The Ear: Terrie Dopp Aamodt on Ellen Harmon White

The Ear: Terrie Dopp Aamodt on Ellen Harmon White

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Published:
September 19, 2014

With two colleagues — the late Gary Land, who taught history at Andrews University, and Ronald L. Numbers, Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — Terrie Dopp Aamodt edited the volume of essays, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, just published by the Oxford University Press.  

Aamodt, whose interests focus on American literature and history, joined the English faculty at Walla Walla University (where she still works) in 1979.  Since 2003 she has also been a member of the university’s history department.

She earned a bachelor’s degree at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University), a master’s degree (in English) at the College of William and Mary, and a doctorate in American and New England Studies at Boston University.  Asked what prepared her for editing Ellen Harmon White, she explained that her doctoral studies “led me to examine intersections of literature, history, and religion, from the Puritan founders of New England through the Civil War. It taught me how examining context helps the past to come alive.”

Aamodt wrote the chapter in Ellen Harmon White on Ellen White as public speaker, and is currently working on a book for the Adventist Pioneers biography series entitled Ellen White: Voice and Vision.  In 2002 the Mercer University Press published her book, Righteous Armies, Holy Cause:  Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War.  Her scholarship has included an examination of the House of David religious commune in Benton Harbor, Michigan, which played a role in integrating baseball (outside the major leagues) before Jackie Robinson.

During her childhood, Aamodt’s family followed her pastor father, Matthew “Bud” Dopp, to assignments in Alaska, California, Massachusetts, and Virginia.  Aamodt saw Alaska celebrate statehood in 1959 and spent six summers at Camp Wawona in Yosemite National Park. 

She lives in Walla Walla, Washington with her husband, Larry, a member of the University’s  electrical engineering faculty, and their two college-age children.  The family enjoys skiing, backpacking, running, and cycling.

Question: With two colleagues, you edited the volume of essays, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, just published by the Oxford University Press.  The book is at once an appreciation and a criticism of Ellen White’s ministry.  How was the book conceived and put together?  

Answer: The book project began in a series of conversations among Adventist historians during four or five of their triennial meetings.  We noted that Ellen White is little known outside her own denomination, and her role in American religious history had never been systematically investigated.  We identified historians who had previously done work on Ellen White — most of them were Adventist historians, some were former Adventists, and two have never been connected to the denomination — and invited them to prepare chapter drafts for a conference in Portland, Maine, in 2009.  We spent the next three years editing and polishing the chapters, and the book was accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in April 2013.  It was published about a year later, in April 2014.

Question: What are some main areas of investigation into Ellen White’s ministry that the book covers?

Answer: The book is a collaborative biography, and it examines various facets of Ellen White’s life, beginning with a biographical portrait and several subsets of her life story — her visions, testimonies, reception as a prophet, writing and speaking careers, and role as an institution builder.  Then it looks at her treatment of various themes — theology, eschatology, science, society, culture, race, and gender — and finally it looks at her legacy and the range of historical and biographical approaches that have been applied to her, primarily within the denomination.

As we began our work at the conference, we heard a plenary lecture, “Writing a Woman’s Life,” by Joan Hedrick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Afterward, one of the Adventist historians asked her, “You clearly admire your subject, but what do you do about the flaws?”  Hedrick replied that for the biographer, flaws are “what bring a person into sharp focus.  Nobody is human without having flaws.  To see the flaws as well as the virtues, and how they intersect — we can all see in ourselves that our strengths also have a downside.  Seeing the human is seeing the human being whole.  I don’t see it as a problem but I see it as a possibility.  I see it as great literary material and sometimes as great didactic material.” 

While we cannot claim to have seen Ellen White whole in one volume, which is a woefully inadequate space to examine such a long and complex life, we did try to examine as many facets as we could.  Interestingly, seeing a subject whole looks different depending on who is doing the looking.  Historians who were not connected to Adventism — conference respondents, grant and manuscript referees — typically thought this project was conceived by the highest levels of the Seventh-day Adventist church to promote a positive image of her.  Some Adventists, accustomed to the modes of discussion within the Adventist church structure, thought the project set out to be critical of her.  At least one disillusioned ex-Adventist dismissed the book as hagiography.  What we told conference participants again and again was that we sought to steer clear of extremes of either iconoclasm or hagiography.  If we had fallen into either of those extremes, we could not have expected to be taken seriously by either academic publishers or scholarly reviewers. 

Preparing for the conference, which included one SDA and one non-SDA respondent per chapter, felt a little bit like setting up a blind date.  Many of the non-SDA respondents had not heard of Ellen White before, and the others knew very little of her.  We wondered what they would think of her and how seriously they would take her historical role.  It was humbling and a bit startling to see how warmly and enthusiastically they responded to this story of a life.  They welcomed the opportunity to learn more about a major figure who, in their eyes, was curiously neglected in the larger story of American religious history.  We do not expect our book to be the final word on this vast topic but rather an invitation for additional angles of investigation and further research.

Question: You have lectured on Ellen Harmon White to several audiences in major centers of North American Adventism.   What themes come out in positive responses to your report on the book?  What come out in negative responses?

Answer: While the primary purpose of the book is not to address Adventist angst about Ellen White, other than to document it in the “Legacy” chapter, it inevitably will draw responses from Adventists from a whole range of perspectives.  When I’ve talked with Adventists about the book, I remind them that the book was designed for a general academic audience, not for an Adventist audience who is already deeply familiar with Ellen White as one of the leading figures in their own denomination.  I have asked them to keep that in mind as they read.  Adventists who are accustomed to seeing Ellen White as somehow above human frailty can be startled and sometimes angered by an effort to see her whole.  And, of course, there can be honest differences of opinion on how to interpret historical evidence.  On the other hand, some Adventists gave up on Ellen White a long time ago.  Many of those folks who have made an effort to engage with our book have been encouraged to revisit her life and work.  I don’t know which has been a bigger surprise — her warm reception by the non-SDA scholars at the conference, or the renewed interest in her in some Adventist places where I least expected to see it.  

Question: Although a somewhat negative review did appear in The Adventist Review, no one can yet say, as a generality, whether Adventist leaders will give the book a fair and thorough reading.  But we know they are deeply committed to protecting the loyalty of members to church mission.  If leaders did give the book a fair and thorough reading, how might the perspective they gain be put to constructive use in the church’s life?

Answer: At times Adventists have put up a dismal showing in their internal discussions of Ellen White.  Perhaps we have felt free to savage each other on sensitive topics because we thought no one else was watching.  I fully expect that we will learn a lot as scholars from outside the Adventist fold turn more scrutiny on the life and times of Ellen White. Their perspectives will raise new questions and new angles of inquiry, and the possibility that someone “out there” might actually be paying attention to what Adventists say to each other about their collective history ought to raise the quality of our internal discourse. We have a lot to look forward to.

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