Biographical Essay on Ellen G. White
by Joseph Rector
The following biographical essay is written from a naturalistic perspective regarding the experience of Ellen G. White. I do not believe that Ellen White was a messenger of the Lord as she claimed; however, I also reject the other extreme—the suggestion that Mrs. White obtained her visions under the influence of Satan. Ellen White was a product of her environment and her physical limitations. She was neither a saint nor a reprobate. Instead, this remarkable woman survived tremendous emotional, physical, and spiritual setbacks to become a much-beloved health reformer and the founder of a major Christian denomination. Ellen White is a notable figure of Christian history—deserving of much more scholarly recognition than she has received. Unfortunately, her life story is difficult to discuss because she surrounded herself with prophetic claims that are held as gospel by her followers. However, to many outside observers, her experience was remarkable but completely natural. I apologize to those “true believers” who may be offended by this biographical essay on the life of Ellen White. It reflects my personal analysis of Ellen White’s life and ministry. Some will certainly disagree with my conclusions, but I hope many others will be encouraged to engage in further study of this fascinating, misunderstood woman.
Note: The sources cited in this sketch are used for historical facts only; therefore, cited authors should not be presumed to agree with any analytical statements or conclusions presented in this essay.
Ellen Gould Harmon White (EGW), her husband James, and her mentor Joseph Bates founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) in the early 1860s, but the roots of Adventism go back to the Millerite movement, which culminated in 1844. Millerites were followers of William Miller, a Baptist preacher who electrified New England (and to some extent the entire U.S.) with his bold prediction that Christ would physically return to judge the earth on October 22, 1844, a day that has gone down in SDA history as the Great Disappointment. In December 1844, seventeen-year-old Ellen Harmon began having visions that she and a small group of about sixty Millerites believed were from God (Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 1, pp. 55-63). On the basis of Ellen’s visions, her followers determined that Miller’s end-time calculations (based on the prophecies in the book of Daniel) were correct, but that Christ had not returned to earth on the expected day because he had begun a new phase of judgment ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (called the Investigative Judgment). The Whites eventually built a large following, headquartering their church in Battle Creek, Michigan, where they established a printing press and a health ministry, both of which were used to promote their beliefs. After the deaths of James White and Joseph Bates, Ellen White became the driving force behind the modernization of the SDA Church. She founded what has become the second-largest parochial school system in the world, established a worldwide network of SDA sanitariums, and created a dietary plan that is still being studied and recommended by nutrition experts.
Ellen Harmon was born into a strict religious family in Gorham, Maine, in 1827. The Harmon family had been Puritans for generations until Ellen’s great-great-great grandfather became one of the early Congregationalists (who were essentially Puritans theologically). Her father Robert brought his family into the Methodist Church (Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 1, p. 18), but Puritan values and beliefs were deeply ingrained in little Ellen’s psyche. Puritans believed the doctrine of predestination—that God elects the recipients of grace based on His sovereign will. Puritans believed that election was by grace alone, but in practice, their behavior was quite legalistic because Puritans were desperate to show by their good works that they were part of the elect. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, rejected predestination, but he taught that perfection was required in the life of the Christian. Puritans were grace-oriented in theory but works-oriented in practice, while Methodists believed in achieving actual perfection, which the Puritans would have rejected. To be fair, Wesley’s views on perfection were nuanced, but the Harmons were not theologians—they were simple New England people trying their best to obtain salvation. Ellen White would combine strict Puritan standards of behavior with Wesleyan perfectionism, resulting in severe psychological trauma (EGW, Christian Experience and Teachings, 24-26).
When Ellen was nine, she was walking home from school with her sister and a friend when an angry schoolmate hurled a sizeable stone at the trio. The cause of the dispute is unknown, but Ellen turned her head at the most inopportune moment, and the stone smashed into her forehead and the bridge of her nose. She lapsed into a coma for three weeks, and it was thought that she would die, but she eventually regained some strength. She tried returning to school, but her head injury prevented her from focusing on her studies. Thus, Ellen’s education essentially ended in the third grade. The injury is highly significant for two reasons. First, her disfigured nose shattered her self-esteem, leaving her to brood excessively on spiritual matters during her teen years. Second, and much more important, the injury to the frontal lobe of Ellen’s brain may explain the seemingly supernatural lack of respiration that attended her visions. It is interesting to note that young Ellen began having vivid spiritual dreams years prior to the official beginning of her prophetic experience (EGW, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, 16-20). During her lifetime, an Adventist doctor diagnosed Ellen as suffering from cataleptic seizures stemming from the stone incident, and some modern SDA medical experts agree. In short, cataleptic seizures involve shallow respiration (person may appear to not be breathing), along with vivid dreams and impressions. Cataleptics are also very negative and judgmental, and they have an irresistible urge to write (Molleurus Couperus, “The Significance of Ellen White’s Head Injury,” Adventist Currents, June 1985).
The young Ellen was terrified of going to hell, and she had no assurance of salvation. She commonly knelt by her bed, crying and praying all night for forgiveness and salvation, but she seldom felt any relief (EGW, Christian Experience and Teachings, 24). The teachings of William Miller provided a spiritual lift that the young girl needed. Many Millerites believed that those who rejected their message had rejected God (George R. Knight, Millennial Fever and the End of the World, pp. 153-155); therefore, in a tacit sense, they felt that their belief in the vital message recommended them to God. Millerism gave Ellen some assurance of salvation, and she would spend the rest of her life discovering “testing truths” that would give her and her followers an inside track to God. Of course, Ellen’s spiritual world was shattered when Jesus did not return as predicted in October of 1844. The seventeen-year-old Ellen sank into anguished despair. The old lack of assurance returned. Physically, she weighed eighty pounds, was diagnosed with consumption (TB), and was not expected to live (Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 1, pp. 55, 93; EGW, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 30).
In December 1844, Ellen was persuaded to attend a women’s prayer gathering, and she was struck down with a vision symbolically showing that God was still leading the Millerites. Ellen saw that God had rejected the whole world, except for the faithful Millerites who remained on the path to salvation (vision qtd. in Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, vol. 1, pp. 56-58). Ellen’s first vision confirmed an idea that had originated with Miller himself—the idea that the door of salvation had been shut in 1844 (Knight, Millennial Fever, p. 237). The early Adventists held the shut door doctrine for about six years before it had to die the death finally imposed by reality. Ellen remained quite frail for several years, but the visions undoubtedly saved her life. They gave her a purpose, and they gave her the assurance of God’s approval if she would relate the visions faithfully. It seems clear that her mind created the conditions necessary for her survival, and it was a remarkable feat. Her health returned, and she lived a long and productive life. She was not seeing visions from Satan, and she was not insane. The success of her ministry proves that she was not only lucid, but she was undoubtedly a cataleptic genius if evaluated in naturalistic terms (religious people tend to adopt the all-or-nothing approach of saintly prophet vs. deluded fanatic, but the reason for her success probably lies in her remarkable intelligence, her unusual head injury, and her psychological resilience).
Ellen Harmon wasn’t the only prophetess in northern New England, so the idea was familiar to her contemporaries. In fact, prophecy was about the only avenue for public female expression in Ellen’s religious sphere. Ellen Harmon became involved with a fanatical ex-Millerite named Israel Dammon (there are several spellings for his name). James White, a former Millerite evangelist, was also part of this group. The fanatics engaged in mixed-gender “holy kissing” and foot washing, and some took “spiritual” wives in addition to their lawful spouses (Knight, Millennial Fever, p. 251). Members of the group refused to work, making them burdens on the community, and they were also conspicuous for crawling in public (they were trying to follow Christ’s instruction to “become as little children”). Ellen and James soon removed themselves from the fanaticism, but great damage to her reputation had already been done. James began accompanying Ellen on her preaching tours. They took a chaperone, but they were still breaking taboos, and tongues wagged (Knight, Walking with Ellen White, p. 69). James matter-of-factly proposed by declaring that “something [has] got to be done” (Knight, Walking with Ellen White, p. 70). Marriage was a difficult step for James because he had recently denounced another Adventist couple in print for getting married instead of focusing exclusively on the Lord’s soon return (Knight, Walking with Ellen White, p. 69). On the surface, the Whites’ marriage was highly successful because they complemented each other’s spiritual and organizational abilities; on another level, though, they had a conflicted relationship, particularly in their later years. George Knight, in Walking with Ellen White, discusses the ebb and flow of the White’s marriage (pp. 72-77).
Due to their involvement with fanaticism and the shut door doctrine, James and Ellen soon decided to leave New England. It is interesting that even to this day, Seventh-day Adventism has been largely unsuccessful in New England, the site of its birth. They eventually located in Battle Creek, Michigan, where they obtained a fresh start and were able to formally create the SDA Church (the Michigan Conference of SDA was established in 1861; the General Conference of SDA was organized in 1863). They established the Review & Herald Publishing Association to print their messages, and success enabled them to build a large tabernacle in Battle Creek. They also started a health institute that became known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium. The “San” became world-famous under the direction of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (brother of cereal magnate W.K. Kellogg). Battle Creek College (est. 1874) was the last major Adventist institution to be created in Battle Creek.
Ellen and her immediate family suffered from many health problems, so it was natural that she became interested in the health reform movement that was sweeping the country. She began following the health writings of reformers such as Sylvester Graham (inventor of Graham Crackers), Larkin B. Coles, and Dr. James Caleb Jackson, who were promoting alternative therapies and preventive medicine in the form of dietary changes (see Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health). EGW embraced these teachings and had a health vision in 1863 affirming many of the reform principles. She rejected tobacco, alcohol, tea, coffee, cheese, meat, and seasoned or sugary foods. Instead, she recommended Graham flour biscuits, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grain cereals. She used milk, eggs, and butter sparingly, and she advocated two meals per day, with no snacks allowed (EGW, Medical Ministry, p. 282). Her dietary pronouncements, while extreme, had a great deal of merit. Modern studies have shown that Adventists who follow her health teachings live several years longer than average Americans. Some of EGW’s other health ideas, however, are problematic. For example, her first health book was called An Appeal to Mothers, and its burden was a practice euphemistically called “secret sin” or “solitary vice.” Her abhorrence of “secret sin” was so acute that she began refusing to pray for the sick for fear that they had been enfeebled by unmentionable practices (EGW, Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 349-351). Some of Ellen White’s other failed health ideas include claiming that wigs heat the brain and cause insanity (EGW, Health Reformer, Oct. 1, 1871), asserting that wearing short-sleeved garments could lead to death, and holding that the reading of fiction causes insanity.
After James White died in 1881, Ellen became the leading voice in Adventism. She hired a large staff of “literary assistants” to polish her writings (James had been her original editor). Due to the limits of her third-grade education, Ellen’s works didn’t appeal to educated individuals, so she began an aggressive effort to re-write her older books, often adding new material. Much of the new material came from other Christian writers from whom she “borrowed” to flesh out her visionary accounts. The Adventist Church now admits that this borrowing was extensive, but it contends that plagiarism was legal in her day.
The death of James freed Ellen to make a few doctrinal changes that would have been anathema to her husband. Among other things, she reversed the SDA position regarding the identity of the law referenced in Galatians 3, and she renounced Adventism’s Arian view of Christ as a created being. Some of these changes may have been prompted by her son, William C. White (“Willie” or "W.C."), who became her advisor and office manager several years after the death of his father. In particular, her apparent reversal of teaching regarding the law in Galatians nearly split the church in 1888. The story begins in 1854 when an SDA minister named Joseph Waggoner published a book on the law in Galatians. The book was withdrawn because it challenged the standard Adventist interpretation, and EGW concurred with this act of censorship. In 1888, Joseph Waggoner’s son E.J. Waggoner began presenting a message of righteousness by faith that reminded many SDA leaders of the older Waggoner’s rejected teachings. In particular, G. I. Butler, president of the General Conference, and Uriah Smith, head of the Review & Herald Publishing Association, contended that the original book had been pulled because of an Ellen White vision. Unfortunately, a copy of the disputed vision could never be found, and Mrs. White couldn’t recall the vision (Woodrow W. Whidden, E.J. Waggoner, pp. 100, 103). Church leaders eventually kowtowed to the prophetess and adopted the Adventist version of righteousness by faith, but they were probably acting in frustration when they sent (exiled?) the prophetess to Australia as a missionary. However, they continued appealing to her to resolve their power struggles, and she obliged. In addition, Ellen continued to write and copy voraciously, and her helpers became quite efficient at transforming the material into highly polished books. The influence of the prophetess increased dramatically while she was in Australia, partly because of her new books, and partly because individuals who were old enough to recall her early missteps were rapidly passing away.
Ellen White returned from Australia to great acclaim from the new generation of Adventists. She settled in California, continuing her speaking and writing. She was instrumental in the founding of the College of Medical Evangelists (now Loma Linda University) along with many other Adventist institutions. In early 1915, she was invalided by a serious fall from which she never recovered. She died July 16, 1915, at the age of eighty-seven.
Ellen White’s will provided for the preservation of her letters, diaries, and other manuscripts, which were to be released at the discretion of a committee composed of her son W.C. and several other church leaders (Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord, p. 528). However, A.G. Daniells, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, blocked W.C. White from publishing any more of his mother’s writings unless they had already appeared in print (Jerry Allen Moon, W.C. White and Ellen G. White, pp. 452-53). In 1919, Daniells hosted a conference of SDA leaders, at which the inspiration of Ellen White was freely discussed—often in shocking terms (Graeme Bradford, People Are Human, pp. 19-22). In 1922, Daniells was voted out of his position as leader of the SDA Church because conservatives suspected that he wasn’t orthodox on Ellen White (Bradford, People Are Human, pp. 84-88). The transcript of the 1919 conference was subsequently lost, along with many of the papers from the Daniells administration (Bradford, People Are Human, pp. 87, 100). Fortunately, the 1919 transcripts resurfaced in 1975 when the denominational headquarters moved from Washington, D.C., to Silver Spring, MD. With the downfall of Daniells, the Ellen G. White Estate began printing compilations gleaned from Ellen White’s unpublished writings, and the Estate is now the official agency charged with maintaining the legacy of the prophetess. Access to the archives of the Estate is limited to reliable Adventist researchers who will not challenge Mrs. White's continuing authority within the SDA Church, and a committee closely guards all EGW manuscript releases (Foreword, Manuscript Releases, vol. 1, pp. 4-5).
Although I believe Ellen White was a false prophetess, she was, nonetheless, a remarkable woman who almost single-handedly founded a major denomination. Rising from the daunting infirmities of her youth, she discovered a sense of purpose that propelled her to worldwide influence. As a spiritual leader, she possessed great wisdom and piety, and she deserves respect for her extraordinary ability to hold the Adventist Church together against great odds. The real Ellen White actually transcends the prophetic myths with which she and others surrounded her story. Rather than elevating her to sainthood or damning her to hell, people would pay her the greatest compliment by trying to understand her as an extraordinary but very real human being.
Joseph Rector, 2011