With the turn of the century to the 1800s the world had a lot of patching up to do. America had had her contest with Britain and was on the doorstep of becoming a nation. The European continent was staggering to its feet after another bruising and exhausting fight with itself, not unlike what had been going on for centuries. The nations of the East (Russia being the large symbol) were still causing concern to the West, as had been so since the territories of Russian religions had fought the Battle of Tours in 732 and the Mongolian hordes had come down from the North to try to take the Holy Land from the Christians.
Though the years from 1800 to 1900 would be a time of stabilization, they would also be years of change and uncertainty, a dichotomy that is not unusual in history. Political, religious, and social values would all be re-examined-and on many levels discarded. In American politics, the twoparty system would emerge, and the territories that were to become states would begin to copy some form of nationalism. Personalities would leave their mark on national and local law and political framework. The Civil War would weaken and yet unite a nation. The European nations would continue their struggle for identity and power.
The expansion of the American West brought great change in values. Land and individualism became important considerations in the lives of people. Property was available to many for the first time. Things became desirable, many things. Life and progress that for many (for almost a millenium) had hardly seemed desirable, and for most (elsewhere in the world) hardly obtainable, now lay on the golden shores of the new land and seemed within reach of those who would work and strive to obtain. Opportunity, a word scarcely recognized in most of the world, seemed at hand.
In religion, the early part of the century, from the 1820s to the 1850s, was to see one of the last gasps of the oldtime drama of fear and hellfire in the name of God and heaven. That theme which had been played out on the stages of Europe, by both Catholics and Protestants, leaped the seas and became an exclusive American phenomenon in the Millerite movement. New in only some of its details, it replayed for the fearful and the guiltridden the oldtime religious song that "every. body wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." But die you must, said William Miller and his followers, and they even set the time for the event. After a lot of trouble with the heavenly calculators, they set the date of October 22, 1844, for the event (barring any serious complications, of course).
It was a great drama, that Millerite movement, with charges by each group of players swinging wildly to one side of the stage or the other, each claiming to have God on their side. One would have had to pay good money to see such a show anywhere else at any other time. But in America it was free. It featured personalities, persons, occupations, sermons, diatribes, invectives, recriminations, attacks, and counter attacks-indeed a real holy war, all in the name of God. Reading of those days, one wonders if the real issue was not the same one it always seems to be in religion: Who is going to control the concessions in the here and in the hereafter?
It didn't take long for one group to buy up the franchise. What the Catholics and Protestants had been fighting about for centuries in Europe a group of leftovers from the Millerite movement decided to market in America. They had no thought initially of a worldwide movement. But if the product sold, the world would become their oyster and heaven would become their ghetto. They were to become the Adventists; the Seventh Day would be their banner and the Second Advent would be their song-both ideas the used products of the Millerite movement.
There was really nothing new in the banner or the song. The Hebrews of old had held to the seventh day throughout the Old Testament. New Testament Christians had given some attention and lip service to the Second Coming since the days of Christ. But the names and dates and places would be changed to protect the guilty. In the minds of Ellen G. White (the Advent movement's psychic leader) and her supporters, there emerged the practice of interpreting the Scriptures (past, present, and future) in terms of Adventist concepts and beliefs-not a new idea but one that would fit the times of the nineteenth century. The ancient Hebrews had promoted the idea that they were the keepers of the oracles of God (and there are those who still believe they are). The Catholics in the New Testament times, and after, worked to perfect that Jewish idea to make Catholicism the custodian of all truth, even if they had to chain part of it to the wall. Now in the middle of the nineteenth century it was the Adventists' turn.
In order for any group or organization to pull off the idea that they have been given the concessions to the hereafter, that they are indeed the ones God has chosen to sell the indulgences for this life and the utopia to come, they must always tackle the job of rearranging or reassigning the facts of history and rewriting the Canon (the Bible of the "true believer") so that both will be in harmony with their preconceived ideas, misconceptions, and prejudices-at the same time claiming that the Holy Book is the final word of authority. Quite a task for anyone in any age. No wonder the idea has never really caught on in the religious world for too long a time, although those who have tried deserve A for effort.
With no thought of failure, the Adventists assigned this awesome task to the person they liked to call the "weakest of the weak," Ellen Gould Harmon. Ellen was born a twin at Gorham, Maine, November 26, 1827, to Robert and Eunice Harmon, practicing members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and she would marry James White on August 30, 1846, three months short of her ninteenth birthday.
There were no advance signs that she was to become the hometown girl who made good. She did not begin with fame or fortune. Her chances of catching the brass ring seemed slim until misfortune smiled on her. When she was nine, an accident happened that, according to her, "was to affect my whole life." ~ Like the apostle Paul with his eye trouble, Ellen, throughout the rest of her life, as we are often reminded, was the product of her physical misfortune. She had fainting and dizzy spells; her nervous system made her prostrate; at times she gave in to despair or despondence.
After a blow to the head from a stone thrown by a schoolmate, she gave up her schooling and, as Adventists enjoy telling it, never gained an education beyond the third grade.2 What should be noted is that she did not gain a formal education beyond that grade. All of us learn or are educated as long as we wish to be and are aware, and there is little proof that Ellen was not aware.
Here was a readymade opportunity. Religious history gives ample evidence that the "true believer" is much more likely to accept the dictums of the simpleminded if these dictums can somehow be given a heavenly setting. Especially in Western Christianity, religious belief generally centers on a few main themes: All men are created (not necessarily equal, a rather new political idea); all men are sinners (and women too, another rather new political idea), whatever that may mean. Depending on the system's definition of sin, life is a boat trip through a sea mined with explosives called temptation-usually defined as women (or men, as the case may be), wine, and song. And as the curtain falls, man has to die.
Well, that's it, except the excitement and action come when different ones (be they groups or individuals, organizations, or roving bands) start drawing up the game plan and fretting about the details. For example, who did the creating, how much time did it take, who was there making notes, and how truthful is the record of the event? Who tagged all of us with sin? Was it God, or that snake in the grass that came in when Adam was down on the south forty? Or do we get it from our ancestors of past eons? Or is the Devil, like Santa Claus, our dad?
The matter of sin has always fascinated theologians and non-theologians alike. For this reading, theologians are those who practice defining or playing God. Naturally the one who makes up the list for others has a jump on the game. Throughout history, most mystics, divines, or theologians have had a crack at making up the list of sins. One of the safest ways to do this is to leave off the list the things you personally enjoy. This has been done by most all who make up lists.
And last, the group or organization must tackle that final question: At death where do we go-and when (before, during, or after)? No one yet has come up with a satisfying answer to this one. Since it's much harder to get back here once you leave than to get here in the first place, not too many have come back to give an annual report of the other side. This fact alone gives large latitude to one of fertile mind, imagination, and ability to describe the horror or the glory of the hereafter (for a price). It is safe to say that the fear of the trip we have not yet taken is a powerful weapon in the hands of those who, by some means, have made the trip and come back to sell us the way.
Ellen was to be equal to the task. She was eventually to leave
for the believer (through the Adventist concepts) information,
instruction, admonition, and counsel on all the foregoing matters.
From a shaky start with "amalgamation of man and beast"
in one of her early books,3 she straightened things out later
with her reading of Paradise Lost. 4 Her extracanonical
visions of the dialogue, battle, and ouster of Satan and his angels
gave vividness and form to John Milton's great poem that even
the Bible writers lacked. Some of her early friends noticed the
similarity and brought it to her attention, but she dismissed
the question with the same ease that she did most criticism. Her
grandson, who was to inherit the duties of the keeperofthekeys,
gave much the same explanation over a period of forty years-with
one interesting deviation in his 1945 supplement to volume four
of her book The Spirit of Prophecy:
Mrs. White ever sought to avoid being influenced by others. Shortly after the Great Controversy vision of March 14, 1858, at meetings in Battle Creek held over a weekend, she told the high points of what had been shown her in that vision. Elder T. N. Andrews, who at the time was in Battle Creek, was much interested. After one of the meetings he told her some of the things she had said were much like a book he had read. Then he asked if she had read Paradise Lost. She replied in the negative. He told her that he thought she would be interested in reading it.
Ellen White forgot about the conversation, but a few days later Elder Andrews came to the home with a copy of Paradise Lost and offered it to her. She was busily engaged in writing the Great Controversy vision as it had been shown her. She took the book, hardly knowing just what to do with it. She did not open it, but took it to the kitchen and out it up on a high shelf, determined that if there was anything in that book like what God had shown her in vision, she would not read it until after she had written out what the Lord had revealed to her. It is apparent that she did later read at least portions of Paradise Lost, for there IS one phrase quoted in Education. 5
The deviation referred to is the last sentence in the quotation from her grandson-the admission that she had indeed read John Milton's work. The question that seems to remain is whether she read it before or after her "vision" of the same controversy. Why she put the book up on a "high shelf" has remained puzzling to many. Perhaps the higher the better-because of temptation. Who knows? One writer who has studied the problem of Mrs. White and Milton's Paradise Lost may give some answers:
Other studies in the same area have asked, and failed to answer, the question of why both authors, some two hundred years apart, came up with these same nonbiblical accounts, although the later writer claimed she knew nothing of the work of the former.
One by one, Ellen White began to accentuate in her writings (which she claimed came from "visions") each and every point of Protestant and Catholic theological controversy. Starting with the beginning of all beginnings and proceeding through to the end of all ends, she gave a new and often startlingly inaccurate picture of the great controversy as it is portrayed in the Bible.
Although believers of all faiths have been somewhat hazy about the great controversy, she gave it with such assurance that some bought her version of it. Her pictures of events, her Isaws, were to be so indelibly imprinted on the minds of a few that the future pattern of Adventism was set for generations. At the same time, her account also closed the door that had been opened for Adventism to make a markedly different contribution to the world concept of religion. 7 And the door remains closed to this day, because the church of the advent cannot get past the interpretations of the Canon according to Sister Ellen. No pattern of thought, no emergence of value, no interpretation of Scripture is allowed officially in Adventism until or unless it has first been examined, tested and tried-and then dyed in the cloth of Ellen White.
The same could be said of the Mormons with their Joseph Smith, the Christian Scientists with their Mary Baker Eddy, the Jehovah's Witnesses with their John F. Rutherford, the Lutherans with their Martin Luther, and others with their patron saints. Each church sees the world around, and the future beyond, through the eyes of its saints. If there is a world around them to live in, or one to shun, it must conform to the way it is experienced by their saint. If there is a heaven to win or a hell to shun, its definition and direction and even its occupants must be determined by the saint of the system and by that saint's interpretation of the Canon as demonstrated in that saint's writings-which in turn are kept up to date by reinterpretation by later saints of the same or similar stripe or system.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for presentday Adventists to look at themselves and their saint, Ellen White, in historical perspective. A 1979 article dealing with this view sent shock waves through the church when it appeared in Spectrum, the independent journal published by the Association of Adventist Forums. The writer, Jonathan Butler, associate professor of church history at Loma Linda University, did a brilliant piece portraying Ellen White as a product of her times: "Mrs. White's. . . predictions of the future appeared as projections on a screen which only enlarged, dramatized and intensified the scenes of her contemporary world." 8 His conclusions were that she was a product of her times just as we all are, that it was her world that came to an end with the changing events of history that were not always fulfilled as she had seen.
This was hard medicine for Adventists to swallow, inasmuch as they had been taught to think of Ellen and her writings in isolation, as if she had come straight down from heaven and remained isolated from all events while on earth. It was only natural that they should think thus, for they had been hearing for years that "Mrs. White ever sought to avoid being influenced by others." 9 This theme, which had never applied to any human being before, became the Adventist path into the unreal.
Not very often, if ever, is one dealing with pure truth, either small or large, in religion. One is dealing with truth as filtered, expanded, diminished, bounded, or defined by the Isaws of all the Ellens of Christendom-with a lot of help from the divines. What does emerge from all the froth is that the map for this life and the one to come, if indeed it does come, is drawn by the clan-and thus becomes the Clan Plan. Heaven becomes the main gate to isolation, where all the bad as we conceive of it (which in humanity's case means other people) is snuffed out, and only us good guys go marching through. Thus we make our own ghetto.
The succeeding chapters seek to show the Adventist ghetto and how it grew-not too much unlike the ghettos of other faiths, but with some interesting and devious twists.
1. Ellen C. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain
View: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1915), p. 17.
2. EGW, Christian Experience and Teachings (Mountain View:
PPPA, 1922), pp. 1315.
3. EGW, Spiritual Gifts, 4 vols. (Battle Creek: SDA Publishing
Association, 18586064)? vol. 3, p. 64.
4. John Milton's Paradise Lost is thought by some to reflect
the obsession of many English and European poets in the first
half of the seventeenth century, with the subject of the origin
of evil as portrayed in Genesis. Milton himself was systematically
studying the Bible, histories, and chronicles more than twenty-five
years before his epic poem was published in 1667.
5. EGW, The Spirit of Prophecy. The Great Controversy between
Christ and Satan, 4 vols. (Battle Greek: S1)A Publishing Association,
1870777884), vol. 4, p. 535.
6. Elizabeth Burgeson, "A Comparative Study of the Fall of
Man as Treated b~ John Milton and Ellen G. White" (Master's
thesis, Pacific Union College,
7. Ingemar Linden, The Last Trump (Frankfurt am Main: Peter
8. Jonathan M. Butler, "The World of E. G. White and the
End of the World," Spectrum 10, no. 2 (August 1979):
9. EGW, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, p. 535.
2. EGW, Christian Experience and Teachings (Mountain View: PPPA, 1922), pp. 1315.
3. EGW, Spiritual Gifts, 4 vols. (Battle Creek: SDA Publishing Association, 18586064)? vol. 3, p. 64.
4. John Milton's Paradise Lost is thought by some to reflect the obsession of many English and European poets in the first half of the seventeenth century, with the subject of the origin of evil as portrayed in Genesis. Milton himself was systematically studying the Bible, histories, and chronicles more than twenty-five years before his epic poem was published in 1667.
5. EGW, The Spirit of Prophecy. The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan, 4 vols. (Battle Greek: S1)A Publishing Association, 1870777884), vol. 4, p. 535.
6. Elizabeth Burgeson, "A Comparative Study of the Fall of Man as Treated b~ John Milton and Ellen G. White" (Master's thesis, Pacific Union College,
7. Ingemar Linden, The Last Trump (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1978),
8. Jonathan M. Butler, "The World of E. G. White and the End of the World," Spectrum 10, no. 2 (August 1979): 213.
9. EGW, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, p. 535.