Critics and Criticism
By T. Housel Jemison
From time to time we become aware of someone who is sharing his
criticisms of the writings of Ellen White. Sadly, even some Seventh-day Adventists who
once held the Spirit of Prophecy in high regard, have made an about-face, and are now
doing all they can to promote the "truth" concerning Adventisms
We do believe Ellen Whites prophetic gift should be tested by the
Scriptures, and there is a place for honest questions. However, we have yet to be
confronted with a criticism that does not fall into one of two categories: (1) There is
what seems to be a reasonable answer to the question or criticism, that does not diminish
our understanding of the inspiration, role, and authority of Ellen Whites gift of
prophecy; or (2) the criticism seems to be of such a minor nature that we can be satisfied
that we do not have all the answers at this time, and that God will one day explain all
Because many of the criticisms regarding the work of Ellen White are
repeating issues that have been raised for decadessome since long before Ellen White
passed awaywe felt it would be helpful to our many readers for us to reproduce the
following overview, which is taken from chapter 22 of T. Housel Jemisons book
entitled A Prophet Among You, published in 1955. Copies of this book are available
in some Adventist Book Centers.
For a more thorough treatment of any of the charges, we highly
recommend F. D. Nichols book Ellen White and Her Critics. Editors
For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy." John 10:33.
"Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not
only had broken the Sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal
with God." John 5:18.
"Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for
they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
"And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye
him?" John 10:20.
"How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?" John
Who is this that is being accused of blasphemy, of lawbreaking, of
turning people from the ways of the fathers, of devil possession involving insanity, and
of a lack of education that caused men to wonder how He could say anything worthwhile?
Anyone acquainted with the story of Jesus recognizes immediately that it was He who was
the object of these criticisms. Even a perfect life, an unmarred ministry, could not
escape the critics thrust.
Moses also faced, among other things, the charge of exalting himself
and assuming unwarranted authority. See Numbers 16:3. Jeremiah too was accused of being a
false prophet who was prompted by a friend to give a message according to the
friends ideas. See Acts 26:24; 17:6; 19:26-27.
Whether there is change or stagnation, strong leadership or weakness,
clear or muddled thinking, adverse criticism appears to be the lot of those who occupy
places of responsibility. At the same time, one who occupies no commanding position, but
who still affects the thinking of a large number of persons, is almost always the object
of hostile criticism.
Ellen White was and is subject to such criticism. In this chapter we
shall give attention to some of the criticisms that have been brought against her work and
her writings. In dealing with this case, it is not difficult, for the most part, to find
parallel accusations made against the prophets of the Bible. There seem to have been few
new criticisms invented with the passage of the centuries.
Criticisms of Ellen White fall largely into a few classifications. It
is not necessary to know all the facts about each criticism that might be placed in any
classification, for this information is readily obtainable when needed. If we become
acquainted with a method of approach to the various types of problems, we will
accomplish more than we would by trying to keep in mind all the details involved.
Following are some of the charges:
Prominent among the charges of Ellen Whites critics are
variations on the theme that her visions resulted from some type of nervous disorder
stemming from the injury she suffered as a girl. Hysteria, epilepsy, and schizophrenia are
most frequently mentioned. The stories built around these charges have seemed plausible
enough to cause a number of persons, who have not taken occasion to investigate the manner
of the giving of visions and the life and work of Mrs. White for themselves, to accept and
propagate them. In this connection there are two facts to be kept in mind: (1) No
scientific evidence is given to support the charges, and (2) the whole ministry of Mrs.
White and the body of her writings belie the charges:
1. No scientific evidence. When we say that no scientific evidence
is given to support the charges, we mean that an investigation of the so-called evidence
quickly reveals that it is unsound. Generally, the evidence consists of the testimony of
one or another, or all, of three physicians who claimed to know much about Ellen
Whites physical condition and her visions. Added to these are statements drawn from
medical books, which seem to describe some of the physical phenomena accompanying Ellen
The three physicians usually quoted are Drs. W. J. Fairfield, William
Russell, and J. H. Kellogg. A study of the facts in the case as they are presented in
detail by F. D. Nichol, indicates that in none of these instances is acceptable scientific
evidence given. It is shown that Dr. Fairfield had no opportunity to examine Mrs. White
during a vision; in fact, he does not claim to have done so. He established a medical
institution rivaling the Battle Creek Sanitarium, became critical of others connected with
that institution, and tried to cause trouble for them. There is no evidence that Dr.
Russell ever saw Mrs. White in vision, or that she was a patient of his at any time, and
he makes no such claim. No real evidence is presented. In fact, in 1871 Russell repented
of his attitude toward James and Ellen White, and he wrote them a letter of confession,
which was published in the Review and Herald, April 25, 1871. However, this is
unmentioned by critics today.
Dr. Kelloggs case differs from that of the other men. For many
years he was closely associated with Mrs. White and had abundant opportunity to know of
her general physical condition as well as her condition when in vision. But what was Dr.
Kelloggs attitude during the years he was associated with Mrs. White? Through these
years he repeatedly expressed his conviction that her visions were from God. These
expressions appear in published works as well as in letters. It was not until Mrs. White
spoke against some of his views and policies that he turned against her, expressed doubts
as to the origin of her messages, and refused to accept them. Whatever the factors
involved in his reasons for rejection, they were strictly nonmedical.
Weaknesses similar to those appearing in the testimony of the three
physicians are seen also in the testimony presented from medical books. The statements
quoted may be authentic and authoritative ones, but they are applied to Ellen White, not
by a qualified physician, but by a critic. There is nothing scientific in an unqualified
persons reading in medical books the symptoms of diseases concerning which the most
skilled diagnosticians sometimes differ widely, and from such reading attempting to
diagnose a case.
2. The types of disorders of which some critics feel symptoms appeared
in Ellen Whites experience are types that affect the whole personality and
experience. They are disorders for which medical help has been found only in comparatively
recent years. Therefore, if Mrs. White were afflicted with any of these diseases, she
would have to be regarded as an untreated case, subject to the progressive ravages of the
disease. But the most careful study of her life and writings fails to give the slightest
hint of such effects. The comment of the editor of the New York Independent, in
1915, previously quoted, "She lived the life and did the work of a worthy
prophetess"gives a clue to the regard in which Mrs. White was held. Another
writer of a biographical sketch showed his attitude in these words: "Mrs. White is a
woman of singularly well-balanced mental organization. Benevolence, spirituality,
conscientiousness, and ideally are the predominating traits. Her personal qualities are
such as to win for her the warmest friendship 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."American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men, Michigan
volume, page 108 (1878).
The best way to deal with problems regarding Ellen Whites
physical and mental condition is to become well acquainted with the story of her life and
the product of her pen. Her writings reveal clarity of thinking, consistency of treatment,
unity of thought, depth of insight, and unique aptness of expression that are signs of a
well organized mind and a consistent Christian outlook.
Application of the test "to the law and to the testimony"
(Isaiah 8:20), some critics say, shows that Ellen White taught some things that are not in
the Bible, or were contrary to Bible teachings
To deal adequately with this type of
criticism, two things are necessary: (1) a thorough knowledge of what the Bible teaches on
the subject, and (2) a complete cross-section of what Ellen White has said on the subject
in her various works. The major problems in this area are caused by the fact that she
differs from some traditional points of view on Bible teachings which have been held by
many individuals, and by the fact that brief portions of passages are sometimes taken out
of their setting and made to stand alone. Every doctrine taught by Ellen White will stand
the closest scrutiny and comparison with the Scriptures.
It is at times charged that Ellen White taught points of view which she
later discovered to be incorrect. Then, it is claimed, she changed her teaching, and
withdrew from circulation or suppressed the writings containing the error. As examples,
certain early works are quoted, which, when they were reprinted, lack some sentences or
sections contained in the earlier publication. Or it is urged that certain books were
discontinued and others issued in their place to hide the false teachings of the former.
Again, what are the facts? Space here permits but a brief summary of the facts presented
in detail in Ellen White and Her Critics, 267:
It is true that in later publications some portions of earlier ones
were omitted. It is also true that some books were replaced by new ones that did not
contain every sentence and expression found in the old books. Does this prove that some
teachings were suppressed? Not at all. Charges of deletion and suppression are
largely made with reference to three items: (1) a tract, "A Word to the Little
Flock," (2) an article in the Present Truth of August, 1849, and (3) the book Sketches
From the Life of Paul. Reasons for the omissions at the time of republication are
given by F. D. Nichol in his discussion of this topic. But because of the desire of some
persons to have copies of these early documents in their original form, both of the first
two items have been reproduced in facsimile form and are easily accessible. Whatever the
reasons for the original deletions, they had nothing to do with the suppression of
teachings, for the church has no question about circulating them today.2
The third item, Sketches From the Life of Paul, is said to have
been withdrawn from circulation because of a threatened lawsuit over alleged plagiarism.
Actually, there was no threatened lawsuit, and no critic has ever presented evidence of
such action, although the name of a publisher is sometimes mentioned in this connection. A
letter from the publisher, said to have been involved, shows that there was no threatened
suit and no grounds for one. Ellen White and Her Critics, 456. The edition of Sketches
was completely sold out, and no copies were recalled. No more were printed, for Ellen
White intended to write more fully on the subject of the ministry of the apostles. Work on
the new volume was delayed for a number of years because of other responsibilities and
bookwork, but in 1911 the new book, The Acts of the Apostles, was published.
The early teaching most frequently said to have been suppressed by the
removal of portions of early publications is that of the "shut door." Did the
first writings teach something different from the later revelations? Again the facts clear
away the confusion:
After the disappointment of October 22, 1844, their understanding of
the events that had taken place led those who soon became Sabbatarian Adventists to be
classified as the "Sabbath and shut-door" brethren, in contrast with the
First-day Adventists, who were called the "open-door" Adventists. The reason was
this: The Adventist group approaching October 22, 1844, believed that the Lord would
appear and probation would close for all men. For a time after the disappointment, those
who did not repudiate their belief in the advent message still believed that probation had
closed and there was no longer mercy for sinners.
However, with the passage of time, they began to recognize that this
position was not founded on the Bible, and that there was still a work to be done for
sinners. They continued to use the term "shut door," but it came to have a
different meaning to them. It took on this significance: Christ had now entered on the
second phase of His ministry as High PriestHis ministry in the Most Holy Place in
the heavenly sanctuary; therefore, He had shut the door to the holy place and opened the
door to the Most Holy. The announcement of this change in phases of ministry was, they
felt, the responsibility God had given them. What was Ellen Whites relation to
these teachings regarding the "shut door"? She explains, in a letter addressed
to J. N. Loughborough, a portion of which is quoted here:
"With my brethren and sisters, after the time passed in forty-four
I did believe no more sinners would be concerted. But I never had a vision that no more
sinners would be converted. And am clear and free to state no one had ever heard me say or
has read from my pen statements which will justify them in the charges they have made
against me upon this point.
"It was on my first journey east to relate my visions that the
precious light in regard to the heavenly sanctuary was opened before me and I was shown
the open and shut door. We believed that the Lord was soon to come in the clouds of
heaven. I was shown that there was a great work to be done in the world for those that had
not had the light and rejected it. Our brethren could not understand this with our faith
in the immediate appearing of Christ. Some accused me of saying my Lord delayeth His
coming, especially the fanatical ones. I saw that in 44 God had opened a door and no
man could shut it, and shut a door and no man could open it. Those who rejected the light
which was brought to the world by the message of the second angel went into darkness, and
how great was that darkness." Ellen White Letter 2, 1874. The letter in facsimile
form appears in F. M. Wilcox, The Testimony of Jesus, 106, 107.
In The Great Controversy Mrs. White, since 1884, has
unhesitatingly and frankly kept before the world the shut-door experience of our early
believers and the reasons for the position they took. See The Great Controversy,
428-432. It is largely the failure on the part of the critics to recognize the change in
the significance of the term "shut door" as employed by our pioneers that
creates the problem in this case. They make no distinction between Ellen Whites
early personal belief and what was soon revealed to her, on the basis of which she changed
her point of view. F. D. Nichol presents several exhibits revealing that Mrs. Whites
earliest writings contain clear indications of her belief that there was still opportunity
for men to accept the Lord. See F. D. Nichol, op. cit., 239. See also F. M. Wilcox,
The Testimony of Jesus, 90. In the face of facts, the "shut-door" charge
The charge of plagiarism, or literary theft, is made against Ellen
White in connection with two booksSketches From the Life of Paul, and The
Great Controversy. It is seldom that any other work or passage is cited, although it
is insinuated by critics that large portions of all her writings were the product of the
minds and pens of others. Is the insinuation justified? This much is certain: If there
were works other than the two specified that would help the critic to build up his case,
he would not hesitate or fail to use them. Consequently, the problem of the accusation of
plagiarism may be regarded as limited to these books.
Did Ellen White borrow from the writings of others in the preparation
of these books? Yes, she did. Did this borrowing constitute plagiarism? We
think not. Actually, there are two phases to the matter of plagiarismthe moral and
the legal. Morally, the major question is: Was there an attempt on the part of the author
to deceive her readers into thinking that the material she had borrowed was completely her
own? Take Sketches From the Life of Paul, for example:
The first notice of the publication of Sketches to appear in the
Review and Herald was in the issue of October 9, 1883. In the advertisement the
publishers called particular attention to the book from which critics say Ellen White
copied large portionsConybeare and Howsons The Life and Epistles of St.
Paul. The publishers of the Review and Herald said: "While the well-known
work of Conybeare and Howson completely outstrips all its predecessors as a full and
reliable history of the life and epistles of Paul, even that excellent book comes
altogether short of taking the place of this humble volume." To all intent and
purposes they were inviting comparison of the two books. But what about Mrs. White? Was
she as free as her publishers to direct attention to the Conybeare and Howson book, or did
she try to prevent people from reading it so that they might not discover that she had
used some material from it?
Only a few months before the Review and Herald notice of the
publication of Mrs. Whites Sketches, there was widespread promotion of the
Conybeare and Howson book as a premium with subscriptions to the Review and Herald
and the Signs of the Times. Mrs. White did her part in helping the promotion of the
book by writing a statement that was included in the Signs of the Times of February
22, 1883. "The Life of St. Paul" by Conybeare and Howson, I regard as a
book of great merit, and one of rare usefulness to the earnest student of the New
Testament." Certainly none can say justifiably that Mrs. White tried to hide the fact
that she had used some material from the other book on the life of Paul. There was no
attempt on her part to deceive her readers.
What about the legal phase of the matter? Did she use so much that the
value of the older book was diminshed or that she appropriated the labor of its authors to
their injury? F. D. Nichols thorough investigation of the extent and nature of the
matter used reveals that both of these questions must be answered negatively. What was
used was not excessive in amount and was background material related only indirectly to
the development of the spiritual theme found in Sketches From the Life of Paul.
What has been said of Sketches could also be said of The
Great Controversy. The books from which historical material was quoted or paraphrased
were books that were in many Seventh-day Adventists libraries, some of them books
Mrs. White had highly recommended to be read by the members of the church. Again there was
no attempt to deceive. And legally, neither the amount of material nor the use made of it
justifies any question. Morally or legally there is no problem of Plagiarism. See Ellen White and Her Critics for a fuller discussion and full documentation.
- Part 2
T. Housel Jemison's