Ellen White and the Trumpets (EWB 14)

When it comes to the trumpets, unfortunately, Ellen White has very little to say. Only two statements are generally understood to offer meaningful comment on Revelation 8:7 through 9:21; they are found in Letter 109, 1890 and GC 334-335. On the surface, at least, the two statements point in opposite directions. One is often used to support an end-time scenario for the trumpets, the other to support Josiah Litch’s historicist account, which places the first six trumpets well in the past. Each of these statements will be examined briefly in turn. Four other possibilities will also be explored. Statements regarding Revelation 8:3-5, 11:7 and 11:18 may shed some light on Revelation 8:7-9:21, and statements regarding the sealing of Revelation 7 are often understood to impact on the meaning of Revelation 9:4.

Until recently, Seventh-day Adventist interpreters have rejected any futurist understanding of the first six trumpets. In the last few years, however, some have suggested that the seven trumpets have an end-time fulfillment, either in addition to or in place of the historical understandings of the past. This kind of interpretation seeks support in Ellen White’s statement in Letter 109, 1890: “Solemn events before us are yet to transpire. Trumpet after trumpet is to be sounded, vial after vial poured out one after another upon the inhabitants of the earth. Scenes of stupendous interest are right upon us.” This statement from a private letter was later published in 7BC 982, part of the Ellen White notes in the SDA Bible Commentary.

The understanding of this statement is not particularly aided by its context. The statement is very general and uses the term “trumpet” as part of a collection of statements concerning the terrors of the end. The statement was not published in Ellen White’s lifetime, and it does not offer an exegesis of Revelation 8 and 9. The only connection to Revelation 8-11 is the single word “trumpet.” There is no indication of an exegetical usage and it is the lone reference like this in all of her writings. Since the comment is confined to a personal letter and is not intentionally included in her published works, she does not appear to be attaching any great significance to it. Rather than attempting to set the groundwork for future exegesis of the trumpets, Ellen White appears to be merely echoing the language of Scripture to heighten her description of future calamity to move a person to action and commitment. There are too many uncertainties with regard to her intention for the passage, therefore, to offer any conclusive guidance to exegesis of the trumpets. If the trumpets are to be interpreted as future, it needs to be demonstrated by exegesis of the text itself.

An entirely different approach seeks support from the statement in GC 334-335. In this statement Ellen White gives apparent support to the view proposed by Josiah Litch and published by Uriah Smith in Daniel and the Revelation that the fifth and sixth trumpets portray the activities of the Saracens and Turks over a 1200-year period. While the SDA church holds the official view that doctrinal and exegetical positions should be based on the Bible and not on the writings of Ellen White, most SDAs would be uncomfortable rejecting a view that she seems to state clearly and unequivocally. Her endorsement in a major published work would have an almost overwhelming effect on interpretation of the trumpets.

Many E. G. White scholars, however, including Arthur White (her grandson) and Robert Olson (both directors of the White Estate), do not consider her language to be an endorsement of the Islamic view. She uses such neutral terms as “according to his calculations,” and “the event exactly fulfilled the prediction.” This leads one to suspect that she herself was uncertain as to the correct understanding of Revelation 9 and reported Litch’s view because of its historical significance. She points out that as a result of the apparent fulfillment of Litch’s prediction, multitudes were convinced of the correctness of the Millerite principles of prophetic interpretation, and many men of learning and position united with Miller. Litch’s position played a critical role in the historical context she was describing.

To compound the problem with the interpretation, Litch himself later repudiated that view because of, among other things, an error in calculating the supposed time period of Revelation 9:15. He overlooked the effect of the calendar change in 1582 when he predicted that the supposed time period of Revelation 9:15 would wind up on August 11, 1840. So even if Revelation 9:15 portrays a period of time rather than a point in time (which is grammatically problematic—see my comments on Revelation 9:15 in the Facebook commentary at the Armageddon web site), the specific position described in Great Controversy is in error. Since no one since has been able to salvage Litch’s view in the form reported in GC 334-335, it is probably better to understand her account as a historical report and not a theological endorsement.

In the blog that follows this one in a few days, I will address the issue of how such a reading of Ellen White is supported by her own statements and those of her closest associates. Stay tuned.

11 thoughts on “Ellen White and the Trumpets (EWB 14)

  1. Andrew Ellis

    Jon, The historic interpretation of the 7 Trumpets was developed in the early period of the Protestant reformation. At this time in history, the end was expected around the year 1840, and so all the prophesies had to be fulfilled. We know now, that the end did not occur in the 1840’s. Please check this out and let me know what you find. thank you and shalom.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Andrew, thank you for your question. Your assumption about the Reformation is ultimately based, I believe, on a single enigmatic statement from Martin Luther where he suggested that Jesus coming might be 300 years in the future. Whether he believed that consistently or how he came to that conclusion, he did not say. The specific focus on 1840 was the “discovery” of Josiah Litch in the 1830s. He is the only one to work out that system and he later on rejected it, so the interpretation is rather precariously based. I was part of a team in the late 1980s that tried to reconstruct Litch’s work in way that did justice to both the exegesis of Rev 9 and history. We failed in that attempt, even though the group contained the best Adventist minds on Revelation. So at best Litch’s view should be held lightly. Was that the kind of response you were looking for when you asked the question?

  2. Hansen

    I once asked Gerhard Hasel if he thought Adventism’s traditional understanding of the trumpets could be sustained. He suggested I read the then recently published Daniel and Revelation series. Another time, I asked Edwin Thiele the same question. “I can’t talk about that now,” he responded.

    Froom devoted a couple of pages in Prophetic Faith of our Fathers to Luther’s views on the return of Christ (vol 2, pp. 278,279). Luther himself in a sermon, delivered as early as 1522 said

    “5. I do not wish to force any one to believe as I do; neither will I permit
    anyone to deny me the right to believe that the last day is near at hand.
    These words and signs of Christ compel me to believe that such is the case.
    For the history of the centuries that have passed since the birth of Christ
    nowhere reveals conditions like those of the present. There has never been
    such building and planting in the world” (Lenker’s translation of Luther’s sermons, vol. 1, “Second Sunday in Advent”).

    EGW said that Luther placed the judgment/return of Christ [?] “300 years in the future” (GC 357).

  3. Peter malambo

    Since trumpets symbolize warning of coming judgement or destruction then we can view them in two contexts one being during the flood period and another after or post flood period here am referring to the time of naoh. This is only account in the bible were we can even find the period of 150months it relates to the period of naoh after the flood. Now it’s turn new testament apocalyptic prophecy revelation chapter 8 here again it can be either dual prophecy representation beacuse some symbols are related.antideluvians world had received a message of warning through naoh of a flood. Then in the new testament we have a warning of the mark of the beast and it’s image. Revelation 8 open with an interlude from revelation 5,and 7 in chapter 7 we have introduction of the 144,000 and the four angels given charge to harm the earth,and the four angels given the charge to hold the four winds that they should blow upon the earth,tree and sea until the sealing is completed. And an angel ascending from the east having the seal of the living God. we have the trumpet brusts and the opening of the seventh seal.which we know the seals cover the span of church history and then seven plagues come in as also warning of them that receive the mark of the beast and it’s image.

  4. Moni Ames

    Hi. I am studying Revelation 8 & 9 right now, and a Google search brought me here as I’m trying to find out if EGW writings offer any additional insights into the interpretation of these chapters. Are the events in these chapters as described by the Trumpets(or at least the first 5) only events that happened hundreds or over a thousand years ago? Are they only telling of the past or also of future events? Revelation 8:8 sounds an awful lot like a meteor hitting the earth when I read it. Am I mistaken to think this? Could there be a dual meaning? Were these verses only referring to The Vandals and Genseric? Any insight on this would be appreciated. Thanks. I’m prayerfully seeking answers.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      I am probably as studied up on the trumpets as anyone in the world (I know most of the “rivals” personally. I can honestly say that I am less sure of what they mean than I was 45 years ago, before I began this line of study. I don’t sense from the two relevant statements of EW that she had any clear idea either. GC is just sharing what others thought and the one mention of trumpets in a private letter seems like an off-hand comment without any exegetical intention. The value of the trumpets may be to encourage us to keep studying, there is more to learn. But I spend the majority of my time today in the clearer texts of Scripture. Seems more profitable.

  5. Kevin Hellerud

    I hope that Brother Jon will allow me to put in my understanding, and things I’ve learned in our schools that has helped me with this:

    There are two basic questions to approach scripture with: First “What DID this mean?” Second “What DOES this mean?”

    There is basically two fold applications, but the second fold actually has a climatic fulfillment. The first application is that Bible prophecy is given in a way to work with the free will of the people getting the message not for fulfillment to be years and years and years in the future, but things they could do that could prepare for the setting up of God’s kingdom, with the exception of the 70 weeks of years, with in at most a couple of generations. Seeing what COULD have happened. Even the 2300 evenings-mornings had a way it could have been fulfilled in Daniel’s day.

    The Ancient world thought in cycles (sadly our of print, but if you can get Henri Frankfort and others “Before Philosophy” it explains these (and thus the day-year principle. I don’t know why our church does not reprint it.). 1946 Universite of Chicago Press.

    It something is not met, it cycles around again. Just as Moses came to enter the promised land, the spies gave their report, the people became unwilling, and they returned to the wilderness, but God lead them back to the border again giving the opportunity to enter the land.

    In the same way, God gives an original setting offering the original audience a way to fulfill. If not fulfilled, or only partially fulfilled, the principle cycles around again over history. Historism is looking at these cycling around through history, and through this God leads his church through history, guiding them and helping them to grow. But eventually one of these cycles will be the “final” cycle.

    Now, the better we understand what was offered to the original audience, the better we can evaluate if it has been properly reapplied over history, and the better our application to our day and the final cycle.

    I hope this helps.

    Now, when it comes to the trumpets: Mrs. White appears to especially see them as future. She does not make as much out of the traditional interpretation as we tend to do. The structure of Revelation has the trumpets correspond to the plagues. Some have understood this to mean that the trumpets are the little time of trouble where there is increased activity of both Satan and the Holy Spirit to bring everyone to a final decision before the close of probation, then the plagues are the events after the close of probation. While others want to do all sorts of tapdancing over the text and Mrs. White quotes to force it to support our traditions.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Thanks for sharing. I resonate with much of what you said. The challenge with conditional prophecy is that it takes away our ability to know much about the future from the prediction. And this can be de-stabilizing for people. But tolerating a little ambiguity can be a healthy sign of maturity, so . . . 🙂

  6. Kevin Hellerud

    Please let me add to how the 2300 evenings mornings could have been fulfilled in Daniel’s day. For a good overview of the principles please read “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy” in the SDABC vol 4.

    In different places in the Bible, such as Deuteronomy 4, God offers two plans for working with his people. One was through being blessed in the land and the world would come to them for the gospel. But if not faithful God would send curses to encourage them to change. If nothing else worked they would go into exile. In exile they were to share with their neighbors their unfaithfulness and their God’s faithfulness, and thus spread the gospel. If faithful the exile would have ended in a second great exodus lead by the Messiah.

    Daniel 1-7 was open to the possibility that the exile could end in this second great exodus lead by the Messiah. Daniel 8 sees the possibility, but that the exile might not have that glorious ending. Daniel 9-12 has a lackluster return to the land, but how to prepare over another cycle of 70 weeks of years for the Messiah. The last few chapters of Isaiah, that we apply to heaven, but still has some things that don’t fit heaven, are actually what God was hoping to do over the 70 weeks of years to bless and attract the nations.

    As for Daniel 8. It was given in the third year of Belshazzar. Until the 20th century, we did not have evidence of if Belshazzar even existed, much less when his third year was. Now if we take the popular interpetation of making the 2300 evenings-mornings into the morning and evening sacrifice and thus 1150 days: from any day in Belshazzar’s third year, 1150 literal days later comes to business as usual. But 2300 literal days later brings us to the year where the Meds and Persians were a threat, Belshazzar’s feast, and the early days of the Medio-Persia Empire. The original setting was that they had only about 2300 days to share the gospel if they wanted the exile to end in the second great exodus lead by the Messiah.

    Now, getting to the day-year principle. Both Leviticus 23 and Leviticus 25 gives the Hebrew cycles: For example Leviticus 23 gives the cycle for the Hebrew week: 6 days and the Sabbath; 6 months and either Passover or Yom Kippur, 6 years and the Sabbatical year, and 6 Sabbatical years and the Jubilee. Now Deuteronomy, which Daniel is more built on, down plays the Jubilee. So to a good Deuteronomist like Daniel he would see it as days=months=years (Frankfort points out that in Egypt a “day” cycle was either the cycle of the sun or the cycle of the Nile. A day=a year principle). 1844 is not the ONLY time that the 2300 days could have been fulfilled, but it was the last time that fit’s Daniel’s cyclic thought.
    (And sorry, neither Leviticus 23 nor Leviticus 25 tells us that we should include in our cyclic thought the day=1000 year application. And I don’t think that Moses made a mistake by giving us the cycles that he gave.)

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      SDABC 4 is one of the great classic writings of Adventist scholarship. The debate today is the degree to which it applied to apocalyptic prophecies and also predictions of Ellen White. I am open to your approach, but it sure is controversial right now. 🙂

Comments are closed.