The Call of Ellen Gould Harmon
Reactions of Early Pioneers to the Claims of Ellen G. White
The Review and Herald and the Visions
"Appreciated in Past"
"Not to Take Place of Bible"
"An Attitude Displeasing to God"
Dr. Brown Comes to Scoff, Flees in Consternation
Advent Believers Accept the Seventh-day Sabbath
Let us now project ourselves in imagination back to the year 1844. Many, with William Miller in the lead, were fervently preaching that the coming of Christ and the end of the world would be on October 22, 1844. Excitement ran high. Thousands upon thousands were seriously preparing to meet Christ as He would come in the clouds of heaven. Hundreds of thousands stood by a bit restless and uncertain, but hoping to make the right decision by the fateful day, afraid that He might come, and at the same time hoping that He would not come.
Several years ago D. E. Robinson, my wife, and I made a tour into New England, visiting those old places of historical interest connected with the Advent Movement, and in our travels we came to William Miller's old farm. It was just about sundown when we went out back of the barn to a big flat rock that juts out like a dome in the old field. On that rock we stood
that evening and watched the sun go down, but we thought of that little group of Advent people who assembled there on October 22, 1844.
Elder Robinson told the story in great detail. I wish you could have been there to hear that thrilling narrative. I have never heard it before or since in such detail and with such feeling as he told it that evening. Standing out there on that dome-shaped rock, we could see in all directions, and the sky appeared most beautiful. We could see in all four directions without any obstructions to our view. In the stillness of eventide, as he recounted the story, I could almost feel myself among that group on October 22, looking at the sky, watching for the appearance of Christ, as a small cloud, which would come closer and closer. But the sun went down that fateful evening and He did not come. I could actually sense the disappointment of that early Advent group. My heart went out to them in their bitter disappointment.
The evening wore on, and they waited far into the night before they fully realized that they had fixed their hopes upon something that had not been fulfilled; it was indeed a terrible disappointment. Out of that disappointment on October 22 came confusion, and a scattering of the Advent believers. It was not long until nearly everybody had a different idea, or reason, for the apparent failure of their hope, and out of that failure came much sadness and discontent.
To the Advent believers the passing of October 22
without incident was indeed a terrible disappointment, resulting in frustration, confusion, division, fanaticism, and a sense of defeat and loneliness. This was heightened by the taunts of their enemies. Something indeed had gone wrong. As was to be expected, many Advent believers slipped back into the world and walked no more with God's peculiar people. Many others figured that the event was right but that the time was wrong, and formed a group that set one date after another. A very small number of Advent believers studied the question through again and concluded that the time was right but the event was wrong. And so it was in the latter part of 1844.
It was at such a time of trouble and distress among God's people that God chose to make His intentions and plans known through a seventeen-year-old maiden named Ellen Gould Harmon. In December of that year she had a strange and unexpected experience. Of that experience while kneeling humbly and quietly in prayer with four sisters in Christ in the home of Mrs. Haines in Portland, Maine, she says, The power of God came upon me as I had never felt it before.Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 64.
The infilling of power brought her first vision, in which this girl of seventeen was shown the journey of the Advent people from the disappointment in 1844 to the city of God (Early Writings, pp. 14-20).
Quickly there followed the bidding that she must go and relate to others what had been revealed to her. Her feelings are pictured as follows:
After I came out of this vision I was exceedingly troubled . I went to the Lord in prayer and begged Him to lay the burden on some one else. It seemed to me that I could not bear it. I lay upon my face a long time, and all the light I could get was, Make known to others what I have revealed to you. Ibid., p. 20.
That girl rose from prayer to take up the burden and to speak for God, doing so faithfully and well for seventy years. From her pen came no less than twenty-five million words, much of which was published in forty-three books and several thousand periodical articles. Naturally there were critics of her life and her work, but their attacks made little or no impression on the great worldwide work that has grown as the result of following her counsel and revelations.
Francis D. Nichol states:
After one hundred years the different Adventist bodiesother than Seventh-day Adventiststhat stemmed from the Millerite movement of the early 1840's total less than 50,000 members, which is no more than the total of Advent believers in 1844. Not long ago we enjoyed a delightful fellowship of a few days with an aged, saintly leader in one of these Adventist bodies. He spoke of the expansion of Seventh-day Adventists, their schools, publishing houses, medical institutions, and then he added: Your men were more farsighted than ours and laid better plans. We replied: No, our men were no wiser than yours, but we had a frail handmaiden of the Lord in our midst who
declared that by visions from God she saw what we should do and how we should plan for the future. No other explanation could, in truth, have been offered for the vitality, distinctiveness, and foresight revealed in connection with the growth of the Seventh-day Adventist movement over the world.Ellen G. White and Her Critics, pp. 23, 24.
This represents our attitude toward the life and work of Ellen G. White today, but it was not so easily seen or accepted back in 1844 and 1845. Then it was merely the word of a teen-age girl, claiming that God was speaking to her through His angel. It should be remembered that the leaders in the Advent Movement had counseled against fanatics and those deluded by so-called visions and dreams. In their Boston Advent Conference of May 29, 1843, they took the following action: We have no confidence whatever in any visions, dreams, or private revelations.Signs of the Times, June 7, 1843, p. 107.
You can imagine the astonishment of that little group of women with a seventeen-year-old girl, after their season of prayer, as that girl told them of what she had seen in vision. I wonder how many of you women, if you had been there in that little group, would have said, Now, Ellen, we are sure that what you say is right, and we accept you and believe you to be a prophet. Surely you are one of God's great prophets. Would you have said that? I doubt it. I rather imagine that some of those women questioned a bit even what Sister Ellen herself had said.
How did the early pioneers and believers in general respond to the claims of Ellen Harmon and the physical evidences of her call? Did they see in her the evidence that God was again speaking through a human being the same as He had done all through the history of His people? She expected people to be not only critical but even skeptical, for they were human, much as we are today.
Early in 1847 one believer wrote a note to James White expressing his reaction to Ellen G. White's visions:
I cannot endorse sister Ellen's visions as being of divine inspiration, as you and she think them to be; yet I do not suspect the least shade of dishonesty in either of you in this matter . I think that what she and you regard as visions from the Lord, are only religious reveries, in which her imagination runs without control upon themes in which she is most deeply interested . I do not by any means think her visions are like some from the devil.Quoted by James White in A Word to the Little Flock, p. 22.
You see, he was very kind in saying, I do not think they are from the devil, but I just cannot accept them as you do. So it was in the years following 1844 and 1845 that many people turned their backs upon her, and she had a rather difficult time.
We can almost sense her feelings during those
years as we try to relive that experience. But not all the people were quite so outspoken as this brother, for we have in the words of James White himself his own testimony, and we believe that he spoke for many like him. These are his words written in 1847:
Dreams and Visions are among the signs that precede the great and notable day of the Lord. And as the signs of that day have been, and still are fulfilling, it must be clear to every unprejudiced mind, that the time has fully come, when the children of God may expect dreams and visions from the Lord.
I know that this is a very unpopular position to hold on this subject, even among Adventists; but I choose to believe the word of the Lord on this point, rather than the teachings of men. I am well aware of the prejudice in many minds on this subject; but as it has been caused principally by the preaching of popular Adventists and the lack of a correct view of this subject; I have humbly hoped to cut it away, with the sword of the Spirit, from some minds, at least.Ibid., p. 13.
That is James White's written testimony concerning his attitude back there. Perhaps he spoke for some others, too. Many were not clear as to these manifestations and revelations. They needed some kind of evidence that would convince them that what she said had its origin in a message from God, and was true and accurate, reliable, and something to be depended upon.
The story of the change in attitude concerning Ellen Harmon's visions, from one of doubt and uncertainty on the part of Captain Bates, to one of full
faith and confidence, is an impressive one. Joseph Bates entered upon his seafaring adventures at a very early age, beginning as cabin boy and advancing through various steps in responsibility until he finally became captain and owner of seagoing vessels. As such, he became a sort of authority on astronomy. He read with avidity everything he could find on the subject, and was much interested in Lord John Rosse's description of the gap in the sky that appeared in the Illustrated London News of April 19, 1845.
Captain Bates attended a conference of the Advent believers in Topsham, Maine, in November, 1846. At that time he was still unconvinced on the matter of visions. On one occasion he took opportunity to ask Mrs. White (she had then married James White) what she knew about astronomy. He found her as ignorant as most of us are on the subject, and was disappointed that she had never read a book or an article on it. In fact, she had no inclination even to hear or talk about it.
Imagine Joseph Bates's surprise one evening during that conference not only to see Ellen G. White in vision but to hear her description of what she was seeing. She began to talk about stars and the rosytinted belts around one of them. She said, I see four moons. Captain Bates mused, Oh, she is viewing Jupiter! Then she described a planet with rings changing in their colors, and said, I see seven moons. She is describing Saturn, remarked the old sea captain.
Next came a marvelous word picture of another planet and its six moons, but when she began to describe the opening heavens with all its beauty and immensity, Captain Bates exclaimed, O how I wish Lord John Rosse was here to-night! Not knowing even the name of John Rosse, Elder White asked, Who is Lord John Rosse? Joseph Bates told of this English astronomer and his description of the opening in the heavens (J. N. Loughborough, The Great Second Advent Movement, p. 258).
That was enough for Joseph Bates. He was satisfied that the visions came from a power outside Ellen G. White's knowledge and control. No wonder he concluded, I believe the work is of God, and is given to comfort and strengthen His scattered, torn, and pealed people.A Word to the Little Flock,p. 21.
Not all were won over to full and complete support for Ellen G. White and her singular spiritual manifestations. Some were merely overawed and silenced by what they saw and heard. Such was the case of Robbins and Sargent, who were leading a group of Advent believers into a very serious type of fanaticism in Boston, Massachusetts. We have the story in the handwriting of Otis Nichols, around whose home the story has its setting. It is also presented by Mrs. White in her book Spiritual Gifts. She tells the story which we give here, supplying the proper names for the initials used in the original printing:
By invitation of Br. and Sr. Nichols, my sister Sarah and myself again went to Massachusetts, and made their house our home. There was in Boston and vicinity a company of fanatical persons, who held that it was a sin to labor. Their principal message was, Sell that ye have and give alms. They said they were in the Jubilee, the land should rest, and the poor must be supported without labor. Sargent, Robbins, and some others, were leaders. They denounced my visions as being of the Devil, because I had been shown their errors. They were severe upon all who did not believe with them. While we were visiting at Bro. Nichols', Robbins and Sargent came from Boston to obtain a favor of Bro. Nichols and said they had come to have a visit, and tarry over night with him. Bro. Nichols replied that he was glad they had come, for sisters Sarah and Ellen were in the house, and wished them to become acquainted with us. They changed their mind at once, and could not be persuaded to come into the house. Bro. Nichols asked if I could relate my message in Boston, and if they would hear, and then judge. Yes, said they. Come into Boston next Sabbath, we would like the privilege of hearing her.
Accordingly we designed to visit Boston, but in the evening, at the commencement of the Sabbath, I was shown in vision that we must not go into Boston, but in an opposite direction to Randolph; that the Lord had a work for us to do there. We went to Randolph, and found a large room full collected, and among them those who said they would be pleased to hear my message in Boston. As we entered, Robbins and Sargent looked at each other in surprise, and began to groan. They had promised to meet me in Boston, but thought they would disappoint us by going to Randolph, and while we were in Boston, warn the brethren against us. They did not have much freedom. At
intermission one of their number remarked that good matter would be brought out in the afternoon. Sr. Nichols answered, I believe it. Robbins told my sister that I could not have a vision where he was.
In the afternoon the blessing of the Lord rested upon me, and I was taken off in vision. I was again shown the errors of Robbins and Sargent and others united with them. I saw that they could not prosper: that truth would triumph in the end, and error be brought down. I was shown that they were not honest, and then I was carried into the future and shown some thing of the course they would pursue, that they would continue to despise the teachings of the Lord, despise reproof, and that they would be left in total darkness, to resist God's Spirit until their folly should be made manifest to all. A chain of truth was presented to me from the scriptures, in contrast with their errors. When I came out of vision, candles were burning. I had been in vision nearly four hours.
As I was unconscious to all that transpired around me while in vision, I will copy from Bro. Nichols' description of that meeting.
Sister Ellen was taken off in vision with extraordinary manifestations, and continued talking in vision with a clear voice, which could be distinctly understood by all present, until about sundown. Sargent, Robbins, and French were much exasperated, as well as excited, to hear sister Ellen talk in vision, which they declared was of the Devil; they exhausted all their influence, and bodily strength, to destroy the effect of the vision. They would unite in singing very loud, and then alternately would talk and read from the Bible in a loud voice, in order that Ellen might not be heard, until their strength was exhausted, and their hands would shake so they could not read from the Bible. But amidst all this confusion and noise, Ellen's clear and
shrill voice, as she talked in vision, was distinctly heard by all present. The opposition of these men continued as long as they could talk and sing, notwithstanding some of their own friends rebuked them, and requested them to stop. But says Robbins, You are bowed to an idol; you are worshiping a golden calf.
Mr. Thayer, the owner of the house, was not fully satisfied that her vision was of the Devil, as Robbins declared it to be. He wanted it tested in some way. He had heard that visions of satanic power were arrested by opening the Bible and laying it on the person in vision, and asked Sargent if he would test it in this way, which he declined to do. Then Thayer took a heavy, large quarto family Bible which was lying on the table, and seldom used, opened it, and laid it open upon the breast of Ellen while in vision, as she was then inclined backward against the wall in the corner of the room. Immediately after the Bible was laid upon her, she arose upon her feet, and walked into the middle of the room, with the Bible open in one hand, and lifted up as high as she could reach, and with her eyes steadily looking upward, declared in a solemn manner, The inspired testimony from God, or words of the same import. And then she continued for a long time, while the Bible was extended in one hand, and her eyes looking upwards, and not on the Bible, to turn over the leaves with her other hand, and place her finger upon certain passages, and correctly utter their words with a solemn voice. Many present looked at the passages where her finger was pointed, to see if she spoke them correctly, for her eyes at the same time were looking upwards. Some of the passages referred to were judgments against the wicked and blasphemers; and others were admonitions and instructions relative to our present condition.
In this state she continued all the afternoon until
near sunset, when she came out of vision. When Ellen arose in vision upon her feet, with the heavy open Bible in her hand, and walked the room, uttering the passages of scripture, Sargent, Robbins, and French were silenced. For the remainder of the time they were troubled, with many others; but they shut their eyes and braved it out without making any acknowledgment of their feelings.Spiritual Gifts, Volume 2, pp. 75-79.
It is well to analyze another chapter in our early history having to do with the attitude of our early pioneers toward the gift of prophecy. A number of the visions were published in the Present Truth in 1849 and 1850. It must be remembered, however, that the Review and Herald, which followed in 1850 and on, was both the church paper and the vehicle for presenting the truth to nonchurch members as well. Some of the brethren were afraid that the visions and testimonies intended primarily for the church members (1 Cor. 14:3, 4, 22) would prejudice the nonchurch member readers of the Review. They decided that such material should be printed on a separate sheet and placed in papers going only to our own people.
James White explained all this in a Review and Herald Extra in these words:
This sheet is the form of the paper that we hope to publish once in two weeks . We do not design this extra for so general circulation as the regular paper, for the reason that strong prejudice exists in many minds against a portion of its contents. Those who judge of a matter before
fore they hear are unwise. Says Paul, Despise not prophesyings, prove all things, hold fast that which is good.  Thess. v. 20, 21.
We believe that God is unchangeable, that he is the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever. And that it is his will and purpose to teach his tried people, at this the most important period in the history of God's people, in the same manner as in past time. But as many are prejudiced against visions, we think best at present not to insert anything of the kind in the regular paper. We will therefore publish the visions by themselves for the benefit of those who believe that God can fulfill his word and give visions in the last days.July 21, 1851.
For five years the Review published none of Mrs. White's visions and only five articles from her pen of a general hortatory nature. The leaders thought their position sound and commendable, but the results among the Advent people were not so wholesome. There seemed to result a general lack of appreciation of the gift, and a lowering of its place of importance in the work. This has been the general tendency all through the years, for the individual Adventist as well as for the movement as a whole, when there has been a neglect of the prophetic gift. Where there is no vision [or an indifference to it], the people perish seems to be as true in our times as it was in ancient Israel.
A general meeting in 1855 brought a realization that all was not well. There seemed to be a partial withdrawal of the gift of prophecy. From two sources we draw the conclusion that a disregard for the gift
and a desire to push it somewhat into the background had met with Heaven's disfavor.
First, we note an action taken by the business session of the conference in 1855, which reads, That Joseph Bates, J. H. Waggoner, and M. E. Cornell be appointed to address the saints in behalf of the Conference, on the gifts of the church. The report which the small committee drew up in response to this action was published in the Review. We extract a few key sentences:
In view of the present low state of the precious cause of our blessed Master, we feel to humble ourselves before God, and confess our unfaithfulness and departure from the way of the Lord, whereby the spirit of holiness has been grieved, our own souls burdened, and an occasion given to the enemy of all righteousness to rejoice over the decline of faith and spirituality amongst the scattered flock.
Nor have we appreciated the glorious privilege of claiming the gifts which our blessed Master has vouchsafed to his people; and we greatly fear that we have grieved the Spirit by neglecting the blessings already conferred upon the church.
We have also, in our past experience, been made to rejoice in the goodness of our God who has manifested his care for his people by leading us in his way and correcting our errors, through the operations of his Spirit; and the
majority of Sabbath-keepers in the Third Angel's Message, have firmly believed that the Lord was calling his church out of the wilderness by the means appointed to bring us to the unity of the faith. We refer to the visions which God has promised to the remnant in the last days.
Nor do we, as some contend, exalt these gifts or their manifestations, above the Bible; on the contrary, we test them by the Bible, making it the great rule of judgment in all things; so that whatever is not in accordance with it, in its spirit and its teachings, we unhesitatingly reject. But as we cannot believe that a fountain sends forth at the same place sweet water and bitter, or that an evil tree brings forth good fruit, so we cannot believe that that is of the enemy which tends to unite the hearts of the saints, to lead to meekness and humility and holy living, and incites to deep heart-searching before God, and a confession of our wrongs.
While we hold these views as emanating from the divine Mind, we would confess the inconsistency (which we believe has been displeasing to God) of professedly regarding them as messages from God, and really putting them on a level with the inventions of men. We fear that this has resulted from an unwillingness to bear the reproach of Christ, (which is indeed greater riches than the treasures of earth,) and a desire to conciliate the feelings of our opponents; but the Word and our own experience have taught us that God is not honored, nor his cause advanced, by such a course. While we regard them as coming from God, and entirely harmonizing with his written word, we must acknowledge ourselves under obligation to
abide by their teachings, and be corrected by their admonitions. To say that they are of God, and yet we will not be tested by them, is to say that God's will is not a test or rule for Christians, which is inconsistent and absurd.Report of Conference in The Review and Herald, Dec. 4, 1855, pp. 78, 79.
The conference began November 15, 1855, and the declaration of confession and neglect was made by the brethren. Then on November 20, Ellen G. White was given a vision, of which she wrote:
November 20, 1855, while in prayer, the Spirit of the Lord came suddenly and powerfully upon me, and I was taken off in vision. I saw that the Spirit of the Lord has been dying away from the church.Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 113.
A few weeks later Mrs. White wrote:
The visions have been of late less and less frequent, and my testimony for God's children has been gone. I have thought that my work in God's cause was done, and that I had no further duty to do, but to save my own soul, and carefully attend to my little family .
At our late Conference at Battle Creek, in Nov. God wrought for us. The minds of the servants of God were exercised as to the gifts of the Church, and if God's frown had been brought upon his people because the gifts had been slighted and neglected, there was a pleasing prospect that his smiles would again be upon us, and he would graciously and mercifully revive the gifts again, and they would live in the Church, to encourage the desponding and fainting soul, and to correct and reprove the erring.The Review and Herald, Jan. 10, 1856, p. 118.
The manifestation of such a phenomenon in the church was bound to produce a variety of reactions. Some believed and accepted. Others sneered and scoffed. One, a Dr. Brown of Parkville, Michigan, a Spiritualist physician, declared that he could control Mrs. White in vision if he ever had the opportunity.
This opportunity came rather unexpectedly on Sabbath, January 12, 1861, when Elder and Mrs. White for the first time attended church in that very place. At the close of her sermon that Sabbath, Sister White was taken in vision. Immediately somebody thought of Dr. Brown and his loud boasts. He was invited to come and examine her. This he did without a moment's hesitation.
An eyewitness tells what happened:
Before he had half completed his examination, he turned deathly pale, and shook like an aspen leaf. Elder White said, Will the doctor report her condition? He replied, She does not breathe, and rapidly made his way to the door. Those at the door who knew of his boasting said, Go back, and do as you said you would; bring that woman out of the vision. In great agitation he grasped the knob of the door, but was not permitted to open it until inquiry was made by those near the door, doctor, what is it? He replied, God only knows; let me out of this house; and out he went.The Great Second Advent Movement, p. 211.
Thus the testimony of Jesus, which is the spirit of prophecy, was introduced among the Advent believers, and made its power and influence felt more and more as the years passed.
In Washington, New Hampshire, in the year 1844, an earnest group of Advent believers were preparing for the coming of the Lord. One Rachel Oakes Preston, a Seventh Day Baptist, came into that community and listened to the preaching on the coming of the Lord on October 22. The believers, of course, urged her to join them in looking for Jesus to come, but she in turn urged them to keep the seventh-day Sabbath if they really wanted to be ready when the Lord returned. Some of the Advent believers in Washington, New Hampshire, accepted the Sabbath truth and began observing the Sabbath faithfully.
Early in 1845, after the terrible disappointment, T. M. Preble wrote an article on the seventh-day Sabbath for the paper called The Hope of Israel. Through this article, Joseph Bates, an eager searcher for truth, was convinced that he should observe the Bible Sabbath, and he became an apostle of the Sabbath truth.
Early in 1846 Ellen Harmon and her sister and James White visited Joseph Bates at New Bedford. The thing that was on his heart was the Sabbath. He urged them to accept the Bible Sabbath, and they urged upon him the thing nearest to their hearts.
Regarding the Sabbath, Ellen G. White wrote in Life Sketches:
I did not feel its importance, and thought that he [Bates] erred in dwelling upon the fourth commandment more than upon the other nine.Page 95.
As a matter of fact, she was not impressed by Joseph Bates's enthusiasm for the Sabbath idea. However, about the time of their marriage in August, 1846, James and Ellen White read Bates's tract The Seventh-day Sabbath a Perpetual Sign, and from the Bible verses used they decided that they too must keep the seventh day as the Sabbath. She says, In the autumn of 1846 we began to observe the Bible Sabbath, and to teach and defend it.Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 75.
As one more testimony in this body of evidence that the great truths taught by Seventh-day Adventists came first from the Bible and not from Mrs. White, let us note a letter written by her in 1874, stating:
I believed the truth upon the Sabbath question before I had seen anything in vision in reference to the Sabbath. It was months after I had commenced keeping the Sabbath before I was shown its importance and its place in the third angel's message.Ellen G. White letter 2, 1874.
It was on the first Sabbath in April, 1847, that she had her first vision regarding the Sabbath. By putting together Testimonies, volume 1, pages 75 ff., and a letter to Joseph Bates written April 7, 1847,
now appearing in Early Writings, pages 32-35, we get the whole story of what she saw and heard. She seemed to be transferred from earth to heaven, and in vision she was taken through the heavenly sanctuary, where she saw the most holy place and the ark containing the law. She was amazed to see the fourth commandment shining above all the others in glory, with a sort of halo of light all around it. She was told of the change of the Sabbath, of the significance of its acceptance and observance, especially in the troublous times ahead, when it will become a sign or a mark for the people who have chosen to obey God rather than man.
I was shown that the third angel, proclaiming the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, represents the people who receive this message and raise the voice of warning to the world, to keep the commandments of God as the apple of the eye, and that in response to this warning many would embrace the Sabbath of the Lord.Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 77.
Lo, here are the people of God mentioned in Revelation 12,
having the testimony of Jesus, which is the spirit of
prophecy (December, 1844), and keeping the commandmentsall ten of
themthe seventh-day Sabbath included. Here the remnant church was born,
and these two significant truths identify it.