White, Ellen Gould (Harmon)

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WHITE, Ellen Gould (Harmon)

Born 26 November 1827, Gorham, Maine; died 16 July 1915, St. Helena, California

Daughter of Robert and Eunice Harmon; married James White, 1846 (died 1888); children: four

The daughter of a hatter, Ellen Gould White had only a third-grade education. Although baptized in the Methodist church, by the age of seventeen she was enthusiastically involved with the activities of William Miller—an itinerant preacher who believed the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world would occur during the fall of 1844. In that year, White had the first of a series of over 2,000 visions, which revealed to her why Miller's prediction failed and what God intended her to accomplish.

White married a fellow "Millerite," and together they spread the message of the coming of Christ to the New England area. She had four children; the first died at sixteen and the last in infancy, but the other two boys became active in the church their mother helped found. The Whites moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1855, and prompted by her visions White preached and wrote on the significance of the imminent (if unknown) coming of Christ, the validity of biblical prophecies, fundamental Christianity, and the divine desire for observing the Sabbath not on Sunday but on the seventh day of the week, Saturday. The Seventh Day Adventist church was eventually established on those principles in 1863. When her husband died in 1888, White increased her writing and speaking activities, campaigning for Adventist Christianity, health reform, and temperance. As many as 20,000 people gathered to hear her orations against alcohol. Her travels included two years touring Europe and 10 years as a missionary to Australia. In 1902 White moved the Adventist headquarters from Battle Creek to a suburb of Washington, D.C., and she settled in California. She died at the age of eighty-seven from complications following a hip fracture.

It has been estimated that White wrote over 105,000 pages of published and unpublished materials. She maintained that because of her poor health and lack of education, only God's visions enabled her to produce this literary corpus. Much of her writing was done late at night or in the early morning when domestic tasks were completed.

The foundation of the Seventh Day Adventist church rests on the belief that the Bible reveals the ultimate truth concerning the nature of God, the origin and purpose of human life, and the future of the world. Divine inspiration was not sufficient to convince most 19th-century Americans that Adventist doctrine was the ultimate truth; White wanted to show the continuity of biblical prophecy and the course of historical events. Five books, the Conflict of Ages series, are devoted to tracing the history of the battle between God and Satan as predicted in the Old and New Testaments. Four books tell the biblical story from Genesis to the Pauline epistles. The Great Controversy (1888), although actually written first, continues the story into the European and American historical settings. White used the history of Western civilization to underline certain central themes in Adventist belief: the reality of Satan, the evil of Roman Catholicism, and the redemptive quality of William Miller's proclamation.

Much of White's writings were composed during a period of general social reform in the United States. Women's rights, prison reform, the settlement-house movement, and prohibition were important issues at grassroots and national levels. Such late 19th-century reforms were a part of the "social gospel movement," which emphasized the role of Christianity as a force for social change, rather than as a promoter of the status quo. White fueled this movement with her tracts on health, education, temperance, and diet; and she encouraged her followers to adopt a lifestyle encompassing many of the contemporary reforms.

According to White, God intends humans to lead a simple life: pure air, deep breathing, regular sleeping and eating habits, and good sanitation promote moral as well as physical well being; tobacco, coffee, alcohol, meat, and sugar are all detrimental to the body, soul, and mind. Her views on dress reform echo some of the earlier sentiments of Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In The Ministry of Healing (1905), she condemns the restrictive and overly decorative style of contemporary dress: "Every article of dress should fit easily, obstructing neither the circulation of the blood nor a free, full, natural respiration. Everything should be so loose that when the arms are raised, the clothing will be correspondingly lifted."

Educational reform also figures prominently in White's writings. Education must include not only the biblical and historical basis of Adventism but also a foundation in physiology, diet, health, and medicine. Traditional secular education should be limited to basic English, arithmetic, and history ("from the Divine point of view"). She sought to purge from Adventist education "pagan" languages and literature, modern literature by immoral authors, frivolous fiction writers, non-Christian science, biblical criticism, spiritualism, and anarchy. Seventh Day Adventist education included girls as well as boys and even encouraged some fluidity in sex role education: "Boys as well as girls should gain a knowledge of household duties…. It is a training that need not make any boy less manly; it will make him happier and more useful."

White's writings on practical reforms have antecedents in the work of earlier reformers, but she was able to institutionalize them in the doctrine of the Seventh Day Adventist church. She remains a unique woman in the history of American religions, for her writings act as a foundation not only for a growing religious organization but for that religion's extensive system of schools, hospitals, and sanatoriums.

Other Works:

Sketches from the Life of Christ and the Experience of the Christian Church (1882). Christian Temperance (1890). Gospel Workers; Instructions for the Minister and the Missionary (1892). Steps to Christ (1892). The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets; the Conflict of the Ages Illustrated by the Lives of Holy Men of Old (1890). Christ Our Savior (1895). The Desire of Ages (1898). Christ's Object Lessons (1900). Testimonies for the Church (1901). Education (1903). The Acts of the Apostles in the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1911). Counsel to Teachers, Parents and Students Regarding Christian Education (1913). Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, Being a Narrative of her Experience to 1881 as Written By Herself (1915). The Captivity and Restoration of Israel; the Conflict of Ages Illustrated in the Lives of Prophets and Kings (1917). Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White (1922). Counsels on Health and Instruction to Medical Missionary Workers (1923). Spiritual and Subject Index to the Writings of Mrs. Ellen G. White (1926). Principles of True Science (1929). Message to Young People (1930). Medical Ministry (1932). An Appeal for Self-Supporting Laborers (1933). A Call to Medical Evangelism (1933). Selections from the "Testimonies" (1936). The Sanctified Life (1937). Counsels on Sabbath School Work (1938). Counsels on Diet and Food (1938). Counsels to Editors (1939). Counsels on Steward-ship (1940).


Noorbergen, R., Ellen G. White: Prophet of Destiny (1972). Numbers, R., Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (1976). Spalding, A. W., There Shines a Light (1976). White, A., Ellen G. White: Messenger to the Remnant (1969).

Reference works:

Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White (1962-63). NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).


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