The Ellen White You Thought You Knew by Jeffrey Rosario

The Ellen White You Thought You Knew

by Jeffrey Rosario  |  January 26, 2016

“Ellen White said…”

Those are three apparently innocent words that have been used and abused with much zest and confidence. They have been known to strike dread and incite rebellion in the hearts of some. But why? Is it in reaction to Ellen White’s message or because of what people think she was all about? Though sweeping generalizations cannot answer that question, it’s hard to avoid the fact that what is often associated with Ellen White would not even be recognizable to her.

Sometimes it’s just another classic case of “my friend said that his friend said that one of his cousins said that his pastor said that Ellen White definitely said…” It’s similar to the telephone game where something is whispered into the ear of someone who then quietly relays the information down a line of participants. One by one, each whispers to the next. By the time the last person in the line announces their version of it, everyone erupts in laughter at the ridiculously botched message.

It’s no wonder that many have lost interest in Ellen White and have concluded that she is not relevant.

Personally, the memories of my first samplings of her writings are deeply moving and inspiring. I found her depiction of God to be compellingly beautiful and biblically sound. But in spite of being wooed by the richness of her prose and her profound spiritual insights, I too have had my share of run ins with people who talked of an Ellen White completely foreign to me; one who seemed gloomy and restrictive.

. . . Ellen White had been expressing concerns about Adventists quoting her writings and drawing conclusions that she did not intend.

I remember one experience early in my journey when, while visiting an Adventist institution, my friend and I were outside throwing a football around and enjoying some relaxation. Later that afternoon someone came into my guest room and thumped a stack of papers on my bed. It was a compilation of Ellen White quotations that the person was using to condemn us for playing sports. But those quotations were taken out of context and misapplied with an extremely narrow-minded perspective. I don’t intend to draw attention to that subject in particular. It’s just one of many examples.

This type of abuse of her writings is something Ellen White was painfully aware of throughout her ministry.

A PLEA FOR COMMON SENSE

After over fifty years of an incredibly prolific writing career, Ellen White attended a meeting in Elmshaven, California to address some confusion about her writings because certain Adventists were taking her statements out of context. The year was 1904. Speaking before a board of educators, ministers, administrators, and lay members, she said:

“My mind has been greatly stirred in regard to the idea, ‘Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.’ God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.”1

Her writings were being taken out of context and misapplied in a narrow way. This was greatly stirring her mind because she understood the collateral damage on the church’s identity and mission when her writings are misrepresented and her authority is misused. I’m not sure what’s more unfortunate, the fact that some Adventists simply ignore her writings or the fact that others isolate her writings and apply them in a sloppy manner that is spiritually harmful. I tend to think the latter is worse. And God knows that I’ve been guilty of this, even if unintended.

The sad reality is that by 1904 this was nothing new. For over a decade Ellen White had been expressing concerns about Adventists quoting her writings and drawing conclusions that she did not intend. In 1890 she expressed her disappointment regarding some who were driving hard their own preconceived opinions by irresponsibly picking and choosing statements from her writings. “They quote half a sentence, leaving out the other half, which, if quoted, would show their reasoning to be false.”2

On other occasions she continued to lament that some Adventists were too careless in how they quoted her writings, looking for strong statements to bolster their own opinions. She warned that, “the extracts may give a different impression than that which they would were they read in their original connection.”3

Common sense—that’s what she was appealing for. She exhorted Adventist believers to bear in mind the time in which she wrote, the place, and the circumstances that occasioned her pen. This is just basic, responsible reading. If this principle is essential in handling the biblical prophets, why would anyone assume anything different when dealing with the writings of an end-time prophet? She assured her readers, “Regarding the testimonies, nothing is ignored; nothing is cast aside; but time and place must be considered.”4

. . . some things which are difficult to understand, and which, unhappily, ill-informed and unbalanced people distort…

Poor lady. This seems to have been a career-long nightmare for her. I can only imagine how many sleepless nights she endured over this. But in some ways I’m glad she is not alive today to witness some of the reckless handling of her writings that has developed into an elaborate and destructive art form.

As I think of this predicament, I’m reminded of Peter’s words as he too objected to the tendency of some first century believers who were twisting the apostle Paul’s words and making them mean something different than that originally intended. Peter lamented: “There are, of course, some things which are difficult to understand, and which, unhappily, ill-informed and unbalanced people distort (as they do the other scriptures), and bring disaster on their own heads.” He exhorted the believers to “be very careful” (2 Peter 3:16-17, Philips).

Peter’s warning is deeply relevant because, as is evident today, Christianity is warped into something quite different by misquoting and misapplying Scripture. So what effect does the misuse of Ellen White’s writings have on the image of Adventism and the religious experience of its adherents?

ELLEN “SISTER KILLJOY” WHITE?

Like the rock hurled by an angry classmate that disfigured Ellen White’s nine-year-old face to the point that her own father could not recognize her, so too has the very face of Adventism suffered disfigurement from throwing around careless interpretations of Ellen White’s writings. There are many consequences to this problem; too many to discuss here.

But one important repercussion is that many among my generation of Adventists have ditched Ellen White all together. In fact, some have an allergic reaction at the sound of her name. She has been viewed as a killjoy, a long-faced Victorian woman whose sole intent was to persuade others to shun pleasure and restrict individuality. As was said of the old Puritans, Ellen White has been portrayed as harboring “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”5

But was Ellen White really a grumpy old lady who only wore long black dresses and frowned for portraits? I have to admit, shortly after being introduced to the Adventist Church I stumbled on a photo of Ellen White for the first time and she looked… well, sort of grim. James White was even scarier! But when I look at portraits of her contemporaries, even the most humorous and fun-loving figures of her time, they look just as somber (check out portraits of Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde). Better to blame nineteenth-century photographers instead.

And yes, it’s true that Ellen White made some comments about careless joking and jesting, but she was also opposed to “a smileless, joyless, humorless Christian lifestyle.”6 Her grandson, Arthur White, recalled that “life was not strained in the White home. There was no place for a long-faced, smileless religion… Ellen White would join in a hearty laugh at an amusing or awkward situation or a nice turn of words.”7

One lady who lived in the White home as a child recalls that Ellen White would take great interest in their childhood games and let the kids engage in a pillow fight once a week before bed. Thinking back on those childhood memories, she remembers Ellen as “warm and human.”8

Contrary to the stuffy image many are familiar with, there is a different picture of Ellen White as a person that is appealing and seldom mentioned.

KEEPING IT REAL

In spite of the many unattractive blemishes that Ellen White’s image has endured, there are some experiences in her life that I find refreshing because they give me an inviting glimpse into her personality. On the subject of sex, which was taboo in her Victorian era, several Ellen White encounters depict a prophet that is not stuffy or prudish.

In 1861, a 26-year-old Adventist preacher by the name of Daniel T. Bourdeau was getting ready for his wedding ceremony in a private home in Vermont. He had asked James White to perform the ceremony and Ellen White to offer a prayer at the conclusion of the service. After the late ceremony, Daniel and his new bride, Marion, were persuaded by the hosts of the private estate to postpone their honeymoon travels and stay the night. Because of the inconvenience of traveling in the dark, the hosts also convinced James and Ellen to rest in the estate for the night.

Not a prudish, cold, or grumpy old lady, but rather a warm, compassionate, and fun personality.

By the time Ellen White made her way upstairs to her room, around 9:00 PM, she found the new husband nervously pacing up and down the hallway in front of his bedroom. I can’t blame the guy; he was spending his first honeymoon night in a room right next to James and Ellen White’s room, of all people. That’s enough to make any new husband a bit jittery. Behind those doors was his new young bride clad in her winter underwear and tensely staring at the wall. Ellen White quickly read the situation and, pointing toward the closed bedroom door, she said:

“Daniel, inside that room is a frightened young woman in bed petrified with fear. Now you go in to her right now, and you love her, and you comfort her. And, Daniel, you treat her gently, and you treat her tenderly, and you treat her lovingly. It will do her good…”

Then with a slight grin on her face she said:

Daniel, it will do you good, too!”9

On another occasion an Adventist man in California wrote a tract promoting the idea that sex within marriage should only be engaged in for the purpose of bearing children and not for pleasure. He was one voice among several in a movement that was persuading some married couples to shun sexual intercourse, favoring a kind of holy abstinence that would lead them to a higher “spiritual” level.

This man wrote to Ellen White asking her to meet with him and support the printing of his tract. She wrote back telling him that “he had better let that matter alone.” But he kept pestering her for a meeting, and she finally agreed to see him. When he finished rambling she asked, “Are you through?” “Yes,” he replied. Then Ellen White told him, “Go home, and be a man.”10 Needless to say, the tract was never published.

These examples reveal a version of the little old lady that is not familiar to most Adventists today. This is an aspect of Ellen White not often spoken about. Not a prudish, cold, or grumpy old lady, but rather a warm, compassionate, and fun personality.

ELLEN WHITE FOR A NEW GENERATION

Far more important than a balanced view of her personality, it is her theological framework that holds the true treasure of her lifework. It’s on this critical point that a new generation of Adventists can rediscover the richness of her writings. From her childhood struggles with doubt because of a cold picture of God’s character, to her later encounter with the “pitying tenderness of Jesus,”11 Ellen White’s journey is one we can resonate with.

As she embarked on her ministry she could genuinely declare, “I was surprised and enraptured with the clear views now presented to me of the atonement and the work of Christ.” It was those inspiring vistas that instilled in her “an inexpressible love for God,” a God well worth loving and serving.12

If only we can get past the grim impression of her, we might be inclined to give her a shot. And who knows, maybe the Ellen White we discover is the Ellen White we wish we had always known.

  1. Ellen White, Selected Messages, Book 3, 217
  2. ibid, 82
  3. Ellen White, Letter 49, 1894. See Selected Messages, Book 1, 58
  4. Ellen White, Selected Messages, book 1, 57
  5. Paul R. Spickard and Kevin W. Cragg, A Global History of Christians: How Everyday Believers Experienced Their World (Baker Academic, 1994), 224
  6. Glen Baker, “The Humor of Ellen White,” Adventist Review, April 30, 1987
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. Roger W. Coon, “Council to a Nervous Bridegroom,” Adventist Heritage, Summer, 1990; Quoted in Herbert E. Douglas, Messenger of the Lord (Pacific Press, 1998), 105-106
  10. J.N. Loughborough letter, dated April 21, 1907. Quoted in Arthur L. White, “Marital Relations,” September, 1962, Washington, D.C. Official Document, Ellen G. White Publications.
  11. Ellen White, Life Sketches of Ellen White, 23
  12. ibid, 39
Jeffrey Rosario Speaker
Light Bearers
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  • jschwirzer

    Jeffrey those were some awesome stories. I haven’t been damaged as some have, haven’t developed that negative association, but it still does me good to see her warm, human side.

  • nancy foote

    There never was a point where I had negative feelings about the person and work of Ellen White. I was fortunate in that knowledgeable people shared a balanced view of her – a more realistic view. It protected me from extremism. She became very human to me, her struggle with depression, with illness and pain, with the antagonism her husband experienced at the hands of the church they helped found. The difficulties she encountered during the 1888 period. But it is in her writings that I truly see who she was, because I no longer see her and instead see that lovely Christ who she said is ‘attractive’.

  • BelleUnruh

    I enjoyed this article very much. When I was nineteen, my grandmother gave me Patriarchs and Prophets. It was reading that book that helped me on the road to accepting Jesus as my Saviour.

    I’ve read many of Sister White’s books, but because of legalism in the church, I was afraid of doing wrong and losing eternal life. It seemed to me that Mrs. White wrote that way too. I remember reading in one of her books, “…it is a sin to forget…” and I threw the book across the room.

    I’m sure it is my problem, but even now, when I tried to read the Testimonies recently, I couldn’t finish. What she wrote made me feel hopeless about being saved! Like I said, I’m sure it is my problem. I believe she was a prophet and a lovely woman.

  • Just a thought

    Unfortunately, I have experienced watching many Adventist Christians shun the writings of Ellen White, and some left the church due to misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Her words were used as tools, standing alone, rather than light shining on the word of God. I appreciate this article. It hopefully will get some to take a second look for themselves, rather than relying on the memory of childhood and the adult’s version of what she shared. There is Gospel, and there is gossip. Gospel is from God’s word to our ears… gossip is someone else’s version of what they think they read, or heard from sermons or other sources. Thank you for sharing this article.

  • David Radlinger

    We had the gentleman from the White estate at our camp meeting a couple years back. He had spoken to many family members and friends of Ellen White and collected the storys and preserved them. The many storys shed a wonderful light on the person she was.
    One in particular comes to mind. He son pastored a church and Ellen was there as a guest speaker. Durring the sermon she noticed everyone was looking to the side behind her as she spoke. She turned to see her son fast asleep in his chair. She then told the congregation not to worry, she would rock him in a cradle as she was preaching when he was a baby so he was used to sleeping through her sermons.

  • Emma Steiger Johnston

    I have read Mrs. Whites writings and found that she was truly in love with God. Your article about her was well written Jeffrey. I agree with you. She was a fun and loving woman who allowed her most precious Savior to use her to glorify His Name and Character. Thank you for your article.
    Emma Johnston

  • Fernando D. Cruz-Michel

    Beautiful 😉

  • Joel

    I know I associated some of the negative experiences of my adventist upbringing with Ellen White unfairly, when really her books were not the reason for emotional pain or fear based religion I experienced, rather people applying her writings to their own unbalanced pursuit of christian living. Its tough though, Even now when I read or listen to her writings my subconscious mind interprets it through that same condemning, fear based voice.
    It distorts and triggers me into the same feelings I experienced growing up in a legalistic, fear based system, It takes significant conscious effort for me to be blessed by her writings because I have to “manually override” the negative feelings I trigger to when hearing her writings. Again, it has nothing to do with her and its frustrating because I have experienced a lot of blessing from EGW writings, but I don’t face the same wall of resistance in my self when I read the bible or CS Lewis or other spiritual books…

  • Kendra Lau

    Thank you for this winsome article. I covet your prayers for victory over a nagging neglect of her work. My husband and I became Adventists when I was 33. My father had been a 32nd degree Mason and one day in my early teens I found his blue books in a desk drawer, but was disappointed to discover they were all written in code. Since the Masonic Lodge was portrayed as a religious organization, and my mother’s relatives were all Catholic, I grew up with the belief that the Bible was also very mystical and ethereal. Imagine my joy to discover in an SDA evangelistic meeting that God’s Word is practical, historical, accurate, and able to be understood (even the symbolic prophecies)!!! Then I ran into the “red books”, and people who put them above the Bible. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with them! I just wanted God and His Word! It’s been many years, and in spite of convicting evidence to the contrary, I’m still troubled by hesitation. Many of my loved ones don’t want God in their lives because of skewed perceptions of Him. I pray for them daily, yet fall under the same deceit regarding Ellen White. God willing, this will be the year of victory!

  • Scott Henning

    Great article! My wife and i have enjoyed reading the book By George R. Knight called “Walking with Ellen White” Her -everyday life as a wife, mother and friend. Very well written and I think gives insight into the unique person she was.

  • Jenn

    Thank you for this very well-written article. I grew up with a very negative picture about Ellen White, her name was only mentioned with regards to rules and keeping the law. But thanks to God, He has led me to search for myself and to create my own opinion about her writings which is now a very positive one. I can encourage everyone to really read her writings with an open mind.

  • Adrian Paneto

    Interesting. I appreciate the thoughts.

  • Pierre Paul Legault

    Thank you. In my youth I was brow-beaten with “Sister White wrote this”; “Sister White wrote that.” I was determined to have nothing to do with her books and that it would be “the Bible and the Bible alone” for me. Now, 30+ years I have only now begun to read her writings. I was missing out. Her writings have none of the negative legalism like I was expecting. They are Bible-based, and dare I say “inspired”.

  • Becky

    The writings of Ellen have given me a lift heavenward, and closer to the throne than others…. The study of scriptures was ever on her mind, and referred to herself as “The Lesser light”.. It breaks my heart to see people misquote, and misuse her writings the same way they do the scriptures.
    I hope to one day meet her, in heaven and talk with her about several topics…. I know she would have loved to be here now and be preparing to meet the Son as HE comes through the clouds to receive us unto HIMSELF. And she would be saying, Study the scriptures, dig deep for those pearls of great price, ask for wisdom and discernment from the Creator who will not turn anyone away who seeks HIM and HIS truth with the whole heart……

  • Lila Oliveira

    Growing up I often heard quotes of Ellen White that would be the “killjoy” of many situations. I am one of those who just read Ellen White comments if they were included in an article. I am older now, and have learned that Ellen White compilations are very dangerous. As you mention in the article people have put parts of her writings together to give them leverage with an opinion of theirs that may never have been Ellen White’s intention to begin with. Having said all this, where do I begin to give Ellen White a chance? What should I read first? and how do I safeguard myself from being pounded on the head with her writings for correction?

  • Klarissa Brownlee blanchfield

    Hi Jeffrey, This article was an answer to prayer for us in its timing and content. Thank you so much for taking the time to address this topic.

  • Owen Bandy

    Having never even heard of Ellen White until I was 25 years old I immediately saw the beauty in her work. It was in reading the Great Controversy that I was drawn to study the Bible. After joining the church it became apparent to me that some had sadly misused her writings and it had led to a generation of people who avoided and even despised her. For many years now I have appreciated her insights and her winsome way of presenting Bible truth.

  • shanejvv

    Thank you Jeffrey. That was a lovely article. Being a relatively new Adventist, starting in my seventh year now (wow time has flown), I have never thought ill of the lady but have always tempered what I believed a happy Christian should be with the more serious side that I have seen in her writings. I still continue to enjoy her written works and wish only that I had more time for reading.

  • lukef

    Well written Jeffrey! Thanks for tackling the topic.

    My parents joined the church when I was 5 but thanks to people representing Ellen just the way you describe, they never fully accepted her as a prophet and minimized her importance, I was content to hold this view until I was 20 and approaching my own baptism when convicted on the topic, I decided to do something radical…

    I actually read some of her books!

    What I found was a great blessing and a totally balanced woman who had the passion for Jesus that I wanted to have.

    Praise God my parents now see her the same way.

    Thanks for helping others to discover what I did.

    Blessings.

  • Michael Racine

    So good, thank you Jeffrey.
    She really was a liberated, modern woman by the standard of her times. I love the story of her counsel to the man obsessed with sex as inherently impure. “My advice to you is, go home and be a man.” Boom!
    Context is always vital, and never more so than when reading Mrs. White. Somehow I too was spared most of the misuse of her writings while growing up, and was more or less free to discover her, for myself, around the age of 20. I read Ministry of Healing and I remember thinking, This woman is really enlivening to read…
    Then to discover more fully over time how her counsel and advice was cutting edge and sensible once one understood the setting more fully…
    It makes you proud of God, for giving us such an admirable, wise message, via an admirable and wise 19th century woman.

  • Hi Lila,

    A good place to start would be the book, “Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings”. It follows Jesus’ sermon on the mount, brining the lessons to life in relevant, beautiful ways for us today. You won’t regret it. You can get a copy from Amazon or your local ABC.

    God Bless!

  • Jeffrey Rosario

    Hi Lila, that’s a great question! One helpful approach would be to read through the Gospels with Desire of Ages as a companion book. You can take it at your pace, reading a chapter in the bible and then the corresponding chapter in Desire of Ages. I’ve found this to be rich in spiritual nourishment and in exposing myself to Ellen White’s picture of God. Another shorter option is to take the parables of Jesus, one by one, and read Christ’s Object Lessons as a companion commentary. Again, this gives us a sense of Ellen White’s understanding of the Gospel. So many more approaches! These are just some simple options. The most important thing is to begin the journey!

  • SurprisedByGrace

    I avoid compilations.

  • SurprisedByGrace

    When EGW is used as a club, or as the Scripture’s umpire and infallible interpreter people are going to go negative on her. I appreciate this article that seeks to address one aspect of what turns people off about EGW.

  • Debz

    I stopped reading her books for a while too and am only just getting back into them with a new sort of perspective. I think the break did me good because I read the Bible much more and took all my walking points from the Bible alone. Funny enough, I’ve ended up with practices that aren’t far off from some of the things she’s written. Now I understand her context much better and appreciate her work and legacy. She grows and changes with life in her work. I see the “humanness” of her and I like that. I’m really enjoying Patriarchs and Prophets right now. I think I will stick to those classics for now.

  • Yes! We need total reimagining of Ellen White. Isn’t it interesting that her writings had been the ones that have led me out of exhausting legalism and set out the justification by faith most clearly to me (esp. 1 Selected Messages and Steps to Christ)…

    And a good note about the photos. In „Walking with Ellen White“, George Knight also mentions that most of the 19th century photography required long static posing for the shot – hence the ‘statue’ look. Though, you gotta admit, some if it begins to look cool again. Take for example her handsome son’s (W.C.) photo: https://photo.egwwritings.org/albums/People/70.2.jpg Many hipsters would die for this look. ^_^

  • Praise God, what an awesome experience! Thanks for sharing.

  • jasmina

    don’t give up – this is our sole mission, to rightfully represent God’s character to our loved ones and neighbours – because so many people do have a skewed perception of God. This is satan’s whole work, to misrepresent God’s character. Don’t give up 🙂

  • jasmina

    Its sad that these brow-beaters allowed satan to use them and to seperate yourself and many others from these inspired words that simply draw us closer to Jesus. There is nothing negative and legalistic about her writings, I find myself drawn to Jesus loving and merciful character when I read SOP.

  • jasmina

    Lila, I agree with the other two suggestions being wonderful – but my personal thought is, read “Steps to Christ”. It is a very short, small book and it never gets old. I feel so inspired and drawn to Christ when I read it. Blessings

  • jasmina

    Thanks for sharing that. Many people have been saved, drawn to the Bible and given their life to Jesus Christ by reading TGC. Even Ellen recommended the book herself as being the most important one of her writings.

  • jasmina

    🙂 very hipster indeed!!! thanks for sharing that photo of her son.

  • Monica Peeke

    I have endured so many trials over 20 years, and EGW’s writings have comforted me!! She even warned of fanaticism. Beautiful message!! Thanks for highlighting what I already found to be true.

  • Cindy

    I really enjoyed this article!

  • jim smith

    ive heard that story as well and always enjoyed it

  • jim smith

    i read a book, like the great controversy, and take the scriptures she quotes and compare them with what the bible says

  • jim smith

    as a child growing up in the 50s and 60s, i had the same experiences. i was always afraid i would be lost if i misbehaved, because sister white said this or that.

  • Marianne Myhre

    LOL! My husband uses EGWs “Steps to Christ” as his antidepressant!

  • lovemore nganunu

    26 years ago in a busy college,at the height of my youth,what a day it was when someone handed me a book with a worn out cover,GREAT CONTROVERSY .I read it over night and finished at 6am without sleeping

    That was my Damascus drive highway event like Paul.GOD IS GOOD!

  • Adele De Rossi

    Sister White all she really wanted was that People would be drawn to the Word of God, The Holy Bible. Her Words were a lesser light to bring people back to the Greater Light. She never wanted people quoting her, as she said, “Lay Sister white to one side. Do not quote my words again as long as you live until you can obey the Bible. When you can make the Bible your food, your meat and your drink, when you make it’s principles the elements of your character, you will know better how to receive counsel from God. I exalt the precious Word before you today. Do not repeat what I have said, saying, “Sister White said this” and “Sister White has said that”. Find out what the Lord God of Israel says, and then do what He commands.” {3SM 33.1}
    In the Word of God is more treasure than any of us could know. When you daily eat the manna of God you are are ever rejoicing that you have been filled and then the next day you see there’s more. Never ending treasure to be had. This is where Sister White wanted God’s people to be. In His Word.

    Arise and Eat……

  • lurid

    Amen!