Most Adventists are unaware of the incredibly demanding and difficult personal life Ellen White lived. In addition to the limitations of her life-long poor health, she lost her husband in 1881 to malaria, and spent two years in Europe (1884–86) living out of her luggage and with her personal finances greatly reduced because she had answered the call of the Church. The events of Minneapolis (1888) and their aftermath were challenging as some members and leaders alike strongly resisted her authority and ministry. But by 1891 things were improving and she felt she could withdraw somewhat from public life, move to the new house she was building at Petoskey on the shore of Lake Michigan with her office staff and look forward to focusing on her writing, particularly the new book she was planning on the life of Christ. But it was not to be: Stephen Haskell wanted her in Australia where the young Church was struggling, and though the General Conference was willing to pass that call on to her, she saw little light in it. At 63, she was feeling her age and was tired. She had broken both of her ankles in a recent accident while on vacation in Colorado and, improperly set, they were not healing well, challenging her mobility.
But on December 8, 1891, she arrived in Sydney after a brief stop in Auckland, New Zealand. Her first year in Australia was particularly difficult: bedridden in Melbourne and in considerable pain most of the time, attempting to preach on the weekends when she could, often sitting down to do so after being carried into the meeting, or on occasion using a wheelchair. Too ill to do much writing, she found it hard to understand why she had come so far to be able to do so little. Her circumstances were discouraging but she determined to turn her difficulties into a spiritual blessing—but in application that was not easy.
After some improvement in her health she travelled to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland on February 8, 1893, remaining there until her return to Australia in December. This is a well documented period in her life and there are some lessons to be learned from the challenges she and the infant Church faced in Aotearoa, how she dealt with them and the applicability of these lessons to us today more than 100 years on.
Travelling from Auckland she first visited the Hare family in Kaeo, 257 kilometres to the north, where schoolmaster Father Hare and his wife had a family of 24 children. Ellen White preached in the community and worked personally with the young people in the Hare family. Minnie and Susan Hare were baptised before she left.
This pattern of public preaching and personal witness were characteristic of her approach to soul-winning throughout North New Zealand as she visited Gisborne, Napier, Ormondville, Palmerston North and also Wellington, where she spent most of her time.
Mrs White found the lengthy journeys travelling between these settlements by train or coastal steamer very tiresome. While in Wellington she realised that her abscessed eight remaining teeth had to come out. She had Dr Margaret Caro travel by train from Napier to provide the needed dental care. It was provided without anaesthetic as Mrs White was allergic to the medication used at the time. Ever practical, Mrs White used the next two months to focus on her writing before Dr Caro could fit dentures and enable her return to preaching.
The first Antipodean camp meeting was held in Napier. Few people were expected to attend, but with Mrs White’s presence, attendance doubled. The community was fascinated by this convention and only about half the audience were Adventists. As evangelism had proved incredibly difficult in New Zealand, with the other denominations actively opposed and the unchurched disinterested, it was soon learned that the typical American style camp meeting, previously unknown in New Zealand, was a powerful evangelistic tool. It was later used to particularly good effect in Wellington, just before Mrs White returned to Australia.
Another innovation was to precede evangelistic meetings with presentations on topics of popular interest in the community. Often Ellen White spoke on temperance, a subject that exercised the minds of other Christians as well as Adventists. While other speakers on the subject typically took a health approach, Mrs White always took a spiritual approach. This was unique and, coupled with her very real public speaking ability, drew in the crowds who loved to hear her speak. Thus minds were prepared for follow-up evangelistic meetings.
Wherever she went, she personally witnessed to those she was with and particularly to young people. One outstanding instance was the family of Martha Brown, the first Adventist in her community 90 minutes north of Wellington. There, as she later wrote, “I laboured with the family every morning and night” (Letter 138, 1893). Consequently, four children in that family took their stand for Christ as a result of Mrs White’s presence in their home.
Mrs White’s son, William, was interested in the Maori people and one young lad, Maui Pomare, a student at Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay, became an Adventist because of the influence of the cook at the school. Pomare later studied in Battle Creek, financially assisted by New Zealand church members including Mrs White and Dr Caro, and Dr John Harvey Kellogg, and became the first Maori to qualify as a physician. However, on his return to New Zealand, the Church leadership had no plans for him other than to encourage him to take up literature evangelism. This lack of vision disappointed Mrs White. [pullquote]
In time, while Pomare drifted away from the Church of his youth, he became a powerful advocate for his people, serving as minister for health in a succession of governments and did much to preserve and protect his Maori heritage—something that would have not been possible without the original interest in this young man by Mrs White and Dr Caro particularly. While still a relatively young man and fatally stricken with TB, Sir Maui Pomare returned to the faith of his youth before his death in 1930.
On December 13, 1893, Mrs White sailed on the Wairarapa, stopping at Auckland on the way back to Australia. On this voyage she befriended the stewardess, Mrs McDonald, giving her a copy of her new and best-selling book, Steps To Christ, and spoke to her about her soul’s salvation. Mrs McDonald, however, while desiring to become a Christian, concluded she could not afford to give up her well-paid position on the ship and several weeks later perished with all but two of those on board when the vessel foundered.
So what can we learn from Ellen White’s experience in New Zealand? One thing for certain is that she came to learn that while age and poor health may limit us, there is no retirement from our calling as witnessing Christians. Secondly, she pushed through the barriers of pain and fatigue to continue her soul-winning witness. She did not allow the resistance to public evangelism deter her, but developed new approaches to the community as a half-way step toward developing a subsequent interest in spiritual things.
Above all else she never missed a chance to share her faith, often with complete strangers. When one considers her constant pain and discomfort during those months in New Zealand, that in itself is both remarkable and instructive.
Lester Devine is director emeritus at the Ellen G White/Adventist Research Centre.