Ellen G. White and The Seventh-day Adventist Church:

From the Great Disappointment to A Worldwide Movement

Part 1

By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

http://www.jimmoyers.com/index.html


(Investigator Magazine #178, 2018 January)



PLEASE NOTE:  While some Seventh-day Adventists may object to what follows, it is not my intention to attack the Seventh-day Adventist Church or Adventist beliefs.  As a former Adventist and psychotherapist with academic training in religious studies, I was curious what light scholarly research might shed on various facets of Adventist history.  I began to look into the great wealth of readily available material on the most important figure in Adventism and discovered that, as is the case with most religious figures, Ellen White is a much more complex figure than usually presented by either her critics or supporters.   I have no interest in "proving" that she was a "false prophet."  Neither am I interested in arguing with those who, as I myself once did, fervently believe EGW to have been a divinely "appointed messenger."  I simply want to share what I have discovered along with some ideas as to what it may mean.




The Trial of Israel Dammon

On February 17, 1845, less than four months after the "Great Disappointment", a Millerite elder named Israel Dammon was brought to trial in Piscataquis County, Maine.  According to the indictment brought against him, Dammon "idler is and has...been a vagabond and idle person, going about in the town of Atkinson...from place to place, begging.... He is a common railer or brawler, neglecting his calling or employment, misspending his earnings, and does not provide for the support of himself, family, and against the peace of the state of Maine." The charges stemmed from a series of religious meetings that Dammon had led over the course of several days, if not weeks. According to the testimony of a town selectman, several citizens of Atkinson requested that the meetings be stopped, complaining that Dammon and others were living upon certain people in the town and, apparently lacking any other means of support, were liable to become town charges. Witnesses to the meetings described a veritable bedlam of religious "enthusiasm."

According to testimony,

"the first meeting lasted eight days.... Dammon said the sinners were going to hell in two days. They were hugging and kissing each other - Dammon would lie on the floor, then jump up... The meeting appeared very irreligious - have seen him (Dammon) sit on the floor with a woman between his legs and his arms around her... They would at times all be talking at once, halloing at the top of their voices; some of them said there was too much sin there... They were sitting and laying on the floor promiscuously and were exceedingly noisy... It was the most noisy assembly I ever attended - there was no order or regularity, nor any thing that resembled any other meeting I ever attended.... I have been young, and now am old, and of all the places I ever was in, I never saw such a confusion, not even in a drunken frolic."(1)

While the defense disagreed with the more extreme statements of the prosecution, no attempt was made to deny the chaotic nature of the marathon meetings.

According to testimony from both sides, in the midst of the commotion there was a young woman aged eighteen or nineteen from Portland, Maine who either was or was not (witnesses differed on this) referred to as "The Imitation of Christ."  She was described as lying on the floor in a trance state from which she would periodically rouse to "point to someone and tell them their case, which she said was from the Lord."(2) Several people were told by her that they were going to hell unless they were immediately baptized or re-baptized. Many of these admonitions occurred late at night, apparently necessitating icy immersions in a nearby creek in the dark. While the woman and her male companion left town before the trial, they were identified as Ellen Harmon and Elder James White.

Fifteen years later, Ellen G. White (as Ellen Harmon was known after her marriage to James a few months after Dammon's trial) included a description of the incident in a published account of her experiences after the Great Disappointment.(3) According to her, the arrest of Dammon was an example of the persecution to which the "little flock" holding fast to the Advent truth was subjected. She describes how divine intervention prevented lawmen from removing Dammon from the house for about forty minutes.  (According to the trial transcript, Dammon resisted arrest with the help of a number of women who clung to him). White makes no mention of the noise and unusual behavior that attracted the attention of the authorities. She also indicates that Dammon was released without sentence when in fact he was sentenced to (but apparently did not serve) ten days in jail. While White's account was obviously based on an imperfect recollection of what must have been a confusing experience for all involved, the discrepancies between her written account in Spiritual Gifts and that of the newspaper record, which was discovered in 1986 by an Andrews University graduate student,(4) raise some interesting questions about early Adventist history and the woman around whose visions the Seventh-day Adventist Church formed.




Ellen G. White 1878 © Ellen G. White Estate Inc


Ellen White and the Millerites

Most Seventh-day Adventists have the impression that their church originated with a group of Millerites who moved from the Great Disappointment to a new understanding of what happened on October 22, 1844, adopted Seventh-day Sabbath keeping, and began a world wide mission in relatively rapid and clear order under the guidance of the Spirit of Prophecy, the term that came to be applied to the visions and writings of Ellen G. White. That was the way I learned it in Adventist church school. 

But the historical record presents a rather different picture of ongoing controversy, charismatic phenomena, a multitude of visionary experiences by many different people, ongoing disputes about doctrines and authority, and repeated splits into acrimonious groups. The characteristic features of what in 1863 officially became the Seventh-day Adventist Church did not emerge from the chaos until the mid-1850's by which time "Adventism had channeled its exuberant charismatic origins through a single conduit"(5) in the person of Ellen G. White.

Ellen White (nee Harmon) was born, along with her non-identical twin sister, on November 26, 1827 in the village of Gorham, Maine near Portland.(6) Her family were active members of the Methodist Church, and Ellen early in her life displayed the precocious interest in spiritual matters often associated with religious leaders.  At age ten she chanced upon a discarded piece of paper from a religious tract predicting a soon coming end to the world.  According to her later description, she was "seized with terror,"(7) unable to sleep at night as she anxiously worried about her readiness for the Second Coming of Christ. Shortly thereafter, an angry schoolmate threw a rock that stuck Ellen on the nose, rendering her unconscious for a period of three weeks. She was expected to die, but came out of the coma into a state of chronic invalidism coupled with ongoing, often paralyzing anxiety about the expected end of the world and the state of her soul.

In 1840 William Miller brought his message about the rapidly approaching Second Coming to Portland amid much excitement. In the words of Ellen's recollection, "terror and conviction spread through the entire city." Now an adolescent, Ellen went with friends to hear Miller.  She went forward at the altar call, but continued to believe that she was hopelessly mired in sin and unworthy to meet her Savior. Attending a Methodist camp meeting the next year, she became increasingly distressed, then, while desperately praying for divine mercy, felt her burden suddenly lifted.  After another year, and a second series of lectures in Portland by Miller, Ellen was baptized into the Methodist church. But she was upset that the minister apparently failed to notice, let alone reprove, another female baptismal candidate adorned in gold rings and a gaudy hat.  Despite her experience at the camp meeting altar and the baptism, Ellen continued to sink into despair, convinced that her sins were beyond forgiveness and herself eternally damned. In addition she experienced terrible guilt over her reluctance to bear public witness for her faith.  As she later described it, she "frequently remained bowed in prayer all night, groaning and trembling with inexpressible anguish, and a hopelessness that passes all description." In her dreams, she struggled with the question of whether she would be saved.

Then during a prayer meeting at her uncle's home, Ellen determined to break her silence.  Suddenly she felt herself speaking as if possessed by the Holy Spirit.  As the words poured out, she fell to the floor, seemingly unaware of her surroundings as "the Spirit of God rested upon me with such power that I was unable to go home that night." She remained in a state of "perfect bliss" for six months, and became a regular speaker at religious gatherings.  Her concern for salvation turned from herself to friends whom she believed to be unprepared for the Second Coming. In dreams she "was made aware" of the spiritual state of those needing prayer and exhortation. She sometimes spent entire nights praying for someone's salvation.  Not everyone appreciated Ellen's concern. Some members of her Methodist church began to audibly groan when she got up to speak.  The Millerite leanings of the Harmons were also a source of contention, especially after the arrival of a new presiding elder unsympathetic to adventist ideas. After a public hearing in 1843, seven members of the family, including Ellen, were dismissed from the church.

Meanwhile the Millerites continued to set and reset dates, and hold their own exuberant meetings, moving further away from the religious mainstream which they eventually denounced as "Babylon" whose fallen nature was described in the book of Revelation. Contemporary observers, including both supporters and opponents, described something very much like modern charismatic church services, with healings, speaking in tongues, creeping about on all fours (thought to be proof of humility), hugging and kissing, shouting, weeping, prostrations or "slayings in the spirit," visions, "holy laughter," and spontaneous prophesying.  Several Millerite women were described as prophets. While Millerite leaders generally decried such "fanaticism," they were apparently powerless to control it. Joshua Hines, Miller's close associate and publicist, described the group that was pushing for adoption of October 22, 1844 as the due date of the Second Coming as living "in continual association in exciting and social meetings (practicing) fleshly and selfish passions."(8)

But the enthusiasm was infectious.  The exclamation of "Glory, Glory, Glory!" with which the normally stolid Miller announced his acceptance of the October date was a stock phrase among the "Shouting Methodists" who brought their charismatic worship style into the Millerite community, and from which background Ellen White came.(9)  Ellen White recalled the few months between the adoption of the October date and the Great Disappointment when Jesus did not appear as expected as the happiest of her life.  The time following was a terrible ordeal for her and other Millerites who struggled to understand what had gone wrong in their expectations.

While some gave up their beliefs after the Disappointment, many Millerites continued to believe that the Second Coming was near.  But the movement itself fractured into "all kinds of isms....hardly any two (Millerites) can believe alike."(10)  Some continued to set dates, all of which passed with no apparent change in the course of earthly affairs.  Others resisted setting another date while holding fast to belief in a soon coming Judgment Day.

Some maintained that the events foretold in prophecy were better understood as being spiritual rather than physical in nature.  Many believed that the Second Coming had in fact occurred in a spiritual sense, with the Spirit of Christ or the Holy Spirit in some form having returned to the earth.  A number of disappointed Millerites joined the Shakers, who maintained that the Second Coming had in fact already occurred in the person of their founder, Mother Ann.  Later Seventh-day Adventist teachings on the state of the dead were at least in part a reaction to the Shaker practice of spirit trance and communication with the spirits of the dead.(11)


The Shut Door

A small group continued to believe that the error lay neither in the date of October 22 nor in the expectation of some literal event.  They had simply misunderstood the nature of what had occurred.  While walking through a field on the morning after the Disappointment, Hiram Edson, a farmer in upstate New York, had a vision in which it was revealed that the sanctuary referred to in Daniel 8:14 was not the earth as Miller had taken it to be, but the Heavenly Sanctuary, the prototype of the ancient Israelite tabernacle.  On October 22, 1844 Christ had entered the Most Holy Place of the Sanctuary to begin preparations for the Second Coming. In January, 1845 two Millerite preachers, Apollos Hale and Joseph Turner published an article expanding on this idea, saying that in entering into the Most Holy Place, Christ ended his ministry of intercession for sinners and shut the "door of mercy" on those who had rejected the Millerite message. The parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins became a central text for advocates of this view. As represented in the parable, the Divine Bridegroom's expected arrival had been temporarily delayed, and only those who were already prepared would be admitted to the wedding feast when he finally arrived.

William Miller himself seems to have believed for at least a while that the door of the Kingdom was shut for those sinners who had not repented by the October date.(12) More importantly for the little group that eventually became the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen Harmon repeatedly confirmed what became known as the "shut door" view. Shortly after the publication of Hale and Turner's article, she had a vision while at a gathering of believers in the house of Israel Dammon.(13)

While others were expressing doubts as to whether the door of salvation had really been shut against all non-believers, Ellen was taken in vision and "shown" that, in the words of a witness present when she gave her account, "Jesus Christ arose and on the tenth day of the seventh month (October 22 in the Adventist (mis)understanding of the Jewish calendar), 1844, shut the door of mercy; had left forever the mediatorial throne; the whole world was doomed and lost; and there never could be another sinner saved."(14) Shortly thereafter Harmon had opportunity to discuss the vision with Joseph Turner, and was encouraged to find that his views corresponded with hers. Although a publication containing the article written by Turner and Hale was present in the house where Harmon had the shut door vision, she maintained that she had no knowledge of their views prior to receiving the revelation.(15)

"Shut Door Adventists," most of whom were poorly educated farmers, trades people, and laborers, quickly developed a reputation in Millerite circles for eccentric beliefs and practices. Some, like Israel Dammon, gave up worldly occupations and concerns in anticipation of a soon coming End. The shut door group in Portland was denounced in a letter by an alarmed associate of Miller for its "continual introduction of visionary nonsense." One member of the group, a Sister Clemons, had "become very visionary." A few weeks later another unnamed sister was told in a vision that Sister Clemons "was of the Devil." The writer concluded that "things are in a bad way at Portland."(16) While some shut door groups reportedly engaged in what would ordinarily be forbidden sexual behaviors in the belief that, since they were  destined for salvation, they were incapable of sin, the group associated with Harmon was, like her, obsessively  concerned with whether or not their salvation was assured.  As did some early Christians, they apparently believed that one must remain free of sin after baptism. The baptisms and re-baptisms reported at the Atkinson gathering seemingly were intended to remove the stain of some recent sin.

In April of 1845, a conference of Adventists held in Albany, New York attempted to reorganize what was left of the Millerite movement in favor of its more moderate elements. Warnings were issued against "special illumination, Jewish fables, and new tests," seemingly the characteristic marks of the nascent Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Albany Conference led to the formation of the Advent Christian Church, a small but still active denomination today, as the primary representative of the Millerite mainstream.(17)  The affront of the Albany gathering to the group with which she was associated did not go unnoticed by Ellen Harmon, who later attributed the apparent delay of the Lord's Return to those Millerites who had rejected the seventh-day Sabbath along with her claimed gift of prophecy.(18)

Shut door Adventists were hardly alone in being directed by visions and other unusual spiritual phenomena, for "early nineteenth century America abounded with 'prophets' of every description, from little-known seers in Ellen Harmon's own Methodist church to prominent sectarian leaders."(19)  Ellen Harmon was initially only one among many religious visionaries in and out of the Millerite movement. Her eventual distinction as the sole channel for the "Spirit of Prophecy" came about gradually over the course of at least a decade.

Having been told by the angel that brought her visions to visit the "scattered flock" of shut door Millerites with the messages she had been given, Ellen at first collapsed in fears that travel would be too much given her poor health. But then, as she was being prayed over, a "ball of fire" struck her over the heart and knocked her to the floor. Her fears gone, she again heard the angel's command, and set out on what would be a lifetime of traveling, broken by only a few years of settled residence, from group to group of believers conveying the messages she claimed had been given to her by God.  Initially she was accompanied by one of her sisters or a female friend.  But she soon became acquainted with James White, an Adventist preacher six years her senior who had played a minor role in the Millerite movement.  White rapidly became convinced of the divine nature of Ellen's visions and, finding she lacked a protective escort, felt himself called to fill the role.

Despite the protests of Ellen's mother about what such an arrangement would do to her daughter's reputation, James and Ellen traveled throughout New England and New York visiting the small and scattered groups of Adventists who continued to cling to their faith in the immanence of the Second Coming, and the belief that they alone were destined to be saved on that "great and terrible day."

The idea of marriage at first seemed, as James put it, "a wile of the Devil" amounting to a denial of faith that they would soon be in a realm where "they neither marry nor are given in marriage."(20)  But rumors (probably not difficult to believe given the extremes to which some Millerites and other contemporary sectarians went in believing themselves released from sexual mores) about the nature of their relationship began to create problems, and James and Ellen were married by a justice of the peace in August of 1846.(21)

Life was far from easy for the young couple with no means of support beyond the irregular contributions of believers supplemented by odd jobs worked by James. The children who soon arrived were left in the care of others as the couple traveled. Such hardships were regarded as a small price to pay for the rewards of a soon coming eternity. Ellen's visions, edited by the more literate James, were soon being published for distribution within the Adventist community.

Some Adventists, through contact with Seventh-day Baptists, became convinced that Saturday, not Sunday, was the proper day of worship.  Joseph Bates, a retired sea captain very active in Adventist circles, introduced this idea to the Whites. Soon after, Ellen had a vision pointing to strict observance of the fourth commandment as a hallmark of God's chosen people, and the little group associated with Ellen and James White became known as the "sabbatarian and shut-door" Adventists.

But even within the small community there were continual disagreements about the interpretation of scripture, what prophecies had and had not been fulfilled, whether the prophetic gift had ceased with the writing of the New Testament, and the order of last day events.  In A Word to the Little Flock, an 1847 publication containing James White's eschatological views,  several of Ellen's visions, and defenses of her claim to the gift of prophecy written by James White and Joseph Bates, Mrs. White complained about "popular Adventists" who "would stone me, as the congregation bade stone Caleb and Joshua for their report." While some "fell away" from the Advent message as proclaimed by her, Ellen's visions continued to encourage those who "held fast:" "I was shown that the commandments of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ, relating to the shut door, could not be separated."(22)


1851 Changes

1851 was a turning point in the evolution of Adventist beliefs. Once again, it seemed to many that the Second Coming was imminent. Joseph Bates, who in 1849 announced that the "time of trouble" immediately preceding Christ's Return had begun, believed that 1851, in the new understanding of the 2300 day prophecy seven years from the date Jesus entered into the Holy of Holies, would be the last earthly year.(23)

Ellen White was informed by her "accompanying angel" that time was almost finished with only a very few months remaining. Epidemics that regularly broke out virtually every year were repeatedly interpreted as sure signs of the end. When Jesus again failed to appear in the skies, Ellen White laid the blame on those who had rejected the "truths" contained in her visions.

With time apparently continuing on as it always had, in a scenario repeated many times in the history of apocalyptic religion, the shut door doctrine became harder to uphold. Children born to believers in the interval since 1844 had to somehow be accounted for in the rolls of those who would be saved. People who had not been Millerites at the time of the Great Disappointment expressed interest in becoming Adventists, confounding the idea that only those who had accepted the "truth" before the October 22 closing of the door of mercy could be saved. Over the course of a few years, the shut door was gradually opened, and eventually abandoned.  However, the many instances in which Ellen White's visions had supported the doctrine presented a problem.

In 1851 her earlier writings were collected and published as her first book, A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White, in which all references to the shut door were carefully deleted. In coming years, first the Whites, and then the Seventh-day Adventist Church along with the E. G. White Estate, would repeatedly deny that Ellen's visions had ever supported the shut door. Not until the 1980's, after the discovery of some embarrassing documents in the files of the E. G. White Estate, was it officially acknowledged that in her early work and visions she had for several years consistently taught that the door of salvation was forever shut against all who had not accepted the 1844 message.(24)

It was a difficult time for the Whites and the little movement they led as Ellen's prophetic role came under increasing criticism. Some expressed confusion over her change in regard to the shut door. Others were unhappy with her practice of publishing "testimonies" chastising individuals for their sins, exposing them by name to the entire company of believers. There were complaints that faith in her visions was becoming a test of proper Adventist belief. Domestic tensions and apparent resentment on the part of James over the increasingly prominent position of his wife within the Adventist movement likely played a part in his decision in the summer of 1851to stop publishing her visions in the regular issues of the Review and Herald, the primary Adventist periodical of which he was editor and publisher.

For the next four years Ellen was on the sidelines, in the domestic role of housewife and mother, as her husband attempted to shepherd the believers. His attempts were evidently not very successful as the little group of Adventists began to seriously flounder. In 1855, shortly after the publication of an editorial in which he angrily denied having had any role in making Ellen's visions central to Adventism, he was relieved of his duties at the Review and Herald. In a seeming rebuke to the prophet's husband, a committee of elders issued a statement acknowledging the unfaithfulness of the fledgling church in ignoring God's special messenger. The new editor invited Mrs. White to resume her contributions to the movement's paper, and she immediately responded with predictions of God's blessings on the church through the revival of the prophetic gift. While she would continue throughout her life to issue regular warnings about the dire consequences of ignoring the divine communications she bore, Ellen G. White's dominant role in what would shortly be the Seventh-day Adventist Church was securely established by late 1855.

The American population was decidedly moving westward in the decades before the Civil War, and Adventists were no exception. After years on the road, in April, 1852 the Whites, reunited with their two children, rented a house in Rochester, New York, a temporary stopping place on the Erie Canal for many who would eventually move on farther west. The family was deeply impoverished, but "the work" continued unabated with a printing press installed in one room.

A third child arrived two years later. The misdeeds of her children troubled the perfectionistically minded Ellen, and she attributed her chronic ill health to the stress of motherhood. James at times was also so ill as to seem near death.  Poverty stricken to the extent of being reduced to eating turnips instead of more expensive potatoes, the Whites received little support from other Adventists. Still they "toiled on in Rochester through much perplexity and discouragement." Twice they visited Michigan, and decided the prospects looked better there. In the fall of 1855, they moved family and printing press to more comfortable circumstances in Battle Creek, Michigan, a village of a few thousand on the edge of the ante-bellum western frontier.(25)


A Digression: Disconfirmation and Reformulation of Belief

When Prophecy Fails, a 1956 classic study in the sociology of religion, examined a group that had predicted the end of the world.(26) While the group was based on information allegedly revealed by advanced beings from other planets rather than Ellen White's angel messenger, there are remarkable parallels between that group and early Adventists. The UFO group expected the world would soon end with a disaster from which they would be rescued by the superior beings with whom they were in contact. While there were several channels of information from the space beings, the revelations of one woman eventually came to be recognized as the most authoritative. Although the group eventually disbanded amid negative publicity, many group members refused to abandon their beliefs while at the same time modifying their understanding of events in relation to prophecy. As with those Millerites who continued to cling to their faith after October 1844, the failure of the space beings to appear as predicted led not to a widespread rejection of prophecy by group members but to further refinement of it to account for the apparent discrepancy between what had been predicted and actual events. While the authors of When Prophecy Fails mention the Millerite movement in the course of a historical review of prophetic movements, they apparently were not aware of how well the early history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church supports their theory that disconfirmation of prophecy can paradoxically increase group cohesion and faith with understanding of prophecy revised to account for its apparent failure.

Like the UFO group, the core of the Millerite Movement managed to hold onto their beliefs despite the disconfirmation of William Miller's message in the non-event of October 22. The message was modified in various ways, the shut door being one of several, in explanation of the fact that the world had not ended as expected. With the passage of time and the failure of Jesus to arrive as expected, the shut door teaching itself was explained as a misunderstanding of a genuine prophetic message.(27) Repeatedly, as has been true of apocalyptic beliefs through the ages, modifications of the original message were further modified, with believers all the while insisting that nothing had really changed. Time continued to move forward, with prophesied events repeatedly postponed and re-construed to better fit reality while supporting belief in the veracity of the prophetic message.  In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, this pattern of repeated adjustments to the fact of the world's continued existence continues on into the twenty first century.

When "The End" fails to come as predicted, long term survival is an ongoing challenge for any apocalyptic group. Early Christians apparently expected Jesus to return within the lifetime of those who had known him personally, but adjusted their expectations accordingly when he failed to appear. Within a few centuries of Jesus' death, the established church was locating his eventual return somewhere in the indefinite future. Early Adventists expected Jesus' arrival within at most a very few years. When the Second Coming did not occur as expected, ideas about it, rather than the belief itself, were modified. Disappointed Millerites believed that the "bridegroom's delay" would be short; all that they were called upon to do was to "watch and wait" in eager anticipation. But by 1851, it was becoming apparent that the wait was going to be longer than anticipated. Explanations, and activities, were again changed as the Adventist community settled down to a longer earthly existence.

With the door of salvation gradually opening once again, Adventists began to shift their focus from a simple "abide until I come" towards a more public proclamation of their unique message. While it had once seemed that there was no point in evangelizing, since only those already in the fold were eligible for salvation, the hearing of the Adventist message by everyone on earth gradually came to be a necessary prelude to the Second Coming. Throughout the remainder of her life, Mrs. White blamed the "the Lord's delay" on Adventists who were not doing enough to tell others about their beliefs.

The establishment and maintenance of an earthly presence becomes unavoidable for any apocalyptic movement that manages to survive the initial disconfirmation of its expectations. By 1860 the sabbatarian Adventists gathered around James and Ellen White had acquired church buildings and a publishing house along with approximately thirty-five hundred adherents scattered throughout what would soon be the Union states east of the Mississippi River. Pressure began to build for the formal establishment of a new church to create a legal entity that could hold title to the properties the movement had acquired. In 1863 the Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially incorporated in Battle Creek. While the formulation of a formal creed was rejected, members of the new church were expected to concur with certain beliefs, including the divinely inspired nature of Ellen White's visions. "The Health Message," concerned with a better existence in a world beset by illness and disease, became an important part of the Adventist mission.


The Health Message

 Advocates of "health reform" were prominent in the crowd of prophets and social reformers wandering through popular New England culture in the decades preceding the Civil War. Given the poor state of the average American's diet, hygiene, and health combined with the primitive state of medicine in the early nineteenth century, the time was more than ripe for reform in those areas. Initially most ideas about alternative diet and health care came from Europe. But in 1830 a homegrown movement sprang up under the leadership of Sylvester Graham (whose name would be immortalized in the "Graham cracker"). 

Others followed in his footsteps, proclaiming the benefits of a diet containing little or no animal products, the healthful qualities of sunshine and fresh air, regular exercise, adequate rest, abstinence from liquor, tobacco, coffee, tea, and other "stimulates," regular baths (a novel idea at the time), and sensible dress for women. The health crusaders also declared war on the medical practices of the day, most of which were nearly as likely to kill as cure with bleeding, purging, and dosing with deadly poisons the standard remedies for virtually every ill. Epidemics, for which there was no real help except the passage of time, regularly devastated whole communities.

As was true of most families in 19th century America, the White household was repeatedly, sometimes tragically, touched by illness.  Both James and Ellen were afflicted by various vaguely defined chronic ailments. In 1860, a fourth son was born to the Whites, and died three months later. Ellen was devastated.  Three years later, two of her remaining sons became ill during a diphtheria epidemic. Ellen tried the "hydropathic fomentations" treatment developed by Dr. James Jackson, and both boys recovered.  Shortly thereafter Dr. Jackson's "Diphtheria, Its Causes, Treatment, and Cure" was reprinted, along with a note from James White recommending Jackson's alternative approach to health care, on the front page of the Review and Herald.  Other articles on health reform, reprinted from the works of various non-Adventist reformers, accompanied by James' editorial comments, followed in subsequent issues. The advantages of "God's great remedies" of air, water, and light over "doctors and their drugs," women's dress reform (also a pet project of Jackson), echoes from the popular temperance movements of the time, and dietary restrictions, including the avoidance of meat, were urged upon Adventists. "Thus by June of 1863 Seventh-day Adventists were already in possession of the main outlines of the health reform message. What they now needed to become a church of health reformers was not additional information, but a sign from God indicating his approval."(28)

On June 5, 1863 divine approval came in the form of a vision given to Ellen White in which she was told Adventists were "to come out against intemperance of every kind."(29) A conversation sometime afterward with an Adventist physician who told her that "wise and eminent physicians" were saying similar things encouraged her in further developing her views on the subject. But fifteen months passed between the date of the vision and her first published account of it.(30)  The essay, "Health," which appeared in the fourth volume of Spiritual Gifts, is in many passages almost identical to the writings of the popular contemporary health reformer, L. B. Coles. Yet according to Mrs. White, the principles that she was for the first time putting in writing came entirely from her vision. As she traveled about speaking on her now favorite topic of health, she was often challenged on the parallels between what she was claiming had been divinely revealed to her and the writings of other health reformers.  She repeatedly denied all knowledge of the work of Jackson, Coles, and other contemporary health activists, and eventually issued a statement in the Review and Herald to that effect. Yet both James and Ellen had in fact been very much aware of the writings of other reformers for some time before the June 5th vision, as evidenced by the articles published in the Review and Herald as well as the health reform literature known to have been in the White household well before that date.(31)

Ellen White herself had to struggle to put into practice the reforms she advocated. She found it hard to give up meat and had a decided aversion to whole wheat bread. But soon the Whites were following what became the standard early Adventist health reform diet of two meals a day, no meat, and careful avoidance of all stimulants and medical drugs.

In the winter of 1863-64, one son died of "lung fever" despite all the efforts of standard medical treatment. A short time later another son was narrowly saved from a similar fate by his parents' application of Jackson's water treatments and prayer. The following September the White family, in company with other Adventists who were already flocking there, spent several weeks at Jackson's sanitarium near Dansville, New York. In addition to Jackson's lectures on healthy living, the simple, unseasoned food served at the establishment, the "water cure," and the "American costume" of short (relative to the ground length then fashionable) skirts worn over pants promoted by Jackson's female associate, Ellen White was also fascinated by Jackson's practice of phrenology, the evaluation of personality through the examination of head shape, and was much pleased with his evaluation of her sons' heads. Her response to his diagnosis of her condition as "hysteria" is unknown.(32)

The Whites returned to Battle Creek full of enthusiasm for health reform, and the possible establishment of an Adventist sanitarium where "Sabbath-keeping invalids" would not be troubled by the "pleasurable excitements" such as the card playing and dancing present at Jackson's establishment. For the next several months James and Ellen proclaimed the precepts of healthy living to Adventists throughout the Northern States of the still threatened Union. Pamphlets containing an article by Ellen on "Disease and Its Causes" as well as James' glowing account of the visit to Dansville along with excerpts from the writings of non-Adventist health reformers were printed and distributed. Mrs. White carefully explained that the material from non-Adventists had been discovered only after she had already composed her essay, and were included only to demonstrate the accord between what the "Lord had revealed to me" and the opinions of medical experts. While some complained that other, perhaps more important spiritually, issues were being neglected, the "health message" became an essential building block in the early doctrinal structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.(33)

Despite the wholesale adoption of health reform, many in the infant church continued to be chronically unwell. At times church business came to a standstill as the brethren were forced to take to their beds.  After James had a "stoke of paralysis" in the summer of 1865, virtually the entire leadership of the church set out for Dansville and the water cure. After several months during which James' condition did not get much better, amid increasing conflict between the views of Jackson and Ellen's "higher and unerring authority," the Whites left Dansville and "the sophistry of the devil."  On Christmas Eve, 1865, Ellen was given a vision in which she was told that Adventists should open their own sanitarium so they would no longer have "to go...where there is not sympathy for our faith." James' convalescence was long, and the very difficult experience of nursing him seems to have lessened Ellen's ardor for the health message. But her Christmas vision led to the 1866 opening of an Adventist water cure sanitarium in Battle Creek, the first institution in what would eventually be a system of Adventist hospitals and clinics spread throughout the world.

The Western Health Reform Institute, as the Battle Creek sanitarium was officially labeled, quickly became a source of trial for Ellen White.  Under the influence of factions within the church that had differing views about the Institute, she issued "testimonies" that first supported, then opposed its expansion. Meanwhile, investment in the building program had dwindled and construction abruptly came to stop. Amid a general state of confusion, James White for some never explained reason had the unfinished structure completely razed, and then issued an appeal for funds for the construction of a smaller building. Ellen defended her husband's seemingly irrational behavior while expressing concerns about the worldliness that she saw creeping into the sanitarium community. By 1867 she was describing the Institute as "a curse" in turning people into "infidels" who doubted her testimonies. But then a revival occurred among the Battle Creek Adventists, and she regained hope that the Western Health Reform Institute could become what she had envisioned. The Institute struggled for several years to recover from mismanagement, as well as the damage that had been inflicted by the Whites' wavering faith in it, but eventually emerged as a success under the leadership of Dr. John H. Kellogg, who would himself become a major problem for Mrs. White in the latter years of her life.

While remaining a stanch advocate of the principles of health reform, Mrs. White's enthusiasm for its actual practice seems to have waxed and warned. In the 1870's and 1880's her interests turned more towards the then nationally popular temperance movement and away from attempts to change the health habits of Adventists. For several decades she abandoned vegetarianism in practice if not principle, as did the Adventist church in general. Meat was often served at church gatherings and reportedly only a very few ministers were vegetarians. Ellen White herself relished oysters and rare steaks. Not until 1894, after being reproved by a non-Adventist for the suffering she was inflicting on innocent animals, did she abandon meat eating for good and reestablish dietary reform as a key element in Adventism.(34)


To All the World

The reputation of James and Ellen White suffered more than a little damage in the struggles that marked the early years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 1870 "a vindication of their moral and Christian character" was issued by church leaders to counter rumors that were circulating and undermining their leadership. But their position at the head of the church was soon reestablished, with Ellen remarking that Adventists "all look up to us as father and mother." With the assistance of a niece who became her press agent in 1876, Ellen was reported (by James) to have received "the highest encomiums for the press in nearly all parts of the United States" for her work as a temperance lecturer.(35)

The Whites traveled westward, living in Colorado and California at various times, shepherding the growth of the Adventist church for which Ellen's visions and "testimonies" had become a primary source of guidance. With the onset of menopause, her daytime visions ceased. But she continued to be visited by her angel companion in "visions of the night" - dreams that conveyed divine messages for the edification of the church. In 1881 James White died. Ellen sank into a year long depression that ended with a dream in which the Lord told her that her son Willie had been chosen as her "counselor."(36)

With Willie at her side along with a virtual army of editorial assistants, Mrs. White resumed her work, traveling in the United States as well as Europe, Australia, and New Zealand in support of an increasingly widespread network of Adventist churches, schools, and medical institutions based around her teachings. Throughout this time her writings were continually published, revised, and republished as guides for Adventists in virtually all areas of life. Mrs. White's endorsement of one side or the other more often than not determined the outcome in controversies that continued to arise within Seventh-day Adventism as it moved towards eventual status as an established denomination.

In 1915, after being confined to a wheelchair for five months after breaking her leg in a fall, Ellen White died at age 87. The "little flock" that she had watched over and admonished for so many years had become a well established church of 136,000 members with a worldwide presence. During her lifetime she had published more than five thousand articles and forty nine books that are currently available under more than one hundred titles (a number of which are revisions or regroupings of earlier publications) in a multitude of languages reflecting the present day global scope of the church she and her husband founded.


Continued with list of references in Part 2


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