Post 13, “The Ellen White Project”

In a blog on this website dated 25 October 2011, I mentioned that “The Ellen White Project” editors intend to pass a book manuscript to a major academic publisher this month. This brief comment evoked questions from as far away as Russia, so in response I will seek to answer some of the main questions that are in my readers’ minds.

The manuscript hopes to provide a scholarly introduction to Ellen White in the context of American religious history. I feel deeply privileged to have been chosen as one of 21 chapter authors, in that I am an Australian. Oh yes, Joan and I have lived for almost eight years in such states as Illinois, Michigan and California, and I know many of the other authors personally. But the project looks at Ellen White as “an American prophet”; my special interests are illustrated by the content of my MLitt and PhD theses completed for Australian universities. In other words, Ellen White spent the years 1891-1900 in New Zealand and Australia; I am interested in her entire life (1827-1915), but I want to explore the 87 years with special reference to her nine years “Down Under.”

This American project is an exciting one in both conception and execution. The most controversial book ever published by our church came from the press in 1957, and a group of brave scholars decided that after almost fifty years it may be appropriate to try to understand the book and its reception. The result: a landmark conference at Andrews University marking the first fifty years of Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine. I had long wanted to say what was in my paper; now my perspectives can be interpreted within the balancing opinions of the other presenters. All the papers are conveniently available on the Andrews University site: Why mention this project here? Because it encouraged the editors of The Ellen White Project to plan an exploration of Ellen White’s life and thought in a similarly open manner.

The way the editors followed through with their objective is impressive, to say the least. One of their early tasks was to define the project and select 21 authors to draft chapters. Then they selected two respondents to read each chapter: one an Adventist, the other a competent scholar in North American religious history from beyond the borders of our church. At the conference in Portland, Maine, held during October 2009, each author was given several minutes to profile their chapter (it was already in the hands of all the attendees) before the respondents delivered their assessment. Then the chapter and the responses were discussed in an open forum. After that, the editors and authors had almost two years of dialogue to refine the text ready for presentation to a major academic publisher.

I don’t need to go into more detail about all this, since blogs by both Adventist and non-Adventist participants are freely available on the Internet (Google “The Ellen White Project”). I sincerely believe that the book will meet its primary purpose, to introduce Ellen White to intelligent, non-Adventist readers.

During the turmoil of 1980, our Adventist co-founder was in the eye of a violent storm. I decided to enroll in a public university to write a thesis about her. I already had a couple of master degrees and a doctorate, but they were in areas like Systematic Theology, Ministry and Biblical Studies. Now I was starting again, in another discipline, history. So I had to attend undergraduate lectures and write papers in historical studies before I could even start graduate research. Then, one of the requirements at the time for the course I chose (MLitt) was for each student to present their project to a combined gathering of history lecturers and graduate students. That day stands out clearly in my memory. I was amazed at the level of interest that hard-nosed historians and graduate students had in Ellen Gould White.

I was under pressure in that first post-graduate degree in historical studies, in that a Distinction was required in order to gain entry into the PhD research that I wanted to undertake. Yesterday I had occasion to review my papers and articles that Bille Burdick has so efficiently placed on, between 1998 and 2009. It is obvious that in those pieces of writing I am trying to function as a believer who is also an historian.

That is why some readers are deeply upset with what I write. On one side, some want only expressions of faith. On the other side, some want only the perspectives of history. I have tried to offer both. I will, in due course review The Ellen White Project through both those lenses. That, I know, is unacceptable to some friends that I cherish, but I must be true to my convictions. Ellen White assures us that “we have nothing to fear” with reference to the future, except as we forget how the Lord has led and taught us in the past.

Arthur Patrick, 26 October 2011