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Young Ellen Harmon was encouraged to read “religious biographies of children who had possessed numberless virtues and lived faultless lives.” To an impressionable young girl, these were offered as reality. “If that is true, I can never be a Christian. I can never hope to be like those children.”
After her severe injury, “I could see no pleasure in my existence. I did not wish to live, and yet feared to die, for I was unprepared.... I began to pray the Lord to prepare me for death.”
For the next several years Ellen’s mood alternated between elation and depression, always in an intensely religious context.
Observing the reflection of red skies on winter snow, “I was happy; I thought Jesus was coming, and I longed to see Him. My heart was full; I clapped my hands for joy, and thought my sufferings were ended. But I was disappointed; the singular experience faded away from the heavens, and the next morning the sun arose the same as usual.”
Often she recalled, “though my heart was heavy, and ached as if it were breaking, I could not shed a tear.” A “leaden weight” oppressed her heart.
In March of 1840, she attended William Miller’s meetings. “There was in my heart a feeling that I could never become worthy to be called a child of God.... Thus I wandered needlessly in darkness and despair.”
In view of the short time before Jesus was expected to return, one evening she was especially moved by a message of preparation. “My soul had been stirred within me by what I had heard. And so deep was the sense of conviction in my heart, that I feared the Lord would not spare me to reach home.”
The young Ellen believed in a God who just might slay an agonized twelve-year-old on her way home. She prayed, “Spare me, O Lord, through the night! Take me not away in my sins, pity me, save me.” “....now the thought that I might die in my present sinful state and be eternally lost, filled me with terror...”
Later, “As I knelt and prayed, suddenly my burden left me, and my heart was light. At first a feeling of alarm came over me, and I tried to resume my load of distress. It seemed to me that I had no right to be joyous and happy.”
She joined the Methodist church, choosing to be baptized by immersion. At the beach ceremony she recalled that “the waves ran high and dashed upon the shore.” Those who joyfully remember their own baptism may be puzzled that Ellen described this event as “a heavy cross.” Perhaps it was the temperature of the Atlantic waters, but despite any discomfort she wrote, “my peace was like a river.”
That afternoon she was received into church fellowship, but her peace and happiness were disturbed by judgment of a fellow candidate: “I noticed the gold rings glittering upon this sister’s fingers, and the large, showy earrings in her ears. I then observed that her bonnet was adorned with artificial flowers, and trimmed with costly ribbons arranged in bows and puffs.” This display of vanity dampened Ellen’s joy. She was disappointed that the minister failed to reprove her over-decorated associate. Instead, he welcomed them both into the Methodist church.
In 1842, “Words of condemnation rang in my ears day and night, and my constant cry to God was, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’
In my mind the justice of God eclipsed his mercy and love. I had been taught to believe in an eternally burning hell, and the horrifying thought was ever before me that my sins were too great to be forgiven, and that I should be forever lost.... The eye of God was upon us always; every sin was
registered and would meet its just punishment. God Himself was keeping the books with the exactness of infinite wisdom, and every sin we committed was faithfully recorded against us.
While listening to these terrible descriptions, my imagination would be so wrought upon that the perspiration would start, and it was difficult to suppress a cry of anguish, for I seemed to already feel the pains of
Our heavenly Father was presented before my mind as a tyrant, who delighted in the agonies of the condemned, not the tender, pitying Friend of sinners, who loves His creatures with a love past all understanding and desired them to be saved in His kingdom.
As we review young Ellen’s terrifying religious experience, we may wonder why someone didn’t at least share with her a copy of Steps to Christ. But that magnificent lyric of God’s love was yet fifty years in the future, when at last Ellen White would be prepared to write it herself.
An ophthalmologist, Robert Wresch, M.D., lives in Guam and writes on his personal website.