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 WhiteThe 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'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
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 PerfectionThese
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
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.