Ellen White: prophet or plagiarist?

This careful and candid look at the way Ellen White used literary sources explores the implications for her inspiration, the trustworthiness of her writings, and the attitude of the church toward the Spirit of Prophecy in general The conclusion is perhaps best expressed in her own words: "No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation."

Warren H. Johns is an associate editor of MINISTRY.

A boy who appears to be 10 or 12 years of age is sprawled out on the rug in front of the fireplace. His father, after a hard day at the office, is relaxing on the sofa while soaking up the warmth of the fire. His mother is reading to the family from a fascinating account of the Protestant Reformation, D'Aubigne's History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Young Willie enjoys hearing her read portions of the five-volume set for family worship, and we today are intrigued too as we view through the uneven nineteenth-century windowpanes the activities of this Adventist family during the long evenings of a Michigan winter.

Another window opens, this time an office window attached to a brick building in the heart of a frontier town that is later to become the birthplace of the breakfast cereal industry. Again we see the same mother, who is both housewife and writer, sitting at a table in a second-story room designated as the library, books piled beside her. She is doing both reading and writing. Her husband sometimes joins her because he is both a writer and a church leader. On occasion we see the editor of the church's leading journal, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, who often signs his articles with an unassuming "U. S.," bringing her a stack of journals that he no longer needs. She seems to be very pleased.

Years later a third window opens before us, this time the window of a railroad car. The publishing arm of this fledgling church is extending westward, as far as the Pacific Ocean. This busy mother, now middleaged, needs to make every moment count amid her heavy writing schedule of books, articles, and correspondence. She is pausing beside a concession stand, where, among many things, are some newspapers and used books for sale. One of the books has a captivating title—The Abominations of Modem Society—so she purchases it. It may come in useful at a later date for her writing.

It may be surprising to some, but these are authentic portrayals of the activities of Ellen G. White, whose writings have been, and always will be, highly esteemed by Seventh-day Adventists. The first two windows have been opened to us by her own son, W. C. White, who described how his mother enjoyed reading D'Aubigne to his father and how the two of them were granted a special room in the Review and Herald library by Uriah Smith ("U. S.") for their research and writing (W. C. White letter to L. E. Froom, Dec. 13, 1934, recently printed in Selected Messages, book 3, pages 462, 463). The third window has come to view upon a closer examination of Ellen White's own library. DeWitt Talmadge's book The Abominations of Modern Society has the following words penned on the flyleaf below the characteristic signature of Ellen G. White: "Purchased on the cars coming from Omaha to Oakland."

The view of Ellen White that is now coming into focus is that she was much more widely read than even her own family realized, and that she utilized material from outside sources for her writings on a much more extensive basis than the church has been aware. In 1934 W. C. White, writing to L. E. Froom, made the statement: "Ellen White was a rapid reader and had a very retentive memory" (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 462). In a previous letter to L. E. Froom he provides one of the best summaries available on Ellen White's reading habits: "You ask regarding the reading habits of my Mother. Sister White was a very industrious woman, and when not engaged to the full extent of her strength in traveling, or speaking, or in writing testimonies and books, she spent a portion of her time in reading and in study. Of course the Bible came first. After that such books as D'Aubigne's History of the Reformation, Martyn's History of the Reformation, and later she read a little in Wylie, but not much. She also read various books on the life of Christ—Fleetwood's, Farrar's, Geikie's, Lightfoot's, and Andrew's [no doubt, Samuel Andrews], and later she read from Hanna; but I do not think she ever read Edersheim. She had in her library and occasionally read from Conybeare and Howson's life of Paul, and Farrar's life of Paul. She also read from the best religious papers. How did she get them? She used to ask the editors of the Review and [the] Signs to pass over to her their exchanges, when they were done with them; and for years when she was in middle age and vigorous she would read an hour or two each day after completing a good day's work in writing. As a result of this reading she found many precious articles, which she recommended for publication in the Review; more often she found good things to read to the family. Furthermore she cut out hundreds of articles and pasted them into scrapbooks, thinking they would be useful in days to come."—W. C. White letter to L. E. Froom, Feb. 14, 1926, GC Archives. Today we know that Ellen White did use Edersheim's book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, as well as the other books mentioned by W. C. White.

How extensively did Ellen White utilize books and articles for her research and writing? The answer is that at the present time we do not know. The following is a progress report of the work being done in the search for literary source materials. My part began in 1975-1976 when I was doing research on possible source materials for Ellen White's statements on the cause of earthquakes and volcanoes, which was published as a two-part series in MINISTRY (W. H. Johns, "Ellen G. White and Subterranean Fires," MINISTRY, August, October, 1977). The Ellen G. White Estate is currently carrying on research into the questions related to literary borrowing, and some of the material in this report should be duly credited to the findings of the White Estate (lest I be charged with plagiarizing!). In addition, Dr. Fred Veltman is under a special, two-year assignment by the General Conference to study literary sources in The Desire of Ages.

What we do know is that Ellen White made use of contemporary sources in her published and unpublished writings, and that sometimes she used material nearly word for word without giving credit.

Just to give the reader a window on my personal convictions, in view of our findings, I believe that Ellen White's writings are fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, and I reject the concept of degrees of inspiration. Some may be tempted to suggest that the portions of her writings that were "borrowed" or derived from prior sources are less inspired than the portions that are original, or underived. However, such a concept is untenable in view of the fact that we also find examples of literary sources used in Scripture. The Gospel of Luke is almost entirely taken from other sources (see Luke 1:1-4); does that mean that Luke is less inspired than Matthew, Mark, or John? Inspiration does not hinge upon originality, nor does the discovery of prior literary sources in an inspired document make it less inspired.

Examples of literary parallels between the writings of Ellen White and other authors can be found in subjects as diverse as the long-suffering of Christ, the importance of little things, and the relationship of preexisting matter to God's work of creating (see Figures 1, 2, and 3). (The parallels I have found are not always as striking as these three. Very often Ellen White paraphrases the words of the other author, or even restates in her own words thoughts and expressions found in other works.) The examples given here of literary parallels are arranged in couplet form, rather than as parallel columns. The upper portion of the couplet is the prior source which Ellen White apparently used; the lower portion is the Ellen G. White parallel. In all cases, the publication date of the prior source predates Ellen White's first statement on the subject; thus we cannot suggest that the other author obtained his information from Ellen White.

It may be tempting to conjecture that all such parallels are coincidental, but one would have to explain how not only the sentence order but also the very word order has sometimes been preserved. The only way to explain such parallels on the basis that Ellen White did absolutely no reading in these prior works is to suggest that God through the Holy Spirit dictated the very words she was to put down on paper. Seventh-day Adventists have consistently rejected the verbal-dictation theory of inspiration. If the very words had been dictated to Ellen White, then she would not have needed the assistance of her husband and later her literary assistants to improve the grammar, sentence structure, and clarity of what she was writing.

In my research I have had access to some of the very books once owned and utilized by Ellen White. An examination of her copy of John Harris' The Great Teacher, containing her penned signature on the title page, indicates that this book was obviously often used, and now we know of dozens of literary parallels with Harris. Her copy of Henry Melvill's Sermons (1844 edition) shows evidence of frequent use— the pages being folded in half, the comer of pages being folded diagonally, and ink marks on several of the pages. A typical parallel from Melvill is exhibited in Figure 4. Ellen White never underlined in any of her books, but on occasion she marked with vertical pen strokes or with "X's" the margins next to some favored quote or gem of thought. It was a set of vertical pen strokes that led us to find parallels between Melvill's statement on the "oracles of God" and similar statements in Ellen White's writings (Figure 5). Interestingly, a copy of the handwritten original for this set of parallels was published just prior to our discovery (Robert W. Olson, One Hundred and One Questions on the Sanctuary and on Ellen White [1981], p. 90). The more we examine the library books once held by Ellen White, the more we are finding examples of the ways in which she used them and the extent of their use.

Ellen White did use her library more extensively than has been realized hereto fore. Although percentages can be misleading and be misused, they are still a valid means of evaluation. F. D. Nichol, in his book Ellen G. White and her Critics (1951), pages 422-425, concludes that 11 percent of Sketches From the Life of Paul has been derived from two sources—7 percent from Conybeare and Howson's Life and Epistles of the Apostle Paul, and 4 percent from F. W. Farrar's The Life and Work of St. Paul. Nichol also states that the amount of material paraphrased in The Great Controversy (1884 ed.), from J. N. Andrews' History of the Sabbath, is equivalent to less than 1 percent of the entire book (ibid., p. 421). Raymond S. Cottrell was commissioned by the White Estate to do a preliminary survey of the relationship between William Hanna's Life of Our Lord and certain chapters in The Desire of Ages. Of the chapters surveyed, he found that approximately 3 percent was from William Hanna.

More recently, we have found higher percentages of borrowed material. Roughly 20 percent of the chapter "Science and the Bible" in Education can be traced to prior sources. Approximately 40 percent of two articles each in the Review and Herald (July 18, 1882; July 5, 1887) can be identified as coming from two chapters in Melvill's Sermons. It is interesting that one article, "The First Prophecy," has the same title as the Melvill sermon, and both begin with the same scriptural text, Genesis 3:15.

Personal testimonies and letters have examples of borrowed material. A testimony dated June 20, 1882, and written to the Battle Creek members (Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 62-84) has 31.5 percent of its material in common with portions of two books, Daniel March's Night Scenes in the Bible (c. 1868), and F. W. Krummacher's Elijah the Tishbite (1838). I have also determined that 42 percent of Manuscript 24, 1886 (Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 19-21), was obtained from Calvin E. Stowe's Origin and History of the Books of the Bible (1867), pages 13-20, based upon an actual count of parallel words and synonyms in Stowe. Unpublished letters also have examples of literary parallels. More than half of Letter 19e, 1892, has been adapted from a chapter in J. C. Geikie's The Precious Promises (pp. 47-52), which was in her personal library.

The above percentages apply only to small portions of her writings, arid thus should not be extrapolated to cover all that she wrote. At this point it would be premature even to surmise how much of the inspired writings can be traced to prior sources. With every new discovery the percentage of parallel material rises. Whether the final figure for the extent of overall borrowing be 5 percent or 50 percent, 8 percent or even 80 percent, we never need back off one iota from our firm position that the writings of Ellen White are fully inspired, for inspiration involves the Holy Spirit's guidance in locating the right literary sources just as much as it does the transmitting of ideas.

Although she lacked the usual formal education, Ellen White read widely, through continued practice and self-discipline. God does not supernaturally endow an individual with qualities or skills that are within his capability of achieving through hard work coupled with divine power. Although she was a skilled reader, she always felt her lack of ability in the matter of writing (see Selected Messages, book 3, p. 90)—one reason she felt impelled to turn to outside literary sources. The literary beauty of her writings should not be used as evidence of divine inspiration; some of the beautiful gems of thought can be traced to prior sources. Writes Ellen White: "Not more surely is the place prepared for us in the heavenly mansions than is the special place designated on earth where we are to work for God."— Christ's Object Lessons, p. 327. Wrote John Harris, in The Great Commission (1854 ed.), page 103, "Not more certainly is the throne of every believer prepared in heaven, than his appropriate place is prescribed on earth."

"The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian."—The Ministry of Healing, p. 470; "A life of disinterested love is an argument they cannot gainsay."—The Desire of Ages, p. 142. T. L. Cuyler wrote in Heart Life, page 69, "A living, lovable Christian is the most powerful argument for the Gospel. No infidel ever yet refuted that."

"God knows better than you what is good and essential for His children. He never leads them otherwise than they would wish Him to lead them if they were able to see as clearly as He does their necessities."—Ellen G. White diary, Nov. 21, 1890; cf. The Desire of Ages, pp. 224, 225; The Ministry of Healing, p. 479; Prophets and Kings, p. 578. Wrote F. W. Krummacher, in Elijah the Tishbite, page 20, 21: "God . . . knows exactly and much better than we do, what is good and necessary for his children; and, in truth, he never leads them otherwise than they would wish him to lead them, if they were able to see as clearly into their hearts and necessities as he does."

Whereas Bickersteth writes concerning prayer, "It is a key to open the storehouse of all God's Treasury to us;... so by prayer we obtain all the blessings which we require," I am much more enamored by Ellen White's rendition of the same thought: "Prayer is the key in the hand of faith to unlock heaven's storehouse, where are treasured the boundless resources of Omnipotence."—Edward Bickersteth, A Treatise on Prayer (1834), p. 12; Steps to Christ, pp. 94, 95.

The extent of Ellen White's reading can be judged by the size of her library. Actually she had three libraries—an office library to which her literary assistants had access, a personal library, and a library of 572 titles sold to her by C. C. Crisler in 1913. When she died in 1915, an inventory was made of all the items in her possession, including her books. Bibliographic work is being done on the inventory lists, and a preliminary count indicates that Ellen White had more than eleven hundred books by non-Seventh-day Adventist authors in her three libraries, excluding Bibles and hymnals. More than eight hundred are no longer to be found in the White Estate collection. Work has just begun on determining how many of the books may have been read and used by Ellen White. We have a list of approximately seventy-five books, not all of which appear on the inventory lists, that we are fairly confident Ellen White may have used or read. One example is Bickersteth's A Treatise on Prayer, which provides much of the wording that appears in Steps to Christ in the chapter entitled "The Privilege of Prayer." Scores of books on the inventory lists are obviously ones that Ellen White would not have used in her spiritual writing, for example, Mayhew's Book-keeping, a Greek grammar, and a book on trigonometry. Of course, her inventory lists would not include books in the Review and Herald or J. N. Andrews libraries, to which she had access, so it is very likely that we will never know exactly how many books Ellen White may have read during her lifetime. But is it really crucial to know this in order to determine what her prophetic role has been? Her being "God's messenger" for His church does not hinge on the number of books she may have read!

Perhaps even more surprising than the varied scope or extent of Ellen White's literary usages is the recent discovery that she utilized the words of prior authors in describing words she heard spoken while in vision. In a few instances, she uses the writings of a nineteenth-century source in quoting the words of Christ or of an angelic guide. One such instance utilizes the words of Heman Humphrey, who wrote the introduction to John Harris' The Great Teacher. This example was discussed a year ago in the Adventist Review (April 2, 30, 1981). In another case she introduces a lengthy quote from Krummacher's Elijah the Tishbite with the words, "My Guide said ..." (Figure 6). In describing "scenes in the coming judgment," she repeats the Judge's rebuke to those not having white robes and uses in part some modified sentences from Daniel March (Walks and Homes of Jesus (1866), pp. 316, 317; cf. Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 387).

In view of the fact that she cites the words of previous writers when describing words heard in vision, it should not surprise us to find that when she says, "I saw," or "I was shown" she sometimes felt free, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to use expressions from an earthly source. One such example recently discovered by the White Estate is given in Figure 7 (F. W. Krummacher, Elijah the Tishbite (1838), p. 221; cf. Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 76).

One question that must be dealt with is this: Why has not this matter of Ellen White's literary research been better known, especially in view of the fact that we have had available several hundred of her library books for study? In pursuing an answer to this question, I have had the opportunity recently to examine the files in both the White Estate and the General Conference Archives pertaining to the charges of plagiarism (a topic to be discussed later in this presentation). I have quickly discovered that very little has been known about Ellen White's use of sources during the past one hundred years. The first clear-cut examples of literary parallels were published in the Healdsburg Enterprise, March 13, 20, 1889, as a result of a debate arranged by Dudley M. Canright with some of the church's spokesmen at Healdsburg, California. Parallel columns were published, showing the use of material without quotation marks from five sources. As of 1915, only eight source books had been identified as used by Ellen White in her research and writing, other than those to which she gave credit, as in The Great Controversy. As of 1976, a total of twenty-five sourcebooks had been mentioned in print or in the correspondence involving church leaders over a ninety-year period, but in the few years since 1976 we 'have tripled the number of known literary sources she used.

The reasons the church heretofore has possessed only minimal knowledge of the literary sources used by Ellen White is the difficulty of locating parallels. I estimate that it will take a minimum of five thousand hours to go through Ellen White's present library just to determine what books she may or may not have read. Who has five thousand hours for this? When charges of plagiarism were being hurled from the pages of Ballenger's Gathering Call, in 1932 and 1933, a member of the White Estate, D. E. Robinson, spent a total of four or five hours comparing Conybeare and Howson's work with Ellen White's Sketches From the Life of Paul (D. E. Robinson letter to L. E. Froom, March 14, 1933). He left more than 1,100 other books untouched in his research.

The amount of time and effort required for this type of research is best illustrated in the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. In one of the caves the mice, over the centuries, had shredded the scrolls into thousands of small pieces in their efforts to eat the glue that the ancient scribes had used for the backing sheets of the leather scrolls. A team of scholars has spent more than thirty years attempting to reassemble these mice-decimated scrolls, as well as the many other scrolls, such as the copper scroll, preparatory to publishing their findings, and they still have much work remaining.

I would suggest that in most cases to find one literary parallel is comparable to putting into its proper place one mice-shredded fragment of the Dead Sea scrolls! This explains why our knowledge of what may have taken place in Ellen White's study, or on the train or boat, has been scanty until recent times.

We find, however, that the windows to Ellen White's research have never been closed and the blinds have not been drawn; nor has the door to the room where she did her writing been closed and locked from the inside. The door has always been open, and through this open door we see the silhouette of a woman who must have been a diligent researcher, who investigated her sources meticulously and used them judiciously and effectively, a woman fully imbued by God's Spirit, and a woman who has left from her prolific pen a treasure of inestimable worth to the church, far excelling the hundreds of millions of dollars the church's property is worth today. Have not the continued counsels from the pen of Ellen White made possible the building of churches and institutions, and thus should not the counsels be worth more than the buildings and institutions whose foundations are rooted in those counsels? I feel that the discovery of literary parallels cannot devalue that which has been proved to be of untold value spiritually in the lives of millions.


Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Warren H. Johns is an associate editor of MINISTRY.

June 1982

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

The two mind-sets

Is it possible for two persons to observe the same kinds of evidence and reach opposite conclusions. MINISTRY Editor J.R. Spangler analyzes the reasons why and how this can happen.

Literary thief or God's messenger?

Plagiarism involves much more than the non-use of quotation marks. The author discusses the five ingredients of literary theft.

Human thoughts or divine truths?

Granted that Ellen White did use material without quotation marks more extensively than previously thought, does this make her any less inspired, any less a messenger to God's church today, and her counsels any less trustworthy than one hundred years ago?

Ministers without pulpits

If every Christian is called to pattern his or her life after that of the Saviour, then each Christian is called to minister to others.

Is Jesus Jehovah God?

Is the doctrine of the Trinity merely a relic of Roman Catholicism, as Jehovah's Witnesses maintain, or can it be found in both Old and New Testaments? Is Jesus Christ the Jehovah of the Old Testament?

What's wrong with being a pastor?

If Jesus had spent His earthly ministry in our church, we probably wouldn't think He amounted to much. He never became a conference president, and when He "retired" He was still pastor of a small church.

If not you—who?

It is time to proclaim to all the world that Jesus is coming soon! If we do not respond to the call of God at this crucial hour, who will? If we do not tell the good news, who will?

Shepherdess: The holding pattern

Like a circling jet waiting to land, sometimes our lives seem to be in a holding pattern. But we can gain courage as we examine God's holding pattern displayed in the lives of Elisabeth and Esther.

Recommended Reading

The landmark book "Understanding Church Growth and Decline" analyzes the major research on trends in growth and participation among the mainline U. S. Protestant churches during a quarter century.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - Healthy and Happy Family - Skyscraper 160x600