At 3:40 pm, Thursday, July 16, 2015, a small crowd of people gathered on the steps of Ellen White’s Elmshaven home in St. Helena, California to pause for a moment of silence and then prayer in honor of the co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who died at that hour one hundred years ago in that house.
Jim Pedersen, president of the Northern California Conference, offered a moving prayer. He acknowledged the sacredness of the place, because angels visited Mrs. White there. He gave thanks for her and her guidance to the community. Then he asked for forgiveness for the times when we have ignored her advice, for when we have put her words above the Bible, for when we have used her words to judge other people.
The Centennial Legacy Conference, of which the prayer was a part, began at noon with a keynote address by Eric Anderson, director of the Walter C. Utt Center for Adventist History.
Anderson spoke of Mrs. White as an “unknown eminence” in the Napa Valley, “a famous nobody,” suggesting that a rebuilt grist mill and the empty place where Robert Louis Stevenson briefly lived generate more public interest in the Valley.
Then he made the case that “you don’t have to be a Seventh-day Adventist to be interested in Ellen G. White.” Smithsonian's ranking of Mrs. White as one of the 100 most influential Americans of all time was his first reason that she deserves attention.
His second reason was the book published by Oxford University Press, a scholarly study entitled Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, that neither debunked her or defended her. The goal of the book was simply to understand her, to put her into historical context, he said.
Suggesting that Adventists like this attention that Mrs. White has received, he said that it also makes us nervous because we cannot control it. Once someone belongs to the ages as was said of Abraham Lincoln when he died, his associates can no longer control his story.
Anderson had more reasons for the significance of Mrs. White and why the same educated and curious general audience that visits Angel Island, Sutter’s Fort, or Bale Mill should visit Elmshaven. Calling attention to the St. Helena Hospital just up the road, he spoke of the ideas and health institutions that she started that now span the world. Then he noted the educational institutions she started and mentioned Pacific Union College also nearby.
Ellen White’s achievements and life are distinctly American he asserted, citing Alexis de Tocqueville observations about the America of Ellen White’s day. He said she fit the pattern described by de Tocqueville. “She traveled widely, wrote tirelessly, and promoted impossible dreams, including founding colleges, building hospitals, and sending missionaries. In a decorous and motherly way, she also challenged deeply rooted ideas about the role of women. With no direct affiliation with the feminist movements of her day, she was prepared to preach to large crowds, rebuke patriarchs among her followers, and hold men and women to the same moral standards.”
The conference continues on Friday with presentations by George Knight, Elissa Kido, James Nix, and James and Cheryl Peters. On Sabbath David Trim and Ted Wilson will speak.
Bonnie Dwyer is Editor of Spectrum Magazine.