Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (14): Ellen White, A Classical Prophet

One thing I have come to realize in recent discussions is that many people who read Ellen White treat her writings as if they were apocalyptic prophecy, and therefore not subject to the Bible’s principles for interpreting classical prophecy. There are visions she describes that remind one of Revelation 4-5 (heavenly journeys), but nothing like Daniel 2 or Jewish visions like 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch. Her work fits the pattern of classical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea. She addresses her immediate situation with passion and a desire for change on the part of her readers. When she projects into the future, it is never a detailed account of specific things beyond her time, but a natural extension of the world she is living in.

The important implication of this is that her predictions of the future, insofar as they concern human affairs, are conditional upon those affairs. This principle is stated unequivocally in Jeremiah 18:7-10: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.” This is God speaking directly and explaining how He operates (Jer 18:6). When speaking about the interactions among nations and powerful entities, God’s predictions are conditional upon the response of those nations and entities. To take such prophecies as outlining the future with absolute certainty is to take them too far. They may, in fact, be fulfilled in exact detail, but they also may not. God is not always predictable. As Ellen White herself frequently stated, “circumstances alter cases.”

In my research for this series I ran across a statement of Ellen White that shocked me. It was completely counter to the strong emphasis of Great Controversy on the topic. But when you note the date of the statement in light of the prophetic principles we outlined earlier, the statement makes perfect sense. “Then I saw the mother of harlots. . . . She has had her day and it is past, and her daughters, the Protestant sects, were next to come on the stage and act out the same mind that the mother had when she persecuted the saints.” MS 15, 1850. When she speaks of the “mother of harlots” she is clearly alluding to Revelation 17:4-5, which she applied consistently to the papacy. In her view, as of the year 1850, the papacy “has had her day and it is past.” Protestant America would play the role in the end-time that the papacy had played in the Middle Ages.

This statement makes perfect sense in 1850. The population of Catholics in the United States was about 5% in 1840. They were a small, insignificant player on the stage of American politics. But immigration from places like Ireland, Italy and Poland changed that dynamic in the decades that followed. By the year 1890, the proportion of Catholics in the US population had reached 17%. They could no longer be ignored. But in 1850 the papacy appeared to be a spent force, having just gone through the humiliating captivity of 1798. Since the demise of the “mother of harlots” is stated in Revelation 17:16, Ellen White may at that time have placed Revelation 17 in the past as Uriah Smith did. If the end had come in the 1850s, it appears that the papacy would not have played the role in the end-time that Great Controversy portrays for it in the 1880s. Her 1850 prediction is a natural extension of that time and place.

Another surprising statement comes from 1886, a little before the peak of Sunday agitation in Congress. “. . . the Christian world has sanctioned (Satan’s) efforts by adopting this child of the papacy– the Sunday institution. They have nourished it and continue to nourish it, until Protestantism shall give the hand of fellowship to the Roman power. Then there will be a law against the Sabbath of God’s creation. . . .” RH, March 9, 1886. In this statement, the key element is not so much a law requiring Sunday observance, but a law forbidding Sabbath observance. Here she follows the anti-Sabbath option for Revelation 13 that we have mentioned previously. This emphasis would increase in the 1890s and early 1900s as the drive to legislate national observance of Sunday lost steam. When local Sunday laws came to her attention, instead of telling people to resist them, she said use the day for missionary work. Don’t arouse the ire of neighbors and authorities by conspicuously doing manual labor on that day. It is no direct threat to your keeping of the Sabbath.

As you look at all the statements Ellen White makes regarding Sunday laws, the key statements regarding Sunday legislation in Congress are clustered in the year 1888, when that was a live and national issue. As you observe the trend of her statements over seventy years, it fits the pattern of the classical prophet: speaking directly and prophetically to the living issues of her time. As with Scripture, this in no way diminishes the value of such prophecies for today. It simply impacts the way that we read them and apply them today.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (14): Ellen White, A Classical Prophet

  1. Kent Johnson

    This has been an interesting and enlightening series. It would seem that it’s still possible circumstances could bring about a national Sunday law thus fulfilling EGW’s comments especially as we have seen lock downs etc. with the COVID virus. I was recently reading some of James Nix material on the EGW website and found that people were actually imprisoned for 45 to 55 days and had to work with chain gangs in Tennessee for working on Sundays back in 1892. Made the news in many of the country’s newspapers and it seemed they did not support this local occurrence of enforcing a Sunday law.

    I’ve also wondered about EGW’s statement regarding how unions would be a big factor in bringing about the time of trouble. “The trades unions will be one of the agencies that will bring upon this earth a time of trouble such as has not been since the world began.”—Letter 200, 1903. It seems like they have lost so much of their influence and makes you wonder how that fits in but maybe it’s the same as you have laid out in regards to a national Sunday law.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author


      I think the most important thing I have learned in this project is that Seventh-day Adventists apply conditionality to the Bible without difficulty but have a hard time applying the same principle to Ellen White, as if she is somehow less human than the other prophets or God has changed His approach since New Testament times. Ellen White predicted in 1856 that Jesus would come within the lifetime of those in attendance. Paul seems to have felt the same way in 1 Thess 4:15-16. I would argue neither is a false prophet, at least not on that ground. Jer 18:7-10.

  2. Mike Hansen

    I know this series is on EGW’s views and circumstances of Sunday laws for the U.S., but now that we are still here 132 years later and the world has changed more than she ever envisioned, what of the biblical understanding of worship being THE end-time issue according to Revelation 14:7?

    In that time, our church has been able to develop much, much more biblical scholarship such as yourself, and many others I love reading and respect immensely. It appears that was included in God’s plan for these remaining days of earth’s history to help counter the saturating influence of secularism, error-prone interpretations of Revelation or those misguided people who seem to have such loud voices.

    I sit here thinking, what then is her role for the church if it’s not to help fill in details of what is to come? Classical prophecy is evidently much more practical than apocalyptic — correct? Meaning, to live the writings of a classical prophet, is to know God deeper, serve with love and still teach others about him and the Bible in light of current circumstances/events.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      I think the last paragraph sums up Ellen White’s mission very well and cautions us not to fixate on details that may not have been central to her purpose. The details may in fact work out, but if we EXPECT them to, we may be looking in the wrong direction when the real thing comes.


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