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The Gift of Prophecy in Adventism
More than 150 years ago a 17-year-old girl began to give messages to early Adventist believers and said they were from God. Often these messages were not what they wanted to hear. Often they ran contrary to their plans. At times they pointed out weaknesses in the lives of many of the leaders and gave them advice contrary to their own inclinations. But they believed her. Throughout her 70-year ministry, those who were closest to her were firm believers in the fact that God had given her the gift of prophecy. Why was this? There are several reasons.
1. They saw that she was a true Christian.
2. They felt the power of her ministry in uplifting Jesus Christ, and in her calls for obedience to God and His Word.
3. When they were discouraged after the "Great Disappointment" of 1844 she was the one who kept their advent hopes alive.4. In 1 Corinthians 14: 22-25, Paul declares that the presence of prophecy among God's people is a sign to believers. It confirms the presence of God is with them. She was indeed able to reveal the secrets of the human heart. There could be no doubt that she had revelations in order to come by this knowledge. Over many years she sent out personal testimonies to individuals. Only a handful ever claimed they were irrelevant.114
5. She gave them a sense of purpose and direction, a belief that God was still with them.
6. She expanded their concepts of mission to the world.
7. She gave them a sense of breadth and depth of mission to include health, education and welfare.
8. They witnessed her save the church from theological disaster
at the hands of Kellogg, Waggoner and the Holy Flesh Movement.
9. When her counsel was followed, individuals usually prospered. When they failed to follow her counsel, things did not always prosper. Her messages and predictions were timely and practical.115
10. She saved the Church from Arianism by highlighting the true divinity of Christ.
They still believed, even though they were also aware of weaknesses in her life. And they could have listed them as well:
1. She did have some problems in her marriage. There were times when she and her husband worked apart.116
2. She had problems with her children. She tended to favour Willie as the "good boy." James Edson, the only other of her four sons who survived to adulthood, turned away from the faith, but she won him back and he became a missionary to former slaves in the south of the United States.
3. She often became despondent over the criticism she faced. She could even doubt her own experience in Christ.117
4. She could be forgetful.118
5. She may not have always been as open about her use of other sources as she could have been.119
6. She struggled to give up eating flesh foods and live up to the health counsel she had given to others.120
However, as they applied the biblical tests for a prophet, they saw that she matched the biblical expectation in that she uplifted Jesus and called for obedience to God and His word. (It is also helpful to remember that all of us would like to be judged by the general tenor of our lives and not from a few lapses.)
They found that she was in harmony with the major doctrines of the Bible such as Creation, salvation, law and the deity of Christ. And, in hindsight, you can add that she had a view of inspiration that is biblically correct even though it was not the prevailing view of her contemporaries. Her material on the subject was not printed until volume one of Selected Messages appeared in 1958, with more of her material on the topic appearing in volume three in 1980. A large number of Adventists are still oblivious to her views found in these volumes. Why her views on inspiration have not been widely known until recent times will be dealt with when considering the 1919 Bible Conference and its aftermath.
Support for Ellen White's Ministry
H. M. S. Richards had tremendous confidence in the prophetic gift of Ellen White because as a young man he heard her preach just three years before she died. About 5000 people were present, most of them non-Adventists. Here is how he described it: "Willie White led her out to the table where she was to speak. Just a little old lady in a black silk dress, with a little cap on her head. But, oh, when she started to preach there came one Bible text after another—at least 100 of them quoted right off just like that. She had no notes. She had her Bible but she never had to look at it but she would just keep turning the pages and quoting the texts. Her voice was like a silver bell as it carried out over that great audience. It started to rain; but above its din on the iron roof, you could hear that silver voice ringing out clearly through it all.
"When she had spoken about 45 minutes her son came out and said, 'I think you are getting tired mother. You have talked long enough. I think you had better sit down.' 'No not yet I haven't prayed yet.' Then she began to pray and when she did something happened. Before that she was just a dear old lady, talking. But when she knelt down a great change came over the whole congregation. She was God's prophet then and God honored her. Within 30 seconds we were all in the presence of God. I was afraid to look up lest I should see God standing there by her side. Within minutes you could hear sobs around the congregation."121
That experience stayed with Richards the rest of his life. Later, when troubles over her writings erupted he never lost his confidence in her ministry. He always had a true biblical expectation of what to expect from a person manifesting the gift of prophecy. In his biography of Richards, Robert Edwards comments on Richard's attitudes and understanding of the work of Ellen White: "Although the writings and the character of Ellen White powerfully influenced him, he also had common sense enough to know that she was a fallible human being, that she made mistakes.
When the furor over the accusations that she had plagiarized from other authors shook many in the church some years ago, Richards remained unperturbed. 'They haven't discovered anything new,' he said, 'All those charges are old. I heard them all 40 years ago. They were all
discussed at the 1919 Bible Conference. . . .' H. M. S. Richards accepted her for what she was and what she herself claimed to be. It protected him from the disappointments some men and women experienced who held an unreal view of what a prophet and prophecy should be."122
Walter Martin123was once interviewed about his concepts of Ellen White. He was critical of her work, on a basis she did not meet up with his private expectations. Toward the end of the interview he said, "I have been pressed and pressed by people to get me to say Ellen White is a false prophet. . . . Mrs. White in my opinion, made false statements. She misused what she claimed was the prophetic gift she had. I believe this, in certain instances. But if you're going to try and say that makes Ellen White the same as the false prophets prohibited in Exodus and Deuteronomy, then you have to demonstrate, that Ellen White was an unbeliever and that it was a deliberate and willful perversion of truth regarding salvation and revelation. That's a very fine line. Of course, technically, I would have to say that the person who prophesies in the name of God and turns out to be wrong, has prophesied falsely. You have to say that. But they want me to go further than that. They want me to make Mrs. White a biblical false prophet which means that she is not a Christian. I cannot endorse that."124
Martin, although critical in many respects, still accepted her as a believer in Jesus Christ and a true Christian.
Notes for the Honest Inquirer
There have been many critical of her work. It may also be that those who are most critical have not done their homework in the Scriptures to have a proper understanding of the biblical expectations of how a person functions under the gift of prophecy. Remember, the real test is that the prophet calls people to holy living and obedience to God's word. The true prophet will uplift Jesus Christ as the sin bearer of the world and challenge people to trust in Him. Jesus said that "by their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7: 15-23).
The honest inquirer attempting to make a decision regarding Ellen White's authenticity should read some of her most famous books. As you read books like The Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ
you will find the fruitage that Jesus said should be found in a true prophet. Ingemar Linden in his book The Last Trump states, "If EGW had achieved nothing else than write The Desire of Ages she would still merit a place among the outstanding Christian women. Her life provides spiritual food for Christians in all walks of life."125
In The Desire of Ages, the chapter on the Garden of Gethsemane paints such a picture of Christ as to melt the hardest of hearts—as does the chapter on Calvary. The fruitage of this book is to exalt Christ and lead people to trust in Him. The little book Steps to Christ has a marvelous chapter on how a person may know they are a Christian. Here the fruitage of the book is to build Christian hope and assurance. Some will argue that some of this material has been gleaned from other writers. However, as we have already seen, writers under inspiration can do this.
Also, as noted, writers under inspiration may see a need to have secretarial help. While Ellen White's husband was alive he helped her with her writing, but after his death she felt very inadequate. This was partly because of her lack of formal education. She said, "I am not a scholar. I cannot prepare my own writings for the press. . . . I am thinking I must lay aside my writing I have taken so much pleasure in, and see if I cannot become a scholar. I am not a grammarian. I will try, if the Lord will help me, at forty-five years old to become a scholar in the science. . . . Oh, that God would quicken the understanding, for I am but a poor writer, and cannot with pen or voice express the great and deep mysteries of God. . . ."126
114 For more information see Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord—The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White, (Nampa, ID, Pacific Press,1998), "Some Visions Directed to Secret Problems," pp. 164-166. [back]
115 Ibid., "Timely Instructions and Predictions," pp. 154-166. [back]
116 After James White had a stroke he often became very depressed and difficult to live with. He did not always appreciate having his wife say to him that God had told her what to tell him. For details regarding the frank letters they shared when apart read Ellen G. White (Six-volume biography). Arthur. L. White. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald), Vol. 2, pp. 425-445. [back]
117 EW, pp. 20-24. [back]
118 George Knight writes "On February 18, 1887, Mrs. White wrote an important letter to Jones and E. J. Waggoner. She pointed out that she had been looking for the testimony she had written to J. H. Waggoner in 1854, but could not find it. She recalled that she had written "to him that I had been shown his position in regard to the law was incorrect," but that she could not recall exactly what was incorrect about it, since "the matter does not lie clear and distinct in my mind.". . . . In her letter to Butler and Smith, Mrs. White once again referred to the lost testimony to J. H. Waggoner, pointing out that the counsel may not have been on doctrine at all. "It may be it was a caution not to make his ideas prominent at that time, for there was a great danger of disunion." From 1888 to Apsostacy, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1987), pp. 25, 27. [back]
119 Although she frequently recommended to others to read the same books she was using there were times when she appears to be not as open. Robert Olsen, Sec. of the White Estate comments "It is apparent that Ellen White's literary practices were well known by our church members during her lifetime. Yet it is equally clear that she did not encourage discussion of the subject. Why? In my opinion, she did not want her readers to be distracted from her message because of concentrating on her method. Undue attention to how she wrote might raise unnecessary doubts in some minds as to the authority of what she wrote. Robert Olsen, "Ellen White's Denials," Ministry, February 1991, p. 18. See the full article in appendix C. [back]
120 Ron Graybill, The Development of Adventist Thinking On Clean and Unclean Meats, EGW Estate, 10/6/1981." . . . there is evidence of some laxness in the 1870's and 1880's which allowed a little meat to appear on her table when it may not have been essential. Given the difficulties of refrigeration and transporting food in the nineteenth century, it was much more difficult then to gain an adequate diet without using flesh foods." p. 3. [back]
121 H.M.S. Richards, Feed My Sheep, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1956), p. 41. [back]
122 Robert Edwards, H. M. S. Richards, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1998), pp. 35-37. [back]
123 Walter Martin was a Baptist pastor and widely acknowledged as an authority on cults before he died late last century. [back]
124 Adventist Currents, July 1983, p. 28. [back]
125 Ingemar Linden, The Last Trump, An historico-genetical study of some important chapters in the making and development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1978), p. 221. [back]
126 3SM, p. 90. [back]