History or Her story? Ellen G. White's Great Controversy Visions of Martin Luther Investigated
By Radek Dobias, © 2002
I think it is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of Ellen G. White's "Great Controversy" and the role it has played in the Seventh-day Adventist theology. The book is the cornerstone of Adventist eschatology, much cherished by orthodox Seventh-day Adventists. When I was a Seventh-day Adventist, I remember we all anxiously turned to its pages to find out how "it will all really end". Nothing settled eschatological disagreements on Saturday mornings like a good quote from the pages of Ellen White's "Great Controversy". Ellen White herself values the work highly, while claiming direct divine inspiration for its content, as her own statements indicate:
It is clear that Ellen White claimed that her book The Great Controversy was written under the guidance of i) God, ii) Holy Spirit, and iii) angels of God. She claims that this guidance was manifested in her visions, in which the scenes of the past were presented to her exactly as they happened, so that "they were fresh and vivid" in her mind while she wrote the book.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, I believed her claims. All of them. I read The Great Controversy almost daily; its pages soon became black from underlining all statements that I considered important (which was most!). It was only after leaving Adventism that I was able to objectively restudy Ellen White's work, specifically her Great Controversy. To my shock, I discovered a confused, distorted, inaccurate, and biased image of history, a far outcry from the myth of "Sister White's" inspired visions that many Adventists are fed by their church!
It is in this article that I share some of my discoveries (tip of the iceberg!) about Ellen White'sGreat Controversy and her visions, focusing on her "inspired" account of Martin Luther's early life. In what follows, I will examine Ellen White's treatment of two important events in Martin Luther's life: his entrance to a cloister, and his journey to Rome. Look at the facts and judge for yourself whether Ellen G. White's claims are true!
Why did Martin Luther enter a cloister?
"While one day examining the books in the library of the university, Luther discovered a Latin Bible. Such a book he had never before seen. He was ignorant even of its existence. He had heard portions of the Gospels and Epistles, which were read to the people at public worship, and he supposed that these were the entire Bible. Now, for the first time, he looked upon the whole of God's word. With mingled awe and wonder he turned the sacred pages; with quickened pulse and throbbing heart he read for himself the words of life, pausing now and then to exclaim: 'O that God would give me such a book for myself!'-- Ibid., b. 2, ch. 2. Angels of heaven were by his side, and rays of light from the throne of God revealed the treasures of truth to his understanding. He had ever feared to offend God, but now the deep conviction of his condition as a sinner took hold upon him as never before. An earnest desire to be free from sin and to find peace with God led him at last to enter a cloister and devote himself to a monastic life."5
Clearly, Ellen White's view is that Martin Luther, through an illuminating Bible study, became convinced of sin and desired to find peace with God, he entered a cloister.
This is the first instance in the chapter that Ellen G. White shows she does not have a clue. Martin Luther himself tells a very different story of his own entrance into the cloister in his table talk of 1539!6 Historian Richard Marius, the author of a highly acclaimed biography of Martin Luther, summarizes it:
"Everyone who knows anything about Luther knows the story of how he entered the monastery. It is found in his table talk of July 16, 1539, thirty-four years after the event. He remarked almost causally that fourteen days earlier had been the anniversary of the day he had been caught in a storm near Stotternheim, a village near Erfurt. In his terror before lightning, he cried out, 'Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk.'... Shortly after taking his vow, he regretted it..."7
Ronald H. Bainton, specialist in Reformation history and perhaps the best known biographer of Martin Luther, says:
"The immediate occasion of his resolve to enter the cloister was the unexpected encounter with death on that sultry July day in 1505. He was then twenty-one and a student at the University of Erfurt. As he returned to school after a visit with his parents, sudden lightning struck him to earth. In that single flash he was the denouement of the drama of existence. There was God the all-terrible, Christ the inexplorable, and all the leering fiends springing from their lurking places in pond and wood that with sardonic cachinnations they might seize his shock of curly hair and bolt him to into hell. It was no wonder that he cried out to his father saint, patroness of miners, 'St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.'"8
Martin Luther himself testifies that he entered the cloister because he made a vow to St. Anne, a Catholic saint, in a moment when he feared for his life, not as a result of Bible study as Ellen White says. If Luther entered the monastery as a result of an enlightening Bible study, why did he cry out to Saint Anne?
Questions for SDAs
Reading on, we will see that Ellen's cluelessness seems to be a pattern, rather than an exception.
Luther at the top of Pilate's stairs
Ellen G. White devotes a couple of pages to Martin Luther's visit to Rome early on his life. She describes Luther's experience at the top of Pilate's stairs as follows.
"By a recent decretal an indulgence had been promised by the pope to all who should ascend upon their knees 'Pilate's staircase,' said to have been descended by our Savior on leaving the Roman judgment hall and to have been miraculously conveyed from Jerusalem to Rome. Luther was one devoutly climbing these steps, when suddenly a voice like thunder seemed to say to him: 'The just shall live by faith.' Romans 1:17. He sprang to his feet and hastened from the place in shame and horror. That text never lost its power upon his soul. From that time he saw more clearly than ever before the fallacy of trusting to human works for salvation, and the necessity of constant faith in the merits of Christ. His eyes had been opened, and were never again to be closed, to the delusions of the papacy."9
Let us be sure that we understand what Ellen White's vision revealed. Upon his visit to Rome, Martin Luther was climbing Pilate's stairs. Suddenly, a heavenly voice spoke to him, proclaiming the justification by faith, as stated in Romans 1:17. This made a very deep impression upon Luther's mind. He ran from the place in "shame and horror". His eyes were forever opened "to the delusions of the papacy".
Again, Sister White blundered. Martin Luther himself gives us a very different story, in volume 51 of his works, of what happened when he was climbing Pilate's stairs! In Luther own words, he did not hear any heavenly voice, but he exclaimed "Who knows whether it is so?"10
Roland H. Bainton and Richard Marius summarize:
"At the top Luther raised himself and exclaimed, not as the legend would have it, 'The just shall live by faith!' - he was not yet that far advanced. What he said was, 'Who knows whether it is so?'"11
Moreover, were Luther's eyes "opened, ...never again to be closed to the delusions of the papacy", as Ellen claims? Roland H. Bainton makes an interesting remark about Luther's spiritual search after his return from Rome:
"Luther probed every resource of contemporary Catholicism... He sought at the same time to explore other ways, and Catholicism had much more to offer."13
Martin Brecht, the leading Lutheran scholar remarks in his nearly impeccable biography of Luther:
"...there were the riches of grace in which he participated in Rome, and because of them the positive impression predominated. Only later did the critical and completely negative evaluation of Roman experiences occur. But even then he would not have missed them."14
We see that Luther's experience in Rome clearly did not turn him completely against the papacy. Rather, overall, it was more positive than negative. After his return from Rome, Luther still probed many resources of Catholicism! When in Rome, no heavenly voice spoke to him. Rather, his own doubting mind made him exclaim "Who knows whether it is so!".
Notice that Ellen White links Luther's discovery of justification by faith in Romans 1:17, his inner turning point, with experience at the top of Pilate's stairs. We know that Luther journeyed to Rome in November 1510.15 However, according to Martin Luther, his new understanding of Romans 1:17 happened in 1518-9, in his own words, when the text became "the open gate to paradise"!16 Ellen G. White missed the most important turning point in Luther's life by nearly a decade, placing it in a time when Luther still had a completely Catholic understanding of salvation (he understood righteousness by faith as both justification and sanctification, much as orthodox Adventists and modern Catholics understand it today).
Could Ellen G. White be more wrong? Notice, in her account, how she pretends to have been there, describing Luther's inner emotions of "shame and horror". What a "visionary"! She simply plagiarized legends about Luther's life that were popular in her own time, and peddled them in the name of God as sure inspired accounts given through "fresh and vivid" visions!17
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