Book Review: Ellen White’s Afterlife: Delightful Fictions, Troubling Facts, Enlightening Research

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Book Review: Ellen White’s Afterlife: Delightful Fictions, Troubling Facts, Enlightening Research

Knight’s writing contribution to this book consists primarily of some sixty pages. Don’t be misled, though; those sixty pages make it worth the purchase. Few authors can pull that off, but… it’s George Knight. These have been some of the most enlightening words I’ve read in the last decade, and I have been studying in academia for even longer than that. The remaining one hundred pages consist of documents of importance to Adventist history well-deserving of a place in your physical or virtual bookshelf.

Moving beyond the glamorous introduction, a brief summary:

Part 1 of The Afterlife Journey is structured in six chapters that take the reader through different decades of Adventism and the major turning points in our understanding of Ellen White and the nature of her writings. The big questions include the following:

  1. Are White’s writings verbally inspired and infallible, or are they dynamically inspired and fallible, allowing for revisions?
  2. Are her writings to be used as the final authority in matters of doctrine? What about in matters of history, conduct, dress, health, etc.?
  3. Is White a divine commentator of the Bible whose words should be placed above all other commentaries?
  4. Should biblical issues be settled by her writings?
  5. Is originality a test of inspiration, or can divine inspiration include not only direct revelation from God, but also guidance in selecting and using existing sources?

 

Knight begins by sharing his personal experience as a student at Pacific Union College in the sixties, a decade during which Ellen White’s writings were held in high regard and were generally viewed as the final authority on matters of doctrine, interpretation of Scripture, entertainment, dress, conduct, and health. She was believed to be “100 years ahead of her time”[i] in health principles understood as directly revealed to her by God, and the predominant view both among clergy and laity was that her writings were verbally inspired and inerrant (or infallible); that is, God had inspired the actual wording, and the writings could not contain any error. She was seen as an inspired commentator whose knowledge came “straight from heaven, as if there were some kind of pipeline from the throne of God through the top of Ellen White’s head and out through her fingertips.”[ii]

 

White’s books were often the only textbooks in classes on religion, and historical chronologies were often drawn from her writings, with exceptions in “Greek Exegesis” and “Daniel and Revelation” were the teachers relied primarily or even solely on Scripture for their material. A perception of character flawlessness accompanied the reverence for White’s authority and writings.

 

Ironically, much of this idealized and oversimplified view of Ellen White and her prophetic voice stood in stark contrast with her own declarations and the assertions of those who knew her personally and worked with her over many years. In chapter two, Knight brings up historical data to indicate that White and her contemporaries held more modest views regarding her authority. These views arose from a more complex understanding of inspiration.

 

In short, White consistently dismissed verbal inspiration both in regards to the Bible and her own writings, advocating instead for thought inspiration, which means that God inspired the thoughts but the writers wrote in their own words. This view of inspiration allows for fallibility and revisions, which she did undertake. W. W. Prescott gained a better understanding of her writing process as he worked with her on The Great Controversy project, and consequently discarded verbal inspiration in favor of thought inspiration.

 

Ellen White also discouraged the use of her writings to settle biblical controversies and spoke against using her words in sermons, insisting instead on the need to use the Bible and derive doctrine, principles, and sermons from Scripture. She was also quite transparent about her use of sources, many of which were familiar titles in Adventist circles.

 

Nevertheless, some voices continued to advocate for her verbal inspiration and infallibility. One vocal supporter of this rigid view was S. N. Haskell, although often corrected by W. C. White, Ellen White’s son who worked closely with her during the last twenty-five years of her life. W. C. White repeatedly expressed concern over the misunderstanding and misuse of his mother’s writings, which could result in great harm. A copy of his letter to Haskell is signed by Ellen White with the following note: “I approve of the remarks made in this letter.”[iii]

 

As it turns out, W. C. White’s concern was well-founded and, sadly, the misunderstanding and attachment to verbal inspiration and infallibility came with a high cost both for certain individuals and for our denomination, as evident in Knight’s chapters three and four. Following the death of Ellen White in 1915 and the rise of fundamentalism in the years 1919-1920, the denomination gradually accepted verbal inspiration under younger leadership who felt they had no choice but to align themselves with the fundamentalism movement against the dangers of modern liberalism.

 

As a result, the older leading thinkers who worked alongside Ellen White and advocated for thought inspiration and fallibility were pushed out of office or influential positions. Prominent names include W. W. Prescott and GC president A. C. Daniells, who chaired the historic 1919 Bible Conference[iv] and determined that the debates over inspiration that took place at this conference were being used so detrimentally that he locked the minutes in a vault where they remained hidden for fifty years. It did not help that F. M. Wilcox, in his influential role as editor of the Review of Herald, gradually moved from a moderate view of inspiration towards completely accepting and publicly advocating verbal inspiration.

 

In the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of Adventists, more thoroughly equipped in research, began to ask questions and investigate Ellen White’s works and writing process. Several names and events contributed to a turning point in these decades, of which I mention three that especially shook Adventism and forced the church to rethink their view of White’s inspiration:

  1. The discovery and publication (in Spectrum, May 1979) of the 1919 Bible Conference minutes, which opened up a clearer understanding of White’s and her contemporaries’ views on her inspiration and authority,
  2. Ronald Numbers’ book Prophetess of Health, published in 1976 and probing White’s use of sources, which even led to an article in Time magazine questioning her legitimacy, and
  3. Walter Rea’s discovery of White’s widespread use of sources. While the church had previously admitted Ellen White’s use of sources, Rea’s research indicated that this was much more widespread than commonly believed and caused significant turmoil.

 

The misunderstanding of Ellen White’s thought inspiration and the overstatement of her authority led to a resilient disillusionment that sowed grievous doubts about her legitimacy, loss of membership, and vigorous attacks on her prophetic ministry.

 

How did the church move forward? For the most part, the church leadership owned up to the new discoveries (which were actually matching up to White’s and her contemporaries’ views) and sought to explain inspiration and authority in light of these. Chapter five documents several developments in this regard, including the following:

 

  1. Neil Wilson, General Conference President, offered five principles to help the church understand the inspiration process and the authority of inspired writings: “1. Originality is not a test of inspiration. … 2 God inspires people, not words. … 3. The Holy Spirit helps the messenger to select his material carefully. … 4. The prophet’s use of existing materials does not necessarily mean that the prophet is dependent upon these sources. … 5. Whenever we recognize similarities we must also see the dissimilarities.”[v]
  2. The Ellen White Estate, led by Robert Olson (former professors at Pacific Union College who changed his views from verbal inspiration to thought inspiration), published several pieces, including One Hundred and One Questions on the Sanctuary and on Ellen White, where Olson dispelled the myth that Ellen White’s writings should function as divine commentary on Scripture bearing theological and exegetical authority. Along these lines, he wrote: “Ellen White’s writings are generally homiletical or evangelistic in nature and not strictly exegetical.”[vi]
  3. The publication of Selected Messages, book 3, incorporated documentation of her ministry and writing process, including the use of sources and literary assistants, a section entitled “Principles of Interpretation,” and an appendix signed by W. C. White where he reaffirms Ellen White’s own view of inspiration and the limited authority of her writings.
  4. George Rice, a New Testament scholar who published Luke, A Plagiarist, developed a helpful view of Bible inspiration that could be applied to the writings of Ellen White as well. In this view revelation and inspiration can be separated, meaning that direct revelation (such as in visions) does not have to be the only method of inspiration. Instead, a writer could also be divinely inspired in the selection and use of existing sources.
  5. Merlin Burt’s Ph.D. Dissertation demonstrated that contrary to the popularized view that Ellen White was a key person in the development of Adventist doctrines, “not one of Adventism’s distinctive ‘pillar’ doctrines was developed by anyone who ever became a Sabbatarian Adventist.”[vii] In other words, some of our core doctrines have been integrated into our belief system from previous “sources.”

 

More documentation about the church’s approach to moving forward is offered in the book, and the ten documents included in Part Two: The Afterlife Journey are eye-opening enough to warrant ownership by every Adventist who wishes to make educated and informed choices.

 

For me, the most startling statements George Knight makes are the following two:

 

Th[e] approaches … widely practiced in Adventism of the 1920s to the 1960s, were in essence heresy rather than orthodoxy from the perspective of Adventism’s founding generation and of Ellen White for her entire life.[viii]

 

Basically, the church taught a major wrong thing for fifty years. The consequential result was that, instead of educating church members on how to read the Bible and how to develop thinking and study skills, we relied on Ellen White for everything. But Knight’s claim may be too modest, for I grew up in the eighties with many sermons that were simply readings of Ellen White.

 

A second starling statement he makes is that

 

Adventists have never been united on the authority and proper use of Ellen White.[ix]

 

This is somewhat new information for me and I am still pondering how to process it, especially along these lines: if this is how it has been so far, can it be otherwise, and should it be otherwise? The complexity of our global church makes me lean towards thinking there will always be more sides to this issue. The scholar and servant of God who values truth makes me hope that, even if we cannot achieve 100% consensus, we need to do our very best to equip our church with education and with study skills and tools.

 

One final thought from my personal experience. I wrote an analysis on a Bible passage based on the text, and a friend of mine who read it said something like this:

 

It is interesting that your conclusions coincide with Ellen White’s comments on this passage!

 

His comment made me feel both honored, as if some great authority had placed her stamp of approval on my study, and sad, because I realized that this situation is not very common.

 

That is, generally, people don’t study the Bible and then go to Ellen White but rely primarily on her for their understanding of Scripture. Yet how can they do otherwise if they are not equipped? On this point, another friend asked me once:

 

Why should I study the Bible myself when Ellen White has already written so eloquently about it?

 

Fair point. I told him that, in seeking to understand God’s voice in Scripture, there is nothing that compares in both depth and connection as the time spent reading and studying the Bible. There is a different kind of spiritual intimacy with God that I experience when I spend time in His Word, even as I understand His word to have been expressed through human channels and not dictated. It is still a uniquely divinely inspired book unlike any other book ever written.

 

While I value Ellen White’s writings and ministry and I am deeply thankful for the leadership role she played in forming the identity of our church, and for the astounding wisdom in balancing her statements and navigating difficult waters, I see her precisely as she saw herself, and Knight’s book leaves me both profoundly grievous about the church’s inability to mature earlier on, and deeply aware of the urgent need for this maturing to happen. By maturing I mean precisely what Ellen White has always advocated for: a serious focus on studying the Bible and equipping the church, especially laity, to read it and interpret it for themselves.

 

Anything less than that is stripping them from the opportunity to develop the most intimate spiritual connection with God that fosters a genuine saving and transforming relationship with God.

______

Notes.

[i] Page 16.

[ii] Page 16.

[iii] W. C. White to S. N. Haskell, Oct. 31, 1912, cited on page 19.

[iv] For a review of a good book on the influence of Fundamentalism on Adventism and on the 1919 Bible Conference see Adelina Alexe: “1919: The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism Book Review,” Compass Magazine.

[v] Neal C. Wilson, “This I Believe About Ellen G. White,” Adventist Review, Mar. 20, 1980, 8-10, cited on page 43.

[vi] Robert W. Olson, One Hundred and One Questions on the Sanctuary and on Ellen White, (Washington DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1981), 41-44, cited on page 47.

[vii] Page 49.

[viii] Ibid., p. 49.

[ix] Page 15.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.