People Are Human by Graeme Bradford (Signs Publishing Co., 2006)
People Are Human is Dr. Graeme Bradford’s sequel to Prophets Are Human, a book in which he analyzes the human elements that some have criticized in the ministry of Ellen G. White. People Are Human is highly recommended by many Seventh-day Adventist scholars and administrators, indicating that the views expressed are solidly from the Adventist intellectual mainstream. In People Are Human, Bradford argues that well-meaning SDAs misrepresented Ellen White’s ministry and theology after her death in 1915, and that their mistakes have led many to reject Ellen White as a prophet (94).
Bradford’s thesis is encapsulated by the title and unofficial subtitle on the cover, which reads, “People Are Human (Look what they did to Ellen White).” Like Prophets Are Human, the book employs the format of fictional counseling sessions conducted by Dr. Smithurst to help several Adventists with questions about inspiration and Ellen White. The fictional format may enhance the interest of some readers, but it does a disservice to the actual questions being asked by many about the ministry of Ellen White. The questions as formulated by the author rarely match the questions of Adventists who have studied enough to seriously consider leaving the SDA Church.
As discussed in our review of the original book Prophets Are Human, Bradford fails to address one of the most important questions regarding Ellen White’s humanity: her non-factual statements. People Are Human tries to rectify this oversight. Some of her most notable deviations from the truth involve her use of sources to apparently help her write books, articles, and testimonies. Ellen White frequently denied using sources. For instance, she repeatedly made statements such as the following: “As spoken by the heavenly agencies, the words are severe in their simplicity; and I try to put the thoughts into such simple language that a child can understand every word uttered. The words of someone else would not rightly represent me” (3SM 92). She was finally forced to make a small admission in the introduction to the 1888 Great Controversy. With the exception of the 1888 statement, Ellen White never acknowledged her use of sources and at times denied reading anything related to her writings.
When one of the characters in People Are Human asks whether the critics are correct in charging that EGW misstated the facts regarding her sources, Smithurst responds, “It’s hard to say” (122). No, it’s actually not hard to determine. Even Robert W. Olson, former director of the White Estate, acknowledges that she denied having read materials that she plagiarized (Olson, “Ellen White’s Denials,” Ministry, Feb. 1991, pp. 15-18). Maybe it’s just hard to SAY.
Smithurst goes on to rationalize that Ellen White “may have had a very retentive memory and it’s possible at times she did not know where statements came from” (122). Had Smithurst been speaking to an audience of skeptics rather than a fictional group of loyal Adventists, someone would have challenged this statement. If Ellen White had such a retentive memory that the phrases of others repeatedly flowed into her writings, then her retentive memory would also have enabled her to recall reading outside sources. Probably knowing that his argument is flawed, Smithurst ends the discussion of Mrs. White’s dishonesty by saying that “even if it could be shown she did slip on a few occasions it wouldn’t cause me to doubt her ministry” (124). The word slip is an interesting euphemism for a repeated decision to avoid telling the truth….
Fallible SDAs Undermine EGW: 1919 Bible Conference
A major support for Bradford’s thesis is the minutes of the Bible and History Teachers’ Council held after the 1919 Bible Conference in Takoma Park, MD. The minutes of the conference and the subsequent council were suppressed until their accidental discovery in 1974 (19, 100). In line with common convention among SDA writers, we will refer to the entire collection of transcripts as the minutes of the 1919 Bible Conference. An edited version of the transcripts can be found in Spectrum magazine, May 1979, pages 23-57 (three articles). Complete transcripts are available at the General Conference Archives under “Report of the 1919 Bible Conference." The conference, which took place just four years after the death of Ellen White, featured prominent Adventist leaders and educators (W.C. White was notably absent) bemoaning the fact that rank-and-file Adventists believed in the infallibility of Ellen White’s prophetic messages. As one of the teachers stated, “[O]ur students are being sent out with the idea that the Testimonies are verbally inspired, and woe to the man out where I am that does not line up to that. . . .” (21). Another tried to diminish the authority of Ellen White’s inspiration by stating, “In our estimate of the spirit of prophecy, isn’t its value to us more in the spiritual light it throws into our own hearts and lives than in the intellectual accuracy in historical and theological matters?” (21).
G. B. Thompson, one of the attendees, laid the blame for the conservative view of Ellen White’s writings on the collective shoulders of the SDA leadership: “If we had always taught the truth on this question, we would not have any trouble or shock in the denomination now. But the shock is because we have not taught the truth, and we have put the Testimonies on a plane where she says they do not stand. We have claimed more for them than she did” (22). Thompson’s statement exactly aligns with Bradford’s claim that people have distorted Ellen White’s teachings and have elevated her to a level that she would find shocking (94). Is the Thompson/Bradford thesis correct? The 1919 Bible Conference took place four years after Ellen White’s death. Is it possible that the church could have practically canonized Ellen White so soon after her death unless the process had begun under her supervision? Instead of coming from the leaders, the alleged misunderstanding of Ellen White’s ministry actually comes from the pen of Ellen White:
“The message the Lord has given me to bear has been in a straight line from light to light, upward and onward from truth to advanced truth” (3SM 74).
“The Holy Ghost is the author of the Scriptures and of the Spirit of Prophecy. These are not to be twisted and turned to mean what man may want them to mean . . . .” (3SM 30; 2MR 189).
“[T]here is one straight chain of truth, without one heretical sentence, in that which I have written. This [chain of truth], I am instructed, is to be a living letter to all in regard to my faith” (3SM 52).
“There are some professed believers who accept certain portions of the Testimonies as the message of God, while they reject those portions that condemn their favorite indulgences. Such persons are working contrary to their own welfare and the welfare of the church” (9T 154).
“If the preconceived opinions or particular ideas of some are crossed in being reproved by testimonies, they have a burden at once to make plain their position to discriminate between the testimonies, defining what is Sister White’s human judgment and what is the word of the Lord. Everything that sustains their cherished ideas is divine, and the testimonies to correct their errors are human–Sister White’s opinions. They make of none effect the counsel of God by their tradition” (3SM 26; 2MR 87).
“I am instructed to say to our churches, Study the Testimonies. They are written for our admonition and encouragement upon whom the ends of the world are come. If God’s people will not study these messages that are sent to them from time to time, they are guilty of rejecting light” (2MR 191).
Ellen White obviously didn’t believe that portions of her writings could be rejected as misunderstandings. In her mind, the Testimonies came directly from God. The Holy Ghost was the “author” of her writings, so of course, they could not contain error. However, the leaders at the 1919 Bible Conference claimed that her writings might not be accurate in “theological matters,” and they asserted that Ellen White never intended for her writings to be treated as arbiters of doctrine (21-22). But if “[t]he Holy Ghost is the author . . . of the Spirit of Prophecy,” as EGW claimed, then the Spirit of Prophecy is just as reliable as the Bible…. That’s why Bradford is forced to argue that the Bible isn’t completely reliable in Prophets Are Human, the first book in this set.
According to Prophets Are Human, prophets under the influence of inspiration are still prone to misunderstandings and errors (59). However, Bradford is reluctant to actually apply his “humanity” theory to Ellen White. What, exactly, are her errors? While Bradford seems very willing to discuss the “errors” he sees in scripture, he rarely admits that Ellen White was wrong on anything. Why does he refuse to say that Ellen White was wrong to denounce others for rejecting portions of her writings (which is what he is actually advocating by saying that inspiration is subject to misinterpretation)? Why can’t Bradford simply state that Ellen White was incorrect to identify the Holy Spirit as the “author” of her writings? Instead of pointing out exactly where Ellen White was wrong, he blames the poor Adventists who were merely trying to uphold her sometimes-contradictory testimonies.
The men who attended the 1919 Bible Conference were actually chafing under the yoke of Ellen White’s teachings. They were trying to expand their own intellectual freedom now that she was dead and couldn’t rebuke them. They chose to blame themselves for misrepresenting Ellen White, whom they still considered useful, but they were not the instigators of the problem; she was responsible for teaching that her writings could not be selectively rejected. It was politically correct for the attendees to blame themselves rather than the nearly sainted Ellen White for the widespread authoritative view of her writings, but the elephant in the room at the conference was the fact that some of these men knew that Ellen White wasn’t inspired at all. Unfortunately, those who knew didn’t want to share that knowledge and risk losing their positions and prestige.
Fallible SDAs Undermine EGW: 1922 General Conference
The conservative faction of the church suspected that Ellen White’s authority was being undermined by their leaders, so A.G. Daniells, long-time General Conference president, was removed from his position at the 1922 General Conference session in San Francisco (84-88). Pamphleteers had attacked Daniells as being soft on the inspiration of Ellen White, and a perusal of the 1919 minutes shows that he was treading on some very interesting ground. It’s fascinating to note that the minutes of the 1922 General Conference have vanished, and the letters and papers from a significant portion of the Daniells presidency are also missing from the General Conference Archives (87). After being rejected in 1922, Daniells wrote two books uplifting Ellen White’s ministry in an attempt to re-establish his conservative SDA credentials. Christ Our Righteousness (1926), despite the excellent title, contains a trove of Ellen White quotes on character perfection; The Abiding Gift of Prophecy (1936) presents a very standard Adventist view of Ellen White’s inspiration, neglecting to mention the troubling issues acknowledged by Daniells and others in 1919 (91 note 85).
Fallible SDAs Undermine EGW: Relation to Scripture
Bradford states, “It has always been an important part of our Protestant heritage that we must never have an outside authority telling us what the Bible means. Once you have that then that authority becomes more powerful than the Bible itself” (134). So true. He rejects the idea that Ellen White’s writings “constitute a spiritual commentary upon the scripture, a divine illumination of the word” (97), and he rejects the Clear Word Bible paraphrase published by the SDA Church because it inserts ideas from Ellen White into the text of scripture (142 note 141). Bradford claims that Ellen White exalted scripture above her writings when she said, “Lay Sister White right to one side . . . . Don’t you never [sic] quote my words again as long as you live, until you can obey the Bible. When you take the Bible and make that your food, and your meat, and your drink, and you make that the elements of your character . . . you will know better how to receive some counsel from God” (135). What was Ellen White really saying? Did she want her hearers to throw out her writings and rely solely on scripture, or did she intend for Adventists to read the Bible until they became humble enough to accept her “counsel from God”? Her statement really claims that Adventists who study the Bible will also accept her counsels because she believed they would find her completely in harmony with scripture.
Bradford approvingly reproduces a position statement from the SDA Ministry magazine of Feb. 1983 in Appendix D (185-188). The article declares, “We believe that Ellen White was inspired by the Holy Spirit . . . .” It goes on to assert, “We do not believe that the quality or degree of inspiration in the writings of Ellen White is different from that of Scripture.” The statement continues by asserting that the Spirit of Prophecy should not be “used as the basis of doctrine” (24). If Ellen White was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and if her degree of inspiration is the same as the inspiration of scripture, why are her writings not considered as authoritative as scripture? It doesn’t make any sense. Adventists (along with Ellen White herself) view the Spirit of Prophecy as inferior to scripture in theory only, and Bradford’s book has done nothing to shift the discussion. The real issue is that Seventh-day Adventism would be labeled a cult if they openly acknowledged the real level of authority occupied by Ellen White’s writings. So they must maintain the theological charade of equal but not equal.
Verbal Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Conservatism
Bradford completely rejects verbal inspiration and the inerrancy of inspired messages, blaming fundamentalist conservatives for solidifying these ideas in the SDA Church after Ellen White’s death. He goes so far as to state that “those on the conservative side seem to have an advantage in that they can play upon the ignorance of the majority” (84).
Where did those conservatives get the idea that the Bible was verbally inspired? Well, according to Ellen White, the apostles “wrote at the dictation of the Holy Spirit” (GC 557). That’s verbal inspiration. The “dictation” statement was first written in Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1, p. 176. Ironically, the old statement remained in The Great Controversy even as she was revising her theology of inspiration in response to inconsistencies in her writings; the introduction to The Great Controversy states that inspiration is “expressed in the words of men” rather than the words of God. Her compilers obviously missed the contradiction between the introduction and the “dictation” statement. In another place, Ellen White states, “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented” (1SM 21). Clearly, the Ellen White’s view of inspiration was inconsistent, but that wouldn’t trouble Adventists if they could simply reject her as a prophet. Let’s look at how she viewed her own messages:
“Before I stand on my feet, I have no thought of speaking as plainly as I do. But the Spirit of God rests upon me with power, and I cannot but speak the words given me. I dare not withhold one word of the testimony.... I speak the words given me by a higher power than human power, and I cannot, if I would, recall [retract] one sentence” (1MR 28).
“There are those who say, ‘Someone manipulates her writings.’ I acknowledge the charge. It is One who is mighty in counsel, One who presents before me the condition of things” (1MR 30).
“While I am writing out important matter, He [God] is beside me, helping me. He lays out my work before me, and when I am puzzled for a fit word with which to express my thought, He brings it clearly and distinctly to mind” (2MR 156-157).
“While writing the manuscript of Great Controversy I was often conscious of the presence of the angels of God and many times the scenes about which I was writing were presented to me anew in visions of the night so that they were fresh and vivid in my mind” (2MR 207).
“As soon as I take my pen in hand, I am not in darkness as to what to write. It is as plain and clear as a voice speaking to me, ‘I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go’” (2MR 319).
“For thirty years we [reference to herself] have been receiving the words of God and speaking them to His people” (4T 229).
Bradford dismisses critics by broadly stating that many Adventist defectors take “a very literal approach to all that she said and [can’t] allow for anything she said to be wrong” (36). But Ellen White herself teaches the literal approach with respect to her theological pronouncements. For the record, Sabbatismos DOES allow for Ellen White to make personal errors. For instance, when she misstated the number of sanitarium rooms in a personal letter, we take no issue with the situation. We agree that she could make factual errors in her daily life, her personal letters, her diaries, etc., but we do not agree that she should be allowed to make theological errors in books and testimonies for which she claimed inspiration. For instance, when she represented Jesus as subordinate to the Father in her account of an early vision, we find that unacceptable (see 1SP 17-18).
Sabbatismos also rejects verbal inspiration because we recognize that each Bible writer had a unique verbal style, but we uphold the inerrancy of the original manuscripts because we understand that “all scripture is God-breathed” (II Tim. 3:16, NIV), and God’s breath symbolizes a very special process at work. Just as God’s breath brought life to Adam and Eve, it brings life to the wording and the message of scripture. Scripture appears just as God intended—using words that He knew His prophets would employ to correctly share the inspired message. Thus, the original manuscripts could be theologically inerrant while also being the product of thought inspiration. Yes, we understand that there are some scientific inaccuracies in the Bible, but these details are not related to theology. God simply condescended to use concepts with which ancient people were familiar. We believe that discrepancies in numbers or historical details may be the fault of scribes who could have miscopied manuscripts. There is no reason to drag down the Bible by arguing that the criticisms of Ellen White, if applied to the Bible writers, “could also demolish David, Paul and Peter” as inspired writers (148). No supposed inaccuracy of the Bible even remotely compares to the outright errors taught by Ellen White on the basis of her visions.
Many Adventists try to explain Ellen White’s theological errors by saying that she grew and changed during her prophetic ministry (143). We agree that she could grow into a greater understanding of God’s message, but a true prophet would not teach error before teaching truth. For instance, the prophet Samuel grew from a naïve child into a much more sophisticated prophet, but his messages, even from childhood, were never false. Ellen White, on the other hand, has countless false prophecies and false teachings that her defenders would like to quietly ignore by rationalizing that she grew and changed (and by charging that her critics are literalists who believe in verbal inspiration).
Myth of the Flexible Prophet
The Adventist Church is currently presenting Ellen White as a humble prophetess who accepted her human limitations and was willing to retract any belief that did not align with scripture. For instance, Ellen White stated, “All articles of faith, all doctrines and creeds, however sacred they have been regarded, are to be rejected if they contradict the plain statements of the word of God” RH March 25, 1902). She even surprised the early Adventists by stating, “The fact that certain doctrines have been held as truth for many years by our people, is not a proof that our ideas are infallible. Age will not make error into truth, and truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation” (CW 35). Are these statements evidence that Ellen White was willing to humbly retract any false teachings contained in her writings? No. These statements actually apply to the errors of others such as Uriah Smith (identity of the ten horns prophesied in Dan. 7) and G. I Butler (moral vs. ceremonial law in Gal. 3).
In 1905, when Albion F. Ballenger challenged her teaching regarding the Investigative Judgment, she declared, “He was gathering together a mass of scripture such as would confuse minds . . . .” (qtd. in Arthur L. White, The Early Elmshaven Years, 408). She went on to state that Ballenger could be proven wrong because he was interpreting the scriptures in a manner contrary to her writings:
“Now again our Brother Ballenger is presenting theories that cannot be substantiated by the Word of God. It will be one of the great evils that will come to our people to have the Scriptures taken out of their true place and so interpreted as to substantiate error that contradicts the light and the Testimonies that God has been giving us for the past half century” (qtd. in Arthur L. White, The Early Elmshaven Years, 409).
In December 1905, she stated the following regarding the alleged Ballenger errors:
“We are not to receive the words of those who come with a message that contradicts the special points of our faith. They gather together a mass of Scripture, and pile it as proof around their asserted theories. . . . And while the Scriptures are God's word, and are to be respected, the application of them, if such application moves one pillar from the foundation that God has sustained these fifty years, is a great mistake. He who makes such an application knows not the wonderful demonstration of the Holy Spirit that gave power and force to the past messages that have come to the people of God” (1SM 161; CW 32; The Early Elmshaven Years 426).
She was still denouncing Ballenger and upholding the authority of her visions in January 1906:
“The visions that the Lord have given me are so remarkable that we know that what we have accepted is the truth. This was demonstrated by the Holy Spirit. Light, precious light from God, established the main points of our faith . . . .” (qtd. in Arthur L. White, The Early Elmshaven Years, 427).
Ballenger was an untrained theologian, like all the other Adventist ministers of his day, so some of his arguments against the Investigative Judgment were unsound; however, he was manifestly correct in his overall position. When confronted by Ballenger’s “mass of Scripture,” Mrs. White affirmed her inspiration without ever answering his texts. At least, she didn’t give Ballenger a Bible-based answer in the portions of her writings that have been released (see Arthur L. White, The Early Elmshaven Years, 408-413 & Manuscript Release 760: “The Integrity of the Sanctuary Truth” for the released portions). Ellen White used her inspiration to establish a doctrine that she couldn’t prove from scripture. In fact, the church leaders couldn’t agree on a scriptural answer to Ballenger’s views, either (see Calvin W. Edwards & Gary Land, Seeker After Light, Andrews University Press, 2000, pp. 170-178). Ballenger was removed from the ministry for insisting that Christ’s death represents the completed atonement, which is a denial of Mrs. White’s teachings (see Edwards & Land, Seeker After Light, p. 139; GC 489; EW 253).
Ellen White never retracted any teaching as far as we know. She sometimes denied her previous errors (e.g. prohibition against consulting physicians), changed the plain meaning of her previous statements (e.g. shut door; compare 1SM 63), and placed the responsibility on God for changing His mind (e.g. dress reform), but she never admitted teaching error (3SM 52). She refused to allow others to correct her errors by rejecting certain portions of her teachings that they believed were out of harmony with scripture (9T 154; 3SM 26). Far from being a humble messenger who recognized that she could have misunderstood her visions, Ellen White claimed the authority of the Holy Spirit for her writings, leaving no room for correcting her false teachings.
Tests of a Prophet
As in Prophets Are Human, Bradford devotes little attention to demonstrating Ellen White’s prophetic gift because his target audience is people who already believe her writings are the Spirit of Prophecy. His rationale for belief in Ellen White is encapsulated in the following statement from Dr. Smithurst: “Ellen White meets the biblical expectations of a true prophet. She does give evidence of receiving revelations from God, which she passed on to the people. In addition she calls for holy living and obedience to God’s Word. And she upholds the good news about Jesus Christ and gives people a clearer understanding of what it means to accept and follow Him” (148-149).
Of course, these are mere claims—claims that are refuted by our extensive study of Ellen White’s ministry and writings. For example, she did not uphold “the good news about Jesus Christ.” She did not understand the gospel:
“Christ came to pay that debt for the sinner which it was impossible for him to pay for himself. Thus, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, sinful man was granted another trial” (FW 30).
“Christ came to the world to counteract Satan's falsehood that God had made a law which men could not keep. Taking humanity upon Himself, He came to this earth, and by a life of obedience showed that God has not made a law that man cannot keep. He showed that it is possible for man perfectly to obey the law. Those who accept Christ as their Saviour, becoming partakers of His divine nature, are enabled to follow His example, living in obedience to every precept of the law. Through the merits of Christ, man is to show by his obedience that he could be trusted in heaven, that he would not rebel” (FLB 114).
The good news about Jesus Christ is that He atoned for all the sins of believers, nailing the very law that condemns to His cross (Col. 2:13-15). He imputes His righteousness to those who follow Him through faith instead of continuing their futile attempts to live “in obedience to every precept of the law” (Rom. 4:1-8). The Jesus of Ellen White is more of an example than a Savior, and that is neither good news nor gospel truth.
It’s ironic that Bradford criticizes Ronald L. Numbers, author of Prophetess of Health (1976), for making a priori assumptions—the very error which Bradford makes. Prophetess of Health is the most significant work that has ever been published about Ellen White. According to Smithurst, Prophetess of Health is flawed because Numbers “worked from a wrong premise, that all she did had to be accounted for by natural means” (121). Therefore, Numbers is now counted (unfairly, I believe) as one of the fallible human beings who has misrepresented Ellen White. But what about Bradford’s premise? Doesn’t he assume that God is the source of EGW’s revelations? Does he offer any compelling evidence for belief in her prophetic ministry, other than to imply that certain alleged errors in scripture explain the questions raised against her?
A Fateful Covenant
When the Michigan Conference, the first Seventh-day Adventist organization, was chartered in 1861, the delegates signed the following statement, patterned after Revelation 14:12: “We, the undersigned, hereby associate ourselves together, as a church, taking the name, Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus Christ” (67).
Of course, they didn’t realize that the Greek word translated “commandments” in Revelation 14 is entole, whereas the Apostle John always used nomos to denote the ten commandment law. What is the entole law? “And this is his commandment [entole], That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment” (I John 3:23). Revelation 14 is really instructing us to believe in Jesus and to love one another. It isn’t addressing the keeping of Old Testament laws at all.
Tragically, the first SDA organization, which was the parent organization for even the General Conference of SDAs, covenanted to keep the nomos, which includes the seventh-day Sabbath and all other aspects of the law. Their action was reminiscent of the Israelites at Sinai who glibly promised, “All the words which the Lord hath said will we do” (Ex. 24:3). In swearing the SDA organizational covenant, the Whites and the other founders unwittingly placed themselves and the rest of the Adventist Church under a curse:
“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us . . . .” (Gal. 3:10-13).
The spiritual problems of the Adventist Church today have nothing to do with the human element that supposedly undermined Ellen White’s ministry by claiming too much for it. Instead, the spiritual malaise of the Adventist Church actually springs from the legalism of Ellen White, which led the founders to swear an oath to keep the ten commandments. Adventism has been under a curse ever since. The curse isn’t the idea of verbal inspiration—it’s the idea that the Old Testament law has anything to do with one’s salvation.
Joseph Rector, June 6, 2010