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The Desire of Ages project: the data

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Archives / 1990 / October

 

 

The Desire of Ages project: the data

Fred Veltman

Fred Veltman, Ph.D., was the chairman of the Religion Department of Pacific Union College, Angwin, California. He continues to teach halftime in that department while chairing a different, newly-formed department.

 

The fact that Ellen White used literary sources in the production of her writings has been known for more than a century. But in January 1980, Walter Rea, then an Adventist pastor in southern California, presented evidence that Ellen White's literary dependency was greater than had been recognized previously. The nature and scope of her literary borrowing, however, particularly for any given book other than The Great Controversy, was still a matter of speculation. How much verbatim material was there in her writings, especially her narrative, descriptive, and theological commentaries on Scripture? To what degree was she dependent upon literary sources? Do her comments reflect the influence of other writers? From what writers did she borrow and from what kind of books? Did Ellen White do the copying herself, or was it done by her literary assistants? Could she have unconsciously used the literary expressions of other authors—did she have a "photographic" memory?

These and similar issues had to be ad dressed before one could treat the charge of plagiarism leveled against Ellen White, and the questions being raised over the nature of her inspiration.

The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists sponsored an in-depth investigation into Ellen White's use of literary sources in writing The Desire of Ages. The research, which spread over a period of almost eight years and involved the equivalent of five years of full-time work, was completed about two years ago. Adventist colleges and universities throughout the world received copies of the full report on this in-depth study. All of the Ellen G. White Estate research centers also carry a copy of the final document.1

Space requirements dictate that my comments focus on the conclusions of the investigation. But for the benefit of those readers who may not be acquainted with the study, I will briefly touch on its textual base and methodology. And for those who may be interested in my own reaction to the results of the research, a personal postscript accompanies the concluding article of this series. 2 I make no attempt here to document or argue the evidence supporting the conclusions.

The Ellen White textual base

The Desire of Ages includes both narrative and theological commentary. Nearly every chapter is based upon a portion of Scripture. If Adventists were concerned about Ellen White's use of sources, this book, perhaps the best-loved of all her writings, was the obvious text to study.

Ellen White's motivation to write The Desire of Ages stemmed from her desire to prepare a more complete and accurate portrayal of the life of Christ than was contained in The Spirit of Prophecy, volumes 2 and 3, a new book that Adventist colporteurs could sell to the public. For nearly 40 years she wrote on this subject, finally having The Desire of Ages published in 1898. She became so caught up in the subject that she produced enough material to fill two additional books, Christ's Object Lessons and Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing. Much of what she wrote for The Desire of Ages first saw publication as articles in various Adventist journals.

Initially we researchers were assigned to study the entire text of The Desire of Ages all of its 87 chapters and more than 800 pages. We soon found we had neither the time nor the staff to tackle a project of such scope. To reduce the textual base to manageable size, we asked statisticians to select 15 chapters that would serve as a random sample of the full text.3

Ellen White did not write The Desire of Ages chapter by chapter from scratch. Rather, for the most part it was compiled from her earlier writings. So the pre-1898 unpublished manuscripts and the articles published prior to that year afforded a textual base more representative of her own handiwork. Using the subject matter of the 15 chapters as our control, we searched all the earlier writings of Ellen White to locate the letters, manuscripts, and articles in which she had written on these same subjects. To distinguish these texts from the text of The Desire of Ages (DA), we have designated them pre-DA.

Methodology

We were commissioned to study Ellen White's use of literary sources. For an investigation of this type, the obvious research method is source analysis, or what is commonly called source criticism. In this kind of study, the researchers select literary subunits to serve as the basis for comparing the major text and the possible source texts. They establish criteria to permit them to find the literary units that are parallel and to determine the degree to which the two units resemble each other.

We selected the sentence as the unit of comparison. The 15 chapters of the DA text contained 2,624 sentences, and the pre-DA text furnished 1,180 sentence units.4

We also established a scale of seven levels of dependency. The criteria differentiating between these levels of dependency were the amount of verbatim words and the order of the elements in the sentences. For instance, if a sentence from an Ellen White text was in every respect identical to one in a source text, we labeled it "strict verbatim" and gave it a dependency value of seven. In cases where the sentences were identical except that an obvious synonym had been substituted for a word, we identified the sentence as "verbatim" and gave it a value of six indicating that it had a lesser degree of dependency than "strict verbatim" with its value of seven.

When the Ellen White text and the source were identical because both writers were depending directly on Scripture, we labeled the sentence "Bible quotation" and gave it a dependency rating of zero. When there was no clear indication of literary dependency, we called the sentence "independent" and gave it a dependency value of zero even when the content of her DA text was very similar to that of a source text.5

Literary dependency is not limited to parallel sentence structure and verbal similarities. Authors may also consult sources for the arrangement of the sentences and the thematic development of a chapter. So our analysis of the DA text included a study of possible editorial or redactional dependency.

In our investigation we examined more than 500 works, mostly nineteenth-century works on the life of Christ. Of course, Ellen White was not limited to this type of literature when she wrote on the life of Christ. She also had access to sermons, devotional books, Bible society tracts, Bible commentaries, and general Christian literature, and could have borrowed materials from any of these sources. In view of the fact that we did not review all the life-of-Christ materials available to Ellen White, much less the literature from other genres she is known to have read, there is no way this probe could be called complete or exhaustive. So the reader must consider the summations and conclusions that follow as minimal if not tentative findings, even though we made every possible effort to conduct a thorough and careful study.

Summations

From the outset of the study and throughout its long course I constantly faced questions relating to the conclusions. What do you think you will discover? Will you be able to report the results of your study without having your ministerial credentials revoked? Will the church publicize your findings ? Have you changed your views on Ellen White? Do you still believe that she was inspired? Did her secretaries do the copying? Did you find any disagreement between her writings and Scripture? Do you think a believer has any right to look for sources behind inspired writings? Do you think the writers she used were inspired?

While these inquiries were appropriate and appreciated, they were not the issues troubling me. I had other concerns. How could we approach the analysis of the textual data fairly and consistently? How accurate would our conclusions be when based upon a random sample consisting of 15 chapters of varying length, content, and source dependency? Could our conclusions serve as valid generalizations about the entire text of The Desire of Ages and Ellen White's method of writing her books, particularly her commentaries on the great controversy between good and evil as covered in Scripture?6

My solution was to study each chapter in terms of its own special nature. I hoped that I would be able to let the data deter mine the questions to be asked, and I endeavored to be open to any new in sights, even new perplexities, that might emerge from the analysis. In the end I developed a list of 14 questions that I asked in regard to each chapter. I hoped that these questions would help to keep my analysis focused and consistent despite variations in the text and possible changes in my outlook as the study progressed.

In what follows, I present the 14 questions and the corresponding summary statements derived from our analysis of the 15 chapters. The statements, of course, present in abbreviated form what is more fully layed out in chapter XVIII of the report. The questions and answers offer further clarification on the nature and scope of the study and largely form the evidence supporting the five general concluding statements that I give in the second article.

1. Do we have any original (hand written) manuscripts of Ellen White on the DA text?

No chapters have been located in either handwritten or copy form. Several sentences from three chapters have been found in Ellen White's diaries, and significant portions of three additional chapters were developed from manuscripts dating from 1897. Handwritten and copied texts exist for portions of the pre-DA text, treating the content of 10 of the 15 chapters.

2. Does the DA text represent an increase or a reduction in the coverage of topics Ellen White treated in her earlier works? And if she enlarged her coverage, is the expansion to be ac counted for by a greater dependency on sources?

No consistent answer emerges. Some topics receive more attention, and others less. Where the commentary has been extended, we also find more independent material. The DA text generally represents a lesser degree of dependency than does the pre-DA text, and the longer chapters of DA show no greater use of sources than do the shorter ones.

3. How does the content of the DA text compare in general with the con tent of Ellen White's earlier writings on the life of Christ? Can we detect any influence of the sources on the content?

Doing source analysis involves giving some consideration to content, but finding a definitive answer to this question would require a separate study. Generally speaking, there is strong agreement be tween the later and earlier writings except where the earlier text needed revision. No doubt much of the agreement results from the use of the same sources for both the earlier and later writings. The DA text manifests a stronger spiritual appeal, no doubt because of the evangelistic purpose that motivated and guided its production.

4. Are there any significant differences between the DA text and the pre-DA text?

Differences appear in the order of events in the life of Christ, in how the two texts harmonize the Scripture ac counts, and in DA's exclusion of some extrabiblical stories contained in the pre- DA text. No doubt the sources influenced to some degree the chronology of Ellen White's narrative account and the thematic arrangement of some of her chapters in the DA text. It is not always possible to tell when the revision is the result of the source's influence or of a closer reading of the biblical account.

5. How much of the DA text reveals literary dependency?

6. What is the extent of Ellen White's literary independence in writing DA?

7. What is the degree of dependence of the DA text?

Questions 5, 6, and 7 address the basic issue of literary dependency. Of the 15 chapters' 2,624 sentence units, we found 823 (31 percent) to be in some degree clearly dependent upon material appearing in our 500-plus literary sources. We found that 1,612 sentence units (61 per cent) showed no verbal similarity to any of the sources we investigated. The aver age dependency of the 823 dependent sentences rated just a little higher than the level of "loose paraphrase" (3.3).

8. What major works were used by Ellen White in writing the DA text? 7

We found 10 books from which Ellen White drew 10 or more literary parallels per I chapter. The Life of Christ, by William Hanna, heads the list with 321 source parallels. Night Scenes of the Bible and Walks and Homes of Jesus, both by Daniel March, come in second with 129 parallel sentences. 8

Ellen White drew from Hanna's work for nearly every one of the 15 chapters. But she tended not to use the other sources in such a general way, tending rather to draw mostly from a single source for each chapter that we found to be dependent. Which other source she used varied from chapter to chapter.

9. What additional sources contributed to the DA text?

In addition to the major sources, we found that 21 works written by 20 authors had a minor impact on the 15 chapters. Two authors had works in both the major influence and minor influence categories.

10. What literary sources were used in the composition of the pre-DA writings?

Marian Davis compiled Ellen White's earlier writings on Christ's life into scrapbook form. It was from this collection that the DA text was developed. As a result of this method of book production, many source parallels appearing in the DA text make their first appearance in these earlier writings. Exceptions to this expected duplication in literary parallels occur when the earlier text is not included in the DA text or when DA treats content not found in the earlier materials.

Our study revealed that the works of Hanna and March figure heavily in the earlier texts that were taken over into DA. In the Ellen White manuscripts on Christ's life that were not used in forming the DA text, there are literary parallels from the works of Frederic Farrar, John Harris, Henry Melvill, Octavius Winslow, and others.9

11. How does the DA text compare with the pre-DA text in the use of literary sources?

When we first formulated this question, we had planned to evaluate every sentence of the earlier writings, but time and staff limitations prevented such a thorough study. We did examine this earlier material for its use of sources and found that in most cases it showed either the same level or greater levels of literary dependency than did the DA text. Out of the 1,180 sentence units reviewed, we noted 879 dependent sentences. We found 6 strict verbatim sentences, 80 verbatim, 232 strict paraphrase, and 232 simple paraphrase. The average rate of dependency of the pre-DA dependent sentences was 3.57, compared with DA's rate of 3.3.

As we carefully studied the nature and degree of literary dependency of these early materials, which included Ellen White's personal journals, it became very clear to us that it was Ellen White herself who was copying from the sources. We need not look to the work of her secretaries to account for the source parallels found in her writings.

12. How does the content of the dependent sentences compare with that of the independent?

We found no significant differences in content. Both types of sentences include descriptive, devotional, spiritual, and theological commentary and moral exhortation. Both types contain details such as one might expect in an eyewitness account or as having come from a vision. The differences we noted involve the way reality is affirmed and the number of sentences or degree of emphasis given to a particular topic. Ellen White's independent materials often extend the descriptive, spiritual, theological, or devotional commentary. And where the source is suggestive and indefinite as to what took place in the life and ministry of Christ, Ellen White is positive and definite.

13. Do the literary or thematic structures of the chapters of the DA text reflect the structural composition of the sources, apart from the common influence of the Bible?

Even though most DA chapters reflect the dominant use of one source, most of them contain parallels from more than one source. So the final compositions exhibit their own overall structures rather than those of any given source. 10 Several chapter sections appear to reflect specific Ellen White manuscripts.

Ellen White's earlier manuscripts do not reflect multiple sources to the extent the DA chapters do. Evidently in writing them she used one source at a time as she worked on a given topic or aspect in Christ's life. When writing on the same topic on another occasion, she generally used a different source. The fact that DA chapters contain literary parallels from multiple sources more likely represents Marian Davis's conflation of several separate Ellen White manuscripts or journal entries than it does Ellen White sitting down with several sources to compose a chapter.

14. Are the pre-DA writings dependent on sources for their thematic arrangement?

In most instances her diary entries float freely from topic to topic, not offering extensive comment on any given subject. But where her pre-DA writings treat a topic, they usually follow the thematic development of the source. Particularly is this the case with her later manuscripts. However, we would remind the reader of the differences discussed under question 12. Though the basic structure of Ellen White's material usually depends upon the source, her emphasis often differs.

Hopefully this brief review of the 14 questions and their answers provides both a useful context and some justification for the few broad conclusions that follow in the second article (in the December issue of Ministry). These concluding statements may well apply to the entire text of The Desire of Ages, and perhaps to a number of Ellen White's other writings, as well. If not, they are at least—in my judgment—appropriate for the 15 chapters upon which this investigation focused.

for The Desire of Ages first saw publication as articles in various Adventist journals.

 

Initially we researchers were assigned to study the entire text of The Desire of Ages all of its 87 chapters and more than 800 pages. We soon found we had neither the time nor the staff to tackle a project of such scope. To reduce the textual base to manageable size, we asked statisticians to select 15 chapters that would serve as a random sample of the full text. 3 Ellen White did not write The Desire of Ages chapter by chapter from scratch.

Rather, for the most part it was compiled from her earlier writings. So the pre- 1898 unpublished manuscripts and the articles published prior to that year af forded a textual base more representative of her own handiwork. Using the subject matter of the 15 chapters as our control, we searched all the earlier writings of Ellen White to locate the letters, manu scripts, and articles in which she had written on these same subjects. To dis tinguish these texts from the text of The Desire of Ages (DA), we have designated them pre-DA.

Methodology We were commissioned to study Ellen White's use of literary sources. For an investigation of this type, the obvious research method is source analysis, or what is commonly called source criti cism. In this kind of study, the research ers select literary subunits to serve as the basis for comparing the major text and the possible source texts. They establish criteria to permit them to find the literary units that are parallel and to determine the degree to which the two units resem ble each other.

We selected the sentence as the unit of comparison. The 15 chapters of the DA text contained 2,624 sentences, and the pre-DA text furnished 1,180 sentence units. 4 We also established a scale of seven levels of dependency. The criteria differ entiating between these levels of depen dency were the amount of verbatim words and the order of the elements in the sentences. For instance, if a sentence from an Ellen White text was in every respect identical to one in a source text, we labeled it "strict verbatim" and gave it a dependency value of seven. In cases where the sentences were identical ex cept that an obvious synonym had been substituted for a word, we identified the sentence as "verbatim" and gave it a value of six indicating that it had a lesser degree of dependency than "strict verbatim" with its value of seven.

When the Ellen White text and the source were identical because both writ ers were depending directly on Scripture, we labeled the sentence "Bible quota tion" and gave it a dependency rating of zero. When there was no clear indication of literary dependency, we called the sentence "independent" and gave it a de pendency value of zero even when the content of her DA text was very similar to that of a source text. 5 Literary dependency is not limited to parallel sentence structure and verbal similarities. Authors may also consult sources for the arrangement of the sen tences and the thematic development of a chapter. So our analysis of the DA text included a study of possible editorial or redactional dependency.

In our investigation we examined more than 500 works, mostly nineteenth-century works on the life of Christ. Of course, Ellen White was not limited to this type of literature when she wrote on the life of Christ. She also had access to sermons, devotional books, Bi ble society tracts, Bible commentaries, and general Christian literature, and could have borrowed materials from any of these sources. In view of the fact that we did not review all the life-of-Christ materials available to Ellen White, much less the literature from other genres she is known to have read, there is no way this probe could be called complete or ex haustive. So the reader must consider the summations and conclusions that follow as minimal if not tentative findings, even though we made every possible effort to conduct a thorough and careful study.

Summations From the outset of the study and throughout its long course I constantly faced questions relating to the conclu sions. What do you think you will dis cover? Will you be able to report the results of your study without having your ministerial credentials revoked? Will the church publicize your findings ? Have you changed your views on Ellen White? Do you still believe that she was inspired? Did her secretaries do the copying? Did you find any disagreement between her writings and Scripture? Do you think a believer has any right to look for sources behind inspired writings? Do you think the writers she used were inspired?

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1. Two Adventist journals have carried reviews of the report (Adventist Review, Sept. 22, 1988; and South Pacific Record, Apr. 15, 1989), but to my knowledge, nowhere have the full conclusions been published. For a while copies of the entire report and of the 100-page-long Chapter XVIII, "Summary and Conclusions," were available for purchase from the office of the president of the General Conference. The report is no longer in stock, but one may still purchase a copy of the summary chapter for US$3.50. Address your inquiry to Dr. Charles Taylor at the General Conference, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904-6600.

2. Because I was the project director, I am solely responsible for all the evaluations, the interpretation of the data, and the writing of the report. But I could not have carried out the project without the help of many others, most of whom are mentioned in the preface to the report.

3. The random sample comprised the following chapters: 3, 10, 13, 14, 24, 37, 39, 46, 53, 56, 72, 75, 76, 83, and 84.

4. In a few instances compound sentences were divided into two independent clauses and evaluated accordingly.

5. The other levels of dependency were rated as follows: strict paraphrase, 5; simple paraphrase, 4; loose paraphrase, 3; source Bible, 2 (when the Scripture usage reflected the literary source); and partial independence, 1.

6. I have in mind here such works as Patriarchs and Prophets, Prophets and Kings, and The Arts of the Apostles.

7. We arbitrarily chose to classify any source supplying 10 or more literary parallels for any one DA chapter as a "major" literary source.

8. The other major sources are: John Harris, The Great Teacher; Frederic Farrar, The Life of Christ; George Jones, Life-Scenes From the Four Gospels; Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; J. H. Ingraham, The Prince of the House of David; Francis Wayland, Salvation by Christ; and John Gumming, Sabbath Evening Readings on the New Testament: St. John.

9. Frederic Farrar, The Life of Christ; John Harris, The Great Teacher; Henry Melvill, "Jacob's Vision and Vow"; and Octavius Winslow, The Glory of the Redeemer.

10. In combining the two Nazareth visits into one chapter, DA chapter 24 seems to reflect the structure of March. Some evidence exists for arguing that chapters 46 and 76 also depend upon their sources for significant aspects of their literary arrangement.

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