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Critiquing the Spirit of Prophecy

I like Ellen White.  She is one of my role models.  My childhood bedroom was the same one in which she had slept when visiting Graysville, Tennessee in the early 1900’s.  I believe I grew up breathing in her residual spirit.  But the Ellen I know and love is not the Ellen of most of my contemporaries. 

I was introduced to Ellen, as were most of you, via a narrative that told of a sickly young girl with only a third grade education who was the recipient of supernatural visions.  As the story goes, she was  influential  in the founding of the Adventist church and over her lifetime produced numerous books and articles on a wide variety of subjects.  Interpretation:  no way could such a simple woman have written such beautiful  passages – no way could an uneducated  woman have understood such deep theological concepts – she had to have been “inspired”.   Her message and her words had to have come directly from God.        

Often when I’m preparing my Sabbath School lesson in the wee hours of the morning (frequently Sabbath morning) I am at a loss as to what to bring to my class.  As I study the biblical passages, I pray that God will help me prepare (often with promises that I will not to wait until the last minute again) and I am impressed with a concept, an idea, an understanding that connects the thoughts in a way that I had not heretofore considered and my lesson plan seems to miraculously fall into shape.  While I privately thank the Lord for these insights –I would not dare say to my class later, “the Lord showed this to me.”  Better they think that I’m just intelligent and knowledgeable than risk presuming to have the gift of prophecy.  

But for my friend Ellen, this was not an option. In fact it was a social necessity that she acknowledge her total dependence on God for her insights.    In her day women were believed to be not as intelligent as men and incapable of strenuous intellectual pursuits.   She was born into a patriarchal culture in which women’s influence and talents were confined to the feminine domestic sphere. 

It is difficult for us today to envision a time when the common belief was that women’s intellectual capacity was limited and that as females they were unable to grasp abstract ideas and concepts.  Their smaller brain size was seen as scientific evidence of their reduced mental capacity.  As the physically weaker sex   their limited energies were to be conserved for the vital and debilitating business of childbearing, not in pursuing a higher education.  It was man’s God-given responsibility to protect, oversee and guide a woman’s decisions and actions. 

Upon marriage the identity of a woman merged with that of her husband.  Under law a married woman was not legally a person.    She could not own property, enter into agreements, vote, sit on a jury or initiate law suits.  She could not sign contracts or legal papers without the signature of her husband.    Her husband received all her assets and personal property and the rights to their use as he saw fit.  He was entitled by law to conjugal rights at his discretion with or without her consent. 

Women in 19thcentury America were physically, socially, mentally, physiologically and legally dependant on the care and protection of men.  This situation was believed to be according to “natural law”.  This position was taught from the pulpit, the scholar’s lectern and propagated in the public press.  It was enforced by the laws of the land and supported by the medical and scientific community.  

Whatever Ellen wrote, whatever she said, when and how she said it, must be seen against the backdrop of the cultural thinking of the day.  Even how Ellen saw herself and how she envisioned her mission must  be filtered through the mindset of women in her day.  As her social indoctrination was quite thorough, it would be natural for her to consider even her own intellectual insights as originating outside of herself.  Therefore her best defense when speaking would be to say, “The Lord showed this to me.”  

The Bible and the Bible alone was the mantra of the early pioneers.  In order to accept Ellen White as a prophet, the early Advent believers developed the doctrine of the perpetuity of spiritual gifts.  Using Scripture, they established that the gift of prophecy did not cease with the first century church.   They maintained that the Holy Spirit continued to be active and had guided God’s church down through the ages. *

Even though her “gift” of prophecy was validated doctrinally by the company of believers there was still no way in hell that the men of her day were going to consent to take direction and counsel from a woman.   To do that would go against the natural order and would be contrary to their lifetime of social conditioning.   Therefore Ellen White’s leadership role had to be indirect.  Her direction and counsel would be accepted only if she could be perceived as merely “God’s messenger”.  She was just God’s “delivery system”; she was but “the conduit” through which God spoke. 

Nonetheless, Ellen was a serious student of the Bible.  She had a large personal library and read widely.  She sought help in her writing from commentaries, other bible writers and scholars.  She was a world traveler and had a wide breadth of general knowledge.   She was endowed with keen insight into human nature.  She had the ability to hold large congregations in rapt attention and could lecture at length on various subjects with knowledge and skill.    

By any external standard, Ellen was a well educated, self-made woman.  Today we would have recognized her literary accomplishments with an honorary doctorate degree.  But by attributing her spiritual insights to an external source the church was able to marginalize Ellen’s own innate abilities as a preacher, a writer and as a Scriptural scholar. 

But now a secondary problem arises.  Once a prophet has spoken their message becomes fixed – at least according to the 19thcentury belief and understanding of a prophet’s role.  The prophet’s words were the words of God.   One cannot dispute, change, alter, or mess with God’s word.      

Whether it was her own enculturation as a 19thcentury woman or the preconceptions and expectations of her readers, or both, once the script had been written, once people believed her to have a direct line to heaven, her use of the phrase, “the Lord showed me…” could no longer been seen as a literary device but was indicative of the voice of God and was not to be questioned. 

I believe God gave the “gift” of prophecy to the Adventist church so that we could see up close and personal just how inspiration works.**   That way we, as a people, could clearly understand our doctrine of “thought inspiration” and could apply it to the study of Scriptures.   I believe our church was blessed in a special way with a firsthand visual aid of the prophetic gift.  As much value as there is in what Ellen had to say – the demonstration of how she said it and the way in which she formed and produced her writings is inestimable.   She gave us a window on the way in which the prophets of old functioned.   However by focusing on the limited predictive nature of prophecy we missed our calling.

Had we not been so fearful of examining the methods in which Ellen White exercised her gift, we would have been in a better position to welcome the vast amount of current scholarship that has exploded in the past fifty years in the area of Biblical studies.   With our church’s gift of a real live prophet we should have been at the forefront of biblical interpretation and been able to place this increased knowledge of the Bible in perspective for the current generation.  But Ellen was relegated to the same status as the biblical prophets and became locked in the same erroneous paradigm of infallibility.  

All prophets wrote in their times and cultures.  Ellen White was no exception.  She was not out of step with the mores and standards of her day.  Her counsels were wise and timely for the people living a hundred and fifty years ago.  Sadly Adventist young people today must risk being seen as rebellious when they enjoy activities that are time conditioned.  Ellen’s counsel on social conventions must now be either rigidly adhered to or rejected outright.   

As time passed Ellen’s prophetic voice was co-opted by church leaders and others who sought to use her gift for their own benefit – to consolidate power, to increase financial coffers and to validate their own ministries.   Thus, unlike other churches of the time which moved into the 20thcentury and adapted their beliefs and practices to the cultural norms of society, the SDA church remains forever locked in the 19thcentury.   While other conservative churches were able to change with the times, the SDA church faces the danger of becoming a relic of the past.  The very gift that was to free God’s church to grow and become a light to the world became the mechanism which anchored the church to the past.  We made an icon of Ellen and an idol of her messages. 

©Donna J. Haerich   

*This doctrine really wreaks havoc with the whole notion that the doctrine of the Trinity was merely a man-made affair.   

**I believe Ellen White processed the gift of prophecy in the same manner in which the prophets of old wrote and spoke and therefore must be evaluated and interpreted using the same hermeneuticalmethods as used to understand Biblical writers.

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