Ellen White's Secret Swill

By Elaine Bowerman and Dirk Anderson

Many Seventh-day Adventists are shocked to discover Ellen White suffered from an addiction to alcohol. In the 1800s, homemade vinegar was popular. Unlike the vinegar bought off store shelves today, homemade vinegar often contained small but potentially addictive amounts of alcohol. In 1911, Mrs. White wrote of an intense battle she fought to kick the alcohol habit:

I had indulged the desire for vinegar. But I resolved with the help of God to overcome this appetite. I fought the temptation, determined not to be mastered by this habit. For weeks I was very sick; but I kept saying over and over, The Lord knows all about it. If I die, I die; but I will not yield to this desire. The struggle continued, and I was sorely afflicted for many weeks. All thought that it was impossible for me to live. You may be sure we sought the Lord very earnestly. The most fervent prayers were offered for my recovery. I continued to resist the desire for vinegar, and at last I conquered. Now I have no inclination to taste anything of the kind. This experience has been of great value to me in many ways. I obtained a complete victory.1

This statement appears unfathomable today. Who could possibly become sick and nearly die, just from stopping the use of vinegar? Vinegar itself (acetic acid) is not addictive. So, what could it be? This same struggle happens every day with people addicted to alcohol. Alcohol is strongly addictive. Mrs. White apparently had an addiction to the alcohol in vinegar, and the life-threatening struggle she endured in breaking that habit seems to indicate an addiction that may have lasted for many years. The symptoms she described, the sickness, the struggle, the withdrawal symptoms, are strikingly similar to the symptoms chronic alcoholics suffer when they stop drinking!

A comparison between the symptoms that Mrs. White described and the symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome will demonstrate that they are the same.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

First, Mrs. White wrote that she was in a life-or-death struggle. Vinegar itself (acetic acid) is non-addictive and stopping its use has no adverse impact on the body. Therefore, simply stopping the use of vinegar could not account for Mrs. White's symptoms. However, quitting an addiction to alcohol can truly be a life-or-death struggle:

A person who is dependent on alcohol and who then suddenly stops drinking goes through a painful and potentially life-threatening withdrawal syndrome as the body adjusts to the absence of alcohol.2

Second, Mrs. White said that during her withdrawal period she was "very sick." This is also a symptom of alcohol withdrawal:

The following are some of the more common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal: anxiety, agitation, restlessness, insomnia, feeling shaky inside, loss of appetite, nausea, changes in sensory perception, headache, and heart palpitations.3

Third, Mrs. White said that she struggled with a "desire" to drink and that she finally conquered this "desire." One of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is a strong craving to drink:

The urge to drink again during withdrawal can be very strong.4

Fourth, Mrs. White's life-or-death struggle lasted for "weeks." The severity of her symptoms is not indicative of a mild addiction, but of a heavy addiction that may have lasted for years or even decades.

Generally, the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal relate proportionately to the amount of alcoholic intake and the duration of a patient’s recent drinking habit.5

Withdrawal symptoms rarely occur in people who only drink once in a while. Symptoms usually occur in people who have been drinking heavily for weeks or months and then suddenly stop drinking.6

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal from a heavy addiction include "alcohol withdrawal delirium" which can manifest "up to 2 weeks after cessation of alcohol intake."7

While it is unheard of for anyone to suffer withdrawal from vinegar itself, the symptoms described by Mrs. White can only be explained as a severe addiction to alcohol. Where was this alcohol found? In her homemade vinegar which she admitted drinking while telling others to avoid it.

Alcohol Content of Vinegar in the 1800s

To understand Ellen White's vinegar addiction, it must be understood how vinegar was made in the mid-1800s. Notice the following recipes for homemade vinegar taken from Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery, published in 1851:


Take six quarts of rye meal; stir and mix it well into a barrel of strong hard cider of the best kind; and then add a gallon of whiskey. Cover the cask, (leaving the bung loosely in it,) set it in the part of your yard that is most exposed to the air; and in the course of four weeks (if the weather is warm and dry) you will have good vinegar fit for use.


Put into a cask a mixture composed of five gallons of water, two gallons of whiskey, and a quart of strong yeast, stirring in two pounds of powdered charcoal. Place it where it will ferment properly, leaving the bung loose till the fermentation is over...

As can be seen from these recipes, vinegar in the mid-1800s was made with ingredients such as "hard cider" and "whiskey." The process of making vinegar converts the alcohol into acetic acid. However, not all of the alcohol is converted into acetic acid. A residual amount remains, and that amount varies according to various factors such as the ingredients, the fermentation method, and the length of time the mixture was allowed to ferment. In warmer environments, such as Australia, where the temperature is above 25°C, the fermentation can be hindered, resulting in vinegar containing higher amounts of alcohol. Vinegar purchased off the shelf of a supermarket today is tightly controlled to only contain approximately .5% alcohol, which is quite small. Since homemade vinegar had few or no quality controls, it is impossible to determine exactly how much alcohol was present in the vinegar used by Mrs. White. The alcohol content of homemade vinegar varied widely depending upon the conditions that went into making it. A chemical analysis of carefully controlled vinegar production in 1905 showed a residual 3.3% alcohol present after the second pressing.8 Paul Hassack analyzed many commercial vinegars during this era and found they contained from 2% to 5% unconverted alcohol.9 In the 1800s, homemade vinegar production was not as controlled or standardized as commercial processes, so the alcohol content could have varied even more.

Forbids Others to use Alcohol-laden Vinegar

In condemning vinegar, Mrs. White followed in the footsteps of Adventist physician J.H. Kellogg who called it "unfavorable to health" in 1875, and later denounced vinegar as "a poison."10 Here is what Mrs. White wrote in 1887:

The salads are prepared with oil and vinegar, fermentation takes place in the stomach, and the food does not digest, but decays or putrefies. As a consequence the blood is not nourished, but becomes filled with impurities, and liver and kidney difficulty appear. Heart disturbances, inflammation, and many evils are the result of such kind of treatment, and not only are the bodies affected, but the morals, the religious life, are affected.11

It is true that a significant amount of vinegar can slow the digestion somewhat. However, this statement sounds a little odd to the modern reader, because modern salad-eaters do not seem to suffer the problems mentioned in the quote above. The reason is that the modern vinegar used in salad dressings is tightly controlled to contain only a small amount of alcohol. Therefore, modern salad dressings will not affect one's morals, religious life, or liver.

In the Desire of Ages Mrs. White depicts Jesus as refusing vinegar because of the effect he feared it might have upon his mind:

In another prophecy the Saviour declared, 'Reproach hath broken My heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave Me also gall for My meat; and in My thirst they gave Me vinegar to drink.' Ps. 69:20, 21. To those who suffered death by the cross, it was permitted to give a stupefying potion, to deaden the sense of pain. This was offered to Jesus; but when He had tasted it, He refused it. He would receive nothing that could becloud His mind. His faith must keep fast hold upon God. This was His only strength. To becloud His senses would give Satan an advantage.12

If vinegar would "becloud" the senses and "give Satan an advantage" over the Son of God, what effect would it have upon God's prophetess?

As noted above, in 1887, Mrs. White condemned vinegar as affecting "the morals, the religious life." In 1893, she wrote that when one partook of "the liquid poison...the words and actions under its influence were anything but favorable for serious thoughts, pure morals."13 However, in 1911, the prophet of the Seventh-day Adventist Corporation admitted having an addiction to vinegar. Therefore, if her writings are true, then she proclaimed herself to be doing something that affected her "morals" and her "religious life," and placed herself in a condition unfavorable for "serious thoughts, pure morals." Based on this revelation, SDAs should ask themselves two questions:

  1. How many letters and testimonies were written while Mrs. White was "under the influence" of vinegar?

  2. Could the alcohol content of her vinegar have affected her judgment and discernment?

Ellen White Drinks Wine and Prescribes it to Others

The Southern Planter, April, 185936

Besides vinegar, it appears Mrs. White indulged in a little wine and perhaps other alcoholic beverages on occasion. On March 3, 1859, Mrs. White wrote in her diary that she gained "some strength by taking a little tomato wine."14 When the White Estate published this letter, they inserted "[juice]" after "wine" to confuse the minds of SDA readers into believing this was merely juice and not actually alcohol-laden wine. Although somewhat obscure today, tomato wine was a part of American history and most certainly contained alcohol. The Milwaukee Sentinel of June, 1840 advertised: "...it may be anticipated that this wine will find favor with the public." One researcher wrote that "Tomato wine experienced a surge in popularity" in the mid-1800s, and the "recipe was popularized in the widely circulated 'Dr. Chase’s Recipes' ... Tomato wine appeared in regional newspapers as well - the Baltimore Sun in 1856."15 Despite the Estate's attempt to hide the facts, the reality is that Mrs. White drank tomato wine which was an intoxicating drink made from tomatoes and sugar, and containing anywhere from 8% to 18% alcohol.

Not only did Mrs. White drink wine when she felt ill (which was most of the time), but the Whites also gave wine to others to treat their "illnesses." Apparently, the Whites kept a ready supply of it on hand. In the same diary, on March 19, Ellen writes, "We put up one pint of rich grape wine and another pint of currant for the sick one..."16 Both of these alcohol-laden wines were familiar to Americans of the mid 1800s and were written about in literature of the day.17 On April 13, Ellen writes in her diary of visiting "Sister Fults" and bringing her "a bottle of wine," and two days later, she reports the Whites were once again distributing wine: "Put up Brother Benedict one pint of currant wine and one pint of grape."18 On May 7, Ellen again reports drinking wine for medicinal purposes: "They got me wine and raw egg, which revived my strength some."19

In 1868, James White wrote that at those times when she felt ill, Ellen would drink "domestic wine":

During the past year, Mrs. W. has, at three or four times, had feelings of great debility and faintness in the morning. ... To prevent distressing fainting at these times, she, [Ellen White] immediately after rising, has taken an egg in a little pure domestic grape wine, perhaps a spoonful at a time, and never thought that this had to do with drugs, as she uses the term in her writings, more than the man in the moon. During this past year, she may have used one pint of wine. ...20

Domestic wine was locally-produced fermented wine, which is why James goes through pains to share how little of it Ellen White used—only one pint in a year. The alcoholic content of domestic wines during the 1800s could range from 10% to 22%, with 18% being typical for that period, although the White Estate assures us it was "grape juice as free from fermentation as possible."21

In 1868, Ellen White prescribed domestic wine to a pregnant woman as a suitable alternative source of nutrition if other healthful food could not be obtained. She writes, "a little domestic wine would have done her no injury; it would have been better for her to have it than to do without it."22

Twenty years after James' article, Sister White wrote a letter to Elder E.P. Daniels, whose family apparently drank wine. As justification for their drinking wine, Brother Daniels reportedly said, "Brother and Sister White kept wine in their house, and to your certain knowledge used it."23 This demonstrates other SDAs were aware of Mrs. White's habit of drinking alcoholic beverages, and they used that knowledge to justify their own indulgences. In her letter to Daniels, Mrs. White admits to using a small amount of alcoholic wine:

"I have not tested the wine that you claim is not intoxicating. I have perhaps used half a pint in all, taking a spoonful with a raw egg, much as I hate the taste of wine..."24

In addition to drinking vinegar and wine, in 1892, Ellen White writes of having a sleepless night, and laments of not being able to find a strong alcoholic drink in the home: "I felt the need of a strong cordial, but there was nothing in the house but grape juice."25 According to the Dictionary, a "cordial" is a "strong, sweetened, aromatic alcoholic liquor; liqueur" or a "strong highly flavored sweet liquor usually drunk after a meal."26 In the late 1800s, it was not uncommon for cordials to have alcohol content ranging from 20% to 40% or even higher. Some cordials, such as Dr. Bunting's Sunshine Cordial and Parke Davis Coca Cordial, contained cocaine, while others, such as Godfrey's Cordial contained opium. It is unknown what brands of cordials Mrs. White used or how frequently she imbibed in cordials in the evening but it was common for her to write in the evening.

Tells Others to Avoid Swill

For decades Mrs. White was a speaker in the American temperance movement that called for total abstinence from alcohol. She preached to thousands throughout the nation on the dangers of alcohol. From the 1860s onward, her books, articles, and letters are filled with warnings and reproof about drinking alcohol. For example, she wrote that alcohol must be presented to the people as a "sinful" indulgence.27 She advocated the importance of establishing temperance societies and the need for the sect to publish temperance material. In the forward to her book Temperance, the authors acknowledge her attention to this subject:

Temperance was a favorite theme of Mrs. Ellen G. White, both in her writings and in public discourse. In many of her articles which appeared in denominational journals through the years, and in manuscripts and letters of counsel addressed to both workers and laity, she urged Seventh-day Adventists to practice temperance and to promote vigorously the temperance cause.28

In the book's section on alcohol she writes:

Those who frequent the saloons that are open to all who are foolish enough to tamper with the deadly evil they contain, are following the path that leads to eternal death. They are selling themselves, body, soul, and spirit, to Satan. Under the influence of the drink they take, they are led to do things from which, if they had not tasted the maddening drug, they would have shrunk in horror. When they are under the influence of the liquid poison, they are in Satan's control. He rules them, and they co-operate with him.29

Was Ellen White "foolish enough to tamper" with the "deadly evil" of alcohol in the privacy of her own home? One can only wonder how many of her inspired words were penned while she was "under the influence" and "in Satan's control."

Amazingly, she publicly denounced others as "foolish" for doing what she was privately doing. In the 1890s, while Mrs. White was drinking swill for supposed medicinal purposes and prescribing it to others, she warned physicians that "wine, beer, and other stimulants" were not to be used "in the treatment of the sick."30 In 1897, she gave instructions to SDA hospitals that "total abstinence from all intoxicating drinks is to be observed" because "patients must not be given alcohol, tea, coffee, or drugs, for these always leave traces of evil behind them."31 While Mrs. White drank cordials, she condemned parents for giving them to their sick children, claiming it "only stupefies them, but makes them no better."32 Furthermore, though she had wine present in her own home, she told her followers it was "not safe for one of your family to tamper with temptation on the wine cup."33 She told another family to "refuse to have one particle of cider or wine, or anything of a stimulating character in your house, or on your premises."34 Why was it wrong for this family to have wine in their house when she had it in her house?


Seventh-day Adventists should be alarmed that Ellen White was apparently addicted to alcohol during a period when she was writing books, articles, and sending out testimonies in the name of the Lord. She admits having an addiction to homemade vinegar, admits using alcoholic wine, and spoke of looking for a "cordial" as if it were a customary event for her. Other members of her sect observed the alcohol present in her home and used it to justify their own drinking. We may never know exactly how much alcohol Sister White downed, nor how long her addiction lasted, nor how much she penned while inebriated. Perhaps the most serious concern is that she required her followers to abstain from all alcohol and would not even allow them to keep it in their homes. While condemning others for drinking, she kept a stockpile of swill in her own home and secretly drank it.

"Hypocrisy is a lie told in deeds rather than words."35

See also


1. Ellen White, Letter 70, 1911, reproduced in Counsels on Diet and Foods, 485.

2. "Alcohol Withdrawal", http://www.bookrags.com/research/alcohol-withdrawal-dat-01/, extracted Jan. 25, 2008.

3. Ibid.

4. "Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome", http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/addictions/alcohol/007.html, extracted Jan. 25, 2008.

5. Max Bayard, M.D., Jonah Mcintyre, M.D., Keith R. Hill, M.D., and Jack Woodside, JR., M.D., "Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome", http://www.aafp.org/afp/20040315/1443.pdf, extracted Jan. 25, 2008.

6. "Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome", http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/addictions/alcohol/007.html, extracted Jan. 25, 2008.

7. Karen M. Stanley, M.S., A.P.R.N., Celene M. Amabile, Pharm.D., Kit N. Simpson, Dr.PH, Deborah Couillard, B.S.N., E. Douglas Norcross, M.D., Cathy L. Worrall, B.S.N., Pharm.D., "Impact of an Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Practice Guideline on Surgical Patient Outcomes", http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/458862, extracted Jan. 25, 2008.

8. L.M. Tolman and J.A. le Clerc, "Second Pressing Cider", U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Chemistry, Bulletin no. 99 (Washington, D.C., 1905).

9. Paul Hassack, "The Manufacture of Fermented Vinegar," Vinegar Bulletin 1, iss. 1 (Nov. 1916): 155.

10. John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., The Household Manual of Domestic Hygiene, Foods and Drinks, Common Diseases, Accidents and Emergencies, and Useful Hints and Recipes, (Battle Creek, MI, 1875), 32. Kellogg, The New Dietetics: A Guide to Scientific Feeding in Health and Disease, (Battle Creek, Michigan, 1921), 211.

11. Ellen White, Letter 9, 1887, Manuscript Releases vol. 2, 143-144.

12. Ellen White, Desire of Ages, 746.

13. Ellen White, Letter 1, 1893 (20MR 51).

14. Ellen White, Manuscript 5, 1859.

15. "Tomato Wine," Old Line Plate July 19, 2017, http://oldlineplate.com/post/163181605451/tomato-wine.

16. Ellen White, Manuscript 5, 1859.

17. "Rich grape wine" is mentioned by Thomas Webster in An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1855), 515. The same book refers to "Currant Wine" on p. 644. See also The Housekeeper's Encyclopedia of Useful Information by E.F. Haskell, (NY: 1861), 273. Mrs. White knew the difference between "grape juice" and "grape wine" because she used both in her writings. She used "grape juice" to refer to unfermented wine (Ms 22, 1898). She used "grape wine" to refer to fermented wine (Ms 5, 1859), as did everyone else in America. Here is a definition of "grape wine" from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary published in 1913:

"Grape wine: A liquor or beverage prepared from the juice of grapes by fermentation."

18. Ellen White, Manuscript 6, 1859.

19. Ibid.

20. James White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Battle Creek, Michigan, March 17, 1868.

21. "Ellen G. White Estate-Question and Answer File" Number 34-B-I-a "Domestic Wine", May 1, 1963. In 1859, a California state fair records that domestic wines were analyzed and one was found "to have 15 percent alcohol" (Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society, 1859 (Sacramento, 1860), 301). The minimum alcohol content required to precent spoilage in wine was 10% (W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcohol Republic: An American Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), 229). Chemist William Brande measured alcohol content in the 1800a and found "wine contained a higher percentage of alcohol than hard cider or beer...[and] the favorite American wine, Madeira, was more than 20% alcohol... After 1830, wine alcohol content was 18%" (Ibid, 101). "By 1820 it [alcohol content in wine] had stabilized at 22 percent" (Rod Phillips, A Short History of Wine (London: Penguin, 2000), 188).

22. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1868), 383.

23. Ellen White, Testimonies in the Case of Elder E. P. Daniels, 53-57. Letter is dated August 1, 1888.

24. Ibid., 55.

25. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases Volume Twenty-one, 114, par. 1.

26. www.Dictionary.com, vo1. 1, unabridged. Wordnet 3.0, Princeton University, 2006.

27. Ellen White, Manuscript 5, 1881. "Tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol we must present as sinful indulgences. ...tea, coffee, tobacco, beer, wine, and all spirituous liquors, are not to be taken moderately, but discarded."

28. Ellen White, Temperance (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1949), 5.

29. Ibid, 24. See also Letter 166, 1903.

30. Ellen White, Healthful Living, (1892) 237.

31. Ellen White, Manuscript 162 (1897), par. 11.

32. Ellen White, The Health Reformer, Sep. 1, 1866, par. 2.

33. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 20, 58.

34. Ellen White, Letter 7, Feb. 23, 1875 (to Brother and Sister Abbey).

35. Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 195.

36. Public domain image courtesy of the North Carolina State University Library's Special Collections Research Center.

Category: Contradictions
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