More than four decades ago Ronald Numbers dropped a bombshell into the pond of Adventism with his book Prophetess of Health. He revealed how Ellen G. White was far less original in her ideas about health and health reform than most Seventh-day Adventists believed at that time. He carefully documented how she had “borrowed” her views on health from contemporary “health reformers.” This squarely contradicted her claim that she learned what she wrote from what God had shown her in her comprehensive 1863 vision about that topic. I remember that, at that time, Numbers’ book did not bother me all that much. I was fascinated rather than shocked. As gradually more information about Ellen White’s borrowing from other authors emerged, the accusations of plagiarism became louder. But these accusations were not new. Earlier critics of Ellen White had already pointed out that Ellen White copied large chunks from other books, without giving due credit to the original authors. But when Walter Rea and others documented in great detail the prophet’s reliance on other sources, this began to put serious questions in my mind about the genuineness of her prophetic gift. And I was much concerned about the unfair and unsatisfactory manner in which the church attempted to answer much of this criticism.
I was actually more profoundly affected by the book I read in the past week: Ellen White: a Psychobiography, by Steve Daily (Page Publishing Inc., 2020). The denominational employment and membership status of the author in the Adventist Church is not at risk, since he left Adventism some ten years ago. But while he was a member and employee of the church he had already very clearly voiced his doubts about the way in which Ellen White had manifested her “prophetic” gift. In his recent 360-page book he goes far beyond what he earlier wrote about Ellen White. What is new about this approach to her person and work is his attempt to analyze what kind of person she was and what motivated her to do the things that she did. Daily does not only have a background in theology but also in psychology. And this, he feels, makes him qualified to write this psychobiography. His conclusions, if correct, are highly disturbing. He pictures her as a “pathological liar” and as a “sociopath”. Moreover, his portrait of Ellen shows a woman who wanted to be in charge and used her “visions” as tools to criticize, or even remove, church leaders who opposed her. Her plagiarism was unethical, fraudulent, and at times even criminal, and the way she tried to hide or explain her extensive use of other authors, was utterly dishonest. Moreover, much of what she wrote proved to be false and the church’s leaders were to a large extent guilty of turning a blind eye to her practices or covering things up, for fear that exposing Ellen White for the fraudster that she was, would create shockwaves among the church members. The prophet prescribed a strict code of conduct and detailed dietary rules for others, but very often did not herself abide by these principles and, though aspiring to have a leading role in the temperance movement, she was at times addicted to alcoholic substances. Moreover, Ellen White and her husband James enriched themselves, and after James’s death, Ellen lived in an increasingly lavish way. Through the years she “earned” a massive royalty income, and found extra sources to enrich herself, but she left many unpaid creditors behind when she died. And so Daily’s list goes on.
How much of what Steve Daily asserts is true? From what I have learned over time, it cannot be denied that, unfortunately, many of the facts that he mentions are true or are at least credible. The extensive endnotes testify to the fact that the book is well researched. Other recent books have also revealed that both Ellen and James were not in all respects the spiritual giants that they have often been made out to be. Gerald Wheeler, for instance, in his biography of James White, shows how James had a dubious reputation as a wheeler-dealer, who was constantly involved in all kinds of commercial activities. In several of his fascinating books Gilbert Valentine has painstakingly described how political and manipulative Ellen could be in trying to impose her ideas on the church’s leadership, and how both James and Ellen were at time rather unpleasant (to put it mildly) towards their colleagues. I look forward to seeing more research concerning some of the issues that Daily highlights. It is important that we know what is true, what cannot be fully substantiated and what may perhaps been have been exaggerated. At first sight Steve Daily appears to have done a good job in providing the sources for his assertions, but I wonder to what extent he may been selective in the use of his sources.
All these aspects are important, but what upset me as I read the book was its aggressive tone and the constantly repeated accusation that Ellen White was a crafty liar and deceiver, who enriched herself in very dubious ways and was a “con artist” in optima forma. I wonder whether those epithets are justified. Was she indeed the kind of wicked person who persisted in a life-long project of deception? I find that hard to believe. It seems to me that the book manifests a kind of aggressive disdain for the object of its research that appears (at least to me) to go beyond objective scholarship. Should the psychobiographic approach perhaps also be applied to its author?
The key question is, I think, whether this will have a major impact on the church and how the church must/will react. I believe that different segments of the world-church will be impacted in different ways. The reality is that most Seventh-day Adventists world-wide know very little about Mrs. White and have read nothing or very little of what she wrote. Even in the Western world most of her books are bought by a relatively small minority. The vast majority of the members of the church will never hear of Steve Daily’s book and will not be impacted. On the other hand, there is a much smaller, but influential (an often vocal), group that will immediately characterize Steve Daily’s book as the revengeful attack of a frustrated ex-Adventist and will insist that it must simply be regarded as part of Satan’s shrewd intentions to undermine, where he can, the work of “the Spirit of prophecy”.
However, there is also a third segment, namely of those who over time have become aware of the various sensitive issues surrounding Ellen White (and her husband), and who are increasingly skeptical about the way her writings have been, and are, used to steer the church in a particular direction and to support traditional doctrinal positions, in particular with respect to end-time convictions. Many pastors, teachers, leaders at all levels, and other thought leaders, are part of this segment of the church. They will read Steve Daily’s book and will ask the kind of questions that I mentioned above. And they demand satisfactory and honest answers. To provide these answers is not just a short-term necessity, but has long-term implications. Daily’s book is not the first or the last evaluation of Ellen White’s ministry, but adds to an ever more detailed and worrisome picture of her. It is a picture that cannot be ignored.
I continue to believe that Ellen White played an important role in the genesis of the church to which I belong. I continue to see evidence that her work has been an important factor in the growth and development of Adventism. I believe her books, however they may have been written, have nurtured the faith of many church members. But I also realize that she was far from perfect. She lived in the Victorian era, in nineteenth century America. She was an imperfect child of her times, and associated with other imperfect people, who together built the church. I am convinced that, in the past, church leadership should have been much more open about the aspects of her work that were questionable and about things she said and wrote that are best forgotten rather than being creatively justified. To rectify the official, but distorted and at times mythical, image of Ellen White, that has been presented to the church and has been vigorously defended, will not be easy. It will demand courage and will cause a lot of discussion and even confusion. But it is, in my view, the only long-term approach that will save the church from further embarrassment. The only way to keep this third segment of the membership in the Adventist fold, is to remove the “sacred canopy” that has long been put over Mrs. White; to bring her down from her unjustified pedestal, and honor the memory of her person and work in a way that is appreciative of her contributions but also historically accurate.
The church needs leaders who are willing to engage in this painful process. Some members may leave the church, feeling betrayed by the fact that things were covered up and that the members in the pew were kept in ignorance about serious problems that were long known to the more initiated. But it will help many Adventist believers–who are now moving towards the back door of the church, because they do not receive answers that they feel are honest–to stay with the church. These members can play an essential part in keeping the church strong and credible in the time to come.