Part of my husband’s inheritance as a fourth generation Seventh-Day Adventist was a vast collection of red-covered books by one of the church’s key founders, Ellen White.
Most of the books were passed down from his great-grandfather, and at one point we had two whole shelves of these tiny tomes. Now, I have had a love-fear relationship with Ellen over the years – love because she was an absolutely fascinating person: a lover of Jesus, an incredible writer, and a speaker of much, much truth; and fear because her absolutes are so often misconstrued into infallible gospel and this stumbles a person in their journey with Christ. In other words, I love her because of herself as a woman after God’s heart: fallible, sometimes mistaken, but courageous in the call she believed God placed on her life (she was someone who loved and served God with all her might). Yet I despise the fact that to many people she is an idol (and her own words, sometimes, aid and abet this ‘worship’).
Ellen, who lived between the years of 1827 and 1915, wrote over 100,000 pages throughout the course of her life. She published nearly 30 books in addition to 5,000 periodical articles, and composed 2,000 personal letters. After her death it was thought prudent to compile many of her private letters, diary entries, and articles and viola, another 100 or so books were born.
Now I want you to imagine what it would be like to live 88 years and upon your death have every blog post, email, journal entry and text message you’ve ever written be published into 100 volumes of printed text.
Imagine your children’s children’s children having shelves and shelves lined with your smattering thoughts. There would be much in there you would not be proud of! Somewhere in those 80 plus years your opinion might have changed. Somewhere in there might be words you wish you could take back. But to the reader, it’s all gospel truth whether you said it when you were twenty or eighty, which is an awful lot of weight for one person to hold.
The following is a quote from one of those compilations. Out of context, and said in the rosy glow of her 7th decade of life, the quote makes me both cringe and smile. She is speaking of her motherhood in the same exact way our grandmothers are apt to speak of theirs:
“Never did I allow myself to say a harsh word or to become impatient or fretful over the children. They never got the better of me once–not once, to provoke me to anger… I never allowed, in correcting my children, even my voice to be changed in any way.”
Ellen White, Child Guidance
Here I think we see a peak of the universal sentiment shared by elderly mothers everywhere, do we not? Is this not intrinsically human? To see our past through rose colored glasses? To view even our own motherhood through our best of moments, and never through our worst?
Now, I love stuff like this. I love it because I can read it with my own humanity fresh on my mind, and it makes me giggle. I have no qualms about the fact that Ellen was every bit as human as I, and so quite frankly, I don’t think her memory serves her correctly.
But there was a time, when I truly grappled with the way she was held up as a Prophet-akin-to-Scripture, that a sentence like this would have made me absolutely crazy. I’m not exaggerating – I mean full-on panic attacks. Sentiments like this from “human prophets” used to make me feel like I was damned to hell. Growing up in Pentecostal circles and then attending Seventh-Day Adventist schools, I was always in a mental war, struggling with what real people in my life were arguing on each side of what actually are stupid, stupid issues.
One side said the other was of Satan, and the other said the same about them. How could I know? Which was true? One said you know by reading your Bible. The other said…you know by reading your Bible. But I didn’t know, and if I could never figure it out I might as well be damned.
And on each side there were people pointing to other people speaking those people’s words as infallible truth.
I’m so over that. So. Over. That.
So a simple sentence like this quote, which I love because it reminds me of a true and good goal in parenting, is also dangerous. Many who read such words will feel obligated to take them as absolute gospel, and this breaks my heart. Ellen White’s sentiment is a personal recollection, more likely than not softened by the passage of time. But in somebody’s heart, a pedestal is erected.