The 1919 Bible Conference, held four years after Ellen White’s death, was a significant event in the history of the Church, yet the minutes of the meetings were buried in the White Estate archives until the early 1970s and we’ve heard little about them since then.
Michael Campbell, who did his doctoral studies on the Conference, released a book this year that addresses this neglect, 1919: The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism.1
“All of the issues discussed,” writes Campbell, “revolved in some way or another around the twin issues of how to interpret the Bible and Ellen White’s writings. . . . Thus, hermeneutics (the way that inspired writings are interpreted) would become a central focus.”2
According to Arthur G Daniells (1858-1935), the longest serving General Conference president (1901–1922), the leaders of the Church struggled with two false teachings: that Ellen White was infallible, and that her writings were verbally inspired (dictated by God) and therefore inerrant.3
These views were “widely held among Adventists in her lifetime”, acknowledges George Knight in his recent book, Ellen White’s Afterlife: Delightful Fictions, Troubling Facts, and Enlightening Research.4 For example, he shares a letter Dr David Paulson, the founder of Hinsdale Hospital, wrote to Ellen White, with her reply:
“I was led to conclude and most firmly believe that every word that you ever spoke in public or private, that every letter you wrote under any and all circumstances, was as inspired as the Ten Commandments. I held that view with absolute tenacity against innumerable objections raised to it by many who were occupying prominent positions in the cause.”
“My brother,” she replied, “you have studied my writings diligently, and you have never found that I have made any such claims. Neither will you find that the pioneers in our cause have made such claims.”5
At the 1919 Bible Conference, G B Thompson highlighted the reason for the church struggle. “If we had always taught the truth . . . [about her writings not being verbally inspired], we would not have any trouble or shock in the denomination now. . . [We] have put the Testimonies on a plane where she says they do not stand. We have claimed more for them than she did.”6
Campbell reflects, “Thompson’s brief comment . . . [became] one of the most famous statements from the 1919 Bible Conference.”7
“The discussions about Ellen White and inspiration,” Campbell reveals, “showcase the reality that there were two contrasting positions about Adventist hermeneutics”—that of the “progressives” and the “traditionalists”. The “progressives” were older men who, from firsthand experience, knew that her writings “were not inerrant, nor was she infallible”. “The ‘traditionalists’, who tended to be much younger and most of whom had not worked closely with Ellen White, believed that Ellen White’s writings, along with the Bible, were verbally inspired and thus inerrant.”8
Campbell considers that they “were both much closer to each other than either group realised” but debate pushed them farther apart.9 This begs the question: how can this be so, when these two views on inspiration are diametrically opposed to each other? [pullquote]
“These issues were not settled in 1919,” observes Campbell, but “continue to be a topic of debate” to the present.10 More than just a “topic of debate”, they represent two completely opposing theologies, not just of inspiration, but of salvation, that still divides the Church and causes confusion among members.
“In regard to infallibility,” Ellen White clearly stated, “I never claimed it; God alone is infallible” (1SM 37). “We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view . . . will be disappointed” (RH, July 26, 1892).
Gerhard Pfandl, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, in a Sabbath School lesson, “The Prophetic gift” reminds us that:
“Ellen White was not infallible, and she never claimed infallibility. She grew, changed her mind on issues, and was constantly open for more light. . . . Her writings are not another Bible, nor do they carry the kind of authority found in the Bible. [T]he Bible and the Bible alone is our ultimate authority.”11
Contrary to the dictation theory, she acknowledged: “The Bible points to God as its author. . . . The truths revealed are all ‘given by inspiration of God’ (2 Timothy 3:16); yet they are expressed in the words of men.” The Bible is a product of “a union of the divine and the human” (GC88, 10).
“The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect. . . . 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. . . . 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” (1SM 20-21).
These are incredibly insightful comments, even if some of her words were borrowed from Calvin Stowe.12 In other words, God did not dictate His messages to Bible writers or to Ellen White and there’s a human element in the writings that is “imperfect”. Herbert Douglass acknowledges, “The human phase of the divine-human communication system will be beset with occasional discrepancies.”13
That there is a human element in her writings is evidenced by the way her messages were prepared. She had literary assistants and secretaries, who corrected her spelling and grammar; who did research for her; who reworded sentences, helping her to better express the messages from God that she wanted to communicate; and who put together her books.
As well as this, Douglass reveals, Review and Signs editors were given permission to edit her sermons “for their particular needs”.14
At the General Conference, October 30, 1911, W C White, Ellen White’s son, said: “Mother has never claimed to be authority on history . . . [or] to verbal inspiration. . . . If there were verbal inspiration in writing her manuscripts, why should there be revisions?”15
In writing to SN Haskell the same year, W C White said, with Great Controversy, after giving a partial description of a scene, his mother instructed Sister Davis [her bookmaker] to refer to Uriah Smith’s books and “secular histories”, for details. “I believe, Brother Haskell, that there is danger of our injuring Mother’s work by claiming for it more than she or Father claims for it.”16
The 1919 Bible Conference revealed that “J N Anderson prepared those historical quotations for the old edition” and Robinson, Crisler, Prescott and others “furnished the quotations for the new edition” correcting historical inaccuracies pointed out by Prescott and others. Prescott reported, “If they did not find in her writings anything on certain chapters to make the historical connections, . . . sometimes her secretaries . . . would prepare a chapter . . . [to] fill the gap.”17
Daniells stated it “is not honest and . . . Christian” to make “false claims” that Ellen White was infallible and verbally inspired. “In Australia,” he revealed, “I saw the rewriting of chapters [of The Desire of Ages] . . . over and over and over again. . . . If these false positions had never been taken, the thing would be much plainer than today.”18
In discussing the limitations of Ellen White’s giftedness, we don’t want to minimise her contribution to the Adventist Church. God used her in a special way. In Campbell’s assessment, “The greatest proof of her genuine prophetic gift was her overall life and contributions to the Church, which could be seen in such areas as world evangelism, education, medical missions, and her overall spirit of sacrificial service.”19
Errol Webster is a retired pastor living in Bathurst, New South Wales, and author of Try Jesus lessons. This article is from his upcoming book, Good News for an Ageing Church.