Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (12): Ellen White and Prophetic Principles

The standard assumption among many Adventists is that every single prediction made by Ellen White must be fulfilled at some point in the future, without conditions. This position is similar to that the Pharisees applied to the Old Testament in Jesus’ day. We all know how that worked out. Considering both the principles of prophetic interpretation of the Bible and the realities of history since the 1880s, I would suggest we exercise a little caution before uncritically embracing the standard assumptions about future Sunday laws in the United States and elsewhere. If Ellen White were alive today, there is at least a chance that her depiction of the End would be somewhat different than it was in the 1880s. Let’s look at the evidence for that caution.

First of all, an unconditional approach to Ellen White’s predictions is contrary to the evidence of fulfilled prophecies in the Bible. We noticed there that (2) God is not always predictable, that (4) God meets people where they are, that (6) God uses the language of the prophet’s past and present to describe the future, and that (7) fulfillments of prophecy are best understand as or after the fulfillment. I would argue that an appropriate interpretation of Ellen White’s unfulfilled prophecies would be and should be very much in line with the biblical evidence.

Let’s look briefly at the context of her most specific statements regarding the national Sunday law in the late 1880s. At that time, both SDAs and many other Americans see three great threats in the public square. The first was the fear of Protestant apostasy; that Protestantism in America would lose focus on the principles of the Reformation, which also undergirded the founding principles of the American nation. The second major threat was the rise of Roman Catholicism in the United States. In 1840 Catholics made up about 5% of the US population. By the mid-1880s, due to massive immigration from places like Ireland, Italy and Poland, Catholics made up 17% of the US population and Catholicism was flexing its political muscles in the US for the first time. This alarmed both Protestants and Adventists. The love for bars and carnivals that Catholics brought with them from Europe caused many to feel that the social order was being undermined. The third major threat was the rise of spiritualism as a major influence in the political discourse of the time. Ellen White’s famous statement about “reaching hands across the gulf” names all three of these threats (GC 588). A union of these three forces was seen as the greatest threat to both Adventism and the American republic.

Protestantism reacted to these developments in two ways, one more popular than the other with Adventists. First was the drive to ban the production and sale of alcohol in the United States, a movement that came later to be called Prohibition. Ellen White found common cause with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union on this issue and she sometimes spoke at their rallies. But the WCTU and other Protestant entities also saw Sunday legislation as a way to preserve America’s character as a Protestant nation. They sensed that the country was changing and felt that Sunday laws was a way to hold back the tide. Ellen White’s most famous statements on Sunday laws were written in the midst of the above developments. Thus, they are to be understood in the light of the biblical principles outlined at the beginning. God was using Ellen White’s past and present language and experiences to paint a picture of the future. Her outline of that future was, therefore, a natural extension of her time and place. Her visions met her squarely where she was. Given how much the world has changed in the last 130 years, it would be surprising if the outcome of the end-time turned out to be more predictable than the prophecies fulfilled in Bible times. “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” LDE 38.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (12): Ellen White and Prophetic Principles

  1. Linda Rothenburger

    Do we not again have the rising threat of all 3 of those conditions today? The apostasy of Protestantism is astounding as many of their greatest leaders deny the importance of the Reformation and are encouraging union with the Catholic church; the Catholic church is gaining in popularity at amazing speed with Pope Francis; and Spiritualism saturates our world with movies and TV promoting communicating with the dead and pantheism. The conditions that were just beginning in the 1880s have increased in threat to where Ellen White’s prophecy seems even more, not less, probable.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Linda, in the broadest sense yes, all three are still in play, but the world in which they play is a very different place than it was in the 1880s. The idea of the US embracing a “Protestant government” or any kind of religious government, is hard to see from here. It could happen, but it would not be a natural extension of where we are now. She saw the end-time events as a natural extension of movements current in her day. All of those movements failed and the nation moved on. Could they come back, certainly. But we are in a far different place than they were. If Sunday laws do occur it will probably come from an unexpected direction. I just don’t want people sincerely looking in the wrong direction as the Pharisees did when Jesus came the first time.

  2. Chuck Springer

    Thank you very much Dr. Pauline for challenging us to think! I do appreciate Mrs. Whites insights in the Great Controversy and other writings (End Time Events – a compilation of her writings) and how they give a good insight into the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan. I have had many people quote to me passages from these writing to prove their theological points on different topics (sanctuary, judgment, etc.) rather than the Bible. Should we also be careful in trying to prove doctrinal issues from her writings? I think that some teachings on differing subjects like the sanctuary and judgment have evolved over the years as theologians have studied the original languages, archeology and history. Do you think that some of Mrs. Whites writings reflect what was believed in her day and subject to further investigation in our day? Should we not make her writings the final authority on every subject? Don’t get me wrong, I highly value her writings – they have been true blessing and guiding light in my experience with Jesus.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      You ask important questions. One extreme is to take her as the final word on all things, as if every word she spoke or wrote was dictated straight from heaven. The other extreme is to completely ignore her, which would be a very unwise position for any SDA to take. The balance between the two is often hard to maintain. I think the best work the church has ever done on this topic can be found on the following web page:

  3. John Scheermeijer

    With regard to Ellen White, I think it would be of benefit to look at the descriptions of the conditions she refers to.
    “He has put it in our power, through cooperation with Him, to bring this scene of misery to an end.”
    The condition then is that we should cooperate with God.
    Laws enforcing Sunday worship in America predate 1789.
    The church was calling for repentance, conversion, and cooperation with God before 1888.


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