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Ellen G. White

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colporteur Ministry

colporteur Ministry

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A vision at the Rome, New York, camp meeting in September 1875 opened the eyes of the growing church toward the potential of literature evangelism. The “young man of noble appearance” who had often spoken to Ellen White in vision or dream noted the diligence of Adventists who were raising inquiry among the general public. But, he said, “more thorough effort” must be done to “fasten these impressions upon minds” or “your efforts now made will prove nearly fruitless.” His suggestion was to supplement preaching with appropriate reading matter, which would result in a “hundredfold return to the treasury.”

How was this supplemental work to be done? By literature evangelists (often called canvassers or colporteurs), “men of good address, who will not repulse others or be repulsed. . . . Those who distribute tracts gratuitously should take other publications to sell to all who will purchase them. Persevering efforts will result in great good.”13

Thus began the worldwide program of literature evangelism wherein men and women carry the printed page door-to-door. This new evangelical approach was reviewed at the third session of the European Council of Seventh-day Adventist Missions, at Basel, Switzerland, September 14, 1885. But the literature evangelists were disheartened; they were convinced that Europeans would not buy books at their doors. It was a crisis moment. Ellen White was prepared. She already had received messages from God about the eventual success of the “colporteur” work in Europe.

After giving a review of these messages to the wavering delegates, she said: “God will soon do great things for us if we lie humble and believing at His feet. . . . More than one thousand will soon be converted in one day, most of whom will trace their first convictions to the reading of our publications.”14 Gradually the attractiveness of the literature was upgraded with illustrations, and the workers were better trained. Within a few years, the record shows that Adventist literature was being sold widely throughout Europe.


Publishing, a Sacred Ministry

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Around the turn of the century Mrs. White was troubled by the fact that much of the financial success of the denomination’s two publishing houses depended on commercial work, some of which was in conflict with teachings of the church.15

During the preceding decade she had been writing letters and speaking frequently on the growing problems at the Review and Herald, the church’s largest publishing house. She spoke about the managers and their lack of fairness to workers and authors and their abdication of responsibility for checking the demoralizing literature they were printing. (The managers would reply that they were printers, not censors.) She admonished the Review board to keep the publishing house within its intended purpose.16

The sweeping fire of December 31, 1902, that destroyed the Review, seemed to alert most everybody that God had been warning them for ten years. The move to Washington, D. C. carried with it the decision to eliminate commercial work at the Review and Herald Publishing Company.17

Unfortunately, similar problems had been developing at the Pacific Press Publishing Company in Oakland, California. About half of the printed material was commercial work.18 Because of warnings from Ellen White, especially those intensified after the Battle Creek fire, the management drastically reduced their commercial work and decided to locate at a more rural site. After the April 18, 1906, earthquake and a later fire, the management decided that no further commercial work would be accepted.

The decisions of both publishing houses to face the future without commercial work and to listen more closely to the counsel of Ellen White regarding management policies, were soon honored by an enormous increase in publishing business.19


Temperance Leadership

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Ellen White had more than enough to do writing books, articles, letters, and manuscripts. In addition, she followed closely the development of Adventist educational and publishing institutions, and spoke at gatherings from coast to coast on an almost incredible schedule. But part of her great concern for proclaiming the gospel was her deep insights into the problem of intemperance. Intemperance, for her, was at the core of most all human problems.20

Mrs. White’s approach to temperance/intemperance was unusual, compared with other temperance lecturers and organizations of the day. Whether in America or Europe, her unique approach captivated her listeners. On Sunday, November 8, 1886, at Christiana (Oslo), Norway, she spoke to 1,600 people in the largest hall in the city, at the invitation of the president of the local temperance society. Before her were many prominent people, including the bishop of the state church and a number of clergymen. Above her hung an American flag, which she “highly appreciated.”

Instead of a rousing speech, full of dramatic stories and scary statistics, she delivered her typical temperance address based on Biblical principles and illustrations. In a report of the meeting, she wrote: “When they saw that the subject was to be argued from a Bible standpoint, they were at first astonished, then interested, and finally deeply moved.”


The Religious Connection

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At the close of her lecture the president of the local temperance society spoke, urging his audience to note that the success of the American temperance movement rested on religious zeal and Biblical principles. Mrs. White had requests to speak at local churches but she declined because her mission in Norway was to build up the Adventist churches.21

In reviewing the text of that Norway address, which was typical of her temperance talks to the general public, we can better understand what made her messages distinctive. She traced the subject of temperance in Bible history, especially emphasizing how closely Christ was connected to the work of temperance throughout His life on earth. The main points of her public talks on temperance were:

· Our first parents sinned by “the indulgence of appetite.”

· Christ overcame the “indulgence of appetite” in the wilderness temptation, “showing that in His strength it is possible for us to overcome.”

· Nadab and Abihu, men of holy office, suffered fearful judgment because they permitted their minds to become “beclouded” and thus incapable of distinguishing right from wrong.

· “Men of principle are needed” in legislative halls and in courts of justice, as well as in schools and churches—“men of self control, of keen perceptions and sound judgment.” Intemperance will render them incapable of “just decisions” and the ability “to rise above motives of self-interest or the influence of partiality or prejudice.”

· Parents must learn the lesson angels brought to Manoah, Samson’s father, and to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. Children are affected “for good or evil, by the habits of the mother” and their early household training.

· Parents “transmit their own characteristics, mental and physical, their dispositions and appetites.” “Children often lack physical strength and mental and moral power” because of parental intemperance (lack of self-control).

· “From babyhood” children should be taught the principles and habits of “self-denial and self-control.”

· Daniel and his associates in the court of Babylon were used as forcible illustrations of true temperance. They were a “noble testimony” to the benefits of “strict temperance in the use of all His bounties, as well as total abstinence from every injurious and debasing indulgence.”

· “Not only is the use of unnatural stimulants needless and pernicious, but it is also extravagant and wasteful. . . . Thousands of parents . . . spend their earnings in self-indulgence, robbing their children of food and clothing and the benefits of education.”22

These principles are amplified, with more detail as to how they should be taught, in the Ellen G. White compilation entitled, Temperance. When most temperance leaders focused primarily on alcohol, largely ignoring tobacco and unnatural stimulants such as tea and coffee, Mrs. White went deeper—to the causes of drunkenness and debasement of morals.23


Temperance Begins at Home

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In a January 3, 1873, vision, she was shown that temperance movements were limited in their effectiveness because they restricted their warfare against intemperance to the use of alcoholic beverages. She wrote: “Intemperance is increasing everywhere, notwithstanding the earnest efforts made during the past year to stay its progress. I was shown that the giant power of intemperance will not be controlled by any such efforts as have been made. The work of temperance must begin in our families, at our tables.”24

Further, she wrote: “Intemperance commences at our tables. The appetite is indulged until its indulgence becomes second nature. By the use of tea and coffee an appetite is formed for tobacco, and this encourages the appetite for liquors.”25

But intemperance is not only a matter of food and drink, it includes “excessive indulgence in eating, drinking, sleeping, or seeing.”26 Intemperance in certain dress habits is to be overcome.27 Intemperance in overwork, in study, in seeking riches, is to be avoided.28

The only cure for intemperance is to regain self-control. Often Ellen White emphasized the principle that “passions are to be controlled by the will, which is itself to be under the control of God. The kingly power of reason, sanctified by divine grace, is to bear sway in our lives.”29

She pointed out that when physical habits are not right, “our mental and moral powers cannot be strong.”30

She saw the direct connection between self-control and character development, between self-control in all areas of life and preparation for the coming of the Lord: “The controlling power of appetite will prove the ruin of thousands, when, if they had conquered on this point, they would have moral power to gain the victory over every other temptation of Satan. But those who are slaves to appetite will fail in perfecting Christian character.”31

The challenge of self-control in every area of life is for all Christians, especially those who are proclaiming the “everlasting gospel” in the last days: “To make plain natural law, and urge the obedience of it, is the work that accompanies the third angel’s message to prepare a people for the coming of the Lord.”32


A Far-sighted Leader on Social Issues

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Ellen White maintained inspired balance in her counsel to church members, notably in regard to social responsibilities. The primary purpose and motivation for all Christian service is to proclaim the gospel of restoration. No single branch of Christian service is to become “all absorbing” so “that which should have the first place becomes a secondary consideration.”33

The poor and disadvantaged. In reference to working for the disadvantaged she stated the principle of balance: “The great question of our duty to humanity is a serious one, and much of the grace of God is needed in deciding how to work so as to accomplish the greatest amount of good. . . . God does not require His workmen to obtain their education and training in order to devote themselves exclusively to these classes. The working of God is manifested in a way which will establish confidence that the work is of His devising, and that sound principles underlie every action.”

Ellen White saw the danger of focusing on certain kinds of social work “which will amount to the least in strengthening all parts of the work by harmonious action.”34

While emphasizing her concern for balance and priorities, she made it clear that the Christian’s responsibility to the needs of others is as important as his or her duty to God. This may sound good in theory but more difficult to work out in practice. Too often Christians are more concerned with the first half of the Lord’s command: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. . . .” Compliance to the other half of Christ’s command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), has been “left to caprice, subject to inclination or impulse.”35

Genuine Christians realize that their religious profession has “little weight” before God or man if they “bend every energy toward some apparently great work, while neglect[ing] the needy or turn[ing] the stranger from his right.”36

Christians also believe that when “self is merged in Christ, love springs forth spontaneously.” How is this spontaneity revealed? Ellen White declared: “The completeness of Christian character is attained when the impulse to help and bless others springs constantly from within.”37

To put the question of social issues in the sharpest focus, she wrote with unambiguous clarity that the judgment of all men and women rests on “one point. . . . When the nations are gathered before Him, there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering.”38

How does this profound principle work? Note Ellen White’s focus on Isaiah 58, the chapter on the Christian’s responsibility for the needy and disadvantaged.39 She frequently referred to the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah as the “message for this time, to be given over and over again,” and “the whole chapter is of the highest importance.”40

Three “arenas of service” are depicted in Mrs. White’s voluminous counsel regarding the Christian’s responsibility to others.41 The first arena is the local church’s responsibility for its own congregation: “It is the duty of each church to make careful, judicious arrangements for the care of its poor and sick.”42

The local community is the second arena: “Wherever a church is established, its members are to do a faithful work for the needy believers. But they are not to stop here. They are also to aid others, irrespective of their faith.”43

The third arena is the world community, outside of the local community: “Any human being who needs our sympathy and our kind offices is our neighbor. The suffering and destitute of all classes are our neighbors; and when their wants are brought to our knowledge, it is our duty to relieve them as far as possible. . . . Our neighbors are the whole human family.”44

When Adventists today consider these three arenas, they think immediately of Dorcas societies, renamed in recent years as Community Services, and SAWS (Seventh-day Adventist World Service), also renamed in the 1980s as Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). For example, during the relief services needed at the end of World War II, between 1946 and 1949, the General Conference relief organizations “provided more than 3,300,000 pounds of food and 1,100,000 pounds of clothing” to Europe alone.45

In 1995, ADRA, working in 142 countries, administered humanitarian aid (including donated material) that was valued in excess of $120 million. The budget of ADRA’s operations, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, exceeded $60 million.46


Importance of the Family

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Perhaps Ellen White’s most complete thoughts on the importance of the traditional family were summarized in The Ministry of Healing, published in 1905. Here she spoke prophetically. During the last half of the twentieth century, the traditional family came under attack with alternate attempts to supplement normal family nurture. In the last decade of the century, a renewal of concern for the health of the family has been observed.

In 1905 Mrs. White was clear and emphatic: “The restoration and uplifting of humanity begins in the home. The work of parents underlies every other. . . . The well-being of society, the success of the church, the prosperity of the nation, depend upon home influences.”47

The home is not only the haven for children and parents in the midst of a troubled world, the Christian home is an “object lesson” that illustrates “the excellence of the true principles of life.” Troubled youth from other homes should find in Christian homes “cheering, helpful influences.”48


Relating Wisely to the Cities

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Plight of the cities. The cities of the world have always been centers of corruption and vice. From early Bible times, cities were not the place for believers in Jehovah. In modern times, the phenomenal population increases have exponentially increased pollution and vice.49

At the 1903 General Conference session Ellen White warned that denominational institutions should “keep out of the cities.” She urged church members to “get out of the cities into the country, where they can obtain a small piece of land, and make a home for themselves and their children.” She predicted that “erelong there will be such strife and confusion in the cities that those who wish to leave them will not be able. We must be preparing for these issues.”50

Although she urged church members to leave the cities for a number of reasons, she also counseled common sense: “Let there be nothing done in a disorderly manner that there shall be a great loss or sacrifice made upon property because of ardent, impulsive speeches which stir up an enthusiasm which is not after the order of God, that a victory that was essential to be gained, shall, for a lack of level-headed moderation and proper contemplation and sound principles and purposes, be turned into a defeat.”51

Mrs. White recognized that the great cities of the world were not suitable places for Christians to live and raise families, but she carried a heavy burden for the unevangelized people in these crowded urban areas. In 1909 she urged: “The instruction has been given me, Work the cities; work the cities where the first and second angel’s messages were proclaimed. The work of warning the cities has been kept before us for more than twenty years; but who has felt a burden for this work? Who has done real missionary work among them? We are bidden to go to those cities and preach the gospel and heal the sick.”52

However, after warning of the increasing turmoil and corruption that would sweep over the world’s cities, Ellen White repeatedly urged church leaders to place city evangelism high on their agenda. Indeed, without her insistence in the early years of the twentieth century, the Adventist presence in the large cities of North America would have been minimal. She specifically pointed to such centers as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Nashville, St. Louis, New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Portland (Maine).

Many letters were sent to leading ministers, beginning with the president of the General Conference, to make city evangelism top priority.53 In 1905 she wrote: “We stand rebuked by God because the large cities right within our sight are unworked and unwarned. A terrible charge of neglect is brought against those who have been long in the work, in this very America, and yet have not entered the large cities.”54

Ellen White’s urging created immediate results. In the greater New York area alone by 1915, fifteen evangelistic companies were at work, mostly in tents. Mrs. White strongly emphasized that “in our large cities the medical missionary work must go hand in hand with the gospel ministry. It will open doors for the entrance of truth.”


Summary

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We began this section on “The Nurturer of Inspired Concepts” by emphasizing that Ellen White was the “central figure” in the “most subtly differentiated, systematically developed and institutionally successful of all alternatives to the American way of life.”55

We noted her unique contribution in the development of Adventism’s distinctive principles of theology, education, health, church government, social responsibility, and missiology. She was the conceptual nurturer and the prodder of thought. Her exceptional freshness lies not in her total originality of thought but in her remarkable ability to synthesize the insights she received from God and the results of a keen perception in her research.

Without Ellen White’s leadership in thought and personal courage, the Adventist Church most probably would not have survived. If it had, it would have been far different from what the world knows it to be today.


Endnotes

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1. Review and Herald, Jan. 25, 1881, cited in Temperance, pp. 17, 18.

2.Feb. 28, 1845. See Joseph Bates, The Seventh Day Sabbath, A Perpetual Sign, 1846, p. 40.

3.Bio., vol. 1, p. 116; see also Schwarz, Light Bearers, pp. 72-74.

4.Ibid.

5.Schwarz, Light Bearers, p. 72.

6.Life Sketches, p. 125.

7.See Schwarz, Light Bearers, pp. 72-85; Maxwell, Tell It to the World, pp. 95-105; Spalding, Origin and History, vol. 1, pp. 187-206. See M. Carol Hetzell, The Undaunted (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1967).

8.Ibid.

9.“Almost singlehandedly [James White] had created a publishing business, against formidable obstacles. Several times it had been only his wife’s vision-based encouragements that had kept him going.”—Schwarz, Light Bearers, p. 84.

10. Manuscript 2, 1850, cited in Bio., vol. 1, p. 172; Schwarz, Light Bearers, pp. 74-76.

11. Life Sketches, pp. 139, 140.

12. See Bio., vol. 1, pp. 316-330 for the eventful move of the “publishing house” from Rochester, New York, to Battle Creek, Michigan.

13. Bio., vol. 2, pp. 480, 481.

14. Reported by D. T. Bourdeau in Review and Herald, Nov. 10, 1885; Evangelism, p. 693.

15. “By 1899 the General Conference president estimated that 80 percent of the printing done at the Review [Battle Creek] was of a commercial nature. Not surprisingly, press workers began to think of their activities as a business operation for which they should be compensated more liberally. The evangelistic dedication shown by workers of an earlier era seemed to be fading away.”—Schwarz, Light Bearers, p. 211.

16. “Presses poured forth fiction, Wild West stories, books promulgating Roman Catholic doctrines, sex literature, and books on hypnosis.”—Bio., vol. 5, pp. 227-234.

17. Schwarz, Light Bearers, pp. 306-311.

18. Bio., vol. 5, pp. 164-168.

19. Schwarz, Light Bearers, p. 330.

20. “Intemperance, in the true sense of the word, is at the foundation of the larger share of the ills of life, and it annually destroys its tens of thousands.”—Signs of the Times, Nov. 17, 1890.

21. Historical Sketches, pp. 207-211.

22. Temperance, pp. 267-273; Historical Sketches of S. D. A. Foreign Missions, pp. 207-211. Two other temperance addresses by Ellen White, one in 1891, the other at Sydney, Australia, in 1893, are also included in Temperance, pp. 273-292.

23. For a review of Adventist cooperation with temperance societies, see Robinson, Our Health Message, pp. 223-235. For an overview of anti-alcohol campaigns in the nineteenth century, see Jerome L. Clark, “The Crusade Against Alcohol,” in Land, World of E. G. White, pp. 131-140.

24. Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 562.

25. Ibid., p. 563.

26. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 417; see also Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 562.

27. Medical Ministry, p. 275.

28. Temperance, pp. 139, 140.

29. The Ministry of Healing, p. 130.

30. Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 51. “The brain nerves that connect with the whole system are the medium through which heaven communicates with man, and affects the inmost life. Whatever hinders the circulation of the electric current in the nervous system, thus weakening the vital powers and lessening mental susceptibility, makes it more difficult to arouse the moral nature.”—Education, p. 209. See Ibid., p. 197.

31. Testimonies, vol. 3, pp. 491, 492.

32. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 161.

33. Welfare Ministry, p. 256.

34. Ibid., p. 257.

35. Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 382.

36. Ibid., pp. 383-384.

37. Ibid. “Wherever there is an impulse of love and sympathy, wherever the heart reaches out to bless and uplift others, there is revealed the working of God’s Holy Spirit.”—Ibid., p. 385.

38. The Desire of Ages, p. 637.

39. In the Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, approximately 200 references involve Isaiah 58.

40. Welfare Ministry, pp. 29-34.

41. See Calvin B. Rock, “Did Ellen White Downplay Social Work?” Adventist Review, May 5, 1988.

42. Welfare Ministry, p. 29.

43. Ibid., p. 180.

44. Ibid., pp. 45-46.

45. Land, Adventism in America, p. 178.

46. ADRA 1995 Annual Report. Adventist Development and Relief Agency, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904, USA.

47. The Ministry of Healing, p. 349.

48. Ibid., pp. 352-354.

49. Ibid., pp. 262, 263; see Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 355, 356.

50. Bio., vol. 5, p. 250. See also Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 84.

51. Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 361-363.

52. The General Conference Bulletin, July 4, 1909.

53. Schwarz, Light Bearers, pp. 334-338.

54. Evangelism, p. 401.

55. Bull and Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary, pp. ix, 14.


Study Questions

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1. How did the Whites, in their personal lives, affirm the vision-message that their exceedingly small group should begin a publishing program?

2. What problem in both American publishing houses at the turn of the century received Ellen White’s focus and strong counsel to change course?

3. What were the chief points in most of Ellen White’s public addresses on temperance?

4. Why is temperance a spiritual issue?

5. In view of the nineteenth century milieu, how can it be said Ellen White was a “far-sighted leader in social issues”?

6. Why did Ellen White paint a bleak future for the cities of the world?

7. How does Ellen White’s concept of temperance (self-control) reflect New Testament teaching?

8. What are some of the dangers for Adventist publishing houses in accepting secular, commercial work?

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