Was Ellen G. White A Plagiarist?

The Story Behind This Research

An Interview with Warren L. Johns, chief counsel of the Office of General Counsel, General Conference of SDA

Review: Attorney Johns, how and under what circumstances did the Legal Services of the General Conference come to be involved in retaining the firm of Diller, Ramik & Wight, Ltd., to research questions pertaining to Ellen White and her use of literary sources? EGWPlag 6.1

Johns: Well, last October an Adventist pastor on the West Coast was featured prominently in the Los Angeles Times, and serious allegations of plagiarism were raised against Ellen G. White. The story, carried by a wire service and a news syndicate, appeared in dozens of newspapers across North America. It even found its way into the Manchester Guardian in England. Understandably, it raised a lot of questions in the minds of our church members, as well as among non-Adventist readers. Last April—six months later—our office decided that we ought to get to the bottom of the legal aspects and implications of the case. So we retained the services of a highly reputable firm specializing in patent, trademark, and copyright law. And they have now tendered their very comprehensive legal opinion. EGWPlag 6.2

Review: Did the General Conference officers or the Ellen G. White Estate request you to proceed in this direction? EGWPlag 6.3

Johns: No. We acted entirely on our own initiative. Neither of these groups was involved. On April 21, I told the secretary of the White Estate what we proposed to do; but neither his department nor the GC officers initiated it. Besides, none of us knew either the direction the research was taking or the conclusions reached until the work was finished and the report was in. The cost of this kind of legal research is substantial; but our office felt it was important to get the truth, hence our office is paying the bill for the work that was done. EGWPlag 6.4

Review: Why did you choose Diller, Ramik & Wight, Ltd., for this task? EGWPlag 6.5

Johns: First of all, our office has only three lawyers to serve the General Conference—and the GC, in financial terms, would probably rank about fiftieth in Fortune magazine’s well-known list of the top 500 corporations in the United States today. We already were very busy with other work, especially with First Amendment issues and challenges. Then, too, the plagiarism charges present some incredibly deep and complex legal issues. We felt we must have a specialist, and that’s what we got. The best firms in this branch of law are here in Washington, and we have worked with Mr. Ramik’s office on other cases for the past four or five years. During this time we have found him to be highly professional and superbly competent. Because of his demonstrated ability and undoubted expertise in this field, we have developed great respect for him. EGWPlag 6.6

Review: Did the fact that Mr. Ramik, a Roman Catholic, would of necessity have to read The Great Controversy in its entirety (which some Catholics find personally offensive) concern you as you contemplated retaining him? EGWPlag 6.7

Johns: We recognized that some Adventists might wonder about whether he could be objective. But, on the other hand, if we hired an Adventist lawyer and he came up with a favorable conclusion some perhaps would say, “Oh, well, he had an ax to grind—what else would you expect?” Anyway, we already knew Mr. Ramik to be highly professional and objective; and, most important, we wanted to know the truth—let the chips fall where they might. We felt he would discover the facts, apply the law, and settle the issue for the church once and for all. EGWPlag 6.8

Review: Do you feel that his comprehensive, closely reasoned 27-page report settles the issues raised? EGWPlag 6.9

Johns: Absolutely! EGWPlag 6.10

Review: What do you feel is the significance—the meaning—of this report for our church? EGWPlag 6.11

Johns: The charges about plagiarism, literary piracy, copyright infringement, and so on, are shown to be entirely without foundation in law. In Mrs. White’s use of literary materials of other authors she clearly was within the legal definition of “fair use.” By the definitions established in the law itself she is seen to be operating not only well within the law but in a high, ethical manner, as well. The charges made against her simply do not hold water. She did not operate in an underhanded, devious, unethical manner as charged. She was an honest, honorable Christian woman and author. I also might add that in law there is a legal test of a causal factor that might well be applied to Mrs. White’s ministry—we sometimes speak of it as the “but for” test: but for this particular event, or cause, or action, that particular result would not have occurred. And I see Ellen White in that light. But for Ellen G. White there would have been no Seventh-day Adventist Church, as we know it today. EGWPlag 6.12

Review: That’s interesting! And how do you view the future? EGWPlag 6.13

Johns: I tend to agree with Sociologist Irmgard Simon, a doctoral candidate at a university in Münster, Westphalia, Germany, who, in 1965, wrote in her Ph.D. thesis (which dealt with Adventism and Mrs. White): “The Seventh-day Adventists still live on the spirit of Ellen G. White, and only as far as this heritage lives on do the Adventists have a future.” Last January 19, Newsweek’s religion editor, Kenneth L. Woodward, observed in a similar vein: “If it loses its founding mother, the church may find that it has also lost its distinctive visionary soul.” EGWPlag 6.14

Review: What will be the impact of the Ramik report on the church, and on the critics of Ellen White? Will it silence the critics? EGWPlag 6.15

Johns: Well, I am sure it will confirm the faith of those who have been made uneasy by allegations now shown to be without foundation. And it may cause some second thoughts among some of the critics. But, in the final analysis, for those who choose to believe, no proof is necessary; and for those who choose to disbelieve, no proof is possible! EGWPlag 6.16