Charge: Mrs. White's so-called visions were simply the result of nervous disorders. She suffered a blow on the head from a stone thrown at her at the age of nine that affected her nervous system. Medical works in the sections entitled “Hysteria,” “Epilepsy,” and “Schizophrenia” describe her case exactly. Physicians who knew her well also thus described her.
It is through visions that God communicates with His prophets. If certain singular manifestations in the experience of an individual, which he claims are visions, are explainable on purely natural grounds, his claim to be the possessor of the prophetic gift collapses.
The favorite method by which critics of all things heavenly, including the Bible, have tried to prove their case is by attempting to show that the supernatural incidents described in Holy Writ can be explained on a physical or material basis; for example, that Paul's experience on the road to Damascus was simply an epileptic fit.
This charge against Mrs. White was first formulated in 1887 by D. M. Canright shortly after he left the Adventist ministry. Through the years he amplified the charge, and from him almost all other critics of Mrs. White have drawn. He charged that she was afflicted with “a complication of hysteria, epilepsy, catalepsy and ecstasy.” He focused almost exclusively on the first two, however, for the last two have a dubious status in medical literature as distinct disease entities.
Attention should be called, at the outset, to two primary weaknesses in this charge as it has been made through the years:
1. The medical authorities quoted as proofs are almost invariably works current at the opening of the twentieth century, or earlier. But most of what is certainly known today in the field of mental maladies has been acquired since that date, and has greatly revised our ideas of mental maladies.
2. A diagnosis has been reached simply by examining a few isolated incidents in Mrs. White's life, so-called symptoms of mental disorder, without considering her whole case history, or her life history, as the layman would say. The first step that a reputable psychiatrist takes when confronted with a person who seems to display symptoms of abnormality is to secure a case history. If the case is at all unusual, he would not even attempt a diagnosis without this history. Hysteria, for example, is not simply a group of symptoms; it is a group of interrelated symptoms in a particular individual, who because of this malady is a distinctive kind of personality. The different symptoms are like so many brush strokes; together they serve to produce a certain picture, with a certain hue. Different color combinations produce different pictures, even though the ultimately different pictures may seem to the untrained eye to contain many similarities in the colors applied by the brush strokes. Who of us has not seen an artist on the public platform making stroke after stroke on a sketch, and constantly causing us to change our idea of what he was painting, as he added a color here or a line there? We were able to draw a correct conclusion as to the picture he was creating only when all the lines and all the tints had been applied. Thus with the diagnosis of a case in the field of psychiatry.
In our examination of this charge we shall:
1. Give a case history—a life sketch—of Mrs. White.
2. Set forth the facts concerning her condition in vision, and compare this condition with that of Bible prophets.
3. Present certain currently known facts about epilepsy, hysteria, and schizophrenia.
4. Examine certain evidence and medical testimony that are alleged to prove that Mrs. White was abnormal.
The description of Mrs. White's life that we shall briefly give is drawn mostly from Seventh-day Adventist publications, largely her autobiographical sketches, which are available to the public. No one, so far as we have been able to discover, has challenged the published description of her life.
If Mrs. White was an epileptic, a hysteric, or a schizophrenic, with the personality and characteristics that belong to such people, there would surely be many incidents in her life, if the facts concerning them were known, that would prove embarrassing. Yet Adventists have never sought to hide any facts concerning her. We hardly could have done so if we had tried. For seventy years she was before the public, and thus her life, like that of most other public personages, was an open book. From that open book both friend and foe alike can draw. But how meager indeed is the evidence on which to build even the appearance of a case against her! That fact is significant. We wish now to show that when the fuller picture of her life is presented the bits of so-called evidence lose whatever apparent weight they had.
Mrs. E. G. White, born Ellen Gould Harmon, began life at Gorham, Maine, November 26, 1827. While she was a small child her parents moved to Portland, Maine. At the age of nine she was struck in the face by a stone thrown at her by another school girl. She bled profusely, lay in coma for three weeks, and seemed about to die. But she slowly recovered a measure of health. In her autobiography she thus comments on this experience:
“For two years I could not breathe through my nose. My health was so poor that I could attend school but little. It was almost impossible for me to study, and retain what I learned….
“I had a bad cough, which prevented me from attending school steadily. My teacher thought it would be too much for me to study, unless my health should be better, and advised me to leave school.”—Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts (1860), vol. 2, pp. 11, 12.
Her own account of her childhood years, immediately following the accident, reveals her as exceedingly frail; in fact her health was so poor that she did not attend school after she was twelve
years old. She complained of a bad cough. She was deeply religious, and refers to the effect produced on her by the preaching of the doctrine of hell fire: “The horrors of an eternally burning hell were ever before me.”—Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 32. She tells of praying for long hours in great anguish.
This was her experience when she was not more than fourteen or fifteen years old. About this time she talked with a kindly minister who spoke to her of the love of God, and her fears were greatly relieved.
She then joined with others in a prayer meeting conducted at the home of a relative:
“As I prayed, the burden and agony of soul that I had so long endured, left me, and the blessing of the Lord descended upon me like the gentle dew. I praised God from the depths of my heart. Everything seemed shut out from me but Jesus and His glory, and I lost consciousness of what was passing around me.
“The Spirit of God rested upon me with such power that I was unable to go home that night. When I awakened to realization, I found myself cared for in the house of my uncle, where we had assembled for the prayer meeting. Neither my uncle nor my aunt enjoyed religion, although the former had once made a profession, but had since backslidden. I was told that he had been greatly disturbed while the power of God rested upon me in so special a manner, and had walked the floor, sorely troubled and distressed in his mind.
“When I was first struck down, some of those present were greatly alarmed, and were about to run for a physician, thinking that some sudden and dangerous indisposition had attacked me; but my mother bade them let me alone, for it was plain to her, and to the other experienced Christians, that it was the wondrous power of God that had prostrated me. When I did return home, on the following day, a great change had taken place in my mind. It seemed to me that I could hardly be the same person that left my father's house the previous evening….
“Faith now took possession of my heart. I felt an inexpressible love for God, and had the witness of His Spirit that my sins were pardoned. My views of the Father were changed. I now looked upon Him as a kind and tender parent, rather than a stern tyrant compelling men to a blind obedience. My heart went out toward Him in a deep and fervent love. Obedience to His will seemed a joy; it was a pleasure to be in His service….
“My peace and happiness were in such marked contrast with my former
gloom and anguish that it seemed to me as if I had been rescued from hell and transported to heaven. I could even praise God for the misfortune that had been the trial of my life, for it had been the means of fixing my thoughts upon eternity.* Naturally proud and ambitious, I might not have been inclined to give my heart to Jesus had it not been for the sore affliction that had cut me off, in a manner, from the triumphs and vanities of the world.”—Ibid., pp. 38, 39.†
She, with other members of her family, accepted William Miller's preaching on the Second Advent of Christ. Of the year preceding the expected Advent, she wrote: “This was the happiest year of my life.”—Ibid., p. 59.
About two months after the disappointment of October 22, 1844, she had her first vision.‡ She introduces her account of what she saw, with this brief statement:
“I was visiting Mrs. Haines at Portland, a dear sister in Christ, whose heart was knit with mine; five of us, all women, were kneeling quietly at the family altar. While we were praying, the power of God came upon me as I had never felt it before.”—Ibid., p. 64.
About a week later she had a second vision:
“The Lord gave me a view of the trials through which I must pass, and told me that I must go and relate to others what He had revealed to me….
“After I came out of this vision I was exceedingly troubled, for it pointed out my duty to go out among the people and present the truth. My health was so poor that I was in constant bodily suffering, and to all appearance had but a short time to live. I was only seventeen years of age, small and frail, unused to society, and naturally so timid and retiring that it was painful for me to meet strangers.”—Ibid., p. 69.
She struggled against this call to go out and tell others what she had seen in vision:
“I coveted death as a release from the responsibilities that were crowding
* The “misfortune” was the accident of being struck with a stone that broke her nose and thus somewhat disfigured her.
† For persons to be prostrated in connection with deeply religious services was not uncommon in the early nineteenth century. Prominent evangelists often noted the fact and referred to those thus laid low as “the slain of the Lord.”
‡ This date is established by Mrs. White's statement in a letter to Joseph Bates, written from Gorham, Maine, July 13, 1847.
upon me. At length the sweet peace I had so long enjoyed left me, and despair again pressed upon my soul.”—Ibid., p. 70.
She seems to have found some release from this distress of soul in connection with an earnest prayer service, in which a number of persons engaged.
Though exceedingly young, she revealed an amazing understanding of the temptations that trouble the human heart. Said she:
“One great fear that had oppressed me was that if I obeyed the call of duty, and went out declaring myself to be one favored of the Most High with visions and revelations for the people, I might yield to sinful exaltation, and be lifted above the station that was right for me to occupy, bring upon myself the displeasure of God, and lose my own soul. I had known of such cases, and my heart shrank from the trying ordeal.
“I now entreated that if I must go and relate what the Lord had shown me, I should be preserved from undue exaltation. Said the angel: ‘Your prayers are heard, and shall be answered. If this evil that you dread threatens you, the hand of God will be stretched out to save you; by affliction He will draw you to Himself, and preserve your humility.’”—Ibid., pp. 71, 72.
Then began, almost immediately, a public ministry of preaching, counseling, and writing, that was to continue for seventy years in rather steadily increasing volume, or until almost the time of her death, in 1915. Her first speaking appointment away from Portland, was in Poland, Maine, thirty miles from her home. Of this she wrote:
“For three months my throat and lungs had been so diseased that I could talk but little, and that in a low and husky tone. On this occasion I stood up in meeting and commenced to speak in a whisper. I continued thus for about five minutes, when the soreness and obstruction left me, my voice became clear and strong, and I spoke with perfect ease and freedom for nearly two hours. When my message Was ended, my voice was gone until I again stood before the people, when the same singular restoration was repeated. I felt a constant assurance that I was doing the will of God, and saw marked results attending my efforts.”—Ibid., pp. 72, 73.
The first years of her public ministry were, in some respects, the hardest of all. Not only was she young and frail and unaccustomed to public life, but she had behind her no well-knit church
organization to give to her either financial or moral support. She began to preach in the days immediately following the great disappointment of the Advent believers. The once-large united company, who had been joyfully looking for their Lord to return, had created no church organization during the brief years of their anticipation, and in their disappointment naturally tended to fall apart into diverse groups, perplexed, bewildered, and sometimes contentious. When they met together in different places it was generally in homes, though sometimes in rented halls. Nor was there any paid ministry to care for these different companies of believers.
Under such conditions it was inevitable that discordant theological views would develop and bring division. And, as noted, such companies were subjected, at times, to incursions by that strange, unstable kind of person, the fanatic, who is like a fly in the ointment. It does not take many such persons to bring even the best religion into bad odor, to say nothing of bringing distress and confusion to simplehearted, trusting people.
We need this sketch of the kind of world into which Ellen Harmon moved in order to evaluate correctly her character and her work. Picture a young woman, seventeen, frail, timid, poor, starting out under the tremendous conviction that she must preach to these Advent companies what God had given to her by special revelation. No wonder that she wrote: “I coveted death as a release from the responsibilities that were crowding upon me.” From the time she started her public life in 1845, she found herself confronted with problems that would have taxed the resourcefulness and resoluteness of a seasoned minister.
There was an added factor that made still more difficult her work. While the Advent movement had existed as a well-defined group, the caution had been repeatedly sounded by the principal leaders that the believers should be on their guard against those who thought they had received dreams and visions from the Lord. All this was to the credit of the leaders, who, knowing something
of church history, were aware that the movement would be troubled by deluded persons who hoped to find in such a spiritually awakened group an attentive audience for their hallucinations, false visions, and dreams. It has always been the tragedy of religion that the genuine graces and gifts of the Spirit have been so frequently imitated that prudent Christians, to say nothing of the skeptical world, have been slow to accept the genuine when it has appeared.
Thus Ellen Harmon could expect, not a receptive hearing, but rather a critical, skeptical one. The very fact that fanatics had imposed, at times, on different companies of Adventists, only made such companies doubly skeptical.*
Even if she had had a stout heart and a strong nervous constitution, she might have quailed at the thought of launching out on Such a mission. That she did go forth in weakness and fear proves at least this much at the outset, she was no self-seeking person, in search of gain or fame.
The autobiographical sketch of those first few years reveals that Ellen Harmon no sooner set out on her public ministry than she met, head on, the discordant elements and the fanatics that sought to gain control of Adventist groups or companies. The record is clear that she spoke with vigor and great definiteness against all such. As she traveled and met with different companies she experienced from time to time the singular spiritual exercises that she declares were visions from God. She refers to her visions in simple, brief language. The actual descriptions of her in vision are given by others, and these will be presented in the next chapter.
At one of the first places she visited, where certain men were troubling the church with great pretensions of piety, she had this
* There were, of course, exceptions. Of her first vision, or view, she says: “I told the view to our little band in Portland, who then fully believed it to be of God.”—A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White (hereafter referred to by the short title Experience and Views), p. 5. For Joseph Bates's own account of how he came to believe in the genuineness of her visions, see Appendix D, p. 581.
experience: “During family prayer that night, the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I was taken off in vision.”—Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 48. In the few lines that follow she tells how God revealed to her the true character of these impostors. A little later, in another place, she was suffering great pain because of an injury received in falling from a wagon. She wrote: “Sister Foss joined with me in pleading for God's blessing, and for relief from pain. About midnight the blessing sought rested upon me. Those in the house were awakened by hearing my voice while in vision.”—Ibid.
A little later she describes a meeting in Portland, Maine, that was appointed in order for her to relate what had been shown to her. Then she adds immediately, “While praying for strength to discharge that painful duty, I was taken off in vision.”—Ibid., p. 49.
As might be expected, she met with bitter opposition from those whose lives she had exposed, and from some who were averse to the very idea of a young woman's standing before them to speak with authority concerning Christian conduct and the Christian life. At one point in her earliest public years the opposition became so great that her spirit seemed to be overwhelmed. She wrote, “Discouragements pressed heavily; and the condition of God's people so filled me with anguish that for two weeks my mind wandered.”—Ibid., p. 51.
A little later in her narrative she refers again to this incident as “the two weeks of my extreme sickness, when my mind wandered, as stated on page 51.”—Ibid., p. 69.
To add to her distress of heart, some skeptical persons in the church companies with which she met, declared that her visions were simply “excitement and mesmerism,” that is, hypnotism.*
To offset the depression and doubt that pressed upon her own
* The word mesmerism comes from Mesmer, the name of the man who had only a little before set forth startling ideas on hypnotism. The words hypnotism and mesmerism are synonymous. It was quite the vogue in the mid-nineteenth century to explain certain phenomena in the lives of people who seemed not to be acting according to the standard, normal pattern, as the result of mesmerism.
mind as a result of the charge that her visions were only mesmerism, she went alone to pray at times. On some of these occasions she was given a vision. We quote, “The sweet light of heaven shone around me, and there have I been taken off in vision.”—Ibid., p. 57.
But she was not entirely freed of the doubts that were pressed upon her by those who charged “mesmerism.” To this was added the depression of spirit that came when some falsely charged her as being the leader of the fanaticism that she was trying to stop. Says she:
“All these things weighed heavily upon my spirits, and in the confusion, I was sometimes tempted to doubt my own experience. And while at family worship one morning, the power of God began to rest upon me, and the thought rushed into my mind that it was mesmerism, and I resisted it. Immediately I was struck dumb, and for a few moments was lost to everything around me. I then saw my sin in doubting the power of God, and that for so doing I was struck dumb, and that my tongue should be loosed in less than twenty-four hours….
“After I came out of vision, I beckoned for the slate, and wrote upon it that I was dumb, also what I had seen…. Next morning my tongue was loosed to shout the praises of God. After that, I dared not doubt my experience, or for a moment resist the power of God, however others might think of me.”—Ibid., pp. 59, 60.
As we turn the pages of her earliest autobiographical work, we find repeatedly sentences like these:
“The meeting commenced with prayer. Then as I tried to pray, the blessing of the Lord rested upon me, and I was taken off in vision.”—Ibid., p. 64.
“In the afternoon the blessing of the Lord rested upon me, and I was taken off in vision.”—Ibid., p. 76.
That is the usual picture she paints of the prelude to a vision—a religious setting, prayer around a family circle, with her own prayer generally offering a transition point between the world of earthly things and the world of vision. Sometimes the transition point was a public sermon, when she was addressing a company.
There were instances, however, when her visions were preceded by attacks of illness that were marked by fainting. She recounts
a number of visions, such as we have already noted, before the following incident took place:
“I was suddenly taken ill and fainted. The brethren prayed for me, and I was restored to consciousness. The Spirit of God rested upon us in Bro. C.'s humble dwelling, and I was wrapt in a vision of God's glory.”—Ibid., p. 83.
On August 30, 1846, she married James White, a young Adventist preacher who had been active in the Millerite movement. To this union were born four sons.
The years of their early married life provide a record of stark poverty coupled with poor health, for neither husband nor wife had a rugged constitution. She wrote:
“We were poor, and saw close times. We had resolved not to be dependent, but to support ourselves, and have something with which to help others….
“We endeavored to keep up good courage, and trust in the Lord. I did not murmur. In the morning I felt grateful to God that He had preserved us through another night, and at night I was thankful that He had kept us through another day.”—Life Sketches, p. 105.
As to Mrs. White's mental attitude when in bodily danger we have this that she records of a boat trip from Portland to Boston when a great storm broke. Among the passengers there was much weeping and praying. A woman asked her, “Are you not terrified?” Of her reply she wrote:
“I told her I had made Christ my refuge, and if my work was done, I might as well lie in the bottom of the ocean as in any other place; but if my work was not done, all the waters of the ocean could not drown me. My trust was in God, that he would bring us safe to land if it was for his glory.”—Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, pp. 85, 86.
There was one thought above all others that controlled the minds of James and Ellen White. They firmly believed that despite William Miller's mistaken interpretation of Daniel 8:13, 14, which led him to set a date for the day of Christ's coming, Bible prophecy made clear that the day of the personal Advent of our Lord was near at hand. With this they coupled the belief that the great
Advent Awakening had come as a result of prophecy, and that the Advent believers should go forward to complete their work of warning and making ready a people prepared to meet their God. These beliefs led this youthful couple to dedicate themselves to the task of quickening again the faith of the Advent believers by correcting the prophetic error, and of stimulating them to new zeal by presenting the prophetic evidence that a further work lay ahead.
Mrs. White's faith and forward look was often greater than that of her husband, and it was rather uniformly greater than that of others who were drawn into the movement as the years went by. This is one of the most singular facts in connection with her life. The reader is invited at this point to turn back a moment to the opening chapter to refresh his mind on the picture presented of the unique, primary place that she occupied through all her years in stirring up leaders and laity alike in the movement, to aggressive, forward action for God.
When she came out of a vision she had in November, 1848, she said to her husband:
“I have a message for you. You must begin to print a little paper and send it out to the people. Let it be small at first; but as the people read, they will send you means with which to print, and it will be a success from the first. From this small beginning it was shown to me to be like streams of light that went clear round the world.”—Life Sketches, p. 125.
When she spoke those words there was literally only a small handful of men who were committed to the distinctive doctrines that later were to characterize the movement now known over the world as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There was no money; there was no trained personnel with which to set up a publishing work. But those most closely associated with Mrs. White and who thus had the best opportunity to evaluate her spiritual claims, took her words seriously. Out of that vision has grown a world-circling publishing work.
She did not suddenly cast a hypnotic spell over all who came within the sound of her voice. Those who heard her were in full possession of their faculties and free will. Slowly but surely the
evidence of her work and preaching impressed itself on some who listened and watched, and the number who took her claims soberly and seriously grew steadily. That is a simple statement of fact, and we think it an important fact.
A side light on Mrs. White's habits of life during those first years is provided in this excerpt from a short letter that she wrote to “Dear Bro. and Sister Collins” on February 10, 1850:
“The way is now fully open for James [her husband] to go forward in publishing the Present Truth.* We love you and love to hear from you. We should have written you before but we have no certain abiding place, but have traveled in rain, snow and blow with the child from place to place. I could not get time to answer any letters and it took all James' time to write for the paper and get out the hymn book. We do not have many idle moments. Now we are settled, I can have more time to write.”—Letter 4, 1850.
A letter that she wrote to “Dear Brother Hastings” on March 18, 1850, on the death of his wife, contains these closing lines:
“Dear Brother Hastings, sorrow not as those who have no hope. The grave can hold her but a little while. Hope thou in God and cheer up dear Brother, and you will meet her in a little while. We will not cease to pray for the blessing of God to rest upon your family and you. God will be your sun and your shield. He will stand by you in this your deep affliction and trial. Endure the trial well and you will receive a crown of glory with your companion at the appearing of Jesus.”
Of her resolute courage to go forward in her work, despite her distress of heart in being separated from her children, we read in a letter she wrote to a “Dear Brother and Sister Loveland,” December 13, 1850:
“I had the privilege of being with my oldest boy two weeks. He is a lovely dispositioned boy. He became So attached to his mother, it was hard to be separated from him; but as our time is all employed in writing and folding and wrapping papers, I am denied the privilege of having his company. My other little one is many hundred miles from me. Sometimes Satan tempts me to complain and think my lot is a hard one, but I will not harbor this temptation. I should not want to live unless I could live to do some good to others.”
* The first paper published by the group of Sabbathkeeping Adventists.
The space limits of this chapter prevent our going into endless details concerning the early years of Mrs. White's public ministry, nor is it necessary to do so in order to give a clear picture. As we read the life sketch she wrote, we find there the record, page after page, of the arduous travel and preaching of both her and her husband, despite their poor health. She refers to an experience in 1854 which she describes, in the language of that day, as “a shock upon my left side…. My tongue seemed heavy and numb; I could not speak plainly. My left arm and side were helpless.”—Life Sketches, p. 151. She describes a similar experience in 1858, and adds, “It was my third shock of paralysis.”—Ibid., p. 162. It was some time before “the effect of the shock had entirely left me.”—Ibid., p. 163.
Here is the way she describes a vision she received early in the year 1858:
“On Sunday afternoon there was a funeral service at the schoolhouse where our meetings were being held. My husband was invited to speak. He was blessed with freedom, and the words spoken seemed to affect the hearers.
“When he had closed his remarks, I felt urged by the Spirit of the Lord to bear my testimony. As I was led to speak upon the coming of Christ and the resurrection, and the cheering hope of the Christian, my soul triumphed in God; I drank in rich draughts of salvation. Heaven, sweet heaven, was the magnet to draw my soul upward, and I was wrapped in a vision of God's glory. Many important matters were there revealed to me for the church.”—Ibid., pp. 161, 162.
A diary that Mrs. White kept for some years throws light on her personality. Though she had to travel much, she remained at home as often as possible. In fact, her autobiography and other writings frequently reveal how keenly she suffered in being separated from her children. She was not an impractical, dreamy type of person, introspective and far removed from the workaday world. Her diary, for example, tells of her making “a pair of pants,” and sewing “a coat for Edson [her son],” and “a mattress for the lounge.” Again, she tells of laboring “hard all day on a dress to wear through the mud.” (Diary, March 25, 28, April 26, 1859.)
One day, in the spring of 1859, was spent “making a garden for my children,” because, as she explained, she wanted “to make home … the pleasantest place of any to them.”—Diary, April 11, 1859.
Referring, many years later, to the discipline she employed in rearing her sons, she wrote:
“I never allowed my children to think that they could plague me in their childhood…. Never did I allow myself to say a harsh word…. When my spirit was stirred, or when I felt anything like being provoked, I would say, ‘Children, we shall let this rest now; we shall not say anything more about it now. Before you retire, we shall talk it over.’ Having all this time to reflect, by evening they had cooled off, and I could handle them very nicely.”—MS. 82, 1901.
Another diary entry in 1859 reads thus:
“Walked to the office. Called to see Sister Sarah [Belden] and mother. Sarah gave me a little dress and two aprons for Sister Ratel's babe…. I rode down to the city and purchased a few things. Bought a little dress for Sister Ratel's babe. Came to the office, assisted them a little there and then came home to dinner. Sent the little articles to Sister Ratel. Mary Lough-borough sends her another dress, so she will do very well now.
“Oh, that all knew the sweetness of giving to the poor, of helping do others good and making others happy. The Lord open my heart to do all in my power to relieve those around me—give me to feel my brother's woe!”—Diary, March 1, 1859.
An entry on April 21 includes a reference to another poor family. Here are two sentences: “We have contributed a mite for their relief, about seven dollars. Purchased them different things to eat, and carried it to them.”
In 1863 Mrs. White had a vision in which she saw certain principles that should control the lives of parents in relation to their children. We quote a few lines from what she wrote, because they so definitely throw light on her character and her conception of social and family relations.
“I have been shown that while parents who have the fear of God before them restrain their children, they should study their dispositions and temperaments,
peraments, and seek to meet their wants. Some parents attend carefully to the temporal wants of their children; they kindly and faithfully nurse them in sickness, and then think their duty done. Here they mistake. Their work has but just begun. The wants of the mind should be cared for. It requires skill to apply the proper remedies to cure a wounded mind. Children have trials just as hard to bear, just as grievous in character, as those of older persons….
“Parents, when you feel fretful, you should not commit so great a sin as to poison the whole family with this dangerous irritability. At such times set a double watch over yourselves, and resolve in your heart not to offend with your lips, that you will utter only pleasant, cheerful words. Say to yourselves, ‘I will not mar the happiness of my children by a fretful word.’ By thus controlling yourselves, you will grow stronger. Your nervous system will not be so sensitive. You will be strengthened by the principles of right….
“The mother can and should do much toward controlling her nerves and mind when depressed; even when she is sick, she can, if she only schools herself, be pleasant and cheerful, and can bear more noise than she would once have thought possible. She should not make the children feel her infirmities, and cloud their young, sensitive minds by her depression of spirits, causing them to feel that the house is a tomb, and the mother's room the most dismal place in the world. The mind and nerves gain tone and strength by the exercise of the will. The power of the will in many cases will prove a potent soother of the nerves.”—Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 384-387.
When her husband suffered a “stroke” in 1865 she decided, after he had received months of medical care, that any real hope for his recovery depended on his gaining a new will to live by doing some useful, even though simple tasks. A small farm was purchased in the country some distance from Battle Creek. We will let her son William describe an incident that reveals her resourcefulness:
“Soon it was haying time. The grass was cut by Brother Maynard's mowing machine. When ready to haul in, Father thought to ask that it be hauled in by Brother Maynard's hired man who had done the mowing. To prevent this, Mother had urgently requested Brother Maynard to say that his own work was pressing and that it would not be convenient to send his man to haul in the hay. I was sent to neighbor Whitefield's with a similar message. These kind neighbors very reluctantly consented to this request, when told what Mother's reasons were for making it. When Father sent out requests for help with the hay, he was shocked at the answer. Then Mother said: ‘Let us show the neighbors that we can attend to the work ourselves. Willie and I
will rake the hay and pitch it on the wagon, if you will load it and drive the team.’ To this Father was forced to consent. As we had no barn, the hay must be stacked near the cow shed. At Mother's suggestion, Father pitched it off the wagon, while she built up the stack. Meanwhile I was raking up another load.
“While we were thus hard at work, some of the townspeople passed in their carriages, and gazed with much curiosity and surprise to see the woman who each week preached to a houseful of people, heroically engaged in treading down hay and building a stack. But she was not in the least embarrassed; she was intent upon the one object of securing her husband's restoration to health, and was overjoyed to see that her efforts were succeeding.”—W. C. White, “Sketches and Memories of James and Ellen White,” MS. in White Publications Document File, No. 626.*
The mid 1860's found Mrs. White writing at length regarding the subject of health and the need of founding a unique kind of medical institution that would not only seek to restore people to health—and by rational therapies that excluded the deadly drugs of those days—but also to teach them how to keep well. Those writings were based, she declared, on what she saw in vision, and are the explanation for the creation of a chain of sanitariums around the world, beginning with the Battle Creek Sanitarium.† To the uniqueness of these institutions, to their pioneering in the fields of diet therapy and physical therapy and health education, multitudes can testify.
As we look at Mrs. White's correspondence in the 1860's and 70's we find the date lines of the letters reading like a railway timetable. She was almost constantly traveling to special church meetings, camp meetings, and like gatherings over the country. In the summer of 1877, in the city of Battle Creek, Michigan, the Women's Christian Temperance Union made a special endeavor
* A variant of the story, written by W. C. White at another time, gives this version of the request to the neighbors:
“She [Mrs. White] knew that her husband purposed asking his friendly neighbors to help in getting it [the hay] into a stack. She forestalled this by visiting the neighbors first.
“‘You are driven with your own work are you not?’ she asked.
“‘Yes,’ was the reply.
“‘Then, when Elder White sends for you asking for help with his hay, just tell him what you have told me.’”—W. C. White, “Sketches and Memories of My Mother's Life,” MS. in White Publications Document File, No. 573a.
† See, for example, Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 485-495, 553-567,
in behalf of the temperance cause. By invitation, she spoke one Sunday evening, under W.C.T.U. auspices, “to fully five thousand persons.” (Life Sketches, p. 221.) It was not uncommon for her to speak to large audiences of non-Seventh-day Adventists on such subjects as temperance and the Christian home. Because of her interest in the subject of temperance she was invited from time to time to speak in the churches of other denominations. For example, she writes:
“On Sunday, June 23 , I spoke in the Methodist church of Salem, on the subject of temperance. On the next Tuesday evening, I again spoke in this church. Many invitations were tendered me to speak on temperance in various cities and towns of Oregon, but the state of my health forbade my complying with these requests.”—Life Sketches, p. 231.
All through these years Mrs. White had been having from time to time what we may call public visions, that is, visions in the presence of others. She had also been having night visions, when, shut out from all the world, she received what she declared were revelations from God. She saw no distinction between the two, so far as the essential nature and content of the visions were concerned. Gradually the public visions became less in number.
One of the last, if not the last, of her public visions was given to her in October, 1878, while she was attending the General Conference session, held in Battle Creek, Michigan. She mentions it thus briefly:
“On Wednesday of the second week of the meeting, a few of us united in prayer for a sister who was afflicted with despondency. While praying, I was greatly blessed. The Lord seemed very near. I was taken off in a vision of God's glory, and shown many things.”—Ibid., p. 238.
Three pages farther on in her narrative she refers to a night vision thus: “On the morning of Oct. 23, 1879, about two o'clock, the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I beheld scenes in the coming judgment.”—Ibid., p. 241.
Mrs. White's increasing public labors never seemed to take her away from the realm of matter-of-fact home duties. In a letter
she wrote to D. M. Canright and his wife, November 12, 1873, she said:
“I have arisen at half past five o'clock in the morning, helped Lucinda wash dishes, have written until dark, then done necessary sewing, sitting up until near midnight; yet we have not got sick. I have done the washings for the family after my day's writing was done.”—Letter 1, 1873.
Someone has well said that a healthy sense of humor is one of the best evidences of a healthy, normal mind. At first blush it may startle some readers to think of Mrs. White as having had a trace even of dry humor. But if innocent little children may laugh, why may not a prophet of God at least smile betimes. We think Mrs. White even chuckled when she wrote the following lines in a letter to her husband from Oakland, California, where she was staying for a time while he was in Battle Creek, Michigan:
“We received your few words last night on a postal card:
“‘Battle Creek, April 11. No letter from you for two days. James White.’
“This lengthy letter was written by yourself. Thank you for we know you are living.
“No letter from James White previous to this since April 6…. I have been anxiously waiting for something to answer.”—Letter 5, 1876.
During the early years death had twice visited her home, taking her youngest son as an infant, and her oldest at the age of sixteen. Now death struck once more, taking her husband on August 6, 1881. How great was the blow to her is suggested by how great was the fellowship between them, a fellowship of love and mutual respect. That fact is repeatedly revealed in their private correspondence. They had been taken to the Battle Creek Sanitarium only a few days before, both of them having come down with “a severe chill.” A remarkable insight into her character and her whole attitude toward life is revealed in the following lines from her own narrative:
“Though I had not risen from my sick-bed after my husband's death, I
was borne to the Tabernacle on the following Sabbath to attend his funeral. At the close of the sermon I felt it a duty to testify to the value of the Christian's hope in the hour of sorrow and bereavement. As I arose, strength was given me, and I spoke about ten minutes, exalting the mercy and love of God in the presence of that crowded assembly. At the close of the services I followed my husband to Oak Hill Cemetery, where he was laid to rest until the morning of the resurrection.
“My physical strength had been prostrated by the blow, yet the power of divine grace sustained me in my great bereavement. When I saw my husband breathe his last, I felt that Jesus was more precious to me than He ever had been in any previous hour of my life. When I stood by my first-born, and closed his eyes in death, I could say, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ And I felt then that I had a comforter in Jesus. And when my latest born was torn from my arms, and I could no longer see its little head upon the pillow by my side, then I could say, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ And when he upon whose large affections I had leaned, with whom I had labored for thirty-five years, was taken away, I could lay my hands upon his eyes, and say, ‘I commit my treasure to Thee until the morning of the resurrection.’ …
“I keenly feel my loss, but dare not give myself up to useless grief. This would not bring back the dead. And I am not so selfish as to wish, if I could, to bring him from his peaceful slumber to engage again in the battles of life. Like a tired warrior, he has lain down to sleep. I will look with pleasure upon his resting place. The best way in which I and my children can honor the memory of him who has fallen, is to take the work where he left it, and in the strength of Jesus carry it forward to completion. We will be thankful for the years of usefulness that were granted to him; and for his sake, and for Christ's sake, we will learn from his death a lesson which we shall never forget. We will let this bereavement make us more kind and gentle, more forbearing, patient, and thoughtful toward the living.
“I take up my life work alone, in full confidence that my Redeemer will be with me.”—Life Sketches, pp. 252-254.
And so she went forth bravely in the work that she had been carrying on since 1845. We find her soon in California, traveling about to different meetings. In 1883 she traveled eastward on a long sweep of public services. In the summer of 1885 she went over to Europe to give her support and strength to what was then a newly developing work. In one of her sermons while in England
she made this statement that throws light upon her mood and attitude toward life:
“I do not look to the end [of the world] for all the happiness; I get happiness as I go along. Notwithstanding I have trials and afflictions, I look away to Jesus. It is in the strait, hard places that He is right by our side, and we can commune with Him, and lay all our burdens upon the Burden Bearer.”—Ibid., p. 292.
In writing to an overseas conference she said:
“There is little that any of you can do alone. Two or more are better than one if you will each esteem the other better than yourself. If any of you consider your plans and modes of labor perfect, you greatly deceive yourselves. Counsel together with much prayer and humbleness of mind, willing to be entreated and advised. This will bring you where God will be your counselor.” —Ibid., p. 303.
In August, 1887, Mrs. White returned to America to continue her work of preaching and writing. Then in November, 1891, she sailed for Australia, there to throw her energies for almost a decade into the newly developing work in the Southern Hemisphere. During most of her first year in Australia she suffered much from what was diagnosed as neuritis and rheumatism. For a part of that year she continued her book writing, in addition to her correspondence with leading workers, “propped up in bed.” (See Life Sketches, p. 338.) Looking back over this long period of illness, she wrote to the brethren gathered in General Conference:
“All through my long affliction I have been most signally blessed of God. In the most severe conflicts with intense pain, I realized the assurance, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ At times when it seemed that I could not endure the pain, when unable to sleep, I looked to Jesus by faith, and his presence was with me, every shade of darkness rolled away, a hallowed light enshrouded me, the very room was filled with the light of his divine presence.”—Letter, Dec. 23, 1892, quoted in Daily Bulletin of the General Conference, Feb. 27, 1893, p. 407.
She was concerned in Australia, as she had been in America, to see a school founded for the youth, where they could be trained in Christian principles, and for the Adventist ministry as well.
She believed that the school should be out in the country, away from the influences of the city. She also wished to see manual labor made a part of the education. She believed that head and hand and heart ought to be educated. She felt that young people should have an education, even though they intended to labor with their hands. She prepared a written statement, early in 1894, to stimulate interest in the founding of a school in Australia. We quote from it to reveal, further, her outlook on life:
“We need schools in this country to educate children and youth that they may be masters of labor, and not slaves of labor. Ignorance and idleness will not elevate one member of the human family. Ignorance will not lighten the lot of the hard toiler. Let the worker see what advantage he may gain in the humblest occupation, by using the ability God has given him as an endowment. Thus he can become an educator, teaching others the art of doing work intelligently. He may understand what it means to love God with the heart, the soul, the mind, and the strength. The physical powers are to be brought into service for love to God. The Lord wants the physical strength, and you can reveal your love for Him by the right use of your physical powers, doing the very work which needs to be done. There is no respect of persons with God….
“There is in the world a great deal of hard, taxing work to be done; and he who labors without exercising the God-given powers of mind and heart and soul, he who employs the physical strength alone, makes the work a wearisome tax and burden. There are men with mind, heart, and soul who regard work as a drudgery, and settle down to it with self-complacent ignorance, delving without thought, without taxing the mental capabilities in order to do the work better.
“There is science in the humblest kind of work; and if all would thus regard it, they would see nobility in labor. Heart and soul are to be put into work of any kind; then there is cheerfulness and efficiency….
“Manual occupation for the youth is essential. The mind is not to be constantly taxed to the neglect of the physical powers. The ignorance of physiology, and a neglect to observe the laws of health, have brought many to the grave who might have lived to labor and study intelligently. The proper exercise of mind and body will develop and strengthen all the powers….
“Habits of industry will be found an important aid to the youth in resisting temptation. Here is opened a field to give vent to their pent-up energies, that, if not expended in useful employment, will be a continual source of trial to themselves and to their teachers. Many kinds of labor
adapted to different persons may be devised. But the working of the land will be a special blessing to the worker. There is a great want of intelligent men to till the soil, who will be thorough. This knowledge will not be a hindrance to the education essential for business or for usefulness in any line. To develop the capacity of the soil requires thought and intelligence. Not only will it develop muscle, but capability for study, because the action of brain and muscle is equalized. We should so train the youth that they will love to work upon the land, and delight in improving it. The hope of advancing the cause of God in this country is in creating a new moral taste in love of work, which will transform mind and character.”—Life Sketches, pp. 352-355. (Italics hers.)
She returned to America in 1900, and in St. Helena, California, about sixty-five miles north of San Francisco, purchased a place named Elmshaven, which was to be her home until the time of her death in 1915. Though she was seventy-two at the time of her return, she did not settle down to ease and retirement. She traveled and preached and wrote much. During this period she took a most active part in the founding of several medical institutions, including a medical school.*
The qualities of housewife and neighbor were as clearly evident in these later years as in the former ones. Sometime during 1901 she made a visit to the denominational college in Healdsburg. In connection with this visit she journeyed by carriage to Santa Rosa to hold a Sabbath meeting. As she drove back to Healdsburg, this little incident took place:
“On our return we called upon a family by the name of Lighter. They live about half way between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, and seem to be in limited circumstances. Sister Lighter's father, a very old man, is quite feeble….
“We were glad to do an errand for the Master by visiting this family. Willie [her son William] read the comforting promises of God's Word to the sick man, and I presented the afflicted one to the Great Physician, who is able to heal both soul and body. The family were very thankful for our visit. I know that they were comforted.”—Letter 126, 1901.
Often on her daily carriage drives through the quiet Napa
* The Glendale Sanitarium, the Paradise Valley Sanitarium, the Loma Linda Sanitarium, and the College of Medical Evangelists.
Valley, in which her home was situated, she would alight and Visit with a mother who might be seen by a farmhouse with her children. The children always provided a subject of mutual interest. More often than not the farm mother did not even know who had stopped so informally to chat with her for a few moments.
From one of her letters in 1903 this sentence is taken: “Our carriages were drawn up under the trees, and I picked nineteen quarts [of cherries], sometimes sitting on the carriage seat, and sometimes standing on it.”—Letter 121, 1903. In her 1904 letters is found mention of her driving out to a pasture “to see the black calf.” It seems that she was solicitous to know whether it “were faring well after the long rain.”—Letter 91, 1904.
Not long before she died she said to one who was talking with her:
“My courage is grounded in my Saviour. My work is nearly ended. Looking over the past, I do not feel the least mite of despondency or discouragement. I feel so grateful that the Lord has withheld me from despair and discouragement, and that I can still hold the banner. I know Him whom I love, and in whom my soul trusteth….
“I have nothing to complain of. Let the Lord take His way and do His work with me, so that I am refined and purified; and that is all I desire. I know my work is done; it is of no use to say anything else. I shall rejoice, when my time comes, that I am permitted to lie down to rest in peace. I have no desire that my life shall be prolonged.”—Life Sketches, pp. 443, 444.
In that quiet spirit of holy resignation she died on July 16, 1915, having lived nearly eighty-eight years. Her passing was mourned by a worldwide religious movement. What is perhaps more important in this present chapter, which seeks to discover what manner of woman she was, Mrs. White's passing was mourned by neighbors and friends outside as well as within the church. For years afterward farmers' wives and their children with whom she had visited informally referred to her as “the little old lady with white hair, who always spoke so lovingly of Jesus.”
This is a woefully inadequate picture that has been painted of a most unusual woman, but space limits have prevented the presentation
of any more than a sample of the evidence that might be offered to show how unusual were her talents, how practical her Christianity, and how unselfish and rational her attitudes toward life.
In the light of this life sketch, brief though it is, one is tempted to dispose of the mental-malady charge here and now with one sentence in comment: If such mental illness as Mrs. White is supposed to have suffered from will produce a life of sacrificial service and ardor, of far mission planning, of counsel to holy living and high standards, of selfless love for the needy, and all the other Christian graces that radiated from her life, then we would say solemnly, God give us more mentally maladjusted people.
With these facts in mind let us go on to examine the evidence concerning Mrs. White's physical state while in vision.