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Inspiration/Revelation: What It Is and How It Works - Contents
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    Ellen White and Development of Seventh-day Adventist Doctrine

    Many of those in the Seventh-day Adventist church today who express concern (if not doubt) about the authority of Ellen White in the church generally focus their interest on the issue of doctrinal authority. This being the case, it is especially helpful for us to examine, successively, how we as a people arrived at our doctrine, what role Ellen White played in the development of these doctrines, and how Ellen White herself viewed the nature of her contribution to that process.IRWHW 79.3

    The Sabbath Conferences

    Most Seventh-day Adventist church historians would probably agree that the doctrinal framework of the denomination was largely hammered out during a series of long weekend gatherings that we today call Bible conferences, but which in earlier times were generally known as Sabbath conferences.IRWHW 79.4

    The historians, however, appear to be in less agreement regarding the time of when these gatherings were held. LeRoy Edwin Froom, author of the monumental, exhaustive four-volume work, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, in a chapter entitled “Sabbath Conferences Consolidate Emerging Movement,” 58LeRoy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1954), vol. 4, pp. 1021-1048. seems satisfied to settle for merely the six conferences held in 1848:IRWHW 79.5

    1. Rocky Hill, Connecticut, April 20-24, at Albert Belden’s home. Attendance: about 50. Speakers: H. S. Gurney, Joseph Bates (the Sabbath and the law), and James White (the dawning significance of the third angel’s message, its scope, and specifications).

    2. Volney, New York, August 18, in David Arnold’s carriage house. Attendance: about 35. Speakers: Joseph Bates (the Sabbath), and James White (the parable of Matthew 25:1-13).

    3. Port Gibson, New York, August 27 and 28, in Hiram Edson’s barn. No specific details available.

    4. Rocky Hill, Connecticut, September 8 and 9, in Albert Belden’s home. No specific details available.

    5. Topsham, Maine, October 20-22, in the Stockbridge Howland home. Discussion centered around the possibility of publishing a paper, but since the participants were without funds, no concrete action was taken.

    6. Dorchester, Massachusetts, November 18, Otis Nichols’ home. A further discussion on publishing a paper took place, and Ellen White received affirmative counsel from the Lord regarding this literature ministry.

    The editors of the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, however, see a three-year period as involved in doctrinal formation, rather than merely the beginning year of 1848; and they point out that in 1849 there were another six conferences (James and Ellen White attended at least three of them: Paris, Maine, in September, and Oswego and Centerport, New York, in November). And in 1850 there were a total of ten Sabbath conferences, eight of which the Whites attended. 59“Sabbath Conferences,” Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, p. 1255.IRWHW 79.6

    The conferences were attended mostly by those who had been caught up in the Millerite movement and were unwilling, after the great disappointment of October 22, 1844, to throw over their former experience (as many others had done). Interested friends of these ex-Millerites also attended the meetings, which might run over Friday and Sabbath, or Sabbath and Sunday, or Thursday through Sunday.IRWHW 79.7

    Keeping in mind that the Millerite movement was probably the most ecumenical movement of the entire nineteenth century, it is not surprising that this remnant of it comprised a group of people with widely divergent theological viewpoints. Commenting upon the first of the 1848 conferences, James White, in a letter written afterward to Stockbridge Howland, said of the 50 who attended, “They were not all fully in the truth.” 60Cited in Spiritual Gifts 2:93.IRWHW 79.8

    Regarding the second of the Sabbath conferences (and the first general meeting to be held in western New York), Ellen White, in describing the positions of the approximately 35 attendees, wrote that “hardly two agreed. Some were holding serious errors, and each strenuously urged his own views, declaring that they were according to the Scriptures.” 61Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 110 (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915). The problems discussed did not center so much on whether a belief could be found in Scripture, but rather on what the Scripture meant by what it said. Yet, invariably, when the weekend was over, there was unity of belief. What happened to bring this unanimity out of such diversity?IRWHW 79.9

    First, there was earnest Bible study and prayer. Writing in 1904, more than a half-century after the events, Ellen White still had vivid memories of the conferences. She wrote about them because “many of our people now do not realize how firmly the foundation of our faith has been laid.” She identified by name some of the more prominent participants “who searched for the truth as for hidden treasure.” Concerning her own participation, she added:IRWHW 80.1

    I met with them, and we studied and prayed earnestly. Often we remained together until late at night, and sometimes through the entire night, praying for light and studying the Word. Again and again these brethren came together to study the Bible, in order that they might know its meaning, and be prepared to teach it with power. 62Selected Messages 1:206.

    But Bible study and prayer alone were not enough to convince the participants. These hardy farmers and tradesmen held tenaciously to their pet theological theories, hardly budging an inch. Concerning this Mrs. White added:IRWHW 80.2

    These strange differences of opinion rolled a heavy weight upon me. I saw that many errors were being presented as truth. It seemed to me that God was dishonored. Great grief pressed upon my spirits, and I fainted under the burden. Some feared that I was dying. Brethren Bates, Chamberlain, Gurney, Edson, and my husband prayed for me. The Lord heard the prayers of His servants, and I revived. 63Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 111.

    In addition to earnest and extended Bible study and prayer the conferences saw the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit; but this intervention did not come until the participants had gone as far as they could go. Let us note next, then, the work of the Holy Spirit as He worked through the human vessels at these conferences at which our doctrinal positions were established.IRWHW 80.3

    The Role of the Visions in Doctrinal Formation

    The function of the visions given at the conferences appears to have been to (a) correct the brethren if they were on the wrong track, or (b) confirm and corroborate if they were on the right track, but (c) never to initiate doctrinal formulation. As Arthur L. White would later state in point No. 12 (of 21) “Helpful Points in the Interpretation and Use of the Ellen G. White Writings“:IRWHW 80.4

    The counsels are not given to take the place of faith, initiative, hard work, or Bible study. God did not use the Spirit of Prophecy to make us dependent or weak. Rather, the counsels are to make us strong by encouraging us to study the word of God, and by encouraging us to move forward. 64Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1963), vol. 3, p. 3214.

    Wrote Ellen White concerning this stage of doctrinal development:IRWHW 80.5

    When they came to the point in their study where they said, “We can do nothing more,” the Spirit of the Lord would come upon me, I would be taken off in vision, and a clear explanation of the passages we had been studying would be given me, with instruction as to how we are to labor and teach effectively. Thus light was given that helped us to understand the scriptures in regard to Christ, His mission, and His priesthood. A line of truth extending from that time to the time when we shall enter the city of God, was made plain to me, and I gave to others the instruction that the Lord had given to me. 65Selected Messages 1:206.

    Speaking of the second Sabbath conference in particular, and of the work and place of the visions, Ellen White wrote in her autobiography:IRWHW 80.6

    The light from heaven then rested upon me, and I was soon lost to earthly things. My accompanying angel presented before me some of the errors of those present, and also the truth in contrast with their errors. These discordant views, which they claimed were in harmony with the Scriptures, were only according to their opinion of Bible teaching; and I was bidden to tell them that they should yield their errors, and unite upon the truths of the third angel’s message. 66Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 111.

    What caused those post-Millerite Adventists to accept the visions of this young prophet hardly into her twenties? Perhaps three reasons were instrumental:IRWHW 80.7

    First, there was the content of the visions. They were relevant and helpful in solving the immediate problems with which the conferences were dealing.

    Second, there was the awesome physical phenomena accompanying an open vision. This was never a test of authenticity, because Satan can and does counterfeit physical phenomena, but it surely was an evidence of supernatural activity.

    Third, there was the continuing phenomena of the prophet’s mind being “locked” when she was not in vision. This apparently lasted for a period of “two to three years”—concurrent with the Sabbath conferences—and during this time when not in vision, all Mrs. White could do was to report what she had seen in vision; she could not enter into the subsequent discussions of either the meaning of what she had seen or of Bible truth generally. “My mind was locked, as it were,” she wrote years later, “and I could not comprehend the meaning of the scriptures we were studying.” And it remained thus “locked” until all of the principal points of our faith had been systematically developed. 67Selected Messages 1:207.

    She also wrote of the effect of this on those attending the conferences: “The brethren knew that when not in vision, I could not understand these matters, and they accepted as light direct from heaven the revelations given.68Ibid. Italics supplied.IRWHW 80.8

    From her perspective at the age of 77 years, Ellen White’s observation concerning her feelings toward this phenomena in which her mind was locked is even more poignant: “This was one of the greatest sorrows of my life.” 69Ibid.IRWHW 80.9

    Largely because of the helpful nature of her visions at the Bible conferences, Mrs. White could write of such occasions: “Our meeting closed triumphantly. Truth gained the victory. Our brethren renounced their errors and united upon the third angel’s message, and God greatly blessed them and added many to their numbers.” 70Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 111.IRWHW 80.10

    Froom, looking at the above facts, sees Ellen White’s role in doctrinal formation as essentially that of an umpire: To one, “your idea is right“: to another “your idea is wrong.” Says he:IRWHW 80.11

    Throughout this entire time of intense searching the Spirit of prophecy was a help—but only a help. No doctrine or interpretation of prophecy was initially discovered or disclosed through the Spirit of prophecy. The doctrines of the Sabbatarians were all founded upon Holy Scripture, so that theirs was a truly Protestant platform. 71Froom, pp. 1046, 1047.

    One cannot help but wonder, however, if Froom’s statement conflicts with Mrs. White’s testimony that “a line of truth ... was made plain to me” and, in addition, “instruction was given as to how we were to labor and teach effectively“: although Froom’s observation is probably fairly close to the mark. 72For a more detailed step-by-step analysis of the formulation of Seventh-day Adventist doctrines, see Froom, pp. 1021-1048; and Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1969), pp. 34-37.IRWHW 81.1

    How Ellen White Saw Her Authority

    In view of the rather dramatic, if not sensational, experiences through which she passed, not only during 1848-1850 but in later years as those original doctrines were repeated and amplified by the Holy Spirit, it is interesting to examine the effect of these experiences upon Ellen White’s consciousness. How did she see herself? How did she evaluate the work God led her to perform? What consequences would result from a rejection of her work?IRWHW 81.2

    1. She disclaimed giving merely personal knowledge/opinion. Ellen White was the object of vitriolic attack even during her lifetime; and she spoke out sharply in defense of herself—and God. She disclaimed the notion that she was presenting merely human information or opinion, but rather asserted that all her statements came from God and that she was merely the conduit.IRWHW 81.3

    I have no special wisdom in myself; I am only an instrument in the Lord’s hands to do the work He has set for me to do. The instructions that I have given by pen or voice have been an expression of the light that God has given me. 73Testimonies for the Church 5:691.IRWHW 81.4

    In her letters and testimonies, said Ellen White, “I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision—the precious rays of light shining from the throne.” 74Testimonies for the Church 5:67. Italics supplied. The use of “merely” should alert the reader to the fact that Ellen White was not claiming that she never got ideas or materials from the writings of others, but rather that what she wrote was always in harmony with the messages God gave her in vision.IRWHW 81.5

    Ellen White claimed a unique place in her church—a work not given to any other member. She quoted an angel as telling her “‘God has raised you up and has given you words to speak to the people and to reach hearts as He has given to no other one.... God has impressed this upon you by opening it before your vision as He has to no other one now living.’” 75Testimonies for the Church 5:667, 668. Speaking for herself, she went on, “‘God has not given my brethren the work that He has given me.’” 76Testimonies for the Church 5:677. To illustrate the essential nature of that uniqueness she added:IRWHW 81.6

    “When I am speaking to the people I say much that I have not premeditated. The Spirit of the Lord frequently comes upon me. I seem to be carried out of, and away from, myself.... I ... feel compelled to speak of what is brought before me. I dare not resist the Spirit of God.” 77Testimonies for the Church 5:678.

    “From higher ground, under the instruction given me of God, I present these things before you,” she declared. 78Ellen G. White, Christ in His Sanctuary (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1969), p. 10 She went on to deny that anyone could accept part of her writings, while rejecting other parts. “We cannot be half the Lord’s and half the world’s. We are not God’s people unless we are such entirely.” 79Testimonies for the Church 5:83. Next, note this: Speaking of her testimonies, she affirmed:IRWHW 81.7

    “God is either teaching His church, reproving their wrongs and strengthening their faith, or He is not. This work is of God, or it is not. God does nothing in partnership with Satan. My work ... bears the stamp of God or the stamp of the enemy. There is no halfway work in the matter. The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil.” 80Testimonies for the Church 5:671.

    She was not giving “merely the opinion of Sister White“: and those who asserted this, she declared “thereby insulted the Spirit of God.” 81Testimonies for the Church 5:64. She further amplified this, saying:IRWHW 81.8

    If those to whom these solemn warnings are addressed say, “It is only Sister White’s individual opinion, I shall still follow my own judgment,” and if they continue to do the very things they were warned not to do, they show that they despise the counsel of God, and the result is just what the Spirit of God has shown me it would be—injury to the cause of God and ruin to themselves. 82Testimonies for the Church 5:687, 688.

    2. Mrs. White claimed authority to define doctrinal truth. But she went still farther. Not only when she spoke about matters in the homes and churches of her fellow church members was she a direct spokesperson for God, but also when she defined a doctrinal position, that definition was authoritative and reliable.IRWHW 81.9

    Speaking of “our early experience” (undoubtedly a reference to the Sabbath conferences of 1848-1850), when “one error after another pressed in upon us,” with “ministers and doctors bringing in new doctrines,” the little bands would sometimes spend “whole nights” searching Scripture and praying to God for guidance. At these times “the Holy Spirit would bring the truth to our minds.... The power of God would come upon me, and I was enabled clearly to define what is truth and what is error.83Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers, 302 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948). Italics supplied.IRWHW 81.10

    Mrs. White declared, in effect, that her statements on doctrine were essentially without error. “There is one straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence, in that which I have written.” 84Ellen G. White, Selected Messages 3:52 (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980). Her testimonies “never contradict” the Bible because she was “instructed in regard to the relation of Scripture to Scripture.” 85Selected Messages 3:38. Even doctrinal matters in her personal diaries, she wrote five years before her death, should be put in print because they contain “light” and “instruction” that was given her to “correct specious errors and to specify what is truth.” 86Selected Messages 3:32. To Evangelist W. W. Simpson, laboring in southern California, she wrote in 1906 that “I am thankful that the instruction contained in my books establishes present truth for this time. These books were written under the demonstration of the Holy Spirit.” 87Letter 50, 1906; cited in Graybill, Ministry, p. 9.IRWHW 81.11

    In 1905, shortly after having had to rebuke the spurious doctrines advanced by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his followers, and again looking back to those early Sabbath conferences in which the manifestation of the Holy Spirit was so marked, Mrs. White declared without equivocation:IRWHW 81.12

    When the power of God testifies as to what is truth, that truth is to stand forever as the truth. No after suppositions contrary to the light God has given are to be entertained. 88Selected Messages 1:161.

    In the rest of the passage she talked of men arising in the future (as they had in the past) with “interpretations of Scripture which are to them truth, but which are not truth.” These people would claim to possess “new light.” But, she asserted, the doctrines of these men would “[contradict] the light that God has given under the demonstration of the Holy Spirit.” She then counseled the future leaders of the church to reject such messages that contradict the “special points of our faith” and move even “one pillar from the foundation that God has sustained” from 1844 to the turn of the century. Acceptance of such views would “lead to a denial of the truth that for the past fifty years God has been giving to His people, substantiating it by the demonstration of the Holy Spirit.” 89Selected Messages 1:161, 162.IRWHW 82.1

    3. Motivation of critics. The fundamental motivation of those who “dissect” Mrs. White’s writings “to suit your own ideas, claiming that God has given you ability to discern what is light from heaven and what is the expression of mere human wisdom” 90Testimonies for the Church 5:691. was identified by the prophet as “the prevailing spirit of our time ... infidelity and apostasy—a spirit of pretended illumination ... but in reality ... the blindest presumption.” She added:IRWHW 82.2

    There is a spirit of opposition to the plain word of God and to the testimony of His Spirit. There is a spirit of idolatrous exaltation of mere human reason above the revealed wisdom of God. 91Testimonies for the Church 5:79.

    And pressing the question of causation still farther, Mrs. White explained the “true” reason (italics hers) for opposition to her writings which is seldom uttered publicly: She has written or said something that cuts across the lifestyle of the critic, perhaps in the area of diet or dress, reading matter, entertainment and amusement, stewardship, or Sabbath observance. The critic thus exhibits by his criticism “a lack of moral courage—a will, strengthened and controlled by the Spirit of God, to renounce hurtful habits.” 92Testimonies for the Church 5:675.IRWHW 82.3

    4. The danger of doubt. Next we notice Mrs. White turning her attention to the question of doubt—doubt of Scripture and doubt of the writings of God’s contemporary prophet:IRWHW 82.4

    “Satan has ability to suggest doubts and to devise objections to the pointed testimony that God sends, and many think it a virtue, a mark of intelligence in them, to be unbelieving and to question and quibble. Those who desire to doubt will have plenty of room. God does not propose to remove all occasion for unbelief. [If He did, He would simultaneously remove all opportunity for the exercise of faith!] He gives evidence, which must be carefully investigated with a humble mind and a teachable spirit, and all should decide from the weight of evidence.” “God gives sufficient evidence for the candid mind to believe; but he who turns from the weight of evidence because there are a few things which he cannot make plain to his finite understanding will be left in the cold, chilling atmosphere of unbelief and questioning doubts, and will make shipwreck of faith.” 93Testimonies for the Church 5:676.

    Mrs. White earnestly declared, “If you lose confidence in the Testimonies you will drift away from Bible truth.” 94Testimonies for the Church 5:674. She even gives the successive steps on the ladder that leads down to “perdition.” Note them:IRWHW 82.5

    a. Satan causes church members to engage in a spirit of criticism of denominational leadership at all levels—he excites “jealousy and dissatisfaction toward those at the head of the work.”IRWHW 82.6

    b. Spiritual gifts in general (and the gift of prophecy, as exercised through Mrs. White, in particular) “‘are next questioned;’” with the end result that they have “‘but little weight, and instruction given through vision is disregarded.’”IRWHW 82.7

    c. The basic, or pillar, doctrines of the church, “‘the vital points of our faith,’” engender skepticism; and closely following this:IRWHW 82.8

    d. “‘Then [follows] doubt as to the Holy Scriptures’” themselves, “‘and then the downward march to perdition.’”IRWHW 82.9

    Mrs. White elaborates:IRWHW 82.10

    “When the Testimonies, which were once believed, are doubted and given up, Satan knows the deceived ones will not stop at this; and he redoubles his efforts till he launches them into open rebellion, which becomes incurable and ends in destruction.” “By giving place to doubts and unbelief in regard to the work of God, ... they are preparing themselves for complete deception.” 95Testimonies for the Church 5:672.

    5. An appeal—and a warning. Mrs. White earnestly entreated the critics of her dayIRWHW 82.11

    not to interpose between me and the people, and turn away the light which God would have come to them. Do not by your criticisms take out all the force, all the point and power, from the Testimonies.... If the Testimonies speak not according to the word of God, reject them. Christ and Belial cannot be united. For Christ’s sake do not confuse the minds of the people with human sophistry and skepticism, and make of none effect the work that the Lord would do. Do not, by your lack of spiritual discernment, make of this agency of God a rock of offense whereby many shall be caused to stumble and fall, “and be snared, and be taken.” 96Testimonies for the Church 5:691.

    Going further, she charges that “your unbelief will not change the facts in the case“: 97Testimonies for the Church 5:66. “your unbelief does not affect their [the Testimonies’] truthfulness. If they are from God they will stand.” 98Testimonies for the Church 5:674.IRWHW 82.12

    Then, “God is not as man; He will not be trifled with.” 99Testimonies for the Church 5:664. And “opposition to God’s threatenings will not hinder their execution. To defy the words of the Lord, spoken through His chosen instruments, will only provoke His anger and eventually bring certain ruin upon the offender.” 100Testimonies for the Church 5:678.IRWHW 82.13

    Speaking about her work, and the Lord who commissioned it, Mrs. White further warned:IRWHW 82.14

    If God has given me a message to bear to His people, those who would hinder me in the work and lessen the faith of the people in its truth are not fighting against the instrument, but against God. “It is not the instrument whom you slight and insult, but God, who has spoken to you in these warnings and reproofs.” “It is hardly possible for men to offer a greater insult to God than to despise and reject the instrumentalities that He has appointed to lead them.” 101Testimonies for the Church 5:680.

    In a night vision the Lord told Mrs. White about those who had turned from the light sent them. “In slighting and rejecting the testimony that I have given you to bear, it is not you, but Me, your Lord, that they have slighted.” 102Testimonies for the Church 5:668.IRWHW 82.15

    And, finally, “if you seek,” said Mrs. White, “to turn aside the counsel of God to suit yourselves, if you lessen the confidence of God’s people in the testimonies He has sent them, you are rebelling against God as certainly as were Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. You have their history.” 103Testimonies for the Church 5:66.IRWHW 82.16

    On the other hand, “all who believe that the Lord has spoken through Sister White, and has given her a message, will be safe from the many delusions that will come in the last days.” 104Selected Messages 3:84.IRWHW 83.1

    To sum up this consideration of Ellen White’s role in the development of Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, we conclude that she played an important part in the formation of Adventist doctrinal belief, especially during the Sabbath conferences of 1848-1850; but her role was essentially limited to passing on messages from God given in vision, rather than entering into dialog with those who were developing the framework of our doctrinal system.IRWHW 83.2

    The Spirit of God did not come upon her until those engaged in serious study and prayer had gone as far as they could; then the messages given through Mrs. White tended either to correct (if the participants were going in a wrong direction) or to confirm and corroborate (if they were headed in the right direction); but there is no evidence that the visions were given to initiate doctrinal formulation.IRWHW 83.3

    Mrs. White, while maintaining the primacy of Scripture, nevertheless saw herself as the counterpart of the Bible prophets in receiving God’s messages and passing them on to His people. Since it was the same Holy Spirit, speaking in Bible times and again in modern times, those messages carried equal weight. They could not be ignored with impunity, either by critics who tried to dissect them, or by others who conveniently neglected or ignored them.IRWHW 83.4

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