American Prophet?

Below is a review I wrote that was published in a recent issue of Church History, the quarterly journal of the American Society of Church History. Many fascinating individuals shaped American Christianity in the 19th century and this book looks at one such figure who emerged out of Restorationism and who was somewhat out of the mainstream.

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. Edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Landand Ronald L. Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. ix + 365 pp. $34.95 paper.

This book grows out of a 2009 conference of historians and scholars affiliated with the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians held in Ellen Harmon White’s birthplace, Portland, ME. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Adventists in general and Ellen White in particular were seen as inhabiting the margins of protestant Christianity despite their dramatic growth in the United States, Australia, and much of the developing world.

The 44 scholars who gathered to mark the 165th anniversary of the Adventist “great disappointment” included contributors to this volume. Ellen Harmon White wrote over 70,000 pages during her long career, and since her death a voluminous apologetic literature about her has been produced within Seventh-day Adventism. But little historical and theological scholarship has emerged until recently, and this work represents the fruit of the emerging field of Ellen Harmon White studies as a distinctive subset of Seventh-day Adventist and Adventist studies.

The eighteen chapters are framed by historians Grant Wacker and Jonathan Butler. Wacker reminds readers that the nineteenth century in which the major portion of Ellen White’s ministry took place was a time when “Victorian America witnessed a degree of change . . . that progressed from the effervescence of the Second Great Awakening to the stable ordering of the Industrial Revolution,” a transition from “a pre-modern to a modern way of life” (ix).

In that context, Butler emphasizes that Ellen White cannot be understood apart from her roots as a “shouting” Methodist, “whose upbringing had predisposed her to charismatic phenomena” that would shape the essence of her ministry (7). She would become a “prophet” whose charismatic utterances and voluminous writings shaped Adventism “into a domestic religion with her concern for child nurture and education, diet and health, marriage and family” (12).

Early Adventist lecturers were known for their rationalistic explanations of William Miller’s teaching that Christ would return to earth in 1843-1844. Ann Taves describes how Ellen White’s shouting Methodist upbringing framed her response to Millerite prophetic failure and its disastrous impact on Adventist followers.

Theologically, according to Graeme Sharrock, White and her husband James “proposed that [William] Miller was right as to the date, but wrong regarding the event” (54) October 22, 1844 marked not the return of Christ to earth, but “the start of Judgment Day—a complex event centered not on earth but in heaven.” This is a theme that I explore in the first chapter of my book, Adventism Confronts Modernity: An Account of the Advent Christian Controversy Over the Bible’s Inspiration (Wipf and Stock, 2017), and a theme that framed Seventh-day Adventist teaching regarding the “investigative judgment.”

White’s published testimonies read by Adventist individuals and congregations were at the heart of her prophetic identity and “wielded an extraordinary spiritual power among antebellum Adventists” (69). In Ronald Graybill’s words, Ellen White’s “Spirit of Prophecy” allowed Sabbatarian Adventists to “see themselves as the remnant of God’s true church” (79). While Ellen White never held formal denominational office, there is little doubt about her formative role in Seventh-day Adventism both in North America and in Australia, where she lived for nine years from 1891-1900. Her prophetic utterances and writings were supplemented by an extensive speaking schedule. Hence, “most of the medical, education, publishing, and other institutions of the Seventh-day Adventist church,” according to Floyd Greenleaf and Jerry Moon, “are traceable directly or indirectly to counsels of Ellen White” (139).

The chapters at the heart of this volume address Ellen White’s theology. While she was not an academic theologian, three matters were especially important to her. First, according to Fritz Guy, she parted company with most nineteenth-century evangelicals with her claim that biblical inspiration was not verbal but dynamic. “It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired,” in White’s words quoted by Guy, “but the men who were inspired” (149). In her interpretation of Scripture, she was traditional, even fundamentalist, in some ways (for example, her literal reading of the King James Bible) and progressive in others.

Second, in Bart Haloviak’s words, Ellen White identified “the Sabbath as the final testing truth that would pit the obedient children of God against those who instead followed the “beast,” interpreted as a prophetic representation of the papacy” (167). This “third angel message” helped form the unique identity of Seventh-day Adventism. Third, Ellen White reinterpreted the Millerite message of the return of Christ into “a non-falsifiable event,” according to Jonathan Butler. Instead of returning to earth, Christ “had stayed in the sanctuary of heaven and as ‘our High Priest’ moved from the ‘holy’ to the ‘most holy’ place” (182).

Several chapters explore Ellen White’s attitudes toward society, culture, gender, war, slavery, and race. Perhaps most important is her understanding of the relationship between science and faith, a subject explored by Ronald L. Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin. Ellen White saw “true” science as harmonious with faith, but viewed the evolutionary work of Charles Darwin and others as “science falsely so-called” (196), and declared that “the Bible is not to be tested by men’s ideas of science” (197). While her “influence on the [young earth] creationist movement was almost entirely posthumous and largely accidental” (217), it is not surprising that later Seventh-day Adventists like George McCready Price pioneered “flood geology,” an idea that became foundational for 1960s young earth creationist writers like Henry Morris.

Numbers and Schoepflin illustrate this vital aspect of Ellen White’s legacy both in Seventh-day Adventism and in the larger world of American Christianity. It is one reason why this is a valuable collection of essays that historians interested in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will want to read and engage. Ellen Harmon White needs to be seen as a restorationist figure in her own right alongside Francis Asbury, William Miller, Barton Stone,  and others who established uniquely American versions of Christianity.

The writers help us see that much of Ellen Harmon White’s work involved reinterpretation of the Adventist message in the aftermath of the October 1844 disappointment. She offered an interpretation that reshaped Adventist eschatology and merged it with Sabbatarianism, a move that gave Seventh-day Adventists a distinct advantage over other Adventist groups who understood Adventism solely in theological terms. This point allows this reviewer to note one substantive error where the writer indicates that the Advent Christian Church was founded in 1845 (38-39). Actually, the Herald (Evangelical) Adventists organized then, while the Crisis Adventists (called that because of the name of their publication, The World’s Crisis) would later form the Advent Christian Church in 1860.

This collection of essays offers fresh thinking about Ellen Harmon White and points toward the need for a scholarly biography of her life and work. It helps us understand Ellen Harmon White in the context of her time and appreciate her significance in American religious history.