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Ellen White in a New Key – LLU (One of Two)

By 2:30, the Damazo Auditorium at Loma Linda University’s new Centennial Complex was nearly full. The packed house swarmed with church-goers from around Southern California who came to hear a distinguished panel of scholars present a discussion of the latest scholarship on Ellen G. White.

Signs for the meeting posted around Loma Linda University declared in bold letters: “Ellen White in a New Key.”

The panelists–Roy Branson, T. Joe Willey, Jonathan Butler, Jon Paulien, Ginger Harwood, Marilynn Loveless, Julius Nam, Ronald Numbers and Ronald Graybill–all participated in the October 22-25 scholarly Ellen White working conference in Portland, Maine.

Jim Walters, the host and moderator of the panel discussion opened by quipping that “this is not only the Inland Empire, but the Adventist Thought Empire,” referring to the wealth of talent and scholarship in the area of Southern California surrounding Loma Linda.

Julius Nam provided an introduction and overview of the Ellen White book project. Up to this point, there has not been a significant scholarly contribution on Ellen White as a 19th Century and early 20th Century religious leader. Nam noted that other female religious leaders of the time period have received much more scholarly attention.

During the 2007 gathering of the Adventist Historical Society at Oakwood College, Terrie Aamodt (Walla Walla College) and Julius Nam (Loma Linda University) discussed the need for more scholarship on Ellen White. The conversation led to the formation of a steering committee for the Ellen White book project, which included Aamodt, Gary Land (Andrews University), Nam, and Ronald Numbers (University of Wisconsin).

Nam acknowledged that Ron Numbers drew into the conversation many historical scholars from outside the Adventist denomination.

Each of the ten scholarly panelists shared four-minute synopses of their experiences at the Portland conference. By the time they began their brief remarks, the auditorium was standing room only, and staff hauled in more chairs to accommodate overflow crowds.

Harwood, Walters, Loveless, and Numbers

Roy Branson spoke first, commenting on the participants at the Portland meeting and what might come out of the meeting.

Branson described three groups. First scholars from the 1970’s who knew Ron Numbers and one another, some of whom left the church as a result of their controversial scholarship on Ellen White. The second group studied under George Knight and worked in Adventist settings, and a third group were the “non-Adventist” historical scholars.

At the conference, Branson pointed out, people talked about scholarship before Ron Numbers and after Ron Numbers. Branson, who Numbers revealed was a first cousin, mentioned several accolades Numbers has received for his outstanding scholarship.

In addition to the volume to be printed by the Ellen White Project, Branson predicts that many non-Adventist scholars will pick up the Ellen White story, particularly scholars who specialize in female religious leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

T. Joe Willey spoke up next, describing experiments involving actors hired to talk about three lines. The actors, Willey said, were to give wrong information to a naive study group. The study group gave 60% wrong answers about the three lines because of peer pressure. The experiment was repeated again, but a person with very thick glasses was introduced telling the study group, “I can’t see anything,” but contradicted the actors. Ron Numbers, Willey said, provided that sort of a voice during the Ellen White conference, preventing the Adventists from simply repeating wrong information. When Willey made the comparison, Ron Numbers jokingly pulled off his glasses and examined them to see if they were like the “Coke bottles” that Willey spoke of.

Willey, Butler, and Paulien

Jon Butler described his experience at the conference as feeling like a reunion with classmates from the 70’s when historical revisionism had been going on. Butler called that era an exciting time with lots of passion. He added that heretics, apostates and apologists were produced, but it showed that people cared. Today, that sense of passion seems gone, Butler noted. People don’t care enough to become heretics today. Perhaps it involves ignorance and historical ingratitude, Butler suggested. If Butler were teaching this generation, he would teach a new Ellen White who is interesting, colorful, meaningful and influential.

Jon Paulien referred to his 20-page blog series on the Ellen White Conference at He made the following observations about the conference: First, it was like a Who’s Who list of non-Adventist scholars in American Religious History. Paulien said that everyone, Adventists or not, learned a great deal from one another. Paulien also said that the excitement he discerned in the voices of non-Adventist scholars was “both a shock and an encouragement”. For Adventists present, many were embarrassed about Ellen White because of what is on the web (plagiariasm, etc.). Non-SDA scholars swept that away, he said, and focused instead on Ellen’s incredible story and accomplishments despite whatever flaws she had.

Second, Adventists found that context changes everything. The context of Ellen White’s writings really came out in conversation with other scholars, according to Paulien. He also said that Adventists learned “you don’t have to agree on question of inspiration to listen, learn and talk together.”

Ginger Harwood Began by calling the conference “a lot of fun and energizing,” particularly, she said, being in Portland in the Fall on Ellen’s turf. She called setting the conference in Portland “a stroke of genius”.

If Adventists are going to talk about the real Ellen White, Harwood noted, it makes sense to look at the context from which she came. To make progress, we must let her be the human being that she was.

Harwood said she does not understand people’s inability coming to grips with Ellen’s humanity and things that bring her humanness to light. The church’s biggest blind spot on the topic of Ellen White, Harwood offered, is that most Ellen White history has been written either by apologists or iconoclasts. In the end, neither provides adequate history, Harwood said.

Ellen White has become a stand-in for the real issue of the struggle between modernism and fundamentalism. The final exciting thing at the Portland conference for Harwood was being surrounded by so many scholars doing women’s studies. Harwood argued that too much of the Ellen White saga has been men struggling with other men over the use of her legacy to maintain power in the church.

“I was the one present at the restroom conversations that were so vital,” Harwood quipped.

Marilynn Loveless spoke about a transformation she has seen in attitudes on Ellen White from “she who must be obeyed” to “plagiarist” to “icon” and then a more balanced attitudes including Ellen’s appeal to an audience outside Adventism. A highlight for Loveless was the lecture by Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Joan Hedrick. Hedrick, who had planned on leaving the Portland conference after her conference-opening lecture, but ended up staying throughout, applauded the effort to bring Ellen White back into visibility, Loveless pointed out.

Loveless described the value of an “insider’s” (meaning a woman’s) assessment of Ellen White. To illustrate, Loveless used the example of John Grayson, an African-American scholar at the conference discussing Ellen White’s statements on slaves, saying that they would not go to heaven, but that God in mercy make them as if they had not been.

Loveless discussed a disparity at the conference between the sexes (more men participants and far more male chapter authors). She talked about going to dinner with the “lads”, one of whom said Ellen was like a typical woman with a credit card, running around founding institutions.

Ronald Numbers said that if anyone had ever suggested to him that he would be at Loma Linda University today, he would have suggested a trip to psychology department. He was excited about the opportunity to be involved in the process of creating the work on Ellen White.

“It’s not hyperbolic to say that this was the most important conference on Ellen White since 1919,” Numbers said, referring to the Bible Conference that year, which for the first time since Ellen’s death entertained questions on the inspiration of Ellen White.

Numbers said that organizers agreed on two cardinal principles at the Portland conference: selections were not made on basis of color, creed or gender, but no bashing and no apologetics would be entertained. The organizers wanted the payoff to be a reputable, scholarly biography. Going either way (Ellen-bashing or apologetics) would prevent that from happening, Numbers said.

The upcoming book, of which Numbers will be a co-editor, will be entitled, “Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet,” he announced. He went on to note that most of the chapters are already very good and need minimal editing. “We have the making of a book that all of you can be proud of,” Numbers concluded.

As an afterthought, Numbers cited Tom Zwemer’s Spectrum comment disparaging Numbers, saying that Numbers beat around the bush and failed to ever give clear answers to questions. Numbers noted that it was actually Ronald Graybill who Zwemer was thinking of (Numbers had not attended the event in question, Graybill had). Graybill sat next to Numbers during the panel discussion. Numbers then ended by quipping that two Rons don’t make a White.

Ron Graybill followed and talked about the ecstatic visions, the prostration and other practices present in Ellen’s early experiences coming out of Methodism, but practices that died out over time. Tests of Ellen White’s miraculous experiences accompanying miracles increased. Story of Ellen holding big family Bible not reported until 50 years after the fact by J. N. Loughborough (notoriously unreliable). Big Bible story is cultural symbol. Her mission to elevate scripture, not to create new ones from golden plates. Harry Anderson’s paintings depict a romanticized and calm visionary experience, not the ecstatic visionary experiences that James White wrote about early on. Graybill noted that the big question is not, was she right, but how did she do what she did, including LLU?

Before Jim Walters opened a Q&A session, Joe Willey added a quick off the cuff anecdote: “Ginger, you followed the women into the women’s restroom, I followed the non-believers into the bar. One wanted to know ‘What do you mean by Invstigative Judgment?’ That took two hours.”

Article Extras: Photos on Spectrum’s Flickr Account

Part Two of this report here

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