White, Ellen Gould (1827–1915)
White, Ellen Gould (1827–1915)
American religious leader who co-founded the Seventh-Day Adventist Church which she led for over 50 years, directing its expansion throughout North America, Europe, and Australia . Name variations: Ellen Gould Harmon. Born Ellen Gould Harmon on November 26, 1827, in Gorham, Maine; died on July 16, 1915, at her home in northern California; daughter of Robert Harmon (a hat maker) and Eunice Harmon; formal education ended at age nine; married James White, on August 30, 1846; children: Henry (1847–1863); James Edson (1849–1928); William (1854–1937); Herbert (September 1860–December 1860).
As a teenager, became involved in Adventist movement started by William Miller; at 17, began to have religious visions and began public career as religious leader; joined with husband to found the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (1863) and began to have visions regarding health reform; established the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan (1866); established churches in Europe (1885–87); established churches and a Bible school in Australia (1891–1900); established the College of Medical Evangelists, later Loma Linda University and Medical Center, in southern California (1909).
26 books and over 5,000 periodical articles, including Spiritual Gifts (1858), Spirit of Prophecy (1870), Patriarchs and Prophets (1890), Ministry of Healing (1905), and her autobiography, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (1915). All of White's writings are still in print and are available through the international headquarters of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, located in Silver Spring, Maryland.
When the morning sun rose over New England on October 23, 1844, it was distressing proof to the "Millerites" (named after their leader William Miller) that the Second Coming of their Lord, Jesus Christ, was not at hand. Based on their reading of the Scriptures, they had believed that October 22nd would be the day of the apocalypse and had spent the preceding weeks preparing for the event. Some had given away their money and dispersed their earthly goods, while others had neglected their farms or left their jobs. They had looked toward October 22nd not with despair or fear, but with joy, believing that at the moment of the Last Judgment they would be among the ones chosen to spend eternity with Christ.
When the apocalypse failed to materialize as the Millerites had predicted, the men and women who had gathered together to witness the end of the age were dealt a crushing blow, from which many never fully recovered. The events of that October day, which became known as the "Great Disappointment," left them in a spiritual wilderness, stripped of the faith that had once helped them to make sense of their lives. A young girl, barely in her teens when she first heard William Miller speak, was among those who had prepared for that fall day. Ellen Gould Harmon had arrived at Miller's first lecture already full of anxiety about her personal salvation. Miller's words about Christ's imminent descent to earth touched at the heart of her concern and opened up to her a new way of understanding her religious faith. Ultimately, this belief in the imminent advent of Christ would become the focus of her life's work.
Ellen Gould Harmon was born in 1827 on a small farm near Gorham, Maine. She and her twin sister Elizabeth Harmon were the last of Robert and Eunice Harmon 's eight children. Within a few years of the twins' birth, their parents gave up their farm and moved the family to Portland, Maine, where they started a hat-making business. The business was based in the Harmon home, and Ellen and her siblings worked alongside their parents in producing the hats for sale. Religion was an important part of their family life, and all of the children were introduced to the Methodist faith at an early age.
As an adult, Ellen White would look back on her early childhood as a happy and generally uneventful period. An accident that occurred in her ninth year, however, marked the end of this childhood idyll. Crossing the street with her sister one afternoon, she was hit by a stone thrown by a schoolmate. The blow knocked her to the ground, and for three weeks she lay unconscious in her parents' home, hovering, she said later, between life and death. She eventually regained consciousness and began to resume some of her normal activities, but the effects of the accident continued to take their toll. Weak and having difficulty breathing, she was forced to withdraw permanently from school. Even more painful, perhaps, than this premature end to her schooling was the disfigurement that the accident caused and the rejection she suffered because of it. As she later wrote, the experience taught her the "bitter lesson that our personal appearance makes a difference in the treatment we receive from our companions."
In her autobiography, White described this childhood accident and its aftermath as the event that changed, and perhaps determined, the course of her life. The health problems she endured as a consequence of the accident isolated her from her peers and forced her to confront her own mortality. Even after the most serious stage of her illness had passed, she continued to be deeply interested in religious matters and intensely insecure about her personal salvation. Her parents encouraged her interest in religion, bringing her with them to revival meetings sponsored by their Methodist church. At one of these meetings, barely three years after the accident, White received what she believed was a sign from God that her salvation was assured. The experience made her feel as though she had been spiritually reborn, and soon after it she formalized her new relationship with God by becoming a member of the Methodist Church.
Over the next few years, she maintained her membership in the Methodist Church while also studying William Miller's teachings about the Second Coming of Christ. As the Millerites (also known as the Adventists) became more specific in their teachings, eventually warning people of the exact date of Christ's appearance, White's confidence in her salvation began to weaken. The contradictions between the teachings of the Millerites and the Methodists were becoming more and more apparent to her, and she felt that she needed to choose between the two theological systems. She chose the Millerites, and, as October 1844 approached, found that by joining with them to prepare for Christ's return to earth she had regained confidence in her salvation.
An unspeakable awe filled me, that I, so young and feeble, should be chosen as the instrument by which God would give light to His people.
—Ellen Gould White
In the aftermath of the Great Disappointment, White, like other believers, sought a way to make sense of the events of that day. She still believed that there was truth to William Miller's message, but she did not know how to reconcile her faith in Adventist teachings with her disappointment over the Millerites' failed prophecy. Help came to her, as it would for the remainder of her life, in the form of detailed religious visions. Through these visions, it was said, God showed her that the Adventists had not been wrong to believe that October 22nd would be a critical day in world history; they simply had misunderstood its significance. October 22nd, she learned, was merely the beginning of a special time of preparation that eventually would culminate in the coming of Christ. In these early visions, God also revealed to White that she had been selected as the prophet through whom God would prepare the world for Christ's Second Coming.
Initially, she felt unworthy and incapable of living up to God's expectations of her. Only 17 years old and still physically frail, she did not think that people would believe that God had chosen her for this sacred duty. As a woman in a society that limited public leadership roles to men, she also found it difficult to envision herself as a religious leader. However, as public interest in her early visions grew, she began to gain courage and strength in her calling. Soon she was traveling throughout Maine and New Hampshire, sharing her visions with others who believed in the imminent Second Coming of Christ. Still fearful that she would be criticized for the unusual role she had assumed, White was careful to reiterate to people that she, a young, single woman, would never have embarked on so public a career if God had not demanded it of her.
During her travels, she met a young man, James White, who, although not a visionary, was engaged in similar work on behalf of the Adventist cause. The two were married in 1846, and from that time until the death of James in 1881 they worked together to spread the Adventist message. Her marriage in some ways made it easier for White to continue her work, since having James at her side bestowed on her an aura of respectability that she had lacked as a single woman. In other ways, however, it complicated her life, by adding the care of her husband and later of their four children to her religious responsibilities.
The early years of the Whites' marriage and joint ministry were difficult. They did not have a home of their own or a steady income but were forced to rely instead on the goodwill of other Adventists who provided them with temporary housing and money to feed and clothe their family. Because the Whites' ministry forced them to travel frequently, they also had to rely on other Adventists to help them care for their children. Asking other women to help raise her children always made White uneasy, however, because it violated her own beliefs about the role of women in society. Although her public career as a religious leader flew in the face of social convention, White never lent her voice to the call for women's rights. She remained, throughout her long life, an essentially conservative woman who viewed her own powerful and public position within her religious community as an exceptional situation that was uniquely sanctioned by God. Women, she said repeatedly, should remain home with their children and keep out of public debate, just as she would have done had not God called her to a special ministry.
Although she accepted that her religious calling required of her some personal sacrifice, White still found it difficult initially to make the necessary compromises regarding the care of her children. Her first child, Henry, was born in 1847, and after his birth White decided to restrict her travel and stay at home with him. When the baby became sick, however, and it looked like his life was in danger, she feared that God had sent the illness as a way of punishing her for neglecting her prophetic duties. "We had made the child an excuse for not traveling and laboring for the good of others," she wrote later, "and we feared that the Lord was about to remove him." White asked God to spare her son and promised that she would resume her travels as soon as he had recovered. She was true to her promise. When she was certain that the baby was well, she entrusted him to the care of friends and resumed her ministry.
Throughout the 1850s, White's religious visions increased in frequency and expanded in scope. The prominence of both Ellen White and her husband within the Adventist movement also grew, and in 1863 they solidified their place in the movement by founding the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. James White initially took charge of the administrative aspects of the church, leaving Ellen White, through her visions, to provide the inspiration and present the teachings of the church. By the 1870s, however, Ellen had become equally involved in the church's administration. During these years, she traveled more extensively than ever before, establishing Adventist communities in the Midwest and Western states. Membership in the church increased five-fold between 1863 and 1880, largely due to her effectiveness as an evangelist and her skill at mediating conflicts between church leaders.
The imminence of the Second Coming of Christ was White's central message, but after 1863 she added another dimension to her work. In that year, she had the first of what became known as her health-reform visions. Through these visions, she was made to understand that God sanctioned particular dietary habits and medical procedures and prohibited others. Health issues had been a part of her religious message since at least 1848, when she first began counseling people to abstain from tobacco, tea, and coffee, but White had never before made them a main focus of her ministry. After 1863, however, she made vegetarianism and hydropathy (the use of water as a treatment for disease) defining characteristics of Seventh-Day Adventism.
White's interest in health reform is not surprising given her own history of health problems. Sickness dictated the course of her late childhood and adolescence, and physical suffering became a recurring theme of her adult life. Indeed, whether it was a pain in her heart, a stomach ailment, an attack of debilitating weakness, or, as she called it, "nervous prostration," White was often sick as an adult. Even after she began to promote the new health regimens and therapies that appeared to her in her visions, she continued to have health problems of her own.
Perhaps because she knew sickness so well, she understood how effective a church institution devoted to healing could be as a way of introducing people to the Adventist message. When, in 1865, she received a vision directing her to build an institution "for the benefit of the diseased and suffering among us who wish to have health and strength," she immediately saw an opportunity to both serve the sick and promote the church. The Western Health Reform Institute that opened in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1866 was operated by the church with both these goals in mind. Eventually known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium and operated under the direction of John Harvey Kellogg, who during his years there invented the cornflake breakfast cereal that still carries his name, the health institute attracted patients from all over the nation and was an overwhelming success.
As the Battle Creek Sanitarium increased awareness of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church within the United States, White began bringing her church's message overseas. Although she had some success in Europe in the mid-1880s, her most rewarding work was done in Australia. There, she founded the first Adventist college and for the first time recognized how valuable medical missionaries could be to the work of the church. Missionaries originally were trained at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, but after it left the church's control in 1906 following a dispute between White and Kellogg, she established a new medical center that is known today as Loma Linda University and Medical Center. Loma Linda is the crown jewel in a rich network of schools and hospitals founded by White, a network that has grown in the years since her death and continues to be a vital part of the mission of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Ellen White died in 1915, five months after a fall that left her confined to a wheelchair. In the years since her death, she has continued, through the extensive writings she left behind, to guide the church she founded well over a century ago. The church has grown far beyond what even she could have anticipated, claiming by 1990 a membership of nearly 6 million people in over 190 different countries. Yet, despite the fact that she founded one of America's largest indigenous denominations, one that by 1990 had established the largest Protestant, nonprofit health-care system in the country, Ellen White is a little-known figure. This is unfortunate, since on the basis of her accomplishments as an American religious leader alone she merits more attention from historians.
Perhaps even more important, however, is the potential that the more private dimensions of her life have for helping us to understand the struggles of women of faith, past and present, who, like her, have found their religious vocation to be in conflict with their essentially conservative beliefs about the position of women in society. As a woman leader in a religious world managed by men, and as a wife and mother with a very public career, she defied convention without challenging its foundation. Although her life story tells little about the struggle for the emancipation of women in America, it offers a reminder that women's lives do not conform to a single pattern, and that women have not always spoken with one voice even on issues that bear intimately on their lives.
Land, Gary., ed. Adventism in America. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1986.
Numbers, Ronald L. Prophetess of Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventist Health Reform. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
White, Ellen Gould. Life Sketches of Ellen G. White. Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1915.
Butler, Jonathan. "Prophecy, Gender, and Culture: Ellen Gould Harmon [White] and the Roots of Seventh-day Adventism," in Religion and American Culture. Vol. 1, 1991, pp. 3–29.
——, and Rennie B. Schoepflin. "Charismatic Women and Health: Mary Baker Eddy , Ellen G. White, and Aimee Semple McPherson ," in Women, Health, and Medicine in America: A Historical Handbook. Ed. by Rima Apple. NY: Garland, 1990, pp. 337–365.
Ellen White's personal papers are available, with some restrictions, at the international headquarters of the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, located in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Kathleen M. Joyce , Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina