Ellen White and Marital Excess

By Dirk Anderson, last updated April, 2024

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What is Marital Excess?

In order to understand what Ellen White taught about "Marital Excess" one must first understand the nineteenth century concept of vital force. Dr. Ronald Numbers describes how vital force works:

According to Adventist pioneer John Loughborough, vital force was 'that power placed in the human body, at its birth, which will enable the body, under favorable circumstances, to live to a certain age.' Since the initial endowment was limited, and since each sexual act used up an irreplenishable amount, it behooved those who coveted a long life to keep their sexual activities to a minimum.1

Mrs. White most likely acquired her knowledge of vital force from other popular health reformers of her day, such as Horace Mann, whose writings on vital force closely resemble hers:

Ellen White, 1876 Horace Mann, 1853
Man came from the hand of God perfect in every faculty of mind and body; in perfect soundness, therefore in perfect health. It took more than two thousand years of indulgence of appetite and lustful passions to create such a state of things in the human organism as would lessen vital force.2 Man came from the hand of God so perfect in his bodily organs...so surcharged with vital force, that it took more than two thousand years of the combined abominations of appetite and ignorance...to drain off his electric energies and make him even accessible to disease.3

Sylvester Graham

Popular health lecturers, such as Sylvester Graham, O.S Fowler, and SDA physician John Harvey Kellogg, taught that humans had a store of "vital force" that was deposited in them at birth. This vital energy could never be replenished. Graham believed that indulgence in sensual pleasures, including excessive sexual activity, could lead to physical and moral degeneration. According to the reformers, when vital energy was depleted, people would start suffering from various diseases, eventually leading to an early death. To retain this vital energy, they advised couples to have sex as infrequently as possible. They advocated avoiding marital excess and masturbation.

Ellen White adopted the vital force doctrine and repeated it frequently in her writings. For example:

God has endowed us with a certain amount of vital force. ... If we carefully preserve the life force, and keep the delicate mechanism of the body in order, the result is health; but if the vital force is too rapidly exhausted, the nervous system borrows power for present use from its resources of strength, and when one organ is injured, all are affected.4

John Harvey Kellogg

SDA physician John Harvey Kellogg, whom Ellen White lovingly called the "Lord's physician," also warned against masturbation and marital excess, believing sexual activity would deplete the body's vital energies. In his writings, Kellogg emphasized the importance of sexual continence—entire restraint from sexual indulgence under all circumstances—promoting measures to suppress sexual desire and arousal, such as a bland, vegetarian diet without alcohol, condiments, coffee, or tea. As an example of sexual continence, he did not have sex with his own wife. He wrote in 1877:

The reproductive act is the most exhaustive of all vital acts.5

During the Puritanical era of the 1800s the ideal spiritual woman manifested little interest in sexuality. Writing in 1871, German neurologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing pronounced, "Woman, ...if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire." Dr. Kellogg apparently agreed, writing:

I should say that the majority of women, happily for them, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. ... The best mothers, wives, and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, of children, of domestic duties, are the only passions they feel. As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself.6

Mrs. White Warns Against Marital Excess

In her 100,000 pages of writing, Sister White never made a single positive statement about sex. For her, sex was an activity of the flesh that drained vital force from the body. Below, Mrs. White warns that God will hold marriage partners accountable for expending their vital energy:

They do not see that God requires them to control their married lives from any excesses. But very few feel it to be a religious duty to govern their passions. They have united themselves in marriage to the object of their choice, and therefore reason that marriage sanctifies the indulgence of the baser passions. Even men and women professing godliness give loose rein to their lustful passions, and have no thought that God holds them accountable for the expenditure of vital energy, which weakens their hold on life and enervates the entire system.

The brain nerve-power is squandered by men and women because called into unnatural action to gratify base passions; and this hideous monster, base, low passion; assumes the delicate name of love.7

Mrs. White taught that sexual excess would destroy a believer's spiritual life:

Sexual excess will effectually destroy a love for devotional exercises, will take from the brain the substance needed to nourish the system, and will most effectively exhaust the vitality. No woman should aid her husband in this work of self-destruction.8

Mrs. White urges wives to restrain the desires of their husbands, warning them that they will be held accountable on judgment day for "sexual excess":

It is not pure, holy love which leads the wife to gratify the animal propensities of her husband at the expense of health and life. If she possesses true love and wisdom, she will seek to divert his mind from the gratification of lustful passions to high and spiritual themes by dwelling upon interesting spiritual subjects. It may be necessary to humbly and affectionately urge, even at the risk of his displeasure, that she cannot debase her body by yielding to sexual excess. ... The power of influence can be great to lead the mind to high and noble themes, above the low, sensual indulgences for which the heart unrenewed by grace naturally seeks. If the wife feels that in order to please her husband she must come down to his standard, when animal passion is the principal basis of his love and controls his actions, she displeases God; for she fails to exert a sanctifying influence upon her husband. If she feels that she must submit to his animal passions without a word of remonstrance, she does not understand her duty to him nor to her God.

Let the Christian wife refrain, both in word and act, from exciting the animal passions of her husband.9

She wrote that praying men who commit the terrible sin of marital excess will not go to heaven:

Many professed Christians are suffering with paralysis of nerve and brain because of their intemperance in this direction [marital excess]. Rottenness is in the bones and marrow of many who are regarded as good men, who pray and weep, and who stand in high places, but whose polluted carcasses will never pass the portals of the heavenly city.10

White Contradicts the Bible

Mrs. White encourages the SDA wife to refrain from anything that might arouse her husband. She is told to reject her husband's sexual advances by manipulative means, such as diverting his mind to discuss spiritual subjects. If that does not work, she needs to verbally reject her husband's advances in order to fulfill her duty to her husband and to God. In other words, she twists the Word of God to say the opposite of what it actually says. She claims a wife fulfills "her duty" by using manipulation to avoid her husband's desire for sex or by outright rejecting his advances. Meanwhile, the Bible says:

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor. 7:3-5 NIV).

Paul, writing Spirit-breathed words, makes no mention of "vital energy" as being a valid reason to avoid having sex. Certainly, if sex was dangerous to spiritual life, Paul would have warned couples about "sexual excess." No one was more interested in guarding spiritual life than Paul was. However, Paul says the direct opposite of Ellen White. Paul says the wife must yield to her husband in order to fulfill her marital duty. Ellen White says the wife should not yield to her husband in order to fulfill her duty. They both cannot be right! Either the Bible is true and Ellen White is a false teacher, or the Bible is false. Which is it?

Does Refraining from Sex Boost One's Spirituality? Contrary to Ellen White's teaching, when married partners refrain from sex for any extended length of time, instead of making one more "holy," it tends to have quite the exact opposite effect. The constant repression of natural sexual desires for a spouse may induce a person to lust even more than they would have had their physical desires been fulfilled by their spouse! Paul's command is for spouses to have sex so that Satan cannot so easily tempt them. The only valid reason for refraining is for limited times of special prayer. This is in stark contrast to Ellen White's teachings, which envision a life-long life-style of having the wife constantly deny her husband so that they will not expend too much of their vital force, and so that having sex will not strengthen their "animal passions."

How Frequent Is Excessive?

Defenders of Ellen White tend to ignore the fact that she contradicted the Bible, and ignore the fact that she taught a false doctrine (vital force) from her visions. Instead they attempt to focus the entire conversation around the fact that she never defined exactly what she meant by "excess." However, she left some pretty good clues. In order to ascertain what she meant, we must determine how the term marital excess was used by the other health reformers of her day, in particular the ones from which she acquired her health teachings.

Sylvester Graham advocated for abstinence from sexual intercourse except for procreation, viewing celibacy as conducive to physical and spiritual health. In 1834, he permitted a maximum of once a month.11 O.S. Fowler, phrenologist, viewed the sexual act as an "immense vital drain," that couples must "partake rarely," otherwise they will exhaust their vital powers. He personally favored sex for procreation only, had stated, "to indulge, even in wedlock, as often as the moon quarters, is gradual but effectual destruction of both soul and body."12 Since the moon quarters every seven-and-a-half days, Fowler was saying that engaging in sex at a frequency of once a week was too frequent! Supposedly, those high frequencies would destroy the body! Adventist physician J.H. Kellogg seemed to agree with Graham by suggesting marriage partners "limit indulgence to the number of months in the year."13 William Alcott believed monthly was a reasonable frequency, and believed frequencies of more than twice a week for an active person, or more than once a month for a sedentary person, could damage the health.14 Kellogg considered daily sex to be dangerous for both partners:

"Another case came under our observation in which the patient, a man, confessed to having indulged every night for twenty years. We did not wonder that at forty he was a complete physical wreck."15

The Whites seem to have agreed with Fowler's frequency for they reprinted his advice in an expanded version of Mrs. White's 1864 book on masturbation, Appeal to Mothers, which was republished in 1870 under the title Solemn Appeal Relative to Solitary Vice, and the Abuses and Excesses of the Marriage Relation.

Scientific research has shown that most married couples engage in sexual activity between 1 and 5 times per week. This is far in excess of the frequency advocated in Solemn Appeal.

Mrs. White is Wrong: Higher Frequencies are Actually Healthier

Contrary to Mrs. White's testimonies, scientific research has shown that men and women who engage in more frequent sexual activity generally live longer than those with less frequent sexual activity. According to Drs. Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz:

"Men who have sex three times a week can decrease their risk of heart attack and stroke by 50 percent..."16

10 Ways Sex Improves Health17
1. Improves Health and Happiness
Sexually active people take fewer sick leaves, are more gregarious and enjoy life more. This is the finding of Dr Ted Mcllvenna, from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, when he conducted a study of the sex lives of 90,000 American adults.

2. Regulates Hormones
Women who have intercourse at least once a week are more likely to have normal menstrual cycles than women who are celibate or who take a "feast-or-famine" approach. This finding is based on a research done by Dr Winnifred Cutler, a specialist in behavioural endocrinology, and director of the Athena Institute in Pennsylvania.

3. Boosts Oestrogen
The research by Dr Cutler, who had asked several hundred female students to keep a record of their menstrual cycles and sexual behaviour, also reported that women who enjoyed regular weekly sex with a man had significantly higher levels of oestrogen in their blood than women experiencing either sporadic sex or none at all. The benefits of oestrogen are: a healthy cardiovascular system, lower bad cholesterol, higher good cholesterol, more bone density and supple skin.

4. Burns Calories
At least 4.2 calories per minutes; compared to four calories per minute playing tennis for an average woman weighing 54kg. That's the estimate given by a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Dr Alfred Franger.

5. Strengthens Pelvic Muscles
Martica K Heaner, American fitness expert, believes sex does what Kegel exercises do- tones and conditions the muscles of the pelvic floor. These muscles play a vital function when it comes to good posture, straighter back and flatter abdominals.

6. Relieves Menstrual Cramps
Orgasms may also help to relieve period pains which are the result of the endometrial lining of the uterus being oversensitive to the hormone-like substance, prostaglandin.

7. Boosts Your Immune System
Orgasms boost infection-fighting cells up by 20% according to gynecologist Dr. Dudley Chapman. Orgasm boosts levels of T3 and T4 lymphocyte cells - a type of white blood cell which produces antibodies. Psychologists at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania found that students who had regular sexual activity had a third higher levels of IgA (immunoglobulin A - an antibody which boosts the immune system).

8. Reduces Stress
The institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality has found people with fulfilling sex lives are less anxious, violent and hostile.

9. Relieves Pain
In studies by researchers Beverly Whipple and Barry Komisaruk from Rutgers University, New Jersey, women with conditions such as arthritis and whiplash gain a higher pain threshold through regular orgasms.

10. Can Cure Headaches
A South Illinois School Of Medicine study on 52 migraine sufferers reported that 16 experienced considerable relief after an orgasm and another eight had their headaches completely gone.

The recently published Caerphilly study from Great Britain suggests that men who have intimate relations more than once-a-week have lower rates of mortality. After analyzing the death rates of nearly 1,000 men ages 45 to 59, researchers from the University of Bristol and Queen's University of Belfast concluded that men who have more sex seem to live longer. According to the study, having regular marital relations reduces the risk of death by about half.

This analysis was part of a long-term study of chronic disease in which scientists assessed the existence of heart disease in the participants, and also asked them how often they had marital relations. Ten years later, the number of deaths was correlated with the reported frequency of intercourse. Men who said they had sex twice a week had a risk of dying half that of those who said they had sex once a month. Other scientific studies have substantiated this research.18

Mrs. White Preferred Celibacy

Since Mrs. White understood intimate marriage relations to be arousing the "base passions," it should be no surprise that she advocated celibacy, particularly for church workers. Not only would marital relations arouse the base passions, but they would also result in children which would distract the church workers from their mission. In 1895, Mrs. White wrote:

"The time has come when a sterile condition is not the worst condition to be in."19

When a missionary couple had children, Mrs. White blasted them:

"I was shown that Brother and Sister Van Horn had departed from God's counsel in bringing into the world children. God required all there was of them in His work and both could have done a good work for the Master, but the enemy came in and his counsel was followed, and the cause of God was robbed of the attention it should have had... The time has come when, in one sense, they that have wives be as though they had none."20

In another letter she wrote of another missionary couple:

"How much better would have been the influence of both if they had not married, but both have devoted their interests to God's cause; and after they were married, how much better for them to have thoroughly considered the situation and decided that God should have all the powers He had given them in the work of saving souls."21

Mrs. White, convinced of the immediate return of Christ, warned that children would soon be taken from their parents by death. Apparently, this is yet another reason not to engage in marital relations:

"Parents give but little attention to them, and in the near future they will be removed by death. Woe unto them that be with child, and give suck in these days, and if our workers were walking close with God, they would feel that it is no matter of rejoicing to bring a child into the world. A blessing is pronounced upon the eunuchs who keep the Lord's Sabbath."22

Later in life, even Ellen White realized her pro-celibacy stance was problematic and seems to back-peddle away from it. In a private letter to A.T. Jones in 1894, Mrs. White writes about some young, unmarried "devoted workers" who tried to live "without exciting their carnal propensities," and were "overcome," resulting in several couples needing to rush into marriage.23

No Divine Insight On This One

Most SDA apologists now admit that Mrs. White copied her health reforms from the other health reformers of her day. However, some still claim that Mrs. White was given supernatural insight as to which reforms to plagiarize and which to discard. Apparently not. The vital force teaching is a complete farce, and yet it became the core of Ellen White's health teachings. All her nonsensical teachings about marital excess, masturbation, and a bland vegan diet, all center around the notion that the sexual act drains vital force from the body. Science has proven this to be false. Whichever angels advised Mrs. White to plagiarize false notions about vital force and marital excess into her writings were certainly not God's angels.


In her 100,000 pages of writings, Ellen White never quotes 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. Her teachings on marital excess directly contradict this passage. Instead of acknowledging Paul's writings to be the final word on the subject, she contradicts Paul. This is a sign of a false prophet:

If any man [or woman] think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. (1 Cor. 14:37)

True prophets of God acknowledge Paul's commandments, such as 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, are God's commandments, whereas false prophets contradict them.

In addition to defying Scripture, Ellen White's writings on marital excess defy both science and common sense. Thankfully, most modern SDAs ignore her health counsel, realizing many of her outdated prohibitions have been debunked by modern science. For the few SDAs who took her admonitions to heart, thinking she was the Spirit of Prophecy with a message from God for the last days, they likely attempted to restrict their sex lives, deluded into thinking they were somehow pleasing God by saving their vital energy. No wonder this sect has been labeled SADventists! If Ellen White's counsels were seriously carried out, it may have caused SDA married couples to unnecessarily restrict their sex lives, resulting in them living shorter, less-satisfying lives. That is the legacy of a false prophet.

“Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” declares the Lord. “They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,” declares the Lord. (Jer. 23:32 NIV)


1. Ronald Numbers, Ph.D., Prophetess of Health, (NY: Harper & Row, 1976), 154.

2. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1885), 29.

3. Horace Mann, Dedicatory and Inaugural Address (1853).

4. Ellen White, Ministry of Healing, (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1905), 234.

5. J.H. Kellogg, Plain Facts for Old and Young, (Burlington, Iowa: Segner & Condit, 1877), 119.

6. Ibid., 473.

7. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 4, 472; Solemn Appeal Relative to Solitary Vice, and the Abuses and Excesses of the Marriage Relation (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1870), 171.

8. White, A Solemn Appeal, 176.

9. Ibid., 170. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1885), 477.

10. White, Testimonies, vol. 2, 477.

11. Sylvester Graham, Lecture to Young Men, on Chastity, 83, 144-148 (1834).

12. O.S. Fowler, Sexuality Restored, and Warning and Advice to Youth Against Perverted Amativeness: Including Its Prevention and Remedies, as Taught by Phrenology and Physiology (Boston: 1870), 52, 60. O.S. Fowler, Hereditary Descent: Its Laws and Facts Illustrated and Applied to the Improvement of Mankind, (NY: self-published, 1843), 206.

13. Kellogg, 487.

14. William Alcott, The Physiology of Marriage, (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1856), 115-116, 120;

15. Kellogg, 468.

16. Imaeyen Ibanga, "Best Reason to Have Sex: Your Health", March 9, 2008, ABC News, Good Morning America, On Call, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/OnCall/story?id=7037716&page=1.

17. "Seks itu Nikmat dan Sehat," http://www.tempo.co.id/kliniknet/artikel/05042001-1.htm.

18. For further study see Michael F. Roizen, M.D., Real Age, (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) 131.

19. Ellen White, Letter 15, 1895.

20. Ellen White, MS 34, 1885.

21. Ellen White, letter written from Europe in 1888, as quoted in "Counsels Regarding Parenthood" (DF 360A), a document produced by the Ellen G. White Estate.

22. Ibid.

23. Ellen White, Letter 103 to A.T. Jones, Mar. 15, 1894. Released in 1989.

Category: Health Teachings
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