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Book review: Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet

Jon Paulien

 

Ellen G. Harmon White finally makes it to Oxford University. For readers who know little about Ellen White (1827–1915), she was one of the most prolific female religious writ­ers in nineteenth-century America. Not only so, this woman who had a third-grade education helped found a major denomination and sprawling educational system.

This book—a surprising outcome­ goes back to an Ellen White Biography Conference (October 22–25, 2009) in Portland, Maine, her childhood home­town. This conference was historic in that it brought together most historians of Ellen White and many experts on her nineteenth-century American religious context. The participants included Seventh-day Adventists who work for the church or its institutions, others who are retired or work outside the church, and a distinguished group of non-Adventist scholars of American reli­gion from institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, Duke, and Wisconsin. The dynamic at the conference and in the resulting book from Oxford well illus­trates the challenge of biography as a genre. In the case of Ellen White, the evidence of her life and writings are just too vast, so there is the problem of selection. Which incident or state­ment tells who the person really is? Which reflects the “real” Ellen White? People will differ as to how well this multiauthor biography of Ellen White succeeded in achieving that balance. On the whole, I think it did as well as anyone could hope. On my part, I was disappointed in the occasional word that betrayed an author’s slip from historical objectivity. Did Ellen White’s Testimonies really “betray” those who received them (12)? Was it necessary to say that Ellen White followed a “dis­credited historicism approach” (185)? Frankly, as a Seventh-day Adventist who believes and appreciates Ellen White’s inspiration, I found the charac­terization of Adventist apocalyptic on pages 185–190 distasteful. But these slipups were the exception in the book rather than the rule. All in all, I was surprised by how many insights I gained into Ellen White’s life and ministry from this book.

This book will not please everyone. In fact, it may offend some readers on both sides of the controversial issues, but I believe this book makes two huge contributions. First, most of us are accustomed to reading the Bible in its ancient context, as far as possible. But we tend to read Ellen White out of context, universalizing personal testi­monies in ways that can be confusing and unbalanced. This book can help readers put the writings of Ellen White in their proper balance and context. Rightly understood, she remains as relevant today as she ever was. Second, the book will also put Ellen White “on the map” of non-Adventist scholarship and culture. In the long run, the book may do more to bring her to the atten­tion of the wider world.

Reviewed by Jon Paulien, PhD, dean of the School of Religion, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States

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