Visions Copied from Foy?
By Dirk Anderson, last updated Mar. 2022
Who was William Foy?
In 1835, William Foy, an African-American living in New England, gave his heart to Christ and became a member of the Freewill Baptist Church. In 1842, while preparing to take holy orders as an Episcopal minister he had two visions. Foy began traveling around the local area relating his visions to various Millerite groups. Seventh-day Adventist historian J.N. Loughborough writes:
Having a good command of language, with fine descriptive powers, he created a sensation wherever he went. By invitation he went from city to city to tell of the wonderful things he had seen; and in order to accommodate the vast crowds who assembled to hear him, large halls were secured, where he related to thousands what had been shown him of the heavenly world...1
Foy visited Portland, Maine, the home of Ellen Harmon, in 1844. He was accepted by the local Millerite leader, John Pearson, and Foy was scheduled to recount his visions in the hall where Millerites Ellen Harmon and James White attended.2
How familiar was Ellen Harmon with Foy?
In an interview, Mrs. White revealed that she attended William Foy's lectures both in her home town of Portland, and also in nearby Cape Elizabeth:
Question: Then you attended the lectures that Mr. Foy gave?
Ellen Harmon became well acquainted with Foy and his visions. Delbert Baker, an SDA who authored a book on Foy, writes:
Ellen White said that she had copies of Foy's visions and had heard him speak on a number of occasions, so she was acquainted with him and his material.4
Private meeting with Foy
In December of 1844, Ellen Harmon had her first "vision." Delbert Baker writes:
Shortly after Ellen had her first vision, Foy sought her out and expressed his desire to speak with her. Referring to this meeting, she said, 'I had an interview with him.' We have no record of their conversation, but quite probably it dealt with her visions, what she had seen, and perhaps the accompanying physical phenomena.5
The evening following this interview, Ellen was scheduled to speak of her first "vision" at a meeting held east of Portland. Unbeknown to Ellen, Foy had decided to attend the meeting. While she was speaking, Foy leaped to his feet and declared it was just what he had seen! He excused himself from the meeting and had no further contact with Ellen White after that point. Later, in 1845, when he published his visions, he had them copyrighted. Mrs. White describes the experience as follows:
Question : Did you ever have an interview with him?
What an amazing coincidence! Ellen Harmon interviews Foy regarding his visions, and later on the same day she relates her visions in a meeting and her visions sound so similar to Foy's that he cannot restrain himself from interupting the meeting, standing up and telling the crowd that she was relating exactly what he had seen in vision!
Did Foy endorse Ellen Harmon's visions?
In 1906, over sixty years after the incident with Foy, Ellen White recalls that Foy was jubilant over her relating the vision, and stood up and praised God. Perhaps Foy felt her "vision," being so similar to his own, helped to validate his own claims. However, when he got home and thought about it, he may have wondered if she was cleverly stealing his thunder. Regardless, there is no other evidence Foy ever endorsed Ellen White, accepted her visions, or accepted her teachings from her subsequent visions, such as the shut door of salvation. In fact, after the meeting mentioned above, Mrs. White never had any further contact with Foy.
Did Foy pass the prophetic baton on to Ellen Harmon?
SDA historian J.N. Loughborough, in his book The Great Second Advent Movement, describes the process by which Ellen Harmon was selected as God's prophet. Loughborough claims that God first picked Foy as His designated prophet to receive visions and relay instructions to the Adventists. According to Loughborough, Foy failed to fulfill his commission. He sickened and died, and then the prophetic baton was passed to Hazen Foss. Foss reportedly received a vision, but declined to share it. After Foss refused to relate his vision, God passed the baton to the "weakest of the weak," Ellen Harmon.
There are many problems with Loughborough's account. First and foremost, Foy did not die shortly after the disappointment. Foy faithfully traveled around New England, relating his visions, even after Ellen Harmon's first "vision." There is no evidence he ever stopped for longer than a few months. Foy continued in the Christian ministry, pastoring various Freewill Baptist churches throughout Maine. He continued witnessing for the Lord throughout his life until his death on November 9, 1893, at the age of 75. His tombstone can be viewed in Birch Tree Cemetery in East Sullivan, Maine. On it are the words:
I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
The second problem with Loughborough's account is that Foy's visions appear to support doctrines that Seventh-day Adventists reject, such as the immortality of the soul. In his pamphlet, Foy describes his visions as out-of-body experiences:
...it appeared to me that I was a spirit separate from this body.7
Furthermore, Foy's visions seem to indicate the spirits of the dead are in heaven, as he describes below:
I then saw an individual which had passed through death. Her brightness was beyond the expression of mortals, and at her right side stood a guardian angel, the angel's raiment was like pure gold and his wings like flaming fire, and as she passed me, she cried with a lovely voice, 'I am going to the gate to meet my friends.' An angel then appeared flying through the midst of this boundless place, and came to the spirit of one of those which had not passed through death, and cried with a loud voice, saying, 'This is my mother.' He then became her guide.11
The fact that Foy's visions indicate support for the idea of a immortality of the soul would lead many SDAs to question whether Foy's visions actually came from God and whether he was a true prophet of God.
In addition, Foy's visions show a heaven that might have made sense in the 1840s but does not make sense today. For example, Foy's heaven is devoid of modern technology. The angels who record the sins of humans in books receive their updates from angels flying back and forth between earth and heaven:
I then beheld angels ascending and descending to and from the earth; they bore tidings to the recording angels.12
Of course, this was before the advent of the telegraph, radio, telephone, and internet communications. The only way to communicate in the 1840s over a long distance was for someone to personally carry a message between parties.
In summary, the "passing the baton" theory makes no sense because Foy was not unfaithful in his mission. Furthermore, the content and theology of Foy's visions would cause many modern SDAs to doubt his visions originated with God. If the visions were not from God, then he could not have passed any "prophetic baton" to anyone else.
Mrs. White Had Copies of Foy's Visions
The two initial visions of Foy were published in 1845 in a pamphlet in Portland, Maine. Later statements from Mrs. White indicate that she apparently had a copy of these visions.
Then another time, there was Foy that had had visions. He had had four visions. He was in a large congregation, very large. He fell right to the floor. I do not know what they were doing in there, whether they were listening to preaching or not. But at any rate he fell to the floor. I do not know how long he was [down]--about three quarters of a hour, I think-- and he had all these [visions] before I had them. They were written out and published, and it is queer that I cannot find them in any of my books. But we have moved so many times. He had four.13
Scholars have noticed a number of similarities between Ellen White and William Foy:
From Foy or from God? You Decide:
While there are some substantial theological differences between Mrs. White and Foy, there are also some amazing parallels in their writings. For example, Foy saw "three steps" in his vision, and Mrs. White later wrote: "I was shown three steps."17 Tim Poirer, of the Ellen White Estate, writes:
Foy is important because of the significant parallels between his visions and later ones of Ellen White.18
Below are some of the parallels between their visions:
1. J.N. Loughborough, The Great Second Advent Movement, p. 145.
2. Ellen Harmon and James White were active in the Millerite movement in Portland, Maine, at this time, so it is likely both of them attended the meetings where Foy presented his visions. John Pearson was well-known to both Ellen and James. Pearson introduced Ellen to James, who had worked with Pearson's son, John Pearson, Jr., in Maine during the year before the Great Disappointment (Ellen White, Life Sketches (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1880), pp. 82, 86).
3. Ellen White quoted in an interview. Manuscript Releases vol. 17, pp. 96-97; Ms 131, 1906, pp. 1, 4-6. Relased by the Ellen G. White Estate, Washington, D. C. June 4, 1987.
4. Delbert Baker, Spectrum, "Questions and Answers about the Unknown Prophet, William Foy", vol. 17, no. 5, p. 25.
5. Delbert Baker, The Unknown Prophet (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 2013), p. 143.
6. E.G. White interview cited in footnote #2.
7. William Foy, Christian Experience of William Foy, p. 9.
8. Ibid., p. 16.
9. Ibid., p. 20.
10. Ibid., p. 21.
11. Ibid., pp. 11,12.
12. Ibid., p. 20.
13. E.G. White interview cited in footnote #3.
14. "William Ellis Foy, The Christian Experience of William E. Foy Together With the Two Visions He Received in the Months of Jan. and Feb. 1842" (Portland, ME: J. and C. H. Pearson, 1845). "A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White" (Saratoga, NY: James White, 1851).
15. Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord (Washington, DC: Ellen White Estate, 1998), 40.
17. William Foy, Christian Experience of William Foy. Ellen White, Spiritual Gifts vol. 1 (1858), p. 168.
18. Tim Poirer, "Black Forerunner to Ellen White: William Foy," Spectrum vol. 17, no. 5 (1987), p. 23. https://archive.org/details/TimPoirierBlackForerunnerToEllenWhiteWilliamE.Foy1987/mode/2up.
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