Ellen G. White’s pivotal role in Adventism’s early camp meeting years
God’s Messenger: A Leading Influence
A look at Ellen White’s life and legacy
By Reuel U. Almocera
Ellen White was recognized as God’s messenger for the Seventh-day Adventist Church since its founding in the early 1860s. How did this messenger’s life impact the church during its maturing years?
During the May 1869 General Conference (GC) session in Battle Creek, Michigan, the assembly resolved to practice a “more careful reading of, and a more strict compliance with, the Testimonies to the church.”1 This leading influence was sustained through Ellen White's public speaking ministry, and the publication of her articles, pamphlets, and books by the church’s publishing enterprise.
But GC leaders' emphasis on the significance assigned to Ellen White’s prophetic ministry caused a temporary setback. Early in 1871 the Seventh-day Adventist Church recorded a 12.8 percent decrease in membership, mainly because of the lingering attitude against the prophetic guidance of her ministry.
Yet God intervened. In a dream on April 30, 1871, the Lord described to Ellen White the relationship between the Bible and her testimonies. Reporting on this impressive dream, Ellen White wrote, “The Lord designs to warn you, to reprove, to counsel, through the testimonies given, and to impress your minds with the importance of the truth of His Word. The written testimonies are not to give new light, but to impress vividly upon the heart the truths of inspiration already revealed.”2 Her vision on December 10, 1871, in Bordoville, Vermont, triggered a spiritual revival and led to increased confidence in Ellen White’s prophetic ministry.
The influence of Ellen White through her published works continued to flourish as James White, for health reasons, relinquished the office of GC president to G. I. Butler during the December 1871 GC session. With an opportunity to expand their ministry, and for Ellen to write more, the Whites moved west.
The “Guiding Hand” and Revival
While living in both California and Colorado in 1873, Ellen published more than 20 articles for Review and Herald, Health Reformer, and Youth’s Instructor. Most focused on the life of Christ.3 By August she had published Testimony 23, in which she described the state of the Laodicean church. Attached to that pamphlet was James White’s “earnest appeal,” enumerating an agenda to be considered by the church for an assertive expansion program.
In response to its publication, G. I. Butler called for a second GC session in 1873. Encouraged by a “Guiding Hand,”4 James and Ellen White left Colorado to attend the session, in November. In Battle Creek during the Sabbath morning worship Ellen preached a sermon on the temptation of Christ. Many hearts were touched. The church experienced revival; and significant initiatives were launched for the growth and progress of the church.
Experiencing physical and emotional problems, James White felt that he should have more influence over the work of God’s messenger. Ellen White decided that it would be best for them to work independently.5 So in the summer of 1874 Ellen left James, who was working on the first issue of Signs of the Times, in California and traveled east to participate in camp meeting tours and raise funds for the growing work on the West Coast of the United States.
James became GC president again in August 1874. This gave Ellen an opportunity to influence the church’s strategic progress.
Here are two examples: a January 3, 1875, vision charted some major strategies for the worldwide mission of the church (sending missionaries to foreign lands and establishing publishing houses in many countries); and a September 12, 1875, dream in Rome, New York, showed Ellen White the colporteur ministry, which birthed the literature evangelism ministry—one of the most successful worldwide missionary programs of the church.
Times of Progress
The marital anxiety experienced in 1874 seemed to reappear. Ellen White, in California for the winter of 1876, did not travel back east with James. She was determined to finish writing a volume on the life of Christ. Later Ellen, however, did join James in the east, attending 14 camp meetings. The most memorable of these was in Groveland (near Haverhill), Massachusetts, with an estimated attendance of 20,000 people.
A report of that camp meeting states that “special trains were run from the cities of Lawrence, Newburyport, Haverhill, etc., and at 9:00 a.m. the auditorium was filled with intelligent people. . . . Still the people poured in from the towns about, and the trains came loaded with their living freight. . . . Mrs. White ascended the platform, amid the profound stillness of that vast multitude and addressed the people on the subject of Christian temperance. Her original and comprehensive manner of handling this subject elicited the highest commendation of all that heard.”6
Ellen White’s influence expanded with each passing year. From 1875 to 1878 she published more than 250 articles in the church papers. She even helped organize a local conference in Oregon, and actively participated in the organization of the Texas Conference. In Texas she met 21-year-old A. G. Daniells, who later became GC president and, to date, has served the longest (1901-1922).
During the fall of 1878 Ellen White received several visions, including the solemn judgment vision (October 23); and another on November 23. Major resolutions adopted by the GC session in response to these visions.
Times of Distress
But the “rebuke” and “chastening” contained in the 1878 visions caused distress. Members reacted negatively. Some influential leaders defected.
Ellen White went to California in 1880 with S. N. Haskell and W. C. White to manage the crisis. She later reported, “The tangled condition of affairs here are distressing.”7 She
was in California when she penned a pointed testimony to James regarding his erratic judgment and autocratic leadership style.8 She even hinted that it might now be time for him to retire.
During the 1880 GC session James White turned the GC presidency over to Butler. In December the Whites moved to their “retirement” home a mile from Battle Creek, near Goguac Lake. But the turmoil in Battle Creek did not subside. Ellen wrote, “I dare not give counsel, even to my brethren. It is a perilous time. There was never such a state of things as now in Battle Creek.”9
Just after 5:00 p.m. on Sabbath, August 6, 1881, James died in Battle Creek Sanitarium. During his funeral service on August 13, at the Dime Tabernacle, Ellen, after nearly 35 years of marriage, said, “I shall be alone, and yet not alone, for my Savior will be with me.”10
It was clear to Ellen White that she would continue to minister as God’s “leading influence” for the church in times of distress and progress.
Reuel U. Almocera is director of the Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.