Ellen G. White and vegetarianism

Was Ellen White devious and hypocritical in commanding vegetarianism on her church in 1863 while continuing to eat flesh foods for the next thirty years?

Roger Coon, PH. D., is an associate secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate and adjunct professor of prophetic guidance at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.

Was Ellen White an honest and an honorable woman? Critics of her ministry have, alleged that she was not. They charge that Mrs. White was both devious and hypocritical in commanding vegetarianism on her church in 1863 while secretly continuing to eat flesh foods (and unclean ones at that!) for the next thirty years.

Typical charges

Ex-Adventist preacher Dudley M. Canright wrote that Mrs. White "for bade the eating of meat, . . . yet secretly she herself ate meat more or less most of her life." 1 He also said that he saw James and Ellen White eat ham in their own dining room.

A former on-again, off-again literary assistant of Ellen White, Frances ("Fannie") Bolton, in 1914 described an incident when she traveled with the White group to California. At the railway depot "Sister White was not with her party, so Elder [George B.] Starr [also a member of the party] hunted around till he found her behind a screen in the restaurant very gratified in eating big white raw oysters with vinegar, pepper, and salt. I was overwhelmed by this inconsistency and dumb with horror. Elder Starr hurried me out and made all sorts of excuses and justifications of Sister White's action; yet I kept thinking in my heart, 'What does it mean? What has God said? How does she dare eat these abominations?' " 2 Answers to these allegations will come later in this article.

Personal growth

God gave the gift of prophetic inspiration to a 17-year-old meat-eating Sundaykeeper one day in December of 1844. That first vision was silent concerning the advantages of a vegetarian diet.

Ellen Harmon had just passed her seventeenth birthday and she weighed but eighty pounds. The man who would become her husband twenty-one months later described her condition in December, 1844: "When she had her first vision, she was an emaciated invalid, given up by her friends and physicians to die of consumption. . . . Her nervous condition was such that she could not write, and was dependent on one sitting near her at the table to even pour her drink from the cup to the saucer." 3

She herself characterized her physical condition when the message of health reform first came to her as "weak and feeble, subject to frequent fainting spells." 4 "I have thought for years that I was dependent upon a meat diet for strength. It has been very difficult for me to go from one meal to another without suffering from faintness at the stomach, and dizziness of the head. ... I ... frequently fainted. . . I therefore decided that meat was indispensable in my case. ... I have been troubled every spring with loss of appetite." 5

To remedy these physical weaknesses, Ellen ate substantial quantities of meat daily. She referred to herself as "a great meat eater." 6 "Flesh meat. . . was . . . my principal article of diet." 7

The resulting alleviation of the symptoms was, however, only temporary, "for the time," 8 and "instead of gaining strength, I grew weaker and weaker. I often fainted from exhaustion." 9

Ellen White received her first major health reform vision, June 6, 1863, in the home of Aaron Milliard, at Otsego, Michigan. In this vision, for the first time, God's people were urged to abstain from flesh food in general and from swine's flesh in particular.

Ellen White characterized this vision as "great light from the Lord," adding, "I did not seek this light; I did not study to obtain it; it was given to me by the Lord to give to others." 10

Amplifying this upon another occasion, she added, "The Lord presented a general plan before me. I was shown that God would give to His commandmentkeeping people a reform diet, and that as they received this, their disease and suffering would be greatly lessened. I was shown that this work would progress." 11

Ellen's personal response was prompt and positive: "I accepted the light on health reform as it came to me." 12 "I at once cut meat out of my bill of fare." 13 "I broke away from everything at once—from meat and butter, and from three meals." 14

And the result? "My former faint and dizzy feelings have left me," as well as the problem of loss of appetite in the springtime. 15 And at the age of 82 years she could declare, "I have better health today, notwithstanding my age, than I had in my younger days." 16

But all of this did not come without a struggle. Concerning the discontinuance of vinegar, she said, "I resolved with the help of God to overcome this appetite. I fought the temptation, determined not to be mastered by this habit. For weeks I was very sick; but I kept saying over and over, The Lord knows all about it. If I die, I die; but I will not yield to this desire. The struggle continued, and I was sorely afflicted for many weeks. ... I continued to resist the desire for vinegar, and at last I conquered. ... I obtained a complete victory." 17

And in the discarding of flesh foods and the other articles of diet that had to go: "I suffered keen hunger. I was a great meat eater. But when faint, I placed my arms across my stomach, and said, 'I will not taste a morsel. I will eat simple food, or I will riot eat at all.'. . . When I made these changes, I had a special battle to fight." 18

But fight she did, and win she did. The year after the 1863 health reform vision she could report, "I have left the use of meat." 19 Five years later, in a letter to her son Edson, in which she was urging him and his family to "show true principle" in faithfulness in health reform, she assured him that she was also practicing what she preached: "We have in diet been strict to follow the light the Lord has given us. ... We have advised you not to eat butter or meat. We have not had it on our [own] table. 20

And the next year, 1870, things were still going in the same direction: "I have not changed my course a particle since I adopted the health reform. I have not taken one step back since the light from heaven upon this subject first shone upon my pathway. I broke away from everything at once." 21

Does this mean, then, that Ellen White never again ate a piece of meat? No, not at all. Nor did she attempt to hide this fact, either. There were occasional exceptions to a habitual pattern of vegetarianism. In 1890 she would state: "When I could not obtain the food I needed, I have sometimes eaten a little meat" but even here "I am becoming more and more afraid of it." 22 And eleven years later (1901) she openly admitted that "I was at times . . . compelled to eat a little meat." 23

As we examine the particular nature of these "times," we discover four conditions under which Mrs. White felt obligated to depart, temporarily, from her practice of vegetarianism.

Exceptions to the rule

1. Travel. Travel in the last half of the nineteenth century was primitive compared to today. There were no motels, convenient restaurants, or fast-food outlets. Two factors made a vegetarian diet extremely difficult to obtain while traveling:

a. Hospitality of church members. When the Whites traveled they were almost totally dependent upon the hospitality of fellow church members in whose homes they stayed. These were poor people whose diet consisted almost entirely of flesh meats. Fruits and vegetables were expensive and available only in season.

b. Isolated areas. There were times when one or both of the Whites traveled in isolated regions (such as the mountains of Colorado), where one had to "live off the land."

Let us peek into the private diary of Ellen White for September and October of 1873. She and James were marooned in an isolated location, waiting for their host, Mr. Walling.

September 22: "Willie started over the range today to either get supplies or get the axletree of the wagon Walling is making. We cannot either move on or return to our home at the Mills [unless] our wagon is repaired. There is very poor feed for the horses. Their grain is being used up. The nights are cold. Our stock of provisions is fast decreasing."

September 25: "Brother Glover went fishing. He caught a few fish. He shot a duck in the morning, but it was lost in the water."

September 26: "Brother Glover went out hunting. The wind was too strong to fish. Brother Glover traveled ten miles but found no game. Willie shot two gray squirrels to make broth for Brother Glover." 24

2. Poverty. Many Seventh-day Adventists in the nineteenth century were too poor to be vegetarians. On Christmas Day, 1878, the Whites were living in Denison, Texas. They invited a destitute SDA family to join them for Christmas breakfast. The menu included "a quarter of venison cooked, and stuffing. It was as tender as chicken. We all enjoyed it very much. There is plenty of venison in the market," Mrs. White subsequently wrote, though probably there was not much else, for she immediately added: "I have not seen in years so much poverty as I have seen since I have come to Texas." 25

Ellen White served as a "missionary" to Australia from 1891 to 1900. A letter written in 1895 to Elder A. O. Tait is revealing not only of the conditions prevailing there locally but also of a broad humanitarian spirit that, like that of Christ, was "touched with the feeling of our infirmities":

"I have been passing through an experience in this country that is similar to the experience I had in new fields in America [in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century]. I have seen families whose circumstances would not permit them to furnish their table with healthful food. Unbelieving neighbors have sent them in portions of meat from animals recently killed. They have made soup of the meat, and supplied their large families of children with meals of bread and soup. It was not my duty, nor did I think it was the duty of anyone else, to lecture them upon the evils of meat eating. I feel sincere pity for families who have newly come to the faith, and who are so pressed with poverty that they know not from whence their next meal is coming." 26

3. Transition with a new cook. From the earliest days of her public ministry, which included a great deal of writing, Mrs. White found it impossible to perform the tasks she normally would have undertaken as homemaker. Thus she had to place the responsibilities of the domestic work upon housekeepers and cooks. Included among her extended family were cooks and kitchen aids.

From the time of her mid-20s at Rochester, New York, when "there were twenty-two who every day gathered round our family board," 27 until her closing Elmshaven years, several dozen persons might be expected to place their feet under Ellen White's table at any given meal. She did not have time to cook all these meals herself.

When her cook left her employ she had to train the new cook to prepare vegetarian dishes. During this transition those at the table had to eat what the new cook was able to prepare.

In 1870, she wrote rather whimsicaliy, "I prize my seamstress, I value my copyist; but my cook, who knows well how to prepare the food to sustain life and nourish brain, bone, and muscle, fills the most important place among helpers in my family." 28

Illuminating is this extract from a letter written by Mrs. White's son W. C. White in 1935:

"Sister White was not a cook, nor was she a food expert in the technical ways which come from study and experimentation. Often she had serious arguments with her cook. She was not always able to keep the cook which she had carefully indoctrinated into the vegetarian ideas.

"Those she employed were always intelligent young people. As they would marry and leave her, she was obliged to get new cooks who were untrained in vegetarian cookery. In those days we had no schools as we have now, where our young ladies could learn the system of vegetarian cookery. Therefore, Mother was obliged with all her other cares and duties to spend considerable effort in persuading her cooks that they could do without meat, or soda, and baking powder and other things condemned in her testimonies. Oftentimes our table showed some compromises between the standard which Sister White was aiming at and the knowledge and experience and standard of the new cook." 29

4. Therapeutic use in medical emergencies. In 1874 Mrs. White made mention of an exception to the vegetarian regimen in her household. She wrote to her son William C. White: "Your father and I have dropped milk, cream, butter, sugar, and meat entirely since we came to California. Your father bought meat once for May [Walling, a grandniece of Ellen's] while she was sick, but not a penny have we expended on meat since." 30

In a Youth's Instructor article in 1894, Mrs. White declared that "a meat diet is not the most wholesome of diets, and yet I would [not] take the position that meat should be discarded by everyone. Those who have feeble digestive organs can often use meat, when they cannot eat vegetables, fruit, or porridge." 31

There was a slight, inadvertent typo graphical error in this particular periodical article (the second "not" in the first sentence was unaccountably omitted), and when Elder A. O. Tait wrote to ask Mrs. White to clarify what she really meant to say in this article, she amplified her position further: "I have never felt that it was my duty to say that no one should taste of meat under any circumstances. To say this when the people have been educated to live on flesh to so great an extent [in Australia, in 1894] would be carrying matters to extremes.

I have never felt that it was my duty to make sweeping assertions. What I have said I have said under a sense of duty, but I have been guarded in my statements, because I did not want to give occasion for anyone to be a conscience for another." 32

The Brighton camp meeting: a transition

At the Brighton camp meeting near Melbourne, January, 1894, Ellen White decided that henceforth no meat would appear in her diet. So, with a rather characteristic flourish, Ellen White "absolutely banished meat" from her table. "It is an understanding that whether I am at home or abroad [from now on], nothing of this kind is to be used in my family, or come upon my table." 33

And Mrs. White went to the unusual expedient of drawing up and signing a "pledge to my heavenly Father," in which she "discarded meat as an article of diet." She continued: "I will not eat flesh myself, or set it before any of my household. I gave orders that the fowls should be sold, and that the money which they brought in should be expended in buying fruit for the table." 34

Two years later Ellen White could report that "not a particle of the flesh of animals is placed on our table. Meat has not been used by us since the Brighton camp meeting. "35

In 1908, just seven years before her death at 87 years of age, Mrs. White declared, "It is many years since I have had meat on my table at home." 36

The question of fish and shellfish

In 1882 Ellen White wrote a letter to her daughter-in-law, Mary Kelsey White (Willie's wife), who then lived in Oakland some eighty miles distant from Healdsburg, and curiously included a "shopping list" of things to bring on their next visit to Mrs. White's home.

Among the items requested: "If you can get me a good box of herrings—fresh ones—please do so. These last ones that Willie got are bitter and old. ... If you can get a few cans of good oysters, get them." 37

In the 1880s the SDA Church still had not decided whether shellfish was permissible under the Levitical code.

W. H. Littlejohn, pastor of the Battle Creek Tabernacle, pamphleteer of some prominence among Adventists, and soon to be elected to a two-year term as president of Battle Creek College, wrote a popular question-and-answer column in the pages of the weekly Review and Herald. In the August 14, 1883, edition he dealt with the question "Are oysters included among the unclean animals of Leviticus 11, and do you think it wrong to eat them?"

Littlejohn's response, while sounding somewhat equivocal to Adventists of today, does illustrate the slowness and tentativeness with which SDAs worked their way through the question of permissible versus impermissible forms of flesh food. 38 Littlejohn replied: "It is difficult to decide with certainty whether oysters would properly come under the prohibition of Leviticus 11:9-12." The columnist then went on to opine, "It would, however, seem from the language, as if they might." 39

As regards the Levitical distinction between "clean" and "unclean," there is evidence that Ellen White drew a distinction between "clean" animal flesh food ("meat") and "clean" fish.

In 1876 Mrs. White wrote her husband who was traveling, "We have not had a particle of meat in the house since you left and long before you left. We have had salmon a few times. It has been rather high." 40

In 1894, when Ellen White went to the expedient of writing out in her own hand and signing that "pledge to my heavenly Father" that she would not henceforth "eat flesh myself, or set it before any of my household," that ban apparently did not include "clean" fish.

In a letter to W. C. White in 1895, she talks about the problems in feeding the workmen then building Avondale College: "We cannot feed them all, but will you please get us dried codfish and dried fish of any description—nothing canned? This will give a relish to the food." 41

By 1905 it appears that Ellen White was as afraid of fish as she was earlier of meat for in writing the chapter "Flesh as Food" for The Ministry of Healing, she stated: "In many places fish become so contaminated by the filth on which they feed as to be a cause of disease. This is especially the case where the fish come in contact with the sewage of large cities. . . . Thus when used as food they bring disease and death on those who do not suspect the danger." 42

Principle and application

A principle is generally defined as "a basic truth or a general law of doctrine that is used as a basis of reasoning or a guide to action or behavior." 43 Principles, therefore, are unchanging, unvarying rules of human conduct. Principles never change. A principle in the days of Jesus is still a principle today; and a principle in the days of Jesus was the same in the days of David, Moses, Abraham, and even Adam.

A policy is the application of a principle to some immediate, contextual situation. And policies may change, as the circumstances that call them forth change.

That vegetarianism was not a principle with Ellen White is clear from this statement: "I have never felt that it was my duty to say that no one should taste meat under any circumstance. To say this . . . would be carrying matters to extremes. I have never felt that it was my duty to make sweeping assertions." 44

This was doubtless one of the main reasons why she refused to allow her church to make vegetarianism a test of fellowship. 45 Indeed, while recognizing that "swine's flesh was prohibited by Jesus Christ enshrouded in the billowy cloud" during the Exodus, Ellen White stated emphatically that even the eating of pork "is not a test question." 46

To our colporteurs in 1889 she counseled: "I advise every Sabbathkeeping canvasser to avoid meat eating, not because it is regarded as sin to eat meat, but because it is not healthful." 47

Vegetarianism, for Ellen White, was a policy based upon at least two principles: (1) "Preserve the best health," 48 and (2) "Eat that food which is most nourishing," 49 doing the very best possible, under every immediate circumstance, to promote life, health, and strength.

In the light of these principles and the historical perspective, consider again the charges of Canright and Bolton.

Canright was undoubtedly a frequent guest in the home of the Whites. And it is altogether possible that he saw pork on their dining table in the earliest years of their friendship, for Ellen did not receive her first vision forbidding meat in general and pork in particular as a suitable article of diet for Seventh-day Adventists until June 6, 1863—four full years after Canright and the Whites first became acquainted. Ellen White grew in both understanding and practice.

What about the Fannie Bolton accusations? When W. C. White learned of the 1914 letter of Fannie Bolton, he secured a copy of it and sent it to Elder Starr for comment. Starr replied: "I can only say that I regard it as the most absurdly, untruthful lot of rubbish that I have ever seen or read regarding our dear Sister White.

"The event simply never occurred. I never saw your mother eat oysters or meat of any kind either in a restaurant or at her own table. Fannie Bolton's statement ... is a lie of the first order. I never had such an experience and it is too absurd for anyone who ever knew your mother to believe. . . .

"I think this entire letter was written by Fannie Bolton in one of her most insane moments." 50 Fannie spent thirteen months as a mental patient in the Kalamazoo State Hospital from 1911 to 1912 and another 31/2 months in the same institution in 1924 and 1925; she died in 1926. 51

The importance of historical perspective

Ellen White needs to be considered against the backdrop of her times, not of our times. And conditions in her day were quite different from today.

Many household conveniences that we take for granted, such as refrigerators and freezers for preserving fruits, vegetables, and other edibles, were largely unknown in her time. In her day fruits and vegetables were available only in season; for much of any year fresh produce simply was not available, and one virtually either ate meat or didn't eat at all.

In terms of the common breakfast we take so much for granted today, it is well to remember that in 1863, oatmeal, for example, was not considered a breakfast staple. It was, rather, seen as a therapeutic remedy for certain illnesses, n be dispensed by pharmacies, and sold by the ounce.

The dry-cereal breakfast foods were not developed and marketed by John Harvey and Will K. Kellogg until the mid-1890s. Peanut butter, another excellent source of protein available to us today, was also not "discovered" by John Harvey Kellogg until the mid- 1890s.

Meat eating was, therefore, more common (and generally more necessary) in Ellen White's time than in ours—at least for those of us who live in places where fruits, vegetables, nuts, and similar edibles are available the year round, either fresh, canned, or frozen.

Yes, Ellen White did eat meat, and unclean meat at that. However, she discarded all swine food after 1863 and began to reduce her use of animal flesh. After 1894 she no longer served meat at her table. She still ate a little meat in exceptional circumstances. Others have claimed more for her than she did herself. The discarding of meat is not a principle, but simply the application of the principle of healthful living.

1 D. M. Canright, Life of Mrs. E. G. White
(Cincinnati: Standard Pub. Co., 1919), p. 289.

2 Letter of Frances E. Bolton to Mrs. E. C.
Slauson, Dec. 30, 1914, in The Fannie Bolton Story:
A Collection of Source Documents (Washington,
B.C.: Ellen O. White Estate, 1982), p. 108.

3 James White, Life Incidents in Connection With
the Great Advent Movement as Illustrated by the
Three Angels of Revelation XIV (Battle Creek,
Mich.: SDA Pub. Assn., 1868), p. 273.

4 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 9, p. 158.

5 ————, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich.:
SDA Pub. Assn., 1864), vol. 4a, pp. 153, 154.

6 ————, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 371.

7 ————, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washing
ton, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946),
p. 487.

8 ————, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p. 153.

9 ————, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 487.

10 Ibid., p. 493.

11 Ibid., pp. 481,482.

12 Ibid., p. 482.

13 Ibid., p. 487.

14 ————, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 371.

15 ————, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p. 154.

16 ————, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 159; cf
Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 482.

17 ———, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 485.

18 ————, Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 371, 372.

19 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p.
153.

20 Ellen G. White letter 5, 1869.

21 Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 371,
372.

22 ————, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 394.

23 Ibid., p. 487.

24 Ellen G. White manuscript 11, 1873.

25 Ellen G. White letter 63, 1878.

26 Ellen G. White letter 76, 1895.

27 Ellen G. White letter 29, 1904.

28 Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 370.

29 Cited by Arthur L. White in a letter to Anna
Frazier, Dec. 18, 1935.

30 Ellen G. White letter 12, 1874.

31 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods,
pp. 394, 395.

32 Ibid., pp. 462, 463.

33 Ibid., p. 488.

34 Ellen G. White letter 76, 1895.

35 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods,
pp. 488, 489.

36 Ibid., p. 492.

37 Ellen G. White letter 16, 1882.

38 For an excellent in-depth study of this aspect,
cf. Ron Graybill's monograph "The Development
of Adventist Thinking on Clean and Unclean
Meats" (Washington, D.C.: White Estate, 1981).

39 W. H. Littlejohn, in Review and Herald, Aug.
14, 1883.

40 Ellen G. White letter 13, 1876.

41 Ellen G. White letter 149, 1895.

42 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1905), pp. 314, 315.

43 Oxford American Dictionary (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 530.

44 Ellen G. White letter 76, 1895.

45 Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 159.

46 Ellen G. White manuscript 15, 1889. For a
further declaration against making either the
raising of swine or the eating of pork "in any sense a
test of Christian fellowship," cf. Ellen G. White
Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and
Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), book. 2, p. 338.

47 Ellen G. White manuscript 15, 1889.

48 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p.
395.

49 ————, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 163.

50 Letter of George B. Starr to W. C. White,
Aus. 30, 1933, in The Fannie Bolton Story, p. 118.

51 Ibid., p. 122; Review and Herald, Aug. 5,
1926.

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Roger Coon, PH. D., is an associate secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate and adjunct professor of prophetic guidance at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.

April 1986

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