Was Ellen White a plagiarist?

The final installment of a series that addresses issues of revelation, inspiration, and plagiarism.

Kevin L. Morgan pastors the Warrensville and Wilkesboro Seventh-day Adventist Churches in North Carolina, United States.

It has been 25 years since the Los Angeles Times published a story under the headline, “Plagiarism Found in Prophet Books,” and since Walter Rea published The White Lie.It’s been nearly 20 years since Dr. Fred Veltman published the report for the Life of Christ Research Project. Since that time, Dr. Veltman’s research has been largely forgotten or re-interpreted by cyberspace critics to support Walter Rea’s allegation that Ellen White plagiarized as much as 90 percent of the wording of The Desire of Ages.

After eight years of study, Dr. Veltman calculated that only 31 percent of the sentences in The Desire of Ages contained any “verbal similarity” to other works and that the average level of literary dependency of these was slightly above “loose paraphrase.”1His considered opinion was that Ellen White had not plagiarized. He wrote the following: “A writer can only be legitimately charged with plagiarism when that writer’s literary methods contravene the established practices of the general community of writers producing works of the same literary genre within a comparable cultural context. In the process of doing our research we found that Ellen White’s sources had previously used each other in the same way that she later used them. At times the parallels between the sources were so strong that we had difficulty deciding which one Ellen White was using.”2

If it was so difficult to decide which source she was using, could there not have been another mechanism for the verbal similarity besides Ellen White’s intentional lifting of a word here and there from over 30 different works? And what wasthe general practice of the community of writers at the time Ellen White composed her book? While co-writing a book on this very issue with Dr. Veltman’s research assistant, Marcella Anderson, I encountered research that has helped answer these questions.3

Starting with the listings in Rea’s book and then those delineated in the Veltman report, researcher David J. Conklin embarked on a systematic analysis of all the instances of alleged copying in The Desire of Ages. He quickly discovered that Rea had employed various techniques to support his conclusions. Rea included common biblical passages as part of the “copied” material, clipped material from the beginnings, middles, and ends of sentences, and inserted ellipses and changed capitalization and punctuation to hide nonparallel text.

As the study progressed, Conklin took on another task that had been suggested by Dr. Veltman. He determined to find a way of measuring how much language the alleged literary sources borrowed from one another. The task would have been daunting had it not been for a breakthrough in computerized information technology.

Over the past two decades, the Internet has made it increasingly easy for students to engage in “cut and paste” plagiarism of the works of others. Thankfully, the Internet has also furnished tools to detect such plagiarism. One of these tools, distributed by the University of Virginia—WCopyfind—compares two or more text documents and highlights their similarities. Since “cut and paste” plagiarists usually lift entire phrases from other works with only modest cosmetic changes in wording, the designers of the program have recommended that it be set to look for strings of six or more words with allowance for two variants in each string.

Having the means and standard for comparing Ellen White’s “sources” with one another and with The Desire of Ages, Conklin began gathering the necessary sources in text format. A number of these were available online. Others had to be painstakingly keyed in from books acquired through interlibrary loan.

Prior to his study, Conklin had assumed that, besides matching Bible verses, he would discover a large number of other overlapping wordings. After all, as one contributor to a discussion on plagiarism had remarked, “How many ways are there to tell a Bible story without using words or phrases from the Bible story?” Surprisingly, this assumption proved false.

The results of his comparison are given below. Readers should be aware that the analysis of one chapter cannot make a definite determination of Ellen White’s general practice, nor of the practice of all writers of this time. Yet, it does provide evidence of whether major authors, linked to Ellen White’s writing, borrowed as she did.

List of significant matching phrases

Matching phrases from the major works of The Life of Christ Research Project and Ellen White’s The Desire of Ages (1898) are listed below by order of earliest publication. Phrases used in a different context or that resulted from identical use of biblical material have been eliminated (45 different verses). Phrases that are similar to biblical texts (such as “sent Him back to Pilate”—a phrase similar to Luke 23:11) are distinguished by parenthetical scriptural references, allowing readers to judge for themselves whether they were borrowed from the earlier work.

John Flavel. The Fountain of Life (1691) . . .

and Fleetwood have “sentence that it should be as” and Desire of Ages have “(blush/wonder) O heavens! and be astonished, O earth!”

John Fleetwood. Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (1767) ...

and Kitto have “no power to put any one to death” (see John 18:31).

and Hanna have “wearing (-/still) the purple robe and (-/the) crown of thorns” (see John 19:5).

and Adams have “Pilate marveled (greatly/-) at his (-/patient) silence,” (see Matt. 27:14; Mark 15:5).

and Geikie have “what accusation they had (to bring/-) against the prisoner” and “the passover, to release (a/any) prisoner.”

and Andrews have “to Herod, who was (also/-) then at Jerusalem”; “have no power to put (any one/Him) to death” (see John 18:31); “an insurrection in the city, and (-/had) committed murder”; and “Jesus (called/made) himself the Son of God.”

Augustus Neander. The Life of Jesus Christ (1848) .. .

and Kitto have “(summons/appeal) to the conscience of Pilate himself”; “The procurator(-/,) a type of the educated Roman world, especially of its higher classes, lost in worldly-mindedness, and conscious of no higher wants than those of this life(-/,) had no such sense for truth”; “was his mocking question”; “ ‘Truth is (-/but) an empty name.’ he meant to say”; “Jesus (-/ was) simply (as/-) a (-/well-meaning) religious enthusiast, innocent of (all/ any) political (crimes/offence)”; “But it was no part of (the Saviour’s/our Lord’s) calling to (satisfy/gratify) an idle curiosity”; “so utterly worldly”; and “soldiers, sent Him back to” (see Luke 23:11). [Kitto’s parallels to Neander are found in two consecutive paragraphs without quotation marks. Only after the first paragraph does Kitto note his source by the footnote “Neander.”]

and Farrar and Geikie have “sent him back to the procurator” (see Luke 23:11).

and Edersheim have “Herod had (for/-) long wished to see Jesus.”

Joseph Angus. Christ Our Life: in its Origin, Law and End (1853) .. .

and Kitto have “they had no power to” (see John 18:31).

and Abbott have “they had no (-/legal) power to” (see John 18:31) and “without the (consent/sanction) of the Roman governor.”

and Adams have “under Herod’s jurisdiction, and (that Herod/he) was then in Jerusalem.”

John Kitto. Daily Bible Illustrations (1859). . .

and Abbott have “without the (consent/ sanction) of the Roman governor.”

and Farrar have “Pilate caught (-/at) the name of (“/-)Galilee,(“/-).”

and Geikie have “that it was (one/-) not of this world.”

and Deemshave “tessellated pavement in front of the”; “he went (-/back) into the (interior/-) judgment-hall(,/-) and (calling/sent for) Jesus”; “had come (-/up) to Jerusalem (at/to celebrate) the Passover.”

and Ellen White have “one prisoner whom the people might” (see Mark 15:6) and “took his place on the judgment seat” (see Matt. 27:19).

William Hanna. The Life of Christ (1863). . .

and Abbotthave “report (of anything like/that he was) (unfaithfulness/ unfaithful) to Cæsar (would/might) cost him his office.”

and Geikie have “of whom he had heard so much.”

and Andrews have “(given/gives) (him/ Jesus) up to be crucified” (see John 19:16).

and Didon have “from (all/-) participation in the (holy rite/sacred festival)”; “and (he/-) delivered Jesus to their will.”

and Ellen White have “he had sent Jesus (off/-) to Herod” (Luke 23:7) and “Pilate’s wife was not a Jew.”

Charles John Ellicott. Historical Lectures on the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1863) .. .

and Abbott have “as usual, (-/had) come to Jerusalem(-/-nominally) to.”

and Andrews have “long desired to see Him, and.”

and Didon have “the (meek/-) prisoner who stood before him was.”

George Jones. Life-Scenes from the Four Gospels (1865) . . .

has “Barabbas by name, put there for robbery and murder,” while Abbott has “robber and murder by the name of Barabbas” (see Mark 15:7 and John 18:40).

and Ellen White have “He did not wait for an answer.”

Lyman Abbott. A Life of Christ (1872) .. .

and Andrews have “Pilate presented Jesus to the (Jews/people).”

and Ellen White have “he had (already/-) declared (-/that) Jesus (to be/was) innocent”; [Andrews has “he himself knew Jesus to be innocent” and Hanna has “Believing Jesus to be innocent”; “innocent” comes from Matt. 27:24.]

Frederick Farrar. Life of Christ (1874) . . .

and Adams have “went (out/-) again to the Jews, and”

and Geikie have “Felt how awful Goodness is, and” and “for the sins of the world.”

and Ellen White have “questioned (Him/Christ) in many words, but” (see Luke 23:9); “told them that they had brought” and “he had (then/-) sent (Him/Jesus) to Herod” (see Luke 23:7).

Charles Adams. The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1878) ...

and Andrews have “to see Him, and hoped (to witness/that He would now work) some miracle.”

and Edersheim(Adams is not listed by Edersheim as a source) have “had longed wished to see (Him/Jesus).”

Cunningham Geikie. The Life and Words of Christ (1879) ...

and Deems have “it would be a graceful (courtesy/recognition)” and “to make one more effort to save.”

James Stalker. Life of Jesus Christ (1880) .. .

and Andrews have “they had condemned him for blasphemy.”

and Edersheimhave “the magnificent palace of Herod the.”

and Didon have “Jesus answered him not (a/one) word.” (John 19:9).

Charles F. Deems. Who Was Jesus? (1880) ...

and Andrewshave “he had blasphemed in the presence of the” and “(took Jesus away/Jesus be taken) into the common hall, (called the/or) Prætorium.”

and Ellen White have “there was something in (this/the) prisoner” [cf. Hanna, “there was something in the very first impression that our Lord’s appearance made upon Pilate” and Abbott, “There was something in his address and bearing”].

Alfred Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883) ...

Edersheim has “from century to century, and from land to land” and Ellen White has “From land to land throughout the world, from century to century.”

Samuel J. Andrews. Life of Our Lord (1891) ...

and Edersheim have “nor (-/yet) Herod had found any (fault/crime) in Him.”

Tabular analysis of matching phrases

The table below provides a summary of the counts of phrases listed. Authors are listed horizontally and vertically in chronological order. The box in which the horizontal and vertical names intersect contains the number of phrases that are literally similar between the two. Each author’s column is totaled at the bottom.


Observations and analysis

In looking across the table, we note that the majority of authors “used” the authors before them. The increase of matching phrases, as we go toward the right, becomes predictable since each subsequent author has more material from which to derive wording. But just because two writers use similar language, this cannot be used as proof that one stole material from the other. As we noted in our last article, it is altogether possible that similar wording has resulted from one author’s unconscious assimilation of words and vocabulary from one’s reading in what may be called “unconscious plagiarism” or cryptomnesia—the inadvertent use of an apt expression previously read.

One of the interesting results of this study was the large number of matches for The Desire of Agesthat had to be discarded because they were matches of verbatim or paraphrased Scripture. (Other matches that were discarded were identical phrases that were used in different contexts.) Only five parallel phrases in The Desire of Ages were not directly related to Scripture—and two of these came from works not catalogued in Ellen White’s libraries (though similar expressions were found in other works that were).

Comparing columns, we see that Ellen White’s borrowing of language from sources was well within the accepted practice of her peers and that she was not the only writer on the life of Christ to inadvertently use the expressions of other writers. Moreover, her writing demonstrates independence and interaction of thought, rather than mere duplication.

1 Fred Veltman, “The Desire of Ages Project: The Data,” Ministry, (Oct. 1990), 6. It should be noted that the rating of “loose dependency” means that one word or more in a sentence has a parallel.
2 Veltman, “The Desire of Ages Project: The Conclusion,” Ministry, (Dec. 1990), 14.
3 See http://www.dedication.www3.50megs.com.



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Kevin L. Morgan pastors the Warrensville and Wilkesboro Seventh-day Adventist Churches in North Carolina, United States.

December 2007

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