The discussion about Ellen G. White’s use of the work of other authors is not new. In 1883 the book Sketches from the Life of Paul was published. Soon criticism arose, even from some important Adventist leaders of that period. It was discovered that a substantial part of what Ellen White had written in this book strongly resembled the work of a few other authors.
Ever since the accusation of plagiarism has regularly been revived. It was soon clear that in her perhaps most important work—The Great Controversy—she derived a lot of her information from historical sources and that she quoted freely from these without, at least initially, mentioning her sources. That only happened in the final edition of 1911.
When Ellen White wrote The Desire of Ages (during her stay in Australia), she relied heavily on her faithful assistant Marian Davis. In the 1980’s Fred Veltman was commissioned by the General Conference to investigate the rumors that in producing this book Ellen White had made substantial use of the work of others. After his 8-year study he concluded that about 30 percent of the content of this book about the life of Christ was in a greater or lesser degree dependent on various outside sources.
For a long time the denomination downplayed the fact that Ellen White made extensive use of other sources. The frequent accusation of plagiarism was simply pushed aside with the (in itself correct) argument that it was quite common in her days to cite other authors without giving them due credit. And when some persons attacked Mrs. White publicly this often happened quite aggressively—which in turn provoked an almost equally aggressive defense of her person and work. A well-known example was the controversy that erupted around the book The White Lie, written in 1982 by the recently deceased Walter T. Rea.
Often those who argued that much of what Ellen White wrote was not original, were accused of no longer believing in the “Spirit of Prophecy’. Indeed, this was true in some cases. Some critics felt that Ellen White had, for them, lost all credibility. But the question is not primarily—at least not in the context of this discussion—whether Ellen White was indeed a prophet. What is here at stake is that—assuming that somehow God spoke (and speaks) through her in some special way—we must try to understand in what manner God inspired her. Apparently we are not dealing with a concept of inspiration that implies that everything was directly revealed to her in some supernatural way. This, of course, also has consequences for the way we look at inspiration in general (also of the Bible). The Adventist Church could have avoided a lot of hassle if the leaders had, at some earlier stage, been more willing to share with the members in the pew what many of them had already been aware of for a long time.
Gradually attempts are being made to give fuller information to the church members. Dr. George Knight, in particular, has made significant contributions in this respect. However, very recently, a new development may further hasten this process. Andrews University Press has just published an annotated edition of Steps to Christ. Denis Fortin, a former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, comments extensively on the history of this popular book. It first appeared in 1892 (published by Revell, a non-Adventist publisher). It consists almost entirely of material Ellen White wrote at some earlier stage and that was compiled by her ‘book maker’, Marian Davis. Fortin also explains that Ellen White worked in a particular historical context. Her Methodist background ‘colored’ her theological understanding at least to some extent. Moreover, in this book we also find traces of material from other sources.
But does all this make the book Steps to Christ less valuable? Must we conclude that it was not really inspired? No, but we must be prepared to recognize that inspiration apparently functions differently from the way our Adventist tradition has usually insisted upon. Fortin’s work shows that we have now come to a stage where we can openly say such things. This may make us hopeful that it is, indeed, possible to adjust long held standpoints. (And I could suggest a few others topics where, in my opinion, some adjustment would be welcome!)