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Parallel Universes: Ellen and Robbie

Ellen White & the King’s Own Scottish Borderers

Significant moments in Adventist history happened at the same time as important events in the wider world. Adventism never exists in a vacuum. The church exists in context. It forgets that at its peril.

Ellen White died on Friday, July 16, 1915. So did Robbie Henderson.

But that was the only thing they had in common.

White was 87. Henderson was 19.

White died in the comfort of her own bed at Elmshaven in St. Helena, California. Henderson died a world away in the mud of no-man’s-land on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Gallipoli? He couldn’t even spell it. He could barely read or write.

White died surrounded by her family. Private Henderson was laid among the bodies of his fallen colleagues in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, 155th Brigade in the 52nd (Lowland) Division.

White had been confined to a wheelchair for five months and, her heart slowing, slipped away. Henderson was very much alive one minute, adrenaline pumping; the next minute he was blown apart.

White trusted that she was in the anteroom to eternity. Henderson feared that he was on the threshold of oblivion.

White had three funerals and was finally laid to rest with all due ceremony beside her husband and sons in a cemetery in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Henderson, or at least those parts of him which were recovered, was consigned with little dignity to a hastily dug trench on a foreign shore, surrounded by the bodies of strangers.

White died knowing that she had fought a good fight. Henderson had only arrived in June, had barely started fighting, and had little idea whether his fight was worth the sacrifice.

White believed she was caught up in a vast cosmic conflict—The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan, the title of her most famous book. But that book contained no prophetic words about the terrible conflict in which Henderson was fighting.

Henderson also believed that he was involved in a struggle between good and evil, but it was a fight of good Brits against evil Germans and their cronies.

White died with the satisfaction of knowing that she had given her all to the cause in which she so passionately believed. She wanted to tell others about a loving Christ who would return to earth to redeem the faithful and put an end to all conflict. Her last words were reported to be “I know in whom I have believed.”

Henderson had no such satisfaction. He barely knew what he was fighting for. He just knew that every other young male was signing up for the war, he did not want to be thought a coward, and he wanted to give the enemy a quick beating. He did not know why the war had started, why it continued, where it might lead. His final words were probably: “I want my mum.” But there was no one left to hear them.

Their separate paths to their final destiny—to die on July 16, 1915—could not have been more different. But perhaps they both could have affirmed the words of poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action an agonizing week before the armistice on November 11, 1918. In one of his most famous and ironic poems, designed to show the obscenity and futility of war, he quoted the Roman poet Horace:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

It is sweet and fitting that one should die for the homeland.

White’s life, and ultimately her death, was dedicated to helping others find their way home—their heavenly home—which she eagerly anticipated.

Henderson thought only that he was defending his home, his street, his town, his family. A home to which, during long nights in the trench, he longed to return.

“Sweet and fitting”? Maybe.

Home sweet home? Their ideas of home were as different as the circumstances of their deaths.

On July 16, 1915. Just another Friday.

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Michael Pearson is a retired ethicist living in the UK. He and his wife, Helen, run the website Pearsons’ Perspectives.

Title image by Spectrum. Photos by A. D. Fowler (public domain) and Dennis M. Smith / Imperial War Museum (public domain).

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