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Visions and revisions, part II: editing the Testimonies

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Visions and revisions, part II: editing the Testimonies

Ron Graybill

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


Young man, we see no good in a third of these changes," the General Conference president said gravely.

W. C. White surveyed George Butler's face, then glanced at S. N. Haskell. Obviously, both men agreed. At age 28, White was 20 years younger than the two church leaders, but he mustered the courage to reply:

"There is no salvation in bad grammar," he argued. "A thought grammatically expressed is just as good to reach the hard and sinful heart as if badly expressed."

"That may be so," Butler responded, "but before your wife makes any more changes in these Testimonies, I wish she could go with us into meetings with our critics and see them attack your mother's writings. They bring forward one edition and then another, show up changes, and try to make a point of them."

"Some of these changes are simply a change of style," Haskell chimed in. "Mary and Marian are substituting their more polished style for your mother's more abrupt and simple style. I, for one, love the old simplicity."1

Early in 1882 it had seemed such a simple task. The Testimonies were nearly sold out. Mary Kelsey White, Willie's wife, and Marian Davis, Mrs. White's secretary, would make a few corrections, and a new edition would soon be off the press. But it was not that simple. Revising the Testimonies touched off a lively debate over the nature of inspiration and how best to handle Mrs. White's writings in the face of hostile criticism. Be fore it was over, the project would have to win approval from the General Conference in session, and the church would declare itself on the doctrine of inspiration.

When James White died in Au gust 1881, Willie White took over as Ellen White's literary agent, handling arrangements for the publication and republication of her books. Early Writings had been one of the first books issued under his supervision. When it came out, G. I. Butler had unwittingly claimed that it included all of Mrs. White's earliest writings, unaware that some passages from her visions were omitted.2

Members of the Church of God (Seventh Day), which had split from the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1866, immediately attacked Ellen White for suppressing some of her earlier teachings. The controversy made the newspapers in Battle Creek and in the San Francisco Bay area. To spike the guns of the critics, the church reissued James White's 1847 pamphlet, A Word to the "Little Flock" containing Mrs. White's earliest visions in unedited form.

Even before Early Writings was off the press, Willie White had commissioned the republication of the Testimonies for the Church. He simply assumed that Ellen White's literary assistants would make grammatical and stylistic corrections before the new edition was set in type. After all, the book needed far less extensive corrections than the handwritten drafts the literary assistants edited every day. Mary White and Marian Davis began the task early in 1882. By late November they were nearly done with the first nine Testimonies, all of which would be included in volume 1 of the new third edition.

The Testimonies originally appeared as a series of small pamphlets, beginning in 1855. These pamphlets constitute the first edition. By 1864, 10 Testimony pamphlets had appeared, but most of the early ones were out of print. At this point Ellen White decided to include substantial portions of these 10 Testimonies in Spiritual Gifts, volume 4. Omitted were "local and personal matters." Included were "those portions only which are of practical and general interest and importance." 3

After another 10 numbers of the Testimonies appeared be tween 1865 and 1871, James White responded to calls from church members and republished a complete unexpurgated version of the Testimonies. This became the second edition.4 He acknowledged that since he was restoring the previously omitted passages the books would contain some matters of a "local and personal character, which do not have a direct bearing upon our time." 5

The type for numbers 1-16 had to be reset from scratch, and James White took the occasion to make a few minor changes in wording, gram mar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Beginning with Testimony 17, the second edition volumes simply gathered together the original pamphlets. By 1879 six volumes had appeared.

The third edition

It was the depletion of this second edition in 1882 that led Willie White to order the preparation of the third edition of the Testimonies. This third edition was destined to be the most thorough revision of the Testimonies. Today's fourth edition, issued in 1948, contains a very few further grammatical corrections as well as modernized spelling and punctuation.

The work on the third edition went forward slowly but uneventfully throughout 1882. Then, late in December, Willie showed the printer's proofs to George I. Butler and S. N. Haskell and they responded as described in the opening paragraphs of this article. Mary White was shaken by Willie's report of the meeting. She confessed that "the fear that we may make too many changes or in some way change the sense haunts me day and night." 6

Haskell soon made his own preference clear in a letter to Ellen White: "A verbal reprint of your writings will do more to shut the mouths of one class of evil-minded persons than anything else which can be done." By "verbal" Haskell doubtless meant "verbatim." He was used to reading Ellen White's letters in her own hand writing, and he cared little whether the printed versions of her writings conformed exactly to the niceties of grammar found in Goodloe Harper Bell's new grammar textbook. 7

Mary White and Marian Davis continued intermittent work on the Testimonies through 1883, keeping changes to a minimum. After all the editing on the early Testimonies, which needed the most attention, had already been completed, they got wind of the criticisms of their work. The first volume was all set in type by October, and Willie White began to prepare for the struggle to win the approval of church leaders. But first he unburdened himself to his wife: "We may prepare ourselves for a storm when these books come out, for it will come, and you and I will catch it, on the changes but more especially on the omissions on ac count of needless repetition. Our enemies will make great capital of this, I fear." 8

Willie confided that he had al most "stopped the presses" several times. Under heavy pressure from Butler, George Amadon, and Uriah Smith, even he admitted that "while the changes add smoothness I should feel better if two thirds of them had not been made." Mary felt that the first volume would take the most criticism and hence they might as well hold to their standards through out. But Willie's support was weakening: "Now, my dear," he wrote, "if you will do less work on these books, and correct only very bad grammar and punctuation, you will receive the blessing of the whole denomination."

During the ministerial meetings preceding the General Conference session in November 1883, Willie set about to win the church's approval of the new edition of the Testimonies. He told the church's leading ministers what changes had been made and why. They appointed a committee of about 30 to look more closely into the issue.

When this committee met the next morning in the Review and Herald chapel, Willie began by reading the preface that J. H. Waggoner had writ ten for the new edition. Then he went through it again, and again, "till they all took it in." 9 The crucial passage in the preface read: "Some grammatical and rhetorical changes also have been made for the sake of strength and clearness. In making these changes great care has been taken to preserve every idea, and in no case have either words or sentences been omitted unless as above indicated, to avoid unnecessary repetition."

A lively discussion followed. Some bitterly opposed any changes. Others accepted the changes in principle but dreaded the criticism that would inevitably follow. "Oh!" Willie exclaimed, "how glad I was to have a chance to argue the case to them before they became more prejudiced and fully set against our work."

Early that same afternoon, Ellen White made a few remarks about the revision. Unfortunately, what she said was not recorded. Whatever it was, it didn't discourage the group from voting to examine the changes and see if they in fact conformed to the principles set forth in the preface.

The ministers paired off, some with their wives, and Willie White assigned each team about 50 to 100 pages of the Testimonies to examine. Willie was careful to assign the later Testimonies, which had required less editing, to the ministers who were most skeptical of the project. Willie himself examined Testimony 4 and was alarmed to find nearly a dozen places in which between two and ten words had been deleted. He waited in fear and trembling to hear what the others had found. A five-member Committee of Reference was set up to receive the reports from the pairs of readers.

Meanwhile, Willie had to wait, and Mary had to suffer. She wrote her husband: "I will not attempt to express my feelings of surprise, sorrow, and self-condemnation at the result of your brief investigation." 10 She told him she wished she could bear the blame herself and save Ellen White and Willie anxiety.

The committee appointed to ex amine the Testimonies divided itself into 18 teams and read more than 1,000 pages, comparing them word by word with earlier editions. Amazingly, once the smaller Committee of Reference had collated all the criticisms, they were able to come up with only 20 places where they could criticize the work of Mrs. White's literary assistants. 11 After closer examination, they backed down on eight of these; several others proved to be typesetters' errors; and in a half dozen other cases they simply wanted deleted words restored.

They did vote that there were "many transpositions that are not necessary, and some that would give occasion for our enemies to think that there was a good deal of fixing to be done," but they cited no examples. In the end, only about a dozen pas sages were revised on the basis of the committee's suggestions.

The committee's arguments are often more interesting than their specific criticisms. Their first objection was that in Testimony 1 the words of Mrs. White's angel guide had been altered: "The word 'shouldst' is changed to 'must' in the new edition. . . . Being in the words of the angel it ought not to be changed." This criticism was proved fallacious when it was discovered that the pair of readers responsible for evaluating Testimony 1 had been using the second edition (1871) to compare with the new edition. In the original first edition pamphlet (1855), the angel had used the word "must," and Mary and Marian had simply returned to the first edition's reading. After all, Mrs. White was not quoting the exact words of her angel guide; she was merely reconstructing the gist of the angel's remarks. In the end the editors decided to use "shouldst" after all, probably because there were more copies of the second edition in circulation, hence preserving its reading would raise fewer questions.

Similarly, the 1883 critics complained: "The sentence, 'The manner of the person has not suited him,' is changed in the new to 'the manner or the person has not suited him.' The sense is altered. See new edition, page 228." 12 Once again, the difficulty arose because the critics were using the second rather than the first edition for comparison. Nevertheless, J. N. Loughborough defended the criticism, claiming he could re call that the exact reading of the first edition was the same as the second. Later, however, the committee voted: "The new edition reads, 'The manner or the person has not suited him.' This is correct according to the 1st edition, Elder J.N.L.'s memory not withstanding. So says W.C.W."

A position on inspiration

Before all these conclusions were reached, the whole question of revising the Testimonies was put to a vote of the General Conference session on November 20, 1883. Just hours before the vote, White still expected the revisions to be condemned. 13 Instead, the resolution passed, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church staked out an important position on inspiration:

"Whereas, Many of these testimonies were written under the most unfavorable circumstances, the writer being too heavily pressed with anxiety and labor to devote critical thought to the grammatical perfection of the writings, and they were printed in such haste as to allow these imperfections to pass uncorrected; and—

"Whereas, We believe the light given by God to His servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting the thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words in which the ideas should be expressed; therefore—

"Resolved, That in the republication of these volumes such verbal changes be made as to remove the above-named imperfections, as far as possible, without in any measure changing the thought." 14

A committee of five was appointed to ensure that the revisions conformed to these principles. The 1883 General Conference ended happily for Willie White. Not only did church leaders approve the revision of the Testimonies, they further reassured Willie by voting to ordain him to the gospel ministry.

Chastened by the ordeal through which they had passed, Willie White and Mrs. White's literary assistants were determined that before the books were released, their editorial work would be above reproach. Mary White and proofreader Eliza Burnham sat down with copies of the first and second editions and marked every change between them; then they compared all these changes with the ones that had been made in preparation for the third edition, again marking every variant. These were then placed before J. H. Waggoner, one of the editors at the Pacific Press, who critically examined every change and either accepted or condemned it. This "herculean task," as Willie White put it, consumed nearly two years. 15 It was not until December of 1885 that the publication of the new edition was quietly announced with a discreet ad in the Review and Herald.16

The revisions in today's perspective

But how would the revisions made in the Testimonies stand up today? Would modern readers agree with the church leaders of 1883 if they took a close look at the actual changes? Did Mary White and Marian Davis really edit Mrs. White's writings too heavily? Or was their anxiety merely the result of church leaders' fear of criticism? What sorts of changes did they actually make? To answer these questions, I placed the text of the "before" and "after" versions of the first seven Testimonies on computer, then used software that compares the two versions and produces a composite text with all the changes marked.

While it is true that Mrs. White's literary assistants made literally thousands of alterations, the majority of them involved incidental matters such as punctuation and capitalization. Commas were canceled, added, or changed to semicolons. Pronouns for Deity were capitalized, while the "Enemy" was reduced to lowercase.17 Hyphens were usually removed from compound words so that words like "eye-salve" became "eyesalve" and "anti-slavery" became "antislavery." Arabic numbers replaced Roman numerals in Scripture references.

Relatively few changes involved actual grammatical errors. The original Testimonies had occasionally linked plural subjects with singular verbs, and Mrs. White had occasion ally lost track of the simple subject in some of her longer sentences. Thus she had originally written "little things . . . concerns you," which needed to be changed, of course, to "little things . . . concern you." 18 Superlatives were sometimes changed to comparative—"greatest" to "greater." 19 In a number of cases, misplaced prepositional phrases had to be moved: For example: "I saw in New York the brethren can arise" was changed to "The brethren can rise in New York." 20 "Jesus has purchased for us redemption" was altered to "Jesus has purchased redemption for us." 21

The vast majority of wording changes did not involve grammatical errors at all. The changes merely sharpened the meaning or smoothed the style. Quaint or colloquial words were replaced. Mothers were to "teach" their children rather than "learn" them.22 The tense of verbs was often changed from past to present. "God was displeased" be came "God is displeased." 23 "I saw that it was God's plan" became "I saw that it is God's plan." 24 The original past tenses in these sentences referred not to God's displeasure or plan, but arose from the fact that Mrs. White was describing a vision that had taken place in the past.

Mrs. White's frequent use of elliptical expressions was eliminated by inserting "that" or "which." Thus "He knows if they do not overcome" became "He knows that if they do not overcome." 25 Sentences were tightened to eliminate wordiness. For ex ample, Mrs. White originally wrote that "these earthly treasures are blessings when a right use is made of them." The end of the sentence was shortened to "when rightly used." 26 When Mrs. White reconstructed the words of her angel guide in the first edition of the Testimonies, the angel often used the King James Version's "thee" and "thou." Most of these expressions were modernized in 1883.

In the preface of the third edition J. H. Waggoner mentioned the fact that the original initials of individuals were replaced by the generic designations such as "Brother A" and "Brother B" 27 He might also have noted that some specific place names were also eliminated in the third edition, as when Mauston and Marquette, Wisconsin, were replaced by blank lines.28 He pointed out that while the first edition had made frequent use of the expression "I saw," some of these were deleted in the new edition, since they constituted no part of what was actually seen.

Sometimes the original Testimonies had simply used the wrong word. "Straightened," in a context meaning restricted or narrow, had to be changed to "straitened." 29 Sometimes better words were chosen so that "love . . . has been gone" became "love . . . has disappeared," 30 "go with the tent" became "accompany the tent," 31 "matters of the church" became "business of the church," 32 and "your testimony will dry up" was rendered "your testimony will become powerless." 33

Finally, some sentences were split, others were combined, pronouns were substituted for nouns, and adverbs were moved to new positions. Passive constructions were changed to active, and scores of sentences were reconstructed to remove awkward or confusing passages.

Haskell's claim that Ellen White's original style was more simple will not stand up to close examination. Grammatically and rhetorically, the work of Mary White and Marian Davis improved the Testimonies for the Church, making them simpler to read and clearer in meaning at every turn.

The sense of the Testimonies

But what about the "sense" of the Testimonies! Mary and Marian succeeded admirably in preserving the "sense" of the Testimonies if "sense" is a synonym for the "meaning" of the sentences. One is hard-pressed to find any revision that actually changes the basic import of the spiritual counsel.

But "sense" can also mean the feeling one gets for Ellen White as a person and a writer, and for the identity and experience of the first readers of the Testimonies. Understanding these factors can often be crucial to a proper application of the Testimonies. One's sense of Ellen White as a prophet, person, and writer can also influence one's willingness to order one's life by her counsels. Yet this sense of time, place, and person is sometimes obscured by the smooth, polished cadences of the revised Testimonies.

To modern readers, "Brother A" and "Brother B" are obscure, unknown figures. But the original readers of the Testimonies could see their actual initials. They knew that R.F.C, stood for R. F. Cottrell, and they could relate the counsel to every thing else they knew about him. They had read reports in the Review about the difficulties in Mauston and Marquette, Wisconsin, and they could relate that knowledge to the counsel found in the Testimonies.

As early as 1882, when Mary White was just starting her work of editing the Testimonies, she suggested to her husband that some explanatory notes would be helpful. Today, more than ever, the Testimonies could profit by annotation designed to help modern readers understand them as the writer and first readers did. The White Estate favors such a project but lacks funds to carry it out.

Still, today's reader can thank Mary Kelsey White and Marian Davis for a job well done, because the basic spiritual message of the Testimonies, and hence the "sense" that matters most, shines through much more clearly in today's edition of the Testimonies than in the first edition.

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1. Dialogue recreated from W. C. White's report of the meeting in his letter to Mary Kelsey White, Dec. 31, 1882. From originals found in the E. G. White Estate's Silver Spring, Maryland, office.

2. G. I. Butler, "A Book Long Desired," Review and Herald, Dec. 26, 1882, p. 792.

3. Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts: Important Facts of Faith, Laws of Health, and Testimonies 1-10, (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1864), vol. 4, p. ii. The pages containing the Testimony material are numbered separately and some times designated Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4b.

4. The selections that appeared earlier in Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4, were not considered an "edition."

5. James White, in preface, to Ellen G. White, Testimonies to the Church, 'Nos. 1-11 [2nd ed.] (Battle Creek, Michigan: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1871), p. 3. The publishing history of the Testimonies is most fully related in Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: Messenger to the Remnant (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1969), pp. 62-67.

6. Mary K. White to W. C. White, Jan. 7, 1882 [sic, actually 1883].

7. Goodloe Harper Bell, Natural Method in English (Battle Creek, Mich.: Students' Pub. Comm., 1881).

8. W. C. White to M. K. White, Oct. 25, 1883.

9. W. C. White to M. K. White, Nov. 10, 1883.

10. Mary K. White to W. C. White, Nov. 19, 1883.

11. "Report of Committee on Examination of the Testimonies," E. G. White Estate Document File 194a.

12. Italics supplied.

13. W. C. White to Mary K. White, Nov. 20, 1883.

14. "General Conference Proceedings," Review and Herald, Nov. 27, 1883, p. 741.

15. Willie White to Brother Olsen, July 11, 1885.

16. See "Testimonies for the Church," Review and Herald, Dec. 8, 1885, p. 767.

17. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 1, p. 2, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 10, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 114. James White had made this change in the second edition.

18. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 5, p. 26, with 2nd ed., vol. l,p. 140, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 204. The modern edition of the Testimonies is the 4th edition but unless stated otherwise, in this article the examples cited were all made for the 3rd edition and carried over to the 4th.

19. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 4, p. 20, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 90, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 170.

20. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 4. p. 15, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 84, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 165.

21. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 5. p. 19, with 2nd ed., vol. l,p. 132 and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. l,p. 199.

22. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 4. p. 5, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 72, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 157. James White had also made this change in the second edition.

23. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 5. p. 20, with 2nd ed., vol. l,p. 133, and3rdand 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 199.

24. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 4, p. 23, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 94, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. l,p. 172.

25. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 3, p. 2, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 49, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 142.

26. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 3, p. 1, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 49, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 141.

27. James White had often replaced the original initials with blanks in second edition.

28. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 6, p. 34, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 180 and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 232.

29. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 6, p. 24, with 2nd ed., vol. l,p. 169, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 224. Also compare Testimony for the Church, No. 7, p. 13, with 2nded., vol. 1, p. 221, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 261.

30. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 4, p. 13, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 82, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 164.

31. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 3, p. 9, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 58, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. l,p. 148.

32. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 6, p. 4, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 149, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 211.

33. Compare Testimony for the Church, No. 6, p. 11, with 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 157, and 3rd and 4th eds., vol. 1, p. 216.

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