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The Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Understanding of Ellen G. White’s Prophetic Gift, 1844-1889

by Theodore N. Levterov (Author)
Monographs XVIII, 252 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 347

Summary

Ellen G. White was a major figure of nineteenth-century American Christianity although she has not been widely studied or researched. Shortly after the second coming of Jesus predicted by the Millerites did not materialize on October 22, 1844, White became one of the principal leaders of a small remnant group of disappointed believers. She also began claiming visionary manifestations. The Sabbatarians, who later came to be known as the Seventh-day Adventists, gradually accepted White as having the genuine gift of prophecy and her gift became one of their distinctive doctrines. How did the early Sabbath-keeping Adventists become convinced of her prophetic claims?
This volume is a historical examination of the process through which early Seventh-day Adventists justified and accepted White’s prophetic claims between 1844 and 1889. It evaluates and analyzes the development of their understanding of the doctrine of the gift of prophesy in general, and White’s gift in particular. In 1844, she claimed to have received her first vision, and by 1889, the essential arguments for and against her prophetic gift were in place.
Ellen White’s gift of prophecy has remained a controversial subject within and outside the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. This analysis provides an important historical context that illuminates the prophetic claims of Ellen White and the attempts of her denomination to find a more balanced and informed approach toward such a complex topic.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Background of the Problem
  • Statement of the Problem
  • Purpose of the Study
  • Scope and Delimitations
  • Justification of the Study
  • Review of Related Research
  • Methodology and Sources
  • Design of the Study
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • 1. Historical Background and Early Attitudes towards Charismatic and Visionary Experiences among Millerites and Sabbatarian Adventists up to 1850
  • Religious Background of Charismatic and Visionary Experiences in the Mid-nineteenth Century
  • The Second Great Awakening
  • The Camp Meeting
  • Methodism and the Holiness Revival
  • New Religious Groups
  • Millerite Attitudes towards Charismatic and Visionary Experiences
  • Millerite Attitudes towards Charismatic and Visionary Experiences before the Great Disappointment
  • Millerite Attitudes towards Charismatic and Visionary Experiences after the Great Disappointment
  • Introduction to Ellen G. White
  • Ellen Harmon and Early Sabbatarian Adventist Attitudes toward Charismatic and Visionary Experiences
  • Ellen Harmon’s First Vision and Initial Self-Understanding of Her Prophetic Gift
  • Initial Sabbatarian Perspectives on Charismatic and Visionary Experiences and Ellen Harmon’s Prophetic Gift
  • Conclusion
  • 2. The Prophetic Gift Accepted but not Promoted, 1851–1862
  • Opposing Views of Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Historical Overview of Opposition to Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Specific Objections Raised against Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Sabbatarian Adventist Responses to Objections
  • Historical Overview of Sabbatarian Adventist Responses to Objections
  • Sabbatarian Adventist Responses to Specific Objections
  • Responses to Objections through General Conference Resolutions
  • Ellen White’s Self-Understanding of Her Prophetic Gift
  • Conclusion
  • 3. The Turning Point: The Gift of Prophecy Becomes a Part of the Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Beliefs, 1863–1881
  • Opposing Views of Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Historical Overview of Opposition to Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Specific Objections Raised against Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Seventh-day Adventist Responses to Objections
  • Historical Overview of Seventh-day Adventist Responses to Objections
  • Seventh-day Adventist Responses to Specific Objections
  • Responses to Objections through General Conference Resolutions
  • Ellen White’s Self-Understanding of Her Prophetic Gift
  • Conclusion
  • 4. A Further Refinement of the Adventist Understanding of Ellen G. White’s Prophetic Gift, 1882–1889
  • Opposing Views of Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Historical Overview of Opposition to Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Specific Objections Raised against Ellen White’s Prophetic Gift
  • Seventh-day Adventist Responses to Objections
  • Historical Overview of Seventh-day Adventist Responses to Objections
  • Seventh-day Adventist Responses to Specific Objections
  • Responses to Objections through General Conference Resolutions
  • Ellen White’s Self-Understanding of Her Prophetic Gift
  • Conclusion
  • 5. General Summary, Conclusions, and Recommendations for Further Study
  • General Summary
  • General Conclusions
  • Recommendations for Further Study
  • Notes
  • Preface
  • Chapter One: Historical Background and Early Attitudes towards Charismatic and Visionary Experiences among Millerites and Sabbatarian Adventists up to 1850
  • Chapter Two: The Prophetic Gift Accepted but not Promoted, 1851–1862
  • Chapter Three: The Turning Point: The Gift of Prophecy Becomes a Part of the Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Beliefs, 1863–1881
  • Chapter Four: A Further Refinement of the Adventist Understanding of Ellen G. White’s Prophetic Gift, 1882–1889
  • Bibliography
  • Unpublished Materials
  • Note on Archives, Letters, and Manuscript Collections
  • Theses, Dissertations, and Papers
  • Published Materials
  • Periodicals
  • Books and Pamphlets

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Preface

Background of the Problem

Seventh-day Adventists, like many Protestant Christians, believe in the doctrine of spiritual gifts. The Adventists, however, differ from mainstream Protestantism in their claim to have the gift of prophecy manifested in their midst through one of their early founders—Ellen Gould White. Number 18 in the fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church reads:

One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. As the Lord’s messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth which provide for the church comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.1

As Alfred S. Jorgensen puts it, this “is a bold claim of immense significance” and “cannot be lightly dismissed.”2 Many Christians, on the other hand, have taken the New Testament statement “the Law and the Prophets were until John” in Luke 16:16 to mean that there should be no more new prophets after the Apostolic Age. Thus they have denied any modern prophetic manifestations as coming from God.3 ← IX | X →

Seventh-day Adventists, however, have affirmed that the Bible teaches the continuity of spiritual gifts from their beginning in the 1840s and have accepted Ellen G. White as a legitimate prophet of God.4 Moreover, her prophetic gift became one of their distinctive doctrines and was soon integrated into their theological system of beliefs.5 While the majority of other former Millerites did not have confidence in any new visions or supernatural revelations and saw them as one of the fanatical extremes of that time,6 the Sabbatarians were certain that Ellen G. White possessed the biblical gift of prophecy.

Statement of the Problem

Although there are many Seventh-day Adventist works written about Ellen White and her prophetic ministry, there was no comprehensive historical investigation examining the development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic gift prior to this study. Beyond that, the Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s gift of prophecy has been one of the most controversial subjects within and without Seventh-day Adventism from the beginning of the movement until the present time.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this research was to examine and analyze the development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic gift from 1844 through 1889. In order to achieve this goal I have examined the writings of Sabbatarian and Seventh-day Adventists7 who argued for the validity of Ellen White’s gift of prophecy, those outside and inside the movement who argued against her prophetic gift, and those Ellen White’s writings that described her self-understanding of her prophetic role.

Scope and Delimitations

This study traces the developmental stages of the concept of the gift of prophecy in relation to Ellen White and the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of her prophetic role from a historical perspective. It is beyond the scope of this study to judge, to prove, or to disprove the prophetic gift of Ellen White. This research is not a theological study of the doctrine of spiritual gifts, although that doctrine is discussed whenever it has relevance to the main purpose of the study. Nor is the ← X | XI → purpose of this research to be a historical treatment of the development of the gifts of the spirit in general. Its main focus is on one of those gifts only. In addition, the “gift of prophecy” concept is discussed in reference to the prophetic gift of Ellen White and not to the prophetic gift in general unless otherwise stated. It is important to realize that when early Adventists referred to the “gifts of the spirit,” they were concerned in most cases with the gift of prophecy.

A brief overview of Millerite and Sabbatarian Adventist attitudes concerning charismatic and visionary experiences among Adventists in the 1840s is provided as historical background. That introductory overview is not exhaustive but provides understanding of the general attitudes held by pre- and post-disappointment Adventists towards visions and other contemporary charismatic experiences.

The main body of the study confines itself to the period of time during which Seventh-day Adventists gradually accepted Ellen White’s prophetic gift. The year 1844 is important, since it was the year she had her first vision, while 1889 is significant as the year D. M. Canright published the second extended edition of his book Seventh-day Adventism Renounced,8 which summarizes and categorizes all the previously raised objections against Ellen White’s prophetic gift. Despite being modified somewhat, all later objections would be based upon Canright’s systematized arguments.9 Thus by 1889 the essential arguments for and against Ellen White’s prophetic gift were in place. After 1889, discussions for and against her prophetic gift rested largely on arguments developed prior to that year. I assume that the reader is generally familiar with the history and the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the prophetic role of Ellen White in that church.

Justification of the Study

This study is justified for three major reasons. First, the belief in the prophetic gift became one of the five doctrines that eventually distinguished the Sabbatarian and Seventh-day Adventists from the rest of the Adventist groups after the Great Disappointment in 1844.10 This study shows how this belief was gradually understood and accepted within Sabbatarian and Seventh-day Adventism. Second, the Seventh-day Adventist Church continues to officially believe in Ellen White as a genuine prophet of God,11 even though Christianity in general, including some people within the Adventist church, has rejected the validity of a modern prophetic gift and disclaims belief in modern prophetic guidance.12 In fact, the first offshoots from the Sabbatarian Adventist movement arose because of controversy over Ellen White’s gift of prophecy.13 Hence, knowing the historical development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of this controversial issue may provide light in resolving contemporary difficulties related to the role of Ellen White and ← XI | XII → her prophetic ministry. Third, despite the fact that Ellen White’s gift of prophecy has been one of the most distinctive doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church throughout its history, there has not been any specific research on the development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the gift of prophecy of Ellen White. Hence the goal of this study was to fill this gap.

Review of Related Research

There was no in-depth study examination of the historical development of the Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s gift of prophecy prior to this research. Several Seventh-day Adventist historical works have discussed the issue briefly, but the discussions have been invariably part of larger studies with different objectives in mind.

Roy E. Graham partially treats the development of the Sabbatarian understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic gift in several chapters of his dissertation.14 He looks at the emergence of Ellen White as a prophet in the 1840s and the early Adventist reactions to her prophetic gift. The author also treats briefly some of Ellen White’s major objectors such as D. M. Canright and L. R. Conradi. Thus Graham’s dissertation provides valuable background helpful to this research but has not treated in detail the development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic gift.

In his dissertation, Alberto Timm gives a short overview of the development of Sabbatarian understanding of the gift of prophecy until 1863. His primary purpose, however, is to treat the sanctuary and the three angels’ messages of Rev 14 as the two integrating factors of the early Sabbatarian movement.15

Merlin Burt’s doctoral research examines the historical background and interconnected developments of three major Sabbatarian doctrines between 1844 and 1849: the sanctuary, the Sabbath, and Ellen White’s prophetic gift. Although Burt’s purpose is different from that of the present research, his dissertation is useful in terms of providing the context, the historical background, and the initial development of an understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic gift.16

In his extensive book, the Messenger of the Lord, Herbert Douglass has two sections treating the question of Adventist reactions to Ellen White’s gift, including her own self-understanding as a prophet.17 George Knight also discusses the issue briefly as part of a larger overview of the development of the Seventh-day Adventist doctrines.18 Jud Lake also gives an overview of critics of Ellen White and her prophetic claims in his Ellen White Under Fire.19 Arthur L. White’s biography of Ellen White is the most comprehensive work on Ellen White’s life ← XII | XIII → experience.20 The first three volumes cover the period of this study and give useful background information. A number of other unpublished documents also touch on the Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic gift.21 These works provide helpful clues for the purpose of this research, but none of them treat explicitly the development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s gift of prophecy.

Ellen G. White: Messenger to the Remnant consists of five brochures that consider different phases of Ellen White’s life and work. Brochure two, “Prophetic Guidance in Early Days,” discusses the attitudes of the early Sabbatarians towards the gift of prophecy.22 Notes and Papers Concerning Ellen G. White and the Spirit of Prophecy and The Spirit of Prophecy Treasure Chest are collections of materials used as study guides on the gift of prophesy doctrine published by the Ellen G. White Estate.23 None of the above works, however, deal with the specific purpose of the present study.

Methodology and Sources

The present research is a documentary study based on published and unpublished primary sources and documents. Examining these documents, the study traces the development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the concept of the gift of prophecy of Ellen White between 1844 and 1889. The primary documents utilized include periodicals, articles, books, tracts, letters, and unpublished manuscripts. The use of secondary sources has been primarily for providing historical context and perspective.

Sources such as the Midnight Cry, the Advent Herald, and the Day Star provide historical data regarding non-Sabbatarian attitudes towards the gift of prophecy and other spiritual gifts during the 1840s.

The documents of Sabbatarian and Seventh-day Adventists arguing for the legitimacy of Ellen White’s gift of prophecy are found primarily in the Review and Herald, the General Conference session minutes, private letters, booklets, and books written by major Sabbatarian and Seventh-day Adventist leaders. The major authors included Joseph Bates, James White, Uriah Smith, M. E. Cornell, J. N. Andrews, G. I. Butler, and J. N. Loughborough.24

The study also examines primary documents written against Ellen White’s prophetic gift. Major documents in this category include works such as The Visions of Ellen G. White, Not of God 25 (the first book written against Ellen White’s prophetic gift), H. E. Carver’s Mrs. E. G. White’s Claims to Divine Inspiration Examined,26 D. M. Canright’s Seventh-day Adventism Renounced,27 and articles in the Messenger of Truth (1854),28 the Voice of the West, and the World Crisis. ← XIII | XIV →

Ellen White’s self-understanding of her prophetic gift is found in parts of her letters, manuscripts, correspondence, and several books.29 These materials are examined in the light of the primary purpose of this research.

The major portion of the primary materials were found in the General Conference Archives and the Ellen G. White Estate Office in Silver Springs, Maryland, and the Center for Adventist Research in the James White Library at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. This dissertation examines and analyzes the gathered information chronologically and shows the stages of the development of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic gift.

Design of the Study

The study is divided into five major chapters. Chapter 1 provides the background for the study. It briefly examines Millerite and early Sabbatarian Adventist attitudes towards charismatic and visionary experiences up to the year 1850.

Chapter 2 shows the initial Sabbatarian acceptance of Ellen White as a modern prophet of God in the period from 1851 to 1862. It also looks at the first internal controversies among the Sabbatarian believers, which were over the understanding of Ellen White’s gift of prophecy.

Chapter 3 examines the period from 1863 to 1881, during which the Seventh-day Adventists made Ellen White’s gift of prophecy a part of their doctrinal statement of beliefs. It also continues to treat the controversies within and without the movement over its understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic gift.

Chapter 4 examines some major revisions of the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Ellen White’s prophetic role between 1882 and 1889. The major issues of discussion during that period were related to suppression and plagiarism charges that ultimately questioned Ellen White’s inspiration and authority. The chapter also looks at the major crisis related to the understanding of the gift of prophecy caused by D. M. Canright.

Chapter 5 provides a summary of the study, concluding observations, and recommendations for further research.

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Acknowledgments

The writing of a dissertation is a challenge that one can hardly achieve alone. There were many who encouraged me and kept me going during my writing. To all I say a special “thank you.” Several people, however, have been especially involved with my project and deserve explicit expression of appreciation. First, I would like to thank the members of my dissertation committee. Special gratitude is due to my chair, George Knight for his incredible patience, detailed criticism, and encouragement through all these years. He has not only been my chair but a close friend and helper whenever I have needed him. Jerry Moon and Denis Fortin have also spent time with my research in reading, evaluating, and giving helpful insights to make each of my chapters better. Thank you to all of you. In addition to providing a helpful committee, the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary has helped me with much needed financial scholarships throughout my studies for which I am especially indebted.

I have also been grateful for the opportunities to not only work at the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, but to get help from its employees in researching and finding relevant materials as well. A special appreciation goes to Merlin Burt, Jim Ford, and Carol Williams for their professional support. After I left working for the center, my friend Gerson Rodrigues has been my constant helper in making copies, comparing dates, and doing all other kinds of things to help me as well. Thank you Gerson for everything that you did. ← XV | XVI →

Appreciation is also due to Jim Nix, Tim Poirier, and others at the Ellen G. White Estate’s main office in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jim Nix has been very hospitable and generous during my visits to the General Conference. Tim Poirier has helped me in locating documents and has given me a lot of other insightful information.

I also would like to thank my family and friends for their constant encouragement and support. A special “thank you” goes to my mother and my father for their prayers and support when I needed it the most, to my son Nikolas and my step-son Evgeni, who often missed me at home, and to my incredible wife, Tsvety, who shared my burdens the most. She not only believed in me, but also pushed me to the finish line. This dissertation is her achievement as much as mine.

And finally I would like to thank God through whom “I can do all things.”

Details

Pages
XVIII, 252
ISBN (PDF)
9781453914229
ISBN (ePUB)
9781454193319
ISBN (MOBI)
9781454193302
ISBN (Hardcover)
9781433128103
Language
English
Publication date
2016 (April)
Published
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 252 pp.

Biographical notes

Theodore N. Levterov (Author)

Theodore N. Levterov is Assistant Professor at the School of Religion and Director of the Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office at Loma Linda University, California. He has worked as a pastor in his native Bulgaria and in the United States. He holds a BA in theology from Newbold College, England, an MDiv and a PhD in religion with emphasis on Adventist history from Andrews University, Michigan. He has published articles and several book chapters related to the history of Seventh-day Adventism and Ellen G. White. He is working on a book exploring the Adventist Heritage of Health.

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Title: The Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Understanding of Ellen G. White’s Prophetic Gift, 1844-1889