4.4. ELLEN WHITE AND THE ADVENTIST VISION OF THE END
The Millerite ash was the ideal fertilizer for the rise of several groups generically called “Adventist.” All these groups preserved, more or less, the features of Millerism and have been characterized by the obsession for the end of the world. Of all, the best-known group is the one initiated by Hiram Edson and Joseph Bates, and later completed by James and Ellen White.
In January 1845 Joseph Turner tried to explain the Great Disappointment through the “shut-door” theory based on the Parable of the Ten Virgins from Matthew 25:11-12. After the “heavenly door” was closed on October 22, 1844, people could no longer be saved. The period of the testing of the world was over. The wise virgins (the true believers) were going to be in the kingdom, while the foolish virgins (the infidels) were left outside, regardless of their subsequent actions.1123
Hiram Edson came up with an even more interesting theory, which somehow complemented Turner’s argument. After he, allegedly, had a vision the day after the Great Disappointment, Edson said that on October 22, 1844, an extraordinary event took place indeed, but in Heaven, not on Earth, where Christ entered the second part of the heavenly sanctuary. Together with Owen R. L. Crosier and Franklin B. Hahn, Edson conducted a thorough biblical study at the end of which he concluded that the “sanctuary” from Daniel 8:14 does not represent the earth or the Church as Miller previously thought, but the heavenly sanctuary.1124 Hence, the 22nd of October marked indeed the Second Coming of Christ, but on the heavenly realm. These new eschatological theories were published at the beginning of 1845 in the Day Dawn magazine. They were accepted and supported by many former Millerite leaders of the time, confirmed through numerous revelations of Ellen White and used for the establishment of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Today, the Seventh-day Adventist Church claims to be the restorer of the true Church of God and the impersonation of the message of the three angels from Revelation 14:6-10 that urges the nations of the world to repent and to worship the Creator. Eschatologically speaking, the term “advent” is synonymous with the Second Coming of Christ. So, the name of the cult reveals that at the core of the Adventist doctrine sits the imminence of Parousia. The coming of the Savior will be literal, personal and visible. The fulfillment of the apocalyptic prophecies and the current condition of the world indicate that the coming of Christ is near, right at the door, and the believers must be ready at any moment.
Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church is the direct successor of the Millerite movement, there are several crucial differences between the two. Millerism was not a cult in the real sense of the word because it lacked an official name, conversion, rituals and hierarchies. William Miller neither claimed he was a prophet or the leader of the movement nor he asked the adepts to adopt a certain lifestyle. On the other hand, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a veritable cult, with churches, hierarchies, regular meetings, an own doctrine, own rules and ideas regarding the relation between man and God. Also, Millerism was based on the importance of an exact future date; instead, Seventh-day Adventism uses the failure of the Great Disappointment to claim that something important happened in Heaven and promotes an indeterminate end of the world. The Adventists insist on the need of moral integrity: Christ will not come to establish his Kingdom until the people of God will not reach certain moral standards. Waiting for Parousia involves a consciousness driven by religious responsibility: every day is a gift from God, in which we need to show hope, love, humility and holiness. The near Parousia also offers a powerful motivation for evangelization. The spreading of the Adventist message and the low moral standards of mankind are issues frequently used to explain the delay of the end. Seventh-day Adventism inherited historicism from Millerism, and at the moment it is one of the few movements that continue to promote this eschatological school. Nevertheless, while Millerism preached premillenarism and the impossibility to change our collective destiny, Adventism has been oriented toward postmillenarism, conditioning the end of the world by the world’s level of faith.
Adventism came into existence due to the efforts of Hiram Edson and several other leaders. Yet, the all-time star of Adventism is the prophetess Ellen White. Originary from Gorham, Maine, Ellen White’s maiden name was “Harmon.” When she was a child her parents moved to Portland. In Testimonies for the Church Mrs. White describes in detail her childhood, her youth, her conversion and the acceptance of Miller’s ideas. At the age of nine a schoolgirl threw a stone at her and broke her nose. The blow was so severe that she stayed unconscious for three weeks. She hardly survived, but she remained disfigured for life. When she woke up and saw her disfigured face she suffered a deep depression. She tried to resume school, but she had to interrupt it because she was no longer capable to concentrate. So, her education was limited to, barely, read and write.1125
According to the former Adventist Dudley Canright, one of the most severe critics of the prophetess, Mrs. White’s alleged prophetic spirit was the result of the mutilation and the conversion of her family to Millerism. The visions appeared shortly after the event of disfigurement. The blow might have damaged the temporal lobe of the brain – responsible with memory, speaking and hearing. On the other hand, her trances and her body’s behavior during the “visitation of heavens” were similar to the symptoms and the effects of epilepsy.1126 The disease of epilepsy became known only after 1873, when the English neurologist Hughlings Jackson stated that epileptic crises are caused by brutal electro-chemical discharges of energy in the brain.1127 One witness of the time said about Mrs. White that
she was strangely exercised in body and mind, … falling to the floor … (we remember catching her twice to save her from falling upon the floor), … in meetings she would speak with great vehemence and rapidity until falling down, when, as she claimed, wonderful views of heaven and of what was being transacted there were shown her.1128
But her manifestations were not identical. Sometimes she had convulsions and she could not control her body; other times she was quiet and she left the impression that she was in a state of self-imposed trance, entering or exiting from it on command.
Between 1840 and 1844 this mutilated, weak, unhealthy, uneducated, emotional and abnormally religious girl came under the influence of Miller’s fatalistic sermons. These, together with the social effects of the facial mutilation and the brain damage, had devastating effects on her psyche:
Words of condemnation rang in my ears day and night … I feared that I would lose my reason. … My sufferings of mind were intense. Sometimes for a whole night I would not dare to close my eyes, but would wait until my twin sister was fast asleep, then quietly leave my bed and kneel upon the floor, praying silently with a dumb agony that cannot be described.1129
Like the Shaker Ann Lee, the Adventist Ellen White was tormented by a deep feeling of guilt and impurity. The neuronal damages, combined with a poor self-esteem, made Mrs. White dream that she went to Heaven and met Jesus and she was released. She always tried to create the impression that her experiences were the work of the Holy Spirit, but the so-called prophecies were in fact the result of her mental and physical condition influenced by the surrounding religious euphoria.
Today, Ellen White is an inseparable part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. However, in the period immediately after the Great Disappointment the relations and influences among the chaotic mass of Adventists were quite different. Between 1844 and 1861 Ellen she was a simple pawn inside this movement and she was not at all perceived as a prophet. On the contrary; the early Adventist leaders saw her first visions as effects of her poor mental state. According to Mrs. White, God miraculously endowed her with the gift of prophecy in December 1844, at the age of 17:
As God has show me in holy vision … I turned to look for the Advent people in the world, but could not find them – when a voice said to me, “Look again, and look a little higher.” At this I raised my eyes and saw a straight and narrow path, cast up high above the world. On this path the Advent people were travelling to the City, which was at the farther end of the path. They had a bright light set up behind them at the first end of the path, which an angel told me was the Midnight Cry [Miller’s work].1130
In reality, achieving the prophetic spirit two months after the Great Disappointment was not a coincidence or the work of the Holy Spirit, but a false refuge meant to defend the personal pride, to strengthen an aberrant doctrine and to create a new and clearly delimited cult. The former Millerites were eager to confer a meaning to the failure of October 22, 1844. And while most of them preferred to bring answers through study, Ellen White chose the path of revelations.
The unbroken string of prophetic failures began in the first part of 1845. According to Lucinda Burdick, a friend of Mrs. White,
There were also many failures. She pretended God showed her things which did not come to pass. At one time she saw that the Lord would come the second time in June 1845. The prophecy was discussed in all the churches, and in a little “shut-door paper” published in Portland, Me. During the summer, after June passed, I heard a friend ask her how she accounted for the vision? She replied that “they told her in the language of Canaan, and she did not understand the language; that it was the next September that the Lord was coming, and the second growth of grass instead of the first in June.” September passed, and many more have passed since, and we have not seen the Lord yet. It soon became evident to all candid persons, that many things must have been “told her in the language of Canaan,” or some other which she did not understand, as there were repeated failures.1131
In 1846 Ellen Harmon became Ellen White after she married James White. In the same year the Whites began to collaborate with the influential Adventist leader Joseph Bates. Bates was much older than the Whites, being one of Miller’s most zealous associates. He was believed to have spent his entire fortune of 15,000 dollars in Miller’s project. Unlike Mrs. White, who at the time was only an uneducated anonymous 19-year-old girl, Bates was educated, driven by very strong beliefs and with a very strong influence among the chaotic mass of former Millerites. To gain his sympathy, the Whites quickly accepted to keep the Sabbath as Bates advised them. And even though Bates considered Mrs. White’s visions to be only the products of her mind, the Whites were eager to convince him otherwise. Bates had been a sea captain; he was fond of astronomy and he had knowledge about stars. He often spoke about different planets, their positions, their moons and the infinity of the Universe.1132 Apparently, Mrs. White did not seem to be interested in this topic. And yet, she quickly had a vision with the planetary system, right in the presence of Bates: …
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