The White Lie!

By Walter T. Rea

Chapter 8: The Flight from the White

The Great Controversy

The tale Ellen told when she produced The Great Controversy was not unique. If the idea of a controversy between the biblical Satan and the historical Christ has a familiar ring to it, it’s because the idea was ringing long before Ellen’s time. Thus, those in Adventist circles who persist in representing her contribution as new and different when she restructured history to blend with her theology of the future are perpetuating a white lie. They make her version of the knock-down-drag-out fight the determinant in every act and aspect of man’s dealings with his fellow man, be it political, economic, geographic, or religious. According to the story, if the good guys win, God takes the round; and if the bad guys gain a round, it goes to Satan by default.

The only trouble with this theory is that winning depends on who is refereeing the rounds. Sometimes God gets the credit, and sometimes vice versa. God usually comes out right; and if he doesn’t, time is added to the round to give him a better chance to even things up in the future. One of the favorite texts for those who keep score this way is Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” To give solace and a loophole for those who lose in the struggle, the last half of the text provides an “out” for the theologians—“to them who are the called according to his purpose.”1

Ellen provided the answer to “them who are the called” in her version of the controversy by naming her group of believers as those who fit that slot and shut the door for all others—just as she had done some forty years before in the 1844 idea of the shut door. The great controversy of Ellen’s view has some hope for those who escape the mark of some beast and who change from the unbelieving whores and harlots of John the Revelator’s book to become the “true believers” of Ellen’s faith and clan. All of this was no newer in its approach or method than other versions before, but it was much stronger and more definitive in its language and scope.

From the beginning of Adventism (and the 1844 movement), the deciding factor of heaven and home, in Ellen’s beginnings or endings of events, does not seem to be Christ, the Gospel, or the Good News, but the legalistic manipulation of the past, present, and future according to her heavenly bookkeeping.2

Others before her had dealt with the great controversy in general terms, but no one had ever come out with her conclusions, either general or specific. In Milton’s Paradise Lost the fight had been described in terms of good and evil, black and white, all or none, Christ and Satan. His writing had been such an acceptable job that it had stood for a couple of hundred years before Ellen began to read his story. There are indications that she liked the color and style of his rendition of the struggle in the universe.3 He had done such a good job, in fact, that his works were advertised, on the back of the early publications of Adventist literature, as worth reading.4 Despite that advertising and the later discoveries that Milton had influenced Ellen, Arthur wrote in 1946:

I am not aware of any statement from the pen of Ellen White in regard to Milton. After the Great Controversy vision was given to Sister White, Brother T. N. Andrews inquired as to whether she had ever read “Paradise Lost.” When she told him she had not, he brought a copy to her home. This she did not open, but placed it high on a shelf determining not to read it until after she had written what had been revealed to her?5

This was as high as that shelf ever got, for by the time of the 1969 facsimile reprint edition of The Spirit of Prophecy (volume four) someone must have told Arthur that she had taken Milton’s book down from the shelf and used it. The only question was — was it used before or after? His statement was that it was after:

It is apparent that she did later read at least portions of Paradise Lost, for there is one phrase quoted in Education.6

Almost without exception, those authors Ellen chose to copy supported the same theme — that man was good before he became bad; that he has a desire to be good but is still bad; that when he is good, he is very, very good, and when he is bad he is horrid — with the victory coming some place, somewhere, sometime, for the good, and the curtain falling on the bad. Again, this theme was not new with Ellen or even with those she copied. After all, most, if not all, from who she copied were teachers, preachers, divines, supersalesmen, and they were giving their loose paraphrases of the biblical story told from Genesis to Revelation. But it took Ellen and her early advent fervor to give the investigative thrust, the Adventist twist to things. It was this one-and-only, this “unique” contribution to the world of theology that became the Adventist “last hurrah”—and their own great controversy, in more ways than one.7

From the beginning, those around Ellen saw similarities that disturbed them, in what Ellen was writing and what they themselves were reading from others. It was not just J. N. Andrews and his concern with the twin faces of The Great Controversy and Paradise Lost. It was also John Harvey Kellogg and his reading of the early chapters of her works. In his recorded interview with two men of his church he said:

When the “Great Controversy” came out and the chapters of the history of the Waldenses, my attention was called to it by somebody right away. I could not help but know about it because there was the little book, Wylie’s “History of the Waldenses” right there on the Review and Herald book counter; and here was the “Great Controversy” coming out with extracts from it that were scarcely disguised, some of them. There was a disguise because words were changed; it would not have been so proper to use quotation marks because words were changed in the paragraph so they were not exact quotations but at the same time borrowed.8

The whole interview shows that the good doctor was greatly disturbed over what he and others knew to be a deception practiced on the people by Ellen, her son Will, and her editors.

The chapter on William Miller (“An American Reformer”) in The Great Controversy (and previously as chapter thirteen in The Spirit of Prophecy, volume four, 1884), was lifted, in many cases word-for-word, from a little book James had printed in 1875 as Sketches of the Christian Life and Public Labors of William Miller. (James had acknowledged, both on his title page and by quotation marks in the text, that he had used Sylvester Bliss’s memoirs of William Miller [1853] and “other sources.”)9 Hence, Ellen’s version was not “selective revelation.” It was not retail merchandise. It was wholesale stealing that went as fenced material incorporated in The Great Controversy.10

By this time Uriah Smith, having been joined to the group, got in on the fun. His material on the sanctuary (published first as Review articles between 1851 and 1855, and then in book form in 1877) provided material for chapter twenty-three, “What Is the Sanctuary?” in The Great Controversy.11 His word-by-word descriptions of the Old Testament texts and events were taken over—again not retail, but wholesale — into the picture of the struggle for victory on this earth as written by Ellen and her helpers.

One of the other early discoverers and explorers was likewise drafted for the expedition —- J. N. Andrews, also a knowledgeable writer. His writings— including the “Prophecy of Daniel,” the “Four Kingdoms,” the “Sanctuary,” and the “Twenty-three Hundred Days,” published from 1860 to 1863—were put in the hold as cargo. People of the Adventist Church have been quoting for decades, as Ellen’s infallible words, his material on the three angels’ messages.12

Various historians were to accompany these adventurers —almost always without their knowledge. Ellen, we are told in later years, like to read to her family from Merle d’Aubigne,13 one of her true believers in the great controversy theory; and so he was brought on board (again, as far as we know, without consultation to see if he wanted to take the trip). Later, one of his historical kinsmen, Wylie, was to be added to the passenger list for an occasional meal at the captain’s table.14

It was a motley crew that made that trip. It was the First time that they all had ever sailed under the same white flag. No wonder they ran into heavy seas of criticism almost from the beginning. The cynicism expressed in the local newspaper by the Healdsburg, California, ministerial association was typical. In debate with local Adventists they said:

We desire in this article to compare a few extracts from the following books: “History of the Sabbath” ([J. N.] Andrews); “Life of Win. Miller” ([James] White); “History of the Waldenses” (Wylie); “The Sanctuary” ([Uriah] Smith), and “History of the Reformation” (D’Aubigne), with corresponding extracts from Mrs. White’s “Great Controversy,” Vol. IV [The Spirit of Prophecy ], in order to see if Mrs. White has “introduced passages from another man’s writings and put them off as her own.” If she has done this, then, according to Webster, Mrs. White is a plagiarist, a literary thief.15

As this was a ministerial union, they must have had some degree of inspiration when they ventured into the realm of prediction and stated:

We do not claim that the following comparison is by any means complete, time and space have only permitted a partial examination; we doubt not that further search would reveal much more of the same character.16

And so it has. Donald R. McAdams does an admirable job of identifying many of those who have followed up the work of the Healdsburg ministers without knowing that others had gone before or what had previously been discovered.17 What does emerge is that, like it or not, believe it or not, the divines of Healdsburg were correct in 1889, as far as Ellen and her crew were concerned with the “Great Controversy” trip.

It was obvious from the first, before the ship set sail, that The Great Controversy was not seaworthy. Theirs was the only one-way passage most of the voyagers had ever known. With injunctions against reading other than Adventist Church literature, and the publishers pouring out much of her material, how could they know? Review advertising even in 1876 made claims bordering on the fantastic and showed their desire to keep the faithful in line. The following was a forerunner of much more powerful persuasion to come:

We are prepared to speak of this volume, now just issued, as the most remarkable volume that has ever issued from this Office. It covers that portion of the great controversy between Christ and Satan, which is included in the life and mission, teachings and miracles, of Christ here upon the earth.18

Leaks were springing up all over Ellen’s production vessel, however. The material from the 1919 Bible Conference (first published in 1980) makes it clear that teachers, administrators, ministers, and educators were concerned about the proper teaching of inspiration.19 Their concepts of how God does what he does were being seriously confused by what they knew they had helped Ellen write, but what had come to be promoted as inspiration from God alone, without credit to any member aboard Ellen’s ship.

Under the mounting pressure, two of the faithful were dispatched, probably at night when most of the work seems to have been done, to help repair the leaks. Here is how Dores E. Robinson tells his part in the adventure:

I think that Brother Crisler and myself spent nearly six months in the study of Great Controversy. ... As Bible and history teachers, you know how hard it is to write history and how even the best historians err. In the revision of Great Controversy we went to the library and compared these points that were raised, one by one; there were really over a hundred questions that had been raised. We went carefully into these in the libraries at Stanford and Berkeley. [Italics added.]20

The story told by the White Estate concerning corrections made was that only spelling and grammar were in question. It would hardly seem worth the trip to the library, let alone spending six months there, to correct spelling and grammatical mistakes. What is clear is that how Ellen and her helpers were going to get out of this world into the next one were much greater than spelling and would need more than a McGuffey’s reader to lead the way. It was the spelling out of those details that was getting Ellen and The Great Controversy into trouble.

As Kellogg explains in his interview, they tried to extricate themselves from the dilemma by their literary means:

Now, then, they went on and sold that whole edition, at least 1500 copies of that thing that they had on hand....

They went right on selling it, but they changed the preface in the next edition to give a little bit of the loophole to crawl out of, giving a little bit of a hint in it, in a very mild and rather in a hidden way, that the author had also profited by information obtained from various sources as well as from divine inspiration.21

Then he went on to really let the cat out of the bag on more than The Great Controversy. The truthfulness and accuracy of his memory must be placed alongside the fact that, almost more than any other living witness at the time, he had known and worked with Ellen closer than any but her own immediate family:

That is my recollection. I remember I saw the correction and I did not like it. I said, “That is only a crawl out, that is simply something put in so that the ordinary reader won’t discover it at all, but will see the larger statements there of special inspiration; so they will be fooled by that thing.” Then there came out other books. A number of books are not free from it. It was not simply that one book. Your explanation did not help other books even “Desire of Ages” and “How to Live.” I don’t think you ever knew about “How to Live” with reference to things that were borrowed from Cole’s [book].22
To which George W. Amadon, the loyal defender of Ellen, replied: “I know a large share of it was borrowed.”23 What did he mean “borrowed”? Maybe he meant that it was all taken — lock, stock, and borrow!

Such a hemorrhage of criticism called for major surgery, and it was given in the 1911 edition of The Great Controversy. Though it has been stated over and over again through the years that the reason that it was necessary for the book to be reset was that the electrotype plates were badly worn. Willie White gives another reason for the change that year:

In the body of the hook, the most noticeable improvement is the introduction of historical references. In the old edition, over seven hundred Biblical references were given, but in only a few instances were there any historical references to the authorities quoted or referred to. In the new edition the reader will find more than four hundred references to eighty-eight authors and authorities. [Italics added.]

Adventist theologians who take the position that a great deal of stealing went on in the writing of the Canon might want to take note at this point. If one were to compare the four gospels with The Great Controversy, this is how it would work out. Combining the 400 references from other authors and the 700 Bible texts, and using Willie White’s figures, the four writers of the four gospels (copying to the extent that Ellen did) would have had to copy every single verse they wrote! What Don McAdams recorded on the tape of the Glendale Committee meeting about Ellen’s Great Controversy is another way of saying the same thing. He said that if every paragraph in The Great Controversy were footnoted in accordance with accepted practice, giving credit where credit was due, almost every paragraph would be footnoted.25

Willie White gave other reasons for Robinson and Crisler’s six month stay in the libraries of Stanford and Berkeley:

In a few instances new quotations from historians, preachers, and present day writers have been used in the place of the old, because they are more forceful or because we have been unable to find the old ones. ...

In eight or ten places, time references have been changed because of the lapse of time since the book was first published.

In several places, forms of expression have been changed to avoid giving unnecessary offense. ...

In a few other places where there were statements regarding the papacy which are strongly disputed by Roman Catholics, and which are difficult to prove from accessible histories, the wording in the new edition has been so changed that the statement falls easily within the range of evidence that is readily obtainable.26

It would be rather unfair to blame Willie too much. He was only explaining what others were finding out and the secretaries were complaining about. It takes constant work and effort to keep changing events and circumstances of the past to conform with Ellen’s ongoing activities that were constantly taking the place of firm facts by which her inaccuracies could be judged. But the Review of June 12, 1980, was still to pretend that it was only The Great Controversy that needed change and confession.27

Although it is not our purpose here to deal with the inconsistencies and changes of Ellen’s nocturnal enlightenments, it is worth noting that the cosmetic work done on the later editions of her works were so helpful that others noticed the change. Linden says that

...the Conflict Series mark the production of the mature EGW. In fact the evolution is so great that it is somewhat surprising to know that the same person wrote the two kinds of books. . . . How this remarkable development came about is an intriguing assignment for the serious historian.

The five volumes in the Conflict Series resulted from a complex process, where only some factors are known; other facts may be known, when the rich files in the Ellen G. White Estate are fully available to the researchers.

... Her private library contained hundreds of volumes, and only a fraction of the items have been listed. Moreover, she had a full staff of secretaries and editors at her disposal.28

What Linden hit upon is perhaps one of the most significant and damaging bits of information of any study of Ellen and her writings. Few if any divines in the Adventist clan quote from the early writings of Ellen. Some of it they would like to forget. Some of it is an offense to the intelligence — her “Solemn Appeal to Mothers,” her copying from a doctor his “Cause of Exhausted Vitality” on the sex life of her generation; her changing of the guard when things she “saw” or “predicted” did not come to pass. Such passages are seldom mentioned from the pulpits of the Adventist Church. Most of the “beautiful” quotes come from the later works.29

Naturally. By then Ellen had had fifty years of practice. With the numerous workers in the corps of helpers on whom she could call, with the Adventist Church’s structure, its money, its presses pouring out the propaganda of her invincibility, she was free to incorporate as “God’s” whatever she wished to put in her writings. By the turn of the century, if one should see the change or inconsistencies between the old material and the new, he had to make an extremely hard choice to stay in the church. One must maintain with a straight face a number of things: That God was inconsistent, not Ellen. That God might have changed his mind, not Ellen. That whatever she did, right or wrong, was all right because God had a hand in making her do it. God had improved with age and experience—through Ellen and her continued copying.

What really happened in the church was that God and Ellen came to seem one and the same. What she did, God approved. What she disliked, God condemned. What she wrote, God endorsed. What she left out, God shunned as unimportant. If the Canon had been God’s book up to her time, now Ellen was God’s servant, his voice, his image, his alter ego. Ellen and her writings had become the Adventist God!

If this process should be doubted by some, let them examine carefully the instructions given to the church. Let them look at the number of times she or her works, always standing head and shoulders above the Canon, are quoted as authority in the Review and other Adventist publications. Let them turn to the 1980 history of the church’s General Conference session at which her writings (hence Ellen herself) were raised to a level of equality with Scripture and scriptural writers. Let them listen once again to the tune played out at the 1980 Glacier View meeting, where Desmond Ford was defrocked and barred from employment because his keen mind and courageous conscience held the authority of Scripture to be above the authority of Ellen White.30

No one can seriously doubt that Ellen Gould Harmon White has finally obtained veto power over God in the Adventist Church. To paraphrase the convictions stated by Earl W. Amundson at Glacier View, not only the bright lights, but any lights that shine in the Adventist Church without Ellen’s consent and approval, have been and will be turned off.31

In view of the extensive research done in recent years (including that by McAdams, Graybill, and others) and the acknowledgments of changes made and of authors used — much of which has come to the attention of the church members at large — it seems unnecessary to include in the Appendix a large number of comparison examples for The Great Controversy.

It might be useful, however, to note one of the Adventists dying hope. Adventists like to believe that the last chapters of The Great Controversy were structured in their theological favor, that little or no copying was done in the matter of eschatology. A comparison of some chapters in volume four of The Spirit of Prophecy (the forerunner of The Great Controversy) shows that this is only wishful thinking.32 The later chapters in the enlarged 1911 edition of Controversy show similar patterns.33

As painful as the realization is, the Ford controversy and the Ellen White-comparison-controversy have made The Great Controversy somewhat suspect. Further, another ongoing investigation of recent times shows large chunks of historical error.34 Even the circuit riders from the White Estate have conceded that the book can no longer be considered an accurate accounting of the events of nineteenth-century history but must be used evangelistically.35 All of these facts add up to the conclusion that Ellen’s attempt to rewrite history according to her vision of it did not work. So it should be back to the drawing board for the Adventist theologians.

References and Notes

1. Romans 8:28.

2. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View: PPPA, 1888), “The Investigative Judgment,” p. 479.

3. John Milton, Paradise Lost. Published twice in the poet’s lifetime: 1667, 1674.

4. For example, see J. N. Andrews’ The Three Messages of Revelation 14:6-12. Other pamphlets and books published by early Adventists also advertised the works of John Milton. A tract entitled “The State of the Dead,” by John Milton, was printed by the SDA Publishing Association in Battle Creek in 1866.

5. Arthur L. White letter, 4 April 1946.

6. EGW, The Spirit of Prophecy, 4 vols. (Battle Creek: Review and Herald, 1858-60-84), vol. 4 supplement, p. 536. See Education, p. 150.

7. See Robert D. Brinsmead’s Judged by the Gospel, chapter 12, “The Legend of Ellen G. White’s Literary Independence,” p. 145. Actually, the controversy over The Great Controversy began virtually with its publication in 1888 and has continued to the present.

8. [John Harvey Kellogg], “An Authentic Interview ... on October 7th, 1907,” p. 32.

9. James White, Ed., Sketches of the Christian Life and Public Labors of William Miller, Gathered from his Memoirs by the Late Sylvester Bliss, and from Others (Battle Creek: Steam Press, 1875).

10. Compare chapter 13, “William Miller,” in EGW’s The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, with its later counterpart, chapter 18, “An American Reformer,” in The Great Controversy, p. 317. Taking over the material of earlier Adventist writers became the pattern in Ellen White’s “amplified” volumes.

11. Uriah Smith, The Sanctuary and the Twenty-three Hundred Days of Daniel VIII, 14 (Battle Creek: Steam Press, 1877).

12. J. N. Andrews, The Prophecy of Daniel: the Four Kingdoms, the Sanctuary, and the Twenty-three Hundred Days (Battle Creek: Steam Press, 1863).

13. Arthur L. White, “Rewriting and Amplifying the Controversy Story,” pt. 2 of 7, Review, 19 July 1979, p. 9. J[ean] H[enri] Merle d'Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 5 vols. (Edinburg: Oliver and Boyd, 1853; New York: Robert Carter, 1846).

14. The Ellen G. White Estate list of books identified as taken from DF 884 (to include those books on the shelves in the EGW study and in the office and vault). A new list prepared by Graybill and Johns in 1981: An Inventory of Ellen G. White's Private Library, July 29, 1981, Draft (Washington: EGW Estate, 1981). James Aitkin Wylie, History of the Waldenses (London: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1880).

15. (Healdsburg) Pastors' Union, “Is Mrs. E. G. White a Plagiarist?” (Healdsburg, California, Enterprise, 20 March 1889).

16. Ibid.

17. Donald R. McAdams, “Shifting Views of Inspiration: Ellen G. White Studies in the 1970s,” Spectrum 10 (March 1980):27-41.

18. Robert W. Olson, “Exhibits Relating to the Desire of Ages,” photocopied (Washington: EGW Estate, 23 May 1979) (p. 11 of Olson’s exhibits, Review and Herald,, November 30, 1876).

19. (Bible Conference). “The Bible Conference of 1919,” Spectrum 10, no. 1 (May 1979): 23-57.

20. Robert W. Olson, “Historical Discrepancies in the Spirit of Prophecy,” with appendix note by Arthur L. White, photocopied (Washington: EGW Estate, 17 July 1979).

21. (John Harvey Kellogg), "An Authentic Interview ... on October 7th, 1907.” p. 33.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. EGW, Selected Messages, 3 bks. (Washington: RHPA, 1958-80), bk. 3, Appendix A, pp. 434-35. These remarks about the revision of The Great Controversy were made by W. C. White to the General Conference Council of 30 October 1911.

25. [Glendale Committee], “Ellen G. White and Her Sources,” tapes of 28-29 January 1980 meeting.

26. EGW, Selected Messages, bk. 3, Appendix A, pp. 435-36.

27. Kenneth H. Wood, “The Children Are New,” editorial, Review (12 June 1980).

28. Ingemar Linden, The Last Trump, “From Visions to Books,” chap. 4, pt. 2, p. 211.

29. Ibid., pp. 211-12.

30. See the October 1980 issue of Ministry, the international journal of the SDA Ministerial Association. Likewise, see Spectrum 11 , no. 2 (November 1980), the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums.

31. Earl W. Amundson, “Authority and Conflict—Consensus and Unity.” Paper read at the Theological Consultation, 15-20 August 1980, at Glacier View Ranch, Ward, Colorado.

32. See Appendix, Chapter 8 Comparison Exhibits.

33. Ibid.

34. Robert W. Olson and Ronald D. Graybill to the Pacific Union Conference historians at La Sierra campus of Loma Linda University, 1980 summer session.

35. Ibid.

                            Chapter 8/Selected Exhibits

Books Written by Sources from Which She Drew
White, Ellen G.

The Great Controversy
Mountain View, CA, Pacific Press, 1911.

The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4
Oakland, CA, Pacific Press, 1884.

Andrews, J. N.

History of the Sabbath,
Battle Creek, Steam Press 1862.

March, Daniel

Night Scenes in the Bible,
Philadelphia, Zeigler, McCurdy,(1868-1870).

Walks and Homes of Jesus,
Philadelphia, Presbyterian Pub. Committee, 1856.

Merle d’Aubigne, J. H.

History of the Reformation, vol. 4, bk. 9,
Glasgow and London, Collins, 1841.

Smith, Uriah

The Sanctuary,
Battle Creek, Steam Press, 1877.


Sketches of the Christian Life and Public Labors of William Miller,
Battle Creek, Steam Press, 1875.

Wylie, J. A.

History of the Waldenses,
London, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, no date.

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