Literary Borrowings and Inspiration

[Return to the Table of Contents]
[Back to Online Books Menu]
[Return to the Homepage]

Section Titles
The Plagiarism Charge—Part III
A Middle Position on Inspiration
“The Words … Are My Own”
Human and Divine Related in Miracles
A Critic's Own Testimony
An Impressive Similarity
Correct Statement in Preface

The Plagiarism Charge—Part III

[Top of Document]

The obvious purpose behind the charge of plagiarism is the endeavor to show that Mrs. White really did not write, as she claimed, by inspiration of God. We have discovered that her literary borrowings were limited, and that she cannot rightly be charged with any attempt to deceive. Thus only one question more remains to be considered: Did Mrs. White's borrowings invalidate or in any degree dilute her claim that she wrote by inspiration of God?

We could hardly hope to provide an answer to this question that would be satisfactory to all, and for the reason that it involves at least in part, another question: What is the nature of inspiration? Devout theologians through the centuries have never been able to agree on the answer. And this is to be expected, for the divine inspiration of a prophet, whereby he presents to us messages that are different in quality and authority from the messages of others, is obviously a manifestation of the supernatural, and thus beyond our full comprehension. However, some observations may be made that will bring the matter into clearer focus and help us to settle the particular problem before us, that of the inspiration of Mrs. White's writings.

There are two extreme positions that have been held on the subject of inspiration. At one extreme stand certain ultraloyal believers in the Bible and the supernatural, who picture a prophet as being so essentially different from other men that he dwells in a kind of vacuum, isolated completely from any human influence or ideas, with his hand moving, as it were, automatically under divine dictation, and lo an inspired manuscript is created! We


respect those who hold such an extreme position, but we disagree with them in their view.

The other extreme is that of the religious liberals, who think of prophets simply as good men, but perhaps no more inspired than great poets, or artists, for example, According to this view, prophets, though they wrote with great spiritual power, revealed an insight that might be different in degree but not in kind from that of other great writers.

A Middle Position on Inspiration

[Top of Document]

We believe that the Bible justifies neither extreme position. The Bible pictures a prophet as someone very human, a man of like passions as we are, who employs human language and human facilities. But the Bible also pictures him as a man who in a supernatural way is filled with the light of Heaven, and who conveys to men the light, the instruction, that God has given to him.

But in conveying to men his divinely secured message, he must employ human language. If he is describing a vision that includes a scene of earthly events, and finds, for example, that a historian has phrased tersely that scene, why must we conclude that he is a fraud because he draws from a historian a few lines of description?

Or why should it be considered an evidence that a prophet is false because he borrows something from the writings of a Bible commentator, for example? There are those who would attempt to challenge the inspiration of Moses because various of the laws he penned parallel closely certain codes already on record in surrounding nations. And others would attempt to discredit the inspired character of the sermon on the mount because some of the beatitudes sound very much like certain sayings of nonChristian holy men and philosophers. But what the Bible critics forget is that Christ is the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. Thus in all ages there have been men who uttered great truths, though those truths were often intermingled with errors.

The uniqueness of the prophet is that in a wholly distinctive manner his mind is illumined by God to write only truth. If he finds that a Bible commentator has aptly and tersely stated a truth,


why should the borrowing of that terse statement prove that the prophet is a fraud? We think it may reasonably prove the opposite. Only a prophet of God could know with certainty whether a particular statement by some writer presented a great truth in wholly accurate form.

“The Words … Are My Own”

[Top of Document]

Early in her public life Mrs. White declared, in commenting on the relationship between a scene portrayed before her in vision and the writing out of that scene:

“Although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation.”—Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867, p. 260.

Place beside this her statement in the Author's Preface first published in The Great Controversy in 1888, and quoted at length in chapter 28. Mrs. White there describes how a prophet receives revelations and how he conveys those revelations to men: There is illumination by the Holy Spirit. Scenes are presented. Spiritual thoughts and ideas are brought to the mind. Then the prophet takes up his pen and proceeds to present, in the language of men, what has been seen and heard and impressed on his mind in vision. And it is in this context that Mrs. White frankly states that she has drawn, at times, on the language of men as found in histories and other sources.

Someone may say that this is not the way he understands inspiration. But he must know that he is expressing simply his own understanding of a very great mystery. The Bible gives us no detailed information on how the prophets related their writing of visions to their receiving of them. We can only draw inferences from their very brief and almost incidental remarks. Mrs. White gives us a rather explicit statement of how one who claims that she wrote by inspiration actually did her writing. We think that explanation reasonable and entirely consistent with Scripture and with the basic fact that the human and the divine are united in some mysterious way in the work of a prophet.


The burden of proof rests upon the critic to show that Mrs. White's presentation of the combining of the human and the divine in a prophet's work is inconsistent with all that we definitely know concerning the way in which Bible prophets received and wrote out their visions. We do not believe that such proof can be produced. And in the absence of that proof, Mrs. White's explanation of how she wrote The Great Controversy, for example, permits us to believe that she truly wrote by inspiration, even though she borrowed passages from the writings of others. And, needless to add, the general principles she presented in her preface to The Great Controversy apply also to her other works.

Is there any reason why a prophet, because he is a prophet, should not read and study attentively what others have written? Even though inspiration in a prophet consists of a uniquely divine illumination of mind on events and spiritual principles, why may not he seek from every written form of speech the most effective, the most graphic, ways to convey the truth and the light that has been revealed to him in vision?

Human and Divine Related in Miracles

[Top of Document]

No one believes more fully than do Seventh-day Adventists that there is a distinctly supernatural, and thus miraculous, operation involved in the manifestation of the prophetic gift. But, speaking of the miraculous, we note from Scripture that when Christ worked mighty miracles He displayed His power only to do that which men could not do for themselves, For example, He put clay on a blind man's eyes. He then told the man to go wash it off. He restored the dead man, Lazarus, to his sisters. But strictly speaking, He performed only the miracle of restoring life to Lazarus. He then left to men the task of unwinding the funeral bandages so that Lazarus could walk and see and act as a living man.

But Christ's miracles are no less supernatural because of the human actions in connection with them. We believe God has a purpose in this combining of divine and human, a purpose so often forgotten by those who superstitiously would look for miraculous happenings of every sort, as if the divine should substitute


for the human on every side and in every feature of life. A careful reading of Scripture reveals that God is sparing of the miraculous, and at no time displays His power merely to create wonder or substitute for accomplishments that men could produce if they diligently tutored and employed all the talents and resources He has already given to them.

Without seeking to draw a-close analogy, we believe that this principle of divine economy in the display of the miraculous may help us to reach a right conclusion on the question before us. We think that the unprejudiced reader of The Great Controversy, for example, will have no difficulty in concluding that the book gives evidence of a grand design that was not copied from human writings, and that the limited borrowings from other authors do not dim the conviction as to that grand design. Or, to change the figure: There is a pulsing life in that book that cannot be found in secular or church histories, certainly not in the histories from which Mrs. White borrowed some of her descriptions. We believe the life that pulses in that book is God breathed—inspired of God. That there should be the human touch of human hands before this miracle of life actually speaks to men, detracts nought from the miracle.

Not only were Mrs. White's literary borrowings limited; they were also not central to the grand design or purpose of her writing. They are, by and large, part of the frame of the inspired pictures of truth that she seeks to bring before our eyes. The measure of the inspiration of an artist is not the frame of his picture, but the picture!

A Critic's Own Testimony

[Top of Document]

No one can read any of Mrs. White's works, very particularly the two cited so generally in the plagiarism charge—Shetches From, the Life of Paul and The Great Controversy—without sensing immediately that the historical, or merely descriptive, part of her writings is incidental to the spiritual, and though good, is not the real justification for the publication of any of her books; that even the occasional words of a Bible commentator that might be woven


into the fabric of certain works are not indispensable to them.

We shall let Canright be witness to this fact. Here is what he wrote in 1885—two years before he left the Seventh-day Adventist Church—concerning the four volumes of The Spirit of Prophecy. First his statement on volumes 1 to 3:

“While I have carefully read the first, second, and third volumes of ‘Spirit of Prophecy,’ heaven has seemed very near to me. If the Spirit of God does not speak to us in these writings, then I should despair of ever discerning it. Oh, how precious the dear Saviour looks! How infinitely valuable the salvation of one soul! How hateful and inexcusable sin appears! God is good, and the sweetest thing on this earth is to love and serve Him.”—Review and Herald, Jan. 6, 1885, p. 16.

And in the same issue he comments on volume 4 of The Spirit of Prophecy, which is also called volume 4 of The Great Controversy:*

“I have read many books, but never one which has interested me so intensely and impressed me so profoundly as Vol. IV. of ‘The Great Controversy,’ by Sr. White. Perhaps it may be partly because I see things differently; but I am sure that is not wholly the reason. The historical part is good, but that which was of the most intense interest to me, was the last part, beginning with the ‘Origin of Evil.’ The ideas concerning the nature and attributes of God, the character of Christ, and the rebellion of Lucifer in heaven, carry with them their own proof of inspiration. They moved the depths of my soul as nothing else ever did. I feel that I have a new and higher conception of the goodness and forbearance of God, the awful wickedness of Satan, and the tender love of Christ. I wish everybody could read it whether of our people or not. Get it, brethren, and read it carefully.”—Ibid., p. 9.

Canright did not have to write this eulogy of Mrs. White's writings. He wrote it of his own free will as a spontaneous expression of his conception of the uniqueness of her work, its spiritual significance, and its effect upon his own heart. That testimony he could not have borne after reading all the histories in the world or all the other secular works from many of which Mrs. White might have drawn to provide background and framework for a presentation of spiritual truths. Nor do we think he would have written thus after reading all the Bible commentaries available.

* This is the 1884 edition that became the special object of attack by Canright and others.


He confesses: “The historical part is good.” But what really stirred him, what he saw unique in the writing, was Mrs. White's presentation of spiritual truths and her explanation of the ways of God to men that could not be found elsewhere. These presentations of the deep things of God, said he, “moved the depths of my soul as nothing else ever did.”

That two years later he should, in his enmity against all things Seventh-day Adventist, seek to indict Mrs. White's writings, provides no grounds for invalidating this glowing testimony that he freely bore in 1885.

An Impressive Similarity

[Top of Document]

The thoughts he here expresses are so similar to those set forth in certain sentences in the publishers' preface in The Great Controversy as it appeared in 1885, that it might easily have been written by him. Listen to these words from it: “We believe that the writer has received the illumination of the Holy Spirit in preparing these pages…. No one who knows what it is to hold communion with our heavenly Father, will fail to realize that the writer of these pages has drawn from the heavenly fountain, and received help from the sanctuary.”* But it is these very words that have been held up to ridicule through the years by all critics as they have echoed the charge, initially framed by Canright, that Mrs. White's borrowing from other writers proved that she did not receive “the illumination of the Holy Spirit,” and was really a false prophet. The critics declare that as soon as The Great Controversy came from the press “leading brethren” “discovered” that Mrs. White had borrowed from other writers. Canright was one of the “leading brethren.” But instead of raising a “protest,” he wrote a eulogy.

Amadon wrote in his newspaper article of 1907 of the Englishwoman in South Africa who saw a copy of Sketches From the Life of Paul, and sought to buy one, but could not because the book

* Though the text of The Great Controversy remained the same from 1884 to 1888, the Publishers' Preface was expanded in 1885, when an illustrated edition of the work was prepared for use by colporteurs. The different printings from 1884 to 1888 were described on the title page as “Second Edition,” “Third Edition,” etc. But because the text of the book remained unchanged, we have ignored these in speaking of different editions of the work.


was out of print. Then she finally copied out the book by hand. The critics do not question this story; instead they cite it as a choice proof of the wide demand. Then, as we have noted, they draw unwarranted deductions from that “proof.” But we think there is a deduction that can rightly be drawn, that proves something quite contrary to what the critics desire. Why would this woman be so thrilled with this book that she would go to such labor to copy it if it were “largely” copied from Conybeare and Howson's work? And we know that such borrowing as Mrs. White actually did, consisted almost wholly of historical background material that could probably have been drawn from any one of several current works on Paul's life. Here is a strange situation indeed! That is, strange to those who have not read her book, or who have read it in the hostile way in which unbelievers often read the Bible. To those who have read it with unprejudiced hearts, the matter is easily understandable. Mrs. White's work contained certain revelations of spiritual truth from Paul's life and epistles that no other current writer on the apostle was able to present.

Correct Statement in Preface

[Top of Document]

The critics declare that the publishers' preface to Sketches From the Life of Paul is deceitful, in view of her borrowings, because it says: “The writer of this book, having received especial help from the Spirit of God, is able to throw light upon the teachings of Paul and their application to our own time, as no other authors are prepared to do.” But the Englishwoman in South Africa would evidently agree with the publishers. The preface further declares:

“The historical narrative is traced down in a clear and connected manner…. Besides this, from his [Paul's] labors and sufferings, and from the instruction which he gave to the churches under his care, practical moral lessons are drawn for the church of to-day. This is the distinctive feature of the book, and is that which makes it particularly valuable.”—Page iii.

We think the Englishwoman would fully agree that these “moral lessons” were “the distinctive feature of the book.”


How could the publishers have stated the matter more correctly!

And so we come to the end of this most plausible charge of plagiarism with these evident conclusions before us: During her long life Mrs. White wrote many thousands of pages of manuscripts, which became articles and books. Of all this vast amount of matter only an insignificant part is borrowed from other authors. And the borrowed part is most certainly not central to the spiritual theme that distinguishes her writing. Thus if the little that she borrowed were deleted, it would scarcely affect the total of the writings, but much more importantly, it would not affect the quality and the force of the message that is contained in her writings. She borrowed the little she did with no attempt to deceive and for reasons which she clearly stated. The lawsuit threat is a groundless rumor, refuted by every available documentary fact. Need more be said!

[Top of Document]
[Return to Homepage]
[Return to Online Books Menu]