Under the Influence Part 1: Where Did Mrs. White Get Her Message From?
By Dirk Anderson, 2023
Where did Mrs. White acquire her message? Was she instructed supernaturally in visions from God? Or did she learn from the people around her? This article will examine how the leading men in Ellen White's life influenced her beliefs, teachings, and visions.
One of the first persons to influence Ellen Harmon was William Miller. She a mere twelve years old when Miller came to her hometown of Portland, Maine.1 She quickly adopted Miller's teachings about the imminent return of Christ, which she maintained for the remainder of her life. She also adopted the philosphy of Miller and other leading Millerites that those who rejected the truth about the return of Christ in 1844 were part of Babylon. She writes that in 1844, "many left the fallen churches."2 This "coming out of Babylon" included herself and her family. For the remainder of her life she taught that the second angel's message of Revelation 14 meant that believers must leave Babylon and join the SDA sect.
Joseph Turner - Inspiration, Coincidence, or Fabrication?
Joseph Turner was a leading figure among the Adventists in 1845. In January, Elder Turner published an article in the Advent Mirror indicating that according to his studies, the coming of the Bridegroom had already taken place in heaven, and that Christ had moved "within the veil" in the heavenly sanctuary.
In mid-February of 1845, Mrs. White claimed to have received a vision revealing the same truth. Joseph Bates was apparently puzzled about this. He wrote the Whites a letter and asked where Mrs. White acquired her teaching on the Bridegroom. We do not know the exact reason Bates asked this question, but perhaps he was concerned because her views were so nearly identical to Elder Turner's article, and he might have been curious as to whether she acquired the teaching from him.
By the time Mrs. White wrote back to Bates in 1847, the relationship between Turner and the Whites had soured. Turner had become increasingly fanatical, claiming Mrs. White's visions were the product of mesmerism. It would have been terribly embarrassing for Mrs. White to admit that one of their major doctrines originated with a man who was now a "fanatic." Mrs. White writes back assuring Bates the doctrine came straight from God, not through the fanatical Turner:
Notice the facts of this situation:
It is difficult to believe Mrs. White did not sneak a peak at Turner's article while she was in his house for over two hours. Furthermore, it seems nearly unbelievable that her own family did not say a single word to her about Turner's presentation in their home a few hours earlier. This was a very important topic of discussion among Adventists at that time. It is hard to believe an important doctrinal presentation could be made in her own home to her own family and friends, and yet none of them said a single word to her about it.
What about Turner? Did Mrs. White's vision convince him of her prophethood? Not exactly. Shortly afterward, they became bitter enemies, each making accusations against the other. Mrs. White writes:
"Joseph Turner labored with some success to turn my friends and even my relatives against me. Why did he do this? Because I had faithfully related that which was shown me respecting his unchristian course."4
It is obvious that Turner had serious doubts as to the inspiration of Sister White, even going so far as to convince her friends and relatives to stop following her.
Early Adventist Isaac Wellcome also noted the similarities between the visions of Ellen and the preaching of Turner. He wrote:
"These visions were but the echoes of Elder [Joseph] Turner and others' preaching..."5
Thus, from the very beginning of her prophetic career, Mrs. White followed a pattern of appropriating the thoughts, ideas, and doctrine of other leading brethren and incorporating that content into her visions.
William Foy--Inspiration or Coincidence?
It is clear that early in her prophetic career Ellen Harmon was obtaining the material from her visions from others. In fact, at least one of her very first visions appears to have been appropriated from the prophet William Foy.
As a teen-ager, Ellen went to hear Foy speak about his visions on a number of occasions. Shortly after her first vision in 1844, Ellen met with Foy and she "had an interview with him."6 Later that evening she attended a meeting and was invited to share her vision. She did not realize that Foy was in the audience. As she began speaking, Foy leaped to his feet and declared it was just what he had seen! Oddly enough, he excused himself from the meeting and there was no reported contact between him and Ellen White after that point. Later, in 1845 when he published his visions, he had them copyrighted.
Joseph Bates--Inspiration or Fabrication?
As far as Bates is concerned, we will never know whether or not he found Ellen White's explanation of the Joseph Turner situation believable. We do know that Bates had serious doubts about whether this young, teen-ager was truly a prophetess of God. When the Whites first met Joseph Bates they were poor and in need of an influential friend. Bates, on the other hand, was always looking for someone to convert to his unique views. Bates had strong convictions about the seventh day Sabbath being the Seal of God, the Mark of the Beast being Sunday-keeping, and the shut door of salvation. The Whites agreed with Bates on the shut door of salvation, but at first, they saw little value in the Sabbath or his teachings on the Mark of the Beast. Eventually Bates managed to convince the Whites to keep the Sabbath with him from 6am to 6pm, and it was not long before Ellen White was having visions supporting Bates' view of the Sabbath. They also adopted Bates' views on the Mark of the Beast, the Seal of God, and the shut door of salvation. These subjects soon appeared in Ellen White's visions, as well as in the writings of her and James.
At the beginning of their relationship Bates had some serious doubts about Mrs. White's gift. However, a vision on Bates' favorite subject--astronomy--finally convinced him she was authentic. A year earlier, Bates had published a 39-page tract entitled The Opening Heavens. The Whites no doubt knew that he was fond of Astronomy. Bates listened intently as Mrs. White made motions as if flying through space while she described Jupiter with its four moons, Saturn with its seven moons, and Uranus with its six moons. Bates must have been pleased to hear that Jupiter is inhabited by "a tall, majestic people" who had never sinned. Mrs. White describes what happened next:
"After I came out of vision, I related what I had seen. Elder Bates then asked if I had studied astronomy. I told him I had no recollection of ever looking into an astronomy."7
It is apparent that she did not obtain her knowledge from God. God never showed her a tall, majestic people inhabiting Jupiter because decades ago scientists proved that Jupiter is uninhabited. In fact, the surface of the planet is liquid, not solid. It is interesting to note that while Mrs. White got close enough to Jupiter to see its inhabitants, she only saw exactly what astronomers of her day had seen through their telescopes: 4 of its 80 moons. Mrs. White's knowledge of Astronomy was limited to knowing what could be obtained from any newspaper or library of her day, that four moons orbited Jupiter, seven orbited Saturn, and six orbited Uranus.
In addition to Astronomy, Bates was also introduced the Whites to health reform. He avoided avoid tobacco, did not drink alcohol, tea, or coffee, did not eat meat, and avoided butter, cheese, and rich pastries. The Whites gradually adopted these practices and they became the core of Ellen White's health reform vision of 1863.
Perhaps the person with the most influence over Ellen was James. The Whites' early friend, Lucinda Burdick, testified that James controlled Ellen's visions. D.M. Canright also observed the influence that James had upon Ellen. In chapter 8 of his book, Seventh-day Adventism Renounced, Canright writes:
"Mrs. White originates nothing. In her visions she always sees just what she and her friends at the time happen to believe and be interested in. Her husband and other leading men first accept or study out a theory and talk it till her mind is full of it. Then when she is in her trance that is just what she sees. One who has been all through the Advent work and well knows, says: 'The visions have brought out no points of faith held by Seventh-day Adventists.'
Health Teachings--Inspiration or Appropriation?
Aside from joining Bates in giving up coffee and tea, prior to 1863, the Whites had shown little interest in health reform. All that changed, however, in January 1863, when the White boys became ill with Diphtheria. James had the good fortune of coming across an article about curing Diphtheria written by Dr. James Jackson, a health-reformer known nationally for his water treatments.
In 1863, the Whites ordered some of his books, and in 1864 they went on the first of several trips to Dansville, New York, where they became acquainted with the doctor. They learned that he encouraged his patients to eat properly. No red meat, sugar, coffee, tea, alcohol, or tobacco were permitted at his institution; instead, the emphasis was on fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grain. Jackson also promoted a two-meal-a-day diet.
Mrs. White also had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harriet Austin at the Dansville clinic. Dr. Austin advocated a reform style of dress for women. Although Mrs. White had previously written a testimony against the reform style of dress, her experience at Dansville apparently changed her mind. It was not long before a testimony came out in support of the reform dress.
Not surprisingly, during this time period Mrs. White began having visions about health, and she and James began travelling around the churches sharing the health message Ellen had supposedly received from God. Some of those attending who were familiar with Dr. Jackson were quick to recognize that James and Ellen were merely repeating Jackson's health teachings. They began questioning whether her health message had originated with God or Dr. Jackson. That question is still being debated today.
The 1888 Message
In 1888, at an SDA church conference, God sent a message of Righteousness by Faith to the Seventh-day Adventist sect. It was essentially the same message taught by the great Protestant reformers for centuries, but apparently the SDA sect had lost sight of the message in their legalistic zeal to promote the Sabbath message. Rather than send the message to the sect's appointed prophetess, it appears God chose to send the message through two young ministers, A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner.
While many of the brethren at the conference resisted the message, to her credit Mrs. White endorsed it heartily:
"The message given us by A. T. Jones, and E. J. Waggoner is the message of God to the Laodicean church, and woe be unto anyone who professes to believe the truth and yet does not reflect to others the God-given rays."8
Mrs. White even went so far as to claim she had known the 1888 message all along. When questioned about it, Mrs. White claimed it was the message she had been preaching for 45 years:
"I have had the question asked, what do you think of this light which these men are presenting? Why, I have been presenting it to you for the last forty-five years,--the matchless charms of Christ. This is what I have been trying to present before your minds."9
At first she says she has been presenting the message for 45 years. Then in the next sentence she said she was trying to present it. A review of the books and articles written by Ellen White over the first 45 years of her ministry reveals little, if any, of the Righteousness by Faith message. In fact, the reason that many of the brethren gave for rejecting the message is because they felt it contradicted the earlier writings of Sister White. In 1889, Mrs. White wrote of SDA ministers:
"The ministers have not presented Christ in his fullness to the people, either in the churches or in new fields, and the people have not an intelligent faith. They have not been instructed as they should have been, that Christ is unto them both salvation and righteousness."10
If the SDA ministers and people were not instructed as they should have been, then why hadn't the "prophet of God" been instructing them on this subject for 45 years?
After 1888, Jones and Waggoner began touring the SDA churches presenting the message of Christ's righteousness. In 1890, E.J. Waggoner published a 96-page book entitled Christ and His Righteousness. Mrs. White followed in 1892, with her own book about Jesus, the 126-page Steps to Christ. She later followed that book with Desire of Ages, and Christ's Object Lessons. Following in the foot-steps of Jones and Waggoner, her writings after 1888 became much more Christ-centered and righteousness-by-faith oriented. Thus, she appropriated the righteousness-by-faith message as her own, began preaching it, and claimed she had known it all along for 45 years, but had somehow failed in trying to communicate it.
To top it all off, despite the fact that she endorsed Jones and Waggoner more than 200 times in her writings, both men ended up rejecting her prophetic claims and leaving the SDA sect.
It is a known fact that the content of Mrs. White's visions matched whatever she happened to believe in at the time. For example, in one of her very earliest visions, before she had yet adopted the doctrine of soul-sleep, she saw brethren who had passed away in heaven. After she adopted soul-sleep, she never saw another dead saint in heaven. Thus, these visions (or hallucinations) were the product of her own mind, whether triggered by James, or her health problems, psychological trauma, or the religious fervor of her day. Rather than discount these visions, the strong personalities that surrounded her most of her life most likely realized the tremendous benefit of having a prophet to validate and verify what they were teaching. Thus, Ellen White was encouraged to believe these events were from God. Not knowing any better, she came to believe she had a divine calling.
Unwittingly, she became a pawn in the hands of the strong-willed executives of the early SDA Church. This can be shown by the fact that her visions nearly always agreed with the theology and teachings of a strong personality that she was associated with at the time.
Thus, Mrs. White was dominated by the strong personalities around her. She had a strong sense of duty and felt keenly the need to live up to the expectations of those around her. Unable and unequipped to carry the burden of being a prophet on her own shoulders, she turned to the leading brethren who, with few exceptions, shaped and moulded her messages. Sincerely desiring to guide her sect in the right path, she made up for her lack of inspiration by appropriating the ideas, thoughts, and writings of others as a source of inspiration for her sect.
1. Arthur Lacey White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years: 1827-1862, vol. 1 (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1985), 34.
2. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 1, 53.
3. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 5, 95-97.
4. Ellen White as quoted in Arthur White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, vol. 1, 87-88.
5. Isaac Wellcome, History of the Second Advent Message (Yarmouth, Maine: Advent Christian Publication Society, 1874); Jacob Brinkerhoff, The Seventh-day Adventists and Mrs. White's Visions (Marion, Iowa: Advent and Sabbath Advocate, 1884), 4-6.
6. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 17, 96.
7. Ellen White, Life Sketches (1915), 97.
8. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 15, 92.
9. Ellen White, Manuscript 5, 1889.
10. Ellen White, Review and Herald, Sep. 3, 1889.
Category: Visions Examined
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