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The Gift of Prophecy (The Role of Ellen White in God’s Remnant Church) - Contents
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    Interpreting the Ellen G. White writings

    We could avoid much controversy and misunderstanding if, in interpreting and applying the writings of Ellen G. White, besides paying attention to how she used Scripture, we always observe the following four basic guidelines.GP 98.4

    1. Consider the historical context. In Ellen White’s opening address at the 1901 General Conference in Battle Creek, she spoke of the need to reorganize the General Conference. “There are to be more than one or two or three men to consider the whole vast field,” she said. “God has not put any kingly power in our ranks to control this or that branch of the work. The work has been greatly restricted by the efforts to control it in every line.” She called for a complete “reorganization; a power and strength must be brought into the committees that are necessary” (LDE 53).GP 98.5

    What had happened that occasioned these strong statements? When we look at the development of our church during the last few decades of the nineteenth century, we find that while the General Conference Executive Committee had thirteen members, six of the thirteen were spread out across North America and two resided overseas, so the full committee didn’t often meet. Thus the five members of the committee who lived in Battle Creek, together with the secretary and the treasurer of the General Conference, who were not members of the committee, “carried the day-to-day responsibilities of the operation of the church.” 2Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years, 1900-1905 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald®, 1981), 72. Therefore, in her opening address at that General Conference session, Ellen White told the delegates, “That these men should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be,—that is past. What we want now is a reorganization” (GCB, April 3, 1901 par. 25).GP 98.6

    Ellen White’s appeal didn’t go unheeded. The delegates to that General Conference session effected a reorganization that largely corrected the “kingly power” problem. The General Conference Committee was enlarged to twenty-five members, the various independent organizations became departments of the General Conference, and the newly formed union conferences took over the day-to-day running of their fields. A few months later, Ellen White wrote, “During the General Conference the Lord wrought mightily for His people. Every time I think of that meeting, a sweet solemnity comes over me, and sends a glow of gratitude to my soul” (RH, Nov. 26, 1901; LDE 54).GP 99.1

    In that same year, her son Edson, who had run into difficulties with the Review and Herald publishing house prior to the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference, sought compensation from the church leadership. In presenting his case, he quoted from his mother’s pre-1901 writings. When she heard what Edson had done, she wrote to him, IGP 99.2

    I am again much burdened as I see you selecting words from writings that I have sent you, and using them to force decisions that the brethren do not regard with clearness. I have received letters from Elder Daniells and Elder Kilgore asking me to send them instruction at once, if I have any light in reference to the points you have quoted from my letters.GP 99.3

    Your course would have been the course to be pursued if no change had been made in the General Conference. But a change has been made, and many more changes will be made and great developments will be seen. No issues are to be forced (19MR 146).GP 99.4

    The situation had changed, and she didn’t want her pre-1901 statements applied to the new situation at the General Conference.GP 100.1

    So, we need to look at the historical context—the time, place, and circumstances under which a particular statement was written. Unless there are valid reasons for doing so, we cannot make into a universal statement applicable at all times what Ellen White wrote addressing a particular situation in her time.GP 100.2

    2. Study the immediate context . The immediate context is what comes immediately before and after a particular statement. What was Ellen White referring to in the paragraph or chapter from which a statement is taken?GP 100.3

    In the book Christ’s Object Lessons , Ellen White said, “Those who accept the Saviour, however sincere their conversion, should never be taught to say or to feel that they are saved” (COL 155). Many Christians then and now have believed in the erroneous doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Ellen White clearly opposed this teaching. In the immediate context, she said,GP 100.4

    There is nothing so offensive to God or so dangerous to the human soul as pride and self-sufficiency. Of all sins it is the most hopeless, the most incurable.GP 100.5

    Peter’s fall was not instantaneous, but gradual. Self-confidence led him to the belief that he was saved, and step after step was taken in the downward path, until he could deny his Master. Never can we safely put confidence in self or feel, this side of heaven, that we are secure against temptation. Those who accept the Saviour, however sincere their conversion, should never be taught to say or to feel that they are saved. This is misleading. Every one should be taught to cherish hope and faith; but even when we give ourselves to Christ and know that He accepts us, we are not beyond the reach of temptation (ibid., 154, 155).GP 100.6

    The context makes it clear that she is addressing the issue of self-confidence and temptations after conversion. We are never secure against temptations; we can never say that we cannot fall—that we are saved and therefore secure from temptation. But this doesn’t mean that day by day we cannot have the assurance of salvation (see 1 John 5:12, 13). As Ellen White herself noted in the above statement, we may “give ourselves to Christ and know that He accepts us.GP 100.7

    3. Study the larger context. The “larger context” refers to other statements Ellen White has written on a particular topic. To illustrate this principle, we will look at one aspect of the Adventist health message: meat eating. On this issue, Mrs. White made some very absolute-sounding statements. But she also made many modifying statements that we need to consider before we draw any conclusions regarding this topic.GP 101.1

    In 1903, Ellen White made what seems to be quite an absolute statement. She wrote, “Vegetables, fruits, and grains should compose our diet. Not an ounce of flesh meat should enter our stomachs. The eating of flesh is unnatural. We are to return to God’s original purpose in the creation of man” (CD 380). Anyone reading this statement by itself would have to conclude that under no circumstances are we to eat meat.GP 101.2

    However, just a few pages further on in the book, we find a modifying statement from the year 1890 on the same topic.GP 101.3

    Where plenty of good milk and fruit can be obtained there is rarely any excuse for eating animal food; it is not necessary to take the life of any of God’s creatures to supply our ordinary needs. In certain cases of illness or exhaustion it may be thought best to use some meat, but great care should be taken to secure the flesh of healthy animals. It has come to be a very serious question whether it is safe to use flesh food at all in this age of the world. It would be better never to eat meat than to use the flesh of animals that are not healthy. When I could not obtain the food I needed, I have sometimes eaten a little meat; but I am becoming more and more afraid of it (ibid., 394).GP 101.4

    The modifying circumstances she referred to are cases of illness or when other food is not readily available. She admitted that she herself ate meat from time to time. Therefore, in a very balanced statement made before the delegates at the General Conference in 1909, she said, “We do not mark out any precise line to be followed in diet; but we do say that in countries where there are fruits, grains, and nuts in abundance, flesh food is not the right food for God’s people. . . . If meat eating was ever healthful, it is not safe now. Cancers, tumors, and pulmonary diseases are largely caused by meat eating.GP 101.5

    “We are not to make the use of flesh food a test of fellowship, but we should consider the influence that professed believers who use flesh foods have over others” (9T 159).GP 102.1

    We should certainly aim for a vegetarian diet, but we should never make it a test of fellowship. In some circumstances, a diet that includes some meat may even be the best, but this should never serve as an excuse to continue eating meat when there is no real necessity. “A meat diet is not the most wholesome of diets, and yet I would not take the position that meat should be discarded by every one. Those who have feeble digestive organs can often use meat, when they cannot eat vegetables, fruit, or porridge” (CD 394, 395).GP 102.2

    When we look at the total body of what Ellen White has written on a given topic, a balanced picture emerges that is invaluable for all Christians who take their religion seriously, and particularly for Seventh-day Adventists, whom God has called to be His witnesses in these last days.GP 102.3

    4. Look for principles. Prophets convey God’s truth as principles or policies. Principles are universal and apply to all people, in all places, and at all times. Policies are the applications of principles to particular situations. Policies may change as circumstances change; they may look different in different cultures and places. “That which can be said of men under certain circumstances cannot be said of them under other circumstances” (3T 470). Two examples from the writings of Ellen White come readily to mind.GP 102.4

    First, in 1903, at a time when cars were not yet generally available, Ellen White wrote, “If girls, . . . could learn to harness and drive a horse, and to use the saw and the hammer, as well as the rake and the hoe, they would be better fitted to meet the emergencies of life” (Ed 216). The principle in this statement is that girls should be “fitted to meet the emergencies of life.” Applied to our time, it could mean that girls should learn how to drive and look after a car.GP 102.5

    And second, in 1895, while Ellen White was in Australia, she was given a view of happenings in Battle Creek. Among the scenes shown to her was one involving bicycles used for racing. At the end of the nineteenth century, the bicycle was not an economical means of transportation. Rather, it was a rich man’s toy. The best early bicycles cost $150, an amount comparable to the cost of an expensive car today. People were mortgaging their income for months in advance to buy what was then an expensive luxury item.GP 102.6

    On February 6, 1896, Ellen White wrote a letter to the church members in Battle Creek in which, among many other things, she said, “The money expended in bicycles and dress and other needless things must be accounted for. . . . As God’s people you should represent Jesus; but Christ is ashamed of the self-indulgent ones. My heart is pained, I can scarcely restrain my feelings, when I think how easily our people are led away from practical Christian principles to self-pleasing” (TM 398).GP 103.1

    Within a few years’ time, the bicycle became a useful and inexpensive means of transportation, and Ellen White never commented on it again. Her policy on bicycles was based on the biblical principle of good stewardship. If she were alive today, doubtless she would apply this principle to the way people spend money on cars, boats, electronic gadgets, etc.GP 103.2

    In summary, context is all important. In our interpretation of the writings of Ellen White, the historical and literary context will help us to navigate safely between the Scylla and Charybdis of too literal an interpretation on one hand and, on the other, an interpretation that is so far removed from the intent of the author that it is useless.GP 103.3

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