“A great while before day”

The altar life of Ellen White

Dwain N. Esmond, PhD (cand.), serves as associate director and editor of the Ellen G. White Estate and evangelist for the global Back to the Altar worship initiative. His doctoral research in leadership focuses on innovation in missional organizations.

It does not surprise close observers that Ellen White had a deep and meaningful relationship with God. The sheer scope of her literary output suggests it. At the time of her death in 1915, Ellen White had written more than 5,000 periodical articles, 200 tracts and pamphlets, 35,000 typewritten manuscript documents and letters, and more than 2,000 handwritten letters and diary materials that, when copied, total another 15,000 typewritten pages.

But if we judge a life by what happens after the person is gone, then we should consider Ellen White among the greatest individuals who ever lived. She cofounded a church with more than 22 million current members and birthed an international educational system and a global health network, to say nothing of the millions of lives transformed by her writings. By any measure, Ellen White’s accomplishments demonstrate that her life was consequential and meaningful.1

An open secret

On the face of things, White’s life, literary output, and ministry seem almost improbable. She was terribly injured in childhood at the age of nine when “a girl about thirteen years of age, becoming angry at some trifle, threw a stone that hit me on the nose.”2 She later noted that the accident would “affect my whole life.”3 And it did. It forced her to leave school as she struggled to breathe through her nose, retain what she was learning, and write without trembling. Although she now faced unending health challenges, Ellen’s life was an exceedingly fruitful spiritual one. What was her secret? Everything Ellen White accomplished during her 70-year ministry was the product of her devotional life—her “altar life,” if you will.

To understand Ellen White’s passion for Jesus, one really needs to spend time in the personal, day-to-day chronicles of her life—her diaries. (You can read them online at EGWWritings.org.) Beginning in 1859, she kept an intermittent record of her life experiences, ministry doings, and interaction with people. Even a cursory glance at her diaries reveals several things.

Unable to sleep well due to physical ailments, especially later in life, Ellen White would arise “a great while before day,” much like the Jesus she loved and cherished (Mark 1:35, KJV). Following those 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. wakeup inscriptions are notes of such thanksgiving and praise that they leave the reader almost speechless. The sweet savor of gratitude to God constantly perfumed her life. Time and again, one will read, “My heart is thankful” or “I praise God for His goodness.”

Ellen White was grateful to God for simple things, such as a good night’s rest. Often sleep fled in the face of difficult periods, such as the one in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, that she wrote about on October 26, 1890: “I have not been able to sleep since three o’clock. . . . I have too much thinking to do. I dressed and then enjoyed a precious season of prayer, and have been writing since four o’clock. It is now half past six.” In the afternoon, she spoke to a large audience and commented, “I feared I should not have strength, but the Lord gave me His grace and His power to address the people from 2 Corinthians 3:18.”4

Some entries in her journals are filled with little mundane tidbits of information while others are flush with deep heart-searching commentary and witness. On January 1, 1859—a Sabbath—the 31-year-old Ellen wrote, “It is the commencement of the new year. The Lord gave James liberty Sabbath afternoon in preaching upon the necessary preparation for baptism, and to partake of the Lord’s Supper. There was much feeling in the congregation.”5

Moments with a worshiper

During my brief research journey into the vision Ellen had on November 3, 1890, in Salamanca, New York, I had the opportunity to read her diary entries leading up to the vision and her subsequent recitation of it on March 8, 1891. On Sabbath, October 11, 1890, she found herself in Adams Center, New York. “I spoke to a full house,” she wrote. “There were quite a number of Seventh Day Baptists present. Extra benches were brought in and placed in the aisles; the gallery was full. I spoke from John 17:3.”6 The Lord blessed her ministry that day, and a powerful testimony service followed, but what she recorded at the end of this day’s entry says much about her thoughtfulness: “We were gratified to meet the aged servants of God on this occasion. We have been acquainted from the rise of the third angel’s message with Elder [Frederick] Wheeler, who is now nearing 80 years. We have been acquainted with Elders [H. H.] Wilcox and [Charles O.] Taylor for the last 40 years. Age is telling on these old standard-bearers, as well as upon me.”7

Frederick Wheeler and fellow pioneers Wilcox and Taylor had long labored with Ellen White. She had great respect for aged workers and wrote strongly about their care and support.8

The next day, October 12, 1890, White rose at 4:15 a.m. and had a deep season of prayer before beginning to write. She then wrote, “I feel grateful to the Lord that I endured the taxation of yesterday much better than I expected. I do ask the Lord for strength and grace, and praise His holy name that I do receive decidedly, according to the promise given, the very things I most need.”9

Here is one of the defining characteristics of Ellen White’s altar life. We see it the very next day, on October 13, as she readies herself to speak to a large gathering, the majority of whom were not Seventh-day Adventists, and then later in the evening to another big audience. In preparation, she prayed, “May the Lord guide me in regard to the subjects to the present to the people.” “I praise the Lord that in our feebleness we may take hold upon divine power.”10 She later concluded of the evening meeting,

I had much freedom in speaking from 2 Peter 1, dwelling upon the precious promises.

My special burden is to arouse the laymen in the church to action, that every individual shall sense his duty to become a worker together with God.11

Despite the day’s challenges, White still found the energy to write “Witnesses for Christ,” a nine-page document on how to engage laypersons in the ministry of the church. How was she able to speak to multiple groups in a single day and still pen deep and searching notes of guidance for God’s people? She completely depended on God for everything in her life—wisdom, guidance, health, safety, family wellness, power in ministry, and more.

Between earth and heaven

Ellen White’s trust in God was warranted because hers was a life lived between earth and heaven. She lived on earth, but her purpose was heavenly. Her 1890 diary contains a powerful story that demonstrates why she maintained her personal worship altar so carefully.

On October 30, 1890, White and a few others left South Lancaster for Salamanca, New York. During the trip, she contracted a very bad cold that so affected her that she desired to return home rather than continue. One night, while in great pain and “feeling disheartened in reference to my journeying,” 12 she went to her sleeping quarters on the train and knelt by a chair to pray. That’s when something miraculous happened: “I had not uttered a word when the whole room seemed filled with a soft, silvery light, and my pain and disappointment and discouragement were removed. I was filled with comfort and hope and the peace of Christ. . . . The presence of Jesus was in the room.”13 Sleepiness quickly vanished as Ellen basked in the presence of God. “What a night that was to my soul!” she later wrote. “Every breath was prayer mingled with praise to God.”14

But God was not through with Ellen White that evening. She later received a vision in which she saw a gathering of leaders in the church’s publishing ministry. They were deciding to remove any reference to the Sabbath from the American Sentinel magazine, the church’s religious liberty journal, as well as any mention of the name Seventh-day Adventist.

Several months later, in March 1891, the General Conference session was held in Battle Creek. Ellen White, the morning devotional speaker, used Matthew 5:16 for her Sabbath message: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” On more than one occasion during the meetings, Ellen White attempted to share her previous vision but became frustrated when she could not.

Later that night, a meeting of publishing house representatives and leaders from the National Religious Liberty Association convened. It ended in a stalemate around 3:00 a.m., with the religious liberty representatives refusing to use the Sentinel to present their principles. If it did not remove any mention of the church’s name and the Sabbath. What they did not know was that at about the same time, God was waking His messenger with a clear directive. She was to go at 5:30 a.m. and share with this group what she had been shown in Salamanca, New York.

Ellen White obeyed. She spent an hour recounting what she had witnessed in vision. The audience sat in stunned silence. Pricked by the Holy Spirit, the president of the National Religious Liberty Association spoke: “I was in that meeting. Last night after the close of the conference some of us met in my room in the Review office where we locked ourselves in and there discussed the questions and the matter . . . presented to us this morning. We remained in that room until three o’clock this morning. If I should begin to give a description of what took place and the personal attitude of those in the room, I could not give it as exactly and as correctly as it has been given by Sister White. I now see that I was in error and that the position that I took was not correct. From the light . . . given this morning, I acknowledge that I was wrong.”15 The Religious Liberty Association later gathered and rescinded the action that they had been staunchly advocating.

Two takeaways

So, what are we to make of these brief scenes from the life of God’s inspired messenger? First, Ellen White’s life and ministry remind us that nothing can substitute for daily time spent with God. It is in these moments that He sustains, directs, and “visions” His servants. Second, her altar life reminds us that we can take everything to God—all our joys and sorrows—and He will supply whatever we need for each day. No other point comes through more powerfully in Ellen White’s diaries than that God was her Source of power, help, hope, and support each day. She spent time in His presence so that she might be spiri­tually nourished. In turn, Ellen White was prepared for such moments as the one she encountered at the 1891 General Conference Session.

No matter where you serve in ministry, God’s purposes for you are weighty and meaningful. As we reflect on Ellen White’s communion with God, if your altar life is not where it should be, change it now as much is riding on the quality of time you spend with Him each day. May He bless you as you pursue and are pursued by Him.

  1. “Ellen G. White Named Among 100 Most Significant Americans.” Adventist Review, December 1, 2014.
  2. Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1915) 17.
  3. Ellen G. White, Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1922), 13–15.
  4. Ellen G. White Estate, Inc. The Salamanca Vision and the 1890 Diary (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 1983), 14, 15. https://ellenwhite.org/media/document/8866.
  5. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 1, The Early Years: 1827-1862 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), 396.
  6. Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., The Salamanca Vision, 6.
  7. Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 6.
  8. “Ellen G. White, The Retirement Years (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1990). See chapters 2 and 5: “Usefulness of Older Workers” and “Care of the Aged.”
  9. Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., The Salamanca Vision, 6.
  10. Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 7.
  11. Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 7.
  12. Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 57, 58.
  13. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 3, The Lonely Years: 1876-1891 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), 466.
  14. Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., The Salamanca Vision, 58.
  15. Ellen G. White, Counsels for the Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1991), 27, 28.

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Dwain N. Esmond, PhD (cand.), serves as associate director and editor of the Ellen G. White Estate and evangelist for the global Back to the Altar worship initiative. His doctoral research in leadership focuses on innovation in missional organizations.

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