Messenger of the Lord


Rumors and Allegations

What should we make of the rumors and charges that have been circulated through the years regarding Ellen White’s own dietary choices? MOL 314.5

Ham on the White table. D. M. Canright, a hostile ex-Adventist preacher, is reported to have said that he saw the Whites eat ham in their own home. He probably was right since he “embraced the Sabbath” under James White’s preaching in 1859. Early Adventists did not understand the distinction between clean and unclean meats. In the late 1850s, the Whites were still eating swine’s flesh. 37 Not until after the Otsego vision of June, 1863, did they cease eating it. 38 Between 1859 and 1863, Canright would have had many opportunities to see the Whites eating swine’s flesh. MOL 314.6

Ellen White was a backslider on meat eating all her life. Ellen White did not claim that after the 1863 Otsego health vision she never again ate meat. Prior to the vision, she believed that she “was dependent upon a meat diet for strength.” Because of her weak physical condition, especially for her tendency to faint when weak and dizzy, she thought that meat was “indispensable.” 39 In fact, at that time she was “a great meat eater“: flesh meat was her “principal article of diet.” 40 MOL 314.7

But she complied with advancing light. She cut meat out of her “bill of fare” immediately, along with butter and three meals a day. What was the result? “My former faint and dizzy feelings have left me.” Years later, at eighty-two years of age, she could write: “I have better health today, notwithstanding my age, than I had in my younger days.” 41 MOL 314.8

Yet, as we studied earlier (see p. 312), Ellen White did eat meat occasionally, noting in 1901 that there were times in the past when she “was compelled to eat a little meat.” 42 Difficult travel conditions, new cooks, and medical emergencies demanded reasonable adjustments. In other words, she was not a fanatic regarding meat eating, especially in her counsel to others: “I have never felt that it was my duty to say that no one should taste of meat under any circumstances. To say this ... would be carrying matters to extremes. I have never felt that it was my duty to make sweeping assertions. What I have said I have said under a sense of duty, but I have been guarded in my statements, because I did not want to give occasion for anyone to be conscience for another.” 43 MOL 315.1

It is also important to note that Ellen White distinguished between “meat” and “fish.” In 1876 she wrote her traveling husband: “We have not had a particle of meat in the house since you left and long before you left. We have had salmon a few times. It has been rather high [in price].” 44 MOL 315.2

In poverty-stricken Australia during the mid-1890s, she recognized that fish would be an appropriate part of the diet of the workmen who were building Avondale College. In a letter to her son Willie, she wrote: “We cannot feed them all, but will you please get us dried codfish and dried fish of any description—nothing canned? This will give a good relish to the food.” 45 MOL 315.3

Two years after her personal no-meat pledge at the Brighton (Australia) camp meeting, Mrs. White wrote to her non-Adventist niece, Mary Clough Watson: “Two years ago I came to the conclusion that there was danger in using the flesh of dead animals, and since then I have not used meat at all. It is never placed on my table. I use fish when I can get it. We get beautiful fish from the salt water lake near here. I use neither tea nor coffee. As I labor against these things, I cannot but practice that which I know to be best for my health, and my family are in perfect harmony with me. You see, my dear niece, that I am telling you matters just as they are.” 46 MOL 315.4

Oysters. Fannie Bolton, 47 a former literary assistant, wrote that Ellen White, at a rail depot, ate “big white raw oysters with vinegar, pepper and salt.... I was overwhelmed with this inconsistency and dumb with horror. Elder Starr hurried me out and made all sorts of excuses and justifications of Sister White’s action; yet I kept thinking in my heart, ‘What does it mean? What has God said? How does she dare eat these abominations?’” 48 MOL 315.5

When G. B. Starr heard of this letter he was astounded. He responded to W. C. White: “I can only say that I regard it as the most absurdly, untruthful lot of rubbish that I have ever seen or read regarding our dear Sister White. MOL 315.6

“The event simply never occurred. I never saw your mother eat oysters or meat of any kind either in a restaurant or at her own table. Fannie Bolton’s statement ... is a lie of the first order. I never had such an experience and it is too absurd for anyone who ever knew your mother to believe.... MOL 315.7

“I think this entire letter was written by Fannie Bolton in one of her most insane moments.... 49 MOL 315.8

“When we visited Florida in 1928, Mrs. Starr and I were told that at a camp meeting, Fannie Bolton made a public statement that she had lied about Sister White, and that she repented of it.” 50 MOL 315.9

Though Fannie Bolton’s report was false, Ellen White did request oysters in 1882 in a letter to Mary, her daughter-in-law: “If you can get me a good box of herrings, fresh ones, please do so. These last ones that Willie got are bitter and old. If you can buy ... half a dozen cans of good tomatoes, please do so. We shall need them. If you can get a few cans of good oysters, get them.” 51 MOL 315.10

What shall we make of this request for oysters? Aren’t oysters considered unclean according to Leviticus 11? The answer to that question was not clear to Seventh-day Adventists in the 1880s any more than their attitude toward pork was clear in the 1850s. 52 MOL 316.1

In 1883 W. H. Littlejohn, pastor of the Battle Creek Tabernacle, conducted a question/answer column in the church paper. In answering whether oysters are included among the unclean foods of Leviticus 11, Littlejohn said: “It is difficult to decide with certainty whether oysters would properly come under the prohibition of Leviticus 11:9-12.... It would, however, seem from the language, as if they might.” 53 MOL 316.2

Where no direct vision insight was given, Adventists like anybody else had to work their way through such dietary matters. MOL 316.3

Ellen White was a hypocrite. This charge is based on the fact that Ellen White was lucid and forthright regarding the danger of meat eating but occasionally ate flesh foods. MOL 316.4

Her son W. C., wrote to G. B. Starr in 1933 that the White family had been vegetarians but not always “teetotalers” (total abstainers from flesh foods). MOL 316.5

In 1894, Ellen White wrote to a non-Adventist active in the temperance cause in Australia who had asked about the Adventist position on being “total abstainers“: “I am happy to assure you that as a denomination we are in the fullest sense total abstainers from the use of spirituous liquors, wine, beer, [fermented] cider, and also tobacco and all other narcotics.... All are vegetarians, many abstaining from the use of flesh food, while others use it in only the most moderate degree.” 54 Many of Ellen White’s strongest statements against meat were written after she had renewed her commitment to total abstinence in 1894. MOL 316.6

Here we note that for Ellen White a vegetarian was not necessarily a “teetotaler,” that is, a total abstainer, but one who did not eat flesh foods as a habit. Here we have a clear example of the difference between a principle and a policy. Vegetarianism was a policy based upon principle: we should eat the best food obtainable under the circumstances. Principles are clear statements, always true under all circumstances. Policies may change, due to time, place, and circumstances. Policies work out the principles by always doing the best possible under the circumstances. Only the individual’s conscience knows when those decisions of doing “one’s best” have been made. MOL 316.7