Later this year, at the General Conference Session, delegates will have to vote on a statement about whether Ellen G. White's writings are inspired by God and help to understand what the Bible says. The text of the statement was translated into Latvian and posted on Facebook. Several commentators expressed their views that Ellen White was a false prophet, was hysterical, and most likely a mentally ill person. I also entered into a discussion with my objections. However, after lengthy discussions, I came to the conclusion that once again I have to look honestly at everything I can read and find in her articles and articles about her. After all, I have had contradictory thoughts when reading E. G. White's books, too. In prayer I told God that I could not judge everything myself, but I wanted to read anything with an open heart and mind. If I'm wrong, I want to admit it. I asked God for help to be honest with all the arguments that can be read. In the following days, I devoted my free time to finding and reading everything I could find in connection with E. G. White. What are my conclusions?
My initial experience
I have read E. G. White's books more than most Adventists in my country. Everything that was published in Latvian and also in Russian I read many years ago. I have had the opportunity to read many typescript books (religious books were banned in the Soviet Union). I have also read some books in English. It is probably logical to ask why so?
Like many Adventists in Soviet times, I was taught to look at E. G. White as a special messenger of God. The authors of other books could have been ignored, but not Mrs. White. I still remember those gloomy feelings that took me as I read her writings. I have already forgotten which book first came into my hands, it seems to have been a volume from The Testimonies to the Church. Those who have read will probably understand me. So many accusations and reprimands! Feeling that you are sinful and God does not like you so much! Is it at all possible to reach the standard of holiness she is writing about? At the time, I did not know that I was not the only one who was thrown into madness by her books. I continued to read from time to time (I was a big bookworm), but I didn't enjoy them.
And yet I was lucky. In early youth, in the midst of a deep crisis of faith, I discovered the doctrine of justification by faith. It became the basis for my entire spiritual adventure. I also started reading E. G. White's writings with glasses of justification by faith.
My favorite author was Morris Venden. It was his books that gave me the opportunity to look at Christ with completely different eyes and also to look at E. G. White's writings from a different angle. And then more than 20 years ago George R. Knight’s book Reading Ellen White was published and translated into Latvian. I realized how silly it is to ignore who, why, in what culture, and in what century anything is being written.
I remember after that I read again one volume of The Testimonies to the Church. Letters to specific people in the 19th century suddenly came to me in a different light. What suppressed me, I suddenly discovered was valuable and helpful advice. I found that a number of letters that seemed to be in an angry tone were actually written in a very delicate and almost overly lenient manner. For example: there was a letter addressed to a man who brutally harasses his wife and children, but E. G. White tried to find any access to his heart. I found that many of her writings started to appeal to me.
As time went on, however, I again found disagreements with Ellen White. This time it was different. Reading and studying not only the Bible, but articles by a wide variety of authors, I had to admit that I could not agree with everything written by E. G. White. It is correct to note that the problem was often not so much with E. G. White as with some of the ideas and teachings (if it may be called) by some of the leading people in the church. But they argued with Mrs. White's writings. I will deliberately not say what this is about, because then there will be a discussion that is not needed in this article. However, I had to answer my own questions about what to do with these differences.
It seems we will only appreciate in the future how much needed and blessed work was done by the analytical and critical minds of the Adventist Church in the second half of the 20th century. First by Ronald L. Numbers with his book Prophetess of Health. At the same time, transcripts of the 1919 Bible Conference were accidentally encountered. They were followed by Desmond Ford's study of 2,300 evenings and mornings. Other publications followed. They showed E. G. White in another light, to many it was an unattractive but very human light. It cost the critical minds dearly. Some of them lost their faith or were forced out of the church. In the early 1980s, Adventism was in fact in an unprecedented crisis (we did not know anything about it in the USSR). However, many did not even realize how necessary and auspicious this process was.
I do not know what would have happened to my faith if I had lived more than half a century ago. I might not be in the church either. But thanks to the discoveries, research, and courageous theologians of the last 50 years, and of course the evolution of the Internet, I have discovered a very human, sometimes contradictory, at the same time God blessed, inspired, and attractive Ellen White. I have read how she advises on family matters, but then writes a letter to her female friend asking her not to tell Ellen’s husband where she is because they have quarreled, and then she goes across the continent and does not want to talk to him. Of course, the anger passes over and they both fix it (these letters came to light only recently). I have read how she encourages never to doubt about the presence of God, but when she has a more difficult moment, she writes in a private letter that she does not feel the presence, help, and support of God. I've been wondering how often Ellen White is misunderstood.
I admit that I haven't read all of her works — I have had neither the opportunity nor the time. Nor did I go into all evidence gathered by critics in recent years. So, as I said at the beginning, I was determined to reevaluate everything once again with prayers and an open heart. I decided to search the Internet for everything that could be found about her as a false prophet.
Frankly, I was expecting something more. There are some sites devoted solely to criticism of E. G. White. There are also Facebook pages and specific forums. I don't know if this is unexpected, but to a large extent the content is repetitive. Articles are republished from one another. Some sites have broader analysis, some more focused.
All criticism can be divided into two large blocks. The first block is more about the Adventist Church than Ellen White. The authors believe that the Adventist Church teachings are wrong — the Sabbath, the state of the dead, the health message, etc. — and that is why E. G. White is also a false prophet because she supports the teaching of falsehood. The second block does not analyze the Church teachings, but rather the different statements of E. G. White, so it seemed more interesting to me.
Reading the quotes of E. G. White and the refutations used by the authors, I felt as if I had returned to my past. All these people, apparently present or former Adventists, gutted some of her statements as if they were Bible texts. Even more so, as if they were infallible words of God. Neither the context, nor the thinking and understanding of the 19th century, nor many other aspects that are extremely relevant to any of the articles (at least I thought so) were taken into consideration. I read and wondered: if the author reads the Bible like this, he should come to a similar conclusion — that it is a book of error. I even wanted to smile about some of the arguments. Why do we ever think that every word written by E. G. White is infallible and holy, more sacred than the Bible texts?
How do I understand Ellen White?
I think one of the biggest challenges for Christians is understanding what inspiration is. Even the Bible we read linearly, considering that historical context, cultural influence, and author understanding are relatively minor issues. This seems to be the reason why many lose faith in the Bible. In Adventism, however, there is a similar attitude towards E. G. White, who has never claimed that what she wrote was the Word of God. That is why there is so much frustration. Then you have to design websites and refute what I think is irrelevant.
I think as long as we don't learn how God works and speaks to us through the written word, there will be many who will be disappointed. The statement scheduled for next year at the General Conference Session will only add to the disappointing numbers. This is inevitable. E. G. White is not the same as the Roman Catholic Pope was once considered. We groan at the statement that the Pope, as deputy of God, was never mistaken in his words and writings, but at the same time we appoint E. G. White an even holier place. Interestingly, she always opposed it. But many do not believe her: “Oh, she was so modest; she did not want to publicly acknowledge her infallibility.”
I am very sorry about that. Half of the Adventists I know do not read, are not interested in, or are skeptical about her writings. Because they have begun to read and have encountered puzzlement and dislike (like many in Old Testament Scriptures). On the one hand, this is not a problem. Ellen White herself has said that her task is only to draw people’s attention to the Scriptures, and if there is Scripture, she is not needed. But on the other hand, I have gained a lot from her. And I am sorry that with our black-and-white approach, we frighten so many away from her. Or make them legalists. And if so, it's really better not to read her writing.
Many will say that her writings cannot be compared to the works of other authors because she was a special messenger of God. For me too, she is more than just a writer. (Although I believe that God has inspired many other book authors as they share their insights.) I am sure she, as a faithful messenger of God, honestly shared what she had understood and received from God. Of course, not everything she wrote was a special message from God. Much has been written in recent years about how her most popular books were made. At the same time, it is clear that she published under her own name only what she believed to be the truth. But as I read her books, I always keep two things in mind. First, the historical context in which it is written. Second, how this is in line with what God has revealed to us and personally to me in the next century after her death. She herself encourages me to do so.
In 1892 E. G. White wrote in the Review and Herald that we would have to give up many lessons:
We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible… The rebuke of the Lord will be upon those who would be guardians of the doctrine, who would bar the way that greater light shall not come to the people. A great work is to be done, and God sees that our leading men have need of greater light.
How different the history of Christianity would be if we saw as our main task not the struggle to protect our doctrines but to be open to learning, always ready to re-evaluate everything.
Aidis Tomsons is a journalist, and for many years was editor of the official Adventist Church magazine Adventes vestis. Currently, he runs an independent website, Vestis Adventistiem ("Message to Adventists"), along with like-minded people. His daily work is on public radio and TV where he runs a daily program on political, social, and economic issues.
Image courtesy of whiteestate.org.
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