Understanding Ellen White is a fascinating new book sponsored by the Ellen G. White Estate that includes some of the latest research from 16 Adventist scholars. Edited by Merlin D. Burt, the volume highlights the historical context in which Ellen White lived. The book also presents current apologetic responses to negative material.
The 17 chapters begin with an introduction about Ellen White’s two major themes: God’s love and the primacy of Scripture. Chapter 1 discusses the prophetic office in both the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT), and how the work of a prophet differs from that of an apostle in the NT—even though both offices demonstrate divine guidance from God. The second chapter describes Ellen White’s view of inspiration and emphasizes her incarnational view of inspiration. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the relationship of Ellen White’s writings to the Bible. The author affirms that Ellen White’s “writings were secondary and subject to Scripture” (48) since they must be tested by the Bible even though no difference exists in terms of their source or even degree of inspiration. Chapter 5 suggests nine points that must be understood in order to appreciate Ellen White’s writings properly.
The subsequent four chapters present Ellen White as a human being. They explore her role in the development of Seventh-day Adventist doctrine and even the process through which she wrote. Chapters 6 and 7 argue that prophets cannot control circumstances, situations, places, and times when messages are revealed to them. Chapter 8 explains how Ellen White correlated early Adventist beliefs such as the second coming of Jesus, state of the dead, three angels’ messages, sanctuary, and Sabbath doctrines.
No doctrinal belief originated from Ellen White’s writings. Her role was repeatedly to confirm and clarify beliefs as she directed their attention back to Scripture. Chapter 9 examines three aspects about how Ellen White expressed God’s messages: spiritual experience, the use of sources, and employing literary assistants (119). The latter two options enhanced, but did not control, her writing process, and she used them to help her best express God’s messages that she received.
The next five chapters explore common accusations from critics about why some argue she was not a true prophet. Chapter 10 reviews the history of D. M. Canright, the foremost antagonist against Ellen G. White’s ministry during her lifetime. Chapter 11 refutes the accusation that most of Ellen White’s writings were plagiarized. Although she did borrow, she was also deliberate in how she used sources in order to best convey the divine message that she received. Chapter 12 surveys the development of Ellen White’s understanding about the “shut door.”
Chapter 13 discusses 13 statements that, at first, appear to contradict science. They show that Ellen White had “a positive attitude toward the study of science” (180). The book concludes that the principles behind her messages “are valid and readers who follow them in a correct manner are benefited” (193). Chapter 14 notes two arguments as to why Ellen White upheld vegetarianism, health, and ethical concerns. After her 1863 health vision, she applied vegetarianism, although she was flexible to allow for occasional meat. After 1894 she stopped eating meat entirely. Once again, Ellen White’s understanding of health reform developed over time. Perhaps for this reason, she urged health reformers to be patient with others and not to set themselves as a criterion for others.
The final three chapters relate the gift of prophecy to the present. Chapter 15 offers insight into the historical development of Ellen White’s wills as a background for the establishment of the Ellen G. White Estate. Chapter 16 argues that the prophetic gift will continue until the end of time. Some argue that the gift of prophecy could potentially mix with false and true prophecies since there are modern prophets who purport to have such prophetic insight. Such a view has no biblical support. Chapter 17 reveals that there is a tendency toward indifference with regard to Ellen G. White’s writings, especially among Adventist youth. The author of that section suggests that Ellen White’s writings remain relevant because they bring renewed interest to the Bible and offer practical ways to see the world from a modern biblical perspective.
Altogether, this book provides rich insights into Ellen White’s life and thought. One minor quibble relates to the organization of the book. The wide range of topics can make it difficult to grasp the overall contributions and arguments. Perhaps it would be helpful to organize the book into more cohesive units of thought. At the least, a detailed index would enrich any future editions of the book in order to easily locate important concepts or personalities.
—Donny Chrissutanto is a PhD candidate at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines.