The Prophetic Role of Ellen White
By Mary Ann Hadley
Published: March 28, 2011
As a church, Seventh-day Adventists have come full circle in their understanding of the purpose and function of the prophetic role of Ellen White.
As early as 1851, James White wrote an article in the Review and Herald on this subject. In the article he takes the position that we are to "take the Bible as a perfect rule of faith and duty." He interprets Scripture to say that spiritual gifts are given to a weak and sickly people to "correct our errors" and to draw us closer to God. He insists that "If every member of the church searched the Holy Scriptures" and prayed as they should, "we would not need further guidance."
However, as we look at the history of Adventism, we see the development of a very different philosophy. At the 1878 camp meeting in Texas, Ellen wrote to her son, Willie, "We have come on the ground only last night and I have not been in meeting yet. Shall speak this afternoon, as the people are on the tiptoe of expectation. Might just as well let them feel at once that they have expected too much, that I am nothing but a weak, frail, imperfect woman at best, looking to and trusting in God alone to accomplish the work."
What Ellen does not say in that letter is that Elder Haskell, who was leading out at the Texas Campmeeting, believed that Ellen was verbally inspired, that the words she wrote were exactly what God had dictated to her. A number of other early Adventist leaders believed likewise. And today, it is not unusual for Adventists to quote Ellen's exact words, portraying deep respect.
On the other hand, if James was right in his 1851 article, then our need for the prophetic gift among us betokens our spiritual feebleness, and should alert us to our need to become better students of the Bible. As we evaluate Ellen's experience in Texas, we can begin to formulate some interesting answers to the dilemma of the prophetic gift. Here's how:
The cook in Ellen's Texas household was a young woman named Mary Daniells, wife of Arthur G. Daniells, a 20-year-old candidate for the ministry. Arthur assisted Kilgore as tent-master, but during those few months the Whites lived in Texas he also assisted James. During that time, the two couples became fast friends, being in daily contact.
If Ellen had a confidante, it would be her younger son, Willie. However, when we read Ellen's scant correspondence with Arthur and Mary (These letters are available at the Adventist Heritage Center), we could conclude that Ellen felt comfortable speaking very candidly to them as well.
Not many years later, Ellen White spent a decade in Australia. When she got off the boat at the Sydney harbor, it was Arthur and Mary who met her and took her to their home for refreshment. Daniells had gone to New Zealand in 1886 as that nation's first evangelist, and was in Australia during Ellen's entire decade there.
Elected conference president shortly after Ellen arrived, Daniells worked very closely with Ellen because it was known to all that he was "young and utterly inexperienced" and needed her constant counsel.
In 1901, A.G. Daniells became president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. As such, he worked closely with Ellen White (who had moved to Elmshaven, in California) until her death in July, 1915.
In 1919 a large committee of teachers and scholars met with General Conference president, A.G. Daniells, to discuss the role of inspiration. Daniells was one who had known and worked closely with Ellen White over a 40 year span of time. Daniells could speak authoritatively as one who had lived in her household, who had shared discussions on a variety of topics, who had labored with her in the mission field and in the top leadership capacity. His would be an informed opinion.
A.G. Daniells took the position that it was not Ellen's writings that were inspired, but Ellen who was inspired. As Daniells and his wife had associated with Ellen and James in Texas, they had daily access to the editorial process. They were privileged to observe the working relationship of Ellen with her editorial help, particularly Marian Davis. They saw writing and rewriting. They saw grammar and punctuation being corrected. Sentences were edited to flow more smoothly. They were no doubt involved in discussions as to the best way to present certain thoughts.
Ellen's Texas experience provides us in the 21st century an opportunity to closely examine the purpose and impact of both the prophetess and her messages. As we read through her everyday correspondence we have the privilege of viewing her as a fallible human, struggling to overcome her own weaknesses, learning to use her best judgment, making and correcting mistakes, growing in her own personal experience with the Lord. We have the opportunity to view Ellen from the perspective of more than a century. We are privileged to evaluate her calling in light of her accomplishments, the fruit of her labors. We can now examine her writings using computer technology, compiling and examining each instance in which she refers her readers to the Bible as the only rule of faith and as a guide for living.
As we begin to understand the prophetic gift in terms of uplifting concepts, then we can more easily appreciate the way that God works in our individual lives, particularly how He gives to us a variety of spiritual gifts as well as the freedom to cooperate with Him, working on behalf of humanity.
Perhaps one of the greatest results of Ellen's ministry in Texas was this beginning of a close association with A.G. Daniells, who, 40 years later, would lay down helpful principles in defining this unusual spiritual gift.
So . . . was she inspired? While there is much more to the discussion that we can deal with in one article, perhaps it is safe to say that her writings must be accepted in context, and that the fruit of her labors are generally quite positive when properly understood. It is a question each Adventist must settle individually.
I believe she was inspired.
Read on to follow James and Ellen as they begin to make initial preparations for a wagon train trip out of Texas.
About this Article Series
The complete story of the Whites' Texas sojourn had never before been published before this series of articles appeared in the Keene Star newspaper (Dec 2003-Apr 2004). The series touches on the highlights, and presents little known facts about the Whites' stay in Texas.