Perhaps one of the best ways to understand how Ellen White perceived her own prophetic authority is to understand how she related to potential prophetic rivals.
One of the lesser-known stories of a prophetic rival is that of Anna Garmire (b. 1870), who claimed to receive supernatural revelations. Her father, James, printed twenty thousand copies of a tract claiming that the close of probation would occur forty years after the Great Disappointment. Apparently, James Garmire had stolen the Review and Herald mailing list and sent a complimentary copy to every Adventist in the United States.
Ellen White responded with a tract titled An Exposure of Fanaticism and Wickedness, in which she denounced Anna’s theories as spurious. After the time passed (1884), James wrote a letter to Ellen White to ask whether they had made a mistake or not (what a concept, huh?).
Ellen White’s response to the Garmires is one of the most insightful statements by Ellen White for understanding how she viewed her own prophetic authority (you can read what she said in Selected Messages, vol. 2, pages 7379). She stated that the Garmires had deceived themselves and others. In fact, the father had “misapplied” her writings to support such crazy ideas to promote things that she had explicitly rejected. In doing so, he had worked himself up into “a high state of fanaticism,” loved his opinions more than God’s Word, and cultivated enmity toward his fellow believers. One “decided evidence,” she added, “that these exercises are not of God is that they concur with your views” and “contradict the Word of God.”
On August 23, 1890, Ellen White visited the Garmires, who hailed from Colorado at the time, in their home. Both father and daughter pushed Ellen White to show them their error. “But how can I,” stated Mrs. White, “prove your error by Scripture, when you misinterpret and misapply it as you do? You think it will enforce whatever you have to say. But when the testimonies do not harmonize with your theories, I am excused, because I am the false prophet!” (Ellen White, letter 11, 1890, 1888 Materials, 697702). Later, Anna accused her father of abuse, ran away from home, and became pregnant. Adventist historians do not know what happened to her afterward (to the best of my knowledge).
Ellen White eschewed the title prophet, preferring instead to refer to herself as the “Lord’s messenger.” She claimed to receive messages from God; she pointed people back to the Bible. Throughout her lifetime, there were a number of people who claimed to have the prophetic gift, Anna Garmire being just one of the more colorful examples. Soon after her prophetic prediction failed and her life fell apart, she was quickly forgotten in Adventist history.
One of my favorite stories, from the time I was a graduate assistant working at the Andrews University Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office, is when I had a person who came up to me claiming to be Ellen White’s successor. I quickly discovered that this misguided individual had simply forgotten to take their medication. Some individuals have suggested that Ellen White had forgotten to take her medication (or in the case of one person, she simply suffered from mercury poisoning).
For me, the greatest “proof” of her prophetic authority does not come from a medical autopsy but from her consistent appeal through her life and writings directing people back to the authority of God’s Word. Misuse of her writings by other people is not a reason not to read them. To me, the genuineness of her claim to speak for God is that her writings (if one actually reads them using common sense and basic hermeneutical principles) point me back again and again to Jesus.
Michael W. Campbell pastors the Montrose, Colorado, Seventh-day Adventist Church.