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Mrs. White's Visions Explained
By Dirk Anderson
It is natural for us to be enthralled with dramatic stories of the supernatural. In the earliest days of Adventism, it was common for the young Ellen White to fall to the floor and be taken away "in vision." Such an event is virtually unheard of in today's Adventist churches. However, such events were regular occurrences in both Adventist and some non-Adventist churches in the mid 1800s. In order to fully understand Mrs. White's visions, we must understand the environment they occurred in.
An Era of Religious Fervor
Religious fervor ran strong during this era. Many prophets and visionaries were having trances and visions during religious meetings--both Adventist and non-Adventist. Adventist minister Isaac Wellcome wrote that visions similar to Ellen White's were "common among the Methodists,"1 the church in which Mrs. White was raised. Early Adventists were accustomed to one or more "visionists" being present during their meetings. This was an era when prophets of every kind abounded.
During those early years, Adventist meetings were scenes of intense religious excitement. The enthusiasm exhibited at the meeting in the home of Israel Dammon in 1846 provides a well-documented example of the charged atmosphere in the early meetings. From studying this event and other early meetings we understand those meetings can best be described as charismatic in nature, and were characterized by:
Ellen White reported the details of early meetings in her personal letters. One meeting she described...
"Brother and Sister Ralph were both laid prostrate and remained helpless for some time. ... While I was in vision, the doctor came, he heard the shouting in vision and would not come in."2
The evidence indicates the physical manifestations involved in Ellen White's visions were not substantially different from the manifestations of other visionists during this era. The prophetess Sarah Richards would swoon as she went into vision, and then she would lay on the floor "motionless and apparently lifeless" until she would get up to deliver her message.3 In the Shaker communities, it was not uncommon for young girls to be struck to the floor, and lay as if dead, until they would arise and "speak with great clearness and composure."4
Early Adventist meetings were remarkably similar to the charismatic meetings held in various churches today. Ellen White describes one such gathering in a letter:
"Our last conference was one of deep interest. ... It was as powerful a time as I ever witnessed. The slaying power of God was in our midst. Shouts of victory filled the dwelling. The saints here seem to be rising and growing in grace and the knowledge of the truth."5
At a conference held two months earlier in Topsham Mrs. White relates:
"Our conference at Topsham was one of deep interest. Twenty-eight were present; all took part in the meeting. Sunday the power of God came upon us like a mighty, rushing wind. All arose upon their feet and praised God with a loud voice. It was something as it was when the foundation of the house of God was laid. The voice of weeping could not be told from the voice of shouting."6In the early days Mrs. White seemed to think loud, emotionally-charged meetings gave the worshippers some advantage against the devil. Oddly enough, she "saw" in vision an advantage could be gained against the devil by shouting:
"Singing, I saw, often drove away the enemy, and shouting would beat him back."7
Visions Fade as Religious Excitement Dwindles
Gradually, during the 1850s and 1860s the religious fanaticism began to die down among the Adventists. A more subdued environment prevailed in the churches. Not surprisingly, Mrs. White had fewer dramatic day-time visions during the 1860s, and the visions ceased altogether in the 1870s.
In 1868, James White estimated that Ellen had received between 100 and 200 visions, and noted they had "grown less frequent" in recent years.8 An examination of the historical records of her visions shows Mrs. White only had approximately twelve during the 1860s, and three during the 1870s. She had no waking visions after the 1870s. At the same time, the Adventist meetings became more sedate, shouting and other charismatic activities faded, and religious excitement waned. As the religious excitement faded out, so did the waking visions of Ellen White.
Interestingly, after Mrs. White's visions died out in the 1870s, Adventists began challenging the validity of other visionaries. In the 1860s Adventist leaders stuanchly defended the visions of others. In 1862, with James White's approval, M.E. Cornell published a pamphlet recounting the visions of various Christians, such as William Tennet, and providing quotes from various church leaders, such as John Wesley, in favor of visions. Cornell's tract was reprinted for the last time in 1875. After the 1870s, Adventist leaders took an increasingly skeptical approach to visions. For example, the prophet William Foy was described by Adventist historian J.N. Loughborough as a man who failed in his mission to deliver his visions, and died shortly thereafter. (This, of course, was patently untrue.9) Thus, as Mrs. White stopped having public visions, Adventism gradually began to look less favorably on the visions of others.
Visions Replaced by Dreams
As the waking visions ceased, Mrs. White began to refer to her revelations as "dreams" she had while asleep at night.10 Dreams have never been regarded as reliable as visions. The ancient Jewish philosopher known as Sirach cautioned:
"...fools are borne aloft by dreams. Like a man who catches at shadows or chases the wind, is the one who believes in dreams. What is seen in dreams is to reality what the reflection of a face is to the face itslf....what you already expect, the mind depicts. Unless it be a vision specially sent by the Most High, fix not your heart on it; for dreams have led many astray and those who believed in them have perished."11Interestingly enough, early Adventists classified dreams as less reliable than visions:
"Dreams and visions differ widely as a source of reliable communication. In visions the whole person, mental and physical, is under the entire control of a higher power; therefore what is communicated is really from the being holding this control over the person. In dreams we are more liable to be swayed by our thoughts through the day and the external circumstances and influences around us; therefore from their nature and varied sources we cannot rely upon them with that certainty that we can upon visions."12Therefore, by the admission of Adventists, after the 1870s Mrs. White's communications with heaven became less reliable.
What Caused the Visions?
There is still an ongoing debate among both Adventists and non-Adventists as to what caused the visions. The leading theories are:
1. Visions were supernatural communications from God
Overview - James White and other early Adventists advanced the view that Ellen White's seizures were actually episodes wherein Ellen White was in communication with either God, Jesus, angels, or her spirit guide. This belief is still taught by the corporate SDA Church today. New converts to the sect are trained to believe Ellen White received visions from God and they are also implored to close their eyes to any critical research that would cast doubt on this story. Many older Adventists also hold this view along with a dwindling number of traditional ("historic") Adventists.
2. Visions were hallucinations caused by health problems
Overview - A growing number of both Adventists and non-Adventists have adopted this view. This theory was first advanced by Dr. Jackson, who examined Mrs. White and declared her a victim of hysteria. Others, including D.M. Canright, attributed the visions to hysteria and catalepsy. A century later, this theory would take an interesting turn when Dr. Delbert Hodder discovered amazing parallels between the life of Mrs. White and the lives of other victims of partial-complex seizures. Hodder's theory was advanced further with the publication of Dr. Molleurus Couperus' landmark article The Significance of Ellen White's Head Injury. Recent evidence, first noted by Dr. Ronald Numbers, suggests mercury poisoning may have played a contributing role in her hallucinations.3. Visions were due to psychological phenomena
Overview - This theory builds upon the evidence that certain highly emotional events, such as intense religious meetings, can trigger altered states of consciousness, such as trances, in certain individuals. Doctors Janet and Ronald Numbers have advanced the idea that psychological factors contributed to Mrs. White's visions.4. Visions were from Satan
Overview - Rather than seeking to explain away the phenomena associated with her visions, this theory holds that the visions were indeed supernatural events, but the source of the communications was Satan not God. The advocates of this theory say that Ellen White's experiences are similar in nature to the experiences of spiritualists involved in communication with evil spirits.5. Ellen White was a Charlatan
Overview - This belief denies any supernatural activity, and even discounts major health/psychological problems. According to this belief, James and Ellen White were motivated by a desire for fame, power, and/or money. She and James faked her visions and she lied about them to her followers in order to advance her own career and standing within the sect.
It is very possible that a combination of any of the above can account for her visions. While we may never be able to settle the debate as to where her visions originated, one matter is beyond dispute: The visions were most frequent at the height of the religious fervor following the 1844 disappointment, and they gradually subsided in frequency as the religious excitement died down. Eventually, as church services became more subdued and orderly, the visions ceased entirely.
1. Isaac Wellcome, History of the Second Advent Message.
2. Ellen White, Letter 1, 1848.
3. Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr., Pioneer Prophetess, Jemima Wilkinson, The Public Universal Friend, (Ithica, New York, 1964), p. 63.
4. The People Called Shakers, p. 153.
5. Ellen White, Letter 30, 1850.
6. Ellen White, Letter 28, 1850. Released by the Ellen G. White Estate (Washington, D. C.) Sept. 2, 1986 in Manuscript Releases, vol. 16, pp. 206-207.
7. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 21 p. 238.
8. James White, Life Incidents, p. 272.
9. We now know this to be false. There is no evidence Foy "failed" in his mission. He also lived nearly 50 years after he published his visions. For more details, click here.
10. Letter 15, 1878; letter 1, 1880; letter 10, 1885.
11. Sirach 34:2-7, New American Bible.
12. David Arnold, "Dreams and Visions", Review and Herald, Feb. 28, 1856.
13. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White Volume 2 The Progressive Years 1862-1876, (1986), p. 487, para. 5. For examples of Mrs. White's comments about her guide, see Ellen White, The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials (1987), page 773; Early Writings (1882), pages 80,81; Life Sketches of James White and Ellen G. White (1880), page 156.
14. Ransom Hicks, in a letter dated Sept. 3, 1854, published in the Messenger of Truth, vol. 1 no. 3 p. 3, Oct. 19, 1854, writes:
"As concerning Ellen G. White's visions, I have heretofore known but little about them. I once saw her have one, and I once saw a table tip over and then tip back again of its own accord so far as I could discern. Neither the phenomenon of the vision, nor of the table tipping did I understand. ...her visions are not of God because of their confusion, which God is certainly not the author."
According to USA Today, Oct. 19, 2009, article "Who you gonna call? The Aykroyd family", one phenomena manifested during seances is "tipping tables". According to the Online Thesaurus, "table tipping" is a synonym for a seance.
15. Ellen White, 1888 Materials, Vol. 1, pp. 277-278.
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