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.

Warren H. Johns is an associate editor of Ministry.

The year was 1887; the date, October 8. The yellows, oranges, and reds of the hickories, maples, and sumacs were at the height of their fall beauty when an article rolled off the presses of the Michigan Christian Advocate that must have tainted nature's glory that day, for it was intended to rob an inspired writer of her inspiration.

Ellen White had returned to the States from a two-year stay in Europe less than two months earlier, and now she was greeted with the first public accusation of an unacknowledged use of other sources. The person behind the questioning, Dudley M. Canright, had turned in his ministerial credentials eight months earlier. In that October 8 article, he wrote: "She often copies, without credit or sign of quotation, whole sentences and even paragraphs, almost word for word, from other authors. (Compare 'Great Controversy,' page 96, with 'History of the Reformation,' by D'Aubigne, page 41.) This she does page after page. Was D'Aubigne also inspired?"—Quoted in F. D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics, p. 417. This was the first direct attempt, albeit somewhat covert, to deny Ellen White's inspiration on the basis of her literary borrowing.

Two years later, Canright published a series of tracts, "Adventism Refuted in a Nutshell," in which he made full-fledged charges of plagiarism: "A large share of her last book, 'Great Controversy,' she has copied from other authors, without credit in any way, or anything to indicate that she got it from others. She and her people claim that it was revealed to her by the Lord, but facts show that she took it from others. Webster says: 'Plagiary: a thief in literature; one who purloins another's writings, and offers them to the public as his own.' According to this she is a literary thief."—Tract No. 4, "Mrs. White and Her Visions," 1889, p. 4.

These charges of plagiarism surfaced briefly in 1907 in connection with the Kellogg defection, but it was not until the 1930s that they were revitalized and pressed with renewed vigor in the pages of the Gathering Call, published bimonthly by E. S. Ballenger, a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor. In recent times the charges have reappeared (see Newsweek, Jan. 19, 1981). It is interesting that approximately fifty years elapsed between the first accusations of plagiarism made by Canright and those of Ballenger, and now another fifty years have gone by since Ballenger's attacks—just enough time for one generation to die and a new one to appear! While it is true that to free an individual of the charge of plagiarism does not automatically make that person a prophet, it is also true that a person's prophetic office would stand in serious jeopardy if he were found to be a plagiarist.

Recently a Roman Catholic attorney, Vincent L. Ramik, who specializes in copyright law, rendered his 27-page opinion on Ellen White's use of sources. Asked to do his research by the office of the General Counsel (General Conference), Ramik and his associates reached the unequivocal conclusion: "Based upon our review of the facts and legal precedents... Ellen White was not a plagiarist, and her works did not constitute copyright infringement/piracy."—Adventist Review, Sept. 17, 1981, p. 3.

From my own analysis of the 27-page report, I find that the legal definition of plagiarism or literary piracy is composed of five essentials:

1. Motive: Was there any intent to deceive?

2. Extent or scope: Did the author rely heavily upon a single source?

3. Style: Did the author make only "colorable alterations"?

4. Content: Has the theme, frame work, or structure of a prior work been taken over?

5. Infringement: Have the profits resulting from the sale of the older book been diminished by the sale of the new?

The charge of plagiarism cannot be leveled by taking just one of these five essentials in isolation; it must involve a combination of all. Part I of this presentation gave examples of parallelisms between Ellen White and her predecessors, some of which could be labeled as "colorable alterations" (see Figures 1-4). But if the answers to the other four essential questions are all in the negative, it would appear that the presence of isolated cases of "colorable alterations," or mere cosmetic changes, would not constitute plagiarism. Some authorities on plagiarism point out that one author could conceivably copy verbatim excerpts from the work of another without quotation marks and still be protected from lawsuits. The absence of quotation marks for minor excerpts is not prima facie evidence of plagiarism.

Did Ellen White rely heavily upon a single source for any of her works? Did she borrow the theme, framework, or structure from a prior work? Have the profits from the sale of any of her books infringed upon the profits of any of the books from which she drew material? Affirmative answers to these questions would pose a serious problem. Regarding the question of her reliance upon a single source, one Seventh-day Adventist theologian has said, "To borrow heavily upon one source without proper acknowledgment—that's plagiarism. To draw upon a wide variety of sources—that's good scholarship! The more sources we find for Ellen White's writings, the better, because that makes a better scholar out of her." We find in this respect that Ellen White comes under the category of being a "good scholar." Not one of her books is based solely upon one previously published work.

I have heard it alleged that Ellen White based Steps to Christ almost entirely upon Hannah Whitall Smith's The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, which was advertised for sale on the pages of Signs of the Times (Dec. 2, 1889). But a careful examination shows very little close similarity between the two works; the subject matter at times is the same, but each writer handles it differently. Ellen White's chapter "The Privilege of Prayer" has many thoughts, phrases, and even sentences that can be traced to Edward Bickersteth's A Treatise on Prayer (1834), rather than to Hannah Smith's work.

Some have charged that Ellen White took her Great Controversy from another work by the same title—H. L. Hastings' The Great Controversy Between God and Man, first published in January of 1858, a few months prior to Ellen White's Great Controversy (Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1). But why would James White advertise Hastings' book for sale on the pages of the Review and Herald (April 28, 1859), if his wife had based her work The Great Controversy Between Christ and His Angels, and Satan and His Angels (1858) upon it? Again, a careful examination of the two volumes indicates that they differ widely in scope, purpose, and content.

Another essential ingredient of plagiarism is whether a writer has taken over the theme, framework, or structure of an earlier work. It is possible for the structure of another work to be taken over without incorporating its theme. For example, the sequence of chapters in The Desire of Ages parallels that of Edersheim's The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, but the content of the books is quite different. Ellen White did not obtain her narrative from Edersheim. Although her structure seems somewhat parallel to that of Edersheim (and perhaps other nineteenth-century writers on the life of Christ), she has a different theme—the life of Christ in light of the great controversy between the forces of good and evil. Edersheim and others are more interested in giving an historical account of Christ's earthly existence.

The least troublesome of the five aspects of the plagiarism charge is that of infringement. I know of no documented evidence that the sales of any single nineteenth-century work were diminished by the sales of any of Ellen White's books.

Perhaps the most troublesome aspect, however, is the matter of motive, mainly because it is the most subjective, and hence the most controversial, of the five. Was there any intent to deceive? Invariably, an intent to deceive implies an intent to cover up. An intent to deceive can be present only if the writer had an awareness, however vague, that what he was doing was wrong. Ordinarily, judging the intent of another is most difficult, but with Ellen White the task is made easier by the vast abundance of her written material, published and unpublished, that provides the researcher with windows to her thinking. Her literary light has not been hid under a bushel!

After a careful examination of dozens of pertinent documents, published and unpublished, I have found no attempt on the part of Ellen White to deceive or to cover up. Here are the facts I have uncovered:

Fact No. 1: If there was an intent to deceive, why would God give His approval to her use of sources as well as provide specific instruction that she was to gather gems of truth from uninspired writers? Let her own words speak: "I am just as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in relating or writing the vision as in having the vision."—Selected Messages, book 3, p. 48. "I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them."—Ibid., book 1, p. 37. If the Spirit was such an indispensable part of her writing, and if, as we have seen, her writing involved using other sources, then God's Spirit must have been a directing force in the choice and adaptation of those sources. W. C. White corroborates this conclusion: "It was remarkable that in her reading and scanning of books that her mind was directed to the most helpful books and to the most helpful passages contained in those books."—Letter to L. E. Froom, Dec. 13, 1934, in Selected Messages, book 3, p. 463. This thought is further expanded by W. C. White and D. E. Robinson: "She was told that in the reading of religious books and journals, she would find precious gems of truth expressed in acceptable language, and that she would be given help from heaven to recognize these and to separate them from the rubbish of error with which she would sometimes find them associated."—"Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White," 1933, p. 5, published as an insert in the Adventist Review, June 4, 1981. God would not instruct her to violate either His law or ethical literary principles recognized by nineteenth-century writers, as long as those principles harmonize with His law.

Fact No. 2: On occasion, Ellen White did her research into other sources in full view of others. According to W. C. White, her son, she was granted, along with her husband, a writing room on the second floor of the brick Review and Herald building. That room contained the library, from which she "made selection of books which she considered profitable to read" (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 463). If Ellen White was attempting to hide what she was doing, surely she would never have done her reading and research at a location subject to the peering eyes of fellow Adventists.

Some have suggested that she rose at 1:00 or 2:00 A.M. so that she could do her copying unwatched by others, even her own family members. However, the most likely reason for her early rising is that her mind was clearest then, and her writing could be much more productive, free from distractions or interruptions. If one wants to see in her early morning habits evidence of a cover-up, he may, but there is no proof for the suspicion. According to W. C. White, who worked very closely with his mother, she would often spend an hour or two of reading during daylight hours after having completed a hard day's work of writing. (W. C. White letter to L. E. Froom, Feb. 14, 1926.) Much of her reading was done in the open.

Fact No. 3: Ellen White freely loaned her books—books that presumably she would need, sooner or later, in her research. It would seem inexplicable for her to do so if she were attempting to conceal the fact of her borrowing from these very sources. Excerpts from a letter written from Greenville, Michigan, on January 19, 1868, to her son in Battle Creek indicate there was no cover-up; "Dear Son Edson: ... I wish you [would] ask George to inquire in meeting if anyone has a book titled, The Martyrs of Spain, and another [by] Sanford and Mertin [Sandford and Merton]. Both were presented us by Brother Andrews. The first was mine, the last Willie's. If they have any books belonging to me, have them bring them in. . . . P. S. Send the books mentioned by Brother Loughborough." Letter la, 1868. Apparently she intended an announcement to be made in the Battle Creek Tabernacle for those holding any of her missing books to please return them. This sounds more like openness than cover-up!

Fact No. 4: Ellen White made no attempt to conceal from her helpers the fact that she relied upon available books for her research and writing. When working on The Great Controversy in Basel, Switzerland, her assistants made good use of J. N. Andrews' extensive library (see Selected Messages, book 3, p. 439). She even wrote from Basel to her family in Battle Creek: "Tell Mary to find me some histories of the Bible that would give me the order of events. I have nothing and can find nothing in the library here."—Letter 38, 1885; Selected Messages, book 3, p. 122. On a previous occasion she wrote from Grand Prairie, Texas: "Dear Mary: Will you please get and mail the covered book, History of Paul, and put in a red-covered book, Bible Antiquities—sort of Bible dictionary."—Letter 52, 1878.

Fact No. 5: Ellen White recommended to the general Seventh-day Adventist church membership the very books from which she was drawing selected material in writing her books and testimonies. One significant example is the following enthusiastic recommendation she made in the Health Reformer: "I am delighted to find the following in that invaluable work entitled The Young Lady's Counselor,' by Rev. Daniel Wise, A.M.; it can be obtained at any Methodist book rooms [a lengthy quote from Wise follows]."—July, 1873, p. 221.

Ellen White once had this particular book in her personal library according to the inventory lists, but it is not found in the present holdings. More significantly, the very quote that she cited in the Health Reformer had been used in part a year previously in a published testimony. The evidence suggests that she sometimes took both thoughts and expressions from Wise without indicating the source, whereas in the Health Reformer article she used quotation marks and gave credit to Wise. In using such material, however, she did not approach it with a mind devoid of information. I am not suggesting here that Daniel Wise, not God, was the source of her inspiration.

If I had been a Seventh-day Adventist living in 1873, and if God's spokesman had recommended a particular book as an "invaluable work" obtainable at any Methodist bookstore (there were no Adventist Book Centers then!) I would have made an effort to purchase it. Moreover, if I had been the Adventist sister who received a testimony which was printed in 1872 for the church to read, a testimony containing both a rebuke and an encouragement, certainly I would have recognized the similarity between portions of that testimony and the words of Daniel Wise quoted just one year later in the Health Reformer.

Not only did Ellen White recommend Daniel Wise's work, she also highly recommended Conybeare and Howson's book on the apostle Paul, from which she took 7 percent of the material for her own Sketches From the Life of Paul, according to F. D. Nichol's research. She wrote: "The Life of St. Paul by Conybeare and Howson, I regard as a book of great merit, and one of rare usefulness to the earnest student of the New Testament history."—Quoted in p. D. Nichol, Ellen G'. White and Her Critics, p. 423. Not many months after she made this recommendation, her own work rolled off the presses. Hardly would she have done so, if she felt there was something to cover up.

When we take all factors into account—the scope, the style, the con tent, the purpose, the question of infringement, and the possibility of an intent to deceive—we find Attorney Ramik's assessment absolutely correct: "Ellen White was not a plagiarist, and her works did not constitute copyright infringement/piracy."

Again, it should be noted that to clear Ellen White of the charge of plagiarism does not automatically make her a prophet. While an attorney's office that specializes in copyright law can render an opinion on the legal or ethical aspects of literary borrowing, it cannot probe into the spiritual aspects (although Ramik's report does touch upon the spiritual). The law cannot define how God speaks through an inspired messenger. Facing us yet are deeper questions—the questions of inspiration, authority, and prophetic function. Some of these issues will be considered in part three of this presentation, but some  will have to wait for others to handle.

Perhaps one of the most difficult questions is that of the relationship between human influence and divine revelation, the tension between the earthly and the heavenly. How much is of God, and how much is from man? If we find in the final analysis that 50 percent of what Ellen White has written can be traced to prior published works, does that mean that 50 percent of what she wrote is from man, and the other 50 percent from God?

Our understanding of how inspiration operates will determine the answers. The finest scriptural model for understanding the process of inspiration is the Incarnation. Christ is designated as the Word (see John 1:1-3, 14; Heb. 11:3; 1 John 1:1; Rev. 19:13), and the Scriptures likewise are called the Word (see Luke 4:4; 11:28; John 15:25; Titus 1:3; 2 Peter 1:19). This means that the two have a central feature in common; they both demonstrate a delicate balance between the human and the divine. The mystery of the Incarnation is that Christ is fully human and fully divine at the same time, and inspiration presents the same mystery. If we have overwhelming evidence that the writings of Ellen White are inspired, and I believe we do, then we can expect to find the same delicate balance between the human and the divine in her writings as we find in Scripture, for it is the same Spirit at work in each. That is not to say that her writings are on equality with the Sacred Canon. There have been many inspired documents that have never been and will never be included in Scripture. Thus we cannot say that 50 percent of her writings are human and 50 percent are divine, any more than we can say that 50 percent of Scripture is human and 50 percent is divine. Again we are not even intimating that Ellen White's writings are on the level of Scripture as far as doctrine or authority is concerned.

Some have raised the question, in all honesty, whether it is not true that Ellen White consistently denied any human influence in her writings. Did she not avow that what she wrote was not her own opinion nor represented her own ideas? Did she not say that what she had written had not been taken from books or papers?

We must examine carefully what she has said as well as what she has not said. What she does say is this: "I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas."—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 67. What she does not say is that none of her own ideas and opinions ever appear in that which she has written. Nor does she claim to be completely free of human influence and suggestions. (Read the entire context of this statement, especially Testimonies, volume 5, pages 65, 66.)

Ellen White does state, "That which I have written in regard to health was not taken from books or papers."—Selected Messages, book 3, p. 282. But she never makes that a blanket statement to apply to everything she has written. Contextually, this statement applies only to the area of health and to her earliest writings on that topic prior to the fall of 1867. At the same time she made that statement she wrote in the Review: "And after I had written my six articles for 'How to Live,' I then searched the various works on hygiene." —Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867.

Ellen White does say: "I have not been in the habit of reading any doctrinal articles in the paper [a reference to the Review and Herald], that my mind should not have any understanding of anyone's ideas and views, and that not a mold of any man's theories should have any connection with that which I write."—Selected Messages, book 3, p. 63. But she does not say that she never read the views of others. The context of this statement is a letter addressed to E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones in which she states that she did not want to be influenced by any man's opinions on the meaning of the law in Galatians. Thus she is saying that she was consistently avoiding doctrinal articles in the paper on that particular subject.

She once stated, "The words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own."—Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867. But, again, she does not intend for this statement to apply to everything she has written. The limited context of the statement is the proper length of a lady's dress, something that she had seen in vision and had attempted to describe by employing her own words.

She does assert: "In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me."—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 67. But she is not thereby denying that she used other sources in writing out her views. The very testimony in which she makes this statement has nearly one third of its material taken from March's Night Scenes in the Bible and Krummacher's Elijah the Tishbite. Ellen White consistently gives credit where credit is due—to God the author of all truth. To declare the divine source of her writings is not to deny the human; neither is an acknowledgment of the human side of her writings a denial of the divine.

All truth is composed of a unique blend of the human and the divine. If truth were only divine in its utterance, it would be so far beyond the finite minds of men that it would find its sole abode in the mind of the Infinite. If truth were only human in its expression, it would have no power to lift man from himself to his Creator. When God makes a diamond, He takes a lump of ordinary carbon, the same substance that blackens chimney walls, and buries it in the bosom of the earth under pressure a million times greater than at the surface. He extrudes this beautiful gem from the earth by having it travel sometimes more than sixty miles upward to the surface to be grasped by the eager fingers of humanity.

Man does not reject these valuable gems just because they originated as carbon, any more than we should reject the gems of truth found in the writings of an inspired woman who died nearly seventy years ago because they may have found their first lodging in the uninspired writings of others. Man may attempt to use the steel-tipped pen of the critic to inscribe "plagiarized" on the glittering facets of these diamonds of truth, .but they cannot be defaced by such writing instruments. The luster is undimmed; the intrinsic worth is unchanged.


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Warren H. Johns is an associate editor of Ministry.

June 1982

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