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Ellen White’s Ideological Paternity: Tracing The Great Controversy’s Forefathers

Ellen White Influences - William Miller and George Croly

In an article titled “Casebolt’s Father Miller’s Daughter: Ellen Harmon White and White’s Interpretation of Rev 11,” Spectrum contributor Ian R. Brown considers chapter 15 of The Great Controversy, in which Ellen G. White applies the history of France before and during the Revolution to Revelation 11. He explores potential sources of White’s ideas on the subject.

“When I began to investigate this, I suspected that the origins of her comments lay in the thinking of William Miller and some of his associates,” Brown writes. “I was aware of three main pieces of Millerite discussion of Rev 11: William Miller’s Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, about the Year 1843; Josiah Litch’s Prophetic Expositions; and an essay by George Storrs.”  In his exploration of White’s influences, Brown read, and subsequently responded to, Donald Casebolt’s Father Miller’s Daughter: Ellen Harmon White. Below, Casebolt responds to and expands upon Brown’s exploration.

***

In his document responding to my book, Ian Brown states, “Casebolt gives the impression that there is a direct line” from William Miller to Ellen G. White’s interpretation of the two witnesses (Revelation 11:1-14, KJV). In contrast, Brown asserts that White was possibly dependent on Josiah Litch and “definitely upon Uriah Smith.” Following this reasoning, he concludes that “White’s views on Revelation 11 are actually derived from George Storrs since White shows her most noticeable dependence on Smith in exactly those places where he is basically quoting Storrs.”1 Leroy Edwin Froom quotes from George Croly’s 1827 The Apocalypse of St. John regarding one critical detail. After stating that France was a “tenth part” of the city toppled by a “political earthquake,” Croly specifically identifies the three-and-a-half years during which the two witnesses were persecuted as “from November, 1793 till June, 1797.”2 This is the most precisely-defined chronology of any author White borrowed from.

The key portion of White’s discussion of the two witnesses is their “three days and a half” death, which she asserted spanned three and a half years between 1793 and 1796. Historians centuries before White had proposed this less-known “exact” prophetic period predicated on a historicist hermeneutic. Long before White wrote, historicists had speculated over which two historical events marked the beginning and end of this prophetic period. 

Ian Brown demonstrates that White borrowed Smith’s 1881 assertion that the two witnesses represent the Old and New Testaments. Smith also claimed that in 1793, a decree suppressing the Bible passed the French assembly before being unanimously rescinded three-and-a-half years later, corresponding to the witnesses’ death and resurrection. This resolution, according to Smith, 

…lay on the table six months, when it was taken up and passed without a dissenting vote. Thus, in just three years and a half, the witnesses “stood upon their feet, and great fear fell upon them that saw them.”3

In 1888, White copied Smith, writing: “It was in 1793 that the decree which prohibited the Bible passed the French Assembly. Three years and a half later a resolution rescinding the decree, and granting toleration to the Scriptures, was adopted by the same body.” 

The problem was that no such decrees existed. Arthur White conceded as much in his 1981 paper on W. W. Prescott’s involvement in the corrections to the 1888 edition of The Great Controversy (completed in 1911). Arthur White’s paper notes that Prescott and a few others diligently examined “all the histories of the French Revolution to be found in the Congressional Library,” and that no such edicts existed.4 This was a historicist legend looking for historical justification. That a prophet professed to have seen all these events in detail and endorsed Smith’s assertion by copying it made the dissonance more disconcerting. 5

White requested that Prescott provide her with suggested corrections, and in doing so, Prescott brought her attention to the lack of evidence for her prophetic claim. Still, despite efforts by entities that have control over her legacy—Elmshaven and the Ellen. G. White Estate—records of these edicts remain fictive. Arthur White wrote that:

Difficulty was experienced in endeavors to document specific actions of the French Assembly in 1793, edicts abolishing the Bible, and then three and a half years later restoring it to favor. Painstaking research failed to disclose such specific legislation [emphasis added].6

The working group that determined revisions of the Great Controversy abided by White’s decisions in the final analysis. It found that “considerable careful research in the libraries in both Europe and America…did not yield a specific action of the French Assembly in 1793 edicts abolishing the Bible, and then three and a half years later restoring it to favor.”7 Nevertheless, the 1911 revision retained reference to the two fictional decrees marking the beginning and end of this purportedly prophetic period. 

Brown arranged three parallel columns to illustrate that both White’s 1888 Great Controversy and her 1911 Great Controversy appear almost identical to Smith’s 1881 treatment of the edicts.8 As the title of Brown indicates, my book, Father Miller’s Daughter: Ellen Harmon White, provided the impetus for his manuscript. One of his main points is that he believed I was asserting White was directly and literarily dependent on Miller for her treatment of Revelation 11’s two witnesses. Although I think it is probable that White read both Miller’s earlier account and Smith’s later edition, in actuality my thesis was different. I contend that Miller was greatly dependent upon many historicist interpreters for many of his analyses, and White was primarily influenced by him (whether directly or indirectly). Miller also influenced other Millerites immensely, including Smith. I demonstrate below that Miller had already provided a longer argumentative approach to all the elements that White borrowed from Smith’s condensed 1881 treatment of the topic no later than 1842. 

First, Miller offered evidence to prove that the two witnesses are the Old and New Testaments. He argued that the two witnesses are called olive trees and should be interpreted figuratively: the olive trees refer to the two cherubim on either side of the ark of the covenant. “These cherubim are a lively type of the Old and New Testament,” Miller said. He argued that their being clothed in sackcloth prefigured the papacy’s centuries-long suppression of the Bible and that Revelation 11:5 referred to the history of “deistical France,” though he provided no evidence. Writing decades after the French Revolution, Miller arbitrarily inserted France into his interpretation—specifically the assembly and its edicts. 

Revelation 11:6 he interpreted as an allusion to the years 538-1798 CE, contending that during that period, Rome’s dogma of works supplanted the Bible’s doctrine of grace. Miller said that in Revelation 11:7, “when they shall have finished their testimony,” referred to events in France between 1793 to 1796, “when the 1260 years are about fulfilled (emphasis added). “The beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit” which “shall overcome them [the two witnesses] and kill them,” referred to the “laws or edicts against them” which made the Bible functionally a dead document. 

When verse 8 speaks of their dead bodies lying in the streets of the great city, this “will apply to France in particular,” he said. Miller declared this fulfilled by the St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre of 50,000 Huguenots. (White wrote that 70,000 were massacred). Verse 11 speaks of a resurrection after three days and a half, which Miller applied to the Bible being “dormant three years and a half.” 

Miller called verse 12’s reference to the two witnesses’ ascension into heaven a “plain and distinct prophecy of the Bible societies.” He then returned to the sackcloth theme and assigned it the period from 538 to 1798, when laymen were forbidden to read the Bible in their mother tongue and “men of the world” “declared war against the Bible. Consequently, 

almost the whole nation of the French became Deists, or Atheists, in a short time. This nation had long been guilty of the abominations of the anti-Christian beast, the sins of Sodom and Egypt, and the persecution of those who protested against her national corruptions: the slaying of the witnesses; their lying in a dead state three years and a half in the street of the great city; the revolution spoken of in this prophecy––all happened in the French revolution, between the years 1793 and 1798. A decree was passed by the council and directory of France, prohibiting the Bible to be read in public, in any of the chapels in France, and Bibles were gathered in heaps, and bonfires were made of them, and great rejoicings were  had all over the kingdom at the downfall of priestcraft, as they called it, and particularly at Lyons, where the scriptures were publicly dragged through the streets, with circumstances of the greatest contempt, and other things transacted in the exultation of their triumph, which are too shocking to narrate. Let it suffice, then, to say, that after three years and a half the Bible was again permitted to be read…” (emphasis added).9

Miller added that the very same year in which the edict against the Bible was rescinded, a few persons in London established the Bible Society. He believed this was the figurative resurrection of the Bible Revelation predicted. Thus, while White likely appropriated her historicist interpretation of the two witnesses more directly from Smith than Miller, Smith, himself, was intellectually dependent upon Miller’s interpretation, which had appeared about four decades earlier. 

But as I emphasized in Father Miller’s Daughter, Miller was intellectually dependent on a long historicist tradition for many prophetic periods of his Evidences. This was thoroughly documented by Froom, who listed about forty commentators from Justin Martyr in 160 CE to Eberhard II of Salzburg in 1246 who almost unanimously identified the two witnesses as Elijah and Enoch.10 But by the Protestant Reformation, a major change of interpretation had occurred. Froom documented scores of commentators who identified the two witnesses as the Old and New Testaments. Given the Reformation’s emphasis on the Bible, this is quite comprehensible. For example, Johann Funck (1518-1566) was Froom’s first documented commentator to hold this position. Interestingly, he also asserted that the 1260-years lasted from Bishop Samosata, in 261, to the Diet of Worms, in 1521. This is another of the many precise date ranges proposed for the 1260 days. The other interesting trend is that commentators increasingly identified France as the tenth part of the city that falls due to a nonliteral earthquake. The earthquake in Revelation 11 is interpreted as a figurative, not literal, event like the Lisbon earthquake the historicists found in Revelation 6:12.11 However, the most likely forerunner of the Miller/Smith/White concept that specific French assembly edicts in 1793 and 1796 “killed” and then “resuscitated” the Bible is Joseph Galloway (1730-1803). Froom made this striking assertion under the heading: “DEATH OF WITNESSES FROM 1792 TO 1796,” writing that “Galloway gives a very detailed explanation, which led him to the conclusion that the Two Witnesses were slain in France.” Galloway said that they prophesied in sackcloth “during the domination and persecutions of the Mohammedan and Papal hierarchies” for centuries, but an atheistic power would “kill” the Old and New Testaments. Galloway brashly stated that the murderer of the two witnesses was “obviously, that political and atheistical monster, the revolutionary power now ruling the French nation,” and specifically identified the “great city” where their “dead bodies shall lie in the street” as Paris. 

Froom quoted Galloway’s explanation of “their dead bodies will be seen three days and a half” as being “three years and an half: that is, from the time of the final expulsion of the clergy (when all practical religion ceased in France), to the date of the decree for tolerating all religion.12

Thus, it is simple to see the origins of all the elements of Miller’s, Smith’s, and White’s historicist interpretation of the two witnesses and how they accumulated over time. Moreover, Galloway was not using divine wisdom to foretell future politico-religious events. His speculations concerning events of 1792 to 1796 in France in an 1809 edition of his Brief Commentaries13 were far from commonsense.

The most significant aspect of White’s explanation of the two witnesses is not whether her direct borrowing came from Miller, Uriah Smith, Croly, or Storrs, but the fact that both White and her source referred to two nonexistent edicts of the French assembly and relied on the multi-member historicist tradition that Galloway represented. 

This is another specific example of Ellen White stating that she “was shown” an event that never occurred, though she believed it occurred as postulated by the long line of historicists.  

She was Father Miller’s Daughter, but she had a lengthy heritage of less-known forefathers as well, whose histories she imagined she could appropriate without fear of contradiction.  

The French Revolution and its sequelae fit well into her overarching Great Controversy narrative. Just like the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire dominated historicist explanations of the fifth and sixth trumpets. Just like recent Seventh-day Adventist commentators have seen the United States government depicted in Revelation’s two-horned beast from the earth (though had they—and she—written closer to the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, they might have identified atheistic communism as the fulfillment of the Apocalypse’s eschatology).  

In major themes and minor details, historicists’ identifications of specific historical events with specific biblical verses were an extended exercise in eisegesis. The non-existent French edicts regarding the Bible in 1793 and 1796, killing and resuscitating the two witnesses of Revelation 11, is just one small example of a hermeneutic Rorschach test wherein interpreters find in the textual ink blot whatever they are culturally predisposed to finding.

The historicists were disposed to seeing their Bibles as providing sweeping historical panoramas that started with the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires, the latter western empires falling to barbarians who would morph into ten European nation states (or perhaps more lately the European Union), while the eastern empires centered in Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottomans. The new two-horned beast—the United States—would be the final world empire to finally enact the death penalty for Sabbath keepers. It did not matter whether there was any semantic or syntactic textual justification for the “exact” dates and geopolitical actors proposed by such eisegesis. 

Miller had found multiple texts with prophetic periods starting in 677 BC, 607 BC, and 457 BC, all ending “exactly” in 1843, and others all ending in exactly 1798. Many historicist interpreters before him found wildly differing precise dates persuasive. The dates of the French assembly’s two edicts—1793 and 1796—were minor players in the grand historicist drama of assigning precise dates, but methodologically and hermeneutically, they were clones. If someone were to conduct historical DNA tests on Ellen White’s ideological paternity, Croly might be the closest genetic match for one of her chromosomes: the two witnesses characteristic, but William Miller would still be the strongest candidate for overall spiritual paternity.

About the author

Donald E. Casebolt studied in the MDiv program at Andrews University, studied Semitic languages and Protestant theology at Karl Eberhard University at Tubingen, Germany, and spent two years in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. He published Child of the Apocalypse: Ellen G. White in 2021 and Father Miller’s Daughter in 2022. He is a retired nurse practitioner. More from Donald E. Casebolt.
  1. Prescott anticipated Brown’s findings. He stated that Ellen White’s treatment of the two witnesses “appear[s] to have been taken directly from Thoughts on Revelation: and the statement concerning the decree suppressing the Bible . . . is taken verbatim, but without credit from an article by George Storrs . . .” See Arthur L. White, “W. W. Prescott and the 1911 Edition of The Great Controversy,”  https://whiteestate.org/legacy/issues-gc-prescott-html/, 21. Accessed November 15, 2023.
    ↩︎
  2. Leroy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith Of Our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation: Colonial and Early National American Exposition (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1946), III:546. ↩︎
  3. Taken from Ian Brown’s citation of Smith’s 1881 Revelation, 243. ↩︎
  4. Arthur L. White, “W. W. Prescott and the 1911 Edition of The Great Controversy,”  https://whiteestate.org/legacy/issues-gc-prescott-html/., 21. Accessed November 15, 2023. ↩︎
  5. As one reads through Arthur White’s account of the procedures and energies employed in trying to provide actual historical substantiation for other questionable passages, one can see that those involved in the 1911 revision of the 1888 GC were not seeking an objective truth. They had a preconceived idea of what the prophet said “the facts” must be and diligently sought evidence which would confirm their preconceptions. This is commonly called confirmation bias. ↩︎
  6. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years: 1905-1915 (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald, 1982), 315. ↩︎
  7. https://whiteestate.org/legacy/issues-gc-prescott-html/, 21. ↩︎
  8. Ian Brown, “Casebolt’s Father Miller’s Daughter: Ellen Harmon White and White’s Interpretation of Rev 11,” unpublished manuscript, 13. ↩︎
  9. William Miller, Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ (Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1842), 116-121. ↩︎
  10. Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: Early Church Exposition, Subsequent Deflections, and Medieval Revival (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1950), I:458, 896. ↩︎
  11. Le Roy  Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: Pre-Reformation and Reformation Restoration, and Second Departure (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1948), II:309. See index page 863 for many other examples of the two witnesses being the Old and New Testaments. See chart page 787 for an assortment of about a dozen dates for the 1260 days: 396-1656; 437-1697; 454-1714; 864-1521; 587-1847; 620-1880; 445-1705; 529-1789; 538-1798. ↩︎
  12. Froom, The Prophetic Faith, II:779-781. He does not mention a specific edict ordering the expulsion of the clergy, but an anti-clerical campaign did occur. He does refer to a specific decree of toleration for all religions. One can see how the fully developed tale of two specific edicts being promulgated exactly three and a half years apart evolved. The clincher that the last edict was held in suspense for exactly six months before being approved by a unanimous vote was a dramatic touch. This is parallel to the explanation of the edict of Justinian, which was promulgated in 533 but supposedly became effective in 538 when Justinian’s forces breached Rome’s walls. Some had proposed 533-1793 as the 1260-year prophetic period. ↩︎
  13. Froom, The Prophetic Faith, II: 779, footnote 52. See also Donald Edward Casebolt, Father Miller’s Daughter (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022), 228-231. The book also discusses multiple other “prophetic periods” whose calculations and interpretations were far from literal and commonsense. See also previous footnote for many other contradictory historicist calculations for the 1260 years. ↩︎
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