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Ellen G. White: Prophet or Plagiarist?

by William Fagal

Did Mrs. White copy her writings from other people?

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About twenty years ago, many Adventists were shaken by claims from a Seventh-day Adventist pastor that Mrs. White had plagiarized her writings from others. In a book he later published, the pastor arranged passages from her writings in parallel columns with the earlier works of others, claiming that she had "copied" their writings and that therefore her claims to having received her instruction from God were a lie.

The results were devastating to the faith of some. People disposed of their Ellen White books in yard sales and trash cans. Some left the Seventh-day Adventist church, while others stayed but took pride in rejecting some of its teachings and practices which Ellen White had strongly endorsed. Even those who did not give up their faith in her writings were, in some cases, uneasy and uncertain about the charges. The effects of this controversy linger to our day.

Not First.

Though such claims were new to many twenty years ago, the pastor who popularized them was not the first to have made them. Just a few years before, in the 1970s, an Adventist historian had written a book examining Mrs. White's involvement in health concerns. He concluded, among other things, that her health counsels were not new or unique. She had drawn them from others, he said, despite her claims to having received them in vision. (The Ellen G. White Estate prepared a detailed, almost point-by-point response to his book.)

Over the years various people inside and outside the church have set forth similar claims. The most influential of Ellen White's critics was probably Dudley M. Canright, a prominent minister and evangelist in our early years. After withdrawing from the ministry four times in doubt and discouragement and coming back each time, Canright finally left the ministry and the church in 1887. In 1889 he published a book against Seventh-day Adventist teaching, and in 1919, the year of his own death and four years after hers, his book against Mrs. White was published. Prominent among his accusations was that Mrs. White had copied the works of others.

But interest in this issue even predates Canright's claims. In the Review and Herald of October 8, 1867, Mrs. White responded to the question, "Did you receive your views upon health reform before visiting the [non-Adventist-operated] Health Institute at Dansville, N.Y., or before you had read works on the subject?" Mrs. White replied that she had indeed received her visions first, but the question implied the other possibilitythat the source of her instruction may have been human rather than divine.

How does a prophet convey God's messages? Was Mrs. White honest in describing how she conveyed them, particularly regarding her use of sources? Did she get her messages from other people and claim they were from God? These questions deserve a careful look.

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How does a Prophet Convey God's Messages?

Many people seem to believe that a prophet who receives instruction from God delivers it exactly as God gave it, without reference to other materials of any kind. Some in the evangelical world believe that God even gave the prophet the very words in which to speak and write the messages. They view the prophet as a passive secretary who merely transcribed the Holy Spirit's words. While Seventh-day Adventists have never adopted that view, having in fact gone on record in General Conference session against it as early as 1883,1 some church members may hold such a view, perhaps without ever having actually thought it through.

Clearly, while the Bible writers received their messages from God, they did not typically receive the wording from Him, or one would expect them all to sound pretty much the same. We can easily tell John's letters from Paul's epistles, just by the style and vocabulary. Their own minds are at work, framing and shaping their God-inspired messages into words of their own choosing.

Furthermore, Bible writers borrowed language from one another and even from non-biblical authors to make the points they wished to put across.2 And we note that the first three gospel writers have much material in common, some of itbut by no means allusing exactly the same words. These things suggest that the wording did not come from God, and that the Bible writers were free to draw on the words not only of other inspired writers, but even of common authors, to convey the messages they were inspired to tell.

Gathering and Selecting.

What is more, in the introduction to his gospel, Luke tells us that he gathered his facts from those who "from the beginning were eyewitnesses" and who "delivered them to us" (1:1-4). In his case, inspiration helped him to select from others and accurately record the information about Jesus that God wanted conveyed.

In light of these examples from Scripture of how inspiration works, on what basis can we insist, as the pastor-critic of Ellen G. White seems to do, that if the material is not original to the prophet, if it shows any relationship to previous writings, the prophet's use of it is therefore not inspired? On the basis of what we find in Scripture, we must conclude that originality is not a test of inspiration.

Interestingly enough, this very point appears in a book which Ellen White owned and valued, one which was written during her childhood. The introduction to the book, The Great Teacher, by John Harris, contains this statement:

Originality Impossible.

"Suppose, for example, an inspired prophet were now to appear in the church, to add a supplement to the canonical books,what a Babel of opinions would he find existing on almost every theological subject!and how highly probable it is that his ministry would consist, or seem to consist, in the mere selection and ratification of such of these opinions as accorded with the mind of God. Absolute originality would seem to be almost impossible. The inventive mind of man has already bodied forth speculative opinions in almost every conceivable form; forestalling and robbing the future of its fair proportion of novelties; and leaving little more, even to a divine messenger, than the office of taking some of these opinions, and impressing them with the seal of heaven."3

The 1883 General Conference session recorded the belief of our pioneers: "We believe the light given by God to His servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting the thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words in which the ideas should be expressed."4 The precise words, then, were not their focus. They looked carefully for the thought being expressed. If the words aptly conveyed the thought, it did not matter under these circumstances whether the prophet had thought them up herself or adapted them from some other author who had phrased matters well.

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Was Mrs. White Honest in Describing how she Conveyed her Messages, Especially About her Use of Sources?

In answer to another question in the same Review article we referred to above, Mrs. White wrote, "Although I am as dependent upon the Spirit of the Lord in writing my views as I am in receiving them, yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation." The pastor who accused Mrs. White of copying turned this statement against her, claiming that the words are not "her own" but were taken from the writings of others. He questioned her honesty in reporting how she worked.

What She Claimed.

But in the context, Mrs. White was not claiming originality but responsibility. The question she was answering had to do with supposed conflicts among her descriptions of the length of the Reform Dress she had seen in vision. In response, she observed that she had never been given the length of the dress in inches nor in any other terms she had used to describe it. She had been shown the dress but was left to describe its length in words of her own choosing. This is what she meant by "The words are my own."

So then, in fulfilling her responsibility to convey the concepts God had given her, did Mrs. White at times draw from the words and expressions of others, even without giving credit? Yes, she did. And she made no secret of it. In fact, she stated it plainly in the introduction to one of her most widely-circulated books, The Great Controversy, and gave her reasons for doing it:

"The great events which have marked the progress of reform in past ages are matters of history, well known and universally acknowledged by the Protestant world; they are facts which none can gainsay. This history I have presented briefly, in accordance with the scope of the book, and the brevity which must necessarily be observed, the facts having been condensed into as little space as seemed consistent with a proper understanding of their application. In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject. In narrating the experience and views of those carrying forward the work of reform in our own time, similar use has been made of their published works" (pp. xi-xii, emphasis mine).

Wesley's Practice.

John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism (in which Ellen White grew up), described his own practice regarding documenting his sources. "It was a doubt with me for some time," Wesley wrote, "whether I should not subjoin to every note I received from them the name of the author from whom it was taken; especially considering I had transcribed some, and abridged many more, almost in the words of the author. But upon further consideration, I resolved to name none, that nothing might divert the mind of the reader from keeping close to the point of view, and receiving what was spoke[n] only according to its own intrinsic value."5

Ellen G. White's outlook seems similar to Wesley's. Her primary interest was that people understand her message. She felt no need to cite other writers "as authority." What they had written might serve simply as "a ready and forcible presentation of the subject." To put it in Wesley's words, she wanted nothing to "divert the mind of the reader from keeping close to the point of view."

Standards of the Day.

Was such practice acceptable in Mrs. White's day? Yes. One of our Bible commentary editors found it to be common among 19th- century religious authors. "While editing the SDA Bible Commentary," he wrote, "I had occasion to compare thirty nineteenth-century Bible commentaries on the Book of 1 Corinthians. The first thing I noticed was the extent to which these nineteenth-century writers, many of them well known and respected, copied significant amounts of material from one another without once giving credit. I concluded that nineteenth-century literary ethics, even among the best writers, approved of, or at least did not seriously question, generous literary borrowing without giving credit. Ellen White frankly acknowledged borrowing from various historical writers in the process of writing The Great Controversy, sometimes with and sometimes without credit. It is not fair to a nineteenth-century writer to judge him (or her) by our standards today. We must judge them by their standards and accepted practice of their own days."6

Ellen White's son and principal helper in the latter part of her life, William C. White, reported that God revealed to her that in the writings of others she would find truth expressed in an acceptable manner which would help her convey the messages she had been given. "In her early experience when she was sorely distressed over the difficulty of putting into human language the revelations of truths that had been imparted to her, she was reminded of the fact that all wisdom and knowledge comes from God and she was assured that God would bestow grace and guidance. She was told that in the reading of religious books and journals, she would find precious gems of truth expressed in acceptable language, and that she would be given help from heaven to recognize these and to separate them from the rubbish of error with which she would sometimes find them associated."7

This ability to distinguish truth from error brings us to our next point and the testimony of a non-Adventist scientist.

The key question comes down to this:

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Did Mrs. White get her Message from Other People and Claim it came from God?

Dr. Clive McCay, a noted nutrition authority half a century after Mrs. White's day, said that you could not account so easily as this for what she wrote. Dr. McCay, a Unitarian who taught the history of nutrition at Cornell University, received a copy of Counsels on Diet and Foods from an Adventist graduate student. He was astonished at what he read there, each statement identified by the year of its publication. For any given year, Dr. McCay knew who had been writing on nutrition and what they had written. "Who was this Ellen G. White," he asked, "and why haven't I heard of her before?"

Impressed.

Dr. McCay was so impressed by Ellen White's writings on nutrition that he authored a three-part series of articles for the Review and Herald. Note a portion of his summation at the end:

"To sum up the discussion: Every modern specialist in nutrition whose life is dedicated to human welfare must be impressed . . . by the writings and leadership of Ellen G. White.

"In the first place, her basic concepts about the relation between diet and health have been verified to an unusual degree by scientific advances of the past decades. Someone may attempt to explain this remarkable fact by saying: `Mrs. White simply borrowed her ideas from others.' But how would she know which ideas to borrow and which to reject out of the bewildering array of theories and health teachings current in the nineteenth century? She would have had to be a most amazing person, with knowledge beyond her times, in order to do this successfully! . . .

"In spite of the fact that the works of Mrs. White were written long before the advent of modern scientific nutrition, no better over-all guide is available today."8

In the years since Dr. McCay made his observations, scientific advances have confirmed his conclusionsand Ellen White's concepts about the relation of diet and healthall the more strongly.

Salt.

Dr. McCay referred to the difficulty of successfully selecting the right counsel from the mass of incorrect teachings afloat in Mrs. White's day. One example is the use of salt. Some physicians were literally killing their patients with large doses of salt. Others, such as Dr. Trall, a health reformer popular with Seventh-day Adventists, recognized the cause of these deaths and reacted by forbidding any salt at all, saying that it was a poison.

What was Mrs. White's stance? "I use some salt, and always have, because from the light given me by God, this article, in the place of being deleterious, is actually essential for the blood. The whys and wherefores of this I know not, but I give you the instruction as it is given me" (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 344). She was not always given the reason, the "whys and wherefores," but the counsel was sound and safe to follow.

And her counsel has stood the scientific test of time. Confirmation, however, is not always immediate. It took about 120 years for science to establish the truth of her warnings about tobacco. And some things she taught have not yet been confirmed by science. But her "track record" is strong enough that we need not reject those counsels just because science hasn't proven them yet. And this track record also makes it untenable to say that she just got her ideas from others and called them her own. As Dr. McCay observed, she could not have done this so successfully.

Not New.

Some Seventh-day Adventists have believedmistakenlythat Mrs. White's health counsels were new ideas, unheard-of prior to her receiving them. We have seen already that this was not usually the case. Our pioneers, in fact, specifically denied that in health matters Mrs. White was first to set forth the principles she taught. In 1866, Elder J. H. Waggoner wrote in the Review and Herald, "We do not profess to be pioneers in the general principles of the health reform. The facts on which this movement is based have been elaborated, in a great measure, by reformers, physicians, and writers on physiology and hygiene, and so may be found scattered through the land. But we do claim that by the method of God's choice [the visions given to Ellen White] it has been more clearly and powerfully unfolded, and is thereby producing an effect which we could not have looked for from any other means."

Elder Waggoner went on to make an important point about her health principles: "As mere physiological and hygienic truths, they might be studied by some at their leisure, and by others laid aside as of little consequence; but when placed on a level with the great truths of the third angel's message by the sanction and authority of God's Spirit, and so declared to be the means whereby a weak people may be made strong to overcome, and our diseased bodies cleansed and fitted for translation, then it comes to us as an essential part of present truth, to be received with the blessing of God, or rejected at our peril."9

Motivation.

This connection between health and holiness provided a strong motivating factor which helped people to make the needed changes in diet and living. Other health reformers of Mrs. White's day, and since, did not offer such motivation, and their work showed far less effect. Dr. McCay commented on the difference, apparently without recognizing its origin. One of his other summary points was, "Everyone who attempts to teach nutrition can hardly conceive of a leadership such as that of Mrs. White that was able to induce a substantial number of people to improve their diets."10

As a result of the instruction she received in vision, Mrs. White had a God-given message to convey. Others might have made some of the same points before. She could even use or adapt their language for making those points. But she put the material into a structure that was her own, and thus it had new import and new power.

Lawyer's Testimony.

Vincent L. Ramik, a prominent and respected copyright attorney in Washington, D.C., noticed this power. In 1981, in the midst of the newly-reborn plagiarism charges, the General Conference legal office (the Office of General Counsel) used privately-donated money to hire Ramik to research the case law and the literary evidence to see whether Mrs. White was guilty of plagiarism, literary piracy, or copyright infringement. Ramik, a Roman Catholic, spent some 300 hours reviewing cases and reading the literary evidence. In addition to examining the critics' case, he sampled what he called "a great cross section of her books," even reading The Great Controversy all the way through. On the legal matters, he concluded, "If I had to be involved in such a legal case [regarding charges of plagiarism, piracy, and copyright infringement against Ellen White], I would much rather appear as defense counsel [for Ellen White] than for the prosecution. There simply is no case!"

An important part of his legal opinion was his observation regarding how Mrs. White had used the writings of others. "Ellen White used the writings of others," he said, "but in the way she used them, she made them uniquely her own, ethically, as well as legally. And, interestingly, she invariably improved that which she `selected'! . . . She stayed well within the legal boundaries of `fair use,' and all the time created something that was substantially greater (and even more beautiful) than the mere sum of the component parts. And I think the ultimate tragedy is that the critics fail to see this. . . .

"The bottom line is: What really counts is the message of Mrs. White, not merely the mechanical writingswords, clauses, sentencesof Mrs. White. Theologians, I am told, distinguish here between verbal inspiration and plenary inspiration. Too many of the critics have missed the boat altogether. And it's too bad, too!

"I, personally, have been moved, deeply moved, by those writings. I have been changed by them. I think I am a better man today because of them. And I wish that the critics could discover that!"11

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Conclusion

We have seen that a prophet proclaims God's messages not in words given by God but in those of the prophet's own choosing, which may include drawing on the language of others. Mrs. White openly declared that she had sometimes used the writings of others to help her convey effectively the messages she had been given. Her manner of doing so accorded well with the accepted practice in her day. And she was the master of her materials, not their slave, adapting them to her purposes rather than parroting theirs.

The writings of Ellen G. White speak powerfully even today, far more powerfully than the writings from which she drew various words and expressions. As we honor the content of her writings, we also have nothing to be ashamed of in her mode of writing them.

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Notes

1. In voting to reprint the existing volumes of Testimonies for the Church, the 1883 session action noted that many of the Testimonies had originally been prepared in haste and had certain grammatical imperfections. The delegates voted, "Whereas, We believe the light given by God to His servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting the thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words in which the ideas should be expressed [emphasis mine]; therefore,

"Resolved, That in the republication of these volumes, such verbal changes be made as to remove the above-named imperfections, as far as possible, without in any measure changing the thought; and further,

"34. Resolved, That this body appoint a committee of five to take charge of the republication of these volumes according to the above preambles and resolutions" (Review and Herald, Nov. 27, 1883, p. 741. Reproduced in Witness of the Pioneers Concerning the Spirit of Prophecy [Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1961], p. 54).

2. The marginal references in many Bibles offer cross-references to other passages of Scripture which a writer may be quoting or alluding to. In Acts 17:28 Paul cites Epimenides the Cretan (6th century b.c.) and the poet Aratus (c. 270 b.c.), a friend of Zeno, founder of the Stoics; in Titus 1:12 he quotes Epimenides again.

3. John Harris, The Great Teacher, 2nd ed., 1836, pp. xxxiii-xxxiv, emphasis mine.

4. See note 1.

5. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (London: The Epworth Press, 1948 reprint), Preface, p. 8, emphasis mine. Also quoted in F. D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics, p. 406.

6. Raymond F. Cottrell, "The Literary Relationship between The Desire of Ages, by Ellen G. White, and The Life of Christ, by William Hanna" (1979), p. 6. Available from the Ellen G. White Estate.

7. W. C. White and D. E. Robinson, "Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White," Ellen G. White Estate "Elmshaven" Office, 1933, p. 5; reprinted as a supplement to the Adventist Review, June 4, 1981, and available from the Ellen G. White Estate.

8. Clive M. McCay, "Adventist Health Teachings Further Confirmed," Review and Herald, February 26, 1959, p. 10. A reprint of all three articles is available from the Ellen G. White Estate.

9. J. H. Waggoner, "Present Truth," Review and Herald, Aug. 7, 1866, p. 77, emphasis his. Elder Waggoner was a prominent minister and editor. His son E. J. Waggoner is better known today for his part, with A. T. Jones, in presenting fresh views of righteousness by faith at the 1888 General Conference session.

10. Clive M. McCay, "Adventist Health Teachings Further Confirmed," Review and Herald, February 26, 1959, p. 10. A reprint is available from the Ellen G. White Estate.

11. "There Simply Is No Case," interview with Vincent L. Ramik, Adventist Review, Sept. 17, 1981, p. 6, emphasis his. A reprint is available from the Ellen G. White Estate.

Note: To contact the White Estate about materials or other matters, write to Ellen G. White Estate, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904-6600; email address, mail@WhiteEstate.org. You may visit their website at http://www.WhiteEstate.org.

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