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5. Early Adventist History and the Ministry of Women—Part 2 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Early Adventist History and the Ministry of Women—Part 2
DID ELLEN G. WHITE CALL FOR WOMEN’S ORDINATION? WAS SHE ORDAINED?

[This article is excerpted from the author’s book Must We Be Silent?]
By
Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, PhD
Director, Public Campus Ministries, Michigan Conference


Introduction
    In Part 1 of our discussion of early Seventh-day Adventist history, we showed how some of our scholars “manufacture facts” to promote women’s ordination. Among other things we refuted the oft-repeated claim that: (1) There were women ministers (preferred term, “leaders”) in the early Seventh-day Adventist Church (at least prior to 1915); (2) our pioneers wrote strongly in support of women ministers; and (3) the early Seventh-day Adventist Church voted at the 1881 General Conference session to ordain women.

In this Part 2 of our discussion, we shall call attention to two other areas where pro-ordination scholars attempt to revise SDA history. We shall look at their claims that: (a) Ellen G. White called for women's ordination in an 1895 statement; (b) Ellen G. White herself was ordained.


Did Ellen G. White's 1895 Statement Call for Women’s Ordination?

    Women in Ministry takes a statement by Ellen White out of its context and misuses it to argue for ordaining women as elders or pastors.[1] This is the actual statement:

Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister; but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church. [2]

    On the basis of this statement, one writer in Women in Ministry laments: “If only Ellen White's 1895 landmark statement had come fourteen years sooner [in 1881]!” He apparently believes that this “landmark statement” would have encouraged the General Conference Committee brethren who were wondering about the question of “perfect propriety” in implementing the alleged 1881 vote to ordain women “who were serving in the Gospel ministry.” [3]

    But evidence that Ellen G. White's 1895 statement is not applicable to the ordination of women as pastors or elders may be found within the passage itself.

    (1) This is a part-time ministry, not a calling to a lifework. “Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time . . . .”

    (2) The work is not that of a minister or a church officer. “In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister.” Evidently this work is not that of an elder or pastor.

    (3) It was a ministry different from what we were already doing. The portion quoted here is followed immediately by, “This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor.”

    (4) The statement appears in an article entitled, “The Duty of the Minister and the People,” which called upon ministers to allow and encourage church members to use their talents for the Lord. The last sentence of the quoted paragraph reflects this thrust: “Place the burdens upon men and women of the church, that they may grow by reason of the exercise, and thus become effective agents in the hand of the Lord for the enlightenment of those who sit in darkness.”

    Thus the statement and its context clearly indicate that these women were being dedicated to a specific lay ministry, not the ministry of elders or pastors. [4]

    This, however, is not the only statement from Mrs. White addressing laying on of hands for women. We could wish that Women in Ministry had cited the only known statement in which Mrs. White specifically spoke of ordination for women. Here it is:

Some matters have been presented to me in regard to the laborers who are seeking to do all in their power to win souls to Jesus Christ. . . . The ministers are paid for their work, and this is well. And if the Lord gives the wife as well as the husband the burden of labor, and if she devotes her time and her strength to visiting from family to family, opening the Scriptures to them, although the hands of ordination have not been laid upon her, she is accomplishing a work that is in the line of ministry. Should her labors be counted as nought, and her husband's salary be no more than that of the servant of God whose wife does not give herself to the work, but remains at home to care for her family? (Manuscript Releases, vol. 5, p. 323, emphasis mine). [5]  

    Here, in the opening paragraph of her message, Mrs. White honors the ministry of women and calls for full-time workers to be paid appropriately, but she dismisses the lack of ordination as irrelevant. In this paragraph and elsewhere in her manuscript she highlights the arena in which women could make an especially significant contribution: personal work with women and families. Such work did not require ordination.

    When did she write this way about ordination for women? In 1898, three years after Women in Ministry says she called for women to be ordained!

Was Ellen G. White Ordained?

    The implication that Mrs. White was ordained involves a serious inflation of the evidence. It rests on the fact that she was issued ministerial credentials, the same as those that were given to ordained men. [6]  Because Ellen White's ministerial credentials have given rise to some unfortunate misstatements by those seeking her support for women's ordination, I digress briefly to illustrate how this misinformation became institutionalized.

    In addition to promoting and distributing Women in Ministry and other pro-ordination materials at the 2000 Toronto General Conference session, advocates of women's ordination also handed out a flyer that had its source in the 1995 pro-ordination book The Welcome Table. The leaflet is a xeroxed reproduction of two of Ellen White's credentials (dated 1885 and 1887). Immediately below the credentials, the pro-ordination scholar who pulled it together in The Welcome Table makes the following comment: “Notice her [Ellen G. White's] credentials dated Dec. 6, 1885, where the word ordained has been crossed out. However, that is not the case in credentials issued December 27, 1887.” [7]

    By this comment, readers of the book are left with the erroneous impression that although Ellen White was not ordained in 1885, by 1887 the church's position had evolved to the point of ordaining her. (Some proponents of women's ordination go so far as to suggest that even though the Seventh-day Adventist Church has today rejected women's ordination, as allegedly in the [1885] case of Ellen G. White, one day the church will see the light and ordain its women, even as the church allegedly did [in 1887] after “denying” Ellen G. White her rightful ordination in 1885!) But are these things so?

    The above statement is a half-truth; the other half is “manufactured.” The full truth, as we have already noted, is that a number of dedicated women who worked for the church in the late 1800s and early 1900s were issued licenses (not ministerial credentials that are given to ordained pastors). Ellen White was the only woman ever to be issued ministerial credentials by the Seventh-day Adventist Church; she received them from 1871 until her death in 1915. At least three, not two, of her ministerial credential certificates from the 1880s are still in the possession of the Ellen G. White Estate. These are dated 1883, 1885, and 1887.

    On one of the certificates (dated 1885) the word “ordained” is neatly crossed out, but on the other two it is not. Does this mean that Ellen White was “ordained” in 1883, “unordained” in 1885, and “reordained” in 1887? Obviously not. Rather, the crossing out of “ordained” in 1885 highlights the awkwardness of giving credentials to a prophet. No such special category of credentials from the church exists. So the church utilized what it had, giving its highest credentials without an ordination ceremony having been carried out. In actuality, the prophet needed no human credentials. She had functioned for more than twenty-five years (prior to 1871) without any. [8]

    Although Ellen G. White was the only woman known to have been issued Seventh-day Adventist ministerial credentials, she was never ordained. Mrs. White herself makes this clear.

    In 1909, six years before her death, she personally filled out a “Biographical Information Blank” for the General Conference records. In response to the request on item 26, which asks, “If remarried, give date, and to whom,” she wrote an “X,” indicating that she had never remarried. Earlier, item 19 had asked, “If ordained, state when, where, and by whom.” Here she also wrote an “X,” meaning that she had never been ordained. She was not denying that God had chosen her and commissioned her as His messenger, but she was responding to the obvious intent of the question, indicating that there had never been an ordination ceremony carried out for her. [9]

    This clear and unambiguous statement of Ellen White herself should put to rest the unfounded impression left by Women in Ministry that the churchs issuance of a ministerial credential to Ellen White is an indication that she was ordained.

    If any woman was so spiritually gifted as to qualify for ordination as elder or pastor, it was Ellen G. White. If any woman was so effective in her ministry as a teacher, preacher, and soulwinner as to qualify for ordination as elder or pastor, it was Ellen White. If any Adventist was so justice-inspired, sensitive, and caring (and with demonstrable evidence of other fruits of the Spirit) as to qualify for ordination as elder or pastor, it was Ellen G. White. If any Adventist was so prolific an author and so gifted a leader as to qualify for ordination as elder or pastor, it was Ellen G. White. And if any woman could legitimately claim the title of Elder or Pastor, it was Ellen White.

    But during her later years, Mrs. White was known mostly as “Sister White” and affectionately as “Mother White.” She was never known as “Elder White” or “Pastor Ellen.” Every church member knew that “Elder White” was either her husband James, or her sons Edson or W.C. White.

    Could it really be that we are ethically and theologically more enlightened than Ellen G. White? Or is it perhaps that we do not view the Bible as she did? Whatever our response is, this much can be said: The claim or implication by some advocates of women's ordination that Ellen White was ordained is clearly wrong.

Summary

    Throughout our history, Seventh-day Adventist women have labored faithfully in the ministry as teachers, preachers, missionaries, Bible workers, etc., and have made a vital contribution to the mission of the church, all without ordination. Far from providing a case for ordination, the nine women mentioned in the Women in Ministry chapter we have been considering illustrate what women may accomplish without it. They are by no means alone. The Bible workers, as an example, offered valuable service in the ministry; they were an important part of the evangelistic team because they often knew more about the people being baptized and joining the church than the minister did; and the minister welcomed their wisdom and judgment. But none of these women was ever ordained. If these women, who were well versed in Scripture, had been asked if they wanted to be ordained as elders or pastors, most would likely have exclaimed, “Oh, no! It isn't Biblical!” I say this because it continues to be the attitude of thousands of dedicated Adventist women around the world today.

    In light of these facts of Adventist history—such as that Ellen G. White was never ordained, she never called for women to be ordained as elders or pastors, and none of our dedicated Seventh-day Adventist women of the past was ever ordained as elder or pastor—I again ask those who support women's ordination, just as I would ask those who support the attempted change of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday:

Since the testimonies of Scripture indicate that God the Father did not do it; the Old Testament is clear that the patriarchs, prophets, and kings never did do it; the Gospels reveal that Jesus, the Desire of Ages, would not do it; the epistles and the acts of the apostles declare that the commissioned apostles could not do it; Ellen White, with a prophetic vision of the great controversy between Christ and Satan, dared not do it, should we who live at the turn of another millennium do it? [10]

    What, then, shall we say in response to these manufactured “facts” in Women in Ministry? Simply this: It would have been better to tell the facts as they are, for then Women in Ministry would have been what the Ad Hoc Committee wanted it to be, a reliable guide to church members trying to make the right decision regarding the ordination of women as elders or pastors.

    Instead of recycling misinformation, half-truths, and errors, we must honestly and accurately state the facts regarding the position and practice of our pioneers on womens ordination. Having done so, we may then be at liberty to: (1) debate the rightness or wrongness of their action, or (2) decide either to follow their theological understanding and practice or chart our own course. It is irresponsible, however, to attempt to inject our biases and self-interests into a historical fact, or reinterpret it in order to push our ideological agenda.

    Even if there was no intent on the part of Women in Ministry authors to mislead, neither the church nor her Lord are well served by “scholarly research” that distorts the history it purports to tell.

Endnotes

[ ]    Michael Bernoi, “Nineteenth-Century Women in Adventist Ministry,” Women in Ministry, pp. 224, 225; cf. J.H. Denis Fortin, “Ordination in the Writings of Ellen G. White,” Women in Ministry, pp. 127, 128. Cf. Rose Otis, “Ministering to the Whole Church,” Elder’s Digest, Number Nine, p. 15. The General Conference Ministerial Association publishes Elder’s Digest. A more nuanced discussion of Ellen White’s 1895 statement is provided by Jerry Moon, “'A Power That Exceeds That of Men': Ellen G. White on Women in Ministry,” Women in Ministry, pp. 201, 202.
[2]    Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, July 9, 1895, p. 434, emphasis mine.
[3]    Bernoi, “Nineteenth-Century Women in Adventist Ministry,” Women in Ministry, p. 224. Observe that this kind of “historical research” is built on the following questionable assumptions and speculations: (1) “women were serving as Gospel workers” [understood as elders or pastors]; (2) the 1881 General Conference session voted to ordain women as pastors; (3) a three-member male committee failed to implement the alleged 1881 General Conference session vote because they were wondering about the question of “perfect propriety”; (4) it took Ellen G. White 14 long years to speak to the “correctness” of women’s ordination.
[4]    This fact is acknowledged by Jerry Moon, “'A Power That Exceeds That of Men': Ellen G. White on Women in Ministry,” Women in Ministry, p. 201. For more on this matter, see William Fagal’s reprinted articles in Prove All Things, pp. 273-286.
[5]    Though no mention of this statement appears in Bernoi’s chapter, two other chapters do mention it. One of them gives only a brief summary of the statement and omits the specific reference to ordination (J.H. Denis Fortin, “Ordination in the Writing of Ellen G. White,” Women in Ministry, p. 127), while the other provides a helpful and much more thorough study of the manuscript in question (Jerry Moon, “'A Power That Exceeds That of Men: Ellen G. White on Women in Ministry,” Women in Ministry, pp. 192-194). The chapter does not quote the reference to ordination as a part of that discussion, but it does quote it later, in the chapter’s last sentence.
[6]    Michael Bernoi notes, “For a number of years both she [Hetty Hurd Haskell] and Ellen White were listed together in the Yearbook as ministers credentialed by the General Conference, Ellen White as ordained and Mrs. Haskell as licensed” (Bernoi, “Nineteenth-Century Women in Adventist Ministry,” Women in Ministry, p. 227). Given this way without further explanation, such a statement can mislead many into assuming that Mrs. White was ordained.
[7]    Bert Haloviak, "Ellen G. White Statements Regarding Ministry," in The Welcome Table, p. 308.
[8]    For more on this, see William Fagal’s “Ellen G. White and Women in Ministry,” in Prove All Things, pp. 273-286.
[9]    A copy of her “Biographical Information Blank” may be found in Document File 701 at the Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office, James White Library, Andrews University. Arthur L. White published the information regarding these matters in the introduction to his article, “Ellen G. White the Person,” Spectrum 4/2 (Spring 1972), p. 8.
[10]    See my Searching the Scriptures (1995), p. 65.