Ellen G. White. Photo Courtesy of Center for Adventist Research and the Adventist Digital Library.
In my experience, most teenagers and young adults experienced a rough introduction to the writings of Ellen White, where she had been employed as an arbiter of pure doctrine, a judge of right interpretation, and a rule for lifestyle questions, to the point where they were disgusted with her due to the way she had been used. It was not until they were able to experience, or “taste,” her writings for themselves that their perception of Ellen White and her writings improved. So, this raises the question how we should introduce people to the writings of this historic figure that was instrumental in the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and still has a significant bearing on the lives of many people today.
One might ask: “Ellen White wrote so much. Where should I begin?” Many of her contemporary readers knew her personally, had met her at some point, or had been reading her frequent articles in Adventist periodicals. Therefore, they were generally aware of the central motifs and recurrent topics in her talks and writings, allowing them to read her books against the backdrop of those motifs and topics. Unlike them, no one living today can claim the advantage of having known, met or heard Ellen White personally. Without that experience, we are certainly at a disadvantage as we try to comprehend things she had written specifically for those people that had this background. Unsurprisingly, it is especially those very writings that are often misunderstood and misused.
While we are no longer able to obtain the first-hand experience with Ellen White that her contemporaries had, I am convinced that we may approach her writings in a way that permits us to develop a similar perspective. This “method” is based on the reality that some of her writings were written specifically with an Adventist audience in mind, whereas other writings were written for a broad audience, both Adventist and non- Adventist. While the latter set of writings did not require any knowledge about Ellen White as a person or her claim to Divine inspiration, publications for an Adventist readership could expect at least a basic understanding of those points. In order to recreate the experience that her contemporaries had, I suggest to start with those writings that do not require any background knowledge of Ellen White.
In this category, there are various types of writings on a number of topics, such as salvation, Jesus, the cosmic conflict, education and health. Her central motifs become especially visible as we progressively move through those types of writings, allowing us to see how those motifs permeate all those writings.
A nice starting point to her most important ideas is the classic Steps to Christ, published originally in 1892 by the Evangelical publisher, Fleming H. Revell. Written from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective, this small, revivalistic book presents a beautiful description of God’s character and provides practical steps on how to become and to remain a Christian. Her very first words in the book are:
“Nature and revelation alike testify of God’s love. . . . The world, though fallen, is not all sorrow and misery. In nature itself are messages of hope and comfort. There are flowers upon the thistles, and the thorns are covered with roses. ‘God is love’ is written upon every opening bud, upon every spire of springing grass.”
The book explains many of the key themes and emphases of her ministry as a whole—love, authenticity, spirituality, commitment, growth, joy.
A passion for Jesus and Scripture drove her ministry and interaction with other people. A strong focus in her cosmic conflict narrative is on Jesus as the ultimate manifestation of God’s unselfish, other-centered love. The Desire of Ages (1898), Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing (1896) and Christ’s Object Lessons (1900) deal with the person, life, teachings and death of Jesus. The two latter books, covering the Sermon on the Mount and the parables, were originally intended to be part of The Desire of Ages but, as that book had grown too large, they were published separately.
Her other books on the cosmic conflict narrative—Patriarchs and Prophets (1890), Prophets and Kings (1917), Acts of the Apostles (1911) and The Great Controversy (1888, 1911)—revolve around the character of God’s love. Using the words “God is love” as the first words in Patriarchs and Prophets (33) and as the last words in the Great Controversy (678), she employed those words from
1 John 4:16 as the framework for the entire narrative.
In her book Education (1903), she stressed that “love, the basis of creation and of redemption, is the basis of true education” (16). Unselfish love to God and to other people underlies unselfish service and all true development. This is facilitated best through the harmonious development of body, mind, and soul (13, 16). Since true unselfish love necessitates freedom of will, “true education” aims at “train[ing] the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought” (17).
Finally, the same motifs reappear in Ministry of Healing (1905), a manual for unselfish ministry to those in physical, emotional and spiritual need. Help provided in this manner illustrates the love of Jesus, becoming a “vitalizing power” that “touches with healing” “every vital part—the brain, the heart, the nerves” (115). The practical illustration of God’s love through our lives therefore becomes an important tool in reaching people in the context of the cosmic narrative.
Seeing her focus on God’s love as manifested in Christ in the cosmic conflict and how that plays out in our individual lives prepares us as we turn to Ellen White’s writings for an Adventist audience. Since those writings often spoke to particular situations and circumstances, it will be helpful to be aware of the context in which they were written. That may also explain why her son, W.C. White (1854-1937), expressed the need for the Testimonies for the Church to be published with historical background information. The book, Life Sketches (1915), therefore provides a good overview of her life, family, friends, fellow Adventists, experiences, visions, travels, events, etc. The Ellen G. White Letters & Manuscripts with Annotations, Vol. 1, 1845–1859, attempts to make her personal interaction and inspired counsel available against the backdrop of the historical context.
A knowledge of her life provides the narrative framework for the Testimonies for the Church (9 volumes). As we progress through those books, we can see how the various testimonies, as they were progressively made accessible to the Adventist public through the Testimonies, fit nicely into that framework of her life. While a superficial reading may appear to show only reproof and directives, the sharpened eye will perceive how the motifs, previously observed in her writings, permeate the Testimonies as well, driving much of the counsel.
In addition, Ellen White published some writings for specific groups in the church, who presumably were aware of the main focus and emphases of her ministry. The books, The Southern Work (1898, 1901), Gospel Workers (1892, 1912) and Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (1913), fit into this category. Reading those writings from the perspective gained through the reading of her general audience works will therefore prove again beneficial.
After discovering Ellen White’s main emphases and learning about her as a person and about her life, as well as about the general nature of the testimonies, we are better prepared to turn to the posthumous compilations of her writings, such as Counsels on Diet and Foods (1938), Evangelism (1946), Temperance (1949), Adventist Home (1952), and many others. It will help us understand that many of the brief clippings in those compilations are statements that she originally made in order to address specific circumstances, always keeping in mind her general purpose. Sometimes she gave apparently conflicting counsel to different people yet, depending on the circumstances and issues, she applied different biblical principles.
Most students that learned about this way of approaching Ellen White’s writings have testified that it has revolutionized their perception of her as a person, her ministry and her writings. Not only does it create a more balanced perspective but it also allows them to appreciate the content of those writings in harmony with their original intent and purpose.
1W.C. White to Guy Dail, Aug. 28, 1929.
Denis Kaiser is an associate professor of Church History at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.