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Purpose Questions Remain After Ellen White Conference at Newbold

Ellen White Conference at Newbold

On April 19, the Ellen G. White Research Centre at Newbold College of Higher Education hosted a symposium titled “Still a Prophetic Voice in Europe: Understanding Ellen G. White and her Prophetic Gift Today.”

Before the conference started, I wondered if a subtext for the event could be “What is the relevance of the Seventh-day Adventist message in Europe” in the context of two nearby wars and human migration. I hoped the symposium would shine a light on pressing current topics like extremism, polarization, epidemics of loneliness, information overload, and the growing use of artificial intelligence. I hoped there would be some guidance to big themes of White’s writings that would be particularly meaningful now.

When I arrived on campus Friday afternoon, I felt a warm welcome by the team. I was hosted (at no charge, donations appreciated) in simple accommodations at Keough House with a lovely view of campus green space. As afternoon’s shadows lengthened, I meandered around the gardens of iconic Moor Close Mansion on Newbold’s campus, discovering the space was now available for hire as an event venue, and that the Moor Close Kitchen appeared on Google as a 5-star vegetarian option with 17 reviews. Over the weekend, the food was great—bountiful, colorful, and varied. My older sister attended Newbold, and I knew that as a multi-cultural space, planted on the edge of secular Europe, it could be a great location to discover relevance for Ellen White (who had lived in Europe for two years). 

In an introductory letter to attendees, Rory Mendez, director of the center, described the event’s goal as “to support all age groups in their efforts to develop or maintain a balanced and appropriate understanding of Ellen G. White’s writings and the gift of prophecy in our past, present, and future, and to appreciate the place of the prophetic gift in God’s rescue plan.” In addition, the letter stated that “The Ellen G. White Estate, Trans-European Division and EGW Research Centre at Newbold College of Higher Education have worked collaboratively to organise this unique blend of children, youth, and general adult event.”

A quick scan of the Newbold program showed a different format and content than the working conference on Ellen White in October 2023 at the Walter Utt Center at Pacific Union College, which featured five retired college presidents, the former dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, three Ellen White biographers, and several students of her writing process. That event culminated with the group issuing a statement declaring that the church currently faces a “crisis” that calls for new approaches to Ellen White’s influential writings. 

At Newbold, groups of three presenters would be followed by a moderated question/answer segment. (A list of presenters is at the end of this article.)

I noted that Merlin Burt, Alberto Timm, and Dragoslava Santrač—all General Conference representatives—would each have two time slots scattered throughout the weekend (with Burt preaching the sermon as well). In addition, I noticed that each cluster of presentations would feature one of these three, thus every discussion opportunity would have what turned out to be a unified voice from the General Conference. 

Friday Night: Anticipation, Basic Concepts

In opening remarks at the college church to approximately 300 guests, Daniel Duda, Trans-European Division president, framed this event as one that would look at historical context, theological significance, and relevance in today’s world. He referred to an anecdote that occurred in 1998 at Newbold when he was introduced to the idea of external examination, noting a Catholic professor at the University of South Hampton had read a student’s paper on Ellen White and commented, “Are you looking a little too much into the past?”

Marking the 50 years of existence for the research center at Newbold, Audrey Andersson, a vice president of the General Conference and chair of the Ellen G. White Estate board, noted that the center at Newbold, as the first one outside North America, had been cutting edge and a template.

In what would be a refreshing and inspiring punctuation point throughout the symposium, Friday evening also offered the first opportunity to sing under the guidance of vocalist Hannah Saucedo and pianist Tihomir Lazić. They introduced the tune of an 11-verse 19th-century hymn, “Calvary,” chosen by the White Estate director to be a thematic element and which would be sung two times in its entirety on Sabbath.    

Merlin Burt, the first presenter, gave historical evidence of Ellen White’s conversion, showing her developing understanding of God’s grace and the nature of hell. Ivan Milanov described prophecy in the Old Testament, and Dragoslava Santrač described prophecy in the New Testament. 

For this first question-and-answer period (submissions via WhatsApp), the panelists considered the possibility of a 21st-century prophet appearing and whether speaking truth to power is prophetic. Santrač replied that current claims of the prophetic gift should be met with skepticism and compared with a biblical foundation. Milanov answered that the era of speaking against injustice is not over and asserted this effort may be more important than ever. He said one must speak fearlessly for the freedom of those with whom one disagrees. Then, Burt added the caveat that when speaking for the powerless, one must specifically be directed by God. 

Burt was asked to explain White’s understanding of slavery and the salvation of enslaved people based on her quote that for slaves in the final judgment, it would be as though they had never lived. Burt responded that this statement was basically a one-off. Other evidence shows that White was against the Fugitive Slave Law and she emphasized the mercy of God. Burt hoped Kevin Burton would be able to speak later in the weekend on race (Burton was given a final minute on Sabbath afternoon during a panel discussion to address this).

 I began to distill five main talking points of the team from Silver Springs:

  • Ellen White does not provide the basis for our doctrines; she affirms what others found.
  • From her beginnings as a Millerite, she emphasized Jesus, and the gospel. 
  • A prophet must point to the Bible and have received specific revelation from God. 
  • The purpose of prophecy in this time is to encourage and protect from heresy. 
  • The first and last paragraphs of the Conflict of the Ages series point to God’s love. God’s love is a frame for the message White delivered.

Sabbath Morning: Do We Have Issues?

At the gym, with book-filled tables lining the periphery for post-sundown purchase, the morning began with Dragoslava Santač’s “New Testament and the Gift of Prophecy,” with references to prophecy in the book of Revelation. She stated that divine revelation is at the core of prophecy and told the group that what is commonly called prophetic preaching is not prophetic.

The briefest presentation (20 minutes) was the one I thought had the greatest potential to be helpful. Jan Barna’s How Not to Read Ellen White Today introduced the concept of hermeneutics. Understanding requires more than interrogation of the text, he said. Barna asked the key question of the symposium: “What must one do to have White speak to a 21st century world?”  Consider presuppositions, or horizons. A person comes from a place of misunderstanding related to differing realities and cultural experiences, he contended. Explaining the problem of interpreting a dead author, Barna noted the obvious: the dead can’t say “that’s not what I meant.” Then, he referred to an incident when Ellen White had disagreed with something she had previously written related to a contested topic in October 1888. 

White’s words should not be normative Bible commentary, Barna said, and this strategy is “practically unworkable and simply dangerous.” He said that understanding any written text will involve the reader’s input. Barna asserted the “White as Bible commentary” approach that originated with A. T. Jones does injustice to White and to responsible hermeneutics and leads readers to hear echoes of their own thoughts.

From the third talk of the cluster, “Issues in Ellen White,” I quickly understood that Radiša Antić vigorously advocates sola scriptura, an assertion that led to a spirited back and forth during the question period when he suggested pastors should only preach from the Bible and Santač fervently advocated for more use of White’s writings by pastors in an Adventist context.

During the break, the significantly larger audience seemed to come to life. I saw some buses and a van marked Emmanuil Ukrainian Church. Energetic, well-behaved children seeped into the landscape. One unique feature of this symposium was that it offered a children’s program. I noticed the entryway to the gym had a vending machine; I didn’t see anyone check to see if it was operational during Sabbath hours.  

After preliminaries that included singing all stanzas of “Calvary,” Merlin Burt preached with two stated goals: 1) show how the gospel connects to the Three Angels’ Messages and 2) tell the story of how the church came to understand and accept that message. Forty minutes later, goal 2 had been met, but I was unsure about goal 1. I heard a lot of familiar terms and phrases but no new insights or connections to carry a beautiful message to 21st-century Europe (or the world).

One takeaway for me was Burt’s specific counsel about the fear some Adventists hold that their names could be up for examination at any time. “Is my name sealed or not?” According to White, Burt says, the judgment of the living will not begin until there is a Sunday law and the Loud Cry. He urged the audience to read her correctly.

Sabbath Lunch and Afternoon: Lunch Conversation and Some Gender Talk

Filled after a sermon with a plethora of 19th-century Adventist jargon, I chose to walk a mile into Binfield for a sandwich and coffee. By chance, I shared a lunch table with a chatty gentleman who asked why I was there. In response to my reply he said, “Newbold, Newbold, well one of my best friends from the army went there. Great chap. I think he went to pub some, though.” I also learned that his adopted daughter had attended Newbold for some college classes that gave her an opportunity to improve her English.

Meetings resumed at 14:45 with John Skrzypaszek presenting (via video) “Ellen G. White and the Gift of Prophecy,” which was a case study showing some of her struggles as she sought to connect authenticity with experience. 

Next, using a PowerPoint presentation, Alberto Timm discussed “Revelation, Inspiration, and Illumination,” asserting that inspiration is neither “verbal” nor “thought”; he likes to say it is symphonic. He cited two contradictory quotes from White (one supported verbal inspiration and one thought inspiration), then said he used a holistic approach that is balanced. Avoid inerrancy, he said. Timm’s third point was that the study of inspiration must be respectful, and it was during this segment that a slide flashed by (without comment) of Alden Thompson’s 1991 book Inspiration and Frank Holbrook and Leo Van Dolson’s 1993 book Issues in Revelation and Inspiration. Did Timm mean to convey that Thompson’s approach, which has blessed me and those in my circle, was disrespectful or respectful? 

Third in the group, Kevin Burton invited the audience to consider gender analysis and the ministry of Ellen White.  Apologists have creatively disguised her femininity to preserve the male hierarchy. The “God’s Last Choice Myth” supports a gender narrative that diminishes her body by an overemphasis on frailty. Women have been presented as passive vessels through whom God and men achieved great works, and White was effectively neutered. The phrases Pen of Inspiration, Spirit of Prophecy, Messenger of the Lord all remove her gender.

Critics have used her womanhood to identify Adventists as a cult. 

Burton asserted that Dudley Canright’s view on gender underpinned his critique on White and Adventism, since Canright embraced the “Great Man Theory.” For him, Adventism was a delusion founded by uneducated men and a deranged woman. Canright did not think White was inspired by God or Satan, rather her visions were a natural product of her body; he diagnosed her retrospectively with hysteria, a disease relative to the experiences of females or effeminate men.   

The realm of disease is unstable and related to a cultural political lens that influences diagnoses. Though already removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), critic Walter Rea used hysteria as a basis for his critique of White. Also, Burton described retrospective psychobiography as dubious and unhelpful, mentioning Steve Daily’s recent book on White. Burton discussed the possibility that White’s womanhood made her particularly susceptible to the accusation of plagiarism, and this was a suspicion that launched him on this research.

Burton states that White’s apologists have not considered the role of gender in addressing the criticisms from her detractors. 

Burton and Timm were the only panelists who participated in what would be the last question-and-answer group. A QR code option was added (for anonymity?), and the first question asked about the book of Joel’s reference to “many” prophets in the last days and why Adventists identify only one. After Alberto Timm’s meandering response, Burton shared an interesting anecdote. He described three editions of a 19th-century Adventist tract called Miraculous Powers, which looked at contemporary manifestations of spiritual gifts. The first edition had about half a dozen names listed as prophets, and the second had even more. The third edition of the tract had just a few names. 

A question for Burton: what would happen if we were to re-gender Ellen White? Burton doesn’t know of anyone who has done this work. He suggested that first we might just keep remembering that she was a woman. “Does fear of White being seen in her womanhood come from the potential for her to be labeled a feminist (and the accompanying political ramifications)?” he asked.

As promised, Burton then was given a chance to speak about early Adventism and race; his main point was that the Adventists in the 1850s would have made anti-slavery part of their core beliefs, identifying America as a beastly power because of its denial of religious liberties to minorities and of civil liberties to racial minorities.

After a break, the final segment began with Merlin Burt’s “The Ministry of the Lord’s Messenger.” The talk began with Burt saying that when he used the term the “Lord’s Messenger,” it was not derogatory in any way but was White’s own self-description. Then he gave background for his talk, saying this presentation had come from some previous work responding to extensive surveys of close to 150,000 church members that showed some drift in the acceptance of church fundamental beliefs. 

To help members understand the Bible and the Gift of Prophecy, Burt wanted to look at White’s ministry, reminding that the church would have nothing without God stepping in to help. Where would this church be without her emphasis on a worldwide approach, education, and health?

Rory Mendez was called to the stage to hold a facsimile of the Harmon family Bible, which he good-naturedly did for over 4 minutes. Burt said Joseph Bates had claimed that “White was having religious reveries.” Burt didn’t think that was gender specific, but he didn’t know.

 “We men we can’t help it,” he said. “We need women just to keep us from going totally crazy. . . . I have a wife that helps me with that. He made them male and female, praise God. Even if Satan would like to help us think that it isn’t the case anymore. [Chuckle] I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be inflammatory. But it’s true. It’s biblical. I’m sorry.”

Lastly, Alberto Timm delivered “Ellen G. White’s Writings and the Bible,” saying he sees a balanced relationship between Ellen White and the Bible. White didn’t want to be equal with the Bible but in harmony with it, he said. Her role was formative, spiritual, and theological. As Timm affirmed a quote from White stating that Christ was the complete system of truth, I thought of The One Project and wondered why the leadership at the General Conference had placed road bumps in that effort?

Once again out in fresh air and amongst long shadows, I felt encouragement when I saw a spirited game of football underway in the field. Later, after dark (but before 10 p.m. curfew), I glanced out my window and saw a crowd in the Keough House rec room singing and swaying in traditional dance. I remembered the Spirit is alive—and on the move—and that God will reach people with the message of his love and character no matter what.

Sunday: Relevance and Hope?

The day began with Robert Wright’s talk on “Intergenerational Relevance of Ellen White’s Writings Today.” After firm declarations of her relevancy, Wright gave some specific recent examples. He quoted White: “Catholic principles are going to be taken under the protection and care of the state and this apostasy is going to lead ultimately to national ruin.” He offered a clip from Mick Mulvaney, former White House chief of staff under the Trump administration, at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in 2019 where Mulvaney said, “Even though I work for a gentleman who is not a Roman Catholic . . . I’m comfortable as a Catholic that the principles of our faith are alive and well and well respected in this administration and are driving many policies.”

Wright offered another example, referring to White’s warnings against deception. This was a film clip of the Baltimore bridge collapse from March 2024. Wright asked, “Did you notice anything strange about that video? What did you see? . . . You don’t hear that being talked about on the news, do you? Did a ship bring down the bridge? Or was it an explosion at the base of a column that brought down the bridge? We see one thing but hear something else. Deception comes in the form of mind manipulation. You see one thing, but you believe what you hear. We are told a lot of this will take place in last days.” 

Arne Bredesen, featuring children in his presentation, invited contemplation of what White may have to say to children. Perhaps she was worthy of a Nobel Prize, he said, as James Heckman received in 2000 for identifying the benefit of early childhood interventions. The audience also heard from 13-year-old Dominica Barna who eloquently described the multi-month experience of creating some art for the symposium.

As the event began to wind down, center director Rory Mendez shared his dream that all in attendance would find a place in God’s story and understand our purpose with a willingness to do the hard work. “Study and dig,” he said.

Audrey Andersson’s closing remarks included stories of two people who had been impacted by the distribution of copies of The Great Controversy. One anecdote, which she asked a colleague to tell, referenced a recycling worker retrieving the book, reading it, and planning to be baptized this June. 

Daniel Duda’s last statements for the weekend included these thoughts:

“One of the greatest dangers of contemporary Adventism is to see ourselves as preservers of the past rather than innovators for present and the future.”

  “Is the Bible still inspired and relevant?” he said. “Is Ellen G. White still a prophetic voice in Europe? Of course [she] is.”

“Do we believe God still has new things, new perspectives to bring from His word? . . . Keep her spirit alive.”

As a closing, all sang “We Have this Hope,” before Merlin Burt offered a benediction.

Presenters:

Merlin Burt, director, Ellen G. White Estate, and field secretary, General Conference 

Alberto Timm, associate director, Biblical Research Institute, General Conference 

Audrey Andersson, general vice president, General Conference, and chair, Ellen G. White Estate Board

Jan Barna, principal lecturer, Newbold College of Higher Education 

Dragoslava Santrač, managing editor, Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists 

Radisa Antic, former director, Ellen G. White Research Centre, Newbold, and principal lecturer emeritus, Newbold College of Higher Education 

Ivan Minalov, senior lecturer and acting head of Centre of Ministry and Mission, Newbold College of Higher Education 

Arne Bredesen, senior pastor, Norwegian Union 

Robert Wright, director, Ellen G. White Research Centre, Northern Caribbean University, Jamaica 

Kevin Burton, director, Center of Adventist Research, Andrews University, United States.

John Skrzypaszek, retired director, Ellen G. White Research Centre, Avondale University, Australia, and adjunct senior lecturer, Avondale University

***

Some examples of weekend music:

Sweet By and By” 
Wayfaring Stranger
Calvary” (all 11 verses)

About the author

Carmen Lau has chaired the Adventist Forum board since 2018. She earned an MA in Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has a BS in Nursing from Southern Adventist University and an MS in Nursing from Loma Linda University. She is a member of the Birmingham First Seventh-day Adventist Church. More from Carmen Lau.
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