It is easy to picture Mrs. E. G. White as an indefatigable writer and an earnest speaker, but not often is she thought of as a capable housewife and mother, carrying many home responsibilities and caring for and training her children.
During the first years of their married life James and Ellen White had no regular income, for there was no systematic support for the ministry. They had no fixed place of abode, but they "resolved not to be dependent" (Life Sketches, p. 105), even though much of their time was given to the work of God. They found life not too easy, for the Lord allowed trials to come lest they "should settle down at ease," "unwilling to leave" a pleasant home. (Ibid., p. o6.) Often entrusting the care of their children to others, they traveled from place to place, tarrying at times for but a few weeks or months at any one location. Sometimes they kept house in a spare room, or attic, with borrowed furniture (Ibid., p. 123), and sometimes they boarded with the families with whom they stayed.
In establishing the publishing work at Rochester, New York, in 1852, a building was rented to serve both as home and office, but they were "compelled to exercise the most rigid economy and self-denial" to keep the enterprise going. The cheapest secondhand furniture, some of it badly needing repair, was secured, and the food budget was so restricted that for a time they used "sauce in the place of butter, and turnips for potatoes." (Life Sketches, p. 142.) Ellen White, however, counted it a pleasure to have a settled home where the entire family could be together.
Soon after moving the publishing work to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1855, the Whites were privileged to have a home all their own ; and although away much of the time, home life was maintained to provide their children with the proper environment. From this time until the death of James White, in 1881, they maintained a home in Michigan. They also had a home in California for a period in the seventies, dividing their time between the growing work on the Pacific Coast and the Battle Creek headquarters.
At Home in Battle Creek
Incidental references which occasionally occur in the records indicate that the White home was a cheerful, happy place, although stirring with activity. The first building of their own was a six-room frame cottage located on Wood Street at the western edge of Battle Creek. At the back was the garden and barn, and they had their own cow. They drew their water from the well which served the community. On a back corner of their land was a wooded spot providing a secluded place for prayer.
Since Mrs. White's time was much taken up with writing, preaching, and traveling, it was necessary to employ responsible domestic help; vet she did not surrender her position as manager of the household affairs, as mother and hostess. Her diaries reveal that during her time at home and while traveling, a large part of many days was devoted to writing, yet other activities were not neglected. When sewing was receiving special attention, we find her from day to day making "a pair of pants," preparing "a coat for Edson," and making "a mattress for the lounge," or working "hard all day on a dress to wear through the mud." (Diary, March 25, 28, April 26, 1859.)
This particular year the gardening season was inaugurated with the setting out of a "currant bush" late in March. It turned out to be "a cold, blustering day," and after fitting out departing guests with loaned "cloak, mittens and necktie to protect them," she jotted in her diary, "In the new earth there are no chilling winds, no disagreeable changes. The atmosphere is ever right and healthy." (Ibid., March 24, 1859.)
In succeeding weeks, currant and raspberry bushes and strawberry plants were all set out. One entire day was devoted to "making a garden for my children," as she wished "to make home . . . the pleasantest place of any to them." (Ibid., April ii, 1859.) Plants were secured from the neighbors, and exchanges of plants and roots are recorded. (Ibid., April 11-13, 1859.)
Then there was the buying to be done. Shopping trips to town were made, not only to supply the family needs, but at times to assist neighbors in the selection of merchandise, for Ellen White was known to be a good buyer.
One day she went downtown to buy some goods with which to make a pair of trousers. She asked Mr. Skinner, the proprietor of one of the dry-goods stores, to show her a piece of all-wool material. He threw down a bolt of goods on the counter and told Mrs. White he had just received it, and he believed it was what she was looking for.
"Is it all wool ?" slid asked Mr. Skinner.
"Oh, yes, Mrs. White, one hundred per cent wool," he assured her.
Without thinking, her hand felt for the raveled edge and she found a loose thread. She pulled it out, untwisted its strands, and discovered some cotton. Holding it up, she inquired: "Is this wool, Mr. Skinner?" Much embarrassed, he admitted it was not, and then told Mrs. White that he had bought it for all wool. This shows Mrs. White's knowledge of textiles, and her familiarity with the practical things of life. Her mother was a very sensible, practical woman, and had trained her girls well.
Sabbath and Home Routine
The Sabbath in the White home was a full day, spent in attending service, reading to the children in the afternoon, walking through the woods or by the stream, and visiting the sick or discouraged.
Mrs. White usually did her writing at home in a room set, aside for her office, but for a period she shared her husband's office at the Review and Herald. Sometimes when she went over she found work pressing hard in the bindery, and there she would join others in folding or stitching papers, book signatures, or pamphlets. (Ibid., Jan. 5, March 28, 29, 1859.)
Our ministers were not infrequently called to Battle Creek for general meetings. So it was in early March, 1859. The diary entry records a parting visit with one of these workers, the youthful John Nevins Andrews.
"It is a day when infirmities are striving for the" victory. I suffer much pain in my left shoulder and lung. My spirits are depressed. Brother John Andrews leaves today, comes up to visit us in the evening. Have a pleasant interview.
"Get together a few things for him to take home. Send Angeline a new calico dress (nine shillings) and a stout pair of calf skin shoes. Father gives the making of the shoes and the making of a pair of boots for Brother John Andrews. I send the little boy a nice little flannel shirt and yarn to knit him a pair of stockings. I send Sister or Mother Andrews a nice large cape well wadded for her to wear. I make a bag to put them in of towel cloth. Write three small pages to Sister Mary Chase. In it write a recipe obtained from John."—Ibid., March 8, 1859.
The White home was always open to visitors, and at times it seemed to the family that they operated a gratuitous hotel. Conference time in 1859 finds thirty-five eating at their home. The day after the conference there is but one brief entry: "We were all much worn out."—Ibid., June 7, 1859.
The diary story for that and other years records many individuals and families who were welcomed to the home for a night or a day or two or longer. This brought a heavy strain on the family budget, increased the labor in the home, and deprived the family of much of that privacy to which they were entitled. What this entertaining sometimes meant personally to Mrs. White is revealed in a letter penned in 1873 to one of our workers:
"I have arisen at half past five o'clock in the morning, helped Lucinda wash dishes, have written until dark, then done necessary sewing, sitting up until near midnight; I have done the washings for the family after my day's writing was done. I have frequently been so weary as to stagger like an intoxicated person, but praise the Lord I have been sustained." —Letter 1, 1873.
The meals were simple, but there was ample wholesome food. After receiving the light on health reform, the table conformed to the instruction given. The cooking was usually well done except when new, untrained help first came to the home. Mrs. White wrote in 1870:
"I have a well-set table on all occasions. I make no change for visitors, whether believers or unbelievers. I intend never to be surprised by an unreadiness to entertain at my table from one to half a dozen extra who may chance to come in. I have enough simple, healthful food ready to satisfy hunger and nourish the system. If any want more than this, they are at liberty to find it elsewhere. No butter or flesh-meats of any kind come on my table. Cake is seldom found there. I generally have an ample supply of fruits, good bread, and vegetables. Our table is always well patronized, and all who partake of the food do well, and improve upon it. All sit down with no epicurean appetite, and eat with relish the bounties supplied by our Creator."—Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 487.
Those in the White home found a good latitude of freedom in the matter of their personal diet. •
"I do not hold myself up as a criterion for them. I leave each one to follow his own ideas as to what is best for him. I bind no one else's conscience by my own. . . . There are those in my family who are very fond of beans, while to me beans are poison. Butter is never placed on my table, but if the members of my family choose to use a little butter away from the table they are at liberty to do so. Our table is set twice a day, but if there are those who desire something to eat in the evening, there is no rule that forbids them from getting it."—Counsels on Diet and Foods, P. 491.
Discipline in the White Home
Although heavily burdened with many problems, the busy mother did not neglect the training of her children. Home discipline was firm, but administered with understanding kindness and love. She endeavored to avoid crises, and sought constantly to lead the minds of the boys in such a way as to strengthen character and develop will power. Suitable and simple rewards encouraged obedience and good behavior. The inducements outside the home were often offset by innocent pleasures in the home. Very seldom was corporal punishment administered, and then only after a quiet talk and earnest prayer.
Of course problems arose. The White boys were not model children. But issues were dealt with promptly and with decision. Their mother testified:
"I never allowed my children to think that they could plague me in their childhood. Never did I allow myself to say a harsh word. . . . When my spirit was stirred, or when I felt anything like being provoked, I would say, 'Children, we shall let this rest now ; we shall not say anything more about it now. Before you retire, we shall talk it all over.' Having all this time to reflect, by evening they had cooled off, and I could handle them very nicely."—MS. 82, 1901.
The frequent absence of one or both of the parents tended to complicate the task of rearing the children. While on her journeys the mother kept in close touch with them by frequent letters. Her thoughts and her prayers were often concerned with the growing boys at home.
The Home in Later Years
After the death of Elder James White in 1881, Mrs. White continued to maintain her own home. By this time the children had established themselves, and her family consisted largely of her literary assistants, domestic help, and worthy young people she was assisting in school, and at times individuals—either workers or lay members—who were in need of care. More of the responsibilities of the operation of the home were now thrown upon the housekeeper, and Mrs. White filled the position of gracious hostess. After a busy day of writing the family worship service was often supplemented by Ellen White's recounting the experiences of the early days of the work.
In Australia the White home at Sunnyside, Cooranbong, was a busy place with the family numbering from ten to sixteen. (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 488.) The house, augmented with tents, served both as residence and office. One of the first buildings on the new school property, it was often the stopping place for visiting workers or those who were joining the school staff. Those were pioneer days, and the strictest economy was enforced of necessity, yet the table presented wholesome satisfying food. "Grains, vegetables, and fresh and canned fruit constituted our table fare," she wrote in 1896. (Ibid., p. 489.) There was plenty of land, and Mrs. White planned the orchard and garden. Determined to make her "wilderness home blossom as the rose" (Letter 59, 1896), she set apart ample space for flowers. She wished her home to be made beautiful by the things of nature created by God. She purposed to make her orchard and gardens "an object lesson to those who would rather beg than work." (Letter 128, 1899.)
The Avondale home echoed with the clicking of typewriters busily engaged in copying letters and articles and book manuscripts. But on one Tuesday morning all this was silenced as the large dining room became the setting for a wedding. It was a pleasant, yet solemn, sacred service, in which Mrs. White took part by offering the prayer. She records that there "was no light jest or foolish sayings." (MS. 23, 1894.)
At times adjustments had to be made in the rooming facilities to make a place for someone who needed treatment and good food, but could not afford care at an institution. One such person was a guest in 1898, "although we have to crowd up our family to do this," Mrs. White wrote. It is further stated that "she is treated as a member of my family without cost to herself of a penny. I thought Jesus would do just this." (Letter 68, 1898.)
At the Elmshaven Home, St. Helena
When Mrs. White took up residence at Elms-haven, near St. Helena, California, she was in advancing years. Her family consisted of her office and home helpers. Although her time and energies were given over almost entirely to writing and speaking, she found relaxation in the activities about the farm and the home. Much to the distress of her personal secretary, Sara McEnterfer, she occasionally slipped away to visit with the neighbors without telling the family where she was going. At the age of seventy-five she took a day to drive into the mountains "to get cherries—small black ones" to can. "Our carriages," she explained, "were drawn up under the trees, and I picked nineteen quarts, sometimes sitting on the carriage seat, and sometimes standing on it." (Letter 121, 1903.) At another time she drove out to the pasture with Brother James, her efficient farmer, "to see the black calf," for she was anxious to know whether it was "faring well after the long rain." (Letter 91, 1904.)
Mrs. White took joy in watching the progress of the vegetable garden and the growth of the fruit trees, but in the flowers she found special delight. Even in her advanced years she was not unmindful of the welfare of the members of her family and her guests. She was eager to have them comfortable, and she wanted to be assured that the food was appetizing and adequate.
During the last three years of her life less time was devoted to writing, and she was often found reading her Bible, her own books, and our denominational papers. The daily newspaper kept her in touch with world events which all pointed to the near Advent of her Saviour. This was Ellen G. White the homemaker.