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Ellen White on Salvation

A Chronological Study by Woodrow W. Whidden II


Chapter Four

James and Ellen: Their 
Compelling Personal Testimonies

The strong emphasis on justification at Battle Creek in 1883 "was at least partially inspired by James White. The evidence indicates that his experience, just before his death in 1881, had a rather profound effect on his wife.

In early 1881 he had begun to analyze the dangerous direction that the church seemed to be unconsciously pursuing. He informed the Review readers of his "unutterable yearning of soul for Christ" and urged the ministers to "preach Christ more."

He then went on to share his intention to refocus his message: "We feel that we have a testimony for our people at this time, relative to the exalted character of Christ, and His willingness and power to save" (RH, Feb. 8, 1881). That he had made good on his intentions was perceived by a prominent fellow minister who noted that "wherever he preached the past few months, he dwelt largely upon faith in Christ and the boundless love of God" (RH, Aug. 30, 1881).

James White's Influence on Ellen White
—The impact on Ellen White was apparent. A month after his death she recounted in a letter to her son Willie a dream in which she reported James to say: "We have made a mistake. We have responded to urgent invitations of our brethren to attend important meetings. We had not the heart to refuse. . . . We might have done a great deal for years with our pens, on subjects the people need that we have had light upon and can present before them, which others do not have" (letter 17, 1881, in 10 MR 38, 39).


Speaking to the students attending the General Conference Bible School in early 1890 at Battle Creek, Michigan, she recalled vows taken at her husband's deathbed to stand by her duty. This duty involved bringing "an element in[to] this work that we have not had yet" (MS 9, 1890, In 1 SAT 124).

That the "element" referred to involved justification by faith becomes abundantly clear when the context of this Bible school is carefully noted. It was especially convened in the aftermath of the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference session to promote a clearer understanding of this foundational doctrine and experience.

This powerful emphasis on God's gracious acceptance was not something that the Whites held in a coldly doctrinal manner. The following exhibits poignantly attest to the deeply felt spirituality of Ellen White.

Ellen White's Personal Testimonies

An Infallibly Perfect Prophet?—The last years of James White's life presented some tense moments between him and Ellen. The situation reached a low point in 1876 over the issue of who would define "duty" in their relationship.

After a particularly sharp letter exchange (she was on the West Coast, he in Battle Creek), her initial reaction of indignation softened, and she confessed her fallibility and lack of perfection: "I wish that self should be hid in Jesus. I do not claim infallibility, or even perfection of Christian character. I am not free from mistakes and errors in my life. Had I followed my Saviour more closely, I should not have to mourn so much my unlikeness to His dear image" (letter 27, 1876, cited in ALW, Ellen G. White: The Progressive Years 444, 445).

Two years later in a letter to her dear friend Lucinda Hall she again expressed discontent with her spiritual accomplishments. The old aspirations to know "the length, the breadth, the height and depth of perfect love" had come back strongly. She then confessed that she could not rest unless she knew that God was working through her. She also expressed a deep desire to be filled with the Spirit and an earnest "hungering and thirsting after righteousness" (letter 29, 1878, cited in ALW, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years 85).


Once again in January of 1879, when she wrote to her son Willie and his wife, she repeated the more penitential spirit found in the confession of letter 27, 1876, cited above: "We feel like walking humbly and carefully before God. We are not perfect. We may err and do and say things that may not be all right, but we hope no one will be injured in any way by our sayings or doings. We are trying to humbly follow in the footprints of our dear Saviour. We need His Spirit and His grace every hour, or we shall make blunders and shall do harm" (letter 18, 1879, cited in ALW, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years 105).

Although Ellen White expressed the highest goals of accomplishment in the sanctified life and though she spoke of perfection in glowing terms and envisioned significant accomplishments for the faithful believer, there is no evidence of her indulging in any personal sense of spiritual superiority.

These personal glimpses into her relationship with her family give some of the best interpretations and illustrations of what she thought the attitude of the "perfect" would be: always humble, chastened by revelations of fallibility, but eager to press on in the race for the high goal of practical righteousness.

Final Personal Testimony on Perfection—These confessions of fallibility and the refusal to claim perfection were evident not only in times of family stress, but also near the end of her life. In a statement allegedly taken down by one of Ellen White's secretaries and reported by W. C. White in an article that described the last days of her life, she gave the following testimony: "I do not say that I am perfect, but I am trying to be perfect. I do not expect others to be perfect; and if I could not associate with my brothers and sisters who are not perfect, I do not know what I should do.

"I try to treat the matter the best that I can, and am thankful that I have a spirit of uplifting and not a spirit of crushing down. . . .  No one is perfect. If one were perfect, he would be prepared for heaven. As long as we are not perfect, we have a work to do to get ready to be perfect. We have a mighty Saviour. . . .

"I rejoice that I have that faith that takes hold of the promises of God, that works by love and sanctifies the soul" (quoted in RH, July 23, 1970).32


In very practical terms for Ellen White's own experience, perfection in the absolute sense was consciously always a receding horizon. In unconscious terms it might yield some definition that was more absolute, but the person in such a state would never be aware of it. The aspirations were always high, but the testimonies were always modest.

What are we to make of the pre-1888 Ellen White? As one moves through her long and productive life, the single constant that keeps cropping up was her great emphasis on God's transforming grace. This powerful accent on sanctification and perfection was certainly formed in the crucible of her Methodist experience of "sanctification" and full salvation, but it was an experience that was greatly deepened by an intense sense of the nearness of Christ's coming manifest in the Advent movement.

The early experiences were central to the formation of her balance between justification and sanctification, both in terms of experience and doctrine. She never seriously doubted her acceptance with God after she achieved "the blessing" in 1842. While there was a move toward a more Lutheran understanding of justification, this move always carried with it the emphasis on perfection typical of her background in both fervent Holiness Methodism and Millerism.

While the details of her understanding of what constitutes an experience of sanctification and perfection would change over the years, no changes in social status, geography, denominational growth, or advances in doctrinal sophistication and expression would change her constant emphasis on God's great transforming power.

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