Ellen G. White and Marriage Relations
ELLEN G. WHITE entered upon her prophetic ministry at a very difficult period in a number of ways. There were several individuals leading small religious groups in New England and the central West in the 1830's and the 1840's who laid claim to being blessed with divine revelations of one sort or another. In some cases the instruction that they averred came directly from God, led to extreme positions in the matter of sex. At one extreme were the Shakers, who practiced celibacy with communal living, and in the case of those who married, husbands and wives occupied separate dormitories. At the other extreme were the Mormons, who taught a plurality of wives, permitting within the acceptance of the church circle a certain promiscuity in sexual indulgence, not only with the assurance of God's favor, but as His command, with the promise of a special blessing in the hereafter.*
The visions given to Ellen White, from the first one in December, 1844, pointed to the near advent of our Lord and Saviour and called for the needed preparation of heart and life to meet Jesus when He comes. From a strictly human standpoint, at such a time how easy it would have been to introduce some extreme positions in the matter of the relation of husbands and wives, seemingly aimed at bringing about an elevated state of purity. But the Ellen G. White writings, while ever calling for purity of life, were marked from the very out set by a total absence of extremism on the subject of sex and consistently present a very middle-of-the-road position.
From references to the early days of the cause, made in the 1890's, Ellen White reveals that extreme positions were advocated by some who claimed affinity with the Advent believers. Some of these extremists taught that by a life of continence they would reach a high spiritual plane. These teachings were, in the name of the Lord, boldly met by Ellen G. White on the basis of the visions God gave her. While extreme positions in this area of teaching were decried all down through the years, she, on the other hand, ever pointed out the physical, mental, and moral ills that resulted from sexual excess and pleaded for a moderate course as appropriate for the Christian believer. The emphasis of the Spirit of prophecy counsels as they relate to sex was one of temperance.
Let us consider some history and some counsels upon which this introductory statement is based. In doing so we observe that Ellen White lived and worked in a day of great restraint toward speaking publicly or writing of sex and the sexual" relation ship between husbands and wives. She her self was married to James White on August 30, 1846, after assuring herself through prayer that this was a proper step. This she considered both from the standpoint of the times in which they lived, expecting very soon the second coming of Christ, and also of the special work to which she had been called. It may well be noted that she was well into her ministry, for she had for nineteen months been the recipient of visions from the Lord. As a result of this union with James White she gave birth to four children, born in 1847, 1849, 1854, and 1860.
It was largely in the 1860's--the decade of the basic health reform visions (June 6, 1863, and December 25, 1865) that the Ellen G. White counsels began to touch on sex. Statements in later years provided some elaboration. Her first writing in the health field were in this area, for before she wrote out the broad aspects of the program of health reform, opened up to her on June 6, 1863 as she did in Spiritual Gifts, volume 4 (August, 1864) she issued in April, 1864, a sixty-four-page pamphlet dealing with "secret vice"---masturbation. It bore the title of: Appeal to Mothers Relative to the Great Cause of the Physical, Mental, and Moral Ruin of Many of the Children of our Time.†
At this point, as we come to the heart of the Spirit of prophecy teachings on sex, it is in place to observe that there is sound evidence that she employed the terms "marriage relation" and "family relation" where we today would simply speak of "sexual intercourse" between husband and wife.
And what is the clear implication of these counsels? She wrote:
Jesus did not enforce celibacy upon any class of men. He came not to destroy the sacred relationship of marriage, but to exalt it and restore it to its original sanctity. He looks with pleasure upon the family relationship where sacred and unselfish love bears sway. --The Adventist Home, p. 121.
He [Christ] ordained that men and women should be united in holy wedlock, to rear families whose members, crowned with honor, should be recognized as members of the family above. --The Ministry of Healing, p. 356.
All who enter into matrimonial relations with a holy purpose---the husband to obtain the pure affections of a woman's heart, the wife to soften and improve her husband's character and give it completeness---fulfill God's purpose for them. --The Adventist Home, p. 99.
Now let us look at earlier references, those of the 1860's, in which she deals more particularly with the sexual act. In doing so she voices no condemnation, but she frequently uses the word "privilege":
Preserving sacred the privacy and privileges of the family relation. --Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 90. (Italics supplied.)
They [Christians who have married] should duly consider the result of every privilege of the marriage relation, and sanctified principle should be the basis of every action. Ibid., p. 380.
They have abused their marriage privileges, and by indulgence have strengthened their animal passions. --Ibid., p. 391.
These last two statements were later incorporated into an Ellen G. White article published in the Review and Herald of September 19, 1899, under the title "Christianity in the Marriage Relation." (See Ellen G. White Present Truth and Review and Herald Articles [facsimile re prints], vol. 4, p. 97.)
Such statements as these, together with many others from her pen on marriage and the family, present a positive and not a negative position on this delicate subject. Indeed, the careful student will search in vain in the Ellen G. White counsels to the church for a condemnation of temperate sexual relationships between husbands and wives. There is no suggestion that the sexual act should be limited to the procreation of children.
As we make this point we must hasten to call attention to the many balancing counsels that call upon husbands and wives to exercise temperance in their sexual relationships, making clear that marriage does not justify excesses. On this point Ellen White writes of many parents:
They do not see that God requires them to control their married lives from any excesses. But very few feel it to be a religious duty to govern their passions. They have united themselves in marriage to the object of their choice, and therefore reason that marriage sanctifies the indulgence of the baser passions. Even men and women professing godliness give loose rein to their lustful passions, and have no thought that God holds them accountable for the expenditure of vital energy, which weakens their hold on life and enervates the entire system. --Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 472.
Ellen White employs rather strong language as she writes of those whose lives are "sacrificed in the inglorious work of excessive indulgence of the animal passions." Of these she observes that "because they are married they think they commit no sin." (Ibid., p. 473.) While much is written on this point no more need be said here. The entire chapter "Marital Duties and Privileges," in The Adventist Home, pages 121- 128, may be profitably read. Also see Testimonies for the Church, volume 2, chapters "A Violated Conscience," pp. 89-93; "Extremes in Health Reform," pp. 377-390; "Sensuality in the Young," pp. 390-411; and "Appeal to the Church," pp. 439-489.
We repeat again that at no time did Ellen White advocate a platonic love that spiritual comradeship in which there is assumed to be no element of sexual desire. Nevertheless, from time to time there have been those in our midst who have advocated that this was the ideal and end to which we should work if we would best please God. The argument that this would lead to a purity of life for which the Christian should strive has ever seemed to some to be valid and attractive. When this teaching was brought to Ellen G. White, she stated orally, not once, but several times, that such teaching would lead to the dark est of sins and the grossest of immorality.‡
This matter came to the front in the early 1890's when Miss Anna Phillips, re siding in Battle Creek, Michigan, claiming to have visions from God (see Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 85-95), in her "testimonies" to individual families stressed moral purity and called for husbands and wives to live as brothers and sisters as the only course of action acceptable to God. Of such manifestations and the teachings of Anna Phillips, Ellen White, from Australia, wrote:
The work of Anna Phillips does not bear the signature of heaven. I know what I am talking about. In our first experience in the infancy of this cause we had to meet similar manifestations. Many such revelations were given, and we had a most disagree able work in meeting this element and giving it no place. Some things stated in these revelations were fulfilled, and this led some to accept them as genuine. . . .
Young, unmarried women, would have a message for married men, and in no delicate words would tell them to their face of their abuse of the marriage privileges. Purity was the burden of the mes sages given, and for a while everything appeared to be reaching a high state of purity and holiness. But the inwardness of these matters was opened to me: I was shown what would be the outcome of this teaching.
Those who were engaged in this work were not a superficial, immoral class, but persons who had been the most devoted workers. Satan saw an opportunity to take advantage of the state of things, and to disgrace the cause cf God. Those who thought themselves able to bear any test without exciting their carnal propensities, were overcome, and several unmarried men and women were compelled to be married. --Letter 103, 1894.
With such a background of experience it is not strange that Mrs. White never encouraged, but rather discouraged, those who have entered the field with a special burden to inveigh against moral impurity, especially those who were publicly advocating that all sexual relations, even in the married state, were sinful unless for the sole purpose of procreation. She observes that the teaching of moral purity, as frequently given, graphically portrays the evil conditions that exist, and often with such detail as to incite thoughts that overbalance the ideals for purity. Therefore Mrs. White was led to view with apprehension such efforts on the part of zealous "reformers." She wrote:
I am afraid of those who feel so great a burden to labor in this direction. Satan works upon the imagination, so that impurity is the result, instead of purity. . . . This pointing out of the imperfections and wrongs of individuals is of exactly the same character as in the false messages not only in Maine but in New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Married men and women were following after the sins of the inhabitants of the world be fore the flood, and of the Sodomites. I know what I am talking about, for most solemn messages were given me to correct this evil that was growing to large proportions among those who had so great a burden to set people right in regard to purity. The state of things was terrible. --Ibid.
Considering her experience and the light the Lord gave to her as it related to matters of this character, it is little wonder that she was ever alert to the inroads of extreme teachings.
(To be continued)
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* Other contemporary groups holding to celibacy were the Harmonists and the followers of Jemima Wilkinson. At the other extreme were the followers of Simon Lovett and John Humphry Noyes, who advocated "spiritual wifery" and practiced "free love." Noyes founded at Oneida, New York, a free-love community.
† A sizable portion of Section XVI of Child Guidance, "Preserving Moral Purity," is drawn from this pamuhlet.
‡ Reported on several occasions by "William G. ^White, son and long-time close associate of Ellen G. White, to the author, his son, who served for nine years (1929-1937) as his secretary. Some other references in this article are like wise based on personal knowledge or reliable but undocumented contemporary sources. AH such; however, are in full harmony with the tenor of written statements from Ellen White's pen.