Under the Influence: Did Ellen White's Sons Influence her Writings?
By Dirk Anderson
Early in her career, many believed Mrs. White to be under the influence of her husband James. One example of this is the Western Health Reform Institute. Ellen White had written a testimony in favor of expanding the Institute. James apparently disagreed, and some believe he influenced her to write a testimony in which she contradicted her earlier testimony and then admitted, "I yielded my judgment to that of others."1 Over the course of her prophetic career, how many other times did she yield her judgment to others? It appears Ellen White's sons followed in the footsteps of their father and attempted to influence her writings.
The Case of Dr. Burke
After James White passed away, W.C. White became more and more involved in his role as his mother's counselor. For example, it appears Ellen White wrote a testimony at W.C. White's prompting in the case of Dr. W.P. Burke. Burke was a physician at the Saint Helena SDA Sanitarium and was considering resigning. W.C. White wrote a letter to his mother about the situation:
It seems as though he [Burke] needs a little talking to, if you feel like writing him a short letter sometime to encourage him in this matter of loyalty to the Institution I think it would be well. ... I have not much influence with Dr. and you have considerable, therefore I suggest that you write to him.2
Not long afterward, Mrs. White sent a testimony to Burke about staying on the job, writing:
The enemy is at work to lead you away from your post of duty... Just wait, faithful and true, until the Lord releases you.3
Was it really God's will for Burke to stay on that job? Or did Willie influence his mother to write a testimony which Burke received as coming from God without realizing that Willie was the real inspiriation behind the testimony?
The Evesdropping Cook
In 1901, Ellen White and W.C. White were staying overnight in a room at the Indianapolis SDA Sanitarium. Staying in the room next door to them was the sanitarium's cook, Mrs. W.A. Greenlee and her husband. The walls of the sanitarium were thin, and Mrs. Greenlee heard a man come into the room around 5 A.M. and start speaking to Ellen White. It was Willie, who was talking loudly because his mother's hearing had deteriorated. Being curious, Mrs. Greenlee went into the closet so she could evesdrop better on the conversation. What she heard stunned her. She heard Willie "dictating" to Mrs. White, "telling her what she ought to say to the people, that she ought to advise Bro. Donnell to step down and out like a Christian gentleman."4
Shortly afterward, Ellen White advised the Indiana conference president Donnell to resign, which he did, thinking the advice had come from the Lord. Meanwhile, Mrs. Greenlee kept the indcident to herself, until the SDA campmeeting at Greenfield, Indiana, in September. There, she happened to encounter the former president Donnell. She told him what she had overheard, and he began to suspect that Ellen White was under the influence of W.C. White. The story soon got around the campmeeting, and the new president, I.J. Hankins, talked with Greenlee and Donnell, and then wrote to W.C. White for an explanation. Willie replied that he could see how someone "might think that I was planning, advising, and suggesting to mother what she ought to do," but he assured Hankins that he was merely refreshing his mother's memory about what she had said and written earlier, and he was not suggesting "to her any new thoughts."5
As concerning as that explanation sounds, the buzz likely died down and might have been forgotten, had it not been for two other incidents that occurred in subsequent years.
The Edson White Incident
Ellen White had counselled her son Edson "not to do into debt" with his projects for the Southern Publishing Association.6 Contrary to her counsel, Edson ran up a debt of $25,000, which was a large sum in 1902.7 SDA General Conference president A.G. Daniells wanted to put a stop to Edson's out-of-control spending and he contacted Ellen White with his concerns. There were also additional concerns about Edson's shady fund-raising activities. Ellen White was brought into a meeting and questioned. A stenographer recorded the meeting and below is the transcript of that interview:8
QUESTION: Would you think it best for Edson to insist on the future existence of the Southern Missionary Society as an independent organization?
Thus, in this meeting, Ellen White clearly states it was not God's will for Edson to operate the Southern Publishing Association as an independent ministry. Edson afterward visited his mother and managed to convince her the institutioin's money was being well spent. This placed Mrs. White in a difficult position, because she had already stated it was not God's will for Edson to operate the way he was operating. This presented an impossible contradiction. How could it not be God's will, and then, after Edson talked to her, now be God's will? Mrs. White reversed her position and then attempted to control the damage by asking W.C. White to retrieve the stenographer's report:
I am instructed to recall it, for it was not the will of the Lord I should stand in any such position. Elder Daniells has a copy, and I must have it; please to do this errand for me.9
If it was not the will of the Lord for her to take the stand that she did, then did elder Daniells influence her? Or did Edson influence her to change her stand? It seems that Edson harbored some animosity towards his brother Willie over this incident. He may have concluded that W.C. White and Daneiells were using his mother to conspire against him. Three years later, when he visited Battle Creek in 1905, he complained openly about W.C. White manipulating his mother during the 1902 incident. This appalled his mother. She fired off a letter to him urging him to stop:
What kind of a move was it that you made in rushing to Battle Creek and saying to those there that W. C. White, your own brother, for whom you should have respect, manipulated my writings? This is just what they needed to use in their councils to confirm them in their position that the testimonies the Lord gives your mother are no longer reliable. ...you do a work to injure your mother’s influence...10
Apparently, there was a large and growing number of people in Battle Creek who believed Ellen White's testimonies were being influenced by others. If anyone was in a position to know whether W.C. White was influencing Ellen White, it was Edson White. His admission that Willie was manipulating his mother provides strong evidence that is was indeed happening. Furthermore, the fact that Mrs. White reversed her instruction on the Southern Publishing Association demonstrates that she believed she was not speaking for God when she made her original statement. This supports Edson's contention that she was being manipulated.
The Watson Letter
This incident began in the summer of 1904. At that time, W.O. Palmer was working with Edson White at the Southern Missionary Society. Sensing a great fund-raising opportunity, Palmer went to Grand Junction, Colorado, to raise money for the ministry. Palmer was successful in gathering a substantial offering, including $270 in tithe ($270 in 1905 is $7,886 in 2020 dollars).11 This direct fund-raising approach seemed to work well for Palmer. He later complained that when money was given through the normal channels (the General Conference or the Southern Union Conference), the Southern Missionary Society would "never see a cent of it."12 When G.F. Watson, the president of the Colorado Conference, heard that tithe money from one of his churches was being funnelled directly to Edson's ministry, he was incensed. He wrote a complaint to General Conference president A.G. Daniells in which he told Daniells that he had told Edson, "he had better see that the tithe carried off by W.O. Palmer got back into the Colorado Conference Treasury."13 Daniells forwarded the letters to W.C. White, criticizing the actions of Edson and Palmer, and asking Willie to deal with the situation.14
W.C. White informed his mother of this matter. Meanwhile, in January of 1905, Edson arrived in Elmshaven, and on the 19th he met with Ellen and Willie.15 It is unknown what Edson said to his mother about this matter, but the letter she wrote to Watson three days afterward was certainly favorable to Edson's position. She asked Watson to not get so "stirred up" and to not give "publicity to this matter."16 In the letter she admitted sending her own tithe (and that of others who sent her their tithes) to various ministries she felt needed support.17 Watson was not pleased with Ellen's letter. He described the letter as "spurious" and told Edson directly that he considered it to be "a product of your own evil brain."18 Willie later denied he or Edson had written the actual letter.19
While Mrs. White had admonished Watson to keep the matter private, it was circulated in subsequent years. The letter started to become a threat the income of the SDA conferences. If Ellen White was in favor people directing their tithe money according to their own whim, then that could put a dent in the conference's treasury. To counteract this, it was decided to produce a "testimony" about this subject. The brethren found a statement Ellen had written in the November 10, 1896, issue of Review and Herald and they republished it in Testimonies, volume 9, in 1909:
Let none feel at liberty to retain their tithe, to use according to their own judgment. They are not to use it for themselves in an emergency, nor to apply it as they see fit, even in what they may regard as the Lord’s work.20
This testimony contradicted her own actions and contradicted her prior letter to Watson. This seemed to confirm in Watson's mind that the 1905 letter he received was spurious. In September 1913, Watson told a meeting of ministers that he believed Edson "forged that letter" and he had "no doubt" that "many letters had been sent out which were spurious."21
The accusations of undue influence do not come merely from the opponents of Seventh-day Adventism. This article has shown that even some of the proponents of Adventism thought that Ellen White's "inspired" writings were being manipulated by her sons. If true, one must ask, which testimonies were written under the influence?
1. Ellen White, Testimonies, Vol. 1, p. 562.
2. W.C. White to Ellen White, May 26, 1891.
3. E.G. White to W.P. Burke, May 30, 1891.
4. Ira J. Hankins to W. C. White, Sept. 25, 1901.
5. W.C. White to Ira J. Hankins, Dec. 24, 1901.
6. C.C. Crisler, "Report of a Portion of a Council-Meeting," Oct. 19, 1902. Manuscript 123, 1902, p. 9.
7. Ibid. Note: $25,000 in 1902 would be equivalent to $757,966 in 2020 (westegg.com).
8. Ibid., Manuscript 123, 1902, p. 15.
9. Ellen White to W.C. White, letter 267, Nov. 17, 1902.
10. Ellen White to J.E. White, letter 391, 1906 (1EGWLM, 2798). This letter was not fully released by the White Estate until 2014.
11. J.E. White to Ellen White, Oct. 20, 1904. Inflationary value calculated using the calculator at https://westegg.com/inflation/.
12. W.C. White, "Regarding the Use of the Tithe," (1911), p. 1 (DF 113d).
13. G.F. Watson to A.G. Daniells, Nov. 20, Dec. 14, 1904.
14. A.G. Daniells to W.C. White, Dec. 25, 1904.
15. W. C. White to G. I. Butler, Jan. 19, 1905.
16. Ellen White to Elder Watson, letter 267, January 22, 1905 (2MR 99-100).
18. W.A. Colcord to J.E. White, Feb. 3, 1914; J.E. White to Ellen White, Dec. 23, 1904.
19. W.C. White to G.F. Watson, Dec. 7, 1913.
20. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 247.
21. Leslie Littell to W.C. White, Sept. 29, 1913.
Jerry Allen Moon, "William Clarence (W. C.) White: His Relationship to Ellen G. White and Her Work," doctoral dissertation, Andrews University, 1993.
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