On September 25, 1997, millions of listeners to one of radio’s most popular news programs heard the newscaster say the following:
Women have been honored on American postage stamps for more than 100 years, starting with one woman who was not an American, Queen Isabella, in 1893. Since then, 86 women have been honored, ranging from Martha Washington to Marilyn Monroe. Also many women authors like Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, and Rachel Carson.But I can name an American woman author who has never been honored thus, though her writings have been translated into 148 languages. More than Marx or Tolstoy, more than Agatha Christie, more than William Shakespeare. Only now is the world coming to appreciate her recommended prescription for optimum spiritual and physical health.
The program was News and Comment and the newscaster was the popular Paul Harvey. So who was he talking about? A woman by the name of Ellen White. Harvey concluded, “You don’t know her? Get to know her!”
Paul Harvey is only one of many who’ve recognized that Ellen Gould (Harmon) White was indeed one of the most remarkable American women. A visionary, a spiritual leader, a health advocate and an author, she has shaped the religious thought and practice of millions. Yet many—perhaps most—of those who have been influenced by her know little or nothing about her.
Ellen Harmon was born in 1827 and grew up in Portland, Maine, where her father was a hat maker. At the age of nine, a rock thrown by a schoolmate smashed Ellen’s face. The injury was serious, limiting her to a third-grade education.
Ellen found comfort in her faith. A new religious enthusiasm was sweeping New England. A Baptist farmer turned evangelist named William Miller was teaching from the prophecies of the book of Daniel that Jesus was about to return. Some thought Miller a crackpot—he and his followers were widely reviled by the popular press—but thousands of thoughtful Christians were thrilled to learn that God still cared about this world and would intercede to bring an end to sin and suffering. Ellen attended William Miller’s meetings, and his hopeful message lifted her spirits. Her relationship with God deepened. As young as she was, Ellen began to feel that God had a special work for her to do.
William Miller made a mistake in his teaching of Jesus’ return: he set a date when he expected that grand event to happen. On the basis of prophecies in the book of Daniel, Miller at first identified 1843 as the year of Jesus’ return. If scoffers had made fun of the Millerites before, they did so with relish when the precise date finally chosen, October 22, 1844, passed without a sign of that glorious heavenly event.
From discouragement to faith
Ellen, like the rest, was disappointed. She remembered, “It was a bitter disappointment that fell upon the little flock whose faith had been so strong and whose hope had been so high.” Yet they were pleased to find that they still felt the closeness to Jesus they’d cultivated during those years. “We were surprised that we felt so free in the Lord, and were so strongly sustained by His strength and grace,” Ellen wrote. “We were disappointed, but not disheartened.” Ellen was only 17 at the time of the Millerite disappointment. Not long after, God made her a key part of what would become a major religious movement. While studying and praying with friends in Portland, Ellen went into a vision. God showed her that the Advent believers were on a difficult and sometimes discouraging path, but one that, if followed faithfully, would take them to the kingdom of heaven. That was followed shortly by another vision, in which she was asked to tell others what God was telling her.
Being but a teenager, and having already experienced with the Millerites what it felt like to be made fun of for unpopular beliefs, Ellen was frightened. The message she was asked to give was simple: even though Jesus hadn’t come at the time they thought He would, He will return again, so don’t be discouraged! She got up just enough courage to share what she now believed to be messages from God with a few friends. She was thrilled to find that her visions were as encouraging to them as they had been to her. Others heard about Ellen, and soon she was in demand as a speaker. God continued to give her messages that would help to guide the remaining Advent believers and quell fanaticism among them. People began to have confidence that God was leading them through Ellen.
It was during her unfolding ministry as a speaker and teacher that Ellen met James White, another believer in Jesus’ soon coming, and they married. It was an important partnership. James was a strong leader who would guide Ellen in many of the practical matters needed to do the work God had asked her to do.
A religious movement
Events rapidly unfolded in the next several years. In 1847, God showed Ellen that the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11), about the seventh-day Sabbath, had been neglected by most Christians. The small group of Sabbath-keeping Advent believers grew, aided largely by Ellen’s writings being published and sent out across the United States and to other countries. By 1860, the few thousand scattered believers realized they needed some organization. They named their new church “Seventh-day Adventist” to identify two of their distinctive doctrines.
Ellen White’s guidance would be tremendously important over the next 50 years. Not only did her writings keep the fledgling church on track, but God gave her new information about health. Health practices in her day were primitive. Physicians still routinely did surgeries without washing their hands, bled patients who were sick and recommended the use of tobacco and alcohol for health. Many so-called pharmaceuticals were, in fact, potent poisons containing lead and mercury. Patients following a physician’s advice were more likely to die from it than to get well. Most people thought the night air was dangerous, so people slept in stuffy, smoke-polluted rooms.
Through this simple woman, God revived a biblical message about health and nutrition and gave counsel that was far ahead of its time. For example, before cholesterol was known, Ellen White recommended avoiding meat entirely and using vegetable oil.
Before doctors knew the effect of sodium on blood pressure, she wrote about the benefits of limiting salt.
At a time when bread made from white flour was considered a wonderful innovation, she insisted that whole grains supplied superior nutrition.
Tobacco was still considered therapeutic by some when Ellen White identified it as a poison that would lead to cancer and other illnesses. She realized, long before physicians did, that being overweight was harmful to health and would shorten life.
She steered people from dangerous medicines and medical practices to the simplest of preventive therapies: cleanliness, fresh air, exercise, wholesome food, fresh water, sunshine, temperance and adequate sleep. Through her guidance, many members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church adopted a vegetarian diet. She said that “in grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts are to be found all the food elements that we need.” That’s standard advice from most nutritionists today. And, as a result of following that advice, today’s Seventh-day Adventists have a life span seven years longer than average, as confirmed by two separate studies by Loma Linda University.
A remarkable gift
With only third-grade education, this deeply spiritual woman’s literary production, including compilations, consisted of well over 100,000 pages. Everything she wrote was handwritten. She’s one of the most translated writers in history. Her most popular book, “Steps to Christ,” is published in 150 languages, with a circulation in the millions. Tens of thousands of people have learned to know Jesus more intimately through reading this book.
Besides health, Ellen wrote about prophecy, spiritual growth, education, family and church history. Her beliefs on racial equality were well before their time. “God has made man a free moral agent, whether white or black. The institution of slavery does away with this and permits man to exercise over his fellow man a power which God has never granted him, and which belongs alone to God.” As a female leader in the largely male world of religion, she also understood the need for gender equality. “Eve,” she wrote, “was created from a rib taken from the side of Adam, signifying that she was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal.”
By the time of her death in 1915, the Adventist Church was an international movement. Ellen had traveled widely, speaking and writing, and her books were read throughout the world. She always insisted that people make the Bible, not her writings, the foundation of their faith. However, Seventh-day Adventists believe that God worked through her in a singular way to clarify and emphasize the Bible’s message about Jesus’ return.
Because of her guidance, the Seventh-day Adventist Church today has a membership of nearly 18 million with a presence in 208 countries of the 232 recognized by the United Nations. Areas where Ellen White was particularly instructive were health care, education and charitable work, which has led the Adventist Church to establish schools and hospitals in every inhabited continent and has made the Adventist Development and Relief Agency one of the most respected aid organizations in the world. As Paul Harvey said, “Ellen White. You don’t know her? Get to know her!”
This article originally appeared on Signs of the Times magazine, October, 2010.