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When James and Ellen White Separated

Head book editor at the Review and Herald Publishing Association, Gerald Wheeler’s 2003 biography James White: Innovator and Overcomer represents a new type of Adventist scholarship that is simultaneously critical and sensitive, rigorous and cautionary. I say “new” and “Adventist” because there have long been  Numbers, Ford and Rea, et al, but their work was largely dismissed or rejected by many Adventists. But these new books are written by denominationally-employed Adventists in good and regular standing who appear to be trying to address a thoughtful church readership. This new scholarship perhaps signals the last of Ellen White hagiography that was at its peak with books like A Prophet Among You and Why I Believe in Ellen White

This new scholarship raises many questions, which is probably for the best, because such questions have always existed, they were just seldom posed publicly. Many an Adventist throughout the world read and heard things that made them wonder, but they remained silent because the questions could potentially lead to alienation or apostasty. Amazingly, even biblical prophets like Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah, Peter and Paul’s very human faults and inconsistencies were highlighted in Adventist pulpits and literature, but those of Ellen White were deemed too sacrosanct.

Yet to the surprise of many, the new scholarship bears out that the things modern and postmodern Adventists have increasingly wondered about also perplexed our pioneers. So this new trend exposes and humanizes everyone involved: Ellen White, the pioneers, and us, the postmodern Adventists. This new realm may be uncomfortable, but it is a relieving discomfort.

Wheeler’s work brings out an aspect of the White marriage that I immediately noticed as one of those perplexing questions that has rarely been brought up but that has dominated Adventism ever since most of Ellen White’s thousands of pages of writing were made available. James and Ellen White had separated in the late 1870s because of temporarily irreconcilable differences. James thought Ellen was trying to control him; Ellen thought James was trying to control her. Without taking sides, Wheeler does a good job of simply quoting the two. James, whose sanity Ellen questioned, wrote his prophet-wife of his primary gripe:

When you have a message from the Lord from me, I hope I shall be where I shall tremble at His word. But aside from that, you must let me be an equal, or we had better work alone. . . . Don’t be anxious about my dwelling on disagreeables anymore. I have them in my heart. But while on the stage of action I shall use the good old head God gave me until He reveals that I am wrong. Your head won’t fit my shoulders. Keep it where it belongs, and I will try to honor God in using my own. I shall be glad to hear from you, but don’t waste your precious time and strength lecturing me on matters of mere opinions (Wheeler, 222).

Obviously James found the entire communication from Ellen White too burdensome to follow and he made a distinction between what God told her and her mere opinions. I want to suggest that more than control issues were at stake here; the sheer volume of Ellen’s suggestions was just too overwhelming for James. 

This issue has resurfaced again and again in Adventism, especially when the White Estate began releasing more and more of Ellen White’s unpublished writings (think of the Manuscript Releases onslaught from 1981-1993 and the advent of the Ellen G. White CD ROM which now contains 75,000 pages of text). Just when good and faithful Adventists were mastering the principles in the challenging compilations Counsels on Diets and Foods and Messages to Young People, thousands of new pages, many hundreds containing lifestyle counsel (opinions?) were heaped on the faithful.

It got so bad that a popular notion sprung up in Adventism that one only had to adhere to Ellen White’s counsel when it was prefaced with “I was shown…”  This was a tacit and not so subtle acknowledgment that there was simply too much stuff in her writings for one person to follow wholeheartedly. In fact, I did a study of the things Ellen White says one should do everyday, and there is simply not enough time in one day to do them all.

Without overspiritualizing my point, I want to suggest that it is providential that the new scholarship has aired gripes like James’.  We have long established that Ellen White was inspired by God to guide the denomination through the turbulent last days with her writings. But, as one recently converted prisoner told me after he gave up reading all 21 Manuscript Releases through, “I just can’t do it all.  There’s just too much.”  Zealous to know his duty, he soon figured out that he’d probably never read Ellen White’s entire corpus. It’s just too much.

Perhaps it is providential that the issues of the White’s separation have come into the open so that we ourselves can honestly explore some of the same reasons that we too have separated from Ellen White.

—Jeremy Brandeis is a pseudonym.

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