One of the questions put to Fred Veltman in connection with his Life of Christ research project was "How do you harmonize Ellen White's use of sources with her statements to the contrary?" Veltman's response, published in the December 1990 Ministry, was "As of now I do not have—nor, to my knowledge, does anyone else have—a satisfactory answer to this important question."
In this article we will examine every currently known denial of the use of sources made by Ellen White herself, or by her husband or her son as they described her work. There are 10 such denials, or non-admissions, that need to be considered. In my opinion, most of these present no problem when seen in context. I do agree with Dr. Veltman, how ever, that in a few cases we cannot give answers that will satisfy everyone.
Denials 1 and 2
Ellen White's first health writings, published in 1864 and 1865, bore similarities to the works of earlier authors.
For example, in 1857 John C. Gunn declared that tobacco was "a poison of a most deceitful and malignant kind, that sends its exciting and paralyzing influence into every nerve of the body."1
Compare those lines with what Ellen White wrote seven years later: "Tobacco is a poison of the most deceitful and malignant kind, having an exciting, then a paralyzing influence upon the nerves of the body."2
Several years later still Ellen White was asked how much she knew of other health writings before she produced her own. She responded with an article in the October 8, 1867, Review and Herald, and a separate manuscript that gave additional details. 3 In these documents Ellen White stated: "I did not read any works upon health until I had written Spiritual Gifts, volumes 3 and 4, Appeal to Mothers, and had sketched out most of my six articles in the six numbers of How to Live. 4 "My views were written independent of books or of the opinions of others."5
How do we explain the parallels be tween Ellen White's health writings and those of earlier authors in light of her declaration that she was not familiar with other health works at the time she composed hers? Possible answers include the following:
1. Her expressions resembled the words and phrases of other health re formers purely through coincidence.
2. Before Ellen White wrote out her views, conversations she had with various persons who were familiar with the subject of health reform acquainted her with the expressions and even the ideas of other health reformers.
3. Ellen White did not do any reading in health reform literature until her earliest health writings were completed. Her husband, however, did extensive reading on the subject, and, in his role as her editor, helped clothe her ideas with the correct medical phraseology.
4. Ellen White had indeed read the health works of others in 1864 but had forgotten this fact by the time she made her 1867 statement.
5. Ellen White read the works of others after she had written her own. She then edited her works, incorporating occasional words or phrases from other health writers.
6. Ellen White had read the health works of others, but consciously denied that she had done so.
In my opinion, answer 2 may well be the right one. In the same article in which she denied having read other health works before writing out her own views, she asserted that she had discussed health topics extensively with anyone who would listen. She stated that, fol lowing her 1863 vision, "the matter was upon my mind continually. I talked it to all with whom I had opportunity to converse. "6 As Ellen White discussed health topics with those who were knowledgeable on them, she would naturally have become acquainted with the vocabulary and expressions used by the health re formers of her day.
There are those who will argue for option 5. Others will suggest that number 6 is the right one—that Ellen White was less than candid in her denials. How ever, knowing Ellen White as I do, after having been closely associated with her through her writings for many years, I would find it very difficult to believe that she would knowingly misrepresent any facts or situations. Ellen White was a to tally truthful person. But even if it should be proved that she deliberately misstated this matter, I would still believe that she was God's special messenger. Twice Abraham was less than truthful, yet he remained God's spokesperson to that generation (Gen. 20:7). David feigned madness for fear of Achish (1 Sam. 21:13) and was guilty of duplicity in engineering the death of Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11), yet the Christian world recognizes his psalms as heaven-inspired.
In one of her health reform articles Ellen White had written that the reform dress should "clear the filth of the streets an inch or two" and "should reach some what below the top of the boot" to "about nine inches from the floor."7 When one of her readers thought he saw a contra diction in these expressions and asked her about it, Ellen White explained how inspiration worked in her case. She said that in a vision she saw three companies of women, each company distinguished from the others by the varying hemlines of the dresses they wore. Then she went on: "And here I would state that although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation. As I wrote upon the subject of dress, the view of those three companies revived in my mind as plain as when I was viewing them in vision; but I was left to describe the length of the proper dress in my own language as best I could."8
When she said, "The words... are my own," Ellen White was not denying that, in writing out her views, she might at times borrow the language of others; she was simply saying that she herself chose the words that she felt best conveyed the ideas or views she was endeavoring to impart. She was saying, in effect, "The exact wording of my testimonies is not given to me by God. Sometimes I am given pictures without any words at all. When describing what I have seen, I have to choose the words and expressions myself. The words are mine, not God's."
On March 28, 1882, Ellen White sent a very pointed letter to the church at Battle Creek, Michigan.9 Some of the members there, resenting her strictures, accused her of basing her reproofs on unfounded gossip. Ellen White responded with another letter in which she asserted that what she had written three months earlier was not just human opinion. She declared: "You might say that this communication was only a letter. Yes, it was a letter, but prompted by the Spirit of God, to bring before your minds things that had been shown me. In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision the precious rays of light shining from the throne." 10
Ellen White was not, in this statement, ruling out the idea that some of her testimonies might contain passages gleaned from her reading. Rather, she was affirming her deep conviction that her messages of reproof bore the signet of Heaven. Just a little farther on in the letter she said, "I was told to gather up the light that had been given me and let its rays shine forth to God's people."
This light was found, not only in her own letters and manuscripts, but in the writings of others as well. As a matter of fact, nearly one third of the material in this very letter was drawn from the works of Friederick Krummacher, Daniel March, and John Harris. W. C. White explained later: "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." 12
On February 18, 1887, Ellen White wrote a letter to A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner about the theological discussions regarding the law in Galatians in which church leaders were then engaged. In that letter she made this comment: "I have not been in the habit of reading any doctrinal articles in the pa per, 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."13
I do not take this as a general statement intended to describe all of her reading and writing habits. Two months later she wrote G.I. Butler, one of the other parties in the dispute, that she had just read a doctrinal statement of his and was "pained" by it. 14
One of Ellen White's denials came in a June 25, 1897, letter that she wrote to Fannie Bolton, who worked for her periodically during a 10-year time span that ended that year. Ellen White wrote: "Your words regarding me and my writings are false, and I must say that you know them to be false. . . .
"McCullagh stated in a large congregation that it was reported by one who knew that I picked up things written in books, and sent them out as something the Lord had shown me." 15
This denial should be read in the light of a letter Ellen White sent Fannie six weeks earlier, in which she spoke of hearing from others McCullagh's report of Fannie's claim "that I have very little to do in getting out the books purported to come from my pen, that I had picked out all I had written from other books, and that those who prepared my articles, yourself in particular, made that matter that was published. " 16
Here Ellen White denied that her writings were made up entirely of excerpts from other authors. Anyone who is well acquainted with her published and unpublished writings would have to agree with her. We know of perhaps a half dozen cases where Ellen White used a passage from a human author to help her describe what she had heard or seen in vision, but this is far different from what Fannie Bolton accused her of doing.
Two years before Ellen White dealt with the accusations noted under Denial 4 above, James White, her husband, had also met them. Concerning her personal testimonies, he offered this challenge to her detractors: "Where is the person of superior natural and acquired abilities who could listen to the description of one, two, or three thousand cases, all differing, and then write them out with out getting them confused, laying the whole work liable to a thousand contradictions?"
Elder White then added, "If Mrs. W. has gathered the facts from a human mind in a single case, she has in thou sands of cases, and God has not shown her these things which she has written in these personal testimonies." 17
James White was emphasizing the point that his wife's testimonies were not based on gossip but on what the Lord had revealed to her. Yet, it must be acknowledged that in writing out her personal testimonies, Ellen White did at times include "gems" gleaned from her reading. Regarding his wife's books, James White declared: "In her published works there are many things set forth which cannot be found in other books, and yet they are so clear and beautiful that the unprejudiced mind grasps them at once as truth. . . .
"If commentators and theological writers generally had seen these gems of thought which strike the mind so forcibly, and had they been brought out in print, all the ministers in the land could have read them. These men gather thoughts from books, and as Mrs. W. has written and spoken a hundred things, as truthful as they are beautiful and harmonious, which cannot be found in the writings of others, they are new to the most intelligent readers and hearers." 18
James White's language should be noted carefully. He did not say that everything that came from his wife's pen was original. He asserted that "many things—" even "a hundred things"—she had written could not be found in other books. This claim is no doubt true.
On January 8, 1928, W. C. White wrote the following to L. E. Froom: "In many of her manuscripts as they come from her hand quotation marks are used. In other cases they were not used; and her habit of using parts of sentences found in the writings of others and filling in a part of her own composition was not based upon any definite plan, nor was it questioned by her copyists and copy writers until about 1885 and onward.
"When critics pointed out this feature of her work as a reason for questioning the gift which had enabled her to write, she paid little attention to it. Later on, when complaint was made that this was an injustice to other publishers and writers, she made a decided change a change which you are familiar with." 19
W. C. White may here be referring to the 1911 edition of The Great Controversy. Quotation marks and credit lines had been used only to a limited extent in the 1888 edition of the book. When the printing plates wore out and type was being reset in 1910, W. C. White wrote the General Conference president: "When I presented to Mother questions as to what we should do regarding the quotations from historians and the references to these historians, she was prompt and clear in her opinion that we ought to give proper credit wherever we can. "20
In evaluating W. C. White's comment that his mother, in earlier years, had "paid little attention" to this criticism, we should remember that she was not schooled in the technicalities of publication, and normally left these matters in the hands of others.
In June 1907, A. G. Daniells defended Ellen White's literary practices before a group of her critics in Battle Creek. He then wrote W. C. White, outlined the arguments he had used, and added: "I presume in thinking the matter over you have additional thoughts, and I would be very glad to have you give them to me. In fact, I think that you and Sister White should make a clean, clear-cut statement with reference to this question of plagiarism. Give the exact reasons why there was a failure to give proper credit to the authors quoted. I presume we all must admit that it would have been better to have given quotation marks or some other kind of credit than to have put the matter out as it was."21
Several months later, in a "Memorandum of Plans Agreed Upon in Dealing With the 'Blue Book,' " church leaders made essentially the same request. They decided that "W. C. White shall prepare quite a full and frank statement of the plans followed in preparing manuscripts for publication in book form, including (if Sister White gives her consent) a statement of the instruction which Sister White received in early days as to her use of the productions of other writers."22
This statement was never produced. Ellen White was at this time in her eightieth year and was concentrating on the preparation of books she felt were still needed by our people: Testimonies for the Church, Volume 9; The Acts of the Apostles; Counsels to Teachers; Gospel Workers; Life Sketches; and Prophets and Kings.
Following the 1919 Bible Conference, at which Ellen White's use of historical sources was thoroughly aired, E. E. Andross decided to bring the subject more fully to the attention of our church members generally. In preparing for his 1920 camp meeting appointments, he wrote W. C. White, asking for more information. In response White wrote, in part: "In the early days of her work, Mother was promised wisdom, in the selection from the writings of others, that would enable her to select the gems of truth from the rubbish of error. We have all seen this fulfilled, and yet when she told me of this, she admonished me not to tell it to others. Why thus restricted I never knew, but now am inclined to believe that she saw how this might lead some of her brethren to claim too much for her writings as a standard with which to correct historians."23
W. C. White's explanation of his mother's non-admission is helpful, but Fred Veltman's suggestion is, in my opinion, even better. Dr. Veltman notes Ellen White's deep concern that her writings should not be edited by Fannie Bolton and Marian Davis to the point where they would be considered ordinary human productions. Veltman then states: "It seems clear to me that Ellen White was worried over the danger of emptying the messages of their power through her dependence upon the writing abilities of others. . . .
"In my judgment it is basically this same burden of Ellen White's over the reception of her writings as messages from the Lord that led her not to fully disclose her dependency on literary sources." 24
When reflecting on the denials and non-admissions cited above, we should at the same time remind ourselves of these facts:
1. Ellen White borrowed materials from books that she herself urged Adventists to buy and read.
2. In her introduction to The Great Controversy, Ellen White acknowledged her use of historical and theological materials written by others.
3. The book Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, published in 1890, contained a tribute to Ellen White that John Harvey Kellogg wrote. In this tribute he recognized that she had used the health writings of others. Kellogg testified: "It must be admitted to be some thing extraordinary, that a person making no claims to scientific knowledge or erudition should have been able to organize, from the confused and error-tainted mass of ideas advanced by a few writers and thinkers on health subjects, a body of hygienic principles so harmonious, so consistent, and so genuine that the discussions, the researches, the discoveries, and the experience of a quarter of a century have not resulted in the overthrow of a single principle, but have only served to establish the doctrines taught." 25
4. Ellen White's literary borrowing was openly discussed at the General Conference session held at South Lancaster, Massachusetts, in 1899. Summing up, A. T. Jones explained: "There are statements that are true which God has led man to write. The Spirit of prophecy picks out of surroundings that are not all true these gems of perfect truth, and sets them in the setting that is all true, so that they can shine in their own true luster." 26
It is apparent that Ellen White's literary practices were well known by our church members during her lifetime. Yet it is equally clear that she did not encourage discussion of the subject. Why?
In my opinion, she did not want her readers to be distracted from her message because of concentrating on her method. Undue attention to how she wrote might raise unnecessary doubts in some minds as to the authority of what she wrote.
If this is the correct explanation, there just might be a lesson here for us today. It certainly is proper for us to understand as much as we can about the work of a prophet. But let us not allow questions about methodology and inspiration to pull our focus away from the inspired communications God has sent us.
1 Gunn's New Domestic Physician (Cincinnati:
Moore, Wilstach, Keys, and Co., 1857), pp. 363,
2 Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a, p. 128.
3 Both of these explanations are currently published
lished in Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 276, 277,
4 Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867.
5 Manuscript 7, 1867.
6 Selected Messages, book 3, p. 281.
7 Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 458, 462, 521.
8 Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867; reprinted in
Selected Messages, book 3, pp. 277-279.
9 Testimonies, vol. 5, pp. 45-62.
10 Ibid., p. 67.
11 Ibid., p. 68.
12 Ellen G. White Estate, Brief Statements
Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White (St. Helena,
Calif.: White Estate, 1933; reprinted., Washing
ton, D.C.: White Estate, 1981), p. 6.
13 Ellen G. White Estate, Ellen G. White 1888
Materials (Washington, D.C.: White Estate,
1987), vol. l,p. 21.
14 Ibid., p. 32.
15 Ellen G. White Estate, The Fannie Bolton
Story: A Collection of Source Documents (Washing
ton, D.C.: White Estate, 1990), p. 77.
16 Ibid., p. 74. (Italics supplied.)
17 Life Sketches of James and Ellen White (Battle
Creek, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn.,
1880), p. 328.
18 Ibid., pp. 328, 329.
19 Selected Messages, book3, pp. 460, 461.
20 W. C. White to A. G. Daniells, June 20, 1910
(see White Estate Document File 83b).
21 A. G. Daniells to W. C. White, June 24, 1907
(see White Estate Document File 389).
22 White Estate Document File 213.
23 W. C. White to E. E. Andross, June 18, 1920.
24 Fred Veltman, Full Report of the Life of Christ
Research Project (Washington, D.C.: 1988 [photo
stat]), introduction, pp. 172, 173.
25 Ellen G. White and James White, Christian
Temperance and Bible Hygiene (Battle Creek,
Mich.: Good Health Pub. Co., 1890), p. iv.
26 General Conference Bulletin, 1899, p. 112.