The Great Controversy is one of Ellen White’s best known and most powerful books. Among other things, it offers some pointed critiques of Catholic teaching and historical behavior, as well as the tendency of Protestant denominations to abandon their earlier fidelity to Scripture. Recalling also that young Ellen Harmon and her family had been expelled from the Methodist Church because of their belief in the soon coming of Jesus, some might conclude that she took a dim view of Christians whose beliefs and practices differed from hers.
But that would be wrong.
Seventh-day Adventists believe that Ellen White was a messenger of the Lord, exercising the biblical gift of prophecy. So we take her writings seriously. What can we find in them about how to view and relate to people of other faiths? As we look at some of her statements, we might even find her content—and her tone—surprising.
“There are many among the Catholics who live up to the light they have far better than many who claim to believe present truth [i.e., Seventh-day Adventists], and God will just as surely test and prove them as He has tested and proved us. . . . From that which God has shown me, a great number will be saved from among the Catholics. There has been but little done for them except to make them appear in the worst light.”1
Those words were part of a talk Ellen White gave to believers in Basel, Switzerland, in 1887, when the Catholic faith was strong in various parts of Europe. But her message was not just for Europe. More than 20 years later she published a similar remarkable statement for the church at large in the Testimonies. Referring to the “cry aloud” message of Isaiah 58:1, she wrote:
“This message must be given; but while it must be given, we should be careful not to thrust and crowd and condemn those who have not the light that we have. We should not go out of our way to make hard thrusts at the Catholics. Among the Catholics there are many who are most conscientious Christians and who walk in all the light that shines upon them, and God will work in their behalf. Those who have had great privileges and opportunities, and who have failed to improve their physical, mental, and moral powers, but who have lived to please themselves and have refused to bear their responsibility, are in greater danger and in greater condemnation before God than those who are in error upon doctrinal points, yet who seek to live to do good to others. Do not censure others; do not condemn them.”2
This was part of an article titled “Words of Caution,” in which she warned that “Satan’s attacks against the advocates of the truth will wax more bitter and determined to the very close of time.” In the face of this escalating conflict, she wrote, “What course shall the advocates of truth pursue? They have the unchangeable, eternal Word of God, and they should reveal the fact that they have the truth as it is in Jesus. Their words must not be rugged and sharp. In their presentation of truth they must manifest the love and meekness and gentleness of Christ. Let the truth do the cutting; the Word of God is as a sharp, two-edged sword and will cut its way to the heart. Those who know that they have the truth should not, by the use of harsh and severe expressions, give Satan one chance to misinterpret their spirit.”3
What spirit do we bring to our encounters with those not of our faith? We have a message—a crucial message—to give to the world, and we are not to compromise it. But in what spirit do we give it, and in what order? Ellen White was attuned to such issues as these, and she made fervent appeals to us to reflect the spirit and wisdom of Jesus in our contacts with others. Surely this must begin with a recognition of where the true followers of Jesus may be found. In The Great Controversy Ellen White made this remarkable statement:
“Notwithstanding the spiritual darkness and alienation from God that exist in the churches which constitute Babylon, the great body of Christ’s true followers are still to be found in their communion.”4 Whether speaking of Catholics or Protestants, Ellen White was able to distinguish between true believers and the false systems they might have joined.
Listen to Ellen White’s appeal for us to recognize true believers among those not of our faith: “The Lord has His representatives in all the churches. These persons have not had the special testing truths for these last days presented to them under circumstances that brought conviction to heart and mind; therefore they have not, by rejecting light, severed their connection with God. Many there are who have faithfully walked in the light that has shone upon their pathway. They hunger to know more of the ways and works of God. All over the world men and women are looking wistfully to heaven. Prayers and tears and inquiries go up from souls longing for light, for grace, for the Holy Spirit. Many are on the very verge of the kingdom, waiting only to be gathered in.”5
What a positive view of people of other faiths! How, then, shall we approach them? Ellen White wrote that we are “to call the attention of the people to the truths of God’s Word. There are many of these which are dear to all Christians. Here is common ground, upon which we can meet people of other denominations; and in becoming acquainted with them we should dwell mostly upon topics in which all feel an interest, and which will not lead directly and pointedly to the subjects of disagreement.”6 This is not to say that we should never get to “subjects of disagreement,” but that in general we should not begin there.
She made fervent appeals to us to reflect the spirit and wisdom of Jesus in our contacts with others.
All the while, “in bearing the message, make no personal thrusts at other churches. Speak the truth in tones and words of love. Let Christ be exalted. Keep to the affirmative of truth. . . . Let the truth tell the story of the inconsistency of error.”7
Ellen White had a special burden for the ministers of other denominations. “We have a work to do for the ministers of other churches. God wants them to be saved. They, like ourselves, can have immortality only through faith and obedience. We must labor for them earnestly that they may obtain it. God wants them to have a part in His special work for this time. He wants them to be among the number who are giving to His household meat in due season. Why should they not be engaged in this work?.”8
“Our ministers are to make it their special work to labor for ministers. They are not to get into controversy with them, but, with their Bible in their hand, urge them to study the Word. If this is done, there are many ministers now preaching error who will preach the truth for this time.”9
It may not be only ministers who are called to try to reach other ministers: “The wisest, firmest labor should be given to those ministers who are not of our faith. There are many who know no better than to be misled by ministers of other churches. Let faithful, God-fearing, earnest workers, their life hid with Christ in God, pray and work for honest ministers who have been educated to misinterpret the Word of Life.”10 Who are those “faithful, God-fearing, earnest workers”? Those terms are not necessarily limited to the professional ministry. Might not the devoted nonclergy also share in this work?
In any event, we are called to work alongside our Savior in reaching those around us. We need to see others through Jesus’ eyes. Notice what Ellen White calls some of those not of our faith:
“God has jewels in all the churches, and it is not for us to make sweeping denunciation of the professed religious world, but in humility and love, present to all the truth as it is in Jesus. Let men see piety and devotion, let them behold Christlikeness of character, and they will be drawn to the truth. He who loves God supremely and his neighbor as himself will be a light in the world. Those who have a knowledge of the truth are to communicate the same. They are to lift up Jesus, the world’s Redeemer; they are to hold forth the word of life.”11
Do these concepts apply only to Christians of other faiths, or is there even a broader embrace in them? “Among earth’s inhabitants, scattered in every land, there are those who have not bowed the knee to Baal. Like the stars of heaven, which appear only at night, these faithful ones will shine forth when darkness covers the earth and gross darkness the people.”12 She mentions places of mission interest in the early 1900s, such as Africa, China, India, the islands of the sea, as well as Catholic-influenced areas, saying that in these places “God has in reserve a firmament of chosen ones that will yet shine forth amidst the darkness, revealing clearly to an apostate world the transforming power of obedience to His law.”13
Jesus said, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Let us seek Jesus’ sheep, wherever they may be, doing nothing by word or spirit to push them away, so that Jesus can bring them into His fold with rejoicing!
William Fagal is a former associate director (now retired) of the Ellen G. White Estate.