Allegations that Ellen White was a plagiarist, deceiver, manipulator, religious bully, liar, alcoholic, and much more continue unabated today. “I expect these raids will be made against me till Christ comes,” she wrote. Every opposer to “our faith . . . makes Mrs. White his text. They begin to oppose the truth and then make a raid on me.”1 How should a busy pastor respond when such claims affect the local church? The old sports adage “The best defense is a good offense”2 suggests a way forward.
As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, a positive campaign that remains sensitive to answering the negativity will prove most helpful. In this framework, I suggest three strategies that can begin the process of affirming Ellen White’s prophetic ministry in the local church.
First, inform yourself on both the issues and the resources available to assist enquiring parishioners. The series Meeting Ellen White, Reading Ellen White, and Walking With Ellen White3 by George Knight is a good starting place to begin with or to refresh yourself on the significance of Ellen White. New converts to Adventism should read all three, but especially Reading Ellen White. At the outset of their new religious experience, it is imperative that they approach Ellen White with the correct principles of interpretation. Doing so will inoculate them against the more unrestrained interpretations of Ellen White floating around the church today.
The Pocket Ellen White Dictionary4 is another book that will serve not only seasoned readers of Ellen White but also new converts, especially in getting off to a good start with her writings.
Plenty of advanced works on Ellen White offer differing nuances and conflicting viewpoints on her prophetic status. The following recommendations reflect scholars who view Ellen White as a genuine postcanonical prophet. I believe a working knowledge of their contents will be a great asset to you as a pastor for not only understanding Ellen White better but also communicating this knowledge in various ways to your congregation.
For theological and historical insight, see The Gift of Prophecy in Scripture and History, edited by Alberto Timm and Dwain Esmond; for theological reflection, see Understanding Ellen White, edited by Merlin Burt, as well as George Knight’s Prophets in Conflict: Issues in Authority. For finding answers to criticisms, see Francis D. Nichol’s classic work, Ellen G. White and Her Critics. For general apologetic principles, see Ellen White Under Fire by Jud Lake. For a historical perspective, see Theodore N. Levterov’s Accepting Ellen White: Early Seventh-day Adventists and the Gift of Prophecy Dilemma. Finally, keep close at hand The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, edited by Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon.5
For a sense of the historical trajectory of how Adventists have viewed Ellen White’s writings throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, check the works of historians Michael Campbell and Gilbert Valentine. George Knight’s Ellen White’s Afterlife is an indispensable read on this topic as well.6 Matthew Lucio’s carefully researched and endlessly interesting The Adventist History Podcast7 brings out the historical context of Ellen White’s prophetic ministry. The Ellen G. White Estate website also contains a wealth of information.8
There are, of course, plenty of other studies, not to mention the many doctoral dissertations on Ellen White.9 But the above resources, in my view, will provide a foundation for helping parishioners and addressing any questions or concerns they may have about Ellen White.
As you read such resources, look for discussion on four foundational issues: (1) the nature of Ellen White’s experience in revelation-inspiration, (2) the basis of her authority in relationship to the final authority of Scripture, (3) principles of interpretation, and (4) her worldview as expressed in the cosmic conflict theme throughout her writings. They are the aspects that need the most emphasis in educating everyday Adventist Christians. Beyond that, one can probe the controversial areas, such as how to respond to the charges of plagiarism and the shut door, as well as the myriad of other attacks against her.
Ultimately, it is your own reading of Ellen White that will confirm her profound contribution to Christian living. Remember to read her vertically, in other words, one book at a time from start to finish. That way, you get the flow of thought in each volume and avoid piecemeal reading void of the literary context. Horizontal reading is following the themes in her writings as well as doing phrase or word searches. While the latter approach is obviously important, you should do it in the context of vertical reading and study. Many blessings are in store for those who read Ellen White vertically.
Context of confidence
Second, create a context of confidence in Ellen White’s prophetic gift by preaching expository sermons. Expository preaching makes the Scripture text the center of the sermon. The sermon thus seeks to focus on the truth in the text. While expository sermons may have various shapes or forms, their core is to draw out the meaning of the text in its inspired context and proclaim it as the Word of God to the listening congregation. Ellen White affirmed this approach when she wrote that the minister should “speak in sincerity and deep earnestness, as a voice from God expounding the Sacred Scriptures.”10 When practiced by a pastor who values Ellen White’s prophetic ministry, expository preaching sends a message to the church that while the prophetic gift has an important place, Scripture is the supreme source of truth.
As to the use of her writings in the sermon, Ellen White’s advice was that “when you go to the people . . . preach to them out of the Bible.” An occasional quote from Ellen White is not precluded here if you employ it in such a way that shows that the basis of the sermon is Scripture.11
In general, an intentional stress on the supremacy of Scripture in church life is essential not only to our Adventist identity but also to a full appreciation of Ellen White. The entire thrust of her prophetic ministry was the Bible, and when that same focus occurs in the local church, it will vindicate her writings in their intent and meaning. Used with this understanding fixed in the congregation’s mind, the prophetic gift will bring blessing rather than misunderstanding. Members will then hear Ellen White’s prophetic voice with much more respect and appreciation.
Building a positive relationship
Third, help your church members build a positive relationship with the writings of Ellen White. For those individuals affected by the many criticisms of Ellen White, let them know that Adventist scholars have addressed those issues. Based on your knowledge of the above resources, you can respond yourself or guide them to helpful sources that provide carefully studied answers to the charges.12 Many Adventists, I believe, especially the younger generation, are affected more by apathy than by criticisms of Ellen White. The pastor can address this situation by focusing on her personal life. Tell her story—the laughter and depression, the trials and victories, the suffering and joy that filled her daily life. Put all of it in the context of her extraordinary gift. When done without hagiography, rehearsing the personal side of Ellen’s life as well as the supernatural facet can boost interest in what she had to say. Also, it can serve as a positive response to ad hominem attacks on her character.
A more traditional way of building a positive relationship with Ellen White in your church (but still a good one) is the yearly Spirit of Prophecy Day, sponsored by the White Estate.13 It is a good time to preach an expository sermon on the prophetic gift from the Bible and employ Ellen White’s experience as an application. You do not even have to use her in the sermon. Just preach the entire message from a passage in the Bible about the prophetic gift and bring her into the worship service through other creative ways. Perhaps, for example, you could have several respected individuals in the church share their favorite Ellen White quote or present a testimony of what the gift of prophecy means to them. Such approaches offer excellent opportunities to foster a healthy view of Ellen White before the congregation.
Study the lamp, not the finger
Prayer meeting series or seminars have traditionally been an excellent time to promote a balanced and biblical understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic ministry. But remember that whenever you educate your church about Ellen White’s prophetic ministry, the main thing is to lead them into a deeper love for Jesus and obedience to Scripture. That is the main thing. If I point to a lamp and say, “Look!” my intention is for you to see the lamp, not my finger. But if you study my finger instead of the lamp, you have missed my point (pun intended).14
The various teaching events you provide in the church offer you, as the pastor, a golden opportunity to instruct parishioners on how to rightly interpret the prophetic gift, recognize and avoid extreme interpretations, and focus on Jesus and Scripture. After all, isn’t the main thing to keep the main thing the main thing?15
There are many other ways to promote a positive relationship with Ellen White’s writings; the sky is the limit to your creativity. You might try, for example, using repeated phrases in various venues of your ministry (board meetings, private conversations, Sabbath morning announcements, teaching and preaching situations, etc.) that communicate a positive biblical message about Ellen White’s writings. For example, whenever I teach about Ellen White, I might say: “I want you to read Ellen White, but I want you to read your Bible more.” “The problem with Ellen White is not Ellen White; it is misguided followers.” “Ellen White is a prophet to the Scriptures.”16 “Ellen White’s vision for the Christian life is biblically deep and spiritually profound.” Notice that it is not the same thing as quoting Ellen White, though that is also important when done with prudence. Come up with your own phrases that communicate a fortifying and positive message about Ellen White to your local church family.
Counteract the negativity about Ellen White with a positive message. Silence on the gift makes room for the weeds of skepticism and apathy to grow in the garden of church life. During the years of 1851–1855, James White decided not to publish in the Review anything related to his wife or her prophetic messages due to strong prejudice against them. In those years, the church experienced “a spiritual decline and negligence toward the gift of prophecy.”17 Late in 1855, however, leadership voted to publish the visions openly, and in the following years, the church grew and flourished. A little more than a decade later, Uriah Smith reported that the fruit of Ellen White’s visions in the church was fourfold: (1) they “tend to the purist morality,” (2) they “lead us to Christ,” (3) they “lead us to the Bible,” and (4) they bring “comfort and consolation to many hearts.”18 The pioneers thus discovered that Ellen White’s prophetic ministry, when rightly understood and appreciated, would generate revival in the church. Like the old Kellogg’s Cornflakes commercial, perhaps it is time to stand up and help your church taste Ellen White again for the first time.
- Ellen G. White to Uriah Smith, July 31, 1883 (Letter 3, 1883).
- This article is based on my book, Ellen White Under Fire: Identifying the Mistakes of Her Critics (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2010), chap. 14: “The Best Defense Is a Good Offense,” 264–279, and supplements that chapter.
- For the entire series, see George R. Knight, Meeting Ellen White: A Fresh Look at Her Life, Writings, and Major Themes (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald., 1996); George R. Knight, Reading Ellen White: How to Understand and Apply Her Writings (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1997); George R. Knight, Ellen White’s World: A Fascinating Look at the Times in Which She Lived (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1998); and George R. Knight, Walking With Ellen White: The Human Interest Story (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1999).
- For the free online version of The Pocket Ellen G. White Dictionary, see https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/14209.2#0.
- Alberto R. Timm and Dwain N. Esmond, The Gift of Prophecy in Scripture and History (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2015); Merlin Burt, ed. Understanding Ellen White: The Life and Work of the Most Influential Voice in Adventist History (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2015); George Knight, Prophets in Conflict: Issues in Authority (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2020); Francis D. Nichol, Ellen White and Her Critics (Takoma Park, Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1951); Jud Lake, Ellen White Under Fire; Theodore N. Levterov, Accepting Ellen White: Early Seventh-day Adventists and the Gift of Prophecy Dilemma (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2016); Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon, eds., The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2013).
- See Michael W. Campbell, 1919: The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2019); Michael W. Campbell, 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2022); Gilbert M. Valentine, The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage: Issues in the Conflict for Control of the Ellen G. White Publications, 1930–1939 (Westlake Village, CA: Oak and Acorn, 2018); and George R. Knight, Ellen White’s Afterlife (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2019).
- See “Learn Adventist History With Us,” Adventist History Project, https://www.adventisthistorypodcast.org/.
- “Issues & Answers Regarding Inspiration and the Life and Work of Ellen G. White,” Ellen G. White Estate, https://whiteestate.org/about/issues/.
- See “Dissertations,” James White Library, https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/dissertations/.
- Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1948), 147.
- See “The Editor Interviews H.M.S. Richards,” Ministry, April 2018, 15, 16.
- See, for example, Alberto Timm’s helpful response to the highly critical book by Steve Daily, Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography (Conneaut Lake, PA: Page Publishing, 2020): https://media2.whiteestate.org/documents/Book_Review_EGW_A_Psychobiography.pdf.
- Resources can be found at https://whiteestate.org/resources/sop/.
- This analogy is derived from Fritz Guy as quoted in Knight, Reading Ellen White, 28.
- This often-quoted statement originated with time management specialist Stephen Covey.
- I am indebted to Merlin Burt, director of the Ellen G. White Estate, for this saying.
- Levterov, Accepting Ellen White, 39; for the whole story, see 36–40.
- Uriah Smith, The Visions of Mrs. E. G. White: Manifestation of Spiritual Gifts According to the Scriptures (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing, 1868), 5–8.