Critics bring against Mrs. White the blanket charge that she handled her financial affairs in a way contrary to her own teachings and the practice of Bible prophets. The details of this charge we shall set forth as we proceed. The principal attack is on her financial affairs in the latter part of her life. Let us examine, first, the charge of an early critic:
“Mrs. White and her husband began poor…. But as soon as they became leaders, they commercialized their work…. They soon had abundance, and used means for themselves lavishly.”
Yes, they began pathetically poor. They were leaders from the first. But after twenty years of leadership they were still so far from affluence that when James White had a “stroke” in 1865, they were compelled to sell some of their household belongings to provide necessary cash for living. The story is found in Testimonies, volume 1, pages 582, 583. In the years that followed, until his death in 1881, during which time he suffered much from ill-health, there is no evidence that he acquired any great possessions. The critic frankly admits he has no better authority than “it is said,” for his statement that James White left behind “some $15,000 or $20,000.” There are no facts to support the “it is said.”
It may be remarked, in passing, that one of the reasons why Mrs. White and her husband never laid by any sum of money was that they consistently put back into the work of God most of what they received. Here is a statement she made in 1888, not many years after her husband's death:
“I do not begrudge a cent that I have put into the cause, and I have kept on until my husband and myself have about $30,000 invested in the cause of
God. We did this a little at a time and the Lord saw that He could trust us with His means, and that we would not bestow it on ourselves. He kept pouring it in and we kept letting it out.”—MS. 3, 1888.
A present-day critic, focusing on her later years, and noting that she received not only salary but also royalties on her books, has raised the question as to what she did with her money. He admits that she “was not extravagant in her home or person.” Hence she must have spent her money in some unusual, perhaps questionable, way. The real import of his question will be evident when we come to charge number 2. But first let us answer the question: What did she do with her money? There are two parts to the answer:
1. She maintained a staff of assistants who cared for her extensive correspondence and the preparation of her articles and books. She also assumed, for many years, certain initial costs in the production of books; for example, the heavy cost of typesetting and making plates, and often the cost of illustrations. She had grown up with the movement and was active in writing before there was a close-knit organization. Very understandably, she continued to care for many aspects of the writing and publishing of her books, that would not be handled by other authors. But in connection with all this there were substantial expenses. These Mrs. White met from her salary and other income.
2. Mrs. White was a very generous person, a generosity quickened and ever kept active because of her conviction that she was simply the steward of such means as God gave to her. Here is the way she expressed that conviction:
“I do not profess to be the owner of any money that comes into my hands. I regard it as the Lord's money, for which I must render an account.”—Letter 41, 1895.
Here is an illustration of how she discharged her stewardship:
“Please pay to the order of ——— $100 (one hundred dollars) as a gift from the Lord who has made me his steward of means.
“Ellen G. White.”—Letter 28, 1889.
The foregoing were the terms used in a letter concerning the providing of financial help for a destitute widow.
While Mrs. White was in Australasia she did much to launch the work there. She was particularly interested in the training of youth, many of whom lacked money to secure an education. Here is a paragraph from a letter she wrote in 1893, while in New Zealand:
“I have already appropriated two thousand dollars of royalties on books, to help students to attend the school. They would never have been able to enjoy the advantages of the school unless someone did help them, and as no one assumed the responsibility, it dropped on me. I carried several through the first term of school, and am paying the expenses of six during the present term, and the number may swell to eight.”—Letter 65, 1893.
It is needless to remark that if she had already “appropriated two thousand dollars” to help students, and was continuing to do so on a rising scale, the two-thousand-dollar total would rise, and rapidly.
Here is another letter, written in 1893, in which is revealed the fact that Mrs. White had been helping students in Healdsburg, California, before she went to Australia.
“Brother and Sister A. have been laboring in Ormondville, about one hundred miles from here, with good results…. I met him in Napier, and he told me I was the one who sent him to school in Healdsburg, paying his expenses to obtain an education. I was so thankful to see the results of this investment.”—Letter 79, 1893.
That Mrs. White spent money in other ways than helping students through school, is revealed in the following letter:
“We send Brother A … to the Institute at St. Helena.* … He is a great sufferer. I have appropriated three hundred dollars to this case, although there are many cases where every dollar is needed, but I feel perfectly clear in helping in this case. It is a case where those who love and fear God must show their sympathy in a tangible manner, and bear in mind that Christ identified his interest with suffering humanity.”—Letter 33, 1893.†
* The St. Helena Sanitarium, California.
† There was no sustentation fund or sick-benefit policy in operation in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1893.
And here is a revealing statement made by her in 1904:
“Sometimes it has been reported that I am trying to get rich. Some have written to us, inquiring, ‘Is not Mrs. White worth millions of dollars?’ I am glad that I can say, ‘No.’ I do not own in this world any place that is free from debt. Why?—Because I see so much missionary work to be done. Under such circumstances, could I hoard money?—No, indeed. I receive royalties from the sale of my books; but nearly all is spent in missionary work.
“The head of one of our publishing houses in a distant foreign land, upon hearing from others recently that I was in need of means, sent me a bill of exchange for five hundred dollars; and in the letter accompanying the money, he said that in return for the thousands upon thousands of dollars royalty that I had turned over to their mission field for the translation and distribution of new books and for the support of new missionary enterprises, they regarded the enclosed five hundred dollars as a very small token of their appreciation. They sent this because of their desire to help me in my time of special need; but heretofore I have given, for the support of the Lord's cause in foreign lands, all the royalties that come from the sale of my foreign books in Europe; and I intend to. return this five hundred dollars as soon as I can free myself from debt.”—MS. 8, 1904.
To a brother from whom she was requesting a loan, Mrs. White wrote thus in 1904:
“I invest in the work of God all the means that I can possibly spare. I sent one thousand dollars to Eld. ——— to help in beginning the work in New York City….
“It was thus that I helped in the advancement of the work in Australia…. I borrowed money for the erection of meeting houses, and to provide facilities for tent meetings…. I used the royalties on my books to help in starting a school in Melbourne, and then I borrowed money from those who were interested in the work….
“Besides what I have invested in Australia and in Europe, I have also made donations to the Southern field. I have borrowed money to send to them when in strait places. I shall continue to do all I can to help the needy fields. Time is short, and I wish to see the money of our people that is tied up in banks put into circulation where it can help the work of God.
“When I receive what I have invested in my books, I hope to have money sufficient to repay what I have borrowed, and to have more of my own money to use.”—Letter 103, 1904.
In a letter written to a brother in 1905 Mrs. White says in part:
“I have recently added to my indebtedness by borrowing two thousand dollars from the bank to help in the purchase of the Paradise Valley Sanitarium property. I could not endure the thought that the opportunity to purchase this property for so low a price should not be improved, and Sister ——— and I clasped hands over the table in a resolution that we would purchase it and set the sanitarium in operation.”—Letter 81, 1905.
These exhibits of Mrs. White's stewardship speak for themselves. They are but typical of many more exhibits found in her letter files. It is not difficult to see how Mrs. White, by following such a policy of liberality, could easily expend a substantial income annually.
In her latter years, when she was living near St. Helena, California, “she owned nearly seventy-four acres of very fine bottom land at the foot of Mt. Howell, just below St. Helena Sanitarium, one hundred and twenty acres of land on the side of Mt. Howell, ten lots and a bungalow in St. Helena, besides other scattered pieces of real estate.” “What business had Mrs. White to speculate in real estate?” She did not live up to her own testimonies in which she told the brethren that they “‘should be cutting down their possessions instead of increasing them.’ Tes., Vol. 5, p. 152.”
In her real estate holdings we are evidently supposed to find the answer to the question as to what she did with her money, and also a proof that she disobeyed her own instruction. What are the facts?
Let us look first at her property holdings. From 1891 to 1900 Mrs. White lived in Australia. There, from 1895 to 1900, she owned a modest dwelling place. At the time she left to return to America plans were being laid for the erection of a sanitarium at Wahroonga, near Sydney, Australia. Funds were short, and so on leaving Mrs. White informed the brethren that they could have, on loan, whatever money was received from the sale of her home. When she arrived a little later in California she was virtually without funds, nor did she know, at first, even where she would locate. She soon visited the St. Helena Sanitarium, about sixty miles north of San Francisco. There she heard of a property at the foot of the sanitarium hill that could be purchased for eight thousand dollars. It was an eight-room, two-story frame building,
fifteen years old, but completely furnished, ready for occupancy. Included with the house were about seventy-five acres of land, less than half of which was tillable. This she bought. Because she did not have ready cash she sold part of the acreage and took out a five-thousand-dollar mortgage. In this way she obtained what has been known through the years as Elmshaven.
In purchasing this property, Mrs. White was thinking, not simply of herself, but of those who would be associated with her in her work. She wanted a property sufficiently large to have in it the possibility of providing homes for those who worked with her. She gave some of the land to certain of these helpers, and on it they erected their own homes. A less thoughtful person would not have had his workers in mind when he purchased his property. Near her two-story house was erected a small two-story office building and other modest quarters, which provided a place where secretarial and literary work could be carried on more effectively. Such improvements naturally increased the value of the property. At the time of her death she owned only thirty-seven acres.
The present-day critic in summarizing her holdings describes her as being “possessed with over 200 acres of land.” The reader, of course, is supposed to understand that these two hundred acres were very valuable and that thus Mrs. White was hoarding great riches when she should have been distributing it. Let us survey this property. Elmshaven, with its limited acreage, some of which was tillable, constituted a small part of the two hundred acres mentioned by the critic. The greater part of her land was a hillside of one hundred and twenty acres, valued at—note the price—S4.58 per acre. This hundred and twenty acres was situated some distance from the Elmshaven property.
And how did she happen to purchase this hundred and twenty acres? When she settled at Elmshaven she found that wood for cooking and heating cost one dollar a cord, standing timber. She had the opportunity to purchase this acreage of standing timber on the side of Howell Mountain at a cost of $550. From this she
could get her wood supply. The wood was used by her and also by her helpers. Some was sold to neighbors. The cutting of wood also furnished work to some needy Adventist brethren who otherwise would have been out of employment. If, through the years, she and those who labored with her had purchased their firewood on the open market, they would have paid out very much more than the cost of this piece of land.
After the wood had been cut from this hundred and twenty acres, and it was no longer of value to Mrs. White, an Adventist in St. Helena, who owned several lots in the town, wished to trade some of these lots for Mrs. White's hill land. Accordingly, an agreement was reached whereby she gave over the hill land, a wagon, horse, and certain other items in exchange for the town lots. After this exchange had been completed Mrs. White gave several of the lots to the St. Helena church to provide a place for the erection of their church school. Later the St. Helena church was built on this land. This, in fact, was another reason why she was encouraged and led to make this exchange.
Thus, when the facts are all presented—facts which are no secret—Mrs. White stands forth not as the possessor of rich landed estates, not as one who was adding farm to farm in a feverish desire to gain great possessions, but as someone who was seeking only to provide modest quarters and a fuel supply for herself and those who assisted her.
There is nothing in her land transactions that goes counter to the counsel she gave through the years concerning the holding of property. It is true that she urged the sale of land on certain occasions. It is also true that she spoke out against those who, filled with a desire for material possessions, added farm to farm. But nowhere in her writings did she declare that there was anything amiss in owning land for a home. That fact is evident when we remember that she did not counsel believers to rent rather than own, and she counseled believers, as far as consistent, to move into the country.
“When Mrs. White died she was $90,000 in debt; and practically all of this was in the form of notes given for borrowed money.” “Aside from the valuation of the copyrights, plates, etc., her assets fell short of her debts to the amount of more than $64,000.” “Let the reader harmonize Mrs. White's indebtedness with some of her utterances. She says: ‘But, from the light He [God] has given me, every effort should be made to stand free from debt.’ T7 206.”
It is a fact that when Mrs. White died she owed a substantial sum of money. It is also a fact that in her writings are found warnings against debt. Therefore, we are presumably to conclude that she violated her own teachings and thus exposed herself as a false prophet. No believer in the Bible would concede for a moment that a prophet is proved false because at some time or other he failed to live up to his own inspired teachings—the teachings are divine; the prophets are human, of “like passions as we are.” But what are the facts in the case before us?
We believe that the evidence will show that Mrs. White did not violate the spirit and intent of the counsel she gave concerning freedom from debt. In earlier chapters we discovered that even for inspired writings, the adage applies that circumstances alter cases. We have provided illustrations of this from Holy Writ.
There are different kinds of debts. There is a kind that can be made by prudent businessmen, whose actions are entirely free from criticism. A debt may be incurred, at times, to enlarge a business, because all the experience of the concern up to that time warrants the confident belief that if the business is expanded so that more can be produced by the plant, the sales will be larger, and the debt will be met safely and surely. There come such times of expansion in the history of almost all the great business concerns of the country. They float loans, sell bonds, and against those bonds or other obligations they set up a certain per cent of anticipated earnings over a period of years.
In the light of these facts let us look at Mrs. White's debt. As already stated, her publishing relationships to the denomination were unique in this respect, that through the long years she assumed certain costs in connection with the production of her
books that were not assumed by other authors. She had to make a large investment before any returns could come in. In a letter she wrote in 1904 this point is brought out:
“When I receive what I have invested in my books, I hope to have money sufficient to repay what I have borrowed, and to have more of my own money to use.”—Letter 103, 1904.
The critics call attention to the fact that it was in her latter years that much of the debt was incurred. It was in these latter years that Mrs. White did some of her heaviest work in preparing books, both in English and by translation into other languages. She realized that her days were short. She had already passed the threescore years and ten when she entered the twentieth century. She felt also that there was much work yet to be done to place her writings in the form that she wished to have them before her death. Thus her latter years were the busiest years of her life, so far as actual book preparation was concerned. Anyone who has engaged in the publishing business knows how easy it is to invest five thousand or ten thousand or more dollars in a book before it ever goes on the press. That is particularly true if the books are to be illustrated with original art work. In the later years, when original paintings were used to illustrate her books, Mrs. White's office bore the heavy cost of these illustrations, even as it bore other costs in the production of her books.
There were only two ways in which such expenses of book preparation could be met—either from profits from former publishing, that is from royalties, or by borrowing against anticipated royalties. If Mrs. White had been the rich woman that some critics would like to have their readers think, she could easily have drawn on her bank account to underwrite the COSt of further book preparation. But we have found that she was not rich, and that she disbursed right and left to worthy causes such monies as she received, even giving, at times, to worthy causes from borrowed money. Therefore, the only way that she could secure the money for the book making was by borrowing it.
Speaking from a business standpoint, was that justified borrowing, or was Mrs. White providing simply an illustration of reckless expenditure of money? Was that setting out on a course that could mean only endless financial embarrassment, or on a course that permitted her, or her executors, to liquidate the debt in due time?
We think the answer to these questions becomes evident when we keep in mind a fact that the critics themselves seek to impress upon us; namely, that there came annually to Mrs. White substantial sums from royalties on the sales of her books. Was there any reason to believe that these books would suddenly cease selling, or that if other books were published by her, they would fail to have a sale? The answer is No. On the contrary there was every reason to believe that the sales would increase, because the denomination was steadily enlarging its membership, and the writings of Mrs. White, by the admission of the critics themselves, are central in the literature of Seventh-day Adventists.
What do the figures actually show concerning her financial state at the time of her death? Critics have examined the figures at the county court house in Napa, California, and have broadcast their interpretation of the figures. We think our readers are entitled to the facts. When Mrs. White died the court appointed appraisers to place a value upon her estate, preparatory to probating her will. Here is the summary of their findings as regards liabilities and assets:
|Liabilities—Consisting almost wholly of notes owing to individuals||$87,958.57|
|Assets—Comprising property, bookplates, furniture, fixtures, etc.||66,756.74|
When court appraisers list assets they quite invariably are ultraconservative. When they list liabilities they are less likely to be so, for liabilities are generally in the form of notes payable or accounts payable, the exact amount of which can generally
be determined. Thus the figure of $21,201.83 may be considered a maximum estimate for deficit, the critics to the contrary not-withstanding.*
But what the figures of the appraisers did not disclose were the potential assets, the royalties that Mrs. White's estate would annually receive from her books—returns on the heavy investment that she had made in the production of those books.
Without lengthening our recital unduly, we may say that the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists advanced a sum sufficient to meet the full note indebtedness, and the White Estate, through its Board of Trustees, gave in return its interest-bearing note for the full amount. Then out of the royalties and the sale of property the note was steadily reduced, and finally paid in full with interest, so that there was no loss, either to the individuals from whom Mrs. White had borrowed or to the General Conference, that had assumed the liabilities. In the years subsequent to the liquidation of this note the royalty money has gone, not into some private individual's pocket, but into the General Conference, which, in turn, disburses the funds for the maintenance of that feature of the work known as the Ellen G. White Publications, and for the general activities of the church.
“If the writings of Mrs. White were as she claimed, ‘What God has opened before me in vision,’ then what right had she to have God's messages copyrighted so no one could broadcast God's messages to His people or to the world without her consent? Or what right had she to demand ten per cent royalty on all the messages the Lord wanted to go to His people Can you think of Paul, or John, or Jeremiah getting a copyright on the revelations they received so they could have a ‘corner’ on their sale? What would you think of Paul's epistles if you should find out that he refused to allow any one to copy them without first paying him for the privilege and used the money, or a part of it, to buy a two hundred acre ranch in the suburbs of Rome?”
We do not know what “a two hundred acre ranch in the
* The books kept by Mrs. White's accountant very properly list her assets at a definitely higher figure, with the result that her financial affairs appear in a much better state. The fact that her debts and court-estimated deficit were paid in full in due time from the earnings from her estate would indicate that the court appraisers greatly underestimated the value of some of her assets.
suburbs of Rome” would have cost. Probably a great deal. But we do know that the large part of Mrs. White's real estate holdings, far removed from San Francisco, cost only $4.58 an acre. Let us therefore leave the ranch and examine the other parts of the charge. We confess we do not know what Paul or John or Jeremiah might have done if there had been a copyright law in their day, and if there had been printing presses also, and if they had been involved in heavy costs for the production of plates and illustrations and for secretarial help.
But this much is certain, that if there had been printing presses in those long-ago days, and the prophets had been obligated to underwrite the cost of plates and illustrations and translations and the like, they would certainly have had to find the money somewhere. And what more sensible or equitable way could they have discovered for underwriting those costs than by asking for certain returns on the books that were sold? Furthermore, if the hope of receiving back the money that they expended to produce the books depended, at least in part, on protecting those books, why would we not expect them to copyright the books?*
The real point at issue, of course, is this: If, in ancient times, there had been printing presses and copyright laws, and the cost of production of his books was an obligation against the prophet-author, in what way would he have sinned against God or man if he had copyrighted his books and asked for royalty upon them, especially since most book authors are remunerated for their work only through royalty? The question answers itself.
Mrs. White might have stood apart from all the business features so inevitably involved in book production by leaving them wholly to the church, through a conference subsidy, or through gifts raised in the churches. We believe that it is an evidence of divine supervision that Mrs. White operated her affairs in a more or less autonomous fashion, so that she was not dependent upon any possible changing mood of administrators or of the constituency
* There would have been a further good reason for copyrighting their works—to maintain the purity of the text. One modern Bible translation carries the line: “Copyright … to insure purity of text.” See Revised Standard Version of New Testament.
in order to bring forth such writings as she felt ought to go to the church. And by thus carrying on her work she deprived critics of the charge that could so plausibly have been made, that her published testimonies reflect only what the church was willing to print.
In her will, Mrs. White left certain cash gifts to her children and a per cent on the royalties from her books. This seems “strange in view of some things which she had written. In a testimony on ‘Wills and Legacies,’ written in 1880, she said: ‘Some are so situated that wills must be made. But in doing this, care should be taken not to give to sons and daughters means which should flow into the treasury of God.’ Tes. Vol. 4, p. 484. In the same chapter she said: ‘His [God's] claims should have your first consideration.’ p. 482.”
There is nothing in what Mrs. White has written concerning wills that condemns giving some portion of an estate to the children. On the very page from which the critic quotes, Mrs. White declares: “In disposing of your property by will to your relatives, be sure that you do not forget God's cause.”—Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 482. How often ministers say to their churches: “Care should be taken not to spend upon ourselves and our family money that should flow into the treasury of God.” Do we mean that church members should not spend a dollar upon themselves or their children, and that every dollar of their income ought to go to the Lord? Not at all. Mrs. White's counsel on the matter of wills is simply an exemplification of the divine principle that we should seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness: “His [God,s] claims should have your first consideration.”
Her will reveals that ten per cent of the income from her properties* was to go to one son, ten per cent to another (and after the death of this son and his wife their ten per cent was to go to the denomination), and five per cent of the income was to be set aside each year for an educational fund for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and other worthy persons.† That would total at the outset twenty-five per cent, or only one fourth of the
* Technically, her properties consisted of her real estate and book rights; however, it was only the book rights which would yield a steady annual income, and that in the form of royalties.
† See Appendix Q, p. 674, for full text of the will.
income. Seventy-five per cent—later to rise to eighty-five per cent— was to go to the church. If every individual who made out a will designated that this percentage of the anticipated income to his estate should go to the church, we think that the church would be in a marvelously well-fortified financial position, and the ministry at large would be ready to say that God's claims had had “first consideration” in the minds of the testators.
It is true that Mrs. White made provision for certain bequests at the time of the probating of her will. The grand total of these was only $6,006.75, and was constituted of certain cash gifts and her furniture and personal belongings.
There seems clearly implied in the charge before us that Mrs. White did wrong in giving any money to her children. But what if she had not given anything to them? Then we would hear another kind of charge. Some one would piously quote Paul: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” 1 Tim. 5:8. No matter which way Mrs. White moved in this matter she could not hope to escape criticism. We are glad she moved to remember her children.
But the critic reminds us that she remembered them with royalty money she received by exercising her gift as a prophet. Indeed! And why should a prophet be penalized? How did she pay her grocery bill and coal bill and any other kind of material bill? Was it not from money she received through exercising her gift as a prophet of the Lord? Paul says, concerning the gifts of the Spirit: “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” 1 Cor. 12:28. Now, no one would think it wrong for an apostle to remember one of his children with a small fraction of any earthly goods he might have, or for a teacher to do so, or for conference administrators, who have the gift of “government.” Then why should it be considered amiss for a prophet to do the same?
However, Mrs. White's children, in return for an equitable cash gift, signed a quitclaim to any continuing interest in the estate—of which the royalty was the chief part. Thus all the royalty money, for many years, has been going directly and exclusively to the church, and will continue to do so.
It is an interesting fact that a present-day critic offers to the public copies of her will—for a price.* Thus, actually, the only private individual who receives any continuing income as a result of Mrs. White's will is the critic who publishes and sells it at so much per copy!
We agree with the earlier critic who opened his chapter on Mrs. White's finances with the words: “There is no example in the Bible where a prophet took advantage of his inspiration to enrich himself. The prophets of the Bible generally worked hard, had little and died poor.” Mrs. White worked hard; even her critics admit that. She had little, for all the money that came in flowed out immediately to good causes. She died poor; the critics emphasize that fact. Thus by their own admissions and by the undebatable evidence Mrs. White compares very favorably in financial as well as in other matters with the prophets of the Bible.
*The text of the will was copied from the court records of Napa County, California. To secure such a copy it is not necessary to obtain the permission of the family of the deceased, because such court records as wills are in the public domain.