What Was Ellen White’s Role in the Seventh-day Adventist Church?
Ellen White has been a key figure in the Seventh-day Adventist Church from its very beginning. Following the Holy Spirit’s leading at a young age, she dedicated herself to studying Scripture and became involved in the Advent Movement.
Throughout the Advent Movement’s early years, she showed exceptional wisdom and discernment when it came to applying biblical theology to modern life. She also demonstrated the prophetic gift (1 Corinthians 12:4–11) in many ways and was instrumental in the organization of the Movement into the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
And in everything she said, did, or supported, her primary message was this:
But what did her role look like in the church? We’ll look closer at the following:
- How Ellen White helped develop Adventist doctrine
- How she helped establish the Adventist Church
- How she guided the Church
- How the Church views her today
Let’s begin by going back to the early 1800s.
Ellen White’s role in the development of Adventist doctrine
Seventh-day Adventist doctrine was the result of intense Bible study. In the mid-1800s, committed believers of the Advent Movement held conferences where they spent days (and nights!) poring over Scripture.
Ellen White’s role in these Bible studies was very important. God gave her visions that helped lay the foundation for many of the major Adventist doctrines.
But these visions were far from random, mystical occurrences; instead, they pointed back to the Bible and amplified its truths.
So how did the Advent believers get to this point?
It started with a message:
Jesus is coming back! And soon!
This message spread throughout the northeastern United States, spurring a religious awakening.
Some years before the Advent Movement, William Miller, a middle-aged farmer, decided to search the Bible for answers to some deep questions he had after his experience at war. As he did, he encountered a cryptic prophecy in Daniel 8:14. It predicted the timing for the “cleansing of the sanctuary.”
That’s when his study took a long detour.
After months of careful study, he concluded that “cleansing of the sanctuary” was God’s cleansing of the earth at the end of the world. Jesus was returning soon!
In 25 years! October 22, 1844, would be the end of the world.
Where was Ellen White in all this?
Ellen was only 13 when she first heard William Miller preach. His messages convinced her that Jesus was indeed returning soon. She joined the movement and anticipated the event.
But October 22, 1844, slipped away. With this Great Disappointment, her heart sank.
Little did she realize what God had in store next.
A couple of months later, she gathered together with a group of women at a friend’s home to pray. As she prayed, God gave her a vision of the Advent people traveling on a narrow path toward heaven. They had their eyes fixed on Jesus, and He was guiding them.
Ellen also received a second vision soon after. This time, God called her to be His messenger and showed her the challenges she would face. The 17-year-old agonized over this call, pleading with God to send someone else. But she couldn’t shake His instruction from her mind:
“Make known to others what I have revealed to you.”1
These two visions were the first of the over 2,000 visions she received in her lifetime.
While the idea of “visions” or even the spiritual gift of prophecy can seem strange to us in modern times, it’s important to note that these visions were always in line with biblical truth. They were meant to call people’s hearts back to Scripture, just like many of the prophets in the Bible.
Nothing was added or subtracted from what the Bible taught. And her visions typically followed earnest sessions of Bible study and prayer.
We’ll look below at how the teachings of the sanctuary and the Sabbath were developed with assistance from her God-given insight. We’ll also see how the Bible conferences of 1848 to 1850 followed the same pattern in developing the doctrine of the Adventist church. Ellen White helped confirm these teachings as biblical and provided an important framework through which to view them.
Jesus’ ministry in the heavenly sanctuary
Over in New York state, other believers were still reeling from the Great Disappointment.
What next? Why hadn’t Jesus come? People prayed for answers.
Among them was Hiram Edson.
After the Disappointment, Edson received a strong impression that Jesus had moved from the Holy Place to the Most Holy Place of the sanctuary in heaven.
What did it mean?
He and other believers began to re-study what the Bible says about the sanctuary.
Eventually, they concluded that 1844 was the correct date!
The event, however, was not.
William Miller had thought that Daniel 8:14 referred to Jesus coming back to “cleanse” the earth. But Jesus had instead begun an important work in the sanctuary in heaven.
Ellen White saw a vision similar to Hiram Edson’s. She saw Christ moving from the Holy Place to the Most Holy Place of the sanctuary in heaven. Her vision confirmed what Edson and his associates had been studying in the Bible. This framework of Bible prophecy would be very important in developing Adventist doctrine.
The seventh-day Sabbath was one of the biblical truths the Adventist believers embraced early on. Ellen White’s visions helped verify that they were on the right path.
One interesting thing to note, however. Even as she was among the founders of Adventism, she at first reacted negatively to the emphasis on the seventh-day Sabbath.
Ironic, isn’t it? Yet that’s precisely what happened.
When she first heard about the Sabbath, she was skeptical. But as other believers began keeping this day holy, she and her husband, James, decided to study it out.2
And, you guessed it—
The evidence they found in the Bible led them to keep the seventh-day Sabbath too.
Seven months after this decision, she received another vision. In it, she saw the Ten Commandments in the sanctuary in heaven. One commandment—the one about the Sabbath—glistened with a halo of light around it.
Noticing a pattern?
God expected the believers to dig into the Bible. But if they struggled to put some pieces together or needed encouragement, her visions would confirm the truth.
With the challenges ahead, these confirmations would become even more important.
The conferences of 1848 to 1850
Conferences of Second-Advent believers from 1848 to 1850 were pivotal in defining their fundamental doctrines. These believers gathered to pray, fast, and study the Bible.
But as is the case when human beings come together, differences of opinion inevitably surface. Sometimes entire nights would pass as they wrestled to understand specific passages. It can be so tough to recognize and set aside preconceived ideas.
Here is where the visions became particularly valuable.
When the believers hit a roadblock, Ellen White would receive a vision that clarified the difficult passages or topics. In her words, “light was given that helped us to understand the Scriptures.”3
Something strange happened to her, though. She describes it this way:
“During this whole time I could not understand the reasoning of the brethren. My mind was locked, as it were, and I could not comprehend the meaning of the Scriptures we were studying…. I was in this condition of mind until all the principal points of our faith were made clear to our minds, in harmony with the Word of God.”4
At another conference, a man had been presenting ideas that contradicted the Bible. Suddenly, she went into a vision. She grabbed a large family Bible in one hand and began pointing at various texts. While looking forward at everyone, she recited the texts she pointed at—all of which helped explain the error.
Those around her peered at the texts and found that she had indeed said them word for word.
From 1844 to 1848, Ellen White had at least five visions in which she held up a Bible and recited texts in this way.
Why is this significant?
It highlights the focus of her ministry. She was all about pointing people to the Bible.
The Great Controversy framework
And she did more than simply point to the Bible.
She also helped develop a framework in which to study the Bible and understand its teachings and prophecies.
Christ was central to this framework.
She wrote, “The truth for this time is broad in its outlines, far reaching, embracing many doctrines; but these doctrines are not detached items, which mean little; they are united by golden threads, forming a complete whole, with Christ as the living center.”5
A major contribution to this framework was her vision of the Great Controversy theme in 1858. During this vision, Ellen saw a sweeping picture of God’s ultimate salvation plan. It also showed her the conflict between good and evil taking place in our world.
This framework shaped every aspect of her ministry. And it helped to unify all the biblical principles of the Adventist Church.6
Ellen White’s role in the establishment of the church
As she studied the Bible and received visions from God, she wrote down what she saw. James began to publish them in pamphlets. The couple also traveled throughout the northeastern United States so she could share her testimony.
Her role reflected the role of many biblical prophets: traveling, preaching, writing, teaching, and providing counsel and correction.7
During this time, her visions “were quite frequent, some giving them directions as to the couple’s labors, and others opening up important lines of instruction for the emerging church.”8 Still others would help establish the official Seventh-day Adventist Church as a Christian Protestant denomination.
One vision in 1848 instructed James to begin publishing a paper. The Present Truth became the first Seventh-day Adventist publication. “From this small beginning it was shown to me to be like streams of light that went clear around the world,” Ellen White described.
And she was right.
Publishing would become a powerful ministry of the church.
But first, the church needed a name.
In 1860, the Whites and other believers incorporated the church’s first printing company. In the process, they also decided on a name for the church: Seventh-day Adventist.
The Whites continued to urge full organization of the church. Up to this point, the Advent believers were small, scattered congregations. Many of the ministers worked part time as farmers to support their ministry. At the same time, problems arose as false teachers tried to confuse the believers or assert their own agendas.
Something had to be done.
Organizing the church would unify its members, provide a way to license and pay ministers, and prevent the spread of false teachings.
Enter the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Much was ahead for this new organization.
Not long before, Ellen White had also counseled the church to have a financial plan to support its work. The plan, known as systematic benevolence, proved a success, and church members continue to follow its principles.
By God’s guidance, she would start and support many aspects of the church that still exist today.
Here are the most important:
- Health and medical work
- Worldwide missions
Health and medical work
In 1863, she had a major vision that covered the topic of health and lifestyle principles. These principles, if followed by God’s people, would promote better physical, mental, and spiritual health.
But it was about more than just personal health.
Jesus cared for people’s physical and spiritual needs wherever He went. The church could do the same through medical missionary work.
God showed Ellen White that the church was to start a health center that “should provide a home for the afflicted and those who wish to learn how to take care of their bodies that they may prevent sickness.”9 The Western Health Reform Institute opened in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1866.
Today, the Church operates over 160 hospitals and 400 clinics and dispensaries worldwide, as well as numerous lifestyle health centers.
Education was the subject of Ellen White’s next major vision. She urged church leaders to establish schools that would offer a well-rounded education, while being able to support themselves through useful industries. Yes, students would learn academics. But they would also work with their hands, learn about health, and become equipped to serve God.
Battle Creek College was the first of these schools. She also helped start both Avondale College (Australia) and Madison College (Tennessee). Many more would follow, and Ellen White would serve as a source of counsel and guidance for their leaders.
Ellen White advocated for worldwide mission work as she encouraged the church to proclaim biblical truth before Jesus’ return. In one of her visions, she saw that the Christ-centered messages of truth would circle the globe.
One means of missionary work was through the spread of books and papers. But there was more.
People could do what ink and paper could not!
In 1874, the Adventist Church sent its first official missionary, J. N. Andrews, to Europe. Ellen White herself spent a couple of years traveling in Europe and lived in Australia for ten years.
Because of God’s leading through her, the church was on its way to becoming a worldwide movement. It has since sent missionaries to every continent and countless countries.
Ellen White’s role in guiding the Adventist Church’s growth and progress
The fledgling Advent Movement was burgeoning into a worldwide organization. This transition was not without hiccups—as we would expect of any human organization.
The church faced many challenges. How should it handle disagreements among its leadership? Where should it establish its institutions? How should it run them? Was the General Conference becoming too powerful? It needed counsel in these and other areas.
There was something more troubling than administrative challenges, though. And God’s guidance through Ellen White would be needed more than ever.
Throughout her ministry, the God-given burden on her heart was Jesus and His truth. This burden came out especially strong in the 1888 General Conference session.
Up to this point, the church had zeroed in on the importance of God’s law. The Sabbath truth was new, and naturally, they focused on it.
But it had turned into legalism. Many had not experienced Christ’s transforming power in their hearts.
She began to recognize that many Adventists had lost sight of Jesus and His love because they had overemphasized the law—and wanted everyone to follow it to the letter.
God had a plan. He sent two young men, E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, to present pivotal messages at the 1888 session. Their talks were fresh reminders to live by faith in Christ’s righteousness instead of trusting human effort.
What was her response?
She endorsed these messages through her writing and preaching. “The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones,” she said.10
On the other hand, some worried that emphasizing Christ too much would lead the people to set aside the law. Ellen White helped to balance the conflicting views:
The law led people to see their sin and turn to Christ for help. As they looked to Christ by faith and received His forgiveness, they would receive power from Him to obey. And they would readily want to obey as a result of love for their Savior.
Throughout the rest of Ellen White’s lifetime, God continued to use her to keep the church on track. This included helping to reorganize its structure in 1901.
She became a prolific author, writing 24 original books, 5,000 articles, and 200 tracts and pamphlets in her lifetime.11
In addition, she wrote thousands of pages of manuscripts and letters to church groups, members, and leaders. Some letters contained encouragement; others were notes of warning. They covered principles related to the home, the church, Christian conduct, and mission work. At times, she would receive specific instructions just in time for certain meetings or conferences.
What overarching themes characterized these messages?
Adventist theologian George Knight identifies seven:12
- The love of God
- Jesus, the Cross, and salvation
- The Great Controversy
- The centrality of the Bible
- The Second Coming
- The mission of the Adventist Church
- Practical Christianity and character development
God used the writings of Ellen White to keep the Adventist Church focused on Jesus and His Word.
How about today? Has Adventism upheld this philosophy?
How the Church regards Ellen White today
Jesus and the Bible—not Ellen White—continue to form the foundation for the Adventist Church.
Within this context, the Church sees the visions and writings of Ellen White as the spiritual gift of prophecy, as described in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Its official beliefs state:
“The Scriptures testify that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is prophecy. This gift is an identifying mark of the remnant church and we believe it was manifested in the ministry of Ellen G. White. Her writings speak with prophetic authority and provide comfort, guidance, instruction, and correction to the church. They also make clear that the Bible is the standard by which all teaching and experience must be tested.”13
The Adventist Church owes much to the earnest Bible studies of the early Advent Movement. Ellen White’s visions during that time clarified and confirmed those studies.
Today, those teachings are the basis for many of the doctrines of the Adventist Church:
- The Second Coming
- The Sabbath
- Jesus’ ministry in the heavenly sanctuary
- The three angels’ messages of Revelation 14
- The state of the dead
- The spirit of prophecy
- Righteousness by faith in Jesus
Ellen White’s writings (about 100,000 pages’ worth) also continue to bless and benefit the church. The church encourages members to read her books as a supplement to their own personal Bible studies.
In 2015, the Adventist Church released this statement:
“We commit ourselves to study the writings of Ellen G White prayerfully and with hearts willing to follow the counsels and instructions we find there…. We encourage the continued development of both worldwide and local strategies to foster the circulation of her writings inside and outside the church.”14
Today, there are over 15 million printed copies of Steps to Christ, her book on Christian living and deepening a relationship with God. It has been translated into over 100 languages!
Her monumental Conflict of the Ages series traces God’s salvation plan throughout history. One book in the series is The Desire of Ages, a beautiful commentary on the life of Christ. Another is The Great Controversy, which connects Bible prophecy with post-biblical history and describes the themes that will frame last-day events.
Used in personal study, small groups, classroom settings, and more, Ellen White’s writings still enhance the spiritual lives of its readers. A survey found that Adventists who read her writings experience a closer relationship with Jesus and spend more time in their Bibles.15
Ellen White’s story and influence is remarkable and appreciated. But her experience is not unique.
Since the beginning of humanity, God has used individual people to spread the gospel and minister to the world. And while there are many Bible stories of Him working through kings or rulers or priests, etc., there are also countless times God chose someone from amid a crowd of ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things for Him.
Throughout the Adventist Church’s rich and eventful history, we can see how Ellen White was one of those ordinary people God selected for a special role in ministry. She was but a “willing vessel,” one in whom His power could shine through and touch the hearts of many.
The Adventist Church today celebrates the wonderful things God accomplished through her willingness to be a messenger. Her name has left a legacy of gratitude and of encouragement that anyone at any time in any place could be selected by the Holy Spirit to receive the spiritual gift of prophecy. Ellen White’s story can give us hope that God’s Spirit remains active and involved in our earthly lives.
- White, Ellen, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1882), p. 20. [↵]
- White, A. L., Ellen G. White: The Early Years: 1827–1862, vol. 1, (Review and Herald, Hagerstown, MD, 1985), p. 116. [↵]
- White, Selected Messages, book 1 (Washington, D.C., Review and Herald, 1958), p. 206. [↵]
- Ibid., p. 207. [↵]
- White, Selected Messages, book 2 (Washington D.C., Review and Herald, 1958), p. 87. [↵]
- Douglass, Herbert, Messenger of the Lord (Nampa, Idaho, Pacific Press, 1998), p. 256. [↵]
- For example, Nathan rebuked David (2 Samuel 12:1–15); Elisha traveled and taught the sons of the prophets (2 Kings 4:38); Micaiah counseled King Ahab of Israel (1 Kings 22:13–28); and John wrote down the prophecies God gave him (Revelation 1:11). [↵]
- White, A. L., Ellen G. White: The Early Years: 1827–1862, vol. 1, p. 158. [↵]
- White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1 (Mountainview, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), p. 489. [↵]
- White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA, Pacific Press, 1923), p. 91. [↵]
- “How Many Books and Articles Did Ellen White Write?” Ellen G. White Estate. https://whiteestate.org/about/issues1/about-egw/writings/literary-productions/how-many-books/. [↵]
- Knight, George, Meeting Ellen White: A Fresh Look at Her Life, Writings, and Major Themes, (Hagerstown, MD, Review and Herald, 1996), pp. 109–127. [↵]
- “What Adventists Believe about the Prophetic Gift,” https://www.adventist.org/gift-of-prophecy/. [↵]
- “Statement of Confidence in the Writings of Ellen G White,” https://www.adventist.org/official-statements/statement-of-confidence-in-the-writings-of-ellen-g-white/. [↵]
- Dudley, Rogers, and Cummings, Des, Jr., “Who Reads Ellen White?” Ministry, Oct. 1982, pp. 10–11. https://cdn.ministrymagazine.org/issues/1982/issues/MIN1982-10.pdf. [↵]
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