Prophetess of Health: A Fortieth-anniversary Retrospective

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July 20, 2016

What do you consider the most significant book ever written regarding Adventism? Possibilities are many. Perhaps the 1950s Questions on Doctrine (to which an entire conference was dedicated a few years back). Or more recently (and certainly the most perceptive work on our church ever penned), Bull and Lockhart’s Seeking a Sanctuary. Or a title largely forgotten now, but which shaped popular perceptions of Millerism through the middle of the twentieth century, Clara Sears’s 1924 work, Days of Delusion.  

I nominate Ronald Numbers’s Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White. It appeared in 1976, and for those of us who remember its appearance the fortieth anniversary of that event is a melancholy reminder of life’s passage. But it should also be a moment to ponder Numbers’s impact on Ellen White studies. I won’t revisit here the book’s quite interesting publication history or personal impact on its author; Jonathan Butler did that admirably in a preface to the second edition, which appeared in 1992. (A third edition appearing in 2008 further bespeaks the work’s staying power.)

Why Prophetess of Health? First, because it brought Ellen White scholarship to a much broader non-Adventist reading audience than previous works had. An article in Time magazine about our prophet was not something the Adventist community had known.  We were being paid attention to in ways not totally comfortable. 

Second, because Numbers gave White’s writings a cultural context. Non-Adventist scholars, of course, would not be surprised–indeed would expect–that White’s ideas on health would be influenced by time and place. Assumptions of cultural influence, however, were not common among life-long Adventists, for whom White and her work floated effortlessly above the social landscape.  

So what impact did Prophetess of Health have on the Adventist community? Forty years later do we regard White’s work differently? I would argue, yes. Although change is slow-paced and met with resistance, there are indications of a more sophisticated grasp of her prophetic office. 

To begin, let’s recall what Numbers provocatively wrote. He asserted that White’s health message was influenced by her exposure to mid-Victorian health reformers such as James Jackson, Russell Trall, and Larkin Coles; indeed, that her 1864 sojourn at Jackson’s water cure resort in Danville, New York, importantly shape her health message. Water treatments, Graham flour, dress reform, and phrenology all made their impression. The Whites determined that Adventism needed its own sanitarium where a gospel of health would be added to the message of the Sabbath and the Second Coming.  

The subsequent emphasis on health and medical institution building has become a signature feature of Adventism. Moreover, we are now generally untroubled by the fact that other health reformers were promoting similar ideas. But what we weren’t ready for–and what is still troubling and disputed–was the other reformers’ degree of influence and White’s insistence that no borrowing had occurred.  

It didn’t help that Numbers knew he was lobbing a grenade over the entrenchment. He made little effort to reassure the Adventist public about his startling conclusions or suggest reassuring new hermeneutics.  The Adventist community had known only two sorts of writings on White: either one wrote in her defense or one wrote to attack.  What were members to make, then, of Prophetess of Health’s ringing phrase in the preface that it sought “neither to defend nor to damn.” From Numbers’s perspective, writing for the general, non-Adventist public, this grandson of a General Conference president was obliged to apply different presuppositions. Scholarly conventions precluded his assuming her writings were inspired, nor could he automatically dismiss her critics as unreliable. Many in the Adventist public continue to struggle with the distinction between apologetic and objective historical treatments. In 1976 such distinctions were utterly unknown outside a small group of Adventist academics.

The hubbub resulting from the book’s publication (and, lest we forget, from previous revisionist work by Peterson and McAdams, as well as later works by Rea, et. al.) is well known. These were not just tempests in the Adventist teapot. The subsequent controversy (including the broader Ford brouhaha) led to many pastors and lay people leaving the church. Our prophetess appeared under attack, and the proper response seemed to be to circle the wagons. From the late 1970s to the present a steady flow of critique and defense has poured forth in print and on the web.  Some of the attacks on White are scurrilous and not worth a response. Conversely, there has also been a widespread defensiveness that views even reasoned arguments as   a threat.  These folk believe that a remnant church must have a prophetess uniquely called and unerring in judgment. For paleo-Adventists, even A. G. Daniells is unforgiven generations later for having the temerity of organizing a conference in 1919 to consider the nature of her inspiration.

But the extreme reactions on either side do not define the impact of Numbers’s work. Rather, the important shift has been in the middle and right-of-center ground. The change  might best be characterized by our having put behind us (in Charles Taylor’s term) a “naive” understanding of White’s work. Not that we no longer accept her prophetic role. But now we can understand it only with complexity and some effort. We have entered a more reflective phase of church self-understanding. Simple assertions of infallibility and freedom from cultural influence will no longer suffice.

Evidence of this is widespread in denominational publications of recent decades by scholars with unquestioned loyalty to church and prophet. George Knight is Exhibit A. This highly popular Adventist author has done more than anyone to nurture a realistically appraised, historically grounded Ellen White. (I develop these thoughts on Knight more fully in my Introduction to Adventist Maverick.) A thoughtful Adventist reader would gain from him a view of her writings more sophisticated than anything available before the 1970s. Prophetess of Health carved out for Knight a “safe space” in which he could extend the conversation on White in ways that both revised and ennobled our conception of her work.  Similarly, the controversy Numbers endured enabled Gil Valentine to produce a book on White in her political role (The Prophet and the Presidents) that would have been previously unthinkable.

Australian Adventists (such as Valentine) have been disproportionately involved in E. G. White debates. Among the most helpful has been Graeme Bradford, who in 2007 published More Than a Prophet: How We Lost and Found Again the Real Ellen White. Bradford, a pastor, seeks to secure loyalty to White and Adventism through a nuanced definition of prophetic function and influence.  Bradford incorporates a wide range of White scholarship, including Numbers’s work. He concludes that Adventism needs a prophetess truly understood as fully human (and not simply the usual lip service paid that notion) and thus limited in understanding and capable of error.  He concludes that her writings must be used with “discernment,” meaning that every generation must decide which of her counsels still merit application.

Another Australian, physician Donald McMahon, responded to Prophetess of Health most directly.  His Acquired or Inspired: Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle (2005) identifies White’s major health claims, compares them to other leading health reformers of mid-nineteenth-century America, and then establishes a score of comparative accuracy. McMahon concludes that White’s work stands up much better to twentieth-first century medical knowledge than does her contemporaries. I must leave it to others to judge the soundness of McMahon’s methodology. The interesting point here is what McMahon–as thorough a White apologist as one could find–concedes. In White’s explanations for how the body works, the “why” behind recommended health practices, she was no more advanced than her contemporaries. Her embrace of vitalism or her sense of mind-body relationship, for example, was thoroughly grounded in her age. This may seem common-sensical, for we understand that Bible prophets also wrote within their cultural understanding of science. But through most of our church’s history few traditional Adventists would make such a concession of her limitation. It took Numbers to nudge the needle.

Even so official a publication as The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (2013) offers evidence that naïveté has given way to complexity. There is no doubt about the editors’ commitment to a high view of White’s inspiration. But in so doing, the work covers aspects of her life and career (such as her finances) with a thoroughness that once would have been deemed not only unnecessary but unseemly. Merlin Burt’s bibliographic essay on writings about White is both exhaustive and impressively candid. One can find no better overview of both critics and supporters of White. Although he places Numbers among the critics of White, Burt offers a fair-minded review of his book’s impact. The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia represents an important moment in our church’s new efforts to present members with a complete prophet (the White Estate’s opening of previously closed files and the online access of the bulk of her writings being other evidences of this openness). 

Likewise, two multi-authored apologetic works that appeared in 2015, the centennial of White’s death, betray marks of Numbers’s long-term influence. Essays in The Gift of Prophecy in Scripture and in History and Understanding Ellen White, both sponsored by the White Estate, speak to issues such as the appropriate use of sources, that have become urgent only in the wake of Numbers and Rea. The Gift of Prophecy, like Bradford’s work, opens with a series of essays on Biblical prophets, the point being to show that issues of inspiration are really no different with them than with White. Understanding Ellen White is an even more useful volume, with candid appraisals of the complexity of the prophetic gift and acknowledgments of the genuine issues scholars have raised. Jud Lake, for example, offers the most sympathetic discussion of White denouncer D. M. Canright ever given by an Adventist historian (Lake’s future biography of Canright should be well worth reading). In another essay Dennis Kaiser describes in some detail the team approach to White’s writings. If even just this had been provided to the Adventist public in 1919 much subsequent conflict might have been avoided.

I contend, then, that in the wake of Numbers’s work we are seeing greater sophistication on three points.  First, most American Adventists (at least those who care to think about the issue) now accept that Ellen White borrowed significant amounts of material in writing her manuscripts.  Second, most allow that the nineteenth-century culture of her day substantially affected her attitudes on many things.  Finally (though less widely accepted), many perceive that  her theological views changed over time, generally in the direction of a more mature, Gospel-centered message. I say “less widely accepted” (despite efforts of Knight, Bradford, Alden Thompson, and others) because for many Adventists the notion that a prophet’s teachings could change still seems tantamount to saying God changes. To these might be added a fourth. Even some staunch supporters of Ellen White’s ministry now concede that certain of her denials of being influenced by contemporary health reformers seem counter to the evidence.

Despite all my claims, the question remains: What do members in the pew believe? What is heard from the pulpit? What views of her inspiration dominate Sabbath School discussions? In the lesson quarterly? What do academy Bible teachers tell students? The answer, of course, is a wide range of opinion. Many still hold an essentially verbal inspiration model. This has the virtue of simplicity. It also supports comforting feelings of being part of the remnant. Others familiar with the controversies have quietly let Ellen White go. Probably a larger group, young and not so young, simply find the Victorian prose and categorical opinions of White to be irrelevant or even off-putting, and thus they rarely peruse her. Prophetic ennui rather than liberal attack, as I think church leadership knows, is our greatest problem. Thus, the stream of articles in the Review exhorting members to revisit their prophet.

Some might ask if serious retrospection of White couldn’t have come about without the provocation of Numbers. The answer to this is easy: No. If so stalwart a leader as A. G. Daniells felt unable—because of conservative blowback—to bring to his Adventist constituents uncomfortable truths about White’s work, then no subsequent church leader would hazard revisionism. It took an outsider, one not only unafraid of controversy but who took delight in kicking over the traces. After a half century of a largely fundamentalist/literalist understanding of White’s authority, Numbers forced official Adventism to confront difficult questions about her. In other words, he (with others) changed the conversation. There will be no going back.

In closing we should acknowledge the dilemma church scholars and leaders face. White has been so central to Adventist self-understanding that any perceived diminution of her status could only be viewed as a threat. Resistance to Numbers—or any individual who suggested a rethinking of Ellen White’s prophetic role—was inevitable. To mitigate this guardedness requires couching discussion of her gift in terms of loyalty to and enhancement of the Adventist mission. It’s not a matter of who is “for” or “against” her. We should all recognize that Ellen White is a treasure and a resource. The best use of that treasure is not as “a continuing and authoritative source of truth” (wording removed from Fundamental Belief #18 at San Antonio). Rather, her gloss on Scripture and her theological statements provide a baseline from which we continue to develop our present truths.

Prophetic inspiration remains a high mystery. But we can now say with some confidence what it is not. That understanding clears the way for a new phase in Ellen White’s ministry of spiritual nurture to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

 

Ben McArthur is a Professor of History at Southern Adventist University who specializes in American History, especially late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultural history.

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