Sunday, October 9, 2011

Prophets and Queens

Life has been full and I haven't posted in awhile because my attention has been on the latest transitions in my life.  I post fairly regularly on Club Adventist and in the course of dialog I was motivated to go back and look at some early influences on my beliefs about God.  I grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in a period of time where the Seventh Day Adventist Church was going through some major transitions in how it defined itself.  Today, just like most denominations, it is composed of a wide variety of believers that run the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal protestant and some unique variations only the Seventh Day Adventist Church could form.

When I was in college there was considerable debate on how one was saved and a number of thought leaders were forced out of the church.  Just after I graduated from college, the founding thought leader Ellen G. White, considered to be a prophetess and a messenger from God, was under considerable attack for plagiarism by Seventh Day Adventist historian Walter T. Rae, Phd.  The fall out from this has forced Adventist thought leaders to form some interesting apologetics.  Currently the battle over evolution versus creationism being taught in Adventist schools, colleges, and Universities is being fiercely debated.  The church is having a hard time getting their biology teachers to teach creationism, particularly at the University and College level.

When I talk about these things with friends and colleagues that haven't grown up in a fundamentalistic religious culture they express puzzlement and amazement.  And I can completely understand their difficulty in understanding.  I think the difficulty comes because it isn't about an intellectual understanding, but an emotional one.  So much of the presentation of these beliefs on the surface looks like nonsense, but when I look at the conditioning process, at the core of such loyal commitment to concepts that defy reason, I find much that does make sense.

I want to look at this process within the testimony of Ellen G. White herself.  Arguably she is the Queen of Seventh Day Adventism.  And I think this attitude of princess thinking is expressed most clearly in the narrative of her own conversion to accept Jesus into her life.

Reading Ellen White was strongly encouraged when I was very young as a means of gaining wisdom and salvation.  It was understood and taught that if one neglected this important study there was an extreme risk of being deceived by Satan and the resulting loss of one's eternal life.  Understanding Ellen White was also essential to be included in the last remnant.  The remnant were a final minority, loyal to Jesus, that would be present at the second coming of Jesus in which Jesus was going to destroy the earth and redeem the saved.  An essential sign of being one of the remnant was going to church on Saturday, hence the name of the Church.  Seventh Day (keeping Saturday as the Lord's DayAdventist (looking forward to the second advent or coming of Jesus)

In my particular case the ability to read these long narratives written by Ellen White came very early.  I had a college level reading ability by the time I was in 4th grade.  At least the standardized tests said I did.  In any case, the reading was not difficult.  And our family library contained many of her major works including a 10 volume collection of her sayings called The Testimonies to the church.  Her testimony is contained in the first volume of this 10 volume work.

She wrote 40 books and some 5000 periodicals.  The White Estate has 50,000 pages of material attributed to her.  By the time I was in high school I had read most of her books and a considerable amount of her periodicals.  At the time I was a true believer and I took what ever she had to write very seriously because, as you will see, she very dramatically presents the life threatening nature of not following what she has to write.

I was not taught to think critically when it came to the Bible and the writings of Ellen White.  These were established as the starting point for truth and were not to be questioned.  The paradoxes present in many of the claims were presented as subjects too deep for the human mind to understand and we simply had to accept them as true by faith.  It never occurred to me to question many of the nagging awarenesses that I had at the time.  I was set up to try and make sense out of nonsense is how I put it now.  And yet we used extensive amounts of critical thinking when it came to refuting the beliefs of other religions and denominations, not realizing that we were condemning ourselves in the process.

I think one of the reasons I write about the history of my own participation in these delusions is because for many years I taught these things to others.  In a way it is an expression of amends for these mistakes.  Don't worry I'm not wracked with guilt.  It is more of a fascination with the whole human process that can take over such large groups of people and motivate them to dedicate their whole lives to these narratives.  I'm simply writing from the inside.  It is still part of the process of forming who I am today and I have gained valuable skills and lessons from this part of my journey.

Here is the first part of her testimony.
I was born at Gorham, Maine, November 26, 1827. My parents, Robert and Eunice Harmon, were for many years residents of this state. In early life they became earnest and devoted members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In that church they held prominent connection, and labored for the conversion of sinners, and to build up the cause of God, for a period of forty years. During this time they had the joy of seeing their children, eight in number, all converted and gathered into the fold of Christ. Their decided second advent views, however, led to the separation of the family from the Methodist Church in the year 1843.
When she refers to the second advent views she is talking about a movement started by William Miller who taught that Jesus would come sometime, initially in 1843, and then in 1844 based on interpretations of Bible prophecy mainly within the books of Daniel and Revelation.

In this next section she describes a severe childhood accident

While I was but a child, my parents removed from Gorham to Portland, Maine. Here, at the age of nine years, an accident happened to me which was to affect my whole life. In company with my twin sister and one of our schoolmates, I was crossing a common in the city of Portland, when a girl about thirteen years of age, becoming angry at some trifle, followed us, threatening to strike us. Our parents had taught us never to contend with anyone, but if we were in danger of being abused or injured, to hasten home at once. We were doing this with all speed, but the girl followed us as rapidly, with a stone in her hand. I turned my head to see how far she was behind me, and as I did so, she threw the stone, and it hit me on the nose. I was stunned by the blow and fell senseless to the ground.
When consciousness returned, I found myself in a merchant’s store; my garments were covered with blood, which was pouring from my nose and streaming over the floor. A kind stranger offered to take me home in his carriage, but I, not realizing my weakness, told him that I preferred to walk home rather than soil his carriage with blood. Those present were not aware that my injury was so serious, and allowed me to do as I wished; but after walking only a few rods, I grew faint and dizzy. My twin sister and my schoolmate carried me home.  
I have no recollection of anything further for some time after the accident. My mother said that I noticed nothing, but lay in a stupor for three weeks. No one but herself thought it possible for me to recover; but for some reason she felt that I would live. A kind neighbor, who had been very much interested in my behalf, at one time thought me to be dying. She wished to purchase a burial robe for me, but my mother said, Not yet; for something told her that I would not die. 
When I again aroused to consciousness, it seemed to me that I had been asleep. I did not remember the accident, and was ignorant of the cause of my illness. As I began to gain a little strength, my curiosity was aroused by overhearing those who came to visit me say: “What a pity!” “I should not have known her,” etc. I asked for a looking glass, and upon gazing into it, was shocked at the change in my appearance. Every feature of my face seemed changed. The bones of my nose had been broken, which caused this disfigurement. 
This next paragraph is significant because it describes her state of mind.  Note how she did not want to live.
The thought of carrying my misfortune through life was insupportable. I could see no pleasure in my existence. I did not wish to live, and yet feared to die, for I was unprepared....At this time I began to pray the Lord to prepare me for death. When Christian friends visited the family, they would ask my mother if she had talked to me about dying. I overheard this, and it roused me. I desired to become a Christian, and prayed earnestly for the forgiveness of my sins. I felt a peace of mind resulting, and loved everyone, feeling desirous that all should have their sins forgiven and love Jesus as I did.
 And within the intense atmosphere of the Millerite movement, that her parents were involved with, she describes her disappointment that Jesus did not come.
I well remember one night in winter when the snow was on the ground, the heavens were lighted up, the sky looked red and angry, and seemed to open and shut, while the snow looked like blood. The neighbors were very much frightened. Mother took me out of bed in her arms and carried me to the window. I was happy; I thought Jesus was coming, and I longed to see Him. My heart was full; I clapped my hands for joy, and thought my sufferings were ended. But I was disappointed; the singular appearance faded away from the heavens, and the next morning the sun rose the same as usual.
In this next passage she becomes very dramatic.  I do have sympathy for her and I think a lot of people can relate to her feelings of being left out or being different.  But when people give her the position of being the voice of god, her experience and her immaturity becomes the ideal.  You will see later that she points to this intensity of experience as being a requirement for acceptance by Jesus.
I gained strength very slowly. As I became able to join in play with my young friends, I was forced to learn the bitter lesson that our personal appearance often makes a difference in the treatment we receive from our companions. At the time of my misfortune my father was absent in Georgia. When he returned, he embraced my brother and sisters, and then inquired for me. I, timidly shrinking back, was pointed out by my mother, but my own father did not recognize me. It was hard for him to believe that I was his little Ellen, whom he had left only a few months before a healthy, happy child. This cut my feelings deeply, but I tried to appear cheerful, though my heart seemed breaking. 
Many times in those childhood days I was made to feel my misfortune keenly. My feelings were unusually sensitive and caused me great unhappiness. Often with wounded pride, mortified and wretched in spirit, I sought a lonely place and gloomily pondered over the trials I was doomed daily to bear.
The relief of tears was denied me. I could not weep readily, as could my twin sister; though my heart was heavy, and ached as if it were breaking, I could not shed a tear. I often felt that it would greatly relieve me to weep away my sorrow. Sometimes the kindly sympathy of friends banished my gloom and removed, for a time, the leaden weight that oppressed my heart. How vain and empty seemed the pleasures of earth to me then! how changeable the friendships of my young companions! Yet these little schoolmates were not unlike a majority of the great world’s people. A pretty face, a handsome dress, attracts them; but let misfortune take these away, and the fragile friendship grows cold or is broken. But when I turned to my Saviour, He comforted me. I sought the Lord earnestly in my trouble, and received consolation. I felt assured that Jesus loved even me.
What is interesting is some of the details she chooses to include in her narrative.  The following is one of them.  She plays the role of the forgiving martyr rather well.  Now remember this is the adult Ellen White writing this.
The same girl who was the cause of my misfortune was appointed monitor by our teacher, and it was among her duties to assist me in my writing and other lessons. She always seemed sincerely sorry for the great injury she had done me, although I was careful not to remind her of it. She was tender and patient with me, and seemed sad and thoughtful as she saw me laboring under serious disadvantages to get an education.
And it gets rather more dramatic as she continues...
My nervous system was prostrated, and my hand trembled so that I made but little progress in writing, and could get no further than the simple copies in coarse hand. As I endeavored to bend my mind to my studies, the letters on the page would run together, great drops of perspiration would stand upon my brow, and a faintness and dizziness would seize me. I had a bad cough, and my whole system seemed debilitated. My teachers advised me to leave school and not pursue my studies further till my health should improve. It was the hardest struggle of my young life to yield to my feebleness and decide that I must leave my studies and give up the hope of gaining an education. 
Three years later I made another trial to obtain an education. But when I attempted to resume my studies, my health rapidly failed, and it became apparent that if I remained in school, it would be at the expense of my life. I did not attend school after I was twelve years old.
My ambition to become a scholar had been very great, and when I pondered over my disappointed hopes, and the thought that I was to be an invalid for life, I was unreconciled to my lot and at times murmured against the providence of God in thus afflicting me. Had I opened my mind to my mother, she might have instructed, soothed, and encouraged me; but I concealed my troubled feelings from my family and friends, fearing that they could not understand me. The happy confidence in my Saviour’s love that I had enjoyed during my illness was gone. My prospect of worldly enjoyment was blighted, and heaven seemed closed against me. 
I took this all very seriously.  As I read it now it's hard not to laugh.  It sounds all so much like a romance novel.  The narrative continues to describe how she came to be involved with the Millerite movement.  Again, a lot of exaggeration and drama.
In company with my friends I attended these meetings and listened to the startling announcement that Christ was coming in 1843, only a few short years in the future. Mr. Miller traced down the prophecies with an exactness that struck conviction to the hearts of his hearers. He dwelt upon the prophetic periods, and brought many proofs to strengthen his position. Then his solemn and powerful appeals and admonitions to those who were unprepared, held the crowds as if spellbound.
Special meetings were appointed where sinners might have an opportunity to seek their Saviour and prepare for the fearful events soon to take place. Terror and conviction spread through the entire city. Prayer meetings were established, and there was a general awakening among the various denominations, for they all felt more or less the influence that proceeded from the teaching of the near coming of Christ.
When sinners were invited forward to the anxious seat, hundreds responded to the call, and I, among the rest, pressed through the crowd and took my place with the seekers. But there was in my heart a feeling that I could never become worthy to be called a child of God.  A lack of confidence in myself, and a conviction that it would be impossible to make anyone understand my feelings, prevented me from seeking advice and aid from my Christian friends. Thus I wandered needlessly in darkness and despair, while they, not penetrating my reserve, were entirely ignorant of my true state.
Arriving at home, I spent most of the long hours of darkness in prayer and tears. One reason that led me to conceal my feelings from my friends was the dread of hearing a word of discouragement. My hope was so small, and my faith so weak, that I feared if another took a similar view of my condition, it would plunge me into despair. Yet I longed for someone to tell me what I should do to be saved, what steps to take to meet my Saviour and give myself entirely up to the Lord. I regarded it a great thing to be a Christian, and felt that it required some peculiar effort on my part.
My mind remained in this condition for months. I had usually attended the Methodist meetings with my parents; but since becoming interested in the soon appearing of Christ, I had attended the meetings on Casco Street. The following summer my parents went to the Methodist camp meeting at Buxton, Maine, taking me with them. I was fully resolved to seek the Lord in earnest there, and obtain, if possible, the pardon of my sins. There was a great longing in my heart for the Christian’s hope and the peace that comes of believing.
Notice the almost total fear based motivation.  She describes suffering, but it is almost totally self inflicted based on the dramatic presentations of these tent preachers and the Methodist church.  Transcriptions of some of these sermons are available in which they describe the preacher having the audience slowly imagine burning for all eternity until they rush down front in a frenzy of fear.  Ellen White describes this later on in her testimony.
I had been taught to believe in an eternally burning hell, and the horrifying thought was ever before me that my sins were too great to be forgiven, and that I should be forever lost.  The frightful descriptions that I had heard of souls in perdition sank deep into my mind. Ministers in the pulpit drew vivid pictures of the condition of the lost. They taught that God proposed to save none but the sanctified. The eye of God was upon us always; every sin was registered and would meet its just punishment. God Himself was keeping the books with the exactness of infinite wisdom, and every sin we committed was faithfully recorded against us.
Satan was represented as eager to seize upon his prey and bear us to the lowest depths of anguish, there to exult over our sufferings in the horrors of an eternally burning hell, where, after the tortures of thousands upon thousands of years, the fiery billows would roll to the surface the writhing victims, who would shriek: “How long, O Lord, how long?” Then the answer would thunder down the abyss: “Through all eternity!” Again the molten waves would engulf the lost, carrying them down into the depths of an ever-restless sea of fire. 
Seventh Day Adventists have certainly upgraded the belief system to remove the doctrine of an eternal hell, but much of the fear is still there today.  And she didn't stop to think that maybe if the hell thing wasn't true, the whole thing might be a very tall tale.

She describes a particularly meaningful presentation in this next passage.
I was much encouraged while listening to a discourse from the words, I will “go in unto the king,” “and if I perish, I perish.” In his remarks the speaker referred to those who were wavering between hope and fear, longing to be saved from their sins and receive the pardoning love of Christ, yet held in doubt and bondage by timidity and fear of failure. He counseled such ones to surrender themselves to God, and venture upon His mercy without delay. They would find a gracious Saviour ready to present to them the scepter of mercy, even as Ahasuerus offered to Esther the signal of his favor. All that was required of the sinner, trembling in the presence of his Lord, was to put forth the hand of faith and touch the scepter of His grace. That touch ensured pardon and peace.
What is interesting is this is the story of Esther, a Jewish girl in captivity, who won a beauty contest to become a pagan Queen.  Her actions would be totally outside of the value systems held by Ellen White.  She slept with the king as part of the contest and she had her hair made up and undoubtably wore a lot of jewelry.  In a bid to save her people she risked her life by going unannounced into King Ahasuerus who had decapitated his previous queen for crossing him.  This would hardly be the comforting view of god she was looking for.  And yet it might be closer to the view she actually held.

It makes a great story and great drama, but hardly the basis of one's life decisions.  She goes on to describe her great ups and downs as she tries to come to a place where she feels saved.  Eventually we come to her baptism.  It seems that she finds meaning in her suffering because it turned her away from earthly pleasures.  And yet, as you will see, she finds ways to present herself as the one having gone through great suffering to gain an inside knowledge of what it really means to be spiritual and her dramatic taking up of the heavy cross of being a Christian.
My life appeared to me in a different light. The affliction that had darkened my childhood seemed to have been dealt me in mercy for my good, to turn my heart away from the world and its unsatisfying pleasures, and incline it toward the enduring attractions of heaven.
Soon after our return from the camp meeting, I, with several others, was taken into the church on probation. My mind was very much exercised on the subject of baptism. Young as I was, I could see but one mode of baptism authorized by the Scriptures, and that was immersion. Some of my Methodist sisters tried in vain to convince me that sprinkling was Bible baptism. The Methodist minister consented to immerse the candidates if they conscientiously preferred that method, although he intimated that sprinkling would be equally acceptable with God.
Finally the time was appointed for us to receive this solemn ordinance. It was a windy day when we, twelve in number, went down into the sea to be baptized. The waves ran high and dashed upon the shore; but as I took up this heavy cross, my peace was like a river. When I arose from the water, my strength was nearly gone, for the power of the Lord rested upon me. I felt that henceforth I was not of this world, but had risen from the watery grave into a newness of life.
The same day in the afternoon I was received into the church in full membership. A young woman stood by my side who was also a candidate for admission to the church. My mind was peaceful and happy till I noticed the gold rings glittering upon this sister’s fingers, and the large, showy earrings in her ears. I then observed that her bonnet was adorned with artificial flowers, and trimmed with costly ribbons arranged in bows and puffs. My joy was dampened by this display of vanity in one who professed to be a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus.
Her joy was dampened by someone else?  This is a sign of extreme self centeredness and not a sign of great wisdom and insight.  Notice the life and death emotional energy given to jewelry and dress even though Esther the queen, the heroine of the story that was so influential to her conversion was probably dressed to the nines.

I expected that the minister would give some whispered reproof or advice to this sister; but he was apparently regardless of her showy apparel, and no rebuke was administered. We both received the right hand of fellowship. The hand decorated with jewels was clasped by the representative of Christ, and both our names were registered upon the church book.
And just like Jesus as a boy in the Temple she shows superior insight.  Insight even greater than the minister.  She notes earlier that, even as young as she was, she understood that baptism by immersion was the true baptism, not sprinkling.  And it continues...
This circumstance caused me no little perplexity and trial as I remembered the apostle’s words: “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.” The teaching of this scripture seemed to be openly disregarded by those whom I looked upon as devoted Christians, and who were much older in experience than myself. If it was indeed as sinful as I supposed, to imitate the extravagant dress of worldlings, surely these Christians would understand it and would conform to the Bible standard. Yet for myself I determined to follow my convictions of duty. I could but feel that it was contrary to the spirit of the gospel to devote God-given time and means to the decoration of our persons—that humility and self-denial would be more befitting those whose sins had cost the infinite sacrifice of the Son of God.
She goes on to describe how people in her church simply didn't want to hear anymore about her testimony.  This person coughed or that person turned their back.  And little ol' humble me was so confused.  I simply had no option but to leave.  This describes why she had to join the Millerite movement and leave her home church, even though it was the place of her baptism.

I don't think she was being particularly malicious on a conscious level.  I think she had deluded herself that this experience was evidence of superior insight.  She took this stuff seriously and created a narrative so that these impossible expectations could miraculously happen.  It is quite creative and certainly imaginative.  The fact that millions of Seventh Day Adventist believers still exist is evidence of its effectiveness to convince.

And I can see why I suffered many of the same things as a child because I was modeling my experience on this.  And it didn't really matter how intelligent I was, the emotional connection to this type of fear is so overpowering that it negates most rational processes that might free one from this no win situation.

And what is very telling is this later reference to this whole dramatic struggle that she had over contemplating an eternal hell.
This impression deepened upon my mind until I feared that I would lose my reason. I would look upon the dumb beasts with envy, because they had no soul to be punished after death. Many times the wish arose that I had never been born.
I think the Millerite movement and later Seventh Day Adventism allowed her to free herself from this belief.  If she could have understood that non-belief is not the scary horrible thing she was lead to believe she might have been able to consider it.

Instead this is the answer she was given...
I now confided all my sorrows and perplexities to my mother. She tenderly sympathized with and encouraged me, advising me to go for counsel to Elder Stockman, who then preached the advent doctrine in Portland. I had great confidence in him, for he was a devoted servant of Christ. Upon hearing my story, he placed his hand affectionately upon my head, saying with tears in his eyes: “Ellen, you are only a child. Yours is a most singular experience for one of your tender age. Jesus must be preparing you for some special work.”
All good cons appeal to one's ego.  You have a special work.  And considering her need and the offer of relief, how could she help but believe this to be true? 

He then told me that even if I were a person of mature years and thus harassed by doubt and despair, he should tell me that he knew there was hope for me through the love of Jesus. The very agony of mind I had suffered was positive evidence that the Spirit of the Lord was striving with me.
And here it is.  Her whole narrative of suffering was evidence that god was actually with her.  This implies that every Christian has to go through this agony of mind to find acceptance of Jesus.  She returns to this agony of mind as evidence of god working on the heart in a number of other places including this quote on secret prayer.  Notice the intensity has to be at the level of pleading for your mortal life.
Do not neglect secret prayer, for it is the soul of religion. With earnest, fervent prayer, plead for purity of soul. Plead as earnestly, as eagerly, as you would for your mortal life, were it at stake. Remain before God until unutterable longings are begotten within you for salvation, and the sweet evidence is obtained of pardoned sin.
She then expounds on the idea that her misfortune was possibly God's way of bringing to her attention the enormity of her own transgressions as a 10 year old girl.  And to defer any critical analysis she is promised that she will understand the reasons once she gets to heaven.
He said that when the sinner becomes hardened in guilt, he does not realize the enormity of his transgression, but flatters himself that he is about right and in no particular danger. The Spirit of the Lord leaves him, and he becomes careless and indifferent or recklessly defiant. This good man told me of the love of God for His erring children, that instead of rejoicing in their destruction, He longed to draw them to Himself in simple faith and trust. He dwelt upon the great love of Christ and the plan of redemption.
He spoke of my early misfortune and said it was indeed a grievous affliction, but he bade me believe that the hand of a loving Father had not been withdrawn from me; that in the future life, when the mist that then darkened my mind had vanished, I would discern the wisdom of the providence which had seemed so cruel and mysterious.
Ellen White used this same narrative of almost dying and being fatally discouraged anytime she was criticized or challenged and instead of healing others, would claim the miracle of being healed as evidence of God's favor.    This ended up being quite effective in keeping her detractors at bay and sustaining the myth of her prophetic ability.

If you are still with me I applaud your fortitude in getting through all this detail.  Imagine being immersed in this every day from when I could first speak to college.  I'm grateful to a number of very empathetic mentors that reached out to me and helped me walk through the dark places.  This is a very difficult world view to free oneself from.

I realize this type of detail is probably far more interesting to me, but I had to do this type of thing to take away a lot of the fear involved with my early belief systems.  And I hope this narrative is useful to those working their way out of any type of fear based belief system.

These types of belief systems are part of almost every organized religion.  Hopefully we are evolving away from the need for this type of certainty.