E.G. White's Literary Work: An Update
By Ron Graybill, Associate Secretary, Ellen G. White Estate
An edited and annotated transcript of a tape recording of presentations made in the morning worship services at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Nov. 15-19, 1981
In closing, let me read a summary of statements that I think capsulize [sic] what we know at this point about the scope and the nature of Ellen White’s literary borrowing.
- Mrs. White read carefully and extensively in the books and
articles written by conservative Protestant religious figures of her time.
She had several favorite authors. She made use of a number of books from
each of them. She also drew materials from a wide range of other books and
articles. Thus, we can say that she read more widely in non-Adventist
sources and made more extensive use of those sources then we had
previously understood. And as I pointed out, we still have some of these
books in the Ellen G. White library.
- Next, Mrs. White borrowed not only the words and phrases
used by these authors, but in some cases, followed the outline of their
expositions and drew from [their] facts, illustrations, thoughts, and
- The material borrowed by Mrs. White included historical,
geographical, and chronological information, as well as devotional
material, theological concepts—we saw some of those in the material that
we presented from Melvill—and scriptural and prophetic expositions. She
also employed extra-Biblical comments on the lives of various Biblical
characters, often turning the speculations and conjectures of her
sources into statements of positive fact. Sometimes similar use was
made of their comments on the thoughts and activities of supernatural
beings, that is, God, Satan, and their respective angels.
- These borrowings—now we’re going to talk about Mrs. White’s
books as a whole and which of them involved borrowings—these borrowings occurred
not only in the historical sections of the Great Controversy, but
also in its prophetic sections. They appear in descriptions of the
content of specific visions given to Mrs. White. It would be unwise at
this point to assert that there is any particular book written by Mrs.
White or any type of writing from her pen in which literary borrowing will
not be found.
- In cases where we have Mrs. White’s handwritten draft of
something she borrowed, this handwritten version is usually closer to the
literary source than is the published version which followed. This
difference should generally be attributed to the work of Ellen White’s
literary assistants in editing her material for publication—a work that
she approved. There are also times when Mrs. White uses a borrowed idea on
several different occasions herself, using slightly different words each
- Many of the beautifully expressed thoughts, that is, many
of the literary gems found in Mrs. White’s writings were borrowed from
other authors. This fact, together with the knowledge that her writings
were polished by literary assistants, leads us to avoid the suggestion
that the literary beauty of her writings is an evidence of her divine
- It is impossible at this time to say what percentage of
Mrs. White’s writings involve borrowed material. This is so because only a
fraction of the many books she owned and read have been examined. The
borrowings range from vaguely similar thoughts and verbal echoes to very
close and continuous borrowing of long phrases and nearly complete
sentences. Verbatim borrowing of complete sentences is extremely rare, but
in portions of Ellen White’s writings where borrowing has been noticed,
close paraphrasing is very common. Another reason why it is difficult to
say what percentage of Mrs. White’s writings involved borrowed material is
that much of what Mrs. White wrote first appeared in letters, later in
articles, and finally in books. This means that there is a great deal of
repetition of the same or similar material. Because of this repetition it
is difficult to say how much writing Mrs. White actually did, and thus
impossible to say with statistical precision what percentage of the total
might involve borrowing from other authors.
That summarizes what we know at this point.