Are We Addicted to “The Great Controversy”?

Written by: 
Published:
December 28, 2022

What is Ellen White’s most popular book? The answer to that question probably depends on whether one thinks of her English language publications or also includes her books in all other languages. My guess is that Steps to Christ, which she wrote in 1892, comes out as number one. And her book about the ministry of Jesus Christ—the Desire of Ages (1898)—may well come in second place. But The Great Controversy, in its final edition of 1911, may also be her most widely distributed book. And, if it is not yet at the very top, it may soon be, if the Great Controversy Project 2.0 that is vigorously promoted by the General Conference will be successful. On the website that is dedicated to this ambiguous project, church members worldwide are called upon to distribute millions of copies of this book during 2023 and 2024 “in preparation of Jesus’ return.”

The Origin of The Great Controversy

The theme of a cosmic conflict between good and evil, which has also affected our world, is not original with Ellen White. Many other authors have written about it. One of the best known of these was the Puritan author, philosopher, and politician John Milton (1608–1674), and in all probability, Ellen White read his epic poem Paradise Lost and was inspired by it. However, she told us that the initial impetus for her focus on this topic came in a two-hour vision on a Sunday afternoon in mid-March 1858, in which she was instructed to write down what she had seen about the age-long war between Christ and Satan.[1] Writing about this theme occupied a major part of her time between 1858 and her death in 1915. 

As the years went by, Ellen White expanded her description of the “great controversy.” This led in 1858 to the publication of what would be the first book of a four-volume set (completed in 1864) titled The Great Controversy Between Christ and His Angels and Satan and His Angels. The second stage in the fuller development of her treatment of this conflict between Christ and Satan was the four-volume set The Spirit of Prophecy. This set was later expanded to five volumes, titled The Conflict of the Ages Series, consisting of Patriarchs and Prophets (1890), Prophets and Kings (1916), The Desire of Ages (1898), The Acts of the Apostles (1911) and The Great Controversy (1988; revised in 1911).  

The Great Controversy begins with a description of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and covers the history of the church with a major emphasis on the conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The book then turns to the birth and progress of Adventism and on to end-time events.

Great Controversy Project 2.0

Ever since the book The Great Controversy came off the press, in English and in many other languages, it has occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of many Seventh-day Adventists. If there is one truly Adventist book, this is it! At times it seems as if Adventists have become addicted to this book. And so, perhaps it is not so strange that there is a widely shared desire to give this book away to as many people as possible. When plans are announced to send a copy of the book to all addresses in a town, or even a larger area, money pours in. It helps that new printing techniques have steadily brought the per-copy price down.

But—is it really a good idea to flood a whole city, or an entire state or country, with unsolicited copies of The Great Controversy? Those who are enthusiastic about this point to the words of Ellen White herself: “The Great Controversy should be very widely circulated. It contains the story of the past, the present, and the future. In its outline of the closing scenes of this earth's history, it bears a powerful testimony on behalf of the truth. I am more anxious to see a wide circulation for this book than for any others I have written, for in The Great Controversy, the last message of warning to the world is given more distinctly than in any of my other books.”[2]

I can understand why the project to distribute millions of copies of this book around the world appeals to so many church members. After all, most Adventist believers sense that it is time to do something big—and this is big indeed! In an earlier version of the project, mention was even made of one billion books. Moreover, this is a very concrete plan. Given enough money and proper logistical management, it seems quite doable.

But Is It Really a Good Plan?

Before the decision is made to launch a massive distribution campaign in a particular area, there are—in my opinion—a few important aspects to be considered. The first question that comes to my mind is whether it is wise to give or send to the people around us an unsolicited copy of such a big book. Many will not appreciate it and will mistrust any such initiative. Many will simply throw the book in the trash. Some may try to find out what organization is behind this and may incite a lot of unfavorable publicity. It could easily turn into a major public-relations disaster.

The next question that many people would ask, and which Adventists who consider themselves stewards of our environment should certainly ask, is how many trees will it take to produce millions of 700-page books? Is this the kind of eco-testimony that we want to give? Then, of course, there is the money aspect. Even if the production cost per copy may be just two or three dollars, the full execution of the Great Controversy Project 2.0 will cost tens of millions of dollars—if mailing costs are also taken into consideration. Is this really the best use of mission money, regardless of who might be the donors?

The World Has Changed

There is, however, another important reason why we should be hesitant to distribute The Great Controversy on such a massive scale. Making the world aware of a cosmic conflict between good and evil is as urgent as ever before, and Adventists are called to share this story with the world. But let’s not forget that The Great Controversy was written in the nineteenth century and describes a world that was vastly different from ours. It was a time when millions of Catholic immigrants crossed the ocean to find a new future in the United States. Protestant America felt threatened, which gave rise to a period of violent anti-Catholicism. Around 1800, there were an estimated 50,000 Roman Catholics in America. When The Great Controversy was being written, their number had increased to about 12 million. And if you think that Ellen White was sharp in her anti-Catholic remarks (especially in the 1888 edition), you would do well to compare what she wrote with the words of other contemporary Protestant authors, who often were far more belligerent. They, like Ellen White, were children of their time.

Fact is that the world—most definitely also including the religious world—around us has changed. We still object to many of the Roman Catholic teachings, but in many parts of the world, Catholics no longer have the influence they once had. In many countries in Europe, the non-churched are now in the majority, and in the United States, more and more people no longer claim any church affiliation. When Ellen White described the American religious scene, secularization had not yet arrived, and Islam and other world religions were not part of her world. Her world was very different from ours.

As time went by, Ellen White’s attitude toward members of other churches softened. In the 1911 edition of The Great Controversy, the terminology for the Roman Catholic Church became milder, and we deduce from a number of statements she made later in life that she then advocated a different style of interchurch contact than before. In 1887, she alerted the pastors to the danger of “saying too much against the Catholics.”[3] She urged “those who write for our papers” not to “make unkind thrusts and allusions” that will impede the task of reaching “all classes, the Catholics included.”[4] I am certain that Ellen White would have further revised The Great Controversy, or would have written a totally new book to explain the great controversy concept, had she lived in the 2020s.

Would Ellen White endorse a worldwide campaign to distribute a book she wrote during her lifetime against the background of her nineteenth-century world? Just four years before her death, she wrote that she appreciated The Great Controversy “above silver and gold” and greatly desired “that it shall come before the people.”[5] That was, however, in 1911. Now, more than a hundred years later, she would, I believe, urge us not to be addicted to the book that received its final form in 1911 but to present the theme of the great controversy between Christ and Satan in the context of life today, in ways that the people today can more easily relate to (and whether that should be in the form of a thick book or a digital form is something that should certainly be considered).

 

Notes & References:

[1] For the full story of this vision, see Arthur White, Ellen White: the Early Years, vol 1. Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1985. Chapter 24: The “Great Controversy Vision and Broader Concepts, pp. 366-379.

[2] Ellen G. White, Letter 281, 1905 (quoted in Colporteur Ministry, p. 127),

[3] Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1946), p. 574.

[4] Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville, TN: Southern Publ. Ass., 1947), pp. 64, 65.

[5] Ellen G. White, Colporteur Ministry (Pacific Press, 1953), p. 128.

 


Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a BA from Newbold College and an MA from Andrews University, he earned a BDiv with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. Before retiring, he was president of the Netherlands Union.

Title image: Photo by Aleksandar Popovski on Unsplash

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