Section 7

The Shut Door and Ellen G. White

It is now generally conceded that the pioneers held shut-door views until about 1851. Arthur L. White says, "The documents now currently available firmly substantiate that Seventh-day Adventist pioneers did for some time hold shut door views."1

The question is whether Ellen G. White shared these faulty views of her fellow pioneers or taught another view altogether. On one side of this question are the critics of Ellen G. White who claim that for several years she taught that probation had closed for the entire world on October 22, 1844. On the other side are Ellen G. White apologists who claim that she labored for sinners and the world from the time of her first vision in December, 1844. We are inclined to agree with Rolf J. Poehler that neither the critics nor the apologists are historically accurate.2

For a few months after October 22, all Millerites believed that probation had closed for the entire world. And although the leaders of the Millerite movement and most of its supporters soon relinquished this view, Ellen G. White and the other pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism did not. For a number of years they held tenaciously to the shut door. Yet it is not wholly correct for critics to link the pioneers with more fanatical positions like those of Joseph Turner. He believed that the atonement was finished on October 22. The pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism did not. In the sanctuary doctrine they found an open door as well as a shut door. Although they believed that the ministry of Christ in the most holy place was not available to those who had rejected the October 22 message, the pioneers—including Ellen G. White—progressively modified their shut-door position. This metamorphosis took about ten years.

Like the critics, the apologists for Ellen G. White have sometimes gone beyond the facts of history. They have made frantic efforts to protect Mrs. White's reputation as an inerrant prophetess of Adventism. But does the credibility of her spiritual gift depend upon establishing a virtually infallible ministry? Too many have allowed themselves to be pressed into the "all-or-nothing" alternatives of accepting the inerrancy of Mrs. White's ministry in all matters or totally rejecting it as spurious.

There is danger in holding a view of "spiritual gifts" that is too rigid and too static. History shows that God is very accommodating to human weakness. He does not correct erroneous positions all at once. He takes people where they are and leads them to where He wants them. In using the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus illustrated how accommodating God can be to human weakness and error. Jesus drew on a current and popularly accepted view of the afterlife. He did not try to correct this error. In fact, He risked appearing to endorse an erroneous view of the state of the dead.

Our research has led us to the conclusion that Mrs. White, like the other pioneers, believed in the erroneous shut-door theology for several years—although not the extreme view her critics have charged her with. We do not think this conclusion invalidates the genuineness of the spiritual gift manifested in her ministry.

Unfortunately, the critics have acted as if they could utterly destroy Mrs. White's credibility by proving that she held a faulty concept. And the apologists have responded to this mentality by acting as if they had to maintain the inerrancy of Mrs. White at all costs. An extreme view on the spiritual gifts of Ellen G. White's ministry will not establish faith in those gifts but will destroy it. We should not impute to spiritual gifts a broader purpose than God intended.

Let us examine the evidence that Mrs. White held a shut-door doctrine compatible with the views of her fellow pioneers:

1. The young Ellen G. White was not personally insulated from the limited concepts of her peers.3 To some extent she was a product of her time. She grew and matured with the Advent Movement.

2. Mrs. White did not run ahead of the movement of which she was a part. Careful reading of the pioneer literature shows that the visions did not really teach new truths—things not well canvassed in the little company. In fact, it can be readily shown that the major points of each vision were discussed by the group beforehand. The visions acted more to confirm the brethren in the positions they had already advanced.

3. The small band of pioneers believed Ellen G. White's visions. And although not designed to teach a shut door, they were nevertheless interpreted in the context of the shut-door doctrine. The pioneers initially understood the visions as confirmation of their shut-door error. Bates, for instance, ardently believed the visions but at the same time taught that work for the world in general had closed in 1844. If the early visions clearly taught a great mission to "the wicked world," why did James White, Bates, Arnold and Nichols continue teaching that their work for the world in general had finished? And as we shall see, the evidence is overwhelming that Mrs. White interpreted the visions in the same context.

4. Before 1851 the pioneers referred to the Sabbath and the shut door as the two principal points of "present truth." Mrs. White repeatedly said much the same thing. She used the term "shut door" in the same way that James White and Joseph Bates did.

5. It is generally conceded that the pioneers did not labor for the world at large until the 1850's. Would it be reasonable to insist that Ellen G. White was the only member of that tiny, close-knit company who worked for sinners and "the wicked world"? As late as 1850, Bates severely castigated the open-door Adventists for preaching salvation to sinners. How could he have done this if Mrs. White, for whom he had the highest regard, was also preaching salvation to sinners?

Some have tried to show that Mrs. White worked for sinners and "the wicked world" as early as 1845. But the very, very slim evidence produced by these apologists actually indicates the opposite. The fact that a few men like Hiram Patch and J. H. Waggoner joined the movement in 1850-52 is presented as evidence of an open-door position. But these exceptional cases merely confirmed the pioneer view that a few "honest souls" could still be gathered in. There was even doubt whether Waggoner could be saved, since he was not in the 1844 movement.

It is also true that the pioneers speculated on taking the gospel to the Jews. This does not disprove their shut-door views, however, for they believed that the time for the conversion of the "Gentiles" had ended in 1844. Likewise, Ellen G. White's vision on spreading the Sabbath truth around the world was not immediately understood as Adventists understand it today. At that time they thought of sending the message of the Sabbath to the scattered children of God, the "hidden ones" around the world. Before 1851 the young Ellen G. White had not yet become the Ellen G. White of "the regions beyond." While in retrospect her visions suggest a broader work and the opening of another door, they were not, when given, interpreted as generously as we interpret them today—either by the pioneers or by Mrs. White herself.

The evidence indicates that Ellen G. White was sympathetic to every soul. She would not close the door against any poor, lost sinner seeking for truth. When a straggler knocked on the door of the ark, she assumed that this was another of God's "honest ones" or "precious jewels." But in those early years neither she nor the other pioneers thought in terms of a real mission to the world. It would be incorrect to say that she believed probation had closed for all the world, as the critics claim. But it is correct to say she believed that work for the salvation of the world had generally closed. Her early labors were confined to gathering scattered Adventists into the pioneer fold.

Early Statements of Ellen G. White

Recognition of the historical facts enables us to read Ellen G. White's (nee Harmon) statements before 1851 without making tortuous attempts to explain away the obvious.

Ellen Harmon's first vision in December, 1844, was published in the Day-Star of December, 1846, and in A Word to the "Little Flock" of 1847:

While praying at the family altar, the Holy Ghost fell on me, and I seemed to be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world. I turned to look for the Advent people in the world, but could not find them-when a voice said to me, "Look again, and look a little higher." At this I raised my eyes and saw a straight and narrow path, (a) cast up high above the world. On this path the Advent people were traveling to the City, which was at the farther end of the path. They had a bright light set up behind them at the first end of the path, which an angel told me was the Midnight Cry. (b) This light shone all along the path, and gave light for their feet so they might not stumble. And if they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, who was just before them, leading them to the City, they were safe. But soon some grew weary, and they said the City was a great way off, and they expected to have entered it before. Then Jesus would encourage them by raising his glorious right arm, and from his arm came a glorious light which waved over the Advent band, and they shouted Hallelujah! Others rashly denied the light behind them, and said that it was not God that had led them out so far. The light behind them went out leaving their feet in perfect darkness, and they stumbled and got their eyes off the mark and lost sight of Jesus, and fell off the path down in the dark and wicked world below. It was just as impossible for them to get on the path again and go to the City, as all the wicked world which God had rejected.4

The main point of this vision was to confirm the validity of the past Advent experience. The last sentence seems to support the shut-door concept, and the evidence indicates that it was then understood to mean that the work for the world in general, at least, had closed in 1844. Attempts have been made to explain "all the wicked world which God had rejected," but it is not easy to soften this statement.

In February, 1845, Ellen Harmon had another significant vision. It is sometimes called the "Bridegroom Vision" because it describes the coming of the Bridegroom to "the marriage" in 1844. The vital portion reads as follows:

I saw the Father rise from the throne, and in a flaming chariot go into the holy of holies within the veil, and sit down. Then Jesus rose up from the throne, and the most of those who were bowed down arose with Him. I did not see one ray of light pass from Jesus to the careless multitude after He arose, and they were left in perfect darkness. Those who arose when Jesus did, kept their eyes fixed on Him as He left the throne and led them out a little way. Then He raised His right arm, and we heard His lovely voice saying, "Wait here; I am going to My Father to receive the kingdom; keep your garments spotless, and in a little while I will return from the wedding and receive you to Myself."5

This vision does not specifically teach a shut door to "the wicked world," but the evidence indicates that the expressions not.., one ray of light" and "perfect darkness" were interpreted by both Ellen Harmon and her companions to mean that the door of probation was at least generally shut to the world. In a letter to Joseph Bates on July 13, 1847, she reported this vision as follows:

Very early next morning Joseph Turner called, said he was in haste going out of the city in a short time, and wanted I should tell him all that God had shown me in vision. It was with fear and trembling I told him all. After I had got through he said he had told out the same last evening. I rejoiced, for I expected he was coming out against me, for all the while I had not heard any one say what he believed. He said the Lord had sent him to hear me talk the evening before, but as I would not, he meant his children should have the light in some way, so he took him.

There were but few out when he talked, so the next meeting I told my vision, and the band, believing my visions from God, received what God bade me to deliver to them.

The view about the Bridegroom's coming I had about the middle of February, 1845.

While in Exeter, Maine, in meeting with Israel Dammon, James, and many others, many of them did not believe in a shut door. I suffered much at the commencement of the meeting. Unbelief seemed to be on every hand.

There was one sister there that was called very spiritual. She had traveled and been a powerful preacher the most of the time for twenty years. She had been truly a mother in Israel. But a division had risen in the band on the shut door. She had great sympathy, and could not believe the door was shut. (I had known nothing of their difference.) Sister Durben got up to talk. I felt very, very sad.

At length my soul seemed to be in an agony, and while she was talking I fell from my chair to the floor. It was then I had a view of Jesus rising from His mediatorial throne and going to the holiest as Bridegroom to receive His kingdom. They were all deeply interested in the view. They all said it was entirely new to them. The Lord worked in mighty power setting the truth home to their hearts.

Sister Durben knew what the power of the Lord was, for she had felt it many times; and a short time after I fell she was struck down, and fell to the floor, crying to God to have mercy on her. When I came out of vision, my ears were saluted with Sister Durben's singing and shouting with a loud voice.

Most of them received the vision, and were settled upon the shut door. Previous to this I had no light on the coming of the Bridegroom, but had expected him to this earth to deliver His people on the tenth day of the seventh month. I did not hear a lecture or a word in any way relating to the Bridegroom's going to the holiest.6

The expression, "Jesus rising from his mediatorial throne," is an echo of statements from James White and Joseph Bates.7 This idea is combined with the shut door. In reporting a division in the little company over the shut door and whether there were any genuine conversions among rejecters of the October 22 message, Mrs. White obviously meant the door of Matthew 25:10. Those who gave up the shut door usually repudiated their Advent experience.

What appears to be so conclusive about this letter is the mention of Ellen G. White's and Joseph Turner's full agreement on the coming of the Bridegroom and the shut door. Joseph Turner was a radical exponent of the shut door. Though later estranged, he and the Whites were still good friends at this time.

In this letter to Bates, Mrs. White further said that she had given up belief in the shut door before receiving this vision but that the vision had restored her faith in it. About the time Bates received this letter from Mrs. White, he declared his faith in her visions, saying, "I believe the work is of God, and is given to comfort and strengthen his 'scattered,' 'torn,' and 'pealed [sic] people,' since the closing up of our work for the world in October, 1844."8 Thus, Joseph Turner and Joseph Bates, at least, understood the vision to support their shut-door theology. And apparently Mrs. White herself did not comprehend the open-door implications of her own vision.

In a letter to "Father Miller," Otis Nichols commended Ellen G. White to the illustrious former Adventist leader in the following words:

Her message was always attended with the Holy Ghost, and where ever it was received as from the Lord it broke down and united their hearts like little children, fed, comforted, strengthened the weak and encouraged them to hold on to the faith, and the 7th movement, and that our work was done for the nominal church and the world, and what remains to be done was for the household of faith.9

This statement expresses what the pioneers understood by the "shut door." They, at least, understood Mrs. White to teach the same.

In a letter to Eli Curtis on April 21, 1847, Mrs. White said:

You also think, that Michael stood up, and the time of trouble commenced, in the spring of 1844.

The Lord has shown me in vision, that Jesus rose up, and shut the door, and entered the Holy of Holies, at the 7th month 1844; but Michael's standing up (Dan. 12:1) to deliver his people, is in the future.

This, will not take place, until Jesus has finished his priestly office in the Heavenly Sanctuary, and lays off his priestly attire, and puts on his most kingly robes, and crown, to ride forth on the cloudy chariot, to "thresh the heathen in anger," and deliver his people.10

The expression, "Jesus rose up, and shut the door," is an allusion to Luke 13:25: "When once the Master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us...." This was repeatedly used by the pioneers to describe what happened in 1844.

Thus, this letter seems to indicate that the door of Luke 13:25 was closed in 1844. At least the other pioneers taught this. However, the letter does have open-door implications. It shows that Jesus' priestly work is not finished and that Daniel 12:1 is yet future. This later led the pioneers and Ellen G. White to place the closing of the door of Matthew 25:10 and Luke 13:25 in the future at the general close of probation. But we should not conclude that these implications were clearly grasped either by Mrs. White or by the pioneers in 1847. They did not immediately catch the full missiological significance of the repeated intimations of a further intercessory ministry and of an open door to the most holy place.

In her Sabbath vision of November 17, 1848, Mrs. White linked "the Sabbath and the shut door" as the two points of "present truth"—just as the pioneers did.11 Her vision of March 24, 1849, also linked the Sabbath and the shut door.12 As in the earlier vision, Mrs. White depicted the final sealing as in progress. In fact, it appeared almost finished. Time seemed very short.13

The March vision taught an open door to the most holy place as well as a shut door to the holy place. This significant concept eventually led the pioneers away from their narrow shut-door theology. However, the open door was first seen as a ministry for "the little flock" rather than as an invitation of mercy to "the wicked world." Mrs. White's report of the vision closes:

I saw that the mysterious signs and wonders and false reformations would increase and spread. The reformations that were shown me were not reformations from error to truth. My accompanying angel bade me look for the travail of soul for sinners as used to be. I looked, but could not see it; for the time for their salvation is past.14

These statements reflect the negative pioneer attitude to reported conversions outside their own ranks. Some might argue that Mrs. White does not specifically discount all reports of conversions or revivals. But she nowhere hints that such reported conversions could be genuine. The expression, "for the time for their salvation is past," has proved very difficult for Ellen G. White apologists. Those who wrote a footnote to this statement in the account of this vision in Early Writings were not historically accurate.15  While it might be possible to say that Mrs. White was referring only to those who had resisted the October 22 message, neither she nor the other pioneers labored for sinners of the world in those early years.

In the December, 1849, issue of Present Truth Ellen G. White wrote:

I saw that in Bro. Rhodes' mouth there had been no guile in speaking against the present truth, relating to the Sabbath, and Shut Door. I also saw that the Lord had laid Bro. Rhodes' case heavily on Bro. Edson.16

Mrs. White's article in the March, 1850, Present Truth closely reflected the remarks by David Arnold in the same issue. In her presentation Mrs. White also alluded to the fulfillment of Luke 13:25 in 1844:

The excitements and false reformations of this day do not move us, for we know that the Master of the house rose up in 1844, and shut the door of the first apartment of the heavenly tabernacle; and now we certainly expect that they will "go with their flocks," "to seek the Lord; but they shall not find him; he hath withdrawn himself (within the second vail) from them." The Lord has shown me that the power which is with them is a mere human influence, and not the power of God.

Those who have published the "Watchman" have removed the land-marks. I saw, two months ago, that their time would pass by; and then some honest souls, who have been deceived by this time, will have a chance to receive the truth. I saw that most of those who preach this new time do not believe it themselves. I saw that our message was not to the shepherds who have led the flock astray, but to the poor hungry, scattered sheep.

In hope, E. G. WHITE.17

In 1851 James White republished Mrs. White's early visions in A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White. In this publication he deleted several statements relating to the shut door. The critics who later detected these deletions cried "suppression!" And the apologists gave all kinds of reasons for the deletions. Poehler suggests the most satisfactory explanation, which is neither a condemnation nor an apology:

What we do know, however, is that at about the same time when James White reprinted some of his earlier articles with significant omissions and changes (which clearly reflect his change of mind several months before his writings reveal it), he also republished many of his wife's earlier visions and publications, likewise omitting a number of statements which seemed to reflect the shut-door teaching; It is, therefore, logical to conclude that his motives and intentions in both cases must have been quite similar....

She revised her visions at the time when they began to realize the inadequacy of some of their ideas. . . . In other words, we must seriously reckon with the possibility that there occurred a process of progressive understanding of revealed truth not only with regard to the SDA pioneers as a whole, but also on the part of EGW herself.

To take such an approach allows us to admit the undeniable, viz., that various of the deleted passages were not reprinted because they no longer adequately expressed the views of EGW in the summer of 1851.... We suggest that the recognition of a theological development taking place in the thinking and writing of EGW adequately accounts for the revisions which were carried out on the visions in 1851....

We no longer have to assert that there are "no difficulties in the visions" and that the deleted passages "contain nothing but what we still fully endorse."18

Later Statements of Ellen G. White

In the years 1874, 1883 and 1884, Mrs. White looked back on her early years and defended herself against the critics who tried to identify her with the extreme shut-door theology of Joseph Turner and other fanatics after 1844.19  Her well-known statements are often cited as if they fully resolve all difficulties relating to the early years of Adventism. In his essay, "Ellen G. White and the Shut Door Question," Arthur L. White approaches his research backwards. He first cites Mrs. White's explanatory statements and then tries to read them back into her early history. Poehler, however, says:

There is simply no way around the fact that some of the later statements made by EGW regarding her relationship to, and involvement in, the shut-door doctrine stand in a very real tension with the obvious import of her contemporary writings. Therefore, nothing can be gained by approaching this issue with premises which implicitly deny the possibility of such tensions.20

We need to avoid two extremes. On one hand, it is unthinkable that Mrs. White would deliberately falsify. No Adventist acquainted with the tenor of her life would entertain this suggestion for a moment. On the other hand, it is unnecessary to assume that she resolved all difficulties or even answered her critics in the wisest way. Admittedly, in the early years neither she nor the other pioneers taught that the door of probation had closed indiscriminately for all the world. But the later Ellen G. White statements do not acknowledge any progression of understanding or difference of expression.21

Mrs. White was hard-pressed in answering her critics in a climate where both critics and apologists wanted "all or nothing." The genuineness of her spiritual gift was at stake, and with it, the integrity of the Advent Movement. Thus, she was not disposed to yield one iota to her critics.

Perhaps today we can best honor God and the prophetess of Adventism by acknowledging the human foibles and limitations of the messenger. Should we be pressed into contending for an infallible spiritual gift which Mrs. White never claimed? It is not sensible to say that the mature Ellen G. White, who could call the church to lift up its eyes to the broad mission work of "the regions beyond," taught altogether the same as the immature young woman of the shut-door days. The shut door was an immaturity she outgrew.

Misguided efforts to bolster up the myth of an impeccable prophetess will only eventually destroy faith in the manifestation of spiritual gifts. As Poehler has well said, "Writers on both sides have reflected a one-sided all-or-nothing attitude which has led them either to deny any evidence of EGW's human fallibility or to entirely reject her as a false prophet."22 It was essential for the pioneers to maintain their faith in God's leading and in the correctness of the 2300-day prophecy. If 1844 was a significant event in salvation history, the pioneers had to give an explanation of what happened. They did not come to an understanding of "the investigative judgment" until the 1850's. So, pressed for an explanation of what happened in 1844, they declared that the door of Matthew 25:10 was shut.23

In looking at the early history of the pioneers in general and the visions of Ellen G. White in particular, one crucial point stands out above everything else. The purpose of the visions was not to teach a shut door (whatever that meant) but to impress upon the Advent band that they must never relinquish faith in God's leading in their past Advent experience. Ironically, most of those who quickly chose an "open door" lost faith in God's leading. If the little band could hold to the validity of the 2300-day prophecy only by holding to a shut door, it was better to temporarily hold to a shut door. God could not teach them two things at once. We submit that He was willing to bear with their shut-door misunderstandings. The time to correct them on that point would soon come. The immediate issue was to maintain faith in the prophetic significance of 1844.


1. Arthur L. White, "Ellen G. White and the Shut Door Question," p. 7.
2. Roif J. Poehier, " ... And the Door Was Shut: Adventists and the Shut-Door Doctrine in the Decade after the Great Disappointment" (Paper presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the courses THST 690, Problems in Theology, and CHIS 874, Development of SDA Doctrines, Andrews University, Adventist Theological Seminary, February, 1978). This 162-page paper appears to be not only the most scholarly, but the most objective and accurate presentation available on the shut-door question. It will probably become the definitive work of the future.
3. It seems inconceivable that Mrs. White could live with James White year after year and maintain an entirely different doctrine without a hint being left behind in any contemporary writings.
4. Ellen G. White, "To the Remnant Scattered Abroad," in A Word to the "Little Flock,"  p. 14. The last sentence is not found in the reproduction of this vision in Early Writings (1882; Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald Publishing Assn., 1945), pp. 14-15.
5. The account of this vision was first printed in the Day-Star of March 14, 1846. then reprinted by James White in a broadside dated April 6, 1846. and now appears in Early Writings, pp. 54.6.
6. White to Bates, 13 July 1847, Manuscript B-3-1847, Ellen G. White Estate, Washington, D.C., cited by White, "Shut Door Question," Exhibit 2, pp. 49-51.
7. See Section 6, "The Shut Door and the Pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism."
8. Joseph Bates, "Remarks," in A Word to the "Little Flock, "p. 21.
9. Nichols to Miller, 20 Apr. 1846, Miller Papers, Aurora College, Aurora, Ill.
10. White to Curtis, 21 Apr. 1847, in A
Word to the "Little Flock," p. 12. Letter written from Topsham, Maine.
11. Cited by Poehier, "Door Was Shut," pp. 118-19.
12. Ellen G. White, "The Open and the Shut Door," Early Writings, pp. 42.5. The pioneers of Adventism were called shut-door Sabbatarians.
13. Just as The Great Controversy (first published in 1884 and revised in 1888) moved the shutting of the door of Matthew 25:10 from 1844 to a future close of probation, so it also moved the sealing to a future event. In this The Great Controversy revised and corrected the earlier and more immature teaching. See Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, Conflict of the Ages Series, vol. 5 (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1911), pp. 604-5.
14. White, Early Writings, p. 45.
15. Ibid.
16. Ellen G. White, "Beloved Brethren Scattered Abroad," Present Truth, Dec. 1849, p. 35.
17. Ellen G. White, "My Dear Brethren and Sisters," Present Truth, Mar. 1850, p. 64.
18. Poehler, Door Was Shut, pp. 135-38.
19. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4 (Battle Creek: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Assn., 1884), pp. 268, 271-72, 499-500; idem, Selected Messages, bk. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald Publishing Assn., 1958), pp. 63-4, 74.
20. Poehler, "Door Was Shut," p. 143.
21. In retrospect it is easy for us to say that in denying the unjust charges of the critics, Ellen G. White could have been more candid in admitting the limited concepts of the early days. In The Great Controversy, for instance, she placed the shutting of the door of Matthew 25:10 in the future, whereas in the early period it was always placed in the past-October 22, 1844. See White, Great Controversy (1911 ed.), p. 428.
22. Poehler, "Door Was Shut," pp. 154-55.
23. To say that God closed the door on those who rejected the Adventist gospel in 1844 is not an adequate explanation for a shut-door theology based on Matthew 25:10 and Luke 13:25. God can close the door on those who reject the Holy Spirit in any age. But who are we or the pioneers to judge whether the Holy Spirit has been rejected? This is why the early Adventists had to become less and less adamant about who were excluded from salvation.

Next Section     |     Back to index