So, how relevant is Ellen White?
as published in The Edge, #61 February 2007
I haven’t always been a Christian, much less a Seventh-day Adventist.
Terms like “Pathfinders,”* “Camporees” and “Ellen White” all went over my head when I fi rst attended church.
They were phrases so ingrained into the Seventh-day Adventist mindset that nobody ever stopped to think that newcomers would perhaps be a little baffled as to what they actually meant.
For a really long time, I thought the Spirit of Prophecy was the Bible. I was also convinced that Ellen White was a biblical character and when that did not seem likely, believed she was a member of the church I was attending whom I somehow never got to meet.
There was confusion galore when “Spirit of Prophecy,” ‘Sister White” and “ Desire of Ages ” were all said in one sentence.
It took me months of regularly attending church to finally learn that Ellen White was one of the early pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and that she wrote a series of books collectively called the Spirit of Prophecy , one of which was The Desire of Ages .
Ellen G White.
The “woman of remarkable spiritual gifts who lived most of her life during the nineteenth century” and wrote more than 5000 periodical articles and 40 books.
Today, more than 100 titles are available in English, thanks to compilations from her 50,000 pages of manuscript. According to the Ellen G White Estate website, she is the most translated woman writer in the entire history of literature, and the most translated American author of either gender.
However, although extensively published and frequently referred to in Adventist circles, Ellen White most likely does not feature highly on any young Adventist’s “must-read” author list.
In fact, the very mention of her name may result in either a cringe effect or the rolling of eyeballs.
“She’s too old-fashioned,” may be a rather valid and common argument about someone who lived more than 100 years ago, but chances are, the main gripe does not stem from the innate need to criticise her writing style (J R R Tolkien had a similar writing style, albeit with a different focus, and is read more widely than Ellen White).
Instead, it is probably because they have been told too often what not to do because “Ellen White said so.” Although only a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for about seven years, I have already become all too familiar with “the teachings of Ellen White,” not from reading her literature, but from all-too-helpful church members intent on letting me know that “Ellen White says” we should not go to the movies or even ride bicycles for that matter.
Thanks to a few overenthusiastic church members and reactionary attitudes, Ellen White has been relegated to the shelf with titles such as “legalistic,” “fundamental,” “judgmental” and “strict.” Nobody likes to be told what to do and what is right, after all. Of course, the fact that she lived in the 1800s does not particularly make her seem relevant to young people today, either.
The problem with Ellen White however, is not that she is irrelevant.
It lies in the fact that some have forgotten to use “the Word of God as the rule of [our] faith and practice,” preferring instead to use the specifics from Ellen White’s writings as a weapon to reproach others about their behaviour. We forget that she is simply a “lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.” As a friend once mentioned, “She wrote for her time period, not for mine and I must respect that boundary. The relevance I can draw from her writings are not specific ‘do’ and ‘do not do’ things.
I can draw guidelines from her writings but they can never be as specific as ‘do not go to the theatre.’” Ellen White did write about things that are very much in the context of her time, but the principles are still relevant today. The reason she instructed people not to ride bicycles had nothing to do with the mode of transportation but the high price of owning one then. When put in context, her counsel not to put on cosmetics or wigs made sense because face powders in the 19th century contained white lead or mercuric sulphide and wigs were terrifying monstrosities that threatened to snap one’s neck.
Many of Ellen White’s teachings have also become Adventist traditions and lifestyle habits. Thanks to her promotion of a healthy diet and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco 100 years ago, National
Geographic magazine recently reported Seventh-day Adventists were longevity superstars. An achievement only made possible because her health principles are still followed today.
The aim of her teachings was simply to help us deepen our relationship with God and to become more Christlike. We understand the Bible better through her writings, we gain practical advice on how we should lead our lives and we remain pure and healthy, able to learn more about God.
If we took the time to read her counsels, we would come to realise that she has left behind a very beneficial legacy for Seventh-day Adventists. A legacy that gave the church its vision and direction, which led to the establishment of a worldwide education system and a network of hospitals and clinics. A legacy that consisted of Christ-centred healthful living and a faith- and love-based church.
Ellen White can only be relevant to us if we are looking to deepen our relationship with God. Ellen White is relevant because of her insights about one’s relationship with God.
Her themes on the love of God, Jesus Christ and His sacrifice and the centrality of God’s Word draw us closer to God, providing us with gems and further understanding that only reading the Bible would not.
Specifics change, but principles never do. The way the Seventh-day Adventist Church relates to the world today may be different from when Ellen White was writing her counsels, and it needs to do so in light of an ever-changing environment. Staying relevant requires a shift in traditions and the way things are done. But that does not mean Ellen White, the founding pioneer of the Seventh-day Adventist Church more than 100 years ago, is no longer relevant.
Ellen White remains relevant, but only if we read her books in accompaniment with the Bible and with the sincere desire to know God better. All we need to do is to take the time to read her writings, remember the context in which she was writing and apply the principles to our lives.
Speaking of which, where is my dusty copy of The Desire of Ages ?
*Pathfinders is the Adventist Church’s worldwide youth activity organisation that has groups in local churches. Groups from various localities or regions meet at Camporees about once a year to interact and for an opportunity to share skills and experiences.