Ellen White and the Idolatry of Photography
By Ray Pitts
Mrs. White unequivocally condemned photography as a waste of money and a violation of the second commandment:
"During the night I was sorely distressed. A great burden rested upon me. I had been pleading with God to work in behalf of his people. My attention was called to the money which they had invested in photographs. I was taken from house to house, through the homes of our people, and as I went from room to room, my Instructor said, 'Behold the idols which have accumulated!'"1
Did she practice what she preached?
Amazingly, in the midst of writing these testimonies, while "waging war" against the evil of photography, Mrs. White was having pictures of herself and her family taken! Here is the evidence:
"I do not think I shall ever get a picture to equal the one Dunham has made for me. He says I had better have the large one put on a small card. What do you think of this plan?"7
Nine years earlier, Mrs. White had made a public apology for her picture-taking activities9:
We acknowledge our error. We deeply regret that we ever consented to sit for our pictures. For years I would not consent to have our pictures taken, although solicited to do so. How many times I have wished we had remained steadfast. But all we can do now is to confess our wrong and ask God to forgive us, and entreat the forgiveness of our brethren and sisters."10
In public she acknowledged and repented of her mistake in 1867, but in private she was still making picture idols in 1876. Ten years later, in 1886, we find Mrs. White privately encouraging others to make photographs, even offering to pay the expenses:
Well, Addie [Walling], I would be pleased to have you get your pictures taken and write to May [Walling] to do the same. I will settle the bills. I want to see the faces of my children once more.11
She must have had a significant collection of pictures when she died because she goes through the trouble of mentioning them in her will:
NINTH: My household furniture, dishes, carpets, pictures, photographs, and clothing, I give and bequeath in equal parts to my sons, James Edson White and William C. White.12
Adventists reap the fruit of Mrs. White's testimony
Apparently some Adventists in Europe took Mrs. White's testimonies to be the Word of God and started burning their pictures. Mrs. White relates the events that happened in Christiana in 1886:
Some had been bringing in false tests, and had made their own ideas and notions a criterion, magnifying matters of little importance into tests of Christian fellowship, and binding heavy burdens upon others. Thus a spirit of criticism, fault-finding, and dissension had come in, which had been a great injury to the church. And the impression was given to unbelievers that Sabbath-keeping Adventists were a set of fanatics and extremists, and that their peculiar faith rendered them unkind, uncourteous, and really unchristian in character. Thus the course of a few extremists prevented the influence of the truth from reaching the people.
Notice that she blames the members of the Christiana church for interpreting the 2nd commandment to apply to pictures when she herself had taught it for years from her testimonies which supposedly came from God. She even claimed Christ would say, "Take these things hence", and that an Angel had told her in vision that these photographs were "idols." It is no surprise the people reacted the way they did. They were simply following their consciences in obeying what they thought was a testimony from God Himself! By burning their photographs they were following Mrs. White's instructions to their logical conclusion. If God said a photograph was an idol, then it should be destroyed!
Mrs. White was the one who had been teaching the people that photographs were idols; therefore, she was the origin of the "criticism, fault-finding, and dissension" in the Christiana Adventist Church. She condemns the Christiana people for their "false test" while failing to mention that she was the one who originated that test. In essence, she is saying that to take her testimonies literally and obey them is to be "fanatical" and "extreme".
Photography was a very expensive art in the late 1800s. The Whites had pictures of James taken, as is indicated by Mrs. White's letter to her son W.C. after James' death:
"If you have your father's pictures, please bring them. I want to show them. My pocket album I left at Healdsburg."14
Where did these photos of James come from? One possibility is suggested from this letter written to James in 1876:
"Lathrop is as pleased a man as you ever saw with the pictures, especially of you. He says that she will sell you the negative for five hundred dollars. Beside what we take, it will bring him that much custom. He thinks Ingleson's a flat affair. He [Lathrop] has your picture in the window for show."15
$500 for one negative! That equals 1000 days wages for the average working man in those days! How can this expense be justified in light of what she wrote:
"In the vision given me in Rochester, Dec. 25, 1865, I was shown that picture-taking had been carried to too great lengths by Sabbath-keeping Adventists; and that much means had been spent in multiplying copies which was worse than lost. This means should have been invested in the cause of God. I was shown that we had done wrong in expending means in picture-taking."16
Why did Ellen White tell others that photographs were (1) idols, (2) self gratification, (3) a waste of money, (4) diverting minds from God's Word, (5) eclipsing heaven from our view, (6) interposing between God and the soul, and (7) taking up time and thought that should be devoted to God while at the same time she was privately having photographs taken of herself and her family at great expense? Could it be that she did not really believe her testimonies came from God?
1. Ellen White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Sep. 10, 1901.
2. Ellen White, Messages to Young People, p. 316.
3. Ibid., p. 318.
4. Ellen White, Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, Jan. 14, 1901.
5. Ellen White, Messages to Young People, p. 316.
6. Ellen White, The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 887.
7. Ellen White, Letter 17, 1876, p. 2 (To James White, April 30, 1876).
8. Ellen White, Letter 21, 1876, p. 2 (To James White, May 5, 1876).
9. Regarding her activities prior to 1867, in 1865 we find Mrs. White apparently planning to distribute photos of herself to the people at the Dansville clinic:
"Please send to us at Our Home, Dansville, New York, one half a dozen of our pictures, both on one card, and one dozen each separate; also two of James, large, and two of mine, the best you can find." - Letter 6, 1865 (To 'Dear Children,' September 22, 1865. Source: "Manuscript Releases" Vol. 5, p. 385)
10. Ellen White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Mar. 26, 1867.
11. Ellen White, Letter to Addie and May Walling, July 21, 1886; quoted in Manuscript Releases, Vol. 8, p.79.
12. Ellen White's Last Will and Testament
13. Ellen White, Historical Sketches, pp. 211-212.
14. Ellen White, Letter 15, 1882, p. 1. (To W. C. White, May 23, 1882).
15. Ellen White, Letter 1a, 1876, p.1. (To James White, March 24, 1876).
16. Ellen White, Review, Mar. 26, 1867.
17. Ellen White, Home Missionary, June 1, 1893.
18. Ellen White, Review, Sep. 9, 1901.
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