Did Ellen White’s 1856 prophecy fail?
Jonah’s message, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4, KJV), was a direct heavenly revelation too. I haven’t yet seen any hint in Scripture that Jonah was given more of a message than this. The Ninevites merely hoped that God might have mercy on them if they repented—it was not a part of Jonah’s message. This is clear from Jonah 3:9. But even though the message had been given with no ifs, ands, or buts, God did change the outcome based on what the people did (verse 10). The principle of conditionality in prophecy is explicit in Jeremiah 18:7–10.
I do understand the condition to have been the carrying of God’s last warning messages to the world. I confess that in practical terms the task looks impossible. But in matters like these we are dealing with more than the human. When we human beings give ourselves to cooperate fully with God, responding to His leading and making Him first, He can do marvelous things with us, in us, and through us.
The church’s failure to carry the Lord’s message to the world was the result of something rooted in people’s relationship to God. In Testimonies for the Church, volume 1, on the same page as the statement you asked about, there is a hint of where a problem might lie that would prevent the carrying out of God’s purpose:
Many dress like the world, to have an influence. But here they make a sad and fatal mistake. If they would have a true and saving influence, let them live out their profession, show their faith by their righteous works, and make the distinction great between the Christian and the world. I saw that the words, the dress, and actions should tell for God. Then a holy influence will be shed upon all, and all will take knowledge of them that they have been with Jesus. Unbelievers will see that the truth we profess has a holy influence and that faith in Christ’s coming affects the character of the man or woman. If any wish to have their influence tell in favor of the truth, let them live it out and thus imitate the humble Pattern (Testimonies for the Church, 1:132).
Though Mrs. White mentions dress in the paragraph above, I take it that this was merely indicative of the underlying problem—hearts not fully given to God. Later in 1856, Mrs. White was given a vision that was shocking to the Adventist people—that it was they, not just the non-Sabbath keeping Adventists, who were “Laodicea” in Revelation 3 (see Testimonies, 1:141).
So the underlying problem of the church was a lack of full commitment to God. People’s hearts were still set on the world and the things of the world. We need to get the heart right, then the actions will also be right, and God will be able to use us to finish His work. Even today, when we have such marvelous communication and travel tools, the task is greater than what we can handle. It will only be accomplished by people who are totally committed to God and to His service. He then will use means beyond our imagining to make our efforts fruitful to accomplish His tasks. It will be exciting to see what God does with people when they hold nothing back from Him!
See also the question and answer titled “Food for Worms” on the White Estate Web site