BY MERLIN BURT
see Grandma standing in the pulpit, dressed
in her loose-fitting, black sack suit, narrow cuffs of white, narrow white collar
secure at the throat by a small brooch. She’s been telling of the matchless
love of Christ in suffering ignominy and death and even running the risk of
eternal separation from His Father in heaven by taking upon Himself the sins
of the world. She pauses, looks up, and with one hand resting on the desk and
the other lifted heavenward she exclaims in a ringing voice, ‘O Jesus, how I
love You, how I love You, how I love You.’ There is a deep hush. Heaven is very
So remembered one of Ellen G. White’s granddaughters
about a woman whose love for Jesus was strong and deep.
Some have suggested that Ellen White did not fully
come to understand the biblical teaching of righteousness by faith until late
in life. While her writings do show greater breadth of spiritual experience
and range of expression in the last decades of her life, her early experience
of conversion was so intense and comprehensive as to preclude all doubts about
its authenticity. Even though she wasn’t able to say just when she was converted,2
her conversion experience can now be seen to be a process that extended from
the fall of 1836, when she was nine years old, until sometime in 1843, when
she was 16.
Three distinct stages can be observed in her description
of her conversion that resonate with every sincere seeker’s struggle to find
assurance and victory. Owing to a traumatic injury, she experienced a simple
surrender of her life to God when she feared she was dying. She subsequently
struggled to believe that she was justified by the grace of Jesus and that He
would accept her and forgive her sins. Last, she wrestled with understanding
the role that holiness and sanctification play in a growing Christian’s life.
She was both a child of her times, with typical insights and understandings,
and a person being prepared by God for a highly effective ministry to His remnant
Ellen grew up in a devout Methodist home. Her
father, Robert Harmon, held a prominent lay position in the local church. Yet
no one inherits a Christian experience; it is found individually. Course-changing
events happen in every experience, and it was a tragic accident that changed
the entire direction of young Ellen’s life.
The details of the story, as she herself related
them, began abruptly when she was about nine years of age, probably in the fall
of 1836. While crossing a public common some distance from her home with her
sister Elizabeth, she was struck by a stone thrown angrily and thoughtlessly
by an older schoolmate. She says: “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. A blinding,
stunning sensation overpowered me; I fell senseless.”3
When she regained consciousness, she found herself
in a nearby store, covered with blood, her nose still bleeding freely onto her
clothes and the floor. A sympathetic stranger offered her a ride home, but she
refused out of concern for soiling his carriage with blood. She says, “After
walking only few rods4 I grew faint and dizzy. My twin sister and my schoolmate
carried me home.”5
Ellen remained semiconscious for about three weeks.6
Upon regaining consciousness, she found herself in a “great cradle.” Finally
looking in a mirror, she was shocked to see herself. “Every feature of my face
seemed altered,” she wrote. “The bone of my nose had been broken, and had to
be removed; this caused the disfigurement. . . . Physicians thought that a silver
wire might be put in my nose to hold it in shape. . . . I was reduced almost
to a skeleton.” Even her father, upon returning from an extended trip to Georgia,
could not recognize her. “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.”7
A “Deathbed Surrender” to Jesus
As she lay in bed, the realization came to her
that she might be dying. Neighbors came to the Harmon home, and Ellen overheard
them offering her parents a burial robe that they had made for her.8 Believing
she was about to die, 9-year-old Ellen in simple faith confessed her sins and
found peace with God. From that time on during her illness she had no fear of
For the next two years, from 1836 to 1838, Ellen
was ill and attended school very little. During that time she was unable to
breathe through her nose. When she was able to return, she couldn’t think clearly.
Her struggle to concentrate was complicated by the onset of a chronic cough.
In 1839, three years after her accident, Ellen
made a final effort to obtain an education by entering a seminary for young
women in Portland.9 As she tried to resume studies, her health collapsed, and
she was forced to give up. In later years she would write, “I did not attend
school after I was twelve years old.”10
Realizing that she wouldn’t be able to continue
her schooling was a tremendous blow to Ellen, for her fondest hope had been
to gain an education. When the full force of her limitations became apparent,
she began to blame God. She wrote, “I was unreconciled to my lot, and at times
murmured against the providence of God in thus afflicting me.”11
Resentment against God, however, caused her sensitive
conscience to trouble her still further. As she wavered between resentment against
God for being unable to continue school and self-condemning guilt because of
her anger at God, her peace and confidence in Jesus left her.12 She became convinced
that God was angry with her for having rebellious thoughts. Years later she
wrote of that terrible time, “No one conversed with me on the subject of my
soul’s salvation, and no one prayed with me. So I locked my secret agony within
my heart, and did not seek the advice of experienced Christians as I should
The sense of guilt and her fear of eternal damnation
became the great trauma of Ellen’s early adolescence. Depression and hopelessness
plagued her, and the combination of physical illness and spiritual turmoil focused
her mind on eternal realities. The months of emotional stress caused her personality
to develop an intensity, tenderness, and longing after God that uniquely qualified
her to serve as the Lord’s messenger in later years. At the time, however, it
was a heavy cross for a girl of her age.
In the Chestnut Street Methodist Church were various
books for children on Christian living, some of which featured a child named
Ellen.14 Young Ellen Harmon read these religious biographies of children with
great interest. She wrote:
“I had conceived a great admiration for the paragons
of perfection there represented. But far from encouraging me in my efforts to
become a Christian, these books were as stumbling-blocks to my feet; for I despaired
of ever attaining to the perfection of the youthful characters in those stories,
who lived the lives of saints, and were free from all the doubts and sins and
weaknesses under which I staggered. . . . The similarity of these avowedly true
histories seemed to point the fact to my youthful mind that they really presented
a correct picture of a child’s Christian life. I repeated to myself again and
again, ‘If that is true, I can never be a Christian. I can never hope to be
like those children.’ This thought drove me almost to despair.”15
During this time of Ellen’s inner struggle, William
Miller visited Portland, Maine, and gave a course of lectures March 11-23, 1840,
on the second coming of Jesus in the Free- Will Baptist/Christian Connection
church. A great crowd came to hear, including 12-year-old Ellen Harmon. She
later recalled, “No wild excitement attended the meetings, but a deep solemnity
pervaded the minds of those who heard. Not only was a great interest manifested
in the city, but the country people flocked in day after day, bringing their
lunch baskets, and remaining from morning until the close of the evening meeting.”16
In connection with the Miller lectures, special
meetings were conducted during which sinners could prepare for the coming of
Jesus. There was a general awakening among the various denominations, and a
call was made for sinners to come forward to the “anxious seat.” Hundreds responded,
Ellen among them. Though she felt intensely her need of acceptance with God,
her heart could not find peace, for the darkness of her recent experience still
obscured the Saviour. Fear and discouragement pressed upon her with new weight.
“I regarded it a great thing to be a Christian,” she later wrote of this time,
“and felt that it required some peculiar effort on my part.”17 This condition
lasted for almost another 18 months, until she grasped the meaning of righteousness
The Experience of Justification
A breakthrough occurred for Ellen during the “following
summer,” probably August or early September 1841 when with her parents Ellen
attended the Methodist camp meeting at Buxton, Maine.18 At these meetings a
minister spoke on the subject of righteousness by faith. His text was the words
of Esther: “I will go in unto the king, . . . and if I perish, I perish” (Esther
4:16); and he used Esther’s words to encourage his listeners to go before King
Jesus and receive pardon. Hearers should avoid the fatal mistake of “waiting
to make themselves more worthy of divine favor before they ventured to claim
the promises of God,” he urged.19 This sermon gave Ellen some comfort, and she
determined to find assurance with God.
One thing still interfered with Ellen’s finding
peace with God, however. She heard loud and frequent testimonies from others
who had received the “witness of the Spirit” that God had accepted them, and
believed it was necessary to experience spiritual ecstasy as evidence of her
acceptance by God.20 Looking back on this time, she wrote, “How much I needed
instruction concerning the simplicity of faith!”21
Unexpectedly, while bowed at the altar with others
who were seeking the Lord, Ellen had a powerful experience of relief:
“I felt my needy, helpless condition as never
before. But suddenly, as I prayed, my burden left me, and my heart was light.
. . . I can never forget this precious assurance of the pitying tenderness of
Jesus toward one so unworthy of His notice. . . . Again and again I said to
myself, ‘Can this be religion? Am I not mistaken?’ . . . I felt that the Saviour
had blessed me and pardoned my sins.”22
For the first time since her struggle had begun
two years previously, she found peace with God. In Buxton, Maine, Ellen finally
realized that Jesus could accept her and forgive her sins. Righteousness before
God was through faith in the merits of Jesus and not by her own merits and worthiness.
Ellen Harmon came back from the camp meeting a
changed person. Everything was new and beautiful. According to the church records,
she was recommended for the customary six-month probationary period before baptism
on September 20, 1841; eight months later, on May 23, 1842, she was recommended
for baptism itself. On June 26 a group gathered on the shore of the baptizing
place on Casco Bay to witness the service at which John Hobart baptized young
Ellen and 11 others by immersion in the cold, choppy water.23
Of that momentous day she later wrote:
“Finally the day was appointed for us to receive
this solemn ordinance. Although usually enjoying, at this time, great peace,
I frequently feared that I was not a true Christian, and was harassed by perplexing
doubts as to my conversion.
“It was a windy day when we, twelve in number,
were baptized, walking down into the sea. The waves ran high and dashed upon
the shore, but in taking 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.”24
That same afternoon she was received into full
membership in the Chestnut Street Methodist Episcopal Church.25
Another event that intensified Ellen’s search
for assurance was her attendance at a second course of lectures delivered by
William Miller in Portland just two weeks before her baptism. The 2300 day/year
prophecy upon which Miller’s lectures focused were at first calculated to end
during 1843, and Ellen keenly felt her need to be certain of her salvation.
Expelled From the Methodist Church
Changing leadership in Ellen’s home church resulted
in the arrival of a new pastor who was not at all congenial to the “Millerite”
views of some of his parishioners. Members who espoused Miller’s views on the
prophecies received his attention; and according to church records, the Harmons
were the first Advent believers to be examined. On February 6, 1843, the first
of five committees was formed to deal with the Harmons’ “anti-Methodist conduct.”
These committees each labored with Robert Harmon without success. Finally, in
August 1843, more than seven months after the process began, Robert and Eunice
Harmon, with their children Robert, Sarah, and Ellen, were tried and expelled
from the Chestnut Street Methodist Church. Robert Harmon appealed to the quarterly
meeting, but the session voted to uphold the action of the Chestnut Street church.26
Being expelled from the Methodist Church scarcely
more than a year after being baptized into it deeply impressed 15-year-old Ellen
Harmon. Her father’s courage in standing for what he believed must have been
a helpful anchor for Ellen’s faith in the soon coming of Jesus.
The Dilemma of Sanctification
Following William Miller’s meetings and her baptism,
Ellen entered a second period of severe struggle that again led her to despair.
As 1842 waned and Ellen passed her fifteenth birthday, her spiritual anxiety
intensified. “For some time I felt a constant dissatisfaction with myself and
my Christian attainments,” she wrote, “and did not continually realize a lively
sense of the mercy and love of God.”27
While she had clearly grasped the importance of
being justified by faith, Ellen had yet to understand the reality that forgiveness
and acceptance by Jesus do not necessarily keep one from sinning. As she attended
the ongoing Adventist meetings in Portland’s Beethoven Hall, “my mind constantly
dwelt upon the subject of holiness of heart. I longed above all things to obtain
this great blessing, and feel that I was entirely accepted by God.”
Confused about the relationship between justification
and sanctification, she sought insight from many sources:
“These two states [justification and sanctification]
were presented to my mind as separate and distinct from each other; yet I failed
to comprehend the difference or understand the meaning of the terms, and all
the explanations of the preachers increased my difficulties. . . . I felt that
I could claim only what they called justification. In the Word of God I read
that without holiness no man should see God. Then there was some higher attainment
that I must reach before I could be sure of eternal life. I studied over the
subject continually; for I believed that Christ was soon to come, and feared
He would find me unprepared to meet Him.”28
Ellen’s fears and doubts were exacerbated by a
misunderstanding of hell and the state of the dead. Her vivid imagination was
fired by graphic verbal descriptions from the pulpit that brought terror to
“I feared that I should be lost, and that I should
live throughout eternity suffering a living death. . . . The frightful descriptions
that I had heard of souls in perdition sank deep into my mind. . . . While listening
to these terrible descriptions, my imagination would be so wrought upon that
the perspiration would start, and it was difficult to suppress a cry of anguish,
for I seemed already to feel the pains of perdition.”29
A shy, retiring person by nature, she felt reluctant
to share her spiritual turmoil with anyone. Finally the crisis came. “Despair
overwhelmed me,” she wrote, “and for three long weeks no ray of light pierced
the gloom that encompassed me.”30
It was while she suffered under this despair that
Ellen had two dreams, one of a temple and a lamb, and the other of seeing Jesus.
The first dream caused her almost total despair, but the second gave her hope.
In it she was led by a beautiful pitying person to a door, where Ellen left
all her treasures. As the door was opened, she saw Jesus:
“There was no mistaking that beautiful countenance;
that expression of benevolence and majesty could belong to no other. As His
gaze rested upon me, I knew at once that He was acquainted with every circumstance
of my life and all my inner thoughts and feelings. I tried to shield myself
from His gaze, feeling unable to endure His searching eyes; but He drew near
with a smile, and laying His hand upon my head, said, ‘Fear not.’ The sound
of His sweet voice thrilled my heart with happiness it had never before experienced.
I was too joyful to utter a word, but, overcome with emotion, sank prostrate
at His feet.”
As she left the room, she felt that “the loving
eyes of Jesus were still upon me, and His smile filled my soul with gladness.
His presence awoke in me a holy reverence and an inexpressible love.”31
The dream of Jesus gave Ellen courage to confide
her troubles to her mother. Eunice Harmon advised Ellen to counsel with Elder
Levi Stockman, an Adventist preacher in Portland. Stockman, though only in his
early 30s, was dying of tuberculosis. Ellen wrote of him later, “I had great
confidence in him, for he was a devoted servant of Christ.”32 As he listened
to her, he affectionately placed his hand on her head and with tears in his
eyes said, “‘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.’”33
Stockman succeeded in correcting Ellen’s view of God, for she wrote later,
“My views of the Father were changed. I now looked upon Him as a kind and tender
parent, rather than a stern tyrant compelling men to a blind obedience. My heart
went out toward Him in a deep and fervent love. Obedience to His will seemed
a joy; it was a pleasure to be in His service.”34
Stockman prayed for her earnestly, and she left
comforted and encouraged. She had learned that God was like her parents. God
was committed to her, even when she failed and made mistakes. He might discipline,
but He wouldn’t cast her off for failing.
For six months after her meeting with Elder Stockman,
not a shadow clouded Ellen’s mind, nor did she neglect one known duty.35 These
six months from the autumn of 1843 to the first disappointment of March-April
1844, were a time of anticipation, testimony, and personal witness.
On at least two occasions after her conversion,
Ellen publicly testified of her new assurance. She was asked to give her testimony
at a conference meeting held at the Free-Will Baptist/Christian Chapel, and
as she expressed her love for Jesus with subdued heart and tearful eyes, the
“melting power of the Lord came upon the assembled people. Many were weeping
and others praising God.” A call for sinners to arise for prayer was made with
During the next several months Ellen labored for
the conversion of her young friends and acquaintances, reporting that nearly
every one of them became converted. Night after night she dreamed of laboring
for the salvation of souls. She says, “At such times special cases were presented
to my mind; these I afterward sought out and prayed with,” though some people
felt she was too zealous and sought to hold her back and cool the ardor of her
faith.37 Yet for young Ellen, Jesus, His work, and His soon coming were her
preoccupation and consuming joy.
Seventh-day Adventist Christians today wrestle
with many of the same questions that perplexed Ellen Harmon, including: “Why
does God allow bad things to happen to me?” “How can I overcome my resentments?”
“How can I be good enough for Jesus to forgive my sins?” “How can I get ready
for the coming of Jesus?” “Why do I keep sinning and failing in my Christian
life?” These and similar questions pressed close to Ellen Harmon’s heart during
her early years. As recounted in this story, she found answers to each of them.
Her close relationship with Jesus grew out of her struggles and uniquely fitted
her for a lifetime of prophetic ministry.
The same Jesus who brought forgiveness and spiritual
healing to a struggling young woman 160 years ago will answer the need of seeking
1 Oral interview between James R. Nix and
Ella M. Robinson, Oct. 12, 1979.
2 On March 5, 1909, Ellen White filled out
a biographical form for the General Conference. One of the questions on this
form was “Date of Conversion.” She responded, “Probably in March 1840.” Ellen
White was not sure of the exact time she was converted.
3 Signs of the Times, Jan. 6, 1876.
4 A rod is equal to five and a half yards.
5 Life Sketches (1880), p. 131.
6 Signs of the Times, Jan. 6, 1876.
7 Life Sketches manuscript (unpublished),
pp. 4, 5; see also Life Sketches (1880), pp. 132, 133.
8 Life Sketches (1880), p. 132.
9 Harlowe Harris, The Portland Directory,
for the Year 1841 (Portland: Arthur Shirley & Son). This directory includes
a list of private schools.
10 Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 13.
11 Life Sketches (1880), p. 135.
12 Ibid. (1915), pp. 21, 22.
13 Life Sketches manuscript (unpublished),
p. 12; see also Life Sketches (1880), p. 136.
14 Catalogue of Books in the Sunday School
Library of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Chestnut Street, Portland, Maine
(Portland, Maine: Staples & Lunt, Printers, 1854).
15 Life Sketches manuscript (unpublished),
p. 22; see also Life Sketches (1880), pp. 146, 147.
16 Life Sketches (1915), pp. 20, 21.
17 Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 16.
18 Signs of the Times, Jan. 20, 1876.
19 Life Sketches (1915), p. 22.
20 Ibid. (1880), pp. 139, 140.
21 Ibid. (1915), p. 23.
22 Life Sketches manuscript (unpublished),
pp. 21, 22; see also Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 17, 18.
23 In the 1890s an article appeared in a Portland
paper, now archived by the Maine Historical Society in the Post Scrapbook,
vol. 4. On page 101, see the article entitled “The Old Baptising Shore.” The
date of baptism is verified by Portland Chestnut Street Methodist Church records.
24 Life Sketches (1880), p. 145.
25 A Statistical History of the Maine Conference
of the Methodist Episcopal Church From 1793 to 1893, collected and arranged
by D. B. Randall (Portland: Lakeside Press, 1893), p. 119.
26 Information on the trial of the Harmon family
is found in the Leader’s Meeting Minutes of the Chestnut Street Methodist Episcopal
Church in Portland, Maine.
27 Life Sketches (1915), p. 26.
28 Ibid., pp. 27-29.
29 Ibid., pp. 29, 30.
30 Ibid., p. 32.
31 Ibid., p. 35.
32 Ibid., p. 36.
34 Ibid., p. 39.
35 Ibid., pp. 38, 39. Many Methodists
believed sanctification to be an instantaneous work of grace, sometimes called
the “second blessing.” For them it was not a state of sinless perfection, but
rather one of perfect love and right intentions. After her visit with Stockman,
Ellen attended a meeting at her uncle’s house and, while kneeling in prayer,
felt a complete relief from her despair. “I praised God from the depths of my
heart,” she wrote. “The Spirit of God rested upon me with such power that I
was unable to go home that night” (ibid., p. 38).
36 Ibid., pp. 41, 42.
37 Ibid., p. 42.
Merlin Burt is director of the Ellen G. White Estate branch office at Loma
Linda University, Loma Linda, California.