DISCOVERING THE SPIRIT OF PROPHECY
The Acts of the Apostles
A 100-year-old gift
I send you this book with the hope that its record of untiring service may give you courage to press on till the conflict is over.” So wrote Ellen White as she celebrated her eighty-fourth birthday by sending autographed copies of her just-published Acts of the Apostles to a number of close friends and coworkers.
Responding to a Need
For more than a decade Ellen White had desired to revise her out-of-print Sketches From the Life of Paul that had been rushed to the press in 1883. The story of The Acts of the Apostles takes us back to that 334-page volume and its history.
Our Sabbath school lessons in 1881 and 1882 featured the life of Christ, and in the second quarter of 1883 they were scheduled to move into the book of Acts and the ministry of Paul. Church leaders had suggested a well-known commentary by W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson as an aid to members in their study. Ellen White herself had used their work in her earlier writing on the apostles, and thought highly enough of it to offer her own recommendation in the Signs of the Times: “The Life of St. Paul, by Conybeare and Howson, I regard as a book of great merit, and one of rare usefulness to the earnest student of the New Testament history.”1
Soon, however, as Ellen White’s son W. C. White later recalled, “Sabbath-school teachers and laymen complained that this [764-page] work was too voluminous and too heavy, and that the writings of Mrs. White, in their simplicity, would be much more helpful to the majority of our people; and it was urged that Mrs. White bring out a book that could be used as a lesson help.”2
Ellen White and her assistants worked quickly to pull together what she had already written on this history, to which she added much additional material.3 By June 1883 Sketches From the Life of Paul was off the press, and copies were on their way to fill incoming camp meeting orders. According to W. C. White, two editions of 5,000 copies each were printed before the book went out of print in the mid-1890s. When Ellen White was asked about reprinting the volume, she declined the suggestion, expressing her desire to expand the presentation further in a revised edition.4
Delaying the accomplishment of Ellen White’s intentions, however, was completing The Desire of Ages (1898), Christ’s Object Lessons (1900), Education (1903), and The Ministry of Healing (1905), among other works. It would be the end of 1910 before she could give less-interrupted attention to working on the revised manuscript.
Interestingly, just as the Sabbath school lessons in 1883 had prompted her first volume on the life of Paul, so it was the scheduled study of the book of Acts for the 1911 lessons that urged forward the completion of her revised edition.
W. C. White described how Ellen White’s assistants first took about five months hunting up what she had written on the life and teachings of the apostles before organizing the selections into chapters. “Day by day” the manuscripts were given to Mrs. White for reading, “and she marked the manuscripts freely, interlining and adding words, phrases, and sentences to make the statements more clear and forceful.” He noted, “Mother would frequently give us instruction regarding points of importance and which she knew she had written and which she wished us to take special pains to search for in her writings.”5
Bringing It Together
Knowing that the book couldn’t be completed in time for the start of the lessons, Ellen White’s staff submitted appropriate articles to the church papers, drawn from the “work in progress.”
Writing to her son W. C. White in mid-February 1911, Ellen White outlined her hopes about the book’s spiritual impact on its readers:
“Since you left, I have been very fully employed in the preparation of matter for the ‘Life of Paul.’ We are trying to bring out scriptural evidences of truth, and these, we believe, will be appreciated by our people. I have been anxious to bring into this book much matter that will be of special help to our workers who may be called upon to pass through experiences similar to those that came to the early Christian church. There is, in the history of the Acts of the Apostles, much that, if appropriated in the daily life, will inspire our brethren and sisters with a desire to seek for a higher spiritual life and for greater power, and for wisdom to cooperate with heavenly intelligences in the salvation of souls.”6
Correspondence throughout 1911 reveals steady progress on the manuscript and Ellen White’s excitement as it neared completion. “Recently I have been very much occupied in the work of closing up my book on the Acts of the Apostles,” she wrote to her granddaughter Mabel in September. “I think that my part of this work is about finished.”7 On October 6 she was able to write to Elder Haskell, “My book The Acts of the Apostles has gone to the press,”8 and six weeks later her first copy from the printers was in her hands.
The narrative of God’s people in the first century can inspire us to emulate their courage and confidence in God’s faithfulness as tumultuous events escalate around our planet. If you haven’t read this powerful volume recently, reacquaint yourself with its message. Ellen White’s birthday gift to the church—The Acts of the Apostles—has turned 100 years old this year, but the story of what the Holy Spirit can do through fully-surrendered hearts continues anew each day.
1 Signs of the Times, Feb. 22, 1883, p. 96.
2 W. C. White, “Brief Statem‑ents Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White,” pp. 9, 10.
3 Roughly a third of the preexisting material was drawn from Ellen White’s Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, published in 1878 (paralleled in her Redemption series, numbers 7 and 8).
4 W. C. White to F. M. Wilcox, Apr. 1, 1917. Some have falsely alleged that the book was not reprinted in order to avoid a threatened lawsuit by the publishers of Conybeare and Howson’s work, since Ellen White had made use of their popular work in preparing her manuscript. The book’s publishers, however, denied any knowledge of such an objection—or even the possibility of a legal complaint—since the edition they published was not copyrighted.
5 W. C. White to L. R. Conradi, Dec. 8, 1911. For additional background on the book’s preparation, see Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years, 1905-1915, pp. 340-344.
6 Ellen G. White letter 4, 1911 (to W. C. White, Feb. 15, 1911).
7 Ellen G. White letter 72, 1911 (to Mabel Workman, Sept. 18, 1911).
8 Ellen G. White letter 80, 1911 (to S. N. Haskell, Oct. 6, 1911).
Tim Poirier is vice director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.