When being a prophetess was rather common . . .

When in the United States, I always try to find an ABC–an Adventist Book Center (bookstore). I want to know whether my church has latelypublished anything significant. Usually I leave the store rather disappointed. But this time, a few weeks ago, I found a small book that I had not yet heard of, and that looked quite interesting. I bought a copy, partly also inspired by the fact that I had gotten to know the author when I lectured at Loma Linda University, some two years ago, as a ‘visiting professor.’  It was a small book of just under a hundred pages, written by Theodore N. Levterov, the director of the Ellen G,. White Estate Branch Office at Loma Linda University in California.  It is entitled: Accepting Ellen White: Early Seventh-day Adventism and the Gift of Prophecy Dilemma.

The book is a popularized and abbreviated edition of Levterov’s doctoral dissertation. The scholarly nature of the original is still visible in an abundance of endnotes. Levterov makes clear that the acceptance of Ellen White as a prophet was often quite challenging for the early Adventists. He focuses on the factors that helped them to ‘put the doctrine of spiritual gifts into a balanced perspective within their over-all theology.’

I found the first chapter the most fascinating. It describes the world into which Ellen White was born and, in particular, the religious milieu in which she grew up. As a child and adolescent she would quite often attend religious meetings in which she would witness visionary and charismatic manifestations. Levterov confirms the description of a Methodist historian who studied the Methodist surroundings that had a strong formative influence  on Ellen White.  In her book Fits, Trances and Visions, Ann Taves published her research into the activities of numerous prophetess in early 19th century Methodism. She documented how the form and content of these visionary experiences were very similar to what the early Adventists saw and heard when Ellen White was ‘taken off’ into one of her public visions.  Levterov furthermore gives a very candid description of the often chaotic and wild scenes during the meetings of the early Adventists and, especially, during their campmeetings. Ellen White would later often refer to these as evidence of ‘fanaticism.’

In this book Levterov makes an important contribution in giving twenty-first century Adventists a clearer picture of the way in which Ellen White fitted into the religious landscape of her time. Reading this first chapter one gets an amazing picture that has not often been painted in such an open and unapologetic way. It underlines that God uses methods and forms that are understood by the people he wants to address. The forms and methods that were common among the ‘shouting Methodists’ had their appeal and their use in their time, and God apparently used these forms when communicating through Ellen White, who was part of that milieu.  If he were to communicate with us in similar forms it would only lead people to wonder about our sanity, and it  would cause many around us to question whether we should be regarded as a truly Christian church.

It is encouraging that we recently see a greater willingness on the part of people who are close to the institution that is responsible for the literary heritage of Ellen White, to bring ‘the prophet’ down from her pedestal, and to distinguish myth from reality. Unfortunately, we have yet a long way to go, and large numbers of her devotees around the world continue to worship her in ways that she would herself have disapproved of. Ellen White continues to have a great importance for Seventh-day Adventists, but we owe it to ourselves–and also to her–that we do not treat her as a kind of ‘saint’, and that we always interpret her writings and actions against the background of the time in which she lived.

Kudos to the Pacific Press for publishing this frank and refreshing book, and to Levterov for his important work. I would say to the author: Please expand this first chapter into a book-length study. I would be among the first to buy such a book.