On Sabbath, March 16, 1901, Ellen White addressed an Adventist congregation in Vicksburg, Mississippi where her son, Edson White, had on two occasions nearly been run out of town by segregationists. She was there to view for herself the progress of “the colored work” he was spearheading and would help dedicate a new Adventist meeting house the following Sunday.
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To this assembly of the oppressed Ellen White spoke from John 14 about the hope of Heaven and the promise of divine comfort in this world. Her words were preserved in a manuscript and reprinted as “Trust in God” in The Gospel Herald, March 1, 1901. Elaborating on the benefits of adoption into God’s family for black people, she offered the following:
Remembering this, you will be able to bear the trials which you meet here. In heaven there will be no color line; for all will be as white as Christ Himself. Let us thank God that we can be members of the royal family. (Manuscript 27, 1901 par. 17; “Trust in God,” par. 20)
“In heaven there will be no color line; for all will be as white as Christ Himself.” This is one of those perplexing phrases in the Ellen White corpus that made a certain amount of sense at the time but for which we presently lack the context to intuitively grasp what she intended to say. Recently, it has been used by Ellen White’s detractors to claim that she was a racist. Others, who believe that Ellen White was God’s messenger, as do I, wonder what exactly to make of it.
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Other than a brief 1998 article by Calvin Rock in the Adventist Review, the question of what Ellen White meant by “all will be as white as Christ Himself” has not, to my knowledge, been addressed by her apologists. In what follows I will offer a quick run-down of the possible interpretive options, evaluate them, and assess what we can or cannot conclude based on this statement and others like it. This is a preliminary study and further research could amend my conclusions here.
First, given the overall point she was trying to make about unity in Christ across racial distinctions, it is safe to rule out the idea Ellen White was saying that we will all be racially white in Heaven. That meaning would introduce problems for her overall theme of adoption into the royal family of God regardless of race. And it is unfair to read any author as incoherent when other interpretive options are available.
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On the other hand, what is clear is that Ellen White was trying to say that the saved are going to share equally in some state of whiteness with Christ that obviates whiteness as a racial identity to be lived apart from and above the black race (i.e., the “color line”). So what might that state of whiteness be?
Option 1: Ellen White, drawing from the symbolism of Revelation 7:14, often spoke about the saints in glory as having been made metaphorically white in reference to their character reflecting the perfect, spotless character of Christ (see, e.g., “Christ Revealed the Father,” Signs of the Times, 6 January 1890, par. 7). She may well have meant that while some think that it’s racial whiteness that counts, what matters, in the end, is developing a character that is symbolically white like Jesus’s. And that is something that people of any race can do by God’s grace.
Option 2: Related to that symbolism in Revelation 7:9, she may have been referring to whiteness in terms of the physical appearance of the saints, whose white robes and halo of Edenic glory, as she saw them in her visions, would be like the white garments and shining face of the ascended Christ (Rev 1:14). Ellen White was likely saying that these white and shining physical manifestations of inner-character (see, e.g., Manuscript 114, 1909, par. 29) will be the privilege of people of every race, not just white people. And this will eliminate hierarchical distinctions and separations between the races in glory.
Option 3: Finally, she may have been talking about a phenotypical whiteness that people of all races will possess in their glorified bodies. Jesus took on our infirmities in a phenotypically ‘brown’ body, but his resurrected body was not like that one in many respects. He was also not immediately recognizable to his friends (John 20:15, 21:4; cf. Luke 24:16 where this lack of recognition is imposed). For this reason, we do not know exactly what we will look like in the resurrection. And consequently, we cannot say whether or not our glorified bodies will retain the fuzzy clusters of phenotypical traits that the modern mind indexes to racial identities. It is possible that Ellen White was saying that we will all look similar in Heaven in a way we do not now, but in a way that she viewed as phenotypically white.
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These interpretive options are not mutually exclusive, but only the first two are supported by a message she wrote two years later to teachers at what is now Oakwood University, a historically black institution. She expanded on the same contrast between the white race and the whiteness of Christ, but this time explicitly in terms of a theme to which she often returned: the connection between a glorious character here and a glorious appearance in the hereafter (see, e.g. “The Blessed Hope,” Review & Herald, 12 November 1913, par. 15).
I have a message to bear that our white teachers shall encourage the black students … that it is not the color of the skin that will spoil their record [or] that the Lord will make a special heaven for the whites and another for the blacks. All will receive their reward according to their cleanness of heart.
If Christ makes the colored race clean and white in the blood of the Lamb, if He clothes them with the garments of His righteousness, they will be honored in the heavenly kingdom as verily as the white, and when the Lord Jesus’ face shall shine upon the righteous black they will shine forth in the very same complexion that Christ has (Letter 304, 1903, pars. 5–6).
In contrast to the worldly racial elevation of whites over blacks, Ellen White emphasizes two gifts in which the glorified saints of all races will equally partake: (1) garments symbolic of redemption, the source of metaphorical whiteness, and (2) a shining face reflecting the glory of Christ associated with white robes. The connection between the two is emphasized by her use of the word “complexion,” which according to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary meant “the color of … the face” and was “used to denote character,” in medical contexts. And note that in her description of “the heavenly kingdom” the “righteous” are identified as “white” and “black”—language which implies that she did not mean that all will be racially white in Heaven.
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Similarly to the statement under question, she says that “Christ makes the colored race . . . white.” However, here she puts the rhetorical weight of the contrast with racial whiteness on the sources of the whiteness Christ offers, rather than on the whiteness itself. By stating in definite terms what will constitute that future state of whiteness Ellen White now clarifies what she previously meant. Therefore, we can at least say that (1) the metaphorical whiteness of pure character along with (2) the white appearance of robes and shining faces were likely to have been on her mind when she said that “all will be as white as Christ Himself.”
But what about phenotypical whiteness? This is the most troubling option to me because I interpret Scripture to mean that variety, likely including phenotypical variety, was God’s original plan for humanity (Gen 1:28, Gen 9:7, Gen 11:1–9). But it’s a live option, not only because we do not know what we will look like in heaven, but because God meets people where they are. I know of a few people whom I believe to have seen Christ in vision. And the Jesus they see does not look the same. He often looks like they do. Likewise, Ellen White may have seen a phenotypically white Jesus in vision, because she most likely would have identified as a white person. And since her early ministry was primarily to white people, she may have been shown a vision of Christ and the saints they could identify with.
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There are other examples where God seems to have shown Ellen White an incomplete picture of incidental subjects for her overall message to connect with people at the time (e.g., Joseph Bates and Jupiter’s moons). Likewise, the phenotypical sense of whiteness, if intended, would have been incidental to the meanings she continued to emphasize. Sometimes it’s also the case that the way she explained what she saw leaves us with questions that might be answerable today but were not as relevant to her audiences.
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And is precisely how Ellen White viewed the question of the phenotype of glorified bodies. In remarks addressed specifically to the “colored students” present at a June 21, 1904 speech she gave at Oakwood, she again took up the theme of the contrasting whitenesses:
Because you have a colored skin, that is no sin against God. This you cannot help. But you can have a white soul, and you can have a reward in the heavenly courts equal to the reward of any white man. I shall not tell you whether you will be white or black in heaven. I know that you will be just what God wants you to be (Manuscript 60, 1904, par. 23).
The progression of specificity from 1903 to 1904 along with the refusal (“I shall not”) in 1904 suggests that Ellen White may have been asked to clarify a question of phenotype in Heaven raised by the statement in her 1901 article. What is clear is that in 1904 Ellen White viewed the question of the phenotype of glorified bodies as incidental to the contrast she had been making between race and character. What is not clear is whether she demurred on that point because she was unsure of or did not know the answer or because she thought an answer would become a distraction.
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If the latter, it is possible that commenting on the phenotype of the saved in glory would have raised more questions about Heaven than it answered, given how tightly clusters of phenotypical traits were indexed to racial identity in America at the time (as they continue to be in the popular imagination). This inability to parse the distinction is evident in the language of her statement, which begins with that of phenotype (“colored skin”) and ends with that of racial identity (“be white or black”). The conceptual framework necessary to clarify the relationship between the two was not readily available until the latter half of the twentieth century.
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Thus, attempting to tell people what their glorified bodies would look like in Heaven in terms of phenotypical traits could easily have led to confusion relative to race among Adventists over how they would maintain their identity in an integrated Heaven or over identity continuity in the experience of resurrection/translation. Ellen White’s conclusion—“I shall not tell you whether you will be white or black in heaven. I know that you will be just what God wants you to be”—suggests that she believed she had some knowledge bearing on the question of phenotype, but thought that sharing such knowledge would not encourage her audience to trust God to preserve their identity from sanctification to glorification and on into eternity.
Whatever other interpretive options are valid (there may be more that I have not considered), Ellen White deliberately left us with open questions on both sides of the phenotypical whiteness option. Therefore, we cannot determine what, if anything she privately thought about the phenotype of the glorified bodies of the saints based on her single statement: “In heaven there will be no color line; for all will be as white as Christ Himself.” Nor should any Adventist use it as a platform from which to leap into racist speculation about a homogeneous, white racial identity as humanity’s final destiny. Instead, we should focus where Ellen White repeatedly directed attention: on the contrast between the temporary advantages that racial whiteness affords some and the eternal whiteness of purified character and shining glory that Christ offers all.