Prophecy: White’s Gateway to Leadership

Prophecy: White’s Gateway to Leadership

Jon Butler uses religious scholar Kenelm Burridge’s terms “old rules” to “no rules” to “new rules” to describe the movement of the Adventist religion from its unorganized state following the Great Disappointment to it’s official institutional incorporation in the 1860s.[1] Given that the “old rules” period was that of the Millerite movement, the “no rules” period was the time during which White shaped herself into a prophetic leader. However, to solidify and maintain her leadership in the “new rules” phase, the official organization of the Seventh-day Adventist church, she had to modulate some of her earlier positions.

The Millerite movement was the major impetus for White’s prophecy, but White was not merely a product of her environment. She assumed a leadership position in shaping the theology of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which she did through visions. From her first vision in late 1844 through the 1870s, White’s visions followed no set pattern, and she had about five to ten a year. They occurred at all times of the day, in the presence of others and when she was alone, and lasted anywhere from minutes to hours. According to those who witnessed her visions, she entered a coma-like state, with her heartbeat and respiration both dramatically slowing—though she did often describe the scenes she was seeing.[2]

In explaining White’s visions, some scholars have attributed them to physiological or psychological illness, including mercury poisoning, epilepsy, and depression.[3] Such explanations are merely speculative, given the lack of physical evidence and the limitations of using White’s published writings for psychological diagnosis.  The language scholar Sharon Betcher uses to describe Jemimah Wilkinson is helpful in describing White’s agency without accusing her of fraudulence: she  “lean[ed] into . . . the energies of religious apocalypse.”[4] In the early years of Seventh-day Adventism, before the group organized officially under this name, White positioned herself as the prophetic authority on the church’s religious beliefs by giving divine sanction to the core theological doctrines of the Church. Despite White’s claims of divine inspiration, none of these doctrines originated with her. In addition, White’s prophecy shifted when it was not well received or detracted from her legitimacy. The language of leaning-in helps to understand these shifts given White’s followers’ belief in her prophesies. Though the skeptical reader may see White’s visions as self-serving, and to describe White’s own thoughts is again, merely speculative, White’s belief is palpable from her earliest writings through the compilations she completed late in her life.

White’s first few visions outlined the sanctuary doctrine, which redefined the Great Disappointment and became core eschatology of Seventh-day Adventism. According to this doctrine, it wasn’t the date that had been incorrect, but the event. October 22, 1844 had not been the date for the advent; rather, it was an invisible spiritual event, when the High Priest entered the heavenly sanctuary just prior Christ’s coming. Most importantly, this meant the Second Coming of Christ was still imminent.[5] The morning after the Great Disappointment, Hiram Edson, a follower of Miller, had a vision outlining this doctrine. It wasn’t until two months later, in December 1844, that White received her first vision supporting this reinterpretation of the Great Disappointment.[6] White described this first vision as follows: “there were but five us of present, all females. While praying the power of God came upon me as I never had felt it before, and I was wrapt up in a vision of God’s glory, and seemed to be rising higher and higher from the earth, and was shown something of the travels of the Advent people to the Holy City, as will be seen in the vision hereafter.”[7] In her vision, 144,000 Adventist people traveled to New Jerusalem on a path lighted by the October 22message while those who denied this message stumbled and fell off the path—in other words, the date of October 22 had not been a mistake.[8]

Two Millerite preachers published a paper in January 1845, not only supporting this interpretation of the Great Disappointment advocated by Edson and White, but taking it one step further by claiming the “door of mercy” had been shut on those who hadn’t been followers of Miller. In a February 1845 vision, White was shown that the door had indeed been closed—though she claimed not to have seen the paper from the previous month, which was in the house where she was staying. Of course, the shut-door doctrine was unsustainable if the religion was to flourish long-term, a fact the emerging leaders quickly realized. In fact, White’s first book was a result of this realization: A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White (1851) was a collection of White’s early writings with passages that supported the shut door doctrine deleted.[9]

White’s embrace of the Seventh-day Sabbath provided further explanation for the delay of the advent. Her adoption of the Seventh-day Sabbath was certainly influenced by her association with Joseph Bates, a prominent Millerite who is also considered a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Bates believed in the Seventh-day Sabbath and was one of its most prominent advocates. This was in contrast to most former Millerites, since an adventist conference of former Millerite leaders had officially condemned this doctrine in April 1845 (along with visions and the shut door). For most believers, White’s poor health served to validate the authenticity of her visions—they “thought of her as a defective vessel filled with God’s spirit.” [10] However, Bates was initially skeptical of White’s visions because he thought they were produced by her poor health. Ultimately, he was convinced by a November 1846 vision White had about astronomy, a particular interest of his. White described to Bates various astronomical information that Bates had written about months earlier—which White assured him she hadn’t read.[11] Soon after this, in 1847, White had a vision in which she “saw that the Holy Sabbath is, and will be, the separating wall between the true Israel of God and unbelievers; and that the Sabbath is the great question, to unite the hearts of God’s dear waiting saints.”[12] The implication of the vision was that Millerites must begin keeping the true Sabbath before the advent could occur; this then became one of the founding principles of the religion.[13] Though her embrace of the seventh-day Sabbath was unlike her support for the sanctuary doctrine in that it didn’t necessary reflect what adventists as a whole wanted or needed to see, it did reflect what a particular adventist leader wanted or needed to see. By aligning herself with and obtaining the support of Bates, White continued her rise to becoming a powerful adventist leader herself.

White’s main challenge during the no rules phase was to avoid becoming just another false prophet. Even before the attitude of the Methodist church had shifted, women were fearful of crossing the unclear boundary between institutionally encouraged witnessing, and preaching that usurped male clerical authority.[14]  Women, frequently faced with opposition, ridicule and criticism, were forced to defend not only the substance of their beliefs, but also their decision to speak at all. To do so, they developed elaborate justifications, and collected scriptural evidence in support of women’s evangelism. For example, female preachers aligned themselves with biblical heroines such as Mary and Anna the Prophetess, mentioned in the Gospel of Luke.[15] Women’s most powerful claim in justifying their decision to preach was divine inspiration, which could be questioned but not ultimately disproved.[16] White adopted this justification, for she too had to navigate this blurred line and defend her actions against ridicule and verbal abuse. Given this reality, White at first felt conflicted about her calling given the restrictions placed on women.  After her first vision, she wrote that she “went to the Lord in prayer and begged him to lay the burden on some one else.”[17]

Indeed, White was not the only female visionary to arise out of the Millerite movement and try to make sense of the Great Disappointment. [18] Millerism, despite its male hierarchy and rejection of visionaries, had its own female clairvoyants. The secular press covered at least five Millerite women who were considered visionaries in the early 1840s. Millerites extoled the passage from Joel 2:28 that gave legitimacy to such visionaries: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”[19] Portland in particular was home to what Miller’s publicist Joshua Himes negatively called “continual introduction of visionary nonsense.[20] Evangelical women who had prayed publically during the religious revivals of the early nineteenth century had paved the way for women who pursued careers as adventist preachers, though a male family member always accompanied them.[21] White faced the challenge of both drawing on the tradition that these women had established and transcending it in order to avoid becoming indistinguishable from the women Himes and many others treated with condescension. One way she did this was by explicitly dismissing a fellow female visionary who emerged in Maine in the 1840s, Dorinda Baker. White said she had been shown in a vision from God that Baker, also covered by the press, was a fraud. Ironically, Baker was strikingly similar to White: sickly and claiming divine visions and personal healings.[22]

As she competed with other female visionaries White’s divine inspiration was frequently challenged. She was subjected to tests male prophets weren’t, asked, for instance, to hold heavy weights and was denied oxygen while in vision by curious men seeing to test the validity of her visions.[23] She was also frequently accused of mesmerism, a popular psychological treatment of the time similar to hypnotism, which was “used as an epithet to discredit ‘fanatics.’”[24] These charges were so adamant and frequent that White herself began to fear her visions were simply the result of mesmerism. After questioning if a vision had been produced by mesmeric force, White was unable to speak for twenty-four hours, which she interpreted as a sign from God and it dispelled her doubts permanently.[25]

White’s most frequent and serious challenge during this no rules period was that of fanaticism. White’s later writings gloss over the general “fanaticism” of the period following the Great Disappointment. However, she wrote in the recording of her first vision, “God had loved us who could wash one another’s feet, and salute the holy brethren with a holy kiss.”[26] Such practices had become popular with rank-and-file Millerites late in the movement despite being disparaged by Millerite leaders. The sanctioning of such practices led to White’s association with “spiritualizers . . . those men and women who washed one another’s feet and kissed each other transgress[ing] the usual notions of decorum.[27] White was not a spiritualizer, however. She did not go as far as supporting “spiritual wifery” or the attendance of public meetings in the nude, and she herself never engaged in even the practices her visions did endorse. White managed to distance herself from the fanaticism of the spiritualizers “by re-creating her past. Her memory of the enthusiastic community from which she arose underwent a subtle but significant change within the various revisions and expansions of her autobiography.”[28] Though her writings, White actively engaged in constructing an identity as legitimate prophetess by minimizing and expunging that which undermined her position.

Two reasons have been suggested for why White was more successful than her contemporary female visionaries. Ann Taves notes “White’s visions spoke consistently to the needs of the movement both in terms of content and timing.”[29] This explanation is supported by the way White offered divine support for popular doctrines (the sanctuary and seventh-day Sabbath) and withdrew her support for doctrines that would have negatively impacted her legitimacy (the shut door and practices associated with spiritualism). Jon Butler, who writes “Prophecy originates less from an individual mind than from the collective impulses of a community which flow forcefully through an unusually receptive person,” also suggests that it was the need of the adventist community that led to White’s success.[30]

Butler emphasizes James White’s role in propelling his wife to a position of leadership by arguing that, “Ellen might have faded into this inchoate charismatic background and entirely disappeared had not James White married her . . . and served not only as her husband and protector, but as her promoter and publisher.”[31] However, White’s prophecy preceded her marriage, and she found early sanction for her prophecy from many sources. At least sixty Portland adventists acknowledged the authenticity of White’s first vision in December 1844 as divine, testifying as such. One of them, Otis Nichols, even sent a copy of her this vision (published as a broadside in 1846) to William Miller and asked him to accept White as a visionary.[32]

As she traveled with her husband, White visions continued to be accepted as divine at various Adventist Conferences they attended throughout the New England and New York region in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Though White preached and spread her adventist message, she did not speak for all sabbatarian adventists, who at this time “had reached no consensus regarding the significance of [White’s] visions.”[33] The Whites knew of the controversy surrounding her visions, controversy based in her changed position on the shut door and association with spiritualizers. In a letter to friends in 1851, White wrote, “The visions trouble many.”

Up until this point, White was publishing her visions in her husband’s leading adventist periodical, the Review and Herald.[34] James White had begun publishing in early 1849 in response to a November 1848 vision White had after which she said “You must begin to bring a little paper and sent it out to the people.”[35] However, beginning in 1851, White’s visions were confined to an “extra.” Though the first “extra” said that they would be published bi-weekly, this was the only one to ever appear. After this, according to Ronald Numbers, the frequency of White’s visions rapidly diminished, and she feared they were gone forever. However, when the Review and Herald changed hands in 1855 and the pages were reopened to White, her visions returned. At the same time, a general meeting of sabbatarian leaders endorsed White as “God’s chosen messenger.” This marked a turning point, giving White an institutional base of support that consisted of a growing system of churches—with male leadership.[36] There were also numerous Adventist publications beyond the Review and Herald, and these periodicals allowed White’s adventist message to spread beyond the region where the she traveled and preached informally.

As the passing of time lessened the intensity of the advent, an effort grew, spurred in large part by James White, to officially organize the church. As Butler wrote, “millenarians cannot last as millenarians.”[37] As with the sanctuary doctrine and Seventh-day Sabbath, White relayed divine sanction for this movement toward organization, writing in 1859: “God is well pleased with the efforts of his people in trying to move with system and order in his work. I saw that there should be order in the church of God, and arrangements in regard to carrying forward successfully the last great message of mercy to the world.”[38] Though the organization of the church was initially controversial, with the support of the Whites and Joseph Bates the church was legally organized under the name “Seventh-day Adventist” in 1863. White’s followers had grown from 200 in 1850 to 3,500 at the time of the formal organization in 1863.[39]

Though White had initially embarked on her role as prophet with hesitation, over time, she grew increasingly assured of her calling, which is reiterated in various forms throughout her visions, such as the command in her first vision: “You must go back to the earth again, and relate to others what I have revealed to you.”[40] Ultimately, the role of Adventist prophet allowed White to rise to a position of power and independence relatively rare for nineteenth century women—which White herself recognized. As Butler notes, “throughout her life . . . she equated her personal independence with her prophetic role.”[41] In particular, prophecy enabled White to become financially independent. Though the Whites struggled financially through the early years of the religion, often living with friends and family and sustaining themselves on the charity of their followers—as did most traveling evangelicals in the early nineteenth century—their fortunes grew with that of the Church. By the time Seventh-day Adventists officially organized, the White family was comfortably middle class, with their own home in Battle Creek, Michigan, where they moved in 1855. Though Battle Creek was their permanent home, the Whites continued to travel extensively, staying with fellow Adventists across the northeast and Midwest for extended periods of time.[42] It was from her home base in Battle Creek that White shifted gears, and embarked on the benevolent work in health reform for which she became known.

[1] Butler, “From Millerism to Seventh-day Adventism,” 50.

[2] Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin, “Ministries of Healing: Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen G. White and the Religion of Health,” in Women and Health in America, ed. Judith Walzer Leavitt, (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 382-3.

[3] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born” and “Afterword: Ellen White on the Mind and the Mind of Ellen White.”

[4] Betcher, 76.

[5] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 10, 17.

[6] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born.”

[7] White, A Sketch, “Experience and Views.”

[8] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 14.

[11] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born”

[12] White, A Sketch, “The Open and Shut Door.”

[13] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born.”

[14] Brekus, 159.

[15] Brekus, 159.

[16] Brekus, 161.

[17] White, A Sketch, “Experience and Views.”

[18] Taves, 157.

[19] Butler, “From Millerism to Seventh-day Adventism,” 56.

[20] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 9.

[21] Butler, “From Millerism to Seventh-day Adventism,” 57.

[22] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 9.

[23] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born.”

[24] Taves, 131.

[25] White, A Sketch, “Experience and Views.”

[26] White, A Sketch, “To the Remnant Scattered Abroad.”

[27] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 5, 17-18.

[28] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 21.

[29] Taves, 163.

[30] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 9.

[31] Butler, “From Millerism to Seventh-day Adventism,” 62.

[32] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 12.

[33] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born.”

[34] Butler, “From Millerism to Seventh-day Adventism,” 63.

[35] White, Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White, (Washington DC: Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., 2010 [1922]), Kindle edition, “Beginning to Publish.”

[36] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born.”

[37] Butler, “Millerism to Seventh-day Adventism,” 50.

[38] Quoted in Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 63.

[39] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 63.

[40] White, A Sketch, “To The Remnant Scattered Abroad.”

[41] Butler, “Prophecy, Gender and Culture,” 16.

[42] Numbers, “A Prophetess is Born.”