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Book Review: The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage by Gilbert Valentine

Gilbert M. Valentine, The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage: Issues in the Conflict for Control of the Ellen G. White Publications, 1930-1939. 2nd ed. Muak Lek, Thailand: Institute Press, 2007. 174 pp. For copies contact Wayne Hamra at whamra@apiu.edu.

Gil Valentine, a recently retired Professor of Leadership and Administration in the School of Education at La Sierra University, is no stranger to Adventist historians. His previous book, William Warren Prescott: Forgotten Giant of Adventism’s Second Generation (2005) explored the significant contributions and sometimes controversial actions of one of Adventism’s major scholar-administrators. His monograph, The Prophet and the Presidents (2011), examined the political influence that Ellen White’s letters had on various General Conference presidents. In 2014, Valentine and Woodrow Whidden edited Adventist Maverick, a festschrift to church historian George Knight.

In The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage, Valentine unpacks a little-known Adventist cloak-and-dagger story regarding the transfer of the Ellen G. White Estate (Estate) from Elmshaven to Takoma Park. He ably describes the antagonists in this drama: for the Estate, William C. White and his son Arthur, and for the General Conference (GC), presidents A. G. Daniells, C. H. Watson, and J. L. McElhany, who enjoyed the support of W. H. Branson, I. H. Evans, and M. E. Kern during the conflict.

Valentine clearly explains the key issues that elicited heated prose, veiled threats, broken promises, and insubordination. Was the Estate independent of the GC or under its jurisdiction? Did the Estate have the authority to release Ellen White’s unpublished manuscripts? Who owned the plates of her published works, her library, the indexes, and the diaries? Who could enjoy unlimited access to the Estate files? Who should make the decisions regarding compilations and foreign translations of her writings?

The fact that Ellen White had made five often contradictory wills exacerbated the problem. Based on these wills, W. C. White insisted that the indexes, diaries, plates, and royalties belonged to him. He also claimed that his mother had given him a “mandate” to share her unpublished testimonies with church leaders who, in the 1920s and ’30s, demanded “ammunition” to combat the charges of plagiarism and covering up made by Canright, Kellogg, Conradi, and Ballenger.

The GC leaders, convinced first, that many of White’s shelf documents and manuscript releases could embarrass some individuals (like the “Meat Pledge” for Daniells), and second, that some of his editorial additions were historically inaccurate (the “Shut Door” document), demanded that White consult them first. Instead, he sometimes released shelf documents without even consulting the Trustees.

Valentine does a masterful job of portraying the conflicting personalities in this decade-long tug of war. Willie White is the bull-in-a-china-shop Trustee who flouts GC guidelines, makes decisions without consulting others, openly supports independent ministries, and only reluctantly complies with GC protocols. Arthur White is the young, brash, arrogant assistant to his father who writes rude letters to GC officials he later regrets. C. H. Watson, battling severe arthritis, facing mounting Church debts, opposition within the Columbia Union, and rising apostasy at home and abroad, is the frustrated businessman who cannot understand why the Whites do not follow GC guidelines, work with committees, and operate within budgets. A. G. Daniells, the consummate bureaucrat, is the liaison between the Estate and the GC, building bridges of understanding between Elmshaven and Takoma Park. W. H. Branson is the GC vice-president who exercises power dictatorially and harshly. I. H. Evans is the NAD president whose style of leadership tends toward harshness and rigidity. M. E. Kern, a control freak, insists that policies be followed to the last detail. And J. L. McElhany, general vice-president of the GC, is the smooth-talking bureaucrat who finally convinces the Trustees to relocate to Takoma Park in 1937.

As this monograph demonstrates, the Estate’s path from independence to integration with the GC was a convoluted one. For almost two decades after 1915, the Estate had no legal identity; only in January 1933 was it incorporated under California laws. No doubt its existence in legal limbo encouraged W. C. White’s unorthodox behavior: sending manuscripts to Madison College press rather than to the Review and Pacific presses, releasing unpublished documents without authorization, and supporting Julius White and other leaders of independent ministries.

But little by little, Watson and McElhany tamed this West Coast bronco. In 1933 GC officials met with the Trustees to discuss unauthorized releases. In 1934, they jointly developed a six-point plan for approving such releases. In 1935, they addressed issues like delays in approving defense documents, handling royalties, and book publication. In 1936, after Watson returned to Australia, McElhany took his place on the Estate Board. In 1937, following W. C. White’s death, his now chastened son Arthur became secretary of the Estate Board. In January 1938 Estate materials were shipped to Takoma Park. In 1939 the GC Corporation certified the 1934 Bill of Sale and declared that the Estate’s debts were paid in full.

By applying a social science perspective to examine patterns of authority and tensions within leadership styles, Valentine offers us a refreshingly new paradigm for understanding the 1930s, a neglected period in our history. But as the late Ben McArthur would say, “Look at the bigger picture, Brian!” As I see it, this tempest in a teapot over control of the White Estate is symptomatic of a much larger conflict between “the Mavericks” and “the Bureaucrats.”

Mavericks (like the Whites, Bates, Loughborough, and Haskell), arising in the first half of the 19th Century, followed God’s leading, chose their own ministerial territories, took dreams and visions seriously, accepted faith healings and exorcisms, engaged in heated debates, and formed ad hoc committees to accomplish tasks and then disband.

By contrast, the Bureaucrats (like Watson, McElhany, Branson, Evans, and Kern), born in the late 19th Century, followed guidelines and policies, were assigned their posts of duty, never saw Ellen White in vision, shunned faith healings and exorcisms, sought agreement and compliance, and served on large, permanent committees. Born in different generations and following different paradigms, it is understandable why W. C. White, the maverick, and C. H. Watson, the bureaucrat, could not agree on many things. Only in the 1940s, after the original mavericks on the White Estate Board were replaced with bureaucrats, was the marriage between the Estate and the GC harmonious.

Brian E. Strayer is Professor Emeritus of History at Andrews University.

Image Credit: Adventist Book Centre - Sydney. 

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