"Be Thou Perfect": An Introduction to the Thought of Ellen G. White

By John Mann


Ellen White was the leading personality in the early Seventh-day Adventist Church, and her writings continue to be the authoritative source of what Seventh-day Adventism means today. Although she never held an official position in the church, she argued powerfully for her vision of the destiny of Seventh-day Adventism, and wrote extensively on many subjects ranging over church doctrine, Christian behaviour, health and the Bible.

Ellen Gould Harmon was a sickly, introverted adolescent ecstatic from Portland, Maine, who, along with other Millerites in Portland, had numerous trances, messages and mystical experiences, indeed they became infamous for their 'continual introduction of visionary nonsense'. However she was discovered by James White, a young Adventist preacher and teacher, who became her protector and, in 1846, her husband. They were both central figures in Seventh-day Adventist church, as the group of believers became known in 1860, and in 1863 James White was asked to be their first president (an offer he temporarily declined). For years Ellen White lived in the shadow of her husband, providing visionary endorsement for the opinions of the early church, however after James's death in 1881 she assumed a more assertive role, directing the younger church leaders from behind the scenes and by the time of her death in 1915 had become the real authority for Adventists.

It was the message of William Miller that first aroused in Ellen White a dissatisfaction with existing Christianity. Miller preached that the Bible could be 'de-ciphered' to reveal the date of the Second Coming of Christ, and that this date was very soon. Ellen White was convinced of Miller's message and shocked at the dismissive and even hostile attitude of other Christian's towards Miller's teaching. The group of 'Adventists' (so called because they emphasised Christ's second Advent) were to be disappointed and humiliated when two dates set for the Second Coming in 1844 failed, and they splintered into various factions, some rejecting Miller's 'de-ciphering', others setting new dates, others uncertain what to do. The 'Adventists' would soon have faded into history were it not for the vision of Ellen White that this small core of Adventists would form the basis for a new church, fulfilling the promise of the reformation to return to a faith based wholly on the Bible, with a mission to preach this original, true Christianity to the whole world, warning them to return to God before he did return a second time. Her zeal and energy provided the spark that founded the Seventh-day Adventist church.

Obviously Ellen White lived and thought within the pietistic tradition of Christianity, yet she developed elements within this tradition as well as providing interesting original ideas. Her thought can be traced through four stages:

  • Her experiences within the Millerite movement up to 1844
  • The post-1844 revaluation which resulted in the foundation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
  • Her attempt to initiate a renewal of the Church around 1888
  • Her development of a 'Health Message' from around 1900 (she died in 1915)
It must be emphasised that her thought developed in relation to the experiences and debates of the church and any understanding of her ideas must take this into account.

This article will begin by providing an 'overview' of Ellen White's life, showing the development of her ideas within the concrete historical situation. It will then focus on some essential features of her thought showing how her ideas fit together into a systematic whole, providing the theoretical framework for Seventh-day Adventist theology, paying special attention to her 'Magnum Opus', 'The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan'.

The Life of Ellen White

1. The Millerites

Before dealing with the Millerites it might be useful to briefly note the pietistic ideas that Ellen White grew up with and which were the foundation from which all her later beliefs were derived from. Two themes, closely related, characterise Pietistic belief: the individual's battle with Satan and the individual's relationship with God. The individual cannot by himself defeat Satan, but my constant devotion to God he may obtain strength to resist temptation. This relationship with God is centred around the Bible and prayer, and the purpose of the Church is to reinforce the study of the Bible and prayer to God, rather than containing any authority itself.

Pietism understands every human activity and belief in terms of the great divide between the World and the believer: Satan constantly attempts to ensnare the Christian either by force or deception, and it is for this reason that the believer must always be on his/her guard. Not only are the more obvious sins (such as lying, stealing, murder and blasphemy) to be shunned, but also the sins of the flesh (lust, alcohol, gluttony etc.), and also the 'frivolities' of music, theatre, dancing and 'worldly' enjoyment. Ellen White was brought up to believe that the Devil was always trying to trap the believer, and therefore constant vigilance was essential.

Any part of the world is seen as a possible deception of Satan, as he is 'Lord of this World', hence all human reasoning and judgement is itself suspect. The only objective certainty for the believer was the Bible, and hence all true belief could only come from a study of the Bible. Ellen White continued this suspicion of human creation, showing no interest in philosophy or theology, for her, all true ideas must come directly from the Bible.

One could speculate as to why it was that Ellen White was so attracted to these ideas, for children do not always accept their parents beliefs. Possibly it was due to the fact that she was frequently at home due to illness or injury (at 17 a stone hit her in the face, which she took a long while to recover from), and therefore became indifferent to peer pressure and continued to look to her parents as her example. Thus the normal process where the child's main influences pass from parents to peers and finally the development of an individual personality was halted early on, and this may explain the emphasis she puts on the parent/child relationship in her later writings.

Ellen White's devotion to God was given a new emphasis when she heard the message of William Miller. Miller used a method developed by Jewish Theologians in the Twelfth century to 'de-code' Daniel and Revelation, the Apocalyptic books of the Bible. Using this method the various symbols and images were said to correspond with historical entities such as empires, kings, governments etc., and the time spans mentioned, 2300 days, 1300 days etc. represented years. Thus such events as the fall of the Roman Empire, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the French Revolution and so on were thought to have been predicted in prophecy. Perhaps more importantly, according to Miller one of the time periods, the 2300 days, had not yet finished, and the event predicted, the 'cleansing of the sanctuary' was thus in the future.

Miller understood the phrase 'cleansing of the sanctuary' to refer to the Second Coming of Christ, and hence the end of the world. The phrase itself refers to the Jewish Day of Atonement, which occurs once a year, and during which all the sins repented of during the year are removed from the sanctuary and 'transferred' to a goat (the 'scapegoat') which is then left to roam the desert. Thus already Ellen White was studying the Old Testament symbolism of the sanctuary from where her ideas about the Eternal Law would be derived.

2. The Revaluation

The failure of Christ to come as expected in 1844 caused Ellen White's group of Adventists to re-examine the meaning of the phrase 'the cleansing of the sanctuary'. Through Bible study and, apparently, a vision from God, it was discovered that the sanctuary did not refer to the earth, but that the sanctuary was in heaven, and marked the beginning of the End of Time, after 1844 Christ could come at any moment. Thus the Great Disappointment of 1844 did not discourage belief in the imminent return of Christ, but their new understanding of prophecy only made the event more certain.

The new interpretation of the 'cleansing of the sanctuary' was provided by a New York farmer called Hiram Edson, who claimed that the event, not the date had been wrong:

"that instead of our High Priest coming out of the Most Holy of the heavenly sanctuary to come to this earth on the tenth day of the seventh month, at the end of the 2,300 days, he for the first time entered on that day the second apartment of that sanctuary and that he had a work to perform in the Most Holy before coming to this earth."
During this period of revaluation two other important doctrines were introduced: the state of the dead and the Sabbath. The state of the dead doctrine stated that the soul is not immortal, and does not ascend to Heaven at death, rather only at the Second Coming of Christ are the dead Resurrected, only then do they go to Heaven. This doctrine was logically consistent with the prominence of the Second Coming, for if the dead are already with God at death, it is possible to re-interpret the Parousa symbolically. However if the dead only go to Heaven at the Parousa and the Parousa is only allegorical, there is no life after death.

The second new doctrine was the Sabbath. This doctrine continued the interest Ellen White already had in the Jewish law, and provided the key to a complete systemisation of Adventist belief. Joseph Bates, another early Adventist, argued the case for a seventh-day (i.e. Saturday) Sabbath, but was treated with indifference, for Ellen White, however, it tied together a lot of loose ends. Ellen White argued that the whole point at issue in Satan's rebellion against God was his charge that God's law was unjust, unnecessary, and impossible to keep, and that it was exactly Satan's wish that the Sabbath be treated with indifference, for if one part of God's law was ignored, other parts would soon follow. This established for Ellen White the 'reason d' ĂȘtre' for the church, to preach the whole gospel, including the full obligation of the Christian to keep God's whole law. Study of prophecy convinced the Adventists that the obligation to 'keep the commandments' was to constitute God's final warning to the world before he returned, and they even identified the establishment of their church as being foretold in the Bible.

Thus the Seventh-day Adventist church was established by arguing the case for their specific doctrines (prophecy, the Sabbath, the state of the dead and the second coming) with other Christians of a similar background. Provided someone would acknowledge that the Bible was God's word and that Christian's were obliged to keep the Ten Commandments, or that generally they held from a fundamentalist or religious conservative views, Adventists then believed they could then convince them of the truth of their own doctrines.

Visiting the various Seventh-day Adventist churches at the time, Ellen White realised that emphasis on their distinctive doctrines was having undesired side-effects. Adventists were becoming almost obsessed with debate and argument, to the detriment of any other practises. In 1888 her frustration came to a head, sending massive shockwaves through the young church.

3. 1888

At the 1888 General Conference a turmoil was created at the preaching of two ministers, Jones and Waggoner, on the subject of Justification by Faith. Many leading Adventists openly opposed their message which they saw as contradicting their teaching on the law. Practically isolated, Jones and Waggoner were surprised when Ellen White announced her support for their message. In the debate that followed, it became clear that while Adventists tacitly supported traditional Protestant views on justification and sanctification, their actual knowledge of the doctrines was either minimal or just wrong. Ellen White saw two errors compounded: not only was a church based on dry debate not going to sweep the world with the power of God, the members ignorance of the basic truths of salvation meant they were lacking power in their own devotional lives.

After the conference the bulk of Adventist leaders had set themselves to defend the 'Old Foundation', seeing the emphasis on Justification by Faith as watering down their teaching on the law. For Ellen White, however, the question was never one of shirking Christian responsibilities, but of the motivation to obey the law. She saw in the Justification by Faith issue a means by which the church members would become full of the Holy Spirit, working non-stop to spread the message of Adventism with enthusiasm and confidence. She described the church as 'Laodocian', luke-warm, apathetic, but told of a time in which the church would be like the early Christians, full of the power of God, preaching everywhere and converting thousands, she described this event as the 'Latter Rain' of the Holy Spirit.

Despite Ellen White's continued warnings that the church must change, she continued to receive opposition. Jones and Waggoner's isolation and the hostility of the church towards them and pushed them into a pantheistic heresy and they left the church discredited. Ellen White attempted to reinforce the importance of her message by claiming that it was God's instructions to the church, not simply her own viewpoint. Such was her energy that she wrote endlessly on the need for the church to obey her message. She completed a massive five volume account of the history of the world, called The Conflict of the Ages, in which, beginning from Satan's rebellion and ending with the restoration of God's rule on earth she argued that God's plans were constantly being thwarted by the disobedience of his people, yet still the longed for revival did not occur.

Finally, Ellen White announced that the church had missed the opportunity, and that by their disobedience the church had delayed God's coming, yet it would not be delayed indefinitely. She began on a new stage in her writings, attempting revive the church by giving in detail instruction and guidance for a complete Christian life.

4. The Last Stage

Ellen White's final stage of writings are her attempt to leave guidelines on Christian living. She believed that God's coming had been delayed in 1888 because the church was not ready. Now she determined to leave the church a library of instruction and inspiration; it was a long term solution, she hoped that eventually the instructions in her writings would be the living reality of the church, she wanted to give them the means whereby they could grow spiritually day by day until finally they would be ready to receive the 'Latter Rain'.

From their early study of the law the Adventists had acted upon the dietary instructions in Leviticus 11, refraining from eating 'unclean' meat. Now Ellen White wanted to construct a complete 'Health Message'. She argued that for Christians to be most effective, mentally as well as physically, they must be healthy. From her temperance upbringing she knew such texts as 'thy body is the temple of the Holy Spirit', and argued that it was a Christian's obligation to keep healthy. She produced guidelines for a healthy diet and lifestyle, advocating vegetarianism and regular exercise. The church provided funds for sanatoriums and manufacture of health foods.

She produced devotional books on the life and teachings of Christ, encouraging the church members to draw their strength from Christ, and to develop a personal relationship with him. She gave suggestions on prayer and Bible study, promoting a contemplative, personal side to Adventism, not present in the debate and discussion characteristic of the early 'doctrinal' Adventism.

Ellen White wrote on the necessity of supporting the church with generous funding, arguing for the Jewish 'tithing' topped up with additional offerings and gifts. She was a keep supporter of missionary work, and favoured the setting up of missionary hospitals and schools, which were to become an important feature in the spreading of Seventh-day Adventism across the world.

Ellen White died in 1915, but her influence lives on in the Adventist church, where her writings are treated as God's special instruction to his people in the last days, inspired, but without the universality of the Bible. I shall now attempt a construction of her ideas and arguments.

The Teachings

1. In the background

Ellen White lived all her life within the 'fundamentalist' tradition of Christianity. She made assumptions that may seem strange to us, and often her implicit ideas need to be made explicit to see clearly what she is saying.

The most obvious feature of her beliefs that distinguishes her from modern thought is her literalism. Not only did she believe in a literal seven day creation, a literal flood, a literal tower of Babel, that Jonah was literally swallowed by a whale, but also that Heaven literally and physically exists (she said it was beyond the belt of Orion), that Angels are actual beings, as is the Devil and his angels, and that there are other created creatures in the universe, apart from humans on Earth. She describes an Angel in Heaven recording in a book all the deeds done by every person who has ever existed, and regarded the beginning of the Judgement in 1844 as necessarily before the Second Coming so that the lives of everyone who has lived may be evaluated and their punishment determined. Such a degree of literalism is very rare in Christianity, and startling to read, yet she often claimed that a loss of literalism was a victory for the Devil (for example, her argument that Evolution was essentially an attack on the Sabbath, since it attempted to render merely allegorical the sanctification of the seventh day).

A second feature requiring to be made explicit is her vision of the activity of the Devil. Ellen White sees human freedom as prerequisite upon an individuals response to God. If someone rejects God, they become more and more subject to the Devil's deceptions. Thus she sees no problem in frequently claiming that the Devil was behind an idea or an event, without meaning that any individuals involved were consciously serving him. When a person is tempted it is literally the Devil or one of his Angels who is speaking, any resistance to temptation only comes through the intervention of God or His Angels, not from the individual.

A third possible source of confusion is to forget that Mrs. White always wrote to make a particular point, not to investigate the truth about an object. A good example of this is her book "The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan", which appears to be a history of the Christian church: after an early digression about the rebellion of Satan, we read of the persecution of the Early Church, a little later we come to the middle ages, then there is Luther, Wesley, and so on. However, reading through the record of the Early Church, we have no mention of any of the Church Fathers - no Justin Martyr, no Tertullian, no mention of any of the great debates about the nature of Christ or the Trinity, no mention of Arianism or Gnosticism, no mention of any of the creeds; in the Middle Ages there is nothing about Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, no Duns Scotus or Anselm, no Francis of Assisi; we hear of the reformation, but not the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, no Ignatius Iolia, there is no St John of the Cross, no St Julian of Norwich, no Cloud of Unknowing, no Thomas a Kempis, even the references to the Spanish Inquisition do not include one of the most notorious persecutions, the Parfect of Southern France. What exactly is the book about?

The explanation lies on two levels: firstly Mrs. White is following the prophetic outline of time, not the historical outline, secondly she is trying to trace the unconscious suppression of the Law by the Christian church. I shall deal later with "The Great Controversy", but the point to keep in mind is not to be surprised if she misses the main character out of an episode, or deals with minor instances instead of general trends, or quotes apparently out of context, she is attempting to trace the unconscious forces within the shifting layers of time, to drag out the evil where it had not been perceived.

The last item it will be useful to explain is the Adventist method of 'de-coding' prophecy. This method is such an important feature of Adventist thought that it essentially constitutes a 'proof' of the correctness of Seventh-day Adventism.

The Apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation contain accounts of strange visions of grotesque creatures, mysterious speeches, symbols, warnings, allegories and messages. There have been various methods employed to explain what the authors were trying to say, but traditionally two explanations have been favoured. The first is to see the visions as having a spiritual meaning, portraying in a colourful and picturesque way the battle between good and evil, with the promise of the eventual triumph of God and the establishment of his rule on earth. The second is to see the symbols as representing powerful figures at the time the books were written, and in order to prevent the books being destroyed due to their subversive content the messages in them were written in a sort of code that would be discernible to the people of God, but not to her enemies, for example the Beast in Revelation represents Nero, but rather than actually naming him they give the numerological representation of his name, 666. There are two other, less orthodox methods, however, the Adventist and the Dispensationalist. Basically the Dispensationalist method sees all the symbolism as referring to the very final events on Earth, (with the Beast referring to some Anti-Christ who will appear at the end of time, for example), while the Adventist method regards the symbols as referring to historical figures covering the whole time between Christ's first and second Advents, including the events of the last days.

2. A Special Church

Whilst various Adventists may be credited with the dissemination of the Sabbath and the state of the dead, even with the sanctuary and prophecy, and others may have given better pastoral ministries, and still others may have put their unique gifts in building up the various missionary fields, Ellen White must be credited with her unique vision of the role of the church. It may sometimes seem difficult to single out what Ellen White made a unique contribution to, for a lot of what she writes is reiterating and re-emphasising previous writers, and while she made important contributions in the discussions on how the church should be organised, on decisions on building publishing houses for example, we are going to concentrate on her unique message: the role of the 'Remnant Church' and the tasks of the members of that church.

Ellen White had high standards, and high expectations. It seems startling the language she used in describing the Christian church, both Protestant and catholic, but she was expressing her horror at the tragedy of the history of the church in failing to live up to the values of its founder, and it was this nausea at the hypocrisy of the established church, perhaps similar to Kierkegaard's, that caused her uncompromising condemnation. She didn't attempt to balance the good and the bad in church history, that there was any bad at all was unacceptable. Her experience of the Love of God was one of an absolute obligation to obedience, she could not understand how anyone with a knowledge of that love could not then desire that they live in absolute obedience, and any failing from that high standard she viewed with suspicion.

After all the compromises the church had made with the world, Ellen White wanted to see established a church that would not fear to be obedient, no matter what the cost.

We can divide Ellen White's theory of the church into three categories:

  1. The organisation of the presently existing church
  2. The tasks of the presently existing church
  3. The radical break from the present church into the Remnant Church.

For Ellen White, the presently existing Seventh-day Adventist church was only potentially the Remnant Church, there was a vast difference between how the Remnant Church would be and how the SDA church presently was. The Remnant Church was to be created by God, it would contain all true Christians, would suffer persecution from the state, and above all would be filled with the spirit of God. The SDA church had (approximately) the correct doctrine, what it needed was the Holy Spirit, the massive burst of power and authority that would flood the church known as the Latter Rain. The present practise of the church must be in preparation for that event.

The practise of the church is both its organisational social praxis realised in the form of hospitals, missionary work, publications, schools etc. and the collective individual practises of its members. The organisational structure of the church must have its own codes of practise, various development strategies, PR, funding etc. and this necessitates the establishment of a bureaucracy with its own vested interests. Ellen White wrote about the need to develop the organisational structure to allow for progressive expansion in all areas. It was her goal to create a massive superstructure to disseminate SDA ideas to people indirectly as consumers of health foods, books and magazines, as well as directly to students via schools, colleges and universities; to the sick via hospitals, sanatoriums and missionary doctors; to foreign countries via missionaries and evangelism in foreign churches; in addition to the regular church activities such as religious meetings or health education, for example classes to help people give up smoking.

This organisational development is clearly a major change from the small group of Adventists who thought the world was about to end. Now the church must become involved in the outside world as much as possible, creating meeting-points between the secular and the religious and using every opportunity afforded by these conjunctures to expose people to SDA ideas.

With regard to the spiritual state of the SDA members, Ellen White clearly saw that by themselves (i.e. without the Latter Rain) what could be done was limited. What she argued was that the members much reach a state of spiritual maturity in their own lives in order to be ready to receive the Holy Spirit, it wasn't that God didn't want to give the church the Holy Spirit, but that the members had not surrendered themselves completely to God, thus it was only when the members had absolutely emptied themselves of worldly attachments that they could be given the spirit by God. The actual work of complete surrender could not be done by a massive act of the will, or any 'work' by the individual, only the steady, daily communion with God would slowly teach obedience, and this slow learning process was to be aided by Ellen White's pastoral writings. One interesting feature of these writings in the preparation of the self for surrender to God is her absolute rejection of introspection as of any spiritual benefit.

Most religious teachers adhere to the proverb 'know thyself', but Ellen White specifically instructed the believer not to know themselves, but in every difficulty to practise surrender to Christ, to repent of the sin and meditate on the goodness of God. This did not mean that the actions of the individual were not to be noticed, otherwise sins would go unrecognised, but that the psychological reasons for those sins was of no interest or benefit, the only reaction to sinning was repentance and prayer, not self-analysis.

All forms of Christianity would, of course, accept that a Christian should be obedient to God. What distinguishes Ellen White's thinking in this area is how much of what it means to be obedient is known. One type of Christian ethics would maintain that certain principles such as love your enemies, humility, non-resistance to evil etc. are known and it is up to the believer to decide how those principles are to be put into practise. More conservative forms of Christianity would have a set of 'right' actions, such as maintaining social respectability, loyalty to one's country and family, a strict sexual morality, going to church on Sunday, not swearing, not getting drunk etc. Nevertheless there are areas where the individual can make up their own mind. For Mrs. White the whole issue of what obedience to God means is never in doubt. From what to wear, what to eat, sex, the family, obligations to one's country, keeping the Sabbath, violence etc. everything is known, the only issue is whether the individual is obedient or not. The contents of many of her books and letters are instructions on how the Christian must behave, not to achieve salvation, but to be obedient to God. Obedience to God is not performed to earn salvation, but is a measure of the individual's faith. Lack of 'good works' indicates a lack of faith in God. Needless to say this is a complete denial of the reformation 'faith alone' doctrine as it effectively ignores Original Sin, I won't comment on this any further until the conclusion, but suffice it to say that, as Bonhoeffer has shown, this might not necessarily be a bad thing.


I have shown Ellen White's thought to have been systematic enough to provide the doctrinal structure for the SDA church, dynamic enough to have initiated a world wide Adventist movement, and visionary enough to give the movement the impetus to last well over 100 years. Her thought is not always profound, but complex and unique enough to merit study. How are we to evaluate her achievement ? It has to be admitted that certain areas of her thought have dated badly, but her basic insight remains good.

Her vision of the SDA church as disciplined, organised, 'militant' in the sense of having a fully active membership, and completely dedicated to their task remains good. The church would then present itself as able to provide for the needs of the Christian who wants to submit to the rigor and discipline necessary to attain the highest ideals. Obviously this should not encourage pride in Adventists as feeling they are 'better' than other Christians, but a simple recognition that some Christians temperament is not suitable for such an austere existence.

The emphasis on eschatology follows on logically from this view of a 'Vanguard' group of Christians. If a movement can be created of dedicated, single-minded, self-sacrificing Christians, praying earnestly for the Lord's blessing, who can say that his Spirit will not be poured out as a 'Latter Rain' and with this vitalising power will not sweep the world? Such a group would obviously meet opposition, perhaps even persecution, but if successful then the hope for the Parousa would not be in vain.

The emphasis on the Sabbath is an absolutely vital symbol after centuries of anti-Semitic theology. The tie between the Jewish and Christian religion should not be broken by the Greek and Gnostic elements introduced early in church history, and a fresh study of the God of the Old Testament would shatter the misconceived abstractions in medieval theology of a God outside of human life, and replace them with the True God who partakes of all human activity.

A reconsideration of the Jewishness of Christianity is also in line with current historical researches into the historical Christ and the early battle between the Jewish Christians and the Pauline groups. The Ebonite tradition should be re-evaluated and given its proper place in the early history of the church.

In the civil law there are values such as Justice, Equality before the Law, protecting the weak etc. that aim to be embodied within the specific objective laws. A legal system that had no laws but only basic principles would be impossible, precedents would be established and traditions created that would effectively become laws anyway. Similarly the church has to attempt to 'cash in' the Christian values in terms of what that actually means in practise. The civil law changes when a new law is thought to be an improvement on the old, and this does not bring the status of the law itself into disrepute, similarly the church does not have to live forever with judgments it has made, they may be re-evaluated in the light of experience. Adventism has attempted to say what Christianity means in practise, sometimes it was successful, sometimes not, but at least there are a set of guidelines that can be worked on, improved, innovated. It is only by having a go at doing this, risking failure, that success becomes possible and genuine advances made. If it approaches this task in an compassionate and reasonable way it should not be open to criticisms of 'legalism'.

The idea that there is a basic sinfulness within the west that is culturally based (i.e. she identifies it within certain institutions such as Catholicism rather than giving it an anthropological source) can be seen as related to the deconstructive tradition of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida. Due to her lack of theological learning, the language she uses to express herself was contradictory and confusing, but this is something initiators of new ideas often experience. Christianity does not see good and evil as a dualism. The binary pair are deconstructed by the passion of Christ. Ellen White's attempts to grapple with the problem of evil exhibit this same paradox of defining the error in terms of the error. Her descriptions of evil portray reality as a swirling sea of confusion. There is no Real. Objects never achieve an identity. They are only defined in terms of difference. Everything is scarred. All thought contains within it seeds of error. The Devil's hand is everywhere. Derrida, of course, defines the problem in philosophical terms as the Metaphysics of Presence. Ellen White introduces the figure of Satan to show a force of deception. People only believe they have a true conception of reality. In fact, this belief is a deception, reality is confusion. Unlike Derrida, Ellen White does have a conception of truth, but perhaps she is using the term in an unfamiliar way, for she says it is only present in this world by a specific 'reading' (in the Althussarian sense) of the Bible. It would need a book to develop this theme sufficiently, but hopefully the start of the path can be seen.

Having said that the essentials of Ellen White's thought remains good, we have to admit certain criticisms. When she describes Angels writing down the deeds of men in books or the exact sequence of events in the last day she, like Swedenbourg, is using her imagination to express spiritual realities. Our second criticism is her limiting of human freedom and responsibility. Given her temperament such an attitude is understandable, but it is not correct doctrine. If someone criticises her work they are not slaves of the Devil. Roman Catholicism, for all the criticisms one might have of it, is not an instrument of the Devil (it is too diverse to have an essence anyway). If an Adventist joins another church, they are not being trapped by the Devil. If someone is not a Christian, this does not mean they are unconsciously controlled by Satan. The third criticism is more complex. It is her views on prophecy.

Ellen White pointed the way to a new understanding of prophecy when she said that righteousness by faith was the third angel's message in verity. By this she pointed to the re-spiritualisation of the Apocalyptic message. Clearly apocalyptic language was used in many books, not just those that appear in the Bible, and by studying them all we can see that they were not preceding history like Nostradamus. One could take a Desmond Ford line and argue that the apocalyptic is whatever you want it to be, (a sort of Death of the Author!) and if you want to give it a historical meaning then that's the meaning it has for you. I believe it should be treated like the monarchy in British politics: not actually put to hard labour, but not killed off either, treated with veneration and respect.

Finally Ellen White's disdain for theology is being fought against by the church, in an attempt to create a rigorous and exact language to express itself in. The farcical ignorance of leading Adventist scholars on basic Christian doctrines in the past must not be repeated. The church should not only become completely cognisant of Christian theology, but be able to make important contributions to its development.

In conclusion, Ellen White's thought is still resonating inside the SDA church, despite 'reformers' attempting to remove it of all its distinguishing features. It is essentially remarkably relevant to many issues and still capable of guiding the church until the Parousa.

Category: Bible vs. Mrs. White
Please SHARE this using the social media icons below