Educating Readers about Ellen White's Writing Process

Denis Fortin, former dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, offers a new look at Ellen White's classic Steps to Christ with an annotated edition that shows the sources of the volume's material from her previously published writings. 

Question: You have just published, through the Andrews University Press, a new academic, annotated edition of Ellen White's Steps to Christ. You wrote an historical introduction to the book and for each chapter you have prepared annotations and a brief introduction, attempting to locate Steps to Christ within the wider historical theological tradition of Christianity. Can you give us some examples of what that means? Who is the intended audience for this new edition? Why did you think it was an important project to do?

Answer: Ellen White’s understanding of salvation is similar in many ways to what Wesleyan Methodists believed in her time.  It is important to remind ourselves of that similarity and to know that Adventists understood themselves as having something to supplement what most Protestant denominations taught.  

We did not see ourselves as replacing Protestant churches but as offering them something they lacked—the new truths we had found. When it comes to salvation, we were basically in agreement (and still are) that salvation is a gift of God through Christ’s death on the cross, given to repentant sinners who by faith claim the promises of God. Even the title of the book, Steps to Christ, was at the time a very obvious Wesleyan metaphor for the plan of salvation. 

I thought of preparing this annotated edition a couple years ago when I realized the coincidence that 2017 is the 125th anniversary of the publication of Steps to Christ and also the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation.  Having seen annotated editions of some classics at Barnes & Noble, I thought that maybe we could publish something similar with some of Ellen White’s classic books.  

I started working on this edition also with the goal of preparing something that could be an Adventist contribution to mark the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  My intent was to prepare an edition that local churches and pastors can give to pastors of other denominations in their communities.  Ellen White prepared this little book to help Adventist evangelists in their work, and I prepared the annotated edition with a similar purpose: to give it to other Christians and to share with them what we have in common regarding our experience of salvation. I thought this would be a fitting contribution for the 500th anniversary. The book is an ideal gift for outreach—it looks beautiful, the layout reads well, and the content provides a good introduction to Ellen White and the doctrine of salvation.

You credit Steps to Christ with bringing you to the Adventist church after you were given the book by an Adventist pastor. How old were you then? What was it about the book that made such an impact on you?

I grew up in a nominal Catholic home and received something of a cultural understanding of God, Jesus, salvation, and faith.  When I was a teenager, I watched the It Is Written program on my local TV station in Quebec City and found these programs on the study of the Bible fascinating. I learned a lot of about biblical teachings that built on what I already knew and a whole lot more. 

After I asked for a brochure offered at the end of a program, the local pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church dropped by my home to see me, and before he left, he gave me a French Steps to Christ.  That was the first Adventist book I read, and it began to mold my spiritual journey.  I have read it many times in French and English.  Through the years, I have reflected on its teaching for my own personal life but also for my classes, and I often share insights with my students.  Although this is a devotional book, compiled mainly from Ellen White’s articles and sermons, the theological insights in it reflect a beautiful biblical perspective on the plan of salvation.

Ellen White used passages from many of her previous books to put together Steps to Christ — is that right? Why do you think she felt the need to publish Steps to Christ if the material was already out there?

In the summer of 1890, a group of pastors told Ellen White that they would appreciate it if she could prepare a small book on the experience of salvation that they could give in their evangelistic meetings to supplement their own teaching.  She liked the idea and asked her assistant Marian Davis (whom she nicknamed her “bookmaker”) to prepare this book.  

Davis compiled Steps to Christ from Ellen White’s earlier published materials, mainly from articles in the Review and Herald, Signs of the Times, and the Testimonies for the Church.  

Ellen White did not “write” this book, so to speak, from cover to cover; Marian Davis compiled it for Ellen White as she did for many other books of Ellen White between 1880 and 1904.  (For more information on Marian Davis’s work, I recommend the article under her name in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia.)  

The historical introduction to the book in this edition discusses this process.  Also, you will find in the Appendix a list of what I think are the likely sources for most of the content in the book.  

This is the first time that a book of Ellen White is published in which we can find such a discussion about its preparation and information about its antecedent sources.  

I know that there are also some non-Adventist sources that are very similar to what we have in Steps to Christ, from books Ellen White had read, books she was given or recommended by pastors.  I did not do a study of these similarities and parallels although I know they exist.  Since Steps to Christ is a compilation from her own prior publications, these parallels with the books of evangelical authors would have come from the prior documents that ended up later in Steps to Christ. But such a study is complex and multi-layered, and I did not have the time or the technical resources to do it.

So you are saying that Steps to Christ is not uniquely Adventist — it has a wider appeal?

As I mentioned, the idea for Steps to Christ was suggested to Ellen White by evangelists in the summer 1890 during a pastors’ meeting. So the book was first intended for Christians of other denominations or non-church people as an introduction to some simple elements of the Christian faith. From the start, the intent of the book was to be an outreach tool, and while many important aspects of the doctrine of salvation are discussed in the book, the vocabulary is simple (some key theological words like justification and sanctification are omitted), and the tone is often conversational (like a pastor speaking to people during a sermon).

It is also for this reason that Fleming Revell, an evangelical publisher in Chicago, was approached to publish it.  

And it worked.  The book was sold by the thousands in the first couple years, and Revell asked Ellen White to provide him with other books—he would have liked to publish more of her writings.  

One hundred and twenty-five years later the book still has this appeal, but like any other book written decades ago, time and culture have made it more difficult for many people to understand or to relate to its content.  I felt that an annotated edition might be helpful to keep its content still relevant.  Even some Adventists today have difficulties understanding the content of Steps to Christ, and this edition will be helpful for us, too.

You have done significant research on how Ellen White was helped in her work by her assistant. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Honestly, it is hard to say only a “little” about this.  Much of the work of Ellen White’s assistants was well known by people in her entourage while she was alive, but the details of what their work consisted of was not well known.  Some letters were exchanged between her staff or family with other people asking questions about this relationship, but these letters were not widely circulated. (Some letters of W. C. White were published in Selected Messages, book 3.)  And over the decades this knowledge was forgotten, known only by a few people.  

Her assistants were responsible for correcting Ellen White’s grammar, syntax, and basic composition mistakes.  She had little formal education and relied on these assistants to polish her writing, but they were not allowed to compose or insert their thoughts into the documents they worked on.  

Marian Davis, however, was her “bookmaker.”  Davis did the compilation work for about 10 of Ellen White’s books, including all the major ones we love: The Desire of Ages, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, Patriarchs and Prophets, and The Great Controversy.

The absence of public awareness of the process used to prepare Ellen White’s books goes all the way back to her own lifetime.  Some pastors were surprised to learn about this, and that caused some to lose confidence in her ministry and in the church.  The conversations between Bible teachers at the 1919 Bible Conference also reveal some ambivalence about this. Some professors felt that it was better to not talk openly about it for fear that it would discourage and disillusion people.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, the “discovery” of a number of these factors in the production of Ellen White’s books created a huge stir among Adventists.  And periodically the same questions and comments resurface.  The recent publication in Spectrum of the two-part interview with Walter Rae reminded me of what happened about 35-40 years ago.  I think there has always been a fear that if people know the details about the production of Ellen White’s books, how her assistants helped and even created these books, and how she borrowed (more or less extensively) from other authors she had read, that in the end people will lose faith and confidence in her prophetic gift.  

Undergirding the hesitation to openly share all this is often, I think, a de facto view of verbal/mechanical inspiration that cannot adequately (and will never be able to) accommodate such a writing/production process and also a need to use Ellen White’s writings as the final arbiter of doctrinal, historical, and theological disputes—something she never intended her writings to become.  

But in the end, history has taught us that not sharing sufficient information about this process causes many people to lose their faith in her gift and in the church when they find out about it.  Somehow, we must do better at educating our members about Ellen White’s writings, how they were produced, and what the intent behind them is. If we were to do this better, I think we would answer many questions about her writings.

What is your next big project?

I have completed a Sabbath School Adult Bible study guide on biblical concepts of unity in the church, and I also wrote the companion book (which is basically done).  The study guide is scheduled for fall 2018.

I am currently writing the Adventist pioneer series biography on George I. Butler which I find fascinating and stimulating.  There are many historical and theological issues related to his leadership and ministry that are still relevant for our church today.  The tentative publication date for this book is 2020.

Where can people get a copy of your new edition of Steps to Christ?

I’m sure most Adventist Book Centers will have the book.  But people can also visit Andrews University Press online or call 269-471-6134. 

Denis Fortin

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