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
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 StruggleEllen 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"
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 1842in the wake of Miller's second series of lectures in
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
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
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,
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" CrisisShortly
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
obtainedthe 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 ministryespecially 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]