Alleged Ellen White contradictions: exploding the urban legends

This is the first in a series of articles on alleged contradictions in the writings of Ellen White. "Part 1: Basic Principles" seeks to establish basic principles in the discussion.

The assumption that the writings of Ellen White contain internal contradictions of a substantive nature—that at different times throughout her ministry she changed a number of theological and other positions, all the while claiming divine inspiration—is a notion increasingly taken for granted in certain circles of contemporary Adventism.  Those adhering to this assumption who persist in believing in the authenticity of Ellen White’s prophetic gift often use the word “growth” to describe these purported changes.  (Those bluntly dismissing her prophetic claims as fraudulent often employ less charitable language.)

But whether one describes these alleged changes as “growth” or outright contradiction, whether those ascribing inconsistency to her work choose to accept or reject her claim to be an inspired messenger, the outcome—theoretical and practical—remains much the same.  In either case we have a collection of purportedly sacred writings on our hands which cannot be trusted as an objective, transcendent, error-free measure of truth.  And the logical result of this conclusion isn’t hard to figure out.  If in fact the witness of a prophet is inherently contradictory, the way is open for believers as individuals as well as the corporate faith community to contradict the prophet when purported wisdom, discernment, or circumstantial adjustment so demand.

Attendant to assumptions of internal contradiction in Ellen White’s prophetic testimony is the claim that she never intended her writings to be used to settle doctrinal or other spiritual controversies, and that those Adventists who have used her writings in this manner are giving them a role she never gave them.  It is Ellen White’s apologists, these revisionists claim, not her critics, that have supposedly done her the greatest disservice.

We will consider this claim in this article and in a series to follow, which will address popular allegations regarding Ellen White’s prophetic authority and purported inconsistency.  We will begin with basic principles, in particular the relationship of canonical to non-canonical prophetic authority as found in the Bible, together with Ellen White’s statements regarding the scope and specifics of her prophetic ministry. What I believe we will find, as the series progresses, is the extent to which many revisionist assumptions regarding Ellen White in various segments of the contemporary church, more accurately constitute what sociologists call “urban legends” than newly discovered facts.

It has long been the present writer’s conviction that the greatest threat to Ellen White’s prophetic ministry is not to be found in the venom-dripping Internet sites with their blunt accusations of fraud and falsehood, nor in the embittered rants of such as the late Walter Rea in his infamous book The White Lie.  Rather, the greatest threat to Ellen White’s prophetic role is analogous to those who admit that Jesus was a very good man, perhaps the best spiritual teacher of all time, but not the incarnate Son of the eternal, personal God of Scripture.  Modern and postmodern Ellen White revisionists use a similar approach to her prophetic authority.  Rather than call her a charlatan and a hoax, they insist she was indeed an inspired messenger of the Lord, but one whose authority holds a lesser claim on the believer’s conscience than the commands of Scripture, that her counsel to the church was not always consistent, and that at times she was significantly wrong and at odds with Scripture in various doctrinal and moral positions taken in her writings.  On this basis, these revisionists—often called “progressives”—reserve the right to differ with the counsel of Ellen White when their study of Scripture, science, or history so directs.

It is this moderate position—this “third option”—regarding Ellen White’s role in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which will constitute the principal focus of this article and the series to follow.

Perhaps it should be noted, before proceeding, that the phrase “significantly wrong” as used above is crucial to the focus of our study.  We are not addressing here such peripheral discrepancies in the inspired writings as how many of Jacob’s family came to Egypt (see Gen. 46:27; Acts 7:14) or exactly which bell tolled to signal the start of the St. Bartholomew Massacre (see Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years, 1905-1915, pp. 330-331).  The following Ellen White statement regarding Scripture comes to mind in this regard, which can certainly be applied to her own writings as well:

Some look at us gravely and say, “Don’t you think there might have been some mistake in the copyist or in the translators?”  This is all probable, and the mind that is so narrow that it will hesitate and stumble over this possibility or probability will be just as ready to stumble over the mysteries of the inspired Word, because their feeble minds cannot see through the purposes of God (1SM 16).

In short, it is allegations of substantive error, not peripheral discrepancy, which are the subject of the present series of articles.

Canonical and Non-Canonical Prophets

There are those who employ the sola scriptura (the Bible alone) mantra of the Protestant Reformers as a means of ascribing to Ellen White’s writings a lesser degree of spiritual authority or overall reliability than what is held regarding the canonical Scriptures.  The most serious problem with this theory, however, is that the Biblical narrative records the experience and testimonies of any number of persons who possessed the gift of prophecy, offered counsel and rebuke to God’s people and at times to the world also, and whose ministry—irrespective of the fact that their writings were not later canonized by the church—gives every evidence of wielding the same authority over the belief and practice of the faith community as those prophets whose writings were in fact later canonized by the church.

Such Biblical prophets as Deborah, Nathan, Gad, Elijah, Elisha, Huldah, Anna, and John the Baptist come to mind in this regard.  Not only did these prophets bear an oral testimony to the faith community, but in some cases a written message also.  Nathan and Gad, for example, are noted in Scripture as having written prophetic books (I Chron. 29:29).  The same is true for such non-canonical prophets as Shemaiah (who gave counsel to Judah’s King Rehoboam) and another prophet named Iddo (II Chron. 12:15).

Few would venture to suggest that prophets like Nathan and Gad, whose writings were not later canonized, somehow exercised less spiritual authority over the faith community than one such as David, whose writings would in fact receive canonization in the future.  Both Nathan and Gad, as we know, rebuked David’s conduct on notable occasions (e.g. II Sam. 12:1-14; 24:11-14).  (Imagine David telling Gad that the rebuke the latter gave for the numbering of Israel need not necessarily be accepted, as Gad was destined to be a non-canonical prophet while David, by contrast, was destined in fact to be canonical!)

Jesus would later describe His forerunner, John the Baptist, as “more than a prophet,” and stated that “among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:9,11).  Yet no book of the Bible bears his name.

This is not to call into question the later process of canonization so far as either the Old or the New Testament is concerned.  What the above facts help to establish, however, is that a prophet is not authoritative because he or she is first canonical.  Rather, a prophet is canonical because he or she is first authoritative.  God does not have junior prophets.

The Lesser Light

On what basis, then, did Ellen White call herself the “lesser light” (3SM 30)?  For the following reason, spelled out so clearly in the statement below, speaking of her writings:

Additional truth is not brought out, but God has through the Testimonies simplified the great truths already given (5T 665).

In other words, Ellen White’s writings are the lesser light because they teach no original truths, doctrines, or moral principles.  All of these come from the Bible.  Ellen White merely amplifies and simplifies what Scripture already teaches.   Nowhere does Ellen White give her writings some lesser degree of authority over the beliefs and practices of church members, as if a statement from her pen need not be taken with quite the gravity or seriousness as a text from the Bible.

Too often, in modern Adventism, Ellen White’s “lesser light” language has been taken to mean that while the words of Scripture can’t rightly be argued with, the words of Ellen White are presumably open to dispute and disagreement.  In practical terms, such thinking assumes that while Biblical statements can properly be used to settle a theological or lifestyle issue, statements from Ellen White cannot necessarily be thus used.    It is thus implied that while Ellen White statements regarding such topics as salvation, the judgment, worship, relationships, diet, or dress may authorize or prohibit various ideas or behaviors, the issue is left to the believer’s discretion so long as Scripture contains no explicit counsel on the subject in dispute.

Adventists who eat flesh meat have often used this argument—to which those born and bred in the church can readily bear witness.  Those choosing to disregard this aspect of Ellen White’s counsel often insist that because the Bible gives them permission to eat those meats identified as clean (Lev. 11; Deut. 14:3-21)—never mind that it also says to use no fat or blood (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; Acts 15:20,29), a rule nearly all carnivorous Adventists of my acquaintance fully disregard—that on this basis the counsel of Ellen White forbidding the use of all meat can legitimately be ignored.  In one Sabbath School class attended years ago by the present writer, a man and his wife also claimed that Adventists should stop imposing “man-made” rules on church members, one of which they said was our stand against smoking.  This counsel was “man-made,” in their view, because it is found in Ellen White’s writings but not in the Bible.  (In retrospect, I wished I had asked if they thought cocaine or heroin use could rightly be forbidden by the church, since these too are unmentioned in Scripture.)

According to Ellen White, “the Holy Ghost is the author of the Scriptures and of the Spirit of Prophecy” (3SM 30).  The former is greater and the latter lesser in the sense that truth is original in the former and amplified in the latter.  The difference is in their function, not their authority.  Nothing in the writings of Ellen White, or in the Biblical testimony concerning the work of prophets, lends any credence to the theory that one set of prophetic writings can lay a greater or lesser claim to the conscience than another.  The difference between canonical and non-canonical prophets—specifically in this case, between the Bible and Ellen White—is very simple: Different function, same authority.

Verbal Inspiration: A Major Red Herring

Often in discussions about Ellen White’s role in the church, the contrast between verbal versus conceptual inspiration is brought up.  This issue really has nothing to do with the relationship between the Bible and Ellen White’s writings, as Ellen White is clear that the Bible writers themselves were not verbally inspired.  On this point she declares:

The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression.  It is that of humanity.  God, as a writer, is not represented.  Men will often say such an expression is not like God.  But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible.  The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. . . .

It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.  Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts.  But the words receive the impress of the individual mind.  The divine mind is diffused.  The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God (1SM 21).

But at the bottom line, whether an idea found in the inspired writings was dictated verbally or only conceptually, makes no difference so far as its governance of human ideas and conduct is concerned.  Such Bible doctrines as the Trinity, the virgin birth, salvation, the Sabbath, natural mortality, and the investigative judgment are no less true through conceptual inspiration than they would be through verbal inspiration.  And the same is true with Ellen White’s theological, liturgical, and lifestyle instruction.

In light of the above Ellen White statement regarding the divine imbuing of a prophet’s thoughts, the following statement from her pen about the divine origin of her work is especially significant:

How many have read carefully Patriarchs and Prophets, The Great Controversy, and The Desire of Ages?  I wish all to understand that my confidence in the light that God has given stands firm, because I know that the Holy Spirit’s power magnified the truth, and made it honorable, thus saying, “This is the way; walk ye in it.”  In my books, the truth is stated, barricaded by a “Thus saith the Lord.”  The Holy Spirit traced these truths upon my heart and mind as indelibly as the law was traced by the finger of God upon the tables of stone (CM 126).

In short, neither Scripture nor the writings of Ellen White are verbally inspired.  But as the latter are in full concurrence with the former, the thoughts of both find complete harmony with each other as well as within themselves, with both claiming identical authority over the faith and practices of Seventh-day Adventists.

Ellen White on Her Doctrinal Authority

Certain contemporary Adventist thought leaders insist that Ellen White never intended to be a “theological policewoman” or an “exegetical referee” with regard to Biblical interpretation.  They thus maintain that those Adventists who use her writings as doctrinally or morally authoritative are using them in a way she never designed or foresaw.  Some have even claimed she would be angry at the way theologically conservative Adventist have used her writings since her death.

But the following statements from Ellen White’s pen are as clear as possible that an affirmative and corrective doctrinal role is very much a part of her prophetic portfolio:

God has, in that Word (the Bible), promised to give visions in the last days, not for a new rule of faith, but for the comfort of His people, and to correct those who err from Bible truth (EW 78).  

The Lord has given me much light that I want the people to have; for there is instruction that the Lord has given me for His people.  It is light that they should have, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.  This is now to come before the people, because it has been given to correct specious errors, and to specify what is truth (3SM 32).

Additional truth is not brought out, but God has through the Testimonies simplified the great truths already given (5T 665).

My accompanying angel presented before me some of the errors of those present, and also the truth in contrast with their errors.  That these discordant views, which they claimed to be according to the Bible, were only according to their opinion of the Bible, and that their errors must be yielded, and they unite upon the third angel’s message.  Our meeting ended victoriously.  Truth gained the victory” (2SGa 98-99).

Serious errors in doctrine and practice were cherished. . . . God revealed these errors to me in vision and sent me to His erring children to declare them (5T 655-656).

At that time one error after another pressed in upon us; ministers and doctors brought in new doctrines.  We would search the Scriptures with much prayer, and the Holy Spirit would bring the truth to our minds.   The power of God would come upon me, and I was enabled clearly to define what is truth and what is error (GW 302).

Did Ellen White Ever Refuse to Settle a Doctrinal Controversy?

Some will point to two particular incidents in Ellen White’s ministry where in fact she did refuse to address a doctrinal controversy or to permit her writings to be used to settle it.  But when we examine these cases carefully, it becomes clear as to the reason she refused to settle—or permit her writings to settle—these particular disputes.

The first of these is the argument, which still continues in some circles today, regarding the identity of the “daily” in the book of Daniel.  This discussion, as many will recall, is over whether the “daily” which the little horn (the papacy) took away represents paganism, or the mediatorial work of Christ in heaven.  (In a future installment of this series we will address the claim that Ellen White’s statements on this issue contradict each other.)  But Ellen White was very clear as to why she did not want her writings used in this particular controversy:

I entreat of Elders H, I, J, and others of our leading brethren, that they make no reference to my writings to sustain their views of “the daily.”

It has been presented to me that this is not a subject of vital importance.  I am instructed that our brethren are making a mistake in magnifying the importance of the difference in the views that are held.  I cannot consent that any of my writings shall be taken in settling this matter.  The true meaning of “the daily” is not to be made a test question.

I now ask that my ministering brethren shall not make use of my writings in their arguments regarding this question [“the daily”]; for I have had no instruction on the point under discussion, and I see no need for the controversy (1SM 164).

Why did she ask that her writings not be used to settle this argument?  Not, as some allege, because her prophetic ministry had no role in settling doctrinal controversy, but because—in her words—“I have had no instruction on the point under discussion” (1SM 164).  Obviously she couldn’t give any affirmative or corrective counsel to the church in any line unless the Lord had so instructed.

The second of these issues is the 1888-era controversy over the scope of the law as described in the book of Galatians.  As with the issue of the “daily,” we will later consider in this series the allegation of contradiction on Ellen White’s part regarding this question.  For the present, our focus is the question of why she hesitated at first to publicly address this issue.  And it is for the same reason that she withheld comment regarding the “daily.”

When the dispute over the law in Galatians first began in the lead-up to the Minneapolis General Conference of 1888, Ellen White took a position of tentative neutrality until she was either divinely instructed or could learn more of both views in the controversy.  “I cannot take my position on either side,” she explained, “until I have studied the question” (1888 Materials, vol. 1, p. 153).  At a later point her angelic instructor said of both persuasions: “Neither have all the light upon the law; neither position is perfect” (Ibid, p. 93).  Shortly after Minneapolis she wrote that the issue in question “should not be handled in a debating style,” that it was “not a vital question and should not be treated as such” (3SM 174-175).

A few years later, when the controversy had subsided to some degree and she better understood the views of both camps, Ellen White was divinely led to reaffirm the stand she had taken earlier in her ministry:

I am asked concerning the law in Galatians.  What law is the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ?  I answer: Both the ceremonial and the moral code of ten commandments (1SM 233).  

At no time since, to the present writer’s knowledge, has this controversy risen again to vex the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  The above Ellen White statement has effectively settled it.


Though not all prophets in Biblical times delivered testimonies which the church later canonized, Scripture offers no evidence of any authoritative difference between the divine authenticity of those prophetic writings which were later canonized and those that were not.  And while the Bible and Ellen White’s writings perform different respective functions—the former establishing truth, the latter affirming and clarifying it—the authority exercised by both bodies of writings over the beliefs and conduct of church members is identical in both supernatural origin and intended spiritual impact.

In the articles to follow we will consider a number of alleged contradictions in the writings of Ellen White.  The present writer recommends as companion material for this series such books as Messenger of the Lord, by Herbert E. Douglass, and One Hundred and One Questions on the Sanctuary and Ellen White, by Robert W. Olson, as well as the older book by Francis D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics.