Ellen White’s Emphasis on “True Education” for the Adventist Church

Going to School - Lessons in Learning. Film “Tell the World”
Going to School – Lessons in Learning. Film “Tell the World”

The idea of “True Education” was a significant focus in the writings of Ellen White, who was an instrumental co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She emphasized the need for a Christian context in everything a child learns, and also described what effective, relevant schooling should look like.

Many of her writings were influential in starting the Seventh-day Adventist educational system, which now reaches around the world and is one of the largest Christian school systems on the planet. This grew out of her counsel for education to be carefully based on biblical principles.

Currently, there are Adventist schools in nearly 150 countries around the world. About 85,000 teachers work in these schools teaching 1.5 million students across 7,500 schools.1

We’ll take a closer look at her counsel on effective education that helped the Adventist Education System get to where it is today:

What’s also fascinating is, although her writings are from over a century ago, many of the principles she put forth about education are reflected in some of the driving trends of modern-day education.2

Students’ minds have untapped potential

Ellen White was emphatic that properly exercising the mind is what enables it to develop. She believed students could develop their intellect and capabilities using effective, intentional study habits. 

She also believed students were not born with fixed abilities—they could grow in many, many ways and we shouldn’t let expectations (or lack thereof) hold them back. This view was different from mainstream educational thinking during her time, as it tended to view students as having a fixed amount of ability and intelligence.3

Young male student climbing books as he strengthens his education.

Near the start of the 20th century, she talked about the human brain as having the ability to “expand and strengthen.” 

Here’s how she put it:

Instead of confining their study to that which men have said, or written, let the students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation, let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny and the mind will expand and strengthen.4

She observed that a focus on positive subjects and deliberate study of natural science and other areas reaped positive results, helping students grow and develop their capacities. 

She believed children could learn what they needed using varied methods rather than one cookie-cutter approach, which reflects the modern scientific concept of neuroplasticity. This refers to the process in which the brain grows as a result of stimuli or experiences.2

Compare Ellen White’s recommendations to modern-day researchers Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman at the University of Pennsylvania, who said something very similar in relation to personal spiritual growth:

“The more you think about God, the more you will alter the neural circuitry in specific parts of the brain. … The human brain is uniquely constructed to perceive and generate spiritual realities.”5 

These researchers found that when subjects meditated on a God of love, they experienced growth in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that handles emotions and reasoning. 

In 2007, Norman Doidge’s best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself stated every brain is unique, and how well one can do something is simply a snapshot of what a person’s brain has taken in so far. It doesn’t determine a person’s potential to eventually master something. 

She would have agreed and encouraged students to grow through deliberate study and focus. This helped integrate these spiritual concepts into their mental processing.

For example, this is how she described an effective way for students to study the Bible:

In daily study the verse-by-verse method is often most helpful. Let the student take one verse, and concentrate the mind on ascertaining the thought that God has put into that verse for him, and then dwell upon the thought until it becomes his own. One passage thus studied until its significance is clear is of more value than the perusal of many chapters with no definite purpose in view and no positive instruction gained.6

A holistic approach to learning

Ellen White envisioned a kind of education that would develop the mind, body, and spirit. She saw the highest purpose of education was to help students attain spiritual growth along with their mental and physical growth.

Mind, body, and spirit diagram for a child's development.

Here’s how she talked about what she saw as the real role of education:

True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study. It means more than a preparation for the life that now is. It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. 

It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.7

This well-rounded philosophy of learning reflects a far wider, all-encompassing view of education than most schools would have, either during her time or today. To her, what we now call “book smarts” were only part of the equation when it came to quality learning. You had to go further and educate the whole student.

One aspect of this educational spectrum involved teachers themselves providing the kind of example students would want to follow:

Teachers are to do more for their students than to impart a knowledge of books. Their position as guide and instructor of the youth is most responsible, for to them is given the work of molding mind and character. 

Those who undertake this work should possess well-balanced, symmetrical characters. They should be refined in manner, neat in dress, careful in all their habits; and they should have that true Christian courtesy that wins confidence and respect. 

The teacher should be himself what he wishes his students to become.8

Ellen White felt that more importance needed to be placed on the characters and attitudes of teachers, rather than just considering their level of knowledge and expertise. Teachers are also called to serve as positive role models with strong morals.

Our church schools need teachers who have high moral qualities, those who can be trusted, those who are sound in the faith and who have tact and patience, those who walk with God…9

Only devout and consecrated men and women, who love children and can see in them souls to be saved for the Master, should be chosen as church school teachers.10

Building constructive habits for study and for life

Ellen White saw the creation of positive habits and reinforcement as a matter of self-respect—something you owed yourself and your creator:

Ethnic women quoting Ellen White about respecting yourself because you are Christ's purchased possession.

Cultivate respect for yourself because you are Christ’s purchased possession. Success in the formation of right habits, advancement in that that is noble and just, will give you an influence that all will value. Live for something besides self.11

It’s important to reflect on that last thought—self-centeredness is not the way to go when seeking to grow. Good habits are important because they remind us that we’re part of a larger community, and that we’re children of God.

Internalizing concepts vs. relying on memorization

19th-century education focused heavily on rote memorization of material where students were expected to memorize material and essentially regurgitate it. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that attitudes started to change and students were encouraged to think critically—and not just repeat what they heard their teachers say.

Three students raising their hands as their teacher points to a board math problem.

In this area as well, Ellen White was given insight ahead of her time. She encouraged the habit of thinking for yourself, considering the facts presented, and not just parroting what others say or believe.

It is the work of education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought.12

She knew the most powerful and lasting convictions had to be personal discoveries and decisions, which must be factored into our approach to education. This helps with personal growth and fresh innovation in learning methods.

But there’s a balance, of course. We need to make our own decisions, yes. But we don’t need to ignore the counsel of others. Children need to be taught how to test ideas and internalize what they find to be true. And they also need to be taught that while they don’t need to blindly follow others, they do need to consider their thoughts and their needs.

Differentiation—recognizing and nurturing uniqueness

Ellen White had a future-focused approach to education that would help students get ready for meaningful careers. She felt that our God-given individuality called for varying learning styles and teaching methods. This would also help students to be primed for different careers or areas of study, while finding their own way to be “good citizens” in the communities they served:

Young kids nurtured by the education of their teacher through individual interactions.

To live, think, and act for self only is to become useless as servants of God. High-sounding titles and great talents are not essential in order to be good citizens or exemplary Christians.13

In today’s words, she thought education should empower students with marketable skills.

Students who have gained book knowledge without gaining a knowledge of practical work cannot lay claim to a symmetrical education. The energies that should have been devoted to business of various lines have been neglected. Education does not consist in using the brain alone. Physical employment is a part of the training essential for every youth. An important phase of education is lacking if the student is not taught how to engage in useful labor.14

In addition to this practical focus, she was emphatic that we should move away from the factory-like, one-size-fits-all approach to education that was prevalent back then. 

Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do.15

Her God-given insight about individuality and the importance of cultivating independent thought supported what educators nowadays would call “differentiation.”2 This involves understanding the uniqueness of students and adapting teaching styles to their individual needs.

The same personal interest, the same attention to individual development, are needed in educational work today. Many apparently unpromising youth are richly endowed with talents that are put to no use. Their faculties lie hidden because of a lack of discernment on the part of their educators. In many a boy or girl outwardly as unattractive as a rough-hewn stone, may be found precious material that will stand the test of heat and storm and pressure. The true educator, keeping in view what his pupils may become, will recognize the value of the material upon which he is working.16

As she said above, students are unique, not just in how they think but also in how they put what they learn to practice. This may seem an obvious point today but was far from being the recognized reality in most classrooms of her time.

Prioritizing the subject matter of curriculums

Ellen White’s insistence on individualized, practical learning was fused with her strong belief that true education should be as all-encompassing as possible. A great education promoted the development of mind, body, and spirit.

Young girl smiling, listening through a headset in her classes special curriculum.

True education means more than taking a certain course of study. It is broad. It includes the harmonious development of all the physical powers and the mental faculties. It teaches the love and fear of God and is a preparation for the faithful discharge of life’s duties.17

She believed that this “complete package” approach to education helped students truly live up to their potential and that students should put their powers to work for God:

All the varied capabilities that men possess—of mind and soul and body—are given them by God to be so employed as to reach the highest possible degree of excellence.18

A spiritual focus is necessary for context and relevance

Ellen White believed there was a relationship between good education and spiritual health. For this reason, she felt that education should prepare students for a never-ending, ever-growing relationship with God—that “education is a work the effect of which will be seen throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity.”19

Colored pencils in a rainbow.

To achieve this education for a beautiful eternity in a relationship with God, she taught that students should specifically learn how to share the message of God with the world.

The most essential education for our youth today to gain, and that which will fit them for the higher grades of the school above, is an education that will teach them how to reveal the will of God to the world.20

Great achievements start with small steps

This is a concept that should be common sense. But with the focus on industrialization during Ellen White’s time, society demanded children be prepared to work as soon as possible. Much of education was rushed, and many children were working in factories. Some didn’t even attend school at all! 

Toddler looking at the small steps in front of them leading to a large flight of stairs.

She recognized that this kind of thing could be a society’s downfall. So she pushed for children to attend school, and for the schooling to allow for the development of aptitude in a variety of areas, rather than simply giving kids the bare minimum before sending them out to work.

All our youth should be permitted to have the blessings and privileges of an education at our schools, that they may be inspired to become laborers together with God. They all need an education, that they may be fitted for usefulness, qualified for places of responsibility in both private and public life.21

Her vision for a system of schools that prepared students for a life of service to God has blossomed since the early days of Seventh-day Adventist education. Today, more than 1.5 million students attend a network of 7,500 Seventh-day Adventist schools that employ 85,000 teachers around the world.

She encouraged students to have big goals. She didn’t want them to ignore the bold dreams God put on their hearts:

Dear youth, what is the aim and purpose of your life? Are you ambitious for education that you may have a name and position in the world? Have you thoughts that you dare not express, that you may one day stand upon the summit of intellectual greatness; that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations. You may every one of you make your mark. You should be content with no mean attainments. Aim high and spare no pains to reach the standard.22

Education can uplift the importance of Christian living

To Ellen White, the right kind of education served as part of a holistic focus on wellbeing. And that this enrichment of the mind is an essential part of practical Christianity. It makes sense to strive for a practical, productive life that brings value to your community. So a well-rounded, effective education meant taking individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles into consideration.

A cross made of pencils, representing true education which includes spiritual development.

True education, in her view, acknowledged that humans were made in the image of God and had unlimited potential to grow into the person God made them to be.

True education means more than pursuing a certain course of study. It has to do with the whole person, and with the whole period of existence possible to human beings. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers.23

The source of such an education is brought to view in these words of Holy Writ, pointing to the Infinite One: In Him “are hid all the treasures of wisdom” [Colossians 2:3]. … The world has had its great teachers…of giant intellect and extensive research, who have stimulated thought and opened to view vast fields of knowledge; … But there is One who stands higher than they. … As the moon and stars in our solar system shine by the reflected light of the sun, so, as far as their teaching is true, do the world’s greatest thinkers reflect the rays of the Sun of Righteousness. Every gleam of thought, every flash of the intellect, is from the Light of the world.24

Education was to help students develop their talents to serve God while using their individual strengths to help those around them. It wasn’t just enough to learn how to excel at something—talents were meant for service:

The true teacher is not satisfied with second-rate work. He is not satisfied with directing his students to a standard lower than the highest which it is possible for them to attain. He cannot be content with imparting to them only technical knowledge, with making them merely clever accountants, skillful artisans, successful tradesmen. It is his ambition to inspire them with principles of truth, obedience, honor, integrity, and purity—principles that will make them a positive force for the stability and uplifting of society. He desires them, above all else, to learn life’s great lesson of unselfish service.25

The fundamentals of quality education are timeless. Quoting King David’s words, she said,

The great principles of education are unchanged. “They stand fast for ever and ever” [Psalm 111:8]; for they are the principles of the character of God.26

She insisted that true education included an understanding of Jesus as our Savior, and that developing a relationship with Him can last forever:

In the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one, for in education, as in redemption, “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” “It was the good pleasure of the Father that in Him should all the fullness dwell” [1 Corinthians 3:11; Colossians 1:19]).26

Want to learn more on how to enjoy a healthy body, mind and soul? Check out our free online Bible studies.

  1. https://www.adventisteducation.org/abt.html []
  2. https://research.avondale.edu.au/teach/vol11/iss2/7/ [][][]
  3. https://www.aeon.co/essays/schools-love-the-idea-of-a-growth-mindset-but-does-it-work []
  4. White, Ellen G., Education, p. 17 []
  5. Newberg & Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist []
  6. Education, p. 189 []
  7. Education, p. 13 []
  8. White, Ellen G., Special Testimonies on Education, p. 48 []
  9. White, Ellen G., Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 201 []
  10. White, Ellen G., Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 166 []
  11. White, Ellen G., Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 1, p. 366 []
  12. Education, p. 17 []
  13. White, Ellen G., Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 4, pp. 339-340 []
  14. Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, pp. 307-308 []
  15. Education, p. 17 []
  16. Education, p. 232 []
  17. Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 64 []
  18. White, Ellen G., Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 595 []
  19. White, Ellen G., Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 15 []
  20. White, Ellen G., The Review and Herald, October 24, 1907: Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 51 []
  21. White, Ellen G., Child Guidance, p. 332 []
  22. White, Ellen G., The Review and Herald, August 19 issue, 1884 []
  23. White, Ellen G., True Education, p. 9 []
  24. Education, p. 13 []
  25. Education, p. 29 []
  26. Education, p. 30 [][]