Years ahead of Science on Tobacco?

By Dirk Anderson

Some have claimed that Mrs. White was years ahead of science in pointing out the dangers of tobacco.1 Mrs. White's earliest statement on tobacco was written in a letter in 1851, in which she said that giving up the use of tobacco was a requirement in order to receive the Seal of God:

I have seen in vision that tobacco was a filthy weed, and that it must be laid aside or given up. Said my accompanying angel, "If it is an idol it is high time it was given up, and unless it is given up the frown of God will be upon the one that uses it, and he cannot be sealed with the seal of the living God." If it is used as a medicine, go to God, He is the great Physician, and those that use the filthy weed for medicine greatly dishonor God.2

Believers in Mrs. White point to this and her later statements regarding tobacco and insist she was a blessing to Seventh-day Adventists because she was "ahead of her time" thanks to her divine insight. The truth is, some in the medical community had been warning of the dire consequences of tobacco use for hundreds of years before Mrs. White penned her letter. Below is a brief selection of statements made by various medical and religious authors:

1603 - "...the injurious nature of tobacco. ... The brain must needs be oppressed and infected by the horrible and poisonous smoke of tobacco..."3

1626 - Tobacco "endangereth the child to become brain damaged or of imperfect memory."4

1653 - "Blood and brain become heated and dried up—the whole head is turned into a noxious furnace—it is fatal to all genius [and acts] to dull the finest intellect."5

1798 - Benjamin Rush, M.D. wrote an entire section on the dangers of tobacco use in his book Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical.

1833 - Rev. Orin S. Fowler published his book Disquisition on the Evils of Using Tobacco.

1836 - "...thousands and tens of thousands die of diseases of the lungs generally brought on by tobacco smoking. . . . How is it possible to be otherwise? Tobacco is a poison."6

1845 - Rev. Benjamin I. Lane published his book The Mysteries of Tobacco.

1848 - John Burdell, M.D., published his book Tobacco: Its Use and Abuse.

1849 - Joel Shew, M.D., published his book Tobacco: Its History, Nature, and Effects on the Body and Mind.

Furthermore, the anti-tobacco crusade began in earnest in the United States in the 1830s, as noted by historian Ruth Clifford Engs:

From the 1830s until the Civil War, health reformers operated on the thesis that tobacco was a deadly poison. In an effort to encourage individuals to quit, or not start its use, reformers protrayed the disgusting figures of tobacco chewers as intemperate, physically ill, and morally depraved. In 1849, as the result of reformers' increasing concern over tobacco, and in conscious imitation of temperance dfforts, the American Anti-tobacco Society was organized.

Many health reformers of the day discussed the health consequences of tobacco. Edward Hitchcock, of Amherst College, considered tobacco and alcohol to be dangerous substances even when used moderately; he believed they caused moral deterioration and inherited weakness. Alcott regarded the use of tobacco as evil for similar reasons. Caleb Ticknor, a physician, deemed tobacco 'the most deadly, most noxious poison,' and considered it addictive. Larkin Coles, a Seventh-Day Adventist minister and physician, suggested tobacco did far more damage than alcohol to the health and welfare of Americans. Joel Shew, a hydropathic physician, published a tract listing 87 diseases cause by tobacco, the first being insanity and the last cancer.7

Thus, in the years leading up to Mrs. White's vision on tobacco, numerous medical and religious leaders were already vociferously warning Christians of the dangers of tobacco. Some churches even banned its use. For example, the church that Mrs. White was raised in--the Methodist Church--forbid its members from using tobacco before Ellen Harmon was born:

The Methodists forbad the use of Tobacco in the infancy of their society. The prohibition discovered a high and just sense of the self-denial, decency, and universal civility which are required by the gospel.8

Of special interest is the Adventist preacher-physician Dr. Larkin B. Coles. Mrs. White would later copy profusely from his health writings, and there is little doubt that she was familiar with his writings. In fact, two of his books, Philosophy of Health, and the Beauties and Deformities of Tobacco-Using were in her personal library. In his 1851 book Philosophy of Health, he referred to tobacco as "poisonous", "filthy narcotic", and "deadly weed."9 In The Beauties and Deformities of Tobacco-Using (first published in 1851), Coles has a whole chapter decrying the use of tobacco as a medicine, calling doctors who prescribe it "quacks."10 Throughout the book, in words reminiscent of Sister Whites', he describes tobacco as an "idol", a "poisonous weed", and "filthy".11

Finally, one must consider the influence of Joseph Bates upon Mrs. White's beliefs. Bates was a close associate of the Whites in the 1840s. He opposed tobacco, having given it up himself in 1821. So, where did Ellen White get her information on the dangers of tobacco? Was it from her Methodist upbringing? Was it from her close associate Josph Bates? Was it from Dr. Coles, from whom she plagiarized rampantly? Or was it from any of the many anti-tobacco crusaders of her day? No one knows. What is known is that many in the Christian churches of the United States and many medical professionals, including some Adventists, had jumped on the anti-tobacco crusade and were speaking out against the dangers of tobacco long before Ellen White joined in. Thus, she had ample opportunity to obtain her message from them.

Greater insight into tobacco than others?

Some have cited the quote below as proof of supernatural insight into the workings of nicotene that went beyond the anti-tobacco protestors of her day:

"Tobacco is a poison of the most deceitful and malignant kind, having an exciting, then a paralyzing influence upon the nerves of the body. It is all the more dangerous because its effects upon the system are so slow, and at first scarcely perceivable. . . ."12

However, it is apparent her 1864 statement was plagiarized from John Gunn's statement in 1861:

"[Tobacco is] a poison of a most deceitful and malignant kind, that sends its exciting and paralyzing influence into every nerve of the body."13

It is also possible she plagiarized from L.B. Coles, who, in 1853, wrote essentially the same in his book, The Beauties and Deformities of Tobacco-Using:

"...there is found the deadly narcotic power of this poison, sending its exciting and paralyzing influence into every never of the body."14

"One seeming misfortune about this pernicious, it remains so long doing its fatal work without being perceived."15

Therefore, it appears her "insight" into pharmacology likely came from books written long before Spritual Gifts volume 4a. Thus, there is no evidence Ellen White received divine inspiration that pur her "ahead of her time" in regards to the dangers of tobacco. If Adventists have anyone to thank for warning them of tobacco, it would be Joseph Bates and L.B. Coles.

See also


1. For example, see Rene Noorbergen, Ellen G. White: Prophet of Destiny, chapter 4, where he writes about tobacco: "Science discovered the facts nearly a century after the Spirit of Prophecy had revealed this danger to Ellen White."

2. Ellen White, Letter 5 to Brother Barnes, December 14, 1851. Released by the Ellen White Estate in 1990, Manuscript Releases Vol. 5, p. 377. In the Nov. 8, 1870, issue of Review and Herald, James White claimed this vision on tobacco was given in the fall of 1848, although that is difficult to verify because there are no published statements from Ellen White regarding tobacco prior to 1851.

3. Drs. Ashworth, Ailworth, Gifford and Gwyn, cited in Corti, History of Smoking, pp. 85-86.

4. Sir Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum: A Natural History, in Ten Centuries (London: Wm. Lee, 1626).

5. Dr. Jacobus Tappius, Prof. of Medicine, University of Helmstedt, Oratio de Tabaco ejusque Hodierno Abusu (Helmstedt, 1653).

6. Samuel Green, New England Almanack and Farmer's Friend (1836).

7. Ruth Clifford Engs, Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform, pp. 43-44, (2001).

8. Dr. Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical 2nd ed. (Philadephia, PA: Thomas and William Bardford, 1806), p. 268.

9. L.B. Coles, Philosophy of Health, (1851) p. 143.

10. L.B. Coles, The Beauties and Deformities of Tobacco-Using (1853), pp. 29-36.

11. Ibid., cf. pp. 7, 52, 59.

12. Ellen White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a (1864), p. 128.

13. John C. Gunn, New Domestic Medicine (Cincinatti, OH: Moore, Wilstach, Keys & co., 1861), pp. 367-368. According to Ronald Numbers, this same statement also appears in Gunn's 1857 version of this book.

14. L.B. Coles, The Beauties and Deformities of Tobacco-Using (1853), p. 22.

15. Ibid., p. 61.

Category: Myths
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