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Ellen White and Sarah Bernhardt: Two Women That Changed the World

Significant moments in Adventist history happened at the same time as important events in the wider world. Adventism never exists in a vacuum. The church exists in context with the world around it and forgets that fact at its peril.

On a farm in New York State at Low Hampton, just near the Vermont border, Tuesday, October 22, 1844, was fast becoming Wednesday, October 23. The group gathered to welcome Jesus back to this earth with great expectations. Their pure excitement was barely contained. It was a new era. The coming of the kingdom of Jesus. These people were the followers of William Miller. Baptist faith and enlightenment rationality reconciled in a precise prophetic timetable. It told that the end of the world’s birth pangs was at hand.

Meanwhile in Paris . . .

At that very same moment, at 5 rue de l’Ecole de Médecine, in the Latin Quarter, a woman was in labor. A baby announced its entry into the world. But no one gathered to welcome its arrival. Unbridled passion had briefly overcome enlightenment rationality. And now only embarrassment and resentment remained. No expectations and no excitement.

But then . . .

At Low Hampton, on the Miller farm, lively expectation was fast becoming deepening anxiety. And anxiety was fast becoming profound disappointment. Midnight passed. Jesus had not returned as expected, and not as prophesied in the Scriptures. He did not return as proclaimed by the pioneering preachers. It had all seemed so clear in the books of Revelation and Daniel. The Millerites could not have been more careful in their study of the Bible. But they had been wrong. Very wrong.

They had even assembled on Ascension Rock, a perfect place to view the unfolding great drama of the ages. But now, it was just another Wednesday.

So it was The Great Disappointment. These faithful believers were stunned and . . . disappointed? More like distressed, disillusioned, distraught, and dismayed. They wept rivers of tears, and they had to find a way to recover. Some made the choice to leave. Some had abandoned everything. For what? Were they victims of deception? But by whom? Their leaders or simply themselves? Some people haggled further over the Scriptures. Some recalibrated. And so, they set themselves up for another disappointment. Some were simply left dirt poor. Now they had to survive the winter. A winter they had not expected to see.

And back in Paris . . .

The other great disappointment unraveled. Sarah Bernhardt was the child born on that same Tuesday. Her birth was disappointing because she was illegitimate and she was unwanted. Her entrance into the world spoiled a lot of plans. There was no great rejoicing, just more anxiety. She was an embarrassment and would have to be raised in a nearby convent, hidden away. She should in time become a nun—that was the best anyone could hope for. She would soon be forgotten. Just as Miller’s followers would soon be forgotten. Or so you might have thought. Life will often take unexpected turns. As it did for Sarah Bernhardt. And as it did for Ellen Harmon.

Back in America . . .

Ellen was among the ranks of disappointed Millerite believers. A young woman not even out of her teens in 1844. She was not present at that gathering on Ascension Rock, but an ardent believer nonetheless. She married James White and they moved to Paris in 1850. But not Paris, France. Paris, Maine. She began having visions, and she wrote down the spectacles she saw. She took to platforms and became a preacher. She spoke with unexpected authority. Some called her a prophet just like Elijah from the Bible. But no, she preferred to be called a messenger. Whatever the label, these visions set her on the road to becoming the charismatic leader of these advent believers. It was a tall order. A woman in a man’s world and a young woman at that. But she was equal to the task.

And back in Paris, France . . .

That other star was beginning to shine brightly. She too faced all manner of obstacles. She was a woman, a bastard child, a Jew, and also a Catholic. In sexual matters, she had a reputation for being “flexible.” There were plenty of obstacles, but Sarah was stunningly good-looking. And well connected through her mother, a courtesan of top men in Parisian society. And she was determined. Sarah Bernhardt had her own vocation, just as dramatic as Ellen’s. She was gifted. Sarah was attracting great attention in the theater and she was to become the world’s most famous actress. Starting in theater and then moving to film, she eventually earned a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

In time, both young women commanded their stages and held huge audiences rapt at home and abroad. Ellen White and Sarah Bernhardt—totally different women. Ellen was to become mother to a Christian community now numbering over 20 million worldwide, while Sarah birthed the very idea of being a worldwide celebrity. They might have ended up in deep obscurity, but they both achieved great celebrity. We still talk about them to this day. Two flames burned long and bright. Extinguished, the wicks still smoke.

About the author

Michael Pearson is a retired ethicist living in the UK. He and his wife, Helen, run the website Pearsons’ Perspectives. More from Michael Pearson.
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