Almost 44 years ago, diving head-first into the occult (One friend said to me, “Cliff, you’re the only guy at the General Conference to have been in the ‘astral plane.’”), I decided to start reading about it. On my way to the library, I stopped at a health food store. After I mentioned to the owner what I was doing, he warned me about the devil and his deceptions, which for me back then was like warning about little green men seeking to snatch my Jewish hide off to Mars. Before I left, he handed me a book and said, “Read this.” I went to the library, found an occult book, sat down, read the first chapter, and then practiced its first technique: stare at the point in the back of your head. Done staring at a point in the back of my head, I got up to put the book back on the shelf. As I was walking, in one hand I had, for the first time in my life, the occult book; in the other, for the first time in my life, the book given me in the health food store. The Great Controversy.
So, even before I began my Adventist sojourn, Ellen White has been a presence in my life. And she remains so. And I say so, unabashedly and unapologetically.
I stress this point because some websites (the usual suspects) have recently been running pieces about Ellen White that—though some are less destructive than others (less inclined to put the worst possible spin on her and her work)—can create doubt about her gift and how her writing came about.
None of this is new. In 1980, as I was (very) slowly transitioning in the Adventist world, Walter Rea’s public attacks on her work, accusing her of “plagiarism,” made national news. Still not convinced about her anyway, I didn’t know what to make of it, especially because I was, still, so green that—when reading where Ellen White said that Paul had written “Timothy,” and thinking that Timothy had written “Timothy”—I was certain that she couldn’t be a prophet. Could a prophet, after all, make a mistake?
Besides learning quickly who wrote “Timothy,” and that prophets are not infallible people, I have over the decades come to a more mature understanding of how “special revelation” came about, which is why these attacks never bothered me. And here’s (at least partly) why.
In December 1986, The Atlantic ran an article about Jesus and the historicity of the Gospels—typical higher critical cant. What they were doing to the biblical text, it quickly hit me, was what the critics were doing to Ellen White. Sure, issues about originality, sources, editors, cultural influences, etc., are valid. It’s just that only a fool would trust humans to get it right (see John 2:25). Look at what some higher critical scholarship has done to the Bible: no universal flood; no one named Abraham; parts of the Pentateuch were written after the Babylonian captivity; the book of Daniel comes from the Greek period; Jesus never raised the dead; Jesus Himself, in fact, was never resurrected; and Jesus never said much of what the Gospels say that He said. And, sure, though Ellen White’s work and sources are much more accessible than are the Bible writers’, I have no more reason to trust her critics’ spin on the Spirit of Prophecy than I do the higher critics’ spin on Scripture.
I don’t fully understand how her inspiration works, nor what her precise role and authority should be. Given the extremes in the church—from those who ignore her to those who make her word on anything the absolute, final, and unquestioned authority—few in the church seem to know, either. That being said, I haven’t harbored a doubt about Ellen White’s prophetic gift in, probably, 42 years.
Two things brought me to this point.
First, when I finally joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1980, I made sure that I knew what I needed to know to be an Adventist from my Bible alone. Who needs Ellen White to believe in Jesus’ atoning death on the cross, the seventh-day Sabbath, the state of the dead, the Second Coming, or even last day events? Are you kidding? It was especially important for me to get our unique doctrine, the 1844 pre-Advent judgment, from the Bible alone. (The result of my labors was 1844 Made Simple, about the only one of my 26 books that hadn’t flopped, but actually remains in print.)
Second, I continually read her. And though never equating Ellen White’s authority with Scripture, I read her the same way that I do Scripture: while always taking context into consideration, I don’t worry about sources, or editing, or redaction, cultural influences, etc.—factors that are going to be twisted and perverted by humans anyway, especially by those who have it out for her, or the church, to begin with.
However, ultimately, they were put together, and (unfortunately) however much they have been misused, abused, ignored—her writings (together with her life) speak for themselves. Despite valid questions, the more I read her the more in awe I am at what an astonishing gift we have been given, a gift whose richness and depth most of us probably don’t fully appreciate.
Jesus said of John the Baptist, “For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28 NKJV]). David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, even Moses—none were greater than John, even if his words and life remained subject to their authority. What was one big difference between John the Baptist and David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, even Moses?
John had no writings in the Bible. Yet Jesus said there no “greater prophet than John”? What? You don’t need to be canonical to be a prophet, even a great one, even the greatest?
Am I saying that Ellen White is the greatest prophet? No. But when it’s all over, “when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away . . .” and when “I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Cor. 13:10, 12 [NKJV])—I might be proved wrong.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.