Without a living prophet

How the Adventist church sought to adjust to the work of Ellen White after her death

Paul McGraw is assistant professor of history at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California.

On December 8,1925, Willie C. White joyfully wrote to his daughter Ella May White Robinson, "Best of all, the General Conference Committee 'came across' and declared (without record) that the question of printing testimony [manuscripts] belonged to the trustees ... Friday, November 20, the General Conference Committee set free the trustees." 1

With these words Willie White proclaimed a new era for Ellen G. White and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But that new era did not come without a prolonged and sometimes bitter battle over the release of Mrs. White's work, the nature of her inspiration and the attitude of the Church toward her writing. A look into that conflict offers the Seventh-day Adventist Church today some highly valuable insights.

For over ten years after the death of Ellen White, the exact role and purpose of Ellen White's writings had been controversial. The question of how to endure without a living prophet challenged a church that had always relied on the ready accessability of a prophet. Thus, after Mrs. White's death a debate ensued within Adventism as to the precise role of Ellen White and her writings.

The debate focused primarily on the authority of her writings somewhat similar to the modernist/fundamentalist controversy then going on outside Adventism concerning the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. 2

Ellen G. White died on July 16,1915. Within a year, the final draft of Prophets and Kings was completed. With that done, the question arose as to the purpose of staff at Elmshaven. On most days, Willie White alone composed the staff and after the establishment of the Ellen G. White Trust, he had very little to do. Even though his mother specifically stated that Willie was "commissioned" to be in charge of her writings, a split developed among the trustees concerning what material should and should not be published. A. G. Daniells, among other church leaders, opposed the publication of any new materials. Even though Daniells would later agree that Ellen White had provided for the publication of unpublished materials under proper circumstances, he and most other leaders in Washington opposed Willie White and those who wanted everything to be made available.

The position and actions of Claude Holmes

The publication of new material became a launching pad for added controversies. Daniells and others used the words of Willie White himself to limit Willie's role in putting out any new material. Just three months after his mother's death, Willie wrote that his mother told him, "While I live, I want you to do all you can to hasten the publication of my writings in the English language, and after I die, I want you to labor for their translation and publication in foreign languages."3 In the light of this, for nearly a decade, Daniells and others reminded Willie White that the work of utmost importance was the translation of Ellen White's writings into as many languages as possible.

Some claimed that self-interest was the reason Daniells and others did not want to publish unpublished material. These unpublished testimonies, it was said, contained strong criticism directed at both A. G. Daniells and W. W. Prescott. This internal conflict struck at the root of the controversy over the use of Ellen White and her writing and raised the question of what role the personal writings of a prophet should play in a world in which she was no longer present.

For people such as Claude Holmes, a Review and Herald employee and self-styled Ellen White expert, and J. S. Washburn, a pastor/evangelist and vocal advocate of the Spirit of Prophecy, these personal testimonies were of vital importance.

In 1917, while Daniells was on a trip to the Far East, Claude Holmes gained access to the General Conference vault, which contained bound copies of the unpublished testimonies. Holmes was well-known at the General Conference as a human index to Mrs. White's writings. Convinced that the unpublished manuscripts held vital information against his opponents in the "daily" controversy, Holmes sought the ammunition necessary to combat Daniells and Prescott.

When Daniells returned, the General Conference demanded that Holmes return all copies made of the testimonies or face termination. Holmes admitted to making seven copies of the unpublished testimonies. But he and one other recipient refused to return their copies. Holmes lost his job at the Review,4 and moved to Oak Park, Illinois, but kept in contact with numerous individuals, both friend and foe, for the rest of his life.5

The 1919 Conference

Holmes and others who believed that Daniells and Prescott sought to do away with the Spirit of Prophecy found assurance that they were right in the Bible and History Teachers Council, held in Takoma Park, Maryland, following the 1919 Bible Conference. In a series of round-table discussions, A. G. Daniells and other General Conference leaders, along with Adventist Bible and History teachers, presented a view of Ellen White's writings that was totally unacceptable to men such as Claude Holmes.

During an extended question and answer session on July 30, A. G. Daniells defended his position on the Spirit of Prophecy: "I do not want to say one word that will destroy confidence in this gift to this people. I do not want to create doubts, I do not want to in any way depreciate the value of the writings of the spirit of prophecy."6 Still he thought it was important to place Ellen White's writings into a context.

While Daniells affirmed the accuracy of Ellen White's writings, his apparent or perceived lack of support for the importance of the "Testimonies" left room for doubt. When W. W. Prescott questioned Daniells concerning the use of the Spirit of Prophecy as an "authority by which to settle historical questions" both men's retreat from orthodoxy appeared complete.

"As I understand it," Daniells said, "Sister White never claimed to be an authority on history, and never claimed to be a dogmatic teacher on theology ...and as I have understood it, where the history that related to the interpretation of prophecy was clear and expressive, she wove it into her writings; but I have always understood that, as far as she was concerned, she was ready to correct in revision such statements as she thought should be corrected." 7 Later when pressed on this subject, Daniells said, "I never understood that she put infallibility into historical quotations." H. C. Lacey responded, "but there are some who do."8

Lacey pointed out what many at the Bible Conference understood when he said of the Spirit of Prophecy: "Isn't its value to us more in the spiritual light it throws into our own hearts and lives than in the intellectual accuracy in historical and theological matters ... isn't the final proof of the spirit of prophecy its spiritual value rather than its historical accuracy?" Daniells agreed.

It appeared that Willie White also agreed. He wrote a year later: "It was not Mother's plan or purpose to write books which should be used to correct history and chronology; the aim of her books is to bring out the great facts regarding the plan of redemption, and she has used historical quotations to illustrate the character of the controversy."9

Later Daniells said, "I tell you one thing, a great victory will be gained if we get a liberal spirit so that we will treat brethren who differ with us on the interpretations of the Testimonies in the same Christian way we treat them when they differ on the interpretation of the Bible." 10

M. E. Kern moved the 1919 debate to cover the nature of inspiration: "Sister White was a prophet just as Jeremiah was, and that in time her work will show up like Jeremiah's. I wonder if Jeremiah, in his day, did not do a lot of talking and perhaps some writing which was, as Paul said, on his own authority. I wonder if, in those days, the people did not have difficulty in differentiating between what was from the Lord and what was not." W. H. Wakeham suggested that college young people "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." G. B. Thompson added: "We have not taught the truth, and have put the Testimonies on a plane where she says they do not stand. We have claimed more for them than she did." 11

Holmes and Washburn after 1919

To Claude Holmes and J. S. Washburn, the statements of Daniells and others at the teachers conference were modernist heresy. Holmes wrote a pamphlet "Have we an infallible 'Spirit of Prophecy'?" in which he asked: "One tells me her books are not in harmony with facts historically, another that she is wrong scientifically, still another disputes her claims theologically and another questions her authorship, and another discredits her writings grammatically and rhetorically. Is there anything left? If these claims are all true how much Spirit of Prophecy does the remnant church possess?"12

Holmes's problem with the position of A. G. Daniells, W. W. Prescott, and other church leaders centered upon differing perspectives regarding the inherent nature of the Spirit of Prophecy. In a letter to Willie White in 1926, Holmes declared his position: "I love your mother's writings. They are all scripture to me." 13 Just as the fundamentalists fought for the inerrancy of Scripture, Holmes fought to defend what he considered to be Scripture.

Holmes and Washburn felt it their duty to defend the integrity of the Spirit of Prophecy. Holmes wrote, "The very honor of God is at stake in the integrity of his messenger." Aware of the precarious nature of his position, he continued, "Several have said to me: 'Oh, you are making a pope out of Mrs. White.' I reply, 'Never!' I would not lower the dignity and authority of God's messenger by putting her on a par with a Pope. She is far above and superior to any Pope . . . The infallibility of the Popes does not signify that they are inspired." And he went even further: "Sister White is inspired, as much as any Bible prophet, and her revelations are not limited to moral questions." 14 It is obvious that Holmes's position on the Spirit of Prophecy was based on a very different foundation than that of most present at the 1919 Bible Conference.

The heat of the debate

The debate over who really knew how to relate to the writings of Ellen White included more than just theological perspectives. In an open letter response agreeing with Holmes's Have We An Infallible Spirit of Prophecy?, J. S. Washburn unleashed a scathing attack on W. W. Prescott. "His teaching," he wrote," was like a sad echo of the past, a voice from the tomb. It did not have the ring of the message of Seventh-day Adventists, but was like the teaching of some of the modern popular evangelists." To Washburn, Prescott strayed from acceptable, orthodox Adventism.

After hearing one of Prescott's presentations, Washburn said to him, "You opened the door for a flood of new and strange teachings. And some of the teachers may have gone farther than you did. But you were the fountain of the new theology." Washburn noted that Prescott walked away without shaking his hand: "I regretted greatly that he showed such a lack of Christian charity but what else could be expected from one whose teachings have made the college a nest of higher criticism, unbelief of the testimonies, and actual infidelity." 15

Washburn chose catch phrases from the fundamentalist battle against modernism and used them in his own battles inside the Adventist Church. In his letters to Holmes and various Adventist leaders, Washburn attacked both General Conference officials and the religion department of Washington Missionary College, for their "liberal" positions. His concerns varied from specifics over the "daily," to broader theological issues regarding the use of "higher criticism" in biblical studies. 16

What Holmes, Washburn, and others feared was that the Church would minimize the force of the Spirit of Prophecy. Thus, they attempted to stem that tide through attacks on those they saw as their opponents. By producing "compilations" of Ellen White's writings, they hoped to assure that "the message" would bypass official church channels.

In a letter to F.M Wilcox, Daniells said, "Such men as J.S. Washburn and Claude Holmes are carrying on such violent warfare against some of us men that we must be exceedingly careful lest many of our people have their faith in us utterly shaken. I have just read Washburn's open letters to Bro. MacGuire. To me they are not absurd but devilish in spirit." 17 Holmes and Washburn, even after much of their agenda became defacto church policy, continued fighting the battle until their death.

The position taken by the General Conference

While the battle of Bible Conferences and leaflets raged on the American east coast, Willie White fought his own battle for relevancy on the west. In one important way, Holmes and Washburn's fight to release all of Ellen White's writings unified them with Willie White. Within a year of Ellen White's death, in a series of letters to A.G. Daniells and others, Willie White decried the lack of support the General Conference Committee gave to pro mote approved publications, saying, "In former years when any new book came out made up of Mother's writings, our leading men have noticed it and said a good word for it. I wonder if it would be asking too much of you to say a word in its behalf, or to make a quotation from it in some of your articles. As I go from place to place and speak of it to our ministers, I find that many of them do not know that there is such a book." 18

While Willie White may have simply sought to find a role in the conflict and Holmes and Washburn were fighting for the principle of inerrancy, the position of the General Conference Committee was much less certain. Though many had strong convictions about the use of Mrs. White's writings, their handling of the conflict did not ap pear to be guided by any defined ideology. Ironically, many of those closest to Ellen White in her work while she was still living were the ones who fought the hardest to restrict further releases of her writings.

In 1921, A. G. Daniells wrote to Willie White: "I do not think you will get the consent of the brethren to use these unpublished manuscripts unless they can look them over and have some strong evidence given them to counter act the deep convictions they hold on this whole question." 19 Agreeing that good may come from the publishing of some previously unpublished manuscripts, "under proper supervision and restrictions," Daniells concluded, "The brethren who are not clear regarding the publication of unpublished manuscripts, are not unbelievers in the Spirit of Prophecy. They are true men, who have the welfare and triumph of this cause as seriously at heart as any who live."20

While the question of unpublished manuscripts may have played a role in the General Conference Committee's reluctance to "free" Willie White, an other important possibility exists. Many believed that the "canon" of Ellen White's writings should be closed. Responding to Willie White's statement that he felt "exceedingly distressed when I think of my share in the responsibility of withholding this light from the people,"21 Daniells explained the position of the General Conference Committee by referring to "four of the trustees, and the pronounced feeling on the part of our brethren on the General Conference Committee, who have understood, ever since the death of Sister White, that what she had not herself caused to be put in print would not be put out by the trustees." Yet, Daniells then seemed to open the door slightly when he concluded by saying, "it appears to us that before doing this, we should have a fair, open discussion of the whole question by our leading men. We must keep faith with them until a new understanding can be reached."22

A new understanding

What that new understanding would be became clear in a November 19, 1925, letter Willie White received from B. E. Bedoe "In behalf of the Committee." In this letter Bedoe refers to Mrs. White's will and the instructions she left personally that "the trustees should bear full responsibilities in this matter." These were the words that "freed" Willie White to move forward in his work.

What caused this liberalized attitude toward the release of Ellen White's work by the General Conference Committee is still somewhat unclear. While the fundamentalists outside Adventism seemed to grow weary of the struggle following the Scopes trial, 23 within Adventism it appears that Daniells and those who sought to instill a moderate-progressive view of Ellen White's writings also grew tired of the battle.

A. G. Daniells hinted at the changing mood in a July 22,1925, letter when he said, "I think I have told you that my views regarding this question have been modified somewhat of late years."

While never publicly adhering to the strong language of inerrancy and infallibility that Claude Holmes and J. S. Washburn continued to proclaim for the rest of their lives, the 1940s found little discomfort within the Adventist Church with the idea of an ever-expanding "canon" of Ellen White's writings. The high-water mark of openness to the discussion of her role was the 1919 Bible Conference. Since then, while separating itself from the mainstream of the modernist/fundamentalist debate on Scripture, Adventism continues to struggle with the basic arguments of that debate within the uniquely Adventist context, even as it relates to the writings of Ellen White.

1. W. C. White to Ella May Robinson, December 8, 1925 (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate).

2. On the core issues involved in the modernist-fundamentalist debate, see George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 160.

3. Willie C. White to "Dear Friend," October 20, 1915 (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate).

4. General Conference Committee Minutes, March 27, 1917 (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference Archives).

5. LeRoy E. Froom. Reference Files, 1920s-30s, Claude E. Holmes Folder, (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference Archives).

6. A. G. Daniells, "The Use of the Spirit of Prophecy in Our Teaching of Bible and History," Reprinted in Spectrum: The Journal of the Association of Adventist Forums, July 1979, 27.

7. Ibid., 34.

8. Ibid., 38.

9. W.C. White to W.J. Harris, December 9,1920 (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate).

10. "The Use of the Spirit of Prophecy in Our Teaching of Bible and History," 43.

11. Ibid.

12. Holmes, Have We An infallible 'Spirit of Prophecy'? April 1,1920, C.E. Holmes Document File 352 (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate), 8.

13. Holmes to W. C. White, October 31, 1926.

14. Holmes, Have We An Infallible 'Spirit of Prophecy'? 10.

15. J. S. Washburn, The Startling Omega and Its True Genealogy. 1920 J.S. Washburn Document File 242 (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate), 1,3.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. W. C. White to A. G. Daniells, Letter, August 3, 1916 (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate).

19. Ibid.

20. A. G. Daniells to W. C. White, Letter, July 22, 1925 (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate).

21. W. C. White to A. G. Daniells, Letter Number 1, May 5, 1925 (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate).

22. A. G. Daniells to W. C. White, Letter, July 22, 1925.

23. Marsden, 191.


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Paul McGraw is assistant professor of history at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California.

December 2000

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