John Wesley and Ellen White

It stood already for a number of years in one of the book cases in our living room, amid numerous other biographies and autobiographies. After I bought it, I read some 50 pages, but for some reason put it aside. Last week I looked at it again and decided to give it another go. And I found it quite fascinating. I am speaking of Roy Hattersley’s biography of one of the greatest religious leaders of modern times: A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley (2003).

Wesley was one of the founders of Methodism—a movement that emerged from the Anglican Church and spread to many countries around the world. Today a number of denominations belong to the Methodist family of faith. Worldwide the movement has some 40 million members. The United Methodist Church in the USA is the largest entity with about 12 million members. Methodism is of special interest to the Adventist community, as there are many similarities in beliefs and practices. In addition, we should note that a number of early Adventist leaders, including Ellen G. White, had a Methodist background.

John Wesley, and to a lesser degree his brother Charles, defined early Methodism and remained a source of inspiration and an object of admiration for all Methodists. A certain amount of hagiography has colored the views of many Methodists regarding their early history and regarding John Wesley as the movement’s main founder. Books like that of Hattersley are needed to correct this. This particular biography is fair and, as far as I can judge, sympathetic but quite objective. Wesley is described as a ‘normal’ human being—as a man with great gifts but also with serious weaknesses. He could shift quite often in his theological views. He defended the possibility of perfection, but did certainly not achieve this goal himself. He was in many ways quite authoritarian and was less than straightforward and successful in his relationships with women. But, in spite of his weaknesses, he was a giant of faith and was able to lead tens of thousands of men and women to Christ. What strikes one more than anything else is his unbelievable capacity for work. It is estimated that he traveled (mostly on horseback) between 400.000 and 500.000 kilometer. During the 52 years of his itinerant ministry he preached about 40.000 sermons, an average of more than two sermons a day, besides many other activities, such as meetings with other leaders and writing scores of books. What may have helped him greatly was his ability to read while riding a horse!

So, when one speaks of Methodism, the name of John Wesley will inevitably be mentioned. Movements are often directly linked to the vision and leadership of their founder. This is also true in the Lutheran world. Martin Luther not only gave his name to the many religious communities that are represented in the Lutheran World Federation, but he remains in high esteem among Lutheran believers and his books remain a source of inspiration in Lutheran theology. Calvin holds a similar position in the Reformed churches. But in none of these religious movement the founder has become (and remained) the sole arbiter of what is considered sound doctrine and a true Christian lifestyle. Some of their ideas are rejected. Many have been modified as time went on.

It makes me wonder: Why can Adventists not look at Mrs. Ellen White—one of the main founders of their church—in a similar way? No one can deny her important role in early Adventism and her abiding inspiration for later generations of Adventists, until today. But, so it seems to me, we are making a mistake when we put her on a pedestal as the person who has the final answer to just about everything. I wish we could begin to look at her in a similar manner as the Methodists look at Wesley, the Lutherans at Luther and the Reformed at Calvin: as a leader used by God—to be admired for her important contribution to the founding and early development of the Adventist Church and to be valued as a continuing source of inspiration. Not as less, but also not as more than that.