Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet

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Ellen Harmon White: 
American Prophet
Oxford University Press, 2014
400 pp., $34.95

A Prophet with Attitude 

On Ellen Harmon White and Seventh-day Adventism 

Many decades ago my six-year-old daughter Heidi came home from church and announced, "I'm not going back to Sabbath school ever again." "And why not?" I asked. "Because they don't teach the Bible there. They just teach Ellen White," she said.

This was awkward, because her father was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor at the time, and many Adventists consider White a prophet of near-biblical standing. We compromised. She would go to her father's church service on Saturdays, but on Sundays she could attend Sunday school at the Presbyterian church down the street.

Heidi didn't know how lucky she was: her kindergarten class was only listening to endless stories about White's childhood. By contrast, her sister's primary class was pretending to escape pretend end-times persecution by fleeing to pretend mountains. Molly, 8, may not have realized that this dramatized apocalypse was based on White's writings, but she happily joined her sister at the terror-free Sunday school.

I sympathized with the girls. A scrupulous and studious child, I was immersed in White's writings throughout 17 years of SDA education. I knew that for some children, her books should come with trigger warnings, and I was relieved when my family joined an entirely different denomination a couple of years after the kids' defection to the Presbyterians. So when I learned through Facebook that a consortium of scholars—some of them friends and former classmates—had published a book called Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, I picked it up with reluctance.

I'm glad I got past my initial hesitation: it turned out to be an engrossing study of an era, a church, and an indomitable woman I didn't know nearly as well as I thought I did. The book will no doubt interest current and former Adventists, but even those who aren't sure who White was may find it fascinating. Adventists are everywhere: there are 18 million of them worldwide (and only 15 million Mormons). They have made major contributions to American culture: corn flakes, veggie burgers, so-called creation scientists.

More important, at least to history buffs, White's story is the story of 19th-century America in microcosm. Unlike tendentious pro- or anti-Adventist literature, Ellen Harmon White sets its subject squarely in her historical and social milieu: a time of religious barnstorming, racial conflict, institution building, and geographical expansion; a time when reform movements in health, education, care for the poor, and women's rights proliferated. This was the environment that formed White, and that White in turn helped to form.

With a foreword by Duke University historian Grant Wacker, the book has 18 chapters and 20 authors—"Adventists, ex-Adventists, and non-Adventists"—all of them scholars and most of them university professors. Often such an erudite lineup results in a densely unreadable or, at best, uneven book. Not here. The editorial team has gathered and shaped a group of clear, interesting writers who avoid academic jargon while looking at White under different aspects.

Jonathan Butler's opening chapter, "A Portrait," sets the stage with a biographical and cultural summary. Born in 1827, young Ellen Harmon was caught up in the Millerite movement that expected the Second Coming in the mid-1840s. Greatly disappointed when the Lord didn't show up on schedule, she became "the fragile trance figure of a motley group of ephemeral millenarians," Butler writes. Braving sexist opposition, marital problems, financial crises, ill health, and widowhood, she would eventually "be transformed into the full-fledged, incredibly forceful prophet of a viable and durable church," a woman whose "lifetime of longing for another world placed its indelible and historic mark on this world."

If White had stuck to preaching and writing, evangelicals might have accepted Adventists as eccentric fellow travelers. But White claimed to have visions directly from God. This seems odder today than it did in her era. White's religious experience, writes Ann Taves, was "shaped by the visionary culture of shouting Methodism," a prominent hyper-emotional stream of early American revivalism. The challenge for White and her followers was to distinguish her experiences from those of other seers, whose visions, White asserted, were neither God-inspired (as religious visionaries claimed) nor due to natural phenomena (as mesmerists believed): they were satanic deceptions aimed at destroying faith in Christ. White did not deal with "false prophets" gently: Ronald Graybill reports that, "confronted by a young woman she believed was having a 'false vision,' she recommended getting 'a pitcher of cold water, good cold water' and throwing it 'right in her face.'"

Many of White's visions concerned the behavior of individual Adventists, families, or congregations. After having such a vision, White would write a letter to the offender(s), "expressing her convictions and persuading [them] to change their attitudes and habits," writes Graeme Sharrock. These letters, called "testimonies," were widely distributed, and many were eventually published. This did not necessarily please their original recipients. Her late-1860s spate of testimonies against "solitary vice," for example—some of which named names—may have won her more readers than friends.

Other visions helped to set directions the SDA church would take. Ronald Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin describe White's 1863 vision about health: "God showed the thirty-five-year-old prophetess the evils of medicinal drugs, alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, meat, spices, fashionable dress, and sex and the benefits of a twice-a-day vegetarian diet, internal and external use of water, fresh air, exercise, and a generally abstemious life style." Health reform, medical missionary work, hospital building, and education for the health professions all have become hallmarks of SDA practice.

White's enduring influence depends primarily on her writing. The author of 26 books—one of which, Steps to Christ, has sold twice as many copies as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—she also wrote pamphlets, articles, and letters totaling some 70,000 typed pages. Theology was not her strong point, but everything she spoke or wrote was built on her conviction that Jesus would soon return. The faithful would then spend 1,000 years in heaven before coming back to a re-created earthly paradise. For White, as for John Milton, both paradise lost and paradise restored were literal. The Genesis creation story was to be read as history—six 24-hour days of work followed by one 24-hour day of rest. To understand the story any other way, she believed, was to weaken the argument for seventh-day Sabbath observance. Evolution was a lie promulgated by infidels; Noah's flood, not geological ages, explained the fossil record. If this sounds familiar, it's because there's a direct line from White's teaching to that of an early 20th-century SDA convert, George McCready Price, and from him to the "creation scientists" that still exist today—though few of them worship on Saturday.

Much of White's writing was heavily edited, ghosted, or borrowed without attribution. White, whose education ended at third grade, did not see this as a problem. Some of her contemporaries did. But in the early 20th century, Adventism, like much of the rest of conservative Christianity, was moving toward fundamentalism, and Adventist leaders who believed that White's words were practically inerrant managed to suppress the critics' objections. From the 1930s to the 1970s, "the 'practical inerrancy' perspective rose to a position of orthodoxy," say SDA professors Paul McGraw and Gilbert Valentine. And then in the 1970s an assortment of Adventist writers uncovered the suppressed documents, researched White's sources, and argued that her theology was faulty. All hell broke loose.

My daughters abandoned Sabbath school in the late 1970s, and our family began attending an Episcopal church in 1981. We avoided most of the acrimony briefly described in the last chapters of Ellen Harmon White. I can't evaluate McGraw and Valentine's assertion that "early twenty-first-century Adventists appeared little concerned about her words at all," though they are surely right in noting that "divergent perspectives on the role and authority of the Ellen White writings continue to compete in the church." While many SDAs, like the contributors to this book, now hold a nuanced view of their church's prophet, some of the church's top administrators are actively promoting a 1950s-style fundamentalism. Personally, I like George Bernard Shaw's description of another visionary, Joan of Arc:
There are people in the world whose imagination is so vivid that when they have an idea it comes to them as an audible voice, sometimes uttered by a visual figure. … The test of sanity is not the normality of the method but the reasonableness of the discovery … . But she was none the less an able leader of men for imagining her ideas in this way.
Whatever else she may have been, Ellen Harmon White was "an able leader of men" who deserves to be more widely known. This book is a welcome step in that direction.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.