This year is certainly going to set a record with a series of new Ellen G. White resources that have become or soon will be available. This past month, after 13 years, The Ellen White Encyclopedia (Review and Herald, 2013) is now available. As noted earlier this piece of research highlights the contributions of 180 Seventh-day Adventist scholars about the life and teachings of Ellen G. White’s life and ministry.
Another volume of essays titled Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (Oxford University Press, 2014) is due out this coming March. Edited by Terrie Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, it is the product of a conference in Portland, Maine. These essays place Ellen White within her broader social and historical context, and some (at least in the earlier drafts of the manuscript that I reviewed) are even quite critical of Ellen G. White. Yet it marks an important step to try to describe her life on an academic level by both Adventists, former Adventists, and by more neutral observers from outside Adventism (who are perhaps the most kind in their treatment of Ellen White).
Then later this summer, hopefully, the first annotated volume of Ellen G. White’s unpublished writings is due to come out. This volume has been in the works for about a decade under the leadership of Roland Karlman. It remains to be seen now that all of the unpublished writings by Ellen G. White are coming out next summer how far the series will go. Plans are under way for a second volume that will take the project up through 1863.
One of the primary questions raised by the release of so much scholarly research in conjunction with the unpublished writings is a question about the authoritative text of the unpublished writings. Some years ago I discovered several previously undiscovered letters by Ellen G. White in the Center for Adventist Research. A few months later Kenneth H. Wood, at the time chairman of the White Estate Board of Trustees, edited the letters and placed an edited transcription in the letter file of the White Estate. Ron Graybill suggested that “both the handwritten original and the finished draft of any Ellen White manuscript constitute equally valid texts” (Ministry, “Ellen White’s Role in Doctrinal Formation,” October 1981, pg. 10). Thus what is released will most likely be a unified, normative text. Scholars of Ellen G. White will still need to study the original autographs in order to be able to ascertain her original spelling, use of words, and to note any changes between variant readings of texts.
Clearly it awaits to be seen where all of this new scholarship is going to lead, but one thing appears to be clear: a new era has begun for Ellen White studies. New pathways will likely emerge.
One pathway that I think will promise to be especially fruitful is that of new biographical treatments of Ellen G. White’s life. Several are already under way: Jonathan Butler started his research in the 1970s continues to work on a biography; Terrie Aamodt, professor at Walla Walla University is working on a similar project as part of George R. Knight’s Adventist Biography Series; Joan D. Hedrick, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography on Harriet Beecher Stowe, was at least at one point seriously considering such a project; and no doubt more biographical volumes will likely shed additional light on her life and thought. For such a significant individual for Seventh-day Adventism, as well as American religion, it is surprising that more biographical work has not been done up to this point.
In my own study of Ellen G. White it seems to me that one of the areas that needs to be strengthened is a contextualization of her life and writings. Just as a brief example, Ellen G. White writes extensively against “mammon”–an evangelical term that decried the rise of market capitalism–and justified the support of ministers as market-savvy treatises on “Systematic Benevolence” connected commercial reasoning with church practice. Early Adventist history needs to be placed within its social context.
The real question moving into the future of Ellen White studies relates to the various interpretative presuppositions that drive various “schools” of research. Some historians who will likely want to explain Ellen White’s thought in strictly Marxist terms (such as some of the essays in this new volume from Oxford) whereas others will likely follow new paradigms in religious historiography set by Mark A. Noll, George Marsden, and others who certainly acknowledge these interpretative aspects without allowing it to dominate either. Should economics determine religion? Or does religion determine economics? And what about other cultural and political factors? All of these combined will enrich Ellen White studies.