Crucial Question 8: Is the miracle story about Father Pearson accurate?
Three major miracle stories from Ellen White’s early ministry have been widely promoted among Seventh-day Adventists as supporting her claims of divine involvement in her visions. Ellen saw her first vision in December of 1844, and three supposedly miraculous incidents occurred in 1845: these include the ball of fire incident, the endorsement of Hazen Foss, and the story of the uplifted Bible. In this section we will examine an incident in which Father John Pearson, a veteran Millerite from Portland, Maine, was supposedly convinced of Ellen Harmon’s prophetic gift by viewing a miraculous fireball.
From the Pen of Ellen White:
The first three accounts of this story are exactly the same:
First account: Life Sketches of James and Ellen White (1880)
Second account: Testimonies, vol. 1 (released after the death of her husband James in 1881)
Third account: Life Sketches of James and Ellen White (1888)
“At length I was induced to be present at one of the meetings in my own home. The church made my case a special subject of prayer. Father Pearson, who in my earlier experience had opposed the manifestations of the power of God upon me, now prayed earnestly for me and counseled me to surrender my will to the will of the Lord. Like a tender father he tried to encourage and comfort me, bidding me believe I was not forsaken by the Friend of sinners.
“I felt too weak and despondent to make any special effort for myself on this occasion, but my heart united with the petitions of my friends. I cared little now for the opposition of the world, and felt willing to make every sacrifice if only the favor of God might be restored to me. While prayer was being offered for me, the thick darkness that had encompassed me rolled back and a sudden light came upon me. My strength was taken away. I seemed to be carried to heaven and into the presence of the angels. One of these radiant beings again repeated the words, ‘Make known to others what I have revealed to you’” (LS 1880, 195-96; LS 1888, 195-96; & 1T 64).
The final two accounts agree with each other, but add material to the original story (both were published posthumously):
Fourth account: Life Sketches of Ellen White (1915)
Fifth account: Christian Experiences and Teachings of Ellen White (1922)
“At length I was induced to be present at one of the meetings in my own home. The church made my case a special subject of prayer. Father Pearson, who in my earlier experience had opposed the manifestations of the power of God upon me, now prayed earnestly for me, and counseled me to surrender my will to the will of the Lord. Like a tender father he tried to encourage and comfort me, bidding me believe I was not forsaken by the Friend of sinners.
“I felt too weak and despondent to make any special effort for myself, but my heart united with the petitions of my friends. I cared little now for the opposition of the world, and felt willing to make every sacrifice if only the favor of God might be restored to me.
“While prayer was offered for me, that the Lord would give me strength and courage to bear the message, the thick darkness that had encompassed me rolled back, and a sudden light came upon me. Something that seemed to me like a ball of fire struck me right over the heart. My strength was taken away, and I fell to the floor. I seemed to be in the presence of the angels. One of these holy beings again repeated the words, ‘Make known to others what I have revealed to you.’
“Father Pearson, who could not kneel on account of his rheumatism, witnessed this occurrence. When I revived sufficiently to see and hear, he rose from his chair, and said: ‘I have seen a sight such as I never expected to see. A ball of fire came down from heaven, and struck Sister Ellen Harmon right on the heart. I saw it! I saw it! I can never forget it. It has changed my whole being. Sister Ellen, have courage in the Lord. After this night I will never doubt again. We will help you henceforth, and not discourage you’” (LS 1915 70-71; CET 66-67).
If true, the account of Father Pearson seeing a ball of fire strike Ellen Harmon would prove that something supernatural was happening during Ellen’s visions. Supernatural activity is certainly possible, but it is also possible that Ellen suffered from cataleptic seizures—a diagnosis that was actually given to her by a doctor who examined her at the Battle Creek Sanitarium (see Couperus). If she was having cataleptic seizures, then her visionary experiences were natural, and the “miraculous” component comes from a mythology created by her supporters. The story regarding Father Pearson changed dramatically. In the account she printed repeatedly during her life, she was the only person who saw the fireball; in the accounts printed after her death, Father Pearson also views the miracle. It isn’t clear who changed this story—Ellen White or her supporters—but either would be problematic. If Ellen changed the story, it casts doubt on her credibility. If the church changed her writings, one must ask why, and one must also ask whether any other Ellen White writings were modified.
- Who changed this story, and why?
- If this story is true, would it prove that Ellen White IS a prophet?
- If this story is falsified, what is the impact on the prophetic claims of Ellen White?
“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” (Matt. 7:22).
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).
“And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel that prophesy, and say thou unto them that prophesy out of their own hearts, Hear ye the word of the LORD; Thus saith the Lord GOD; Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! O Israel, thy prophets are like the foxes in the deserts. Ye have not gone up into the gaps, neither made up the hedge for the house of Israel to stand in the battle in the day of the LORD. They have seen vanity and lying divination, saying, The LORD saith: and the LORD hath not sent them: and they have made others to hope that they would confirm the word. Have ye not seen a vain vision, and have ye not spoken a lying divination, whereas ye say, The LORD saith it; albeit I have not spoken? Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Because ye have spoken vanity, and seen lies, therefore, behold, I am against you, saith the Lord GOD. And mine hand shall be upon the prophets that see vanity, and that divine lies . . . .” (Ezekiel 13:1-9).
“Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, are these. For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit” (Jer. 7:4-8).
“The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment” (Prov. 12:19).
“Let the lying lips be put to silence; which speak grievous things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous” (Ps. 31:18).
“Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue” (Ps. 120:2).
“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).
For Further Study:
- Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, p. 64
- Life Sketches (3rd ed.), pp. 70-71
- Schwarz, Richard W., Light Bearers to the Remnant (1st ed.), p. 65
- Loughborough, John N., The Second Great Advent Movement, p. 212
- Spalding, Arthur W., Captains of the Host, pp. 70-73
- Couperus, Molleurus, “The Significance of Ellen White’s Head Injury” http://www.ellenwhiteexposed.com/headinjury.htm
Continue on to Crucial Question #9: Hazen Foss's Endorsement
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