Was Ellen White a “con artist”?

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.

7 thoughts on “Was Ellen White a “con artist”?

  1. Edwin Torkelsen

    I am reading Daily’s book now, but have covered only the first third part or so. I note that my preliminary impression aligns well with your assessment.
    While reading I try to keep apart the three aspects of the book, the historical part supported by relevant sources that tries to illuminate what actually happened, the psychological analysis that tries to illuminate the personalty and motives of EGW, and the ethical evaluation of the other two that mainly speaks to the author’s overall opinions regarding the moral qualities of his subject.
    The first element provides some information I was not aware of. The second is an interesting approach that tries to apply the concepts of modern psychology in a structured manner. That may, to some, be perceived as questionable as long as the person analyzed is dead and thus escapes our direct observation. However, all historical research focuses on dead people, and historians cannot escape the fact that they continually make some sort of psychological assessments trying to read the minds of their subjects based on their actions. Most of the time these assessments rely mostly on the subjective gut feelings of the authors. I don’t find it reprehensible for an historian to do so in a structured way with some help from the analytical tools provided by modern psychology.
    Usually historians refrain from passing strong and absolute ethical judgement on their subjects. It is on this point I think Dr Daily reveals a bit about his own psyche and possible motives. From the very beginning he seems to present his moral agenda by unequivocally stating that EGW was a lifelong unethical person. The rest of the book seems designed to prove that this opinion is correct.
    It may be that EGW, in Daily’s opinion, is found guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But I find it questionable that he presents this verdict without any possible qualifying reservations. I wish he would have been less cock sure, and rather would have explored and discussed other possible explanations. Historical hypoteses are not only about verification, but more importantly about falsification. Explanatory positions must be tested by attempts to falsify. A hypotesis has value, not primarily by verification, but by its strength to withstand falsification.
    Unfortunately I see no serious attempt, as far as I have read the book, of any attempt to discuss any alternative explanatory keys. This weakness seems to indicate that Daily the historian, psychologist, and ethicist, has turned into an evangelist of doom. That is too bad, because this topic deserves serious discussion, not merely moralistic condemnation.

  2. steve daily

    Dear Reinder, Very thoughtful article, I enjoyed reading it. Con artist is a very strong term to describe a professed “messenger of God,” but I don’t feel that I’ve had a choice given the overwhelming historical evidence. I don’t know how else to describe Ellen’s premeditated fake vision used to deceive Joseph Bates, when she was only 19 along with all the other puzzle pieces that seem to neatly fit together from the historical documentation related to the rest of her life. I don’t write this out of anger or resentment, just saddness. God bless, sd

    1. Harvey R Brenneise

      I like the division into three categories of discussion here–history, mental health diagnosis, and conclusions based on the first two, which are strongly stated. I will post my own evaluation elsewhere, but I do have a couple of questions for Steve. First, how did you conclude that the Bates vision was “fake”? Was there any direct evidence of that? And beyond that, what is your explanation of how the “visions” happened. Self-hypnosis after reading other materials? Something else?

      I do not believe there is evidence for a October 22, 1843 date (they expected Christ to return sometime between the spring equinoxes of 1843 and 1844) and the 7th Month movement didn’t happen until the following summer after March came and went. I believe it was primarily SS Snow who came up with that notion, based on the Karaite calendar, which had not been used earlier. Many accepted it only in the fall. Do you have any evidence of the October 1843 date, or would better editing have caught that error?

      And beyond that, what specific “visions” did she have that supported the 1851 date of Bates? I know she supported the “shut door” concept up until then, but was unaware that she or the “church” generally had accepted that date in the same way that they had the 1844 date.

    2. Roy Otto Dyrli

      Some thoughts on Ellen White: A psycobiography

      Serving the SDA church as a sabbatshool teacher for more than 30 years, I have more than once reflected on many of the Ellen White quotes. I never saw her as infallible, but generally believed that her visions had to be trusted. This also led me to believe that the last chapter of “The great controversy” had to be correct.

      It was not until 2008 I think, that I came over, by accident, the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:21-22;

      “21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?”
      22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”

      After reading through verse 22 again, trying to grasp the logic, I was thinking: “Here we have a tool to nail false prophets. I wonder how aunty Ellen will stand this test?”

      At the time I thought she would, but after a short research of her books, it was pretty clear to me that she had no chance passing the Moses test. That led me in to a long spiritual journey, checking out Messianic Jews and the Hebrew roots movement. It also took me to Israel for 5 years where I with my own eyes could see the rapid growth of the messianic movement in Israel.

      When I the last month have red Steven Dailys book, I find that he have come to many of the same conclusions that I made 12 years ago. Ellen can not be trusted as a prophet. We really don’t need anything else than her own books to prove it. I sit back and wonder if anything of what she said have come true.

      Daily is aiming to brand Ellen as a sociopathic con artist. That might very well be true.
      I am not by any stretch a psychologist, but sins I am forced to conclude that her visions was not heavenly sent, I find such a conclusion a lot more than plausible.

      During the years living in Israel, I would time and time again come back to The mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem. Watching The Temple Mount on the other side of the valley would always bring my thoughts back to Early wrings p. 75; and Ellens words “I also saw that Old Jerusalem never would be built up;”.

      Jerusalem have never been in better shape, and Ellen have (after this book) never been in worse shape.
      The SDA church, 100 years after the 1919 General conference, owes it members honesty. It is about time they get it.

  3. Gillian Ford

    I became an Adventist when I was aged 18 and received the Ellen White Lite version. I think of myself as a member of the universal Adventist Church in heaven though I don’t attend and gave up my membership in 2001. I was reading the Oxford University Press book, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet when I received and read Steve’s book in the middle of the first. I set down the O.U.P book and read the Daily. book. I must say that the tone of the writing is vastly different, and neither the twain shall meet, meaning you would think the subject of the books are about two very different people..

    I do not agree that Steve’s is a scholarly book, and I suggest you go through the footnotes by themselves—326 of them, making about a footnote a page. On a number of pages, he makes claims which he does not footnote (it’s possible he does it later). Please check how much of what he quotes is primary sources and how much secondary sources.

    He mentions the EGW documents that have been hidden from us, but only uses a few of them as far I can see in the footnotes (hard to tell except where he tells us). FNs 120, 121, 123, 132, 133 and 134 are ones I found that refer to such documents; I may have missed some). I would think that a book that makes the claim that this collection made him change his mind would have at least a chapter on the sources themselves. Exactly what was in them that made him decide to write this book?

    Steve says he won’t diagnose because it’s against protocol, but yet he implicitly does so—EGW is schizophrenic, a sociopath, a narcissist and a bully—as well as a plagiarist, the greatest con woman who ever lived, and a fraud.

    My impression is that in the beginning of the book, Steve marshals what he’s going to say without any evidence—he uses the phrase(s)” “as you will see in later chapters”, “in the next chapter(s)” quite a lot. About a third of the way in, the book and the argumentation improve. But a prejudicial case has been given without evidence.

    Having done a mere Master of History myself, I am quite amazed that scholars here say he has done a scholarly job.

    Psychology has always been considered a soft science. I just read a book on personality disorders. We commonly say “so and so” is narcissistic, but in real psychology the term personality disorders is reserved for people who are cutting themselves and otherwise manifesting serious pathological behaviour. I became very wary of psychological jargon in my twenties when I was the subject of investigation myself. Pretty much everything I was told turned out to be wrong.

    Having been lied about in the denomination when Des was fired (we were both lied to and about), and having worked in what was considered a breakaway organisation, I know from firsthand experience that what takes place in disagreements between two people or two groups can be difficult to define articulately at the time, never mind nearly 200 years later. We never have all the facts, and history is like looking into a black box, where you see a few spots of light. Even primary documentation has to be weighed. Because somebody said something, doesn’t automatically make it true or authoritative. Therefore, it behooves us to give people the benefit of the doubt, as Christ does with us (fortunately). Ron Numbers does this in Prophetess of Health. He’s perfectly honest, but kind.

    As with Walter Rea, all agreed what he found was accurate. But the harsh tone ruined it, because he was a fundamentalist. Steve is not and should know better, I think. The principle, let the facts do the cutting is a good one.

  4. Ray Stovall

    I am almost finished with the book and have the same thoughts that you wrote. Honesty is always(?) the best solution to many of the issues brought forth. Would like to hear/read a good ‘rebuttal’ to the book with as much documentation put forward that Daily put into his.

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