addressing legalism in the Adventist Church: Ellen White
Updated: Jan 9
I have held off on posting this for a long time because I was afraid. I was afraid of how people would react and I didn't want to deal with the backlash that my view might cause. I have reached a point in my spiritual journey, where I just can't hold this in anymore. My strength and my peace no longer come from people or even from a church body, instead, I find my purpose in Christ and in the truths of the Bible. I believe that the way we are handling the following topics in our church denomination today is doing more harm than good- especially for young people such as myself.
I realize my ideas might be radical to some readers, but instead of trying to argue with me or debate each other I encourage you to simply go to the Bible and draw your own conclusions for yourself. Sometimes we rely far too heavily on popular opinion or on "being right". The world is not such a black and white place. It's time to let it go and let some issues work themselves out privately between you and God.
For the sake of clarity, I am defining legalism as dependence on personal moral law rather than on religious faith.
If you are an Adventist, you have heard about Ellen White. She is even more well known than the common haystack. If you aren't an Adventist but have attempted to figure out what the SDA church is all about, you've likely heard about her. If you live in Silver Springs Maryland, you might know who she is or at least that she exists. Whether you know of her or not, in the Adventist church she is a big deal, and it wouldn't be right for me to end this topical series without speaking on how much weight we put on what she says and writes.
What does the Bible say about Ellen White?
Ellen White is not a Bible character. Sure, you can credit her as a prophet if you feel compelled. That would allow you to apply scriptural texts on prophets to her life. But there is nothing in the Bible that says what level of dependency we should place on her works. She was never called out by name. Scripture doesn't even say something like, "In the last days there will be a woman prophet who deciphers prophecy." There's just not a lot to work with when it comes to her specifically.
So why is she so important? What did she say about bikes? or movie theatres? Why does she look scary in all her photos? Well, first if we really want to understand her, we need to look at her entire life rather than just focusing on the random tidbits of info we hear thrown around. I am going to give you a very brief summary of her life, but if you would like all the details you may refer to this page: https://whiteestate.org/about/egwbio/
Ellen White was actually originally named Ellen Harmon prior to her marriage to James White. Ellen had a twin sister named Elizabeth. She also had 6 other siblings, and lived on a small farm with her family in the state of Maine. When she was nine years old, a schoolmate hit her in the face with a rock while she was walking home from school. This resulted in Ellen experiencing a coma for three weeks and a life long struggle with nose issues. Due to her injury, Ellen could no longer go to school and many people who knew her speculated that she would die young because her health was bad.
Ellen was one of the believers who experienced "The Great Disappointment" which is a historical event that took place on October 22, 1844. On this day, many people believed Jesus was going to return to earth... but he didn't. Instead of giving up on God as many people did following that experience, Ellen started studying the Bible more intently than ever before. When she was just 17 years old, she had what is considered her first vision. In this vision, she saw Christians walking on a narrow path that led to heaven. That was a turning point in Ellen's life, and she dedicated all of her efforts from that point on to studying the Bible and sharing what she discovered with others. During her lifetime she wrote more than 5,000 periodical articles and 40 books. From the time she was 17 years old until she died 70 years later, God gave her approximately 2,000 visions and dreams. The visions varied in length from less than a minute to nearly four hours. She lived from 1827-1915.
There is a lot of debate over is Ellen White was really a prophet or not. Did she really have visions or was she suffering from a brain injury due to her childhood accident?
I don't know.
I have read several of her publishings and compared her quotes to the Bible. Regardless of if she was a true prophet or just a very effective and inspirational writer, I have not been able to find fault with her work. I don't think the problems people take with Ellen White are really her own fault, but rather the fault of people who misconstrue the intent of what she wrote.
I have come across people who study the works of Ellen White almost more fervently than they study the Bible.
I have heard sermons and attended Bible studies where Ellen White's writings are quoted more than scripture. This is a problem, and even she would think so if she were still alive. Ellen White herself noted, “The fact that God has revealed His will to men through His Word, has not rendered needless the continued presence and guiding of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, the Spirit was promised by our Saviour to open the Word to His servants, to illuminate and apply its teachings." This quote points out that when we study the Bible, the Holy Spirit can guide us to learn things we never knew. Her life work was to help bring clarity to what the Bible said, but she wasn't trying to replace our need to study God's word on our own time.
It is for this reason that we need to stop treating people like they are bad Adventists or worse, bad Christians if they do not read what Ellen White wrote. Reading Ellen White's books has no bearing on a person's salvation. I do not think that believing or not believing that she was a "true" prophet deeply affects someone's relationship with God.
That being said, while I think it is a bad idea to give her more credit than she deserves (or wants!) I also think it is a bad idea to write her off just based on "what you've heard" about her. Many of the problems that young people (or Christians who haven't read any of her stuff for themselves) have with her are based on quotes and phrases of hers that have been taken out of context.
Let's take the bike issue for example.
There is this quote flying around about Ellen White advising people not to purchase bicycles. Obviously to those of us living in today's society this just seems ridiculous. Her exact words were, “Exhibitions in the bicycle craze are an offense to God.” At the time she said this, bikes were very different from today. They were more dangerous (no one was thinking about helmets for example) and they were very expensive- about $3,000 to be exact. To put this in perspective, the average man in the 1800's made $768 a year. That is like someone in today's society going out and buying a $144,000 car when they only make $45,000 a year. If you read all of her thoughts on the issue, you will find that she was really just telling people to be smart with their money and not allow the pride of owning an extravagant piece of equipment (a bike) get in the way of treating others with a Christ-like attitude.
If you don't like Ellen White based on your own reading and research, then don't read her books. If you love her works, then read to your heart's content! Whatever your stance, we need to stop making her something that she isn't. She isn't a rule book to bash people over the heads with and she isn't a crazy fanatic who wants everyone to believe in salvation through works.
Are you curious about my feelings on the matter? I like her. I admire her. Not because of her "fame" or "prophetess" status in the church, but rather because I think her heart was good. I think her intentions were good. She loved Jesus and she wanted to understand him and his plan for her life as best as she could. She studied the Bible for herself, and even if she was simply a nice lady, I think God really blessed her. Her books have been a wonderful reference point for me, and I enjoy using her perspective while I study the Bible for myself.
Maybe we as a church body would not be struggling with these superficial and hypocritical issues that I've been writing on if we too were as motivated as Ellen White to read the Bible for ourselves.