Careful Bible study yielded the rule of our faith.
By Kwabena Donkor
The stature of Ellen G. White in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is significant. We believe she had the prophetic gift; her influence was seen in church life during her lifetime and is still seen today. What was the nature of her contribution to the development of Seventh-day Adventist doctrine? Some allege that she is its source.
Seventh-day Adventist doctrines have been summarized in 28 fundamental beliefs. Some of these beliefs we hold in common with other Christian denominations—the doctrine of God, creation, sin, salvation. However, of all the major denominations in the world, we hold beliefs that uniquely distinguish us. These include the postadvent millennium, the seventh-day Sabbath, Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, the preadvent judgment, the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14, and the conditional immortality of the soul. To discover Ellen White’s contribution, we focus especially on these.
Sources of Beliefs
In the development of Christian doctrines in general, it is possible to detect direct and indirect influences. In proceeding with our inquiry it may be helpful to explore Ellen White’s contribution from these two perspectives. Did she contribute directly to the distinctive Adventist doctrines?
It may come as a surprise that in spite of her prophetic status, Ellen White did not have much direct influence over the development of our doctrinal beliefs. For example, the seventh-day Sabbath doctrine came through the influence of Seventh-day Baptists; and the doctrine of conditional immortality came principally through George Storrs, a member of the Millerite movement. The doctrine of the sanctuary, the preadvent judgment, and the significance of the seventh-day Sabbath for the end time came through pioneers such as O. R. L. Crosier and Joseph Bates. The Millerite movement even addressed the three angels’ messages. Does this mean that Ellen White did not have any influence in the development of Seventh-day Adventist doctrine? Not at all—her influence is to be found in indirect ways.
Pioneers of the Faith
As a general rule, the pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist church arrived at their distinctive beliefs through intense Bible study. The period between 1848 and 1850 witnessed about 23 Bible conferences, during which our unique beliefs were forged. At these conferences the pioneers met to study and pray, sometimes the entire night. Ellen White remembers that for a few years she could not understand the reasoning of the “brethren” and the meaning of the Scriptures they were studying. “I was in this condition of mind,” she writes, “until all the principal points of our faith were made clear to our minds, in harmony with the Word of God.”1 Apparently, God did not want His people to shortcut serious Bible study by depending exclusively on Ellen White’s visions. Her influence came instead in several indirect forms.
Clarity and Confirmation
One indirect but important way in which Ellen White influenced doctrinal development was her visions that confirmed the conclusions arrived at through Bible study. This phenomenon occurred time and again during the Bible conferences mentioned above. But in at least one instance Ellen White’s vision helped to solve a difference of opinion about an emerging doctrine. The conflict centered on when to begin Sabbath observance. Views varied from midnight Friday night to sunrise Saturday morning, from 6 p.m. Friday or from sunset on Friday.
J. N. Andrews was commissioned to study the issue and to report at a conference in Battle Creek in November 1855. He concluded that the time to begin the Sabbath was sunset Friday. Even after Andrews presented his study, Ellen White and Bates held to their view of 6 p.m., only to be corrected by a vision a few days after the report.
A Guide By Which to Measure
At a time when creeds had a strong hold on churches, Ellen White was instrumental in encouraging the church to stand by the Bible as the only source of faith and practice. She was firm on the principle of “the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines, and the basis of all reforms.”2 This commitment to the primacy of Scripture that permeated the thinking of the pioneers continues to be emphasized in Adventist thinking today.
Most systems of doctrine have inner consistency because, consciously or unconsciously, a church’s set of doctrines has a center that brings them together to form a system. One of the key results of Ellen White’s 1858 great controversy vision was to give Seventh-day Adventists a perspective of thinking that brought coherence and meaning to their doctrines. Of course, Ellen White was not the first to speak about the concept of a cosmic conflict between good and evil. But placing the law of God and the seventh-day Sabbath at the center of the conflict was a new focus. The significance of the great controversy motif on the development of Adventist doctrine should not be minimized. It illuminated biblical texts by providing perspectives that otherwise would have been missed. It gives the church a philosophy of history and explains the church’s unrelenting commitment to the law of God and related doctrines as history winds down.
The Gift of Grace
From its beginning, Seventh-day Adventists have been mission-focused, preaching a message that calls people back to neglected biblical truths, including the law of God. This has sometimes led some to overemphasize the law and “truth” to the neglect of the grace of Christ. Against those who insisted “You should not be reaching for the righteousness of Christ, and making so much of that. You should preach the law,” Ellen White remarked, “As a people, we have preached the law until we are as dry as the hills of Gilboa that had neither dew nor rain. We must preach Christ in the law, and there will be sap and nourishment in the preaching that will be as food to the famishing flock of God.”3 Ellen White’s counsels have saved the church from a legalistic focus in its public declarations.
Seventh-day Adventists hold the prophetic gift of Ellen White in high esteem. However, neither God nor the pioneers deemed it necessary to develop doctrines directly from her writings, visions, or personal direction. Doctrines were developed from intense Bible study.
1The Early Years, p. 145.
2The Great Controversy, p. 595.
3 Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 560.
Kwabena Donkor is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.