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Ellen White the Bold Seer


In the middle of June 1904, when the sun hammered down on Alabama without mercy, the train thundered its way across the forested hills of the Tennessee Valley. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the locomotive squealed to a halt in Huntsville, Alabama. Onboard, 76-year-old Ellen G. White.[1] Not feeling well, still, the visit to The Oakwood Industrial School in Huntsville held enormous importance.[2] She walked out of the segregated train station to a horse-drawn buggy that headed north eight miles. The visit[3] highlights an Ellen White too frequently glossed over.[4]


Those of us who grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church know about the many faces of Ellen White. During our youth, we learned to respect and even revere the White given to us by our parents. However, as we grew older, White moved into the spotlight of controversy. In 1976 a young historian, Ronald Numbers, published a book entitled Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen White.[5] In this volume, the venerated Ellen White vanished, becoming fallible and duplicitous. Numbers questioned whether her health teachings were divinely inspired since they were strikingly similar to the writing of contemporaries like L. B. Coles and his book, Philosophy of Health.[6]

The face of Ellen White, produced by Numbers, created controversy and heated disputes. Numbers’ book, however, was only the beginning. Walter Rea, a pastor in Southern California, continued the criticism, producing a book called The White Lie in 1982, which roused an even more sinister Ellen White, the Plagiarist.[7]

The images erupting in the last few decades of the twentieth century, depicting White as everything from a deranged imp to an adored saint, revealed a persistent desire to understand who she was.[8] Some portrayed her as a cult leader, others a false teacher, and still others as psychologically unstable. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the labels, both positive and negative, continued to swell. Why does White elicit such passion over a hundred years after her death?

Ellen White’s visit to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1904 upends yet another face, “the Bold Seer.” By seer, I mean a person having, showing, or indicating profound wisdom and a deep desire to change the status quo, fearless in the face of danger. Her visit to the struggling Black School in the Deep South exposed a vital side of her.


Ellen White swayed to the rhythm of the horse and buggy, enjoying the shades of green stretching along the road into the hills of the Tennessee Valley. At the beginning of the 19th century, settlers crossed the Appalachia Mountains into the valley. Many of the colonists brought slaves who cleared tracks of forested land. Cotton patches flowered everywhere. A canal, built to connect the town with the Tennessee River to transport the valuable commodity, cotton, appeared. By the time of the Civil War, Huntsville boomed with cotton farmers, plantations, and slaves.

The workforce in the valley, the children of former slaves, pulled Ellen White to Huntsville. Formidable traditions, supported by highly regarded institutions, worked unceasingly to foil any attempt to educate Blacks. Teaching Blacks in Alabama had been outlawed in 1832, making it a crime to teach a Black person, free or slave, to learn how to read or write.[9] The Civil War changed the status of Blacks but not Southern values. Words in the Montgomery Advertiser, June of 1900, expressed the feelings of many Southern Whites:

"The undeniable truth is that the Negro is not fitted by nature or habits to perform successfully any work which requires skill, patience, or mental capacity. There is something lacking in their brain and in their body. Their minds cannot comprehend the intricacies of fine mechanical work and their hands cannot be trained to accomplish it."[10]

Ellen White rode in the buggy, determined to make the Oakwood Industrial School grow, prosper, and flourish. By doing so, she backed a frontal attack on the icons of Southern Culture.[11] The idea that White men exist as superior beings while Blacks are destined to poverty and ignorance irritated her.

Slave quarters were still standing at the School when classes began a few years before White arrived. The Civil War devastated the economy of the South. Absentee slaveholders, who owned large chunks of land in Huntsville and lost their slaves, lost the incentive to cultivate the land. Hundreds of acres went up for sale. Isa Dill, for example, advertised his 1,700-acre plantation in the Huntsville Advocate in the summer of 1866. Land sold for as little as 20 cents an acre.[12]

In the 1860s, White had asked the leadership of the Adventist Church to send missionaries to the South. She wrote articles in the periodicals of the Church, insisting that lay members leave the comfort of their homes in Battle Creek. No one heeded. In the 1890s, her appeals grew more and more intense, pushing the leaders of the Church to ship her off to Australia. Administrators hoped that from there she would be silent on the matter. In 1896, from Australia, she wrote to O. E. Olsen, the President of the General Conference, “The Lord was not in our leaving America. He did not reveal that it was His will that I should leave Battle Creek. The Lord did not plan this, but He let you all move after your own imaginings.”[13]

When she returned to the United States, her passion had not vanished. During the 1901 General Conference Session, when a proposition to create a Conference Union in the Southern states came to the floor, she stated, “I want to tell you that I feel hopeful in God regarding this proposition concerning the Southern work.”[14] However, the well-intentioned reorganization did little to serve African Americans.[15]

Within a few days of the 1901 Session, it became clear to White that help for Southern Blacks would not be forthcoming. She saw how funds for the schools run by her son in the Mississippi Delta slowly dried up to serve Blacks.[16] She felt forced to obtain a personal loan of 1,000 dollars. She sent it to her son Edson, to pay the weekly three dollars and fifty cent salaries of the teachers he employed, to fund the work of the Southern Missionary Society, which employed almost thirty workers at that time.[17] In July of 1901, noticeably upset, Ellen White penned another cry for help. She wrote:

“The feebleness of our effort in behalf of the Southern Field is a reproach to the people claiming to be missionaries. The work in this field is just as important as the work in any other locality. But it has been hindered by the unsanctified judgment and influence of some claiming to be laborers in the Lord’s vineyard.”[18]

Furthermore, she rebuked the publishing houses, the Review and Herald, and the Pacific Press. She wrote:

“I have been shown that those in the Review and Herald and those in the Pacific Press will be inclined to invest means unnecessarily to make the work in those institutions convenient. The Lord has instructed me to say to them, bind about your supposed wants until you have done your duty to the Southern field.”[19]

By 1904 Ellen White understood that the leadership of the Church would continue to ignore African Americans. All her sermons and pleadings had barely nudged the Adventist bureaucracy. Some Church leaders, acquainted with Oakwood, were suggesting that the school be sold and relocated. It appeared that A. G. Daniells, the President of the General Conference, seriously contemplated the matter. In June, as she traveled to Oakwood, White wrote to him, “I have been instructed that this suggestion is birthed in unbelief.”[20]

When she arrived at the school, Ellen White toured the four hundred acres.[21] She visited the places where students and faculty lived, learned, and taught. That evening White spoke to the students. The chapel, filled with eager listeners, came to life when she stood to speak.

“In regards to this School here at Huntsville, I wish to say that for the past two or three years I have been receiving instruction… — what it should be, and what those who come here as students ought to become. All that is done by those connected with this School, whether they be white or black, is to be done with the realization that this is the Lord’s institution, in which the students ought to be taught how to cultivate the land, and how to labor for the uplifting of their own people.”

“Students, there is a work for you to do.”

It was dangerous to be a servant of African Americans in the South, Ellen White understood.[22] Even more hazardous being Black in search of an education. Most Whites in the South wanted Blacks in the cotton fields. America witnessed the lynching of over 3,000 African Americans in the latter years of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth. Such lynchings directly linked to the feeling that White livelihood grew threatened whenever a Black man obtained an education.[23] Keeping African Americans in their place was serious business.[24]

In 1903, the year before White arrived in Huntsville, it was common to see headlines like this one that appeared in the New Orleans State: “Today a Negro Will Be Burned by 3,000 Citizens.” Or the notice in the Jackson Daily News, a Mississippi paper: “Negro J.H. to be Burnt by the Crowd at Ellistown this Afternoon at 5 P.M.” The hatred that churned in the hearts of many southerners towards African Americans resurfaced in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when a Black couple was taken to a public place and made to stick out their fingers on a table. One by one, the fingers were cut off while the crowd cheered and later took home parts of the couple’s mutilated bodies, as souvenirs.[25]

Fully aware of the work she was asking them to do, White appealed to the students at Huntsville. She was asking for help to destroy traditions that had been coddled for generations in the South, challenging revered and venerated values. With conviction in her voice, animated, she insisted that God chose the students in her presence to be servants in hundreds of Black communities in the Southern States.

“God wants the colored students before me today to be his helping hand in reaching souls in many places where white workers cannot labor.”

She continued,

“Ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s buildings… Do not bring to the foundation that which is represented as wood, hay, stubble; for such material will be destroyed by fire. Bring the material that is spoken of in the word of God as gold, silver, and precious stones.”

White spoke to the students, insisting they cling to the idea that in the eyes of God, they were gold, silver, and precious stones.

“Because you have a colored skin that is no sin against God. …you can have a reward in the heavenly courts equal to the reward of any white man….”

She continued:

“I am speaking to the colored students here today because I want to encourage them. They have a battle to fight; they have a strong prejudice to work against.”

She finished her talk with a smile:

“May God bless you all, if I never see you again on this earth, I hope that I shall see you in the Kingdom of God.”[26]

After the talk, she walked out of the chapel, preparing for the unpleasant part of her visit. She had always disliked this portion of her role in the Adventist Church. Giving good news was comfortable, enriching, and it made her happy, but delivering news people did not want to hear was distasteful. She was reluctant to provide the message but had no choice on the matter. In an article, a few months after the visit, the unpleasant side of her ministry surfaced:

“My visit to the School for the Colored people, at Huntsville, Alabama, brought me great sorrow of heart. I had known that the institution was in pressing need of substantial help, but I had not understood fully the real condition of the School. That which I saw staggered me.”[27]

Ellen White struggled with anger and irritation at Oakwood. The edifices on the campus sat neglected, needing repair. In her diary, she stated that buildings at Oakwood “presented a forlorn appearance outside and inside.”[28] She expected poverty, found desolation, despair, and misery. Not only the buildings but the equipment used on the farm sat inadequate for the enterprise, with the land not used to its full capacity. In her mind, this was not an enterprise to fill young people with hope but rather a place of hopelessness.

The material side of the Oakwood Industrial School troubled her, but not as much as the personnel, believing several of the instructors needed to leave; only one of the several teachers working at Oakwood remained after her visit.[29] Furthermore, she thought that the director, B. E. Nicola, must depart. She told him that he was a bad influence on the school and the students. When he did not take heed of her counsel, she approached the board seeking his dismissal. Nicola, in her opinion, was in love with power and wanted to control everything. He did not allow others to participate and could not even control his children.[30]

When she spoke to the School Board members in Nashville on July 5, 1904, a couple of weeks after her visit, she was still upset. The meeting consisted of White lecturing the board on what they had not done. George I. Butler, former General Conference President and President of the Southern Union, said very little. Stephen N. Haskell rarely spoke. She let them know that she had not anticipated such abandonment. The place, in her opinion, steadily stumbled downhill. Butler agreed. Everything on the compound sat dilapidated. She had wanted to take a bath but could not find a bathtub. She stated that the visit took her appetite. She had no desire to eat since the visit to Oakwood. “I feel hurt,” she told the brethren.[31]

Not only was she upset with the condition of the School, the personnel, and the board, she was upset with the members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She scolded the community in Graysville, the school which is now Southern Adventist University. She could not understand how they could build structures, a sanitarium, and other amenities without consideration for their neighbors. She compared Graysville to the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. She upset Smith Sharp, a member of the Graysville community, who sat on the board. Sharp asked, referring to the Graysville community, “Do you mean, in view of the destitute condition all over the South, that we have built too largely on the Sanitarium and the School?”[32]

This face of White, the bold seer, rarely comes to light. We like Ellen White predicting peace, prosperity, encouraging with cheerful words, supporting our efforts at self-reliance. We read her spiritual writings. But the Ellen White that makes a mountain out of a molehill unsettles.

To Ellen White, in 1904, the moral state of society and the Church seemed frightful. She could not grasp how Church members looked the other way, pretending not to see injustice, abandonment, and neglect. She could not buy into the idea that this is the South; it has been so for generations. Everybody accepts these conditions, so Ellen, what’s the big deal? What seemed to be customary and conventional for everybody erupted alarming and appalling for her.

Most of us do not hear the silent sighs of hundreds of suffering under the boot of oppression. Ellen White not only heard and understood, but she also felt unable to sleep, eat, or keep silent. We live with injustice, insensitive in the presence of cherished beliefs and values that protect the wealthy and harm the poor. Ellen White could not.

The world White found in the South, and especially at Oakwood, scandalized her. She grew horrified by daily occurrences. Irritability flourished when she ran into abandoned school rooms and a forsaken dorm. An unengaged teacher provoked distress. To us, cheating in business and the exploitation of the weak is part of life, to her, a calamity. We are patient with injustice; she became annoyed, irritated, and jittery.

We like White to shows us how to live seven years longer than everybody else, to teaches us how to raise our children, how to live pure lives, how to enrich our spiritual experience. Unpleasant truths, however, make us uncomfortable. We like floating in the current because it’s easy, trouble-free, and painless. Undermining the values of our culture, attacking cherished beliefs, questioning treasured ways of life unsettles us.

White lived vigilant, watchful, and on guard for core beliefs. In 1904, she worried about the quality of Adventism. She became an unrelenting iconoclast challenging, questioning, pushing, and attacking society's cherished icons. To many, she appeared to be one-sided, strange, and an unbearable extremist fighting to preserve core values — a Bold Seer.


Notes & References:

[1] Ellen White was born on November 26, 1827

[2] Ellen White. Letter 215. Letter written to Marion Davis in 1904. During her visit to Huntsville in June of 1904, according to George I. Butler, she stated the Lord had shown her the school many years before the visit.

[3] She would visit Oakwood once again when she was 78 years of age in 1908. A. W. Spalding states in his manuscript Lights and Shades in the Black Belt that Ellen White went to Huntsville twice, 1904 and 1908.

[4] She wrote extensively on the school, how it was to run, and what should be happening and not happening at the school.

[5] Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008).

[6] Ibid. 225-227

[7] Walter T Rea, The White Lie (Turlock, California: M and R Publications, 1982).

[8] I Googled Ellen G. White on June 8, 2010 and found 1,770,000 cites that contain her name and expound on who she was.

[9] Horace Mann Bond, Negro Education in Alabama: A Study in Cotton and Steel (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama, 1994), 35.

[10] Ibid., 230.

[11] Ellen White, “Our Duty to the Huntsville School,” The Gospel Herald (September 1, 1904).

[12] Most of the issues of the Huntsville Advocate for 1866, 1867 are filled with advertisements for the sale of acreage in Madison County Alabama where Huntsville is located.

[13] Ellen White. Letter 127 written at Cooranbong, NSW, Australia in 1896.

[14] The General Conference Bulletin: Thirty Fourth Session. Vol. IV Extra #3 April 5, 1901 69

[15] “Charter of the Southern Missionary Society,” Gospel Herald 1 (December 1898): 46.

[16] See the Gospel Herald’s first few issues to understand the frustration suffered by the self-supporting ministry of her son.

[17] Ibid., 265.

[18] Ellen White, Manuscript 173, 1901

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ellen G. White. Letter to A.G. Daniells, Special Testimonies Series B 6-7 June 13, 1904.

[21] Ellen White, Letter 215, 1904

[22] Most of Ellen White’s research on topics involved collecting newspaper articles on the topic that she was researching. By 1904 she had already started collecting articles on the Black experience in America with the intention of writing a book on the topic.

[23] See Sarah A. Soule, “Populism and Black Lynching in Georgia, 1890-1900,” Social Forces 71, no. 2 (December 1992): 431-449.And Susan Olzak, “The Political Context of Competition: Lynching and Urban Racial Violence, 1882-1914,” Social Forces 69, no. 2 (December 1990): 395-421.

[24] The Constitution of 1901 guaranteed that Blacks would not be able to vote, erecting strict literacy requirements, see Sarah Woodward Wiggins in Samuel L. Webb et al., Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State, 1st ed. (University Alabama Press, 2001), 345-347.

[26] Ellen White, Manuscript 60, 1904

[27] Ellen White, “Our Duty Towards the Huntsville School.,” Gospel Herald (September 1, 1904).

[28] Ellen White. Manuscript 147, 1904

[29] Spalding, “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt: Containing the story of the Southern Missionary Society, the Oakwood School, and the Hillcrest School,” 283.This is a typed written manuscript found in the White Estate in Washington D.C.

[30] Ellen White. Interview with the Huntsville School Board. July 5, 1904 found in Benjamin Baker. A Place Called Oakwood; Inspired Counsel; A Comprehensive Compilation of Ellen G. White Statements on the Oakwood Educational Institution. Huntsville, Alabama 2007 135-146.

[31] Ibid. 135

[32] Ellen White. Interview with the Huntsville School Board. July 5, 1904 144


Ciro Sepulveda, a retired historian (Ph.D. Notre Dame University, 1976), lives with his wife on a farm in Southern, Tennessee. His latest book Ellen G. White: How to Globalize a Movement, reflects a lifetime of interest in the life and times of Ellen G. White. Before his retirement, he chaired the History Department at Oakwood University for twelve years.

Image: Ellen G. White at Oakwood School, Huntsville, Alabama, June 1904. Photo courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate.


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