Chapter 6

Physical Health

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No Form of Mental Incompetence
Rheumatism in Both Ankles
Study Questions

“I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears” (Ps. 34:4).

Ellen White was not a super-woman although her schedule and achievements would seem to indicate that she was. Imagine anyone crossing the United States twenty-four times by 1885, only eighteen years after the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads joined up near Ogden, Utah, in 1867!1 Then remember that this traveling church leader was speaking to groups large and small wherever she went. And writing! When she died she left behind about 100,000 pages of published and unpublished materials, all once handwritten. She is thought to be “the third most translated author in the history of literature, its most translated woman writer, and the most translated American author of either sex.”2

But those who knew her saw more than a 5-foot-2-inch public speaker and prodigious writer, tireless in her lifelong dedication to noble causes. As we have already noted, she was an active homemaker, staunchly loyal wife, and warm, affectionate mother.

How could all this be when, at age nine, physicians gave her only months to live after the complications that followed her fateful blow in the face?3

Some have suggested that her trauma early in life damaged the temporal lobe of her brain. This blow, they speculate, caused her to have a type of epilepsy known as complex-partial seizures. In turn, they allege that Ellen White’s visions were due to temporal lobe epilepsy, not divine revelation.

In response to the charge that she had temporal lobe epilepsy, eight professors in the Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Nursing, including three neurologists, plus a psychiatrist in northern California, studied the evidence available. In 1984 they wrote their report entitled, “Did Ellen White Have Complex-Partial Seizures?”4

The report stated: “The diagnosis of a complex-partial seizure disorder (temporal-lobe or psychomotor epilepsy) is often difficult even with the help of modern techniques such as electroencephalography and video recording. Thus, the establishment of such a diagnosis retrospectively in a person who died almost 70 years ago, and concerning whom no medical records exist, can only be, at best, speculative, tenuous, and controversial.

“The recent articles and presentations, which suggest that Ellen White’s visions and writings were the result of a complex-partial seizure disorder, contain many inaccuracies. Ambiguous reasoning and misapplication of facts have resulted in misleading conclusions.

“This committee was appointed to evaluate the hypothesis that Ellen G. White had complex-partial seizures. After a careful review of the autobiographical and biographical material available, considered in the light of the present knowledge of this type of seizure, it is our opinion that: (1) There is no convincing evidence that Ellen G. White suffered from any type of epilepsy. (2) There is no possibility that complex-partial seizures could account for Mrs. White’s visions or for her role in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”5

Donald I. Peterson, M.D., professor of neurology at Loma Linda University’s School of Medicine and chief of neurology at Riverside General Hospital, California (author of more than sixty articles in the field of neurology in scientific magazines), gave a more extended response. In Visions or Seizures: Was Ellen White the Victim of Epilepsy?6 he reviewed certain allegations that Ellen Harmon sustained severe brain damage, that her “visions” were characteristic of complex-partial seizures, that her physical features during “visions” were characteristic of complex-partial seizure disorder (“automatisms”), etc.

No Form of Mental Incompetence

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After examining the technical aspects of the allegations in the light of the latest medical knowledge, Dr. Peterson forthrightly denied any correlation between Ellen White’s condition during visions or her prolific writing capacity (hypergraphia) with any indication of any kind that would suggest brain damage and a resulting complex-partial seizure disorder. He concluded: “A careful examination of [these] theories in the light of the historical record shows that they have failed to establish that Ellen White’s ‘sickness’ consisted of serious temporal lobe injury or that the phenomena associated with her visions were consistent with partial seizure disorder. . . . It is the conviction of this researcher that it was a manifestation of the true prophetic gift—not some form of epilepsy.”7

After the accident at nine years of age, she was plagued with headaches, eye inflammation, and respiratory weakness. Tuberculosis drained her, and physicians offered no hope, only an early death. Dropsy, a heart condition, affected her for most of her life. When she received her first vision, in December 1844, she had to be transported in a wheel chair to Elizabeth Haines’s home; she could not talk above a whisper.8

When she was invited to share her December vision at Poland, Maine, in late January 1845, she had no voice. However, when she began to speak, all the promises that God had given her regarding His abiding strength were fulfilled. She spoke with a clear, audible voice for nearly two hours, without fatigue.9 This experience of restored strength in the pulpit before the eyes of those who saw the amazing transformation from weakness to power was repeated many times in her long ministry.

In early summer 1845, a physically-weakened young Ellen had a remarkable vision: “Up to this time I could not write. My trembling hand was unable to hold my pen steadily. While in vision I was commanded by an angel to write the vision. I attempted, and wrote readily. My nerves were strengthened, and my hand became steady.”10

In 1854, while pregnant with her third child, Ellen White at 26 was battling with health problems. She recalled: “It was difficult for me to breathe lying down, and I could not sleep unless raised in nearly a sitting posture. I had upon my left eyelid a swelling which appeared to be a cancer. It had been gradually increasing for more than a year, until it had become quite painful, and affected my sight.”11

A “celebrated physician in Rochester” provided her with “eyewash” after telling her that he thought the swelling would prove to be cancerous. But after feeling her pulse, he told her that she would die of apoplexy before the cancer developed! He said, “You are in a dangerous condition with disease of the heart.”

Within a few weeks she suffered a stroke, making her left arm and side helpless, her tongue numb. Prayers were offered everywhere, but healing did not come. Yet she maintained her assurance in God’s love. She whispered to James: “‘I believe that I shall recover.’ He answered, ‘I wish I could believe it.’ I retired that night without relief, yet relying with firm confidence upon the promises of God. I could not sleep, but continued my silent prayer to God. Just before day I slept.”

When she awakened, her husband could “scarcely comprehend it at first; but when I arose and dressed and walked around the house, and he witnessed the change in my countenance, he could praise God with me. My afflicted eye was free from pain. In a few days the cancer was gone, and my eyesight was fully restored. The work was complete.”

Her physician declared later that a “complete” change had taken place—a mystery beyond his ability to understand.12

Rheumatism in Both Ankles

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Two years later, Ellen White slipped on ice, badly wrenching her ankle, and had to struggle with crutches for six weeks. Rheumatism eventually affected both ankles and bothered her severely till her death.

When three months pregnant in March 1860, she, with James, was heading west to Iowa. James’s report in the Review (March 6) was graphic: “We left Battle Creek at 3:00 P.M., changed cars at midnight at Chicago, reached the Mississippi River at 7:00 A.M., crossed the ice on foot, walking behind the baggage drawn on a sleigh by four men, the ice being too weak to bear up horses; and felt relief when we stepped upon Iowa soil.”

The first night in Iowa, Ellen White became very ill, vomiting and raising blood. But on she went, through the mud of springtime in Iowa, speaking often in the meetings.

After the birth of John Herbert, she slowly regained strength. Six weeks after delivery, she commented in a letter to Lucinda Hall that she was so weak that she crawled up stairs on her knees, that she had “a good cry now and then,” and found that “it does me good.” Barely three months after his birth, the baby died.

Ellen White’s Australian years were most productive, not only in helping to establish a sound educational and evangelistic program in that young country, but in authoring The Desire of Ages plus thousands of pages of timely letters. But not without cost! Her illnesses in Australia were devastating: “I made the long journey and attended the conference held in Melbourne. . . . Just before the conference closed I was stricken with a severe illness. For eleven months I suffered from malarial fever and inflammatory rheumatism. During the period I experienced the most terrible suffering of my whole life. I was unable to lift my feet from the floor without suffering great pain. My right arm, from the elbow down, was the only part of my body that was free from pain. My hips and my spine were in constant pain. I could not lie on my cot for more than two hours at a time, though I had rubber cushions under me. I would drag myself to a similar bed to change my position. Thus the nights passed. . . . Physicians said I would never be able to walk again, and I had fears that my life was to be a perpetual conflict with suffering.”13

How did she manage? Those who stood by could gratefully validate her further reflections: “But in all this there was a cheerful side. My Saviour seemed to be close beside me. I felt His sacred presence in my heart, and I was thankful. These months of suffering were the happiest months of my life, because of the companionship of my Saviour. He was my hope and crown of rejoicing. I am so thankful that I had this experience, because I am better acquainted with my precious Lord and Saviour. . . .

“I felt at first that I could not bear this inactivity. I think I fretted in spirit over it, and at times darkness gathered about me. This unreconciliation was at the beginning of my suffering and helplessness, but it was not long before I saw that the affliction was a part of God’s plan. I carefully reviewed the history of the past few years, and the work the Lord had given me to do. Not once had He failed me. Often He had manifested Himself in a marked manner, and I saw nothing in the past of which to complain. I realized that, like threads of gold, precious things had run through all this severe experience.

“Then I prayed earnestly and realized continually sweet comfort in the promises of God: ‘Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.’ ‘When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.’”14

For reasons that God alone can explain, Ellen White suffered much in her life. Yet, she was a remarkably productive, active woman, and out of her suffering came a philosophy of suffering that has been a solid rock for millions. Her book, The Ministry of Healing, plus many hundreds of letters to others who also were under great affliction, might never have been written without her own experience providing the human setting for basic divine principles.

One thing is certain: Ellen White never used her physical afflictions as a means of gaining the pity of others. To the contrary, when others saw her cheery spirit and determined resolve under intense physical adversities, they took courage.15

Her life of literary production and personal ministry, plus her extensive public travels, strongly argues for an awareness of how the human will can triumph over physical hardships in the pursuit of God’s plan for one’s life. In 1915, reaching the age of 87 was not common! Her last known writing, a letter (June 14, 1914), overflowed with hope and Christian joy.16 The cause of her death, as recorded on both her death certificate and the cemetery sexton’s records, was: “Chronic myocarditis; (Contributory) Asthenia resulting from intracapsular fracture of the left femur (Feb. 13, 1915); (Secondary contributory) arterio-sclerosis.”


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1. Manuscript 16, 1885, cited in D. A. Delafield, Ellen G. White In Europe, p. 25. See pp. 104, 105.

2. Roger Coon, A Gift of Light (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1983), p. 21.

3. In dealing with her broken nose and loss of blood, Ellen White reported: “Physicians thought that a silver wire could be put in my nose to hold it in shape [without anesthesia, of course], but said that it would be of little use; that I had lost so much blood my recovery was doubtful; that if I should get better, I could not live long. I was reduced to almost a skeleton.”—Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, p. 9. In late 1840, she was no better: “My health failed rapidly. I could only talk in a whisper, or broken tone of voice. One physician said my disease was dropsical consumption; that my right lung was gone, and my left affected. He thought I could not live long, might die very suddenly. It was very difficult for me to breathe lying down, and nights was bolstered almost in a sitting posture, and would often awake with my mouth full of blood.”—Ibid., p. 30.

4. Ministry, August, 1984, and referred to in Adventist Review, August 16, 1984.

5. Ibid.

6. Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1988.

7. Ibid., pp. 26, 27.

8. Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2 , p. 30; Document File, No. 230 (Ellen G. White Estate), J. N. Loughborough, “Some Individual Experiences,” p. 44.

9. Ibid., p. 38.

10. Ibid., p. 60. Years later, she reflected: “The Lord has said, ‘Write out the things which I shall give you.’ And I commenced when very young to do this work. My hand that was feeble and trembling because of infirmities became steady as soon as I took the pen in my hand, and since those first writings I have been able to write. . . . That right hand scarcely ever has a disagreeable sensation. It never wearies.”—Ellen White, Ms. 88a, 1900, cited in Bio., vol. 1, pp. 91, 92.

11. Life Sketches, p. 151.

12. Bio., vol. 1, pp. 292, 293.

13. Bio., vol. 4, pp. 31, 32.

14. Manuscript 75, 1893, cited in Bio., vol. 4, p. 33.

15. Numerous occasions could be cited pointing out the varied physical stress Ellen White endured without complaining. For example, while in New Zealand in 1893, she had trouble with abscessed teeth. She knew from experience that she was allergic to pain medication. We pick up the story in her diary for July 5: “Sister Caro [a dentist] came in the night; is in the house. I met her in the morning at the breakfast table. She said, ‘Are you sorry to see me?’ I answered, ‘I am pleased to meet Sister Caro, certainly. Not so certain whether I am pleased to meet Mrs. Dr. Caro, dentist.’

“At ten o’clock I was in the chair, and in a short time eight teeth were drawn. I was glad the job was over. I did not wince or groan. . . . I had asked the Lord to strengthen me and give me grace to endure the painful process, and I know the Lord heard my prayer.

“After the teeth were extracted, Sister Caro shook like an aspen leaf. Her hands were shaking, and she was suffering pain. . . . She dreaded to give pain to Sister White. . . . But she knew she must perform the operation, and went through with it.”

The diary concludes with the patient turning attendant as Ellen White led Dr. Caro to a chair and found something to refresh her.—Manuscript 81, 1893, cited in Bio., vol. 4, p. 98.

16. Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 516-520.

Study Questions

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1. What long-term damage did Ellen White experience from her facial injury at the age of nine?

2. How do you answer the question: If Ellen White was called of God to be His special messenger, why would He allow her to pass through numerous physical and emotional hardships?

3. From the 1984 medical report on Ellen White, what are the strongest evidences to you that dispute the charge she suffered from complex-partial seizures?

4. Describe Ellen Harmon’s physical condition at the end of 1844.

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