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The Most Controversial Article Spectrum Ever Published

Introduction by Bonnie Dwyer / Article by Fawn Brodie

In 1977, Fawn Brodie’s name was immediately controversial because of her psychobiography of Thomas Jefferson that became a best seller and told the story of Jefferson’s slave and purported mistress Sally Hemings. So when the editors of Spectrum invited her to review Ron Numbers book on Ellen White Prophetess of Health, the article was bound to get a reaction.

Officials at the General Conference were upset both by what Brodie said and the fact that Spectrum published it. Writing about the dust-up in his history of the first ten years of Spectrum, Richard Osborn said, “Although reviews were (also) published by strong critics of Numbers such as the Ellen G. White Estate, Fritz Guy and Richard Schwarz, church leaders focused on well-known historian Fawn Brodie’s comments in which she made some postulations about Ellen White’s mental health instead of reviewing the book. Church leaders felt Spectrum published this review because they agreed with the content.”

In fact, inside Spectrum, there was also debate over the article between the editors and the editorial board. Alvin Kwiram ended up resigning his position as chair of the editorial board.

At the White Estate, there had been a concerted effort made to stop Harper and Row from publishing Numbers’ book in the first place. This review lead to the leaders of the General Conference calling a meeting with the officers of AAF and editors of Spectrum in Philadelphia. “Due to the strong efforts of Neal Wilson, Robert Reynolds and others, the General Conference did not take any actions against AAF and in turn, AAF began working more actively on projects such as secular campus ministries and a study of the Adventist family, which would directly aid the church’s mission,” Osborn reported.

Reading Brodie’s short review today, her comments about Freud and sexual health pop out. But she clearly claims her own views as distinguished from Numbers saying, “To many readers, the pathology in Ellen White will be apparent without further elucidation. But Professor Numbers never labels her as either pathological or as self-deluded. He is content to describe her, and to give us the background of frenetic health reform which provided her with nurture as important as that of her supporting mother.”

In the second edition of Prophetess of Health that came out in 1992, however, Numbers’ wife joine him in writing an additional chapter for the book with a psychological profile of Mrs. White.

Here is what Brodie had to say:

From Spectrum, January 1977, Vol. 8, No. 2

III Ellen Whites Emotional Life

Review by Fawn M. Brodie

Fawn M. Brodie teaches history at the University of California at Los Angeles. Among her books are Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, and a biography of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith entitled No Man Knows My History.

Ellen G. White is described in Ronald L. Numbers’ new biography as one of the four 19th century founders of a major American religious sect, the others being Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), and Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses). But it is William Miller who is accorded the role of founder of the Adventist movement in the Encyclopedia Britannica; Mrs. White is not mentioned at all. It will come as a surprise to readers of Professor Numbers’ biography who have known little about the Seventh-day Adventist Church to learn that it was indeed this tiny, energetic, resourceful mystic who rescued the Adventist movement after the staggering disappointments of 1844 when Jesus failed to come as Miller had promised – and welded the scattered fragments into a vital religio-medical organization which still uses her “revelations” as fundamental doctrine.

Professor Numbers, historian at the University of Wisconsin, began his research for this biography at Loma Linda University. He is an Adventist. He writes, however, not as a hagiographer but as a professional intent on a dispassionate examination of the sources of Ellen White’s ideas. “This, is, I believe,” he writes, “the first book about her that seeks neither to defend nor to damn but simply to understand.” (p. xi). His book fills a gap in the history of American women as well as American religion. It is excellent, meticulously documented social history, and the author is an expert intellectual detective.

Ellen G. White, like the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, was an eclectic. Both leaders drew from multiple sources the ideas they incorporated in their “revelations.” Mrs. White was indebted chiefly to the health reformers of her time, James C. Jackson, William Alcott, Sylvester Graham and L. B. Coles. Devout believers in the divine origin of her ideas will be disturbed to see the evidence in this volume of how closely some of her revelations parallel paragraphs in Coles’ Philosophy of Health (1853), a book she knew intimately. But there is no malice in Numbers’ exposure of her plagiarism. He writes with great respect for the Adventist movement and for the extraordinary little lady who was responsible for its consolidation and expansion.

The author deliberately avoids “extended analyses of her mental health and psychic abilities.” (p. xii), leaving a psychobiographical examination of her life to future writers. The material he provides as background for any clinical study is, nevertheless, rich and provocative. An identical twin, Ellen Harmon was disfigured as a child when struck in the face by a rock. The incident had incalculable consequences – disturbed vision, hand tremors, dizziness, anxiety, to say nothing of the traumatic realization that she must through the remainder of her life see in the face of her twin sister the beauty she had lost. As a convert to Millerism in 1842, she followed the classic adolescent conversion patterns – hours of praying resulting in vivid religious dreams but with special intensity. Importantly, it was her mother who attributed Ellen’s initial “fainting spell,” when she tried to pray in public for the first time, to “the wondrous power of God.” Thus, the crippled child was supported in her pathology and signaled out for greatness.

Fainting fits, especially among women, were commonplace in the nineteenth century. The relation between such fits and hysteria, and their connection with sexual inhibition, were to be demonstrated brilliantly in the writings and clinical discoveries of Sigmund Freud. It is not surprising that the sexual revolution of our own time has coincided with the virtual disappearance of “hysteria” from our clinics and hospitals. But Ellen G. White was no simple hysteric. The evolution of her fainting spells into the complicated religious trance, followed by “revelations” from God or angels, is the most crucial development in her life. With great deftness, Professor Numbers suggests the importance of models in determining the nature of this evolution. There was first the Reverend Samuel E. Brown, whom she saw turn “porcelain white” and fall from his chair, later recovering to give a testimony with his face “shining with light from the Sun of Righteousness” (p. 12). Later, there were William Foy and Hazen Foss, the latter her sister’s brother-in-law. Ellen White’s trances became ever more stylized and dramatic; her heartbeat slowed and her respiration became imperceptible. Hers were not epileptic seizures, as some have suggested, which always result in amnesia. Though the author does not say so directly, they were clearly related to self-hypnosis, a phenomenon far better understood today than in the mid-nineteenth century, when “mesmerism” was a fad all over America. The fact that many of her ailments hand tremors, partial paralysis, difficulties with speech – disappeared after specific trances serves to underline the psychogenic nature of much of her chronic ill health.

There are many resemblances between Ellen G. White and Mary Baker Eddy. Both were semi-invalids as children; both found motherhood difficult and temporarily abandoned their own infants; both found extraordinary reserves of energy for speaking and for religious organization. But where Mrs. Eddy ceased being ill upon reaching maturity, Mrs. White was racked by sickness all her life. Illness followed by miraculous cure became an essential, repetitive pattern. The worst of her nervous collapses, like those of her husband, suggest that her virtual renunciation of sexuality, her spasmodic asceticism, her pathological anxiety over masturbation which she said would bring crippling, deformity and insanity – contributed to her illnesses rather than alleviating them. In any case, there seems to have been a circle of reinforcement.

There were obviously excellent aspects to her health reform program. At a time when doctors regularly killed patients with their bleeding, purging and quack medicines, Ellen White, like many other health reformers, did a public service by persuading people to abandon all drugs, take regular baths, give up alcohol, tobacco and a fatty diet. Her water cure was not original, but was adapted, like her vegetarianism, from popular practices of her time.

Hydropathy, diet reform and temperance are not, however, substitutes for a healthy sex life. Her personal inhibitions, her dislike of “sexual excess” in marriage, common enough among women of her own day, unfortunately had a pernicious influence on her writings. In seeking solutions to her private illnesses and psychic conflicts, she used the device of “the revelation,” thus generalizing from herself to mankind. The fact that the whole process was an unconscious one, and that she was genuinely self-deluded, did not prevent solutions which were not solutions at all from being formalized and solidified into dogma. Her followers, also seeking solutions for their own ailments or unhappiness, found either the necessary faith required for their own self-healing, or else sufficient temporary surcease from clinical symptoms to insure their fidelity to the Adventist cause.

To many readers, the pathology in Ellen White will be apparent without further elucidation. But Professor Numbers never labels her as either pathological or as self-deluded. He is content to describe her, and to give us the background of frenetic health reform which provided her with nurture as important as that of her supporting mother. We do see her at her most absurd when she attacks the long skirts “sweeping up the filth of the streets” as “devised by Satan,” and when she warns that anyone wearing hairpieces risks “horrible disease and premature death” (pp. 146, 148). But we also see a compulsively dedicated woman with formidable administrative skills and a sense of mission that brought remarkable consequences. When one reads about her success in starting a worldwide system of medical missions and hospitals, and the continuing services performed by the Adventist groups, one is astonished again that it took so long for Ellen G. White to be written about by an able and dispassionate biographer.

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