Yesterday as part of the 16th AIIAS Theological Forum I presented a paper on “Ellen G. White, Ethics, Literary Assistants, and Literary Borrowing: A Current Assessment.” Lots has been said already about this before. The accusation that Ellen G. White simly stole large amounts of writing and repressed them is an argument that goes back to the 1880s, and together form the core part of D. M. Canright’s systematic attack against Ellen G. White after he apostatized from the denomination.
In brief, the 1970s and 1980s several critics reasserted these criticisms once again. Some, such as Walter Rea, asserted that she stole upwards of 80% or more, claims that were easily refuted by Fred Veltman in his massive 2,222 page “The Life of Christ Project” that demonstrated that she did use sources in select chapters of The Desire of Ages and that estimates between 10 to 20 are more realistic. Depending on the book it appears that more recent studies confirm this analysis.
The standard apologetic response is that Ellen G. White was simply doing what the majority of her contemporaries did when it came to literary sources, and with time, she gradually changed her practice to cite specific sources toward the end of her life. Modern copyright law and the documentation of sources is largely a much more modern phenomon and she changed with the culture in which she lived. Part of the problem is that Seventh-day Adventists, especially those who espouse a rigid view of inspiration, have often cited that Ellen G. White was a century ahead of her time. While it is true she did have some amazing insights, she was also fully a creature of her times as well.
They key problem is that Ellen G. White claimed in the 1860s that she was not influenced by other health reformers, James White kept these materials wrapped up, and therefore the implication was that she was not influenced by their contemporaries. Several people have documented how she appears to have claimed too much because months before her health reform vision she benefited from an article on Jackson, a health reformer of her time, about how to use water treatments during one of the many diptheria epidemics that raged across American at that time. Other evidence shows that James White was circulating these tracts. So was Ellen G. White unethical?
I don’t believe that she was, at least from her perspective. Let me explain:
(1) First of all, Ellen G. White was not necessarily always correct with dates. I have been developing a database of Ellen G. White’s life in preparation for a biography. It is not uncommon to find James White and Ellen G. White disagree over when things happened. I’m coming to the conclusion that for Ellen G. White ina n unrelated narrative of the travels, such as in examples in “Testimonies” vol. 4, that what was important was the story and how God led. Some times she got the timing wrong. Ellen G. White was not infallible and it appears that she was wrong in this instance.
(2) The more important question, in my estimation, is whether or not Ellen G. White was trying to cover things up? I don’t believe so because Ellen G. White was open about her sources, both before and after her pivotal health reform vision. Although she had a chapter in Spiritual Gfits, vol. 4 (1864) on “Health” it was not until 1865 that she published a series of six tracts on health reform titled Health, or, How to Live. In these tracts she published her views and included a series of articles by other health reformers. One of the strongest arguments that demonstrate for me that Ellen G. White was not trying to “cover up” her use of literary sources, both with health reform among other areas, is that she encouraged Adventists to read the same sources she benefited from. Adventists were to be thinkers who could read for themselves and form their own opinions.
(3) Closely related to this is that Ellen G. White felt conspicuous, according to her earliest accounts of the vision, and hesitated to share what she saw about health. She was not a physician. It also appears that she was trying to understand the far reaching implications about what she had been shown in vision, including its practical application to her life and that of her family.
(4) It also appears that James White in 1878, and Ellen G. White at the end of her life, both expressed a desire to write a book on the development of their views of health reform. Apparently each did not feel that their side of the story had been adequately told.
(5) Which begs the question: how did Ellen G. White view health reform? Was it simply to eat or not eat a certain thing. I think that Adventists have some times missed the forest for the trees. In the debate over the details of health reform, I think it is easy to lose sight of the overall picture. What makes Ellen G. White significant in her teaching of health reform aren’t the individual teachings–some of which changed with time as she matured in her understanding of health reform–but rather the big picture. She developed a theology of health reform that was definitely informed by health reformers of her era, apparently more so than she could have realized at the time. That theology was a theology that tied the laws of the natural world, what she later described as eight laws of health, and their importance to God’s commandment-keeping people at the end of time, those who also keep the seventh-day Sabbath. This “remnant” people believe in the ultimate restoration and sacredness of God’s law.
(6) Thus the difference between her and health reformers of her time is tantamount to that of the difference between Seventh Day Baptists who kept the seventh-day Sabbath and early Sabbatarian Adventists such as Jospeh Bates who also kept the seventh-day Sabbath. Obviously Rachel Oakes, a Seventh Day Batist, started a train of events by sharing her faith about the seventh-day Sabbath with Frederick Wheeler. This understanding of the seventh-day Sabbath ultimately got to Joseph Bates. Yet he went in new, apolcayptic directions in developing a theology of the “Great Controversy” that took the seventh-day Sabbath and developed a theology that was distinctively Seventh-day Adventist. I believe the same thing needs to be understood about health reform. Ellen G. White’s view of health reform emphasized the keeping of natural laws as an important part of the restoration of God’s kingdom. “All heaven is health,” she wrote. Therefore, for those who desired to go to heaven, they will take God’s natural laws seriously. Thus she developed a theology of the whole person and a motivation for healthful living.
(7) As Ellen G. White articulated her views of health reform, she grew less defensive about having to defend the uniqueness of her position because it was so obvious to early believers. They readily saw the difference. Ellen G. White was furthermore concerned about extreme views advocated by James C. Jackson, R. T. Trall, and others. Trall, in particular, spoke in the Adventist meetinghouse in Battle Creek and circulated at Seventh-day Adventist camp meetings. Early church members knew that he had many good things to say, but Ellen G. White cautioned early believers not to go to extremes. Trall, and other health reformers, had a tendency to do that because they did not recognize the spiritual dimensions of health reform.
(8) Alister McGrath, in his recent biography on C. S. Lewis points out about his enormously popular Chronicles of Narnia children’s books that some people have deconstructed the individual aspects of his writings so much that they lose sight of the big picture. “His skill,” observes McGrath, “lay not in inventing these elements, but in the manner he wove them together to create the literary landmark that we know as the Chronicles of Narnia.” For Ellen White studies the same thing could be said about her: Ellen G. White shines at her best when you recognize her big picture ideas, and when it comes to health reform this is true once again.
(9) In a sense, the debate over Ellen G. White’s use of literary sources, is somewhat telling in itself. It demonstrates the last relevance and significance of her ideas. As scholars continue to identify and deconstruct various aspects of her writings, it helps to delineate the uniqueness of her ideas, and I believe, showcases the uniqeness of her thought. As several Adventist apologists have observed that Ellen G. White was consistently the master, but not the slave, of her sources!
(10) Altogether, I believe that the greatness of Ellen G. White’s theology, while we can certainly benefit from many of her theological ideas or various aspects of health reform, is in the big picture. Ellen G. White constantly reasserts in her “great controversy” framework who God is and human history from the divine perspective. This is one of the greatest evidences of the inspiration of the Bible–the Bible does not gloss over problems or even the sins of its greatest heroes. And the same thing can be argued about Ellen G. White. She reasserts over and over again issues from God’s perspective–health reform, as an example, is not just a good thing to do, it is a spiritual discipline. It is something that we should value because God values humanity, and ultimately, we value who God is and His law.
(11) What is clear is that Ellen G. White did develop a new philosophy of how to deal with her critics after the 1860s, and that was that it was not her job to defend her ministry, including the uniqueness of her views. She learned that this was something that she needed to trust God to do for her. This became especially apparent in the vociferous attacks by Miles Grant during the 1870s and 1880s. After the attacks of the early 1860s over the uniqeness of her understanding of health reform, she never again went out of her way to defend herself. Apparently Ellen G. White learned something from what happened, too.
[Photograph of James C. Jackson’s “Our Home on the Hillside” from the Dansville Area Historical Society]