Ellen G. White as a Prophet:
Part I: Concepts of Revelation and Inspiration
(Much of this lecture outline is indebted to Jerry Moon, "Revelation and Inspiration
in the Writings of Ellen G. White," Lecture outline for GSEM534, April 2, 1996;
D.E. Mansell, "How Ellen White Perceived Her Inspiration," n.d., Center for
Adventist Research, DF 105; and Jim Nix, "From Vision to Printed Page," May
A. Relevance of topic
1. "Most SDAs probably have a seriously impaired view of inspiration/revelation," wrote Roger Coon in 1982. He observed a commonly held "bias toward [a] strictly verbal (mechanical dictation) position."
2. This makes such individuals very vulnerable to a loss of confidence in Ellen White and the Church. They are in "danger when they discover factual data contrary to their view."
a. Instead of discarding their erroneous theory of inspiration, or "adjusting" it "to fit demonstrated facts."
b. They may discard their confidence in Ellen White's prophetic ministry. (Coon)
3. Loss of confidence happened to many church members in the early 1980s.
a. The church received a "triple whammy." Confidence was shaken in
(i) the Adventist theology of 1844 and the sanctuary (Ford)
(ii) the integrity and credibility of Ellen White (Rea), and
(iii) the trustworthiness of church financial management (Davenport).
b. All of these crises were preventable; one of them occurred because of inadequate understanding of the origin and development of the writings of Ellen White.
4. As part of this course which deals with many issues regarding specifically the writings of Ellen White, we first need to address the issues of revelation and inspiration.
a. We must look at revelation (how God imparted concepts
to the prophet's mind) and inspiration (how the prophet expressed those
concepts in spoken or written words) before we can adequately consider
hermeneutics (the interpretation of the prophet's words and the message
intended to be conveyed).
B. Two general starting points:
1. Ellen White explains that her prophetic ministry is similar to noncanonical prophetic writers of Bible times.
"In harmony with the word of God, His Spirit was to continue its work throughout the period of the gospel dispensation. During the ages while the Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testament were being given, the Holy Spirit did not cease to communicate light to individual minds, apart from the revelations to be embodied in the Sacred Canon. The Bible itself relates how, through the Holy Spirit, men received warning, reproof, counsel, and instruction, in matters in no way relating to the giving of the Scriptures. And mention is made of prophets in different ages, of whose utterances nothing is recorded. In like manner, after the close of the canon of the Scripture, the Holy Spirit was still to continue its work, to enlighten, warn, and comfort the children of God." (GC viii) (The introduction section in the Great Controversy is one of the clearest statements of Ellen White on the subject of revelation and inspiration, and how her gift of prophecy relates to Scripture.)
2. Her writings are never to stand above Scriptures:
"The Spirit [i.e. the gift of prophecy] was not given--nor can it ever be bestowed-- to supersede the Bible; for the Scriptures explicitly state that the word of God is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested." (GC vii)
II. Modes of Revelation in the Experience of Ellen White
1. Attended by striking physical and supernatural phenomena
a. Unconsciousness of earthly surroundings, but vivid consciousness of what she was being shown in vision
b. Temporary cessation of breathing
c. Unblinking eyelids
d. Supernatural strength
2. Not distinguishable in content from prophetic dreams (5T 658)
3. Ellen White's first vision:
"While I was praying at the family altar, the Holy Ghost fell upon me, and I seemed to be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world. I turned to look for the Advent people in the world, but could not find them, when a voice said to me, "Look again, and look a little higher." At this I raised my eyes, and saw a straight and narrow path, cast up high above the world. On this path the Advent people were traveling to the city, which was at the farther end of the path." (EW 14)
1. Prophetic dreams
a. Visions received during sleep
b. In the introduction to Testimony for the Church, Number 13 (1867), Ellen White wrote:
"I would call especial attention to the remarkable dreams given in this little work, all with harmony and distinctness illustrating the same things. The multitude of dreams arise from the common things of life, with which the Spirit of God has nothing to do. There are also false dreams, as well as false visions, which are inspired by the spirit of Satan. But dreams from the Lord are classed in the word of God with visions and are as truly the fruits of the spirit of prophecy as visions. Such dreams, taking into the account the persons who have them and the circumstances under which they are given, contain their own proofs of their genuineness." (1T 569-570)
c. The San Francisco Earthquake
"While at Loma Linda, California, April 16, 1906, there passed before me a most wonderful representation. During a vision of the night, I stood on an eminence, from which I could see houses shaken like a reed in the wind. Buildings, great and small, were falling to the ground. Pleasure resorts, theaters, hotels, and the homes of the wealthy were shaken and shattered. Many lives were blotted out of existence, and the air was filled with the shrieks of the injured and the terrified. . . . The awfulness of the scenes that passed before me I cannot find words to describe. It seemed that the forbearance of God was exhausted, and that the judgment day had come. Terrible as was the representation that passed before me, that which impressed itself most vividly upon my mind was the instruction given in connection with it." (3SM 40-41)
d. Dream about Dr. David Paulson and Dr. J. H. Kellogg
"In a vision last night I saw you [David Paulson] writing. One looked over your shoulder and said, "You, my friend, are in danger." . . . Let me tell you of a scene that I witnessed while in Oakland. Angels clothed with beautiful garments, like angels of light, were escorting Dr. Kellogg from place to place, and inspiring him to speak words of pompous boasting that were offensive to God. . . . Soon after the Oakland conference, in the night season the Lord portrayed before me a scene, in which Satan, clothed in a most attractive disguise, was earnestly pressing close to the side of Dr. Kellogg. I saw and heard much. Night after night I was bowed down in agony of soul as I saw this personage talking with our brother." (To David Paulson, Letter 220, 1903 in SpM 331-338, also in 3SM 42-43)
2. Natural dreams
Natural dreams arise "from the common things of life, with which the Spirit of God has nothing to do." They are not inspired.
a. As any normal human being does, Ellen White had natural dreams. For example, in Letter 4, 1856 to "Dear friends at home" she wrote, "Have had some bad dreams about little Willie. O how thankful I shall be to see home, sweet home again and my dear little boys, Henry, Edson, and Willie."
The context of this letter is interesting. Earlier that year, in late May 1856, 20-month old Willie drowned while playing with a boat in a large tub of cleaning water at their home. Ellen White frantically worked to revive him for 20 minutes (see 1Bio 337).
b. Prophetic dreams were distinguished in at least two ways:
(i) by informational content (see 1T569-570)
(ii) by the presence of the same angel as in prophetic daytime visions: "The same angel messenger stands by my side instructing me in the visions of the night, as stands beside me instructing me in the visions of the day." (Messenger to the Remnant, 7)
C. Visions given during periods of prayer or writing
1. "Well, while I was praying and was sending up my petition, there was, as has been a hundred times or more, a soft light circling around in the room, and a fragrance like the fragrance of flowers, of a beautiful scent of flowers."(Ms 43a, 1901)
2. Later, recounting that event, she said, "Though none of the family saw what I saw, or heard what I heard, yet they felt the influence of the Spirit, and were weeping and praising God." (GCB 1901, p. 204; 5Bio 54)
3. Vision given during a prayer at Minnesota camp meeting in 1870
W. C. White recalled:
"Father and mother were carrying a heavy burden in behalf of the ministry who had been working in the State. On Sunday morning they undertook to conduct a revival service. Father spoke for a few minutes, but with little freedom. Then after mother had spoken briefly, they asked the congregation to kneel in prayer. Father offered a labored, sorrowful prayer, then mother began to implore for light and freedom. After she had prayed for about two minutes she stopped. There was silence long enough to count to forty or fifty, about half a minute.
I was kneeling with the congregation, and I turned to see what was the occasion for the silence. Just then she burst forth in prayer. Her voice was melodious, and triumphant, and the remainder of her prayer greatly moved the people present.
During that period of silence, a revelation was given her regarding conditions in the Minnesota Conference, also conditions regarding the work in Battle Creek, also regarding other matters of general interest in the cause. Following the camp meeting, father and mother found retirement at the home of one of our brethren. Mother wrote diligently for about two weeks, in recording what had been show to her during the half minute of pause in prayer. (W.C. White, "Lecture at Advanced Bible School," 1936, White Estate Document File, #514.)
1. Literal eyewitness-style revelation, but of persons she did not know.
2. The application would be revealed when she met them.
a. "Sometimes the things which I have seen are hid from me after I come out of vision, and I cannot call them to mind until I am brought before a company where that vision applies, then the things which I have seen come to my mind with force." (2SG 292-293)
3. Often these precognition visions were about people and events that had not yet happened.
E. Revelatory impressions, and other information given by non-visionary means
1. Frequently, impressions were made upon her mind while she was speaking to audiences or writing at home.
2. "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; the life and character of different persons
are clearly presented before my mind. I see their errors and dangers, and
feel compelled to speak of what is thus brought before me. I dare not resist
the Spirit of God." (5T 20)
F. "I saw," and "I saw that" statements
1. "I saw" statements usually denote things pictured to her in vision.
2. "I saw that" or "I was shown that" statements indicate that information
was imparted to her which she understood to be "truth." In most cases, it usually
reflects information or conclusions based on revelation through visions, but
sometimes may represent conclusions she regards as divinely inspired conclusions,
though they may have been based to some extent on information received from
human sources (Mansell).
G. Ellen White's personal description of her state in vision (1860)
"As inquiries are frequently made as to my state in vision, and after I come out, I would say that when the Lord sees fit to give a vision, I am taken into the presence of Jesus and angels, and am entirely lost to earthly things. I can see no farther than the angel directs me. My attention is often directed to scenes transpiring upon earth.
"At times I am carried far ahead into the future and shown what is to take place. Then again I am shown things as they have occurred in the past. After I come out of vision I do not at once remember all that I have seen, and the matter is not so clear before me until I write, then the scene rises before me as was presented in vision, and I can write with freedom. Sometimes the things which I have seen are hid from me after I come out of vision, and I cannot call them to mind until I am brought before a company where that vision applies, then the things which I have seen come to my mind with force. I am just as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in relating or writing a vision, as in having the vision. It is impossible for me to call up things which have been shown me unless the Lord brings them before me at the time that he is pleased to have me relate or write them." (2SG 292-3, also in 1SM 36-37.)
See also Martha Amadon's description of Ellen White's physical phenomena while in vision in Appendix A.
III. The Function of Inspiration in the Writings of Ellen White
A. Union of divine and human elements -- an incarnational view of inspiration
1. In contrast to revelation, which is a process of wholly divine initiative and control, inspired writing involves a union of divine and human elements.
"The Ten Commandments were spoken by God Himself, and were written by His own hand. They are of divine, and not of human composition. But the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that 'the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.' John 1:14." (GC v-vi)
2. Note that while Ellen White speaks here of the inspiration of the Bible,
she saw her own inspiration as operating in the same way.
B. The role of the Holy Spirit in the prophet's writing
"Each [Bible writer], under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, presents what is most forcibly impressed upon his own mind--a different aspect of the truth in each, but a perfect harmony through all." (GC vi)
"God has been pleased to communicate His truth to the world by human agencies, and He Himself, by His Holy Spirit, qualified men and enabled them to do this work. He guided the mind in the selection of what to speak and what to write." (GC vi)
"I am trying to catch the very words and expressions that were made in reference to this matter, and as my pen hesitates a moment, the appropriate words come to my mind." (Letter 123, 1904; 8MR 35)
"I have all faith in God .... He works at my right hand and at my left. While I am writing out important matter, He is beside me, helping me. He lays out my work before me, and when I am puzzled for a fit word with which to express my thought, He brings it clearly and distinctly to my mind. I feel that every time I ask, even while I am still speaking, He responds, "Here am I." (Letter 127, 1902; 2MR 156-157)
2. Qualifying and enabling the writer:
"God ... by His Holy Spirit, qualified men and enabled them to do this work." (GC vi)
"Through the inspiration of His Spirit the Lord gave His apostles truth, to be expressed according to the development of their minds by the Holy Spirit. But the mind is not cramped, as if forced into a certain mold." (Letter 53, 1900 in 1SM 22)
But not controlling so as to remove individuality: "the mind is not cramped, as if forced into a certain mold."
C. At what level did the divine-human unity occur?
1. The dictation theory of inspiration virtually asserts that the earliest point at which a human element becomes part of the writing is at the pen. In other words, every word and detail was pre-selected and dictated by God and the only part of the prophet really involved was the prophet's hand.
2. The term "verbal inspiration" has today such a wide range of interpretations that it has lost much of its precision. As understood by early Adventists, however, it denoted the idea that every word of the prophet's utterance was pre-selected by God without any human participation, hence could not subsequently be altered, even by the prophet.
This view was specifically rejected by the 1883 General Conference, in a resolution offered by W.C. White, and clearly representing Ellen White's understanding of inspiration. The context for this resolution was the need of reprinting Ellen White's Testimonies for the Church which had gone out of print. She wished to edit the old text of the testimonies before reprinting them by removing from the old text imperfections in wording and grammar, and clarifying the meaning of what she intended to say in some instance. To many early Adventists, who held a verbal/dictation view of inspiration, this editorial work was seen as tampering with the very words of God. But clearly Ellen White did not see her inspiration in this way.
Whereas, We believe the light given by God to His servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting the thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words in which the ideas should be expressed; therefore -
Resolved, That in the re-publication of these volumes such verbal changes be made as to remove the above-named imperfection, as far as possible, without in any measure changing the thought; and, further -
Resolved, That this body appoint a committee of five to take charge of the republication of these volumes. (Review and Herald, November 27, 1883, p. 741; see also 3Bio 217-219)
3. Conceptual inspiration or thought inspiration:
Ellen White taught that the union of the divine and human in inspiration took place at the level of the "mind and will."
The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God's mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God's penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers.
It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man's words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God (Manuscript 24, 1886 in 1SM 21).
D. Implications of conceptual inspiration
1. If the union of the divine and the human in inspiration takes place at the level of "thoughts," and involves a "combining" of "mind and will," it follows that the faculties of both understanding and choice were fully operant as the prophet wrote. How "the divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will" remains a mystery, but it suggests that in formulating or choosing "words and expressions" to represent the "thoughts" received from God, the prophet exercised both human intellect and choice, in cooperation with the "divine mind and will."
2. Ellen White clearly understood this process to be a live, dynamic one that continued as long as the prophet remained under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
a. She claimed full dependence of the Holy Spirit in writing (necessity of union with the divine mind and will).
b. She claimed that she had full responsibility and freedom to choose her words:
"Although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of God in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation." (RH, 8 Oct 1867, also in 1SM 37 and 3SM 278)
"Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea." (1SM 20)
c. In summary, Ellen White understood the combination of the divine and human mind and will to be an ongoing process in the prophet's experience. Inspiration guided the prophet as communicator, not only in the initial formulation of thoughts into words, but also in the subsequent improvement of those expressions by herself or with the help of others.
E. Characteristics of divine-human writings
1. Individual styles of writing (GC vi, 1SM 21-22).
"Through the inspiration of His Spirit the Lord gave His apostles truth, to be expressed according to the development of their minds by the Holy Spirit. But the mind is not cramped, as if forced into a certain mold." (Letter 53, 1900, also in 1SM 22.)
2. Diversity; even apparent discrepancies or contradictions (to a superficial reader); but in actual fact, an underlying harmony of "spiritual unity" (GC vi, 1SM 20-21).
3. Variety of viewpoints, yet "perfect harmony" (GC vi).
"The Creator of all ideas may impress different minds with the same thought, but each may express it in a different way, yet without contradiction" (1SM 22).
4. Imperfect language, yet trustworthy
a. Imperfect language
"The treasure was entrusted to earthen vessels, yet it is, nonetheless, from Heaven. The testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language, yet it is the testimony of God; and the obedient, believing child of God beholds in it the glory of a divine power, full of grace and truth" (GC vi-vii).
"The Bible is not given to us in grand, superhuman language. Jesus, in order to reach man where he is, took humanity. The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect" (1SM 20).
b. Trustworthy message
"I take the Bible just as it is, as the Inspired Word. I believe its utterances in an entire Bible" (1SM 17).
"Brethren, cling to your Bible, as it reads, and stop your criticisms in regard to its validity, and obey the word, and not one of you will be lost" (1SM 18).
5. The Two Sides of "Infallible"
a. Against verbal-dictation theories of inspiration, Ellen White reminds us that "everything that is human is imperfect. Different meanings are expressed by the same word; there is not one word for each distinct idea. The Bible was given for practical purposes" (1SM 20).
Therefore, she insists, "God and heaven alone are infallible. . . . In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible. His word is true, and in Him is no variableness, or shadow of turning" (1SM 37).
b. On the other hand, she uses the term "infallible" with regard to the reliability of Scripture as a whole ("an entire Bible," 1SM 17) for the purpose for which it was given:
"In His word, God has committed to men the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience" (GC vii).
Regarding her own writings, she says: "there is one straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence, in that which I have written" (3SM 52). She did not claim that her writings were perfect or free from insignificant imperfections or mistakes, but she did claim they were free from heresy.
F. Relevance for Today
1. Erroneous concepts of inspiration lead inevitably to misinterpretation and misuse of inspired writings.
a. Overemphasis on the human elements and underemphasis of the divine elements in inspired writings leads to diminished appreciation for their true value and authority.
b. De-emphasis of the human elements leads to rigid, inflexible, and authoritarian applications; confusion of rules and principles.
c. Persons who hold a verbal-dictation view of Ellen White's inspiration may also see their faith at risk because as they continue to study her writings they are likely to encounter features that cannot be accounted for by this theory of inspiration.
(i) D. M. Canright
Canright held a dictational view of inspiration. In his 1889 book, Seventh-day Adventism Renounced, he objected even to her personal corrections in the handwritten originals. "I have seen her scratch out a whole page, or a line, or a sentence, and write it over differently. If God gave her the words, why did she scratch them out and alter them?" But the most scandalous in Canright's eyes was the revisions she made to the published Testimonies. "In 1885 all her 'testimonies' were republished in four volumes, under the eye of her own son and a critical editor." By sampling the number of changes on four pages chosen at random, he attempted to estimate what percentage of the total number of words in her writings might have been affected by the editorial process and concluded, "Fine inspiration that is!"
Canright was evaluating Ellen White from the standpoint of a dictational model of inspiration, a presupposition that she rejected. From her point of view, his attempt to measure inspiration in terms of numbers of words was an irrelevant exercise that missed the real issue. Her concern was simple: she wanted her thoughts accurately represented and in the best language available.
(ii) Dr. David Paulson
For a time, Paulson believed in Ellen White's verbal inspiration, a position that led him to doubt her prophetic ministry and inspiration when like many others he learned how she wrote her books and testimonies. He asked her a number of questions regarding her inspiration and how she wrote her books. Her response (Letter 206, 1906 in 1SM 24-31) gives us information on how God revealed things to her and how she wrote her books.
Dr. Paulson's premise regarding inspiration was: "I was led to conclude and most firmly believe that every word that you ever spoke in public or private, that every letter you wrote under any and all circumstances, was as inspired as the Ten Commandments" (Quoted by Ellen White in 1SM 24).
Later, in 1913, Paulson wrote a letter to Frank Belden in which he described his experience of doubting and then appreciating Ellen White's prophetic gift. In this letter he invited Belden to reconsider his hard position against his aunt's prophetic ministry and admitted that to overemphasize the human side of Ellen White's gift leads to the rejection of her gift. (Letter, D. Paulson to F. E. Belden, December 7, 1913, DF 269-a, CAR)
1. Both the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White represent a union of the divine and the human.
a. From one standpoint, they have imperfections, yet they are a safe, reliable guide to salvation.
b. For the believer, the imperfections of form do not negate
the trustworthiness of the message. The Bible, she said, is "an authoritative,
infallible revelation of His [God's] will" (GC viii), and her own writings,
while not given to "supersede the Bible" (ibid.), are nevertheless "without
one heretical sentence" (3SM 52).
Martha Amadon's description of Ellen White's physical phenomena during visions
Martha D. Amadon (c. 1925)
As one who has frequently observed her in vision, knowing the company of people usually present, all deeply observant and believers in her exercises, I have often wondered why a more vivid description of the scenes which transpired has not been given.
In vision her eyes were open. There was no breath, but there were graceful movements of the shoulders, arms, and hands expressive of what she saw. It was impossible for anyone else to move her hands or arms. She often uttered words singly, and sometimes sentences which expressed to those about her the nature of the view she was having, either of heaven or of earth.
Her first word in vision was "Glory," sounding at first close by, and then dying away in the distance, seemingly far away. This was sometimes repeated. When beholding Jesus our Saviour, she would exclaim in musical tones, low and sweet, "Lovely, lovely, lovely," many times, always with the greatest affection. Looking upon the cloud which enveloped the Father, as she afterward explained, her shoulders would draw back, her hands lifted in awe, and her lips would close.
Sometimes she would cross her lips with her finger, meaning that she was not at that time to reveal what she saw, but later a message would perhaps go across the continent to save some individual or church from disaster. She said, "Worlds cannot express the beauties of heaven," no more can they describe these scenes of which she was a part. Her visions seemed to bring you nearer heaven, and you longed to be there.
There was never an excitement among those present during a vision; nothing caused fear. It was a solemn, quiet scene, sometimes lasting an hour, - a scene, during which, like prophets of old, she saw so much of the vastness of God's work for His people, that it would be the principal subject of her writing for two or more years. When the vision was ended, and she lost sight of the heavenly light, as it were, coming back to the earth once more, she would exclaim with a long drawn sigh, as she took her first natural breath, "D-a-r-k." She was then limp and strengthless, and had to be assisted to her chair, her position in vision being a recumbent one. - Mrs. E.G. White in Vision, p. 1.