It is good to have access to the writings of Ellen White, born some 192 years ago today. It would be even better if those writings were truly hers.
Before I proceed further, please allow me the following: I am confident beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ellen White was a messenger from the Lord. My walk with Christ has been incredibly enriched by her writings, and her constant pointing to Jesus and to the Bible has helped ground me in God’s word. Further, I am deeply indebted to the men and women of the Ellen G White® Estate who have done so much to make her writings seemingly instantly accessible. I am more confident today than I have ever been that the White Estate is doing all that it can to help both Adventists and the world discover Ellen White. I continue to find them approachable and transparent. They generally readily acknowledge variants of original documents and have done and are doing a thoroughly incredible job of making her writings readily available to an increasingly global audience. I write the following with the deepest desire to help us, the Adventist church, and the world, find Ellen White…the real Ellen White.
Allow me to explain. Working as the digitization manager at the Center for Adventist Research on the campus of Andrews University in November of 2010, I was reading through one of Ellen White’s handwritten letters and upon reaching a portion of the letter that was somewhat faded, I retrieved the typed copy that we had on file. The faded, handwritten letter (Letter 14, 1887), to missionaries to South Africa D.A. Robinson and C.L. Boyd reads as follows:
“Dear Brn. Robinson and Boyed (sic), on your way to the distant fields of labor I have desiered (sic) to talk with you but dared not because I have not felt that I had strength to do justice to any subject in private conversation. When before the people I am always sustained by the the (sic) Lord, I am not always sustained in private conversation and am often a sufferer in this kind of labor. I decided to write to you.
There is great importance…”
The typewritten copy on file, however, reads:
“Dear Brethren: On your way to a distant field of labor I have desired to talk with you, but dared not, because I have not felt that I had strength to do justice to any subject in private conversation. When before the people I am always sustained by the Lord.
There is great importance…”
The difference? Reality and myth. Ellen’s handwritten original reveals a very real, very human messenger of the Lord, sometimes feeling sustained by the Lord, and sometimes not. The text of the typewritten file copy, currently (as of November 24, 2019) extant on the app and the website, portrays the mythical, post-1919 Bible Conference-enabled Ellen White, always sustained by the Lord.
Why does this matter? First, because nine years after I brought this to the attention of the White Estate (November 24, 2010), the website contains no mention of a variant reading, and the world continues to meet an Ellen White “always sustained by the Lord.” [Emphasis mine] With the countless taskings and responsibilities begging for their attention, I do not doubt that acknowledging this difference fell through the cracks…but as it perpetuates the mythical narrative chosen after the 1919 Bible Conference, it begs for attention beyond what it has been given.
Second, as exemplified above, the type-written manuscripts often if not always relied on as the source material for the app and website are not always faithful to the original source material. The letter to Robinson and Boyd suggests that at least some of Ellen White’s materials were later edited in a way that emphasized the myth while removing the messenger.
Someone with more knowledge than I can likely speak to the origin ‘when’ of those type-written manuscripts, though it is highly likely found farther from our own day and closer to Ellen’s own. It is vital that scholars, researchers, and historians using the letters and manuscripts as currently found on the website and app understand that the source material might not reflect the fullness of what Ellen readily revealed about herself, and that the current material might, some generations ago, have been selectively edited to preserve the mythical narrative chosen by a fearful administration of an era gone by.
Only yesterday I sat with fellow scholars, historians, and North American Division (NAD) representatives at the annual gathering of the Adventist Society of Religious Studies as we wrestled with the legacy of the 1919 Bible Conference and its fateful decision to not, from the administration side, begin deconstructing the mythological Ellen White. How they, knowing of her thought inspiration and compilation process chose to not counter the church-at-large’s understanding of her as verbally inspired and seemingly dropped-out-of-heaven manuscript creation process.
What great disappointment might have been avoided had that generation of leaders chosen truth over myth? What great balance in our understanding of revelation might have been introduced? What confidence might have been engendered in the life and works of Ellen White had bold resolve triumphed over the fear of the faith fallout should the truth be reveled? Sadly, fear held the field, and imbalance, doubt, and disbelief have too often been the result. In choosing easy inaction, leadership did not avoid the faith fallout, they simply kicked the can down the road to the innocents of the next generation.
What can our generation do differently? What can we do with what we have inherited? What can we do, as Denis Fortin observed in his fine presidential address to the Adventist Society of Religious Studies, to properly address this difficult subject? What part can we play in de-mythologizing Ellen White and restoring her to how she presented herself, weak and strong, wondering and confident, inspired and uninspired?
I suggest the following:
1. Let’s start by recognizing that what this generation received in the typewritten text of Ellen White’s letters and manuscript may have come to us with a bias of the previous generation intact.
2. Let us go back to the sources, ad fontes, if you will, and ensure that each handwritten item is accurately represented in our databases. Whether done in-house by the White Estate or perhaps by partnering with scholars, historians, and researchers, a letter-by-letter, manuscript-by-manuscript checking of the original, hand-written against the current database, updating the database as appropriate, is the only way to ensure that we are reading what Ellen wrote, and not what someone else decided she should have written.
Let’s go find Ellen White...the real, the relatable, Ellen White.
Joe Nesbit is a ThD Candidate at Andrews University in the areas of Systematic Theology and Adventist Studies. He is currently pastoring in Florida where he lives with his wife and fellow pastor, Trisha.
Photo courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate
Editor's Note: The article has been corrected to reflect that nine years ago, the author contacted the White Estate, not ten years.
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