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Ellen White and her writings. How to make sense of old books Denis Fortin The Writings of Ellen G. White. The need for correct interpretation. Any sacred text, such as the Bible, written years ago require that some basic rules be used in order to understand what was written.

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Ellen White and her writings

How to make sense of old books

Denis Fortin

The Writings of Ellen G. White


The need for correct interpretation

Any sacred text, such as the Bible, written years ago require that some basic rules be used in order to understand what was written.

Time, culture, geography, and language create barriers that sometime make it difficult to understand what someone wrote.


What is hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics is the science and methodology of interpretation.

“What does the prophet mean by what the prophet says?”

What the words mean and do not mean.


The importance of hermeneutics

“Listen as for your life to ‘what saith the Scripture.’ It is of supreme importance that you hear aright. . . . Your salvation depends on you hearing aright, and receiving with meekness the engrafted Word” (UL 50).


Jesus was misinterpreted

"He [Judas] would introduce texts of Scripture that had no connection with the truths Christ was preaching. These texts, separated from their connection [context], perplexed the disciples, and increased the discouragement that was constantly pressing upon them. Yet all this was done by Judas in such a way as to make it appear that he was conscientious. (continued)


Jesus was misinterpreted

"And while the disciples were searching for evidence to confirm the words of the great teacher, Judas would lead them almost imperceptibly on another track. Thus in a very religious, and apparently wise, way he was presenting matters in a different light from that which Jesus had given them, and attaching to His words a meaning that He had not conveyed." (DA 719).


Ellen White was misinterpreted

"Many men take the testimonies the Lord has given . . . picking out a sentence here and there, taking it from its proper connection [context], and applying it according to their idea. Thus poor souls become bewildered, when could they read in order all that has been given, they would see the true application, and would not become confused. Much that purports to be a message from Sister White, serves [only] the purpose of misrepresenting Sister White." (Selected Messages 1:44)


Ellen White was misinterpreted

“Those who are not walking in the light of the message, may gather up statements from my writings that happen to please them, and that agree with their human judgment, and, by separating these statements from their connection, and placing them beside human reasoning, make it appear that my writings uphold that which they condemn. I charge you not to do this work. To use my writings thus . . . is misleading and inconsistent." (Letter 208, June 29, 1906)


Cases of misinterpretation

a. "Health Reform"

b. Diet

c. Dress

d. Recreation/Amusement

e. Education: theory/practice

f. Religious experience/practice

g. Racial issues

h. Cultural issues

i. Debt

j. Homemaking


Dangers of interpretation

Danger #1 : That in explaining, we "explain-away"

Rules of interpretation can be a cloak under which to hide a watering down of the clear intent of the word of God, by spiritualizing the obvious intent of the passage.


Dangers of interpretation

Danger #2 : The "everything-is-gray" syndrome

In endeavoring to correct one extreme view, there is always the potential danger that, in reaction, one will go to the opposite extreme. In attempting to correct the erroneous view that all things in life are black-or-white, we may, unwittingly, create the wrong impression that nothing is clear, or absolute.


Reasons for rules of hermeneutics

1. Intended meaning of some words may not be obvious.

2. A figure of speech may distort the intended meaning.

3. Words in any language evolve and change meaning.


Reasons for rules of hermeneutics

4. Cultural factors and circumstances may affect meaning.

5. The same word in different contexts may mean something different.


Rules of Interpretation

Many suggestions of rules of interpretation of the writings of Ellen White have been suggested.

Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, vol. 3, pp. 3211-3216.

George Knight, Reading Ellen White.


Rules of Interpretation

Rule #1 : Study all the applicable counsels before drawing your conclusions.

Rule #2 : The time, place, and circumstances of the giving of certain messages should be considered.

Rule #3 : One should try to discover the principle involved in any specific counsel.


First rule

Study all the applicable counsels before drawing your conclusions


Nothing to say

1. Cinema and videos

2. Radio programs

3. Television

4. Contraception

5. Abortion

6. Cremation

7. Organ transplant


Little to say

On other topics she had little to say:

1. Life insurance

2. Two special resurrections


Eggs anyone?

In a sermon in the Battle Creek Tabernacle on March 6, 1869, Ellen White raised the question of inconsistency in the practice of health reform in relationship to daily Christian living.


Eggs anyone?

"You place upon your table butter, eggs, and meat, and your children partake of them, . . . and then you come to meeting and ask God to bless and save your children. How high do [you think] your prayers go?" (Testimonies 2:362)


Eggs anyone?

That same year (1869) she also wrote a letter to a "Brother and Sister E."

In a simple sentence she stated flatly:

"Eggs should not be placed upon your table."


"They are an injury to your children" (2T 400).


Eggs anyone?

This raises a logical question:

Is "your table" to be understood in the singular, referring specifically (and only) to the table of Brother and Sister E


Does "your table" refer collectively to the tables of all Seventh-day Adventists?


Eggs anyone?

"In some cases the use of eggs is beneficial" (Testimonies 7:135)

"In some cases of persons whose blood- making organs are feeble [e.g., anemia] . . . milk and eggs should not be wholly discarded." (Ministry of Healing 320)


Eggs anyone?

"While warnings have been given . . ., yet we should not consider it a violation of principle to use eggs from hens that are well cared for and suitably fed. Eggs contain properties that are remedial agencies in counteracting certain poisons" in the body. (Testimonies 9:162)


Eggs anyone?

What, then, precipitated this warning to Brother and Sister E?

An examination of the internal context (Rule #2) reveals that both of the adolescent sons in the "E" family were unable to keep their sexual passions under control.


Eggs anyone?

One example of extremism happened in the life of Dr. Daniel Kress who became anemic from his abstinence of all animal products without a proper wholesome diet in replacement.


Eggs anyone?

Ellen White recommended that he change his eating habits and eat a raw egg in a glass of grape juice two or three times a day in order to receive "the nourishment that he greatly needed."(Letter 37, 1904, in Counsels on Diet and Foods, 367)


Eggs anyone?

Relevant for us today is the warning, with its promise, penned in 1901.

She declared that "the time will come" when we will need to discard from the diet all animal products; but "when the time comes . . . God will reveal this. No extremes in health reform are to be advocated" (Letter 37, 1901, to Bro. and Sister D.H. Kress, in CD 358, 359).


Eggs anyone?

She did not tell when that time would come, nor how God would then reveal it to his people; but the implication is clearly left that intelligent persons, sincerely and earnestly desirous of doing God’s will, will clearly understand when that time has fully come.


God Hearing Our Prayers

“The Lord would have us trust fully and entirely in Him. Then we will, in the simplicity of our faith, believe that Christ will do for us all that He has promised. Let all come to the Saviour in the full assurance that He will do all that He has promised. We cannot please our Saviour more than by having faith in His promises. His mercies can come to you, and your prayers can come to Him. Nothing can break this line of communication. We must learn to bring all perplexities to Jesus Christ, for He will help us. He will listen to our requests. We may come to Him in full assurance of faith, nothing doubting, for He is the living Way.”


Second Rule

The time, place, and circumstances of the giving of certain messages should be considered


General Principles Regarding the Importance of Context

1875: "That which can be said of men under certain circumstances cannot be said of them under other circumstances" (3T470).


General Principles Regarding the Importance of Context

1904 : “God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.” (3SM 217).


General Principles Regarding the Importance of Context

1911: "Regarding the testimonies [of Ellen G. White], nothing is ignored; nothing is cast aside; but time and place must be considered" (1SM 57).


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

1875: "When the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered." (Testimonies 3:492)


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

1895: "The voice of the General Conference has been represented as an authority to be heeded as the voice of the Holy Spirit. But when members of the General Conference Committee become entangled in business affairs and financial perplexities, the sacred, elevated character of their work is in a great degree lost." (Ms 33, 1895, in MR #1118)


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

1896: "The voice from Battle Creek which has been regarded as authority in counseling how the work should be done, is no longer the voice of God." (Letter 4, July 1, 1896)


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

1898: "It has been some years since I have considered the General Conference as the voice of God." (Letter 77, August 26, 1898)


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

However, at the General Conference session of 1901, following all the administrative changes made to the structure of the church, Ellen White began a further change in her position. She went back to her 1875 position regarding the authority of the General Conference.


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

"The people [in the church] have lost confidence in those who have the management of the work. Yet we hear that the voice of the Conference is the voice of God. Every time I have heard this, I have thought it was almost blasphemy. The voice of the Conference ought to be the voice of God, but it is not, because [1] some in connection with it are not men of faith and prayer, they are not men of elevated principle. . . . [2] Two or three voices are not to control everything in the [whole world] field."(Ms 37, April 1, 1901, pp. 1, 8)


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

"That these men should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be, that day is past. What we want is reorganization. We want to begin at the foundation, and to build upon a different principle.”(1901 GC Bulletin, p. 25)


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

"I was never more astonished in my life than at the turn things have taken at this meeting [Session]. This is not our work. God has brought it about. Instruction regarding this was presented to me [as the Session progressed], but until the sum was worked out at this meeting, I could not comprehend this instruction. God's angels have been walking up and down in this congregation."


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

With the changes

[1] in leadership personnel (many new leaders were elected; many former leaders were changed, or retired), and

[2] in organizational structure,

it now becomes clear that Ellen White is reverting to her 1875 position, and now is opposed to the 1890s position (which she initially brought into the 1901 GC Session).


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

Only two months later (June 1901), Ellen White became aware, and very concerned, that her eldest son, J. Edson White, was now erroneously taking pre- 1901-Session statements of his mother, and misapplying them in the post-1901- Session milieu.


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

"Your course would have been the course to be pursued, if no changes had been made in the General Conference [Session just closed]. But a change has been made, and many more changes will [yet] be made [and they were, at the 1903 Session, and subsequently], and great developments will [yet] be seen. No issues are to be forced.”


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

"It hurts me to think that you are using the words which I wrote prior to the Conference [to apply them now]. Since the Conference great changes have been made.”


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

"A terribly unjust course has been pursued in the past. A want of principle has been revealed. But in pity to His people, God has brought about changes. . . . The course of action which before the Conference might have been a necessity is no longer a necessity, for the Lord Himself interposed to set things in order. . . ." (Letter 54, June, 1901)


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

1909 – “God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General conference [session], shall have authority” (9T 261).


Is the voice of the General Conference the voice of God?

1911 – "God has invested His church with special authority and power which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising, for he who does this despises the voice of God” (AA 164).


Riding a bicycle

1894: "There seemed to be a bicycle craze. Money was spent to gratify an enthusiasm. . . . A bewitching influence seemed to be passing as a wave over our people there. . . . Satan works with intensity of purpose to induce our people to invest their time and money in gratifying supposed wants. This is a species of idolatry. . . . There were some who were striving for the mastery, each trying to excel the other in the swift running of their bicycles" (8T 51-52).


Riding a bicycle

Understanding the context of the time when Ellen White made this comment is crucial to properly understand her thought.

The fad of buying bicycles showed (a) poor stewardship of time and money, and (b) gave rise to competition, rivalry and strife for supremacy.


Riding a bicycle

"Toward the end of the last century the American people were swept with a consuming passion which left them with little time or money for anything else.... What was this big new distraction? For an answer the merchants had only to look out the window and watch their erstwhile customers go whizzing by. America had discovered the bicycle, and everybody was making the most of the new freedom it brought. . . .


Riding a bicycle

"The bicycle began as a rich man's toy. Society and celebrity went awheel.... The best early bicycle cost $150, an investment comparable to the cost of an automobile today.... Every member of the family wanted a ‘wheel,' and entire family savings often were used up on supplying the demand." (Frank Tripp, "When All the World Went Wheeling," The Readers' Digest, December 1951, pp. 121-23)


General Principles Regarding the Importance of Context

1911: "Regarding the testimonies [of Ellen G. White], nothing is ignored; nothing is cast aside; but time and place must be considered" (1SM 57).



Balanced View

And Practice of truth

5 miles



& Hesitant

2 miles



& Zealous



Balanced View

And Practice of truth

Ellen White sent to Church A

a 5 mile testimony

5 miles



& Hesitant

Church B received

A 2 mile testimony

2 miles



& Zealous



By mistake, the testimonies were switched

and each church received the wrong testimony.

Yet, each church followed faithfully the testimony it received.



2 miles

to goal



3 miles

beyond goal


Caution on going too fast

1872 – "We should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people" (3T 21).


James White’s words of caution

"She works to this disadvantage, namely: she makes strong appeals to the people, which a few feel deeply, and take strong positions, and go to extremes. Then to save the cause from ruin in consequence of these extremes, she is obliged to come out with reproofs for extremists in a public manner. (continued)


James White’s words of caution

"This is better than to have things go to pieces; but the influence of both the extremes and the reproofs are terrible on the cause, and brings upon Mrs. W. a three-fold burden. Here is the difficulty: What she may say to urge the tardy, is taken by the prompt to urge them over the mark. And what she may say to caution the prompt, zealous, incautious ones, is taken by the tardy as an excuse to remain too far behind" (Review and Herald, March 17, 1868).


Caution about the use of context

While context clearly is of very important consideration for our understanding of background, cause-effect relationships, etc., context, too, can be misused.

We must be exceedingly careful that we beware of too much explaining, lest in the end we wind up by doing too much excusing.


Rules of Interpretation

Rule #1 : Study all the applicable counsels before drawing your conclusions.

Rule #2 : The time, place, and circumstances of the giving of certain messages should be considered.

Rule #3 : One should try to discover the principle involved in any specific counsel.


Third rule

One should try to discover the principle involved in any specific counsel, and its applications


What’s a principle?


A principle is an unerring, unchanging rule of human conduct or behavior.


What’s a principle?

The characteristics of a principle are:

- Universal: a principle applies to all men and women in all places (the horizontal aspect).

- Eternal: a principle applies to all historical time periods and never changes (the vertical aspect)


Jesus’ commandment

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is a universal and eternal principle.


Counsels and applications

Eternal and universal principles are applied to particular contextual situations through specific counsels.

Applications of principles may change as the circumstances which call them forth change.


Driving and harnessing a horse

In 1903, Ellen White wrote this counsel to young women:

Girls who "could learn to harness and drive a horse . . . would be better fitted to meet the emergencies of life" (Ed 216-217).


Driving and harnessing a horse

What shall we do with this counsel and how shall we understand it in our modern society?

Is it imperative that our Seventh-day Adventist schools teach a girl how to harness and drive a horse?


Driving and harnessing a horse

Internal Context: Ellen White is urging girls, as well as boys, to obtain a practical education (the principle), in order to be better fitted to meet life's emergency situations.

External Context: Rural communities of 1903.


Driving and harnessing a horse

Application today:

Learn important skills that every one needs to cope with life.

Basic auto care and maintenance, minor tune-ups


Driving and harnessing a horse

“Since both men and women have a part in home-making, boys as well as girls should gain a knowledge of household duties. To make a bed and put a room in order, to wash dishes, to prepare a meal, to wash and repair his own clothing, is a training that need not make any boy less manly; it will make him happier and more useful. And if girls, in turn, could learn to harness and drive a horse, and to use the saw and the hammer, as well as to rake and the hoe, they would be better fitted to meet the emergencies of life.” (Ed 216-217)


How shall we pray?

“I have received letters questioning me in regard to the proper attitude to be taken by a person offering prayer to the Sovereign of the universe. Where have our brethren obtained the idea that they should stand upon their feet when praying to God?”


How shall we pray?

“One who has been educated for about five years in Battle Creek was asked to lead in prayer before Sister White should speak to the people. But as I beheld him standing upright upon his feet while his lips were about to open in prayer to God, my soul was stirred within me to give him an open rebuke. Calling him by name, I said, "Get down upon your knees." This is the proper positionalways” (2SM 311).


How shall we pray?

Rule #1 – Study all available information

"Both in public and private worship, it is our privilege to bow on our knees before the Lord when we offer our petitions to Him" (GW 178).


How shall we pray?

"There is no time or place in which it is inappropriate to offer up a petition of God. . . . In the crowds of the street, in the midst of a business engagement, we may send up a petition to God. . . . We should have the door of the heart open continually and our invitation going up that Jesus may come and abide as a heavenly guest in the soul." (Steps to Christ 99)


How shall we pray?

"We may commune with God in our hearts.... When engaged in our daily labor, we may breathe out our heart's desire, inaudible to any human ear." (Gospel Workers 258)


How shall we pray?

"We must pray constantly, with a humble mind and a meek and lowly spirit. We need not wait for an opportunity to kneel before God. We can pray and talk with the Lord wherever we may be" (3SM 266).


How shall we pray?

"You cannot always be on your knees in prayer, but your silent petitions may constantly ascend to God for strength and guidance." (Counsels on Health, 362)

"It is not always necessary to bow upon your knees in order to pray." (Ministry of Healing, 510-511)


How shall we pray?

Examples from Scripture:

1. The unconverted Pharisees apparently were not the only ones who, upon occasion, would "pray standing" (Matt. 6:5).


How shall we pray?

Examples from Scripture:

2. Solomon, at the dedication of his Temple: knelt, for a prayer of confession (1 Kings 8:54) and also stood, for certain other prayers, including certain "blessings," and for the benediction (vs. 14, 22, 23, 55).


How shall we pray?

Examples from Ellen White’s practice:

1887 – In one occasion, in Europre, she instructed the people to remain seated for the prayer (Diary, Feb. 20, 1887, cited in 1SM 147 and 3SM 267-268).


How shall we pray?

Examples from Ellen White’s practice:

1909 – In one prayer, she and the congregation knelt, after first standing in consecration (RH, Mar. 11, 1909, cited in 3SM 267).


How shall we pray?

Examples from Ellen White’s practice:

On some other occasions, she stood, and invited the people to stand with her:

* Mar. 7, 1908, at Oakland, CA (3SM 268-269).

* Feb. 8, 1909, also at Oakland (3SM 269).

* May 18, 1909, at a GC Session in Takoma Park, MD (3SM 269, 270).


How shall we pray?

D. E. Robinson, one of Ellen White's secretaries (1902-15), wrote on Mar. 4, 1934,

"I have been present repeatedly at camp meetings and General Conference Sessions in which Sister White herself has offered prayer with the congregation standing, and she herself standing" (3SM 267, footnote).


How shall we pray?

Arthur L. White:

"That Ellen White did not intend to teach that on every prayer occasion we must kneel is made clear both by her words and her example. To her there was no time or place where prayer was not appropriate. Her family testified that in her home those at the dining table bowed their heads and not their knees.”


How shall we pray?

“She was not known to kneel for the benediction at the close of services she attended. The earnest counsel on kneeling would seem to have its principal application in the worship services in the house of God and private devotions at home. In public ministry [e.g. evangelistic meetings] there were times when she stood for prayer" (3SM 270, footnote).


How shall we pray?

"I was not able to bow my knees in the opening prayer or when I entered the desk [pulpit] as I usually do, but the form is not the essential part. My heart went up to God in earnest prayer and He did help me and I believe gave me a decided message for the people assembled." (Ms 29, 1892, emphasis supplied)


How shall we pray?

Principle: Reverence for God

"There should be an intelligent knowledge of how to come to God in reverence and godly fear with devotional love. There is a growing lack of reverence for our Maker, a growing disregard of His greatness and His majesty" (Ms 84b, 1897, cited in 2SM 312).


How shall we pray?

Principle: Dependence upon God

"Both in public and private worship it is our duty to bow down upon our knees before God when we offer our petitions to Him. This act shows our dependence upon God" (2SM 312).


Cooking on the Sabbath

"Cooking upon the Sabbath should be avoided" (6T 357).

"On Friday let the preparation for the Sabbath be completed. See that ... all the cooking is done" (6T 355).


Cooking on the Sabbath


In Ellen White's day "simple" cooking was itself a very complex, time-consuming operation requiring lots of work. Even "simple" cooking required "work."


Cooking on the Sabbath


1. Nothing that could be done on the previous six working days should be left to Sabbath hours (6T 354).

2. All unnecessary "work" should be avoided.


Cooking on the Sabbath

Application of the Principles:

1. Self-timing ovens and microwave ovens.

2. Cooking is no longer the time-consuming, labor-intensive chore of yesteryear.

3. Whatever preparation that can be done on Friday should still be done on Friday.


Taking a bath on the Sabbath

"On Friday let the preparation for the Sabbath be completed. See that all clothing is in readiness and that all the cooking is done. Let the boots be blacked and the baths taken." (6T 355)


Three simple rules

1. Take into consideration all that has been written on the subject before drawing some conclusions.

2. Consider the context, the time, the situation, and the circumstances.

3. Find the principles behind the specific counsels.


Following these three simples rules will help us avoid extremism in our understanding of Ellen White’s writings.

Properly understanding these writings is what matters most.

Seeing the truthfulness of the message that will transform our lives is a precious experience.