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Interview: Gary Land on the Ellen White Project

Gary Land is one of the organizers of the Ellen White Project, a group of Adventist, ex-Adventist, and non-Adventist scholars who are preparing to publish an academic book on Ellen White. He is chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Andrews University and author of, among others, Teaching History, a book about integrating historical knowledge and Christian faith, and the Historical Dictionary of the Seventh-day Adventists. Dr. Land was kind enough to answer some questions about his latest project shortly after he returned from the working conference where authors of the book’s chapters had their work critiqued.

Can you give us a brief history of this Ellen White Project?

GL: Now this will be my version of it; it might be a slightly different story for some of the other people. But Terrie Aamodt has long had an interest in having a conference. She talked about that with me and others, but it didn’t really get of the ground until she talked with Julius Nam at the Adventist historians’ meeting at Oakwood two and a half years ago. He’s an organizer type, and he immediately wanted to do something. It went through an evolution as to what the goals were, but eventually he, myself, Terrie, and Ron Numbers ended up as the organizing people. And we’ve been working on it for a couple of years.

I’d like you comment on the philosophy of history that will inform the editing of this book. In other words, how is it possible for scholars who have differing beliefs about the source of Ellen White’s visions to produce a collaborative history of her?

GL: First of all, saying collaborative history isn’t correct. It’s a collection of essays, and there will be differing interpretations and viewpoints in the essays. But at the same time we do hope that they will be cohesive. The issue of her inspiration is really not an issue as far as the book is concerned, because our goal is to look at Ellen White as a historical figure. I’ve had a hard time explaining that to some Adventists, because they have difficulty looking at Ellen White in something other than religious terms. But the main thing is that we have other 19th century religious leaders of what we call “American originals” who have received quite a bit of attention from historians. But neither Adventists generally nor Ellen White in particular have received very much attention in historical literature. And there are a number of reasons for that. Maybe a simple one is that we aren’t quite strange enough; we’re more aligned with the mainstream than those other “American originals”. But the purpose of the book was to bring a number of essays looking at various aspects of Ellen White’s life with the underlying purpose being to say, This is a significant woman that historians should give attention to. So it wasn’t really a matter of whether one believes she’s inspired or not inspired.

Can you clarify what you mean by “historical figure”? What I’m thinking when you say that is someone who influenced others after her and was influenced by people before her. Is that correct?

GL: And was influential during her own time. Although, we’re not just discussing her in terms of influence. But when one talks about things that she did, those also have influence.

So also looking at the bare facts, and laying those open. . .

GL: Right.

When I read Ron Number’s book, he starts off by saying that a real historian has to look for human causes, not divine causes in history (Prophetess of Health, xxxii, para 1). And it seems to me that presupposition is at once necessary for doing history while also ruling out the possibility of divine inspiration. Is that a fair way to frame the issue?

GL: Yeah, I think so. Look at a book like George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, where he’s talking about how one is a Christian and does scholarship and how if you bring in divine elements, you’re probably not going to get accepted by a historical journal or university press. So he talks about something he calls “methodological agnosticism,” and that’s essentially what Ron Numbers is putting forward. Now Ron is not a Christian believer and makes no pretense of being one, so his motivations might be different in saying that. But Marsden is a Christian and is noted for that. But he distinguishes methodological agnosticism from what he calls “methodological atheism.” And it comes down to subtle use of language when you give an explanation on the human level. In methodological atheism you use language that suggests that there is nothing else to say beyond what’s being said. If you are a methodological agnostic, then you will have language that suggests there might be other things. Just as an example: You’re talking about a revival. And if you say, This revival was caused by economic dislocation (That’s a frequent explanation that’s given for revivals.), well, that doesn’t leave anything else available. But if you say, Economic dislocation contributed to the revival, then a person could think that maybe there was a divine aspect as well, even though you’re not talking about that as a historian.

If Ellen White is a multidimensional figure, what hidden dimensions of Ellen White would you like this book to reveal to Adventists, the scholarly community, and the average American?

GL: First of all, Adventists are not our primary audience. Obviously we would hope that Adventists would read it, but we’re aiming to publish through an academic press. (I think it needs to be clear that we’ve contacted Oxford, they’ve expressed some interest in it, but there is absolutely no commitment on their part until they see something.) So our target audience is scholars and that proverbial educated general reader. We hope Adventists will come along with that. Now what do we want to accomplish with that? I already spoke about scholars, that they would think, Maybe she deserves more than a line in the history of American religion. The general reader—sort of along the same lines—but that they would find her an interesting person. Here’s somebody who did all these different things. And we would hope that they would find this an interesting person that they might want to know more about, because this book is not exhaustive. It’s not a biography, but sort of an opening of a window on an individual and her movement. She had an interesting life, a long life, and as a woman she did things that were not typical of women in her time. She was a public figure of somewhat restricted range, a speaker, a writer when not many women were writers, was involved in establishing institutions. So I hope that people would find her life story interesting.

Don McMahon has produced what was for me one of the more illuminating, if not unconventional, studies of Ellen White in recent decades. How will this book address his multidisciplinary approach? And maybe that would be a better question to ask Numbers, but since I have you in front of me. . .

GL: Right. I don’t think it’s going to address it very much. Numbers would have a lot to say about McMahon. I think he has something in the footnote of his paper about McMahon, but that’s about all it addresses. An interesting observation about the conference: For every paper we had an Adventist respondent and a non-Adventist respondent. Several Adventists raised the issue of plagiarism; it didn’t seem to be an issue for the non-Adventists. And I believe the reason for that is for Adventists it’s related to the issue of Ellen White’s authority and inspiration. And that’s not an issue to the non-Adventists. And Adventist apologists have argued that this was relatively common in the 19th century, and I think non-Adventists recognize that. So it’s not a big issue to them. So basically I think [McMahon] will be a footnote and not much more than that.

As a Seventh-day Adventist, how do you anticipate this book will benefit your church?

GL: Well, to come back to our original purpose, it’d give us more visibility. Second, I think it will help people understand Ellen White better, although we’re not really breaking new ground as far as Adventism is concerned. We’re breaking new ground as far as the general historical community is concerned. But one thing that I became aware of—I wrote the paper on Ellen White and historiography—and I became aware that Ron Numbers’ Prophetess of Health has done more than any other book to bring Ellen White to the attention of historians, even though it’s still relatively small attention. But people have looked at Ellen White almost totally in terms of a health reformer, and even Adventism in terms of health reform. And so hopefully this book will help people understand that Ellen White had a multifaceted life. Health reform obviously was a part of it, but there were other aspects of it as well. And then secondarily to help them understand that Adventism is more than a health reform church. So I would hope that it would contribute to a better understanding of the denomination. But again, we’re not really writing it for PR purposes, but to better place Ellen White and Adventism within their 19th century American context.


A Seventh-day Adventist pastor and seminarian, David Hamstra blogs at apokalupto, where this interview first appeared.

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