How the E.G. White Books were Written—5

This concluding article of the series features a statement in 1933 by D. E. Robinson, who for many years was a secretary for Mrs. White and on the staff of the White Publications. Based on his personal experience, observation, and documentary research, Elder Robinson describes the work done by himself and others in working with Mrs. White to prepare her works for publication. ——Editors

Arthur L. White is a lifetime member of the Board of Trustees of the Ellen G. White Estate and currently is working on a biography of his grandmother

Inasmuch as reports and rumors are current to the effect that Mrs. White's helpers were responsible for many of the thoughts, or at least for the beautiful literary style, of some of her books, and because many who hear these reports are not in a position to know the facts for themselves, I feel it a privilege to testify of what I have seen and do know.

Early in 1900, while connected with the Summer Hill Sanitarium, near Sydney [Australia], I accepted an invitation to enter the home of Mrs. White, then living in Cooranbong, New South Wales. At first my time was divided between stenographic work for Elder W. C. White and copying on the typewriter for his mother.

One of the first tasks assigned me was the copying of manuscript for the forth coming book Christ's Object Lessons. This I wrote on the typewriter, as it was read to me by Miss Marian Davis, who for about 21 years had been one of Mrs. White's secretaries.

On the table before Miss Davis as she read was a pile of pieces of paper, some of ordinary typewriter size, but many smaller, and of various shapes and sizes. She read mostly from typewritten copy. However, I noticed that she sometimes read from a scrap of paper, a sentence or a short paragraph that was written hi her own hand. Seeing this, I thought, Can it be that she herself has written those portions of the book?

I hesitated about asking for information on the matter at that time, but chose to make careful observations to see if this was true. During the subsequent 15 years, most of which time I was employed by Mrs. White, my time was spent mostly at the typewriter copying that which was read to me or from other typewritten copies. Then one morning there was placed in my hands a pile of manuscripts in Mrs. White's handwriting, and I was asked to copy these on the typewriter, correcting any grammatical errors I might find. Most of this copy consisted of brief paragraphs or statements on various subjects.

Contrary to reports that Mrs. White's handwriting was very poor or barely legible, I found no difficulty from the first in reading it, nor in making the few grammatical changes necessary. This, my first editorial work for her, made three manuscripts, totaling sixty type written pages. They were entitled, "Fragments" and "Jots and Tittles" and are now preserved in the regular manuscript file at the "Elmshaven" office. (Mss. 41, 43, 44, 1900.)

As I look these articles through today, I see no difference in literary style be tween them and manuscripts copied by other of her helpers. The reason is obvious. This style is that of the author her self, not of any helper who may have acted a part as editor and copyist. In these manuscripts I find portions that later appeared in Testimonies for the Church, volume 6, The Ministry of Healing, and Counsels to Teachers, books that were afterward put out by Mrs. White.

Thoughts unchanged

Through later years, it was my privilege to receive for editing hundreds of pages of manuscripts written by Mrs. White, also to assist the other secretaries in preparing copy for articles in the papers and for some of the later books. In all good conscience I can testify that never was I presumptuous enough to add any ideas of my own, or to do other than to follow with most scrupulous care the thoughts of the author. And my observation of the work of my associate secretaries, as well as my confidence in their integrity, makes me refuse to believe that any of them changed her writings, other than to make them grammatical, or perhaps to make transpositions for rhetorical effect, for clearness of thought, or for emphasis.

Amount of editing

An examination of the handwritten documents reveals the fact that they differ greatly in appearance, and in grammatical accuracy. In some cases there is evidence of deliberate care in the formation of each letter and word, in capitalization, and even in punctuation. On such documents very little editorial work was called for. This is especially true of letters written during her earlier years of writing, when she employed no editors.

In other cases, the writing indicates haste. It contains repetition of thought, and incomplete or ungrammatical sentences. Yet even in these, there is seldom any difficulty in grasping the evident thought of the writer. Moreover, in correcting them grammatically the original phraseology was so fully retained that the characteristic style of the author remained unaffected.

At times as I would go to Mrs. White's room in the morning, I would find that she had arisen early and had already written many pages, as fast as her pen could travel over the paper. She would mention to me some special experience of the previous night, in which some message had been impressed on her mind, and would converse freely upon the subject upon which she had been writing. At such times her feelings would be very intense. As I would study the manuscript I could see evidences of the pressure under which she had written. The thoughts were clear, but more editorial work was needed at such times than when she wrote more deliberately. Occasionally, if there were questions regarding her meaning, her helpers would ask her about it.

The more experienced workers, who were familiar with Mrs. White's writing, were authorized, in preparing articles, to take a sentence, paragraph, or section from one manuscript and incorporate it into another, where the same subject was being presented. But never were they authorized to add thoughts of their own.

All handwritten documents, when received by Mrs. White's secretaries, were first copied on the typewriter, with whatever editing was found necessary. After this, they were given back to the writer, who read them over carefully, often making further interlineations and additions.

From this, permanent copy was made, which was either sent out as a letter, if addressed to an individual, or prepared as a manuscript, or as an article for some periodical. Before any document was sent from the office it was read by Mrs. White in its final form, and no changes were made by any of her helpers after it was thus approved and accepted by her.

Work of Marian Davis

Marian Davis, who died in 1905, was the veteran worker in Mrs. White's office, having been her associate and helper for a period of 26 years. As an associate, I can bear testimony to the nature and character of her work. She was a well-read woman, a constant Bible student, a woman of deep devotion and spirituality and conscientious in the highest degree. Physically frail, she yet possessed remarkable mental vigor. She was characterized by a rare love and appreciation for the beautiful, whether in nature, art, or literature. With this, she had a remarkable memory, which enabled her to recall striking passages that she had read, and to locate them quickly, even in the days when we had no index to the manuscripts on file.

With a clear, comprehensive plan for the subject matter to be used in an article, or as a chapter in a book under preparation, she would sometimes read many pages of manuscript, looking for suitable or appropriate material. Usually she would mark this to be typed. How ever, if she ran across a brief sentence or phrase of rare beauty, she would copy it in her own handwriting from the original—she did not use the typewriter—and would file it where she could find it when the fitting place was reached in the manuscript under preparation. Thus, by observation, I found a satisfactory answer to the question that had come to my mind when I had noticed that portions of the manuscript read to me for Christ's Object Lessons were in her own hand writing.

I well remember at times going into her office and finding her on her knees on the floor, arranging in order many ex tracts she had gathered for a chapter in the book The Ministry of Healing, pre paring to read it to another copyist, as a few years before she had read to me.

The Desire of Ages

Based upon rumors and reports, our critics are now boldly declaring that Marian Davis "did most of the work on the book The Desire of Ages. " It is true that Miss Davis was book editor for Mrs. White, and that she did the major part of gathering and arranging the material. But it is not true, as is inferred by the critics, that she wrote most of the book.

As The Desire of Ages came from the press two years before my connection with Mrs. White's work, I cannot bear direct personal testimony regarding its preparation. However, I find no good reason for thinking that there was any great difference between the method of its preparation and that of Christ's Object Lessons. In fact, this latter book was made up of material gathered on the life of Christ, but which was left out (be cause of the abundance of material prepared) of The Desire of Ages.

I know that Sister White had brought from America her former writings on the life of Christ, as found in Spirit of Prophecy, volumes 2 and 3, also her articles that had been printed in the Review and other periodicals during the years since volume 3 was issued. There were also new manuscripts dealing with various phases of Christ's life. All of these were available for study and use. These, with what Mrs. White wrote specifically for the book, constituted an abundance of source material for Miss Davis to cull and bring into a harmonious sequence for the new book.

But we are not left in uncertainty regarding the manner in which the book was prepared, for in letters from Mrs. White and Miss Davis written during the period of its preparation are [found] many significant allusions to the work. In Mrs. White's letters we find frequent mention of the fact that she was writing specifically for the book on the life of Christ, and very definite statements regarding the part that Miss Davis acted. Thus in a letter written to Dr. J. H. Kellogg, October 25, 1895, she says: "Marian is working at the greatest dis advantage. I find but little time in which to write on the life of Christ. I am continually receiving letters that demand an answer, and I dare not neglect important matters that are brought to my notice. Then there are churches to visit, private testimonies to write, and many other things to be attended to that tax me and consume my time. Marian greedily grasps every letter I write to others in order to find sentences that she can use in the life of Christ. She has been collecting everything that has a bearing on Christ's lessons to His disciples, from all possible sources. ... I have about decided to ... devote all my time to writing for the books that ought to be prepared without further delay. I would like to write on the life of Christ, on Christian temperance, and prepare Testimony Number 34; for it is very much needed. . . . You know that my whole theme both in the pulpit and in private, by voice and pen, is the life of Christ." Letter 41, 1895.

Beauty of style

Some have marveled at the extraordinary beauty of the language in The Desire of Ages, and have offered this as a reason for questioning its authorship. The last sentence of the foregoing letter, in suggesting that this was one of her favorite themes, furnishes a plausible explanation for the beautiful phraseology of the book. The abundance of material, and the depths of feeling with which she wrote on this subject, made possible the selection and grouping of the most beautiful passages to be found in scores of manuscripts and letters.

It is well known that some of the world's masterpieces of literature, of poetry, and of gospel hymns have been forged on the anvil of suffering. Soon after Mrs. White reached Australia she began to suffer with rheumatism, and for eleven months was in constant pain. Of this experience she wrote: "I have been passing through great trial in pain, and suffering, and helplessness, but through it all I have obtained a precious experience more valuable to me than gold."

After speaking of her feelings of great disappointment because she was unable to visit among the churches, she said further: "This unreconciliation was at the beginning of my sufferings and helplessness, but it was not long until I felt that my affliction was a part of God's plan. I found that by partly lying and partly sitting I could place myself in position to use my crippled hands, and although suffering much pain I could do considerable writing. Since coming to this country I have written sixteen hundred pages. . . . Many nights during the past nine months I was enabled to sleep but two hours a night, and then at times darkness would gather about me; but I prayed and realized much sweet comfort in drawing nigh to God. ... I was all light in the Lord. Jesus was sacredly near, and I found the grace given sufficient."—Letter 7, 1892. "I have tested, and I know whereof I speak. For eleven months I could not sleep nights. I prayed to be relieved. Relief did not come but I had light in the Lord by night, and by day. I know wherein my strength lies. I thought of Christ a great deal in this time."—Ms. 17, 1893.

Thus by affliction, Mrs. White was confined for nearly a year to her room. Here she was free from the multitude of problems that came to her when she was traveling and in public work. Here she had opportunity to think intensely regarding the views that the Lord had given her. She was enabled to write more feelingly than at other times. Some of the choicest passages in The Desire of Ages came from her pen when she was confined not only to her room, but much of the time to her bed. The secret of her power to produce this beautiful language is found in three passages just quoted: "Jesus was sacredly near," "I thought of Christ a great deal," and "I have written sixteen hundred pages."

Cooperation between author and compiler

At times, while the life of Christ was in preparation, Mrs. White was away from home. At such times there was correspondence between her and her helpers. There are preserved a number of letters from Mrs. Davis to Mrs. White regarding the work she was doing in preparing chapters for the prospective book. In those letters, written with no thought of being read by others than Mrs. White, there are incidental touches, which furnish conclusive evidence for the following facts:

1. Mrs. White and Miss Davis worked closely together in all the planning for the book—Mrs. White providing the copy, and Miss Davis gathering and arranging the material she could find from various sources.

2. Miss Davis was entirely dependent upon material furnished by Mrs. White. When that was not forthcoming her work was at a standstill. We see no allusions or references to any subject matter writ ten by Miss Davis, but much to indicate that there was no such matter.

3. Mrs. White was writing intelligently on certain chapters that were being prepared by Miss Davis, who, in addition to this new and current writing, specifically intended for the book, was finding supplementary sentences and paragraphs from other letters and manuscripts.

As typical of such letters from Miss Davis, we quote, without comment, ex tracts from three letters, written during the latter part of 1893 and 1895, while Mrs. White was in New Zealand, and Miss Davis at the home place in Australia:

August 2, 1893: "Now about the book. I am so glad you are writing on the two journeys to Galilee. I was so afraid you would not bring that out. Shall hope to receive something from you before long."

October 18, 1893: "Oh, when I see how we seem to be in the circles of a whirlpool, that is sweeping us faster and faster toward the great consummation, I do long to see this book go out, to reveal Christ to the people as He is, in His beauty. ... I shall be so glad when we can talk over the work. So many points come up that I want to ask about. ... I will send you a few more chapters soon. ... I am real anxious to get some chapters finished, and more gaps filled." November 25, 1893: "We sent the letter for Sydney workers to Brother               . It was so good. I must keep all the general for my scrap books. Of late I have been using the matter gleaned from late letters, testimonies, etc. Have found some of the most precious things, some in those letters to Elder Corliss. They have been to me like a storehouse of treasures. There's something in these personal testimonies that are written under deep feeling, that comes close to the heart. It seems to me the things gathered in this way give a power and significance to the book that nothing else does."

After the manuscript for a portion of the book had been sent to the Pacific Press, Miss Davis found in new letters, material that she wished added. This she sent on to California, hoping that it would arrive in time to be included in the book.

March 1, 1898: "I have been gathering out the precious things from these new manuscripts on the early life of Jesus. Sent a number of new pages to California by the Vancouver mail, and shall send more for later chapters by the next mail. Two of these new articles on Christ's missionary work I let Brother James have to read in church. Last Sabbath he read the one which speaks of the Saviour's denying Himself of food to give to the poor.* These things are unspeakably precious. I hope it is not too late to get them into the book. It has been a feast to work on this matter ..."


To the question "How were the books prepared?" we might briefly reply:

Mrs. White wrote voluminously on many topics. Supplementing what she wrote specifically for some definite book, the book editor gathered from these writings—in manuscripts, letters, reports of discourses, and periodical articles—other related gems of thought. Working together, Mrs. White and this editor planned the outline of the book, chapter by chapter. When in its final form it was approved by Mrs. White it was ready to send to the printer. As Mrs. White advanced in years, naturally she wrote less, and depended more upon the wealth of material already written. But up to within the last fourteen years of her life, the major part of the books were written with the book itself in her mind. But whether the books were written thus specifically or gathered and compiled by her editors, Mrs. White, and not her secretaries, was the author of the books published under her name.


* The passage referred to is found in Ms. 22,1898, dated February 20,1898, and is printed in The Desire of Ages, pp. 86, 87.



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Arthur L. White is a lifetime member of the Board of Trustees of the Ellen G. White Estate and currently is working on a biography of his grandmother

February 1980

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