Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 345 pages + 19 pages index, $34.95 (paper), reviewed by Michael Campbell, assistant professor of Adventist studies, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Philippines.
The quest to discover the real Ellen G. White continues with this new collection of essays. This particular volume demonstrates that she deserves more recognition and formal study by scholars, if for no other reason than the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist Church that she helped cofound is the largest religious movement begun by an antebellum American prophet. The tapestry of essays—with hues that provide historical, social, economic, and political dimensions—locates and describes how Ellen G. White fits into this broad landscape.
The 18 chapters, written by 21 authors, came about as the result of a conference held in October 2009 in Portland, Maine. The conference itself was much broader than the published book, with participation from many more non-Adventist scholars, so I was somewhat disappointed that only two chapters along with the introduction represent the contributions of non-Adventist scholars.
Potential readers should be aware that this is not an apologetic work. Much of this volume is informed by critical Enlightenment assumptions, which would lead one to believe that this particular volume—by a group of well-intentioned historians—is somehow objective. Grant Wacker, a noted scholar of Pentecostalism, goes so far as to claim in the introduction that readers “will be hard-pressed to know” which belong to the Adventist tradition versus those who are not (p. xiv). This volume generally precludes the possibility of divine revelation, in the same way as Ron Numbers, who in his controversial 1976 book, Prophetess of Health, asserted: “I have tried to be as objective as possible. Thus, I have refrained from using divine inspiration as an historical explanation.”1 Such a statement goes beyond historical description to preclude the possibility of divine inspiration. Church members should be aware of different genres of academic study, including the critical tools of historiography. Yet historians must also recognize their biases. Thus, as George Marsden observes, “no one stands on neutral ground.”2
Part of the critical bias toward Ellen White is evidenced in the choice and interpretation of sources. For example, the transcripts of the Israel Dammon trial are taken as more reliable than Ellen White’s own account of what transpired (pp. 41, 77). The trial testimony, it is argued, hints at how Ellen Harmon overcame prophetic rivals (p. 40). Was she merely one of many fanatics who was somehow smart enough to overcome her rivals (thanks in large part to the clever help of James White [p. 7])? I find such insinuations suspect and suggest that more research needs to be done on the Dammon trial.3
In a similar fashion, several authors argue that the fact that James White stopped publishing her visions in the 1850s indicates some sort of power struggle (p. 10). The pivotal turning point, however, was a gathering of believers in 1855, which sparked a significant revival that included the support and publication of Ellen White’s visions. This supposed power struggle between James White and Uriah Smith might make sense if it was not for the fact that James White recruited Uriah Smith and supported his rise to leadership. The lack of publication of her visions from 1852 to 1855 had more to do with the irenic debate over the relationship of her visions to the even more primary theological conviction and commitment to the concept of the “Bible and the Bible alone.”
Another issue that is brought up is Ellen White’s use of literary sources. Chapter 5, on Ellen White as author, by the late Arthur Patrick argues that she “recycled much of her prose and borrowed extensively” (p. 91). He suggests that since she was rarely a “solitary author,” some of her literary assistants deserve more recognition. Such claims strike at the heart of her credibility (p. 97). Yet such concerns are anachronistic at best in comparison to her literary peers. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, “borrowed freely” from others. “The truest and surest test of originality,” he once wrote,“is the manner of handling a hackneyed subject.”4 Denis Fortin, in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, argues that Ellen White was always the “master” of and never the “slave” to her sources.5 As such she took a pragmatic approach, using other material to weave her own metanarrative. In fact, Ellen White’s use of sources is actually a tremendous gift for Ellen White scholars because, as research continues, it not only provides a window into the sources she used, but also allows the careful analyst to compare and contrast what she gleaned versus her own unique contributions. In the case of health reform, what was essential to Ellen White was not merely the physical health reforms themselves but also their spiritual connection and motivations. Patrick fails to note how Ellen White avoided extreme positions of other health reformers, including, for example, some of her more moderate, less punitive, views about sexual mores.
Ronald L. Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin contributed “Science and Medicine” (pp. 196-223). Much of this chapter is familiar territory in Seventh-day Adventist studies: most of it pertains to a number of problematic statements about science and religion that reflect a different worldview.6 Some readers may find the description of Ellen White’s views about sexuality particularly interesting, especially her comments against masturbation. The authors miss the point that her views were actually moderate in comparison to the punitive recommendations of her health reformer peers. Similarly, the authors reference her obscure statement on amalgamation, but it is doubtful that anything conclusive can be determined from the lack of available sources.
7 Similar to the biblical statement on baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29), theologians have posited some 40 different interpretations that are largely speculative; sometimes we have to be content with our lack of knowledge.
The chapter by Gary Land entitled “Biographies” (pp. 322-345) raises interpretative issues related to historians and historiography. Obviously some people, especially after her death, placed Ellen G. White on a pedestal. Church leaders naturally also want to preserve and protect her legacy. Historians can serve a useful purpose within the church by counteracting unnecessary hagiography. The church can gain only by a close and careful scrutiny of her life and writings. Yet at the same time it should also be noted that the historiography related to Ellen White studies is not as simplistic as one that moved from naïveté to enlightenment. What becomes readily apparent is that there was a failure of trust and an air of suspicion between historians and church leaders, particularly during the 1970s.
It is worth noting that some chapters are much more positive toward Ellen G. White than others. Some of the more helpful chapters I found included Floyd Greenleaf and Jerry Moon’s chapter (pp. 126-143) on her contributions as builder and Eric Anderson’s section, “War, Slavery, and Race” (pp. 262-278). I also admired the way that Douglas Morgan, in his chapter, “Society” (pp. 224-243), presented a rather nuanced and thoughtful conclusion about her “silence on complex and controversial issues of structural injustice, woman rights, racial oppression, and militarism that some Christian leaders [from her era] courageously addressed” (p. 239). He then offers two interpretative options: some may detect “craven compromise, constructed piety, and quietist irresponsibility. Others may detect wise, pragmatic flexibility in the service of faithfulness” (pp. 239, 240). Such nuances could have been better developed more uniformly throughout the book.
AAB, Alexander—b. Dec. 28, 1919, Saskatchewan, Canada; d. Mar. 15, 2014, Riverside, Calif. He served as a dietitian at Paradise Valley Hospital, Glendale Adventist Hospital, Willowdale Adventist Hospital, and Loma Linda Foods. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; two sons, Derek and Allan; two daughters, Lynne Aab and Gayle Aab Grose; three brothers, Fred, Reuben, and Clarence; three sisters, Esther Gabrys, Lillie Heckenliable, and Bernice Lindley; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
BRZOSKO, Joseph G.—b. Aug. 9, 1921, Hamtramck, Mich.; d. Apr. 23, 2014, Altamonte Springs, Fla. He worked in the Engineering Department at Battle Creek Sanitarium. He is survived by two daughters, Martha Lloyd and Ruth Smith; seven grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
CAMPBELL, Ray—b. Apr. 9, 1928, Powder Mills, Ky.; d. Mar. 17, 2014, Altamonte Springs, Fla. He served as communication director for Hinsdale Adventist Hospital. He is survived by his wife, June; two sons, Larry and Jerry; one daughter, Linda Patrick; four grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
GIEBELL, Elberta Marie—b. Apr. 16, 1913, Pittsburgh, Pa.; d. Dec. 1, 2013, Mount Dora, Fla. She served as an LPN at Loma Linda Medical Center and Florida Hospital South. She is survived by two sons, Thomas and Richard; three daughters, Peggy Aiken, Anita Carlson, and Carolyn Towles; eight grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.
HAWKES, William F.—b. Mar. 19, 1925, Cannelton, W.Va.; d. Mar 4, 2014, Lawton, Mich. He served as a missionary in Maracaibo, Venezuela. He also served as a minister in Michigan, Maryland, West Virginia, Indiana, and Florida. He is survived by two sons, James Briggs III and William Briggs; three daughters, April Noland, Rebecca Hawkes, and Deborah Briggs; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.
JONES, Violet S.—b. June 9, 1923, Bridgeton, N.J.; d. Jan. 31, 2014, Sebring, Fla. She served as head nurse in Kettering Memorial Hospital, now Kettering Medical Center. She is survived by her husband, Elmer.
LESCAY, Monica—b. May 4, 1934, Dominican Republic; d. Dec. 2, 2013, Muskegon, Mich. She served as a secretary in the Dominican Conference; as women’s dean at Antillian College, Cuba; and as a teacher at Dominican College, East Puerto Rico Conference, and Honduras. She also served at Florida Hospital. She is survived by a son, Herman; and two grandchildren.
LIPPERT, Helen Jeanne—b. Jan. 5, 1932, Orlando, Fla.; d. Feb. 6, 2014, Altamonte Spring, Fla. She was employed by Florida Hospital. She is survived by her husband, Richard, Sr.; two sons, Richard, Jr., and Leighton; and four grandchildren.
MAY-DICKINSON, Doris L.—b. July 3, 1927, Kandiyohi Township, Minn.; d. Oct. 3, 2013, Apopka, Fla. She served at the Chesapeake Conference and the General Conference. She also served as a trust officer in Southwestern Union Conference and Florida. She is survived by her husband, Kent Dickinson; two sons, Robert May and Michael May; one daughter, Nancy Cotta; two stepsons, Gary Dickinson and Kevin Dickinson; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
MC BRIDE, Keith—b. Jan. 20, 1938, Billings, Mont.; d. Dec. 25, 2013, Fla. He served as a minister. He is survived by his wife, Wanda; one daughter, Bridgit Mitchell; one stepson, Randall Wilson; one sister, Margie Meador; and three grandchildren.
RAUSCH, Oswald H.—b.June 12, 1918, Detroit, Mich.; d. July 5, 2013, Leesburg, Fla. He served the Michigan Conference as assistant publishing secretary. He then served in publishing and treasury work for the Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia-Cumberland, Alabama-Mississippi, Southern California, and Minnesota conferences, and as a chaplain at Medical Center Hospital in Florida. He is survived by a son, Robert; two stepdaughters, Barbara Shaw-Clemens and Janet Harms; one brother, Chester; one sister, Ruth Brown; two grandchildren; one stepgrandchild; and nine great-grandchildren.
WILSON, Edward L.—b. Jan. 5, 1934, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada; d. May 11, 2014, Sacramento, Calif. He served as a minister in British Columbia, Oregon, and California. He is survived by his wife, Kathleen; one son, Edward; one daughter, Kathleen; one sister, Carol Janssen; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
WILSON, William J.—b.June 2, 1937, Clinton, Mass.; d. Mar. 17, 2014, Punta Gorda, Fla. He served as a minister in the West Virginia, Arizona, Washington, and Wisconsin conferences. He also served as personal ministries/Sabbath school director for the Wisconsin Conference, and as trust services director for the Minnesota Conference. He is survived by his wife, Frances; one son, James; one daughter, Tralese Syvertson; and five grandchildren.