Ellen G. White: All or Nothing?

Ellen G. White: All or Nothing?

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June 30, 2021

In this review of Steve Daily's new book about the Adventist prophet, Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography, Jonathan Butler takes us through the history of his old friend's research and how this harsh critique evolved. 

[This article appears in the latest issue of the Spectrum journal.]

Steve Daily and I met in the 1980s, about forty years before he wrote Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography, at what was then Loma Linda University-La Sierra campus. He served there as a chaplain and I taught history. I first saw him pulling on his tennis shoes in the choking humidity of a locker room by the university pool. We had both been swimming laps. He was some ten years younger than I and looked another ten years younger than that. He brought up an article I had written in Spectrum on Ellen White’s eschatology. He also talked about tennis. We would become friends on and off the tennis court. His confluence of intellect and athleticism struck me as unusual, even incongruous. Hunched over a wooden bench, talking ideas with the broad back of a middle-weight boxer, he might have been Rodin’s “The Thinker,” except in bronze you would not have seen his striking blue eyes and blonde hair. 

As relaxed and laconic as he seemed as a twentysomething, I would never have predicted the frenetic level of accomplishment that awaited him. He would produce more than 20 books in a varied and lustrous career in religion, church history, and psychology. In SDA circles, his most prominent work has been Adventism for a New Generation (with a foreword by Tony Campolo), a progressive reimagining of Adventism, which he dedicated to his three children and his wife (“Tweek, Bear, Bowser & the Babe”). His six grandchildren would come along later. He earned an MA in history at LLU (under me in fact), a DMin with an emphasis in church history at the School of Theology at Claremont, and a PhD in psychology at Alliant University. Steve left La Sierra—and eventually Seventh-day Adventism altogether—and founded KEYS Family Resource Center, as well as GraceWay Community Church in Riverside. The ferocity of his forehand on the tennis court should have alerted me to the fact that Steve had a fire in his belly; he was driven, passionate, intellectually curious, and tirelessly productive.

As multi-faceted as his life has been as a pastor, counselor, historian, and writer, one motif has remained a constant for Steve: his historical study of Ellen White and Seventh-day Adventism. It’s my “canon within the canon” of his writing that most interests me. 

I was there for his first historical effort—a 201-page MA thesis through the LLU History Department, on which I served as his chief advisor. It was entitled “How Readest Thou: The Higher Criticism Debate in Adventism and Its Implications Relating to Ellen White” (1982). In his first look at Adventist history, Daily examined Adventist views of inspiration through the prism of the 1919 Bible Conference. He delved deeply into the primary sources, including Ellen White’s writings, and he told the Adventist story within the larger historical context of an emergent Fundamentalism. American religion had polarized over higher criticism of the Bible, with inerrantist conservatism at odds with modernism’s secularist and naturalistic approach to the Scriptures. Seventh-day Adventists experienced the same conservative-modernist polarization, though the vast majority of Adventists were indistinguishable from the Fundamentalists. But, in one respect, Adventists were notably distinctive: the writings of Ellen White rather than the Scriptures were central to their debate on inspiration. In his mapping of Adventism’s place in Fundamentalism, Daily impressed me as a neophyte historian.

It seemed that in no time at all he completed a DMin in the School of Theology at Claremont. His doctoral project focused, once again, on Adventist history. In 1985, he produced a 351-page study entitled “The Irony of Adventism: The Role of Ellen White and Other Adventist Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” In the midst of a historiographical tsunami on women in American history, Daily turned to women in Adventist history. He found the “irony of Adventism” to be that a charismatic female held such a dominant place in a movement permeated with misogyny. He noted that Adventism had never escaped its Fundamentalist view of inspiration, together with its Fundamentalist antipathy to feminism. This had a profound effect on the church, not only in White’s time but for subsequent generations. While Ellen White was elevated onto a lofty pedestal among Adventists, other women in the movement had not benefited, for the most part, in their own personal or professional lives. 

Never faint of heart in taking on the Gordian knot of Adventism—Ellen White’s life and teachings—Daily argued that it had been White herself who had failed to promote egalitarianism within her community. Adventists had “opposed women’s rights and suffrage largely because of the testimonies of their prophetess.” Daily observed the discrepancy between Ellen White’s talk with respect to women’s role and her own actions as a wife, mother, and career woman (pp. viii–ix). It is a controversial argument, even today, but, in my opinion, it is the best of his four historical studies. Daily benefited from working under the renowned American religious historian, Ann Taves, his chief advisor at Claremont. For those wrestling with the issue of Adventist women’s ordination, it should be required reading.

In his preface to “The Irony of Adventism,” Daily laid out his personal convictions about doing a historical study of Ellen White, both for his professors at Claremont to read and for anyone else looking over their shoulders. He affirmed that White was “a visionary and a recipient of the prophetic gift.” He also believed, even while engaged in an academic exercise on history, that “divine truths are revealed through supernatural means which are not subject to naturalistic explanations or understood apart from faith.” His other “convictions” could have been reached “apart from faith,” as simply sociological observations. He had concluded, for example, that Ellen White had “done more to benefit the Adventist community, than misrepresentations, and misuse of her writings have done to harm the community.” He also felt that the Adventist church relied on White more for doctrine and personal ethics than on social ethics. He believed, too, that White’s writings were of most value for the church “when they are realistically seen to be fallible works,” products of their era, and not timeless blueprints by which to live. Daily concluded that his study was “not intended to be a critique of Ellen G. White or Adventism. This writer is” he declared, “heavily indebted and committed to both the church and the prophet.” (pp. vi–vii) He had offered here anything but a mindless testimony; this was a complex and sophisticated attempt to integrate faith and history.

No one should fault Daily for changing his view of White, especially over several decades. His third work, a 301-page, two-volume study on White and Adventism, was entitled The Prophetic Rift: How Adventism Has Historically Misunderstood and Misapplied the Prophetic Gift, Vol. 1: 1840–1900; Vol. 2: 1900–2000 (2007, 2008). Here, Daily took to task the prophet and her followers, but he had not yet fully taken the gloves off as he would do in the psychobiography. The subtitle of Prophetic Rift suggested that he laid responsibility for problems with “the Spirit of prophecy” within Adventism largely on White’s followers, not on White herself. He referred to ways in which Adventists have “misunderstood and misapplied the prophetic gift.” 

But this mischaracterized what Daily did in The Prophetic Rift, and in all his historical writings, for that matter. Unlike most in-house SDA historians, he has consistently blamed White herself, not just her misguided supporters, though not as searingly as he does in his latest book. Notably, Graeme Bradford, in Prophets Are Human, similarly recognized White’s shortcomings. Daily criticized Adventists, including White, for favoring the magisterial Old Testament model of a prophet, such as Isaiah or Jeremiah, and slighting the more modest New Testament prophet, such as the Corinthian women. Relying on the evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem, in The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, Daily argued, “In the Old Testament, the prophets were often raised up to address specific abuses and had roles that were harsh, corrective and filled with reproof.” He noted a sharp contrast with prophecy in the New Testament. There “it is primarily the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16) and the Holy Spirit itself (John 16:8) that are called to play these corrective roles. The gift of prophecy by contrast is primarily for encouragement and comfort.” Daily believed that “Adventism imposed on Ellen White an Old Testament role that was inappropriate for her and for the body as a whole and she in turn imposed this role on herself” (pp. x–xi). In his view, this was a mistake. This is crucial for understanding Daily’s complaints against White and her place among Adventists. 

I think Daily has a point, though he might have gone further. Any student of Ellen White, even the most admiring one, must wonder if the prophet fully understood the moving of the Spirit in her life. Along with many other Adventists, she simply lacked an adequate theory of inspiration—and feared that admitting any nuance or complexity into her crude explanations would play into the hands of unbelieving critics. White’s understanding of inspiration can certainly be a valuable starting point for Adventists, but it is far from adequate as the final word.

That said, there is certainly more to Daily’s problems with Ellen White than her channeling of Old Testament prophets rather than New Testament Corinthian seers. The author of “The Irony of Adventism” has come to personify ironies of his own with respect to White. It is necessary to unlock them to understand Daily’s difficulties with White. In the first place, rather remarkably, he made his supernaturalistic affirmations of faith in the Adventist prophet just after a decade and a half of relentless, naturalistic assaults on her authority. He had clearly witnessed all that historical revisionism and made his own contributions to it. His faith had been quite obviously changed by it but not lost to it. In the second place, the same Daily who once declared himself “heavily indebted and committed to both the church and the prophet” has now, rather ironically—and from outside the church no less—produced a psychobiography of White that mixes history and exposé in a kind of poisonous brew. This is not a wholesale reversal for Daily. He has always pushed the envelope on White, and for this he should be congratulated. We are in his debt. But, in the psychobiography, he has taken things further. He forces us to ask ourselves how far along this path we can travel with him.

With Steve Daily’s earlier work as deep background, we can now turn to his latest book, the 332-page Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography (Conneaur, PA: Page Publishing, 2020). In his introduction, he acknowledges that this book is a departure for him. In the past, he has been critical of “an all-or-nothing approach to Ellen, either glorifying her as a saint or denouncing her as a fraud.” But he claims to “have found new material” and can “no longer deny that her life contained patterns of premeditated fraud and deception that cannot easily be dismissed or rationalized.” He goes on to admit that his psychobiography is “polemical,” as well as “highly controversial and challenges traditional views of the prophetess” (p. 11). He delivers his polemics by way of a persistently negative tone. While the earlier Daily may never have liked Ellen White, he seems to have respected her and given the prophet her due. The new Daily appears flat-out antagonistic toward her and disavows her for numerous reasons. His narrative anthologizes every bad day the woman had in her 87-year life and 70-year career and rubs her face in it, and our faces too. He writes with a historian’s version of Tourette’s Syndrome. As he lays out his story, he blurts out epithets such as “liar,” “hypocrite,” “narcissist,” “con artist,” “sociopath,” and “fraud.” There is no ignoring that White had her problems, but Daily comes across as having his own problems. Often the “evidence” he cites does not warrant his historical—or psychobiographical—assessments. He becomes a historian not so much with a sound argument as with a verbal tic. 

Biographies of Ellen White—from her defenders to her detractors—have a way of getting personal about the subject matter. This should surprise no one. The prophet is, after all, a “fundamental belief” of Adventism and, at the same time, a flesh-and-blood person who lived her life among Adventists. On the one hand, she is the manifestation of the “gift of prophecy,” emblematic of Adventism’s special place in the world. On the other hand, White is a person who ate meals with Adventists, preached sermons to them, made their lives healthier but could also lash out harshly in letters, offending or embarrassing them. The “gift of prophecy” was anything but an abstract doctrine. To reject it was to reject her. White took any opposition to her “spiritual gifts” personally, and her critics often meant it personally. There was an ad hominem edge to the defense of her and to the attacks on her. It was therefore the people closest to her that risked the conflicts with her—house guests or landlords, colleagues and their wives, literary assistants and editors, and even, or perhaps especially, her spouse. They all understood that prophets were human; they knew this better than later generations, who lacked the personal contact with her. But there was, for some, such a thing as too much exposure to her humanity. In a way, those who study her history—such as Ronald Numbers and George Knight, Walter Rea and Steve Daily—come to know White up close and personal, warts and all, like her contemporaries did. It can be hazardous work for a devout Adventist. The Didache, a second-generation Christian document, warned that a prophet who stayed in your home as many as “three days” had to be a “false prophet.” The Canrights lived with the Whites much longer than three days, and D. M. Canright notoriously did dismiss White as a “false prophet.”

Daily has been personally close to several prophets in congregations he has pastored, and has been quite supportive of them. Drawn to the Vineyard movement in his thirties, he took a Pentecostal turn. As a result, where many of his fellow Adventists, confronting live prophets in their midst, call for an EMT or a psychiatrist, Daily integrates them into the life of his church. In a small congregation in Redlands, he had one prophet for years. I met another one, the wife of a teaching colleague of mine, and recommended she join Daily’s church because I knew she would feel welcome there. From a Pentecostal background, she traveled with her brother, an evangelist, and offered a prophetic “word of wisdom,” one-on-one, to people in his evangelistic audiences, after her brother had preached. At a Christmas party, she offered me a “word of wisdom.” I was wary at first but was pleasantly surprised. I found it to be unexpectedly inspirational, positive, and ego-boosting, in a good way. Not what I had been used to from a prophet. Daily welcomed her warmly into his congregation. She knew I came from an Adventist background, and she told me once, “In the history of your church, you have just one prophet; there should be several in every congregation. God’s message should not pass through the filter of one personality. It can distort your picture of God.” I have often pondered that “word of wisdom.” She had a Corinthian style of prophecy in mind for the church. In this new addition to his congregation, Daily may have found another reason to think negatively about Ellen White yet positively about living prophets he knows. He has enjoyed their contribution to his church far longer than the Didache’s “three days.”

In reading the biography of a prophet, whether that prophet thunders from the Old Testament or speaks softly from the New, the reader hopes for even-handedness from the biographer, good judgment, fairness and, perhaps most important, empathy. There will be a difference, of course, if the prophet is more like a Winston Churchill or an Adolf Hitler. It is a problem, however, when the biographer confuses the two. In opting for a simplistic polemic rather than a complex, nuanced biography, Daily loses his way as a historian. He is less interested in understanding Ellen White than in casting aspersions on her. At times he is so off the mark that one suspects he would like to make her a cellmate of Margaret Rowan, who truly was a “con artist.” She sought to succeed White as the Adventist prophet, but instead was convicted of attempted murder and incarcerated in San Quentin. 

Like good biographers, good actors understand empathy. The actor cast to play an evil character looks for the good in the person; the actor playing a good character explores the darker side of that goodness. It is bad acting as well as bad history to think of people as only good or only evil. Adventism has had enough of hagiography, which went out of fashion for the church in the 1970s. But the obsessive insistence on turning hagiography inside out to find nothing but bad in the historical figure is not an improvement on hagiography. It is a mirror image of it. 

My metaphor for thinking of this is my maternal grandmother (“Granny”). Granny may have been bi-polar with schizoid affective disorder, but she lived her life before we knew about such a diagnosis or medications that might have dealt with her problems. For us she was simply a colorful character about whom we all could tell stories, first-hand and second-hand, of her erratic behavior, bizarre rages, insults, and abuse. My mother recalls, as a child, the time Granny threw a hot pie at her, straight from the oven, burning her forearm. She also remembers being told by her mother to do the dishes without getting one drop of water on the newly remodeled kitchen counter. When she inevitably failed, Granny chopped up the counter with an axe. But I should also say of Granny—and this is why she comes to mind as a metaphor—there was a wonderfully gracious, deeply respected, highly intelligent, well-read, widely traveled woman whom no one would have believed was the Granny we knew. My most vivid and enduring memory of her is not her chopping up the kitchen counter; that was mere folklore for me. It was the way she sat me down in the living room, in my early teens, and read me Shakespeare—Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and took me to an Old Vic theater production of Hamlet. Granny, I am sure, had far greater psychological problems with which to contend than Ellen White and would have made a ripe subject for the psychobiographer. But Daily may have been as ill-suited to do Granny’s biography as he is Ellen White’s. For Granny, Daily would recount, with relish and relentless redundancy, the scalding pie incident and the demolished kitchen counter, but would leave out her reading Macbeth in the living room. 

Do not misunderstand my criticism of Daily. I found the book well worth reading. I scribbled copious notes to myself in its margins in places where I agree with him, and other places where he serves as a foil for sharpening my disagreements. But many of Daily’s difficulties with White are well-grounded and cannot be ignored or summarily dismissed. 

Daily is right that White did insist that her visions were untainted by humanity—hers or anyone else’s. He is also right that she lacked mothering skills. She had a troubled marriage, too, though neither James nor Ellen was blameless as a marital partner. He is also right that the prophet had a mean streak. And she did plagiarize other authors more substantially than she admitted to her contemporaries. In light of all this—and most of it has been in full view for some 40–45 years—no biographer should gloss over the flawed humanity of Ellen White. It is very much part of her story, but it is not the whole story. My complaint with his history in Ellen G. White: A Psychobiography is that Daily is far too close to his subject to tell that story in all its complexity. He lacks the detachment necessary in a good biographer, much less psychobiographer, necessary to the task. In the ultimate irony, he tells the story more from White’s point of view than his own. He takes her views of the visions, and her inspired writings based on them, quite literally. He then holds her to those claims rather rigorously. When she fails him, he hoists her on her own petard. She was not the woman she made herself out to be—not because she was flawed but a fraud. Ellen White and Steve Daily are joined at the hip on who she ought to be. They part company on who she turned out to be. Here I would like Daily to develop a little distance from White to help us understand her more deeply and insightfully as historians—and psychobiographers—attempt to do. Daily short-circuits that analysis by taking a sharp right turn into incessant name-calling, however he dresses it up theologically and ethically, sociologically and psychologically.

I am pleased to add Steve Daily’s biography to my bookshelf. We need a dozen more biographies of White, a score more of them. She deserves that kind of attention. But I came away from reading Daily’s psychobiography—always a high-risk venture in the best of hands—with a number of questions. Daily concludes that White’s “visions,” which he puts in quotes, were not from God and, even worse, she knew this and was conning her followers with a big lie. Daily sours on White’s “visions” because, for example, they contain inaccurate information; or they pass on borrowed material; or they serve White’s self-interest. This smacks more of the simplistic argument of a believer—or ex-believer—than a sophisticated psychobiographer. There are many ways of thinking about visions short of flimflam. Psychobiographers might decide White was self-deluded but not deliberately deceptive. They might note White immersed herself in historical or devotional reading and then dreamed about it. She might have engaged in conversations and dreamed about those. It has to be taken into account that women in the nineteenth century did not easily get a hearing; visions were one way White got a seat at the table. So, whether or not White “had” visions in a way that satisfies Daily, where is his evidence that she did not believe that she did? This viewpoint may create another problem for the believer, but it does not make her into a fraud. 

Daily is troubled by the fact that James and Ellen White prospered financially from the publication of her books and this undercut her claims as a prophet. But is this a fair criticism? Seventh-day Adventism has been a socially mobile religion, in no small part due to White’s writings. White’s promotion of health, education, and medicine, as well as a good old-fashioned work ethic, would seem to have made Adventism’s economic prosperity inevitable. White made a good income over her lifetime, though Daily exaggerates her wealth. But she gave a great deal of her money away and died in considerable debt.

Daily hammers the prophet for her plagiarism. But he seems satisfied with reminding us of this dubious practice—and blaming White for it—without doing much to illuminate for us why she may have done it. The psychobiographer would want to explore this in depth. Obviously, there was a yawning gap between her rudimentary skillset as a writer and what she actually published. Should we explain this as a crushing case of “author’s anxiety,” resulting in her wholesale borrowing, but not a prophetic pyramid scheme to defraud her followers? 

White clearly had her flaws. Is there any prophet who did not? But does rejecting her based on the fact that she was a flawed human being back us into a kind of Donatist or perfectionist heresy? She cannot be a vessel for God if there are chips in the clay. And yet who makes the decision to throw out the vessel? 

Daily’s psychobiography is an ambitious and, for some, a provocative undertaking. It is hard to determine whether this is so much a “psychobiography” as a prickly, narrative history packaged as one. I do ask myself what we have learned about White from this approach that we did not already know. He cites the “Goldwater Rule” that you cannot make psychological judgments on someone unless you are able to examine them in a therapeutic setting. But then he often overcomes his hesitance and does diagnose White.

Daily claims to have uncovered “new material,” which resulted in his iconoclastic take on Ellen White. I am at a loss to identify much, if anything, that is new in his book. He surveys familiar ground and dredges up no new facts, only a new perspective—new for him at least—on old facts. The value of his study is to force Adventists to come to terms—in their own way, if not in Daily’s way—with White’s humanity. I think the study is marred, however, by forcing White into a prophet-fraud polarity. Historians view demarcating between “prophets” and “frauds” as above their pay grade. That is more of a theological than a historical designation. Historians find nothing useful in the all-or-nothing paradigm; history is too messy for it. Daily seems uninterested, however, in strictly adhering to historical canon. He comes at White from too many angles, but his intentions are clear. Though he left the church a decade ago, he is determined to justify his decision in classic “exit literature.” I wish he had written a different book—something like the subtle, complex history he once wrote.

All or nothing? Give me another choice.

Jonathan Butler, PhD, studied American church history at the University of Chicago and has produced a number of historical studies on Ellen White and Seventh-day Adventists. He contributed two chapters, entitled “Portrait” and “Second Coming,” to Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers.

This article appears in the latest issue of the Spectrum journal, Volume 49, Issue 2. Subscribe to the quarterly journal here

Image courtesy of the White Estate, Inc.

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