HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 8, 2008
The Ecstacy of Ellen G. White
Review of White Washed With Commentary

John R. Guthrie
She had a third grade education. Her sadly deformed nose was the result of being struck forcefully by a  rock at age 9, leaving her comatose for three weeks. She arose from her sickbed with epilepsy. In the following years, she dutifully recorded her thousands of prophecies and revelations.

The prognostic powers of Seventh Day Adventist prophet Ellen G. White (1827-1915), though, like those in the supermarket tabloids, had limitations. She emphatically insisted Christ would return and the world would end and on given dates in 1843, then again in 1844, and once more in 1845. To her chagrin and that of her followers, the world obstinately rolled on. In a snit at a world that would not die, she variously blamed, “God,” “false shepherds,” “hypocritical ministers,” and worse, “bold scoffers.”

Her Seventh Day Adventist supporters with her help then evolved a series of circumlocutions, evasions, and irrational statements worthy of any grifter in history. Jesus, claimed the church, was simply moving from one room to another in the heavenly mansion on those days of destiny, so in a curious non-sequiter, they concluded that her predictions were true after all.

Sydney Cleveland, an apostate Seventh Day Adventist minister, further deconstructs the mythology of Ellen G. White in his book White Washed: Uncovering the Myths of Ellen G. White. He provides convincing evidence that she was a hypocrite, a plagiarist, a semiliterate fraud. Elders of the SDA church retrofitted her utterances to make them more palatable. They retouched her photos, not only reconstructing that nose  in a manner that would be a credit to any Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, but also eliminating the embarrassment of jewelry she wore, all the time forbidding such self adornment to others. 

She advocated strict vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol, stating for instance, “Where eggs are on the table, prayers will not rise.” Yet she ate meat and drank wine her entire adult life. 

The SDA church celebrates White for her sage medical advice. She inveighed against the use of many medications, including quinine. Adventist missionaries in Africa died dreadful and needless deaths from malaria.

Her medical beliefs included an abiding concern about the pervasive problem of masturbation. The “secret vice” according to the prophet, resulted in maladies to include but not limited to; backache, cancer, kidney disease, liver and pulmonary disease, neuralgia, spine trouble, small eyes, sieve-like memory, dwarfism, brain paralysis, and in obstinately persistent cases, sudden death.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
Plagiarism: a great deal of her dietary advice comes, without attribution, directly from the work of a popular home management writer, a certain Mrs. Shew, who preceded her by 20 years.

White wrote a books that when stacked together, were taller than she. Seventh Day Adventists enshrine her "beautifully written” books as proof of divine inspiration. Yet, “what she wrote by hand was subsequently copied and edited by her secretaries….then further revised, enlarged and improved on by copy editors and book committees at the Church’s publishing houses.”  In reading a copy of an original manuscript, it becomes obvious that the god that guided her hand was as innocent of the rules of grammar and syntax as was Ellen.

In Sydney Cleveland’s intriguing book, Ellen G. White is at best a fool, at worst a fraud of the first order. Yet in considering her life, it occurs to this reviewer that there may be more to her story than just ignorance and fraud. Dr. Norman Geschwind (1926-1984) is generally held to be the founder of behavioral neurology. His research and that of others indicated a total of 18 behavioral featurestha may be found in someone with a seizure disorder, particularly temporal lobe epilepsy.  They include Emotionality, Mania, Depression, Guilt, Humorlessness, Altered sexual interest, Aggression, Anger and hostility.  Hypergraphia, Religiosity, Philosophical interest, Sense of personal destiny, Hypermoralism, dependency, Paranoia, Obsessionalism, Circumstantiality, Viscosity.

Numerous religious figures; Mohammed, Joan of Arc, Ezekial, Moses and others are felt by many neuroscientists to have manifested symptoms of an epileptic or interictal personality. Dostoevsky, renowned as a writer and a confirmed epileptic, asserted that epilepsy triggered Mohammed’s visions. "Mohammad assures us in (the) Koran that he had seen Paradise," Doestevsky notes. "He did not lie. He had indeed been in Paradise — during an attack of epilepsy, from which he suffered, as I do."

God, in his divine capriciousness, visited on his messenger Ellen a double whammy. Not only did she awaken with from her coma with epilepsy, she also suffered from mercury poisoning, whicih is known by a variety of names: mercurialism, hydrargyria, Hunter-Russell syndrome, or acrodynia. Her parents worked as hatters. As a child, she helped them, constantly handling mercury saturated felts and other hat making materials. Hatters in general had the reputation of being non compos mentis, thus the expression “mad as a hatter.” Consistent with the symptoms of mercury poisoning, she exhibited delusions of grandeur, including the belief tbat she could speak for god in a way no one else could.

While there are reasoned explanations for the behavior of The Prophetess, why would generally rational people, even some with strong innate intelligence and high levels of education, persist in a belief system involving the childishly naïve rants of Ellen G. White?

While there is no single answer, certainly we all seek to find a way to be in this world. Some find community, a sense of self and of belonging by participating in a dedicated manner to a regular exercise regimen such as running or swimming. My brother found sanctity and grace in being a U.S. Marine for 33 years, years in which he traveled a long and storied road from private to lieutenant colonel. While such activities seem to work as well or better for devotees as Sunday School, others find a center for their lives by religious association, sometimes the more irrational the better. We are social creatures. Isolation, as with solitary confinement is a punishment few can withstand without great suffering.

Some find affirmation and adventure in the snake-handling, strychnine-drinking, glory-shouting and dancing frenzies of Pentecostals in the Appalachian hills from which I sprang. This is true even in the face of considerable evidence that waving rattlesnakes about is certainly as perilous as masturbation. Others find succor in the more aesthetic practices of high church Episcopalians or Unitarians. Then there are those of us who find value in membership in groups such as the Center for Inquiry or FFRF.

When one invests heavily in any affinity group, apostasy can be painful indeed. Often religious denominations structure their communities so that one who renounces the beliefs of the group is condemned and ostracized by church and family. Thus some who know better will remain even when the price includes self-delusion and intellectual dishonesty. Abject denial of such intensity as to delude even one’s self is an ancient human refuge also.

I hope my Southern Baptist friends and family will forgive me for saying that I knew even by the time I finished grammar school that the dogmas of the denomination into which I was born were nonsensical; at least in a few small details: the existence of god, Satan, heaven, hell, virgin birth, gender roles, race, and the rapture.

Even so, should my fellow non-theists ever attend a Baptist picnic on the grounds, they might understand why the fried chicken alone seemed well worth the doctrinal assaults on a childish intellect. In a similar vein, Seventh Day Adventists apparently find secondary social benefits and a way to be in this world and in their communities that make affirming the voluminous and ill-conceived “prophecies” of Ellen G. White worth the intellectual clutter. 


Cleveland, Sydney.  Dale Ratzlaff, foreword.
White Washed: Uncovering the Myths of Ellen G. White.
Glendale, AZ: Life Assurancee Ministries, 2000.
ISBN 0873529863. 361 pp. Soft cover
$12.95. Available through Sydney Cleveland’s website:
http://www.christiancommunitychurch.us/dovenet/wwash.htm


John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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