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From the Archives: A Response to Prophetess of Health

Editor’s Note: After 32 years, Prophetess of Health has been republished. To mark this event, Spectrum interviewed Ron Numbers about the book, his experience of Adventism, and the church’s response to this historic book. Additionally, I chose a classic review from a cluster of reviews originally published in 1977 to help us revisit the topic. 
In this review Ernest Sandeen, a non-church historian, finds that the mere existence of Prophetess of Health bodes well for the Adventist church, arguing that this book helps Adventism avoid the trap of Christian Scientists and their quest to preserve the legacy of Mary Baker Eddy “solely as an object of belief.” This book, he argues, helps us decide “what is the truth today for us?”
I’m curious, after 32 years, for your reaction to how Sandeen’s argument has been born out in the church. What is the state of our soul with regard to this topic?
The State of a Church’s Soul
Review by Ernest R. Sandeen
Ronald L. Numbers’ biographical essay is at the same time a valuable work of social history, a moving personal document and a report on the state of one American denomination’s soul. As a historian of American social and religious history, I have appreciated this chance to share in another historian’s discoveries. Ronald Numbers’ account of Ellen White conforms to the highest canons of historical craftmanship, and his narrative seems free of special pleading or bias. His is a mature work of great value outside Adventist circles.
All of the elements which constituted Ellen White’s historical environment have been familiar to historians of that epoch—millenarian expectations, health reform faddism, Graham diet, sexual theories, water cures, even direct visions and revelations. It is fascinating, however, to see how each of these elements combined in Mrs. White’s own history and how she reacted to them. Numbers does violence neither to Mrs. White or to the general forces at work in the mid-nineteenth century, but allows us to see Ellen White’s own completely individual and idiosyncratic reaction to these forces without depicting her as a puppet or the events as a cardboard background.
If the Marxist historian has tended to fall victim to the first kind of historical error (materialistic determinism), the Christian historian, especially the historian of denominational leaders, has often allowed himself to portray his subject in such heroic proportions that historical conditions appear to possess only superficial relevance and play no real role in controlling or conditioning the person.
How can the historically conditioned also be divine truth? This is obviously the point at which the historian provokes a response from the believer. When the historian and the believer are the same person, the writing of a book can become an enterprise fraught with tension and, occasionally, agony.
One must be an obtuse reader, indeed, not to see this tension and even feel this agony in the pages of Numbers’ book. As Van Harvey has argued, the historian and the believer can seldom inhabit the same skin in tranquility and harmony; the believer’s traditional response is trust while the historian’s is skepticism. One often regrets the passing of those days (whether medieval or infantile) when trust alone was sufficient, but we would be denying our own historical present, ironically enough, if we were to attempt to escape this dilemma. Whatever the personal pain it produces in the historian, it does produce good historical scholarship. It almost seems like a historiographical law that the best scholarship is produced by the skeptical believer.
That Numbers cares deeply about the history of Ellen G. White is apparent on almost every page. He feels strongly about the importance of his subject, as every good historian must. But he has not accepted tradition or someone else’s word concerning the career and teachings of this amazing woman. He has discovered things that appear to shock and surprise him, but he has had the courage to state them clearly.
The question, then, is passed on to the present-day followers of Ellen G. White. What will the Seventh-day Adventists do with this account of their nineteenth-century leader? Time has reported the existence of an official response, a kind of rebuttal to Numbers’ volume. This is an understandable reaction, of course, but not one which I find characteristic of Adventist history or of the Adventists whom I have known. Numbers, in the last pages of his work, compared Ellen White with Mary Baker Eddy. The similarities are striking, but Numbers was quite right in emphasizing the differences—in the two women and in the denominations which they led. The Christian Scientists, since Mrs. Eddy’s death, have labored unswervingly to protect Mrs. Eddy from historical scrutiny and preserve her solely as an object of belief. This has had the effect of creating a series of violently partisan views of Mrs. Eddy and has ultimately done great harm not only to the cause of historical scholarship but also, in my judgment, to the influence of the denomination. Numbers’ biography of Ellen G. White has helped the Adventists avoid this trap. He has given Adventists the freedom to struggle with the real problem—what is the truth today for us?
Sandeen teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is considered the foremost historian of American Fundamentalism and has written, among other works, The Roots of Fundamentalism.
Note: This is just one of a cluster of reviews published by Spectrum in 1977 in response to Prophetess of Health. Visit the archives to see a wide-range of reviews, including an official response from the Ellen G. White Estate and a response from Ron Number’s. You can also buy the new edition of Prophetess of Health from Amazon and support Spectrum with your purchase.

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