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Ellen White Vs.

(Prophetic authority)

As federal investigators sifted through the ashes

after the hellfire outside Waco, Texas, thoughtful Ad-
ventists conducted their own spiritual autopsy of the
charred corpses. While publicly we defended the
church with the fact that the Branch Davidian move-
ment split from our ranks 60 plus years ago,
privately some loyal members wondered and wor-
ried. How did Vernon Howell, a guitar-strumming Ad-
ventist teenager of our own generation, become
David Koresh, the maniacal monster?
More troubling yet, what gave that madman of
Waco such power over some of our Adventist broth-
ers and sisters? Let's remember that most of Kore-
sh's cultists had not been Baptists or Methodists,
Mormons or Moonies, Muslims or New Age meditat-
ors. They came from the ranks of Seventh-day Ad-
ventists. Not the church of the 1930s but the church
of the 1980s.
Thank God, Koresh was rebuffed and rejected
everywhere he went as he prowled Adventist cam-
puses on three continents. He chased many but
caught few. Of those he did catch, however, most
seem to have been conscientious church members,
vulnerable but quite sincere. They were not prodig-
als looking for a lark but pilgrims looking for perfec-
tion in their lives and in their church. They were Sev-
enth-day Adventists who valued modern day mes-
sages from God, perhaps even more than they cher-
ished the Bible. Koresh exploited this for his own sin-
ister purposes.
Yesterday morning I spoke with the sister of David
Koresh's top lieutenant and most trusted associate.
She described how her brother, while yet an Advent-
ist, spent hours in his bedroom reading about the
life of Christ. She remembers him as loyal to the
church and loving to his family—qualities that the
Davidians manipulated. She recalls how Koresh and
his crew preyed upon his fear of offending God by
bombarding him with quotation after quotation from
Ellen White and text after Bible text. With powerful
spiritual persuasion they lured him to their lair in
Waco, Texas. You know the rest of the story.
What was David Koresh's secret of success in en-
trapping Adventists? His basic approach was that
our church had become lukewarm and desperately
needed a reform message from the Lord. He implied
that the Bible wasn't enough to accomplish this;
needed was the straight testimony of a modern
prophet. Ellen White admirably served that role in
her time, he acknowledged respectfully—even glow-
ingly. But she was dead and gone. With eyebrows
raised in concern he inquired: Who was filling that
indispensable prophetic role today? Who would
guide the remnant through the perils of Armaged-
During hour after hour of high-octane brainwash-
ing, his answer became obvious. God's final prophet
was none other than David Koresh.

Distorted similarities
Right about now you're probably feeling some an-
ger, and I am too. What a terrible deception to have
David Koresh posturing as Ellen White's successor!
How distorted a comparison could there be?
Ellen White was humble; David Koresh was vain.
Sister White was self-denying; Koresh was self-indul-
gent. She was honest in her intentions; he was a de-
ceiver to the core. The contrast between two human
characters could hardly be more distinct, yet the de-
ception was there just the same. You see, Ellen
White spoke in the name of God, and so did David
Koresh, Many Adventists give Ellen White authority
to interpret the Bible; Koresh claimed the same. El-
len White communicated strict demands upon the
conscience, and so did David Koresh. The difference
was that Ellen White's call to holiness was sincere,
whereas for Koresh it became a tool of manipulation.
Only time revealed the danger of his deceptions.
The problem was not the high standards of a
prophet's message. Personally, I appreciate the chal-
lenge of Ellen White's straight testimony, don't you?
We need to hear that sin—all sin—must be repented
of and forsaken. How good to know God has power
to help us overcome any sin He convicts us of. Don't
you want the Lord to confront you with His high and
holy calling in Christ Jesus? That's one of the reasons
I read Ellen White. Her no nonsense, plain-spoken re-
bukes leave the reader humbled and subdued.
That's good for us and good for the church.
Problems arise, however, when we forget her
counsel that "the feeling of guiltiness must be laid at
the foot of the cross, or it will poison the springs of
life."1 Unfortunately, many Adventists overlook or
minimize her many comforting statements and
Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 518.
stumble over many other things she said that could
be misunderstood or misapplied. It was precisely
those quotations that Koresh exploited. He misused
Ellen White to put people on a first-class guilt trip.
He caused them to question their salvation and also
the integrity of their church so that they were willing
to listen to his reform message. Then he convinced
them he had the prophetic gift of present truth.

Fatal brainwashing
Let's review the deceptive strategy of David Kore-
sh. Targeting Adventists, he won their assent that
the Bible was important but not good enough; it
needed interpretation from a modern prophet. Kore-
sh then assaulted his hearers with guilt and insecur-
ity, and with his overwhelming spiritual knowledge
he positioned himself as God's special messenger
proclaiming the straight testimony for today. Follow-
ing night-long brainwashing sessions, weary minds
surrendered to his purported prophetic authority.
The next logical step was to abandon career ambi-
tions, say good-bye to friends and family, and join
the fatal follies at Ranch Apocalypse.
After Koresh's new converts packed up and moved
to Waco, just two more things had to happen before
they were ready to die for him. He tapped into their
already existing paranoia about prophecy with
nightly study sessions. They spurned the loving Rev-
elation of Jesus Christ with its faith-inspiring instruc-
tion for the last days; for them, the last book of the
Bible became a zoo full of beasts and an arsenal of
warlike symbols pointing to a fiery Armageddon.
Then came the final step to hell—tolerating Kore-
sh's sinful lifestyle. How did those who shunned sin
in their own lives tolerate it in their leader? The
great deceiver convinced them that the Lamb of
God had to fully identify with fallen humanity to the
point that He completely participated in the sinful-
ness of those being saved. By living a pure life, Kore-
sh asserted, Jesus failed to fulfill that aspect of Mes-
siah's role 2,000 years ago. So God called him, Dav-
id Koresh, to pick up where Christ left off and experi-
ence sin in its fullness. Fulfilling that unholy calling
qualified him as the final Lamb of God.
Bad theology. Twisted logic. But it worked its
deadly charm in the lives of earnest Adventists.
The torched corpses sprawled among the ruins of
Ranch Apocalypse were not the remains of stupid
people or those looking for an easy way out of obey-
ing God. Cult members were so spiritually commit-
ted that they sacrificed their personal freedom and
dignity, their children and even their spouses to help
the "Lamb" identify himself with sinful humanity.
They rose before dawn to dig trenches while he
slept past noon. They munched on popcorn and
apples while he gorged himself on steak and beer.
They slept on single beds in celibate barracks while
he defiled virgins and their mothers in his private
penthouse. Such was life, until it went up in smoke.
Do you see how the pieces of the puzzle fit togeth-
er?: 1) Conscientious Adventists agreed that the
Bible wasn't enough for the final remnant—they
needed the straight testimony of a modern prophet;
2) Koresh exploited their spiritual insecurity with his
manipulations of guilt and fear, bombarding them
with Ellen White quotations and Bible texts until
they concluded that his knowledge of inspiration
qualified him as a channel of new inspiration; 3)
Presenting prophecy as a horror show of beasts cul-
minating in a fiery finish, Koresh primed them to
fight and win the battle of Armageddon; 4) Koresh
convinced them that the Lamb of God had to fully
partake of sinful humanity.
The above four points are not mere theological
theory. They are documented history, the simple
facts of life and death with David Koresh. Remem-
ber, the Waco cultists were not lacking in intelli-
gence or spiritual fervor. These four points on which
they succumbed are actually perversions of genuine
spiritual truths: 1) God has placed the gift of proph-
ecy in His last day church; 2) Laodicean Adventists
indeed are doomed unless they gain new insight and
inspiration; 3) Revelation does speak of beasts and
other symbols culminating in Armageddon and a fi-
nal fire; 4) Christ did become a human being.
Unfortunately, the doomed cultists failed to realize
that 1) While there is a modern gift of prophecy, the
Bible remains the supreme authority and the stand-
ard by which all teaching is tested; 2) The remedy
for Laodicea is not guilt and fear-based religion but
faith, love and the Holy Spirit; 3) The bottom line of
prophecy is not the behavior of beasts but the com-
ing of Christ; 4) Jesus shared humanity with us but
He remained "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate
from sinners" (Heb. 7:26). He picked up where Adam
failed; Adam sinned in sinless flesh, and that's
where Christ overcame.

Have we learned yet?

What happened in Waco is history now. The ques-
tion remaining is, Have the rest of us learned each
of those four lessons? We've spent some time in this
book looking at the last three. Now let's ponder
number one, the basis of all Koresh's deceptions:
prophetic inspiration and authority.
There are two extremes in relating to modern
prophetic authority—similar to popular misunder-
standings in the Protestant world about the inspira-
tion of the Bible. Some "liberals" suggest that the
Bible isn't truly inspired but just a collection of wise
sayings, interesting stories, and boring genealogies.
Others at the opposite extreme uphold such a rigid
concept of inspiration that they regard every word of
the prophet as dictated right from God, with no re-
gard for the prophet's own language, background or
personality. If you maintain a balanced view that all
Scripture is inspired by God, yet the specific lan-
guage reflects the prophet's own choice, many fun-
damentalists will denounce you as a compromiser.
There's a similar situation in the Adventist Church
with the inspiration of Ellen White. Some "liberals"
discount her counsels entirely, relegating them to
the Victorian cemeteries of the nineteenth century.
Others at the opposite extreme exalt Ellen White as
lord over the Word; they almost need permission
from her before believing what the Bible says. If
something in the Bible appears to contradict her
testimony, they automatically—even without realiz-
ing it—exalt the lesser light over the greater light.
Other Adventists strive for a balance between
those two extremes. They value the counsels of El-
len White but uphold the Bible as final authority.
Such members in good and regular standing need
not find out what Ellen White said in 1888 to know
what to believe today about the gospel. God estab-
lished the truth about righteousness by faith long
before the days of Ellen White. The apostle Paul pro-
claimed by inspiration: "But even if we, or an angel
from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than
what we have preached to you, let him be accursed"
(Gal. 1:8).
That should settle it. What we find in the book of
Galatians is the gospel's eternal benchmark. Not
even a messenger from heaven could change the
established Word of God.

The bottom line

One reason so many gospels flourish in the Ad-
ventist Church is that many members cannot accept
the Scriptures as their spiritual standard. Some Ad-
ventist teachers seem to anchor their beliefs in her
writings, perhaps even more than in the Bible. That
makes it necessary for this book to include a chapter
on prophetic authority. We never will settle what the
gospel is until we first agree on whether the final au-
thority of our beliefs is the Bible or Ellen White.
Some among us believe that Ellen White added to
the gospel, laying an extra burden upon the final
generation. How could this be, though, in the light of
the warning from Galatians we just read? Beyond
that, consider the verse we quote to our Protestant
friends who say that the salvation covenant was
amended after Calvary to permit Sunday keeping:
"Just as no one can set aside or add to a human cov-
enant that has been duly established, so it is in this
case" (Gal. 3:15, NIV).
So once the salvation covenant was confirmed at
Calvary, nothing could be changed or added to it—
not even by a messenger from heaven in 1888. And
now in the final generation we don't have some new
gospel to proclaim but "the everlasting gospel to
preach to those who dwell on the earth" (Rev. 14:6).
We see then, that the eternal gospel itself hasn't
changed since the days of Paul. But is it possible
that our understanding of the gospel has changed—
even Ellen White's own understanding of it?
Some suggest that prophets must not grow in
their understanding of truth. Please consider John
the Baptist, an inspired prophet acclaimed by Christ
Himself as equal to the greatest of prophets—yet he
erroneously expected a political Messiah to chase
out the pagan Romans who occupied the Holy Land.
Christ performed the opposite of his expectations
until at last the great prophet even doubted that Je-
sus was the Savior: "Are You the Coming One, or do
we look for another?" (Matt. 11:3).
Not only was the prophet completely mistaken about
how Christ would come, but John and his disciples
also suffered from legalism; they hoped "to be justi-
fied by the works of the law."2 Yet despite such a ser-
ious misconception, John remained God's anointed
prophet, inspired to herald the Messiah.
Did the prophet's imperfect doctrine disqualify him
from being God's messenger? Jesus didn't think so.
John fulfilled his mission of announcing the Messiah.
Then why did God permit him to preach immature
theology along with truth? The prophet had to teach
on the kindergarten level. God's people were not
ready for the full message, so He gave them a
prophet who could meet them on their own level
and lead them where they finally could appreciate
the gospel. God never intended for John to preach
with the same insight that Paul would in later dec-
ades. The people were not ready for the lofty gospel
of the apostle. God called a prophet that shared
many of their misconceptions so they could relate to
his teaching.
Here's the point: If we accept Christ's testimony that
John the Baptist was a prophet—despite his need for
Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 276.
theological growth—what about Ellen White? What
right do we have to demand more from her than we
do from the greatest of prophets? Both of them were
called by God to prepare a people for the coming of
the Lord. And both of them learned and grew during
the course of their spiritual leadership.

Prophetic growth
Did you know that Ellen White, though inspired,
initially held a number of convictions which later
changed as the Holy Spirit guided her understand-
ing? Consider this:
"In 1858, a somber, 30-year-old Ellen White wrote:
'John's life was without pleasure. It was sorrowful
and self-denying.'3 By age 50 (1877), she had
caught a glimpse of joy: 'John's life, with the excep-
tion of the joy he experienced in witnessing the suc-
cess of his mission, was without pleasure.'4 But for
Ellen White at 70, joy had conquered the camp of
the saints: 'John enjoyed his life of simplicity and re-
One of two things had happened: either John the
Baptist became progressively happier between 1858
and 1897, or Ellen White grew in her capacity to ap-
preciate Christian joy. Since the Baptist was dead
during the nineteenth century, we are left with only
one option. If you disagree, perhaps you have an al-
ternative explanation.
Why should we resist the reality of Ellen White's
growing understanding of truth? She herself ex-
Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1, p. 29.
Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2, p. 69.
Ellen G. White, The Youth's Instructor, January 7, 1897.
Alden Thompson, "Alden Thompson Responds to Beast
Bashing," Columbia Union Visitor, November 15, 1993, p. 6.
plained: "That which God gives His servants to
speak today would not perhaps have been present
truth twenty years ago, but it is God's message for
this time."7
One example of this is how, back in the 1850s,
she counseled a brother not to forbid the eating of
pork.8 Not until her health visions of the 1860s did
she take a stand on unclean meat. Evidently the
Lord was leading in His own good time.
Another area of growth in Ellen White's understand-
ing is her concept of God's character. Notice this
from her Appeal to Youth, published in 1864:
"God loves honest hearted, truthful children, but
cannot love those who are dishonest." "The Lord
loves those little children who try to do right, and He
has promised that they shall be in His kingdom. But
wicked children God does not love." "When you feel
tempted to speak impatient [sic], remember the
Lord sees you, and will not love you if you do
Now, compare the above with the following, writ-
ten 28 years later (after 1888): "Do not teach your
children that God does not love them when they do
wrong; teach them that he loves them so that it
grieves his tender Spirit to see them in transgres-
Thank God, Ellen White was always moving in the
right direction. Suppose that in 1864 she taught that
God loved bad children then later said He didn't love

Ellen G. White, "Talk to Ministers," The Ellen G. White 1888
Materials, p. 133.
See Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, pp.
206, 207.
Ellen G. White, An Appeal to the Youth, pp. 42, 62.
Ellen G. White, Signs of the Times, February 15, 1892.
them—that would be a problem. But the growth in
her understanding of truth proves that she was led
by the Spirit of truth.
It has been an agonizing struggle for some Advent-
ists to acknowledge the reality of Ellen White's need
to grow. But why? If we see the need for growth in
the greatest of prophets can we not accept it in our
own? Just think. What if God had given the message
of 1888 to us in 1844? We couldn't have digested it.
It was hard enough to swallow 44 years later.
Since Ellen White indeed was a true prophet, should
we not expect to see a pattern of growth in her writ-
ings to correspond with the growing capacity for ma-
turity in our movement?
Ellen White also grew in her understanding of proph-
ecy. Back in the first edition of The Great Contro-
versy she wrote that Babylon "cannot refer to the
Romish Church, for that church has been in a fallen
condition for many centuries."11 But in her 1911 revi-
sion she inserted a significant word: Babylon "can-
not refer to the Roman Church alone, for that church
has been in a fallen condition for many centuries."12
"The pastor did not rob the bank." "The pastor did
not rob the bank alone." Do you see the difference
in meaning coming from one little word?
Some cannot imagine that Ellen White might have
changed her mind regarding Babylon. Actually, the
very person she asked to supervise the revision of
The Great Controversy, W. W. Prescott, reported that
indeed there was a fundamental doctrinal shift in-
volved. At the 1919 Bible Conference, he testified to
fellow church leaders that "before 'Great Contro-
versy' was revised, I was unorthodox on a certain
Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, 1888 ed., p. 383.
Ibid., 1911 ed., emphasis supplied.
point, but after it was revised, I was perfectly ortho-
dox. 'Great Controversy' said that Babylon could not
mean the romish church, and I had made it mean
that largely and primarily. . . . I will tell you frankly
that I held to that position on the question of
Babylon for years when I knew it was exactly con-
trary to 'Great Controversy,' but I went on, and in
due time I became orthodox. I did not enjoy that ex-
perience at all, and I hope you will not have to go
through it. . . . What settled me to take that position
was the Bible, not any secular authority."13*
Notice that Elder Prescott took his stand on the
basis of his Bible study, not through human reason-
ing or preferences. In doing so he was following El-
len White's own counsel that the Bible and the Bible
only should be the foundation of our faith and teach-
However you may feel about W. W. Prescott's testi-
mony, perhaps it may not matter whether that revi-
sion in The Great Controversy reflects a transition in
Ellen White's understanding of doctrine or whether
she was revealing a new dimension in what she
already understood. The simple fact is that her 1911
position is more easily defended from the Bible. That
should inspire our confidence.

Even prophets learn and grow

"The Bible Conference of 1919," Spectrum, vol. 10, no. 1,
p. 55. Emphasis supplied. The transcript of the 1919 Bible
Conference may be one of the most important documents of
Adventist Church history, casting light on how General
Conference leaders and Bible teachers of yesteryear related to
Ellen White's prophetic gift. Unfortunately, this landmark
document has never been published in official church
publications, although nothing I've ever read about Ellen White
has helped me more than the excerpts of the document
published in Spectrum.
During the doctrinal controversy in 1888, Ellen
White questioned her previous position on the law of
Galatians. Dismayed at the unchristian attitude of
those defending the traditional view, she testified:
"For the first time I began to think that it might be
we did not hold correct views, after all, upon the law
in Galatians, for the truth required no such a spirit to
sustain it."14 Although Ellen White had previously
supported the traditional view, now as always she
was willing to walk in the light.
Another clear example of growth concerns the vi-
tal doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Ellen White's rich and
mature understanding the divine Comforter, so
beautifully expressed in her later writings, is entirely
absent in the first five decades of her ministry.
Either the Holy Spirit changed from a divine force to
a living being in the 1890s, or Ellen White changed
her doctrinal position. I think we know the answer,
and once again we see the Lord's leading.
From the beginning of her ministry, God was lead-
ing Ellen White, and through her the Adventist
Church, into a growing understanding of Bible truth.
Remember, she could not teach the message of
1888 back in 1844. It would have been too much for
the church to digest.
One fascinating event in early Adventist history il-
lustrates why God couldn't reveal the whole truth all
at once. Prejudice, unbelief and perhaps plain old
stubbornness blocked the way of advancement. Al-
though Ellen White had a divine message and mis-
sion, some had difficulty relating to the testimony of
a newlywed teenager. One such example was Joseph
Bates, a cautious old sea captain who had been a pi-
oneer Adventist. God did something dramatic to win
Ellen G. White, Manuscript 24, 1888.
his confidence in the prophetic gift. Let's read it in
Ellen White's own words:
"August 30th, 1846 I was married to Elder James
White. In a few months we attended a conference in
Topsham, Me. Bro. J. Bates was present. He did not
then fully believe that my visions were of God. . . .
The Spirit of God rested upon us in Bro. C.'s humble
dwelling, and I was wrapt in a vision of God's glory,
and for the first time had a view of other planets.
After I came out of vision I related what I had seen.
Bro. Bates asked if I had studied astronomy. I told
him I had no recollection of ever looking into an as-
tronomy. Said he, 'This is of the Lord.' I never saw
Bro. Bates so free and happy before. His counten-
ance shone with the light of Heaven, and he exhor-
ted the church with power."15
Arthur White, in his biography of his grandmother,
provides additional information and background:
"Bates had been troubled with serious doubts as
to the visions, but the evidence in the experience at
Topsham was such that he accepted them whole-
heartedly from that time forth. Ellen White never
wrote out in detail what she was shown. It is evident
that God's purpose in giving this vision was to estab-
lish confidence in the heart of Joseph Bates. It
should be borne in mind that the number of moons
she was shown was what Bates, up to that time, had
seen through the telescope. Stronger, more modern
telescopes have brought into view additional moons
circling the planets described. Nevertheless, had El-
len been shown what stronger telescopes now re-
veal, Bates's doubts would have been confirmed,
rather than alleviated."16
Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 83.
Arthur L. White, The Ellen G. White Biography
Fascinating! God actually intended that Ellen
White's testimony be inadequate and inaccurate.
Otherwise, Bates would have rejected the revelation.
In inspiring Ellen White's vision, God was not rewrit-
ing the laws of astronomy but convincing a sincere
but stubborn man about Ellen White's prophetic gift.
Erroneous information it may have been, yet in-
spired just the same. Actually, if Ellen White had
communicated the whole truth, it would have been
rejected and God's purpose would have been de-
Do you see the implications for other things that
Ellen White taught during the development of our
church? A prophet's message may contain inad-
equacies and even inaccuracies, yet be genuinely
inspired! Remembering this would save us from im-
posing unauthorized expectations on God's gift of
prophecy. Let us clearly understand that a true
prophet's message containing divinely-intentioned
inaccuracies is not to be confused with heresy. It is
just as inspired as later messages but suitable for its
own time and place.
Keep in mind that the content of prophetic mes-
sages cannot exceed the capacity of the intended
audience. Jesus was aware of this when saying: "I
still have many things to say to you, but you cannot
bear them now" (John 16:12). He had to hold back
until His people were ready to receive greater light.
Likewise in Adventist history, God could not reveal in
1844 what He revealed in 1888. Our church wasn't
ready for it. Thus the inspired counsels before 1888
were deficient of whatever truth was revealed later!

(Hagerstown, Md.: Review & Herald Pub. Assn., 1981-1986),

Ellen G. White: The Early Years, vol. 1, p. 114. Emphasis
That's one reason we cannot base our theology on
extra-biblical revelations.
When did Ellen White become "mature" theologic-
ally? I don't think God ever intended for her to reach
a stopping point and declare herself infallible. In-
stead of worrying about how mature she may have
been, how much better to assume that everything
she wrote was given her by God to say, and then to
test each individual message by the Bible. Just like
she says we should!
Of course, the Bible itself shows a pattern of de-
velopment from Old Testament to New. By the end of
the 66 books, however, the full body of truth was de-
livered to God's people. Paul spoke of "the mystery
which has been hidden from ages and from genera-
tions, but now has been revealed to His saints" (Col.
1:26). Forevermore the foundation of God's truth
was fully established in the Bible. No additional doc-
trine could be added by later prophets (see Gal.
Perhaps this information doesn't harmonize with
everything we've usually believed about Ellen White,
but do we dare set our own standards of divine in-
spiration? Some of us have supposed that if a proph-
et's message contains any error, it cannot be genu-
ine. But if God in His wisdom permits a measure of
error to linger with truth, is it permissible to reject
His prophetic gift? Not at all! Doctrine was defined
once for all time in the Scriptures, so there's no
problem if Ellen White grew in her own understand-
ing as she led this church.
It helps to recall that inspiration is perfect for
God's purposes, not ours. Also, that God cannot
dump a load of truth upon an audience not yet cap-
able of accepting it; thus inspired messages may
contain incomplete truth and even error.
I believe Ellen White's sense of duty was so strong
that until the time came to proclaim a particular
truth, God had to withhold it from her own under-
standing. He knew that whatever truth she was con-
victed of she would feel compelled to proclaim. So if
the church wasn't quite ready to hear something,
the Lord simply withheld that information from her
until the time was right.

It hasn't been easy

It seems sad when some Adventists criticize other
loyal members whose intellectual honesty compels
them to acknowledge Ellen White's theological
growth. Some zealous members, concerned about
compromising the Testimonies, arm themselves with
certain quotations that do not nurture the assurance
of salvation. When meeting them, I affirm their good
intentions and then try to share my own testimony.
If they still suspect me of undermining inspired
counsel, I might ask them:
"My brother, my sister, where were you when I for-
feited my family, friends and scholarships, abandon-
ing college because I didn't think the Testimonies
were upheld there? And where were you during din-
nertime when I was fasting on the mountaintop?
Where were you when in obedience to the Testimon-
ies I prayed all night as Jesus did? Is it fair for you to
admonish me about obeying the straight testimony
until you've followed your own quest for perfection
to the brink of tragedy?"
No, it hasn't been easy to arrive at the positions
you find in this chapter. Cherished tradition and
childhood beliefs fought me every step of the way.
Only overwhelming evidence could finally compel
me to conclude that Ellen White exchanged error for
truth as God continued to lead her. It actually in-
spired confidence when I saw she was always mov-
ing in the right direction, saying whatever the Lord
wanted her to say throughout her ministry. In the
process, she grew just like every other Christian
In case you need a little more convincing, here's
further evidence of Ellen White's growth in under-
standing truth. Immediately after the Great Disap-
pointment when Christ didn't come in 1844, the
branch of Millerites which later developed into this
denomination believed probation had closed for the
world. To them, whoever hadn't accepted the Miller-
ite message never could be saved. Ellen White her-
self believed in this "shut door"—even after God
gave her a vision to the contrary, according to
Robert Olson, retired secretary of the White Estate:
She "did not at first understand the meaning of the
'open door' in her February, 1845, vision."17 Previ-
ously she had mistaken her December, 1844, vision:
"That seventeen-year-old Ellen should misinterpret
one of her visions should elicit no surprise when one
remembers that . . . at one time the apostle Peter
mistakenly believed in a shut door."18
So Peter and his fellow apostles grew in their un-
derstanding of truth; John the Baptist grew as well.
Why shouldn't Ellen White have the same opportun-
ity? And all the while she was growing she was ful-
filling God's purpose as His prophetic messenger.

Where do we bed down?

Robert Olson, The Shut Door Documents (Washington,
D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1982), p. 12.
Ibid., p. 6.
Those who hesitate to acknowledge the reality of
Ellen White's developing theology, please ponder
this: At what point would you endow her with infal-
lible spiritual authority?
In her childhood, before she received the prophet-
ic call?
In the 1840s, when she interpreted her early vis-
ions to mean that nobody but Millerites could be
What about the 1850s, when she still ate pork and
counseled against taking a stand on unclean meat?
Perhaps in the 1860s, when she thought Jesus did-
n't love bad children?
In the 1870s, before she equated Rome with
Babylon and also before she changed positions on
the law in Galatians?
In the 1880s, before she taught that the Holy Spir-
it was a person?
Earnest voices urge our church to go back to his-
toric Adventism, but nobody's Adventism is so his-
toric to believe only what Ellen White taught in the
1840s, the 1850s, the 1860s, the 1870s, or even the
1880s. Nevertheless, some feel compelled to reject
the evidence about her theological growth. They of-
fer no solutions to the questions raised; instead they
suppress discussion and expect compliance with po-
sitions they will not and cannot logically defend. But
there must be room in this church for those who
have a slightly different understanding of the same
truth. You can believe in the ministry of Ellen White
as much as anyone else while acknowledging that
she grew through the years, exchanging error for
Suppose you find it difficult to accept that. Then
please think this through again: If God intended El-
len White to be our infallible theological interpreter,
at what point did she assume that role?
Furthermore, on what basis does she serve as an
infallible interpreter of Scripture? Certainly not be-
cause of her own testimony.

Ellen White says the Bible only

Our prophet had no doubt about her calling; fear-
lessly and faithfully she rebuked, comforted and
counseled. But it's interesting that she refused the
role of a theological referee. Throughout her long
and fruitful ministry she pointed to the Bible as the
basis of doctrinal authority. For example, during the
1888 controversy over the law in Galatians, some
church leaders tried to use her authority in estab-
lishing doctrine. They wanted to settle the discus-
sion with a manuscript she had written. Here is her
reply: "Has he [Waggoner] not presented to you the
words of the Bible? Why was it that I lost the
manuscript and for two years could not find it? God
has a purpose in this. He wants us to go to the Bible
and get the Scripture evidence."19
In this highly significant statement, Ellen White
declares that God purposed that her manuscript be
lost to compel the church to settle its questions from
the Bible alone. They were not to use her writings to
establish interpretation of Scripture. She repeated
this position a few years later in a controversy over
Daniel chapter 8.20
Ellen White reminded church leaders that "the
Bible is to be presented as the word of the infinite

Ellen G. White, quoted in LeRoy E. Froom, Movement of
Destiny (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1971), p. 229.
Emphasis supplied.
See Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 164.
God, as the end of all controversy and the founda-
tion of all faith."21 She left no doubt that the Bible is
its own expositor. At times she became quite vigor-
ous and intense in getting people to look away from
her to the Bible. Have you ever read this amazing
"Lay Sister White right to one side: lay her to one
side. Don't you never quote my words again as long
as you live, until you can obey the Bible. When you
take the Bible and make that your food, and your
meat, and your drink, and make that the elements
of your character, when you can do that you will
know better how to receive some counsel from God.
But here is the Word, the precious Word, exalted be-
fore you today. And don't you give a rap any more
what 'Sister White said'—'Sister White said this,' and
'Sister White said that,' and 'Sister White said the
other thing.' But say, 'Thus saith the Lord God of Is-
rael,' and then you do just what the Lord God of Is-
rael does, and what He says."22
Vintage, untamed inspiration. And this:
"But don't you quote Sister White. I don't want you
ever to quote Sister White until you get your vant-
age ground where you know where you are. Quote
the Bible. Talk the Bible. It is full of meat, full of fat-
ness. Carry it right out in your life, and you will know
more Bible than you know now."23
Despite such earnest, sound counsel, many who
claim to believe her inspiration reject what she says
about the Bible. It's amazing how some members
claim to uphold everything she says but reject her
clear teaching that the Bible alone is our rule of
Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons, pp. 39, 40.
Ellen G. White, Spalding and Magan Collection, p. 167.
Ibid., p. 174.
faith and doctrine.
I remember an experience conducting a witness-
ing seminar in Chicago. I was explaining that Jesus
must be the center of every Bible study lest we err
like the Pharisees did. Christ accused them of
searching the Scriptures to find eternal life, yet re-
fusing to come to Him, the object of the Scriptures,
in order to receive that life. I noted that the King
James Version doesn't accurately represent the
meaning of John 5:39, because it says Jesus told the
Pharisees to "search the Scriptures"—when obvi-
ously they already were searching the scriptures
while rejecting Christ.
Immediately a man's hand went up. "Pastor, the
Spirit of Prophecy used that text in the way you say
is incorrect. Ellen White in the Testimonies quotes
John 5:39 while exhorting someone to read the
Bible, to 'search the Scriptures.' Do you think you
know more about that text than the servant of the
Lord does?"
Well, it was an awkward moment. Fortunately, I had
been reading the Desire of Ages, where Ellen White
also quotes John 5:39 the opposite way—making the
same point I was trying to get across. I identified the
chapter where our brother could look it up for him-
I'm sure he finally accepted the true meaning of the
text when he realized Ellen White endorsed it. But
the Bible by itself wasn't good enough for him. He
rejected the principle of "sola scriptura"—the Bible
and the Bible only.
You may have heard about the discovery of a pre-
viously unpublished Ellen White manuscript regard-
ing the nature of Christ. Some Adventists are excited
that now, at last, they can know for sure the truth
about the Lord's humanity. But is it right for them to
put that nineteenth century document in authority
over Scripture? Or is it a gross misuse of the proph-
etic gift, the type of thing Mormons do with Joseph
Some would protest that they are not giving Ellen
White authority over the Bible; they just let her "ex-
plain" it—but in effect they impose her interpreta-
tion upon Scripture. This is a terrible abuse of her
prophetic role. Ellen White herself acknowledged
that her gift operated under the authority of Scrip-
ture. When will we all accept that?

Our only authority?

Some would ask, however: "In what sense is the
Bible our only rule of faith and practice? The laws of
the land, employee handbooks, the Church Manual,
and countless other documents are rules of prac-
tice." True, but all these are authoritative in only a
limited sense. Corporate policies and even civil laws
are not eternal absolutes. The Bible stands unique
as a law unto itself, the standard by which all lesser
authorities must be tested.
At this point you may be thinking: "If the Bible can
be understood without the gift of prophecy, why do
we need Ellen White's books at all?" Notice this in-
spired answer: "The written testimonies are not to
give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart
the truths of inspiration already revealed. Man's
duty to God and to his fellow-man has been dis-
tinctly specified in God's word; yet but few of you
are obedient to the light given." "Little heed is given
to the Bible, and the Lord has given a lesser light to
lead men and women to the greater light."24
Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 3, p. 30.
So whatever we need to live for God we can find, ex-
plicitly or implicitly, in the Bible itself. Now, God's
Word doesn't specifically condemn tobacco, but it
does teach the body temple principle. And how
about cocaine? Do we need yet another prophet to
tell us we must "just say no"? Not when we have
biblical principles to guide us.
Well then, what is the authority of a prophet? Merely
pastoral? No, much more. Pastors and teachers re-
ceive their instruction through studying the Bible.
Prophets, on the other hand, receive direct inspira-
tion from the Spirit outside the written Word. One
would expect a direct revelation from God through a
vision to be more reliable and authoritative than an
indirect revelation received through personal study.
Even so, prophetic messages must still be tested by
the supreme authority of the Bible.
A friend of mine served as a missionary in Korea. You
may be sure he is more authoritative than I am in in-
terpreting that language. I only have indirect access
through an English-Korean dictionary, while he's had
the benefit of direct dialogue with Koreans. Even so,
despite his inside information, my friend's word is
not final. Everything he says in Korean must be
tested by the same authority available to anyone
who can read the dictionary. In the same way proph-
ets, despite their direct connection with heaven,
must submit their messages to the Scripture test.
That is, unless we want confusion in the church.
During the first campaign I held as an evangelist, a
visitor invited me to a non-denominational prayer
meeting. It turned out to be a Charismatic praise
service. I watched amazed as person after person
jumped up with a prophetic message to bind the
conscience of different ones in the audience. They
even spoke for God using the first person, such as:
"Thus saith the Lord, 'I want John to sell his new car
and be satisfied with a used one.'" As you can ima-
gine, the will of the Lord became confusing. Those
people needed some final authority to rule above
spiritual gifts.
No wonder the New Testament encourages us to
put latter day prophets to the test: "Do not despise
prophetic utterances. But examine everything care-
fully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from
every form of evil" (1 Thess. 5:20-22, NASB).
Remember the Bereans. Paul was a prophet, yet the
people of Berea did not accept anything he said
without proving it for themselves by Scripture. This
was not doubting the prophet; they were spiritually
So it's a spiritual duty, not a matter of presump-
tion, to test the prophet's message. But isn't this
"picking and choosing" what is inspired and what is-
n't? No, because we test by the Word and not by hu-
man opinions or inclinations. When the instruction of
a preacher or prophet is validated by the Bible, we
must pick up the cross even if it has splinters.
Many seem reluctant to be good Bereans, since it's
hard to examine truth for oneself. Perhaps some of
us invoke the doctrinal authority of Ellen White to
escape the discipline of Bible study: "Sister White
taught the importance of health reform and that
settles it for me!" That sounds good, but was the gift
of prophecy given to make us lazy?
Human nature finds it is so much easier to default
on our responsibility and simply take everything the
preacher or the prophet teaches as gospel. But the
Word of God is clear: regarding "prophetic utter-
ances" we must "examine everything carefully."
Spiritual gifts must be judged by the Word, never
the other way around. As Paul said: "The spirits of
the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Cor.

Circular reasoning
Some Adventists, despite their sincere desire to
uphold the Bible, end up making Ellen White their fi-
nal authority. How does this happen? Through circu-
lar reasoning:
"Why do I believe in Ellen White? Because
everything she says agrees with the Bible. So
everything in the Bible can be tested by her writ-
ings. I rely upon her interpretation of Scripture. This
means that in principle I accept 'the Bible and the
Bible only,' since everything she says agrees with
the Bible."
A Catholic friend of mine uses similar reasoning:
"Why do I believe whatever the pope says? Because
everything he says agrees with the Bible. So
everything in the Bible can be tested by the teach-
ings of the pope [including Sunday worship]. I rely
upon his interpretation of Scripture. This means that
in principle I accept 'the Bible and the Bible only,'
since everything the pope says agrees with the
You see the problem. Anything that defines Scripture
threatens to replace it as the final authority. The fun-
damental issue of the Protestant Reformation was
that the Bible must be its own interpreter. It was not
that the pope was a bad interpreter of Scripture and
now we must find a better lord over the Word. Re-
member, the Bible itself is its own final word. It con-
tains the entire system of truth.
Once saved, always saved?
Some suggest that since Ellen White proved herself
to be God's messenger in the 1840s, ever afterward
—for the next seven decades—everything she
taught must without question be the word of God.
Having once been proven faithful to the Scriptures,
never again need the prophet be tested by the
Bible. Is this "once saved, always saved" for proph-
We find examples in Scripture where certain proph-
ets wandered away from God's will. Ellen White, of
course, remained faithful throughout her long min-
istry. Yet still as a matter of principle, should we not
test all her writings by the Word? At what point in
her life could we pronounce her beyond the need of
testing, having become in fact once saved, always
"Once saved always saved"—every good Adventist
ought to flee in horror at the very hint of such
And consider this: If we fail to test Ellen White's
messages by the Bible and make her an infallible
law unto herself, what could prevent some new
prophet from intruding into the sacred circle of
Scriptural authority?
This question is more than a possibility. Back in the
1890s Anna Phillips Rice appeared, claiming the
same prophetic gift Ellen White had. She actually
won endorsement from some of our most influential
church leaders. A. T. Jones held up her testimonies
before a church assembly, proclaiming the new
"prophet" to be just as inspired and therefore au-
thoritative as Ellen White. Fortunately, Ellen White
herself in Australia caught wind of the crisis and put
an end to Anna's would-be ministry.
What if another Anna Phillips Rice appeared today?
It's happening! In the Adventist Church today,
dozens of members claim to have inherited Ellen
White's prophetic authority. On the speaking circuit
I've become acquainted with several. At one Atlantic
Coast campmeeting someone reverently handed me
a thick file folder full of "prophetic counsels" she val-
ued on par with Ellen White's books and the Bible.
Can you imagine the chaos in the church if large
numbers of our members endowed a new prophet
with the same doctrinal authority that they now give
Ellen White? Actually, forcing everything we believe
to be re-interpreted through new extra-biblical revel-
ations? Isn't this the same thinking that empowered
David Koresh's delusions?
If we granted Ellen White the power to re-invent
Bible truth, then every succeeding prophet must
have the same authority. There would no longer re-
main any objective anchor for our faith. It is abso-
lutely essential to test and keep testing by God's
Word everyone who claims the prophetic gift.
Our only safeguard against another Waco is
restoring the Bible to its proper place. Testing times
are coming; of that we may be sure. David Koresh is
dead and gone, but more like him are waiting in the

We undo if we overdo
God can help us honor the gift of prophecy
without making it more than He intended it to be.
The tombstones of those who exaggerated the
prophetic gift line the hallway of Adventist history.
Defectors from our church usually make their first
mistake in putting Ellen White above the Bible.
When their impossible expectations of her ministry
are shattered by reality, they feel devastated. Bit-
terly they reproach our prophet and abandon our
church. We all know of former Adventists who had
this tragic experience.
How much pain we suffer through misconceptions
about inspiration! Not only that, our witness to fel-
low Christians is severely compromised if we pro-
mote unauthorized claims about Ellen White.
You know how it goes. Your Baptist friend down the
street finally agrees to attend church with you. Un-
fortunately, before she ever hears an Adventist ser-
mon, what happens in Sabbath School shakes her
confidence in our message. Too often, all she hears
is "Sister White says this, Sister White says that." So
she leans over to you and whispers, "All this talk
about Sister White! What about the Bible?"
You've lost her. She brands the Adventist Church a
cult and never comes back. To avoid such heart-
breaking situations, many pastors and evangelists
encourage Sabbath school superintendents and
teachers to be discreet about invoking the authority
of Ellen White. But is the real solution to hide what
we believe about the Spirit of prophecy? Or should
we get our thinking straight and put the Bible first
and foremost?
When we establish ourselves as truly people of the
Book, we can quote Ellen White without repelling in-
formed Christians. Many of them already know
about spiritual gifts and will be delighted to welcome
the prophetic ministry of Ellen White. But we must
meet them on the solid rock of the Bible only as our
rule of faith.
Which Adventist doctrine cannot stand on the Bible
alone? Despite such a solid biblical base, some Ad-
ventists perceive sola scriptura to be a threat to the
authority of Ellen White. Often they refer to this
warning of inspiration: "The very last deception of
Satan will be to make of none effect the testimony
of the Spirit of God. . . . Satan will work ingeniously .
. . to unsettle the confidence of God's remnant
people in the true testimony."25
Is this ingenious deception happening right now? We
are witnessing two basic attacks against Ellen
White's authority. On one hand many despise her
writings in order to "do their own thing," speeding
along the highway to heaven in reckless abandon.
Will they be lost for rejecting Ellen White? Only be-
cause her straight testimony which they refuse is
based upon the Bible.
False freedom is a dangerous temptation indeed, but
perhaps Satan has reserved his most cunning de-
ception for those whose blind zeal causes them to
exalt Ellen White as lord of the Scriptures, where
God never intended her to be and where she never
wanted to be. Throughout our history some have bit-
terly forsaken the Bible, the Christian life and the
Adventist Church after reality deflated their over-
blown expectations regarding Ellen White.
Were the Millerites perfect in their theology? Not
even the prophet John the Baptist was flawless in his
teaching, so why must Ellen White be? We need di-
vine insight to acknowledge her humanity and see
God at work in her gift. Otherwise our appreciation
of inspiration will be so shallow that we must de-
ceive ourselves to retain "faith."
Where would the Adventist Church be without Ellen
White? Less enriched, for sure, but with our Bibles
still in hand would we have no hope? Some insist
that Adventism will collapse unless we build our
Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, February 24, 1874.
faith upon her writings. But is Ellen White the rock
on which Christ built His church?
Perhaps Ellen White's friends have done much more
damage to her reputation than her enemies. Really,
she doesn't need us to defend her; all we need do is
read her books in their proper relation to the Bible. I
believe that any genuine believer will recognize in
her writings the voice of the Shepherd.
Well, those are my convictions on Ellen White.
Please do not accept them if you have better an-
swers than this chapter has offered for the following

* If Ellen White has authority to redefine Scripture,

when in her life did she receive that authority: In the
1840s? The 1850s? The 1860s? The 1870s? The
* If Ellen White has authority to redefine Scripture,
on what basis did she receive that authority?
* If we grant Ellen White the right to redefine
Scripture, on what basis can we deny future proph-
ets the authority also to reinterpret the Bible and
even Ellen White's writings?
* Since each Adventist doctrine is supported in the
Scriptures, why do some members depend upon El-
len White to tell them what to believe?
* If theological growth from error into truth didn't
disqualify John the Baptist from a place among the
greatest of prophets, why should it disqualify Ellen