The place was a train stop. It was a Sunday afternoon in 1884 when Ellen White, along with a group of companions, found herself at a small train station in the Mojave Desert. The group had recently attended the General Conference session. Together they chartered two railroad cars to transport attendees back to Oakland, California, the then-headquarters of the denominational work on the West Coast of the United States. Since the layover was going to last for several hours, the group devised a plan to hold an evangelistic meeting while they waited. The plan was simple. They would disperse across town in a media blitz. Station employees came. The editor of the town paper came. Various people showed up from across town to hear this woman, Ellen White, speak. What did she speak about to this diverse group of people? She based her remarks on Matthew 6:25-34 regarding the counsel of Jesus not to worry.1
This hastily arranged meeting was not unusual for Ellen White. Throughout her lifetime she spoke to people about Jesus in a variety of unusual circumstances. Although Mrs. White is perhaps best remembered for her prophetic and even public ministries, her passion for evangelism is foundational to everything else she did. It is one of her most enduring qualities that began during her conversion and lasted throughout her lifetime.
Ellen White’s Conversion
A school classmate threw a rock that hit young Ellen and precipitated an existential crisis. After she regained consciousness she became convinced that she was dying. “I desired to be a Christian, and prayed for the forgiveness of my sins as well as I could.”2 This early deathbed surrender to Christ was simple. According to Merlin Burt, director for the Center of Adventist Research, this event was not “complicated by questions of how to live for Jesus and deal with life. When she discovered she was not going to die she was led to the next step in her conversion process.”3 Later, Ellen had two dreams, which caused her to question again her religious experience.4 It was after the second dream that she confided her fear to her mother, who brought Levi Stockman, a young Methodist minister, to visit her daughter. During the few minutes she spent with him she had “obtained more knowledge on the subject of God’s love and pitying tenderness than from all the sermons and exhortations to which I had ever listened.”5
Afterward Ellen White became a passionate evangelist. She felt the “assurance of an indwelling Saviour” that allowed her to even “praise God for the misfortune” that had so traumatized her.6 By nature a timid person, she dared to pray in public for the first time. Ellen, in an experience shared by other contemporary Americans during the Second Great Awakening, publicly testified of her experience and desired to share her faith with others. She began to arrange meetings with her friends and prayed with them until “everyone was converted to God.”7
A Personal Evangelist
Although Ellen White was certainly one of the most visible evangelists during her lifetime in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, she never lost sight of the importance of sharing Jesus with people one-on-one. The Whites traveled through the wilderness of Michigan in the summer of 1853. The carriage driver supposedly knew the road well but became lost. It was a hot day—Mrs. White fainted twice en route. They traveled over rough “logs and fallen trees.” Ellen White was so thirsty that she envisioned herself as a perishing desert traveler. “Cool streams of water,” she later said, “seemed to lie directly before me; but as we passed on they proved to be only an illusion.” What was supposed to be a 15-mile morning jaunt stretched into a daylong event. When they finally reached a clearing they found a frontier cabin. The occupant greeted them, gave them refreshments, and they quickly became friends. Ellen White shared with the woman about her religious convictions including the Sabbath and the soon return of Jesus along with complimentary copies of religious material, including the Review. Twenty-two years later Ellen White met this same woman again at a Michigan camp meeting: “She inquired if I remembered calling at a log house in the woods…. She stated that she had lent that little book [A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White] to her neighbors, as new families had settled around her, until there was very little left of it…. She said that when I called upon her I talked to her of Jesus and the beauties of heaven, and that the words were spoken with such fervor that she was charmed, and had never forgotten them.” Reflecting back on this Ellen White remarked that for all those years their journey “seemed indeed mysterious to us, but here we met quite a company who are now believers in the truth.”8
An Evangelist to Her Own Family
One might think that Ellen White always succeeded in her evangelistic efforts. Some of the most difficult people whom she tried to reach included her own relatives. During the summer of 1872 James and Ellen White visited the mountains of Colorado. With them were several relatives, including a niece, Mary, who was the daughter of Ellen’s older sister. Ellen White described in her diary relaxing nature walks. On one such walk the group sat under some poplar trees as Aunt Ellen read from Spiritual Gifts. Mrs. White recorded how Mary was “deeply interested” in spiritual things. At the end of their time together they had a season of prayer during which Mary prayed.
Mrs. White was so concerned about the spiritual welfare of her niece that she not only allowed her to stay with them, but even employed her as a literary assistant (secretary) to help her with her writing. Five years after the experience in the mountains she wrote Mary a letter asking her to give her heart to Christ: “I have no wish to control you,” wrote Aunt Ellen, “no wish to urge our faith upon you, or to force you to believe. No man or woman will have eternal life unless they choose it…. I hope you will not say as your mother said to me in regard to breaking the Sabbath, she ‘would risk it.’ … I still have faith that she will accept the truth if you do not hedge up her way. I have written in love and have written because I dare not do otherwise.” Unfortunately, we do not know how Mary responded to her aunt’s letter, and there is no evidence to suggest that she ever accepted the Sabbath.9
Ellen White deserves to be recognized with some of the most influential evangelists in Seventh-day Adventist history. While it is certainly true that her prophetic ministry was significant and continues to exert a considerable influence within Adventism, her ministry was firmly rooted in her own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. She passionately wanted to share Jesus Christ with people. At first she resisted attempts to speak in public, but her desire to share Jesus overcame her initial hesitancy. Whether in public or private Ellen White was an effective evangelist because she shared Jesus Christ with those around her.
1 This incident is recorded in James R. Nix, Advent Preaching (Silver Spring, Md.: NAD Office of Education, 1989). The text of her message is recorded in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 24, 1885.
2 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich.: James White, 1860), vol. 2, p. 9.
3 Merlin D. Burt, lecture handout, GSEM 534 (May 12, 1998), p. 3; idem, “Ellen G. Harmon’s Three-Step Conversion Between 1836 and 1843, and the Harmon Family Methodist Experience.” Research paper, Andrews University, March 1998.
4 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1948), vol. 1, pp. 23-29.
5Ibid., p. 30.
6 Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1943), p. 39.
7 Ellen G. White, Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1940), p. 33.
8 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1946), pp. 448, 449; Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Human Interest Story (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1972), pp. 69-71.
9 Ellen G. White, Diary, July 27, 1872; Letter 6, 1877; Arthur White, Ellen G. White: The Human Interest Story, pp. 68, 69.
Michael W. Campbell is pastor of the Montrose and Gunnison Seventh-day Adventist churches in western Colorado, United States.