I have a great passion for what the New Testament calls “the testimony of Jesus Christ” and “the faith of Jesus” (see Revelation 1:9; 14:12). Every now and then, someone tells the story of Christianity in a fresh, new way that pushes the horizons of my understanding. In the 1980s, my favourite narrator was Jaroslav Pelikan’s book, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. Pelikan introduced his 270 pages with this paragraph: “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries.
If it were possible, with some sort of super-magnet, to pull up out of history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left? It is from his birth that most of the human race dates its calendars, it is by his name that millions curse and in his name that millions pray.”
Pelikan, a professor at Yale University, known worldwide for the integrity of his writing, confessed he had “always wanted to write this book.” The result, according to one reviewer, was “a book that could have been written only by a mature scholar but, remarkably, it can be read with profit and joy by anyone interested in the place of Jesus in the formation and development of culture from the first century until today.”
One of Pelikan’s arresting claims is that “the way any particular age has depicted Jesus is often a key to the genius of that age.” It is fruitful for us to appreciate the sweeping panorama of Christian history. Often, though, we are inspired most by the insights of particular individuals who have long reflected on the Scriptures.
“thank God for mumps!”
Mumps is an “infectious viral disease characterised by inflammatory swelling.”
I value an encounter with mumps that quarantined me for five days, because the isolation gave me time to read an 835- page account of the life of Christ.
The book was first published way back in 1898. During the 19th century, to write a book on the life of Christ was the goal (or fantasy) for many authors. But that generation of writers was not the only one to aspire to that objective. A medical doctor in the first century noted that “many have undertaken to draw up an account” of “all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Luke 1:1; Acts 1:1).
The doctor, who’s name was Luke (see Colossians 4:14), “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” in order to give us “an orderly account” of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:3).
For the next 20 centuries, every credible effort to write a life of Christ had to engage with the four original Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And the 19th century saw the flowering of these endeavours.
Curiously, the life of Jesus that I read in quarantine was not (as were most) written by a male scholar, but by a woman raised in a devout Methodist home.
Ellen Harmon and the flames
Ellen Harmon’s father was a hat maker in the New England city of Portland, Maine. On one occasion, Ellen’s mother expressed doubts about whether the Bible really taught the doctrine of eternal torment in hell. Ellen immediately challenged her mother: “If you believe this strange theory, do not let anyone know of it; for I fear that sinners would gather security from this belief, and never desire to seek the Lord.” But the nagging question remained. Finally, the young Ellen experienced conversion and was baptised by immersion (as a Methodist) in the cold waters of Casco Bay. Her life was now bright with the radiant companionship of Jesus.
Ellen Harmon married, gave birth to four children, and toiled with her husband, James, to nurture believers in the second advent of Christ. Fear of the flames of hell was replaced by joyous anticipation of “the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
While Ellen and her husband, James White, were at a funeral service in Ohio, the idea flashed upon her mind that Christians are in the midst of a huge battle between good and evil.
On one side are Satan and his evil angels. On the other side are Christ and His angels. That concept would, for the next half-century, form the most important theme in Ellen’s varied writings.
Her first account of the conflict between good and evil was printed by a small publishing house in what would soon become the cereal capital of the world: Battle Creek, Michigan.
The year was 1858, and the book was short—a mere 219 pages, with 50 of them telling the story of Jesus from His birth to His return to heaven. Constantly in the following decades, Ellen White tried to narrate Christ’s life more fully in magazine articles and books.
Diverted to Europe for two years during the 1880s, and then to Australia and New Zealand from 1891–1900, the task was daunting indeed.
pieces of a jigsaw
For more than 25 years, Ellen White cherished the skills of her assistant, Marian Davis. Many diary entries and letters detail the “valuable help” that Miss Davis gave so unstintingly. For instance, on April 23, 1900, Ellen White wrote from Australia to North America about her tireless “bookmaker.”
“How are my books made?” she asked, and then she answered: “Marian does not put in her claim for recognition. She does her work in this way: She takes my articles which are published in the papers, and pastes them in blank books. She always 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.”
Especially from the 1870s to the 1890s, Ellen White’s letters and diaries help us trace the development of the manuscript for her monumental book on the life of Christ. Close to its 1898 publication, a sudden decision was made to give the volume a new name, The Desire of Ages, to better describe its subject, Jesus.
The process was toilsome. For instance, during much of 1893, the author was in New Zealand, and the trusted “bookmaker” was in Melbourne, Australia. Miss Davis wrote on March 29 about “the necessity of having the matter from articles and scrapbooks, that might be available for use in the life of Christ, copied, so as to be convenient for reference.” Her next sentence describes the scope of the task: “Perhaps you can imagine the difficulty of trying to bring together points relating to any subject, when these must be gleaned from thirty scrapbooks, a halfdozen bound volumes, and fifty manuscripts, all covering thousands of pages.”
It is not surprising, then, that in the end, the all-consuming subject of the life of Christ could not be limited to one book. Of more than a hundred titles written by Ellen White that are currently in print, the number of those published on the life of Christ during the 1890s has caused that decade of her life to be dubbed her “decade of Christ.” Among the titles published during that time are Steps to Christ (1892), a book about the Sermon on the Mount (1896), another one on the parables of Jesus (1900), and the classic of them all, The Desire of Ages (1898).
Steps to Christ is short, so it has been translated into more than two hundred languages, with more than one hundred million copies scattered around the world. The more comprehensive The Desire of Ages has been translated into only 60 languages, though no one has ever counted the millions of copies sold.
During those five days with the mumps, I read The Desire of Ages from cover to cover. Of course, I’ve read it at other times as well, and used it frequently. But that five-day experience helped to cement a conviction about the theme of the book, expressed on page 22: “To know God is to love Him.” Jesus reveals God, the One whom to know is to love. C S Lewis claims that when we come to know how good God is—the Bible’s word is grace—we will adore Him.
the problem; a solution?
However, there is a problem with The Desire of Ages. Culture has changed.
People need new translations of the Bible rather than the cherished King James. Some readers, especially the young, are daunted by the long sentences and intricate language of the 19th century.
Fortunately, a writer has paraphrased The Desire of Ages into a reader-friendly book that better suits the taste of people in the 21st century.
Entitled Messiah, the first 100,000 copies sold quickly.
While many will never let Messiah replace The Desire of Ages, the important thing is to reflect on the Gospels and the life of Jesus. Ellen White says that she wanted her readers to be “foremost in uplifting Christ before the world.” She conceived of her literary output as giving people “a lesser light”
to lead them to “the greater light” of Scripture.
My reading of Ellen White’s diaries convinces me that she herself did very well what she advised others to do: “Spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ.”