How did a fledgling movement in the 1840s transform into the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church with hundreds of schools, hospitals, and printing presses scattered all over the globe? How did those early Millerite believers detach themselves from fanatical groups and keep their faith in the soon coming of Jesus? How did they stay on the right path theologically when those from their own ranks began propagating unbiblical teachings?
Seventh-day Adventists believe that God gave Ellen White the prophetic gift mentioned so often in scripture to guide the church through the darkness of the last days. From 1844 to 1915, her voice and pen were incessantly active, helping to lead God’s people to fulfill their mission to the world.
She was a health reformer, educational reformer, and public evangelist. She was also the mother of four sons (only two lived to adulthood) and the wife of a man who served multiple times as the General Conference President of the church. Besides her family, she additionally mentored many other men and women throughout their lives.
The amount of influence that Ellen White exercised both in and out of the church is staggering. In 2014, she was included in the Smithsonian magazine’s “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.” According to the New World Encyclopedia, “With the sole exception of Agatha Christie, White is said to be the most translated female writer in the history of literature and the most translated American author of either gender.”
All of these accomplishments took place in the male-dominated 1800s and early 1900s. How did she accomplish so much on top of being a wife, mother, and friend to so many? A study of Ellen White’s life will prove fruitful for anyone looking to be inspired by what God can do with one willing soul.
From a Sickly Young Woman to a Prophetess
Ellen Gould Harmon was born a twin in the year 1827 in Portland, Maine. She and her twin Elizabeth were the youngest of eight siblings. When they were nine years old, an older girl from school was harassing Ellen, Elizabeth, and a friend on their way back from school. The older girl threw a rock that struck Ellen right on the nose as she ran, causing her to fall unconscious.
The accident left Ellen in a coma for weeks, and her face disfigured for the rest of her life. A more significant issue was that it became extremely difficult for her to do school work. She found it hard to concentrate, remember, and hold a pen steady, causing her to end her formal education in just the third grade.
Ellen felt forsaken by God because of her handicapped position. Later in life, she was able to look back at that dark time and rejoice, saying, “I might never have known Jesus, had not the sorrow that clouded my early years led me to seek comfort in Him.” She was encouraged to claim Jesus’ love and mercy by faith and was baptized into her family’s Methodist church when she was 14.
In the same year, 1842, Ellen heard the preaching of William Miller in her hometown. She and her family believed his preaching and began to prepare for the soon coming of Jesus. In 1843, the Methodist ministers took offense to Miller’s teaching that Jesus would return to cleanse the earth by fire within the year. Ellen and her family were kicked out of the church for holding to the doctrine.
After the great disappointment of 1844, when Jesus did not come back on October 22 as many had taught, Ellen was heartbroken, and her health started to deteriorate. She continued to hold onto the hope that Jesus would still come sometime soon. Although she was in a sad state, she agreed to an invitation to visit another Millerite believer in December 1844, who was perplexed over what had happened.
While the group was praying during morning worship, Ellen describes what happened:
“While I was praying at the family altar, the Holy Ghost fell upon me, and I seemed to be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world. I turned to look for the Advent people in the world, but could not find them, when a voice said to me, ‘Look again, and look a little higher.’ At this I raised my eyes, and saw a straight and narrow path, cast up high above the world. On this path the Advent people were traveling to the city, which was at the farther end of the path. They had a bright light set up behind them at the beginning of the path, which an angel told me was the Midnight Cry. This light shone all along the path and gave light for their feet so that they might not stumble. If they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, who was just before them, leading them to the city, they were safe.”
Early Works and Marriage
Ellen was at first very afraid to share the things God had shown her. After all, she was only a young 17-year girl with hardly any education. And she was so sick at the time that she questioned whether she had much time left to live. But God continued to tell her, “Make known to others what I have revealed to you.” Through prayer and the encouragement of friends and colleagues, she pushed past her fear and began to proclaim her visions. God gave her the strength to speak to large crowds and write, things that were nearly impossible for her before.
The number one issue she had to confront in her early years was fanaticism. Many different interpretations arose about what really happened in 1844. There were those who claimed that Jesus had come spiritually into the hearts of believers. Some of these people claimed that they were now holy, and some even went off into strange sexual practices and adultery. The truth revealed to Ellen helped to combat heresies like these.
Others, like Hiram Edson, had been led to the book of Hebrews and believed that Jesus had now begun his final phase of ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. What God revealed to Ellen confirmed what these men had come to understand through Bible study.
James White was impressed with the spirituality of Ellen Harmon. He offered to go with her and her other companions as she traveled around relating her visions to the people. As rumors began to circulate about the two of them, they decided it would be best to marry. They believed God’s work would be better accomplished by staying together. On August 30, 1846, Ellen Harmon became Ellen White and set out with James to build this small movement into a thriving church.
After helping James start up the paper that eventually became the Review and Herald in 1848, and assisting in moving the believers to officially organize as the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1860, Ellen had one of her most important visions.
In 1863, God revealed to her the importance health played in the spiritual lives of Christians. In her day, very little was known by common people about the cause of disease. Ellen wrote of what God showed her about the spiritual and physical causes of sickness:
“Eve had everything to make her happy. She was surrounded by fruit of every variety. Yet the fruit of the forbidden tree appeared more desirable to her than the fruit of all the other trees in the garden of which she could freely eat. She was intemperate in her desires. She ate, and through her influence, her husband ate also, and a curse rested upon them both. The earth also was cursed because of their sin. And since the fall, intemperance in almost every form has existed. The appetite has controlled reason. The human family have followed in a course of disobedience, and, like Eve, have been beguiled by Satan: to disregard the prohibitions God has made, flattering themselves that the consequence would not be as fearful as had been apprehended. The human family have violated the laws of health, and have run to excess in almost everything. Disease has been steadily increasing.”
She went on in the vision to outline basic things God showed her that would improve the health of everyone. She had already suffered the loss of her fourth son to disease at this time when he was only an infant. She, James, and other ministers had also been overworking themselves into sicknesses of their own. Adventists, along with the rest of the world, were in desperate need of health education.
Soon after the vision, Ellen and James visited a health institute in Dansville, New York, run by a Dr. Jackson. He was not an Adventist but was using many natural principles shown to Ellen to cure diseases. They wanted to learn how to practically teach others what God had revealed in the Bible and Ellen’s visions.
To get the message out, plans were laid to start up a health journal entitled Health Reformer. A Seventh-day Adventist doctor working at the institute in New York became its editor. Some of Ellen’s visions were related, but much more of the journal contained practical advice from doctors also interested in better methods of treating disease and teaching others how to stay well.
Unfortunately, over the years, some extreme views on health reform threatened to make people even more susceptible to illness. Some people thought that Ellen herself taught these extreme views, but James White cleared the air in an article in 1870:
“While tobacco, tea, and coffee may be left at once… changes in diet should be made carefully, one at a time. And while she [Ellen] would say this to those who are in danger of making changes too rapidly, she would also say to the tardy, Be sure and not forget to change.”
Ever since the early days of health reform in the Adventist church, there have always been those who go to extremes. Ellen White was very balanced in her approach to helping others change their lifestyles. It would be good for us to learn the same patience in dealing with ourselves and others.
The Death of Another Son and the Stroke of a Husband
Implementing the new health information would be a slow process even for the Whites. During the same year, she received her first health vision, Ellen’s firstborn son, Henry, died of pneumonia at the age of 16. The conventional doctors of the day could do nothing but administer poisonous drugs. The Whites had not yet gained enough knowledge in hydrotherapy to properly treat their son.
On his deathbed, Henry told Ellen, “Promise me, Mother, that if I die I may be taken to Battle Creek, and laid by the side of my little brother, John Herbert, that we may come up together in the morning of the resurrection.” With the death of two sons, Ellen was well acquainted with grief. But tragedy would not end there.
Less than two years later, in 1865, James suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed for weeks. He was only 44 years old at the time. The cause of the stroke, according to doctors, was overwork. He and Ellen had been working, writing, and traveling almost nonstop to build up the church for two decades. Now they were learning the hard way the importance of temperance in everything.
The Beginning of the Medical Work
Ellen took James back to Dr. Jackson’s health institute in New York because she believed the hydrotherapy treatments and the healthy food there would be best for him. After months of treatment, the couple decided to leave the facility due to the secular practices advocated by the staff. Ellen also felt that James needed more physical exercise to recover properly, which Dr. Jackson disagreed with.
This experience in New York further convinced the Whites that the Adventist church needed to create health institutions of their own where reform principles could be carried out correctly to heal the sick, but also provide a healthy spiritual atmosphere for patrons. Ellen wrote of the importance of establishing such places:
“Our people should have an institution of their own, under their own control, for the benefit of the diseased and suffering among us who wish to have health and strength that they may glorify God in their bodies and spirits, which are His. Such an institution, rightly conducted, would be the means of bringing our views before many whom it would be impossible for us to reach by the common course of advocating the truth.”
In 1866, the first of these institutions was started in Battle Creek, Michigan, called the Western Health Reform Institute. In the 1870s, the Whites helped John Harvey Kellogg through medical school with the hope that he would come back and run the operation. He transformed it into the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, which attracted even the rich and famous to be treated there.
Pushing on After Losing James
As the Western Health Reform Institute was getting up and running, Ellen helped James recover from his stroke by taking him away from work at the church center in Battle Creek. He would accomplish a great deal more in his life, but never fully learned how to remain temperate in his labor. He had several other small strokes and died at the age of 60 in 1881.
Ellen lived the rest of her 34 years of life as a widow, never marrying again. After James’s strokes, he became tougher to deal with, and at times Ellen felt that he was holding her back from fully carrying out God’s will. Decades later she wrote:
“Since twenty-one years ago, when I was deprived of my husband by death, I have not had the slightest idea of ever marrying again. Why? Not because God forbade it. No. But to stand alone was the best for me, that no one should suffer with me in carrying forward my work entrusted to me of God. And no one should have a right to influence me in any way in reference to my responsibility and my work in bearing my testimony of encouragement and reproof.”
Her love for James never waned, though. Gerald Wheeler, commenting on Ellen White’s mindset after S. N. Haskell tried proposing to her in Australia, writes: “Many years after his [James’s] death, she wrote that she had ‘the assurance that if I follow on trustingly, faithfully doing God’s will as a faithful messenger, my husband and I will be reunited in the kingdom of God. I have not one particle of doubt regarding my husband’s preparedness to lay off the armor.’ She would even dream about being reunited in heaven with James.”
 Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, Nov. 25, 1884.
 Ellen G. White, Early Writings, p. 14.
 Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of James and Ellen G. White (1880 ed.), p. 194.
 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts Vol. 4a, p. 120.
 James White, Review and Herald, Nov. 8, 1870. Emphasis added.
 Ellen G. White, An Appeal to the Youth, p. 26.
 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to the Church, Vol. 1, p. 492-493.
 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, Vol. 3, p. 66-67.
 Gerald Wheeler, S. N. Haskell: Adventist Pioneer, Evangelist, Missionary, and Editor, p. 188.