“Women can be instruments of righteousness.”[1]

An instrument of righteousness is an apt way to characterize Ellen White in her own words. White described herself as a messenger of God: “The Lord ordained me as His messenger,” she often wrote. [2] However, her followers called her visions prophecies, and her legacy is as prophetess and one of the founders of in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which currently has over 17 million baptized followers worldwide.[3] Between 1844 and approximately 1880, the formative years of Seventh-day Adventism, White empowered herself to this position of leadership. She was able to do so through a synergy of two preeminent ideologies: millennialism and benevolence, or what can be called benevolent millennialism, which then came to characterize the Seventh-day Adventist church she co-founded and led.[4]

Two majors points emerge in the existing literature on White.[5] First, that the religiosity of the period, especially the strong strains of millennialism, allowed her to take on a leadership position that would have normally been closed to her. Millennialism in particular allowed expanded roles for women, but historians and theologians have long noted the heavy involvement of women in new prophetic movements and more broadly, women’s overwhelming presence in and influence on nineteenth century American religious life. Second, White used her position of leadership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church to engage in the work of benevolence, especially health reform, as did many other religious women in nineteenth century America.

Two of the leading scholars on White and the Seventh-day Adventist Church have explored these approaches to White. Historian Jonathan Butler’s extensive writings on White and the Seventh-day Adventist Church focuses on the social influences that shaped White, her prophecy and Adventism as a whole, and reflect increasing attention to the role of millennialism. In contrast, Ronald Numbers’ Prophetess of Health, still the most comprehensive and authoritative book on White despite having been written over thirty years ago, looks at White through the specific lens of health reform. [6] There is no comprehensive biography of White that weaves together these leading approaches.

This paper draws on and intertwines the analysis done by Butler, Numbers, and other scholars, and is informed by feminist theorizing on female agency, which is important for explaining “how women have acted autonomously in the past despite constricting social sanctions.”[7] White was not simply a passive subject formed by the restrictive discursive structures of her environment. As feminist scholar Louis McNay writes, extrapolating agency “introduces a more active dimension into an understanding of subject formation,” without disallowing the influences of larger cultural forces. [8] Such forces were also actively executed by White herself. White’s extensive writing in particular provides a record of her self-interpretation, as her publications include not only transcriptions of her visions, but autobiographical information.[9] White is one of America’s most prolific female authors, having written over eighty printed volumes, as well as contributing regularly to Adventist periodicals; these writings are the major primary source in this analysis.[10]

White’s benevolent millennialism developed gradually over the early years of Seventh-day Adventism, as the original focus of the Church and White’s prophecy was on the imminent Advent. However, as this sense of imminence lessened and White’s authority solidified, White’s prophecy and the Church’s activity engaged with the world around it through benevolent work, particularly in the area of health reform, though the Church remained hopeful of and focused on the immediacy of Christ’s Second Coming.

Section 1, “Methodism and Millerism: White’s Early Religious Influences,” focuses on the initially complementary but ultimately competing influences of the Methodist Church and Millerite millennialism on White. Section 2, “Prophecy: White’s Gateway to Leadership,” examines how White successfully navigated what Butler calls the “no rules” period in the wake of the Great Disappointment to establish her role as a prophetic leader, and retain her position of authority as a theological leader of the institutionalized Seventh-day Adventist Church.[11] Section 3, “Health Reform: The Arm and Hand of the Church,” describes how White’s agency continued to be cultivated in her health reform prophecies, which provided the theological justification and terms for health reform work within the church. White’s health reform work drew on the traditions of benevolence but was also continuously justified by the Adventist’s core millennial beliefs. In other words, White’s prophecy throughout these formative years shaped the church’s benevolent millennialism.

[1] Ellen G. White, “Setting Forth the Importance of Missionary Work,” The Review and Herald, January 2, 1879,

[2] Ellen G. White, “An Appeal to Our Churches Throughout the United States,” The Review and Herald, May 18, 1911,

[3] General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, “Seventh-day Adventist World Church Statistics,” 4 January 2012,

[4] Some scholars prefer the term millenarian to millennial. Millennialism and millenarianism are for the most part interchangeable, though the latter sometimes connotes a higher degree of fanaticism. For this reason, and for convenience, I have chosen to use the term millennialism.

[5] The scholarly literature on White and the Seventh-day Adventist religion dates mostly from the 1970s and 1980s, when there was a call for a broad interdisciplinary approach to the study of millennial traditions, an expansion of Religious Studies throughout the United States, and the development of Women’s Studies and American Studies.

[6] Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008 [1976]), Kindle edition.

[7] Lois McNay, “Agency, Anticipation and Indeterminacy in Feminist Theory,” Feminist Theory 4 (2003): 141, doi: 10.1177/14647001030042003.

[8] McNay, 147.

[9] The way the content of White’s writings changes over time indicates her “active process of self-interpretation that is inherent to the process of subject formation,” McNay, 141.

[10] Jonathan M. Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture: Ellen Gould Harmon [White] and the Roots of Seventh-Day Adventism,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 1 (1991): 3, 

[11] Butler, “From Millerism to Seventh-Day Adventism: Boundlessness to Consolidation,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 55 (1986): 50,