At Issue Index   Table of Contents   Previous   Next

Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Two

Conversion, "Sanctification,"
and Early Ministry

Before we study the critical 1888 era it will prove helpful to pursue some background on Ellen White's personal experience and ministry of salvation during the years before the pivotal events of Minneapolis.

In her long and productive life are three critical passages (besides 1888 and its crucial aftermath) that were especially important in the development of her understanding of salvation: (1) her own conversion experience, (2) the numerous perfectionist, or Holiness, fanatics she had to deal with, and (3) the decade leading up to 1888. In this present chapter we will take a look at her early experiences in conversion, "sanctification," and ministry to fanatical situations.

Conversion and "Sanctification"

The Conversion Struggle—Ellen White was born to parents who were "devoted members of the Methodist Episcopal Church" (1T 9). Their devotion to fervent Methodism, however, did not prevent involvement with another manifestation of deeply felt American religionMillerism. It was the world of the fervent revival, in this case a potent blend of Methodism and Millerism (and sometimes opposition between the two), that provided the setting for the emerging salvation experience of Ellen Gould Harmon.

Her salvation experience (as she recollects it) began in earnest after the family had moved from Gorham to Portland, Maine, when she was a


child. At 9 years of age (1836) she went through a traumatic injury of being struck in the face with a stone thrown at her by a classmate. At this time she diligently sought the Lord to prepare her for death. She strongly desired to become a Christian and prayed earnestly for the forgiveness of her sins. Ellen remembered a peace of mind and a deep desire that all should love Jesus and have their sins forgiven (ibid. 11; 2SG 9)

But these very early yearnings were only the prelude to what could be characterized as her conversion crisis. It began to unfold with intensity during William Miller's first visit to Portland, Maine, in March of 1840 for a "course of lectures on the second coming" (1T 14).* This series of lectures created a serious crisis of soul for the 12-year-old Ellen, a crisis that was not to be clearly resolved until 1842—in the wake of Miller's second series of lectures in Portland.

During Miller's solemn appeals, she found it hard to obtain an assurance of acceptance, feeling that she "could never become worthy to be called a child of God" (ibid. 14, 15). She later related how she felt that she would be lost if Christ should come and find her in her current spiritual condition. It was very difficult to surrender fully to the Lord (2SG 12). She was so burdened that she confided to her brother Robert that she had "coveted death" in the days when life seemed so burdensome (1T 15). But now her mind was terror-stricken with the thought that she might die in her sinful state and be lost eternally.

It seems that her fears and confusions continued until the summer of 1842, when she attended a Methodist camp meeting at Buxton, Maine, where she was fully determined to seek the Lord and obtain the pardon of her "sins" (ibid. 16). Her resolutions were not in vain. During this deeply spiritual season she came to understand that she had been indulging in "self-dependence." She professed to find comfort in the thought that only by connecting with Jesus through faith can the sinner become a hopeful, believing child of God. She now began to see her way more clearly, and the deep night of spiritual darkness began to turn to a more hopeful dawn (ibid. 16, 17).

While earnestly and persistently seeking the Lord for forgiveness at the "altar" and sensing her helpless condition, she felt her burdens suddenly 


lifted and enjoyed a lightheartedness that seemed too good to be true. She sensed that Jesus was near and that He had "blessed" her and "pardoned" her sins (ibid. 17, 18).

The days following the Buxton camp meeting Ellen witnessed an almost constant state of joy in the Lord. Soon after her return home she was baptized by immersion in Casco Bay and was received into full membership of the Chestnut Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Portland, Maine.

The "Sanctification" or "Second Blessing"
Crisis—Shortly after her conversion and baptism, William Miller presented his second course of lectures in Portland, Maine, in the summer of 1842. During this time she had developed a longing "to be sanctified to God" (2SG 14).

Her desire to be sanctified, however, was frustrated by two factors: (1) "sanctification" had been presented in such a way that she found it hard to understand, which left the sensitive Ellen fearing that she could never attain to it, and (2) Miller's second course of lectures created a "sanctification" crisis that caused her to feel that she was seriously lacking in the holiness that was needful to meet Jesus at His second coming (EW 11).

During this time her mind constantly dwelt upon the subject of "holiness of heart." She vividly recollected how she "longed above all things to obtain this great blessing" and have the assurance that she "was entirely accepted of God" (1T 22).

It is very clear that she was here wrestling with the Methodist "second blessing" experience, but more in the context of a crisis brought on by urgent expectations of Christ's soon return rather than the Methodist

Holiness revival. Holiness Methodism, however, was never far from the center of her personal spiritual formation.

To get a clear grasp of this issue we must understand that the Holiness Methodists taught that "sanctification" followed the assurance of forgiveness and justification. Their basic teaching was that there was to be a second, definite experience called "sanctification" that was to come instantaneously and was to be confirmed by the Spirit's clear witness that the genuine article had been granted. This experience was variously referred to as "entire sanctification" (or simply "sanctified"), "full


salvation," "holiness of heart," "perfect love," "the second blessing" (or "the blessing"), and "Christian perfection."

The popular Methodist expectations concerning the second blessing led the young Ellen to feel that such an experience would "electrify" her soul (ibid. 22, 23). She was longing to be "entirely accepted of God," but she was frustrated by her own lack of feeling.

But her frustrations and confusion were not all in the area of hard to come by emotional outbursts. She also felt doctrinally confused concerning justification and sanctification, failing to understand the meaning of these technical terms.

Then she was hounded by the thought that maybe the blessing was only for faithful Methodists who had not been attending the "Advent meetings" as she had. She was fearful that her Millerite activities had shut her away from the coveted experience that she "desired above all else, the sanctifying Spirit of God" (ibid. 23).

She had not, however, reached bottom yet, even with all this doctrinal uncertainty and confusing emotional expectations. More than excitable expectations and doctrinal clarity were now demanded. Duty, seemingly impossible duty, would thrust her into a final crisis that would bring her search for "the blessing" to a satisfying settlement.

During this time of deep depression it was impressed upon her that she should pray openly at the small social meetings she frequently attended. This was an impression that she fearfully resisted. But the resistance only increased her anxiety. This frightful prospect of public prayer was so forcibly impressed upon her that when she prayed in secret she felt as though she were mocking God because of her failure to obey Him in this seemingly impossible duty. The result was overwhelming "despair" for almost three torturous weeks (ibid. 26).

Near the end of this agonizing period she confided her sore trial of soul to her mother, who urged her to go for counsel to a certain Methodist minister named Levi Stockman. Stockman was a sensitive Wesleyan patriarch who was then preaching "the Advent doctrine in Portland" (ibid. 29). She had great confidence in this godly man.


Elder Stockman assured her that she had not been forsaken by the Spirit of the Lord. He comforted her with the thought that "hardened" sinners would not be experiencing such deep convictions. He then proceeded to tell her of the "love of God," who "instead of rejoicing in their [sinners'] destruction . . . longed to draw them to Himself in simple faith and trust. He dwelt upon the great love of Christ and the plan of redemption" (ibid. 30).

The Stockman interview was most helpful, and she returned home determined to do anything the Lord required of her. 

It wasn't long before the frightful duty to pray in the public assembly again menaced her. At a prayer meeting the very evening following her interview with Stockman she was able to lift up her voice in prayer before she was aware of what was going on. The result was that the burden and agony of soul that she had so long endured left her, and "the blessing of the Lord descended" upon her "like the gentle dew." She broke forth into prayer and praises as she confessed that "a great change had taken place" in her mind, and her "heart was full of happiness" (ibid. 31). Peace and happiness were the main features of her experience for the next six months.

It is quite clear from this time on that there were no more serious ups and downs in her experience of salvation. Even the traumas of being expelled from the Methodist Church or the severe trials of the Millerite disappointments did not provoke another crisis of soul about her personal salvation.

What is the meaning of her experience of "sanctification"? Was it clearly the classic Methodist "second blessing," which many American Methodists fervently advocated and expected?

The evidence seems quite compelling that in her own mind she had experienced a Holiness Methodist "second blessing" and had found reinforcement of the genuineness of her earlier experience of conversion and justification.

I urge the reader to note carefully the following points.

1. Ellen had clearly experienced a deep conviction of acceptance and an emotional conversion in the course of the Buxton Methodist camp meeting and her subsequent baptism. Thus it was not forgiveness and 


conversion that she sought, but a fulfillment of her sanctification expectations. 2. Her confusion about whether she had really retained this acceptance, justification, or conversion was brought on by (a) a misunderstanding over both the doctrine and experience of "sanctification" and (b) the crisis resulting from the realization that very soon she would have to face the judge of all the earth at His literal second coming.

3. From the beginning of this crisis until its conclusion in the summer of 1842, she used all the classic terms one would expect a Methodist who was going through the "second blessing" crisis to be using. She "longed to be sanctified" (2SG 14), constantly dwelt on "the subject of holiness of heart," and "longed above all things to obtain this great blessing" of being "entirely accepted of God" (1T 22). Her soul was "thirsting for full and free salvation" and an "entire conformity to the will of God." She was in a deep struggle to obtain this "priceless treasure" and its "soul-purifying effects" (EW 11; 2SG 14, 15).

At the church trial in which she and her family were put out of the Methodist Church, she testified that she was not "conscious of any wrong," a classic evidence of the "second blessing" that the Methodists expected (2SG 23; 1T 32). In fact, this very act of testifying about her experience after receiving the "blessing" was also very typical of what Wesley's people expected, and it was an absolute requirement in the American Holiness movement's version of the "second blessing" (1T 32).

While some resist the suggestion that Ellen White had experienced a Holiness Methodist style "second blessing," the evidence seems overwhelming that she did. It is my studied conclusion that the main reason some resist this conclusion is they are simply not aware of what was going on in the Eastern states during the 1840s. Ellen White was caught up in the surging Holiness revival under the leadership of such notables as Phoebe Palmer.

Many contemporary Christians, Seventh-day Adventists included, are not familiar with this remarkable older contemporary of Ellen White. Supported by her fervently religious husband, Dr. Walter Palmer, and numerous leading Methodist ministers and bishops, she had become the most prominent leader of a movement that gave renewed emphasis to a


deeply Americanized version of Wesley's doctrine of "`perfection." Entire consecration and a conscious sense of divine acceptance were the key elements of what was referred to as Mrs. Palmer's "altar" theology. This teaching clearly held that the key to "full salvation" or "Christian perfection" was entire surrender to God, what she called laying "all on the altar" that sanctifies the offering laid upon it. In fact, it is this teaching that was the inspiration for the popular gospel song "Is Your All on the Altar of Sacrifice Laid?"

According to Mrs. Palmer, when a person made this full surrender, believing the testimony of God's Word that the altar sanctifies the offering, then one could know that "full salvation" had been obtained—the coveted "second blessing." Such claiming faith and surrender were then to be followed by public testimony that the event had happened. Thus it seems that the "altar theology" was coming into play when Ellen was finally able to testify to her experience of "so great a blessing" (ibid.).

Thus in the setting of the early 1840s, such terminology as "true conversion" and "being accepted of God" were classic Methodist second blessing terms. Therefore, even though her later declarations on sanctification would modify the classic Holiness understanding of the experience of sanctification, they never significantly changed the essentially Holiness Methodist orientation of her treatment of the importance of sanctification.

Early Perfectionist, or Holiness, Fanaticism

Ellen White's later modifications of what were considered normal Methodist expectations for the experience of sanctification were greatly influenced by the numerous Holiness/perfectionist fanatics whom she had to meet during her ministry—especially in the early years. In fact, within the first 10 years of her public ministry, she recorded encountering at least six cases of such fanatical extremism.

All these cases involved self-righteous claims to perfect holiness and sinlessness. And in almost every case the claims were exposed as false, with most of the professors leading lives of shockingly hypocritical immorality. It is quite evident from Ellen White's recorded reactions that all these cases were extreme perversions of the Wesleyan claim to instantaneous perfection.


During this period of Ellen White's ministry, it is significant that all her recorded experiences with the advocates of "holiness" were negative. It is now clear to us that the major reasons for her veering away from some aspects of the Methodist Holiness understandings of perfection was the impact of these perversions of "holiness." This was done despite her own sincere experience of the Holiness "blessing."

She especially veered away from the expectation that believers should claim an instantaneous experience and the more emotional emphasis that seemed to be much in vogue at the time.


What are we to make of Ellen White's early experience and ministry of salvation?

First, the significance of her own conversion "sanctification" crises and experience with Holiness fanaticism cannot be stressed enough for their critically formative contribution to her later doctrinal development. Though there were significant modifications of the details of the Holiness experience, her teachings would always give great accent to the importance of sanctification and perfection. The experience of "holiness of heart and life" were the dominant themes of the bulk of her later writings on salvation.

Second, her confrontations with the hypocritical Holiness fanatics would have a marked impact on the later modifications of her understanding of sanctification and perfection. Her ministry in coming years would move her more and more to emphasize that sanctification was not the work of a moment, but that of a lifetime. Perfection was not to be claimed as some sinless accomplishment, but rather sought as a way of life that would see believers grow in grace until they received the finishing touch of sinlessness at glorification

* Ellen White incorrectly dated this as 1839 in 2SG 12 (see ALW, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, 34). [back] [top]

At Issue Index   Table of Contents   Previous   Next