What About Ellen White?

Serious students of the Bible believe that one gift of the Holy Spirit is that of prophecy. Paul repeatedly refers to this gift. 1 Corinthians 12:28-31; Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:10; Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Corinthians 14:3-5. These texts show that the gift of prophecy is a “high” gift, but not the highest.  1 Corinthians 12:31 tells us to desire the “higher gifts” of the Holy Spirit. Joel 2:28 teaches us that the gift of prophecy in the last days will be widespread among believers. No gender, age, or status differences will arise among those given this gift.

With this solid Biblical endorsement of prophets in our time, I stand astonished at how the various churches raise a skeptical eye at the claims of other churches. Why, for example, would those outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doubt its claim that Joseph Smith was a prophet? Why doubt the claims of Seventh-day Adventists that Ellen G. White was a prophet? Both of these churches are very successful and they attribute their success in part on the leadership of these prophets. At the same time, Mormons and Adventists seem skeptical of Pentecostal claims that this gift is common among their members, or that a more modern prophet might correct or contradict the statements of Smith or White.

It appears to me that the accusation made against these prophets is that their work is demonic. This kind of accusation is extremely dangerous. In Matthew 12:22-24 the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of performing miracles through the power of Satan. Jesus not only pointed out (Matthew 12:25-30) that the charge was completely ridiculous, why would Satan help those who oppose Satan? Jesus warned that attributing to Satan the work of the Holy Spirit was a “blasphemy against the Spirit that will not be forgiven.” Matthew 12:31-32. While I might not think a prophet correctly understands God’s will in all respects, I am staying far away from charging that a prophet is a tool of Satan. Wrong, perhaps, but not a tool.

I am a Seventh-day Adventist who happily teaches at Regent University School of Law. Regent is non-denominational, but my perception is that the main current running through the faculty and students is a “Pentecostal Holiness” view of the Bible. While I cannot recall a chapel speaker saying anything in tongues, I hear many charismatics in the audience. Regent has been part of my journey to more correctly understand the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

As an Adventist, readers of these Bible studies reasonably ask why I generally do not cite Ellen G. White in the lessons. The GoBible web site follows the Adventist Adult Sabbath School lesson quarterly, but is aimed at Bible students from all denominations. My son, Blake, and I believe that while a large percentage of the weekly GoBible readers are Seventh-day Adventists, those coming to this site to find archived studies for their church group are not Adventists.

Since the quarterly cites Ellen White extensively, those Adventists who read the quarterly and the lessons at GoBible.org (or SabbathSchoolLessons.com) already have the benefit of Ellen White’s insight. Citing her is not necessary for Adventists.

Those who are not Adventists may stop reading the lessons if they see regular citations to Ellen White instead of the Bible. Thus, not citing her does no damage to Adventists and avoids problems with members of other churches.

The secondary reason for not citing Ellen White in these lessons involves a much more complex and important problem and discussion. It requires an analysis of the nature of modern day prophets and how we should view them in light of the Bible.

The Problem:
The secondary reason why the teaching outlines generally do not cite Ellen White reflects a concern about the misuse of her writings. Over the years I often been troubled when I visited Sabbath School classes in other Seventh-day Adventist churches. What I frequently found was that class members have their quarterlies open on their laps and their Bibles closed. When they respond to questions given by the teacher, most often they recite their own views or what they think they can recall from Ellen White. I believe the primary source for every Sabbath School question and every Sabbath School answer should be the Bible.

The Bible is not very long; about 1,100 pages. A number of popular contemporary novels are about the same length. It should not be “heavy lifting” for someone who wants to know about God to purchase a contemporary translation of the Bible, such as the New Living Translation, and read God’s word from cover to cover. (For young eyes, the NLT is only 730 pages long, for old eyes (large print) it is 1,406 pages long.)

According to the Ellen G. White Estate, Ellen White’s writings are contained in 50,000 pages of manuscript as reflected in her published books and articles. Since many Sabbath School students do not seem particularly well versed in their Bible, my guess is that their effective knowledge of what Ellen White has written is close to nonexistent. After all, in contrast with the Bible, there are 49,000 more pages of her works to read!

Worse, it has been my experience that when Adventist students are in a Sabbath School class discussing the Bible lesson, if anyone “authoritatively” cites what Ellen White said on the subject, the discussion ends. After all, who is bold enough to dispute the prophet? Especially, many Adventists believe that Ellen White is “authoritative” (meaning “conclusive”) commentary on disputes over Bible interpretation.

Since many (most?) Adventists are not well acquainted with Ellen White’s writings, my belief is that the “authoritative” Ellen White citation which ends the class discussion most likely reflects what the speaker thinks – and is unlikely to be an accurate quote from Ellen White, much less an accurate distillation of all of her writings on the subject. Those of you who know what I’m talking about, ask yourself the last time that you heard someone quote Ellen White and actually give the name of the book in which the statement was supposed to have appeared? (To say nothing about a citation to chapter or page numbers!)

The terrible tragedy that results is that God’s authoritative word, the Bible, is not seriously studied and debated. Instead, the opinion of some self-important person, parading as the view of Ellen White, ends the discussion. This is an outrage and nothing other than a disaster for understanding the Word of God.

The Solution:
There are a number of solutions to this problem. One solution is to simply avoid citing Ellen White – which is what the GoBible.org/Sabbath School Lessons.com teaching outlines do for other reasons. (As explained in the first paragraphs of this article.) Another solution for Bible classes is to prohibit a citation to Ellen White unless the speaker can at least recite the book where the statement was supposedly found. (I have wondered if there should be a rule that the speaker citing Ellen White be required to bring the exact citation to Sabbath School the next Sabbath.)

The best solution, however, the solution that goes to the root of the problem, is a proper understanding of the relationship between the writings of Ellen White and the Bible. The 17th of the 27 Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is this:

17. The Gift of Prophecy: 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.

A very important part of this belief is the statement that Ellen White “makes clear” that the Bible is the standard by which her teachings are to be tested. The Church’s first fundamental belief is this:

1. The Holy Scriptures. The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration through holy men of God who spoke and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. In this Word, God has committed to man the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the authoritative revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.

The lesson to be drawn from these two statements of fundamental beliefs is that Ellen White is to tested by the Bible, and not the other way around. Accepting this makes it totally inappropriate to end a discussion of the Bible based on what someone says (or knows) that Ellen White wrote.
How Authoritative is Ellen White?

You may have noticed that Fundamental Belief 17 refers to Ellen White as an “authoritative source of truth.” Just how authoritative is she? On that subject there is a great deal of debate among Seventh-day Adventists. One definition of “authoritative” is “highly reliable.” That is not the same as “always right.” Was the intent of Fundamental Belief 17 to convey the idea that Ellen White is not always right?

If two Bible students are debating what a text of the Bible means, if Ellen White sides with one of the debaters, is that the end of the matter? Does she “authoritatively” resolve all disputable Bible issues? I do not believe that position is consistent with the text of Fundamental Belief 17, the Bible, or with the facts about Ellen White’s writings.

There are a number of facts about Ellen White’s writings which are acknowledged by the Church, but not well known by the general membership – at least not before the advent of the Internet. One reason for this is because some very irresponsible claims about Ellen White’s authority have been published by Adventist thought leaders over the years. For example, I have often read in Adventist literature that the test of Old Testament prophets, contained in Deuteronomy 18:20-22, should be applied to Ellen White because she passes that test. Here is what Deuteronomy 18:20-22 says:

20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.”  21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (NIV)

Do you see the logical flow of this text? God says that death is appropriate for any prophet who claims the authority of God for anything God has not commanded that prophet to say. How do we know when this has happened? The Bible says you have adequate proof for the death-penalty when what the prophet says does not come true or does not take place.

If this is the test that should be applied to Ellen White, this is a very harsh standard. Although Ellen White’s death almost a hundred years ago makes the “death penalty” issue moot, the “don’t be afraid” of that prophet remedy would still apply.

The question now is the same as then, how do we know if the messages written by Ellen White were “spoken by the Lord?” Should we use this harsh and terrible standard to judge her writings?

A particularly important aspect of this Old Testament prophet test is that it applies to the person, not individual messages. Once an Old Testament prophet even once fails the test, that person is never again to be considered to be a true prophet. (This, of course, would also be the practical result if the “prophet” were put to death!)
While Ellen White’s critics claim that she is a false prophet and never spoke the words of God, the reader may be surprised to find that material distributed by the official Ellen G. White Estate (“Estate”) admits that there are some serious problems.

A big issue among the critics of Ellen White is that she copied her writings from other sources. I do not think that anyone in the Church who is knowledgeable (and intellectually honest) on the topic, disputes the fact that Ellen White copied the writings of others.

About twenty years ago the Church commissioned a study on the extent to which Ellen White was “dependant” (a polite term for copying) on the writings of other authors. The commissioned study was done by Dr. Fred Veltman. His goal was to determine what percentage of the Desire of Ages, one of Ellen White’s most prominent books, was copied (dependant) to one degree or another from the writings of others.

The Veltman study is a little over 900 pages long. His conclusion was that 31% of the Desire of Ages “measured some degree of dependency” and 61% “registered independence.” (p. 941. The rest represented the use of Scripture.) The Veltman study is a very complex work. I have read only the 100 page “summary and conclusions.” Thus, I have done it an injustice by reciting its conclusions in one sentence. However, the Veltman study finds that a substantial percentage of the Desire of Ages came not from the mouth of God, but rather from the writings of other humans to one degree or another.

The Veltman study appears to be available from the Church. It (or the 100 page summary) can be obtained from the Ellen G. White Estate (Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., Loma Linda Branch, Loma Linda University Library, Loma Linda, CA 92350). https://library.llu.edu/desire-of-ages-study-dr-fred-veltman-research-summary-and-conclusions-100-pages. Sometime between the date of my original article (2005) and my 2022 update the on-line version of the summary was taken down. Nowhere could I find either the summary or the entire study.

I have read that Dr. Fred Veltman should not be trusted because he had some liberal tendencies. As a lawyer, I consider that to be nonsense. One of the things I do for a living is to cross-examine experts. Bias is an important weapon of cross-examination. If the issue of Ellen White’s copying were put before a court, and Dr. Veltman were to testify on her behalf, I would have an easy time undercutting his testimony based on the fact that he is an Adventist, thus the study was done by an Adventist who believed in Ellen White as a prophet, and the work was “bought and paid for by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”

A study free from bias would have been done by a scholar who had nothing to do with Ellen White or the Church, and had no feelings about her one way or the other. If a Church commissioned study by a prominent Adventist scholar finds that 31% of the Desire of Ages is “dependant,” then according to the normal judicial standards of proof, that number is either exactly right or understated.

Not only is it clear that not all of Ellen White’s written words came from God, but, a reasonable reading of a publication of the Estate indicates that Ellen White does not pass the Deuteronomy 22 test. Recall that this test states in part: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

The Ellen G. White Estate distributes a publication titled 101 Questions on the Sanctuary and on Ellen White (1981)) which admits (p. 30) that EGW “misinterpreted” a vision about the “Shut Door.” (She said God showed her the door of salvation was shut – and reproved in the name of God another “prophet” who said otherwise.) https://adventbeliefs.com/assets/BBR/09/101-Questions-about-the-Sanctuary-Robert-Olson.pdf The 101 Questions booklet was put together by Robert W. Olson, who was formerly in charge of the Estate. Bob Olson is a very smart and sincere Christian. He was and is a strong supporter of the Church and Ellen White. (I have had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Bob within the last few years about some of these issues.) He certainly is no critic of Ellen White. Yet, his 101 Questions booklet is quite candid. In addition, you can find on the Internet Robert Olson’s The Shut Door Documents https://whiteestate.org/about/issues1/unusual/shut-door/door-docs/ This includes the statements of Ellen White about the “Shut Door.”

For those of you who are wondering about why a prophet would care about doors being open or shut, let me explain. Ellen White was among a group of Christians (called “Millerites”) who believed the Bible-derived teaching of William Miller that Jesus’ Second Coming would be in 1844. Jesus did not come in 1844 or at anytime thereafter. Undisputedly, William Miller was wrong.

At the time however, the disappointed group of believers decided that perhaps Jesus had left heaven at the appointed day in 1844, and that He was making His journey to earth with the heavenly host. Since no one knows the distance between heaven and earth, and because Daniel 10:2-12 suggests that it might be a three-week journey for a single traveler who runs into problems (see, Daniel 10:12-13), it was reasonable to believe that God might have a little “travel time” in the Second Coming.

Do you remember Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew 25:1-13? It is a parable about Jesus’ Second Coming where He is compared to a bridegroom who is delayed coming to his wedding. The “midnight cry” (Matthew 25:6) goes out when the tardy bridegroom comes. The virgins who are waiting and prepared enter into the wedding feast with the bridegroom, while the unprepared virgins go to buy more oil for their lamps. After the prepared virgins enter into the building where the wedding banquet is being held, “the door was shut” (Matthew 25:10). The story goes on to indicate that the unprepared virgins were never able to enter through that shut door. Thus, Jesus warns believers who want to enter into eternal life that they should always be prepared for Jesus’ Second Coming.

The believers in the 1844 return date found this parable to be very important. At some time the door to salvation would “shut,” and all who were “outside” would be forever lost. Since they believed that Jesus was traveling from heaven to earth, they determined that during the “travel time,” it was unnecessary and even useless to try to convert others to Christianity because the time for salvation had passed. (See, Revelation 22:11). As in the parable of the ten virgins, the “door” to salvation had “shut.”

If all of these assumptions were correct, this makes perfect logical sense. The problem is that none of these assumptions were correct – as we now know beyond any doubt. Jesus had not left heaven for earth. Jesus and the heavenly host were not traveling to earth for the Second Coming. Therefore, the door to salvation could not be shut based on those assumptions.

If you read Bob Olson’s 101 Questions and his compilation of what Ellen White wrote in the Shut Door Documents, I believe the conclusion is inescapable that she wrote and spoke in support of the door being “shut.” She conveyed this as the word of God, and she was wrong. As I mentioned above, Bob Olson writes in his 101 Questions booklet (p. 58) that Ellen White declared the door was “shut” because she “misinterpreted” the vision. Whatever the source of the error, the bottom line is that she was wrong, and she presented the wrong information as coming from God. It is hard for me to imagine a court or jury would come to a different conclusion based on these documents written by Ellen White’s supporters, not her critics.

After reading through all of Bob Olson’s compiled documents on the Internet about what Ellen White wrote on the “shut door” through about 1849 (a five year period), I agree with him that what she meant by the term “shut door” changed over these years. However, if you carefully read the collected statements on the web site, Ellen White (at best) seems to be ultimately saying that those who rejected the 1844 message faced the “shut door.”

If I had been alive during those times, I believe that I would have accepted Miller’s argument about Jesus coming in 1844. Even now I think the Biblical evidence he argued is quite good. But, I would have been incontrovertibly wrong. Christians who lived during that time period and rejected William Miller’s message were incontrovertibly right. Jesus did not come then. If these Christians were right, and Ellen White (along with all of the other Millerites) was wrong, how can she be correct in saying that the door to salvation “shut” on those Christians who had it right? Simple logic bars me from that conclusion. This means that whatever the evolving definition over the five years of those who faced the “shut door,” Ellen White was wrong.

If you believe that the Deuteronomy 22 test should apply to Ellen White, then Ellen White has a serious problem in the prophet department. Recall that this test states in part: “ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

As I have written above, Robert Olson’s job was to promote Ellen White. He is no enemy of hers. He is just setting out what she has written. I invite you to read these documents to come up with your own conclusion as to whether Ellen White was wrong about the “shut door” and whether she was presenting this as God’s word.
If, after studying these documents, you reach the conclusion that Ellen White was in error in portraying God’s will, I see only two logical choices: Ellen White is either discarded as a prophet, or the Adventist writers who argued that the Deuteronomy 22 test should apply to her are wrong.

I think the writers are wrong. I think they badly misunderstand the nature of modern prophets.
Wayne Grudem has written a very interesting book entitled The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Crossway Books 1988) (“Gift of Prophecy”). Grudem’s book powerfully argues that there are substantial differences between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” prophets. The prediction in Joel 2:28-29 that the gift of prophecy will be widespread among believers in the last days is a description of “New Testament” prophets. Indeed, the following verses in Joel (Joel 2:30-31) describe events which Adventists have traditionally keyed to last day events.

The reader should study Grudem’s book to completely and properly understand his argument. Professor Grudem relies on texts like I Corinthians 14:29 (“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said”(NIV)) and 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 (“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21 Test everything. Hold on to the good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil.”(NIV)). He concludes in his book that these texts mean that statements of “New Testament” prophets are tested and weighed by the listener against the writings of the Bible. The good is to be sorted out and retained, the not so good discarded. (Gift of Prophecy, pp. 74-114)

If Grudem is correct in his distinction between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” prophets, then clearly the Old Testament prophet test of Deuteronomy 22 would not apply to Ellen White. In no way would it diminish her gift as a New Testament prophet to be wrong once, twice or, for that matter, be confused on one specific issue over a five year period. Copying the writings of others and passing them off as her own (or worse, as God’s), while not laudatory, is hardly fatal to the gift. New Testament prophets are not expected to be perfect, nor are they expected to be right all the time. What is expected is that they believe they are sharing God’s views.

What is expected of us is to “test” the views of “New Testament” prophets against Scripture. Consider 1 John 4:1-3, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” (NIV)

Did you catch this important point? The test for “New Testament” prophets is whether they acknowledge Jesus is God. Very clearly, Ellen White does that! 100% accuracy is no longer the test.

However Ellen White acquired the material she presented in the Desire of Ages, no intellectually honest Christian can doubt that she was inspired by the Holy Spirit in the final product. The Desire of Ages is a very strong affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus. Walter Martin, in his book The Kingdom of the Cults (Bethany House October 2003), states this about Ellen White:

After reading … almost all of the writings of Ellen White, including her Testimonies, the writer believes White was truly a regenerate Christian woman who loved the Lord Jesus Christ and dedicated herself unstintingly to the task of bearing witness for Him as she felt led.

Id. at 572.

Walter Martin has no bias in favor of Ellen White. Instead, his statement is simply an honest reaction to reading the writings of one who obviously “loved the Lord Jesus Christ and dedicated herself … to bearing witness for Him.” That means she meets the 1 John 4:1-3 test for “New Testament” prophets.

Instead of the extreme position of the critics that Ellen White is a tool of Satan and she should be completely ignored, or the other extreme position that she is an inerrant “Old Testament” prophet, her gift as a New Testament prophet should be recognized for what it is and only for what it is.

This means her writings are to be tested by the Bible, the inerrant Word of God. Her writings are authoritative to the extent they are consistent with the Bible. This reasonable, Biblical, view of Ellen White brings us squarely back to the purpose of GoBible.org: to encourage the reading and discussion of God’s will as revealed in the Bible. Once the student has a proper understanding of the relationship between the authority of the Word of God and the authority of New Testament prophets, then Ellen White is a welcome addition (when properly cited) to studies and discussions intended to unravel the will of God.

One of the things I love about the Bible is that God does not “shade” the truth about His leaders. We are plainly told David is an adulterer, Abraham a liar, Moses a killer. None of the readers of this note can begin to fill the shoes of those great heroes of God. Those who would “shade” the truth about Ellen White to “protect” her should just stop. The truth is completely consistent with her office as a New Testament prophet. Fundamental Beliefs 1 & 17 can comfortably hold hands with both the unvarnished facts about Ellen White and the belief that she is one of God’s (many) New Testament prophets.

Now that we have that resolved, get back to our primary work: studying the Bible, God’s inerrant Word for His people!