Messenger of the Lord



In one of the Whites’ visits 67 to Dr. Jackson’s health center, Dansville, New York, as part of the routine physical examination, Dr. Jackson made a phrenological “reading” of the heads of the two White sons, Willie and Edson.” 68 This event was reported by Ellen White in a private letter. What was Mrs. White indicating by this phrenological examination? Was she contradicting her own counsel? MOL 494.3

In 1862 she wrote that the power of evil works through “the sciences of phrenology, psychology, and mesmerism.” Though “good in their place ... they are seized upon by Satan ... to deceive and destroy souls.” 69 MOL 494.4

In 1884 she repeated her warning: “The sciences which treat of the human mind are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls.... The world, which is supposed to be benefited so much by phrenology and animal magnetism, never was so corrupt as now. Through these sciences, virtue is destroyed, and the foundations of Spiritualism are laid.” 70 MOL 494.5

What could Ellen White have meant by “they are good in their place”? Although phrenology is now considered quackery (and rightly so in certain aspects), students today must pause long enough to look at phrenology as scientists and physicians did in the nineteenth century. John D. Davies in his standard work on phrenology wrote: “In its own time phrenology, like Freudianism, was a serious, inductive discipline, accepted as such by many eminent scientists, doctors, and educators; its aberrations were the results not so much of charlatanism or credulity as of the limitations of early nineteenth century scientific method and medical techniques. However mistaken some of its anatomical deductions may have been, scientific it was in its determination to study the mind objectively, without metaphysical preconceptions. Its priority in this field is recognized in the histories of medicine and psychology, and many of its fundamentals are as commonplace today as they were radical a century ago. 71 MOL 494.6

If a reader today is given only the absurd side of phrenology, as understood a century ago, and not the fundamental principles that are accepted today, then Ellen White’s statements seem both naive and contradictory. Some of those principles teach that obedience to health laws (as interpreted by phrenology) would even reduce the effect of hereditary disease, that most physical problems originate in the mind and thus the mind and body must be treated as a unit, that controlling passion would give power to enhance moral virtues and intellectual capabilities. 72 MOL 494.7

Critics suggest that Ellen White was deep into phrenology because she used terminology that phrenologists frequently used, such as “acquisitiveness,” “cautiousness,” “conscientiousness,” and “benevolence.” Other words that phrenologists freely used in “locating” certain characteristics in the brain included “secretiveness,” “firmness,” “causality,” “self-esteem,” “destructiveness,” “parental love,” “eventuality,” “calculation,” “hope,” and “conjugally.” MOL 495.1

Was it possible for Mrs. White to write in terms of character development or the relationship between health and morals without employing commonly used words, even as we use them today? Referring to the impact of phrenology in the nineteenth century, Davies wrote: “Through lectures, societies, magazines, book and periodical articles, phrenological tenets were dinned into American ears until the appropriation of their peculiar vocabulary by fiction and popular speech made them familiar to everyone.” 73 MOL 495.2

But what about Ellen White’s sons’ receiving a phrenological examination? Mrs. White wrote: “Dr. Jackson gave an accurate account of the disposition and organization of our children. He pronounces Willie’s head to be one of the best that has ever come under his observation. He gave a good description of Edson’s character and peculiarities. He enjoined upon him outdoor exercise and not much study. I think this examination will be worth everything to Edson.” 74 MOL 495.3

No one would suggest that Ellen White understood all the mechanics and physiology of how the brain works; no one does today. Being a devoted mother, she was interested in anything that would help her to be a better mother. This routine examination at Dansville would be, at the most, interesting; in no way did it indicate that Ellen White espoused the philosophy of phrenology. 75 MOL 495.4