The case of the overlooked postscript

The case of the overlooked postscript: A footnote on inspiration

A stimulating historical study illuminating the nature of inspiration and revelation

George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The year 1912 was an excellent time for questions to arise over the nature of inspiration. After all, the revised edition of The Great Controversy had recently been released, and some were questioning how it was that an inspired document could be corrected or even changed in matters of historical detail.

The General Conference on inspiration

Similar questions had arisen in the early 1880s when Ellen White had attempted to publish a revision of the first four volumes of Testimonies for the Church. In response to objections, the 1883 General Conference session went on record saying, "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."' Thus at the 1883 General Conference session the denomination had gone on record as being opposed to adopting a belief in verbal inspiration.

That opposition, however, was not remembered or even accepted by some. That was especially true when a cherished view point came to be challenged. A case in point is Stephen N. Haskell's reaction to the "new" position on the "daily" of Daniel 8:13.

The "daily" crisis

<p>The struggle over the meaning of the daily had begun in earnest in 1907 when W. W.</p> <p>Prescott and others began to question the traditional Adventist interpretation. Prescott held that the daily referred to the heavenly sanctuary service rather than to Roman paganism. Haskell reacted by saying that any new interpretation was a rejection of Ellen White's authority, since in <i>Early Writings</i> (pp. 74,75) she had specifically set the identity of the daily for all time. Even though Mrs. White rejected the use of her writings to settle such issues, Haskell persisted.<sup>2</sup> </p> <p>For example, on May 30, 1910, Haskell wrote to Mrs. White, appealing to both her writings and to Adventist tradition. As he saw it, ">The Great Controversy in order to bring her writings into harmony with the so-called facts that historians were bringing to light. Haskell would have nothing to do with such thinking. For his part, he cared more "for one expression" in her writings "than for all the histories you could stack between here and Calcutta." 3

 

In October 1912 Haskell wrote to J. N. Loughborough, noting that an Adventist brother by the name of Manous had raised the issue of "whether the statements of historical facts found in Great Controversy are infallibly correct, or whether such statements are based upon [historical] evidence and subject to correction." To Haskell all such changes were based upon "precisely the same reasoning of the higher critics of the Bible" and "destroys the inspiration of the Testimonies. It introduces a principle that does away with all the force of the chapter in Early Writings "on issues related to the daily. "The whole question," noted Haskell, "resolves itself into this: Has God set any man to rein up the Spirit of God by contradictory historians?" Four days later he mailed a copy of the Loughborough letter to W. C. White, claiming in an accompanying note that "the questioning of [Ellen White's] writings on points of chronology or of dates according to my mind is entering upon forbidden ground." 4

A very important letter

W. C. White's reply on October 31 is of crucial importance to a correct understanding of inspiration in its relationship to the details (rather than broad outlines) of history. "Regarding Mother's writings," penned White, "she has never wished our brethren to treat them as authority on history. When Great Controversy was first written, she oftentimes gave a partial description of some scene presented to her, and when Sister Davis [Mrs. White's literary assistant] made inquiry regarding time and place, Mother referred her to what was already written in the books of Elder Smith and in secular histories. When Great Controversy was written, Mother never thought that the readers would take it as an authority on historical dates and use it to settle controversies, and she does not now feel that it ought to be used in that way."

White went on to note that "if it had been essential to the salvation of man that he should have a dear and harmonious under standing of the chronology of the world, the Lord would not have permitted the disagreements and discrepancies which we find in the writings of Bible historians." 5

In this letter we find an interesting ex ample of two Adventist leaders "doing battle" through the use of two different theories of inspiration. S. N. Haskell espoused a rigid, inerrantist, verbal approach, while W. C. White held a more open view. The view that White held had been the one that Haskell had condemned in his October 19 letter to Loughborough. That perspective, Haskell claimed, utilized "precisely the same reasoning [as] the higher critics of the Bible," which "destroys the inspiration of the Testimonies." Both Haskell and White, it should be noted, held that Ellen White's inspiration was of the same quality as that of the Bible writers.

Of course, W. C. White was aware of the differences between himself and Haskell. As a result, he met Haskell's charges head-on near the conclusion of his October 31 letter to him. "I believe, Brother Haskell, that there is danger of our injuring Mother's work by claiming for it more than she claims for it, more than Father ever claimed for it, more than [Elders] Andrews, Waggoner, or Smith... ever claimed for it. I cannot see consistency in our putting forth a claim of verbal inspiration when Mother does not make any such claim, and I certainly think we will make a great mistake if we lay aside historical research and endeavor to settle historical questions by the use of Mother's books as an authority when she herself does not wish them to be used in any such way." 6

I have devoted considerable space to W. C. White's October 31 letter to Haskell for several reasons. It not only raises important is sues, but more significantly, it has a handwritten postscript that is of the utmost importance. That postscript reads: "I approve of the remarks made in this letter." It was signed "Ellen G. White."

The unseen postscript

<p> Haskell, unfortunately, never saw Mrs. White's postscript. As a result, he continued his crusade against her son and his purportedly higher critical view of inspiration. On November 21 Haskell wrote to W. C. White, stating that if the principles of inspiration he suggested in his October 31 letter were advocated, ">Great Controversy" since that book provided a lot of historical and chronological detail. Haskell went on for several more pages to espouse his views on verbalism and inerrancy. To Haskell there could be no correction of the historical details in an inspired document, because "a prophet is the only gift placed in the church whose testimony is recognized as God's voice. . . . The Lord has promised to be with [the prophet's] mouth. ... All reasoning, all questioning, should be laid [to] one side when God speaks.... When the prophet speaks God controls the tongue." Thus a prophet's words are "the words of God." As a result, there are no valid reasons for changing historical dates and facts in Ellen White's writings.7

 

Haskell's assault on what he believed to be only W. C. White's (and not his mother's) theory of inspiration brought forth a forceful rejoinder from White on January 1,1913. "When that [October31] letter was written," he told Haskell, "I placed it in Mother's hand as I had many other such letters. I handed it to her without comment, with the hope that if there was anything in it that was wrong or misleading, she would call my attention to it. The next day I asked for the letter that I might mail it, and I asked if she had read it. She said yes, she had read it, and she was glad I had written to you just as I had." 8

It was around that time that Ellen White must have affixed her postscript to her son's October 31 letter that affirmed her approval. Apparently W. C. White never saw the copy with the postscript, or else he would have forwarded it to Haskell and brought closure to their disagreement. As it was, all he could send Haskell was a report of her oral response. But that was not enough for Haskell, who did not fully trust W. C. White's word on the topic, as evidenced by his November 21 letter in which he had implied in a round about way that White was able to manipulate his mother's writings because of her age.

Who is causing the shaking?

The upshot of this correspondence and conflict was that Haskell did not accept White's remarks regarding his mother's approval of his more open views on inspiration. Haskell's doubt of W. C. White is reflected in a letter he wrote to him on January 8, 1913. "I also know," penned Haskell, "there is a view of your mother's work, and her writings, among some of our leading brethren... that is laying a foundation for a tremendous shaking on the Testimonies." 9 The tenor of the letter implies that W. C. White's views on Mrs. White's inspiration would contribute significantly to last-day delusion in the church.

White's sensitivity to Haskell's implications is evident in a letter he wrote a week later and revised on February 7. He was sorry that Haskell considered his views on inspiration to be "incorrect and dangerous." White quoted Haskell's January 1 statement that there was a view of Mrs. White's work taken by some of the denomination's leaders that was '"laying a foundation for a tremendous shaking on the Testimonies'" and turned it on its head. From White's perspective, Haskell was the culprit. White wrote, "Some have expressed to me the opinion that the extreme and extravagant and arbitrary positions taken by a few men, including yourself, are doing more to bring the shaking over the Testimonies than any other one element in the work."

In the same paragraph that includes the above charge against Haskell, White also noted the nature of his extremes. As White saw it, a focal point of the difficulty was that "a few men insist upon pressing on the people and teaching them the theory of verbal inspiration, which theory Mother does not stand for, which the General Conference does not stand for, which my father never stood for." I0

On February 15 a rather disgruntled Haskell wrote to W. C. White that he would lay down his "special burden on the subject" since he was apparently causing division. 11

A lesson still unlearned

<p>But Haskell hadn't learned much from the experience. In September 1919 he wrote the following to a conference president: ">

 

Haskell then went on to give seven reasons why he believed "in the verbal inspiration of Sister White's writings." According to Haskell, "Satan has worked and is working with all signs and lying wonders, and deceivableness and unrighteousness to deceive if possible the very elect" in the area of verbal inspiration. 12

Such reasonings, as set forth by Haskell on inerrancy and verbalism, have not died out in Adventism. 13 They are alive and well in spite of Ellen White's clear statements found in such places as the opening sections of Selected Messages, book 1, and the resolution of the 1883 General Conference session. Rigidity on the topic of inspiration in the past has set many up for disappointment and crisis. Beyond that, overwrought arguments on inspiration still continue to do harm by spinning theories that cannot bear the weight of evidence.

Perhaps one reason for the continuing problem is that too many Adventists still don't take Ellen White's convictions seriously, even when they are presented in such places as the overlooked postscript to her son's October 31,1912, letter. We need to remember that no church has ever arrived at truth by overlooking evidence.

1 "General Conference Proceedings," Review
and Herald
, Nov. 27, 1883; see also Jerry Allen
Moon, W. C. White and Ellen G. White: The
Relationship Between the Prophet and Her Son

(Berrien Springs, Midi.: Andrews University
Press, 1993), pp. 122-129.

2 Gilbert Murray Valentine, "William Warren
Prescott: Seventh-day Adventist Educator"
(Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 1982),
pp. 389-410,423-426.


3 S. N. Haskell to E. G. White, May 30,1910.

4 S. N. Haskell to J. N. Loughborough, Oct.
19,1912; S. N. Haskell to W. C. White, Oct. 23,
1912.

5 W. C. White to S. N. Haskell, Oct. 31,1912;
ef. Nov. 4,1912.

6 W. C. White to S. N. Haskell, Oct. 31,1912.

7 S.N. Haskell to W.C. White, Nov. 21,1912.

8 W. C. White to S. N. Haskell, Jan. 1,1913.

9 S. N. Haskell to W. C. White, Jan. 8, 1913.

10 W. C. White to S. N. Haskell, Feb. 7,1913;
cf. Jan. 15,1913.

11 S. N. Haskell to W. C. White, Feb. 15,1913.

12 S. N. Haskell to a conference president,
Sept. 23,1919.

13 See Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Receiving the
Word
(Berrien Springs, Mich.: Berean Books,
1996).


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George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

August 1997

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