Ellen Gould Harmon White

Laura Vance

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ELLEN GOULD HARMON WHITE TIMELINE

1827 (November 26):  Ellen Gould Harmon was born, with identical twin Elizabeth, in Gorham, Maine.

1840 (March):  Ellen Harmon first heard William Miller lecture in Portland, Maine.

1842 (June 26):  Ellen was baptized into her family’s Chestnut Street Methodist Church.

1843 (February–August):  Five committees were appointed in the Chestnut Street Methodist Church to deal with the Harmons after Ellen refused to stop testifying that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844.

1844 (October 22):  Ellen Harmon and other Millerites were greatly disappointed when their millennial expectations failed.

1844–1845 (Winter):  Ellen experienced waking visions, and traveled to share her visions with scattered bands of disappointed Millerites.

1846 (August 30):  Ellen married James Springer White.

1847–1860:  Ellen White gave birth to four sons, only two of whom survived to adulthood, James Edson (1849–1928) and William (Willie) Clarence (1854–1937). Both John Herbert (September 20, 1860-December 14, 1860) and Henry Nichols ( August 26, 1847-December 8, 1863) died before reaching adulthood.

1848 (Autumn):  Ellen White experienced the first of many visions on health.

1848 (November 17–19):  Ellen White had a vision instructing James to commence printing “a little paper.” Adventist Publishing later grew from the resulting periodical, originally called The Present Truth.

1851 (July):  Ellen published A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White, the first of twenty-six books she would publish during her lifetime.

1863:  The Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially organized.

1876 (August):  Ellen White delivered a speech on temperance in Massachusetts to a crowd of 20,000, the largest she would address in her lifetime.

1881 (August 6):  James White died.

1887:  The General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted to give Ellen White ordination credentials.

1895:  Ellen White called for Adventist women to be “set apart by the laying on of hands” to ministerial work.

1915 (July 16):  Ellen Gould Harmon White died at her home, Elmshaven, near St. Helena, California.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

Ellen Gould Harmon and her identical twin Elizabeth were born the last of eight children to Robert Harmon and Eunice Gould Harmon in Gorham, Maine. When Ellen was a few years old her family moved to Portland, Maine, where her father worked as a hatmaker, and the family began to attend the Chestnut Street Methodist Church. Ellen’s parents were deeply religious, and as she grew up she participated with her mother in the Methodist “shout” tradition, crying out, singing, and participating in worship as moved by the Holy Spirit.

In her later writings, Ellen [Image at right] describes two events that occurred when she was about age nine as formative. In 1836, she found a scrap of paper “containing an account of a man in England who was preaching that the Earth would be consumed in about thirty years” (White 1915:21). She would later recount that she was so “seized with terror” after reading the paper that she “could scarcely sleep for several nights, and prayed continually to be ready when Jesus came” (White 1915:22). In December of the same year, she was hit in the face by a stone thrown by a schoolmate “angry at some trifle” and was so badly injured that she “lay in a stupor for three weeks” (White 1915:17, 18). She was a shy, intense, and spiritual child, and these two events focused her attention on the destiny of her soul, especially as her injuries forced the formerly strong student to withdraw from school and spend her days in bed shaping crowns for her father’s hat-making business.

Particularly after these events, Ellen experienced bouts of “despair” and “mental anguish” as she sought assurance of her salvation in the face of her burgeoning belief in the soon-coming advent of Jesus Christ, and her trepidation at Methodist ministers’ descriptions of a “horrifying” “eternally burning hell” (White 1915:21, 29). In March 1840, Ellen heard lectures by William Miller (1782-1849) in Portland, Maine. Bible study had led Miller to conclude that Christ would return in 1843, though he and his followers eventually settled on October 22, 1844 as the anticipated date of the second coming. Ellen accepted Miller’s prediction, and, after a long spiritual search, felt the assurance of God’s love at a Methodist camp meeting in Buxton, Maine in September 1841. She was baptized into the Chestnut Street Methodist Church in Casco Bay on June 26, 1842. Still, her anxiety returned and intensified as she became focused on Millerite expectations. After hearing Miller’s second series of Portland lectures in June 1842, Ellen experienced religious dreams and, once again, the assurance of salvation, and was “struck down” by the “wondrous power of God” (White 1915:38).

By early 1843, as the date of the expected advent neared, Ellen felt called to pray and testify publically “all over Portland,” which she did. Between February and June 1843, at least in part in response to Ellen’s public support for Millerite millennial predictions, her congregation appointed a series of five committees to deal with the Harmon family. Ellen refused to back down from her conviction that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844, and the Harmons were expelled from their congregation in August 1843.

When Christ failed to return to the Earth on October 22, Millerites, along with Ellen, were deeply disappointed. Leaders of the movement, including William Miller and Joshua Himes (1805-1895), reorganized, abandoned date setting, and rejected the ecstatic worship style that had prevailed in the movement in the months preceding the Great Disappointment. Nonetheless, some believers, dubbed radicals by more moderate Millerites, continued to gather in small groups to participate in emotionally charged worship (Taves 2014:38–39). Worshiping in one of these gatherings with five other women in December 1845, Ellen experienced a vision in which she saw that something important had occurred on October 22, 1844: Christ had entered the heavenly sanctuary and commenced the final work of judging souls, and he would return to Earth as soon as that work was complete (White 1915:64–65). Her vision, which laid out what would come to be called the investigative judgment and sanctuary doctrine, explained Christ’s failure to return in 1844 and bolstered continued hope in his imminent coming.

Ellen Harmon traveled among bands of former Millerites in the winter and spring 1845 sharing her vision. She was not the only Portland-area visionary: Adventist historian Frederick Hoyt identified newspaper accounts of five others in and around Portland who saw visions after October 1844 (Taves 2014:40). Though in her later written accounts Ellen would portray herself as calmly receiving visions (an image perpetuated in official Adventist renditions of the prophet since before her death) recently uncovered historical documents indicate that in her early prophetic experiences she participated in “noisy” emotional worship that lacked “order or regularity” (Numbers 2008:331). Court testimony from the 1845 trial of Israel Dammon on charges of vagrancy and distrurbing the peace described radical adventist worshipers crawling on the floor, hugging and kissing one another, “[losing] their strength and fall[ing] to the floor,” and “wash[ing] each other’s feet” (Numbers 2008:334, 338). Witnesses identified the “one that they call Imitation of Christ,” Ellen, lying on the floor “in a trance,” occasionally “point[ing] to someone,” and relaying messages to them, “which she said w[ere] from the Lord” (Numbers 2008:338, 330, 334, 336). During this period Ellen met James Springer White (1821-1881), a former Christian Connection minister turned Millerite, who joined in this emotional worship. He accepted her visions, and accompanied her in her travels.

When rumors of their unchaperoned travels began to circulate, James and Ellen married, [Image at right] thereby uniting the two figures who would prove most instrumental in forming Seventh-day Adventism. After marrying, Ellen and James had four sons, who they often left in others’ care for weeks at a time as they traveled around the Northeast during the 1850s to provide leadership and guidance to dispersed bands of adventists. In the late 1840s, Ellen and James became acquainted with Joseph Bates (1792-1872), a former British navy captain, revivalist minister, abolitionist, and advocate of temperance and health reform. Each of the three contributed to the beliefs that would define Seventh-day Adventism, especially belief in the sanctuary doctrine, the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan, the impending advent, vegetarianism, and the seventh-day Sabbath. Before formal organization, Ellen’s visions settled debates among male adventist leaders regarding theology, belief, and practice, so that by 1863, when Seventh-day Adventism was officially organized, Ellen’s visions had confirmed core Adventist beliefs and practices.

In November 1848, Ellen Harmon White proclaimed the “duty of the brethren to publish the light,” and instructed her husband James that he “must begin to print a little paper and send it out to the people” (White 1915:125). Visions relaying health, education, and mission followed. Ellen experienced numerous bouts of poor health in her lifetime, James’ health often suffered from overwork, and two of the couples’ four sons died. So it is no surprise the she was fascinated by health. White’s message of health is demonstrably similar to ideas advocated by other nineteenth-century health reformers (Numbers 2008:chapter three). Her originality was less in the specifics of her messages of health, education, or mission, than in her conceptualization of, and ability to motivate Adventists to create interdependent systems of religious institutions directed toward serving the goals of Seventh-day Adventism. Adventists were, according to White, to be educated and religiously socialized in Adventist schools where they could prepare for professional work in Adventist institutions. Adventists were to adhere to their health message, but also, as their aptitudes allowed, be trained as physicians to minister through healing, or as ministers, educators, literature evangelists, secretaries, administrators, editors, or in a variety of other professions to work in the service of Adventism.

As White’s visions found increased acceptance, she gained confidence as a prophetic speaker and writer. Ellen and James traveled extensively among Adventists, and James was Ellen’s supporter and sometimes-collaborator in speaking and publishing. Even before Adventism’s official organization, the couple “developed a pattern” in public speaking: “James would preach a closely reasoned, text based message during the morning sermon hour, and Ellen would conduct a more emotive service in the afternoon” (Aamodt 2014:113). Ellen was also a prolific author, publishing twenty-six books, thousands of periodical articles, and numerous pamphlets in her lifetime. She relied on “literary assistants” to help her prepare work for publication, and James often helped her to edit her work. His extensive contributions took a toll, and James’ health declined in the 1870s. Ellen increasingly traveled without him, and spoke to audiences, including general audiences of thousands, about health, temperance, and other topics. Her favorite son, W. C. (Willie), accompanied her when James’ illness prevented travel, and even more after James White died in 1881.

Ellen’s leadership style became more sedate as she aged. She had had religious dreams as a girl before she experienced religious trances or waking visions, and though religious dreams replaced Ellen’s waking visions by the 1870s, she continued to play an instrumental role in shaping Adventism. She wrote long, and sometimes highly critical, letters to church leaders, often addressed meetings of the General Conference, and published extensively. Ellen spent nine years during the 1890s in Australia, and influenced the movement significantly after her return to America, in part by encouraging the election of A. G. Daniels (1858-1935), her protégé and president of the Australian Union Conference, as president of the General Conference in 1901. At the same gathering she promoted a major denominational reorganization that, though highly controversial, passed and was successfully implemented. She delivered eleven addresses during the last General Conference session that she was able to attend in 1909, and thereafter confined herself increasingly to her home, Elmshaven, near St. Helena, California, where she died in 1915.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

Ellen White was indelibly shaped by the Methodism of her childhood, and Seventh-day Adventism incorporated beliefs in a literal creation, the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the second coming, resurrection of the dead, and judgment. In what Adventists regard as Ellen White’s first vision, she saw that on October 22, 1844 Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary and commenced the second and last phase of his atoning work for humans. At the close of this work, Christ would return. White’s explanation of the delayed advent helped to establish the investigative judgment and sanctuary doctrine in Adventist theology of atonement, as well as to define the advent as near.

In addition to the investigative judgment and sanctuary doctrine, Ellen White’s explanation of the Great Controversy [Image at right] anchors Adventist theology. Her articulation of the Great Controversy posits a battle between good and evil that began in heaven, and frames all of life on Earth. The controversy began when Satan, a created being, used his freedom to rebel against God, and some angels followed him. After God created the Earth in six days, Satan introduced sin to Earth, leading Adam and Eve astray. God’s perfection in humans and creation was damaged, culminating eventually in the destruction of creation in a universal flood. Christ was God incarnate, and God provides angels, the Holy Spirit, prophets, the Bible, and the Spirit of Prophecy to guide people toward salvation, and the ultimate victory of good.

The three angels of Revelation 14 capture the distinguishing aspects of Seventh-day Adventism. Guided by Ellen White’s visions, early Adventists interpreted the decades prior to, and culminating in, Miller’s message of the soon-coming advent as fulfilling the first angel’s message. The second angel’s message was fulfilled when Millerites came out of “Babylon,” their churches, to join the Millerite movement in the summer of 1844. The third angel’s message was realized as believers accepted and adhered to the seventh-day (Saturday) Sabbath.

Interpretation of the three angels’ messages evolved over time as it became necessary to admit both converts and children of believers to the movement. Though Ellen and James White initially resisted the idea that salvation was available to those who were not Millerites on October 22, 1844, they eventually accepted that belief. The reconciliation of the still-soon-coming advent with emphasis on October 22, 1844 as a critical date allowed Adventism to embrace its Millerite beginnings and attract new converts. In addition to delineating Adventist theology, Ellen White’s visions promoted practices, such as worshiping on the seventh-day and same-sex foot washing, which helped to define the religion.

As time passed, Ellen White’s publishing on health, education, mission, and humanitarianism provided Adventists focus and work to hasten Christ’s return. White’s health message incorporated aspects of the nineteenth-century health reform movement, including abstinence from alcohol, meat, and tobacco, and emphasis on exercise, fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables. White advocated dress reform for Adventist women after seeing the bloomer costume during a stay at Our Home on the Hill, a New York sanitarium. She developed her own pattern, which included pants and a skirt that fell lower on the boot, and wore it herself, but ceased promoting dress reform when Adventists resisted women wearing pants. She also encouraged Adventists to study medicine, and she selected an important protégée, John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), to head the first Adventist sanitarium, the Western Health Reform Institute (called the Battle Creek sanitarium), after he completed his training. Adventism lost the Battle Creek sanitarium when Kellogg split with Adventism after his 1903 publication of The Living Temple. Nonetheless, Ellen White contributed to the development of numerous other Adventist institutions, including additional sanitariums, schools and colleges, and publishing houses.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

Even before their official organization into a denomination, Adventists accepted the seventh-day, Saturday, as the Sabbath. Ellen’s visions settled disputes about when the Sabbath began (at sundown Friday) and when it ended (at sunset on Saturday). In its early decades, Adventists were dispersed, and so itinerant ministers, often in married ministerial teams, traveled to serve the faithful. After organization, Adventists commenced erecting church buildings, in which worship was held. Adventist worship included time during which Adventists washed the feet of others of the same sex. Baptism was by immersion after a public confession of faith. Ellen White encouraged Adventists to marry only after careful consideration, forbade marriage to non-Adventists, and wrote that “adultery alone can break the marriage tie” (Ellen G. White Estate n.d.). Outside of worship, White encouraged believers to dress modestly, live simply, and refrain from worldly amusements such as reading fiction or attending the theater.

LEADERSHIP

Ellen White called herself “God’s messenger” rather than a prophet, and she insisted that the Bible was “authoritative, infallible revelation.” The Bible, though, did not “rende[r] needless the continued presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit” (White 1911:vii). Her visions, the “lesser light,” illuminated the truth of the Bible.

Ellen White never held certified office. After the church was formally established, she received a ministerial stipend. She insisted that she was ordained by God, and that, for her, ordination by men was unnecessary. The General Conference nonetheless voted to give her ordination credentials beginning in 1887.

White took positions and provided counsel on things as mundane as the site of a new building, and as significant as General Conference debates over theology. Despite her lack of official standing, no other leader influenced Adventism as much. In addition to her voluminous books and pamphlets, she wrote thousands of pages of correspondence to Adventists, some of which were collected in her “testimonies” (Sharrock 2014:52). She provided pointed criticism and direction in these letters, which often detailed specific failings of individuals or churches.

White also wrote extensively to church presidents, counseling and sometimes reprimanding them. In some cases, she sent harshly critical letters that directed the recipient, a church president, to read aloud to colleagues (Valentine 2011:81). White also provided encouragement in her letters, especially when leaders followed her counsel. In addition, she attended regularly meetings of the General Conference, sometimes as a voting delegate, and she addressed the General Conference numerous times. At meetings of the General Conference, her view often prevailed, as it did in 1909, when she embraced reorganization of the General Conference amid controversy over the question.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Ellen White was a socially awkward young woman who was often in poor health, and early in her prophetic career the authenticity of her visions was challenged. James White worked, especially in his role as editor of the Review and Herald , to distinguish Ellen from the “fanaticism, accompanied by false visions and exercises” of other visionaries in and around Portland, Maine in the wake of the Great Disappointment (White 1851). He also encouraged onlookers to subject her to physical tests while in vision, such as covering her nose and mouth.

Though James was generally Ellen’s most effective advocate, he ceased publishing her visions in 1851 in response to what was dubbed the “shut-door” controversy. Before 1851 Ellen and some other believers, including James, had advanced the idea that the door to salvation closed on October 22, 1844, and that those who had not accepted Miller’s message by that date could not be saved. As time continued, however, and as both potential converts and children born to believers sought salvation through the movement, that position became less tenable. By 1851, Ellen acknowledged that the door to salvation remained open, and James, frustrated by critics of the prophet, stopped publishing her visions in the Review . Ellen’s visions became infrequent, resuming only in 1855 after a group of church leaders criticized James’ decision, and replaced him as editor of the Review .

Ellen was also criticized as a female religious leader by some inside and outside the movement who cited the Pauline epistles and other texts as evidence that women should not preach or lead. The early Review and Herald responded to these criticisms. A number of Adventist pioneers, including Joseph H. Waggoner and J. N. Andrews (1829-1883), wrote Review and Herald articles defending women’s right to preach, speak publically, and minister. Ellen White left defense of her role to her husband and other male leaders, but did advocate for women to serve in ministry and other leadership roles. By the late 1860s, as Adventism developed a route to ordination, women participated, and received ministerial licenses. Lulu Wightman, Hattie Enoch, Ellen Lane, Jessie Weiss Curtis, and other women were licensed and served successfully in ministry. The question of women’s ordination was presented for debate at the 1881 General Conference session. Ellen, mourning James’s recent death, was not in attendance, however, and the resolution was tabled and never voted on.

IMAGES

Image #1: Photograph of movement founder Ellen Gould Harmon White. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Image #2: Photograph of James and Ellen Gould Harmon White. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Image #3: Drawing of the turmoil accompanying the Great Controversy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

REFERENCES

Aamodt, Terrie Dopp. 2014. “Speaker.” Pp. 110-125 In Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ellen G. White Estate. n.d. “Ellen G. White Counsels Relating to Adultery, Divorce and Remarriage.” Accessed from http://ellenwhite.org/sites/ellenwhite.org/files/books/325/325.pdf on 15 March 2016.

Numbers, Ronald L. 2008. Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans.

Sharrock, Graeme. 2014. “Testimonies.” Pp. 52-73 in Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Taves, Ann. 2014. “Visions.” Pp. 30-51 in Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Valentine, Gilbert M. 2011. The Prophet and the Presidents. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association.

White, Ellen Gould. 1915. Life Sketches of Ellen G. White. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association.

White, Ellen G. 1911. The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association.

White, Ellen. 1895. “The Duty of the Minister and the People.” The Review and Herald, July 9. Accessed from http://text.egwwritings.org/publication.php?pubtype=Periodical&bookCode=RH&lang=en&year=1895&month=July&day=9 on 13 January, 2016.

White, James. 1851. “Preface.” First Edition of Experience and Views, by Ellen G. White, v–vi. Accessed from http://www.gilead.net/egw/books2/earlywritings/ewpreface1.htm on 3 March 2016.

Post Date:
21 April 2016

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