Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Friday, July 15, 2011

In Depth, Ellen White as lesser light

For quite some time there has been the idea in the Adventist church that Ellen G. White is the lesser light meant to lead us to the greater light of the Bible. This view is largely based upon a heavily edited quote that certain compilers made when apparently trying to sell more Ellen White books. Wikipedia notes: “During her lifetime she wrote more than 5,000 periodical articles and 40 books. Today, including compilations from her 50,000 pages of manuscript, more than 100 titles are available in English.” That means that there have been 60 compilations compared to 40 original books.

Compilations give the editors a way to take what they consider to be important quotes from Ellen White's unpublished material and it also allows them to restate her original material possibly to carry a different sentiment then the original in context. With regard to the lesser light and greater light issue most Adventists will refer to the compilation rather then to Ellen White's original published article. In the 1953 compilation book entitled Colporteur Ministry, we read:

Sell Books That Give Light—The Lord has sent His people much instruction, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little. Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light. Oh, how much good would be accomplished if the books containing this light were read with a determination to carry out the principles they contain! There would be a thousandfold greater vigilance, a thousandfold more self-denial and resolute effort. And many more would now be rejoicing in the light of present truth. {CM 125.2}
You can also find it in the other compilations Evangelism and Selected Messages. The White Estates new search engine lists the Evangelism (1946) quote as:
--The Greater and Lesser Lights—Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.—The Colporteur Evangelist, 37. (1902) {Ev 257.1}
What one notices when searching the Ellen White writings is that most of the references seemed to be only found in compilations. Looking through White Estate search engines for Colporteur Evangelist the book is displayed but it does not give a date. One website has a version as a PDF which indicates that the Colporteur Evangelist is a compilation, though PDF version is dated 1950. As it turns out the Coporteur Evangelsist is not from 1902 but selected from another compilation the Manual for Canvassers, (see here )
“Through the years, guidance in publishing and circulating our literature has been given through the pen of Ellen G. White. In these counsels the selling of our truth-filled books and papers is elevated to a work comparable to that of the gospel ministry. The seller of books is seen as a colporteur evangelist.”

“In 1902 A number of statements from the pen of Mrs. White relating to our colporteur ministry were assembled and published in Manual for Canvassers. Subsequent Ellen G. White counsels on our literature ministry led to an enlargement of this work, and in 1920 the much loved Colporteur Evangelist appeared. This little work has been published in many languages and has been widely circulated.”
Of all of these compilations: Colporteur Ministries , Evangelism, and the earlier Colporter Evangelist only Selected Messages Book 3 listed the actual reference to the published quote where Ellen White presumably sets herself as the lesser light (there are also a few lesser known compilations but they also do not list the source). If she intended to be thought of as the lesser light it is strange that other Adventist writers of her time did not refer to her as a lesser light.. It appears to be a product of the editors of the compilations an attempt to redirect possible critics of Ellen White by the compilations. All compilations are the work of the White Estate as per Ellen White's last will and testament.
The Ellen G. White® Estate, Incorporated, is an organization created by the last will and testament of Ellen G. White to act as her agent in the custody of her writings, handling her properties, "conducting the business thereof," "securing the printing of new translations," and the "printing of compilations from my manuscripts." Her will, dated Feb. 9, 1912
It turns out that the quote came from The Review and Herald, January 20, 1903 (also published in some other Adventist periodicals within a year or two):
Many more of our larger books might have been sold if church members had been awake to the importance of the truths these books contain, and had realized their responsibility to circulate them. My brethren and sisters, will you not now make an effort to circulate these books? and will you not bring into this effort the enthusiasm that you brought into the effort to sell "Christ's Object Lessons"? In selling this book many have learned how to handle the larger books. They have obtained an experience that has prepared them to enter the canvassing field.
Sister White is not the originator of these books. They contain the instruction that during her life-work God has been giving her. They contain the precious, comforting light that God has graciously given his servant to be given to the world. From their pages this light is to shine into the hearts of men and women, leading them to the Saviour. The Lord has declared that these books are to be scattered throughout the world. There is in them truth which to the receiver is a savor of life unto life. They are silent witnesses for God. In the past they have been the means in his hands of convicting and converting many souls. Many have read them with eager expectation, and, by reading them, have been led to see the efficacy of Christ's atonement, and to trust in its power. They have been led to commit the keeping of their souls to their Creator, waiting and hoping for the coming of the Saviour to take his loved ones to their eternal home. In the future, these books are to make the gospel plain to many others, revealing to them the way of salvation.
The Lord has sent his people much instruction, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little. Little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light. O, how much good would be accomplished if the books containing this light were read with a determination to carry out the principles they contain! There would be a thousandfold greater vigilance, a thousandfold more self-denial and resolute effort. And many more would now be rejoicing in the light of present truth.
My brethren and sisters, work earnestly to circulate these books. Put your hearts into this work, and the blessing of God will be with you. Go forth in faith, praying that God will prepare hearts to receive the light. Be pleasant and courteous. Show by a consistent course that you are true Christians. Walk and work in the light of heaven, and your path will be as the path of the just, shining more and more unto the perfect day.
We can see from the quote in context that Ellen White is claiming that she did not originate these books but that she is presenting the God given instruction she received. Further it is God who declares that these books should be scattered throughout the world. The instruction is attributed to God as is the instruction to scatter the books, it is not instruction she received from the Bible. It is instruction she received during her lifetime from God Himself, according to her own writing.

But in the contemporary Adventist world which is careful to try and not appear to be a cult they have thought to redact the quote into the idea that Ellen White is a lesser light meant to lead us to the scriptures. As the following quote from Tim Poirier was used in the article Ellen G. White and Sola Scriptura Merlin D. Burt in dialog with the Presbyterian Church USA (Seventh-day Adventist Church and Presbyterian Church USA Conversation Office of the General Assembly PC (USA) Louisville, KY August 23, 2007)

Ellen White used analogy to describe the relationship of her writings to scripture. She wrote that “little heed is given to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light.”20 The “greater light-lesser light” comparison suggested that “just as the moon derives its light from the sun and reflects only what that source emits, so her messages are seen as deriving their authority from scripture, serving only to mirror the principles presented therein.”21 (21 Poirier, “Contemporary Prophecy,” 16)
To get to that point however you have to forget about the rest of the context of the quote. In context the greater light...the source of light would be God, Ellen White would be reflecting the light she received from God thus her writing become a lesser light, the greater light being God. For example she wrote:
Christ makes no apology when he declares, "I am the Light of the world." He was, in life and teaching, the gospel, the foundation of all pure doctrine. Just as the sun compares with the lesser lights in the heavens, so did Christ, the source of all light, compare with the teachers of his day. He was before them all; and shining with the brightness of the sun, he diffused his penetrating, gladdening rays throughout the world. (Youth Instructor.1897-09-16.004)
Anyone that receives light from God and then processes it through their speaking or writing would then be a reflector of the light of God. That is the obvious implications of the quote in context but what of the idea that her writings derive their authority from scripture and therefore are meant to point us back to scripture?

We don't have to go very far to test that idea we can do it directly from the material we saw in the Review and Herald quote. So let us ask the question where in the scriptures do we find God telling us to scatter the writings of Ellen White throughout the world? Of course we don't so what about scattering the writings of any Prophet to the world? Again the answer is no. Paul passed his writings on and some of the other New Testament writers likely distributed their letters to several places. But again that was not some instruction of God recorded someone in the New Testament. One could say that scattering the books is simply spreading the gospel therefore scattering the books of Ellen White or anyone else who talks about God or claims their writings lead people to God should have their books scattered throughout the world. I would like my writings to be scattered throughout the world also, but I can't say that is what the Bible tells me to do or that it is what the Lord has declared.

A second test we could use is found in the King James quote Ellen White uses from Isaiah:

Isaiah 28:8-13 NIV:
All the tables are covered with vomit and there is not a spot without filth. "Who is it he is trying to teach? To whom is he explaining his message? To children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast? For it is: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule n; a little here, a little there." Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, "This is the resting place, let the weary rest"; and, "This is the place of repose"-- but they would not listen. So then, the word of the LORD to them will become: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there-- so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured.
This verse in context is not a description of how to study the Bible or any of the component parts of the Bible. As the Expositor's Bible Commentary states:
9-10 As the prophet declared the word of God in this drink-dominated setting, his hearers made their response. The NIV is probably right in treating both these verses as a quotation of the words of the drunkards. They felt insulted. Were they not themselves spiritual leaders, well able to teach others? What right had this man to place them in the classroom and teach them the spiritual ABC's? There is some thing ironic about the reference to milk (v. 9) in such a context.
Many commentators have been puzzled by v. 10 and have wrestled to make sense of the Hebrew. The truth of the matter seems to be, as the NIV margin suggests, that it is not meant to make sense. Isaiah's words had hardly penetrated the alcohol -impregnated atmosphere that surrounded his hearers. What they picked up were simply a few stray syllables, some of them repeated, like the baby-talk that delights the child but would insult the adult. They mouth this gibberish back at the prophet. The transmitter was as strong and clear as ever; it was the receivers that were at fault. Their judgment, meantime, lay in their failure to hear the word that could have led them back to God; but there was another judgment on its way, most appropriate in its form. Their sin had turned the word of God through Isaiah into a meaningless noise that might just as well have been a foreign language.
See an article on the myth of precept upon precept line upon line
We can grant that Ellen White held to a Christian tradition with her use of the precept by precept quote but it is something that has been taken out of context and given a meaning that is not really true for how to study anything let alone the Bible. In fact if one does that they can simply take from here or there a precept or a line and add it to another line or precept. Context or meaning would just be obstacles we overcome with a bit of editing here and there.
Ellen White has several quotes on the importance and use of the Bible. Like most all other Christians she affirms it should be the standard for faith and practice. In fact she claims it is because people don't study their Bibles that they need her writings:
I took the precious Bible and surrounded it with the several Testimonies for the Church, given for the people of God. Here, said I, the cases of nearly all are met. The sins they are to shun are pointed out. The counsel that they desire can be found here, given for other cases situated similarly to themselves. God has been pleased to give you line upon line and precept upon precept. But there are not many of you that really know what is contained in the Testimonies. You are not familiar with the Scriptures. If you had made God’s word your study, with a desire to reach the Bible standard and attain to Christian perfection, you would not have needed the Testimonies. It is because you have neglected to acquaint yourselves with God’s inspired Book that He has sought to reach you by simple, direct testimonies, calling your attention to the words of inspiration which you had neglected to obey, and urging you to fashion your lives in accordance with its pure and elevated teachings. (Testimonies for the Church Volume 2 page 605)
If one thought that people were not studying their Bibles and the Bible was the central source for truth should not the emphasis have been upon the Bible rather then further testimonies? Do we really need Ellen White to mis-define the Bible for us or to add vast quantities of information that the Bible never mentions. Consider the picture on the Sabbath School Lesson Study guide for the first quarter of 2003, a painting of Adam and Eve offering a Sacrifice. Is that a story found in the Bible? Of course not, it is widely held by Christians however and as such one of the many additions that Ellen White writes about as if it was found in the Bible. Traditions added to the Bible by Ellen White are still only traditions, they don't become Bible truth...or they should not but as we all know for many Adventists once Ellen White said something it becomes as good as Bible truth.
Still we find a bit of a conflict within Ellen White herself when she talks about her writings. In a Manuscript Release published well after her death we read this quote:
How can the Lord bless those who manifest a spirit of “I don’t care,” a spirit which leads them to walk contrary to the light which the Lord has given them. But I do not ask you to take my words. Lay Sister White to one side. Do not quote my works again as long as you live until you can obey the Bible. When you make the Bible your food, your meat and your drink, when you make its principles the elements of your character, you will know better how to receive counsel from God. I exalt the precious word before you today. Do not repeat what I have said, saying, “Sister White said this,” and, “Sister White said that.” Find out what the Lord God of Israel says, and then do what He commands.—Ms 43, 1901, p. 10. (E. G. White talk in college library, April 1, 1901.) {5MR 141.1 Manuscript Releases Vol 5}
Or more acurately as the Spalding Magan collection states:
(Verbatim report of remarks by Mrs. E. G. White, at a meeting held in Battle Creek College library, April 1, at the General Conference of 1901.) {SpM 162.3}

Lay Sister White right to one side: lay her to one side. Don’t you never quote my words again as long as you live, until you can obey the Bible. When you take the Bible and make that your food, and your meat, and your drink, and make that the elements of your character, when you can do that you will know better how to receive some counsel from God. But here is the Word, the precious Word, exalted before you today. And don’t you give a rap any more what “Sister White said”—“Sister White said this,” and “Sister White said that,” and “Sister White said the other thing.” But say, “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel,” and then you do just what the Lord God of Israel does, and what he says.
Christ says, “I do the works of my Father. The works that I saw him do, I do.” Now the works and the sentiments and the principles that we have seen, that God has manifest in dealing with one another, the the purchase of the blood of Christ - only think of it {SpM 167.2}
In one place she says that her “testimonies” were intended “because you have neglected to acquaint yourselves with God’s inspired Book that He has sought to reach you by simple, direct testimonies...”(1871) and much later saying don't quote Sister White until you can obey the Bible (1901). Of course there will be apologist who seek to reconcile the statements just as there are apologists for politicians who present conflicting ideas at different times. Then there is the question of what does it mean to obey the Bible? Is obeying the law the same as obeying the Bible and which law is required to be obeyed?
Notice the next line, it was a talk or sermon so it may or may not be another paragraph of thought or a continuation but she says; Christ says, “I do the works of my Father. The works that I saw him do, I do.” If you know your Bible you will realize that nowhere is that quote or idea found. The closest Bible verse is John 10:37 and it is not that similar When you read Ellen White you can't help but wonder is she leading you to the Bible or trying to lead you to her interpretation of the Bible. Her understanding being what she thinks God has instructed her somehow through her lifetime. Because honestly you don't get many of the things that Ellen White proclaims from the Bible. Read the first few chapters of the book Patriarchs and Prophets with your Bible and see how most of what she says is found nowhere in the Bible.
The final point is one that I have asked a few people, if Ellen White is meant to lead people to the Bible and people already agree that they should be getting their doctrine from the Bible why would they need Ellen White at all? If I choose not to accept Ellen White as a prophet but accept the Bible as God given inspiration why is it a problem to disagree with Ellen Whites writings or ideas? If I believe the Bible why do I need to believe her additions to the Bible? If her purpose was to lead to the Bible why would she need to be thought of as the Adventist fundamental belief 18 states: “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...” Because frankly Ellen White's writings don't really make it clear that “the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.” After all she is not even claiming the books are from her but are from God. Was God so confused when inspiring the Genesis and Exodus stories that he could not tell us how God taught Adam and Eve how to make sacrifices and that the sacrifices were to be a symbol of the coming Messiah, let alone forget all about it on the more technical books that describe in details sacrifices and temple rituals and equipment? It does not seem likely, it seems more likely that God led people with ever increasing knowledge, a progressive process, which is much different from the regressive process which would have to exist if all these early Bible characters knew all the things that Ellen White says they knew.
If you claim she is a lesser light, you can't possibly mean a lesser light to the Bible with all the additions and explanations she adds to the Bible, it simply makes no sense, at least if you hold her as a continuing and authoritative source of truth. It might be conceivable as a lesser light if one held her as a commentator fallible and subject to errors of interpretation and over emphasis on traditions, but that is not how Adventism treats Ellen White at all. After all what other commentator claims that their writings are from God?

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