Ellen G. White and The Seventh-day Adventist Church:
From the Great Disappointment to A Worldwide Movement
Jim Moyers, MA, MFT
Magazine #179, 2018 March)
Place of Ellen White in the Seventh-day Adventist Church
There is nothing
more central, or controversial, in the Seventh-day Adventist Church
than Ellen G. White and her work. From the very beginning of the
movement there has been heated debate about the nature of her
revelations and their place in the church. Most of the questions raised
have never been completely resolved, and are ongoing sources of
contention both within the church and in dialogue with other
Christians. Over the course of time many Adventists, some of them
prominent within the denomination, have left Adventism as a direct
result of their disagreement with the church's stance on Mrs. White.
historically have been reluctant to disclose to outsiders the central
role of White in their church for fear of being branded a cult with an
extra-Biblical source for their beliefs, which is in fact how they are
viewed by many mainstream Christians. As a result of this reticence,
Ellen G. White, unlike her contemporaries Joseph Smith and Mary Baker
Eddy, remains virtually unknown outside Adventist circles. Officially
the church teaches that White's writings, while inspired to the same
degree as those of Biblical authors, are not to be considered equal in
authority to the Bible.(37) Yet in practice this fine, and confusing,
distinction is often disregarded. Almost all the unique beliefs that
separate Adventism from the rest of Christianity have their basis in
the writings of White. A great many Adventists, regardless of the
official pronouncements of the church hierarchy, consider "the Spirit
of Prophecy" to be an infallible authority in which there is no error.
This belief is
at the heart of the Ellen G. White problem. If her writings are
divinely inspired, how then to account for such things, to name one of
many possible instances, as the deletion of visionary material
upholding the Shut Door teaching from the official canon of her works
and her repeated denials of having ever held such a view? Then there
are the troubling instances in which she was simply wrong, as in her
infamous declaration that "if there was one sin above another which
called for the destruction of the race by the flood, it was the base
crime of amalgamation of man and beast... (which produced) the confused
species which God did not create,"(38) or her claim that virtually
every physical malady can be traced to masturbation which is caused by
eating meat and other "stimulating" foods?(39) One response to this
problem, unfortunately one followed from an early date on, was to
simply delete the troublesome statements from later editions of her
works. When the deleted material has been subsequently discovered and
questioned, the White Estate's (the legal entity which controls her
writings and official legacy) standard response has been to issue a
confusing statement to the effect that Sister White did really not mean
to say what she seems to have said.(40) These official pronouncements
evidently provide sufficient reassurance for the many Adventists who
would never think of questioning White's writings in the first place,
but they leave a lot of other people less than satisfied.
As early as 1919
concerns were expressed at the General Conference (the highest
governing body in the denomination) level about Ellen G. White, the
nature of her writings, and the way the majority of Adventists
understood her work.(41) While the participants in the 1919 discussion
voiced uneasiness over the canonical status that White's writings had
assumed within Adventism, no attempt was made to change that
status. One of the discussants asked, "Is it well to let our
people in general go on holding to the verbal inspiration of the
Testimonies? When we do that, aren't we preparing for a crisis that
will be very serious some day?"(42) While that remark, along with
all other records of the 1919 Bible Conference, was locked away for
half a century, the warning appeared almost prophetic when reemerging
doubts about White precipitated just such a crisis in the 1980's.
In 1976 Ronald
Numbers' Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White was published.
While Numbers actually took a rather conservative stance in a scholarly
discussion of the historical and social context of White's work, he
clearly demonstrated that much of her "health message" was derived
without credit from other health reformers. The Adventist Church did
its best to block the book, and by the time it was published Numbers
had been dismissed from his position on the faculty of Loma Linda
University, the flagship of the Adventist educational establishment.(43)
If Prophetess of
Health shook up Adventism, the 1982 publication of Walter Rea's The
White Lie(44) came like an earthquake. Through the years, Ellen White
had frequently been accused of plagiarism. Just as frequently the
accusations were denied to the satisfaction of most Adventists. Rea was
a well established Adventist minister and self described devotee of
White. In the course of graduate work at a non-Adventist
university, much to his discomfort he discovered a number of uncanny
parallels between the works of other nineteenth century religious
writers and White's writings. His attempts to bring the results
of his research to the attention of General Conference officials were
repeatedly met with statements that more study was needed before the
issue could be publicly discussed. Rea, however, refused to keep
silent. After an article on the controversy appeared in the Los Angles
Times, he was relieved of his position as an Adventist minister.
While much of
Rea's book reflects the bitterness of a man whose faith has been
betrayed, its line by line comparisons of White's writings with that of
other nineteenth century authors provided solid evidence that at least
some of what Ellen White repeatedly stated was her own original writing
was actually copied from the works of others. In some instances the
very words attributed to Jesus or an angel in her visions, were lifted
directly from some other, very human author. With the publication of
Rea's book, the news media picked up on the story. The Adventist
Church, which historically has not dealt well with negative publicity,
took a defensive position. The many official statements that were
issued more resembled a denial of the problem than a genuine attempt at
its resolution. While the majority of Adventists remain blissfully
unaware of the details of the controversy, many church members who
bothered to look into it found that their faith in the leadership of
their church as well as in Ellen White had been seriously shaken.
True/False Prophet Dichotomy
Much of the
debate about Ellen White takes place between staunch Adventists, who
believe her to have been a "true messenger of God," and critics both in
and outside Adventism who question her claimed possession of the "gift
of prophecy." Many holding the latter view have, like Walter Rea,
been stung by an apparent betrayal of the faith they once placed in
her. Depending on their current beliefs, they may regard White as a
false prophet, a charlatan, or mentally ill. Attempts have been made,
as is also the case with various other visionary figures, to explain
her visions as the result of some pathological process, most often the
head trauma she suffered in the childhood rock throwing incident.(45)
But a reductive medical explanation offers little in the way of useful
explanation for Ellen White's role in establishing and furthering the
Seventh-day Adventist church.
grew up in an unsophisticated, religiously preoccupied culture where
prophetic proclamations of various kinds were not uncommon. Following
beliefs that placed high importance on personal experience of the
divine, she had no reason to seek anything other than a supernatural
explanation for her many unusual experiences, an explanation that was
acceptable within her milieu. While she was still quite young, people,
many of them her elders, began looking to Ellen for divine guidance.
While Ellen was at times burdened by her role as bearer of the word of
the Lord, possession of the “Gift of Prophecy” also gave a great deal
of meaning to her ongoing suffering.
In the afterword
to the revised and enlarged 1992 edition of his Prophetess of Health,
Ronald L. Numbers and his wife, Janet S. Numbers, a clinical
psychologist, examine White's own statements about her health, and
convincingly conclude "that from youth onward she suffered from
recurrent episodes of depression and anxiety to which she responded
with somatizing defenses and a histrionic personality style. These
allowed her to transform debilitating and destructive forces into
creative and productive ones."(46) They cite George Pickering's
1974 book, Creative Malady: Illness in the Lives and Minds of Charles
Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud, Marcel
Proust, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in their discussion of Ellen White's
"creative malady." "Rather than falling victim to illness, she
(unconsciously) used it to escape anxiety-provoking or unwanted tasks,
to elicit sympathy and support, to fashion a rewarding career, and to
construct a religious system that prominently featured the ministry of
individual and societal needs often lie behind the lasting impact of
individuals on their world. In his remarkable psychoanalytic study of
Martin Luther, Young Man Luther,
Erik H. Erikson says, "Luther, so it
seems, at one time was a rather endangered young man, beset with a
syndrome of conflicts.... He found a spiritual solution... (that)
bridged a political and psychological vacuum which history had created
in a significant portion of Western Christendom."(48) In his
examination of what he, borrowing from Soeren Kierkegaard, terms
Luther's "patienthood," Erikson expands "clinical perspective to
include a life style of patienthood as a sense of imposed suffering, of
an intense need for cure, and (as Kierkegaard adds), 'a passion for
expressing and describing one's suffering.'"(49)
fortuitous fit between Luther's solution to his inner conflicts and the
needs of Western civilization just prior to the Reformation which
Luther set in motion, Mrs. White's solution to personal difficulties
meshed well with the plight of the disappointed Millerites who came
together under her guidance. Her "messages" provided reassurance that
their beliefs were not in vain, and they were in fact on the road to
eventual salvation. As the small group moved towards establishment of a
formally organized church, difficult questions about doctrine and
practices were clarified by her "testimonies." In a process that
was largely if not entirely unconscious, experiences that initially
provided comfort for an adolescent girl overwhelmed with inner
conflicts became visions providing guidance for a small group of
confused people struggling to come to terms with their apparently
failed beliefs, and eventually divine revelations that became pillars
of Adventist belief and practice.
While there are
indications that a number of other visionaries, such as "Miss Dorinda
Baker of Orrington" present at the meetings which led to the Israel
Dammon arrest(50), were active in post-Disappointment Millerite
circles, Ellen White rather quickly became the only widely recognized
bearer of the "prophetic gift" for Adventists. The process by which
this occurred is unclear, but it is apparent from her writings that she
was very careful to establish and guard her preeminent position within
the movement. Her position of authority as “the Lord’s messenger”
provided a relatively stable central source of support for the
Seventh-day Adventist Church as it grew from fringe sect to a worldwide
organization. Ellen White became an institution to which she herself
became somewhat of a captive. She was expected to continue to pour out
words of divine wisdom on a regular basis, even when, as she confessed
in regard to the late nineteenth century controversy over legalism, she
found some issues difficult to understand. That she should, under
pressure to produce more writings, turn to other, non-revelatory
sources to supplement the messages brought by her angel companion is
perhaps understandable if not entirely excusable.
After her death
the status of White was enshrined with the White Estate incorporated as
official guardian of her place in Adventism. Despite official
statements to the contrary, on a practical level her writings came to
be revered as supplemental scriptures. As Adventist scholar Arthur N.
Patrick puts it, "Instead of a signpost, many in the church seemed to
demand that she become a road. Instead of a sketch map, she was
expected to be a contour map. Instead of a descriptive dictionary she
was pressed to be an all-encompassing encyclopedia of truth and duty.
In place of a blazed trail, the church appeared to want her to give it
maintains that Ellen White became an unerring source of truth only
after her death as Adventists, influenced by contemporary conservative
Protestant trends, moved towards a fundamentalist stance. While there
may be some historical basis for this argument, White herself
repeatedly claimed divine authority for her work. Certainly in
the view of many Adventists her pronouncements came directly from God
and any challenge to her authority is seen as a challenge of the very
foundations of Adventism. Given her central place in Adventism, this is
hardly surprising. Certainly for those, who like myself, were taught to
regard her writings as infallible, doubts about her work continue to
lead to doubts about the truth of the entire structure of Adventist
with many other contemporary Adventist scholars, urges a reevaluation
of Ellen White's place in the church in the light of historical
research: "We need, right now, to seek and implement the use of fresh
symbols which fit all the known data about Ellen White’s ministry." At
the same time he acknowledges that "many leaders and members are either
unaware of the relevant data or resistant to taking action in view of
It is probably
safe to say that the majority of Adventist church members are not very
much interested in data, no matter how relevant, that challenges the
traditional Adventist understanding of Ellen G. White. Denial of
the facts of her borrowings and erroneous statements is an
understandable, if regrettable, consequence of the exalted position she
occupies within the church. Religion, like many other facets of human
culture, is not based on "relevant data" but comes from a basic human
need to "know" things that cannot be definitely known, for some hard
and final "truth" about the uncertainties that haunt the human
condition. Yet religions that manage to survive for more than a few
generations must be flexible enough to be able to gradually modify
beliefs to accommodate new data. Adventists claim theirs is a religion
based, not on a fixed creed, but in ongoing revelation and an ever
evolving progressive understanding of divine purpose.
It remains to be
seen how the Adventist understanding of Ellen G. White will evolve in
light of the revelations of history about her life and work. If it in
fact undergoes any significant change at all. Perhaps, as the Mormons
seem to have done in regard to Joseph Smith, the problems with Ellen
White will be dealt with by ignoring them while relegating her and her
much edited and debated writings to an increasingly less significant
role in contemporary Adventism.
(1) "Trial of
Elder I. Dammon Reported For The Piscataquis Farmer," Piscataquis
Farmer, Vol. 3, Dover Maine, March 7, 1845, No. 31 in Ronald L. Numbers
and Jonathan M. Butler (eds.), The Disappointed: Millerism and
Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century (Knoxville: University of
Tennessee Press, 1993), pp. 227-240.
(3) E. G. White,
Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 2, (1860), pp. 40-42.
Weaver, "The Arrest and Trial of Israel Dammon," Adventist
3, Number 1, 1988.
M. Butler, “The Making of a New Order: Millerism and the Origins
of Seventh-day Adventism” in Jonathan M. Butler & Ronald L. Numbers
(eds.), The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the
Nineteenth Century (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press,
1993), p. 203.
(6) The first
attempt at a critical biography White was Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of
Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of the Seventh-day Adventist
Health Reform, Revised and Enlarged Edition, (Knoxville, University of
Tennessee Press, 1992). Jonathan Butler’s lengthy introduction, “The
Historian as Heretic,” which describes the attempts of the Adventist
Church to block publication of the book (first published in 1976 amid a
great deal of uproar) gives the reader a good idea of both the
resistance within the Adventist Church to the objective study of its
history and the personal struggles awaiting an Adventist who dares
challenge traditional Adventist views. In July 2008 a third "30th
anniversary" edition of Numbers' book with additional appendixes
containing the Israel Dammon and the 1919 Bible Conference material was
published by Eerdmans at which time Spectrum did an interesting
interview with Numbers
I have made
extensive use of Numbers’ account of White’s life in my interpretation
of White’s place in Adventism. Uncited quotes and material in what
follows are from Numbers’ book.
The Ellen White
with much less controversy than had greeted Numbers' book, in 2009 by a
group of SDA, ex-SDA, and non-SDA historians with plans for “a
systematic scholarly examination of the full range and scope of her
place in American history.” Their work, the "first comprehensive
scholarly treatment of Ellen White's life, career, and cultural context
(that) measures White's contribution to the development of Adventist
theology in a new, comprehensive way, re-contextualizes White's
published spiritual advice letters, or testimonies, (and) offers the
most comprehensive assessment of biographers' and historians' response
to White," was published in 2014 by Oxford University Press as
Ellen Harmon White, American Prophet edited by Terrie Dopp Aamondt,
Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers:
It more than
lives up to its promise and is essential reading for anyone concerned
with White and Adventist history.
(7) This and the
following quotes are from E.G. White, Spiritual Gifts: My Christian
Experience, Views and Labors (Battle Creek: James White, 1860) and E.G.
White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, CA: Pacific
p. 197. Numbers, pp. 12, 16-17. For more on the
October 22 movement see my "The Apocalyptic Background of Adventism:
Zoroaster to William Miller."
(9) Butler. p.
196. The same phrase, but diminishing in volume with each "glory," was
often uttered by Ellen G. White as she passed into a visionary state,
Numbers, p. 18. For a discussion of Ellen Harmon and other early
Adventists' religious experience in relation to the Methodist "shout"
tradition, see Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing
Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 153-165 and "Visions," in
Aamondt, Land, Numbers (eds), Ellen Harmon White, American Prophet
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) pp. 30-51.
(10) David L.
Rowe, Thunder and Trumpets: Millerites and Dissenting Religion in
Upstate New York 1800-1850, American Academy of Religion Studies in
Religion (Scholars Press, 1985), p. 150.
Foster, "Had Prophecy Failed: Contrasting Perspectives of the
Millerites and Shakers" in Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler
(eds.), The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the
Nineteenth Century (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993),
pp. 173-188. Also Rowe, p. 145-146.
(12) In the
Advent Herald of December, 1844, Miller wrote, "We have done our work
in warning sinners and in trying to awake a formal church. God in his
providence has shut the door; we can only stir up one another to be
Lindén, 1844 and the Shut Door Problem (Stockholm: Almqvist
& Wiskell Internat, 1982) p. 50. White's own long suppressed
account can be found in Ellen G. White Estate Manuscript Releases Vol.
5, p. 97, par. 3.
(14) Mrs. L. S.
Burdick in The True Sabbath, p. 72, cited in "Shut Door Chronology" at
Millerite misunderstanding of the 1844 date of Yom Kippur, see
(16) ibid., pp.
(17) Roy E.
Graham, Ellen G. White, Co-Founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
(New York: Peter Lang, 1982, p. 37 n49. Rowe, p. 155.
(18) Numbers, p.
(19) Numbers, p.
16. Graham, p. 15.
(22) Ellen G.
White in Present Truth, August, 1849.
Bates, “A Seal of the Living God,” (1849) and The Typical and
Anti-typical Sanctuary, p. 10, (1850). Cited in "Shut Door Chronology"
p. 27. See Lindén for an extensive account of the shut
door problem. Also Robert W. Olson, “The Shut Door:
Documents Statements Relating to the Shut Door, the Door of Mercy, and
the Salvation of Souls by Ellen G. White and Other Early Adventists
Arranged in a Chronological Setting from 1844 to 1851” (Washington D.
C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1982) at
As is the case
with many of the official "explanations" issued by the White Estate in
response to troubling questions about Ellen White and her work, this
publication is somewhat less than forthright.
(25) Numbers, p.
Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, & Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy
Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That
Predicted the Destruction of the World (New York: Harper & Row,
(1956)1964). Subsequent studies have challenged some of the conclusions
of Festinger's group, especially the contention that prophetic failure
leads to an increase in proselytizing activity. See Jon R. Stone,
editor, Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy
(New York & London: Routledge, 2000). However the history of
the early Adventists after the Great Disappointment does seem to
conform quite well to the Festinger, et. al. thesis. While
proselytizing activity did cease all together during the Shut Door
phase, by the 1850's the winning of new converts was a central
focus. For an interesting application of the theory of Festinger,
et. al. to Adventist history, particularly the controversies revolving
around Ellen White, see Timothy Dunfield, "Challenging Authority: The
Role of Dissent in the Formation of the Seventh-day Adventist
Sect," International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 2, 2011, pp.
attempted explanation of Ellen White's embrace of the shut door
teaching is that, being only seventeen years old at the time, she
misunderstood the vision that was given to her on the subject.
See Olson's commentary cited above.
Release-1-1863 (White Estate) quoted in Numbers, p. 81.
White's actual first writing on health reform preceded the account of
her "health message" vision by a few months. In April, 1864 An
Appeal to Mothers: The Great Cause of the Physical, Mental, and Moral
Ruin of Many of the Children of Our Time, a 64 page pamphlet on the
evils of "self-abuse" (masturbation) appeared. While the views of
prominent health reformers, all of whom were in accord with what had
been "revealed" to White on the subject, were noted in an anonymous
essay on "Chastity" included in the pamphlet, it was claimed that she
had not read any of them prior to writing about what had been "shown me
as an abomination in the sight of God... seen in various diseases, such
as catarrh, dropsy, headache, loss of memory and sight, great weakness
in the back and loins, affections of the spine, the head often decays
inwardly. Cancerous humor, which would lay dormant in the system
their life-time, is inflamed, and commences its eating, destructive
work. The mind is often utterly ruined, and insanity takes place." (pp.
17, 27). This pamphlet, after being reprinted in 1879 as A Solemn
Appeal, was out of print for many years, and would probably be
unavailable now except for the interest in it stirred up by renewed
controversy over White and her writings. See Numbers, pp. 150-159
(32) ibid., pp.
(33) ibid. pp.
(34) ibid. pp.
(35) ibid. pp.
(36) ibid. p.
Inspiration and Authority of the Ellen G. White Writings Issued by the
Biblical Research Institute of The General Conference of Seventh-day
Adventists. A Statement of Present Understanding." First
published in Ministry, February 1983.
Gifts, Vol. 3, pp. 64, 75. The "amalgamation" reference, like the
Shut Door teaching, was deleted in later editions. See
(39) In her
beliefs about masturbation White was following other contemporary
health reform authors. See note 30 above.
examples of some of these official explanations see
(41) At the
conclusion of the 1919 Bible Conference in which these issues were
raised, the moderator and General Conference President, A. G. Daniels,
requested that the official record be locked up for fifty years.
In 1974, as controversy about White was beginning to once again erupt,
the minutes were discovered in a vault at the General Conference.
Excerpts from the minutes of the conference were published as "The Use
of the Spirit of Prophecy in Our Teaching of Bible and History" and
"Inspiration of the Spirit of Prophecy as Related to the Inspiration of
the Bible," in Spectrum, X (May, 1979), pp. 23-57.
the conference are available at
(42) Quoted in
Jonathan M. Butler, "Introduction: The Historian As Heretic" in
Numbers, Prophetess of Health, p. lix.
(44) Walter T.
Rea, The White Lie (Turlock, CA: M & R Publications, 1982).
Available online at http://www.nonegw.org/egw17.htm.
For an update on
Rea and the "great controversy" he stirred up see
(45) Delbert H.
Hodder, "Visions or Partial-Complex Seizures?" Evangelica (November,
1981), pp. 30-37. Molleurus Couperus, "The Significance of Ellen
White's Head Injury," Adventist Currents, I (June, 1985), pp. 17-23,
available along with other material at
(46) Ronald L.
& Janet S. Numbers, "Ellen White on the Mind and the Mind of Ellen
White" in Numbers, p. 201.
(47) ibid. p.
(48) Erik H.
Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New
York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1962), p. 15, parenthesis added.
(49) ibid., p.
13, parenthesis in original.
Weaver, "The Arrest and Trial of Israel Dammon," Adventist Currents,
Vol. 3,1, (1988). "Combing through secular newspapers published after
1844, Adventist historian Fredrick Hoyt identified at least five
radical adventist visionaries active at the time in addition to Ellen
Harmon." Taves, p. 158.
(51) Arthur N.
Patrick, "Ellen White and Adventists in the 1990's," available online
(52) See my
“Leaving the Garden: On Being a Former Seventh-day