After James White’s death in 1881, Ellen White moved to California.
God’s Messenger: Growing Church, New Challenges
A look at Ellen White’s life and legacy
By Theodore N. Levterov
After James White’s death in 1881, Ellen White moved to California. Feeling alone and discouraged, and not being able to write much, she immersed herself in attending General Conference sessions, speaking at camp meetings, visiting churches, and dealing with various church enterprises.
In the East and Midwest she ministered at camp meetings in Vermont, Maine, New York, Nebraska, Michigan, and Indiana. Back in California, she helped establish Healdsburg Academy.1 Healdsburg also became her permanent residence. She bought a house “with two and one-half acres of land closely set with choice fruit,” finding much pleasure in working in the garden and canning fruits. By July 1882 she had finished writing Testimony 31, exploring Adventist education, parental training, issues related to youth, and others.2 Being constantly engaged, it seemed, was one way she dealt with her grief.
The early 1880s saw new waves of opposition to Ellen White’s prophetic gift, including the charge of “suppression” (intentional hiding) of parts of her earlier writings. The issues surfaced after a decision to republish her early visions and experiences in a new book called Early Writings (1882). The book’s intended purpose was to silence growing criticisms against Ellen White’s earlier revelations. For some church members the opposite occurred—at least initially.3 Ellen White used the opportunity to point out that biblical inspiration was dynamic, not verbal or dictational.
A year later she also supported the decision of the General Conference to revise and reprint her Testimonies in a new and updated four-volume format. “Where the language used is not the best,” she wrote, “I want it made correct and grammatical, as I believe it should be in every case where it can be without destroying the sense.”4 A few years later she noted that it was “not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.”5
From 1885 to 1887 Ellen White, together with her son W. C. White, his family, and Sara McEnterfer, her secretary, went to Europe on Ellen’s first overseas mission trip. They embarked on the trans-Atlantic journey on July 13, 1885, and stopped first in England, where she visited the mission headquarters in Grimsby and spoke to numerous Adventist congregations. Mrs. White participated in several public “evangelistic” lectures. One Sunday evening she lectured to about 1,000 people in a rented hall in Southampton. Impressed with her message, the public press asked her to write it up for publication, which she did.
After two weeks in England she left for Switzerland just in time to meet with European leaders of the church at their annual council in September 1885. She made her home in Basel and, for the next two years, traveled extensively from Italy to Scandinavia, providing guidance for both church leaders and members. At the same time, she became exposed to some issues unique to the European context, such as serving in the army and Sabbath observance, compulsory school attendance of Adventist children on Sabbath, and other administrative issues related to the establishment of conferences for spreading the Adventist message.6
The 1888 Great Controversy
White returned to the United States in 1887. She was trying to finish one of her most significant book manuscripts, the 1888 edition of the Great Controversy.7 Based on her vision from 1858, she had written several other times on the topic.8 Her decision to have an updated and more complete version, however, resulted from her visits to many of the places associated with the Reformation and the history of Christianity in Europe.
The enhanced edition would become one of her most renowned volumes. The book’s introduction also became known as one of the best elaborations on the nature of biblical inspiration. In part, this introduction was her response to a new controversy about her prophetic ministry caused by D. M. Canright, a Seventh-day Adventist minister and personal friend who left Adventism in 1887 and became one of its harshest critics. As with the earlier suppression charges, Canright’s doubts of Ellen White’s prophetic gift were based on a “verbal” view of inspiration. Ellen White (and Adventists) reiterated their understanding that while God inspired the thoughts of His messengers, He did not dictate their actual words.9
Minneapolis General Conference
In 1888 Ellen White dealt with another theological issue that came to a head during the Minneapolis General Conference session. The old guardians of the movement, Uriah Smith and G. I. Butler, were confronted by A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner, younger theologians from California. The points of contention were theological issues related to biblical prophecy and traditional interpretations.
While Ellen White was aware of the different theological positions, she became greatly disturbed by the sharp feelings that the two groups began to show toward each other before and during the conference. At the end she had little to say about her theological position (although she endorsed Jones’s and Waggoner’s emphasis on righteousness by faith), but addressed the importance of tolerance, understanding, and manifestation of a Christlike attitude even in the midst of theological disagreements.
“My burden during the meeting,” she wrote, “was to present Jesus and His love before my brethren, for I saw marked evidence that many had not the spirit of Christ.”10 It is not an accident, therefore, that her most Christ-centered books, such as Steps to Christ (1892), Thoughts From the Mount of Blessings (1896), The Desire of Ages (1898), and Christ’s Object Lessons (1900), were written after Minneapolis. Ellen White did not see righteousness by faith as “new light.” It was rather an “old” but neglected truth that needed to be brought back to the “core” of the third angel’s message.
Soon after Minneapolis Ellen White, together with A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner, began a campaign to take the message of righteousness by faith to the Advent believers. Beginning in Battle Creek, Michigan, they traveled across the country and spoke to church gatherings and camp meetings.
The End of the 1880s
The 1880s concluded with Ellen White publishing two other significant volumes: Patriarchs and Prophets (1890), and Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene (1890), a comprehensive work on health and a precursor of The Ministry of Healing (1905).
Although the 1880s were challenging, Ellen White continued working tirelessly. Facing the personal grief of losing her husband, dealing with a variety of church issues, and going abroad as a missionary only added to the wealth of her experience. Now she was ready for new challenges as the growing Adventist denomination was nearing the new century. But before that, she headed to another missionary venture: Australia.
1 See Arthur White, Ellen White: Woman of Vision (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), p. 215.
2 W. C. White, “Health of Sister White,” Review and Herald, Sept. 26, 1882, p. 616.
3 For more detailed discussion, see Theodore N. Levterov, The Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Understanding of Ellen G. White’s Prophetic Gift, 1844-1889 (New York: Peter Lang Pub., 2015), pp. 143-146, 155.
4 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 3, p. 97.
5 Ibid., book 1, p. 21.
6 Arthur White, pp. 225-244.
7 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan During the Christian Dispensation (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1888).
8 The 1884 version of the book, for example, was published by both the Review and Herald and the Pacific Press publishing houses and sold thousands of copies. See Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy: The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan From the Destruction of Jerusalem to the End of the Controversy (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., and Battle Creek, Mich.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1884).
9 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (1888), author’s preface, pp. c-h.
10 Ellen G. White, “Looking Back at Minneapolis,” manuscript 24, 1888. In Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1981-1993), vol. 12, p. 192.
Theodore Levterov is director of the Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office at Loma Linda University in California, United States.