The Campbellite and Mrs. White

By Gerry Chudleigh

The current discussion among Seventh-day Adventists in North America about the place of women in ministry is far from new. More than 100 years ago, Ellen White told two stories that illustrate how different approaches to the Bible have affected the discussion.

Writing in Signs of the Times, June 24, 1889, Ellen White shared an intimate moment from her early years:

“When in my youth God opened the Scriptures to my mind, giving me light upon the truths of his word, I went forth to proclaim to others the precious news of salvation. My brother wrote to me, and said, 'I beg of you not to disgrace the family. I will do anything for you if you will not go out as a preacher.’

"’Disgrace the family!’ I replied, ’Can it disgrace the family for me to preach Christ and Him crucified! If you would give me all the gold your house could hold, I would not cease giving my testimony for God. I have respect unto the recompense of the reward. I will not keep silent, for when God imparts his light to me, he means that I shall diffuse it to others, according to my ability.’

“Did not the priests and rulers come to the disciples, and command them to cease preaching in the name of Christ? They shut the faithful men in prison, but the angel of the Lord released them that they might speak the words of life to the people. This is our work.”

Ellen’s brother was not the last to object to her preaching. After speaking in a tiny Northern California town in 1880, she shared in a letter to her husband, James, some backstage information:

“Elder Haskell talked in the afternoon and his labors were well received. I had in the evening, it was stated, the largest congregation that had ever assembled at Arbuckle. The house was full. Many came from five to ten and twelve miles. The Lord gave me special power in speaking. The congregation listened as if spell-bound. Not one left the house although I talked above one hour. Before I commenced talking, Elder Haskell had a bit [piece] of paper that was handed [him] in quoting [a] certain text prohibiting women speaking in public. He took up the matter in a brief manner and very clearly expressed the meaning of the apostles words. I understand it was a Cambelite [sic] who wrote the objection and it had been well circulated [among the audience] before it reached the desk; but Elder Haskell made it all plain before the people" (Letter 17a, April 1, 1880; Manuscript Releases, vol. 10, p. 70).

Clearly Haskell and Ellen White interpreted the Bible differently from the “Campbellite.”¹ Adventists disagreed with Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) on at least two rules of interpretation.

First, Campbell, like his father Thomas, taught that any religious practice not clearly employed in the New Testament church was forbidden in modern times. Adventists took the opposite approach, as James White said in 1860: “All means which, according to sound judgment, will advance the cause of truth, and are not forbidden by plain scripture declarations, should be employed.”

The context for White’s comments was whether the church should buy property: “If it be asked, where are your plain texts of scripture for holding church property legally? we reply, The Bible does not furnish any; neither does it say that we should have a weekly paper, a steam printing-press, that we should publish books, build places of worship, and send out tents. Jesus says, 'Let your light so shine before men,' etc.; but he does not give all the particulars how this shall be done. The church is left to move forward in the great work, praying for divine guidance, acting upon the most efficient plans for its accomplishment” (James White, RH, April 26, 1860).

This different rule of interpretation was well illustrated by the use (or not) of musical instruments in churches. Campbellites said there was no evidence that musical instruments were used in the New Testament church, so Christians could not use them today; Adventists said musical instruments were not condemned in the New Testament, and were useful in doing God’s work, so we should use them today.

The other Cambellite principle was that “the Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities” (Alexander Campbell, The Christian System, 2d ed., 1839, p. 15-19).

Campbellites, then, tended to treat “let your women be silent” as a fact, but “there is neither Jew nor Greek … bond nor free … male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) as “abstract generality.”

These two rules of interpretation — doing only what is specifically commanded or practiced in the New Testament, and paying attention to concrete words, not abstract  principles — prevented Campbell from condemning slavery during the American Civil War, but caused him to condemn women preachers. Meanwhile, Adventists condemned slavery and encouraged women preachers.

¹Christians who followed the teachings of Alexander Campbell mostly hated to be called "Campbellites" because, they said, they followed the Bible alone, not any man’s interpretation of it.