Ellen G. White: Prophet or Profit?
By Dirk Anderson
Most Seventh-day Adventists have heard stories of how the Whites started their ministry "penniless," and how Mrs. White died "in debt." Mrs. White's writings are filled with lessons of self-denial and sacrifice. What few SDAs realize is that her early years of poverty were quickly erased as she and James amassed an enormous fortune in money, assets and real estate. This page will present evidence that Mrs. White enjoyed the luxuries of the "rich and famous." In terms of today's dollars, her income was literally in the millions of dollars!
How did Ellen White amass her great fortune?
Book Royalties - The vast majority of her income came through royalties on her books. She made well over $100,000 in book royalties in her lifetime. In today's (year 2019) dollars, that is approximately 3.1 million dollars!1
She may have started out penniless in the 1840s, but that situation was soon reversed. By the late 1850s, she was making over $1,000 a year on royalties. Mrs. White earned $11,435 in the decade of 1856 to 1866. In terms of year 2019 dollars, that is $329,696, or nearly $33,000 per year. Yet these were still lean years compared to what she would make later on. In the 1890s and 1900s she was making $8,000 to $12,000 a year in book royalties. In year 2019 dollars, that amounts to $248,768 to $373,153 a year! That type of income would easily place her among the top 1% of wage-earners in the world.2
In addition, James wrote books, and although we have no figures on his royalties, it can be presumed the Whites enjoyed the income from his writings as well. James was known as a shrewd and gifted businessman. He wrote a letter encouraging Ellen to write more books, holding out the prospect of increasing their income:
"With the increased demand for our writings...there will be an income of several thousand dollars annually, besides the immense amount of good our writings will do."3
James understood how to generate wealth from their writings. In one letter he wrote to his wife saying: "Our financial matters stand well, and there is wealth yet in our pens."4
Perhaps Ellen's greatest wealth-maker was the book Steps to Christ. Fleming Revell, the non-Adventist puslisher, offered Mrs. White a sweet deal: "5 percent royalty on the first 1,000, with 10 percent on all subsequent issues."5 The book sold for 75 cents and within five years, 100,000 copies had been sold.6 After battling with SDA publishers for years over her cut of the royalties, Mrs. White was well-pleased with this royalty-arrangement. She wrote in 1897:
"Steps to Christ was given to Revell. I have received quite a sum of money... more than has come to me from some books; and I think more would come to me if he had more of my books to handle. ... I shall place more books in his hand...for I can receive better satisfaction than I have received from the Battle Creek publishing house."7
10 percent royalties on 100,000 books selling at 75 cents is $7,500. In 2019 dollars, that is $224,582, or about $45,000 per year for just a single book. Exact figures are unknown, but the book likely sold over a million copies in Ellen White's lifetime, generating her an enormous income.
Minister's Salary - The Whites each received a salary from the SDA church. Mrs. White received a salary similar to that paid to ministers. Granted this was not much compared to their book royalties, but both of their salaries were larger than was paid to most ministers in the denomination.
Rental Income - As the Whites acquired real estate, they rented out properties. While it is difficult to assess their rental income, there are a few examples in her letters. In 1878, Mrs. White mentions renting a home she owns for $65/month, which is $1,745/month in 2019 dollars.8 In 1881, she tells Willie to collect rent from two different renters who were late on paying.9 In 1889, she attempts to rent her home in Battle Creek for $12-$15/month ($346-$432/month in 2019 dollars).10 In 1890, she discusses renting out one of her larger properties for $175 ($5,041 in 2019 dollars).11
Other Income - Mrs. White received pay for all the articles she wrote for denominational papers. (Interestingly enough, most other authors contributed their articles gratuitously). The Whites peddled various other merchandise, such as religious pictures. When the "Reform Dress" was being pushed by the Whites in the early 1860s, Mrs. White went to the various churches and sold paper dress patterns for a dollar apiece. That sounds insignificant, but in year 2019 dollars that is approximately $29 a pattern!12
Furthermore, we must remember that Mrs. White lived in an era before the United States' government invented the Personal Income Tax and the Social Security Tax! Therefore, the Whites were able to keep the vast majority of their income.
Evidence of her Wealth
Unlike Jesus, the apostles, and many of the Biblical prophets who were often poor and desolate, Mrs. White lived a life reserved for the wealthiest of her day:
Posh Multi-Million-Dollar Estate - The last fifteen years of Mrs. White's life were spent at Elmshaven, her elegant two-story ranch home in the exclusive Napa Valley area near San Francisco in Northern California. While the estate was purchased for a bargain $5,000 (over $100,000 in today's dollars), if the property were sold today, the beautifully furnished mansion and 74-acre estate would possibly be valued at up to ten million dollars.13 In addition to the mansion, the property included:
Real Estate Holdings - It's difficult to ascertain the extent of the White's real estate holdings because records are scant. However, here are some of their documented holdings:
Personal Staff - A large chunk of Mrs. White's income went to pay for her extensive staff, although some of them were paid by the SDA Church. From the 1870s onward, she had six to twelve people assisting her with her writings. W. C. White headed up her editorial staff after 1881. He had his wife, Mary K. White, and Marian Davis assisting him, along with Joseph H. Waggoner, Sara McEnterfer, and Jenny Ings. Others assisted on a part-time basis. This group kept the books, articles, and testimonies churning out.
Mrs. White had an extensive household staff as well. Mrs. White is pictured on the right surrounded by her household and office staff at her Elmshaven estate in 1913. Her large staff of 14 people included a personal nurse (Sara McEnterfer), a cook, a copyist, a seamstress, farm hands, several secretaries and various other office assistants and office personnel. It is uncertain how many of her staff were paid directly by Ellen White, and how many volunteered their labor or were paid by the SDA Church. What is known is that while Mrs. White was preparing her book on the life of Christ in the 1890s, she spent $3,000 on literary "workers."24 In 2019 dollars, that is nearly $100,000.
Lavish Lifestyle - Not only did the Whites earn big money--they spent big! There is also no doubt they spent money lavishly on themselves. Following are a few examples:
Financing the SDA Cause - There is no denying the Whites gave liberally to their cause, the Seventh-day Adventist sect. The Whites gave tithes and offerings to the SDA Church. By 1885, the Whites, by their own estimation, had contributed over $30,000 to the SDA cause over the prior four decades.28 In 2019 dollars, that is around a million dollars. Assuming they gave a liberal 20% of their income, then it can be calculated that in those four decades they earned $150,000, or in 2019 dollars, five million dollars. And those were their leanest years.
Used God to sell her books?
Mrs. White had an incredible advantage in selling her books. She could write a testimony promoting her books, and her loyal followers, thinking the testimony was direct from God's mouth, would rush out to purchase her books and peddle them to others. Notice how she promoted her works:
"The larger books, Patriarchs and Prophets, Great Controversy, and Desire of Ages, should be sold everywhere. These books contain truth for this time,--truth that is to be proclaimed in all parts of the world. Nothing is to hinder their sale. Many more of our larger books might have been sold if church-members had been awake to the importance of the truths these books contain, and had realized their responsibility to circulate them. My brethren and sisters, will you not now make an effort to circulate these books? Work earnestly."29
Not only were the faithful followers exhorted to buy Ellen White's books for themselves and their neighbors, but they also had to pay outrageous prices for them. In 1890, the Norwich Town SDA Church complained about this testimony:
"This testimony appears very significant when we take into consideration the price for which these books are sold. Books as large, and bound equally as well, can be bought for fifty cents per volume. The Testimonies sell for $1.50 per volume. Now here are directions professing to come from a divine source that call upon all to buy these books. If these Testimonies contain the 'revealed will of God,' why not sell them at a 'live and let live' price? Do I need to say more? -- selling Testimonies at $1.50 per volume which call for free contributions! Is this what the 'gift of prophecy' is for, to sell books at an exorbitant price? to 'move the brethren' to contribute freely?"34
Fund-raising was a central theme of Ellen White's message. In 1849, during a period when Ellen's spirit guides were warning her, "time is almost finished,"35 she implored the brethren to sell all their possessions to fund the Whites' ministry:
"I saw it was the will of God that the saints should cut loose from every encumbrance--dispose of their houses and lands before the time of trouble comes, and make a covenant with God by sacrifice. I saw they would sell if they laid their property on the altar and earnestly inquired for duty."36
Not all of the brethren were pleased to be constantly badgered for money by the Whites. One early Adventist, disgusted with the visions calling for money, decided in 1854 that he would have no part of it:
"I must and will be free of the responsibility of publishing and sending out Ellen's visions to open the hearts of the Br'n to give, and then have that means used so that it would be better to use her own words 'Sunk in the bottom of the Ocean.'"37
By 1857, the Whites had decided the end was not quite so imminent, so Mrs. White toned down her visions, saying God did not need Adventists to part with their homes just yet, but if they were willing to downsize to a cheaper home, the Whites would be glad to collect the difference:
"I saw that at present God did not call for the houses his people need to live in, unless expensive houses are exchanged for cheaper ones."38
She then insisted the wealthy were to cut loose with at least part of their possessions or risk losing their calling:
"But if those who have of their abundance do not hear his voice, and cut loose from the world, and dispose of a portion of their property and lands, and sacrifice for God, he will pass them by, and call for those who are willing to do anything for Jesus, even to sell their homes to meet the wants of the cause."39
In 1859, Mrs. White continued her mantra of "give before it's too late." She used her visions to attempt to convince a man of "considerable means" that God wanted him to fork his money over to the Whites:
"Dear Brother, I saw that the Lord wanted your means which he has lent you. He calls for you to use it to advance His cause. ... I saw that you should work as fast as possible to remove the means which God has lent you from the hands of unbelievers and transfer it to the believers... I saw that the scenes of this earth’s history are fast closing. It will soon all be finished, and what is to be done must be done quickly. "40
Similar fund-raising scare-tactics were used by Ellen throughout the remainder of her ministry. Sadly, the SDA Corporation continues the practice even to this day. The author has heard more than one sermon preached wherein the thought was expressed that it was better to give sacrificially now rather than lose it all during the time of trouble.
Contradicts plain Bible teachings
Mrs. White frequently exhorted her followers to fill the church's coffers with their hard-earned money. Mrs. White gave specific instructions that tithe money was to be used exclusively for the gospel ministry:
"The tithe is set apart for a special use. It is not to be regarded as a poor fund. It is to be especially devoted to the support of those who are bearing God's message to the world; and it should not be diverted from this purpose."41
Mrs. White said tithe was not to go to the poor. What does the Bible teach about tithe money?
"At the end of three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase the same year, and shalt lay [it] up within thy gates: And the Levite, (because he hath no part nor inheritance with thee,) and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which [are] within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand which thou doest."42
The Bible instructs the Israelites to save up their tithe for three years, and then disburse it amongst the Levites, foreign visitors, orphans, and widows. If that is not a "poor fund," then what is? A portion was to go to the ministers (the Levites), but the people were also commanded by God to share their tithe money with those who were poor and could not support themselves.
The great controversy over royalties
At one time in her career, some brethren urged Mrs. White to lower her royalties so the work could move forward. They presented to her the generous and self-sacrificing example of Uriah Smith, who graciously agreed to lower royalties on his book so the work could go forward. Apparently flabbergasted and humiliated by Smith's example, she responds with a well-timed "vision" to turn the tables upon the publishers:
"I have been shown that some men worked with Elder Smith, in an underhanded manner, in order to lead him to place the lowest possible royalties on his books. Elder Smith was deceived in the object of these men; he thought that they were really trying to advance the cause of God; and they obtained their desire. Then they came to me and to others, telling us that Brother Smith received only so much for his books, and urging that the canvassers would rather handle books that would sell rapidly.
While we may never know the real motives of the men who suggested she lower her royalties, it is safe to assume that after this stinging testimony, SDA publishers were probably very wary about bringing up the subject of royalties again with Sister White.
In 1885, Mrs. White found herself in a dispute with the publishers of her books. Mrs. White was concerned about the way her book royalties were being handled by the brethren. Mrs. White was upset because she was only getting $0.15 per book sold (in 2019 dollars, that is equivalent to $4.32 per book). Under previous arrangements with her book publishers, Mrs. White got all the profits from the first edition of a book. Profits from later editions (at least the 2nd) were split between the book salesmen and herself. As we will see from the letter below, she viewed the paying of those selling the books, at least for the first edition, to be "unjust."
In the past, Mrs. White had been accustomed to getting some special deals on the publishing of her books. According to the Nov. 6, 1866, Hope of Israel, “We are credibly informed that her books are all published free; so that she will have all the profit on their sale.” However, by 1885, the situation had changed, and in the following letter Ellen White threatens to take her book publishing business elsewhere:
With reference to my book, I desire to say that I am not complaining because I think the office has been receiving too much for publishing it, but because I am not satisfied with the income it brings to me. Some plan should have been devised whereby more than fifteen cents royalty per copy would come to me. I do not remember that I was ever consulted regarding this matter. I thought that my brethren would guard my interests as sacredly as they would their own interests ...
Some have tried to paint Ellen White as an impoverished, self-denying prophet. They point to her early ministry when the Whites barely made enough money to survive. They point to the fact that she died "in debt." However, they fail to mention that in today's dollars, her books alone brought her an income equivalent to more than three million dollars. This is not to mention the wealth and real estate amassed by James White. This is not to mention the income from her minister's salary, and the money from the other business enterprises the Whites engaged in. The truth is that according to the living standards of the 1800s, the Whites were enormously wealthy. Yes, they gave liberally of their money to church projects. But they also lived the life of the "rich and famous." Mrs. White visited exclusive spas and health resorts, wore fine clothing, dined on the best food, traveled the world, and finally settled in a posh multi-million-dollar mansion with her staff, including a nurse, a cook, and a seamstress.
Seventh-day Adventism was highly profitable for Ellen White. The question for you to ponder is: Was it Prophet or Profit?
2. Mrs. White's earnings were reported in the November 6, 1866, issue of Hope of Israel. Inflation calculated using The Inflation Calculator (see footnote #1).
3. James White, Letter to Ellen White, Apr. 18, 1880.
4. James White, Letter to Ellen White, Feb. 18, 1881. In addition to books, James also sold Adventist charts. Ellen White wrote to her family: "...your father was doing business selling charts and books every moment of the time." (Letter 7, 1863 to Henry, Edson and William White).
5. Fleming H. Revell, letter to "Mr. Chadwick," Oct. 17, 1891.
6. Arthur Patrick, "Author," Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 104.
7. Ellen White, Manuscript 80, 1897.
8. Ellen White, Letter 14, March 8, 1878.
9. Ellen White, Letter 18, December 6, 1881.
10. Ellen White, Letter 19, January 8, 1889.
11. Ellen White, Letter 13b, January 15, 1890.
12. $1 in 1862 was worth $27.71 in 2017. (The Inflation Calculator)
13. The average price of a home in St. Helena in 2001 is reported to be $749,000. (www.realtor.com) According to one resident of St. Helena, "From personal experience, that doesn't buy much of a home. (The very mediocre house my in-laws still rent, a stone's throw from the St. Helena SDA church, is valued at roughly $600,000 -- and it is in a rather sad state of repair.) Having recently toured Elmshaven, and being somewhat familiar with real estate values in that area, I would estimate that the value of Elmshaven would much likely be more than $10,000,000!! Particularly given the amount of extremely coveted vineyard space the grounds of that estate could provide."
14. Gerald Wheeler, James White: Innovator and Overcomer, p. 97 (Review and Herald Publishing Assn, © 2003).
16. Wheeler, p. 97.
17. Ellen White, Selected Messages Book 3, p. 103, comments inserted by the compilers: "On March 22, James White left Oakland, where they had just built a home...".
18. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White Volume 3 The Lonely Years 1876-1891, p. 79.
19. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases Vol. 3, p. 269, (Letter 245, 1904, to Elder N. C. McClure, July 12, 1904).
20. Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White Volume 3 The Lonely Years 1876-1891, p. 120.
21. Wheeler, p. 97.
23. Ellen White, Letter 88, Apr. 15, 1890.
24. Ellen White, Letter 114 to Mrs. Wessels, July 16, 1896.
25. $500 in 1876 was worth $11,689.50 in 2017. Ellen White, Letter 1a, 1876, p.1. (To James White, March 24, 1876).
26. Ellen White, Letter 16, 1882.
27. J.H. Kellogg letter to E.S. Ballenger, January 9, 1936.
28. Ellen White, Manuscript 35, 1885. The exact amount in 2019 dollars cannot be calculated because it was given over a nearly 40-year period. However, if it was all given in 1885, it would be $864,226.91 in 2019 dollars. Since much of it was given earlier than 1885, the actual amount in 2019 dollars is probably at least a million dollars.
29. Ellen White, Southern Watchman, Jan. 15, 1903.
30. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 77.
31. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 681.
32. Ellen White, General Conference Bulletin, Apr. 14, 1901.
33. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 390-391.
34. The Claims of Mrs. Ellen G. White, tract No. 1, issued by the SDA Church, Norwich Town, Conn., 1890, http://www.ex-sda.com/newpage25.htm.
35. Ellen White, "A Sketch of the Christian Experience and Views of Ellen G. White (1851)", p. 55, para. 1.
36. Ellen White, "To Those who are receiving the seal of the living God", January 31, 1849, para. 9. Ellen White wrote a letter to Brother Phillips on Oct. 10, 1859, admonishing him: "Those who have property have a duty to do to dispose of their means to God's glory..." (Letter 22, 1859). Ellen White wrote a letter to Brother and Sister Sperry, who had sold land and were moving out West, saying: "Here is an opportunity for you to deny yourself and sacrifice an offering of the best of your substance..." (Letter 4b, 1861) Ellen wrote of Adventists in 1857, "They have been loving the world, loving their farms, cattle, etc. Now Jesus calls them to cut loose, to lay up treasures in heaven..." (Manuscript 2, 1857).
37. J.B. Bezzo, "Messenger of Truth", vol. 1, no. 3, Oct. 19, 1854, p. 2.
38. Ellen White, The Review and Herald, November 26, 1857, para. 30.
40. Ellen White, Letter 4, 1859.
41. Ellen White, Review and Herald Supplement, Dec. 1, 1896.
42. Deut. 14:28-29, KJV.
43. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases, Vol. 17, p. 191.
44. Ellen White, Letter written to J. H. Waggoner and C. H. Jones, March 7, 1885, from Healdsburg, California. Letter 15, 1885. Released by Ellen G. White Estate, Washington, D.C. January 22, 1989. Manuscript Releases, Vol. 20, pp. 48-50.
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