Footprints of the Pioneers


Chapter 6—Out of Weakness, Strength

Ellen Harmon White

IT WAS near Gorham, Maine, fourteen miles from the metropolis of Portland, on November 26, 1827, that there were born to Robert and Eunice Harmon twin baby girls. They were named Elizabeth and Ellen. Apparently not identical twins; for as they grew, they manifested considerable difference in disposition and motivation. Both were bright and eager; but Elizabeth was more the clinging, easy-to-weep type, while Ellen was confident, sunny, resolute, and sociable. FOPI 57.3

Gorham is quite a town, with a good business district, schools, a public library, and some five thousand inhabitants. It was, a hundred years ago, a center of the hat making industry. This Gorham, however, ten miles east of Portland, is not the original settlement. That lies north some four miles. There, on top of a hill commanding a wide view, we find a monument with this inscription: FOPI 57.4

Here was erected
in 1744
The fort of
A refuge and a defense against the attacks of the Indians

Around this spot grew up the early settlement of Gorham. But after the manner of New England towns, it spread lengthily along the road. Finally, having reached the present center, which gradually drew all commerce, the old town dried up, most of the houses disappearing. FOPI 59.1

An eighth of a mile beyond the site of the fort is a little cluster of houses, one of which is the birthplace of Ellen Gould Harmon. A beautiful home site it is, looking down over a broad expanse between the lakes Sebago in Maine and Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire, and far away, across the Connecticut River, the lifting heights of the White Mountains. No more inspiring view may be had anywhere in New England than the sight from the high land from which the girl Ellen and her brothers and sisters might gaze as they did their morning chores. FOPI 60.1

The house itself is compounded of two parts: the ancient house in the rear, facing, however, the main road, a story-and a-half structure which probably was all there was in Robert Harmon’s time; and a new, two-story upright in front, facing a country lane. We went to the ancient part, and were greeted by a pleasant old lady, a recently come tenant she declared herself. The owner, across the road, could give us no information other than that the place was once occupied by the Harmons. FOPI 60.2

But we were admitted within, and to the upstairs. Though the house has had some remodeling, we noted in both stories the original floor boards, some of them eighteen inches wide, and the wood-ceiled rooms. Only two rooms above and three below; and if there were more in the days when father and mother hovered eight children here, it is not apparent now, for the front addition is all too new. A photograph taken long ago, before the new part was built, shows a one-story addition on the left, apparently connecting with a barn. Father Harmon was a hatter, doubtless having learned the business in that hat making town; and the children, as was the custom in those days when home was more than a lodging place, assisted in his business. FOPI 60.3

While Ellen was still a child, the family removed to Portland. Here Mr. Harmon continued his business, home being the shop, and here in Portland the children went to school. The house where they lived is not now known, probably not standing. 28 FOPI 61.1

Just how old the twins were when the family moved to Portland is nowhere stated. Ellen only says she “was but a child.” It is probable that she received all her education here, from primer on. The school attended by Ellen and Elizabeth, the Brackett Street School, has had a succession of buildings. The present building was used for school purposes until 1946, but is now a factory. 29 FOPI 61.2

One day, when she was eight years old, on her way to school Ellen picked up a scrap of newspaper containing an account of a man in England who was preaching that the earth would be consumed in about thirty years. This preacher of doom was probably either Dr. George S. Faber or Dr. John Cumming, two English heralds of the Second Advent who proposed approximate dates. The preacher’s name meant nothing to the little girl, but the prediction did. She was frightened, though the date set was far away. Taking the paper home, she read it to the family, but evidently she was the one most impressed. For many nights she could scarcely sleep, and she prayed continually to be ready when Jesus should come. 30 FOPI 61.3

But the next school year was to bring an experience that changed all her life. She went to school that day, as usual, with her sister. We stood (a hundred and ten years later) on the street facing the site of the old schoolhouse and tried to visualize the scene, though this is not the building, and the environment has greatly changed. Ellen, her sister, and a schoolmate came out with the crowd of pupils, and started across the common toward home. But a thirteen-year-old girl, angry at them for some cause, followed them with threats, and as Ellen turned her head to look, the girl threw a heavy stone, which crashed into her face and knocked her unconscious to the ground. Carried to a near-by store, she soon recovered consciousness, and, refusing a kind stranger’s offer to take her home in his carriage, she attempted to walk. But soon collapsing, she was carried home by her sister and her schoolmate. FOPI 61.4

For three weeks she lay in a coma. 31 That was a fateful blow. It not only changed the career of the girl; it set in operation a train of events which were to bear with great effect upon the course of the gospel in all the world. How could the pitying neighbors, or the sorrowing parents, or the little girl herself, suppose that the tragedy which ended that promising day meant the hand of God upon the destinies of His church? FOPI 62.1

“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform:
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.”

She awoke at last, to discover a disfigured face, which the crude surgery of that day could not mend. And more than that, she discovered a shattered nervous system which, despite her greatest endeavors, thwarted all efforts to resume her schooling. Henceforth she was the pupil of the Most High, improving indeed her every talent, and acquiring by steady application to reading, observation, study, and association, an education that reached beyond the Veil, but nevermore, after the first futile attempts, to attend man’s schools. 32 FOPI 62.2

The churches of Portland were of interest to us, particularly those churches with which Ellen Harmon and her family and her friends were associated. Two of them, the Christian church on Casco, Street, and the Methodist church on Pine Street, are gone; and the third, the Chestnut Street Methodist church, to which the Harmons belonged, has been replaced by two successive structures, on a near-by site. 33 FOPI 62.3

Casco Street Christian church made perhaps the closest tie; for here it was that William Miller twice gave a series of lectures, and here the Harmon family accepted his faith, and were in consequence, in 1843, disfellowshiped from their own church. Ellen was then a girl of fourteen, still frail and emaciated. In the intervening years she had fought spiritual battles that, young as she was, remind us of the soul struggles of the monk Martin in his cell at Erfurt. She had found peace, and at twelve years of age was baptized and joined the Methodist Church, from which two years later she was expelled with the family for believing in the imminent coming of Christ. FOPI 63.1

But Casco Street church is no more. After its Christian service it was sold, and for some years was a carriage factory; of this we have a photograph. But the building is gone now, and a neat modern brick manual training school is in its place. Pine Street church, where Miller also lectured, was torn down in 1939, the congregation having previously joined the Chestnut Street church. The location of Beethoven Hall, used by the Adventists for their separate meetings, is not known. FOPI 63.2

We drove out along the bay to the west where once was an aristocratic residential section, but now begrimed with the implements and dirt of industry. Longfellow’s birthplace is here. You would never believe it-this dingy, dilapidated old three-story house they point out, long ago turned into a tenement. In front, back in that time, there stretched along the bay a beautiful sandy beach. This, says an old history of Portland, was the favorite baptizing place of the Methodists. Now, of course, the Methodists were not so immersion-minded as the Baptists; but they did give candidates their choice of sprinkling or immersion. And, it was the conviction of the twelve-year-old Ellen and others of the candidates, twelve in number, that they should receive baptism by immersion. FOPI 63.3

Accordingly, on a windy day they came down to the baptizing place. The waves ran high from out the Atlantic Ocean, and dashed upon the beach; but when she arose from the watery grave, Ellen’s heart was like a peaceful river. 34 Now no more is there the sandy beach; it has been filled in to make deep-water docks, and the ground is covered with railroad tracks. Like the ancient mansion behind, the glory of appearance is gone. But the glory of God still rests upon it. FOPI 64.1

This was the child through whom God proposed to reveal His glory. It was time for the testimony of Jesus, which is the Spirit of prophecy, to shine forth. Not through the strong, the learned, the great, “lest Israel vaunt himself.” “I will put My Spirit upon the weakest of the weak,” was the message of God to a former recalcitrant messenger. A child who had lost the health and the courage and the buoyancy that were hers by right, was called to bear a message which should bring health and courage and vision and joy to multitudes, and which should restore to her the years that the caterpillar had eaten. Out of her weakness, the strength of God. FOPI 64.2

One more memorial of that time, then, we yet must see. So we drove across the bridge to South Portland, and found the house that was one time the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Haines. FOPI 65.1

Ellen Harmon had gone through the Disappointment in 1844 with her family and spiritual friends, like a well-appointed soldier of Christ. Their faith that God would explain the mystery was strong. And though there was confusion in the ranks of Adventists, and voices calling hither and yon, the humble and devoted members of the flock sought their signals from above. Ellen reached her seventeenth birthday a month after the Disappointment. A sixteen-year-old girl, she had been notable in the Adventist ranks in FOPI 65.2

Portland as an exhorter and comforter; and though her health was feeble, her glowing spirit warmed and encouraged her people. FOPI 65.3

Not two months after that Disappointment Ellen was meeting with four other young women in the house of her dear friend, Mrs. Haines, in South Portland, for prayer. They knelt together, these five, and spoke with earnest confidence to their heavenly Father for light and guidance. As they prayed, Ellen felt the power of God come upon her as never before. In a moment she was lost to her surroundings, and she saw the vision of God. FOPI 65.4

She saw a straight and narrow path cast up high above the world, on which the people of God were traveling to the Eternal City beyond. Behind them on the pathway a bright light shone, which an angel told her was the “midnight cry” of the summer of 1844. October 22, 1844 was called the Day of Disappointment, but in truth it was the Day of His Appointment. Those travelers on the path who kept their eyes on Jesus and walked in the light that was shed on their path went safely on, but those who grew discouraged and faint lost their footing and fell away. Soon they heard the voice of God, announcing Jesus’ coming, and then they saw the small black cloud, growing greater and brighter, until in the rainbow hues of heaven it revealed the Son of man coming in His glory. 35 FOPI 65.5

This first vision of Ellen Harmon White was at the family altar of Mrs. Haines, this house before us. Still a neat structure, it yet has the inevitable marks of an age of living. A little neighborhood store occupies the front of the first floor, while the rear and the second story are living quarters. We seldom catch inspiration from the faded relics of the past: it is only as the mind gathers to itself the sequence of events, the significance of their happening, the focus of their purpose, and the grand consequences of their accomplishments, that we see the pattern of the Almighty. FOPI 66.1

We wander among the lanes and buildings of this brave city of the North with some nostalgic pangs; for here were wrought in the early days deeds seemingly small yet great in the purpose of God; and there remain only a few battered landmarks of significant times and events. Yet it is the law of nature and of nature’s God that the old shall pass, giving place to new. We hail the strong young church that testifies there today, and the headquarters of the work through all northern ‘ ‘New England’. In the pressure of the present we have but moments or hours to spend on thoughts of the past. Yet, like the mold of forest trees that have gone back to the soil from which they sprang, they nourish our present growth and give food for new energy. FOPI 66.2

Farewell, City by the Sea, nursery of the Second Advent Movement in the North, kind guardian of the old and honored, enshrined in our memories of the past. God give you pleasant skies for your brief summers and whitest snows with bluest sea for your winters. In thought we take a handful of your soil, to mark grain by shining grain a path that leads up and on to the city of God. FOPI 67.1