Over the past year I have been diligently going through the 4,739 pages of Testimonies for the Church. The nine volumes are actually a collection of pamphlets that began with a single pamphlet in 1855, expanded into groups of pamphlets and ultimately by the 1880s into volumes, with additional volumes added with time. As I finish the third volume I am nearly 42% on my journey through these writings.
What impresses me the most on my journey so far is a sense of just how much sense Ellen G. White’s writings make by reading them through like this. It is clear to me that her writings were meant to be read in context, and even though she sometimes used compilations and allowed for compilations after her death, the Testimonies for the Church help me to understand the significance of her writings as she not only gave counsels, but then balanced them against those who sought to ignore them on the one hand, and others who deliberately misused them on the other. Although I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying her writings over the past two decades, until now I’ve never taken the time to carefully read these books from cover to cover. I wonder how many people have? I think that if more people would stop using the Ellen G. White CD-ROM and compilations and begin to read more of her writings such as the Testimonies for the Church that it promote a much more balanced understanding of who Ellen G. White was and the role and purpose of her writings for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Not only are the Testimonies for the Churhc important, but they represent as a genre perhaps the key to understanding her overall writings and ministry. For example, just in terms of just numbers, by some estimates Ellen G. White is reported to have written approximately 100,000 pages. The Testimonies for the Church thus represents approximately 5% of this total, but when you count the fact that many of these Testimonies were published later as articles, sermons, and portions of pamphlets and books, I believe that they more realistically represent between 20 to 30% of her total
But what was a “Testimony” for the Church? These early Testimonies were letters typically written to an individual, group of individuals such as a church or churches, or a group of ministers or church leaders. Some times these were quite “pointed” and with time she increasingly kept copies of letters that she wrote. These letters had general application as they represented recurring challenges within the growing church. Some times Ellen G. White sensed a “duty to write” while at other times she was “bidden to wait” before sending written admonitions (2T 154). At several points she wrote about how she could barely refrain from admonishing someone while speaking in public. At time she said this was because there were unbelievers present.
Perhaps most significant of all is that within this genre of Ellen G. White’s writings follows a well developed pattern that recurs with consistency:
Spiritual Blindness. Almost every Testimony begins with an urgent appeal that the person was in some form of spiritual blindness. If only they could see themselves as Jesus sees them they would wake up. Quite frequently these appeals with words such as “awake” “asleep” or “blind” and many variations thereof of this theme.
The Challenge. Ellen G. White addresses a smorgasbord of problems. As one of my students pointed out to me, no one person could possibly have all of the problems that she addresses. So why do some people try to make them apply to every situation? She strongly encourages people to recognize that in reading her counsels that time and place must be taken into consideration.
The Appeal. Another consistent pattern is that Ellen G. White urges people to change their lives. While this may seem obvious, she over and over again gives people hope. The most frequent form is some variation of the idea that although they have wasted time, it is not too late for them to turn their life around.
Consider Influence. Ellen G. White urges people to become aware of their influence—whether that is in their own home, to neighbors and co-workers, or to the world that needs the good news of the gospel.
Points to Jesus. Toward the end of nearly all of her Testimonies Ellen G. White reminds people to look to Jesus. If people realized the immense sacrifice of Jesus Christ, they would not concentrate so much on their own problems. Whatever problem they may have, Jesus is and will always be the only answer. One of my “take aways” from reading the Testimonies for the Church so far is that she consistently uplifts Jesus.
Now these five steps are not always followed perfectly or in this order, but they recur so often in this manner that I believe that they represent a unique pattern. At times, especially in her lengthier treatises, she repeats these steps. She will go through a pattern of 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Or, at other times, 1, 2, 3, 4, and then repeat, and then finish with step 5. Yet these steps recur with such frequency that they need to be considered as an important part of this genre of her writings.
Perhaps the greatest challenge, as the individual situations grow more distant chronologically, is to better understand the historical context of each of these Testimonies—at least as much as is possible to know. While some may likely remain a mystery, in a future blog post I will write more about some of those I have been able to identify, and more importantly, the historical context that sheds light on this important—perhaps most important?—genre of her writings.
What do you think?