How Much Was Inspired?
How Much Applies Today?
FOR STUDY AND DISCUSSION
Was every word spoken by a prophet, after he received his prophetic call, inspired by God? No intensive study of the Bible is required to produce an emphatic No to this question. There is no indication that a man called to the prophetic office could henceforth speak only the words given him by the Lord, or that other men could take it for granted that everything said and done by the prophet was done so under divine inspiration. Abraham deceived, Moses lost his patience and spoke hasty words, David instructed Joab how to have Uriah killed, Nathan agreed with David's plans to build a house for the Lord and then had to reverse his statement. All these men were prophets, but the possession of the prophetic gift did not mean moment-by-moment direction of all their words and acts.
If all they said was not inspired, how much was given by divine direction? Nowhere in the Bible is there a clear statement on the subject. A study of Ellen White and a comparison of her work with some Bible prophets shed light on the problem. In dealing with Mrs. White we have the advantage of a larger number of her writings and many more comments bearing on the topic at hand than we have in studying the work and writings of any Bible prophet. The same questions are frequently asked regarding her words and writings as are raised relative to the Bible writers. How much of it was from the Lord, and how much was the result of her own thinking?
On August 30, 1906, there appeared in the Review and Herald this statement from the pen of Mrs. White, addressed to a Seventh-day Adventist who had written her concerning
the inspiration of the Testimonies. In your letter, she wrote, you speak of your early training to have implicit faith in the Testimonies, and say, I was led to conclude and most firmly believe that every word that you ever spoke in public or private, that every letter you wrote under any and all circumstances, was as inspired as the ten commandments. [Italics hers.]
My brother, you have studied my writings diligently, and you have never found that I have made any such claims. Neither will you find that the pioneers in our cause have made such claims. She then referred to her statement concerning the inspiration of the Bible writers in her introduction to The Great Controversy.
About three years later, in Manuscript 107, 1909, Mrs. White gave some details that guide us in reaching sound conclusions. To understand the significance of her statements it is essential that the story behind them be told briefly. A worker in Southern California was justifying his loss of confidence in the inspiration of the Testimonies as a whole on the basis of what he claimed was an inconsistency in one of Mrs. White's letters. According to this man's account, Ellen White had written a letter in which she made the statement that the Paradise Valley Sanitarium contained forty rooms. He said that actually there were only thirty-eight rooms, and therefore his confidence in the Testimonies was impaired. Apparently it was his belief that if a statement made at any time by one who claimed inspiration proved inaccurate in any detail, the claim to inspiration was false.
In writing about the incident Mrs. White commented: The information given concerning the number of rooms in the Paradise Valley Sanitarium was given, not as a revelation from the Lord, but simply as a human opinion. There has never been revealed to me the exact number of rooms in any of our sanitariums;
and the knowledge I have obtained of such things I have gained by inquiring of those who were supposed to know. Farther on in the same document she adds this general statement: There are times when common things must be stated, common thoughts must occupy the mind, common letters must be written and information given that has passed from one to another of the workers. Such words, such information, are not given under the special inspiration of the Spirit of God. Questions are asked at times that are not upon religious subjects at all, and these questions must be answered. We converse about houses and lands, trades to be made, and locations for our institutions, their advantages and disadvantages.
A sentence included among the comments on the number of rooms in the sanitarium gives a further key to understanding the matter of how to determine what is inspired and what is not. In my words when speaking upon these common subjects, there is nothing to lead minds to believe that I receive my knowledge in a vision from the Lord and am stating as such. It seems clear from this statement that Mrs. White intended to convey the idea that when she dealt with common subjects, or answered questions not upon religious subjects, there would be nothing in what was spoken or written that would suggest it had been given by inspiration. The opposite idea is implied: That which was written or spoken under divine direction would bear its own credentials, either in the spiritual nature of the matter dealt with, or by some such indication as I was shown. Any treatment of religious subjects would be based on illumination that had been given in the visions. She made no claim that everything she wrote in every letter she penned was given under inspiration, nor did she imply that what she said in ordinary conversation was necessarily directed by God. Frequently she talked of everyday events of common interest, and she freely expressed her personal views.
There have been differences of opinion as to how much of what Mrs. White said and wrote was inspired. Some have
maintained that the books, and the books alone, should be accepted as given by inspiration, that the periodical articles are no different from those written by others, and that many of her communications to individuals were merely letters and not inspired. Some profess to accept anything prefixed with I saw or its equivalent, and reject any thought that is not so labeled.
What did Mrs. White claim for her writings and words? If we believe she was the messenger of the Lord, and if we accept anything she said as given by God, certainly we must accept her description of what was inspired. She could not be true to her divine calling and still send out her own ideas as messages from the Lord. F. M. Wilcox, for many years editor of the Review and Herald, commented: We must believe that what she gave, by either voice or pen, in printed page or through the medium of correspondence, as the messages of God, was true to this representation. We must accept her statement as true relative to this, or else reject altogether her call to the prophetic office.The Testimony of Jesus, page 64. Here are Ellen White's statements regarding the inspiration of various kinds of communications.
Books. Sister White is not the originator of these books. They contain the instruction that during her lifework God has been giving her. They contain the precious, comforting light that God has graciously given His servant to be given to the world.Colporteur Ministry, page 125.
The volumes of Spirit of Prophecy [forerunners of the Conflict of the Ages Series], and also the Testimonies, should be introduced into every Sabbathkeeping family, and the brethren should know their value and be urged to read them . Many are going directly contrary to the light which God has given to His people, because they do not read the books which contain the light and knowledge in cautions, reproofs, and warnings.Testimonies, vol. 4, PP. 390, 391.
The obvious intent of these sentences is to confirm that the material in her books was given Ellen White by the Lord. Particular attention should be given, however, to one type of account mentioned in the preface to Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2. Speaking of the biographical portion of this volume, Mrs. White wrote: In preparing the following pages, I have labored under great disadvantages, as I have had to depend in many instances, on memory, having kept no journal till within a few years. In several instances I have sent the manuscripts to friends who were present when the circumstances related occurred, for their examination before they were put in print. I have taken great care, and have spent much time, in endeavoring to state the simple facts as correctly as possible.
I have, however, been much assisted in arriving at dates by the many letters which I wrote to Bro. S. Howland and family, of Topsham, Maine. As they for the period of five years had the care of my Henry, I felt it my duty to write to them often, and give them my experience, my joys, trials, and victories. In many instances I have copied from these letters.
In the first 400 copies of this book there appeared an appendix containing this solicitation: A special request is made that if any find incorrect statements in this book they will immediately inform me. The edition will be completed about the first of October; therefore send before that time.
No claim is made by Ellen White for inspiration of the purely biographical account in Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, or other volumes; but it can be clearly seen that this has no bearing on the spiritual messages that came from her pen. Speaking of the way some persons were treating the messages in her books,claiming the ability to distinguish some portions that had been given by the Lord and some that were Mrs. White's own thinking,the messenger wrote this rebuke:
And now, brethren, I entreat you not to interpose between me and the people, and turn away the light which God would have come to them. Do not by your criticisms take out all the
force, all the point and power, from the Testimonies. Do not feel that you can dissect them to suit your own ideas, claiming that God has given you ability to discern what is light from heaven and what is the expression of mere human wisdom. If the Testimonies speak not according to the word of God, reject them. Christ and Belial cannot be united. For Christ's sake do not confuse the minds of the people with human sophistry and skepticism, and make of none effect the work that the Lord would do. Do not, by your lack of spiritual discernment, make of this agency of God a rock of offense whereby many shall be caused to stumble and fall, and be snared, and be taken.Testimonies, vol. 5, P. 691.
Trying to make distinctions, except with everyday experiences and biographical accounts, is dangerous. It involves setting up one's own judgment as a criterion in place of the clear declaration of the messenger whom he claims to believe to be inspired. If the word of the messenger cannot be accepted, then none of the messages should be accepted as being of God.
Articles. I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in visionthe precious rays of light shining from the throne.Ibid., p. 67.
Mrs. White's articles in various denominational periodicals totaled about 4,500. No distinction can be made between them and the books. In fact, a large number of book chapters appeared originally as periodical articles. The chapter on The Preparation of the Books has outlined how the articles were drawn upon for use in her books. There is no warrant for discounting the importance of instruction simply because it appears in an article rather than in a book.
Letters. In the minds of many persons the inspiration, or lack of inspiration, in the letters of Ellen White constitutes more of a problem than is posed by either the books or the articles.
We have already noticed her declaration that: There are common letters [that] must be written . Beside this must be placed another quotation. Weak and trembling, I arose at three o'clock in the morning to write to you. God was speaking through clay. You might say that this communication was only a letter. Yes, it was a letter, but prompted by the Spirit of God, to bring before your minds things that had been shown me. In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me.Ibid.
How is it possible to distinguish between the common and that which has been revealed? Again we must return to the principle that what was passed on as a message from God or dealt with spiritual matters, was given by inspiration. I have no special wisdom in myself; I am only an instrument in the Lord's hands to do the work He has set for me to do. The instructions that I have given by pen or voice have been an expression of the light that God has given me.Ibid., p. 691. (Italics supplied.)
Instruction contained in letters to individuals or groups was sometimes included later in articles for periodicals and in books circulated to the whole church and intended for instruction to all. For example, on October 11, 1895, Ellen White, who was in Australia, addressed a letter to S. N. Haskell in Africa. It was a letter of encouragement to a man facing many difficulties and combating discouragement. Less than a year later, on June 9, 1896, the letter appeared as an Ellen White article in the Review and Herald. The introduction to the letter was omitted, as was any reference to the name of Elder Haskell, but the article is made up largely of the letter. Since Mrs. White wrote no articles for the periodicals expressing merely her own opinions, but only what God had revealed to her, then the contents of the original letter, so far as it constituted instruction or professed to be a message from God, was given by inspiration.
Usually the Ellen White letters opened with some salutation
or personal references that had no need to be inspired. These, however, were purely incidental, and not a vital part of the message itself. An example or two will show how easily accounts of common or everyday happenings may be distinguished from instruction.
Oct. 10, 1910
My Dear Brother,
Last night, in plain sight from my bedroom window, the forest was ablaze. Men were at work all night fighting the fire, which was not checked till near morning. Today we are having a nice rain, the first this season. We are very thankful for this rain.
We are now to seek God most earnestly. I have been instructed by the Lord that calamities of every description will come upon the world. The end of all things is at hand, and the very things that have been presented to me will take place. Satan is powerful in carrying out his plans. Some are awakening to a realization of what will be in the future.Ellen G. White Letter 98, 1910.
Sept. 30, 1910
My Dear Brother,
I have just read again what you wrote regarding your experience at the Battle Creek camp meeting. I am very thankful for this report from you. I am impressed that just such meetings should be held in prominent places like Battle Creek. I have often been assured that as a result, a favorable impression will be made upon the minds of many not of our faith .
In the night season instruction has been given me that many have become confused by the experience of some who have departed from the faith and have given the trumpet an uncertain sound. For the benefit of those who have thus become confused, the message is now to go forth with great power. The evidences of the truth are to be repeated, that the people may see that we are standing in assurance, giving the trumpet a certain sound.
The words were spoken to me: Tell My people that time is short. Every effort is now to be made to exalt the truth.Ellen G. White Letter 88, 1910.
Many of the letters, however, begin in exactly the same fashion as do periodical articles and chapters in the volumes of the Testimonies for the Church. With no personal references, they launched into the message to be given.
Aug. 11, 1910
For several months I have been instructed of the Lord that a decided change must be made from this time onward in the carrying forward of our work.
Message after message has come to me from the Lord concerning the dangers surrounding you and .Ellen G. White Letter 70, 1910.
June 15, 1910
I have a message for you. Those who serve the cause of God need to be men of prayer, men who will heed the instruction that the Lord is giving regarding the prosecution of His work .
[Later in the same letter these words appear.] I am charged with a message to you both that you need to humble your hearts before God . I am to tell you that neither of you is prepared to discern with clear eyesight that which is needed now.Ellen G. White Letter 58, 1910.
April 27, 1910
I wish to express to you some thoughts that should be kept before the sanitarium workers. That which will make them a power for good is the knowledge that the great Medical Missionary has chosen them for this work, that He is their chief instructor, and that it is ever their duty to recognize Him as their Teacher .
During the night of April 26, many things were opened
before me. I was shown that now in a special sense we as a people are to be guided by divine instruction.Ellen G. White Letter 61, 1910.
Though brief, these excerpts from letters fairly represent the situation encountered in dealing with the letters, and show that it is not a difficult one. That which is intended as a message from the Lord is clearly distinguishable from any incidental biographical or personal references. Additional examples may be seen in the Testimonies for the Church. Note the headings to many of the articles which indicate that they were originally sent as letters. Mrs. White herself marked these for inclusion in the books as she was impressed by the Lord to do so, or saw that the counsel sent to one would be helpful to another.
Interviews. At times statements were circulated purporting to have been made by Ellen White in interviews with individuals and written out by the persons who heard them. In connection with statements of this type it is helpful to remember the principle enunciated as follows: He [a leading minister] has with him a little notebook in which he has noted down perplexing questions which he brings before me, and if I have any light upon these points, I write it out for the benefit of our people, not only in America, but in this country [Australia].Ellen G. White Letter 96, 1899.
If Mrs. White had light on the subject regarding which the minister inquired, she would not refuse to answer his questions, but she did more than that. A question of importance had its answer written out for the benefit of all. Her written comments, not the notes of the one hearing the answer, should be accepted as an accurate record of the counsel. If the matter was not of sufficient moment for her to write about it, none should snatch up reports of others as to what was said, since she distinctly stated that when she had light for the people she would write it out. Wise instruction is given in Testimonies for the Church, volume 5, page 696. And now to all who have a desire for
truth I would say: Do not give credence to unauthenticated reports as to what Sister White has done or said or written. If you desire to know what the Lord has revealed through her, read her published works. Are there any points of interest concerning which she has not written, do not eagerly catch up and report rumors as to what she has said.
Ellen White's situation was a difficult one on many occasions when she was asked for counsel. Unless she had received definite instruction from the Lord, she hesitated to express an opinion lest it be taken as based on a revelation. She stated her difficulty in these words: I find myself frequently placed where I dare give neither assent nor dissent to propositions that are submitted to me; for there is danger that any words I may speak shall be reported as something that the Lord has given me. It is not always safe for me to express my own judgment; for sometimes when someone wishes to carry out his own purpose, he will regard any favorable word I may speak as special light from the Lord.Ellen G. White Letter 162, 1907.
The same care was exercised in answering questions in writing. A worker had written asking that Ellen White make some suggestions concerning his future work. Here is a part of her reply. I am not at liberty to write to our brethren concerning your future work . I have received no instruction regarding the place you should locate . I dare not even take the responsibility of advising you in this matter . If the Lord gives me definite instruction concerning you, I will give it to you; but I cannot take upon myself responsibilities that the Lord does not give me to bear.Ellen G. White Letter 96, 1909.
Unpublished letters and manuscripts. There is no indication that the messages that remained unpublished came to the prophet in a manner different from those that were published. In fact, there is every indication to the contrary. Not all the inspired matter was published at once; some of it was never published. Some portions of that which I write are sent out
immediately to meet the present necessities of the work. Other portions are held until the development of circumstances makes it evident to me that the time has come for their use.Ellen G. White, Writing and Sending Out of the Testimonies, page 6.
I have given some personal communications in several numbers of my testimonies, and in some cases persons have been offended because I did not publish all such communications. On account of their number this would be hardly possible, and it would be improper from the fact that some of them relate to sins which need not, and should not, be made public.Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 631.
It was the nature of the material, not the time or manner of its reception, that determined whether or not it should be published. Time, circumstances, and appropriateness were factors in considering and reaching such decisions.
In answer to the question, How much was inspired? the whole matter seems to hinge not on whether the messages were first written or spoken, whether they were published or allowed to remain in manuscript form, whether they appeared as books, periodicals, or personal letters; but whether they dealt with spiritual matters and were intended as instruction from the Lord to the individuals or groups addressed. As to whether or not they were intended for instruction is obvious from the study of the individual documents. The Ellen White writings constitute a reservoir of material, available for use as the circumstances may indicate. From an enlightened mind, she spoke and wrote. She consistently refrained from mingling her personal ideas with instruction and light she was giving in her letters, articles, and books.
Once we have recognized that the messages which were intended for instruction, whether written or spoken, published
in papers, pamphlets, or books, were to be accepted as the message of God to the individuals or groups addressed, we are faced with a further question. How much of the instruction given through Ellen White to the church and its members during the period of her lifetime is applicable to the church and its members today?
Much of what Mrs. White wrote had specific application to the time that it was written, or soon afterward. Do these specifically addressed testimonies bear any relationship to us, or are they to be disregarded as being out of date and of interest only from a historical point of view? Should these writings bear as much weight with us as they were intended to bear with those to whom they were originally sent? How far may we go in critically sorting through these pages and saying, This applies to us, and that is no longer of any force. That is old-fashioned and out of date, but this is good counsel for today?
Again we must rely on the statements of the messenger herself if we would learn how wide an application should be made of the things she has written. Through His Holy Spirit the voice of God has come to us continually in warning and instruction, to confirm the faith of the believers in the spirit of prophecy. Repeatedly the word has come, Write the things that I have given you to confirm the faith of My people in the position they have taken. Time and trial have not made void the instruction given, but through years of suffering and self-sacrifice have established the truth of the testimony given. The instruction that was given in the early days of the message is to be held as safe instruction to follow in these, its closing days. Those who are indifferent to this light and instruction must not expect to escape the snares which we have been plainly told will cause the rejecters of light to stumble, and fall, and be snared, and be taken. If we study carefully the second chapter of Hebrews, we shall learn how important it is that we hold steadfastly to every principle of truth that has been given.Review and Herald, July 18, 1907.
I have been shown that the principles that were given us in the early days of the message are as important and should be regarded just as conscientiously today as they were then.Testimonies, vol. 9, P. 158 (1909).
Whether or not my life is spared, my writings will constantly speak, and their work will go forward as long as time shall last.Ellen G. White, Writing and Sending Out of the Testimonies, pages 13, 14 (1907).
These combined statements indicate that Ellen White expected her writings to be accepted as applicable to God's people to the end of time. This is true of instruction sent to individuals as well as the general counsel to larger groups or to the church as a whole. Particular attention should be given to the group of writings commonly known as Testimonies, especially those originally sent to individuals. Was this instruction intended to have a wider application than to the persons addressed? Can it be taken as relevant fifty or seventy-five years after it was written?
The purpose of publishing personal testimonies is made clear in this sentence: The object of publishing the testimonies is that those who are not singled out personally, yet who are as much in fault as those who are reproved, may be warned through the reproofs given to others.Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 687.
The broad nature of the instruction means that applications may be made to many others than the ones addressed in any communication. Since the warning and instruction given in testimony for individual cases applied with equal force to many others who had not been specially pointed out in this manner, it seemed to be my duty to publish the personal testimonies for the benefit of the church. In Testimony 15, speaking of the necessity for doing this, I said: I know of no better way to present my views [visions] of general dangers and errors, and the duty of all who love God and keep His commandments, than by giving these testimonies. Perhaps there is no more
direct and forcible way of presenting what the Lord has shown me.Ibid., vol. 5, PP. 658, 659.
In rebuking the wrongs of one, He designs to correct many. But if they fail to take the reproof to themselves, and flatter themselves that God passes over their errors because He does not especially single them out, they deceive their own souls and will be shut up in darkness and be left to their own ways to follow the imagination of their own hearts. He makes plain the wrongs of some that others may thus be warned, and fear, and shun those errors. By self-examination they may find that they are doing the same things which God condemns in others. Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 112, 113.
Although all the instruction given to the church through Ellen White does not apply to every individual in exactly the same way, there is in all of it the same kind of universal guidance that one finds in the Bible. Every portion may be read with profit today. Not every phase of Bible instruction is pertinent in our present situation. For example, detailed instruction was given for the presentation of sacrifices at the tabernacle and temple, but the sacrificial system ended when the Lamb of God was offered. We do not bring lambs, goats, and bullocks to the altar today, but every Seventh-day Adventist recognizes the spiritual value of a study of the ancient system of offerings. Paul puts it this way: Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. 1 Corinthians 10:11. For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Romans 15:4.
A careful consideration of all the factors involved leads to the conclusion that on the same basis that Paul stated, All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, all the instruction given through Ellen White is profitable for the remnant church today.
Chapter 23 deals with the matter of what use should be made of the instruction and how it is to be understood and applied.
1. The call to the prophetic office did not mean that from the time of the call God controlled every thought and word of the prophet.
2. In Ellen White's case the indication is that what was written or spoken under inspiration bears its own credentials, whether in the spiritual nature of what was spoken or written, or by some such indication as I was shown.
3. Mrs. White makes no distinction regarding inspiration between what was published in books or articles, or what was written in letters, except in cases of purely biographical matters or other everyday incidents.
4. In the letters it is not difficult to distinguish what is given as instruction from personal references.
5. In cases of interviews, if Ellen White had light on the subjects discussed she wrote it out for the benefit of all.
6. Regarding inspiration, Ellen White made no difference between items left unpublished and those published.
7. As all Scripture is profitable for our study
today, so all the Ellen White writings are of value for our study.
1. Would it have been a good thing if God had completely controlled the lives of His prophets so they could not say or do anything out of accord with their high calling? How would that have corresponded with God's way of working with men in general?
2. Discuss the responsibility of a prophet in view of the fact that some persons might be inclined to regard anything he should say as being a message from the Lord.
3. Refer to the Ellen White book The Adventist Home, page 34. There you will find a group of references for material included in the chapter. There are selections from books,the Testimonies, the Conflict Series, and others,a letter and a manuscript previously unpublished, and some periodical articles. Compare the type of material found in each selection. Can you make any distinctions between them? See references at the close of other chapters.
Our Firm Foundation, vol. 1, pp. 252-273.
White, Arthur L., Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant, pp. 86, 87.
Wilcox, F. M., The Testimony of Jesus, pp. 74-89, 131-135.