One afternoon in 1836, as nine-year-old Ellen Harmon (later Ellen White), her twin sister, Elizabeth, and a classmate were walking home from school, a 13-year-old girl, irritated by some triviality, shouted a threat. The Harmon twins had been taught that if they were ever in any kind of danger, they should always hurry home. The young trio started running. Their pursuer picked up a rock and chased them. Just as Ellen turned to see if the older girl were catching up, the rock struck Ellen in the face. It broke her nose and knocked her to the ground unconscious. She bled profusely. When she regained consciousness, she was helped to a nearby store. One kind gentleman offered to take her home in his carriage, but she refused, not realizing her weakness. Evidently the other adults in the store did not understand how seriously young Ellen had been injured or they would have insisted on taking her home. Instead, her sister and classmate carried her almost all the way home. For three weeks she lay in a state of semiconsciousness.
At the time of the accident, Ellen's father was away on business in Atlanta. When he returned two months later, he did not recognize his daughter because her face was so badly disfigured. While her family treated her with tender consideration, some of her playmates did not. She wrote later, "I was forced to learn the bitter lesson that our personal appearance often makes a difference in the treatment we receive from our companions.''1 Eventually, Ellen tried to resume her schoolwork but was unable to concentrate. She could not breathe through her nose for more than two years. She tried studies again when she was 12 but still found them too great a strain. She said, "It seemed impossible for me to study and to retain what I learned.... My nervous system was prostrated, and my hand trembled so that I made but little progress in writing, and could get no farther than the simple copies in coarse hand [first level in penmanship].... My teachers advised me to leave school.... It was the hardest struggle of my young life to...give up the hope of gaining an education."2 Altogether, she received less than three years of formal schooling.
A Remarkable Woman
She had said, "I could get no farther than the simple copies in coarse hand"; yet during her lifetime she wrote over 100,000 pages in longhand--25 million words. She wrote more serious books--published in more languages, with wider distribution--than has any other woman in history. She wrote in areas in which she had no formal education and little experience.
In the field of education, several of her books--Education; Counsels to Teachers, Parents, and Students; Fundamentals of Christian Education--set forth guiding principles for the world's largest Protestant educational system (more than 1.25 million students today). Educational authorities have declared the books containing her comprehensive philosophy of education to be "classics." Dr. Florence Stratemeyer (for years, professor of education at Columbia University Teachers College), addressing an educators' conference in 1959, said, regarding Ellen White's book Education (1903): "Its concept of balanced education, harmonious development, and of thinking and acting on principle are advanced educational concepts."3 Dr. Stratemeyer also said, "The objective of restoring in man the image of God, the teaching of parental responsibility, and the emphasis on self-control in the child are ideals the world desperately needs."4
In the field of nutrition and dietetics, Ellen White's writings have been recognized as scientifically correct by many noted nutritionists. The late Dr. Clive McCay, long-time professor of nutrition at Cornell University, wrote: "In spite of the fact that the works of Mrs. White were written long before the advent of modern scientific nutrition, no better over-all guide is available today."5 Her counsels on health were written during the last half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries.
Rational Methods of Therapy
At a time in the practice of medicine when patients were still being drugged to death, when modern nutrition was unknown, when sunshine and night air were feared, and when tobacco and other poisons were prescribed as medicines, Ellen White wrote volumes6 recommending specific, simple, rational methods of therapy. She (and certain health reformers) spoke out strongly against tobacco. She called it "a poison of the most deceitful and malignant kind,"7 in 1864, exactly 100 years before the famous United States Surgeon General's Report, Smoking and Health. She said that poisonous drugs could cause birth defects, 8 a fact also confirmed by later scientific studies.
In 1859 Ellen White predicted that a great effort would be made to free the slaves. Yet when the Civil War began in 1861, the preservation of the Union was the main consideration, not the liberation of slaves. Nevertheless, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was issued two years later in 1863.
She also predicted the outbreak of the Civil War. On Saturday, January 12, 1861, exactly three months before the first shell was fired on Fort Sumter, signaling the beginning of the Civil War, Ellen White was given a "vision" in Parkville, Michigan. While she was "in vision" she was observed by many. When the vision ended she declared, "There is not a person in this house who has ever dreamed of the trouble that is coming upon this land.... There will be a most terrible war." She said that the North and South would raise up large armies.9 When President Lincoln called for 75,000 three-month militiamen at the beginning of the war, the North had no idea that before the war was over the Union side would reach 22 times that number--about 1,556,000--and the Confederate army, 800,000. Of these, the North lost 359,528 men--more than one in four (also 275,175 wounded)--and the South lost 258,000--more than one in three (also perhaps 225,000 wounded).10
Writing in 1890, she said that thousands of ships would go to the depths of the sea and that human lives would be sacrificed by the millions.11 Ten million people perished in World War I, 40 million in World War II. In 1902 she wrote, "San Francisco and Oakland are becoming as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Lord will [punish] them...."12 Describing a vision she received on April 16, 1906, she wrote: "...there passed before me a most wonderful [astonishing, distressing] representation. During a vision of the night, I stood on an eminence, from which I could see houses shaken like a reed in the wind. Buildings, great and small, were falling to the ground. Pleasure resorts, theaters, hotels, and the homes of the wealthy were shaken and shattered. Many lives were blotted out of existence, and the air was filled with shrieks of the injured and the terrified.''13
And the vision proved true. Two days later, Mrs. White, traveling to speak at the Los Angeles Carr Street Seventh-day Adventist church, heard a newsboy crying loudly, "San Francisco destroyed by an earthquake!"14 With an aching heart she read the details of her prophecy being fulfilled.
Today Seventh-day Adventists believe that the source of her writings, the source of her inspiration, was more than human; that the 2,000 "visions" given her during her lifetime were the result of her having received the "gift of prophecy."a
A Messenger of God
"To claim to be a prophetess," Ellen White wrote, "is something that I have never done. If others call me by that name, I have no controversy with them. But my work has covered so many lines that I cannot call myself other than a messenger, sent to bear a message from the Lord to His people, and to take up work in any line that He points out.... My commission embraces the work of a prophet but it does not end there.''15 (Ellen White's letters and manuscripts are housed at the Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., Silver Spring, Maryland. All letters and manuscripts in LEGACY are by Ellen G. White, unless otherwise noted.) Ellen White preferred that others call her simply "the Lord's messenger."16
Neither did John the Baptist call himself a prophet, but rather "the voice of one crying in the wilderness."b Yet Christ called him a prophet: "A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet."c
She was shown that her work was to embrace "much more" than the word prophet signifies. "Much more" included giving messages "from the Lord to His people"; teaching "health reform"; being a "medical missionary worker," setting "an example to the church by taking the sick into [her] home and caring for them"; speaking "to large assemblies on temperance"; reproving the oppressor and pleading for justice; promoting the care of the aged; taking orphans into her home "and then finding homes for them" or caring for and educating them for service; traveling often; writing much; and taking up "work in any line that [the Lord points out].''17 Although she never held a church office, she wrote, "I have a work of great responsibility to do--to impart by pen and voice the instruction given me, not alone to Seventh-day Adventists, but to the world.''18 Her textbook was the Bible, and she wrote, "As the Spirit of God has opened to my mind the great truths of His word, and the scenes of the past and the future, I have been bidden to make known to others that which has thus been revealed...."19
Seventh-day Adventists do not claim her writings to be more important than Scripture. Rather, they believe that Scripture is the sovereign rule of faith and practice, the supreme source of doctrine, the standard by which her (and all other) writings are to be judged. They believe her writings are a light from Heaven for this generation, a light reflecting the timeless light of Scripture, which is written for all generations. She encouraged believers to pattern their lives after the life of Christ. Her life's goal was to uplift Jesus, who, alone, brings us close to God. Therefore, she presented Scripture principles in greater detail--principles which, accepted and practiced, would restore God's image in mankind.
Ellen White, the Author
Adventists believe that God especially revealed His loving concern for mankind's comfort and happiness and longevity through the series of visions Ellen White was given on the subject of health. She wrote, "We have a duty to speak, to come out against intemperance of every kind--intemperance in working, in eating, in drinking, in drugging.... I saw that we should not be silent upon the subject of health, but should wake up minds to the subject."20
Mrs. White spent much of her life writing such counsel. Her messages could be called "love letters," because they beautifully reveal God's love to mankind. Her writings present Bible truths so simply, so clearly, that the more closely they are studied, the more one is drawn to a study of the Bible. Her books are so full of Bible quotations and references that the mind is continually directed toward the Holy Scriptures.21
Thirty-seven of Ellen White's books were published before her death. Another 32 books later were compiled from her published and unpublished writings. One of her most popular books, Steps to Christ, is a classic on how to become a Christian and to grow more Christ like. Tens of millions of copies have been published in more than 200 languages. The Desire of Ages is considered by Christians of many faiths to be the finest book ever written on the life of Christ. Patriarchs and Prophets is a fascinating history of the earth from Creation to the time of David. It includes a description of Creation and of the Flood, written with the detail of an eyewitness account. Ministry of Healing reveals Christ, the Great Physician, and shows how to live in harmony with His Divine laws--both the moral or spiritual and the physical laws governing health.
Perhaps her most unusual book is The Great Controversy (also published under the title The Triumph of God's Love). Beginning with the early Christian Church and continuing through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the present, and on to the future, it describes in vivid detail the events to take place at the end of earth's history, particularly the Second Coming of Christ.
An interesting story is told about her book Education. Raja R. Radosavlyevich, the minister of education for Serbia, a pre-World War I southeastern European country, a man with a master's degree and two doctorates (one in education), came to America for advanced study at Columbia University. He wanted to take back to his homeland the best information available on the subject of education. Eventually, in 1912, he published a book, in the language of his country, that was considered by many of his countrymen to be a masterpiece. Ironically, it was a word-for-word translation of Ellen White's book Education, published in 1903, except that two paragraphs from the last chapter were deleted and three small chapters about his own country were added. Although literary borrowing without giving credit to the source was a common practice until 1890, it was unusual that this educated man had attached his name to Ellen White's book as author and had removed her name, especially when one considers that her formal schooling stopped at the age of nine.22
The counsels in Ellen White's books have inspired millions to surrender their lives to Christ. Often these counsels are quite specific. Some find this close application of Gospel principles to their personal lives uncomfortable. Others see in it their heavenly Father's loving concern that they experience the joy of reflecting His character in every detail. Her counsels transcend denominationalism, and readers of diverse persuasions acknowledge the beauty and spiritual power of her writings.
Ellen White, the Speaker
The inspired counsels on health, recorded in her books, were vindicated in the experiences of those who read and practiced them. As their numbers grew, she became more in demand as a public speaker. It was on the subject of Christian temperance that she attracted some of the largest North American crowds ever recorded in the 1860s and 1870s. On one occasion she spoke to over 20,000 people in Groveland, Massachusetts, without the assistance of a public-address system. The American Biographical History (1878) outlined her talent as a lecturer: "As a speaker, Mrs. White is one of the most successful of the few ladies who have become noteworthy as lecturers in this country, during the last twenty years. Constant use has so strengthened her vocal organs as to give her voice rare depth and power.... Her language, though simple, is always forcible and elegant. When inspired with her subject, she is often marvelously eloquent, holding the largest audiences spellbound for hours without a sign of impatience or weariness.
"...The subject matter of her discourses is always of a practical character, bearing chiefly on fireside duties, the religious education of children, temperance, and kindred topics.... She has frequently spoken to immense audiences, in large cities, on her favorite themes, and has always been received with great favor.
"Mrs. White is a woman of singularly well-balanced mental organization. Benevolence, spirituality, conscientiousness, and ideality are the predominating traits. Her personal qualities are such as to win for her the warmest friendships of all with whom she comes in contact, and to inspire them with the utmost confidence in her sincerity.... Notwithstanding her many years of public labor, she has retained all the simplicity and honesty which characterized her early life."23
A Life of Service
Mrs. White was a woman of conviction, a thoughtful mother of four sons, a careful housewife, a friendly hostess, and a generous, helpful neighbor. She had no use for long-faced religion, even though photographs depict her and her contemporaries with serious expressions. She had a pleasant smile for all and a natural sense of humor. People felt at ease in her presence. The needy went to her for help, knowing that they would never be refused. She had the reputation of being a compassionate, humble, Christian woman.
For 70 years she was in the public eye. Her own life was as she said the Christian's life should be--honest, open, "as transparent as the sunlight." Born November 26, 1827, she died July 16, 1915, at the age of 87. Years later, friends and neighbors still remembered her as "the little old woman with white hair, who always spoke so lovingly of Jesus."24 Of her it can be said that although she rests from her labors, her works do follow her.d Her unique ministry is believed by millions to be a fulfillment of Bible prophecy, and it followed a great religious awakening which swept the world in the early 1800s.