Remembering July 16, 1915

News commentary: Ellen White’s legacy and relevance — a personal journey.

Remembering July 16, 1915

Related news story: “Ellen White Letters and Manuscripts to Be Released”

, associate editor, Adventist Review

I grew up in a part of the Adventist cosmos that often struggles with the role and ministry of Ellen White. 

The towering figures of the Protestant reformation were a major part of the fabric of German Adventism. Huss, Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and Zwingli were my heroes. Their battles to make the Word freely available in the vernacular, and their focus upon righteousness by faith shaped my thinking more than the Pilgrim Fathers, John Wesley, or Puritan revivalism.

A latent anti-American stance in German society did not help either. I was a Sabbath-keeping Adventist anticipating the second coming of Jesus — yet, I did not resonate much with Ellen White; she may have played a significant role during the beginnings of our church in the United States but she did not seem relevant to me. So I politely ignored her ministry.

During Bible study, in preparation for my baptism, my youth pastor covered the topic of the Gift of Prophecy and I received my personal copy of the German translation of Steps to Christ. I started reading the book and it soon became a favorite. I went on reading my way through the Conflict of the Ages series. Every day, I read a few pages, together with my personal Bible reading plan. I generally liked what I read. It felt like a good summary of Bible stories, with helpful applications and, at times, intriguing new insights. However, it did not feel life-changing.

Fast-forward a few years to the time when I began studying theology at Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen in Austria. In my first year, I took a class on the Gift of Prophecy, taught by Gerhard Pfandl, who was not only an insightful and inspiring teacher but also became a lifetime friend and mentor. This life-changing class introduced me to Ellen White as a person, helped me grasp the biblical foundation of her prophetic gift, and focused my attention on the overall theme of her prophetic ministry. In my two years at Bogenhofen, we read most of her books available in German (including some in English as well). Ellen White became a welcome companion as we did theology, sharpened our exegetical skills by tackling difficult texts, and sought to understand what it meant to be an Adventist living in anticipation of heaven — yet firmly embracing the people around us struggling in the pain and grime of this world (cf. John 17:14-18).

Many years later, my first teaching appointment took us to Peru, where I taught Hebrew and Old Testament classes at Peruvian Union University. Peru was an exciting place to be — especially as an Adventist. After a very slow start during the first decades of the Adventist presence in the country, church growth had exploded. This was not the predominantly gray-haired church that I knew from home: This was a dynamic young church struggling with the typical birth pangs of a fast-growing denomination.

My students loved Ellen White; yet many times, as we discussed difficult issues in Scripture and struggled with challenging biblical texts, I needed to remind them that Ellen White’s statements were not meant to clinch an argument or end a conversation. Rather, they were meant to move us, collectively and individually, closer to the greater Light — the Incarnate and written Word.[1] They help us grasp the bigger context, part of an Adventist worldview that looks at history not as a sequence of random events, but as part of an epic struggle between Light and darkness, Good and evil, God and Satan.

During my 11 years teaching in South America I encountered another phenomenon still visible today. I call it “selective reading.” Many of my students loved Ellen White’s theological, historical, or eschatological statements but seemed to struggle with her counsels regarding health and nutrition. Others were convicted by her counsels on health, yet considered her contribution to our theological understanding less helpful. In either group, some counsels became top-tier counsels while other were relegated to a less important position.

Since then many things have changed, yet others have remained the same. Readers all around the world can read Ellen White digitally in dozens of languages. They can search her writings for specific terms and, beginning today, can even access all of her unpublished letters and manuscripts online. There is no dearth of material — printed and digital. And yet, more than ever before, that 5’ 2” lady born in Gorham, Maine, is challenging Adventists to live authentic and relevant lives. Her message to the last General Conference session she attended in 1909 is still highly relevant: “Brethren and Sisters, I commend unto you this Book.” We are to run to Scripture to discover the living Word — and then we are to share that living Word with those around us in anticipation of the Master’s second coming.

Today, as we remember her death exactly 100 years ago, we do not canonize her or put her on a pedestal. Instead, we see a wise, humorous, kind, and godly woman whose contribution to the development and growth of this church cannot be overestimated. Her emphasis on Christian education is one of the key factors of the explosive church growth we experienced in Peru. Her lifting up of Jesus brings much-needed water to the “dry hills of Gilboa” and highlights hope and grace. Her focus upon final events helps us to not lose sight of our soon-coming Savior.

By the way, Steps to Christ is still my favorite book!

Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. He is married to Chantal Klingbeil, an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, and they have three teenage daughters.

[1] Ellen G. White, Colporteur Ministry, p. 125.