Ellen G. White® Estate
Sharing the Vision
Begin With a Healthy Outlook
Focus on the Central Issues
Account for Problems in Communication
Study All Available Information on a Topic
Avoid Extreme Interpretations
Take Time and Place Into Consideration
Study Each Statement in Its Literary Context
Recognize Ellen White's Understanding of the Ideal and the
Use Common Sense
Discover the Underlying Principles
Realize That Prophets Are Not Verbally Inspired, Nor Are
They Infallible or Inerrant
Avoid Making the Counsels "Prove" Things They
Were Never Intended to Prove
Make Sure Ellen White Said It
First, begin your study with a prayer for guidance and
understanding. The Holy Spirit, who inspired the work of prophets across the
ages, is the only one who is in a position to unlock the meaning in their
Second, we need to approach our study with an open mind. Most of us
realize that no person is free of bias, no one is completely open-minded. We
also recognize that bias enters into every area of our lives. But that reality
doesn't mean that we need to let our biases control us.
A third healthy mind-set in the reading of Ellen White is that of faith
rather than doubt. As Mrs. White put it, "Many think it a virtue, a mark of
intelligence in them, to be unbelieving and to question and quibble. Those who
desire to doubt will have plenty of room. God does not propose to remove all
occasion for unbelief. He gives evidence, which must be carefully investigated
with a humble mind and a teachable spirit, and all should decide from the weight
of evidence" (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, p. 255). "God
gives sufficient evidence for the candid mind to believe; but he who turns from
the weight of evidence because there are a few things which he cannot make plain
to his finite understanding will be left in the cold, chilling atmosphere of
unbelief and questioning doubts, and will make shipwreck of faith" (ibid.,
vol. 4, pp. 232, 233).
If individuals wait for all possibility of doubt to be removed, they will
never believe. That is as true of the Bible as it is of Ellen White's writings.
Our acceptance rests on faith rather than on absolute demonstration of
flawlessness. Ellen White appears to be correct when she writes that "those
who have most to say against the testimonies are generally those who have not
read them, just as those who boast of their disbelief of the Bible are those who
have little knowledge of its teachings" (Selected Messages, book 1,
pp. 45, 46).
A person can read inspired materials in at least two ways. One is to look
for the central themes of an author; the other is to search for those things
that are new and different. The first way leads to what can be thought of as a
theology of the center, while the second produces a theology of the edges. Doing
a theology of the edges may help a person arrive at "new light," but
such light in the end may look more like darkness when examined in the context
of the central and consistent teachings of the Bible.
What makes the teachings of many apostles of "new light" so
impressive is their obvious sincerity and the fact that much of what they have
to say may be needed truth. How can we tell when we are on center or chasing
stray geese near the edges of what is really important? In her book Education,
Ellen White wrote, "The Bible is its own expositor. Scripture is to be
compared with scripture. The student should learn to view the Word as a whole,
and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand
central theme, of God's original purpose for the world, of the rise of the
great controversy, and of the work of redemption. He should understand the
nature of the two principles that are contending for supremacy, and should learn
to trace their working through the records of history and prophecy, to the great
consummation. He should see how this controversy enters into every phase of
human experience; how in every act of life he himself reveals the one or the
other of the two antagonistic motives; and how, whether he will or not, he is
even now deciding upon which side of the controversy he will be found" (p.
190; italics supplied).
A similar passage on the "grand central theme" of the
Bible defines the central theme of Scripture even more precisely. "The
central theme of the Bible," we read, "the theme about which
every other in the whole book clusters, is the redemption plan, the
restoration in the human soul of the image of God." "Viewed in the
light" of the grand central theme of the Bible, "every topic has a new
significance" (ibid., p. 125; italics supplied).
In such passages we find our marching orders for the reading of both the
Bible and the writings of Ellen White. Read for the big picture; read for
the grand central themes. The purpose of God's revelation to humanity is
salvation. That salvation focuses on the cross of Christ and our relationship to
God. All our reading takes place within that context, and those issues closest
to the grand central theme are obviously of more importance than those near its
It is our task as Christians to focus on the central issues of the Bible and
Ellen White's writings rather than on marginal ones. If we do so, the marginal
issues will fit into place in their proper perspective within the context of the
"grand central theme" of God's revelation to His people.
The process of communication is not as simple as we might at first suspect.
The topic was certainly at the forefront of James White's thinking as he watched
his wife struggle to lead the early Adventists down the path of reform. In 1868
he wrote that "What she may say to urge the tardy, is taken by the
prompt to urge them over the mark. And what she may say to caution the prompt,
zealous, incautious ones, is taken by the tardy as an excuse to remain too far
behind" (Review and Herald, Mar. 17, 1868; italics supplied).
As we read Ellen White's writings we need to keep constantly before us the
difficulty she faced in basic communication. Beyond the difficulty of varying
personalities, but related to it, was the problem of the imprecision of the
meaning of words and the fact that different people with different experiences
interpret the same words differently.
"Human minds vary," Mrs. White penned in relation to Bible
reading. "The minds of different education and thought receive
different impressions of the same words, and it is difficult for one mind to
give to one of a different temperament, education, and habits of thought by
language exactly the same idea as that which is clear and distinct in his own
mind. . . . The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that
is human is imperfect. Different meanings are expressed by the same word;
there is not one word for each distinct idea. The Bible was given for practical
"The stamps of minds are different. All do not understand expressions
and statements alike. Some understand the statements of the Scriptures to suit
their own particular minds and cases. Prepossessions, prejudices, and passions
have a strong influence to darken the understanding and confuse the mind even in
reading the words of Holy Writ" (Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 19,
20; italics supplied).
What Ellen White said about the problems of meanings and words in regard to
the Bible also holds true for her own writings. Communication in a broken world
is never easy, not even for God's prophets.
We need to keep the basic problems of communication in mind as we read the
writings of Ellen White. At the very least, such facts ought to make us cautious
in our reading so that we don't overly emphasize this or that particular idea
that might come to our attention as we study God's counsel to His church. We
will want to make sure that we have read widely what Ellen White has presented
on a topic and studied those statements that may seem extreme in the light of
those that might moderate or balance them. All such study, of course, should
take place with the historical and literary context of each statement in mind.
When we read the full range of counsel that Ellen White has on a topic, the
picture is often quite different than when we are dealing with only a part of
her material or with isolated quotations. Many times in her long ministry Ellen
White had to deal with those who took only part of her counsel. "When it
suits your purpose," she told the delegates of the 1891 General Conference
session, "you treat the Testimonies as if you believed them, quoting from
them to strengthen any statement you wish to have prevail. But how is it when
light is given to correct your errors? Do you then accept the light? When the
Testimonies speak contrary to your ideas, you treat them very lightly"
(ibid., p. 43). It is important to listen to all the counsel.
Along this line we find two approaches to the Ellen G. White writings. One
assembles all her pertinent material on the subject. The other selects from Mrs.
White only those sentences, paragraphs, or more extensive materials that can be
employed to support a particular emphasis. The only faithful approach is the
first. One important step in being true to Ellen White's intent is to read
widely in the available counsel on a topic.
But not only must we base our conclusion on the entire spectrum of her
thought on a topic; our conclusion must harmonize with the overall tenor of the
body of her writings. Not only bias, but also unsound premises, faulty
reasoning, or other misuses of her material, can lead to false conclusions.
The history of the Christian church is laced with those who would place the
most extreme interpretations on God's counsels and then define their fanaticism
as "faithfulness." A leaning toward extremism seems to be a
constituent part of fallen human nature. God has sought to correct that tendency
through His prophets.
Even though balance typified Ellen White's writings, it does not always
characterize those who read them. Ellen White had to deal with extremists
throughout her ministry. In 1894 she pointed out that "there is a class of
people who are always ready to go off on some tangent, who want to catch up
something strange and wonderful and new; but God would have all move calmly,
considerately, choosing our words in harmony with the solid truth for this time,
which requires to be presented to the mind as free from that which is emotional
as possible, while still bearing the intensity and solemnity that it is proper
it should bear. We must guard against creating extremes, guard against
encouraging those who would either be in the fire or in the water" (Testimonies
to Ministers, pp. 227, 228).
Nearly four decades earlier Mrs. White had written that she "saw that
many have taken advantage of what God has shown in regard to the sins and wrongs
of others. They have taken the extreme meaning of what has been shown in vision,
and then have pressed it until it has had a tendency to weaken the faith of many
in what God has shown" (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p.
Part of our task in reading Ellen White is to avoid extreme interpretations
and to understand her message in its proper balance. That in turn means that we
need to read the counsel from both ends of the spectrum on a given topic.
A case in point is her strong words about playing games. "In plunging
into amusements, match games, pugilistic performances," she wrote, the
students at Battle Creek College "declared to the world that Christ was not
their leader in any of these things. All this called forth the warning from God."
A powerful statement, it and others like it have led many to the conclusion that
God frowns on all games and ball playing. But here, as on all extreme
interpretations, one should use caution. After all, the very next
sentence reads: "Now that which burdens me is the danger of going into
extremes on the other side" (Fundamentals of Christian Education,
As the following statements demonstrate, Ellen White did not hold for either
extreme on the topic of ball playing and games. Speaking of parents and
teachers, she wrote: "If they would gather the children close to them, and
show that they love them, and would manifest an interest in all their efforts,
and even in their sports, sometimes even being a child among children, they
would make the children very happy, and would gain their love and win their
confidence" (ibid., p. 18).
As we noted in the preceding section, it is important to read the full
spectrum of what Ellen White wrote on a topic before arriving at conclusions.
That means taking into consideration what appear to be conflicting statements
that not only balance each other but may at times even appear to contradict each
other. Of course, as shown in the next two sections, the historical and literary
contexts generally hold the reason for Ellen White's extreme statements. When we
understand the reason she said something a certain way, we can see how what
appears to be contradictory bits of advice often balance each other out. With
those understandings in place we will be ready to examine the underlying
principles of the particular topic we are studying.
When we read the balancing and mediating passages on a topic, rather than
merely those polar ones that reinforce our own biases, we come closer to Ellen
White's true perspective. In order to avoid extreme interpretations, we need not
only to read widely regarding what Mrs. White said on a topic, but we need also
to come to grips with those statements that balance each other out at each end
of the spectrum on a given subject.
We need to take the time and place of Ellen White's various counsels into
consideration. She did not write them in a vacuum. Most of them met problems
faced by specific individuals or groups in quite specific historic contexts.
For example, in the 1860s Ellen White suggested that women should shorten
their skirts. Why? Because in her day skirts dragged on the ground. In the
process they picked up the filth of a horse-and-buggy culture among other
things. Such skirts also had other problems that Ellen White and contemporary
reformers of her day repeatedly pointed out. Thus she could write that "one
of fashion's wasteful and mischievous devices is the skirt that sweeps the
ground. Uncleanly, uncomfortable, inconvenient, unhealthful--all this and more
is true of the trailing skirt" (The Ministry of Healing, p. 291).
But what was true of her day is generally not true of ours. Of course, one
can think of some traditional cultures that still mirror the conditions of the
nineteenth century. In those cultures the counsel fits without adaptation. But
we must adapt it for most cultures today.
Part of the needed adaptation is reflected in The Ministry of Healing
quotation we read above. If the problem with trailing skirts was that they were
unclean, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unhealthful, then it seems safe to
assume that some of the principles of correct dress in this case would be that
it is clean, comfortable, convenient, and healthful. Such principles are
universal, even though the idea of shortening one's skirt has roots in time and
place. Further reading in the Bible and Ellen White furnishes other principles
of dress that we can apply to our day. Modesty, for example, comes to mind.
It can't be too heavily emphasized that time and place are crucial factors
for our understanding as we read Ellen White's writings. One way to use her
writings improperly is to ignore the implications of time and place and thus
seek to apply the letter of each and every counsel universally.
In Ellen White's writings such counsels as those urging schools to teach
girls "to harness and drive a horse" so "they would be better
fitted to meet the emergencies of life" (Education, pp. 216, 217);
warning both young and old in 1894 to avoid the "bewitching influence"
of the "bicycle craze" (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8,
pp. 51, 52); and counseling an administrator in 1902 not to buy an automobile to
transport patients from the railroad station to the sanitarium because it was a
needless expense and would prove to be "a temptation to others to do the
same thing" (Letter 158, 1902) are clearly conditioned by time and place.
Other statements that may also be conditioned by time and place are not so
obvious (especially in those areas we tend to feel strongly about), but we need
to keep our eyes and mind open to the possibility.
Another aspect of the time and place issue in Ellen White's writing is that
for many of her counsels the historical context is quite personal, since she
wrote to an individual in his or her specific setting. Always remember that
behind every counsel lies a specific situation with its own peculiarities and
for an individual with his or her personal possibilities and problems. Their
situation may or may not be parallel to ours. Thus the counsel may or may not be
applicable to us in a given circumstance.
In the preceding section we noted that it is important to understand Ellen
White's counsel in its original historical context. In this section we will
examine the importance of reading her statements in their literary framework.
People have too often based their understandings of Mrs. White's teachings
upon a fragment of a paragraph or upon an isolated statement entirely removed
from its setting. Thus she writes that "many study the Scriptures for the
purpose of proving their own ideas to be correct. They change the meaning of
God's Word to suit their own opinions. And thus they do also with the
testimonies that He sends. They quote half a sentence, leaving out the other
half, which, if quoted, would show their reasoning to be false. God has a
controversy with those who wrest the Scriptures, making them conform to their
preconceived ideas" (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 82). Again she
comments about those who by "separating . . . statements from their
connection, and placing them beside human reasonings, make it appear that my
writings uphold that which they condemn" (Letter 208, 1906).
Ellen White was repeatedly upset with those who pick out "a sentence
here and there, taking it from its proper connection, and applying it according
to their idea" (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 44). On another
occasion she observed that "extracts" from her writings "may give
a different impression than that which they would were they read in their
original connection" (ibid., p. 58).
W. C. White, Ellen White's son, often had to deal with the problem of people
using material out of its literary context. In 1904 he noted that "much
misunderstanding has come from the misuse of isolated passages in the
Testimonies, in cases where, if the whole Testimony or the whole paragraph had
been read, an impression would have been made upon minds that was altogether
different from the impression made by the use of selected sentences" (W. C.
White to W. S. Sadler, Jan. 20, 1904).
The study of literary contexts is not an optional luxury on inspired
statements--it is a crucial part of faithfully reading Ellen White's writings.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of studying Ellen White's
articles and books in their contexts rather than merely reading topical
compilations or selecting out quotations on this or that topic through the use
of indexes or computer printouts. Such tools have their places, but we should
use them in connection with broad reading that helps us to be more aware not
only of the literary context of Ellen White's statements but also of the overall
balance in her writings.
Ellen White often found herself plagued by "those who," she
claimed, "select from the testimonies the strongest expressions and,
without bringing in or making any account of the circumstances under which the
cautions and warnings are given, make them of force in every case. . . . Picking
out some things in the testimonies they drive them upon every one, and disgust
rather than win souls" (Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 285, 286).
Her observation not only highlights the fact that we need to take the
historical context of Ellen White's statements into consideration when reading
her counsel, but also indicates that she put some statements in stronger or more
forceful language than others. That idea leads us to the concept of the ideal
and the real in Mrs. White's writings.
When Ellen White is stating the ideal, she often uses her strongest
language. It is as if she needs to speak loudly in order to be heard. One such
statement appears in Fundamentals of Christian Education. "Never,"
she exhorted, "can the proper education be given to the youth in this
country, or any other country, unless they are separated a wide
distance from the cities" (p. 312; italics supplied).
Now, that is about as forceful a statement as she could have made. Not only
is it adamant, but it appears to imply universality in terms of time and space.
There is no stronger word than "never." In its strictest meaning it
allows no exceptions. She uses the same sort of powerful, unbending language in
terms of location--"in this country, or any other country." Once again
a plain reading of the words permits no exceptions. We are dealing with what
appears to be a universal prohibition regarding the building of schools in
cities. But the statement is stronger than that. Such schools are not merely to
be out of the cities, but "separated a wide distance" from them. Here
is inflexible language that does not suggest any exceptions.
At this point it is important to examine the historical context in which she
made the statement. According to the reference supplied in the book (p. 327),
this counsel was first published in 1894. But by 1909 the Adventist work in
large cities was increasing. And those cities had families who could not afford
to send their children to rural institutions. As a result, Ellen White counseled
the building of schools in the cities. So far as possible," we
read, ". . . schools should be established outside the cities. But
in the cities there are many children who could not attend schools away from the
cities; and for the benefit of these, schools should be opened in the cities as
well as in the country" (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p.
201; italics supplied).
By this time you may be asking yourself how the same woman could claim that
proper education could "never" be given in Australia "or any
other country, unless they [schools] are separated a wide distance from the
cities" (Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 312) and yet still
advocate the establishment of schools in the cities.
The answer is that rural education for all children was the ideal
that the church should aim at "so far as possible." But the truth is
that the hard facts of life make such education impossible for some. Thus reality
dictated a compromise if Christian education were to reach children from poorer
families. Ellen White understood and accepted the tension between the ideal and
Unfortunately, many of her readers fail to take that fact into
consideration. They focus merely on Mrs. White's "strongest"
statements, those that express the ideal, and ignore the moderating passages. As
a result, as we noted above, "picking out some things in the testimonies
they drive them upon everyone, and disgust rather than win souls" (Selected
Messages, book 3, p. 286).
Ellen White has more balance than many of her so-called followers. Genuine
followers must take into account her understanding of the tension between the
ideal and the real in applying her counsel.
Ellen White had more flexibility in interpreting her writings than many have
realized. She was not only concerned with contextual factors in applying counsel
to different situations, but also had a distinct understanding of the difference
between God's ideal plan and the reality of the human situation that at times
necessitated modification of the ideal. For that reason it is important that we
don't just operate on the "strongest expressions" in her writings and
seek to "drive them upon everyone" (ibid., pp. 285, 286).
Seventh-day Adventists have been known to differ and even argue over some of
Ellen White's counsel. That situation is especially true of those statements
that seem so straightforward and clear. One such statement appears in volume 3
of the Testmonies: "Parents should be the only teachers of
their children until they have reached eight or ten years of age" (p. 137;
That passage is an excellent candidate for inflexible interpretation. After
all, it is quite categorical. It offers no conditions and hints at no
exceptions. Containing no "ifs," "ands," "ors," or
"buts" to modify its impact, it just plainly states as fact that "parents
should be the only teachers of their children until they have reached
eight or ten years of age." Mrs. White first published the statement in
1872. The fact that it reappeared in her writings in 1882 and 1913 undoubtedly
had the effect of strengthening what appears to be its unconditional nature.
Interestingly enough, however, a struggle over that statement has provided
us with perhaps the very best record we possess of how Mrs. White interpreted
her own writings.
The Adventists living near the St. Helena Sanitarium in northern California
had built a church school in 1902. The older children attended it, while some
careless Adventist parents let their younger children run freely in the
neighborhood without proper training and discipline. Some of the school board
members believed that they should build a classroom for the younger children,
but others held that it would be wrong to do so, because Ellen White had plainly
stated that "parents should be the only teachers of their children
until they have reached eight or ten years of age."
One faction on the board apparently felt that it was more important to give
some help to the neglected children than to hold to the letter of the law. The
other faction believed that it had an inflexible command, some "straight
testimony" that it must obey. To put it mildly, the issue split the school
board. An interview with Mrs. White was arranged.
Early in the interview Mrs. White reaffirmed her position that the family
should ideally be the school for young children. "The home," she said,
"is both a family church and a family school" (Selected Messages,
book 3, p. 214). That is the ideal that one finds throughout her writings. The
institutional church and school are there to supplement the work of a healthy
family. That is the ideal.
But, as we discovered in the previous section, the ideal is not always the
real. Or, to say it in other words, reality is often less than ideal. Thus Ellen
White continued in the interview: "Mothers should be able to
instruct their little ones wisely during the earlier years of childhood. If
every mother were capable of doing this, and would take time to teach
her children the lessons they should learn in early life, then all
children could be kept in the home school until they are eight, or nine, or ten
years old" (ibid., pp. 214, 215; italics supplied).
Here we begin to find Mrs. White dealing with a reality that modifies the
categorical and unconditional nature of her statement on parents being the only
teachers of their children until 8 or 10 years of age. The ideal is that mothers
"should" be able to function as the best teachers. But realism
intrudes when Ellen White uses such words as "if" and "then."
She definitely implies that not all mothers are capable and that not all are
willing. But "if" they are both capable and willing, "then all
children could be kept in the home school."
During the interview she remarked that "God desires us to deal with
these problems sensibly" (ibid., p. 215). Ellen White became quite stirred
up with those readers who took an inflexible attitude toward her writings and
sought to follow the letter of her message while missing the underlying
principles. She evidenced disapproval of both the words and attitudes of her
rigid interpreters when she declared: "My mind has been greatly stirred
in regard to the idea, 'Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White
has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.' " She
then added that "God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us
to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances
change the relation of things" (ibid., p. 217; italics supplied).
Ellen White was anything but inflexible in interpreting her own writings,
and it is a point of the first magnitude that we realize that fact. She had no
doubt that the mindless use of her ideas could be harmful. Thus it is little
wonder that she said that "God wants us all to have common sense" in
using extracts from her writings, even when she phrased those extracts in the
strongest and most unconditional language.
In July 1894 Ellen White sent a letter to the denomination's headquarters
church in Battle Creek, Michigan, in which she condemned the purchase and riding
of bicycles (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, pp. 50-53). At first
glance it appears strange that such an issue should be considered important
enough for a prophet to deal with. It seems especially odd when we note that the
bicycle issue had been specifically revealed in vision.
How should we apply such counsel today? Does it mean that Seventh-day
Adventists should not own bicycles?
In answering that question we first need to examine the historical context.
In 1894 the modern bicycle was just beginning to be manufactured, and a fad
quickly developed to acquire bicycles, not for the purpose of economical
transportation, but simply to be in style, to enter bicycle races, and to parade
around town on them. In the evening such parading included the hanging of
Japanese lanterns on the bicycles. Bicycling was the "in" thing--the
thing to do if you were anything or anybody on the social scale.
Extracts from an article entitled "When All the World Went Wheeling"
will help us get into the historical context of the bicycle counsel. "Toward
the end of the last century," we read, "the American people were swept
with a consuming passion which left them with little time or money for anything
else. . . . What was this big new distraction? For an answer the merchants had
only to look out the window and watch their erstwhile customers go whizzing by.
America had discovered the bicycle, and everybody was making the most of the new
freedom it brought. . . . The bicycle began as a rich man's toy. Society and
celebrity went awheel.
"The best early bicycle cost $150, an investment comparable to the cost
of an automobile today. . . . Every member of the family wanted a 'wheel,' and
entire family savings often were used up in supplying the demand" (Reader's
Digest, December 1951).
In the light of the historical context, Ellen White's statement in 1894
regarding bicycles takes on a new significance. "There seemed to be,"
she wrote, "a bicycle craze. Money was spent to gratify an enthusiasm in
this direction that might better, far better, have been invested in building
houses of worship where they are greatly needed. . . . A bewitching influence
seemed to be passing as a wave over our people. . . . Satan works with intensity
of purpose to induce our people to invest their time and money in gratifying
supposed wants. This is a species of idolatry. . . . While hundreds are starving
for bread, while famine and pestilence are seen and felt, . . . shall those who
profess to love and serve God act as did the people in the days of Noah,
following the imagination of their hearts?
"There were some who were striving for the mastery, each trying to
excel the other in the swift running of their bicycles. There was a spirit of
strife and contention among them as to which should be the greatest. . . . Said
my Guide: 'These things are an offense to God. Both near and afar off souls are
perishing for the bread of life and the water of salvation.' When Satan is
defeated in one line, he will be all ready with other schemes and plans which
will appear attractive and needful, and which will absorb money and thought, and
encourage selfishness, so that he can overcome those who are so easily led into
a false and selfish indulgence."
"What burden," she asks, "do these persons carry for the
advancement of the work of God? . . . Is this investment of means and this
spinning of bicycles through the streets of Battle Creek giving evidence of the
genuineness of your faith in the last solemn warning to be given to human beings
standing on the very verge of the eternal world?" (Testimonies for the
Church, vol. 8, pp. 51, 52).
Her counsel on bicycles is obviously dated. Within a few years bicycles
became quite inexpensive and were relegated to the realm of practical
transportation for young people and those without means, even as the larger
culture switched its focus and desires to the four-wheeled successor of the
While it is true that some of the specifics of the counsel no longer apply,
the principles on which the specific counsel rests remain quite applicable
across time and space.
And what are some of those principles? First, that Christians are not to
spend money on selfish gratification. Second, that Christians are not to strive
for mastery over one another by doing things that generate a spirit of strife
and contention. Third, that Christians should focus their primary values on the
kingdom to come and on helping others during the present period of history. And
fourth, that Satan will always have a scheme to derail Christians into the realm
of selfish indulgence.
Those principles are unchangeable. They apply to every place and to every
age of earthly history. Bicycles were merely the point of contact between the
principles and the human situation in Battle Creek during 1894. The particulars
of time and place change, but the universal principles remain constant.
Our responsibility as Christians is not only to read God's counsel to us,
but to apply it faithfully to our personal lives. The Christian's task is to
search out God's revelations and then seek to put them into practice in daily
living without doing violence to the intent of their underlying principles. That
takes personal dedication as well as sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy
"I was led to conclude and most firmly believe that every word
that you ever spoke in public or private, that every letter you wrote
under any and all circumstances, was as inspired as the ten
commandments. I held that view with absolute tenacity against
innumerable objections raised to it by many who were occupying prominent
positions in the [Adventist] cause," wrote Dr. David Paulson to Ellen White
on April 19, 1906. Deeply concerned over the nature of Ellen White's
inspiration, Paulson wondered whether he should continue to hold such a rigid
view. In the process he raised the question of verbal inspiration and the
related issues of infallibility and inerrancy. Since a correct understanding of
such issues is of crucial importance in reading Ellen White and/or the Bible, we
will examine each of them in this section.
Mrs. White replied to Paulson on June 14, 1906. "My brother," she
penned, "you have studied my writings diligently, and you have never found
that I have made any such claims [to verbal inspiration], neither will you find
that the pioneers in our cause ever made such claims" for her writings. She
went on to illustrate inspiration in her writings by referring to the
inspiration of the Bible writers. Even though God had inspired the Biblical
truths, they were "expressed in the words of men." She saw the Bible
as representing "a union of the divine and the human." Thus "the
testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language, yet it
is the testimony of God" (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 24-26).
Such sentiments represent Ellen White's consistent witness across time. "The
Bible," she wrote in 1886, "is written by inspired men, but it is not
God's mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer,
is not represented. . . . The writers of the Bible were God's penmen, not His
pen. . . .
"It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that
were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions but on
the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with
thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine
mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and
will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God" (ibid., p. 21).
We see the problematic nature of the issue of verbal inspiration illustrated
in the life of D. M. Canright, at one time a leading minister in the
denomination, but its foremost critic between 1887 and 1919. Canright bitterly
opposed Ellen White. His 1919 book against her asserted that "every line
she wrote, whether in articles, letters, testimonies or books, she claimed was
dictated to her by the Holy Ghost, and hence must be infallible" (Life
of Mrs. E. G. White, p. 9). We have seen above that Ellen White herself took
just the opposite position, but that didn't stop the damage being done by those
with a false theory of inspiration.
Before we go any further, perhaps we should define our terms. Webster's
New World Dictionary describes "infallible" as "1. incapable
of error; never wrong. 2. not liable to fail, go wrong, make a mistake, etc."
It renders "inerrant" as "not erring, making no mistakes."
It is essentially those definitions that many people import into the
realm of the Bible and Ellen White's writings.
As to infallibility, Mrs. White plainly writes, "I never claimed it;
God alone is infallible." Again she stated that "God and heaven alone
are infallible" (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 37). While she
claimed that "God's Word is infallible" (ibid., p. 416), we will see
below that she did not mean that the Bible (or her writings) were free from
error at all points.
To the contrary, in the introduction to The Great Controversy she
sets forth her position quite concisely: "The Holy Scriptures are to be
accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will" (p. vii).
That is, she did not claim that the work of God's prophets is infallible in all
its details, but that it is infallible in terms of revealing God's will to men
and women. In a similar statement Ellen White commented that "His Word . .
. is plain on every point essential to the salvation of the soul" (Testimonies
for the Church, vol. 5, p. 706).
W. C. White treats the same issue when he observes: "Where she has
followed the description of historians or the exposition of Adventist writers,
I believe that God has given her discernment to use that which is correct
and in harmony with truth regarding all matters essential to salvation. If
it should be found by faithful study that she has followed some expositions of
prophecy which in some detail regarding dates we cannot harmonize with our
understanding of secular history, it does not influence my confidence in her
writings as a whole any more than my confidence in the Bible is influenced by
the fact that I cannot harmonize many of the statements regarding chronology"
(Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 449, 450; italics supplied).
In summary, it appears that Mrs. White's use of the term infallibility
has to do with the Bible being completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation.
She doesn't mix that idea with the concept that the Bible or her writings are
free from all possible errors of a factual nature.
Thus the faithful reader's belief is not shaken if he or she discovers that
Matthew attributed a Messianic prophecy, written centuries before Christ's
birth, to Jeremiah when it was actually Zechariah who inferred that Christ would
be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (see Matt. 27:9, 10; Zech. 11:12, 13). Nor
will one be dismayed over the fact that 1 Samuel 16:10, 11 lists David as the
eighth son of Jesse, but 1 Chronicles 2:15 refers to him as the seventh. Neither
will faith be affected because the prophet Nathan wholeheartedly approved of
King David's building of the Temple but the next day had to backtrack and tell
David that God didn't want him to build it (see 2 Sam. 7; 1 Chron. 17). Prophets
The same kind of factual errors can be discovered in Ellen White's writings
as are found in the Bible. The writings of God's prophets are infallible as a
guide to salvation, but they are not inerrant or without error. Part of the
lesson is that we need to read for the central lessons of Scripture and Ellen
White rather than the details.
What is important to remember at this point is that those who struggle over
such problems as inerrancy and absolute infallibility are fighting a human-made
problem. It is not anything that God ever claimed for the Bible or Ellen White
ever claimed for the Bible or her writings. Inspiration for her had to do with
the "practical purposes" (Selected Messages, book 1, p. 19) of
human and divine relationships in the plan of salvation. We need to let God
speak to us in His mode, rather than to superimpose our rules over God's
prophets and then reject them if they don't live up to our expectations
of what we think God should have done. Such an approach is a human invention
that places our own authority over the Word of God. It makes us the judges of
God and His Word. But such a position is not Biblical; nor is it according to
the way Ellen White has counseled the church. We need to read God's Word and
Mrs. White's writings for the purpose for which He gave them and not let our
modern concerns and definitions of purpose and accuracy come between us and His
In the previous section we noted that Ellen White did not claim verbal
inspiration for her writings or the Bible, nor did she classify them as either
inerrant or infallible in the sense of being free from factual mistakes. In
spite of the efforts of Mrs. White and her son to move people away from too
rigid a view of inspiration, many have continued on in that line. Down through
the history of the denomination some have sought to use Ellen White's writings
and the Bible for purposes for which God never intended them. Likewise, claims
have been made for prophetic writings that transcend their purpose.
As a result, we find individuals who go to her writings to substantiate such
things as historical facts and dates. Thus S. N. Haskell could write to Ellen
White that he and his friends would "give more for one expression in your
testimony than for all the histories you could stack between here and Calcutta"
(S. N. Haskell to E. G. White, May 30, 1910).
Yet Ellen White never claimed that the Lord provided every historical detail
in her works. To the contrary, she tells us that she generally went to the same
sources available to us to get the historical facts that she used to fill out
the outlines of the struggle between good and evil across the ages that she
portrays so nicely in The Great Controversy. In regard to the writing of
that volume, she wrote in its preface that "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."
Her purpose in such books as The Great Controversy was "not so much
. . . to present new truths concerning the struggles of former times, as to
bring out facts and principles which have a bearing on coming events" (p.
That statement of purpose is crucial in understanding her use of history.
Her intention was to trace the dynamics of the conflict between good and evil
across time. That was her message. The historical facts merely enriched its
tapestry. She was not seeking to provide incontrovertible historical data. In
actuality, as she put it, the "facts" she used were "well known
and universally acknowledged by the Protestant world" (ibid., p. xi).
What is true of Ellen White's use of facts in post-Biblical church history
is also true of her practice when writing of the Biblical period. As a result,
she could ask her sons that they request "Mary [Willie's wife] to find me
some histories of the Bible that would give me the order of events. I have
nothing and can find nothing in the library here" (E. G. White to W. C.
White and J. E. White, Dec. 22, 1885).
"Regarding Mother's writings," W. C. White told Haskell,
"she has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority on
history. . . . When '[The Great] Controversy' was written, Mother never thought
that the readers would take it as an authority on historical dates and use it to
settle controversies, and she does not now feel that it ought to be used in that
way." (W. C. White to S. N. Haskell, Oct. 31, 1912; italics supplied;
cf. Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 446, 447.)
Twenty years later W. C. White wrote that "in our conversations with
her [Ellen White] regarding the truthfulness and the accuracy of what she had
quoted from historians, she expressed confidence in the historians from whom she
had drawn, but never would consent to the course pursued by a few men who took
her writings as a standard and endeavored by the use of them to prove the
correctness of one historian as against the correctness of another. From this I
gained the impression that the principal use of the passage quoted from
historians was not to make a new history, not to correct errors in history, but
to use valuable illustrations to make plain important spiritual truths" (W.
C. White to L. E. Froom, Feb. 18, 1932).
Not only do we need to avoid using Ellen White to "prove" the
details of history, but the same caution must be expressed in the realm of the
details of science. In saying this I do not mean to imply that there is not a
great deal of accuracy in the scientific inferences of Ellen White's
writings--and the Bible's, for that matter--but that we must not seek to prove
this and that scientific detail from them.
Let me illustrate. Some claim that John Calvin, the great sixteenth-century
Reformer, resisted Copernicus's discovery that the earth rotated around the sun
by quoting Psalm 93:1: "The world also is stablished; that it cannot be
moved." In a similar vein, many have pointed out that the Bible talks about
the four corners of the earth and the fact that the sun "comes up" and
"goes down." In such cases, the Bible is merely making incidental
remarks rather than setting forth scientific doctrine.
Remember that the Bible and Ellen White's writings are not intended to be
divine encyclopedias for things scientific and historical. Rather they are to
reveal our human hopelessness and then point us to the solution in salvation
through Jesus. In the process, God's revelation provides a framework in which we
can understand the bits and pieces of historical and scientific knowledge gained
through other lines of study.
A fair number of statements are in circulation that apparently have been
falsely attributed to Ellen White. How can we identify such statements? The
first clue that they are apocryphal for those who are familiar with Ellen
White's writings is that such statements are often out of harmony with the
general tenor of her thought. That is, they seem strange when compared to the
bulk of her ideas, appear to be out of place in her mouth. Strangeness, of
course, is not proof that we are dealing with an apocryphal statement. It is
merely an indication.
The safest way to test the authenticity of an Ellen White statement is to
ask for the reference to its source. Once we know where it is found, we can
check to see if Ellen White said it and also examine the wording and context to
determine if it has been interpreted correctly.
The issue of supposed statements also came up in Mrs. White's lifetime. Her
fullest treatment of the problem appears in volume 5 of Testimonies for the
Church, pages 692 through 696. It can be examined profitably by all readers
of Ellen White's writings:
"Beware," she says, "how you give credence to such reports"
(p. 694). She concludes her discussion of the topic with the following words: "To
all who have a desire for truth I would say: Do not give credence to
unauthenticated reports as to what Sister White has done or said or written. If
you desire to know what the Lord has revealed through her, read her published
works. . . . Do not eagerly catch up and report rumors as to what she has said"
While we can no longer send supposed statements to Ellen White for her
verification, we can contact the White Estate office at the General Conference
headquarters or visit the nearest SDA-Ellen G. White Research Center to verify
the authenticity of a statement or to inquire about other questions we might
[Condensed and adapted from George R. Knight, Reading Ellen White
(Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1997), pp.
43-123. Available from Adventist Book Centers: 1-800-765-6955 or Review and
Herald Publishing Association: http://www.rhpa.org]
Thought for the Day
In this age of boasted enlightenment, the Christian church is confronted with a world lying in midnight darkness. - TM 457