The Desire of Ages Project: The Conclusions of Fred Veltman, Ph.D.

Ministry, December 1990


In 1982, Dr. Fred Veltman, then chairman of the religion department of Pacific Union College, was asked by the Seventh-day Adventist church to analyze the charges of plagiarism brought by Walter Rea and others against Ellen White. Dr. Veltman spent eight years at church expense studying The Desire of Ages (hereafter referred to as DA). His research was printed in the Adventist church's official magazine for clergy named Ministry. Following are Veltman's five conclusions excerpted from the December, 1990, issue of Ministry (pp. 11-14):

1. Ellen White used literary sources when writing DA

The purpose of this fundamental claim, and for many an obvious truth, is to set forth clearly the following facts. It is of first importance to note that Ellen White herself, not her literary assistants, composed the basic content of the DA text. In doing so she was the one who took literary expressions from the works of other authors without giving them credit as her sources 2. Second, it should be recognized that Ellen White used [plagiarized] the writings of others consciously and intentionally. The literary parallels are not the result of accident or photographic memory.

In view of the fact that she employed editorial assistants, our clearest evidence of Ellen White's literary borrowing comes from her personal diaries and manuscripts. If we want to establish more precisely the degree of literary dependence, it would be well to study the manuscripts as they come from her hand, comparing both the dependent and independent sentences. Each manuscript should be treated as a whole. When we take the chapter as the basic unit of composition, we remove ourselves several steps from Ellen White's basic work.

The first and fundamental conclusion never fails to elicit a further inquiry as to its implications. Implicitly or explicitly Ellen White and others speaking on her behalf did not admit to and even denied literary dependency [copying] on her part.3 In the light of this study and other similar studies, what are we to make of such denials? I think that any attempt to address this problem should include a serious consideration of Ellen White's understanding of inspiration and of her role as a prophet. Such a study should be contextualized in terms of nineteenth-century views on inspiration, especially within Adventism.

2. The content of DA is for the most part derived rather than original

In light of the data our source studies on the DA text provided, this conclusion might appear to some readers as being unjustified.4 To those who have been told that literary sources played a minimal role in Ellen White's compositions such a statement may be incredible. Obviously this second general conclusion calls for some clarification.

Source dependency involves more than verbal parallels. We must consider not only the DA text as it reads today, but also Ellen White's earlier writings, the thematic structure of her writings, and the content of her material even where no direct literary similarity exists. When we do so, we find that she depended on her sources to a much greater degree than the verbal similarities of the DA text to those sources indicate.

We must not place too much weight upon arguments from silence. But it is worthy of note that the DA material that we classified as independent was often material dealing with topics, not usually covered in a work on the life of Christ. Since our study was largely limited to this type of literature, the reader must consider our estimate of the level of source dependency [plagiarism] in DA as conservative.5

In practical terms, this conclusion declares that one is not able to recognize in Ellen White's writings on the life of Christ any general category of content or catalog of ideas that is unique to her. We found source parallels for theological, devotional, narrative, descriptive, and spiritual materials, whether in reference to biblical or extrabiblical content.

Ever since the recent surfacing of the issue of Ellen White's literary borrowing [ie Walter Rea's publication of the White Lie in 1981] the question How much? has had center stage. Adventists have tended to emphasize the uniqueness, the originality, of the content of Ellen White's writings. But in an ultimate spiritual sense Ellen White always insisted that her works were derivative. She received the information from which she wrote out her views through visions, through some sort of impression upon the mind, and from Scripture. She saw herself as a messenger of the Lord. I believe the issue that concerned her was the authority and truth of her messages--not their originality. For Ellen White, all truth ultimately originates with God.

3. The special character of Ellen White's commentary is to be found in its practical use of Scriptures and in its stress on spiritual realities and personal devotion

Though Ellen White's writings appear to have been largely derivative, they do not lack originality. A fair assessment of the evidence should not deny or underplay the degree of her dependence, but neither should it overlook or depreciate her independence. Despite her lack of formal education and her dependence upon literary sources and literary assistants, Ellen White could write. She obviously had the ability to express her thoughts clearly. She was not slavishly dependent upon her sources, and the way she incorporated their content clearly shows that she recognized the better literary constructions. She knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It may not be possible to identify Ellen White's "fingerprint" in the material that Marian Davis edited, but certain features of her work are readily apparent. She did not approach the biblical text as a scholarly exegete. Rather, she approached it from a practical point of view, taking the obvious, almost literal meaning. She gave Marian Davis the responsibility of deciding where the earlier publication needed improving. In some instances the revision included a change in the order of events to bring her writings into harmony with the text of Scripture.

Another distinct characteristic of her work is stress on what I have called "spiritual realities." She differed from her sources in the emphasis she gave to descriptions of the activities or viewpoints of God and His angels and of Satan and his angels. She appears to be much more informed and at home than her sources when discussing the "other world," the real though invisible world of the spiritual beings of the universe. Her concern for reality is also evident in her replacing the expressions of probability, supposition, and imagination found in the sources with factual accounts given in the style of a reporter or eyewitness.

Ellen White's "signature" is also to be found in the proportion of commentary given to devotional, moral, or Christian appeals or lessons that usually appear at the end of a chapter. This feature would naturally fit the evangelistic purpose that motivated her writings on the life of Christ. It is among her devotional comments and throughout her presentation of what I have called "spiritual realities" that we are more likely to find her independent hand at work.

Ellen White's independence is also to be seen in her selectivity. The sources were her slaves, never her master. Future studies would do well to compare her text with that of the sources and to note how she selected, condensed, paraphrased, and in general rearranged much of the material she used.

Our study raised another question that merits further attention: Was Ellen White indebted to sources for her devotional or spiritual comments? We did find several parallels in one or two works of this type, but our research did not survey enough of these works to establish whether her apparent independence is owing to her originality or to the limits of our investigation. When we extend the survey of possible sources to sermons and devotional literature, we will be able to tell how accurate are our data on her independence and bring into sharper focus just how much of her sections of comment corresponds to or differs from the sources she used.

Finally, regarding content, how do Ellen White's writings on the life of Christ compare among themselves? We can no longer ask either Ellen White or those who knew her to explain what she meant by what she wrote. To be fair to her and to avoid the misuse of her authority, we must be careful how we represent what she wrote and how we establish what her position on a given subject was. My study of her writings on the life of Christ has given me the impression that some of her views changed through time. The very fact that the DA text represents a revision of her earlier work suggests that her writings form a textual tradition.

4. Ellen White used a minimum of 23 sources, including fiction7

Warns Others Against Fiction
"To take up fictitious stories, the fruits of somebody's imagination, is to lay the mind open to the bewitching power of Satan; and this kind of reading creates an unnatural appetite for fictitious stories, from which no moral strength is derived. Fictitious stories leave the mind and heart as destitute of the grace of God as were the hills of Gilboa of dew and rain. Let every one who claims to be a child of God, burn the magical books. If the mind is filled with that which is like to chaff, only chaff will come forth from the mind."
(Ellen White, Youth Instructor, Nov. 23, 1893)

Actually we have no way of knowing how many sources are represented in Ellen White's work on the life of Christ. In addition to the remaining 72 chapters of the DA text, there are two other books to review: Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing and Christ's Object Lessons. These 23 writers are sufficient, however, to answer the questions so many have asked: From what writers did Ellen White borrow? What kinds of books were they writing?

One obviously fictional account is Ingraham's The Prince of the House of David, a work that Albert Schweitzer referred to as one of the "edifying romances on the life of Jesus intended for family reading.8 Ingraham cast his work as a collection of letters written by an eyewitness in Palestine to her father in Egypt.

William Hannah's popular work was designed to be "practical and devotional."9 No wonder that parallels from Hanna are to be found in 13 of the 15 DA chapters we investigated.

The books in Ellen White's library at the time of her death appear to corroborate what her writings reveal. She read widely in works of differing literary type, theological perspective, and scholarly depth.

5. Ellen White's literary assistants, particularly Marian Davis, are responsible for the published form of DA

The role of Ellen White's literary assistants was not a major concern of the study. But the subject cannot be entirely excluded from any serious attempt to treat her use of sources. Her method of writing inextricably involved the work of her secretaries, especially that of her "bookmaker." A significant part of the introduction to the research report covers this interesting side to Ellen White's literary work.

The evidence suggests that she wrote day by day in her journals, moving from topic to topic as time and opportunity made it possible. No doubt she worked with one source for a while and then moved on to another source and another subject. These jottings would be copied and corrected for grammar, syntax, and spelling when she passed that journal over to one of her secretaries. Several journals would be active at the same time.

From these collections her assistants would compose articles for Adventist journals. It appears that larger publications were produced from collections of materials gathered into a scrapbook. At least that seems to be the way the chapters for DA were compiled. Apparently her assistants at times developed manuscripts from journal entries. Several of the manuscripts consist mainly of excerpts from earlier writings and do not carry Ellen White's signature.

Our comparison of manuscripts with the finished text and our study of the letters Ellen White and Marian Davis wrote that reveal the steps required for preparing the text for publication clearly show that Marian Davis had the liberty to modify sentence structure, to rearrange paragraphs, and to establish chapter length. Ellen White was more concerned about the general content of the book, the cost, and getting the material to the public as soon as possible. She also took a keen interest in the artwork used to illustrate her writings.

I found no evidence to indicate that Marian Davis was involved in the original composition of any Ellen White text. But without the original manuscripts it is difficult to prove that such did not happen with any portion of the text of DA. It might prove helpful to make a stylistic study of the letters of Marian Davis and the handwritten materials of Ellen White. If their "fingerprints" emerge, we would have some basis for determining more precisely the level of involvement Marian Davis exercised in her role as "bookmaker." It may well be that she deserves some public recognition for her services in this regard.


Question: How do you harmonize Ellen White's use of sources with her statements to the contrary?

Veltman: I must admit at the start that in my judgment this is the most serious problem to be faced in connection with Ellen White's literary dependence [copying]. It strikes at the heart of her honesty, her integrity, and therefore her trustworthiness. As of now I do not have--nor, to my knowledge, does anyone else have--a satisfactory answer to this important question.

The Validity of Veltman's Research

Remember, Dr. Veltman's comments come from one who is a friend, not an opponent, of the SDA church. Robert Olson, then secretary of the White Estate was asked by Ministry magazine if he was satisfied with Veltman's research:

"I am totally satisfied with this study. No one could have done a better job--no one. He [Veltman] did it as a neutral person would have and not as an apologist." (Ministry, Dec. 1990, p. 16)

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2 I do not claim that her secretaries did not borrow from the sources. My point is that I found no evidence that they composed the text using literary sources, and there is plenty of evidence in Ellen White's manuscripts to show that she did so.
3 See "Personal Postscript" for the reference of the statement from The Great Controversy on this question.
4 See questions 5, 6, and 7 in the first article in this series, "The Desire of Ages Project: The Data," Ministry, October 1990.
5 For example, chapter 56, "Blessing the Children," includes much comment on motherhood, fatherhood, and the family. Until we survey the literature that we know Ellen White read on such topics, we cannot be sure that the sentences of this chapter actually deserve the independent rating we have given them.
6 For a good example of a content analysis, see Tim Poirier's "Sources Clarify Ellen White's Christology," Ministry, December 1989, pp. 7-9.
7 The summary statement in the first article listed 28 writers and 32 sources for both the DA and pre-DA texts. I came up with the number 23 by omitting the duplications between the two textual surveys and, in an effort to be sure that we had bona fide sources, by eliminating from the count all sources providing less than five parallels for any given chapter.
8 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: A. and C. Black, Ltd., 1910), p. 328, note 1.
9 Daniel L. Pals, The Victorian "Lives" of Christ (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1982), p. 69.

Category: Plagiarism
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