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

A group of ten scholars who participated in the Portland Maine working conference on Ellen Harmon White gathered at the Loma Linda University Centennial Complex Saturday to discuss current Ellen White scholarship.

Read part one of this report.

Following four-minute presentations from the ten panelists, moderator Jim Walters posed several questions for the presenters before opening the floor for audience questions.

Panel Questions

Walters’ first question addressed Ginger Harwood and Marilynn Loveless: If women had written the books on Ellen White (all biographies of note have been authored by men), how would the church’s image of Ellen White be different from what we have now? Walters asked.

Harwood answered that the goal is to constantly see Ellen White first as human being living real life, not an ideal life. Ellen did not drop from heaven fully formed. She was “a regular person with regular dreams,” Harwood went on, and noted that Ellen also demonstrated “regular development and maturation.”

Harwood suggested that Ellen White is often treated as if what she said at age 19 could be set alongside what she said at 34, and alongside what she said in her 60’s and in her 80’s and that her statements are all consistent and equally helpful, without reference to how long she had been out of Methodist Church.

If women had written the biographies, Harwood asserted, Ellen White might not have been treated as a “flat line,” but rather as a person.

Harwood also noted that she had never heard consideration given to what it meant for Ellen to write and preach in a hostile environment, doing her ministry and administrating while pregnant, nursing, tending to sick children and living with a husband who was difficult to live with…even just having a husband was a big consideration. Things change if you’ve got other people you’re thinking of beside yourself, Harwood said. “I’ve never heard people talk about what it meant for her to bury her baby or her teenage son.”

Marilynn Loveless commented on the surprise Eric Anderson received when at the Portland conference he presented what was supposed to have been a chapter on race relations (he instead wrote on Ellen White’s statements on the Civil War). John Grayson, an African-American scholar and one of Anderson’s respondents at the conference, brought up Ellen’s demeaning statements on slaves. If you allow “insider” voices, Loveless suggested, it provides very different perspectives from those not speaking from first hand experiences. Loveless also added that the apologetic tone of 1970’s hurt some people and drove them away from the church.

Walters the addressed the men on the panel, asking for their comments on the two ladies’ perspectives.

Ronald Numbers responded, saying that perhaps the Adventist church is now ready for a published version of Ronald Graybill’s dissertation on Ellen White and her family, which the church was not ready for at the time of the dissertation’s completion.

Walters asked Roy Branson whether during his time editing Spectrum in 1970’s whether he published writings from women on Ellen White.

Branson responded that he could not recall specific examples, but went on to aver that women who will most quickly and vigorously respond to the upcoming work on Ellen White. Branson then cited themes that might resonate with those inside the church such as the discussion of Ellen White’s assistants. How did they help her? To what degree did they assist? What was their theological outlook? “It became Ellen White, Inc.,” Branson said, and suggested that those topics might be addressed by scholarship from within Adventism.

Ronald Graybill chimed in to point out that Ellen White had all sorts of household helpers; some in the household didn’t help with the writing tasks, and some left the White’s home. Many women were involved as household/literary assistants, he noted.

Jon Butler posited that the two most important social facts that shaped Ellen White’s life were her marriage to James White and his death. She would not have become the prophet she was without him, Butler stated, and she would not have blossomed without his death.

Jon Paulien guessed that going forward, some of the best Ellen White biographies will probably be written by women.

Loveless added that women look at different things than men do. She called attention to research by Bev Beem (Walla Walla) and Ginger Harwood that explores when Adventist women began to be locked out of power. Some of their research has been published in Andrews University Seminary Studies.

Harwood said that she and Beem have been scouring articles in the Review and Herald from the 19th century. James White, Uriah Smith, J. N. Andrews and other pioneers all wrote in defense of female leadership making arguments from all of the Bible, including Paul. Early Adventist leaders insisted on reading Scripture in context, Harwood said, adding that the pioneers were not fundamentalists, whatever else they might have been.

T. Joe Willey interjected, pointing out that women often wrote in Review using their initials instead of their full names during Adventism’s early years.

Harwood expounded on her research. Up unitl the 19th century there was no backing away from women in leadership and ministry, she said. Three things came together, like a perfect storm, to change the church’s stance toward women:

First, the death of Ellen White–she could no longer argue in favor of justice for women. Ellen had argued that women should be in ministry and be paid for it, Harwood said. While in Australia, Ellen White told church leaders in effect, “Either you start paying these women in ministry or I will start paying them out of my tithe.” About the time she died, the United States witnessed the rise of fundamentalism. Most of 20th century was a struggle between fundamentalists and modernists to determine the identity of Adventism. A major item on fundamentalist agenda, Harwood said, is not only to show that Scripture is inerrant and dictated by God, but also to impose a hierarchy including male dominance and women subordinated. Harwood went on to note that Adventists evangelized large numbers of people from the fundamentalist movement, which is fine, Harwood said, as long as those coming in are educated about “more than charts and beasts.” The third factor that brought change in attitudes toward women was the Great Depression. When it hit, within an 18th-month period, the General Conference nearly halved its budget with Adventist missionaries just having gone out around the world. The church decided to fund positions for men based on idea that they would be supporting families. That eliminated a great number of positions, and women got structured out of position. Pretty soon, people began thinking that was the way it had always been, Harwood concluded.

Julius Nam then introduced a new question. Jon Butler talked about ignorance and apathy toward Ellen White, and Nam suggested that it might owe to “ineptitude of teachers like me” who are trying to find meaningful ways of teaching about Ellen White. He went on to question how Ellen White might be made meaningful to a young generation like Nam’s own sons. Maybe we need to make a Play Station 3 game about Ellen White, Nam offered.

Walters chimed in asking whether we (Adventists) can resuscitate her. “Can we make her alive for today’s young people?” Walters wondered.

Nam said that the question of how she lived her religion came up during the Portland conference. One cannot simply say that she was important and stop, Nam suggested. How she lived her theological beliefs and why she lived as she did are central questions. Sharing those factors as a pedagogical tool makes her accessible by showing her struggles, Nam pointed out. Religionism that appeals to younger generations includes presentation of the flaws in people’s lives.

Jon Paulien referenced Grant Wacker (Duke University), a Portland conference attendee and biographer of Billy Graham. In biography writing, the most destructive approach is hagiography, Paulien said, repeating Wacker’s sentiments. “Sainthood books” have done more damage than those from critics. Paulien also stated that younger generations are not interested in a “fake” person. Billy Graham had handlers who allowed less access to him than Graham might otherwise have permitted. Paulien compared this to the Ellen White Estate, suggesting that we can learn from Billy Graham’s story about being more effective in reaching to younger audiences.

Joe Willey added a brief anecdote “for your children.” Willey said that James and Ellen carried a gun moving across the plains in case they were attacked by Indians. If they had killed an Indian, Willey opined, the Adventist story might have been very different.

Audience Q & A

Jim Walters then opened the floor to questions from the audience. People streamed to microphones at the front of the auditorium.

Barbara Orr, a guest attendee of the Portland conference made an observation and shared disappointment at conference. She said that Eric Anderson (President of Southwestern Adventist University) was supposed to present a chapter on Ellen White’s views on race, but instead he addressed Ellen’s views on the Civil War. Orr said she saw a woman weeping at the conference. John Grayson, one of Anderson’s respondents, talked about Ellen’s statements on black people as “amalgamations”, her statements that slaves who did not hear the salvation message would not be in heaven, but would be as if they had never existed, and Ellen’s view that black people descended from Hem. Orr felt that there was serious neglect of the black community, and shared her hope that the book would address Ellen White’s statements on race.

Ron Numbers, a member of the book’s editorial committee, noted that Eric Anderson “repented and promised to fulfill his obligation” to write on the topic of race.

An audience member then noted that after searching through history books, he discovered that payment to ministers had been $12 per month, and that Ellen White had received $12.50 per month.

Dr. Mike Orlich, a Resident at LLU said he found it ironic to hear about apathy among young Adventists. Orlich claimed that there is a lot of interest among young Adventists who feel she was a prophet and was authoritative. The central issue, Orlich said, is the validity of her inspiration. Young Adventists will not be interested in just an in interesting historical figure.

The audience applauded loudly at Orlich’s comments.

Loveless provided a counterpoint, noting that stories provide human interest, and that telling Ellen’s story will draw people into the story which includes the question of her inspiration.

Nam added that we have many historical figures whom we discuss apart from inspiration who continue to be very inspirational figures. Nam said he sees the book as “a form of evangelism.”

Pualien said that it is possible to believe in Ellen White and to get her wrong. It is also possible, he said, to believe in Ellen White and hurt people. People who do not “believe” in her but are open to her story and all it entails can provide helpful insights, Paulien said.

Tony Zbaraschuk, a librarian at La Sierra University said that when the play “Red Books” was performed at LSU, students asked, “Who was this Ellen White anyway?” Zbaraschuk noted that many non-Adventist students attend La Sierra. He then asked what will come out of this project that would help to answer such questions, and to explain Ellen quickly to someone who has not heard of her.

Several panelists chimed in, saying “A well-written biography…”

Joann Hinkle, an audience member, took the mic and said she was brought into the Adventist Church by 3ABN (Three Angels Broadcasting Network). Hinkle said that the world is interested in “pudding” and that “Ellen White has lots of pudding.” She suggested that people will go right past this forthcoming book and read Ellen’s books. She then commented that she listens to Glenn Beck, and said she thought Ellen’s Books at Costco would be the benchmark for the end times.

People applauded.

The time allotted for the meeting had expired, but some audience member asked whether the meeting might be extended another fifteen minutes to allow more audience questions. The audience applauded, and Ron Numbers also clapped his hands.

After more time was given, an audience member said that when he first heard about the project, he thought it would be a waste of time–simply another apologetic work. He asked whether Ellen will be understood as inspired or inspirational.

Nam answered saying that the purpose was to introduce people to Ellen White, and that what they make of her is up to individuals. Nam said he hoped people might see Ellen White as both, but added that he never claimed to be a prophet.

Bill Omar next took the mic, and with Bible in hand said that the “Spirit of Prophecy” has increased his faith life. The audience shouted “Amen” and applauded.

From that point on, those who addressed the panelists generally either gave testimonies of how Ellen White had impacted them or affirmed her as an authority or a prophet.

Vern Miller of Loma Linda said that he had been a literature evangelist for over 17 years. He teared up when he said that Ellen “must have been inspired by God.” Miller called it “a real thrill” to have seen people won to Adventism through her writings. He affirmed her importance, repeating the phrase “Spirit of Prophecy.”

Again the audience applauded.

Butler responded saying that a good historian needs to listen to those speaking up. He cited a need to account for Ellen White’s influence and the ways she changed and transformed people’s lives. No good history, Butler said, could be told without noting a person’s influence.

Willey and Graybill each mentioned the significance of Ellen White on individual lives, making comparisons to Mormons’ attitudes toward Joseph Smith.

Jon Paulien suggested that if Ellen were present, she would say that the primary way people come to God is through the Bible. She pointed to the Bible, and Paulien added, the Bible pointed to Ellen White.

Larry Christoffel, a pastor at the Campus Hill Church in Loma Linda, asked about Ellen’s attitude toward her own authority during her lifetime. Christoffel said that the idea of her authority did not show up until well into the 20th century, first in the 1950’s and then in the 1980’s. He noted the polarizing effect of the use of her as an authority.

Graybill said it is possible to be an Adventist and have some questions about Ellen White. It is easier to be Adventist and have questions than to be LDS and to have questions about Joseph Smith, he said. Those who don’t believe in Ellen at all and don’t say much about it will probably be fine, if they are “affirming and not disruptive,” Graybill said.

Nam said that when the question of Ellen White as a test of fellowship was rejected, it was early, during the time of the pioneers. Later F. D. Nichol insisted that one did need to believe in Ellen White to be a member (during the fundamentalist era). Nam said that Adventists need to relate to one another without questioning the identity and loyalty of one another.

After more affirmations from the audience of Ellen White and her inspiration, Ginger Harwood was given the opportunity for a final response. She said that the conversation had obviously shifted from what the conference was about to “an internal dialogue.” The underlying question, Harwood said, is, “Who is Ellen to us?” She went on and asked, “Do we hear God when we read her? What has God done for us through Ellen? What is this gift of a prophet that this church has been given?

After closing remarks, the audience filed out, and lines formed in front of the tables where audience members waited to speak to the panelists.

Article Extras: See photos of the meeting here.

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