The Life of Ellen White by D.M. Canright

Chapter 9 - Philosophy of Her Visions

The proof is abundant that Mrs. White's visions were merely the result of her early misfortune, nervous disease, and a complication of hysteria, epilepsy, catalepsy and ecstasy. That she may have honestly believed in them herself does not alter the fact. The writer personally knew four other women, all Seventh-day Adventists, who likewise had visions. All were sincere Christians, and fully believed in their own visions. But all were sickly, nervous and hysterical. Not being encouraged in them, but opposed by their ministers, they finally gave them up. In every age such cases have been numerous. A few of them, like Mrs. Southcott, Mrs. Ann Lee and Mrs. White, have become noted for awhile.

An editorial in the Advent Review, Aug. 19, 1915, says: "In our personal experience we recall at least a dozen during the past two or three decades who have claimed they had the prophetic gift. Two or three of these have drifted into the wildest fantasies. Others frankly acknowledged later in their experience that they had been mistaken, and settled down to a quiet experience. Others are, perhaps, still nursing their fancy."

By this it will be seen that there have been among Seventh-day Adventists right along numerous persons who fancied they had the gift of prophecy. The editor correctly attributes all these to their fancy. These had no Elder White to encourage and back them up. So their visions finally ceased, as Mrs. White's in all probability would have done under similar circumstances.

Medical books and cyclopedias, under the words "hysteria," "epilepsy," "catalepsy" and "ecstasy," in describing these affections, give a complete description of Mrs. White's cases, as stated by herself, her husband and others. This may be seen from a brief study of these diseases.

1. The sex - a female. "The vast preponderance of hysteria in the female sex has give rise to its name" (Raynold's "System of Medicine," article "Hysteria"). So say all the authorities. This fits Mrs. White's case.

2. The age. "Hysteria is infinitely more common among females, beginning usually from fifteen to eighteen or twenty years of age" ("Theory and Practice of Medicine," by Roberts, p. 399). "In the female sex, hysteria usually commences at or about the same time of puberty; i.e., between twelve and eighteen years of age" (Raynold's "System of Medicine," article "Hysteria"). This again exactly fits the case of Mrs. White. She had her first vision at the age of seventeen. (see "Testimonies," Vol. I., p. 62.) "Notwithstanding this mode of life, their health does not materially deteriorate" (Johnson's Cyclopedia, article, "Hysteria"). So with Mrs. White. She gradually improved in health and her visions gradually ceased. At first she had visions almost daily, but they grew less frequent as she grew older and healthier, till after about forty-five years of age, from which time she did not average one in five years, and even these were short and light, till she ceased entirely to have them. Now read this: "Hysteria generally attacks women from the age of puberty to the decline of the peculiar functions of her sex" (Johnson's Cyclopedia, article, "Hysteria"). Mrs. White's case again, exactly.

3. The cause. Hysteria, epilepsy, catalepsy and ecstasy are all nervous diseases, which sometimes coexist or alternate or blend together so it is difficult to distinguish them. The causes noted are: "1. Mental disturbance, especially emotional; for example, a sudden fright, prolonged grief or anxiety. 2. Physical influences affecting the brain, as a blow or a fall on the head" ("Theory and Practice of Medicine," Roberts, p. 393). "In ten of my cases the disease was due to reflex causes, which consisted in six cases of injuries to the head" ("Fundamental Nervous Disease," Putzel, p. 66). This fits Mrs. White's case again, exactly. At the age of nine she received a terrible blow on the face, which broke her nose, and nearly killed her. She was unconscious for three weeks. (See her life in "Testimonies," Vol. I., pp. 9, 10.) This shock to her nervous system was doubtless the chief cause of all the visions she had afterwards.

4. Generally weakly and sickly. "Most hysterical persons are out of health" " ("Theory and Practice of Medicine," by Roberts, p. 404). "Fainting fits and palpitations of the heart appear very frequently, and are sometimes so severe that persons affected with them seem to be dying" (Encyclopedia Americana, article, "Hysteria"). Now read the life of Mrs. White, and she tells it over and over, times without number, about fainting frequently, pain at the heart, and about being so sick that she expected to die. And it is remarkable that most of her visions were immediately preceded by one of these fainting death spells. This shows plainly that they were the result of nervous weakness. She says: "My feelings were unusually sensitive" ("Testimonies," Vol. I., p. 12). Now read this: "Women. . . whose nervous system is extremely sensitive are the most subject to hysterical affections" (Encyclopedia Americana, article, "Hysteria"). An exact fit.

Mrs. White's Physical Condition as Written By Herself

When nine years old a girl hit her in the face with a stone which broke her nose, and nearly killed her "(Testimonies for the Church," Vol. I., p. 9). "I lay in a stupor for three weeks" (p. 10). "I was reduced almost to a skeleton" (p. 11). "My health seemed to be hopelessly impaired" (p. 12). "My nervous system was prostrated" (p. 13). Here was the origin of her hysteria of after years. In this condition she "listened to the starling announcement that Christ was coming in 1843" (p. 14). "These words kept ringing in my ears: 'The great day of the Lord is at hand'" (p. 15). "I frequently attended the meetings and believed that Jesus was soon to come" (p. 22). Of her impression of hell she says: "My imagination would be so wrought upon that the perspiration would start" (p. 24). "I feared that I would lose my reason" (p. 25). At one time she did become insane for two weeks, as she herself says ("Spiritual Gifts," Vol. II., p. 51). She continues: "My health was very poor" (Testimonies," Vol. I., p. 55). It was thought hat she could live but a few days. Then it was she had her first vision, in reality an epileptic fit (p. 58). "I was but seventeen years of age, small and frail" (p. 62). "My strength was taken away," and angels talked with her (p. 64). "My friends thought I could not live. . . Immediately taken off in vision" (p. 67). Notice that her visions occurred when she was very sick! This tells the story; they were the result of her physical weakness. If it was the power of the Holy Ghost, why didn't God send it when she was well? Why not?

"I often fainted like one dead." The next day she was well and "rode thirty-eight miles" (p. 80). This is characteristic of hysterical persons, as all know who have seen them. They are nearly dying one hour and all well the next. Mrs. White went through that experience a thousand times. She was just dying, was prayed for, was healed by God, and all well in a few minutes. In a few days she went right over it again. But if God healed her, why didn't she stay healed? This used to bother me. When Jesus healed a man, did he have to go back and be healed again every few days?

She goes on: "I fainted under the burden. Some feared I was dying. . . I was soon lost to earthly thing" - had a vision (p. 86). Again: "I fainted. Prayer was offered for me, and I was blessed and taken off in vision" (p. 88). There is the same old story. It is simply her hysterical imagination, nothing more. Next page: "I fainted. . . taken off in vision." So she goes on all through her book. Says the Encyclopedia Americana, article "Hysteria": "Fainting fits and palpitation of the heart appear very frequently, and are sometimes so severe that persons afflicted with them seem to be dying." Mrs. White exactly.

On page after page the same story is repeated by herself. In the account of her last vision (Jan. 3, 1875), she was very sick till it ended in a vision ("Testimonies," Vol. III., p. 570). Dreadfully sick, almost dead, then a vision - this is the story, times without number, from her own pen. That tells the story. Her visions were the result of her physical weakness.

5. Visions in public. "As a rule, a fit of hysteria occurs when other persons are present, and never comes on during sleep" ("Theory and Practice of Medicine," by Roberts, p. 401). Most of Mrs. White's visions occurred in public, and generally while she was very sick, or when praying or speaking earnestly. This was the case with her first vision ("Spiritual Gifts," Vol. I., p. 30). So, again, on pages 37, 48, 51, 62, 83, and many more, she had her visions in the presence of many. I do not know that she ever had a vision while alone, or, if so, only once or twice.

6. Inclination to exaggerate and deceive. All medical books state that hysterical persons are given to exaggeration and deception. The inclination is irresistible. Nothing can break them of it. Gurnsey's "Obstetrics," article, "Hysteria," says: "Such persons entertain their hearers with marvelous tales of the greatness and exploits of their past lives. . . These accounts are uttered with an air of sincerity well calculated to deceive the honest listener, and such unbridled license of the imagination and total obliviousness in regard to the truth, which are vulgarly attributed to an entire want of principle and the most inordinate vanity, are in reality due to that morbid condition of the female organism which is designated by the comprehensive term 'hysteria.'"

Mrs. White was always telling what great things she had done. The deception which she so often practiced is here accounted for on principles which do not impeach the moral character, and we are glad to accept the explanation.

7. Does not breathe. "Stoppage of respiration usually complete." "Generally appears to hold his breath" (Roberts' "Theory and Practice of Medicine," p. 393, 394). Elder White, describing Mrs. White's condition in vision, says: "She does not breathe" ("Life Incidents," p. 272). They always refer to this fact with great confidence as proof of the supernatural in her visions; but it will be seen that it is common in these diseases.

8. Importance of self. "There is a prevailing belief in the importance of self, and the patient thinks that she differs from every other human being" (Raynold's "System of Medicine," article "Hysteria"). This was Mrs. White precisely. Hear her laud herself: "It is God, and not an erring mortal, who has spoken." "God has laid upon my husband and myself a special work." "God has appointed us to a more trying work than he has others" ("Testimonies," Vol. III., pp. 257, 258, 260). I could prove greater devotion than any one living engaged in the work" ("Testimonies," Vol. I., p. 581). I knew her for nearly thirty years, but I never knew her to make confession of a single sin in all that time, not one. Seventh-day Adventists ridicule the Pope's claim to infallibility, but they themselves bow to the authority of a woman who made higher claims to infallibility than ever pope or prophet did.

Space will not allow us to fill out every particular of her experience by quotations from medical works compared with her own statements; but those already given are sufficient to show the nature and philosophy of her attacks. They were the result of nervous disease, precisely the same as has often been seen in the case of thousands of other nervous, feeble and sickly women.

9. Testimony of Physicians. Dr. Fairfield was brought up a Seventh-day Adventist; was for years a physician in their Sanitarium at Battle Creek. He had the best opportunity to observe Mrs. White. He writes:

"Battle Creek, Mich., Dec. 28, 1887.

"Dear Sir: You are undoubtedly right in ascribing Mrs. E.G. White's so-called visions to disease. It has been my opportunity to observe her case a good deal, covering quite a period of years, which, with a full knowledge of her history from the beginning, gave me no chance to doubt her ('divine') attacks to be simply hysterical trances. Age itself has almost cured her.

W.J. Fairfield, M.D."

Dr. Wm. Russell, long a Seventh-day Adventist, and a chief physician in the Sanitarium, wrote July 12, 1869, that he had made up his mind some time in the past, "that Mrs. White's visions were the result of a diseased organization or condition of the brain or nervous system." "When giving, to a conference at Pilot Grove, Ia., 1865, an account of her visit at Dr. Jackson's health institute, she stated that the doctor, upon a medical examination, pronounced her a subject of hysteria" ("Mrs. White's Claims Examined," p. 76).

This is the testimony of physicians who have personally examined Mrs. White.

At the Sanitarium at Battle Creek, Mich., Mrs. White was often treated when ill. The physicians there became familiar with her case. Several of those most prominent there renounced their faith in her visions. This is significant. Dr. J.H. Kellogg, for many years the head of that institution, has a world-wide reputation as a physician and a scientist. He was brought up to reverence Mrs. White and her revelations. Through long years he had every opportunity to study her case. Against his best interests he was compelled to lose faith in her visions. He is no longer a believer in her visions. These physicians, so closely connected with her, learned that the visions were simply the result of her weak physical condition.

Mrs. White joined the Millerites in their great excitement of 1843-44. In their meetings she often fainted from excitement. In the enthusiasm and fanaticism of the time many had various "gifts," visions, trances, etc. She drank deeply of their spirit. The grief and disappointment of the passing of the set time were too much for her feeble condition. Says Dr. Roberts: "The exciting cause of the first hysterical fit is generally some powerful and sudden emotional disturbance." "Sometimes the attack is preceded by disappointment, fear, violent, exciting, or even religious emotions" ("Library of Universal Knowledge," article, "Catalepsy"). Just her case in the great excitement and disappointment of 1844.

In his "Rise and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists," page 94, Elder J.N. Loughborough gives a description of Mrs. White while having a "vision." Compare it carefully with the condition of patients affected by the diseases already described, many cases of which have been treated by eminent physicians. The two are almost identical, as will be seen.

Mrs. White's Condition While in Vision

"For about four or five seconds she seems to drop down like a person in a swoon, or one having lost his strength; she then seems to be instantly filled with superhuman strength, sometimes rising at once to her feet and walking about the room. There are frequent movements of the hands and arms, pointing to the right or left as her head turns. All these movements are made in a most graceful manner. In whatever position the hand or arm may be placed, it is impossible for any one to move it. Her eyes are always open, but she does not wink; her head is raised and she is looking upwards, not with a vacant stare, but with a pleasant expression, only differing from the normal in that she appears to be looking intently at some distant object. She does not breathe, yet her pulse beats regularly."

In his "Medical Advisor," pages 647-650, Dr. H.V. Pierce gives the cause of, and hereditary tendencies to, epilepsy. He says: "Many of the cases treated by us have been brought on as the results of an injury to the head. The majority of these forms of disease can be exactly localized in a small area of the brain and may usually be traced to a blow or fall on the head." Of the fit itself, Dr. Pierce says: "It begins suddenly, with little or no warning, commonly with a cry or scream. In the severe form of the disease, the respiration is arrested."

Dr. John Huber, in an article on this subject in the Washington Post, June 18, 1916, says that epilepsy is called "the falling sickness" because the patient usually falls over when the paroxysm comes on. He says: "The epileptic fit is a kind of brain storm. . . The sufferer utters a loud scream at the beginning of the convulsion."

These descriptions, written with no reference to Mrs. White, fit her case exactly. Both of these authorities, it will be noticed, say that the epileptic fit generally begins with a loud cry or scream. This was also characteristic of Mrs. White's "visions." Introducing his description of her condition while in visions, Elder Loughborough, in his work already quoted, same page, says: "In passing into visions she gives three enraptured shouts of 'Glory!' the second, and especially the third, fainter, but more thrilling than the first."

Now read what experienced physicians have written in medical books on trances, ecstasy and catalepsy.

Dr. George B. Wood's "Practice of Medicine," page 721 of Vol. II., in treating of mental disorders, and explaining the cause and phenomena of trances, says:

"Ecstasy is an affection in which, with a loss of consciousness of existing circumstances, and insensibility to impression from without, there is an apparent exaltation of the intellectual or emotional functions, as if the individual were raised into a different nature, or different sphere of existence. The patient appears wrapped up in some engrossing thought or feeling, with an expression upon his countenance as of lofty contemplations or ineffable delight. . . Upon recovering from the spell, the patient generally remembers his thoughts and feelings more or less accurately, and sometimes tells of wonderful visions that he has seen, of visits to the regions of the blessed, of ravishing harmony and splendor, of inexpressible enjoyment of the senses or affections."

A person perfectly familiar with Mrs. White could not have described her visions more accurately.

Another high medical authority (G. Durant, M.D., Ph.D., member of the American Medical Association, Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, etc., etc., recipient of several medals, etc.), on describing ecstasy and catalepsy, says:

"It often happens that the two diseases alternate or coexist. In ecstasy the limbs are motionless, but not rigid. The eyes are open, the pupils fixed, the livid lips parted in smiles, and the arms extended to embrace the beloved vision. The body is erect and raised to its utmost height, or else is extended at full length in recumbent posture. A peculiarly radiant smile illuminates the countenance, and the whole aspect and attitude is that of intense mental exaltation. Sometimes the patient is silent, the mind being apparently absorbed in meditation, or in the contemplation of some beatific vision. Sometimes there is mystical speaking or prophesying, or singing, or the lips maybe moved without any sound escaping. . . Usually there is complete insensibility to external impressions. Ecstasy is often associated with religious monomania. It was formerly quite common among the inmates of convents, and is now not unfrequently met with at camp meetings and other gatherings of a similar nature. Many truly devout people are ecstatics."

This was Mrs. White's case very clearly. Hundreds of similar ones have occurred in every age and are constantly occurring now. The sad part of it is that so many honest souls are deluded into receiving all this as a divine revelation.

When we remember that Mrs. White's followers, especially during the first ten or fifteen years, were all very common people, wholly unacquainted with such exercises, which appeared to them to be miraculous, it is not so strange that they should accept it as the power of God. She herself was young, uneducated and inexperienced. She could only explain her unusual experiences as miraculous, as the work of the Holy Ghost. So, after doubting awhile, she accepted the view of them. Probably Elder White, at first at least, believed in her visions for the same reason.

All the accounts of her visions which we have were written by her devout believers. We know that they would give only the most favorable aspect of them, omitting anything unfavorable. But, taking their own statements, her symptoms are exactly the same as those described by the physicians as above, where similar visions were merely the results of disease of the nervous system, generally brought on by a blow to the head, as in the case of Mrs. White. Her failures in so many ways, as noted in other chapters of this book, leave no reasonable doubt that the woman was simply deceived herself as to the real nature and cause of her visions.

Mrs. White's visions ceased about the time of the change of life common to women. While she still had visions, she claimed that much that she "saw" went entirely from her mind at the time. Months, even years later, when she met a brother or a church that needed a "testimony," the part relating to these all came vividly to her mind, she said. She would then write out this portion of the forgotten "vision."

This worked very well till years after her visions ceased. Finally this could not be stretched further. Then her revelations had to come in a different way; by a voice, by dreams, by "impressions," by some one on "authority" speaking, and the like. The following expressions, taken from the last volume of her "Testimonies for the Church," Vol. IX., published in 1909, are examples of this. Page 13: "I was instructed." Page 82: "Instruction has been given me." Page 65: "In the night of March 2, 1907, many things were revealed to me." The room, she said, was very light. Page 66: "Then a voice spoke to me." Page 95: "The angel stood by my side." But she had no vision as formerly. Page 98: "Instruction has been given me." Page 101: "In the night season I was awakened from a deep sleep and given a view." Page 137: "In the night season matters have been presented to me." Page 195: "At one time I seemed to be in a council meeting." The expression, "I have been instructed," occurs over and over in these later alleged revelations, just as the expression, "I saw," does in her earlier writings.

But all this is entirely different from her vision period. Then the Holy Ghost fell on her, her strength was taken away, and she fell to the floor. Then she was carried to heaven, talked with Jesus, visited the planets, and the like. No such things occurred in her later days. Why this change? The physicians have answered that.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter BACK HOME