Ellen White and the Shut Door Question

This is the second article in a series of articles on alleged contradictions in the writings of Ellen White.

In the first installment of this series, we reviewed a number of basic issues relative to the Bible doctrine of inspiration—in particular the Biblical evidence regarding the relationship of canonical to non-canonical prophets, how Ellen White’s writings function as the lesser light in their relation to the Greater Light of Scripture, and what the writings of Ellen White say regarding their role in doctrinal and other spiritual controversies.  

In the present article we will consider perhaps the most significant allegation of doctrinal contradiction relative to Ellen White’s prophetic ministry—the so-called “shut door” doctrine as taught and debated in the early history of the Advent movement.

Ellen White and the Shut Door Doctrine

Revisionist Adventists, together with many non-Adventist critics of our faith, have alleged for some time that for a number of years following the start of her prophetic ministry in December of 1844, Ellen White taught—on the basis of her first vision and subsequent ones as well—that the door of mercy had closed for the entire world, except for the faithful Adventist band, on October 22, 1844.  This theory, it is claimed, was taught by Ellen White and her fellow laborers for the better part of six years, after which—so the critics say—Ellen White “conveniently” had a vision which corrected this error and thus set the Advent movement onto the path of evangelism and outreach to the world.

But despite the popularity and wide acceptance of this accusation among non-conservative Adventists and numerous opponents of our faith through the years, it is not supported by the facts.

Let us review, carefully, what in fact Ellen White did and did not teach during this particular period:

Before receiving her first vision, she did for a time believe, as did other Millerites, that the door of mercy had closed for the entire world on October 22, 1844.  (Let us remember, of course, that before she received her first vision, Ellen White had no claim to the prophetic office, nor could she have necessarily possessed greater spiritual knowledge than her fellow believers.)  But once she received her first vision and thus the prophetic gift, there is no evidence from her pen—nor any other conclusive evidence—that she ever taught such a concept.

Following is Ellen White’s own explanation of her convictions during this time, written in 1884 as she looked back on this experience:

For a time after the disappointment in 1844, I did hold, in common with the Advent body, that the door of mercy had then forever closed to the world.  This position was taken before my first vision was given me.  It was the light given me of God that corrected our error, and enabled us to see the true position (1SM 63).

With my brethren and sisters, after the time passed in forty-four, I did believe no more sinners would be converted.  But I never had a vision that no more sinners would be converted (1SM 74).  

As in any court of law, the burden of proof rests on the accuser to find Ellen White statements from this period which taught that the door of mercy had indeed closed for the entire world in 1844, and that the above statements from her pen are thus untruthful.  The critics have produced three main pieces of evidence in support of their case: (1) an Ellen White statement from her first vision where she speaks of “all the wicked world which God had rejected” ; (2) a secondhand report from one of Ellen White’s acquaintances; and (3) a letter from Ellen White to Joseph Bates where she speaks of her efforts to convince fellow Adventists that the shut door teaching was true.  

First, the Ellen White statement on the wicked world being rejected.  Here is what it says:

It was just as impossible for them (those who gave up their faith in the ’44 movement) to get on the path again and go to the city, as all the wicked world which God had rejected. They fell all the way along the path one after another (1SM 62).

As with anyone, we need to be fair and let Ellen White define her own words.  She explains what she means by “the wicked world which God had rejected” in the following statement:

These two classes are brought to view in the vision—those who declared the light which they had followed a delusion, and the wicked of the world who, having rejected the light, had been rejected of God.  No reference is made to those who had not seen the light, and therefore were not guilty of its rejection (1SM 64).      

Further evidence that Ellen White did not consider the whole world lost except for those then in the Advent movement, is the fact that in her first vision—the very one is which she spoke of God rejecting “all the wicked world”—she spoke of the living saints at Jesus’ coming being “144,000 in number” (1SM 63).  The records indicate that only 50,000 to 100,000 were waiting for Jesus’ coming in 1844, and by the time of Ellen White’s first vision, the overwhelming majority of these had given up the Advent hope.  Whether one sees the number 144,000 as literal or figurative is beside the point; either way, there weren’t 144,000 Advent believers when Ellen White spoke of the number of living saints at Christ’s return.  (If in fact the number is figurative, it would hardly make sense to speak of 144,000 as symbolic of a mere few hundred or thousand.)  

We can see clearly how, just as Ellen White says (EW 15), the light revealed in her first vision corrected the error she held before—that the door of mercy had closed for the entire world on October 22, 1844.

The second of the pieces of evidence noted earlier is a statement by Otis Nichols, a friend of Ellen White who claims to have heard her say at a January 1845 meeting that “our work was done for the nominal church and the world, and what remained to be done was for the household of faith” (Otis Nichols, quoted by Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, 1827-1862, p. 76).

This report, of course, is secondhand, the opinion of someone who heard Ellen White speak. We all know how easy it is even for friends to misunderstand each other’s words.  No one can fairly accept this as hard proof that she was teaching that the whole world was lost, especially since she not only denies ever teaching this, but also since no written statement of hers can be produced to support the claim that she did.  Simple rules of evidence are involved here, understandable by any attorney or law enforcement officer.  As crime writer and former police officer Joseph Wambaugh has stated, in his bestselling account of the infamous Main Line Murder Case in Pennsylvania, written evidence is far more decisive than spoken evidence since the latter is subject to the ear of the listener (Wambaugh, Echoes in the Darkness, paperback edition, p. 315).

In Ellen White’s own words:

Do not give credence to unauthenticated reports as to what Sister White has done or said or written.  If you desire to know what the Lord has revealed through her, read her published works (5T 696).

The third piece of evidence, purportedly showing that Ellen White taught for a time that the whole world was lost, is a letter she wrote to Joseph Bates on July 13, 1847, in which she spoke of visiting a group of believers and successfully persuading them that the shut door teaching was correct.

Here is the text of the letter:

The view about the Bridegroom’s coming I had about the middle of February, 1845.

While in Exeter, Maine, in meeting with Israel Dammon, James, and many others, many of them did not believe in a shut door.   I suffered much at the commencement of the meeting.  Unbelief seemed to be on every hand.

There was one sister there that was called very spiritual.  She had traveled and been a powerful preacher the most of the time for twenty years.  She had been truly a mother in Israel.  But a division had risen in the band on the shut door.  She had great sympathy, and could not believe that the door was shut.  (I had known nothing of their difference.)  Sister Durben got up to talk.  I felt very, very sad.

At length my soul seemed to be in agony, and while she was talking I fell from my chair to the floor.  It was then I had a view of Jesus rising from His mediatorial throne and going to the holiest, as Bridegroom to receive His kingdom.  They were all deeply interested in the view.  They all said it was entirely new to them.  The Lord worked in mighty power setting the truth home to their hearts.

Sister Durben knew what the power of the Lord was, for she had felt it many times; and a short time after I fell she was struck down, and fell to the floor, crying to God to have mercy on her.  When I came out of vision, my ears were saluted with Sister Durben’s singing and shouting with a loud voice.

Most of them received the vision, and were settled upon the shut door (5MR 97-98).

 What Ellen White’s critics fail to recognize, in their consideration of this letter, is that the term “shut door” meant several different things to the early Advent believers.  The first and most extreme meaning of the term was that the door of mercy had shut for the entire world on October 22, 1844.  This view, as Ellen White acknowledges, was held by her before she received her first vision, and by many other Adventists for several years afterward.  But as the reader can see, nothing in the above letter says anything about the door of mercy closing for the whole world.  

The second definition of the term “shut door” meant that those who had rejected the light in the 1844 movement were shut out, and thus incapable of receiving greater light.  The third definition was that those who failed to follow Christ from the first apartment of the heavenly sanctuary into the second, were shut out, again because they had rejected a Bible truth and could therefore receive no further truth.

Definition One of the shut door was given up by Ellen White after her first vision—since, as we’ve seen already, her first vision indicated there would be at least 144,000 living saints, which was multiplied thousands more than at that time professed Adventism.  Definitions Two and Three of the shut door were held by Ellen White until her death, and are still held today by Seventh-day Adventists who take seriously the Bible teaching that if we reject any truth persistently, God will eventually reject us (Hosea 4:6; John 9:41; Heb. 6:4-6).

Returning to the Bates letter quoted above, we have already seen that nothing it says speaks of the entire world being shut out of God’s mercy.  The only specific feature of the shut door teaching it refers to is the rising of Jesus from His mediatorial throne and going to the Most Holy Place.  In other words, Definition Three, as stated above.  Certainly this offers no proof that Ellen White taught at any time, on the basis of visions, that no more sinners could or would be converted after 1844.

In short, there is no written proof that Ellen White ever taught, while claiming to be inspired, that the whole world except for Adventists was lost after October 22, 1844.  The claims of the critics are based on secondhand sources, a refusal to let Ellen White define her own vocabulary, and the near-universal acceptance by these critics of the unscriptural doctrine that no new event of redemptive significance is possible after Calvary, thus ruling out any salvational meaning for anything happening in 1844.

For further study, the reader is advised to consult the chapter “The Shut and the Open Doors” in volume 1 of the Ellen G. White biography, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, 1827-1862, by Arthur L. White, pp. 256-270, as well as Messenger of the Lord, by Herbert E. Douglass, pp. 500-512,549-555.