Post 8, Struggle Over Ellen White’s Writings

Australian pastor and scholar Gilbert Valentine is the esteemed author of The Shaping of Adventism: The Case of W.W. Prescott (Andrews University Press, 1992), reworked for the Adventist Pioneer series as W.W. Prescott: Forgotten Giant of Adventism’s Second Generation (Review and Herald, 2005). Despite his busy life as provost of Mission College, Thailand, Dr Valentine researched and wrote another book: The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage: Issues in the conflict for the control of Ellen G. White publications, 1930-1939 (Muak Lek, Thailand: Institute Press, 2006).

Ellen White was born on 26 November 1827 and served Sabbatarian Adventists in a public role from December 1844 until near the day of her death. Visitors to her Sunnyside home in Cooranbong can appreciate something of the pressures under which she toiled there from 1895 to 1900: writing letters for the American mail, helping to plan institutions that became Avondale College and Sydney Adventist Hospital, conferring with church leaders, speaking at camp meetings and conferences, writing books likeThoughts from the Mount of Blessing (1896), The Desire of Ages (1898), Christ’s Object Lessons (1900) and Testimonies for the Church (volume six, 1900).

Sunnyside’s rooms often accommodated people busily engaged with local projects or in transit to church appointments. For instance, my grandfather lived there for seven months while the Avondale School for Christian Workers was being carved from the bush. Mrs White returned to California in 1900 at 74 years of age and purchased her last home near Pacific Union College.  She loved the small farm with its elm trees and she longed for a retirement retreat, so she gave it a promising name, Elmshaven.

However, Elmshaven was always far too busy to be thought of as a haven. For instance, in 1910, Ellen White employed fifteen people there in a range of support roles. Ever since the untimely death of her husband James in 1881, her son William Clarence White (she always called him “Willie”) helped with the involved processes of editing and publishing her writings. As Ellen White moved into her eighties, Willie’s supervision became even more important; her 1912 “Last Will and Testament” named him one of five trustees.

Then, on 16 July 1915, Ellen White died, aged 87. After seventy years feeling God was constantly speaking to them through His messenger, Adventists held three large funeral services and tried to come to terms with the harsh reality of another White family grave in Battle Creek’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Some Adventists felt Ellen White’s work was done, that the doors to the building that housed her letters and manuscripts could be locked and her staff dispersed. It was natural for Willie White to be the principal custodian of his mother’s writings, of course in liaison with the other appointed trustees scattered far away. No one knew the precious writings more intimately or cherished them in quite the same way as Willie did. He literally owned some of them, according to his mother’s will. And he envisioned how they continued to speak to issues that were arising in the turbulent twentieth century.

But Willie White was on the geographical rim of the Adventist wheel. Even the hub of the wheel was no longer in the mid-west city of Battle Creek; it was in the distant capital of the nation. Urban Washington was a world away from rural St Helena. Willie’s vision for making unpublished counsels known in the growing church didn’t always coincide with the perceptions of appointed leaders.

On the cover of Dr Valentine’s book are portraits of two of my favourite Adventist leaders from the early twentieth century: William White and an Australian, Charles Henry Watson. Watson was not yet an Adventist when Pastor White was a leader in “The Australian Mission.” But from 1930, Watson was appointed president of the General Conference in Washington, D.C. Both men treasured the writings of Ellen White. Their “Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage” was as real as the conflict Paul and Barnabas experienced over John Mark.

Dr Valentine is not only a superb historian, he is also a loved pastor and a wise teacher. This is a narrative of commendable empathy told with a clear understanding of the problem, the related issues and the outcomes. All of us who value free access to the writings of Ellen White, including tens of thousands of pages of letters and manuscripts, need to read this illuminating book.

I first rejoiced in Arthur White’s Prophetic Guidance lectures during December 1957 and January 1958. At that time he was apt to comment on the long years during which his father, Willie, experienced marginalisation on the West Coast of North America. Arthur White valued his location in the General Conference building and his responsibility as a trustee of White Estate after the death of his father in 1937. The last sentence of Dr Valentine’s epilogue focuses the message of his book:

The resolution of the struggle for control over the prophetic heritage achieved in the 1930s by the General Conference, on behalf of the community of advent believers, asserting its ultimate spiritual stewardship of the collection continues to undergird the present relationship between the White Estate and the General Conference (143-144).

To understand the even bigger picture you need to read (as I have been privileged to do) chapters of Dr Valentine’s newest project, a book about Ellen White and the General Conference presidents. But that is another story. Get The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage from your nearest ABC, now!

Arthur Patrick, 10 September 2011

Post 7, Valentine on Ellen White and Adventist Leaders

This post is about a scintillating, new book on the relationship between Ellen G. White and the General Conference presidents who served between 1888 and 1915.

It took me a decade to write two theses about Ellen White and her Adventist and non-Adventist contemporaries in Australia during the 1890s. My research in the primary sources led me to deeply appreciate Milton Hook’s doctoral study (1978) about the goals that created Avondale College, George Knight’s scintillating books on Adventist history, and a host of other studies. But now Pacific Press enables us to better appreciate largely unknown dimensions of our heritage with Gilbert M. Valentine’s 383-page volume, The Prophet and the Presidents.

 Valentine breaks new ground because many of his sources are new to us here in Australia. Since the Ellen G. White/Seventh-day Adventist Research Centre opened at Avondale in 1976, we’ve been able to mine the 50,000 pages of Ellen White’s manuscripts and letters. For long years Valentine has explored a treasure-trove of archival resources in the United States, unavailable “down under,” yet now starting to reach us with the help of Information Technology. At last we can better hear both sides of an intense conversation that reached across the Pacific Ocean and deeply influenced the church in Australia and New Zealand.

“The Presidents” under study led the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Battle Creek and (when it moved) Washington: the “reluctant” Ole A. Olsen, 1888 to 1897; the Civil War veteran George A. Irwin, 1897-1901; and the long-serving reformist Arthur G. Daniells, 1901-1922. Olsen visited Australia, Irwin administered the church here for many years, and Daniels long evangelised and led the church in New Zealand and Australia. However, before Valentine’s book we knew little of what they said about their relationships, as world leaders, with Ellen White while she ministered here from 1891-1900.

This book is a case study of how two spiritual gifts, prophecy and administration, interacted. Adventism was growing rapidly. Its worldwide mission was mushrooming. It faced enormous financial problems, especially apparent within its publishing and medical initiatives. Barry Oliver’s doctoral study (1989) leads us through the turmoil of re-organisation that, in 1901, facilitated a more effective church structure. Arthur White (The Australian Years, 1983) recounts Ellen White’s vision for her church, well. But now we can hear the “lost” voices of the presidents, as they struggle to lead a world movement faithfully, despite enormous odds.

However, we learn far more than the inside story of pain and promise through the experiences of Olsen, Irwin and Daniells. We watch the slow erosion of relationships between the church and E.J. Waggoner, A.T. Jones, and John Harvey Kellogg. The heroes of 1888, and the health-pioneer of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, become the church’s opponents during the early 20th century. It was so difficult to retain the message of 1888 when the messengers lost their way. We still suffer from the long-term effects of the Kellogg crisis that occurs just off centre-stage in Valentine’s compelling saga.

According to historian George Knight, “Valentine’s book is at the forefront of a new genre of Adventist historiography: serious studies dealing with the complex relationships between Ellen G. White and her contemporaries.” Barry Oliver also observes on the back cover: “Dr. Gil Valentine has brilliantly exposed the sometimes tenuous relationship between prophetic and administrative gifts as the church charted a course for the future.” For Robert Olson, “This is a truly monumental study.”

Here is a book of a hundred gripping stories, some radiant with hope, some suffused with sadness. We cannot but sorrow as we see stalwarts like John N. Loughborough and Stephen N. Haskell, men who bore the burden and heat of earlier days, fail to understand how the church’s thought must continually be revised as it searches the Word and follows the leadings of God’s Spirit.

Dr Valentine earlier wrote a doctoral dissertation and a two books about Professor W.W. Prescott and the shaping of Adventism so, understandably, he weaves this “forgotten giant” into the intriguing narrative that runs from Minneapolis in 1888 to 1913, when advancing age limited Ellen White’s capacity to interact with church leaders. The story of the book is unfinished for, until the gospel reaches “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,” we must continue the task so well begun by our pioneers. We can now better understand both their efforts and our mission–from reading The Prophet and the Presidents.

Arthur Patrick, 10 September 2011