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Ellen White and Her Culture
Prophets may be ahead of their times in what God reveals to them, but what God has not revealed still leaves them a product of the times in which they live. God meets people where they are to give to them the good news about His Son. This can be seen in the writings of Ellen White from the following examples:
George Knight, in Myths in Adventism, lists as one of the myths to be demolished the idea that Ellen White was one hundred years ahead of her time in the area of education. He states, "It is extremely important to realize that Ellen White never made such claims about her educational (or other) writings. The responsibility for the myth lies with some of her misinformed followers who have mistakenly thought they were doing her a service. . . . Other nineteenth-century educators also espoused Ellen White's educational reform concepts. . . . Ellen White knew she was in harmony with the educational reform ideas of her age. For example, her writings on the role of physiology in education and on proper ventilation and lighting in the classroom resemble some of the ideas in Horace Mann's annual reports. But then, why shouldn't they, since both Mann and Mrs. White were fighting the same health-destroying educational abuses. . . . Mrs. White never pretended to be unfamiliar with Mann's work. On the contrary, some of his material was published along with hers in Health: or How to Live in 1865. . . . What is special about Ellen White's contribution to educational reform is the total salvation package in which she couched it.223 (emphasis added).
Knight's observation is in harmony with what we have so far established from Scripture: the Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament is primarily concerned with the spiritual life of the recipients.
Much of the material she gathered on health came from current health reformers of her age. When Ronald Numbers first published his book Prophetess of Health224 he demonstrated this point. He went even further by showing that her ideas were not always correct and that she had to undergo some development in her ideas. At the time the book was published (1976) it caused a great stir within the ranks of Adventism. Numbers was treated as an outcast; however, time has shown that much of what he was saying in regard to her ideas on health were correct.225
Up until this time books such as Prophet of Destiny by Rene Noorbergen226 and The Story of Our Health Message by D. E. Robinson227 had given the impression that she had received her messages on health by visions and that the information given was a hundred years ahead of the times.
Some of the ideas she had on health (even if not original with her) were excellent and would still be upheld today by modern medical science. People interested in health should be encouraged to read The Ministry of Healing as an excellent source of general health principles. It would be a pity if people seized upon the mistakes she made (which are not many in comparison to the amount of material she wrote) and ignore the fact that she was far more right than wrong in an age when orthodox medicine was in the wilderness.
Don McMahon's research is of interest. Being a physician, he wanted to test her statements on health when compared to her contemporaries. He did this by measuring the correctness of her statements and gave a percentage both to her and her contemporaries. He found she was twice as correct as the next best and three times more correct than most. For example she was 87 per cent correct while Kellogg was 43 per cent. She was uneducated in medicine while Kellogg was considered to be an outstanding medical man of the times.228
It must also be acknowledged that some of the ideas she adopted would not be looked upon with favour today. Some of the ideas she published include: Support of phrenology, the study of the bumps on the head as a guide to intelligence.229 She opposed the wearing of the current fashionable wigs, which were massive and made up of bunches of curled hair, cotton, sea grass and wool. She claimed that they covered the base of the brain, causing heat and excited the spinal nerves centering in the brain. This caused recklessness in morals, "the animal organs are excited and the morals are enfeebled".230 She also wrote that the use of swine's flesh, under certain circumstances, can cause leprosy.231 She indicated that self-abuse (masturbation) could cause imbecility232
Such ideas fit in well to the prevailing views of the 19th century, but they have been discounted by modern science. God does not take a prophet out of their culture. He meets them where they are. For the most part her ideas on health were sound, with evidence for this found in the many surveys made on Seventh-day Adventists showing that they have longer life expectancy when they live out the principles of health given to them through her gift.233 What is important is the reason she wrote on health. Good health keeps the mind clear and the spirit in good condition—it is linked to our spiritual well being. This, as we have seen, is the main function of a prophet's work according to 1 Corinthians 14:3.
A statement she once made, which has caused much comment over the years in Adventism, is: "But if there was one sin above another which called for the destruction of the race by flood, it was the base crime of amalgamation of man with beast which defaced the image of God and caused confusion everywhere. . . . The confused species which God did not create, which were the result of amalgamation, were destroyed by the flood. Since the flood there has been amalgamation of man and beast, as may be seen in the almost endless varieties of species of animals and in certain races of men"234 (Emphasis added).
With scientific progress made over recent years we can see that it is possible to mix the genes of animals and mankind. So she would
not be out of harmony with modern science on that account. However, it is the statement made about the mixture giving us certain races that creates a problem. It was commonly believed in her day that there were certain races as a result of this amalgamation—for instance, the wild Bushmen of Africa.235
Warren Johns236 wrestles with statements Ellen White made regarding chronology. He notes that her statements are inconsistent. She uses two different time periods for the time Israel spent in Egypt before the Exodus. He also notes the loose way she can refer to 6000 years for Creation. For instance, she can say for "over 6000 years" and on another occasion "for nearly" 6000 years. He also notes: "The function is not to establish a date for Creation, but to show the extent and intensity of the great controversy between good and evil. . . ."237 In this observation he is in harmony with the work of prophets as expressed in 1 Corinthians 14:3.
He also notes that she uses Ussher's chronology, which has long been discredited. He concludes, "If Ellen White were alive today, she would no doubt advocate that chronology that holds the closest fidelity to the scriptural record."238 He might well have also added the material cited from Willie White, where he states his mother did not consider herself an authority in the area of dates and chronology. This concept has not always been clearly understood in Adventism. However it has widespread ramifications not only in Adventism, but also the more conservative elements of the Christian world.
For example, Ronald Numbers in The Creationists239 shows how up until the mid-20th century most conservative Christians did not think they needed to defend the 6000 years since creation concept. But with the work of George McCready Price, an Adventist, the idea took hold and remains in conservative Christian circles. Numbers shows how Price felt he had to believe what Ellen White had said and, in doing so, influenced many others. 240 Price accepted her chronology of 6000 years and succeeded in bringing it in as something to be defended in the conservative Christian world.
Gerhard Pfandl in his paper prepared for the 2002 Faith and Science Conference finds a clear link between Ellen White and the cultural setting of her times when he comments on her statements regarding the age of the earth: "There is no indication that she was ever told in vision that the earth is only six thousand years old. Why then six and not eight or ten thousand years? The explanation is most likely found in the fact that whenever she opened her King James Bible she saw on every page in the margins Ussher's dates. On the first page of the Bible next to the creation account she, like every Bible believing Christian at that time, read the date 4004 B.C. Short of a revelation from heaven, why should she have used any other date?
If, for the sake of argument, we assume that the history of man upon earth was actually ten thousand years, could we really expect God to have revealed this fact to Ellen White and had her incorporate this figure into her writings? How would this have been accepted in the nineteenth century by Bible believing Christians who, with their backs to the wall, fought off the attack of 'infidel geologists' and the rising tide of liberal theologians? . . . Could we expect Ellen White to come out with something different and demolish what was for them an important pillar in their defense of the Bible?"241
Numbers also shows how Price accepted White's ideas regarding buried coal beds that occasionally ignited to produce earthquakes, and volcanoes242 This concept was largely believed in her day but now has no credibility.
Alden Thompson in Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers gives a classic example of how God works within the cultural concepts of the day when giving His revelations. In the early years of Ellen White's ministry, Joseph Bates was undecided regarding her manifestations. One evening in his presence she went into vision and began to describe what she saw regarding some of the planets. She
said "I see four moons." Bates, who knew something about astronomy, said, "She is describing Jupiter!" She then continued to describe other parts of space and gave a description of beautiful belts and rings and said "I see seven moons." Bates said, "She is seeing Saturn." Then came a description of Uranus with its six moons. This description convinced Bates of her contact with God in her visions.
Thompson then tells us that the number of moons she was describing for the different planets was in harmony with the number known to exist in her day. Today we know that each of these planets have more moons than what she described. Thompson lists the number of moons of some of these planets and how the number grew as more powerful telescopes were able to detect them. 243 The point he makes is valid. God meets people where they are. If she had been given the number we know to be more correct today, Bates would never have accepted her and her messages as from God.
Thompson explains, "The limitations of time and circumstances, culture and human knowledge, set certain boundaries within which revelation can be effective. If Jesus the supreme revelation, took humanity 'in order to reach man where he is' (1SM, p. 20), would not the same principle apply to all lesser revelations as well? That means that while we cannot claim absolute scientific validity for prophetic messages, their practical value is significantly enhanced. Good teaching always involves effective illustrations, illustrations that are concrete, understandable, adapted to the needs of the learner. They point to the truth but should not be mistaken for the truth itself."244
When dealing with the above listed subjects we must be careful not to give a wrong impression of her work. The danger is that when we talk of some erroneous concepts where she reflects her culture we may forget that this is not generally true of her work. Much time could easily be given to consideration of how she could as a relatively uneducated person in the 19th century be so right when her contemporaries were wrong. This we have done in part in quoting from the McMahon report in the area of health.
223 George R. Knight, Myths in Adventism, (Washington DC: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1985), pp. 34-36. [back]
224 Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White, (New York: Harper and Row, 1976). [back]
225 For more on this point read Jonathan Butler, "The Historian As Heretic", Spectrum, Vol. 23, No 2, pp. 43-64. Butler shows how there was a "Holy War" between Numbers and the White Estate who felt threatened by his book. [back]
226 Rene Noorbergen, Ellen White: Prophet of Destiny. (New Canaan, CT: Keats Publ. Co., 1972). After the revelations of Walter Rea and others, Noorbergen wrote a stinging letter of rebuke regarding the White Estate accusing them of not giving him accurate information and stating he would never have written his book as he did if he had been more accurate information. [back]
227 D. E. Robinson, The Story of Our Health Message, (Nashville, TN: Southern Publ. Assn, 1943). [back]
228 Dr. Don McMahon,
of Her Time: A Critical Analysis of Ministry of Healing. A book by Ellen G.
White," May 2001. Unpublished document. [McMahon
has now published his book, Acquired or Inspired, (Signs Publishing
Company, Warburton, Australia and Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2005.)]
229 She wrote "Phrenology and mesmerism are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his most powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls" 1T, p. 296. She wrote that in 1862 and in 1864 she took her sons Willie and Edson to a phrenologist to have the bumps in their heads examined. [back]
230 Ellen White, "Words to Christian Mothers", Health Reformer, October, 1871, p. 121. We have previously stated the belief that while working as a sub-editor of this magazine she was not working as a prophet but exercising other spiritual gifts. [back]
231 2SM, p. 417. [back]
232 Appeal to Mothers, p. 62. [back]
233 Gary Fraser, Professor of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, Loma Linda University states regarding his research that ". . . a non-smoking, relatively thin Adventist who emphasises fruit and vegetables and exercises moderately may reasonably expect an extra 10 to 12 years of life as compared to a relatively obese, non-exercising, high fat/meat consuming Adventist." SCOPE, July-September, 1991, p. 52. The former mentioned Adventist who lives longer is following the counsels on health given by Ellen White. [back]
234 3SG, pp. 64, 75. [back]
235 For a more complete discussion on this subject see "Amalgamation of Man and Beast," Gordon Shigley, Spectrum, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 10-19. [back]
236 Ministry, April 1984, pp. 20-23. [back]
237 Ibid., p. 22 [back]
238 Ibid., p. 23. [back]
239 Ronald Numbers, The Creationists, (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1993). [back]
240 Ibid., pp. xi, 72-101. [back]
241 International Faith and Science Conference. Sponsored by the General Conference of SDA, August 23-29, 2002. Ogden, Utah. "Ellen G. White and Earth Science." A paper prepared by Gerhard Pfandl, p. 18. [back]
242 Ibid., p. 74. [back]
243 Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1991), p. 296. Even Thompson's figures are now behind the times. Today it is recognized that Jupiter has 52 moons, Saturn 30, Uranus 21 and Neptune 11. Central Coast Herald, Wednesday, March 21. 2003. p. 29. Article "Astronomer's discovery brings Jupiter's moons up to 52". [back]
244 Ibid., p. 297. [back]