I just did something I would never have imagined myself doing: I just finished reading a book about a woman I spent a good part of my life disliking intensely: Ellen White. Before I go on, let me give you the link information. The book is Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, and it’s edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. Actually, Dr. Aamodt is the reason I read the book in the first place. I had the privilege of sitting in her American literature classes while I was in college, and working for her in the Writing Center at Walla Walla College (now University). In those years I came to respect her scholarship a great deal. Her name on the cover, and my respect for her academic integrity, prompted me to do something I would never have done otherwise: I bought a book about Ellen White.
For those of you familiar with Seventh-day Adventism Mrs. White needs no further introduction. For others a brief explanation is in order. In the early to mid-1800’s America experienced a surge of religious fervor. During that period a number of spiritual movements gave rise to new, uniquely American religions: Christian Scientism, Adventism, and Mormonism all arose out of that spiritual awakening. Ellen White, arguably the most powerful force in the formation of Seventh-day Adventism, came from a Methodist background by way of Millerism, a splinter Methodist movement that held that Bible prophecy predicted Jesus’ return around 1844. As the time grew nearer the Millerites got a great deal more specific than that. Eventually they pinned the date down to October 22, 1844. Obviously, something went grievously wrong, and instead of departing in glory the Millerites were left with what came to be known as the Great Disappointment–surely an understatement, if ever there was one. (By the way, several of these links will take you to Wikipedia; I’m trying to stay away from apologists or critics here. American Prophet covers the subject in far more detail, and it’s fully sourced and endnoted, if you’d like to explore further. Or if you’d like to read a pretty sacrilegious account with no citations at all you can go here.)
In the wake of the Great Disappointment the Millerites began searching for some explanation. Eventually disappointed Millerite Hiram Edson got a vision in which a heavenly being told him, “The Sanctuary is in heaven.” Ellen White confirmed this. The nice thing about this interpretation was that it meant all that time doing calculations and preaching about the importance of October 22, 1844 hadn’t been wasted. Indeed, for a time the Advent believers preached that only those who had accepted their message by October 22 would be saved–that on that day Jesus walked from one room in the heavenly temple into another room, and closed the door behind him. The work remaining, they believed, was to keep each other strong in the faith, not win new converts. As time passed and there was no Jesus the “closed door” doctrine was abandoned (more about this later).
It was during this period–just before 1844 and then shortly after–that Ellen White rose to prominence based on her visions, which spanned topics as diverse as ancient history, scriptural interpretation, doctrine, land purchases, diet, education, health, how the world would end, and masturbation. The woman wrote. A lot. She wrote books (more about that also later). More to the point, she wrote “testimonies,” letters directed to churches, organizations, and private church members, recounting what she said God had shown her in vision (more about this later, too). The testimonies often dealt with matters that the recipients would have preferred remain private–something that in fact many people cited as proof of their holy origins (I would think first of gossip, but that’s just me). Enough of her “testimonies” were “right on the money” to convince the fledgling Adventist church that her visions were “of God,” (and more of this later, too.) The letters were gathered, edited, and published as a collection of books which were widely read in Adventist homes, and even more frequently quoted by the devout in my own childhood–often inaccurately and/or out of context–to support personal opinions. Not to put too fine a point on it here, I came to regard Ellen White as a bully, and her writings as a club. I was not alone.
Growing up in the Adventist church, I had heard about Ellen White’s more educated detractors, generally as examples of “the devil working hard in these last days.” I never heard any official church response that went beyond “of course she was a prophet, so of course her visions came to her from God, just like she said.” When I left the Adventist church I left the controversy behind me; I was just so darned grateful to not have Ellen White weighing in on my every action that did my best to forget. And then, because the Internet is a remarkable and sometimes wonderful place, I stumbled across the writings of some Ellen White’s detractors. What I read didn’t sound so much like “the devil working hard” as it did like legitimate concerns about scholarship, ethics, and personal and professional integrity. But then again, these were her “detractors,” right? I read. I said, “Hm.” But hey, I wasn’t an Adventist anymore; the controversy no longer had any real immediacy for me. I had already decided that the Ellen White I knew best wasn’t someone I cared to continue knowing. Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy this book out of any warm and fuzzy feelings for Ellen White or her books; I bought it because Dr Aamodt contributed considerable time and effort to it, and if anybody could put Ellen White into some sort of realistic perspective it would be she.
I found out about the book because I happened to read an interview in Spectrum’s blog, and then the comments, which reminded me of the three bears: Some found the book too hard; some found it too soft; others found it just right. So when I started reading I didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t take long for me to figure out one of the sources of controversy: the book is the combined work of a number of scholars and, while all document and source their work extensively, each has a unique perspective. Some of the writers seem to support White as a prophet; others focus on other aspects of her life: her literary work, her speeches, her health reform, her educational activism, and her promotion of the temperance movement, and simultaneous rejection of women’s suffrage. Yet others deal with the controversies around her use of undocumented sources in producing materials she came in visions from God.
I found myself fascinated by the complexity of a woman I had seen from one point of view–my own. As several of the scholars acknowledge, studying Mrs. White is studying paradox. Any book that attempts to deal with Mrs. White as a person, a prophet and visionary and woman rooted in and shaped by her times is going to be something of a Rorschach test.
Which is sad, because the scholarship that has gone into this book is impressive, and the very thing that a number of Spectrum’s responders found most annoying–that the authors didn’t take a hard enough line on the question of Mrs. White’s divine inspiration–is the thing I found most worthy of respect–ultimately, I finished the book precisely where I wanted to be–far more informed about a subject about which I should have known much, and really knew very little, and able to form my own opinions.
And what opinions did I form? None, really–but I’m asking better questions. Here are some of them:
1. Where did Mrs. White’s ideas come from? Nearly from the beginning critics have noted that Mrs. White’s “visions” seemed derivative. Certainly her health reform message owes much to other reformers of her day. The problem reaches epic proportions in her later books, particularly the “Conflict of the Ages” series, which scholars–including scholars from the White Estate–have demonstrated is largely plagiarized from other writers.
Attempts to defend the books have tended to fall back on the “people didn’t look at plagiarism then like they look at plagiarism now” argument, but that argument fails when one realizes that the charges were brought while Ellen White was still fully capable of explaining her source use–but she chose not to respond. Later editions of one of the books most heavily criticized was revised to include some source documentation, and Mrs. White included a note indicating she had used other sources as well, but since God, and not the writer she was citing, was the authority, she had seen no reason to credit the previous scholar’s work, ideas, or words.
I find this enormously troubling. Because Adventism was so heavily shaped by Ellen White’s writings, the question of where she derived those ideas is central to her authenticity. Her ideas and the books that many Adventists regard as next thing to canonical were clearly heavily shaped by other writers–even the portions that she claimed to have seen in vision. This poses an important question about how inspired her works may or may not be. If she had ever claimed that God inspired her to copy others’ work, there might be a basis for claiming an alternative, though suspect, form of inspiration. But she didn’t. She claimed the messages and images came to her in visions, and that she had deliberately not read others’ work precisely so she could not be said to have been influenced by anyone other than God himself. The scholarship shows that unless her visions featured God reading her others’ books slowly enough for her to get everything down that simply isn’t the case. If I were still an Adventist, the question I would be asking is, “So what do we do with this?”
2. How heavily were Mrs. White’s visions and testimonies influenced by self-interest? A number of her “testimonies” had to do with people not giving enough to support “God’s work”–the spreading of the Advent message. Other testimonies decried the money donated going to people she felt were unworthy. It all sounds very high-minded until one realizes that in writing those testimonies she was basically using her position as God’s messenger to wring funds out of people who might very well be less well-off than she was. The same thing applies to other visions, which seem to dovetail rather nicely with the White’s business aspirations. Were those testimonies from God, or were they prompted by something more personal?
While it would be going too far to say that she never sacrificed for her cause, it is also true that she lived much of her life in comfortably affluent circumstances: She had an estate in Australia, another in California, and a summer home in Colorado. She earned enough from the sale of her books–which God conveniently instructed her to tell people to buy by the gross to spread the word–to not only keep herself comfortably but to be able to donate generously to causes. She could afford servants–and advocated that women do as she did: hire servants to care for their homes and children so they could go on the road for God. She could afford to take “water cures.” Sacrifices there might have been, but there were also financial rewards–many of them enhanced by the very best celebrity endorser of them all–God Himself, through the voice of his humble servant Ellen White.
Likewise her denigration of others’ claims of prophetic gifts. American Prophet paints a picture of Adventism’s early roots in the “shouting Methodist” tradition–a tradition that included a number of people prophesying, speaking in tongues, falling into trance states, and so forth. Ellen Harmon was by no means the only person claiming visions–and being regarded as divinely inspired. More that one writer notes that her husband, James White, played a key role in her rise to prominence–and that during a time period when he refused to publish her visions and testimonies in the fledgling Adventist periodical he edited her public career languished, and her visions virtually ceased. When he was replaced as editor by someone who began publishing her words again the visions came back. James learned his lesson, and again promoted her as God’s special messenger. In the beginning a number of people experienced visions and contributed to the formation of Adventism. Before many years passed, though, all the prophetic voices other than Ellen White’s had either ceased–or been condemned as “false prophets” by God, via Ellen White.
When she defamed others who claimed to have Word direct from the Mercy Seat, was she doing God’s will, or shoring up her position as Adventism’s sole prophet? I don’t know, but I am troubled by her willingness to declare others whose vision of godliness didn’t dovetail with hers false prophets, even as she herself was demanding that her visions and utterances about everything under the sun be accepted as God’s words. We are left with the Rorschach test–either she was exactly what she said she was or she was a consummate career woman who parlayed a tenuous position into enormous success.
3. About those “signs” that proved her visions were really visions: People claimed that she was weak and sickly, and certainly she spoke often about how sickly she was, and how difficult the charge she had been given, but after reading American Prophet I wonder. She was healthy enough to travel the world. She was healthy enough to preach regularly. How sick was she, really? Certainly she self-reported a laundry list of illnesses, but her constant activity tells another story. Maybe she really was sick, and God constantly intervened, shoring her up so she could preach, travel, and write–or maybe she was stronger than she thought.
4. How different was she really from the “false prophets,” mesmerists, and hypnotists she so decried? Maybe those who found similarities between her visionary trance state and mesmeric and hypnotic trance states were onto something. Certainly holding an 18-pound book at arm’s length for an extended period of time is amazing–but people are capable of amazing feats, given the right motivation and circumstances. Perhaps the trance state allowed a woman who saw herself as weak and sickly the opportunity to be something more. Certainly, she was part of an era where people were primed and ready to see signs and wonders. Again, we find the Rorschach test. Those who believe will see God’s hand; others will see a story it is impossible to prove, perpetuated by those with a vested interest in its veracity.
5. What about the prophetic visions that didn’t pan out? And with the visions God didn’t give her? (One would think that somewhere He would have thought to whisper, “Take the cornflakes patent.”) She explained them away by saying the God’s people had failed–that they had not worked hard enough, been devout enough, sacrificed enough for the furtherance of his work (and incidentally the support of the Whites). But again, we’re faced with a central issue–if this is God speaking through his servant Ellen White, and if he “knows the end from the beginning,” as Ellen White maintains time after time, why would he give her information he knew to be false?
6. What do we do with the evolution in her visions? Certainly we would expect her views to change and evolve as a person, but she was claiming to be God’s spokeswoman. Things she was “shown” early in her life (I’m thinking particularly of the “closed door” doctrine, which held that no one who had not accepted the Advent message by 1844 could be saved) she disavowed later, when motivating the faithful to continue supporting “the work” dictated that there be some point to continuing that work. Obviously, if salvation was impossible for everyone who had not seen the light by 1844, there was no point in continuing proselytizing. Nor would there be any point to further church growth. Adventism might have continued as a health and education reform movement, but as a religion it would be defunct.
So what do the Rorschach inkblots say about me? I find myself going back to two issues that for me, discredit her. The first is that she lied about how she wrote her books. This is about more than just unauthorized borrowing. This is about her own descriptions of her process. She claimed that she had gotten her information in vision, straight from God, and that she had subsequently “found” the same information in others’ books, and appropriated it for her own. This might have explained a few isolated instances of plagiarism, but when estimates of appropriated material run from 30 to more than 70 percent of some of her books it simply no longer is credible. The reality is that Ellen White hired researchers and editors to both mine her previous writings and the writings of others, and then repurposed or simply regurgitated the work for her current book. While I believe inspiration can take many forms, and one can indeed be inspired by something one reads, the central fact remains that when Mrs. White denied that she had been inspired by reading others’ work (or having others seek it out and then present it to her) and instead claimed that everything came to her directly in a vision from God she lied about her manner of inspiration. For me, that fact casts doubt on her other writing, particularly her testimonies, where so very often what God ‘showed’ her proved spiritually, professionally and financially advantageous to her personally.
And that, of course, begs the larger question: If Ellen White was less prophet than savvy enterpreneur, what happens to the religion that was so profoundly shaped by her words? Does it simply ignore its prophet’s feet of clay, or does it examine itself, excavate its own “present truth,” and find a way of being a positive influence a troubling world by moving beyond one of its central, if increasingly questioned, foundations?