Please send me a list of Ellen White’s original writings, not her compilations” is a request we often receive at the White Estate. But behind this lie unspoken and incorrect assumptions undermining the trustworthiness of compilations:
- Compilations contain material that Ellen White did not write.
- Compilations have changed Ellen White’s words.
- Compilations misrepresent her teachings by taking statements out of context.
- Compilations reflect the biases of the compiler.
- Compilations are uninspired, in contrast to her original books.
How might a pastor respond to the concerns of those who hold such views regarding the many Ellen White compilations available to his or her members? And what exactly do they mean by “compilations” in contrast to Ellen White’s “original writings”? This article provides some practical ways that Seventh-day Adventist pastors can better help their congregation understand and properly use compilations.
Strictly speaking, the term compilation refers to a work created by gathering material from various sources. Most church members, however, are referring to any Ellen White book put together by someone other than Ellen White herself—particularly after her death.
Affirm the underlying concern
While it is true that some persons discredit Ellen White compilations because they reject certain statements that conflict with their own views, in most cases, those who express distrust of compilations do so because they sincerely want to read only what Ellen White genuinely wrote. They value her writings highly and do not want to be misled by someone with an agenda who has strung together Ellen White quotes to serve their own purposes.
We should affirm that motivation. Innumerable publications do misrepresent Ellen White’s teachings because the compiler has selected only those quotations that support his or her own cherished ideas or supplied headings that do not accurately reflect what she is saying. Ellen White herself shared this same concern:
Many from among our own people are writing to me, asking with earnest determination the privilege of using my writings to give force to certain subjects which they wish to present to the people in such a way as to leave a deep impression upon them.
It is true that there is a reason why some of these matters should be presented: but I would not venture to give my approval in using the testimonies in this way, or to sanction the placing of matter which is good in itself in the way which they propose.”1
Considering her statement, it is appropriate to take a cautious approach when it comes to compilations.
Differentiate between compilations
Most church members do not know how the White Estate has produced compilations in contrast to unofficial or private ones. Providing information about the process and the safeguards involved will help members recognize the important differences between them. White Estate compilations are not the work of a single individual. Yes, one person may take the lead in searching for significant material on a topic, but the manuscript then goes through a thorough reading and review process involving many other individuals. It then seeks input from others knowledgeable in the subject area.
During the process, those involved give attention to see that Ellen White’s teachings are fairly represented. They usually chose subtitles and headings from her own expressions so as not to impose meanings she did not intend. Where explanatory notes are essential for context, they are clearly identified as being supplied by the estate, usually placed within square brackets.
Share the purpose
Some may turn away from compilations because they do not read as easily or smoothly. It is important to point out that most compilations are not intended to be read through continuously like a devotional book. Topical compilations, such as the three Selected Messages volumes or Counsels on Diet and Foods, serve more as encyclopedic reference books. Because Ellen White has written so much on so many topics, their purpose is to bring together into one place her most significant statements on a specific issue as a matter of convenience. Otherwise, we would be left spending countless hours searching through the entire database of her writings every time we wanted to find her key instruction on a given matter.
The issue of context
By their very nature, compilations take passages from their original contexts and place them in a new setting. A quotation first written in 1868 might be followed by one composed in 1890 or 1905. One statement might have been originally addressed to a church leader and another to a group of students. It is an inherent weakness in any compilation that should be readily acknowledged.
Speaking about those who were seeking to make their own personal compilations, Ellen White expressed this very point: “In taking account of such an enterprise, there are many things that must come into consideration; for in using the testimonies to bolster up some subject which may impress the mind of the author, the extracts may give a different impression than that which they would were they read in their original connection.”2
With that concern in mind, it is important to remind everyone that all quotations in an official White Estate compilation include a reference indicating the source for the statement, often with the year of original writing or publication. That allows the reader to go back to the source document to read the quotation in its original context. In the EGW Writings app or the database at egwwritings
.org, this can be done with a single tap or click of the mouse. Providing the source reference also assures that the statement is indeed from Ellen White’s own writings and has not been added by someone with a hidden agenda.
Share her expectation of posthumous compilations
It will probably come as a surprise to most church members that Ellen White specifically included “the printing of compilations from my manuscripts” among the tasks she assigned to the Trustees of her Estate in her Last Will and Testament. She recognized that her writings, including those still unpublished at the time of her death, would have continuing benefit in meeting the needs of the church as it carried out its mission. In most cases, official compilations have been produced at the request of a particular ministry of the church that is seeking to learn, follow, and share the instruction we have been blessed to receive through the Spirit of Prophecy.
Explain that many “original” books included a compilation process
It may be helpful to explain that Ellen White did not usually write her books chapter by chapter, as many might suppose. When preparing Steps to Christ, for example, she asked her literary assistant, Marian Davis, to comb through her writings to find her choicest material related to salvation and Christian living. The final product was a tapestry of 13 chapters drawing from periodical articles Ellen White had written, Testimonies for the Church, and even selections from her private letters. It is entirely Ellen White’s material but “compiled” and arranged according to her direction and under her supervision.
The same can be said, to a large extent, regarding The Desire of Ages and most of her books published after the 1870s. Of course, the major difference between those volumes and the compilations produced after Ellen White’s death is that when she was alive and therefore involved in the manuscript preparation, she was not only giving instructions regarding what to include or not include but also composing new material that filled gaps and made for smooth connections. Nor was it necessary for her assistants to insert the original source reference after each passage and thus interrupt the flow of the text. Finally, she could read the finished chapters herself to ensure that they accurately represented what she wished to communicate.
Emphasize that it is the person who is inspired
To say that The Desire of Ages is inspired but such books as Child Guidance or Evangelism are not is to place an artificial wedge between the format of those volumes and the author. We must emphasize that it was Ellen White who was inspired. We do well to let ourselves be instructed by the truths she wrote under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, whether those words appear in a book published in 1898 or one released in 2018.
Explain the purpose of adaptations
Some church members point to the various adaptations of Ellen White’s writings as evidence that they have been changed and cannot be trusted. Such adaptations include updated English, inclusive language, condensations, abridgments, and even some paraphrases. Those works are not intended for readers who are comfortable with Ellen White’s nineteenth-century literary style or her books of more than 500 pages.
It can be helpful to explain that Ellen White, in her own day, granted permission for her son Edson to adapt selections from her writings to reach a younger and less educated reading audience. Christ Our Saviour was the result, first published in 1896 and still available today under the title The Story of Jesus.
The purpose of adaptations is to draw readers to Ellen White’s writings who would otherwise never continue reading past the first paragraphs of one of her current books. Careful effort is made to keep as close to Ellen White’s language as possible while recognizing that nineteenth-century English sentence structure and changed word meanings can be a significant obstacle, especially to younger readers, in understanding and appreciating her writings.
Pastors can assure their members that adaptations are not intended to take the place of the original books. Nor are they ever given the same title as the original book. Additionally, the EGW Writings app and egwwritings.org database place adaptations in a separate category called “Modern English.”
One more thing
Some church members might have been told that the White Estate brings out new compilations so that the church—and the White Estate in particular—can keep making money from Ellen White’s writings. While it is true that a modest royalty on sales from her English-language books used to go to the General Conference, which provides a budget for the White Estate’s ministry, no royalties have been collected from Ellen White’s books since 2011. All the sales income goes toward the expenses of the publishing houses and their book distributors. In addition, it can be pointed out that all her writings are available for free access at egwwritings.org.
Helping members better understand the purpose, benefits, and limitations of the Ellen White compilations can be a continuing educational challenge. We must educate our members to properly study and understand her writings and use them as “a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.”3
- Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958), 58.
- White, 58.
- Ellen G. White, “An Open Letter From Mrs. E. G. White to All Who Love the Blessed Hope,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 20, 1903, 15.