The Adventist Church has long claimed that all of their theology comes strictly from the study of scripture and that they are a “bible only” movement (which they wrongfully call sola scriptura). What they mean by this is that their pioneers would sit in a room reading the Bible together and, when they would arrive at disagreements or a road block as to a correct interpretation, the movements prophetess—Ellen White—who served as the “stamp of approval” from God when it came to the correct interpretation of scripture—would conveniently be given a vision to confirm what the correct interpretation was. The fact of the matter is that without Ellen’s approval, the doctrine was not cemented in.
The scriptures were being read by them in total isolation, denuded from the Christian church and history by men with zero formal training or understanding. By Ellen White’s own admission, she wouldn’t understand what the men were studying in these study sessions, her mind was locked. But then, like convenience magic, she would be whisked off into vision by God and given the answer in response to their diligent efforts.
There are seven doctrines in particular that Mrs. White claimed to be shown visions about which were the original pillar doctrines. The dates are when the beliefs formalized.
This was the beginning of what would unravel in the coming years and bled over from the Millerite movement. Ellen White and her family were introduced to William Miller and his teachings (which centered around the imminent return of Christ), accepted those teachings as Methodists, and joined the Millerite movement. It was there that Ellen claimed to be given a dream where she saw Jesus who told her to “fear not.” She then shared this information with Elder Stockton who told her that God must have a special work for her.
On numerous occasions following this between 1843 and 1851, she claimed to be shown the day and hour of Jesus’s return and that time could only go on a little while longer. This was during the seven year period of the Shut Door fiasco where the early Seventh-Day Adventists (at that time called the Little Flock) claimed the door of mercy had been shut and the world outside of their small little band was lost and salvation was no longer a possibility.
A number of other failed prophecies during this time—on top of being shown by God multiple different times the day and hour of Jesus’s return—included that anyone who left their little flock had fallen off the path and into the wicked world that God had rejected, that time was up and salvation was no longer possible, and that Adventists shouldn’t pray or sympathize with the lost world because Jesus was no longer sympathizing and praying for them anymore.
Only months after The Great Disappointment, Ellen claimed to have her first formal vision in December of 1844 known as “The Path” vision. This is where her role within the movement began to develop and solidify as “God’s Messenger” with the unique gift of prophecy and God’s conduit stamp of approval for the movement. It was this supposed prophetic gifting that really kept the Little Flock from completely falling apart, which the other leaders of this small band recognized, and was almost jeopardized by the mess that ensued the following 10 years. Which is why after the shut door debacle her visions became much more generalized.
While the movement largely rejected the charismatic gifts, Ellen White was the exception to the rule. The followers of the movement were led to believe that God was directly revealing their doctrines to be correct through a woman that God had handpicked as His last day messenger. The parallel to John the Baptist is often used to say just like John the Baptist cried in the wilderness before the first coming, so Ellen was the messenger chosen to herald right before His second coming.
The Adventist Church has often asserted that belief in Ellen White’s visions was optional and there was no sort of mandatory adherence to her. This is simply not true and it’s still not true to this day. She is hardcoded into the 28 Fundamental Beliefs (#18) which one must profess to believe and uphold by being a member in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. She is supposedly the hallmark of the end times remnant church which is why she is a pillar doctrine.
Centuries prior to the Millerite movement, the Seventh-Day Baptist movement had been upholding seventh-day Sabbath observance. Though, they were not heavily proselytizing that belief.
By the beginning of the 1840s that changed and they decided to take a more aggressive approach to promoting their understanding of the Sabbath and their General Conference determined that evangelism of the seventh-day Sabbath was required by God. As a result, in 1842 the Sabbath Tract Society began publishing a series of tracts to begin spreading their conviction around this doctrine.
Before the Great Disappointment in October 1844 an interest in the seventh-day Sabbath among Millerites came from the influence of the Seventh-Day Baptists, with Adventists (Millerites) being more interested than other denominations. Even though SDA pioneers like Joshua Himes and others were opposed to the Sabbath, various articles about the Sabbath were published in their papers. The April 1, 1841 issue of Signs of the Times published a letter written by James A. Begg who tried to explain his belief in the seventh-day Sabbath which was the first mention of it in Millerite literature.
Frederick Wheeler, a Methodist Adventist minister was convinced by Rachel Oakes Preston, a Seventh-Day Baptist, to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. He was the first Sabbath-keeping Adventist minister in America. Mr. Wheeler more than likely convinced a man named Thomas M. Preble, a Baptist minister, to accept the Sabbath and then after the Great Disappointment, Preble wrote an article about the Sabbath which influenced SDA pioneer Joseph Bates to accept the seventh-day Sabbath. Funnily enough, Preble would go on to very much dislike the Seventh-Day Adventists and reject the seventh-day Sabbath.
It was after the influence of the Seventh-Day Baptist’s on people like Joshua Himes and Joseph Bates that Ellen White then supposedly had a vision regarding the seventh-day Sabbath, giving it the stamp of approval from God as true, being shown that the fourth commandment has a halo of light enshrouded around it, it’s superior to the others as the seal of God, and is part of the identifying mark of the end times remnant church.
Ellen White also claimed to be shown by God the correct understanding of the state of the dead regarding conditional immortality and annihilationism.
While the great majority of Christians reject these teachings, both Seventh-Day Adventist’s and Jehovah’s Witnesses embrace them. The origins of it can be traced back to a man by the name of George Storrs who was an influential Methodist turned Millerite preacher. In 1837 he read a pamphlet from Henry Grew where he argued that the wicked were not tortured in Hell forever, but were rather completely annihilated. By 1841 he had embraced the teaching and began proselytizing it to Adventists.
While William Miller did not agree with Storrs views on soul sleep and annihilationism, other Adventists like Ellen White (Ellen Harmon at the time), James White, Joseph Bates and Charles Taze Russell (founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) were influenced by Storrs views. While they weren’t aligned on all of the mechanics behind the teachings, this is where the general influence around soul sleep came from.
Sure enough, Ellen claimed to then be shown a vision regarding these doctrines where she claimed that she was shown the two greatest errors and deceptions of the day were the teachings around the immortality of the soul and Sunday sacredness. She said these two doctrines send their victims with lightning speed to perdition. The Adventist Church’s very superficial understanding of the nature of man, the soul, and the spiritual realm are what make this doctrine easy for them to believe.
The teachings around SDA lifestyle were heavily influenced by cultural norms of 19th century America and were built upon by Ellen White for decades. From the 1850’s and onward, Ellen’s visions became far more safe and general after the debacle of claiming the Seven Year Period, the Shut Door, the holy kiss, and foot washing were all necessary tests for salvation.
The strict standards that were propped up as hallmarks of true Christian living were many of the common convictions of the day held by those in Protestant churches. As Dr. Steve Daily points out in his book Ellen G. White A Psychobiography, many of these practices were condemned due to the common day faulty belief of a vital force physiology. It was because of this faulty understanding of vital force that Ellen White was forbidding things like bonnets, hats, and claiming wigs caused madness. These things were believed to heat the base of the brain which, if heated, destroyed one’s vital force. Science has since proven this to be entirely erroneous which is why many of that day moved on from believing such things. But because of Ellen White’s supposed vision from God on these things, Adventist’s were more apprehensive to let go of them. What were largely 19th-century cultural norms, Mrs. White attributed to God.
Amongst SDAs, strict seventh-day Sabbath observance was obviously on the list but a handful of others included abstinence from:
Alcohol, beards, bicycles, bowling, boxing, gambling, card playing, Catholicism, the circus, checkers, chess, jazz, dancing, evolution, fairs, feminism, football, dominos, theaters, jewelry, labor unions, makeup, masturbation, novels, perfume, skating, tobacco use, and unchaperoned dating
SDAs (the Little Flock at the time) took these prohibitions far more seriously than other groups due to believing their prohibition was coming directly from God himself which is why they have also held on to many of them far longer than others. Despite many of the things prohibited by Ellen White, she herself did not adhere to many of them, such as wearing jewelry.
This vision didn’t just include behavior and activity prohibitions, but also the framework of her health reform message—which eventually accumulated in her June 6, 1863, health vision in Otsego, Michigan. It built upon many of the prohibitions already laid out by adding vegetarianism, limiting spices, avoiding stimulating drinks, and care of health as a religious duty.
Joseph Bates was the first individual to give the formal name “investigative judgement” to the teaching in 1855. We have thoroughly documented this here. As well as the shut door aspect of it which was initially foundational and Ellen said was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for those that went against it.
In January 1846, as documented in the Millerite Day-Star paper, she supposedly had the foundational vision for this which was built upon later.
The shut door theory was tied to the concept that probation was closed and salvation was no longer a possibility. But once this was surrendered, something had to be done to patch that hole. This is what led to the sanctuary vision and the subsequent open and shut door vision where she claimed when one door closed, another actually opened. This then became the antidote for the previous problems.
1858—Systematic Benevolence (Tithing)
Prior to 1858, the movement viewed giving as laid out in the New Testament model, which is to give according to how the spirit prompts one to with cheerfulness (2 Corinthians 9:7). But due to the small size of the movement still, it was not enough income to sustain the movement. James White and J.N. Andrews then put together a committee to figure out how to solve the problem. White proposed that it was consistent for them that the Old Covenant tithing laws were still binding because so was the Old Covenant law and sabbath. The committee members ended up being on board with this, but not so much the members.
It was after this that Ellen White then claimed to have a series of visions on the topic which led to warnings that if one did not get on board, they were robbing God and risking their eternal life. We have documented this down in detail here.