A Bible and a bizarre funeral


‘This is the Bible Ellen White held in her hand, with an outstretched arm, during a half hour vision she had in 1845 in the home of her parents in Portland, Maine.’ The lady who gave me and a few others a visitor’s tour, some time in the 1980s, of the new General Conference building in Silver Spring, related this incident with considerable drama. She pointed to the large family Bible, printed in 1822, that weighed almost 20 pounds.

Until recently this bit of information was an inevitable part of what the visitors of the Ellen G. White Estate, in the basement of the denominational headquarters, were told. But by now it is clear that this story about the ‘Big Bible’ was a myth, that started circulating some fifty years after it  allegedly took place. It became part of Adventist folklore after John Loughborough mentioned it in his book on Adventist history. However, the proof that Loughborough presented was rather flimsy, and that was true for quite a few things of his historical recollections.[1]

As regards Ellen White, there continue to be many questions about what was and what was not true. Much of what has been written about her is far from objective. From the very beginning of her career Ellen White had many enemies, both in and outside the church, and people who did not appreciate her work often raised their unfriendly voices. This led to an avalanche if negative pamphlets and books and—more recently—of hostile articles on the Internet. Sometimes, the writers posed  serious questions, but there also were wild accusations that missed every basis.

On the other hand, Ellen White was often presented by her supporters—and in the official denominational channels–as a kind of saint, while many human aspects of ‘the prophet’ were overlooked. The historical sources tended to be used quite selectively. Often those who wanted answers to some very serious questions were viewed as nasty trouble makers, without receiving solid answers to their concerns. The apologists of the White Estate often were quite vague in their reactions, and for a long time remained very reluctant to give the public access to all E.G. White documents.

Much has changed. Those who today read the books that caused so much controversy as e.g. Ronald L. Numbers (Prophetess of Health [1978]), in which he explained that Ellen White’s ideas about heath were not as original as she had made her readers believe, and Walter T. Rea (The White Lie, [1982]), who accused Ellen White of serious plagiarism, wonder what all the excitement was about. The facts that were put on the table by these and other authors, are now generally accepted as simply part of Ellen White’s background.

No individual has contributed more to providing a more responsible and balanced picture of Ellen White than George R. Knight, an Andrews University  professor-emeritus of church history. His books (two of which have also been translated into Dutch) have corrected many false ideas about Ellen White

Next year will be the centennial of Ellen White’s death (July 16, 1915) and this  brings renewed attention for this co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Just a few months ago an encyclopedia appeared that is dedicated to her life and work.[2]  Terrie Dopp Aamodt, a professor of history and English at Walla Walla University (WA, USA), is in the final stages of writing a new biography of Ellen White. A few weeks ago an important new book appeared to which some twenty Adventist and non-Adventist scholars contributed.[3] Each of them presents one specific aspect of the person and the work of Ellen White as objectively as possible.

Reading this book I have learned quite a few things about Ellen White that I did not know. I remain convinced that Ellen White has been (and is) of great significance for Adventist believers and many others. But as the years have passed I have had to adjust some of my ideas about her and about the way in which inspiration apparently functioned. And I realize that I may have to change my mind further on some points, as the historical research continues.

One of the most remarkable things that I read in this new book relates to the end of Ellen White’s life.  After she died in her ‘Elmshaven’ home on July 16, 1915, a funeral service was held on the lawn of her home. Then her body was transported to Richmond, near Oakland, CA, where a few days later more than 1,000 people attended another memorial service. Subsequently, her coffin was put on a train for transport to Battle Creek, Michigan, where a few thousand people attended her funeral on July 24. At the close of the service Ellen White’s coffin was lowered into the family grave, where earlier two of James’ and Ellen’s children had been buried, and where James White had his last resting place since 1881.

Quite recently a rather strange extension of this train of events has come to light. Correspondence and other sources (as e.g. the administration of the cemetery in Battle Creek) have revealed that on the evening of the day on which Ellen’s coffin had been lowered into the grave, it was removed from that grave and brought to the vault of the cemetery, where it remained for 34 days. Then, on August 26, it was, in the presence of the two sons of James and Ellen once again buried in the family grave. Until today there is no credible explanation for this bizarre train of events. I had heard rumors about this burial-in-stages and was extremely curious as to what this book would tell me. Chapter 16 about Ellen’s death and burial was, therefore, the first chapter I read after I had obtained my copy of the book, signed by Numbers and Aamodt.

[1] John Loughborough, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists (Battle Creek, MI: Gen. Conf. Association, 1892).

[2]  Jerry Allen Moon and Dennis Fortin, red., The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2014;  1504 pp.

[3]  Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, Ronald L. Numbers, Ellen Harmond White: An American Prophet (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).