One hundred years ago Ellen White released the final version of what many consider to be her most important book. “I am more anxious,” she declared, “to see a wide circulation for this book than for any others I have written; for in The Great Controversy, the last message of warning to the world is given more distinctly than in any of my other books.”1
The book began with a two-hour vision that interrupted a funeral in 1858.2 Her first published account of that vision was only 219 small pages, 3.5” x 5.5” (8.9 cm. x 14 cm.), titled Spiritual Gifts: The Great Controversy Between Christ and His Angels, and Satan and His Angels. Some may wonder why she wrote so briefly and then for 50 years repeatedly enlarged it.
Because of the urgent need for the message, she hurried her early books into print despite imperfections. To Review editor Uriah Smith she explained: “I was shown years ago that we should not delay publishing the important light given me because I could not prepare the matter perfectly.… I was shown that I should present before the people in the best manner possible the light received; then as I received greater light, and as I used the talent God had given me, I should have increased ability to use in writing and in speaking. I was to improve everything, as far as possible bringing it to perfection, that it might be accepted by intelligent minds.”3
During the next 20 years Ellen White wrote five more books on biblical history, but not until 1884 did she find time to expand her coverage of the postbiblical history to 492 pages—four times the comparable section in the original volume. Shortly after the release of the 1884 edition she spent two years in Europe (1885-1887). As she visited the historical sites of the Reformation, she resolved to write on it again, to make it more appealing to a general reading audience, and to show more clearly the continuity between the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation and the Adventist movement. She wrote some 190 pages of new material for the 1888 edition, bringingThe Great Controversy to its final size of 678 pages. When the publishers reported in 1910 that the printing plates from the 1888 version were so badly worn that the type needed to be reset, she decided to review the book and improve it once again.4
Use of Historical Sources
A significant issue for the 1911 edition was changing literary standards. In nineteenth-century America it was common for both secular and religious writers to freely reproduce material from other authors, with or without source references.5 To meet the rising expectations of the twentieth century, however, Ellen White mandated her literary assistants to track down and identify the sources of all the quotations in the 1888 edition of The Great Controversy. In doing so, her helpers found that some quotations were easily available for verification; others were not. She directed them to replace historical quotations from books no longer in print with similar statements from better and readily available sources, so that readers who wanted to check her claims could do so in public libraries.6
Ellen White was delighted with the new edition and unequivocally endorsed it.7However, such editorial work on a book that Seventh-day Adventists regarded as inspired raised questions about the relationship between her visions and her use of historical sources. In a statement that his mother specifically approved, her son W. C. White explained: “The things which she has written out are descriptions of flashlight pictures and other representations given her [in vision].… In … writing out … these views, she has made use of good and clear historical statements to help make plain to the reader the things which she is endeavoring to present. When I was a mere boy, I heard her read D’Aubigné’s History of the Reformation to my father.… She has read other histories of the Reformation. This has helped her to locate and describe many of the events and the movements presented to her in vision.”8
An experience from the Whites’ years in Europe illustrated this point. W. C. White recalled that one Sabbath, at Basel, “as I read [Wylie’s History of Protestantism] to Mother she interrupted me and told a lot of things in the pages ahead, and told me many things not in the book at all. She said, ‘I never read about it, but that scene has been presented to me over and over again.’”9
Surprised, he asked her, “Why did you not put it into your book [The Great Controversy]?” She replied, “I did not know where to put it.” From this he understood that while the controlling content of her historical writing was derived from visions, she used historical works to identify the geographical and chronological connections of the events she had seen in vision.10
Special Spanish Edition
During the translation of The Great Controversy into Spanish, someone noticed that it made no mention of the Reformation in Spain. When this omission was brought to the attention of Ellen White, she directed her staff to compile an additional chapter for the Spanish edition. As a result, the Spanish Great Controversy has one more chapter than the one in English. Chapter 13, “The Awakening in Spain,” carries a footnote: “This chapter was compiled by C. C. Crisler and H. H. Hall, and was inserted in this book with the approval of the author.”11
Greater Results to Come
Millions of copies of The Great Controversy are in print, but according to its author, its greatest results are yet future. “The results of the circulation of this book are not to be judged by what now appears,” Ellen White wrote. “By reading it, some souls will be aroused, and will have courage to unite themselves at once with those who keep the commandments of God. But a much larger number who read it will not take their position until they see the very events taking place that are foretold in it. The fulfillment of some of the predictions will inspire faith that others also will come to pass, and when the earth is lightened with the glory of the Lord, in the closing work, many souls will take their position on the commandments of God as the result of this agency.”12
For a stirring refresher on the foundations of the Adventist faith, The Great Controversy is in a class by itself. It is available in many languages and formats, including condensed, abridged, and simplified editions in English.
1 Ellen G. White letter 281, 1905, in Colporteur Ministry, p. 127.
2 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, pp. 265, 266; Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1985), vol. 1, pp. 367, 368.
3 E. G. White to Uriah Smith, Feb. 19, 1884 (letter 11, 1884).
4 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1982), vol. 6, pp. 302-337.
5 George Callcott, History in the United States, 1800-1860 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), pp. 134-136, quoted in R. W. Olson, One Hundred and One Questions on the Sanctuary and on Ellen White (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1981), pp. 66, 67; see also Francis D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1951), pp. 406, 407, cited in Jerry Moon, “Who Owns the Truth? Another Look at the Plagiarism Debate,” Ellen G. White and Current Issues Symposium (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Center for Adventist Research, Andrews University, 2005), vol.1, pp. 46-71.
6 For details, see Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 6, pp. 302-321; Arthur L. White, “W. W. Prescott and the 1911 Edition of The Great Controversy,” Ellen G. White Estate Shelf Document, (Center for Adventist Research, Andrews University, 1981); also available online at www.whiteestate.org; see also W. C. White, “The Great Controversy—1911 edition,” Appendixes A and B in Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 433-450.
7 E. G. White to F. M. Wilcox, July 25, 1911 (letter 56, 1911), reproduced in Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 6, p. 336.
8 W. C. White to “Our General Missionary Agents,” July 25, 1911. Ellen White’s endorsement is in E. G. White to F. M. Wilcox, July 27, 1911 (letter 56, 1911).
9 W. C. White, “The Visions of Ellen G. White,” Dec. 17, 1905, p. 4, Ellen G. White Estate Shelf Document.
10Ibid.; see also Jerry Moon, W. C. White and Ellen G. White: The Relationship Between the Prophet and Her Son (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1993), pp. 427-431.
11 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 6, p. 337. Clarence C. Crisler was Ellen White’s chief literary assistant at the time, and Harry Harvey Hall was a manager at Pacific Press.
12 E. G. White, Colporteur Ministry, pp. 128, 129. (Italics supplied.)