The White Lie!

Chapter 3: Say It Isn't So

The early development of how Ellen White became known as a prophet!

by Walter Rea

The success and genius of any religious movement is to tell the members what they want to hear and make sure they don't hear what you don't want them to hear. Nothing affords such opportunities in this field as the press. Gutenberg didn't have the foggiest idea of what doors he was opening when he invented the printing press. Since the Dark Ages, when truth was chained to the wall of the library so that no one could take it out of the vault (even with a library card), mankind had to receive and accept what was handed out by the church fathers. Of course that was a little better than when the fathers enforced knowledge with a blowgun or an axe handle, but still it was a form of control.

The art of printing was to develop to the place where the object was not to control the body with weapons but to control the mind with print. Freethinkers have always gotten into trouble. In the time of Moses, if anyone started a fire on his own to enjoy a cup of hot herb tea on Sabbath, he was stoned, and not in the modern sense of the word either. If he wandered around in the local swapmeet on Sabbath in the days of Nehemiah, he might run the risk of having his beard pulled or his toupee disrupted. Even in the New Testament times, if Ananias kept out a few shekels from the tithe to pay the rent, he was told by the local divine to drop dead--which he did.1

So comes printing. The press was much better in its approach; no messes to clean up, no bodies to bury. Just follow the twin rules: Tell the people what you want them to hear; don't let them hear what you don't want them to hear. The first rule is not too difficult, but the second still takes some form of control. If people can't read, they can't be reached by reading; if they can read, they might be reached by the wrong reading. How churches solve this problem is to assign it to God. That's an old idea too. God has often been given credit for things he didn't do; and since the beginning of time the devil has been exonerated for things he did do. (Read Adam and the Apple in the Genesis story of Creation.)

The Adventists were not the first to put things all together, but they were more successful than some. The market they started with was small and scattered, but with the help of Ellen it was to grow and consolidate James White was a teacher of sorts and knew the power of the press- especially the power of the controlled press and how much better it was to let God control it. Just convince the readers that God was writing what they were reading (thus giving it authority) and God was not in what they were told not to read. Not a bad idea for a group of beginners. It worked then, and it has been working ever since-until recent times when a few people had the nerve to get off the train and go around back to see what was moving the thing.2

So much for the system. Now how to put it all together. Who was to do the writing for God? Certainly not James. His foray into writing was to include only four books, all of them largely copied from someone else. Ellen, who had only a third-grade education, had not yet written anything of note. Not a very marketable combination at a time when education was just beginning to catch on. Another time and place perhaps. But gradually came the brilliant experiment that made it all work, the capsheaf of genius. Why not steal it all, in the name of God.

After all, it had been done before-or so the modern defenders of the Adventist faith were to propound some one hundred thirty years later. It came to be said that St. Luke copied from St. Mark and that Paul was sneaking material from the Greeks without even letting them know. John the Revelator was stealing from ancient pagans for his ideas, and Jude did a test run from some early pseudepigraphical works. Even Moses, instead of lifting the Ten Commandments from God, is said to have taken them from Hammurabi, an ancient lawgiver, or even others before his time.3

In Ellen's day it was a natural. Before her time there had been Emanuel Swedenborg, who had visions for the king and royal family around 1740. He founded a church and saw a lot of things others didn't see, some of which came to pass. The leader of the Shakers in America, Ann Lee, like Ellen, had no education but wrote "testimonies" to the members. Also like Mrs. White, she required "a peculiar kind of dress," and "opposed war and the use of pork." In 1792 Joanna Southcott, a domestic servant, of poor parents and little education, announced herself a prophetess and said that her trances told her that Christ was to have a speedy advent.4

Joseph Smith of Mormon fame had just passed off the scene in 1844.

That was a great disappointment to both him and his followers, as he was shot. His trip was short. He was born in 1805 and he died in 1844, the year Mrs. White began to have her revelations. He was poor and unknown until he began to have "visions" and "revelations" and to see and talk with angels. He taught the Second Advent, and his followers were to become the Latter-Day Saints (other churches were heathen or gentiles). Like the Adventists, the LDS Church rewrote the Bible through their prophet and had new revelations-even though some recent research seems to confirm that the material was stolen.5

The list doesn't end. Mary Baker Eddy, of Christian Science fame, was also around most of Ellen's life. Although they differed in their thinking, the disciples of both believed that their prophet was inspired of God and their writings should be used to interpret the Bible. The remarkable Charles T. Russell, of Watchtower and Jehovah's Witness connection, also lived during the time of Ellen. His followers believe they are the only true church and all others are "Babylon." Adventists would subscribe to the last part but regard themselves as composing the only true church.6

Ellen was to start taking others' material slowly. In the early 1840s two men who had been impressed with the Millerite movement were Hazen Foss and William E. Foy. In September 1844 Foss was supposed to have received a vision that the advent people, with their trials and persecutions, were on their way to the City of God. He was told that if he refused to give the message to others it would be given to the weakest of the Lord's children. Foy also had been in touch with the future and had been telling about it in print and at public meetings since sometime in January 1842. Ellen had listened to Foy speak in Beethoven Hall in her home city, Portland, Maine, when she was a girl.7 Since she was related to Foss by marriage, there is no reason to believe that she could not have read or heard about his visions as well as Foy's.

The setting now was perfect for both Ellen and God. The two men had refused to go on the stump with the visions, and one had been told that God would then give it to the weakest of the weak. So who could be weaker than Ellen? In early 1842, not yet fifteen years old, she was having lots of trouble emotionally and physically, by her own account. She was still having problems in 1844. Her emotional and physical turmoil could be compounded by the disappointment of the Miller drive toward eternity. With some misgivings because of her age and lack of experience, she took the torch from the fallen hands of both Foy and Foss and launched forth in her first vision.8 It was almost a carbon copy of the visions that Foy and Foss acknowledged God had given them, and it was so true to the original that it guaranteed the future success of one of the most remarkable cases of literary "borrowing" the world has ever seen.

Definition of Plagiarism:

One Webster dictionary edition defines a plagiarist as follows:

One that purloins the writings of another and puts them off as his own.... The appropriation or imitation of the language, ideas, and thoughts of another author, and representation of them as one's own original work.... The act of purloining another man's literary works or introducing passages from another man's writings and putting them off as one's own; literary thief

Harsh as it seems, the definition would characterize Ellen at age seventeen as a thief-and one who remained so the rest of her life, with enormous help and encouragement from others. That seems to be a very hard judgment. Many of the present apologists for Ellen White have tried to extricate her from the situation by proposing that perhaps God has a different standard for prophets.9 Others seem satisfied with the thought that "everyone was doing it." It seems to have escaped them that with that kind of logic the sky would be the limit in human conduct.

Others would believe that "she just didn't know." But certainly a lot of those around her over the years did know and were troubled. Uriah Smith, an early and longtime editor of the Review, knew. In 1864 the following appeared unsigned on the editorial page:


This is a word that is used to signify "literary theft," or taking the productions of another and passing them off as one s own.

In the World's Crisis of Aug. 23, 1864, we find a niece of poetry duly headed, "For the World's Crisis,' and signed "Luthera B. Weaver." What was our surprise, therefore, to find in this piece our familiar hymn,

"Long upon the mountain weary
Have the scattered flock been torn."

This piece was written by Annie R. Smith, and was first published in the Review, vol. ii, no. 8, Dec. 9, 1851, and has been in our hymn book ever since the first edition thereafter issued. But worst of all the piece is mutilated, the second and most significant verse being suppressed; namely,

"Now the light of truth they're seeking, In its onward track pursue;
All the Ten Commandments keeping, They are holy, just and true.
On the words of life they're feeding,
Precious to their taste so sweet,
All their Master's precepts heeding, Bowing humbly at his feet."

But perhaps this would clearly have revealed its origin, as scarcely any class of people at the present day, except Seventh-Day Adventists, have anything to say about All the commandments of God, &c. We are perfectly willing that pieces from the Review, or any of our books should be published to any extent, and all we ask is, that simple justice be done us, by due credit being given!10

Smith's editorial honesty had a lasting effect on the paper. In 1922, when Francis M. Wilcox was editor, the Review had two brief articles on the subject of stealing. One of them, unsigned, was on an editorial page under the title "Are You a Plagiarist? If So, Please Do Not Write for the Review."" The other short article, entitled "Spiritual Plagiarism," by J. B. Gallion, was even a bit more specific:

Plagiarism is the act by one author or writer of using the productions of another without giving him credit. For example, if you were to write an article in which you inserted, "The Psalm of Life" or any part of it, and permit it to pass under your name, as your own production, not giving credit to the poet Longfellow, you would be guilty of the crime of plagiarism. "Well," you say, "everybody knows that Longfellow wrote 'The Psalm of Life.' " A great many do, it is true, but many do not. Those who are ignorant of the fact might easily be deceived; but whether they know or not, does not lessen your guilt. You have taken what is not yours, and therefore are guilty of literary theft. There are but a few, perhaps, who fall under the ban of plagiarism in the literary world!12

In line with the Review's "honest and open" policies that seem to encourage the readers to practice honesty through the years, there were also those who tried to get Ellen to practice that same policy. A June article in the Review as late as 1980 stated that once Ellen was told how wrong it was to do what she was doing, she told one and all that, from that time on, credit should be given to whomever it was due. A reader wrote the Review asking for the date of that remarkable conversation and admission. Here is the reply that the rest of the reading public never had a chance to see:

You ask the date when Ellen White gave instruction that the authors of quoted material should be included in footnotes in her writings. The date for this was around 1909. You ask also in what later works this instruction was carried out. The only book that this instruction applied to was The Great Controversy which was then republished with these footnotes in 1911?13

There you have it. In 1909, the date given above, Ellen was then eighty-two years old, six years from the grave. In over seventy years of stealing ideas, words, and phrases, never once did she make any specific confession. The publishers made only a vague general statement concerning revision of The Great Controversy-and that only after the book had become a point of great controversy itself.

The final fallback for prophets and seers, when discovery comes too close, is that God made them do it, that they see and say things that others have said, and that they are able to see and say them in exactly the same words as others because God gave it to them first. They just didn't get around to letting anyone know until they were discovered.

Robert W. Olson, the present head of the White Estate, takes such a view in his paper of September 12, 1978, headed, "Wylie's Language Used to Describe What She Had Already Seen Herself May 15, 1887." The paper is given over to a comparison of Ellen's diary written in Switzerland in 1887 with a quotation from James A. Wylie's The History of Protestantism, 1876. It goes like this:14

Ellen G. White

James A. Wylie

Zurich is pleasantly situated on the shores of Lake Zurich. This is a noble expanse of water, enclosed with banks which swell upwards, clothed with vineyards and pine forests, from amid which hamlets and white villas gleam out amid trees and cultivated hills which give variety and beauty to the picture, while in the far off horizon the glaciers are seen blending with the golden clouds. On the right the region is walled in with the craggy rampart of the Albis Alp, but the mountains stand back from the shore and by permitting the light to fall freely upon the bosom of the Lake and on the ample sweep of its lovely and fertile banks, give a beauty to the picture which pen or brush of the artist could not equal. The neighboring lake of Zug is in marked contrast to Zurich. The placid waters and slumbering shore seem perpetually wrapped in the shadows. [ms. 29-1887]

Zurich is pleasantly situated on the shores of the lake of that name. This IS a noble expanse of water, enclosed within banks which swell gently upwards, clothed here with vineyards there with pine-forests, from amid which hamlets and white villas gleam out and enliven the scene, while m the far-off horizon the glaciers are seen blending with the golden clouds. On the right the region is walled in by the craggy rampart of Albis Alp, but the mountains stand back from the shore, and by permitting the light to fall freely upon the bosom of the lake, and on the ample sweep of its lovely and fertile banks, give a freshness and airiness to the prospect as seen from the city, which strikingly contrasts with the neighboring Lake of Zug, where the placid waters and the slumbering shore seem perpetually wrapped in the shadows of the great mountains.

The idea that Ellen saw everything first from God in the words of whomever she was copying was not new with Olson. In 1889 at Healdsburg, California, some of the White defenders debated the members of the local ministerial group. After showing scores of comparisons from writers that Ellen had used for her material, the Healdsburg ministers said:

Elder Healey would have the Committee believe that she is not a reading woman. And also asked them to believe that the historical facts and even the quotations are given her in vision without depending on the ordinary sources of information. Observe that Wylie gives due credit when he quotes the papal bull and that Mrs. White does not. It certainly is noteworthy, to say the least, that Wylie, an uninspired writer, should be more honest in this particular than Mrs. White, who claims that all historic facts and even the quotations are given her in vision. Probably an instance of defective vision.15

Here were ministers, presumably believers in inspiration and visions, who were unwilling to accept the idea that God had bypassed human means to reach people through Ellen.

What most people do, when things in their so-called religious fervor get as tangled up as Ellen and her writings did, is to blame God. Adam did this when the devil put one over on Eve. The Adventist White Estate tried this when they came up with the idea that Christ himself was cribbing a little when he gave us the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12. Supposedly he really got it from Rabbi Hillel, who had had the idea a generation earlier.16 Of course it may be technically all right for God to steal, inasmuch as everything is supposed to be his in the first place, but it does seem like bad training for the rest of us.

There are two reasons why Ellen lifted others' material, we are now told in the 1979 paper from the White Estate. The first reason is that she couldn't write very well. That is rather a new line for Adventists, inasmuch as they have been quoting her words, sentences, and paragraphs word for word for over a century in their written and verbal battles-always declaring how beautiful her writing is. The second reason is that God left out of the Canon a great deal of material necessary to make the whole thing intelligent.17 With a lot of help from her staff, however, Ellen's visions were worked out, and by the twentieth century a good deal more had been added to the Canon than even God knew about. It was always the claim that she never added anything extra to the Canon. But when the White Estate people added up all the words she wrote, they came up with an estimated 25,000,000 words. Those who specialize in such things say that, even being liberal with the periods and other marks of punctuation, them's a lot of canons to be shooting at people!

In the same 1979 article from the White Estate we are told that Ellen was probably often unconscious of what she was doing.8 She must have been unconscious a great deal of the time, in that case, because the Glendale Committee members who met in January 1980 to examine the charge that she had copied from a great many more around her than others had known about, or at least had admitted, did say that the amount was more than they had suspected and that it was alarming!9 The last group that had come close to seeing and saying the same thing was the 1919 Bible Conference. It was put out of business for its effort, and its damaging report was "lost" until recent years when someone at the vault stumbled onto the record of the meetings. (Spectrum, with its independent status, published this record in 1979 without the formality of permission20)

The January 1980 Glendale Committee-likewise phased out of existence as quickly as possible-had a lot of high-level discussion as to which would be the proper word to use-"borrowing," "plagiarizing," or "paraphrasing." It was never suggested or breathed to a soul (not even in the men's room during breaks) that Ellen might have stolen the material.21 But if one dictionary's definition of borrow is acceptable ("to take or obtain something with the promise to return it or its equivalent"), then neither she nor her helpers ever felt that they were "borrowing" anything.

Not only has it been denied that she ever took anything (until more recent evidence began to mount that she did) but it has always been said that God did it. In 1867 Ellen said:

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. 22

In 1876 she was to say:

In ancient times God spoke to men by the mouth of prophets and apostles. In these days He speaks to them by the Testimonies of His Spirit.23

Placing herself and her writings on an increasingly elevated level, she said in 1882:

If you lessen the confidence of God's people in the testimonies He has sent them, you are rebelling against God as certainly as were Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.24

These claims had grown, with the passing of time, until she was able to outdo herself (1882):

When I went to Colorado I was so burdened for you that, in my weakness, I wrote many pages to be read at your camp meeting. Weak and trembling, I arose at three o'clock in the morning to write you. God was speaking through clay. You might say that this communication was only a letter. Yes, it was a letter, but prompted by the Spirit of God, to bring before your minds things that had been shown me. In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. I do not write one article in the paper, expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision-the precious rays of light shining from the throne.25

Then she went on to ask:

What voice will you acknowledge as the voice of God? What power has the Lord in reserve to correct your errors and show you your course as it is? ... If you refuse to believe until every shadow of uncertainty and every possibility of doubt is removed, you will never believe. The doubt that demands perfect knowledge will never yield to faith. Faith rests upon evidence, not demonstration. The Lord requires us to obey the voice of duty, when there are other voices all around us urging us to pursue an opposite course. It requires earnest attention from us to distinguish the voice which speaks from God.26

One problem here was that Daniel March in his book Night Scenes in the Bible years before had written:

We must not defer our obedience till every shadow of uncertainty and every possibility of mistake is removed. The doubt that demands perfect know[edge will never yield to faith, for faith rests upon probability, not demonstration.... We must obey the voice of duty when there are many other voices crying against it, and it requires earnest heed to distinguish the one which speaks for God.27

The I was showns got to be a habit, for the expression was to crop up over and over.

I was shown that one great cause of the existing deplorable state of things is that parents do not feel under obligation to bring up their children to conform to physical law. Mothers love their children with an idolatrous love and indulge their appetite when they know that it will injure their health and thereby bring upon them disease and unhappiness.... They have sinned against Heaven and against their children, and God will hold them accountable. The managers and teachers of schools, 28

If one is not given to guilt and wants to spend a little time looking around in the works of others, he may find the same thing without the "I was shown" in the works of an earlier writer Ellen had read or admired:

Parents are also under obligation to teach and oblige their children to conform to physical law for their own sakes.... How strange and unaccountable that mothers should love their children so tenderly as to indulge them in what they have occasion to know may injure their constitutions and impair their happiness for life. May many children be delivered from such mothers, and from such cruel kindness" The managers and teachers of schools.29

Such practices may be one of the reasons that the White Estate was to issue the interesting statement in their tape of 1980, that some of her I was shown statements were cognizant.30 Now there's a word for you. It may mean that one reason most, if not all, of the I-was-shown statements in the early writings of Ellen had to be changed was that Ellen's helpers became cognizant of the problem.

Concerning "helpers," William S. Sadler was to write later that investigation showed that most mystics and magicians of modern times had taken the "precaution to have surrounded themselves with well trained and reliable confederates.'31 We will meet some of Ellen's reliable confederates later.

What Sadler didn't know about those helpers, however, was that they even helped Ellen "borrow" her visions. In one of the remarkable illustrations in deception of "borrowing," Ellen was to write an article in the Review and Herald of April 4, 1899, which was later to show up in her Testimonies to the Church. It was to say:

At the Queensland camp meeting in 1898, instruction was given me for our Bible Workers. In the visions of the night, ministers and workers seemed to be in a meeting where Bible lessons were being given. We said, "We have the Great Teacher with us today," and we listened with interest to His words. He said: "There is a great .. "32

The incredible thing about the article is that the bulk of the material was taken from the book, The Great Teacher, authored by John Harris in 1836. Thus, she is in essence putting the words of John Harris in the mouth of God as her own vision. Not really. The words she copied were actually written in the introduction to Harris' book, by Herman Humphrey, who as President of Amherst College was writing the introduction for his friend Harris.33

Modern Adventists were treated to a glimpse of this fiasco in the denomination's paper, the Review and Herald, but nowhere was it admitted that Harris had also been enormously helpful to Ellen in her writing of Desire of Ages, Acts of the Apostles, Fundamentals of Christian Education, Counsels to Teachers, as well as other of her works.34 No amount of posturing in the Review could explain satisfactorily how Harris and his Great Teacher got to be God, the Great Teacher, through Ellen White. And this transition took place more than once by Ellen's pen.35

References and Notes


1. Leviticus 24; Nehemiah 13; Acts 5.

2. Donald R. McAdams, "Shifting Views of Inspiration: Ellen G. White Studies in the 1970s," Spectrum 10, no. 4 (March 1980): 27-41.

3. Robert W. Olson, "Ellen G. White's Use of Uninspired Sources," photocopied (Washington: Ellen G. White Estate, 9 November 1979), pp. 17-18. Later talks given and photocopies circulated by the White Estate members expanded further on the theme of biblical borrowing.

4. D[udley] M. Canright, Life of Mrs. E. G. White: Seventh-Day Adventist Prophet; Her False Claims Refuted (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1919), pp. 18-31.

5. Wayne Cowdrey, Donald R. Scales, Howard A. Davis, Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? (Santa Ana, CA: Vision House, 1977). This book gives an address from which tapes are also available on the subject.

6. Canright, Life of Mrs. E. G. White, pp. 25-31.

7. Francis D. Nichol, ea., Seventh-Day Adventist Encyclopedia, Commentary Reference Series, 10 vols. (Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Association,1976), vol. 10, p. 474:

8. EGW, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View; Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1915), pp. 26-31. EGW, Christian Experience and Teachings (Mountain View: PPPA, 1922), pp. 57-61.

9. Jack W. Provonsha, "Was Ellen White a Fraud?" photocopied (Loma Linda University, Division of Religion, 1980).

10. [Uriah Smith, ed.], "Plagiarism," Review 24 (6 September 1864): 120.

11. [Francis M. Wilcox, ed.], "Are You a Plagiarist?" Review 99 (23 March 1922): 32.

12. J. B. Gallion, "Spiritual Plagiarism," Review (J 99 (23 March 1922): 21.

13. Letter from Review to [pseud.] (29 July 1980).

14. Robert W. Olson, "Wylie's Language Used to Describe What She Had Already Seen Herself," Ms. Release #655, photocopied (Washington: EGW Estate (12 September 1978). This White Estate release cited EGW's Ms. 291887 ("Diary-Labors in Switzerland-8") written in Basel from I January to 15 May 1887; and James A. Wylie's The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 1876, pp. 435-36.

15. [Healdsburg] Pastors' Union, "Is Mrs. E. G. White a Plagiarist? " Healdsburg [California] Enterprise, 20 March 1889, p. 1.

16. Olson, "EGW's Use of Uninspired Sources," pp. 16-19.

17. Ibid., pp. 7-9.

18. Ibid., p. 12.

19. Glendale Committee, "Ellen G. White and Her Sources," tapes, 28-29

20. [Bible Conference], "The Bible Conference of 1919," Spectrum 10, no. l.

21. Glendale Committee (1980) tapes.

22. EGW, Selected Messages, 3 bks. (Washington: RHPA, 1958), bk. l, pp. 58-80.

23. EGW, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, pp. 147-48. Testimony 27 (1876).

24. Ibid., vol. 5, p. 66. Testimony 31 (1882).

25. EGW, Selected Messages, bk. l, p. 27.

26. Ibid.

27. Daniel March, Night Scenes in the Bible (Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy & Co., 1923), p. 88.

28. EGW, Testimonies, vol. 3, p.141. Testimony 22 (1872).

29. L(arkin) B. Coles, Philosophy of Health: Natural Principles of Health and Cure (Boston: Wllliam D. Ticknor & Co., 1849, 1851, 1853), pp. 144-145.

30. White Estate release at 1980 General Conference session at Dallas, Texas. Interview of Robert Spangler with Robert Olson and Ron Craybill.

31. William S. Sadler. The Truth about Spiritualism. (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. 1923), p. 88.

32. John Harris, The Great Teacher (Amherst: T. S. & C. Adams, 1836: Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1870) pp. 14-18. See also EGW, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, pp. 58-60.

33. Ibid.

34. See Appendix, also Review and Herald, April 2, 1981, "Did Mrs. White 'Borrow' in Reporting a Vision?" p. 7.

35. See EGW, Testimonies to Ministers, (Mountain View, Pacific Press Association, 1923), p. 193., John Harris, The Great Teacher, p. 58.

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