Former Secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate

(This article was originally published as a Supplement to the 1969 reprint edition of Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, pp. 507-549.)

The four-volume Spirit of Prophecy series by Ellen White, of which this book is a part, was but one step in the full and final portrayal of the controversy between Christ and Satan. As these volumes are again published, providing a historic link of interest in the writing and rewriting of the story, it is appropriate to recount Ellen White’s experience in receiving the visions that form the basis of this work, to portray the involvements in writing and publishing these materials, and to consider the reliability and authority of such historical works emanating from a pen of inspiration.

            The presentation of the Great Controversy theme came to be a major task, and it constituted an important pan of Mrs. White’s ministry from early years to the close of her life. The concepts of the conflict story permeated her entire lifework and placed a distinctive mold on the doctrinal positions and activities of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Certain segments of paramount importance were given to her in early years and these she promptly published in such articles as “My First Vision,” “Subsequent Visions,” et cetera, to be found in Early Writings. Then in 1848, in a vision to which Mrs. White gives but scant reference, the over-all picture was opened to her in one grand panoramic sweep. The opportunities and facilities for writing and publishing were just then extremely limited. Certain segments of the depiction she presented in chapters of her first book, A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White (1851). These are now a part of the first section of Early Writings. But it is to the basic Great Controversy vision of 1858 that we now look.

The Great Controversy Vision of 1858

The weekend of March 13 and 14, 1858, Elder James White and his wife, Ellen G. White, attended meetings at Lovett’s Grove, near Bowling Green, Ohio. On Sunday afternoon, the fourteenth, a funeral service was conducted by James White in the schoolhouse where the Sabbath meetings had been held. Following her husband’s discourse, Mrs. White arose and began to speak words of comfort to the mourners. While thus speaking, she was taken off in vision, and for two hours, during which time the congregation remained in the building, the Lord through divine revelation opened up to her many matters of importance to the church. Of this she wrote:

In the vision at Lovett’s Grove, most of the matter which I had seen ten years before concerning the great controversy of the ages between Christ and Satan, was repeated, and I was instructed to write it out. I was shown that while I should have to contend with the powers of darkness, for Satan would make strong efforts to hinder me, yet I must put my trust in God, and angels would not leave me in the conflict.—Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 162.

The day following, James and Ellen White began their homeward journey. On the train, they reviewed their recent experiences and discussed plans for writing out the vision, and for publishing that portion relating to the great controversy. This, it was decided, should be Mrs. White’s first work after reaching home.

Little did they realize the anger of Satan because of this revelation of his character and wiles, or the intensity of his determination to defeat the plans for the writing and publishing of the proposed book.

Arriving at Jackson, Michigan, en route to Battle Creek, they visited their old friends at the home of Daniel R. Palmer. At this time Mrs. White was in usual health, and the following experience, as given in her own words, came as a complete surprise:

As I was conversing with Sister Palmer, my tongue refused to utter what I wished to say, and seemed large and numb. A strange, cold sensation struck my heart, passed over my head, and down my right side. For a time I was insensible, but was aroused by the voice of earnest prayer. I tried to use my left limbs, but they were perfectly useless—Ibid.

As she realized that this was the third shock of paralysis that she had experienced, Mrs. White for a time lost hope of recovery; but in response to the continued earnest prayers of the brethren, her strength was partially restored and the next day she was able to continue the journey to her home.

Writing and Publishing the Vision

Although suffering intensely, Ellen White began to delineate the scenes of the great controversy as they had been revealed to her. Of this she wrote:

At first I could write but one page a day, and then rest three days; but as I progressed, my strength increased. The numbness in my head did not seem to becloud my mind, and before I closed that work [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1] the effect of the shock had entirely left me—Ibid., p. 163.

As she was completing her work on the manuscript for the book in June, 1858, Mrs. White received light on her experience at the home of Brother Palmer, and of this she says:

I was shown in vision that in the sudden attack at Jackson, Satan intended to take my life, in order to hinder the work I was about to write; but angels of God were sent to my rescue—Ibid.

            In September, announcement was made to the Sabbathkeeping Adventists, who then numbered less than 3,000, that Spiritual GiftsThe Great Controversy Between Christ and His Angels, and Satan and His Angels was ready for distribution. Its 219 pages touched only briefly the high points of the conflict story with three brief chapters devoted to “The Fall of Satan,” the “Fall of Man,” and “The Plan of Salvation.” Then the narrative skips to the “First Advent of Christ,” with thirteen chapters devoted to the life and ministry of our Lord and the apostles. Then in the last of twenty-five chapters she deals with the events from “The Great Apostasy” through “The Reformation” to the Advent Movement and earth’s closing scenes, ending the volume with a chapter entitled, “The Second Death,” which terminates the great controversy.

As James and Ellen White planned the publication of this material, they turned to Elder Roswell F. Cottrell, a scholarly minister residing in western New York State, to prepare an introductory chapter on the manifestation of the gift of prophecy. The book opens with a 12-page presentation entitled “Spiritual Gifts,” signed “R.F.C.”

This early work, Spiritual Gifts, Volume 1, was well received. There was more than one printing. Then in 1882 a new edition was published, first as a single volume, and then the same year embodied as the third section of the book, fittingly entitled Early Writings.

Given by Revelation

The first sentence in this little work declares, “The Lord has shown me that Satan was once an honored angel in heaven.” The words “I saw” or their equivalent appear in this little work on an average of more than once for each page of the book. (As prepared for republication in 1882, the phrase “I saw” and its equivalent were many times omitted.)  It is clear to the reader that at times the scenes passed before the writer in great panoramic views. (See Early Writings, p. 289.) At other times, certain events and their significance were presented symbolically. (See Early Writings, pp. 211, 213.)

In brief but concise general statements, important periods of history were summed up, revealing the background of the invisible contending forces of good and evil. (See Early Writings, pp. 222-226.)

“Spiritual Gifts,” Volume 2, a Biographical Work

The reception of the Great Controversy vision in March, 1858, with the commission to write it out, interrupted work Mrs. White had already undertaken in preparing an account of her experience and the visions. With Spiritual Gifts (Vol. 1) now in the field, she returned to the task of preparing the autobiographical work. This was published in 1860 as Spiritual Gifts, Volume 2, with the title, “My Christian Experience, Views and Labors in Connection With the Rise and Progress of the Third Angel’s Message.”

It is a work of 304 pages currently available in a facsimile reprint, bound with Volume 1.

Old Testament History Recounted and Illuminated

The Spiritual Gifts presentation of the Great Controversy story in 1858 had devoted only three chapters to Old Testament history. The basic Great Controversy vision and subsequent visions had opened to Ellen White views of the high points of this important history. In 1864 Spiritual Gifts, Volumes 3 and 4, were published, dealing more comprehensively with the fall of Lucifer, the Creation, the fall of man, the lives of the patriarchs, and the experience of Israel. This account of Old Testament history filled 383 pages. These two volumes bore the subtitle, “Important Facts of Faith in Connection With the History of Holy Men of Old.” Volume 3 carried an introductory statement of twenty-four pages, on “Spiritual Gifts” written by James White. These volumes are also currently available in a facsimile reprint.

“The Spirit of Prophecy,” Volumes 1-4

            The years passed, the number of believers rapidly increased, and there was a call for the republication of the little Spiritual Gifts volumes, which the people had learned to love. Mrs. White, however, felt that she could not consent to this. Since their publication she had been favored with revelations in which many of the views had been repeated in more detail; so she pleaded for time and opportunity to present the subjects more completely before they were published again. Definite plans were laid for a series of four volumes, of about four hundred pages each, to contain a fuller account of the great conflict from its inception to its close, to be published under the general title of Spirit of Prophecy.

The work on this new series moved forward more slowly than had been anticipated. James White’s recovery from a severe stroke in 1865 was long and tedious, and caring for him drew heavily on Mrs. White’s time and strength. Volume 1, which was issued in 1870, told the conflict story from the fall of Lucifer and the Creation to the time of Solomon, paralleling with some expansion the account as published in 1864 in Spiritual Gifts, Volumes 3 and 4. Again James White furnished an introduction dealing with the present-day manifestation of the gift of prophecy. This statement he also published in the Review and Herald.

Volume 2, issued in 1877, dealt with the life and work of Christ to the story of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Volume 3, published the next year, completed the life of Christ and carried the story to the midst of the ministry of Paul. It closes on page 392 with the chapter “Opposition at Thessalonica.” Ellen White and the publishers endeavored to keep each of the volumes at approximately 400 pages.

            It had been her plan, as she undertook the preparation of Volume 4, to resume the story of The Acts of the Apostles where it was left at the end of Volume 3, for she had prepared the chapters completing the story of the early Christian church, concluding with the martyrdom of Paul and Peter. She was, however, instructed by the Lord in vision to adopt the plan now seen in The Great Controversy and begin the fourth volume with the account of the destruction of Jerusalem. The reason for this soon became apparent. But this created a gap in the story as already published, and Mrs. White was left with five unused chapters. These were introduced in the second printing of Volume 3, bringing it from 392 pages to 442. Thus the full account of the life of Jesus and the work of the apostles was neatly confined to the two volumes, Spirit of Prophecy, Volumes 2 and 3.

Volume 4, “The Great Controversy”

Some chapters intended for Volume 4 were written; but not until the autumn of 1882, one year after the death of James White, was the work of preparing this volume for the press undertaken in earnest. The manuscript was completed and the book was published in 1884.

It had been revealed to Ellen White that she should present an outline of the controversy between Christ and Satan, as it developed in the first centuries of the Christian Era and in the great Reformation of the sixteenth century, in such a way as to prepare the mind of the reader to understand clearly the controversy as it is going on in our day. We can now see that the divine instruction regarding the plan of the book has made it of untold value to the church and the general public.

However, at the time of writing, Mrs. White regarded this volume, like all her former writings, as primarily a message to the church and in it she used some matter and many phrases and expressions better understood by Seventh-day Adventists than by the general public.

We would consider this the first edition of the book so well known today as The Great Controversy.

While at work on the copy for this volume at her Healdsburg home she was stricken with severe illness and despaired of recovery. She earnestly requested to be taken to the camp meeting then in progress nearby. Assuming that this was the last opportunity she would have to address the people, she asked to be aided as she attempted to stand and speak. Supporting herself at the speaker’s stand she began to bid the church farewell. Soon the audience observed the blood coming to her cheeks and strength to her body. Her voice broke clear and loud. All observed the healing. With her health completely restored, she continued her work on the book. Another attack of Satan to thwart the work was miraculously broken.

Adapted for Publication in the “Signs of the Times”

            James White, in Oakland, California, in June, 1874, started publishing the Signs of the Times as a missionary journal of the church. It was logical as the chapters for Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 2, were in preparation in 1876 that some of them should be considered appropriate for this widely read weekly. Even before the publication of the book by the Review and Herald at Battle Creek, selected chapters, beginning with “The Sabbath,” began to appear in each issue of the journal published in the West. With the exception of two chapters the entire book came before the readers of the Signs over the period of a year. The same was true of Volume 3 the next year. As the chapters were prepared copy was sent to the Signs and to the Review office for book publication. The book came out while the series was running in the paper.

It was Mrs. White’s expectation to move quickly into Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 4, and in February, 1878, she wrote of the decision to have it printed at the Pacific Press in Oakland, and to have the type set, first for the Signs. She planned to later print the book from the same type. She feared that in book form it would not reach many of the Advent believers still observing the first day of the week, but she thought she could reach quite a few of them through the Signs.

Because, of the illness of James White and other pressing tasks, she was unable to follow through on these plans, and in December, 1878, she wrote of using Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 1, as articles for the missionary journal published in the West. The materials were edited somewhat to suit more appropriately the needs of the non-Adventist reader, and then the chapters, representing but little change, began to appear in the January 9, 1879, issue, under the general title of “The Great Controversy.” Coming to the experience of Jacob, Ellen White began to greatly expand the chapters, and as she continues the Old Testament history it is difficult to correlate these with the Spirit of Prophecy volume. These chapters, appearing intermittently in 1880, 1881, and 1882, seem to present an intermediate step between Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 1, and Patriarchs and Prophets.

Ellen White, after the death of James White, and while residing in California, undertook in earnest the preparation of the chapters for Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 4. Working ahead of the book, she placed in the Signs of the Times a series of articles on Luther and Reformation history. There were nineteen in all, appearing in 1883, between May and October. In these she presented this segment of Reformation history more fully than she could in the chapters for the book, for a balance must be kept in the amount of space allotted to the period it covered.

In 1885, after the publication of Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 4, there appeared in the Signs of the Times a number of articles presenting selected chapters, in whole or in part, this time drawn directly from the book.

How the Light Came to Ellen White

As we present the steps taken in the presentation of the Great Controversy story, it will be well to examine the manner in which Ellen White received the information which through her lifetime she presented in the several portrayals of the agelong conflict.

Reference has been made to the almost “digest” account presented in 1858 in Spiritual Gifts, Volume 1, in which frequent use is made of such expressions as “I saw” and “I was shown.” The 1864 Volume 3, paralleling early Bible history, carries an author’s preface, which opens with the words:

In presenting this, my third little volume, to the public, I am comforted with the conviction that the Lord has made me His humble instrument in shedding some rays of precious light upon the past.—Page v.

In the body of this preface she declares:

The great facts of faith, connected with the history of holy men of old, have been opened to me in vision.—Ibid.

In her introduction to the 1888 edition of The Great Controversy she explained:

Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the scenes of the long-continued conflict between good and evil have been opened to the writer of these pages. From time to time I have been permitted to behold the working, in different ages, of the great controversy between Christ, the Prince of life, the Author of our salvation, and Satan, the prince of evil, the author of sin, the first transgressor of God’s holy law.—Introduction, p. x. (Italics supplied.)

And again:

As the Spirit of God has opened to my mind the great truths of His word, and the scenes of the past and the future, I have been bidden to make known to others that which has thus been revealed—to trace the history of the controversy in past ages, and especially so to present it as to shed a light on the fast-approaching struggle of the future.—Ibid., p. xi. (Italics supplied.)

While God did not confine Himself to only one method of imparting light in the unfolding of historical events, it often came to the prophet in the form of visual unfolding events, past and future.

In other words, Ellen White seemingly viewed the occurring of the events of history as would an eyewitness. This must have been much the manner in which Moses just before his death was permitted to view, in advance, the history and fortunes of Israel. The account given by Ellen White in Patriarchs and Prophets is helpfully illuminating:

And now a panoramic view of the Land of Promise was presented to him. Every part of the country was spread out before him, not faint and uncertain in the dim distance, but standing out clear, distinct, and beautiful to his delighted vision. In this scene it was presented, not as it then appeared, but as it would become, with God’s blessing upon it, in the possession of Israel. He seemed to be looking upon a second Eden. There were mountains clothed with cedars of Lebanon, hills gray with olives and fragrant with the odor of the vine, wide green plains bright with flowers and rich in fruitfulness, here the palm trees of the tropics, there waving fields of wheat and barley, sunny valleys musical with the ripple of brooks and the song of birds, goodly cities and fair gardens, lakes rich in “the abundance of the seas,” grazing flocks upon the hillsides, and even amid the rocks the wild bee’s hoarded treasures....
Moses saw the chosen people established in Canaan, each of the tribes in its own possession. He had a view of their history after the settlement of the Promised Land; the long, sad story of their apostasy and its punishment was spread out before him. He saw them, because of their sins, dispersed among the heathen, the glory departed from Israel, her beautiful city in ruins, and her people captives in strange lands. He saw them restored to the land of their fathers, and at last brought under the dominion of Rome.
He was permitted to look down the stream of time and behold the first advent of our Saviour. He saw Jesus as a babe in Bethlehem. He heard the voices of the angelic host break forth in the glad song of praise to God and peace on earth.... He beheld Christ’s humble life in Nazareth, His ministry of love and sympathy and healing, His rejection by a proud, unbelieving nation. Amazed he listened to their boastful exaltation of the law of God, while they despised and rejected Him by whom the law was given. He saw Jesus upon Olivet as with weeping He bade farewell to the city of His love….
He followed the Saviour to Gethsemane, and beheld the agony in the garden, the betrayal, the mockery and scourging—the crucifixion…. He heard Christ’s agonizing cry, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” He saw Him lying in Joseph’s new tomb. The darkness of hopeless despair seemed to enshroud the world. But he looked again, and beheld Him coming forth a conqueror, and ascending to heaven escorted by adoring angels and leading a multitude of captives. He saw the shining gates open to receive Him, and the host of heaven with songs of triumph welcoming their Commander. And it was there revealed to him that he himself would be one who should attend the Saviour, and open to Him the everlasting gates.—Pages 472-476. (Italics supplied.)

The dramatic picture continues, but we need go no further. Enthralled, Moses watched the events take place—seeing, hearing, and participating, and in viewing the scene even the sense of smell came into play. In this vivid manner the history of the future was opened up to the prophet. It is very unlikely that dates were given to him. It is not likely that all the cities he saw were named. Those were inconsequential details, not essential to the unfolding theme.

            It was doubtless in just this manner that history, past and future, was often presented to Ellen White, history on which was woven the tapestry of the Great Controversy theme. As she referred to the visions relating to the second coming of Christ she at one time declared: “Scenes of such thrilling, solemn interest passed before me as no language is adequate to describe. It was all a living reality to me.”—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 76.

As Moses watched history in advance, so did Ellen White in vision watch history develop, both past and future, and she was commissioned “to trace this history.” This she did, delineating the account in greater detail as the growing church could produce and use larger books, and as the repeated visions brought to her the basis for fuller presentation.

Transforming the Scene to the Language of Men

As she undertook the work of setting forth in the printed page what she had received in vision, she had to transform the scenes into human language so the reader might visualize what she had seen.

No supernatural force took mechanical control of her hand and guided in the words that she wrote, and rarely were the exact words which she should use dictated by the heavenly messenger at her side. Mrs. White speaks as follows regarding her own choice of language in writing out her views:

Although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation—Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867.

It was ever a source of regret to Mrs. White that her schooling had been very brief, and her knowledge of the technical rules of writing therefore limited. William C. White, her son, says he clearly remembers the earlier years of her work in Battle Creek, when his father James White, on coming home from the Review and Herald office, would be asked to listen to what Mrs. White had written and to help her in preparing it technically for publication. As she read to him, he would comment on the matter, rejoicing in the power of the message, and would point out weaknesses in composition and faulty grammar.

Regarding such experiences, she made a statement in 1906 as follows:

While my husband lived, he acted as a helper and counselor in the sending out of the messages that were given to me. We traveled extensively. Sometimes light would be given to me in the night season, sometimes in the daytime before large congregations. The instruction I received in vision was faithfully written out by me, as I had time and strength for the work. Afterward we examined the matter together, my husband correcting grammatical errors and eliminating needless repetition. Then it was carefully copied for the persons addressed, or for the printer.
As the work grew, others assisted me in the preparation of matter for publication. After my husband’s death, faithful helpers joined me, who labored untiringly in the work of copying the testimonies and preparing articles for publication.—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 50.

Usually Mrs. White wrote comprehensively upon the subject she was presenting, and there was occasionally a difference of opinion between her and the publishers regarding the quantity of matter that should be used. She was best pleased when the subject was presented very fully, but the publishers were pleased to have the matter condensed or abbreviated so that the books would not be too large. To this she would sometimes consent. But there were times when, after important chapters were prepared in as brief a form as possible and sent to the printer, a new presentation of the subject would be given to Mrs. White, and she would then write additional matter and insist upon its incorporation. (See the publishers’ preface to Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 4.)

Mrs. White was not merely a mechanical writer. The deep impressions often made upon the reader of her writings are due in part to her own intensity of spirit while she wrote. Occasionally she referred in correspondence to her emotional depth of feeling as she penned the solemn messages from Heaven to a perishing world. Thus, on February 19, 1884, while nearing the close of her work on the fourth volume, she wrote in a letter to Elder Uriah Smith:

I write from fifteen to twenty pages each day. It is now eleven o’clock, and I have written fourteen pages of manuscript for Volume IV…. As I write upon my book, I feel intensely moved. I want to get it out as soon as possible, for our people need it so much. I shall complete it next month if the Lord gives me health as He has done. I have been unable to sleep nights, for thinking of the important things to take place. Three hours and sometimes five is the most sleep I get. My mind is stirred so deeply I cannot rest. Write, write, write, I feel that I must, and not delay.
Great things are before us, and we want to call the people from their indifference to get ready. Things that are eternal crowd upon my vision day and night. The things that are temporal fade from my sight.—Quoted in Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant, p. 57.

In the fall of 1884 this book was ready for distribution. It could not be held to the 400 pages as had at first been planned. The text closed on page 492 and a fourteen-page appendix followed, making the book 506 pages. Nevertheless, the price was held to one dollar as advertised, and in keeping with the price of the first three books of the series.

First Colporteur Edition

            It has been seen that Ellen White and her associates considered the materials appearing in the Spirit of Prophecy series as appropriate for the reading of the general public, and much of it, with slight adaptation, had been republished in the Signs of the Times. During the last years of the 1870’s and the early 1880’s Seventh-day Adventists caught a vision of what might be accomplished in selling books presenting the doctrinal views of the church to the general public through door-to-door contacts. The works written by Uriah Smith, Thoughts on Daniel and Thoughts on Revelation, had been put together in a single volume for colporteur distribution and this book was selling well. As Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 4, came from the press in 1884, the publishers felt that this volume could be sold to those not of our faith; so with Mrs. White’s cooperation, they took the plates and printed a subscription edition on heavier paper and with wider margins, to sell for $1.50. This contained 22 full-page illustrations, the first Ellen G. White book to carry pictures. Many of these illustrations were secured from the European publishers of works dealing with Reformation history. Others were the works of religious artists. Between 1885 and 1888 ten printings totaling 50,000 copies were produced and sold.

Mrs. White Visits the Scenes of the Reformation

From 1885 to 1887 Mrs. White visited Europe. While there, her contact with European people and her visits to some of the historic places brought to her mind many scenes that had been presented to her in vision during previous years, some of them two or three times, and other scenes many times.

As she and some friends were at Zurich, Switzerland, and entered the cathedral where Zwingli had labored, she recognized her surroundings, and although she had not before been there, she served as a guide to the group, recounting the history. On another occasion in northern Italy, while visiting the caves where the Waldenses hid in the mountains above Torre Pellice, she recognized her surroundings as they had appeared to her in vision and recounted in detail the events that had there occurred.

When plans were discussed for the publication of The Great Controversy in the principal European languages, she decided to make additions to the book. Because of these contacts in Europe she was able to write more graphically and fully regarding some important events, in preparing the manuscript for translation.

It should also be noted that while in these environs, many of the scenes were repeated to her in vision. Of this she wrote:

While writing the manuscript of The Great Controversy, I was often conscious of the presence of the angels of God. And many times the scenes about which I was writing were presented to me anew in visions of the night, so that they were fresh and vivid in my mind.—Colporteur Ministry, p. 128.

It was in Europe that Mrs. White developed more fully the plan for the presentation of the entire Great Controversy story for the general public as well as for the church in the five books of the Conflict of the Ages Series, all with appropriate illustrations.

So with the work of producing the Spirit of Prophecy, Volumes 1-4, just completed, Mrs. White undertook again the rewriting and amplification of the entire Great Controversy story. The books would not only be larger and fuller, but they would be written also for the reader who knew nothing of Mrs. White’s call and work.

In her public ministry Mrs. White had always shown an ability to select from the storehouse of truth, matter well adapted to the needs of the congregation before her; and she also recognized that in the choice of material for publication in her books, sound judgment should be shown in selecting what was best suited to the needs of those who would read.

The far-reaching decision to present The Great Controversy story to the world as well as the church would also guide her in the phraseology employed. She decided to refrain from using such phrases as “I saw” or “I was shown,” which would have little significance to the reader not familiar with her call and work and might even distract his attention from the important messages of the books.

The 1888 Edition of “The Great Controversy”

The 1884 book, Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 4, under the title of “The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan During the Christian Dispensation,” had now proved itself as a successful colporteur book. This would be the first to be enlarged and rewritten. Ellen White began the work in 1886, while she was residing in Basel, Switzerland, and completed it at her home in Healdsburg, California, in May, 1888.

She not only enlarged the presentation but in some cases she left out items. An example of this is seen in the familiar chapter entitled “The Snares of Satan” in The Great Controversy (pages 518-530 in current printings). The first four pages of this chapter as printed in the 1884 book dealt with the manner in which Satan employed Protestant ministers to carry out his objectives in depreciating the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. This could be understood by Seventh-day Adventists, but since the presentation was now to go to non-Adventists, Mrs. White felt that the pages dealing with this should be dropped out of the new and larger book. In 1923 the omitted portions of this chapter were reprinted in Testimonies to Ministers, bringing them back for Adventist reading.

In the work of revising and enlarging the book, Ellen White had access to Elder J. N. Andrews’ library. This was helpful to her, for in presenting historical description she at times drew quotations from well-known authors.

The new volume bore the title The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan During the Christian Dispensation. The words “Revised and Enlarged” appear on the title page. The text extended to page 678 in place of the 492 pages of the earlier book. The page size was enlarged. The number of chapters was increased from 37 to 42. The 1888 printing contained 26 full-page illustrations, and the appendix was expanded by the addition of four notes. To this were added thirteen pages of biographical notes, giving information on twenty-eight prominent characters mentioned in the book and one page on the Waldenses. No index was included.

Ellen White did, however, in this volume provide an Author’s Preface, later denoted as “Introduction,” filling eight pages, in which she deals with the manner in which God has imparted information and light to the human family through prophets. In this, as noted earlier, she carefully and tactfully introduced the source of her information. This is now recognized as a very illuminating and helpful statement on the subject of inspiration, both of the Bible and of her writings. In a sense this is the author’s introduction to the five-book Conflict of the Ages Series of which this was the first to be published.

This 1888 book became the volume known so well as The Great Controversy. Its pagination is standard today. At the outset several sets of printing plates were made which were put into use in the United States and overseas. This edition of The Great Controversy was used until 1911, when a revision took its place.

Patriarchs and Prophets

With the enlarged Great Controversy in the field, Ellen White now turned her attention to the rewriting and enlarging of Volume 1 of the Spirit of Prophecy series. Patriarchs and Prophets as we know it today was the result. Ellen White, having now decided to prepare a fifth volume dealing with the later part of Old Testament history, closed Patriarchs and Prophets with chapter 73, “The Last Years of David.” This would leave the story of Solomon and all that follows to the time of Christ for the new book. The 714-page Patriarchs was completed in 1890. Elder Uriah Smith, the editor of the Review and Herald with whom Ellen White had long been acquainted, was asked to write the introduction to this volume. This was an eight-page statement explaining and defending the proposition of the appearance of the prophetic gift in the present age. Thirteen illustrations embellished this first printing and it closed with an eight-page appendix, consisting of twelve “notes.”

The first printing of the book carried the title The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan as Illustrated in the Lives of Patriarchs and Prophets. The text throughout carried the running title of “The Great Controversy.” For a time Mrs. White and others referred to this book as Great Controversy, volume 1. They soon saw, however, that the title did not effectively distinguish this book from the 1888 Great Controversy. In a new printing, with added illustrations and with the text material filling 762 pages, it was given the title Patriarchs and Prophets. This left the one familiar Great Controversy as the last book of The Conflict of the Ages Series from that time onward.

The Writing of `”The Desire of Ages”

All through the years it was Mrs. White’s desire to deal very fully with the life of Christ, His ministry, His teachings, and His sacrifice. That which she had written on this phase of the conflict during the 70’s, and which was published in Volumes 2 and 3 of the Spirit of Prophecy and in a number of pamphlets, later seemed to her to be inadequate. Therefore when her work on Patriarchs and Prophets was finished, her thoughts turned to the preparation of a more comprehensive treatise on the life of Christ. For this work she carried a great burden, and in her letters we find many references to her hope of being able soon to get the book under way.

When she went to Australia in the autumn of 1891, it was her expectation that the long-hoped-for life of Christ could soon be prepared. During the years 1892 to 1898 she spent much time in writing chapters for this book.

A glimpse of the intensity under which she worked while preparing copy for The Desire of Ages is seen in a letter written in 1892 to Elder O. A. Olsen, then president of the General Conference:

I walk with trembling before God. I know not how to speak or trace with pen the large subject of the atoning sacrifice. 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. I bow my soul in awe and reverence before God and say, “Who is sufficient for these things?”—Letter 40, 1892.

A letter written two years later gives us a picture of Mrs. White’s busy life, and explains the delay in preparing copy for the forthcoming book. She says:

Now, after I have been in this country nearly three years, there is still much to be done before the book will be ready for publication. Many branches of work have demanded my attention. I am pressed beyond measure with the work of writing out testimonies, caring for the poor, and traveling with my own conveyance, eight, eleven, and thirteen miles to meet with the churches.—Letter 69, 1894.

            Pressed with these burdens and cares, she did much of her writing when others were asleep. “My time for writing usually commences at three o’clock in the morning,” she says, “when all in the house are asleep. Often I am awakened at half past twelve, one, or two o clock.”—Letter 114, 1896.

The Ministry of Suffering

It is well known that some of the world’s masterpieces of literature, of poetry, and of gospel hymns have been fashioned on the anvil of pain, and so it was with a part of Mrs. White’s writings on the life and ministry of Jesus. Some of the choicest passages in The Desire of Ages came from her pen when she was confined not only to her room, but much of the time to her bed or to her writing chair fitted with an adjustable rest for her pain-racked arm. Soon after she reached Australia she began to suffer with inflammatory rheumatism, and for eleven months was in constant pain. Of this experience she wrote:

I have been passing through great trial in pain and suffering and helplessness, but through it all I have obtained a precious experience more valuable to me than gold.—Letter 7, 1892.

Released at last from the sickroom, Mrs. White was called upon to enter more fully into the rapidly developing work in Australia, and the many calls for her counsel and assistance, in addition to her extensive correspondence, greatly hindered the progress of the work on The Desire of Ages. In a letter written October 23, 1895, she says:

I have about decided to . . . devote all my time to writing for the books that ought to be prepared without further delay. I would like to write on the life of Christ, on Christian Temperance [The Ministry of Healing] and prepare Testimony Number 34 [Volume 6] for it is very much needed....

You know that my whole theme both in the pulpit and in private, by voice and pen, is the life of Christ.—Letter 41, 1895.

Some have marveled at the extraordinary beauty of the language in The Desire of Ages. The sentence of the above letter stating that this was her favorite theme, suggests the reason for the exalted phraseology of the book.

How the Work Was Done

In the preparation of this work on the life of Christ as in the preparation of other of her later publications, Mrs. White did not write the book straight through, chapter by chapter, in the order in which the chapters appeared in printed form. This was not necessary, for during the preceding thirty-five years she had written many hundreds of pages on this theme, much of which had already been published. With this background of material, she instructed those who were employed as her helpers to gather from her published books, articles, letters, and manuscripts what they could find on the subject. With this in hand, she wrote many additional articles as the experiences of Christ were opened anew to her. These newly written passages, together with what she had written in former years, were grouped in their natural order, at times arrived at by reference to works on the harmony of the Gospels. Mrs. White again studied the story in this connection and sometimes added connecting events.

Her writings on the life and teachings of our Saviour were found to be so voluminous that they could not all be contained in one book even though it was swelled to 835 pages. Therefore some of the material which could not be included in the 87 chapters of The Desire of Ages (1898 ) was used as in Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (1896), Christ’s Object Lessons (1900), and a portion of The Ministry of Healing (1905).

The Conflict Story Completed

Although the outstanding features of the great conflict were covered in Patriarchs and Prophets, The Desire of Ages, and The Great Controversy, there still remained two wide gaps in the portrayal of the conflict between good and evil from the Fall to the final restoration, one period reaching from the death of David to the birth of Christ, the other covering the first century of the Christian church. When other labors permitted, Mrs. White, with the aid of her literary assistants, undertook with enthusiasm the task of gathering and preparing material for two more volumes to complete the series. As in the case of The Desire of Ages, there were to be found in earlier books and in periodical articles hundreds of pages already in print covering portions of these periods. Also many chapters and portions of chapters could be drawn from the file of Mrs. White’s manuscripts. Then much new matter was written by Mrs. White specifically for the work in preparation. Her 1883 book, Sketches From the Life of Paul, comprised of portions of chapters from Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 3, and filled out with new material written for this Sabbath school lesson help hurried into the field, was drawn upon heavily for The Acts of the Apostles.

Mrs. White frequently wrote relative to the work on these volumes. A letter dated October 15, 1911, gives a picture of the work then in progress:

My work on the book The Acts of the Apostles is completed. In a few weeks you shall have a copy. I have had excellent help in preparing this work for the press. There are other writings that I desire to get before our people, that they may speak when my voice is silent. The book on Old Testament History [Prophets and Kings], which we hope to bring out next, will call for earnest effort. I am grateful for the help the Lord is giving me in the labors of faithful, trained workers, and that these workers are ready to carry forward this work as fast as it is possible.—Letter 88, 1911.

A few months after the foregoing statement was penned, The Acts of the Apostles came from the press and was given a hearty welcome. Soon the work on Old Testament history was undertaken in earnest, but owing to the pressure of other important tasks was carried forward slowly. Of great service to her were articles published in several journals of the church, such as a series of twenty-three articles on the life of Solomon published in the Review and Herald in 1905 and 1906 and fourteen articles on the “Return of the Exiles” published in 1907 and 1908. Unfortunately, Mrs. White met with an accident as the

last chapters were in preparation. As she was unable to continue her careful study and approval of new work on the manuscript, the work came to a standstill. The book was far enough along, however, so that it could be brought successfully to finality. Life Sketches, published in 1915, informs us of the completion of the book:

At the time of her accident, in February, 1915, all but the last two chapters had been completed . . . ; and these final chapters had been sufficiently blocked out to admit of completion by the inclusion of additional matter from her manuscript file.—Page 436.

The volume came from the press in 1917 under the title of Captivity and Restoration of Israel. Within a few years the title was changed to Prophets and Kings, but many printings carried Captivity and Restoration as the running title through the book.

God-given Instruction

During her last years Mrs. White frequently took pleasure in rereading the books she had written containing the conflict story. In reviewing her experience in bringing out these books, she places the origin of the information and instruction far beyond her own mind. In 1902, speaking of the source of light presented therein, she said:

Sister White is not the originator of these books. They contain the instruction that during her lifework God has been giving her. They contain the precious, comforting light that God has graciously given His servant to be given to the world. From their pages this light is to shine into the hearts of men and women, leading them to the Saviour.—Colporteur Ministry, p. 125.

The 1907 Edition of “The Great Controversy”

Printing after printing of the 1888 edition of The Great Controversy was made. By the year 1907 the printing plates in use at our publishing houses in Mountain View, California, Washington, D.C., and Watford, England, were badly worn. It was hoped that the expense of resetting the type for the book could be avoided.

The printing plates were patched up; in some cases parts of pages were reset and soldered into the old plates. The book was dressed up a bit and reillustrated. The fullpage illustrations were increased to 40. The paging was unchanged and there were no changes in the wording of the text. Scripture and subject indexes were added at the close of the volume. On the basis of the new features the book was registered again for copyright, so it carries the 1907 copyright date and is at times referred to as the “1907 edition of The Great Controversy.” From the standpoint of text, it is actually the 1888 edition, printed from the 1888 patched-up plates.

The 1911 Edition of “The Great Controversy”

The 1911 edition of The Great Controversy is now the standard book currently used throughout the world in English and in translations. When this book came from the press, Ellen White wrote of it on July 25, 1911:

A few days ago I received a copy of the new edition of the book Great Controversy, recently printed at Mountain View, and also a similar copy printed at Washington. The book pleases me. I have spent many hours looking through its pages, and I see that the publishing houses have done good work....
Recently it was necessary for this book to be reset, because the electrotype plates were badly worn. It has cost me much to have this done,[1] but I don’t complain; for whatever the cost may be, I regard this new edition with great satisfaction....
When I learned that Great Controversy must be reset, I determined that we would have everything closely examined, to see if the truths it contained were stated in the very best manner, to convince those not of our faith that the Lord had guided and sustained me in the writing of its pages.
As a result of the thorough examination by our most experienced workers, some changing in the wording has been proposed. These changes I have carefully examined, and approved. I am thankful that my life has been spared, and that I have strength and clearness of mind for this and other literary work.—Letter 56, 1911.

In the same statement she declared:

Yesterday I read what W. G White has recently written to Canvassing Agents and responsible men at our publishing houses regarding this latest edition of Great Controversy, and I think he has presented the matter correctly and well.—Ibid.

The revision of an inspired book quite naturally raised some question in the minds of ministers and laity alike. Some of the questions involved an understanding of inspiration. The fact that Ellen White determined to make the revision and worked closely with her office staff in doing so, helped to mitigate some of the questions. W. C. White made three major statements regarding the work, first an extended letter written July 24 to “Our General Missionary Agents” and to “Publishing House Managers,” and the next day a letter addressed to “Members of the Publication Committee.” As the General Conference Committee met in Autumn Council, he on October 30 made a third presentation. After a brief introductory statement he read to the council his letter of July 24. He also had considerable correspondence with executives and leading ministers of the church regarding this new edition.

The Changes in the 1911 Edition

We turn to the W. C. White communications here mentioned to gain a picture of what was involved in bringing out the 1911 book.  The key points, which for clarity we will present in numbered paragraphs, are:

1. “The most noticeable change in the new edition, is the improvement in the illustrations....
2. The thirteen Appendix notes of the old edition, occupying thirteen pages, have been replaced by thirty-one notes occupying twelve pages.... The Biographical Notes have been omitted.” [Neither the Appendix notes nor Biographical Notes were prepared by Mrs. White.]...
3. “The general Index has been enlarged from twelve to twenty-two pages. . . .
4. “In the body of the book, the most noticeable improvement is the introduction of historical references. In the old edition, over seven hundred biblical references were given, but in only a few instances were there any historical references to the authorities quoted or referred to. In the new edition the reader will find more than four hundred references to eighty-eight authors and authorities….
5. “In a few instances, new quotations from historians, preachers, and present-day writers, have been used in the place of the old, because they are more forceful, or because we have been unable to find the old ones. In each case where there has been such a change, Mother has given faithful attention to the proposed substitution, and has approved of the change....
6. “In spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, changes have been made to bring this book into uniformity of style with the other volumes of this series [The Desire of Ages and Patriarchs and Prophets].
7. “In eight or ten places, time references have been changed because of the lapse of time since the book was first published.
8. “In several places, forms of expression have been changed to avoid giving unnecessary offense. An example of this will be found in the change of the word ‘Romish’ to ‘Roman’ or ‘Roman Catholic.’
9. “In two places the phrase ‘divinity of Christ’ is changed to ‘deity of Christ.’ And the words ‘religious toleration’ have been changed to ‘religious liberty.’…

“In the new edition, the rise of the papacy in 538, and its fall in 1798, are spoken of as its ‘supremacy’ and ‘downfall,’ instead of its ‘establishment’ and ‘abolition,’ as in the old edition.

“In each of these places the more accurate form of expression has been duly considered and approved by the author of the book.
10. “On pages 50, 563-564, 580, 581, and in a few other places where there were statements regarding the papacy which are strongly disputed by Roman Catholics, and which are difficult to prove from accessible histories, the wording in the new edition has been so changed that the statement falls easily within the range of evidence that is readily obtainable.”
“Regarding these and similar passages, which might stir up bitter and unprofitable controversies, Mother has often said: ‘What I have written regarding the arrogance and the assumptions of the papacy, is true. Much historical evidence regarding these matters has been designedly destroyed; nevertheless, that the book may be of the greatest benefit to Catholics and others, and that needless controversies may be avoided, it is better to have all statements regarding the assumptions of the pope and the claims of the papacy stated so moderately as to be easily and clearly proved from accepted histories that are within the reach of our ministers and students.’”

Work Done in Mrs. White’s Office

These illustrations make clear the type of work that was done in making the revisions for the 1911 edition of The Great Controversy. The work was done in Mrs. White’s office at Elmshaven, near St. Helena in northern California, by her office staff and under her direction. The reader may ask, “What evidence do we have that Mrs. White did as she said she did in her statement quoted earlier: ‘These changes I have carefully examined and approved’?”

The records of the White Estate are very full. In these is a large Manila envelope containing proofs showing the changes made in the 1911 edition. This envelope is marked: “Controversy Proofs Prepared for Mrs. E. G. White’s Inspection and Approval.” At the bottom appear the words “All Approved.”

Everyone therefore may rest assured that the 1911 edition, published four years before Mrs. White’s death, was her presentation of the subject, in which, as she said, truths “were stated in the very best manner,” prepared to reach the public in a form bearing her full and unqualified endorsement.

Four sets of printing plates were made, and the book was issued simultaneously from the three publishing houses in North America and the publishing house serving the church in Great Britain.

Many Printings of the 1911 Edition

            The 1911 edition of The Great Controversy became the standard work throughout the world. References in the Sabbath school lessons and textbooks are to this edition. It was soon provided on thin paper without illustrations for convenient reference work in what in denominational circles has become known as the “trade edition.”

The paging of certain of the editions intended for colporteur sale in some cases has varied—the illustrations have been different; there has been an updating of the appendix notes; in some editions some of the chapter titles have been changed and hundreds of thousands of copies have been distributed under the title The Triumph of God’s Love. But the text of the book is the same—the text of the 1911 edition. A few typographical or grammatical errors have been corrected, and current forms of capitalization and spelling have been employed. Such adjustments, made to keep a widely circulated book in the most acceptable form, do not affect the sense or the message of the volume.

As for adjustments related to the passage of time since 1911, the White Trustees in 1950 authorized a rewording of four phrases in the book in order to convey the sense correctly both in 1911 and to the present-day reader. The reader today is often a non-Adventist not familiar with the history of the book and the later of the editions. These four are:

Page 287: In referring to the Bible, the 1911 edition stated: It “has since been translated into more than four hundred languages and dialects.” By 1950 the number was more than a thousand. The phrase was reworded so as to convey a correct image both in 1911 and the present, and reads in current printings; “has since been translated into many hundreds of languages and dialects.”
Page 288: Speaking of Voltaire, the atheist, Mrs. White stated in the 1911 edition: “A century has passed since his death.” By 1950 it was more nearly two centuries. The substitute wording correctly stating the fact, whether in 1911 or the present, is “Generations have passed since his death.”
Page 378: In reference to the Jewish nation, Ellen White stated in the 1911 edition: “The people of Israel for eighteen hundred years have stood, indifferent to the gracious offers of salvation.” By 1950 it was nearer to nineteen hundred years. Reworded to state the facts correctly in 1911 and the present, the phrase reads: “The people of Israel during succeeding centuries have stood, indifferent to the gracious offers of salvation.”
Page 579: Mrs. White stated in the 1911 edition, “For more than half a century, students of prophecy in the United States have presented this testimony to the world.” The earlier 1888 edition read: “For about forty years.” By 1950 it was actually a full century. The White Trustees in this case authorized a specific reading that would be unaffected by time lapse: “Since the middle of the nineteenth century, students of prophecy in the United States have presented this testimony to the world.”

To speak of the foregoing four adjustments in wording as “changes in wording of an E. G. White book” is correct only if we mean technical corrections of historical phrases to keep the statements chronologically accurate.

History and Historical Quotations

The fact that some historical quotations were changed, one being substituted for another in the 1911 edition, and the fact that source references were given to historical materials which had not been credited in earlier printings brought to the fore the question of Ellen G. White’s writing in the field of history, and the basic source of the historical information she set forth in The Great Controversy. Did she receive this information from God? Did she secure it from the writings of historical authors, and if so to what extent? How is this related to the question of inspiration?

Mrs. White ever sought to avoid being influenced by others. Shortly after the Great Controversy vision of March 14, 1858, at meetings in Battle Creek held over a weekend, she told the high points of what had been shown to her in that vision. Elder J. N. Andrews, who at the time was in Battle Creek, was much interested. After one of the meetings he told her some of the things she had said were much like a book he had read. Then he asked if she had read Paradise Lost. She replied in the negative. He told her that he thought she would be interested in reading it.

Ellen White forgot about the conversation, but a few days later Elder Andrews came to the home with a copy of Paradise Lost and offered it to her. She was busily engaged in writing the Great Controversy vision as it had been shown her. She took the book, hardly knowing just what to do with it. She did not open it, but took it to the kitchen and put it up on a high shelf, determined that if there was anything in that book like what God had shown her in vision, she would not read it until after she had written out what the Lord had revealed to her. It is apparent that she did later read at least portions of Paradise Lost, for there is one phrase quoted in Education.

The vision created in Mrs. White’s heart a deep interest in Reformation history. After having completed her writing, and after the book was published, she turned to some of the well-known histories. In the 1858 vision she had seen essential portions of this historical period. She had seen Martin Luther nail the theses to the church door at Wittenberg. She had viewed other scenes of the Reformation in that vision. The vision brought light to her on the whole matter of the conflict between the forces of righteousness and the forces of evil. With that interest, the White family read for worship most of D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation. They observed with particular interest those portions that were in harmony with what had been shown to her.

It was quite natural, then, that as Mrs. White later undertook to present in a number of chapters the account of the Protestant Reformation, she should quote from accepted writers in that historical field.

The Place of History in The Great Controversy Story

In chronicling events in historical narrative, Ellen White makes no attempt to be complete or exhaustive, but rather is selective, drawing in those events which form the background of the Great Controversy theme. She did not write essentially as a historian. Moreover, in all her writings, the details of history were always subordinated to the great theme of the conflict. Even where the facts of the Bible or secular history are introduced, there is always a characteristic background of the invisible, contending forces of good and evil, such as no other writer has attempted. Her view of the place of history as exemplified in her own writings is well expressed in the following words:

In the annals of human history, the growth of nations, the rise and fall of empires, appear as if dependent on the will and prowess of man; the shaping of events seems, to a great degree, to be determined by his power, ambition, or caprice. But in the word of God the curtain is drawn aside, and we behold, above, behind, and through all the play and counterplay of human interest and power and passions, the agencies of the All-merciful One, silently, patiently working out the counsels of His own will.—Prophets and Kings, pp. 499, 500.
We are to see in history the fulfillment of prophecy, to study the workings of Providence in the great reformatory movements, and to understand the progress of events in the marshaling of the nations for the final conflict of the great controversy.—The Ministry of Healing, pp. 441, 442.

In connection with the writing out of these views of the events of ancient and modern history, and especially the history of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century, her reading of D’Aubigne, Wiley, and others proved to be helpful. W. C. White in his 1911 statement, read and approved by Ellen G. White, explains this:

Mother has never claimed to be authority on history. The things which she has written out, are descriptions of flashlight pictures and other representations given her regarding the actions of men, and the influence of these actions upon the work of God for the salvation of men, with views of past, present, and future history in its relation to this work. In connection with the writing out of these views, she has made use of good and clear historical statements to help make plain to the reader the things which she is endeavoring to present.


When I was a mere boy, I heard her read D’Aubigne’s “History of the Reformation” to my father. She read to him a large part, if not the whole, of the five volumes. She has read other histories of the Reformation. This has helped her to locate and describe many of the events and the movements presented to her in vision. This is somewhat similar to the way in which the study of the Bible helps her to locate and describe the many figurative representations given to her regarding the development of the great controversy in our day between truth and error.—W. C. White letter, July 24, 1911.

When Spirit of Prophecy, Volume 4, came from the press in 1884 and our ministers and members began to read it, they discovered that Mrs. White had employed a number of historical quotations, and this led to some questions. Why had she done so? Did she gain her information on the phases of history these quotations touched on from these historians, or did she receive the information from God? Did her use of these quotations place them in the category of inspiration? She replied that what she had presented had been opened to her by God in vision, but she found the historical accounts of service in locating and describing certain of these events. The question having been raised she, at the first opportunity, in the 1888 edition of the book, dealt with the question in her author’s “Introduction,” found currently on pages xi and xii:

The great events which have marked the progress of reform in past ages are matters of history, well known and universally acknowledged by the Protestant world; they are facts which none can gainsay. This history I have presented briefly, in accordance with the scope of the book, and the brevity which must necessarily be observed, the facts having been condensed into as little space as seemed consistent with a proper understanding of their application.
In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted: but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject....
It is not so much the object of this book to present new truths concerning the struggles of former times, as to bring out facts and principles which have a bearing on coming events. Yet viewed as a part of the controversy between the forces of light and darkness, all these records of the past are seen to have a new significance.

Was She Shown These Things?

The appearance of the 1911 “revised” edition again raised the question of the relationship between Mrs. White’s reading of historical works and her writings in the field of history. In a letter written in 1912 W. C. White referred to the sources of Mrs. White’s information as presented in The Great Controversy:

Regarding Mother’s writings, I have overwhelming evidence and conviction that they are the description and delineation of what God has revealed to her in vision.—W. C. White letter to W. W. Eastman, Nov. 4, 1912.

Answering certain questions some years later, he explained in a letter to L. E. Froom:

The framework of the great temple of truth sustained by her writings was presented to her clearly in vision. In some features of this work, information was given in detail. Regarding some features of the revelation, such as the features of prophetic chronology, as regards the ministration in the sanctuary and the changes that took place in 1844, the matter was presented to her many times and in detail many times, and this enabled her to speak very clearly and very positively regarding the foundation pillars of our faith.
In some of the historical matters such as are brought out in Patriarchs and Prophets, and in Acts of the Apostles, and in Great Controversy, the main outlines were made very clear and plain to her, and when she came to write up these topics, she was left to study the Bible and history to get dates and geographical relations and to perfect her description of details.—W. C. White letter to L E. Froom, Dec. 13, 1934.

This statement makes it clear that Ellen White in vision watched history develop, both past and future, and she was instructed “to trace this history.” She did this.

The Basic Concept and Incidental References

But was she shown in each instance in minute detail the names of the places and the dates of the events? The evidence is that she was not. She in vision saw the events occur. The significant events as a part of the controversy story was the important part, the basic concept. Minor details and incidental references not basic to the account were of minimal importance. Some of this information could be ascertained from the sacred writings, some from common sources of knowledge, some from reliable historians. Apparently God in His providence did not consider it essential to impart all of this minutiae through vision. This leads us to the point of inspiration and to just how much we are justified in demanding of divine revelation.

On this, W. C. White, following his declaration that “mother has never claimed to be authority on history” and his explanation of how the light came to her, wrote:

Mother has never laid claim to verbal inspiration, [see Introduction to The Great Controversy, pages 11 and 12], and I do not find that my father, or Elder Bates, Andrews, Smith or Waggoner put forth this claim. If there were verbal inspiration in writing her manuscripts, why should there be on her part the work of addition or adaptation? It is a fact that Mother often takes one of her manuscripts, and goes over it thoughtfully, making additions that develop the thought still further.

On this point, there had come from the General Conference of 1883 a significant declaration:

We believe the light given by God to His servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting the thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words in which the ideas should be expressed.—Review and Herald, Nov. 27, 1883.

Henry Alford, the highly appreciated British theologian in his New Testament for English Readers (1875 ), in discussing “the inspiration of the evangelists and other New Testament writers” in a manner in which we may heartily agree,[2] under point 11, suggests that the leading of the minds of the apostles by the Holy Spirit in their reconstruction of the gospel story “admits of much variety in points of minor consequence,” and he points out:

Two men may be equally led by the Holy Spirit to record the events of our Lord’s life for our edification, though one may believe and record, that the visit to the Gadarenes took place before the calling of Matthew, while the other places it after that event; though one in narrating it speaks of two demoniacs, the other, only of one.—Preliminary Chapter, p. 23.

In dealing with points of insignificance or minor consequence, Alford continues:

14. And not only of the arrangement of the Evangelic History are these remarks to be understood. There are certain minor points of accuracy or inaccuracy, of which human research suffices to inform men, and on which, from want of research, it is often the practice to speak vaguely and inexactly. Such are sometimes the conventionally received distances from place to place; such are the common accounts of phenomena in natural history, etc. Now in matters of this kind, the Evangelists and Apostles were not supernaturally informed, but left in common with others, to the guidance of their natural faculties.—Ibid., p. 24.

In describing the walk to Emmaus, Luke informs us, as presented in the KJV, that this town “was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs.” Ellen White in commenting on this in The Desire of Ages, page 795, puts Emmaus as “a little town eight miles from Jerusalem.” In Testimonies, volume 9, page 173, she describes Loma Linda as “about four miles from Redlands.” We may properly ask, Did the Holy Spirit impart this detailed information on “the conventionally received distances” between the cities named, or did the prophetic writers draw this incidental and unimportant, but descriptive information from the common source of knowledge available to anyone?

In discussing the number of rooms in the Paradise Valley Sanitarium, and the fact that a personal letter she had described the building as having 40 rooms when in reality it had only 38, she stated:

The information given concerning the number of rooms in the Paradise Valley Sanitarium was given, not as a revelation from the Lord, but simply as a human opinion. There has never been revealed to me the exact number of rooms in any of our sanitariums; and the knowledge I have obtained of such things I have gained by inquiring of those who were supposed to know. In my words, when speaking upon these common subjects, there is nothing to lead minds to believe that I receive my knowledge in a vision from the Lord and am stating it as such. . . .
When the Holy Spirit reveals anything regarding the institutions connected with the Lord’s work, or concerning the work of God upon human hearts and minds, as He has revealed these things through me in the past, the message given is to be regarded as light given of God for those who need it. But for one to mix the sacred with the common is a great mistake. In a tendency to do this we may see the working of the enemy to destroy souls.—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 38.

The point is so clear, further comment is uncalled for.

To return to the Alford statement on the inspiration of the New Testament writers:

15. The same may be said of citations and dates from history. In the last apology of Stephen, in which he spoke, being full of the Holy Ghost, and with divine influence beaming from his countenance, we have at least two demonstrable inaccuracies in points of minor detail. And the occurrence of similar ones in the Gospels would not in any way affect the inspiration or the veracity of the Evangelists.—Op. cit., p. 24.

Stephen, in his address, in an incidental reference to the people who went down into Egypt, puts the number at “threescore and fifteen souls” (Acts 7-14). The Genesis record, in presenting the history, a basic account in the historical setting, states, “All the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, were threescore and ten” (Gen. 46:27). This record makes it clear that this included “the sons of Joseph, which were born him in Egypt.”

The Genesis record is the detailed historical account; the reference in Stephen’s defense is but an incidental reference. Would we require that the Holy Spirit should in this crisis presentation, supernaturally guide Stephen’s mind on an inconsequential point of information which at least in its general features was a matter of common knowledge to all Jews? Would we use Stephen’s statement to correct the basic historical record? In other words, would we make Stephen on this incidental point, an “authority on history”? If we do not choose to do so, does this impair his reliability as an inspired witness?

The Question of Authority on History

One statement made by William White at the 1911 Autumn Council has been of particular interest. He declared: “Mother has never claimed to be authority on history.” (See p. 4). This sentence has become an oft-referred-to exhibit in some discussions and in certain statements touching on the inspiration of the Ellen G. White writings. This is akin to Ellen White’s statement, “I do not claim to be a prophetess,” made in the Battle Creek Tabernacle on October 2, 1904. (See Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 31-35.) These words, standing alone, can be quite misleading. They have frequently been quoted without context. But taken in the setting of her life experience, her many allusions to her prophetic work, and her own explanation, the matter is clear.

Likewise, the E. G. White-approved statement by W. C. White, “Mother has never claimed to be authority on history,” is rightly employed only in the light of the full W. C. White declaration of 1911, other statements made by him, and Ellen White’s own statements.

The issues were (1) Was it proper to revise The Great Controversy, an inspired book, even if the work was done by Mrs. White herself, or under her eye? (2) Did the Ellen G. White use of historical quotations as a part of her record impart inspiration or a seal of inerrancy to the statements quoted? (3) Inasmuch as The Great Controversy was an inspired book, would not the minute detail of historical account embodied therein settle in the minds of Seventh-day Adventists any differences which might occur in the records of various historians? In other words, would not Mrs. White’s writing of history serve to correct history in all its minor details?

If we held to verbal inspiration, this would be so. The point made by W. C. White in saying “Mother has never claimed to be authority on history” was his attempt to prevent an unwarranted use of the E. G. White writings as settling the minor points of difference between historians. With his knowledge of the manner in which the light came to his mother, he felt that the course followed by some was unjustified. Perhaps an illustration will be in place.

A Documented Illustration

One of the points called to Ellen White’s attention in response to her call for an examination of the book The Great Controversy, referred to in her Letter 56, 1911, involved her account of St. Bartholomew’s massacre. The Great Controversy, 1888 edition, states on page 272:

The great bell of the palace, tolling at the dead of night, was a signal for the slaughter.

She was now informed that historians differed on the point of which bell actually gave the signal, (1) the bell of the palace, (2) the bell of the palace of justice, or (3) the bell of the church of St. Germain. All three were within a radius of approximately a city block. The plan was that the bell of the palace would give the signal, and certain reliable historians state that it did. Others differed. Here is some of the documentation in the White Estate files having to do with the 1911 revision:

Criticism: All the histories dealing with the French Revolution which I have been able to consult, state that it was the original plan to toll the bell of the palace as the signal, but owing to special circumstances, the signal was given by the ringing of the bell of the church of St. Germain.
Wylie’s Account: It was now eleven o’clock of Saturday night, and the massacre was to begin at daybreak.... The signal for the massacre was to be the tolling of the great bell of the Palace of Justice…. The Queen-mother feeling the suspense unbearable, or else afraid, as Maimbourg suggests, that Charles, “greatly disturbed by the idea of the horrible butchery, would revoke the order he had given for it,” anticipated the signal by sending one at two o’clock of the morning to ring the bell of St. Germain l’Auxerois, which was nearer than that of the Palace of Justice.
Scarcely had its first peal startled the silence of the night when a pistol shot was heard. The king started to his feet, and summoning an attendant he bade him go and stop the massacre. It was too late; the bloody work had begun. The great bell of the palace had now begun to toll; another moment and every steeple in Paris was sending forth its peal; a hundred tocsins sounded at once.—History of Protestantism, vol. 2, pp. 600-602.
Eyewitness Account: As soon as they had caused the bell of the palace clock to ring, on every side arose the cry, “To arms! and the people ran,” etc.—Account of the Massacre by “the statesman and fairminded historian, De Thou (1553-1617), who as a young man witnessed the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.”—Quoted in J. H. Robinson’s Readings of European History, chap. 28, sec. 6 (No. 286), pp. 180-182.
New International Encyclopedia: From the tower of the royal palace the signal was given for a carnival of blood.—Art Bartholomew.

Ellen White, in vision, had seen and heard what took place. She heard the tolling of a bell which gave the signal, and she saw what followed. It was most unlikely that the angel gave her minute information as to which bell tolled. Would not this point be in the field described by Henry Alford as “certain minor points of accuracy or inaccuracy of which human research suffices to inform men”? She accepted the record of a reliable historian at hand who indicated that it was the bell of the palace. When she learned that the matter was in uncertainty, she reworded the statement to read:

A bell, tolling at dead of night, was a signal for the slaughter.—The Great Controversy, 1911 ed., p. 272.

The point being of no real significance, she removed from The Great Controversy the temptation that might come to some to employ the book to settle this disputed and very inconsequential point.

The Details of History and Historical Dates

Pursuing this matter a little further, and enlarging it to include chronology, we turn to a rather enlightening W. C. White statement, written Nov. 4, 1912, in a letter addressed to W. W. Eastman, a leader in SDA publishing work:

Regarding Mother’s writings and their use as authority on points of history and chronology, Mother has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority regarding details of history or historical dates. The great truths revealed to Mother regarding the controversy between good and evil, light and darkness, have been given to her in various ways, but chiefly as flashlight views of great events in the lives of individuals and in the experiences of churches, of bands of reformers, and of nations. What has thus been revealed to her she has written out first briefly in the Early Writings, then more fully as in Spiritual Gifts and in Spirit of Prophecy, and finally in The Great Controversy series.
When writing out the experiences of reformers in the time of the Reformation and in the great Advent Movement of 1844, Mother often gave at first a partial description of some scene presented to her. Later on she would write it out more fully, and again still more fully. I have known her to write upon one subject four or five times, and then mourn because she could not command language to describe the matter more perfectly.
When writing out the chapters for Great Controversy, she sometimes gave a partial description of an important historical event, and when her copyist who was preparing the manuscripts for the printer, made inquiry regarding time and place, Mother would say that those things are recorded by conscientious historians. Let the dates used by those historians be inserted. At other times in writing out what had been presented to her, Mother found such perfect descriptions of events and presentations of facts and of doctrines written out in our denominational books, that she copied the words of these authorities. [See her statement in The Great Controversy, “Introduction.”]
When Controversy was written, Mother never thought that the readers would take it as authority on historical dates or use it to settle controversy regarding details of history, and she does not now feel that it should be used in that way. Mother regards with great respect the work of those faithful historians who devoted years of time to the study of God’s great plan as presented in the prophecy, and the outworking of that plan as recorded in history. (Italics supplied.)

How Far Can We Depend on Mrs. White?

Just how far, then, can we depend on Mrs. White? Where do we set the bounds? There were points in The Great Controversy in the historical account, which even when challenged Ellen White refused to surrender, because of the visions. Note the statement from W. C. White quoted earlier. This appears in the same document that carries the sentence “Mother has never claimed to be authority on history”:

“On pages 50, 563-564, 580, 581, and in a few other places where there were statements regarding the papacy which are strongly disputed by Roman Catholics, and which are difficult to prove from accessible histories, the wording in the new edition has been so changed that the statement falls easily within the range of evidence that is readily obtainable.
“Regarding these and similar passages, which might stir up bitter and unprofitable controversies, Mother has often said: ‘What I have written regarding the arrogance and the assumptions of the papacy, is true. Much historical evidence regarding these matters has been designedly destroyed; nevertheless, that the book may be of the greatest benefit to Catholics and others, and that needless controversies may be avoided, it is better to have all statements regarding the assumptions of the pope and the claims of the papacy stated so moderately as to be easily and clearly proved from accepted histories that are within the reach of our ministers and students.’” (Italics supplied.)

Here in a historical area was a basic concept brought to Ellen White by vision. Any modification in the account was made by Ellen White for reasons quite different from inconsequential details concerning which she made no claim for “authority.”

W. C. White in his 1911 statement, also makes another reference to the revelations to Ellen White relating to the history of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation:

Mother’s contact with European people had brought to her mind scores of things that had been presented to her in vision during past years, some of them two or three times, and other scenes many times. Her seeing of historic places and her contact with the people refreshed her memory with reference to these things, and so she desired to add much material to the book. This was done.—The  Great Controversy, 1911 ed., p. 5.

Chronological Problems

There are some chronological problems both in the Bible and in the Ellen G. White writings. One holding to the verbal inspiration concept will find himself in a difficult position in his attempts to cope with such problems. With a factual understanding of how the prophets received light from the Lord, such problems do not discount the value of the record. It is proper to ask, Is the validity of the historical account bound up with the chronology? Is there some danger of our attaching too much weight to these problems?

On this point, W. C. White, who for years worked closely with Ellen G. White, observed in his letter, Nov. 4, 1912, to W. W. Eastman:

It seems to me there is a danger of placing altogether too much stress upon chronology. If it had been essential to the salvation of man that he should have a clear and harmonious understanding of the chronology of the world, the Lord would not have permitted the disagreements and discrepancies which we find in the writings of the Bible historians, and it seems to me that in these last days there ought not to be so much controversy regarding dates.

Considerable chronology appears in the Ellen G. White writings. It is worthy of examination. Eight pages of the Index (543-551) are devoted to an enumeration of such references in the current Ellen G. White books. It will be observed that there are items of direct and precise treatment and there are a few references to incidental statements often couched in very general terms.

The Holy Spirit Indelibly Traced These Truths

One point is crystal clear. Ellen White understood that the books recounting The Great Controversy story embodied that which the Lord had revealed to her. Repeatedly she spoke and wrote of this. Of the Conflict books before Prophets and Kings and The Acts of the Apostles were published she said:

How many have read carefully Patriarchs and Prophets, The Great Controversy, and The Desire of Ages? I wish all to understand that my confidence in the light that God has given stands firm, because I know that the Holy Spirit’s power magnified the truth, and made it honorable, saying: “This is the way, walk ye in it.” In my books, the truth is stated, barricaded by a “Thus saith the Lord.” The Holy Spirit traced these truths upon my heart and mind as indelibly as the law was traced by the finger of God, upon the tables of stone.—Colporteur Ministry, p. 126.

Writing specifically of The Great Controversy she declares:

I was moved by the Spirit of the Lord to write that book…. The Lord has set before me matters which are of urgent importance for the present time, and which reach into the future. The words have been spoken in a charge to me, “Write in a book the things which thou hast seen and heard, and let it go to all the people; for the time is at hand when past history will be repeated.” I have been aroused at one, two, or three o’clock in the morning with some point forcibly impressed upon my mind, as if spoken by the voice of God.—Ibid., pp. 127, 128.

This is the simple historical record of the portrayal of The Great Controversy story—a task that parallels much of Ellen White’s seventy years of active ministry—and of the production of books read by millions in the leading languages of the world.

Washington, D.C.

May 12, 1969


[1] To relieve the publishers of expense they then could not well carry and to keep the sale price of the books down, Ellen White met the initial expense of the production of her subscription books, recouping herself from an “initial expense” royalty.

[2] This statement, long known to the workers in Mrs. White’s office at Elmshaven, was considered by them and their successors as summing up the subject factually in full harmony with what they had observe in their close association with Ellen G. White.