Ellen G. White and The Seventh-day Adventist Church:

From the Great Disappointment to A Worldwide Movement

Part 2
(Back to Part 1)



By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

http://www.jimmoyers.com/index.html


(Investigator Magazine #179, 2018 March)



The 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.

Adventists 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.


Beyond the 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.

Ellen Harmon 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 healing."(47)

Converging 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)

Like the 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 a highway."(51)

Patrick 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 belief.(52)

Patrick, along 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"(53)

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.



References & Footnotes

(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.
Also online at:http://www.nonegw.org/israel.htm.

(2) ibid.

(3) E. G. White, Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 2, (1860), pp.  40-42.

(4) Bruce Weaver, "The Arrest and Trial of Israel Dammon," Adventist
Currents, Vol. 3, Number 1, 1988.

(5) Jonathan 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
http://www.spectrummagazine.org/articles/spectrum_interview/2008/08/10/emprophetess_healthem_hits_shelves_again 
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 Project
http://spectrummagazine.org/article/david-hamstra/2009/11/15/ interview-gary-land-ellen-white-project
was announced, 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:
http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199373864.do.
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 Press, 1915).

(8) Butler, 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."
http://www.jimmoyers.com/spirituality/sdaapocalyptic.html

(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.

(11) Lawrence 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 patient."

(13) Imgemar 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 http://www.nonegw.org/chrono.shtml.
For the Millerite misunderstanding of the 1844 date of Yom Kippur, see
http://www.nonegw.org/2300days.shtml.

(15) Numbers, pp. 13-14.

(16) ibid., pp. 16-17.

(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. 27.

(19) Numbers, p. 16.   Graham,  p. 15.

(20) Matthew 22:30.

(21) Numbers, pp. 21-25.

(22) Ellen G. White in Present Truth, August, 1849.

(23) Joseph Bates, “A Seal of the Living God,” (1849) and The Typical and Anti-typical Sanctuary, p. 10, (1850). Cited in "Shut Door Chronology" at http://www.nonegw.org/chrono.shtml.

(24) Numbers., 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 http://WhiteEstate.org/issues/shutdoor
http://www.whiteestate.org/issues/shutdoor.html. 
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. 27-30.

(26) Leon 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. 19-32

(27) One 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.

(28) Numbers, pp. 80-81.

(29) Manuscript Release-1-1863 (White Estate) quoted in Numbers, p. 81.

(30) Ellen 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
andhttp://www.nonegw.org/criticc.shtml.

(31) Numbers, pp. 83-85.

(32) ibid., pp. 85-91.

(33) ibid. pp. 91-95.

(34) ibid. pp. 169-173.

(35) ibid. pp. 178-179.

(36) ibid. p. 182.

(37) "The 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.

(38) Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 3, pp. 64, 75.  The "amalgamation" reference, like the Shut Door teaching, was deleted in later editions.  See
http://www.nonegw.org/critica.shtml.

(39) In her beliefs about masturbation White was following other contemporary health reform authors.  See note 30 above.

(40) For examples of some of these official explanations see
http://www.whiteestate.org/issues/issues.asp#section3.

(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. 
Excerpts from the conference are available at
http://www.sdanet.org/atissue/books/1919bc/index.htm.

(42) Quoted in Jonathan M. Butler, "Introduction: The Historian As Heretic" in Numbers, Prophetess of Health, p. lix.

(43) ibid.

(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
http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/01/05/great-controversy-over-plagiary-last-interview-walter-rea
and
http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/01/12/great-controversy-over-plagiary-last-interview-walter-rea-part-two

(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
http://www.nonegw.org/visions.html.

(46) Ronald L. & Janet S. Numbers, "Ellen White on the Mind and the Mind of Ellen White" in Numbers, p. 201.

(47) ibid. p. 223.

(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.

(50) Bruce 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 at:
http://www.sdanet.org/atissue/white/patrick/egw1990.htm.

(52) See my “Leaving the Garden: On Being a Former Seventh-day
Adventist.”
http://www.jimmoyers.com/spirituality/leavinggarden-.html

(53) Patrick.

©2001 James C. Moyers

Contact me:  jim@jimmoyers.com

Home Page: http://www.jimmoyers.com/index.html


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