An Historic Event

This previous weekend I had a chance to be part of a truly historic event. It was the Ellen White Biography Project Conference at the Regency Portland Hotel in Portland, Maine, Ellen White’s childhood home town. According to a leading participant in the conference, "This is the most important conversation about Ellen White in 90 years." The conference was co-sponsored by a consortium of Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities and the University of Southern Maine, which is located in Portland.

For those who have never heard of Ellen White (1827-1915), she was probably the most prolific female religious writer in 19th Century America. The recipient of dreams and visions, she helped to found and develop the Seventh-day Adventist Church through a writing and speaking career that spanned more than 70 years, from 1844 to her death in 1915. Although she was sickly for much of her life and faced much opposition both inside and outside of the church, her achievements are absolutely amazing. She helped turned a few dozen scattered Americans into a church that today has some 17,000,000 members that can be found in virtually every country on earth. She helped found a parochial education system that today is probably the largest Protestant educational system in the world. A hundred years ago she directed the founding of a small medical school in Southern California that today is the world-renowned, billion-dollar Loma Linda University Adventist Health Science Center. Not to mention that Loma Linda, California is considered the longest-lived community in the United States, largely on the basis of the health principles she taught. Not bad for a frail woman that most people have never heard of. (Full disclosure: I grew up reading the writings of Ellen White and found them inspirational as well as a guiding light for everyday behavior.)

Just a quick note. I have not forgotten my promise to continue a series of blogs on politics in the church, but the Ellen White Conference seemed too significant to ignore, so I will report on that first and then get back to the other series.

What does Ellen White have to do with a web site on the battle of Armageddon? She herself wrote a significant book on church history that concludes with a visionary outline of the final events of earth’s history that is based, in part, on the Book of Revelation. The book is known today in its seventh edition (1911) as The Great Controversy. At the conference I served as a respondent to a proposed chapter on the eschatology of Ellen White.

The Ellen White Conference was historic in that it brought together just about everyone alive who has written something significant about Ellen White or about the 19th-Century American religious context in which she lived and wrote. By my count there were 66 participants at the conference. About half of these participants (34) were Seventh-day Adventists who work for the church or its institutions. These included such illustrious names as George Knight, Ron Graybill, Kendra Haloviak, Doug Morgan, Gil Valentine, Merlin Burt, Gary Land, Roy Branson, Jud Lake, Floyd Greenleaf, Alden Thompson, Ben McArthur and Jerry Moon. Another 10 participants were Adventists in background, but have either left the church or chosen employment outside the church. These included well-known names such as Ron Numbers, Jonathan Butler, Vern Carner, Ron Lawson, William Peterson, Don McAdams and Graeme Sharrock.

The 22 non-Adventists were almost a "who’s who" of American religious studies. There was Paul Boyer, Harvard-trained professor who specializes in America and prophecy. There was Ann Taves, president-elect of the American Academy of Religion. There was Amanda Porterfield, co-editor of the journal Church History. There was Joan Hedrik, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Harriet Beecher Stowe (a contemporary of Ellen White). There was Grant Wacker, president of the American Society of Church History and author of the upcoming, definitive biography of Billy Graham. The better-known institutions represented by these scholars included Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Wheaton, Wisconsin, Tufts, Bradley, Trinity, Boston, Florida State and Mississippi and Brigham Young. A very distinguished list. Never before has a group like this gotten together to study the life and work of Ellen White. It is hoped that outcome will be a carefully researched and respectful biography of Ellen Gould Harmon White.

Some inside scoop into the workings of the conference in my next blog.


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