Two dangers, either of which may prove fatal, confront the seeker for truth as he is brought into contact with one who claims to have had revelations from God. On the one hand he may rashly reject the true; or, on the other, he may blindly accept the false. But God's message is, Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1.
Those who maintain that the gifts of the Spirit, including the prophetic gift, ceased with the days of the apostles are thereby logically forced not only to turn a deaf ear to the claim of any present-day messenger for God, but to denounce such a one as an impostor.
Those who believe in the abiding gift of prophecy must recognize the force of the Saviour's injunction: Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Matt. 7:15. Nor should they be unmindful of our Lord's prediction that among the signs that were to herald the return of our Lord as imminent, is the appearance of false christs, and false prophets, who shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Matt. 24:24.
In order that one may quench not the Spirit,the Holy Spirit, who has moved upon and inspired the prophets of all ages,the apostle Paul enjoins the believers to despise not prophesyings. In order to avoid deception by a subtle counterfeit, he adds the injunction: Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. 1 Thess. 5:19-21.
To evaluate a life and work after its record has been made, when the fruitage has appeared and ripened, when the influences for good or ill have been manifest, is comparatively easy. The real test in forming a correct judgment rests upon those who are forced to weigh the individual worth of a contemporary, especially
before the success or failure has become apparent. This principle is notably true in testing the claims of a prophet.
To those who were rejecting Him, the greatest prophet of all ages,yea, while they were plotting His death,Christ declared:
Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchers of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchers. Luke 11:47, 48.
It is sad, but nevertheless true, that too few who have lived with these chosen men of God in any age have recognized them as His messengers. Those who rejected Christ also stoned Stephen; they rejoiced when Herod put James the apostle to death; they harried and persecuted Paul, the meanwhile outwardly honoring the ancient prophets with their lips. Nevertheless, there have always been some whose hearts have rejoiced as they have recognized the voice of God speaking through these His chosen ones.
Miss Ellen Harmon, whose first vision we have related, and who later became Mrs. Ellen G. White, completed her life span twenty years ago (1915), at the age of eighty-eight. The rich fruitage of her life has been manifest. Her name is inseparably linked with the great last-day gospel movement that is world embracing in scope. The products of her pen are found in many lands and languages. The principles she enunciated are still made the subject of most earnest study by ministers, educators, physicians, and Christian laymen. All these facts will be brought forth as evidence in evaluating her claim to have received these teachings and these principles in the restored prophetic gift from the God of heaven.
But before weighing these claims in the light of what we now see, we should consider the evidences upon which her claims had to be evaluated by those to whom they were first made known. What led the group of about sixty in Portland, Maine, to whom
she related her first vision, to receive it as a divine communication? Were the circumstances such as to justify them in their conclusion?
Bear in mind that the members of this company had passed through a most unusual experience together. They had been united in their ardent expectations, and in their disappointment and bewilderment. The large crowds that had met in Beethoven Hall prior to the day of expectation were now scattered. Only a few continued to be united, and these met for evening meetings in the Harmon home. They were well acquainted with the daughter Ellen. In deciding upon the merits of her claim to have received a heavenly vision, they would naturally consider her Christian experience and character. This was of such an unusual nature that it must have been well known to them.
In view of the express declaration that it was holy men who were moved by the Holy Spirit, we must expect to find a consistent Christian life in the one whom God chooses as His agent for revelation; therefore, brief mention should be made of Ellen Harmon's spiritual experiences prior to the time of her choice as a messenger for God.
There had been two factors that affected her spiritual life. The first was an accidental injury received when she was nine years old. This resulted in severe suffering for a number of months, with an expectation of life-long invalidism if not, indeed, an early death. Then for two years she struggled against feelings of resentment against God for the blighting of her ambitions. Of this period she says:
At times my sense of guilt and responsibility to God lay so heavy upon my soul, that I could not sleep but lay awake for hours, thinking of my lost condition and what was best for me to do . I seemed to be cut off from all chance of earthly happiness, and doomed to continual disappointment and mortification . My prospect of worldly enjoyment was blighted, and heaven seemed closed against me.Life Sketches: Ancestry, Early Life, Christian Experience, and Extensive
Labors of Elder James White and His Wile, Ellen White, pp. 135, 136. Battle Creek: Steam Press of the S. D. A. Publishing Association, 1888.
Then the second advent proclamation reached the city of Portland. In the spring of 1840, William Miller delivered a series of lectures on the prophecies, and the city was stirred by his message of the nearness of Christ's coming. The Harmon family attended the lectures, and Ellen listened with terror to the evidences presented. Not yet could she look with happiness and confidence to the coming of Christ as the Saviour of His people. She could only think of Him as coming in judgment to destroy sinners, including herself. Although seeking as a suppliant for mercy, yet she found little relief for a time. She says in her autobiography:
When sinners were invited forward to the anxious seat, hundreds responded to the call, and I, among the rest, pressed through the crowd and took my humble place with the seekers. But there was a hopeless feeling in my heart that I could never become worthy to be called a child of God.Id., pp. 137, 138.
Months were spent in mental agony. Whole nights were passed in tearful prayers for pardon, but without clear assurance of acceptance with God. Like Bunyan, she suffered almost unbearable sorrow, depression, and despair.
But the day of relief came. It was at a Methodist camp meeting that she listened to a convincing discourse upon the pardoning love of Christ. She was impressed with the statement that those who were waiting to make themselves more worthy of divine favor, before they dared venture to claim the promises, were making a fatal mistake. Jesus alone cleanses from sin; He only can forgive our transgressions. He has pledged Himself to listen to the petition and grant the prayer of those who come to Him in faith.Id., p. 140.
Of the lifting of the burden of despair, she says:
While bowed at the altar with others who were seeking the Lord, all the language of my heart was: Help, Jesus, save me or I perish! I will never cease to entreat till my prayer is heard and my sins forgiven. I felt my needy, helpless condition as never before. As I knelt and prayed,
suddenly my burden left me and my heart was light. At first a feeling of alarm came over me and I tried to resume the load of distress again. It seemed to me that I had no right to feel joyous and happy. But Jesus seemed very near me; I felt able to come to Him with all my griefs, misfortunes and trials, even as the needy ones came to Him for relief when He was upon earth. There was a surety in my heart that He understood my peculiar trials and sympathized with me. I can never forget this precious assurance of the pitying tenderness of Jesus toward one so unworthy of His notice. I learned more of the divine character of Christ in the short period when bowed among the praying ones than ever before.Id., pp. 142, 143.
Soon after this Ellen was baptized, and was received as a member of the Methodist Church. By her own request she was immersed, as she was persuaded by her own experience and study that this was the scriptural mode of baptism.
This, her conversion, was the beginning of an unusual Christian experience for a child. There were further lessons for her to learn, however. She was confused by the theological discussions she heard regarding justification and sanctification, intimating that there was some experience characterized by great joy, which she despaired of reaching. She was troubled because some who made the greatest claims to sanctification manifested a bitter spirit toward those who believed in the soon coming of Jesus, and because some ministers opposed this scriptural hope.
The preaching of an eternally burning hell was a source of anguish to her mind. She could not reconcile this doctrine with the love and tenderness of God. Of this she says:
I thought that the fate of the condemned sinner would be mine, to endure the flames of hell forever, even as long as God Himself existed. This impression deepened upon my mind until I feared that I would lose my reason. I would look upon the dumb beasts with envy, because they had no soul to be punished after death .
Total darkness settled upon me and there seemed no way out of the shadows. Could the truth have been presented to me as I now understand it, my despondency would have taken flight at once, much
perplexity and sorrow would have been spared me. If the love of God had been dwelt upon more and His stern justice less, the beauty and glory of His character would have inspired me with a deep and earnest love for my Creator.Id., p. 153.
An impression that it was her duty to offer public prayer in one of the prayer meetings added to her distress of mind. So timid and shrinking was she that she suffered keenly at the thought. Fearful of becoming confused, she shrank from it as a dread ordeal. But so strong was the impression that she felt she was willfully displeasing God in refusing to pray. This led to another period of utter despair, of which she says:
For three long weeks no ray of light pierced the gloom that encompassed me about. My sufferings of mind were intense. Sometimes for a whole night I would not dare to close my eyes, but would wait until my twin sister was fast asleep, then quietly leave my bed and kneel upon the floor, praying silently with a dumb agony that cannot be described. The horrors of an eternally burning hell were ever before me. I knew that it was impossible for me to live long in this state, and I dared not die and meet the terrible fate of the sinner. With what envy did I regard those who realized their acceptance with God. How precious did the Christian's hope seem to my agonized soul.Id., p. 154.
From this pitiful anxiety she was at length relieved through a comforting dream and the counsel and prayers of a godly minister. But again came the impression of duty to take part in the prayer meeting. That evening the opportunity came. Tremblingly she bowed with the little group, and soon she lifted up her voice in prayer. Of this act of obedience to the voice of the Spirit she says:
As I prayed, the burden and agony of soul that I had endured so long, left me, and the blessing of the Lord descended upon me like the gentle dew. I praised God from the depths of my heart. Everything seemed shut out from me but Jesus and His glory.Id., p. 159.
The following night, in the meeting of the advent believers, she very impressively bore testimony to her experience. This
was the beginning of her public acknowledgment of Christ, coupled with earnest appeals for consecration.
Not long after this she was invited to relate her experience at the Christian church in Portland, at a conference of believers. As she told in a simple way of her wonderful deliverance from the bondage of doubt and despair, the melting power of the Lord came upon the assembled people. Many were weeping and praising God. Sinners were invited to arise for prayers, and many responded to the call.Id., p. 162.
Nor were Ellen Harmon's efforts for Christ limited to these public testimonies. She arranged meetings with her friends and related her experience to them, then exhorted and prayed for them individually. Night after night she prayed for these souls for whom she bore a burden, and her soul-winning efforts were marvelously blessed.
It was at this period in her life that James White, a young man who was on fire with a burning zeal to lead his fellow men to prepare for the coming of Christ, which he believed to be near, visited Portland. He speaks thus of his first meeting with the one who was later to share his labors as his wife:
She was then a Christian of the most devoted type. And although but sixteen, she was a laborer in the cause of Christ in public and from house to house. She was a decided adventist, and yet her experience was so rich and her testimony so powerful that ministers and leading men of different churches sought her labors as an exhorter in their several congregations. But at that time she was very timid, and little thought that she was to be brought before the public to speak to thousands.Id., p. 126.
With such a background of experience, is it strange that the little company of believers in Portland, in their perplexity and trouble following the disappointment, should have confidence in the integrity of this girl who, with fear and trembling, told them of the vision that had been given to her? Could they well
doubt her sincerity? Sweet water does not flow from bitter fountains.
The nature of the message, its fitness to their needs, its satisfying answers to the questions that were in their minds, its encouragement for confidence in their past experience, and for divine guidance for the future surely must have impressed those who heard Ellen Harmon relate it. As this has been covered in the preceding chapter, we shall not further enlarge on it here.
It is, however, worthy of note that this vision was not of such a nature as to confirm them in what they already believed. Not only they, but Ellen Harmon herself, prior to this vision, had become persuaded that the midnight cry movement, through which they had passed, was a mistake. This was the general conclusion that had been reached by most of the leaders in the movement. It seemed logical to accept the fact that Jesus had not come as proof positive that the calculation of the prophetic period of 2300 years as ending on October 22 had been in error.
But in the vision, instead of the midnight cry's having been a mistake, lo, it was a light that was to illuminate the pathway of the adventist people all the way to the city of God.
Therefore the substance of this vision cannot be accounted for as in anywise springing from the personal belief of Ellen Harmon, or that of her associates. That it served to change that belief is a strong evidence of its having been given to her by an intelligence outside of her own consciousness.
From what has been related, it is evident that Ellen Harmon was not a bold, forward person. To go forth as a messenger for God was not a path of her choosing. When in a later vision she was bidden to go and relate to others the things that God had shown to her, the trials and hardships of her future life were laid open before her. Of her reluctance to do this work, she says:
My health was so poor that I was in actual bodily suffering, and, to all appearance, had but a short time to live. I was but seventeen years of age, small and frail, unused to society, and naturally so timid and
retiring that it was painful for me to meet strangers. I prayed earnestly for several days and far into the night, that this burden might be removed from me and laid upon someone more capable of bearing it. But the light of duty never changed, and the words of the angel sounded continually in my ears, Make known to others what I have revealed to you.
I was unreconciled to going out into the world, its sneers and opposition rose before my mind in formidable array. I had little self-confidence . How could I, a child in years, go forth from place to place unfolding to the people the holy truths of God! My heart shrank in terror from the thought.Id., p. 194.
When we remember the terrible mental struggle connected with the impression that she should take part in a prayer meeting, we can better appreciate the agonizing fear with which she contemplated traveling and meeting a world with its natural skepticism regarding present-day divine revelations. But when she finally surrendered, she found that added strength was given her for the call to which she responded.
That there was a supernatural power connected with the visions of Ellen Harmon cannot be gainsaid. There are hundreds of witnesses who have testified to having seen certain physical phenomena during these occasions. Some of these are strikingly parallel to those mentioned in Scripture. Thus the apostle Paul, referring to his own experience, says:
I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not possible for a man to utter. 2 Cor. 12:1-4, margin.
So Ellen Harmon, who later became Mrs. Ellen G. White, while in vision was entirely unconscious of everything about her. That at times she seemed to be viewing heavenly scenes was evident to those present, for she would describe that which she was viewing. At such times, after returning to consciousness, the world seemed dark, as if she had been in celestial glory.
Another striking manifestation of supernatural power was the fact that during the visions, though they might last for hours, there was absolutely no respiration, even though words were spoken. So, says Daniel, speaking of himself while in vision, There remained no strength in me, neither is there breath left in me. Dan. 10:17.
Immediately following these words is the statement:
Then there came again and touched me one like the appearance of a man, and he strengthened me. Verse 18.
So, in a number of Mrs. White's visions, there were manifestations of great strength. In fact, in a vision given to her at her own home in Portland, she picked up the large family Bible, weighing over eighteen pounds, and held it on her extended left hand for approximately half an hour.
These phenomena are here mentioned as accompaniments in this connection, but not as in and of themselves constituting conclusive evidence of divine power. Those who would accept such physical phenomena as the determining evidence may be deceived, for the enemy of righteousness may produce similar conditions in persons subject to his control.
In the beginning of Mrs. White's work, the miraculous was sometimes apparent to arrest the attention of the personal beholder, and to make apparent locally to those who witnessed it that they were in the presence of a supernatural power. Whether from God or from Satan was to be determined by the character of the messages themselves, and by that of the messenger.
In later years when it was possible to judge her claims by the character and content of her published works and labors, wholly apart from the physical evidence, these physical phenomena were no longer necessary to faith, and her public visions became less frequent, and finally ceased.
That the revelations given to counsel and guide the church did not cease with them, but that on the other hand they continued
unabated till near the close of her life, will be apparent as more of her work is noted.
As the early part of Mrs. White's public work has been quite fully covered in her autobiography, further details need not be given here. Her work for the first few years of this period was confined to the New England States. By the messages she had to give, a company was established, and held to the integrity of the mighty spiritual experience of the great advent message. While the foundations of that message were being abandoned by many, she identified herself with those who maintained that God had led them. The light did not break upon them fully at once. But step by step they advanced in the providences of God, taught by the word of God, until a clear, systematic structure of truth was established.
The thousands of adventists who had passed through the trying experiences of 1844, had come out from many different churches, or had been converted by the message itself. They were united in their expectation of Christ's coming; but when that failed of realization, the bond of unity was broken. They were unorganized. A period of chaos and confused ideas followed. Many fanatical teachers arose to distract and annoy. Discordant voices, expressed in conflicting publications and on lecture platforms, were heard on every hand.
Under these circumstances, how providential it was that the prophetic gift was so manifestly revived! It was not in the order of God to teach new truths by this means. Rather, the gift served to rebuke false and fanatical teachings, and to place the divine endorsement upon those truths that had first been found from the word by diligent, prayerful study by groups of earnest seekers for light.
The following statement by Mrs. White regarding her firm and uncompromising stand against fanaticism, and her positive message regarding the setting of any specific time for the coming of Christ, is fully borne out by the facts:
Visions were given me to correct the errors of those who had taken extreme views of some texts of Scripture, and refrained wholly from labor, and rejected all those who would not receive their views on this point and some other things which they held to be religious duties. God revealed these errors to me in vision, and sent me to His erring children to declare them; but many of them wholly rejected the message, and charged me with conforming to the world.
On the other hand, the nominal adventists charged me with fanaticism, and I was falsely, and by some, wickedly, represented as being the leader of the fanaticism I was laboring constantly to arrest by bearing the testimony given me of God.
Different times were set for the Lord to come, and were urged upon the brethren. But the Lord showed me that they would pass by, for the time of trouble must come before the coming of Christ, and that every time that was set, and passed, would only weaken the faith of God's people.Id., p. 220.
The fact that the distinctive truths that gave rise to the Seventh-day Adventist Church were reached by diligent, prayerful Bible study, and not by a credulous following of the visions, is worthy of emphasis. In those pioneer days, as today, these doctrines were preached with convincing power from the Bible alone. After men had done all in their power to find the truth for themselves, then God graciously sent them messages through the gift of prophecy to assure them of their conclusions, or to correct mistaken interpretations of Scripture. The doctrines did not come from the visions, though the visions confirmed the doctrines. Thus a wonderful unity was effected, and assured confidence was maintained by those who accepted the manifestations of the gift.
When, some years later, the opponents of Seventh-day Adventists sneeringly called their doctrines vision views, James White, writing in the Review and Herald, pointed to the fact that every doctrine was preached from the Bible, and sustained entirely by scriptural arguments. He maintained that divine revelation was not intended as a substitute for Bible study and prayer for light. He further stated:
The revival of any, or of all the gifts, will never supersede the necessity of searching the word to learn the truth . It is not God's plan to lead out His people into the broad field of truth by the gifts. But after His people have searched the word, if then individuals err from Bible truth, or through strife urge erroneous views upon the honest seekers for truth, then is God's opportunity to correct them by the gifts. This is in harmony with our entire experience on this subject.Review and Herald, February 26, 1856. (Italics mine.)
That the light given from heaven was revealed no faster than God's people were prepared to follow, subsequent to the advent experience, is but a modern application of the same principle already referred to, in its relation to the Reformation, as follows:
There were many and great obstacles for them to meet, and He led them on step by step, as they could bear it. They were not prepared to receive all the light at once. Like the full glory of the noontide sun to those who have long dwelt in darkness, it would, if presented, have caused them to turn away. Therefore He revealed it to the leaders little by little, as it could be received by the people.The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, p. 103.
With this brief statement regarding some of the experiences
connected with the early manifestations of this gift through Mrs. White before
her writings were widely known, we are now prepared to make an analysis of some
of the features of her life work. Our own conclusionbased upon a study of
her writings, and upon personal observations covering a period of over fifty
yearsis that never in the history of the church has God more manifestly
spoken to His people, warning them of dangers, elevating the standard of
righteousness, and directing in the work committed to His church on earth, than
has been manifest through this instrument of His choice. If we can bring
forward supporting evidence that this is not an extravagant conclusion, then,
indeed, do we have cause for profound gratitude to Him who has in these last
days so graciously visited His people.