Ellen G. White and Biblical chronology

In her writings, Ellen G. White frequently made references to Biblical chronology—and a number of these references relate to Creation and the age of the earth. Many chronologies were available to her. Which one did she use? And how did she use it? The author considers these and other questions important for our understanding of her statements on chronology.

Warren H. Johns is the associate editor of Ministry.

Scholars have offered a greater variety of opinion upon the date for Creation than for any other single event in sacred history. Robert Young in his Analytical Concordance (p. 210) lists thirty-seven suggested dates for Creation, but he states that a nineteenth-century work, Hales's A New Analysis of Chronology and Geography, History and Prophecy, lists some 120 possible dates and admits that the list might be swelled to three hundred. Of the 120 different chronologies, did Ellen White choose any particular one? Or did she establish an independent chronology that fol lowed no humanly devised scheme? Are her statements authoritative yet today?

We are now in a position to provide a definitive answer to such questions. Owing to the recent development and marketing of the laser-disc Ellen G. White concordance by a group of SDA laymen in Sacramento, California, we can compile for the first time a complete set of all Ellen G. White statements relative to Biblical chronology. (The laser-disc concordance lists the occurrence of virtually every one of the 35,000 key words used by Ellen White some 9 million references in all!) It may come as a surprise to some, but Ellen White makes more than 2,500 references to Biblical chronology. The current three-volume Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White lists only one fifth that number. (Perhaps we should put the word "comprehensive" in quotes!)

Of particular interest are the Ellen G. White statements that have a bearing on the age of the earth. Thanks to the assistance of the laser-disc concordance, we now have located a total of forty-two 6,000-year statements published by her in primary sources before her death in 1915. Of course, these do not include any compilations or reprints of her works made after 1915. In addition, we have forty-one 4,000-year statements and four 2,500-year statements all of which are pertinent to the question of determining what was Ellen White's view on the age of the earth.

Having recently completed an examination of all 2,500 references to Biblical chronology made by Ellen White, I can state unequivocally that her chronology matches that of Archbishop Ussher more closely than perhaps any other of the dozens of chronologies in use in the nineteenth century. Ussher's chronology so dominated that era that his dates were printed in the margins of most Bibles. Ellen White must have been aware of at least a few chronologies other than Ussher's. Of the 1,200 books by non-SDA authors in her library as of 1915, several were devoted entirely to chronology, and others contained discussions of chronology. For example, she was familiar with the Scottish preacher John Cumming, whose works she read and borrowed material therefrom on occasion, but she did not adopt his chronology. The 6,000 years for Cumming ended in 1864.1 She had in her office library R. C. Shimeall's Age of the World, but Shimeall in Millerite fashion placed the end of the world at the close of the 6,000 years, which he calculated to be the year 1868. Ellen White also seemed to have parted company with William Miller, who placed the end of the 6,000 years in 1843. 2 For her as for Ussher there were exactly 4,000 years between the creation of man and the birth of Christ, thus making the earth 5,900 years old at the close of the nineteenth century. 3 Cumming, Shimeall, and Miller differed with Ussher by more than one hundred years on their dates for Creation.

A careful analysis of all 2,500 chronological references made by Ellen White leads one to conclude that she sided with Ussher not only upon the issue of the 6,000 years but also upon the dating of numerous Biblical events. Some SDAs have suggested that Ellen White utilized her chronological expressions very loosely, speaking in generalities rather than specifics. But that is not entirely true. Generally she used chronology with exactness and skill. Except for a few rare cases, she would round off larger numbers to the nearest century and smaller figures to the nearest decade. 4 Even in the use of terms like "nearly a thousand years," "more than a thousand years," "nearly two thousand years," "three thousand years," or "more than four thousand years," 5 her figures are not much more than a hundred years from those in Ussher and quite often less than twenty-five years removed. Her dates for the building of the Temple, the writing of Deuteronomy, the Exodus from Egypt, the time of Jacob, the Abrahamic covenant, and the Noachian flood are all in accord with Ussher's dates. 6 In only 1 or 2 percent of all her chronological statements did she deviate significantly from Ussher's chronology. Ellen White had other options; she did not have to follow Ussher. One authoritative chronological study was William Hales's A New Analysis of Chronology, which was in her library. However, she definitely did not follow Hales's schema. 7

Because Ellen White followed Ussher's chronology more closely than perhaps any other of the 120 chronologies in existence, does this mean that she endorsed the work of Ussher? Has Ussher become the standard for Seventh-day Adventists to follow in constructing a Biblically based chronology? Unfortunately, the work of Ussher has in all but a few cases been discredited by modern advances in understanding the unique chronological devices used by the ancients. For example, in regard to the period of the Hebrew kings, Ussher did not take into account the differences between accession-year and non-accession-year types of reckoning, nor the existence of co-regencies. Consequently, Ussher's dates for the beginning of the monarchy are nearly fifty years too early with respect to today's established dates. A Seventh-day Adventist scholar, Edwin R. Thiele, has done a monumental work in correcting the dozens of inaccuracies found in Ussher's calculations of the reigns of the Israelite kings. 8 For Seventh-day Adventists to revert back to using Ussher's chronology on the basis that Ellen White used it almost exclusively would be for us to take a giant step backward into the "Dark Ages" as far as chronology is concerned.

Of deeper concern here is the issue of inspiration. Are Ellen White's statements on chronology inspired? Or are they uninspired insertions added by her editorial assistants in much the same way that citational references were added to the 1911 edition of The Great Controversy for quoted material? Today two views prevail in regard to the inspiration of Ellen White's statements on chronology. The first one is what I have called the inspiration/full authority view. It states that if such statements are inspired, then they must be accurate, and if accurate they must be authoritative today. The second alternative is the inspiration/limited authority view. It stresses that inspiration acts upon the person, not upon the pen. The whole body of Ellen White's works is inspired because they are the production of an inspired person. But not all of her chronological statements have equal authority in today's world of advanced knowledge in archeology, ancient history, and Biblical exegesis. It advocates the hermeneutic principle that "time and place must be considered" in regard to the E. G. White writings. 9 It recognizes that her statements on the use of milk or on race relations are tempered by the conditions existing at the time those statements were recorded. 10 To advocate that these should be binding for all time in all parts of the world would be a misuse of inspired writings. So with her statements on chronology. A third view, which I have labeled the no inspiration/no authority view, will not be considered because it is not representative of Adventism.

The most crucial aspect of Ellen White's chronological statements is the question of the age of the earth crucial because it interacts with and affects our understanding of a host of other issues, such as Creation versus evolution, the Sabbath, and the historicity of Genesis. Some feel very strongly (and with good reason) that if we abandon the 6,000 years, then we become vulnerable to the theory of organic evolution, and once evolution is adopted, the Sabbath will be abandoned and the Seventh-day Adventist Church will cease to be. The 6,000 years is viewed as the first in a series of dams extending from the head waters of a river to its mouth. If the dam farthest upstream breaks, then the cascading torrent will burst all the other dams along the course of the river.

The imagery of dams along a surging river brings up the question of function.

What is the function of, or purpose for, the 6,000-year statements? Is it to provide a bulwark against a flood of false teachings and ideas? We have already seen that there are a total of eighty-seven E. G. White statements in primary sources (not including reprints) that have a bearing on the age of the earth question, forty-two of them having the figure of 6,000 years. Those who hold to the full authority view are convinced that the repetition of this matter by an inspired writer some eighty-seven times during her lifetime indicates she is validating a Creation date of about 6,000 years ago. Thus the statements' primary function is chronological. The very first statement Ellen G. White made on the subject, which was in 1864, indicates that she is dealing very specifically with the uncertainty brought about by geology in regard to the subject of the authenticity of the Genesis record.11

On the other hand, those who hold to the limited authority view would suggest that Ellen White's primary purpose in' making the 6,000- and 4,000-year statements was not to provide a dam or bulwark in defense against the flood of evolutionary thought. According to the laser-disc concordance, the words "evolution" and "evolved" never appear within the context of any of the 6,000- or 4,000-year statements. For Ellen White the primary defense against the theory of evolution was not 6,000 years, but a belief in the literal six-day Creation week. This is borne out in a careful examination of her two major discussions of the subject, first in "The Literal Week," Patriarchs and Prophets, pages 111-116, and then in "Science and the Bible,"Education, pages 128-134.

If the 6,000-year statements, which we believe are inspired, were not primarily given as a bulwark against evolution, what then is their main function? I wish to suggest that their main function is literary, not chronological. First, they serve as a means of literary linkage; that is, they link together two Biblical person ages or events that have something in common. The following is an example of how she compares the first Adam with the second Adam, using the 4,000 years as a literary thread to bind the two together: "What a contrast to this perfect being [the first Adam] did the second Adam present. . . . For four thousand years the race had been decreasing in size and physical strength." 12 The second function is that of literary emphasis. She uses chronological statements to reinforce what she wishes to convey by emphasizing temporal duration and extent just as one would use superlatives for emphasis. It's a literary device. A typical example is this: "Six thousand years has this archenemy been warring against the government of God." 13 If one thousand years is impressive, then three thousand years is more impressive, and six thousand years even more impressive. The function is not to establish a date for Creation, but to show the extent and intensity of the great controversy between good and evil, between the government of God and the rebel government of Satan. Most of the 4,000-year statements fall under the category of literary linkage, and most of the 6,000-year statements are examples of literary emphasis. Additional evidence that their function is not primarily chronological is that one could insert the words "for thousands of years" in place of the 6,000- and 4,000-year figures with out changing the overall intent or thrust of the statements in the least.

Whether one adopts the full authority view or the limited authority view, one is faced with the fact that not all Ellen White chronological statements are of equal validity, or authority, in settling chronological concerns. For example, she has two differing sets of statements on the length of the Egyptian sojourn and bondage prior to the Exodus. According to Ussher and most nineteenth-century chronologists, the Israelites were in Egypt exactly 215 years from the time that Jacob brought his family into Goshen to the time Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. The SDA Bible. Commentary has adopted this majority position, which advocates a "short sojourn." A minority of scholars in taking such texts as Genesis 15:13, Exodus 12:40, and Acts 7:6"at face value have supported a "long sojourn" of 430 years for the same period, of which about four hundred years were spent in actual bondage. Interestingly, Ellen White, writing between 1864 and 1891, recorded a number of statements advocating the short sojourn; and between 1894 and 1905, she wrote statements advocating the long sojourn. 14 Obviously both sets of statements cannot be correct. What, then, was Ellen White's final position on the length of the sojourn? Because she followed Ussher so consistently, we would suggest that she sided with him on the short sojourn view. If the long sojourn view had been her true position, then it would have added 215 extra years to the age of the earth, thus pushing back the Creation date far enough so that the earth would have been more than 6,000 years old in her day in fact, about 6,100 years. Her consistent position was that the earth was less than 6,000 years old.

Actually, even with her 6,000-year statements we find two sets of mutually exclusive statements. Between the years 1868 and 1913 she published ten statements advocating less than 6,000 years for human history, but between 1886 and 1890 she published three statements advocating a period of more than 6,000 years. 15 What then was her final position? Again we would have to suggest that she sided with Ussher, based on the fact that she consistently followed him in other areas. One very good evidence of her final position is the way in which she revised one 6,000-year statement. In 1890 she wrote: "The continual transgression of man for over six thousand years has brought sickness, pain, and death as its fruit." 16 Then in 1913 she wrote: "The continual transgression of man for nearly six thousand years has brought sickness, pain, and death as its fruit." 17 These statements are identical except for the substitution of the word "nearly" in place of the word "over." Some SDAs in attempting to solve this discrepancy have suggested that in the nineteenth century the word nearly meant "near to," thus it could be interpreted as meaning "slightly beyond." But Ellen White did not use it in this way. The laser-disc concordance lists 1,400 occurrences of the word nearly in her writings, and not once did she use it in the sense of "more than."

Because Ellen White's final position was that 6,000 years of human history had not elapsed as of 1913, then her position on the length of the sojourn must have been that it occupied 215 years. There would not have been enough time for a 430-year sojourn. That would exclude the five statements advocating a long sojourn as having chronological authority. On rare occasions she made other statements that should not be viewed as holding authority today. It could be inferred that once she allotted "a thousand years" between Jacob and Christ, thus in effect making Jacob a contemporary with David. 18 On another occasion she in effect stated that it was "a thousand years" between the writing of Genesis and the writing of Hebrews. 19 Both of these statements underwent revision. 20 One that was not revised was a Review and Herald statement where she ascribed a period of "more than a thousand years" from the writing of the book of Isaiah to the time when Christ quoted from its pages. 21 The actual figure should have been seven hundred years. Thus the full authority view must make allowance for at least a few chronological-type statements having no chronological authority.

Whether one supports a full authority or a limited authority position, it is crucial to realize what the basic principle is that is at work here in inspired writings—a principle that is true of Scripture as well as of the Spirit of Prophecy. The point is that in matters not essential to salvation the prophet sometimes had to choose the best of what was available, even though the best may have contained inaccuracies. Many New Testament writers quoted from Greek translations of the Old Testament that are definitely inferior to the original Hebrew. God did not give them a vision telling what the correct translation ought to be. So with Ellen White it was not necessary for her to have a vision every time she wanted to find a particular Scripture text, because a Bible concordance was available to her. She did not have a vision when she wanted to discover how far Hebron was from Jerusalem, or the Appii Forum was from Rome, because a Bible dictionary or atlas was at her disposal. 22 In matters of chronology she need not have a vision whenever she needed to ascertain a particular time relationship, because the margins of most nineteenth-century Bibles provided dates for all Biblical events. We can give a clear-cut example of this. Once she wrote, "Solomon, at the age of eighteen years, commenced his reign upon the throne of his father, David." 23 Nowhere does Scripture itself record information that would provide the exact age of Solomon then. Ellen White could have conveniently obtained such information by looking at the marginal dates for Solomon's birth (1033 B.C.) and his coronation (1015 B.C.) as provided by Ussher's chronology. The difference between the two is exactly eighteen years!

Notwithstanding all the criticisms that have been leveled at the work of Archbishop Ussher, his chronology has suffered less from the impact of modem archeological discoveries than most other chronologies in use in the nineteenth century. In other words, Ellen White, I believe, was divinely guided to choose the best available to her. Ussher's chronology needed less revision because of his meticulous fidelity to the scriptural data and his refusal to interject conjectures and suppositions. If Ellen White were alive today, she would no doubt advocate that chronology that holds the closest fidelity to the scriptural record.

1 John Gumming, Voices of the Day (1858), p.
12.

2 William Miller, in Signs of the Times, May 1,
1841, pp. 17-21.

3 Ellen White's final position on the age of the
earth was that it was "nearly six thousand years"
old as of 1913 (Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p.
467). This comes closer to Ussher's figures than to
any other chronology. In nine of her 6,000-year
statements she used the qualifier nearly and in three
she used about. It is significant, I believe, that in
none of the 4,000-year statements did she use the
words nearly or about. Why? Because according to
her chronology (and Ussher's) there were exactly
four millenniums between Creation and the birth
of Christ.

4 The following are the few examples where
Ellen White did not round off numbers to the
nearest century: (a) she rounded off 3,300 years to
3,000 years (Signs of the Times, June 3, 1886;
Patriarchs andProphets, p. 458); (b) she rounded off
2,300 years to 2,000 (Prophets and Kings, p. 623);
(c) she rounded off 1,900 years to 1,500 ("That I
May Know Him, "p. 12); (d) she rounded off 1,500
years to 1,000 (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 138).

5 Review and Herald, April 29, 1875; Signs of the
Times, April 22, 1886; The Desire of Ages, p. 576;
Signs of the Times, July 30, 1896; Counsels to Parents
and Teachers, p. 127; Selected Messages, book 1, p.
269.

6 The Desire of Ages, p. 576; Signs of the Times,
Nov. 29, 1883, and Dec. 3, 1902; The Desire of
Ages, p. 291; The Great Controversy, p. 399;
Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 204; The SDA Bible
Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Eph.
1:4, 5, 11, p. 1114; Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 78.

7 William Hales in A New Analysis of Chronology
(1830) advocated a date of 1648 B.C. for the
Exodus, and a Creation date of 5411 B.C. Ussher's
dates (and Ellen White's) for the two events were
1491 B.C. and 4004 B.C., respectively.

8 Edwin R. Thiele, A Chronology of the Hebrew
Kings (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1977).

9 Selected Messages, book 1, p. 57,

10 Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 21; Counsels on Diet and
Foods, pp. 356, 357, 411; Testimonies, vol. 9, p.
210.

11 Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 92.

12 The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2, p. 88.

13 Ibid., p. 93.

14 The E. G. White statements advocating in
effect a short sojourn of 215 years are: Spiritual
Gifts, vol. 3, p. 229 (see also The Spirit of Prophecy,
vol. 1, p. 205; Signs of the Times, April 1, 1880);
Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 267, 434; Signs of the
Times, Aug. 24, 1891. The statements advocating
in effect a long sojourn of 430 years are: Review and
Herald, Jan. 9, 1894 (reprinted in Fundamentals of
Christian Education, p. 287); The Desire of Ages, p.
32; Testimonies, vol. 8, p. 207 (see also Pacific
Union Recorder, Dec. 17, 1903; Southern Watchman,
July 18, 1905). Some statements such as Signs
of the Times, Nov. 4, 1880, seem to advocate both
the shorter and longer sojourns.

15 For example, Historical Sketches, p. 133; Signs
of the Times, Sept. 29, 1887.

16 Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, p.
154.

17 Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p. 467.

18 The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, p. 18.

19 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 138.

20 The Great Controversy, p. 18; Testimonies, vol.
6, p. 342.

21 Review and Herald, Nov. 13, 1900.

22 See Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 703; The Acts of
the Apostles, p. 448.

23 Health Reformer, April, 1878.


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Warren H. Johns is the associate editor of Ministry.

April 1984

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