Ellen White's Harsh Treatment of Others
By Dirk Anderson
Mrs. White is often portrayed as a loving, cheerful, grandmother-like figure in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There is no denying she displayed these attributes at times. However, this is only half the story. Many Adventists have testified she often treated people with harshness, callousness, and undue severity. This was especially true of those who failed to follow, or ignored, her testimonies.
Harsh treatment of church members
Mrs. White was apparently fond of standing up in church and rebuking the sins of the audience from the pulpit. More than one SDA congregation experienced the wrath of Mrs. White. Dr. Ronald Graybill, former associate secretary of the White Estate, relates one such incident:
"James [White] defended the style as well as the content of his wife's messages by putting her sharp rebukes in the best possible light. She called the congregation in Wright, Michigan, together one afternoon in 1867 to hear her read 51 pages of 'testimony' she had written concerning various church members. 'Those reproved,' James reported, 'were, of course, surprised to hear their condition described, and were thrown in great trial.'"1
Imagine the utter humiliation of having the prophet parade your "sins" in front of the entire church! Worse yet, those "sins" may or may not have been accurate, depending upon whom the prophet obtained her information from!2
Here is one example of how Mrs. White used a "testimony" to brutally deride Sister B, a church member struggling with illness and depression:
"I was shown... You have been sympathized with too much... In your present state of mind you are not fit to marry. There is no one that would wish you, in your present helpless, useless condition. If one should fancy he loved you; he would be worthless; for no sensible man could think for a moment of placing his affections upon so useless an object... At the present time your condition is not acceptable in the sight of God..."3
What is ironic about this harsh statement is that Mrs. White was often herself in an ill and depressed condition!
One subject that really enraged Sister White was SDA members joking and expressing any humor. One Sabbath afternoon, in 1868, at a church meeting in Tuscola, Mrs. White went into a tirade against the "sin" of "jesting, joking, laughing."4 She openly rebuked several members of the congregation for expressing humor. Brother and Sister Doud were displeased with the open rebuke. The next day, Brother Doud rightly rebuked Mrs. White for "not telling the fault" in private.5 Meanwhile, Mrs. Doud was reduced to tears. She told Mrs. White, “You have killed me, you have killed me clean off. You have killed me.” Mrs. White callously replied, "That is just what I hoped the message I bore would do."6
One particularly demented testimony lambasts children born to unfit parents:
"Children born to parents who are controlled by corrupt passions are worthless. What can be expected of such children but that they will sink lower in the scale than their parents?"7
Children born to bad parents do have a greater struggle in life, but it is wrong to label them as "worthless" or assume their cases are hopeless. Many children have overcome horrific abuse and abandonment to lead tremendous lives. One of the countless examples is Bart Millard, the lead singer of the Christian band MercyMe. Bart was abused by his alcoholic father and abandoned by his mother. However, he rose above those trials to become an outstanding person who led many people to Jesus through his music.8 Was he "worthless?"
It turns out Mrs. White regarded many people as "worthless." For example, in her book Solemn Appeal, she writes: "A large share of the youth now living are worthless." Similar crass denunciations can be found in many of her letters and testimonies.9
Treatment of her own children
The Whites' son Edson was a particular challenge for the Whites. Dr. Graybill explains how Edson was viewed by Ellen and James:
"Edson often found himself left in the care of one family and then another. When his parents were with him, they interpreted his frequent illnesses as a part of Satan's attack on the fledgling movement and his healings as evidence of God's endorsement of their public efforts. Thus even in his sufferings he was only an adjunct to their careers."10
As for the "good" son, Willie, Mrs. White reminded him, "naughty children, God does not love."13
Treatment of co-workers
Fannie Bolton worked as an editor revising Mrs. White's books, articles, and letters. Her spirit was grieved when she saw some of the harsh writing in some of Mrs. White's letters. In 1892, she wrote to Mrs. White expressing how painful it was for her to have to edit those harsher testimonies. Fannie wrote that she had, "often, I might say always, wished that I need have nothing to do with those that were cutting. ... I have often wondered if your words were not unnecessarily sharp."14 Fannie was also exasperated by Mrs. White's habit of speaking about Fannie's "faults and wrongs to others."15
In 1895, when Fannie objected to the practice of stealing the writings of others and putting them in Ellen White's books without giving proper credit, Ellen slapped her in the face.16 She was henceforth terminated from Mrs. White's employment. To add insult to injury, Mrs. White wrote her a stinging testimony. Fannie claimed to be "absolutely guiltless" of the wrong Mrs. White accused her off, confessing that the letter "cut me terribly."17
Later, Mrs. White made it difficult for Fannie to find work writing for the church's papers. Fannie wrote that Mrs. White "cut me off from all channels in the papers, wrote unjustly and cruelly concerning me, and brought me down to a bed of death."18 While Fannie survived the brutal onslaught, it was too much for her sensitive psyche to bear. G.B. Starr reports she "was confined in the asylum at Kalamazoo, Michigan, for several years."19
J.N. Andrews is another example of an SDA worker who experienced the wrath of Ellen White. In 1860, Mrs. White wrote a 24-page letter to Andrews and his wife, complaining about him refusing to accept her "testimonies":
"I saw that Bro. John had suffered in his mind extremely. ... Bro. John has been driven to almost insanity. ... I saw that his family do not stand clear. ... They will not stand in the light until they wipe out the past by confessing their wrong course in opposing the testimonies given them of God. ...He unsettled the mind of Henry Nichols in regard to the visions, and Henry has never recovered. ... The visions are either of God or the Devil. There is no half way position to be taken in the matter."20
Despite his doubts regarding Mrs. White's inspiration, Andrews, like Fannie, continued to serve the church. Andrews suffered a difficult life. In 1872, his wife Angeline died. In 1874, he sailed to Europe as a missionary with his two children. In 1878, Andrews returned to the United States to bury both his daughter, Mary, and his brother. Andrews was in poor health and did not return to Europe until the following year. Joseph Smoot, in the spring 1984 issue of Adventist Heritage, reports that in 1883, Mrs. White wrote a letter to B.L. Whitney sharply criticizing Andrews:
"She said Andrews had 'given the impression of suffering when he has endured no more than ordinary laborers in their first experience in this work.' She regarded Andrews as having 'a diseased mind.' Mrs. White thought that John Andrews would die and said she 'could not pray for his life, for I consider he has held and is still holding [up] the work in Switzerland.' ... She concluded that she did not want Andrews 'injured, neither do I want the cause of God to bear the hindrance and the mold of his diseased imagination.'"21
It is astonishing that Mrs. White could not even bring herself to pray for Andrews, a pioneering missionary and author who had devoted his entire life to the work of the SDA Church! Contrast this with Stephen who prayed for his murderers while they were stoning him to death. Contrast this with Jesus who not only asked God to forgive those who were murdering him, but also said, "pray for them which despitefully use you." (Luke 6:28)
Mrs. White then wrote Andrews a letter that Smoot describes as "the most severe rebuke she had ever given to him."
"She said that 'if you go down into the grave, I do not want you should go down in deception.' ...she proceeded to enumerate his character defects. Feeling that the Andrews and Stevens families had been a bad mix from the beginning, she believed they had fostered his desire "to crave for sympathy, to love to be pitied, to be regarded as one suffering privations and as a martyr. She told him of his sin of dwelling on himself, of mourning for his wife and daughter as he had done... Dwelling at length on his rejection of her counsel regarding remarriage [he never did], she told him that he had not been a good father to his son, Charles."22
Smoot concludes "this letter must have broken Andrews' spirit and will to live." Andrews died a few months later on Oct. 21, 1883.
G.I. Butler was a president of the General Conference when he endured a scathing attack from Sister White. He describes the assault in a letter to J.H. Kellogg:
"Sister White called me up to your Hospital, and talked to me two or three hours, when my head seemed as though it would just about wreck me. It seemed as though it would split. I nerved up, with every ounce of energy I had, and listened to it all. Some things, I tell you, were about as cutting as a man could hear. Occasionally I would throw in a word. She said, 'you ought to have been out of office for years.'"23
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln insulted
D.M Canright describes how Mrs. White rejected the pleas of President Lincoln for a day of prayer and fasting for the war-wracked nation:
"Mr. Lincoln, in his need, asked the prayers of all Christians, and appointed days of fasting and prayer. Of these Mrs. White said: 'I saw that these national fasts were an insult to Jehovah. . . A national fast is proclaimed! Oh, what an insult to Jehovah!' (Testimonies, Vol. I., p. 257). That was the way she sympathized with Mr. Lincoln and the nation in the hour of need.
Contrast Mrs. White's behavior with that of the Apostles. Paul instructed the Galatians to restore the one caught in sin with "spirit of gentleness" (Gal. 6:1 NKJV). He told Timothy to correct believers "with gentleness" (2 Timothy 2:25 NASB). At one point Sister White seemed to regret that she and James were actively involved in being "accusers of our brethren," calling it "the work Satan is engaged in."25 She asked James to forgive her for "any words of impatience" and felt regret for her "hardness of heart, and because my life has not been more in accordance with the life of Christ...I weep over my own hardness of heart, my life which has not been a correct example to others."26 Late in life, Mrs. White wrote, "No harsh words are to be spoken by a Christian to anyone, old or young. Such words are prompted by the enemy."27 If harsh words are prompted by Satan, then whose words ended up in her testimonies? God's or Satan's?
1. Ronald Graybill, Power of Prophecy (unpublished manuscript, 1983), p. 9. Note: This document was published in 2019 by Dr. Graybill, and is available on Amazon.
2. H.E. Carver, D.M. Canright, and J.H. Kellogg all testified that they supplied information about people to Ellen White which she later used in writing out "testimonies" to these same people. See Mrs. E.G. White's Claims to Divine Inspiration Examined, (2nd edition, 1877), Merritt G. Kellogg's Statement, (1908), Interview between Elder G. W. Amadon, Elder A. C. Bourdeau, and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg at Dr. J. H. Kellogg's House in Battle Creek, Michigan, (October 7th, 1907), as printed in Spectrum, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 61-62, and the March 20, 1889, edition of the Healdsburg Enterprise newspaper.
3. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 324,325.
4. Ellen White, Letter 6, 1868, para. 5.
5. Ibid., para. 6.
6. Ibid., para. 5.
7. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 351.
8. Bart Millard's life is chronicled in the 2018 film, I Can Only Imagine. The song by the same title became "the most-played song in the history of Christian radio as well as the best-selling Christian song of all time." (Wikipedia)
9. Ellen White, Solemn Appeal, p. 62. Mrs. White frequently used the word "worthless" in a general sense, but also in specific cases. In one testimony she specifically called the children of Brother and Sister Paine, "worthless members of society" (Manuscript 3, 1861, para. 4). It is unclear what the Paine children did to deserve that denunciation. She also called the children of Elder Bates "nearly worthless" (Letter 1, 1864). In regards to a young man Sister Mary was interested in, Ellen White described him as "a worthless object. ... He is worthless" (Letter 30, 1875). In 1880, she called Mattie Stratton a "worthless girl" (Letter 61, 1880). In a letter to Uriah Smith, she wrote: "I think Elmer a worthless boy" (Letter 19, 1885). She told Sister Craig she had a "worthless life" (Letter 34, 1890). To a "young man" she wrote, "you are a worthless son" (Letter 365, 1905). See also, Testimonies, vol. 2 529, vol. 3 141, vol. 4 429, Testimonies to Ministers 441, Manuscript 2, 1875.
10. Graybill, Power of Prophecy, p. 62.
11. Ibid., p. 63.
12. Ibid., p. 66, citing letter 6, 1869, letter 14, 1869, letter 2a, 1872.
13. Ellen White, Letter 3, 1860, to Willie White.
14. Fannie Bolton to E. G. White, November 16, 1892. (White Estate's "Fannie Bolton Story," #25).
15. Fannie Bolton to E. G. White, March 8, 1892. (White Estate's "Fannie Bolton Story," #17).
16. J. H. Kellogg to E. S. Ballenger, January 9, 1936.
17. Fannie Bolton to E. G. White, December 15, 1895. (White Estate's "Fannie Bolton Story," #82).
18. Fannie Bolton to Mrs. E. C. Slawson, December 30, 1914. (White Estate's "Fannie Bolton Story," #134).
19. G. B. Starr, “The Watchcare of Jesus Over the Writings Connected with the Testimony of Jesus,” June 2, 1915. (White Estate's "Fannie Bolton Story," #135).
20. Ellen White, Letter to "Brother J. N. Andrews And Sister H. N. Smith," 1860.
21. Smoot op. cit. Adventist Currents, vol. 1, #6, p. 7.
22. Ibid., pp. 7,8.
23. Butler letter to Kellogg, June 9, 1904, published in Adventist Currents, vol. 1, no. 5.
24. D.M. Canright, Life of Mrs. E.G. White: Her False Claims Refuted, chapter 15.
25. Ellen White, Letter 5, 1880.
27. Ellen White, Letter 203, 1903.
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