Ellen White was a powerful preacher. She is perhaps best remembered today for her extensive writings, but during her lifetime she was a sought-after public speaker. The rise of Ellen White’s prophetic ministry during the 1840s coincided with a time in American culture when people became more open to women speaking in public, especially in church.2 Ellen White was keenly aware of this and, at times, certainly knew that this phenomenon of hearing a “woman” helped draw a crowd.3 Regardless of why people came, she used each opportunity to proclaim the Word of God and uplift Jesus Christ.
According to Ellen White’s granddaughter, Grace Jacques White, when “she began to talk I could not help noticing the soothing yet expressive tone of her voice. She spoke simply and wasted no words.”4 A contemporary, Uriah Smith, noted in 1874 about her “magnetic speech and manner,” in which she gave “powerful” appeals for people “to flee from their sins.” That same year, at a different event, G. I. Butler noted a similar appeal whereby 75 people “came forward for prayers, most of them apparently under deep and genuine conviction.”5 She followed up this talk with a second one on temperance, her favorite topic,6 and one she frequently used to connect with non-church members.7
At times, Ellen White spoke in some unusual places. In 1870, James and Ellen White traveled up the Mississippi River on the steamboat Minnesota. The Whites utilized creative and providential opportunities to share their faith. Willie, their son, noticed the eagerness with which men on log rafts sought newspapers from passengers on the steamboat. James and Willie grabbed pieces of coal attached with tracts and threw them. “God bless the truth thus distributed,” noted James. After they finished throwing pieces of literature, they sang the hymn “Resting By and By,” which drew a crowd. A passenger approached James, “ ‘It is rumored about this boat . . . that your wife is a public speaker, and every passenger will unite in a request for her to speak in the ladies’ cabin, if she will consent.’ ” She did, and the seats were arranged for a meeting. After a short prayer, Ellen White spoke “upon the great idea that God—his wisdom, love, and even his love of the beautiful—could be seen through the beauties of nature. The subject was made more interesting by reference to the grand and beautiful scenery of the day’s trip up the old Mississippi [River]. A more attentive audience we never saw.”8
Another interesting speaking appointment occurred more than a decade later, during Ellen White’s travels in Europe. As she passed through Scandinavia, she was frequently invited to speak. In one such town, the largest venue was the local saloon. She encouraged the local leaders to secure the location for a meeting. They modified some tables into a makeshift preaching stand.9 In an additional instance on the same trip, people noted that her favorite topic, especially to non-church members, was to speak about temperance as a neutral topic to build interest in spiritual things.10 On yet another occasion, Ellen White spoke to 1,600 people, her largest audience while she traveled abroad.11
Ellen White spoke in public hundreds of times throughout her lifetime in a wide variety of venues. From her practical experience, she had definite ideas about the purpose of biblical preaching, practical advice for ministers, and the importance of transformation preaching that culminates with an appeal.
“Ministers should present the truth warm from glory,” observed Ellen White.12 In other words, she firmly believed that all preaching should be firmly rooted in a fresh study of the Bible. As ministers open the Word of God, they become “a mouthpiece for God.”13 Every person who proclaims the Word of God must study Scripture for light and truth. Thus, the act of preaching is a sacred privilege. If ministers “are really men of God” and “receive their words from God,” then, even though “their manner of address may be faulty and need much improvement,” “God breathes through them words of inspiration, [and] the power is not of man, but of God.”14
As ministers begin sermon preparation, they should approach the sacred Scriptures with a sense of humility. Rather than studying the Bible to obtain proof texts, they should be Bible students to “know how to attain the love of God.”15 The Bible should be the starting point for all sermon preparation. H. M. S. Richards recalled her advice to him about using her writings in sermon preparation: “ ‘Here’s the way to use them. First, ask God to give you your subject. When you have the subject chosen, then go to the Bible until you know for sure what the Bible really teaches on that point. After that, turn to the writings and see what you can find on the same subject and read that. It may cast light on it or guide you into other scriptures or make some point clearer. When you go to the people, however, preach to them out of the Bible.’ ”16
Ellen White encouraged young ministers to study and prepare “a store of practical subjects that you have investigated and that you can . . . present in a plain, forcible manner to the people at the right time and place as they may need.”17 She recommended, as an example, the parables of Jesus as a natural starting point.18 At the same time, White counseled not to just use a list of set discourses either.19
Ministers need to be attentive by listening to their congregations. As they listen, they will be able to discern the “spiritual food” needed and “appropriate for the occasion.” Ministers have a responsibility “to give to each of the flock of God his portion of meat in due season.”20 Such study during her lifetime most definitely included visitation of members in their homes to “understand the spiritual conditional of all.”21 As a minister connects with his or her parishioners, it helps to avoid the problem of being “too distant” so that the influence of sermons will only increase.22
Altogether, Ellen White had a well-developed perspective on preaching by the 1870s that was rooted in Scripture.23 “While Scripture was the major source of her sermons,” wrote Jud Lake, “she used a hybrid method of the topical and textual. Her sermons, therefore, were not expository in the sense of the biblical passage controlling the outline of the sermon. Nevertheless, she admonished ministers to preach biblical sermons.”24 Thus, Ellen White, based upon the hermeneutical foundation of William Miller, used a preaching methodology shared by early Sabbatarian Adventist pioneers that was firmly rooted in a deep and widespread study of Scripture.25
Simple steps to improve preaching
Ellen White believed that sermons should have a clear point along with a practical application. The minister “should leave his ideas before the people as distinct as mileposts.”26 She repeated the same counsel to another minister.27 Closely connected with this thought, from her perspective, was the need for relevant application. “It is not enough for ministers to present theoretical subjects; they should also present those subjects which are practical.”28 Elaborate discourses “display self.” Instead, “true piety, a close connection with God, and a daily, living experience in the knowledge of Christ, will make eloquent even the stammering tongue.”29
The best example, for Ellen White, of clear and practical sermons was the ministry of Jesus Christ. He remains the true Model for every preacher by His example of having a clear point along with relevant application. “Christ,” furthermore, “sought to make His teachings interesting.”30 She admonished Adventist ministers to do the same.
This combination of the practical along with the doctrinal31 aspects meant, at times, shortening the length of the sermon. “You talk too long and weary the people,” she remarked to one long-winded minister.32 On another occasion she urged against “long praying” and “long preaching” that wearies the saints.33 Ellen White was reacting against the long sermons of the Puritan era that could last 90 minutes to two hours. By 1868, she advised that sermons should be less than an hour34 and by 1896 counseled that sermons should not exceed 30 minutes.35 Children are especially vulnerable to “tedious remarks.” Shorter messages have a “happy influence.” “Too much talk will lead them [children] to loathe even spiritual instruction, just as overeating burdens the stomach and lessens the appetite, leading even to a loathing of food. The minds of the people may be glutted with too much speechifying.”36
Ellen White not only believed in avoiding long messages but offered practical advice on sermon delivery. She had a great deal to say about the use of the voice; it is summarized in a posthumous compilation, The Voice in Speech and Song. She consistently urged people to use the diaphragm to project their voice—during an age before sound systems. “The action should come upon the abdominal muscles,” she frequently told young ministers. “The lungs and throat should be the channel, but should not do all the work.”37
The minister should vary the pitch of the voice, but not overdo it.
Some destroy the solemn impression . . . by raising their voices to a very high pitch, and hallooing38 [shouting] and screaming out the truth. . . . But if the voice is toned right, . . . it will produce a much better impression. . . . But this loud hallooing—what does it do? It does not give the people any more exalted views of the truth and does not impress them any more deeply. It only causes a disagreeable sensation in the hearers and wears out the vocal organs of the speaker. The tones of the voice have much to do in affecting the hearts of those who hear.39
Not only the tone but the pace was also important. She counseled another minister not to “speak hurriedly.”40 Altogether the tone, pitch, and pace need to be “melodious.” The best example of such a use of the voice was Jesus Christ, whose teaching was both “impressive and solemn,” yet His voice was “melodious.”41
While White certainly had a great deal of counsel regarding the logistics of preaching, she felt the most important aspect was the sacred nature of preaching. From her perspective, preaching encompassed the entire life of the minister: before, during, and after the sermon. “Our words, our actions, our deportment, our dress, everything, should preach.”42 Adventist ministers should not let themselves in any way detract, or distract, from the focus of their message: to uplift Jesus Christ and draw people to Him.
The sacred nature of preaching naturally leads to Ellen White’s counsel about the transformational nature of preaching.
Transformational preaching and appeals
One of the sternest admonitions by Ellen G. White, in my estimation, was directed to William C. Gage, who, in 1871, was the foreman of the Review and Herald Publishing Association.43 While she complimented him on his ability to “talk fluently and make a point plain,” she pointed out that “his preaching has lacked spirituality.” She furthermore noted that as he spoke, “his appeals have not touched the heart with a new tenderness.”44 Repeatedly, Ellen White appealed to ministers to make sure that the message had first transformed their own life.45 Once ministers allowed this transformation to take place in their own hearts, the “soul should be all aglow with the spirit of the truth you present to others.”46 The message in the pulpit will be consistent with the life of the messenger. The term Ellen White repeatedly used to describe this was that ministers become “living epistles.”47
Every sermon should convict the heart and draw the listener to Christ. The listener should “sense that ‘Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.’ ” She urged Adventist ministers to present Jesus before the people in a way that would melt the heart. “The very tones of the voice, the look, the words, should possess an irresistible power to move hearts and control minds. Jesus should be found in the heart of the minister.”48 The gospel message confronts people, and therefore ministers should avoid preaching “smooth” messages to make the people feel good.49 Instead, as Jesus is uplifted, people become convicted of sin and their need for Jesus.
A sense of the divine presence, through the Holy Spirit, makes the act of preaching a “sacred work.”50 Ministers should not engage in this work until they can truly appreciate the value of a soul to God. In that mind-set, as a minister proclaims the Word, listeners in turn will have their convictions deepened “and the question will be raised: ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ ”51 One of the hallmarks of Ellen White’s preaching was her consistent appeals for people to change their behavior through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.52 “The preaching of the word,” she wrote in 1875, “is ordained of God to arouse and convict sinners.”53 Every opportunity is a “golden opportunity” to invite someone to change his or her life. Some preachers may not meet their “hearers again until the great day of God.”54
“I tremble,” Ellen White wrote, “when I consider that there are some ministers, even among Seventh-day Adventists, who are not sanctified by the truths which they preach.”55 Such ministers only harm God’s work if they could see themselves as Heaven does. “I have been shown,” she warned, “that there is a decided lack with some who preach the word.”56 Ministers who seek to preach in their own strength will ultimately fail. Instead, according to Ellen White, they must recognize their need and seek God with a spirit of humility. Only then can God bless their meager efforts. Transformational preaching always begins in the lives of ministers as they wrestle with Scripture and seek to live it out in their own lives. Out of that transformational experience, they can, in turn, invite others to experience the same. This brings power to preaching.57
I have wished that we could have an audio recording of Ellen White’s preaching. However, there are numerous stenographic reports of her messages that give a flavor for what her sermons were like. One thing is certain: her messages were clear, biblical, practical expositions that uplifted Jesus Christ. Frequently her messages came with an appeal for people to know Jesus Christ personally.
Preaching, Ellen White believed, was and always will remain a sacred responsibility. When a person enters the “desk”—a nineteenth-century term for a pulpit—they stand on holy ground. Ministers derive their authority not from their position, but from the Word of God that is proclaimed. This message must be internalized in order to both be clear and have a practical application.
Ellen White firmly believed that the ability to proclaim God’s Word was an essential requirement to be an Adventist minister. At times she rebuked ministers who did not have this gift and urged them to remain active in their church but pursue a different livelihood. The work of the minister “to warn the world of a coming judgment, is as much more important [work] than that of the common workman as eternal things are of more consequence than temporal.”58
1 Ellen G. White, Letter 32, 1875.
2 E. Brooks Holifield, God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 121–27. Holifield notes that the Millerite revival was particularly open to allowing women to preach.
3 In 1870, Ellen White spoke at the Tipton, Indiana, camp meeting. James White described “two ladies” who met Ellen White at the train station when she arrived. One was a Friend and the other a Methodist. “They stated,” wrote James White, “to Mrs. W[hite] that no religious influence had ever made so deep an impression on the people of Tipton, as the speaking [by Ellen White] upon the camp-ground on first-day. They also stated that there had been in that place decided opposition to public speaking by women. They both had advocated it, and felt, on first-day p.m., while Mrs. W[hite] was speaking, that much was at stake, and they prayed while she was speaking that the Lord would help her. These earnest, yet truly modest women, reported a great change in the public sentiment of that place.” James White, “Western Tour: Incidents by the Way,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Nov. 1, 1870, 156.
4 Grace Jacques White, as told to Judy A. Howard, “My ‘Special’ Grandmother,” The Youth’s Instructor, Dec. 5, 1961, 13.
5 G. I. Butler, “The Lapeer, Mich., Camp-Meeting,” Advent Review and Herald of the Sabbath, Oct. 13, 1874, 126.
6 According to James White after the 1876 New England camp meeting in Groveland, Massachuestts: “Mrs. W[hite] dwelt on her favorite theme, Christian Temperance.” James White, “The Camp-Meetings,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Sept. 7, 1876, 84.
7 “A fitting counterpart . . . was sister White’s discourse . . . upon the subject of . . . Christian temperance. The wide range which this subject takes in the use of tobacco, tea, coffee, and extravagance in dress, was set forth with force and freedom” (Butler, “The Lapeer, Mich., Camp-Meeting,” Advent Review and Herald of the Sabbath, Oct. 13, 1874, 126). Incidentally, as G. I. Butler summarized and reflected on her talk, he observed that “women would be better prepared to stand by the side of their husbands as counselors, and even to take part with them in political matters, would they disenthrall themselves from the slavery of fashion, which . . . leaves them no time to study the weightier matters of life” (Ibid.). James White also briefly mentions the incident: James White, “The Temperance Movement,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 5, 1877, 12. For an overview of Ellen White’s temperance work, see Ernest H. J. Steed, “Temperance,” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, eds. Denis Fortin & Jerry Moon (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2013), 1209–1211.
8 James White, “Western Tour: Trip up the Mississippi,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 5, 1870, 21.
9 D. A. Delafield, Ellen G. White in Europe, 1885-1887: Prepared From Ellen G. White Papers and European Historical Sources (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1975), 118.
10 Ibid., 40.
11 Ibid., 122.
12 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948) [hereafter abbreviated as “White, 2T”; “White, 3T”; or “White, 4T”], vol. 2, 617.
13 White, 3T, 234.
14 White, 4T, 318.
15 White, 3T, 212, 213.
16 Ministry, Oct. 1976, 6, 7.
17 White, 3T, 228.
18 “These sermons of Christ furnish ministers believing present truth with discourses which will be appropriate on almost any occasion” (White, 3T, 214, 215).
19 White, 4T, 269.
20 White, 3T, 228.
21 Ibid., 233.
23 R. Edward Turner, Proclaiming the Word: The Concept of Preaching in the Thought of Ellen G. White (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1980), 30. Turner argues that Ellen White formulated her understanding of preaching after the 1880s. A study of Ellen G. White’s counsel on preaching from the 1870s shows that she had a well-developed understanding and theology of preaching a decade earlier.
24 Jud Lake, “Preaching,” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, ed. Denis Fortin & Jerry Moon (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
25 Marcos Blanco, “Early Adventists’ Homiletical Principles and the Expository-vs-Thematic Sermons Discussion,” term paper, Adventist International Institute for Advanced Studies, 2013.
26 White, 2T, 544.
27 Ibid., 616.
28 White, 3T, 257.
29 White, 4T, 313, 314.
30 White, 2T, 580.
31 White, 3T, 237.
32 White, 2T, 543. See also Delafield, Ellen G. White in Europe, 136, where she similarly admonished A. C. Bourdeau to shorten his sermon too.
33 White, 2T, 617. Ellen White does not give a specific length for praying or sermons. It does appear to have been her practice, generally
speaking, for a sermon not to go more than 40 minutes.
34 Ibid., 117. This counsel was a part of Testimony for the Church, Number 16, which became available for circulation in August 1868. See Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 28, 1868, 88.
35 Ellen G. White, Letter 1a, 1896.
36 White, Child Guidance: Counsels to Seventh-day Adventist Parents (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), 34.
37 White, 3T, 311.
38 The term comes from the sport of hunting, to urge hunting dogs on.
39 White, 2T, 615.
40 White, 3T, 311.
41 White, 2T, 617.
42 Ibid., 618; see also White, 3T, 66.
43 In “Testimony No. 21” (White, 3T, 9–130) the first section, “An Appeal for Burden Bearers,” identifies a “Brother B.” Internal evidence within the testimony: he is described as the “foreman” (23) who was sick after indulging in a pleasure trip to Chicago (19), but not to be confused with Uriah Smith (who is mentioned by name as also recently sick on page 18). This description clearly describes William C. Gage who was the foreman at the Review and Herald Publishing Association at that time.
44 White, 3T, 31.
45 Ibid., 204, 238.
46 Ibid., 227, 228.
47 She uses this term in her counsel to both young as well as veteran ministers. Cf. White, 3T, 31.
48 White, 3T, 32.
49 Ibid., 257.
50 Ibid., 238.
51 Ibid., 32.
52 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 283–292; see also Horace John Shaw, “A Rhetorical Analysis of the Speaking of Mrs. Ellen G. White, a Pioneer Leader and Spokeswoman of the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (PhD diss., Michigan State University, 1959), 350; and Turner, Proclaiming the Word, 102.
53 White, 4T, 118.
54 Ibid., 313, 316.
55 White, 3T, 31.
56 White, 2T, 501.
57 White, 2T 498–522. This is the general thrust of this overall testimony titled “Address to Ministers,” first published in August 1870 (see publication notice, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 2, 1870, 56).
58 White, 3T, 243.