The Development of the Great Controversy Book

Q: Why are there two versions of The Great Controversy book?

If you go to www.egwwritings.org and you look for the book entitled The Great Controversy, you'll notice that two versions come up: The "regular" version and the 1911 version.  The fact that there are two versions may cause questions:

  • Wasn’t it an inspired work?  How does inspirition work?
  • Which one is the “correct” one?  What was changed?
  • Did the GC meddle with her writings?  Do they pull the doctrinal puppet strings?
  • Does she have the authority to make changes?  What about the Spirit?
  • How were her books written?  

In today's article, I want to attempt to answer some of these questions because I believe that the answers to these questions will bring us fruitful answers regarding the nature of Ellen White's inspiration, writings, and authority.

The first thing that must be noted is that The Great Controversy book is based off of a vision that Ellen White had, first in 1848 and later on in 1858.  It seems that in 1848, early in her ministry, she received the vision in part, but never bothered to write it down and it was perhaps even somewhat forgotten until ten years later.  In 1858, while speaking at a funeral, Ellen stopped and experienced a two hour vision in front of the congregation, which gave her a much more detailed account of the Great Controversy idea.  She was inspired this time to write it down, and later that year we find the first version of the book in Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1.  

In 1884 the typeface needed to be repaired and at that time some of the grammar and punctuation was edited as well so that when they remade the type, it would be improved in some basic ways.  This edition of the Great Controversy story can be found in Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4.  

In 1888, the book was expanded in regard to historical source materials, however at the time there was no real concern over literary borrowing without citations, and so there are often quotes and paraphrases that appear without reference to the original authors.  This expanded story now took shape as a stand-alone book, and began to hold its own as a part of the Conflict of the Ages book series.

Finally, in 1911, the Great Controversy underwent its most extensive update yet.  This is the version we will find at an Adventist Book Center (ABC) or most other venues when we come across this book (ignoring, that is, the abridged The Great Hope that has been released in recent years).  

So as we can see, there have been numerous updates of this story over the years and it has appeared (and continues to appear) in these various locations and in these various forms.  

Q: Why the update?

Of course, a brief history of the early version has been given above, but the rest of this article will address the 1911 update, because it is the most current version and it is extensively written about in a couple of sources that I recommend as further reading, if you are interested in something more than the overview I am providing here. What are these sources? The story can be found in it's easy-read form in The Later Elmshaven Years 1905-1915 by Arthur White, or in it's extensive form in Selected Messages Book 3.  [Note: This article is based almost entirely on these books and is merely an abridged version that is easy to share and read.]

Here are the main reasons that an update was needed and then pursued:

  • In 1907 (as in 1888), the typeface for printing was wearing out and needed to be remade.
  • At that time, the book was reviewed for grammatical/punctuation errors.
  • Ellen White noted that other improvements could be made, as long as the type was being remade and the punctuation improved.
  • Colporteurs were consulted about their experience using the book in the field.  They had suggestions, based on real life interactions with buyers.
  • A full-scale review of the book was initiated (by Ellen White), in order to look into these suggestions for improvement. 

“When I learned that the great controversy must be reset, I determined that we would have everything closely examined, to see if the truths it contained were stated in the very best manner, to convince those not of our faith that the lord had guided and sustained me in the writing of its pages.”

- Ellen White, letter 56, 1911.

Q: What changes were made?

First I'll list the six types of changes that were made, and then we'll take some time to unpack them individually:

  • Providing references to original sources drawn from
  • Rewording time references (making it timeless, rather than time-specific)
  • Using more precise language, clarifying truth more accurately
  • Mollifying some ideas to appeal to Catholic readers
  • Making sure all historical statements could be backed up
  • Including appendix notes to give further information

Providing References

When first written, plagiarism was not an issue. Most writers would draw from many sources without citing them, unless the expressed reason for quoting was to draw attention to the source.  Ideas were not seen as intellectual property, the way they are today.  

In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject. In narrating the experience and views of those carrying forward the work of reform in our own time, similar use has been made of their published works (The Great Controversy, p. xii).

Plagiarism Charges:  Even if it weren’t for the points on the quote above, it has been calculated by scholars that only about 2% of all her written material is borrowed from other sources.  

The Great Controversy is an example of what Ellen White, if she had infinite time in her life, would have done with all of her works.  There just wasn’t time to go back and do full-scale improvements of all her earlier writings.  This book, however, was considered important enough that it had to be done.  

Rewording Time-References

For example, instead of “four months ago” giving the actual date/month it was given.  This made the book timeless, rather than something grounded in a specific time.

Using more precise language

On page 27, the word nearly was added, making the sentence read: 

For nearly forty years after the doom of Jerusalem had been pronounced by Christ Himself, the Lord delayed His judgments upon the city and the nation.  

  • 1888
    • When the British Society was formed, the Bible had been printed and circulated in fifty tongues.  It has since been translated into more than two hundred languages and dialects.  By the efforts of Bible societies, since 1804, more than 187,000,000 copies of the Bible have been circulated.
  • 1911
    • In 1804 the British and Foreign Bible Society was organized.  This was followed by similar organizations, with numerous branches, upon the continuent of Europe.  In 1816 the American Bible Society was founded.  When the British Society was formed, the Bible had been printed and ciculated in fifty tongues.  It has since been translated into many hundreds of languages and dialects.  

Why changes? Because of changing figures each year.  In this case, being less specific made the book more accurate and in some ways more timeless.  

Mollifying Text for Catholics

On some pages “there were statements regarding the Papacy which are strongly disputed by Roman Catholics, and which are difficult to prove from accessible histories…Regarding these and similar passages, which might stir up bitter and unprofitable controversyies, Mother has often said: “What I have written regarding the arrogance and the assumption of the Papacy is true.  Much historical evidence regarding these matters has been designedly destroyed; nevertheless, that the book may be of the greatest benefit to Catholics and others, and that needless controversy may be avoided, it is better to have all statements regarding the assumptions of the pope and the claims of the Papacy stated so moderately as to be easily and clearly proved from accepted histories that are within the reach of our ministries and students (3SM, p436).

- William C. White

Backing Up Historical Statements

Mother has never claimed to be authority on history.  The things which she has written out are descriptions of flashlight pictures and other representations given her regarding the actions of men, and the influence of these actions upon the work of God for the salvation of men, with views of past, present, and future history in its relation to this work.  In connection with the writing out of these views, she has made use of good and clear historical statements to help make plain to the reader the things which she is endeavoring to present…This has helped her to locate and describe many of the events and the movements presented to her in vision.  This is somewhat similar to the way in which the study of the Bible helps her to locate and describe the many figurative representations given to her regarding the development of the great controversy in our day between truth and error.  3SM, p437.

-William C. White

Mother never thought that the readers would take it as an authority on historical dates or use it to settle controversy regarding details of history, and she does not now feel that it should be used in that way.  Mother regards with great respect the work of those faithful historians who devoted years of time to the study of God’s great plan as presented in the prophecy, and the outworking of that plan as recorded in history. 3SM, pp446-447.

- William C. White

Including Appendix

Aside from simply referencing the materials she drew from, she also provides an appendix at the end of the 1911 version, which provides detailed notes as to the importance and background of that quote or paraphrase she took from another writer.  This way, though one can look up the references themselves, there is ample notation and reasoning given in the book itself.  

After reading the reasons for the changes and reading the types of changes that were made, do these seem like unreasonable changes?

Q: But does Ellen white have the authority to make changes? After all, didn’t the Spirit give her the words to write down?

Let's take a moment to talk about how inspiration works, according to Seventh-day Adventist theology:

“We believe the light given by god to his servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting the thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words in which the ideas should be expressed.”

- General conference in session 1883

A study of these changes may lead some to ask the question “has sister white the authority and right to make changes in her published writings…?  It is generally admitted that in sister white’s discourses, spoken to the people, she uses great freedom and wisdom in the selection of proofs and illustrations, to make plain and forcible her presentation of  the truths revealed to her in vision. also, that she selects such facts and arguments as are adapted to the audience to whom she is speaking.  This is essential to the attainment of the best results from her discourses.  And she has always felt and taught that it was her duty to use the same wisdom in the selection of matter for her books that she does in the selection of matter for her discourses.= 3SM, p441.

- William C. White

Mother has never laid claim to verbal inspiration, and I do not find that my father, or elder bates, Andrews, smith, or Waggoner, put forth this claim.  If there were verbal inspiration in writing her manuscripts, why should there be on her part the work of addition or adaptation.  It is a fact that mother often takes one of her manuscripts, and goes over it thoughtfully, making additions that develop the thought still further.  3SM, p437.

- William C. White

So how were her books made in the first place?

Simple answer:  With lots of help.

  • Help from the Holy Spirit
  • Help from proof-readers
  • Help from research teams (as in the 1911 Great Controversy)
  • Help from compilers and “book makers”

Book Makers?

How are my books made? . . . She [Marian] does her work in this way. She takes my articles which are published in the papers, and pastes them in blank books. She also has a copy of all the letters I write. In preparing a chapter for a book, Marian remembers that I have written something on that special point, which may make the matter more forcible. She begins to search for this, and if, when she finds it, she sees that it will make the chapter more clear, she adds it. "The books are not Marian's productions, but my own, gathered from all my writings. Marian has a large field from which to draw, and her ability to arrange the matter is of great value to me. It saves my poring over a mass of matter, which I have no time to do. So you understand that Marian is a most valuable help to me in bringing out my books. 

- Ellen White, Letter 61a, 1900.

We have stood side by side in the work, and in perfect harmony in that work. And when she would be gathering up the precious jots and tittles that had come in papers and books and present it to me, 'Now,' she would say, 'there is something wanted. I cannot supply it.' I would look it over, and in one moment I could trace the line right out. We worked together, just worked together in perfect harmony all the time.

- Ellen White, Manuscript 95, 1904.

Did the general conference change the book as part of a sinister plot to rewrite adventist history and doctrine?  Of course, this question is asked tongue-in-cheek, but it bears asking because there are some who do hold this view.  Here is a case that is exhaustively documented so there is no question that all of the impetus and decision making was on Ellen White.  She owned the plates.  She paid for the updates.  She authorized all changes.

A few days ago, I received a copy of the new edition of the book great controversy, recently printed at mountain view, and also a similar copy printed at Washington. The book pleases me. I have spent many hours looking through its pages, and I see that the publishing houses have done good work.

- Ellen White, letter 56, 1911

Conclusions: 

  • Inspiration is more complicated than a “verbal” word-for-word concept.
  • Ellen White believed if her words could be improved, they should. As long as the ideas, which were from God, were left intact.  
  • It is okay to modify messages (spoken or written) to fit an audience in order to more effectively reach them and win them over.
  • Should we update some things as we move into new generations and a world of new expectations?  Ellen White seemed to think so.  Again, ideas must not be changed, but the method by which these ideas are delivered seems to be changeable, according to her understanding.  

- Pastor Zachary Payne