To appreciate Ellen White, you have to read Ellen White.
Coming of Age
The Gift That Kept on Giving
By Dwain N. Esmond
It was the start of my third year at an inner-city high school with all the attending ills—violence, drugs, sexual immorality, etc. My parents knew they had to get me, a wide-eyed 17-year-old with anger-management issues, to a better place.
Pine Forge Academy—an Adventist boarding school in the sleepy hills of Pine Forge, Pennsylvania, United States—was the perfect antidote to the inner city. I was happy to finish high school there, having grown tired of the “drama” from my previous school. But little did I know that something else would have a much greater impact on my life than my new school.
As my father readied our car for the trip to Pine Forge, he gave me a two-volume set of books by Ellen G. White. Regrettably, her writings were too often invoked to address behavior that needed to be quelled; thus the beauty and sweetness of her counsels were lost on me during my early teen years. Nevertheless, I accepted my father’s gift, and off we went.
When I finally opened the two volumes of Mind, Character, and Personality, something happened to me. I saw my academy experience as an opportunity to make some positive changes in my life, to start over. And nothing aided me more in this endeavor than these two books.
As a young man coming of age and baptized in city culture, God, through Ellen White, began to put His finger on the difficult things that held me fast. I grew up in a home in which God was cherished, worship was constant, and church life prized. However, I still began to lose my way.
I wanted desperately to be a good student. God, through His anointed servant, supplied the tools I needed to become a high achiever. During this time in my life I read this: “As an educating power the Bible is without a rival. Nothing will so impart vigor to all the faculties as requiring students to grasp the stupendous truths of revelation. The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects upon which it is allowed to dwell. . . . If never required to grapple with difficult problems or put to the stretch to comprehend important truths, it will after a time almost lose the power of growth.”1
No chapter in this amazing two-volume compilation impacted me more than chapter 11 of volume 1, “Bible Study and the Mind.” After reading it I studied the Bible with intention and precision. Ellen White’s writings functioned in my young life just as she said they should: a lesser light leading to the greater light of God’s Word.2 Today I love and cherish both, but I am sure I would not appreciate either as much today had my father not given me these books.
Facing the Challenge
Today the Seventh-day Adventist Church faces a stark reality: the number of members who regularly read the inspired counsels of Ellen White is rapidly declining. This is troubling because it means most members are not experiencing the rich trove of blessing contained in these sacred counsels.
But there are other reasons to be alarmed. In a study of more than 8,200 Seventh-day Adventists attending 193 churches throughout North America, researchers Roger L. Dudley and Des Cummings, Jr., reported that “Those who regularly study the writings of Ellen White are also more likely to be stronger Christians in their personal spiritual life and in their witness to their communities than those church members who don’t.”3
What Do We Do Now?
That was in 1982, the year when some of the study’s findings were published in the October issue of Ministry magazine. The intervening years have seen a sharp decline in the number of Seventh-day Adventists who read Ellen White at all, let alone regularly. We are witnessing the advent of a digital/visual generation that reads differently. A recent Pew Research Center study noted that millennials in North America, where the study was based, read more than their over-30 counterparts. “Overall, 88 percent of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79 percent of those age 30 and older. Young adults have caught up to those in their 30s and 40s in e-reading, with 37 percent of adults ages 18-29 reporting that they have read an e-book in the past year.”4
So how might we ignite a love for Ellen White’s writings in twenty-first-century Adventist youth and young adults? Here are two suggestions to start.
Remember that truth—eternal truth—is first and foremost relational. Jesus declared He was truth (John 14:6). Truth then, is a Person to be known. Youth consume more information today through a web of connectedness that we call social media. They depend on others to curate and deliver information that is meaningful to their lives. To reach youth today with the writings of Ellen White, they must be curated and calibrated to meet specific needs in their lives.
For example, instead of recommending that a teen struggling with belief in God read the chapter “What to Do With Doubt,” in the book Steps to Christ, one might select a specific paragraph and record a short video explaining why this information is relevant. The resulting video might then be sent via text message, along with a note of love and acceptance. This process of assigning meaning—contextualization—is critical to sharing truth with today’s youth.
Never underestimate the influence of parents, guardians, and loved ones in sharing truth. It wasn’t lost on me that my father thought my spiritual development important enough to give me a gift that changed my life. I took the books because they came from my father, a man whom I love, respect, and admire. Families are the foundational unit for the dissemination of truth.
God works through all—even those who don’t have parents—who are willing to take interest in the salvation of His youth. When a parent, guardian, or loved one highlights an Ellen White passage and says to their young charge, “I read this today, and it really helped me. Would you mind checking it out and letting me know what you think?” What young person would reject such an offer?
Today I have the distinct honor of working for one of the great institutions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Ellen. G. White Estate. I doubt seriously that I would be here had my parents not introduced me to her writings at an early age. To the degree that our church can support the Adventist family in its mission to fulfill the educational imperative found in Deuteronomy 6, we will have done God’s remnant church—and our youth—a great service.
Dwain N. Esmond, a pastor, author, and editor, is an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate. He and his wife, Kemba, have been married for more than 20 years. Their son, Dwain, Jr., is a budding reader of Ellen White’s writings.
1. Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1977), vol. 1, p. 91.
2. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 3, p. 30.
3. Roger L. Dudley and Des Cummings, Jr., “Who Reads Ellen White?” Ministry 55, no. 1 (1982): 10-12.
4. Kathryn Zickhur and Lee Rainie, “Younger Americans and Public Libraries,” Pew Research Center, Sept. 10, 2014, http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/09/10/younger-americans-and-public-libraries/