Understanding Ellen White

The ethical/moral issue

Accompanying the plagiarism charge has been the accusation that Ellen White was deceitful not only in copying from the works of others, but also in denying having done so when she was challenged by her critics. Even if it is conceded that her use of other authors did not legally constitute plagiarism, her practice and denials, it is alleged, constitute unethical behavior for one claiming to be inspired. Contemporary defenders of Ellen White’s integrity point to many of the same lines of reasoning as her earlier supporters offered. UEGW 156.1

How could Ellen White be intending to deceive her readers or cover up her copying when she recommended primary source books she utilized to ministers and church members and these works were in wide circulation?54 Furthermore, her acknowledgment of sources in the introduction to The Great Controversy, while specific to that work, nonetheless refutes the allegation that she did not want her readers to know that she referenced other works in her writings. UEGW 156.2

Ellen White’s use of uncredited sources was not out of step with how other respected religious writers of her day, including Seventh-day Adventists, used others’ material. This has been recognized in various studies. 55 After reviewing more than five hundred works on the life of Christ, Fred Veltman wrote: “There were times when we were uncertain as to which literary source the DA [The Desire of Ages] parallel was to be credited. The writers used by Ellen White often exhibited literary parallels among themselves equal to those found between the writings of Ellen White and these same writers.” 56 UEGW 156.3

Pietistic writers of the nineteenth century made free use of each other’s materials without giving credit. 57 In his introduction to his New Testament commentary, John Wesley wrote regarding his sources: “I resolved to name none, that nothing might divert the mind of the reader from the point in view, and from receiving what was spoken only according to its intrinsic value.” 58 George Callcot observed that while many nineteenth-century historians have been condemned by later historians for their manner of using sources, “historians usually felt flattered rather than insulted when their words were used by another [without attribution]. The period is remarkable for the lack of scholarly rivalry, and writers who borrowed from each other remained on the warmest terms.” 59 UEGW 156.4

Ironically, D. M. Canright himself engaged in this practice in his own publications as a Seventh-day Adventist. A comparison of Moses Hull’s 1863 book titled The Bible From Heaven and Canright’s book by the same title, published in 1878, shows direct copying of major portions of chapters without any attribution or credits. 60 Less than ten years after engaging in this accepted practice, Canright was accusing Ellen White of plagiarism. Such examples illustrate that Ellen White wrote during a period when less stringent standards were both common and acceptable—especially among authors of pietistic or moralistic writings, a nineteenth-century genre particularly favored by Ellen White. UEGW 156.5

Ellen White instructed that proper credit be given in her revised Great Controversy. With changing practices in society regarding crediting literary sources, Ellen White also began to modify her own practice. She instructed: “ Whenever any of my workers find quotations in my writings, I want those quotations to be exactly like the book they are taken from. Sometimes they have thought they might change a few words to make it a little better; but it must not be done; it is not fair. When we quote a thing, we must put it just as it is”61 UEGW 157.1

Ellen White’s apparent denials of her copying are specific and not general. In 1991, Robert Olson, then director of the Ellen G. White Estate, examined each of ten “denials” or “non-admissions” that have been cited as evidence that Ellen White was not honest in regard to her use of sources. 62 He showed that, when read in their context, she did not exclude the possibility that the language of others might be employed in presenting her messages. Her statements were directed toward specific accusations and were not “intended to describe all of her reading and writing habits”63 UEGW 157.2

Olson pointed out, however, that one of the “denials” is more difficult to understand than the others. In 1867, when asked what she knew of other health writings, Ellen White responded that she had not read “any works on health until I had written Spiritual Gifts, volumes 3 and 4, Appeal to Mothers, and had sketched out most of my six articles in the six numbers of How to Live.” These earliest of health writings had been published in 1864 and 1865. The specific naming of these works has invited scrutiny of these writings to discover any literary dependency. Her statement did not rule out the possibility of health sources in the How to Live articles as she said she had only “sketched” them out before consulting other works. But what about the two earlier works? To date, two passages in particular have drawn attention. Olson cited the clearest example: UEGW 157.3

John C. Gunn: “[Tobacco is] a poison of a most deceitful and malignant kind, that sends its exciting and paralyzing influence into every nerve of the body” (1857). UEGW 157.4

Ellen White: “Tobacco is a poison of the most deceitful and malignant kind, having an exciting, then a paralyzing influence upon the nerves of the body” (1864). UEGW 157.5

Olson offered six possible explanations for the parallels, favoring the answer that, outside of reading books on health, Ellen White stated that she had conversed freely with others on the topics revealed to her in vision. “As Ellen White discussed health topics with those who were knowledgeable on them, she would naturally have become acquainted with the vocabulary and expressions used by the health reformers of her day.” 64 UEGW 158.1

Olson recognized that there are aspects of this “denial” that we cannot answer with the information available to us. Interestingly, since his article was printed it has been found that Gunn did not originate the expressions that parallel Ellen White’s. He appears to have been borrowing from earlier temperance writers who wrote of the poisons of tobacco (and alcohol) using the same phraseology—including one whose article had been reprinted in the Review several weeks before Ellen White’s work was published. 65 This discovery lends support to the possibility that Ellen White’s choice of language in this instance may reflect what had become relatively common parlance by anti-tobacco reformers regarding its destructive effects. 66 It also gives reason to withhold hasty pronouncements of dishonesty in Ellen White’s 1867 “denial.” UEGW 158.2

Ellen White viewed truth as of divine, not human, origin. Several authors have pointed to this concept as perhaps providing the key to understanding why Ellen White chose not to credit her literary sources as freely as we would expect today. 67 Her intention was to credit the source of her writings to the great Originator of truth—not the human instrument, whether herself or the authors she made use of. UEGW 158.3

Patriarchs, prophets, and apostles spoke as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost, and they plainly stated that they spoke not by their own power, nor in their own name. They desired that no credit might be ascribed to them, that no one might regard them as the originators of anything whereof they might glory. . . . UEGW 158.4

Christ is the Author of all truth. Every brilliant conception, every thought of wisdom, every capacity and talent of men, is the gift of Christ. He borrowed no new ideas from humanity; for he originated all. 68 UEGW 158.5

Current perspectives on Ellen White’s use of sources still indicate a divide between opponents and supporters over whether her practice should rightly be termed “plagiarism.” This is due, in part, as to whether one imposes today’s literary standards on Ellen White’s writings or those of her own day. UEGW 158.6

Though she did not publicly explain her use of sources (apart from in The Great Controversy), neither was her use of others’ literary works a secret to church members of her generation who were familiar with the popular books of Andrews, Smith, Wylie, Hanna, Geike, and a host of other authors advertised and recommended in the pages of the Review and Signs. Victorian pietistic writing practices were a well-documented part of the literary milieu. UEGW 158.7

Additionally, when one looks at the biblical model of inspiration, one finds evidence that the Bible writers utilized preexisting sources, without credit, to serve the purposes of their own composition. Being the first to say or write a truth, therefore, is not a prerequisite for being an inspired messenger, nor does dependence upon prior human sources necessarily eliminate divine superintendence in expressing those truths. Nineteenth-century pietistic writers also accepted this view. One such author was John Harris, whose book was published the same year that a nine-year-old Ellen Harmon nearly lost her life from a rock thrown by an angry schoolmate. He wrote: UEGW 159.1

Suppose, for example, an inspired prophet were now to appear in the church, to add a supplement to the canonical books,—what a Babel of opinions would he find existing on almost every theological subject!— and how highly probable it is that his ministry would consist, or seem to consist, in the mere selection and ratification of such of these opinions as accorded with the mind of God. Absolute originality would seem to be almost impossible. The inventive mind of man has already bodied forth speculative opinions in almost every conceivable form; forestalling and robbing the future of its fair proportion of novelties; and leaving little more, even to a divine messenger, than the office of taking some of these opinions, and impressing them with the seal of heaven. 69 UEGW 159.2

John Harris’s work would later find a treasured place in Ellen White’s library. UEGW 159.3