Ellen White and her critics
Does God ever communicate information to humans? Do we dare challenge the claim that God did speak to His prophets? New information published in a recent book, The Prophet and Her Critics,1 attempts to answer these questions.
Ellen White was a prominent leader, speaker, and writer in the early decades of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Her ministry spanned from the 1840s until her death in 1915. Seventh-day Adventists believe that she was a spokesperson for God, receiving information in visions for the benefit of Adventists and others. She wrote this information in books and articles, making her one of the most published women in history.
Critics have challenged her claim to receiving divine communication, maintaining instead that she copied her ideas from other sources. Portions of her writings do show some similarity to what is found in books by other authors that she is known to have owned and read. The issue is whether the other authors were the source of her ideas or, as she claimed, reading these other books only helped her to better express the concepts she received from God.
Is it valid for these critics to challenge a prophet of God? 1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21, Deuteronomy 18:22, and Matthew 7:15-20 clearly indicate that there will be true prophets of God and false prophets who do not speak for God, and we have the right and the responsibility to distinguish between them. We also are obliged to evaluate critically the work of those who claim to have judged a presumed prophet and found him or her wanting.
I set out to evaluate the work of Ellen White’s critics, and Don McMahon, a physician, completed new research with the potential to determine whether her health principles came from God, as she claims, or from the abundant writings of other 19th century health reformers.2 This research offers what appears to be the first scientific evidence on the nature of inspiration.
Ellen White’s critics
My evaluation of three of White’s prominent critics, Walter Rea,3 Jonathon Butler,4 and Ronald Numbers5 focused on the quality of their research. Did they use a good research design? Did they collect their data in a valid manner? Do their data support their conclusions? If they had submitted their work as a thesis for a graduate degree, would they have received a passing grade?
Walter Rea’s basic claim is that phrases or even series of sentences in Ellen White’s books are identical or very similar to other books in her library. He argues that this negates her claim of divine inspiration, and shows that she copied her ideas from others. However, there are several reasons why his evidence does not support this claim. First of all, the amount of similarity is not nearly as great as he tries to make it appear. That can be determined from careful scrutiny of the exhibits in his book. Secondly, he cites two arguments against his conclusions, and his efforts to refute these arguments fail to do so. The data he uses cannot test those arguments. Third, the principal line of reasoning of the entire book is based on faulty logic. He does present evidence that refutes the claim that her writing was all original, or that her material was verbally inspired, or dictated by God. The problem is that he then jumps directly to the opposing conclusion that there must not have been any divine communication.
But this black-and-white, either-or reasoning fails to consider an intermediate explanation, which can be found in her own description of how she wrote her books. Her claim is that God spoke to her, giving her principles, which she wrote in her own words. She says that she often felt unable to adequately express these concepts, but was instructed that she would be better able to write clearly by reading other books on the subject.6 This explanation is consistent with all of Walter Rea’s data, and thus he fails to present any evidence that could negate a role of divine inspiration in her writings. It will require a different type of evidence to test her claim of inspiration.
A journal article7 claiming that Ellen White’s understanding of the final events of Earth history came from current events in her day similarly fails because of faulty logic and inadequate evidence. We will not deal further with that, but will proceed to the book Prophetess of Health, by Ronald Numbers. Numbers claims to show that Ellen White derived all of her health reform principles from the works of other health reformers of her day. There were a number of such health reformers during the 19th century, who published many books and articles, a number of which were in Ellen White’s library, with her underlining.
Ellen White’s main health vision occurred in June 1863, and the next year she wrote her principles of healthful living in the book Spiritual Gifts. She said she did not read the works of other health reformers until after writing the health section of Spiritual Gifts, but after writing Spiritual Gifts, she read those other books and was surprised to find so many concepts similar to her own. Numbers discounts her claim, and states that before her health-reform vision of 1863 “Seventh-day Adventists were already in possession of the main outlines of the health reform message.”8
Numbers’ history of these events is instructive, but his use of the history to determine whether her health principles were revealed to her by God is fraught with serious errors of logic and inadequate evidence. First of all, such research must be based on a complete list of her health principles, and also the health principles of her supposed sources. These must be compiled using the same approach for all, to provide an unbiased set of data. Then all of these principles can be compared with modern medical findings to determine which of them has been medically verified. Of course, medical knowledge keeps advancing and changing with new discoveries, so it is not an absolute standard. However, that is not a serious problem because it still allows a comparison of the relative level of accuracy of different health reformers. That will be adequate for our purposes. Numbers did not come close to doing this, but used anecdotal evidence—comparison of a few health principles—without any indication of how he chose these examples rather than many others that he did not discuss.
Second, Numbers focused on similarities between the health principles of White and the other reformers, but did not discuss the significant differences that exist between them. This is not appropriate, for an unbiased research design must compare both similarities and differences.
Third, Numbers did not attempt to analyze objectively the hypothesis of divine inspiration, but stated clearly his assumption that the data should be evaluated without recourse to that hypothesis. But a scholarly study attempting to determine the truth of a hypothesis cannot begin by assuming the hypothesis is false.
In summary, the research designs used by these critics were uniformly unsatisfactory, and they did not have the data to support their claims. Several books have been written in response to these critics. My evaluation is that these books are helpful, but still are not the careful, objective study needed to test the hypothesis of divine communication as the source of Ellen White’s writings. However, a new study of her writings on health has used the proper research design, and offers possibilities for testing the divine communication of her health principles. This research was done by Don McMahon, a physician with considerable experience in studying and lecturing on modern medical principles of healthful living.
Testing the hypothesis of divine inspiration
McMahon compiled a list of all the health concept in the writings of Ellen White and of the other prominent health reformers of her time. The same approach was used in compiling each of these lists. Then they were all compared with modern medical science, and each concept was judged as either verified or not verified by modern medicine. Each health concept was then categorized as a health principle or a physiological explanation of a health principle. For example “drink lots of water” is a principle, a statement of what to do. A physiological explanation would not say what to do, but why we should do it. McMahon called the principles “whats,” and the explanations “whys.” Finally, current medical opinion was also used to decide whether each health principle (each “what”) is expected to have a minor effect or a significant effect on health.
This provided the database for the test we have been looking for! We can now test two hypotheses: (1) “Ellen White’s health concepts can be satisfactorily explained as borrowed from the other health reformers of her day,” and (2) “Ellen White’s health writings contain information that cannot be explained as arising from health concepts available in her day; they show she must have received information from an extrahuman source.”9
In the 1950s medical opinion was clearly contrary to Ellen White’s health principles, but new medical research in the last half of the 20th century has changed that. Of the 46 “whats” in Spiritual Gifts, 96 percent have been verified by modern medicine, with 70 percent being significant to health, and 26 having a minor effect. In contrast, the health principles (“whats”) of the five other health reformers studied ranged from 35-45 percent verified. Not only that, but when we compare the lists of unverified principles for all these reformers, the difference between Ellen White and the others is further emphasized. Ellen White’s two principles in Spiritual Gifts judged by McMahon to be unverified are: avoid leaven in bread, and usually eat only two meals a day. In contrast, here is a sampling of unverified principles from the other reformers: don’t heat your house, if you must eat meat then eat it raw, don’t comfort children (crying is good for them), don’t let children eat fruit, don’t drink water (get your liquids only from fruit), don’t use any salt, wear very little clothing even when it is cold, don’t use soap, bathe only once or twice a week, marital sexual activity is dangerous to health, children should avoid eating potatoes, and avoid strong odors (even pleasant ones, like the scent of flowers).
Since Ellen White had very little formal education, and certainly no medical education at all, how did she know how to avoid those principles that may have seemed valid 150 years ago but are now known to be very wrong? And where did she get the numerous health principles that the other reformers did not espouse? The latter point is especially significant, because the principles that are unique to her have a higher level of accuracy than the principles found both in her writings and in the writings of one or more of the other health reformers. The accuracy of her health principles cannot be derived from any human source available anytime during her lifetime. This seems to refute hypothesis one, above, and is consistent with hypothesis two—communication from an extrahuman source. Does anyone have another explanation?
After writing Spiritual Gifts, Ellen White says that she read the other reformers’ publications, and used some of their material. This can explain why her percent of verified health principles in her book The Ministry of Healing, published in 1905, had slipped down from 96 percent to 87 percent. Even so, the unverified principles in The Ministry of Healing are ideas that can be argued over, but do not include any of the strange principles advocated by other health reformers.
So far I have discussed the “whats,” but the “whys” present a different picture that reveals something about the nature of inspiration. Ellen White’s “whys” are no more accurate than the “whys” of the other reformers, and thus they seem to come from a different source of information. It appears that God gave us the principles for healthful living that will improve our quality of life, but left it for us to figure out the physiological explanations ourselves. And in fact it would have often been impossible to give correct physiological explanations for many health principles in the 1800s without using medical terminology and concepts unknown until the late 1900s.
Health principles like “drink lots of water,” or “don’t drink alcohol” are easily communicable and understandable by anyone in any era of history, even if they don’t know the correct reasons for these principles. Our lives and our relationship to God will benefit if we follow the principles of living that He gave us, even if we don’t understand the reasons why.
Ellen White and principles of sexual relationships
Ellen White’s critics have argued that she advocated unbalanced concepts of marital sexual relationships, but this seems to be based on a careless reading of her writings. In her day it was common for health reformers to advocate a restriction of sexual contact to perhaps once per month. Contrary to what Ron Numbers implies, Ellen White never advocates any such restriction. She does discuss problems caused by “animal passions,” and husbands “worse than brutes,” and advocates that wives try to divert their husbands’ minds from the “gratifications of lustful passions.” To understand what she is condemning, we must know what kind of relationship she is describing. Is she condemning normal sexual relationships of married couples who are loving, unselfish, kind, understanding, and passionate with each other? Or is she describing the insensitive behavior of self-centered, demanding husbands, or even perhaps some type of abusive behavior?
She wrote in an era when sexual topics were not openly discussed as is more common now, but careful study of her writings clearly indicates that these “animal passions” she condemns are in the second category described above. When we compare her descriptions of a relationship in which true love governs a husband, and the characteristics and/or results of “animal passions” or husbands “worse than brutes,” there is a dramatic difference between the two lists. She is talking about the quality of marital relationships, not about the frequency of sex. One man tried to get her blessing on his proposed tract advocating that sex should be limited to procreation. Her only comment to him after his sales talk was “go home and be a man.” In this case, he took the hint and did not publish his tract.
God allows us to make choices, and to accept the consequences of those choices. This includes the choices that we each make regarding our view of inspiration. However, if a person challenges the Bible or the writings of Ellen White, we have the right to expect that such challenge will be based on a high quality of scholarly research. Ellen White’s critics discussed here have based their research on inadequate research design and faulty logic, and we have a right to be skeptical of their conclusions.
The research of Don McMahon, by far the most careful and objective research on this topic, indicates that the claim that Ellen White’s health principles were copied from other reformers is not even close to being realistic. To follow these health principles is to show our grateful thanks to the Creator who cares not only for our salvation, but also wants to help us live more healthful, happy lives. These gifts from God are given freely by His grace. The accuracy we see in God-given health principles also can encourage us to trust His communication on other topics—to listen to and believe God’s communication to us through His messengers. In His kindness He has sent us these messages to keep us from being fooled by the enemy of us all.
Leonard R. Brand (Ph.D., Cornell University) is professor of biology and paleontology at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, U.S.A. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Leonard Brand and Don McMahon, The Prophet and Her Critics (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 2005).
- Ibid; Don S. McMahon, Acquired or Inspired? Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle (Warburton, Australia: Signs Publishing Co., 2005). Includes a CD with all the authors’s research data and interpretations.
- Walter Rea, The White Lie (Turlock, California: M & R Publications, 1982).
- Jonathon Butler, “The World of E. G. White and the End of the World,” Spectrum, 10 (2): 2-13 (1979).
- Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1976).
- Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, Introduction (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911).
- Numbers, pp. 80, 81.
- Brand and McMahon, p. 41.