Visions and revisions

Visions and revisions-part 1

A textual study of Ellen White's first vision

Ron Graybill, Ph.D., is professor of history at La Sierra University, La Sierra, California.

Early in 1846 the venturesome Adventist editor of the Day-Star, a small Millerite paper in Cincinnati, Ohio, got a letter from an 18-year-old girl in Portland, Maine. In her letter, the young woman told Enoch Jacobs about the vision of heaven she had experienced a year earlier. Although the leadership of the Millerite movement had already declared they wanted nothing to do with visions, Jacobs decided to print the letter. Consequently, Ellen Harmon, later to become Ellen White, appeared in print for the first time.1

Now it has been nearly a century and a half since Ellen White's first vision was first printed. During that time the text has appeared in nearly a dozen different versions and printings (see box). Using computer soft ware, we can compare any two versions of the first vision and in a matter of seconds highlight all the deletions, additions, and revisions. The story of these alterations, fascinating in itself, enriches our understanding and appreciation of Ellen White's first vision.2

Ellen Harmon's original handwritten letter has been lost, so there is no way of knowing what changes Jacobs may have made in spelling, punctuation, grammar, or style. His typesetter doubtless introduced errors like "Abrahnm" for "Abraham" (line 201).

In spite of a few verbal imperfections, the vision deeply impressed H. S. Gurney, of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. 3 He immediately set off for Portland, Maine, to learn more about this remarkable young woman. Persuaded that her visions were of God, he helped James White republish the first vision on a large single sheet called a "broadside." Titled "To the Little Remnant Scattered Abroad," this second printing of the first vision made only technical revisions.4 Some spelling and typographical errors were corrected (for instance, "stepped" for "steped" [line 228]; but inevitably others were introduced, such as "Hellelujah" for "Hallelujah"! In the Day-Star version, Mrs. White occasionally uses the present tense. Although the practice sometimes got her into grammatical difficulties, it also heightened the sense of drama, making the reader feel as if she is giving on-the-spot descriptions: "I see a strait and narrow path!" "I see two trees" (line 172). Sometimes she ended up mixing the tenses, so "I raised my eyes and see" was changed to "I raised my eyes and saw" (line 34).

White and Gurney also removed personal references to Jacobs, so that Miss Harmon now said, "I declare to you, my brethren and sisters in the Lord ..." instead of "I declare to you, my brother . . ." (line 24). A few words were also changed. The teen age Ellen had originally written that she saw a "strait and narrow path" (line 34), echoing the Bible's parallelism "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way."5 But that was changed to "straight and narrow." Crowns "hung" with stars became "heavy" with stars (line 151).

James White had met Ellen Harmon during her first speaking tour around Maine in early 1845. In August 1846 the couple were married. The following April, James reprinted the first vision again, including it in his pamphlet "A Word to the 'Little Flock.' "6 This time James provided Scripture footnotes to the vision in order to demonstrate that these were not the rambling hallucinations of an excited teenager, but a coherent mes sage, thoroughly saturated in Scripture.

"A Word to the 'Little Flock' "

The text of "A Word to the 'Little Flock'" was virtually identical to the text of the 1846 broadside. Still, James White corrected a few more spelling errors, added a few apostrophes, changed "wood" to "woods" (line 280), and toned Ellen down just a bit. She had said she could not "begin to describe" the glorious things she saw in heaven (line 316). Now she said simply that she could not "describe" them. This change typified many that were to follow: beyond mere technical corrections, the alterations in the first vision over the years have usually tended to make the language smoother, calmer, and less vigorous. The author's words aged with the author.

A startling feature of the first vision in "A Word to the 'Little Flock'" is the references to the Apocrypha that James included among the Scripture footnotes. For instance, where Mrs. White wrote: "on the Mount sat a glorious temple, and about it were seven other mountains, on which grew roses and lilies" (lines 293-296), James made reference to 2 Esdras 2:19: ". . . and seven mighty mountains, whereupon there grow roses and lilies, whereby I will fill thy children with joy."

Many early-nineteenth-century Bibles included the Apocrypha, and early Adventists were especially interested in the apocalyptic passages of 2 Esdras.7 They recognized that the Apocrypha was not canonical, but Joseph Bates said 2 Esdras "contains very important truths for those that keep God's law." 8 Mrs. White said the "wise of these last days" should understand the Apocrypha, but that the Bible is "the standard book," which "will judge us."9

The use of the Apocrypha faded quickly. The American Bible Society stopped including it in the Bibles it printed, and by the 1860s Adventists saw these books as having only historical value. Still, the language and imagery of 2 Esdras formed a part of the youthful Ellen Harmon's repertoire. It is as if the Lord had said to her, "Ellen, I want you to paint a picture of heaven for My people."

Ellen replied, "But Lord, I have only these few paints."

"They will do," the Lord answered. And so the language of 2 Esdras helps paint our picture of heaven.

Nor was 2 Esdras the only extrabiblical source on which Ellen drew. In January 1845, just a month after Ellen's first vision, William Foy's visions were published in Portland, Maine. Foy rejoiced when he heard Ellen Harmon relate her vision. "That's just what I saw," he exclaimed.

When it came time to describe the saints' entrance into heaven, Ellen's description echoed William Foy's. He had written: "The angel raised his right hand and laid hold upon the gate, and opened it; and ... it rolled upon its glittering hinges." 10 In Ellen's account: "Jesus raised his mighty glorious arm, laid hold of the gate and swung it back on its golden hinges." In the next printing of the first vision, in 1851, "golden hinges" was changed to "glittering hinges," just as Foy had earlier described them.

The 1851 revision

That 1851 revision is important, and later became controversial, be cause of several passages it omits. In July 1851 James White issued an Extra of his new paper, The Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. In it he reprinted the first vision. The deletion destined to become most controversial was the omission of the reference to "all the wicked world which God had rejected" (line 64). Critics claimed the passage was deleted to suppress evidence that early Adventists had believed in the "shut door": that salvation for sinners had been shut off in 1844 just as in the parable of the ten virgins the door to the marriage supper had been closed to the five foolish virgins. F. D. Nichol has pointed out that James White re iterated the shut-door doctrine else where in the same Extra, and Ellen White denied the suppression motive, noting that she still believed in a "shut door" for those who will fully resisted God's Spirit.11 The omission of the passage, then, may have been merely a part of the trend in all the revisions, a trend toward softer, smoother, and calmer language.12

A much longer passage was also deleted from the 1851 version of the first vision: the entire account of Mrs. White's tour of the temple in heaven, and her description of the ark of the covenant and its contents (lines 194- 233). Why was this passage cut out? Recall that the first vision occurred in December 1844, long before James and Ellen White, on the basis of Bible study, accepted the seventh-day Sabbath. The first vision does not run ahead of the discovery of Bible truth. So when the youthful Sunday keeper, Ellen Harmon, looked into the ark of the covenant, she noticed only the golden pot of manna and Aaron's rod that budded, blossomed, and bore fruit. Conspicuously absent was any reference to the tables of stone containing the Ten Commandments.

However, after accepting the Sabbath from the Bible, Mrs. White experienced, in April 1847, another vision in which she again looked into the ark of the covenant. This time she saw the tables of stone with a halo of light around the fourth commandment. Both versions of the ark scene had been included in "A Word to the 'Little Flock'" in 1847, but after 1851 the incomplete view was eliminated.

We do not know who initiated the revisions of Mrs. White's first vision. Most likely James and Ellen worked on them together. The preface to Early Writings (1882) assured the reader that verbal changes introduced in that work were "made under the author's own eye, and with her full approval."13

At any rate, James and Ellen White made some further changes in 1851 as well. They struck the words "in holy vision" from the first line. Three of the half-dozen Hallelujahs the saints were heard to shout were toned down to the more liturgical Alleluia (lines 191, 310, 332). Ellen's joyous aside, "Well bless the Lord, Bro. Jacobs, it is an extra meeting for those who have the seal of the living God" (lines 310-312), was removed. Her assurance that "if faithful, you soon will know all about it" (line 320) was taken out. Finally, the sentence "We all reclined at the table" was stricken from the description of the great sup per (line 338). This is a puzzling, perhaps even inadvertent, omission since the reference evokes the Last Supper and pointedly recalls Jesus' promise not to drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom.

All the type for these early publications had to be set by hand character by tedious character. So James White simply took the same type that had been set for the Review Extra, clamped it into smaller forms, and used it to publish Ellen White's first book, A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White (1851).14 Thus the text of the first vision in this work, usually called just Experience and Views, is identical to that which appeared in the Review Extra.

Spiritual Gifts version

At this point the textual stream in which the first vision had been flowing developed a side channel. In 1860 a unique revision of the first vision appeared in Mrs. White's first ex tended biography, found in Spiritual Gifts, volume 2. In Spiritual Gifts an effort to avoid offending nonbelievers seems especially strong. References to distinctive beliefs were revised or eliminated, along with quaint and enthusiastic expressions. One might call it the "taming" of Ellen White.

The light that flashed from Jesus' upraised arm was changed from "glorious" to merely "bright" (line 52). The Advent "band" became the Advent "people" in the next line. Reference to the 144,000 was eliminated from the phrase the "living saints, 144,000, in number" (line 70). The "Holy Ghost" was now the "Holy Spirit" (line 74). Mention of foot washing and the holy kiss (lines 90- 92) were cut out. "Glorious harps" (line 192) became "golden harps."

The Spiritual Gifts version of the first vision is also notable because it splits what we have been considering the first vision into two visions. Chapter 6 contains "My First Vision" and Chapter 9 the "Vision of the New Earth," the latter beginning "With Jesus at our head we all descended . .. down to this earth" (line 233). Apparently the vision of the new earth occurred several months after the first vision, although Ellen attached it to the first vision in her letter to Enoch Jacobs.15

The "Vision of the New Earth" in Spiritual Gifts, volume 2, was also more restrained than the original. "Glorious houses" became "beautiful houses" (line 247). The saints who, at first, were "continually shouting and offering praises to God" (line 260) were no longer "shouting" in Spiritual Gifts, but merely "offering praises to God." Even the tall grass, which had waved "proudly" to King Jesus in the original, now simply waved. Where Ellen had originally seen "a glorious temple" on Mount Zion (line 294), now she cautiously suggested that she saw "a building which looked to me like a temple." Each revision seems more cautious, less colorful, than the original.

The division of the first vision into two visions was carried over into the biographical sketch in Testimonies for the Church, volume 1, when it appeared in 1885. However, at that time Ellen White (or her editors) restored the earlier, more vigorous, wording in most instances.

Even before Testimonies, volume 1, appeared, the main textual stem of the first vision reached maturity when Early Writings appeared in 1882.16

This work drew together Mrs. White's 1851 Experience and Views and its 1854 Supplement together with Spiritual Gifts, volume 1, and a few shorter pieces. At this point the text of the first vision became essentially what Adventist readers find today in Early Writings. However, Early Writings did not follow the 1851 text slavishly, and some minor changes were later introduced when type for the book was reset in 1906 and again in 1945.

In Early Writings the remaining Hallelujah shouts of the saints were changed to the more decorous Alleluia, and a few more "glorious" expressions were removed. Originally, "Jesus would encourage them by raising his glorious right arm, and from his arm came a glorious light which waved over the Advent band, and they shouted Hallelujah!" (lines 50- 54). In Early Writings the light is neither "glorious" nor "bright"; it is simply a "light."

The appearance of Early Writings in 1882 provoked charges of suppression because of the absence of the passages that had been deleted back in 1851. To help quell the criticism, the denomination reissued Mrs. White's portion of "A Word to the 'Little Flock'" in a pamphlet titled "To the Remnant Scattered Abroad." Numerous small corrections were made in the 1847 text, and the Hallelujahs were replaced by Alleluias, but at least the deleted passages were restored to spike the guns of the skeptics.

In 1906 the type for Early Writings was reset. Changes consisted mostly of capitalizing pronouns he, him, and my when they referred to Deity. In the 1945 resetting of the type for Early Writings some punctuation and capitalization was again changed. One word was also changed, probably by a half-asleep linotype operator. Where Ellen had written "the branches of the trees waved to and fro" (line 277) the new printing said the trees' branches "moved" to and fro.

Looking at the whole

Thus far we have been looking, as it were, at textual "branches." What happens when we step back and look at the whole forest? What conclusions can be drawn from the textual history of the first vision? Certainly "thought" rather than "dictational" inspiration is confirmed for Ellen White's writings. The exact wording was obviously not sacred to her. In deed, as she strove to meet the needs of different audiences, even some "thoughts" were removed from the text of the first vision, as in the case of Spiritual Gifts. As the enthusiasm of early Adventist worship cooled after the 1840s and 1850s, the spirited shouts of Hallelujah in the Day-Star became the more liturgical Alleluia of Early Writings. So a different audience called for different words to convey the essential message. The deletion of the passage on the ark of the covenant vividly illustrates the fact that Adventist doctrines are based on the Bible, not on Ellen White's visions. The visions did not reveal basic truths that had not first been grounded in the Bible.

True, readers receive much the same message whether they read the first vision in the Day-Star or in Early Writings. But the latter dampens some of the drama and vigor of the youthful Ellen Harmon. When one reads the first vision aloud in its original text, one gains fresh appreciation for the inspiration of this teenage girl. The grammatical missteps only add to the rough-and-tumble intensity.

The original text also has a certain poetic integrity. The wicked who fall down, "the wicked world which God had rejected," heighten the apocalyptic imagery, in which everything about the saints is shining, rising, and glorious, and everything about the wicked is falling, darkness, thunder, and earth quake. The inclusion of the original view of the ark, with only the manna and Aaron's rod, adds richness to the great supper scene at the end of the vision. At the supper the fruits noted are the "manna, almonds, figs, pomegranets, [and] grapes" (line 336). The last three were the fruits brought back from the land of Canaan, thus recalling the opening lines of the vision, in which Ellen likens herself to Caleb and Joshua. But the manna and almonds were earlier seen in the ark, since the ark contained a golden pot of manna and Aaron's rod, which budded, blossomed, and bore almonds.

Early or late, the vision resounds with assurance and joy for God's people. As they march into the city, they feel they have a "perfect right" (line 164). And when the solemn question is asked, "Who shall be able to stand?" Jesus' promise to the pure in heart, that His grace is sufficient for them, brings forth a glorious, full-throated shout of "Hallelujah" from the waiting saints, while the angels strike a note higher and draw still nearer to the earth.

1. The letters that James and Ellen White wrote to the Day-Star are available in a US$2.75 reprint titled Articles From the Day-Star from Leaves of Autumn Books, P.O. Box 440, Payson, AZ 85547. The Day-Star version of the first vision, with a few imperfections, is also included on the CD-ROM of Ellen White's published writings. The version of the Day-Star letter presented in Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, (pp. 56-58), is very close to the original, but not an exact copy in every particular. Copies of this and most of the other versions of the first vision are available on computer disc for $20 at the address in note 4.

2. Comparisons for this article were made using CompareRite: The Instant Redliner soft ware from Jurisoft, 763 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139.

3. H. S. Gurney, a blacksmith, was one of Joseph Bates's associates, having served as the latter's "singing evangelist."

4. A facsimile reprint of this broadside, together with a facsimile and transcription of a letter written on it by Otis Nichols to William Miller, may be obtained from the author, Ron Graybill, Department of History, La Sierra University, 4700 Pierce Street, Riverside, CA 92515, for US$4. In his letter Nichols tried to persuade William Miller that Ellen Harmon was a true prophet.

5. Matt. 7:14.

6. A reprint of "A Word to the Little Flock" is available through Adventist Book Centers.

7. See Ron Graybill, "Under the Triple Eagle: Early Adventist Use of the Apocrypha," Adventist Heritage 12 (Winter 1987): 25-32.

8. Joseph Bates, A Seal of the Living God (New Bedford, Mass.: Benjamin Lindsey, 1849), p. 66.

9. Ellen G. White, "To the Little Flock,"manuscript 4, Jan. 26, 1850. This is an account of a vision given Mrs. White on January 11,1850, but not recorded until January 28. See also Arthur L. White, "Ellen G. White and the Apocrypha" (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, released 1985). (This paper was written much earlier than 1985.)

10. Delbert W. Baker, The Unknown Prophet (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987), pp. 92, 95.

11. Francis D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1951), pp. 280, 589, 590.

12. The first vision's reference to the "wicked world which God had rejected" was most likely interpreted by early Adventists as confirming the "shut door," even though it did not explicitly do so. At any rate, deleting the passage left the vision unequivocally in harmony with the church's growing understanding of salvation, since it was in 1851 and 1852 that the more extreme version of the "shut-door" doctrine was abandoned.

13. Ellen G. White, Early Writings of Mrs. White, second edition (Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald, 1882), p. iv. This is really the first edition under the title Early Writings. The editors in 1882 considered the first edition to be Experience and Views (1851), and the first publication of the other materials found in Early Writings.

14. To examine the exact text of the first vision as it appeared in the Review Extra and Experience and Views, readers need to contact the E. G. White Estate or an E. G. White Research Center.

15. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), p. 88.

16. To examine the text of the first vision as it appeared in the 1882 and 1906 printings of Early Writings, readers will need to contact the E. G. White Estate or an E. G. White Research Center.


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Ron Graybill, Ph.D., is professor of history at La Sierra University, La Sierra, California.

February 1994

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