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“Can We Trust a Prophet Who Gets It Wrong?”


Review of Father Miller’s Daughter: Ellen Harmon White (2022) and Child of the Apocalypse: Ellen G. White (2021), by Donald E. Casebolt.

Words like “far-fetched,” “fanciful,” “erroneous,” and “outlandish” are not likely to inspire confidence in Ellen White’s prophetic ministry.[1] How can she serve effectively in the church and world if her work triggers that kind of reaction?

We shall return and look more closely at the issues he is seeking to address. But first, we must take a crucial detour to which I have assigned this subtitle:

The Story of Two Surprises: Two Non-contextual Methods of Interpreting Scripture

Donald Casebolt’s two books on Ellen White need to be seen against the backdrop of two non-contextual methods of interpreting Scripture: historicism and midrash. In the heading above, I have used the word “surprises” because, if you are a modern educated person, the possibility of a valid non-contextual method of interpreting Scripture would most likely come as a surprise. That can help us understand why Casebolt uses such biting language when describing Ellen White’s ministry. He is still in the process of making peace with the surprises!

His focus, of course, is on historicism, deeply rooted in our Reformation and Adventist heritage. He does not mention midrash, an earlier cousin of historicism from the New Testament era. Though midrash and historicism are not at all identical, they share the disconcerting tendency—disconcerting to us, at least—of ignoring context. I have found that seeing midrash and historicism together helps me better understand both the New Testament and my Adventist heritage.

So here is my story of how I made peace with both methods, and I will start with my undergraduate experience at Walla Walla College, because the first-year course for theology majors—Theology I, as it was called—stressed contextual interpretation. Elder J. Paul Grove assigned us the task of reading Matthew but forbid the use of any additional helps: no commentaries, no Desire of Ages.

Thus we learned to read in context and to do exegesis, i.e., “leading out” of the text its true meaning instead of eisegesis, “reading into” the text your own interpretation. I came to believe that contextual reading, i.e., exegesis, was the only way to read Scripture. Any other approach was wrong, indeed, almost sinful.

And this conclusion was reinforced in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One vivid line still lurks in my memory from my Greek vocabulary book, Bruce Metzger’s Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek.[2] Metzger often uses Greek words to illustrate English words. The word eisegesis, for example, illustrates the use of the Greek preposition eis, “into.” Here is the exact rendition of his quote: “eisegesis, faulty interpretation of a text by reading into it one’s own ideas.”[3] Note the word “faulty.”

I could also use the word deadly here because, in later years, I began to explore Matthew on my own, checking on his use of Old Testament passages. I was flabbergasted by his treatment of Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew applies the text to Jesus’s flight into Egypt with his parents. But Hosea applies it to the people of Israel in their rebellious state! I was not only flabbergasted but angry; if I had done what Matthew had done, I would have flunked Grove’s class!

I didn’t really find an answer until I was in my doctoral program at the University of Edinburgh, where I discovered midrash. That’s when the lights came on!

To illustrate the midrashic method, I have chosen the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15. There God commands Abram: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove and a young pigeon.” Except for the birds, Abram cut all the animals in two and drove away the birds of prey from the carcasses. As the sun was setting, “a deep sleep fell upon fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”[4]

The midrashic interpretation focuses on this phrase: “Behold a smoking furnace and a flaming torch.”[5]

As an important aside, I should note that the rabbis may have sensed that they were on thin ice with their interpretations, for virtually their every statement is undergirded by rabbinic authority. In that respect, written rabbinic texts contrast sharply with the New Testament record of the effect of Jesus’s spoken word, for Jesus cited no rabbinic authorities at all. It was his own authority that gripped the people. The Sermon on the Mount closes with these impressive words: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”[6]

But I return now to our specific concern here, namely, the way the sacred text seems to transcend context. In what follows, I cite midrash rather extensively (and tediously), picking up the text after the reference to the “smoking furnace” and “flaming torch” in Genesis 15:17:

Simeon b. Abba said in R. Johann’s name: He [God] showed him four things, viz Gehenna, the [foreign] kingdoms, Revelation, and the Temple, with the promise: As long as thy children occupy themselves with the latter two, they will be saved from the former two; if they neglect the latter two they will be punished by the former two. Wouldst thou rather that thy children descend into Gehenna or into the power of the [foreign] kingdoms? He asked him. R. Hinena b. Papa said: Abraham himself chose [subjection to foreign] powers. R. Judan, R. Idi, and R. Hama b. R. Hanina said: Abraham chose Gehenna, but the Holy One, blessed be He, chose subjection to foreign powers for him. Thus it is written, How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, except their rock had given them over (Deut. xxxii.30)—this alludes to Abraham: And the Lord had delivered them up (ib.)? this teaches that God approved his choice. R. Huna said in R. Aha’s name: Abraham sat wondering all day, thinking “Which should I choose?” Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Make a decision without delay”; hence it is written, In that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, etc. (Gen. xv,18). In this matter we come back to the controversy of R. Hinena b. Papa and R. Judan, R. Idi, and R. Hana b. R. Hanina. R. Hinena b. Papa said: Abraham himself chose [subjection to other] powers. R. Judan, R. Idi, and R. Hama b. R. Hanina said on the authority of a certain sage in Rabbi’s[7] name: The Holy One, blessed be He, chose the [foreign] kingdoms for him. Thus it is written, Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads (Ps. Lxvi,12), meaning, Thou didst cause nations to ride over our heads, which is as though We went through fire and through water (ib.). R. Joshua said: He also showed him the dividing of the Red Sea, for it is written that passed between these pieces – gezarim (Gen. loc. cit.), gezarim having the same meaning as in the verse, [O give thanks . . .] to Him who divided the Red Sea in sunder [= gezarim](Ps. cxxxvi, 13). 

Now, this whole midrashic passage focuses on the question: What did Abraham see when “the smoking furnace and a flaming torch” passed between these pieces? At the beginning, the midrash tells us that God showed him four things: Gehenna (hell), exile, Revelation, and the Temple. Did you notice any of those (except perhaps exile) when you read Genesis? Hardly. But at the end of the passage, Rabbi Joshua reveals one more secret, namely, that God also showed him the dividing of the Red Sea. How did he arrive at that conclusion? By noting that the Hebrew word gezarim (“pieces” or “parts) in Genesis 15 is the same Hebrew word used in Psalm 136:13 to describe the dividing of the Red Sea. The NRSV translates Psalm 136:13 as: “Who divided the Red Sea in two” [“two” = gezarim]. Therefore, God revealed the dividing of the Red Sea to Abraham in Genesis 15. Amazing!

The Rabbis are being playful, but they are also deadly serious. And all that is found in a handsome 10-volume set (Midrash Rabbah) published in English by Soncino Press. I suspect that Casebolt would be tempted to use some of his favorite words here: “far-fetched,” “fanciful,” and “outlandish.” And at first blush, we would grapple with the same temptation.

Two other biblical quotations are embedded in that same tedious midrashic passage cited above: Deuteronomy 32:30 and Psalm 66.12. Check them out. That’s the kind of world that made it “natural” for Matthew to apply Hosea 11:1 to the sojourn in Egypt by Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. Far-fetched? Outlandish? It is certainly non-contextual, but by their standards, not far-fetched and outlandish.

Casebolt and Historicism

I turn now to a more direct focus on Casebolt’s two books on Ellen White and explore, in part, the potential parallels between my anger at Matthew’s use of midrash and Casebolt’s frustration at Adventist reliance on historicism. But first, a brief commentary on historicism itself.

The basic pattern of historicism is rooted in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of Daniel 2:

“You were looking, O king, and there appeared a great statue. That statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its midsection and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors, and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”[8]

Daniel goes on to interpret the vision: Nebuchadnezzar is the head of gold. The kingdoms that follow are made of silver, bronze, and iron. Then a great stone shatters the image and grows until it fills the whole world. In Daniel 2, “historicism” reads naturally. It is tantalizing, to be sure, that none of the kingdoms are named except Babylon. That makes the end of time something of a moving target. Indeed, 4th Ezra in the Protestant Apocrypha suggests that as Rome became prominent, it replaced Greece as the 4th kingdom.[9]

Thus, even where the historicist pattern is clear, the door is open for a certain fluidity of interpretation. The challenge for Adventists is that they inherited a historicist framework from the Reformation era, and many passages of Scripture that are not at all historicist are given that twist in Adventist interpretation. The parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1–13 is in that category, as are the seven churches in Revelation 2–3— historicism works well in Daniel, but not at all in Revelation! But that is what troubles Casebolt: those readings are not contextual!

When I first read Casebolt, the most significant takeaway for me was the point that Ellen White was only 12 years old when William Miller convinced her of his 15 mathematical proofs for the second coming. She was a child with a long road before her. I discovered that it was easy for me to forget that.

As I worked through his two books, I found myself wishing that he had provided a clearer context for them, locating them in the larger picture of Adventism and Ellen White studies. In his first book, for example, he briefly mentions Steve Daily’s flamboyant Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography.[10] Daily’s point was that Ellen White “may have been one of the most successful con artists in history.”[11] Yet Casebolt does not mention Daily’s book until his conclusion, and there his gentle words are a far cry from “con artist”: “Many of Ellen Harmon’s critics have questioned her sincerity and honesty”[12] Casebolt’s second book doesn’t mention Daily at all, probably because Casebolt is a man on a mission, a mission to show that Ellen White is an unreliable guide to Adventist doctrine and history.  

As far as I can tell, his evidence and argumentation are impeccable, though as he moves into the “shut door” era (1844 to 1851), he seems to lose sight of his early emphasis that Ellen White was merely an excitable teenager, leaving the impression that she really was a subtle, conniving soul. But by the time I got to that point in his book, I found that he really had convinced me that she was simply an innocent and impressionable teenager!

My own position on Ellen White favors a growth model, a third option that moves away from Daily’s “con artist” and Casebolt’s “honest but misinformed guide,” if I can thus paraphrase Casebolt’s position.

A growth model eliminates a great deal of speculation, for the “proof” lies in Ellen White’s published writings. One of my favorite examples focuses on the experience of John the Baptist and the strikingly different nuances in the successive narratives of his life, published at roughly 20-year intervals: 1858, 1877, and 1898. Here are the dates and quotes:

1858: Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1: “John’s life was without pleasure. It was sorrowful and self-denying” (p. 29).

“I was pointed down to the last days, and saw that John was to represent those who should go forth in the [30/31] spirit and power of Elijah, to herald the day of wrath, and the second advent of Jesus.”

1877: Spirit of Prophecy 2:69: “John’s life, with the exception of the joy he experienced in witnessing the success of his mission was without pleasure. It was one of sorrow and self-denial.”

1898: Desire of Ages, 220: “Aside from the joy that John found in his mission, his life had been one of sorrow.”

Cf. 1897: The Youth’s Instructor, 7 Jan. 1897: “John enjoyed his life of simplicity and retirement.”

In 1858, John’s life was “without pleasure” and “sorrowful and self-denying.” But by 1877, at least John had fun at work. In 1898, the phrase without pleasure is dropped, giving the quote quite a different feel: “his life had been one of sorrow.”

The Youth’s Instructor quote, coming the year before Desire of Ages, simply states: “John enjoyed his life of simplicity.” As one of my students blurted out the first time I shared these quotations, “You mean the more Ellen White enjoyed her walk with the Lord, the more John the Baptist enjoyed his!” Exactly! The stories we tell reflect the status of our walk with the Lord.

Turning to Casebolt’s “experience” with Ellen White’s writings, we can explore possible reasons why he shows no interest in the growth model. I am inclined to think that he is simply exasperated by Adventist leadership and ordinary members for their tendency to accept Ellen White’s word as the last word. He wants the church to overcome that impulse.

But just to say that Ellen White was wrong doesn’t help them. They don’t have a model that allows them to say that she was “wrong” and still have confidence in her ministry. In my book Inspiration, I have sought to lay out a model that allows Ellen White to grow without sacrificing her effectiveness as an inspired messenger. For starters, using the four-Gospel format as our model, we can lay the inspired writers side-by-side, rather than on top of each other. We don’t have to decide which one is “right”—each narrative brings a different perspective.

Admittedly, making the transition from a monolithic model to a four-fold model takes time. Here, in the context of health reform, Ellen White herself encourages us to take that time:

We must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are. Some of us have been many years in arriving at our present position in health reform. It is slow work to obtain a reform in diet.  We have powerful appetites to meet; for the world is given to gluttony. If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance [21] step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people.[13]

In short, whether in health reform, Bible study, or the exploration of Ellen White experience, we need to take our time! What has astonished me is that this “health reform” statement comes early in White’s experience: 1872. Yet in my interpretation of the data, the key point of transition in her experience didn’t come until 1888. And it took even longer for her to work out the full implication of that “growth” principle.

And it would apply in different ways to Thompson and Casebolt, for our educational and professional experiences vary dramatically. I have been immersed in Adventist ministry and teaching, surrounded by helpful colleagues who are also devout believers. He discovered the “problems” long before I did. And he has three years of exploring modern methods of interpreting Scripture in secular institutions, one year at the University of Tübingen and two at the University of Chicago, with very little Adventist social support during that time.

By contrast, after I finished my MDiv at Andrews University, I was a pastor for three years (at Redlands and Fontana in the Southeastern California Conference) and an undergraduate teacher for two years at Walla Walla College. By the time I went to the University of Edinburgh for my doctoral studies in Old Testament, I had those five years of church life burned into my soul. And while we were in Scotland, we were deeply involved in church life.

In that connection, as I noted earlier, it was during my doctoral studies that I discovered Jewish midrash. To the modern exegete, both midrash and historicism look equally absurd because both depart so far from modern exegetical practice. But both methods represent real methods used by real believers and must be taken seriously. Mockery is not helpful.

Commenting tangentially on that point, Edinburgh Old Testament scholar Norman Porteous explains (in 1955) the rationale for reissuing Adam Welch’s commentary on Jeremiah. I italicize the key sentence: “Some justification is perhaps required for the reprinting (for the second time since the War) of a volume originally published by the Oxford University Press in 1928. Books of biblical exposition tend to date very rapidly, and eventually to become almost unreadable; so close is the connection between such writing and the contemporary climate of thought. There are some expositors, however—and to their number the late Professor Adam C. Welch belonged—whose depth of understanding and power of distinguishing what is essential are so remarkable that what they write possesses a more enduring quality.”[14]

And these two quotes from the Millerite era are also of interest:

“In the immediate post-Napoleonic era, events took place that appeared to confirm the pre-millennial view for a number of British Christians. As historicist premillennialists—and all premillennialists were such between 1815 and 1830—they saw a number of signs that indicated the nearness of the Second Coming”[15]

“All Protestants expected some grand event about 1843, and no critic from the orthodox side took any serious issue on basic principles with Miller’s calculations.”[16]

Interestingly enough, Casebolt faults Ellen White for applying the parable of the ten virgins to early Adventism rather than to the second coming.[17] Ellen White herself, however, uses both settings, depending on whether she is dealing with it contextually or from the standpoint of Adventist history. In the book The Great Controversy, the parable reflects Adventist history and historicist principles of interpretation:

The coming of Christ as our high priest to the most holy place, for the cleansing of the sanctuary, brought to view in Dan. 8:14; the coming of the Son of man to the Ancient of days, as presented in Dan. 7:13; and the coming of the Lord to His temple, foretold by Malachi, are descriptions of the same event; and this is also represented by the coming of the bridegroom to the marriage, described by Christ in the parable of the ten virgins of Matthew 25.[18]

But in Christ’s Object Lessons, she gives it an exegetical interpretation:

 As Christ sat looking upon the party that waited for the bridegroom, He told His disciples the story of the ten virgins, by their experience illustrating the experience of the church that shall live just before His second coming.

. . .

The coming of the bridegroom was at midnight—the darkest hour. So the coming of the Christ will take place in the darkest period of this earth's history.” [19]

It may be worth noting that the Seventh-day Adventist Commentary doesn’t say a peep about the historicist interpretation in its treatment of the parable. And I have had theology majors in my classes who have never heard of the historicist interpretation.

We could explore with profit the implications of these passages, but that is another topic for another time. My 50 years of teaching undergraduate students have also made me keenly aware of how difficult it is for people to change their perspectives, and that refers to young and old people.

Two other examples of Ellen White’s growth/change can further illuminate our discussion: 1) attitudes toward hell, and 2) attitudes toward reaching the educated.

1) Hell

I remember how startled I was by Ellen White’s early attitude toward hell as found in her autobiography in Testimonies, vol. 1. There she tells how troubled she was when her mother first told young Ellen that she no longer believed in hell: “‘Why mother!’ cried I, in astonishment, ‘this is strange talk for you! If you believe this strange theory, do not let anyone know of it; for I fear that sinners would gather security from this belief, and never desire to seek the Lord.’”[20]

I was startled because I was very familiar with her Great Controversy quotes describing her horror of hell:

The errors of popular theology have driven many a soul to skepticism who might otherwise have been a believer in the Scriptures. It is impossible for him to accept doctrines which outrage his sense of justice, mercy, and benevolence; and since these are represented as the teaching of the Bible, he refuses to receive it as the word of God.

. . .

How repugnant to every emotion of love and mercy, and even to our sense of justice, is the doctrine that the wicked dead are tormented with fire and brimstone in an eternally burning hell; that for the sins of a brief earthly life they are to suffer torture as long as God shall live.[21]

What does Casebolt do with this? Already in the front matter of his first book, he describes her early fear of hell: “From about age eight to age fifteen, she lived in a continual torment, fearing that she would inevitably burn eternally in hell”[22] In the very first paragraph of his second book, indeed in the first six lines, he mentions this fear of “hell/hellfire” three times: “Miller’s hellfire preaching exacerbated her preexisting, morbid fear of hell” and “just days prior to a predicted date for the second coming” and “she was exposed to William Foy’s ecstatic hellfire preaching.”[23]

The topic is a crucial one for Adventists, not only because of White’s 180-degree pivot from hell as God’s idea to hell as Satan’s tool but because her leading argument against hell is experiential, not biblical. For those in the Calvinist/Reformed tradition, an experiential argument is anathema. Here is a crucial question begging for further research: is White’s stance on hell also evidence for a shift from a deterministic to a free-will theology? 

But, alas, the index in Father Miller’s Daughter (Child of the Apocalypse has no index) doesn’t even mention hell. If Casebook’s horizon broadens, here is another topic, another book, waiting for him to pursue.

Initially, I was puzzled because he hadn’t mentioned the transition in White’s own thinking. That’s a question that still interests me.

2) Her attitude toward reaching the educated.

In 1872, White wrote: “Our success will be in reaching common minds. Those who have talent and position are so exalted above the simplicity of the work, and so well satisfied with themselves, that they feel no need of the truth.”[24]

But in 1889, she wrote:

Mistakes have been made in not seeking to reach ministers and the higher classes with the truth. People not of our faith have been shunned altogether too much. While we should not associate with them to receive their mold, there are honest ones everywhere for whom we should labor cautiously, wisely, and intelligently, full of love for their souls. A fund should be [580/581] raised to educate men and women to labor for these higher classes, both here and in other countries. We have had altogether too much talk about coming down to the common mind. God wants men of talent and good minds, who can weigh arguments, men who will dig for the truth as for hid treasures. These men will be able to reach, not only the common, but the better classes. Such men will ever be students of the Bible, fully alive to the sacredness of the responsibilities resting upon them.[25]

My impression from reading Casebolt is that Adventist teaching on eschatology is a major irritant for him. But here a major transition in her own thinking grew out of the post-1844 delay. Three Ellen White quotes help to throw open the windows to some fresh air:

1. Less to say about the Roman power. “There is need of a much closer study of the word of God; especially should Daniel and the Revelation have attention as never before in the history of our work. We may have less to say in some lines, in regard to the Roman power and the papacy; but we should call attention to what the prophets and apostles have written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit has so shaped matters, both in the giving of the prophecy and in the events portrayed, as to teach that the human agent is to be kept out of sight, hid in Christ, and that the Lord God of heaven and His law are to be exalted.”[26]

2. Present Truth. “That which God gives His servants to speak today would not perhaps have been present truth twenty years ago, but it is God’s message for this time.”[27]

3. Conditionalism. Ellen White’s statement on conditionalism is a tantalizing one because it was triggered by a critic’s reference to her published comments on the “Great Disappointment.”[28] The critic quotes it to prove that White’s testimonies are false.

In response, White cites some of the same passages used by “liberal” critics of the New Testament to prove that Jesus expected his return to be in the first century. Here is Ellen White’s full argument:                                                                 

I saw that the time for Jesus to be in the most holy place was nearly finished, and that time can last but a very little longer. 

As the subject was presented before me, the period of Christ’s ministration seemed almost accomplished. Am I accused of falsehood because time has continued longer than my testimony seemed to indicate? How is it with the testimonies of Christ and His disciples? Were they deceived?   

Paul writes to the Corinthians:   

“But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not” (1 Corinthians 7:29, 30).   

Again, in his epistle to the Romans, he says:  

“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light” (Romans 13:12). 

And from Patmos, Christ speaks to us by the beloved John:   

“Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Revelation 1:3). “The Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done. Behold, I come quickly; blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 22:6, 7).

The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.[29]

In conclusion, I want to propose a capstone to the growth model, one which comes close to eliminating the distinction between the sacred and the profane. At the very least, it should put to rest that well-known conversation-stopper among Adventists when referring to Ellen White, namely, “But Sister White says . . .”

My evidence comes from two quotations from her later experience. The first one comes from 1889 at a time when some of the believers had developed doubts about Ellen White’s ministry.[30] They had concluded that she had been talking to other people and was basing her messages on what they were telling her. They had concluded that if she got her message via a direct vision, they would listen. Otherwise, they claimed it was safe to ignore her counsel because she was being influenced by others.

Here is her remarkably spunky comment in response to these charges. I have highlighted key words and phrases:

For the last forty-five years [1844+45=1889] the Lord has been revealing to me the needs of His cause and the cases of individuals in every phase of experience, showing where and how they have failed to perfect Christian character. The history of hundreds of cases has been presented to me, and that which God approves, [685/86] and that which He condemns, has been plainly set before me. God has shown me that a certain course, if followed, or certain traits of character, if indulged, would produce certain results.  He has been training and disciplining me in order that I might see the dangers which threaten souls, and instruct and warn His people, line upon line, precept upon precept [Isaiah 28:10], that they might not be ignorant of Satan’s devices, and might escape his snares.

The work which the Lord has laid out before me especially is to urge young and old, learned and unlearned, to search the Scriptures for themselves; to impress upon all that the study of God’s word will expand the mind and strengthen every faculty, fitting the intellect to wrestle with problems of truth, deep and far-reaching; to assure all that the clear knowledge of the Bible outdoes all other knowledge in making man what God designed he should be. “The entrance of Thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” [Ps. 119:130]. With the light communicated through the study of His word, with the special knowledge given of individual cases among His people under all circumstances and in every phase of experience, can I now be in the same ignorance, the same mental uncertainty and spiritual blindness, as at the beginning of this experience? Will my brethren say that Sister White has been so dull a scholar that her judgment in this direction is no better than before she entered Christ's school, to be trained and disciplined for a special work? Am I no more intelligent in regard to the duties and perils of God's people than are those before whom these things have never been presented? I would not dishonor my Maker by admitting that all this light, all the display of His mighty power in my work and experience, has been valueless, that it has not educated my judgment or better fitted me for His work.

When I see men and women taking the very course, or cherishing the very traits, which have imperiled other souls and wounded the cause of God, and which the Lord has [686/87] reproved again and again, how can I but be alarmed? When I see timid souls, burdened with a sense of their imperfections, yet conscientiously striving to do what God has said is right, and know that the Lord looks down and smiles on their faithful efforts, shall I not speak a word of encouragement to these poor trembling hearts? Shall I hold my peace because each individual case has not been pointed out to me in direct vision?

In short, while “revelation” has been a real part of her ministry, the choice of how to interpret and apply the “cases” has depended on her own judgment; it was not always specifically directed by God. She, not God, chose the cases to use. “I would not dishonor my Maker by admitting that all this light, all the display of His mighty power in my work and experience, has been valueless, that it has not educated my judgment or better fitted me for His work.”

The other quote underscores the same point.[31]

I must select the most important matters for the Testimony (vol. 6) and then look over everything prepared for it, and be my own critic; for I would not be willing to have some things which are all truth to be published; because I fear that some would take advantage of them to hurt others. 

After the matter for the Testimony is prepared, every article must be read by me. I have to read them myself; for the sound of the voice in reading or singing is almost unendurable to me. 

I try to bring out general principles, and if I see a sentence which I fear would give someone excuse to injure someone else, I feel at perfect liberty to keep back the sentence, even though it is all perfectly true.

In short, Ellen White sees a remarkable blending of the human and the divine in her work. The messages/impulses came from God and were adapted to her level of knowledge when she received them. But the use of those impulses, those “messages,” was up to Ellen White. She was particularly concerned lest others use her words to hurt a struggling soul.

We are indebted to Donald Casebolt for uncovering an astonishing wealth of information on Ellen White and Adventism. I hope that he will find ways of integrating his material into a framework that can strengthen faith and enrich the church.


Notes & References:

[1]All four of these vivid words appear in the early pages of Father Miller’s Daughter: p. x = “far-fetched” (2x); p. xi = “fanciful” and “erroneous”; p. xii = “outlandish.” 

[2]Bruce Metzger, Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek (Princeton, NJ. 1962).

[3]Metzger, 8.

[4]Genesis 15:9-11, NRSV.

[5]The Midrash. Genesis, vol. 1, translated by Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman (London: Soncino, 1961), 375–376.

[6]Matthew 7:28, NRSV.

[7]Among Jewish rabbis of this era, “Rabbi” stood head and shoulders above all other rabbinic authorities.

[8]Daniel 2:31–35, NRSV.

[9]In explaining the apocalyptic “eagle vision” of chapter 12, to Ezra, the angel interpreter makes this striking statement: “The eagle which you saw coming up from the sea is the fourth kingdom which appeared in a vision to your brother Daniel. But it was not explained to him as I now explain or have explained it to you” (IV Ezra 12:11–12, RSV). Virtually all commentators agree that the author of IV Ezra is noting the shift from the “old” view of the fourth kingdom, Greece, to the “new” view, Rome.

[10]Steve Daily, Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography (Page Publishing, 2020), 360.

[11]Daily, Ellen G. White, 11.

[12]Casebolt, Child of the Apocalypse, 83.

[13]Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church 3:20–21 (1872).

[14] Norman W. Porteous, “Foreword” to Adam Welch’s Jeremiah: His Time and Work (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1955), vi.

[15]Ian Rennie, “Nineteenth-Century Roots,” in Carl Amerding and Ward Gasque, eds., A Guide to Biblical Prophecy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1977, 1989), 46 (emphasis supplied).

[16]Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 321. Cited by Rolf Poehler, Continuity and Change in Adventist Teaching (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2000), 23.

[17]Casebolt, Daughter of the Apocalypse, 116.

[18]White, The Great Controversy (1888/1911), 426.

[19]White, Christ’s Object Lessons (1900). 408, 414.

[20]White, Testimonies for the Church, 1:39.

[21]White, The Great Controversy (1911), 525, 535.

[22]Casebolt, Child of the Apocalypse, xv.

[23]Casebolt, Father Miller’s Daughter, ix.

[24]White, Testimonies 3:39 (1872).

[25]White, Testimonies 5:80-81 (1989).

[26]White, Review and Herald, Feb. 18, 1890 (Testimonies to Ministers, 112).

[27]White, Ms 8a, 1888 (EGW1888, 133).

[28]The quote was originally published in A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White (Saratoga Springs, New York, 1851). It can be found on page 49 (page 58, present edition) of Early Writings. See article in the Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon, eds., (RH 2013) “A Sketch. . . .”

[29]White, Ms 4, 1883, Selected Messages, Book 1:67.

[30]White, Testimonies for the Church 5:686-687 (1989).

[31]White, Letter 32, 1901 (Selected Messages, 3:98).


Alden Thompson is professor emeritus of biblical studies at Walla Walla University. He received MA and MDiv degrees from Andrews University and a PhD in Old Testament studies from the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?Escape from the Flames, and Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers, along with numerous articles.

Title image credit: Wipf & Stock

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