“Ellen White said…”

Those are three apparently innocent words that have been used and abused with much zest and confidence. They have been known to strike dread and incite rebellion in the hearts of some. But why? Is it in reaction to Ellen White’s message or because of what people think she was all about? Though sweeping generalizations cannot answer that question, it’s hard to avoid the fact that what is often associated with Ellen White would not even be recognizable to her.

Sometimes it’s just another classic case of “my friend said that his friend said that one of his cousins said that his pastor said that Ellen White definitely said…” It’s similar to the telephone game where something is whispered into the ear of someone who then quietly relays the information down a line of participants. One by one, each whispers to the next. By the time the last person in the line announces their version of it, everyone erupts in laughter at the ridiculously botched message.

It’s no wonder that many have lost interest in Ellen White and have concluded that she is not relevant.

Personally, the memories of my first samplings of her writings are deeply moving and inspiring. I found her depiction of God to be compellingly beautiful and biblically sound. But in spite of being wooed by the richness of her prose and her profound spiritual insights, I too have had my share of run-ins with people who talked of an Ellen White completely foreign to me; one who seemed gloomy and restrictive.

…Ellen White had been expressing concerns about Adventists quoting her writings and drawing conclusions that she did not intend.

I remember one experience early in my journey when, while visiting an Adventist institution, my friend and I were outside throwing a football around and enjoying some relaxation. Later that afternoon someone came into my guest room and thumped a stack of papers on my bed. It was a compilation of Ellen White quotations that the person was using to condemn us for playing sports. But those quotations were taken out of context and misapplied with an extremely narrow-minded perspective. I don’t intend to draw attention to that subject in particular. It’s just one of many examples.

This type of abuse of her writings is something Ellen White was painfully aware of throughout her ministry.

A Plea for Common Sense

After over fifty years of an incredibly prolific writing career, Ellen White attended a meeting in Elmshaven, California to address some confusion about her writings because certain Adventists were taking her statements out of context. The year was 1904. Speaking before a board of educators, ministers, administrators, and lay members, she said:

“My mind has been greatly stirred in regard to the idea, ‘Why, Sister White has said so and so, and Sister White has said so and so; and therefore we are going right up to it.’ God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.”1

Her writings were being taken out of context and misapplied in a narrow way. This was greatly stirring her mind because she understood the collateral damage on the church’s identity and mission when her writings are misrepresented and her authority is misused. I’m not sure what’s more unfortunate, the fact that some Adventists simply ignore her writings or the fact that others isolate her writings and apply them in a sloppy manner that is spiritually harmful. I tend to think the latter is worse. And God knows that I’ve been guilty of this, even if unintended.

The sad reality is that by 1904 this was nothing new. For over a decade Ellen White had been expressing concerns about Adventists quoting her writings and drawing conclusions that she did not intend. In 1890 she expressed her disappointment regarding some who were driving hard their own preconceived opinions by irresponsibly picking and choosing statements from her writings. “They quote half a sentence, leaving out the other half, which, if quoted, would show their reasoning to be false.”2

On other occasions she continued to lament that some Adventists were too careless in how they quoted her writings, looking for strong statements to bolster their own opinions. She warned that, “the extracts may give a different impression than that which they would were they read in their original connection.”3

Common sense—that’s what she was appealing for. She exhorted Adventist believers to bear in mind the time in which she wrote, the place, and the circumstances that occasioned her pen. This is just basic, responsible reading. If this principle is essential in handling the biblical prophets, why would anyone assume anything different when dealing with the writings of an end-time prophet? She assured her readers, “Regarding the testimonies, nothing is ignored; nothing is cast aside; but time and place must be considered.”4

…some things which are difficult to understand, and which, unhappily, ill-informed and unbalanced people distort…

Poor lady. This seems to have been a career-long nightmare for her. I can only imagine how many sleepless nights she endured over this. But in some ways I’m glad she is not alive today to witness some of the reckless handling of her writings that has developed into an elaborate and destructive art form.

As I think of this predicament, I’m reminded of Peter’s words as he too objected to the tendency of some first century believers who were twisting the apostle Paul’s words and making them mean something different than that originally intended. Peter lamented: “There are, of course, some things which are difficult to understand, and which, unhappily, ill-informed and unbalanced people distort (as they do the other scriptures), and bring disaster on their own heads.” He exhorted the believers to “be very careful” (2 Peter 3:16-17, Philips).

Peter’s warning is deeply relevant because, as is evident today, Christianity is warped into something quite different by misquoting and misapplying Scripture. So what effect does the misuse of Ellen White’s writings have on the image of Adventism and the religious experience of its adherents?

Ellen “Sister Killjoy” White?

Like the rock hurled by an angry classmate that disfigured Ellen White’s nine-year-old face to the point that her own father could not recognize her, so too has the very face of Adventism suffered disfigurement from throwing around careless interpretations of Ellen White’s writings. There are many consequences to this problem; too many to discuss here.

But one important repercussion is that many among my generation of Adventists have ditched Ellen White altogether. In fact, some have an allergic reaction at the sound of her name. She has been viewed as a killjoy, a long-faced Victorian woman whose sole intent was to persuade others to shun pleasure and restrict individuality. As was said of the old Puritans, Ellen White has been portrayed as harboring “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”5

But was Ellen White really a grumpy old lady who only wore long black dresses and frowned for portraits? I have to admit, shortly after being introduced to the Adventist Church I stumbled on a photo of Ellen White for the first time and she looked… well, sort of grim. James White was even scarier! But when I look at portraits of her contemporaries, even the most humorous and fun-loving figures of her time, they look just as somber (check out portraits of Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde). Better to blame nineteenth-century photographers instead.

And yes, it’s true that Ellen White made some comments about careless joking and jesting, but she was also opposed to “a smileless, joyless, humorless Christian lifestyle.”6 Her grandson, Arthur White, recalled that “life was not strained in the White home. There was no place for a long-faced, smileless religion… Ellen White would join in a hearty laugh at an amusing or awkward situation or a nice turn of words.”7

One lady who lived in the White home as a child recalls that Ellen White would take great interest in their childhood games and let the kids engage in a pillow fight once a week before bed. Thinking back on those childhood memories, she remembers Ellen as “warm and human.”8

Contrary to the stuffy image many are familiar with, there is a different picture of Ellen White as a person that is appealing and seldom mentioned.

Keeping it Real

In spite of the many unattractive blemishes that Ellen White’s image has endured, there are some experiences in her life that I find refreshing because they give me an inviting glimpse into her personality. On the subject of sex, which was taboo in her Victorian era, several Ellen White encounters depict a prophet that is not stuffy or prudish.

In 1861, a 26-year-old Adventist preacher by the name of Daniel T. Bourdeau was getting ready for his wedding ceremony in a private home in Vermont. He had asked James White to perform the ceremony and Ellen White to offer a prayer at the conclusion of the service. After the late ceremony, Daniel and his new bride, Marion, were persuaded by the hosts of the private estate to postpone their honeymoon travels and stay the night. Because of the inconvenience of traveling in the dark, the hosts also convinced James and Ellen to rest in the estate for the night.

Not a prudish, cold, or grumpy old lady, but rather a warm, compassionate, and fun personality.

By the time Ellen White made her way upstairs to her room, around 9:00 PM, she found the new husband nervously pacing up and down the hallway in front of his bedroom. I can’t blame the guy; he was spending his first honeymoon night in a room right next to James and Ellen White’s room, of all people. That’s enough to make any new husband a bit jittery. Behind those doors was his new young bride clad in her winter underwear and tensely staring at the wall. Ellen White quickly read the situation and, pointing toward the closed bedroom door, she said:

“Daniel, inside that room is a frightened young woman in bed petrified with fear. Now you go in to her right now, and you love her, and you comfort her. And, Daniel, you treat her gently, and you treat her tenderly, and you treat her lovingly. It will do her good…”

Then with a slight grin on her face she said:

“Daniel, it will do you good, too!”9

On another occasion an Adventist man in California wrote a tract promoting the idea that sex within marriage should only be engaged in for the purpose of bearing children and not for pleasure. He was one voice among several in a movement that was persuading some married couples to shun sexual intercourse, favoring a kind of holy abstinence that would lead them to a higher “spiritual” level.

This man wrote to Ellen White asking her to meet with him and support the printing of his tract. She wrote back telling him that “he had better let that matter alone.” But he kept pestering her for a meeting, and she finally agreed to see him. When he finished rambling she asked, “Are you through?” “Yes,” he replied. Then Ellen White told him, “Go home, and be a man.”10 Needless to say, the tract was never published.

These examples reveal a version of the little old lady that is not familiar to most Adventists today. This is an aspect of Ellen White not often spoken about. Not a prudish, cold, or grumpy old lady, but rather a warm, compassionate, and fun personality.

Ellen White for a New Generation

Far more important than a balanced view of her personality, it is her theological framework that holds the true treasure of her lifework. It’s on this critical point that a new generation of Adventists can rediscover the richness of her writings. From her childhood struggles with doubt because of a cold picture of God’s character, to her later encounter with the “pitying tenderness of Jesus,”11 Ellen White’s journey is one we can resonate with.

As she embarked on her ministry she could genuinely declare, “I was surprised and enraptured with the clear views now presented to me of the atonement and the work of Christ.” It was those inspiring vistas that instilled in her “an inexpressible love for God,” a God well worth loving and serving.12

If only we can get past the grim impression of her, we might be inclined to give her a shot. And who knows, maybe the Ellen White we discover is the Ellen White we wish we had always known.

  1. Ellen White, Selected Messages, Book 3, 217
  2. ibid, 82
  3. Ellen White, Letter 49, 1894. See Selected Messages, Book 1, 58
  4. Ellen White, Selected Messages, book 1, 57
  5. Paul R. Spickard and Kevin W. Cragg, A Global History of Christians: How Everyday Believers Experienced Their World (Baker Academic, 1994), 224
  6. Glen Baker, “The Humor of Ellen White,” Adventist Review, April 30, 1987
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. Roger W. Coon, “Council to a Nervous Bridegroom,” Adventist Heritage, Summer, 1990; Quoted in Herbert E. Douglas, Messenger of the Lord (Pacific Press, 1998), 105-106
  10. J.N. Loughborough letter, dated April 21, 1907. Quoted in Arthur L. White, “Marital Relations,” September, 1962, Washington, D.C. Official Document, Ellen G. White Publications.
  11. Ellen White, Life Sketches of Ellen White, 23
  12. ibid, 39
Light Bearers