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Ellen White and Marital Excess
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By Dirk Anderson
What is Marital Excess?
In order to understand what Ellen White taught about "Marital Excess" one must first understand the nineteenth century concept of vital force. Dr. Ronald Numbers describes how vital force works:
"According to Adventist pioneer John Loughborough, vital force was 'that power placed in the human body, at its birth, which will enable the body, under favorable circumstances, to live to a certain age.' Since the initial endowment was limited, and since each sexual act used up an irreplenishable amount, it behooved those who coveted a long life to keep their sexual activities to a minimum."1Mrs. White most likely acquired her knowledge of vital force from other popular health reformers of her day, such as Horace Mann, whose writings on vital force closely resemble hers:
Health reformers in the 1800s considered sexual activity to be very draining upon the vital energies. For example, Seventh-day Adventist physician Dr. J.H. Kellogg wrote in 1877:
"The reproductive act is the most exhaustive of all vital acts."4
Mrs. White Warns Against Marital Excess
Mrs. White warns that God will hold marriage partners accountable for expending their vital energy:
"They do not see that God requires them to control their married lives from any excesses. But very few feel it to be a religious duty to govern their passions. They have united themselves in marriage to the object of their choice, and therefore reason that marriage sanctifies the indulgence of the baser passions. Even men and women professing godliness give loose rein to their lustful passions, and have no thought that God holds them accountable for the expenditure of vital energy, which weakens their hold on life and enervates the entire system."During the Puritanical era of the 1800s the ideal spiritual woman manifested little interest in sexuality. Writing in 1871, German neurologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing pronounced, "Woman, ...if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire." Dr. Kellogg has a similar quote in his 1877 book:
"I should say that the majority of women, happily for them, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. ... The best mothers, wives, and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, of children, of domestic duties, are the only passions they feel. As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself."6
Mrs. White urges wives to restrain the desires of their husbands, warning them that they will be held accountable on judgment day for "sexual excess":
"Sexual excess will effectually destroy a love for devotional exercises, will take from the brain the substance needed to nourish the system, and will most effectively exhaust the vitality. No woman should aid her husband in this work of self-destruction. She will not do it if she is enlightened and has true love for him. The more the animal passions are indulged, the stronger do they become, and the more violent will be their clamors for indulgence. Let God-fearing men and women awake to their duty. Many professed Christians are suffering with paralysis of nerve and brain because of their intemperance in this direction.
Does Refraining from Sex Boost One's Spirituality?
Contrary to Ellen White's teaching, when married partners refrain from sex for any extended length of time, instead of making one more "holy", it tends to have quite the exact opposite effect. The constant repression of natural sexual desires for a spouse may induce a person to lust even more than they would have had their physical desires been fulfilled by their spouse! Notice how Paul teaches the opposite of what Ellen White taught:
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Cor. 7:5 ESV)Paul's command is for spouses to have sex so that Satan cannot so easily tempt them. The only valid reason for refraining is for limited times of special prayer. This is in stark contrast to Ellen White's teachings, which envision a life-long life-style of having the wife constantly deny her husband so that they will not expend too much of their vital force, and so that having sex will not strengthen their "animal passions."
How Frequent is Excessive?
Mrs. White's statements seem somewhat bizarre from a modern medical perspective. There is no evidence that normal, frequent sexual activity takes away vital nourishment from the brain. The defender of Sister White may suggest that she was talking about abnormally extreme frequencies. Just exactly how frequent did Mrs. White view as excessive?
Mrs. White never defined exactly what excessive meant. In order to find out what she meant, we must determine how the term marital excess was used by the other health reformers of her day, in particular the ones from which she acquired her health teachings. In 1834, Sylvester Graham permitted a maximum of once a month.8 O.S. Fowler, a phrenologist who personally favored sex for procreation only, had stated, "to indulge, even in wedlock, as often as the moon quarters, is gradual but effectual destruction of both soul and body."9 Since the moon quarters every seven-and-a-half days, Fowler was saying that engaging in sex at a frequency of once a week was too frequent! Supposedly, those high frequencies would destroy the body! Adventist physician J.H. Kellogg seemed to agree with Graham by suggesting marriage partners "limit indulgence to the number of months in the year."10 Kellogg considered daily sex to be dangerous for both partners:
"Another case came under our observation in which the patient, a man, confessed to having indulged every night for twenty years. We did not wonder that at forty he was a complete physical wreck."11
The Whites seem to have agreed with Fowler's frequency for they reprinted his advice in an expanded version of Mrs. White's 1864 book on masturbation, Appeal to Mothers, which was republished in 1870 under the title Solemn Appeal Relative to Solitary Vice, and the Abuses and Excesses of the Marriage Relation.
Scientific research has shown that most married couples engage in sexual activity between 1 and 5 times per week. This is far in excess of the frequency advocated in Solemn Appeal. Contrary to Mrs. White's "inspired" testimonies, scientific research has shown that men and women who engage in more frequent sexual activity generally live longer than those with less frequent sexual activity.
According to Drs. Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz:
"Men who have sex three times a week can decrease their risk of heart attack and stroke by 50 percent..."12
Mrs. White is Wrong: Higher Frequencies are Actually Healthier
The recently published Caerphilly study from Great Britain suggests that men who have intimate relations more than once-a-week have lower rates of mortality. After analyzing the death rates of nearly 1,000 men ages 45 to 59, researchers from the University of Bristol and Queen's University of Belfast concluded that men who have more sex seem to live longer. According to the study, having regular marital relations reduces the risk of death by about half.
This analysis was part of a long-term study of chronic disease in which scientists assessed the existence of heart disease in the participants, and also asked them how often they had marital relations. Ten years later, the number of deaths was correlated with the reported frequency of intercourse. Men who said they had sex twice a week had a risk of dying half that of those who said they had sex once a month. Other scientific studies have substantiated this research.14
Mrs. White Preferred Celibacy
Since Mrs. White understood intimate marriage relations to be arousing the "base passions," it should be no surprise that she advocated celibacy, particularly for church workers. Not only would marital relations arouse the base passions, but they would also result in children which would distract the church workers from their mission. In 1895 Mrs. White wrote:
"The time has come when a sterile condition is not the worst condition to be in."15When a missionary couple had children, Mrs. White blasted them:
"I was shown that Brother and Sister Van Horn had departed from God's counsel in bringing into the world children. God required all there was of them in His work and both could have done a good work for the Master, but the enemy came in and his counsel was followed, and the cause of God was robbed of the attention it should have had... The time has come when, in one sense, they that have wives be as though they had none."16In another letter she wrote of another missionary couple:
"How much better would have been the influence of both if they had not married, but both have devoted their interests to God's cause; and after they were married, how much better for them to have thoroughly considered the situation and decided that God should have all the powers He had given them in the work of saving souls."17Mrs. White, convinced of the immediate return of Christ, warned that children would soon be taken from their parents by death. Apparently, this is yet another reason not to engage in marital relations:
"Parents give but little attention to them, and in the near future they will be removed by death. Woe unto them that be with child, and give suck in these days, and if our workers were walking close with God, they would feel that it is no matter of rejoicing to bring a child into the world. A blessing is pronounced upon the eunuchs who keep the Lord's Sabbath."18
Proponents of Ellen White who have become convinced, by the weight of the evidence, that Mrs. White copied her health reforms from the other health reformers of her day, often make the groundless claim that Mrs. White was given divine insight into which reforms to copy and which to discard. The case of "marital excess" proves that Ellen White did not have any divine insight into this subject. Her teachings contradict the Bible and common sense. In fact, if her extreme and misguided admonitions on this subject were indeed followed, Adventist married couples would potentially live shorter, less-fulfilled lives.
“Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” declares the Lord. “They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,” declares the Lord. (Jer. 23:32 NIV)
1. Ronald Numbers, Ph.D., Prophetess of Health, p. 154.
2. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 29.
3. Horace Mann, Dedicatory and Inaugural Address.
4. J.H. Kellogg, Plain Facts for Old and Young, p. 119.
5. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 472; Solemn Appeal, p. 171.
6. Kellogg, p. 473.
7. Ellen White, Adventist Home, pp. 124-126.
8. Sylvester Graham, Lecture to Young Men, on Chastity, pp. 83, 144-148 (1834).
9. O.S. Fowler, Hereditary Descent, p. 206.
10. Kellogg, p. 487.
11. Ibid., p. 468.
12. Imaeyen Ibanga, "Best Reason to Have Sex: Your Health", March 9, 2008, ABC News, Good Morning America, On Call, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/OnCall/story?id=7037716&page=1.
14. For further study see Michael F. Roizen, M.D., Real Age, (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) p. 131.
15. Ellen White, Letter 15, 1895.
16. Ellen White, MS 34, 1885.
17. Ellen White, letter written from Europe in 1888, as quoted in "Counsels Regarding Parenthood" (DF 360A), a document produced by the Ellen G. White Estate.
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