Messenger of the Lord


The Victorian Lady

Yet, though a hardy example of the rugged pioneer woman of the nineteenth century, Ellen White displayed the characteristics of the Victorian lady. Researcher Kathleen Joyce noted a widely quoted passage by Barbara Welter who listed four virtues by which the Victorian woman was judged: “... piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them all together and they spell mother, daughter, sister, wife—woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement, or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.” 24 MOL 105.3

Joyce added the area of “women’s health and medical care” as another special characteristic of the Victorian woman. She noted that Ellen White’s career was a constant balance between fulfilling her Victorian obligations (marriage, motherhood, homemaker) and responding to her prophetic calling. “Her frailty, the visions over which she had no control, her unwillingness, particularly in the early years, to accept a leadership position that required her to be more than God’s amanuensis, reveal a particularly feminine pattern of religious prophecy. It was a pattern that accommodated the need for women to be servants rather than masters, and served to reinforce the comforting perception of women as passive vessels through whom God and men achieve great works. By adhering to this pattern, Ellen White became the type of female prophet that Victorian America was able to tolerate.” 25 MOL 105.4

Mrs. White manifested one of the many characteristics of the Victorian model by her frequent use of euphemisms. For example, in referring to sexual intercourse, she used phrases such as “privilege of the marriage relation,” 26 “marriage privileges,” 27 and “privacy and privileges of the family relation.” 28 MOL 105.5

Her Victorian euphemisms were not mere prudery. She was a loving, devoted wife who won and held the admiration of her husband until the day he died. But she understood mental health and how marital priorities should be established. Her frequent counsel to others regarding marriage relations was generated not only through divine inspiration but articulated out of personal experience. She not only verbally advocated civility and Christian modesty, but practiced it with a husband who adored her. MOL 105.6

For example, note her wedding-night tip to Daniel T. Bourdeau, a nervous young man of 26. Bourdeau, ordained at age 23, looked for a wife for three years. In 1861 he was married to Marion Saxby in Bakersfield, Vermont, with James White officiating in a private home. James was 40 and Ellen was 33, still a young woman. MOL 105.7

Because the service was late in the day, the newlyweds accepted the invitation of their host to spend the night in his home. The Whites also stayed as house guests. MOL 105.8

When Ellen White went upstairs to retire, she saw a very nervous young man pacing back and forth in front of a closed bedroom door. She suspected a problem. Gently she said to the young bridegroom (as the bride later quoted her husband’s recital of the incident): “Daniel, inside that room is a frightened young woman in bed petrified with fear. Now you go in to her right now, and you love her, and you comfort her. And, Daniel, you treat her gently, and you treat her tenderly, and you treat her lovingly. It will do her good.” MOL 105.9

Then she added, “Daniel, it will do you good, too!” 29 Here is a Victorian woman who had her priorities straight—and that young couple were ever grateful. MOL 106.1

In some other respects, Ellen White was distinctively different from the typical Victorian woman. She did not use her frailty for personal advantage or special attention, but rose above it to the astonishment of her contemporaries. Though respectful of James, she was not typical of Victorian submission to one’s husband, nor did she cater to social expectations (merely to gain male approval) or to Victorian domesticity (to enhance standing among other women). In fulfilling her prophetic role, these Victorian “virtues” took on new meaning. Physical frailty became a challenge to conquer weaknesses by the grace of God, an achievement that gave her increasing strength and endurance as she grew older. MOL 106.2

Although submission to her husband and meeting her family’s needs were important, Ellen White’s prophetic responsibilities were paramount in her life. She showed everyone that religious responsibilities do not minimize home responsibilities. Life, for her, was not compartmentalized, as either prophet or homemaker. She saw life as a whole—to fulfill her religious responsibilities she would not diminish her responsibilities as a wife, mother, and neighbor. MOL 106.3