God next directed the attention of His special messenger to the training of the youth of the church. In 1872 Ellen White penned her first message on this subjecta comprehensive, 30-page testimony article which she entitled "Proper Education." (Later, she would modify the expression, changing it to her much-used favorite term, "True Education.")
We have this article in the third volume of Testimonies for the Church, pages 131-160. Its opening words, "It is the nicest [i.e., most exacting, most delicate] work ever assumed by men and women to deal with youthful minds," struck a note of revolutionary fervor. In it she declared boldly, "We are reformers" (p. 159). And what she was calling her fellow church members to develop was nothing less than a school whose undergirding philosophy was totally radical and revolutionarya complete departure from the contemporary educational thinking then in vogue. The perceived lateness of the hour added urgency to her plea:
"Time is too short now to accomplish that which might have been done in past generations; but we can do much, even in these last days, to correct existing evils in the education of youth. And because time is short, we should be in earnest and work zealously to give the young that education which is consistent with our faith" (pp. 158, 159).
Again the church rallied to inspired leadership, and on August 24, 1874, Battle Creek Collegeour first schoolopened its doors to one hundred students. We do not have space here to tell the fascinating story of how that school prospered when following its founder's unusual educational precepts, and how it went down to dismal defeat when it ignored them in favor of uninspired contemporary principles. But Battle Creek College, later relocated and renamed Emmanuel Missionary College (today Andrews University), was the first of a whole series of educational establishments which would one day circle the earth.
Seven years after Battle Creek College's start, Ellen White and her son, Elder William C. White, were on the Pacific Coast, attending a camp meeting in Sacramento, California. At their urging, on October 20, 1881, the members there formally endorsed the founding of a second college at Healdsburg.
With the benefit of hindsight (as well as prophetic foresight), its founders determined to avoid pitfalls and defects which had marred the earlier years of Battle Creek College. At Healdsburg, there would be a dormitory for student housing, regular (and required) courses of study in the Word of God, and an industrial program that would combine scholastic activity with practical experience.
The school prospered, but slowly the town crowded in. As Ellen White wryly remarked, "While men slept, the enemy sowed houses." Later the school was renamed Pacific Union College and relocated atop 1600-foot Howell Mountain above the Napa Valley near Elmshaven.
Healdsburg College opened on April 11, 1882, with twenty-six students. Eight days later, on the opposite side of the continent, nineteen students attended their first day of classes at what would later come to be known as Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, Massachusetts.
Other colleges in North America, Avondale College in Australia ("the model school"), and still others would follow. Today Seventh-day Ad-ventists operate the second largest Protestant school system in the United States, and worldwide we maintain almost 5,600 schools with nearly a million students! "What hath God wrought!"
III. Protecting Against Satan's Wiles
Reviewing the past history of the church, General Conference president George I. Butler summed it up well in 1883:
"These . . . visions . . . have always been held in high esteem by the most zealous and humble among our people. They have exerted a leading influence among us from the start. They have first called attention to every important move we have made in advance. Our publishing work, the health and temperance movement, the College, and the cause of advanced education, the missionary enterprise, and many other important points, have owed their efficiency largely to this influence. We have found in a long, varied, and in some instances, sad experience, the value of their counsel. When we have heeded them, we have prospered; when we have slighted them, we have suffered a great loss" (Review and Herald Supplement, Aug. 14, 1883, pp. 11, 12).
The writings of Mrs. White, inspired by the Holy Spirit, opened up to God's people many lines of information, instruction, and guidance. Probably the greatest single contribution to our understanding of Scripture was her "Great Controversy between Christ and Satan" motif which set forth the origin, development, and final end of all evil. It has helped us to understand the significance of contemporary events as well as of past history.
Those writings provided a helpful corrective in preserving us from errors in our midst. In Australia in 1896, John Bell taught that the Third Angel's Message was yet future. John Harvey Kellogg advocated pantheism in 1900. A. F. Ballenger tried to do away with our doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary in the first decade of the twentieth century. And in 1909 unwise zealots tried to make a theological mountain out of a doctrinal molehill in their controversy concerning the "daily" of Daniel 8. All the while, however, Ellen White helped steer a sane, sensible, and theologically sound course, avoiding extremes, countering heresy, and pointing always to "a more excellent way."
But we see the full uniqueness and value of Ellen White's contribution to the Seventh-day Adventist church not just in how she helped to lay the doctrinal foundations of this people, not merely in her guiding of our organizational development, nor in even her having guarded us in difficult situations and protecting us against Satan's wiles. The "heritage paralleled by none" that she left us extends beyond these things.
Ellen White touched the life experiences of thousands of individual church membersalways for the better. Men and women were favorably impressed that these messages brought about a high quality of Christian life. They were convinced and convicted that God was using these messages to prepare a people with characters that would stand the severe testing of the last days. The messages did an effective work for God. They still do.
Even non-Adventists recognized the value of Ellen G. White's life and ministry. Less than six weeks after her death on July 16, 1915, the editor of the New York Independent observed concerning the church and its prophet:
"Of course, these teachings were based on the strictest doctrine of inspiration of the Scriptures. Seventh Day Adventism could be got in no other way. And the gift of prophecy was to be expected as promised to the `remnant church,' who had held fast to the truth. This faith gave great purity of life and incessant zeal. No body of Christians excels them in moral character and religious earnestness" (August 23, 1915, pp. 249, 250).
This, then, is our heritage"a goodly heritage," a heritage we must not lose. This inheritance is not alone something we can look back upon with satisfaction and a certain justifiable pride, but an inheritance of vital significance in our possession today, which we might compare to a set of useful tools bequeathed to each of us:
- A level by which we plumb our lives to keep thoughts, words, and deeds true to the pattern.
- A scale by which we weigh our motives, our ambitions, and our relation to our families and our fellowmen.
- A square by which we build characters strong and true to stand in the crucial last days of earth's history and provide the one possession we will take with us into the heavenly kingdom: character.
- A telescope to bring the future, so misty and uncertain to many, into clear and accurate focus.
- A microscope through which we may isolate and identify cherished sins sure to blight our hope of salvation.
- A knife by which we may prune away the needless weights of besetting sins.
- A lens through which our eyes may be enabled to observe closely as a loving Savior is preparing an eternal home for us, and who says to each one of us, "When it is in your heart to obey Me, when efforts are put forth to this end, I accept the disposition and effort as your best service, and make up for the deficiencies with My own merit" (see Selected Messages,1:382).
Are we making the best use of these "tools" provided in our incomparable heritage paralleled by none? Are we familiar with the information, the counsels, the reproofs, and the encouragements right at hand which have come to us through the pen of God's messenger?
Some years before she died, Ellen White wrote, "We have nothing to fear for the future except as we shall forget"and then she mentions two separate and distinct things: (1) "the way the Lord has led us," and (2) "His teaching in our past history," through the gift of prophecy to the remnant church (Life Sketches, p. 196).
May we truly fathom God's leadings and earnestly probe "His teachings" so graciously provided for our welfare. We must indeed "remember." And, in remembering, let us, like Paul, not be "disobedient to the heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19).