The first day of August, 1919, soon became the hot, muggy, greenhouse-style day, typical of Washington, D.C. The city had slipped into a comfortable calm after exploding fireworks had signaled the end of World War I some nine months earlier. In the peaceful suburb of Takoma Park, the church's leaders and scholars wrestled with some difficult issues that were surfacing four years after the death of Ellen G. White, God's messenger to the remnant. Being discussed, sometimes heatedly, were questions of inspiration, infallibility, and authority.
F. M. Wilcox, editor of the Review, spoke up: "I think the Testimonies of the Spirit of God are a great asset to this denomination, and I think if we destroy faith in them, we are going to destroy faith in the very foundation of our work."
A Bible teacher, J. N. Anderson, asked: "We say ... that Sister White never claimed to be final on the historical matters that appear in her writings. Are we safe to tell that to our students? Or shall we hold it in abeyance?"
A. G. Daniells, president of the General Conference, dealt very candidly with the question of historical error: "Now on infallibility. I suppose Sister White used Paul's text, 'We have this treasure in earthen vessels,' as much as any other scripture. . . . When you take the position that she was not infallible, and that her writings were not verbally inspired, isn't there a chance for the manifestation of the human? If there isn't, then what is infallibility?"
Another Bible teacher, W. H. Wakeham, commented on the views of the average church member: "They have accepted the Testimonies all over the country, and believe that every identical word that Sister White has written was to be received as infallible truth. We have that thing to meet when we get back, and it will be brought up in our classes just as sure as we stand here."—Minutes of the 1919 Bible and History Teachers Meeting, Takoma Park, August 1, 1919; General Conference Archives.
The issues today are the same: inspiration, infallibility, and authority. The key difference is that we now know much more about Ellen White's use of sources and the way in which she incorporated them into her writings than did the scholars and church leaders of 1919. Too, we have the added perspective that time brings. We have had a longer time to wrestle with certain theological issues inherent in the question of Mrs. White's inspiration— issues that we face as well when we examine the inspiration of Scripture. The same insights gained from a deeper under standing of how the books of Scripture came into existence provide answers to the questions raised concerning Ellen White's use of sources.
From the materials on file in the E. G. White Estate and in the General Conference Archives it appears that by 1919 only twelve source books were known from which Ellen White drew material without giving credit. Today we know of more than six times that number. At that time known borrowing was concentrated in three of Ellen White's books—The Great Controversy, The Desire of Ages, and Sketches From the Life of Paul. Today we find examples of literary borrowing in nearly all of the Ellen G. White books, including posthumous compilations. The earliest sure examples of borrowing are found in Spiritual Gifts. All five volumes of the Conflict of the Ages series and all nine volumes of the Testimonies (except volume one) contain numerous examples of literary parallels. This is not to imply that the more examples of borrowing we find, the less confidence we have in these inspired messages. God forbid! Actually this information provides us just one further glimpse of the way the Lord works. If He can take a lowly rod and use it to open a pathway through the sea; if He can take a prophet's donkey and use it to speak a message of rebuke to a wayward prophet, then what is to prevent Him from taking gems of truth from the writings of others and use them as part of the prophet's message that He has for His people? If we say that God cannot do so, are we not limiting His omniscience and omnipotence?
Today we know that Ellen White used literary sources in her periodical articles, her unpublished manuscripts, her diaries, and her letters, in addition to the published books. We find borrowing not only in all types of her writings but also upon all subjects—health, temperance, history, education, marriage and the family, evangelism and preaching, Biblical narratives, theology, eschatology, and practical Christian living. I cannot think of any major subject where I have not located examples of literary adaptation. Lest I be misquoted, I am not saying that everything she wrote has been borrowed! Some examples consist of an isolated sentence or two, and others involve only a paragraph here or there. But just as her writings touch upon all areas, so her borrowing touches upon all areas.
Our forefathers in 1919 apparently had no knowledge of Ellen White's use of other sources when conveying the words heard in a vision. In fact, most of the examples cited in this study have been discovered only in the past few months. However, the issues are really no different whether we are concerned with the use of sources in connection with visions or the use of sources for filling in narratives not provided in vision. The key issue is whether a prophetic messenger, claiming that his messages have a heavenly source, is robbed of his inspiration the moment he begins to utilize earthly sources.
Consistently Ellen White emphasizes the divine credentials for her messages. Toward the end of an active literary life she writes: "These messages have been written as,God has given them to me."—Letter 39, 1905, in Selected Messages, book 3, p. 73. She gives proper credit for her Source of inspiration: "These books were written under the demonstration of the Holy Spirit."—Letter 50, 1906, in MINISTRY, October, 1981, p. 9. The response of the people has also been indicative of a divine Source: "I have spoken the plain message to our own people and to the multitude, and my words have been accepted as coming from the Lord."—Letter 84, 1909, in Selected Messages, book 3, p. 72.
The difficulty arises not with inspiration itself, but with our understanding of how inspiration operates. We have sometimes assumed that everything Ellen White has written came directly from vision sources except for a minor reliance upon historical sources in narrating the story of the Protestant Reformation or the history of Paul. Recent evidence disproves such a concept and brings to view an interplay between human sources and divine revelation at almost every juncture. Outgrowing the one concept and adjusting to the other may cause growing pains for some of us. But it is becoming clearer that as in the earthly existence of Christ, so in the process of inspiration/revelation—the human does not exist without the divine, nor the divine without the human. In saying this we are in no way trying to place Ellen White on the same level as Christ; Ellen White is not our Saviour. But we are saying that whenever a message comes from God destined for His people it must be incarnated first in human form to be intelligible. That is the reason for the use of human sources.
The questions of inspiration, infallibility, and authority must be addressed in the light of known literary borrowing. Space permits us to deal with these three areas only as they relate to Ellen White's use of sources. Following are some of the conclusions that are beginning to come into focus:
1. Inspiration is not be equated with originality. It is conceivable that continued research could demonstrate that in one given area, such as health, everything said by Ellen White had been said earlier by someone, somewhere. (That would not necessarily prove, however, that she had read all such prior works.) Being called of God to spearhead a work of reform in the end times does not necessitate that Ellen White be original in that work .of reform, whether it be in health, temperance, education, the family, or doctrinal truths. In regard to health reform, J. H. Waggoner in an early Review underscores this fact: "We do not profess to be pioneers in the general principles of the health reform. The facts on which this movement is based have been elaborated, in a great measure, by reformers, physicians, and writers on physiology and hygiene, and so may be found scattered through the land. But we do claim that by the method of God's choice it has been more clearly and powerfully unfolded, and is thereby producing an effect which we could not have looked for from any other means."— Review and Herald, Aug. 7, 1866.
We have consistently maintained that none of our distinctive doctrines originated with Ellen White. That means that all such truths were spelled out by others prior to her speaking and writing on the subject. Indeed, if we were to find she originated any given doctrine, we would be open to the charge of exalting her writings above Scripture. The Lord made it certain that she not be original in matters of doctrine, an additional reason why she was led to sources in writing out her doctrinal expositions.
2. Inspiration does not involve the dictation of divinely chosen words. Seventh-day Adventists are opposed to the verbal dictation theory of inspiration. "The writers of the Bible were God's penmen, not His pen," says Ellen White. "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."—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 21. Interestingly, Ellen White has adapted this very passage from Stowe's Origin and History of the Books of the Bible (1867), pages 18, 19. If both the words and the writer were inspired, we would have to conclude that Calvin Stowe was inspired along with Ellen White! The discovery of Ellen White's extensive and varied use of prior sources should extinguish any lingering trace of the verbal dictation theory.
3. Inspiration is not diminished by the use of uninspired sources. Seventh-day Adventists have consistently stood in opposition to "degrees of inspiration." We are in grave difficulties when it comes to Scripture itself if we say that something is less inspired because it has been based upon a prior source. Is the golden rule less inspired than the rest of the Sermon on the Mount because Christ adapted it from rabbinic sources? Paul occasionally drew upon some of the inter-testamental books, especially the book of Enoch, an uninspired document. Does this mean that Paul's writings are less inspired in the places he used sources—many of which were drilled in his mind as he sat at the feet of Gamaliel?
4. Inspiration is affected by outside human influences. If a message from God must be incarnated in human form before it can become intelligible to man, then that message will inevitably be shaped according to the messenger's thought patterns, culture, environment, background, training, personality, and reading habits. The message cannot be divorced from the personality of the messenger. With the oracles of Amos we detect the smell of straw upon his garments, with David our spirits soar with the emotion-filled rhapsodies of the "sweet singer of Israel," and with Luke we uncover here and there the insights of a physician. Would it not, then, be unreasonable to demand that Ellen White should be free from all the influences of her surroundings? Inspiration never operates in a vacuum.
Influence, when under divine supervision, becomes an asset, not a liability. As the divinely called messenger reads widely from a variety of sources he becomes better attuned to the needs of his age, and he adapts the language of his messages into a form that will greatly increase their impact and effectiveness. In this case the more sources read and used, the more effective will be the inspired writings!
Influence becomes a liability only when prostituted into manipulation. Balaam is a prime example of a prophet who was manipulated. On those occasions when Ellen White reacts against the charge of being under the influence of others, she is actually defending her work from the charge of manipulation. This is indicated by the following: "There are those who say, 'Someone manipulates her writings.' I acknowledge the charge. It is One who is mighty in counsel, One who presents before me the condition of things."—Letter 52, 1906, in Selected Messages, book 3, p. 64.
5. Inspiration goes beyond what has been presented in vision, and sometimes stands independent of visions. Seventh-day Adventists have been given no mandate to find vision sources for everything that Ellen White has written while under inspiration. If she had vision sources for every iota of information, she would not have needed to draw on material from prior written sources. In that case, she would only have needed to write out what had been given to her in vision, and then perhaps allow her literary assistants to polish it grammatically. We will never know precisely how much information was given in vision. Nor is it necessary for us to know, because all truth, whether given in vision or out of vision, is ultimately from God. The available clues suggest that the visions were more in outline form rather than comprehensive in nature. In a statement read before the 1911 General Conference session and approved by Ellen White, her son W. C. White describes the visions as follows: "The things which she has written out, are descriptions of flash light pictures and other representations given her."—Selected Messages, book 3, p. 437. Ellen White points out that what she writes apart from any specific vision is just as much inspired as that which has a vision for its basis (Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 683-691).
6. Inspiration provides the narrative for those portions of visions that were symbolic or that lacked a narrative. Ellen White herself often describes her visions as "scenes," "views," or "representations" (Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 659; Gospel Workers, p. 94; The Great Controversy, pp. x, xi; Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 292; Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 51, 56). The emphasis seems usually to be more on the visual than the auditory, although in some cases the auditory is present. Even in those cases where the auditory portion of the vision is present, Ellen White is given the liberty to write it out in her own words (Gospel Workers, p. 94). If that is so, we can rightly suggest that she is also given the privilege of using the writings of others when they coincide with the auditory portion of the vision. In those cases where no audible narrative accompanied the vision, it became all the more imperative that she use the narratives of Biblical scholars and devout historians to amplify and supplement what was presented to her. It is somewhat comparable to a silent motion picture, the narrative for which has been taken in part from the writings of contemporaries.
7. Inspiration must include divine guidance in the selection of sources. Carrying further this imagery of a motion picture to depict inspiration, the audience does not write the script. The script is written under the direction of the producer of the film. The scriptwriter himself may resort to a wide variety of sources in order to accurately comment upon that which had been filmed, but he cannot do so independently of the producer's wishes. States Ellen White: "The many books, written by the help of the Spirit of God, bear a living witness to the character of the testimonies." Elsewhere she writes: "I am just as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in relating or writing the vision as in having the vision."—Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 50, 48. If Ellen White did not have divine guidance in the selection of sources for her writings, then she did not have the divine presence at the time of receiving the vision; for it is the same Holy Spirit at work in both.
Much more could be said concerning inspiration than there is room to say here. The reader is referred to William G. Johnsson's recent article, "How Does God Speak?" (MINISTRY, October, 1981, pp. 4-6).
The question of infallibility versus fallibility in the inspired writings hinges upon one's concept of inspiration. If one is firmly convinced that the very words of God were dictated to the prophet, then the writings must be infallible because God never makes a mistake in what He says. Ellen White avoids making such claims. "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."—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 37. Unfortunately, some have viewed Ellen White as if she had been provided final answers to all theological questions. While she was yet alive some would come to her, asking her to settle such theological disputes as the meaning of the "daily" in Daniel 8. Her response to those individuals was: "I have words to speak to my brethren east and west, north and south. I request that my writings shall not be used as the leading argument to settle questions over which there is now so much controversy."—Ibid., p. 164- She consistently pointed to Scripture as one's final authority.
Even today it is tempting to use her writings as if they contain an "infallible filter" for separating the wheat from the chaff, truth from error. Ellen White would not wish it to be so. For her, the ultimate standard of truth and the supreme arbiter of doctrinal disputes is Scripture itself. Speaking of her own writings in relation to the Scriptures, she writes: "The Spirit was not given—nor can it 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."—The Great Controversy, p. vii. If we make Ellen White's writings the ultimate standard for truth, then we have placed her writings on an equality with the Bible—in fact they can be made to supersede the Bible because their scope is much more all-inclusive than that of the Scriptures.
To admit minor discrepancies in Ellen White's writings is not to deny their inspiration. Inspiration is not to be equated with absolute perfection. When the Holy Spirit inspired and guided Ellen White as she selected material found in other sources, she was not equipped with an "infallible filter" or any internal standard for determining truth. Her own visions were not the test; her only test was God's Word, the Holy Scriptures. Since all her visions were given to illuminate the meaning of Scripture, they cannot be used as an independent standard apart from Scripture.
Some may suggest that since Ellen White's writings have been tested by the ultimate standard, the Bible, therefore they have been freed automatically of any error. The fact is that the Bible is silent upon a myriad of details found within Ellen White's writings. Those details cannot be easily tested by the Bible when the Bible does not deal with that particular subject. For example, the Bible has no account of the history of the Protestant Reformation; Ellen White had to rely on contemporary historians for these events. If we find that minor errors or discrepancies have some times been incorporated into Ellen White's writings because of the fact that she relied upon historical accounts, this should not cause us to lose faith in the accuracy and trustworthiness of the mes sage God is bringing to us through an inspired medium. There is nothing in Scripture to correct such errors, so they remain with us today. We should no more reject the inspiration of Ellen White on that account than we should reject Scripture for failing to provide her with a means for testing the accuracy of those historical statements.
The recent discovery of a wide use of contemporary sources by Ellen White actually can be viewed as a positive factor. Some individuals have been deeply troubled over discovery of discrepancies and errors in minor details. If we held to the view that virtually everything Ellen White wrote had been received directly from God in vision without the use of any sources, the discovery of minor errors could be a faith-shattering experience. But now the discovery that human sources, which are always errant, have had a part to play in the whole process provides a satisfactory explanation without having to question whether God was speaking through Ellen White. Our own faith is stronger with this knowledge.
The final question is that of authority, and this undoubtedly will be addressed more extensively in the future beyond our preliminary remarks here. Our under standing of authority depends totally upon our understanding of how inspiration operates and how the question of infallibility versus fallibility is settled. If we admit that minor errors in nonessentials can be found in Ellen White's writings, we will not take her statements containing those errors as a final authority. Ellen White recognized this. Her son once wrote a letter three years before her death on her behalf in which he remarked: "Regarding Mother's writings and their use as authority on points of history and chronology, Mother has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority regarding the details of history or historical dates."—W. C. White to W. W. Eastman, Nov. 4, 1912, in Selected Messages, book 3, p. 446. This is not to depreciate her authority in any sense, but simply recognizes its limits. To say that she has no final authority in details of dates and history must not be extrapolated to say that she has no authority in terms of the counsels provided for individuals and institutions over the years. Her authority does not diminish with time, neither are her counsels diminished with the passing of generations. If they have provided spiritual nurture for individuals, stability for institutions, and prosperity for a church, then we must continue to recognize the rightful authority of those counsels.
Ellen White's authority does not reside within herself; it is not centered in a mere person. It is a derived authority. It is God-given and Bible-centered. Her authority, while less than that of Scripture, is higher than each of us as individuals. God has given her special insights into spiritual things, insights that we do not possess or that we possess only faintly. To reject her authority is to substitute our wisdom for a wisdom higher than ours.
On the other hand, to exalt her writings above Scripture is actually to weaken her authority instead of strengthening it, because this in effect nullifies what she herself has written—that her work is not to supersede the Bible.
Her proper relationship with Scripture has been most aptly described in these words: "Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light."— Colporteur Ministry, p. 125. The more heed that is given to the Bible, the greater recognition given her own authority which is Bible-centered. While being a lesser light than the sum total light of Scripture, she indeed provides us with a light greater than any of us as individuals. Ellen White is not the light source; Christ alone is "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9). Even though some light may come to us today filtered through human authors, many of whom Ellen White read and utilized in her writings, that light is still light from God. Therefore, when Ellen White tells us that she has a message from God, even light shining from the very throne itself, she is recognizing the fact that God is its ultimate source!
If I am captain of a ship lost in a dense fog, and there appears ahead a light shining from the lighthouse, I will certainly determine my bearings based upon the position of the lighthouse. It would be foolish of me to reject that light because it is reflected from large mirrors or because the rays have passed through a powerful magnifying window. It might mean the loss of my life if I were to reject that light with the excuse that it is fueled with oil derived from Siberia, China, or Iran, when I feel its oil should be obtained from my own country. Light is still light, no matter its nature or the origin of the fuel that keeps it alive.
Likewise, when I find light shining from the mirrors of a Christlike character and magnified through a lens that serves to enhance the light shining from Scripture, and when I encounter light originating from the Source of all light, I am prepared to accept that light on the basis that it is light—light from God.
For further study
The following documents relating to Ellen White's use of sources are available from
the Ellen G. White Estate, 6840 Eastern Avenue NW., Washington, D.C. 20012.
Prices include postage; payment must accompany order.
"Addresses to Faculty and Students at the 1935 Advanced Bible School," by W. C. White. 37pp. $1.10
"Bible Conference and Bible and History Teachers' Council, 1919," by R. W. Olson. 10 pp. $ .30
"Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White" (1933), by W. C. White and D. E. Robinson. 16 pp. $ .25
"Ellen White's Theological and Literary Indebtedness to Calvin Stowe," by David Neff. 22 pp. $ .65
"How The Desire of Ages Was Written." 47 pp. $1.00
"Historical Writings of E. G. White and Adventist Conception of Inspiration," by Arthur L. White. 39 pp. $1.60
"An Inventory of Ellen White's Private Library," by Ron Graybill and Warren H. Johns. 48 pp. $1.00
"A Bibliography of E. G. White's Personal and Office Library," compiled by Warren H. Johns, Tim Poirier,
and Ron Graybill. 80 pp. $2.00
"Doctrinal Discussions," by R. W. Olson. 16 pp. $ .35
"An Update on Ellen G. White's Literary Work," by Ron Graybill. 45 pp. $1.00
"One Hundred and One Questions on the Sanctuary and on EGW," by R. W. Olson. 112 pp. $2.00
"Sources or Aids—Why Did Ellen G. White Borrow?" by Paul Gordon. 14 pp. $ .50
"Ellen G. White's Use of Uninspired Sources," by R. W. Olson. 19 pp. $ .55
"Was Ellen G. White a Plagiarist?" Adventist Review, Sept. 17, 1981. 8 pp. $ .55
"Literary Relationship Between The Desire of Ages, by Ellen G. White, and The Life of Christ, by William Hanna, Parts I and II," by Raymond F. Cottrell and Walter F. Specht. 85 pp. $2.00
"Analysis of Ellen G. White's Luther Manuscript," by Ron Graybill. 31 pp. $5.20
"Henry Melvill and Ellen G. White: A Study in Literary and Theological Relationships," by Ron Graybill, Warren H.
Johns, and Tim Poirier. 110pp. $2.00
Additional copies of this issue are available from MINISTRY, 6840 Eastern Avenue NW., Washington, D.C. 20012. Single copies, US$1.50; 10 or more, US$1.25 each.