I think for the last few weeks I’ve been forgetting to put the actual text of the belief statement in these blog posts where I’m discussing my church’s beliefs, but this is probably the most controversial one of all so in addition to reading it in the video above, I’m pasting the full text of the statement here:
One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.
As I say in the video, there’s no doubt that this is a highly controversial doctrine – that the spiritual gift of prophecy, given to people in Biblical times, was given in more modern times to a specific 19th-century American woman, Ellen White, who as a result of her visions and insights became one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist church. It’s a deal-breaker for a lot of people who are otherwise attracted to and interested in the Adventist message, and it’s one factor that makes some other Christians view Adventists as more of a cult than a genuine Christian church. How you treat the writings of Ellen White has also become somewhat of a shibboleth within the church itself, with her works often being used as a rallying point for conservatives while being seriously questioned or (occasionally) outright rejected by more liberal Adventists.
So, how to approach this difficult topic?
My video above explains how I like to look at Ellen White and put her work in context of other writers and thinkers that people have called “inspired” (or, capital-I, “Inspired”). But even though I went on for seven minutes, used my classroom whiteboard AND had visual aids, I still only scratched the surface of what there is to be said on the subject. A couple of quick points that I didn’t get to reference in the video:
- While Ellen White was certainly a founder of the SDA church, she was not, as some people believe, the founder, nor is Adventism based solely on her teachings. The relationship is much more complicated than the relationship of, say, Mary Baker Eddy to Christian Science, or, as I pointed out in the video, Joseph Smith to the Latter-Day Saints. Early Adventists were very much a community who believed in studying the Bible, discussing things through and arguing when necessary. While there were certainly times that Mrs. White’s visions (or “visions” if you have difficulty believing that visions from God can be a real thing, as some do) gave essential guidance, early Adventists were very aware of the need to ground all their teachings in the Bible.
- Official Adventist teaching is very insistent that Mrs. White’s writings are not to be treated as equal with the Bible, but Adventist practice does not always conform to this (I did touch on this a little in the video). Generally the more conservative the Adventist individual or community, the more likely he/she/they will be to quote and use Mrs. White’s writings as if they were Scripture. I was just reading my daughter’s teen Sabbath School lesson with her this evening when an example of this jumped out. Because of a decision-making process about which I as a parent am not terribly happy, my local SDA church does not use the official church program materials for children and youth, but uses another curriculum developed by a more conservative faction within the church. This quarterly I was reading to my daughter was telling the story of the fall of Judah to the Babylonians, complete with plentiful Scripture references, when suddenly it inserted a lengthy description of how the priests in the Temple hid the Ark of the Covenant in a cave so that it would not fall into Babylonian hands, and God preserved and protected it to this day! I pointed out to my kids that there was no Scripture reference for this because the Bible makes no reference to what happened to the Ark, and that this description was drawn from Mrs. White’s book Prophets and Kings. (Mrs. White herself may have been drawing on a tradition whose roots are in 2 Maccabees: Adventists, like most Protestants, count Maccabees as part of the Apocrypha and thus not divinely inspired Scripture, but Mrs. White was influenced by a wide range of religious texts and has taken a lot of criticism for not citing her sources, even in cases where she copied word-for-word from other writers). Typical of this curriculum material my church is using in the children’s classes, my daughter’s quarterly did not make a distinction between what’s in the Bible and what’s in Ellen White, which troubles me. This would be much less likely, however, in a curriculum that was produced and approved by an official church department, particularly in recent times as the church is keenly aware of the need to clarify our position that Mrs. White’s writings are not equal to Scripture.
- Despite this important distinction, there are a few Adventist teachings that are quite difficult to support from Scripture alone without reading the Bible through the interpretive lens of Ellen White’s writings and other traditional Adventist teaching. In this, I think, we are very little different from other Christian churches, including others that, like us, claim to base our teaching on “sola Scriptura” and “let the Bible be its own interpreter.” In practice, this is very hard to do and we all read the Bible with a particular set of interpretive lenses on. In the case of most Adventists, those lenses were generally designed and tinted by Ellen White, because she had such a formative influence on how we read Scripture.
- You’ll notice that in this blog and vlog I haven’t talked much about the Scriptural foundation for this teaching, partly because my mandate throughout this series is to explore my own responses and reactions rather than to rehash a Bible study, but also specifically in this case because it is by definition hard to talk about what the Bible says about the role of a writer and religious leader who lived 1800 years after the Bible was written. The rest of the discussion in Seventh-day Adventists Believe… about Fundamental Belief #18 does talk quite a bit about what the Bible says about prophets and how to apply this to would-be modern prophets, but any specific application to Ellen White or to her writings must of necessity be extra-biblical.
With all those extra points in place to support the rather important basic point I made in the video — about where we place Ellen White in the context of other writers we might consider “inspired” — I’d love to hear other people’s opinions. Adventist? Former Adventist? Non-Adventist reader of my blog who now thinks Adventists are MUCH STRANGER than you thought we were before? Let me know what you think.