The Finances of James and Ellen White

Speaker: Categories: Feb 10, 2007


[1hr, 5min, 42sec / 49min, 14sec]


Disillusionment - do you recall experiencing it? Santa Claus no longer was expected on Christmas Eve! No tooth fairy! Teachers whose personal lives were found questionable. Faulty grammar from the pulpit. Your self-perception plummeted; your ego atrophied?

Perhaps you'll identify this month's SDAF presentation with disillusionment - when you find out that much of what you had been taught or taken for granted as reality about some of the founders of Adventism is now myth. Coping with reality is a troubling experience - for some it is faith shaking and they choose to separate themselves from their church fellowship and membership.

Alden Thompson provides this overview:"Three years ago, in February, 2004, Jack Gent, assisted by Ben Herndon, both graduates of the College of Medical Evangelists, now Loma Linda University Medical School, gave a presentation at the San Diego Adventist Forum entitledEnigmas about Ellen. The subtitle referred to Ellen White as"The Desirer of Wages."His presentation is available from the SDAF. In addition, Google points to two on-line sites, both hostile, where that title can be Gent's own story of why he left the Adventist church,"My Personal Testimony,"may be viewed

While not intended to be simply a rebuttal of Gent's material, Thompson notes that his presentation is also a kind of personal testimony:"When I listened to Gent's fascinating presentation, I found myself responding in quite a different manner. Instead of being liberated from Ellen White, I sensed the potential of being liberatedbyEllen White."Thompson argues that two key factors have loomed large in the Adventist experience after Ellen White died in 1915: Fundamentalism and the'Great Depression.

The Fundamentalist movement in the teens and twenties pointed devout believers in the direction of accepting"inspired"statements as absolute reflections of God's will and universally applicable divine mandates. Both the 1966 and the 1976 editions of the SDA Encyclopedia clearly distance Adventism from Fundamentalism while noting certain shared doctrinal convictions. But the 1996 edition, reflecting conservative trends in Adventism, makes this striking comment:"Elements of the liberalism opposed by Fundamentalists after World War I seemed to have crept into some Evangelical circles."This statement refers to what the SDAE describes as the acceptance by some neo-Evangelicals of"a limited definition of the doctrine of inerrancy"which views Scripture as being"inerrant and infallible on matters of faith and life but not on matters of science and history."That move back towards the acceptance of inerrancy actually correlates with the historical evidence itself that Adventism bought into the fundamentalist view of Scripture with a vengeance. With the 1919 Bible Conference minutes and its"common sense"approach to inspiration safely tucked away in the archives, W. H. Branson could state in hisIn Defense of the Faith(1933), a reply to D. M. Canright'sSeventh Day Adventism Renounced, that"Adventists are absolute Fundamentalists."Similarly, at the 1952 Bible Conference, Siegfried Horn referred to"our fundamentalist position of accepting the whole Bible as God's inspired word."Many of those who have left Adventism for Evangelical communities to the right of Adventism openly confess their fundamentalist convictions. Given the enormous wealth of material available on the life and writings of Ellen White, applying fundamentalist assumptions to Ellen White is potentially deadly. By contrast, those who leave Adventism often find it difficult to believe in God at all.

The second powerful influence in the post-Ellen White era has been the Depression. The need for thrift and economy simply in order to survive led both the White Estate and the church in general to produce compilations of Ellen White quotations which emphasized a more austere perspective. This austerity, combined with fundamentalist assumptions about"inspired"writings, left Adventists ill-equipped to deal with critical impulses unleashed in the church when Adventists began moving more aggressively into higher education. The church, especially when Arthur White, the grandson of James and Ellen, was shepherding the affairs of the Estate found it difficult to be open with critics and attempted to shield the church from the full results of critical inquiry. That has added to the anger and frustration of those who want to explore the Ellen White life and experience more critically.

In addition to the materials highlighted by Gent, Thompson’s study makes generous use of two biographies of James White, one by Virgil Robinson (1976) and one by Gerald Wheeler (2003). Perhaps most importantly, the chronological flow of the nine-volume set,Testimonies for the Church(1855-1909), provides a remarkable resource for illuminating the story of how James and Ellen White related to questions of personal and institutional finance. Thompson's thesis is that the entrepreneurial James White played a key role in liberating Ellen White from what James himself referred to as the impulse toward"pinching and saving."


Alden Thompson is Professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla College where he has taught since 1970. He is well-known as a speaker and author. His articles have appeared inAdventist Review,Ministry,Signs of the Times,Spectrum, andAdventist Today. His books includeWho's Afraid of the Old Testament God?(Paternoster [1988], Zondervan [1989], Pacesetters [2003]) written for the larger Christian world, and two written more specifically for Adventists:Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers(Review and Herald, 1991) andEscape from the Flames: How Ellen White grew from fear to joy and helped me do it too(Pacific Press, 2005).

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