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