The Ailing Health Instructor

By Max Chugg

The Health of the Whites

Despite her "inspired" counsel to others, Mrs. White's own family health record should be a major concern for those who would promote her as an authority on health.

Mrs. White was frequently ill, and her husband suffered many health problems and died an early death. Mrs. White's youngest son, Henry, lived from 1847 to 1863, a mere 16 years. Her youngest, John, lived a mere 3 months. James, Henry, and John all died from disease or illness.

For a person who wishes to provide counsels on diet and foods, and to promote healthful living, this record is a poor recommendation. But the problem runs much deeper, because the health record of the White family is pathetic.

Ellen married James White on 30th August 1846, and illness immediately followed. She was desperately ill for three weeks, and, convinced that prayers were protracting her intense agony, requested them to stop.1 What an interesting concept! God hears members of His "remnant church" praying for the recovery of their leader, and rewards their prayers by adding to Mrs. White's problems. This is surely without precedent in scripture.

Ellen White's Health Complaints
In her diaries, letters, and autobiographical writings, she would chronically complain of a whole panoply of physical and psychological problems: weakness and fainting, breathing difficulties and lung pains, "heart disease," loss of sight and loss of consiciousness, "inflammation of the brain," paralysis and lameness, stomach trouble, dropsy, and rheumatism, as well as melancholy and severe depression.44

In 1854, when pregnant with her third child, she could only breathe with difficulty, had frequent fainting fits, and a swelling on her eye which was painful and affected her vision. She "dishonoured God" by visiting an earthly physician, and was told that the growth was probably a cancer, but that she would die of apoplexy before the cancer broke out. Eventually the "cancer" was cured. A month later she suffered a stroke.2

In 1858 she was "attacked by Satan" and was left with a swollen face and blocked eyes. This probably came as no surprise because "Satan's darts were hurled at us more than others."3 Here she is craving sympathy from others.

Illness continued at Memphis, where Mrs. White complained of overwork and illness: "Our nights were spent in broken sleep, because of bodily infirmities."4 In Europe it was the same story, and in Cologne Mrs. White recorded that "The old sickness follows me" and says she is "weak and sick and yet compelled to labor."5 Who compelled her? Her own "inspired" counsel in relation to temperance should have prevented this problem from arising. Yet another plea for pity comes from her account of the dream in which she has a conversation with James after his death. In this dream, James tells Ellen "Our people will never know under what infirmities we have labored to serve them".6

The climate of Australia was no help. Here "she little realized the ominous nature of the situation, for this was the onset of a prolonged and painful illness that was to affect her ministry in Australia materially". The illnesses she claims to have suffered in Australia included inflammatory rheumatism, malarial fever and bleeding of the lungs. She wrote that " For eleven months I did not have the free use of my arms."7

Ellen's Malaria Cure
While living in Melbourne she claimed to have suffered malarial fever.8 It is generally accepted that malaria does not come below 19 deg. S. latitude, and Melbourne is about 1000 miles below that position, so it is practically impossible to believe that she contracted malaria in Australia. Had Mrs. White really contracted this debilitating disease as she claims, it is highly improbable that it would have only received the passing mention that she gives it. In particular, the treatment that she received would have been ineffective because, with her "inspired" medical knowledge, she denounced the use of quinine9, but pronounced lemon juice to be good for malaria!10 These are discoveries that modern medical science has yet to make!

Her eventual return to the U.S.A. did not end the complaints of constant illness that persisted until the end of her life.

In 1865, after James suffered a stroke, James, Ellen, Laughborough, Sister M.F. Maxson and Uriah Smith all went to Dr. Jackson's Health Institute, and to that party were later added Willie and Edson White and Adelia Patten as a helper for Ellen. This visit lasted for three months and cost $40 per week for the White family, plus an additional $20 per week for Uriah Smith and Elder Loughborough, and presumably the same for Adelia Patten and Sr. Maxson. Although, at that time a woodcutter was earning fifty cents a day,11 the cost was no problem to Mrs. White because it was borne by church members.12 We are not told who paid for the team of horses sent to Dansville, New York, to "augment James' physical activities." Why were they needed when Mrs. White was so definite that walking is the best form of exercise?

Mrs. White's Mental Illness
Ellen White repeatedly complained she was "depressed." Examples from her letters and diary:43

1845 - "...a depression came upon me... my soul was plunged in despair. ... my faith was gone. ... my mind had become depressed."
1848 - "The next morning I was greatly depressed in spirits."
1857 - "After the conference my mind was very much depressed. Discouragement pressed heavily upon me."
1859 - "...feel a depression of spirits this morning. spirits are somewhat depressed. ... My spirits are depressed. ... But Oh, why am I so depressed, why so cast down and homesick? Have I departed from God, that I am thus left in darkness? ... Went to the meeting with a heavy heart. Am much depressed in spirit. ... And I am enveloped in clouds and am much discouraged. ... My spirits are depressed. My mind was particularly depressed. A horror of great darkness settled upon me. ... Miserable in health and depressed in spirits. ... A strange sadness is upon me. I am so lonely, so distressed! Such a gloom rests upon everything. It seems that a heavy stone is placed upon my heart. seems as though it would be a sweet relief to rest in the grave. ... I have no health and my mind is completely depressed. ... Oh, why is it that such gloom rests upon everything? Why can I not rise above this depression of spirit? ... I am suffering with pain in my side and great depression of spirits. ... Was very sick and much discouraged. ... "
1862 - "I have been sick in body and depressed in mind for about two weeks..."
1868 - "Arose sick in body and depressed in mind."
1871 - "The night of April 30, 1871, I retired to rest much depressed in spirits. I had been in a state of great discouragement for three months."
1894 - "...I was depressed in mind and distressed almost beyond measure..."
1904 - "My mind would not work, and I felt much depressed."
1908 - "For weeks I had been depressed..."

In summary, Mrs. White claims to have suffered at length from the following illnesses:

  • Neuralgia of the nerves
  • Inflammatory rheumatism
  • Malaria
  • Bleeding of the lungs
  • Oppressed lungs
  • Brain fever
  • Hip and spine difficulties
  • Kidney problems
  • Dropsical consumption
  • Right lung decayed
  • Left lung considerably diseased
  • Fainting fits
  • Dropsy
  • Heart disease
  • Paralysis
  • Swollen face and gums
  • Loose teeth

Ask yourself a simple question. Would you allow a person who suffered from all of these illnesses to counsel you on what you should eat, and to give you advice on healthful living?

It almost seems that Mrs. White was referring to her own case when she wrote "The more you dwell upon discouragement, talking to others about your trials and enlarging upon them, to enlist the sympathy you crave, the more discouragement you shall have."13 Apart from the obvious seeking of sympathy for her life of illness, she has also been accused of using illness for manipulative purposes.

Did Mrs. White follow her own health counsel?

A feature of Mrs. White's life is the amount of illness she and her family are claimed to have suffered. Perhaps the combined effects of all of this illness and the knowledge that she was living in total violation of her own counsel did cause her to believe what she preached. A hint that this might be the case comes from Dr. Kellogg, who commented that after she stopped eating meat, because of the pleadings of a Catholic woman,14 she wrote in a letter to him that "I thought it was about time for me to begin my own teaching."15 He went on to say that she ate plenty of meat, fish, chicken, mutton stew, oysters, dried beef and bologna sausage.16 (Note that currently the main ingredients of bologna sausage are bacon, veal and pork suet.)

In her private life the conflict was even greater as Mrs. White ate oysters17, meat that in the judgment of her church today, would have been regarded as unclean. On a camping trip she and her son Willie ate duck18, and venison19 and they provided squirrel for a companion, Bro. Glover.20 On another occasion a companion, W.H. Moore, became seriously ill when he ate contaminated bear meat.21

She wrote to Sister Belden on Nov. 26, 1905 that "we have no butter and no meat on our table", yet 14 years later, General Conference President A.G. Daniels claimed to have eaten pounds of butter and dozens of eggs at her table22, another conflict with the health message.

Apologists argue that in Mrs. White's time the attitude that the church should take on unclean foods was not clear. Yet she lists a number of foods, including oyster stews as an attempt to "beget unhallowed desires". In her writings she makes it clear that Daniel knew which meats were unclean and which were not.23 Contemporaries of Mrs. White, such as Dr. Kellogg, Dr. Stewart, S.N. Haskell, and even the much maligned Dudley Canright had views that are current today. Also, on February 27, 1864 she wrote to her son Edson and expressed concern about him eating with his grandparents, who used pork and mince pies.

By her own admission, Mrs. White did not heed her own counsel about discontented repinings because her writings contain a large number of references to depression in her life and also in the life of her husband.24

Mrs. White was "instructed" to appropriate her own tithe and used the money as she saw fit,25, behaviour that in others could be a cause of illness. People such as H.E. Carver saw the Whites as a major cause of trouble in the church, citing the arrogance of James and the inconsistencies in Mrs. White's message. He concludes, "If the visions had never been introduced by us, Sabbath keeping churches might now be numbered by scores instead of units, and Sabbath keeping Adventists by thousands instead of scores." Again, according to Mrs. White's rules, this was another cause of illness.

In 1864 Mrs. White and her husband made a visit to Dr. Jackson's health institute, not for the purposes of illness, but to study his methods.26 Part of the entry procedure at this, and at subsequent visits, was a routine physical examination for each person27 This visit would appear to have been totally unnecessary because an employee of Dr. Jackson's was Dr. Lay, who was a Seventh-day Adventist. It is probable that Mrs. White could have learned everything she needed to know by reading Dr. Jackson's published literature and talking to Dr. Lay. This would have avoided her exposure to the dancing, card playing and other evil influences of which she complained.

Mrs. White wrote that thousands have been "spoiled through the philosophy of phrenology, and driven into infidelity", and "if the mind commences to run in this channel, it is almost sure to lose its balance and be controlled by a demon".28 But, as usual, even this counsel to others did not prevent her from recording, with ill-concealed pride, results of phrenological readings that Dr. Jackson performed on her sons.29

Despite the knowledge acquired from the first visit to Dr. Jackson, and despite her own teachings on the subject of health, it all appears to have been to no avail, for about a year later the Whites found it necessary to return to the care of Dr. Jackson after James suffered a stroke. Mrs. White also had an interesting, if hypocritical method of treating James' illness by feeding him venison, which was well received.30

For a time temperance was Mrs. White's favourite subject and she argued that it should be practiced in all things including labour. She wrote "It is not our duty to place ourselves where we shall be overworked".31 She could not plead emergency as a valid excuse for illness caused by intemperate working habits because of her counsel "Let no one overtax his God-given powers in an effort to advance the Lord's work more rapidly. The power of man cannot hasten the work……though all the workmen now bearing the heaviest burdens should be laid aside, God's work would be carried forward."32

Despite an admission that James "sinned against God in overtaxing the energies of his system"33, this criticism is not followed by any form of rebuke, nor could it be, because Mrs. White so readily uses the same excuse to account for much of her own illness. Even after the death of James the excuse again appears when Mrs. White recounts a dream in which James tells her "Our people will never know under what infirmities we have labored to serve them". Sympathy is clearly required for behaviour that would earn other church members a testimony of reproof for disobeying the health message.

What if one of the "saints" got ill?

Mrs. White's wrote that "the use of flesh has a tendency…to rob men and women of the love and sympathy they should feel for everyone."34 Perhaps then her extensive use of flesh meat could explain her startling lack of sympathy with others who fell ill.

If you had been a member of the SDA Church when Mrs. White was alive, and called on her for assistance in a time of prolonged illness, you probably would have received some unpleasant surprises. Instead of receiving practical help or comfort, you could well have found her probing your life, attempting to discover what you had done to create the problem that you were facing.

Perhaps your illness had been caused by violation of the laws of health.35 Had you been in violation of Nature's laws and brought your sorrows upon your own head? Might you have had incorrect dietary practices, worn inappropriate clothing, or even dishonored God by seeing an earthly physician?36 Perhaps sin in your life had caused your feebleness of mind or debility of body. Maybe your attitude was at fault? Dissatisfied feelings and discontented repinings also bring sickness of body and mind.37

If premature death of a family member had occurred, this would not have been without a cause. In such a case, you needed to look upon the death as a special dispensation of Providence because your own inexcusable ignorance had probably been the cause, and if you charged the death to Providence, that would be blasphemy.38

In any of these cases you would have come to the wrong person, because there would be no words of comfort and prayer should not even be offered for you.39

Another possible cause of your problems could have been that you had been withholding tithe, or causing trouble in the church. Mrs. White would check this out, and if you failed this test, she would not pray for you.40

It is highly probable that, having learned of your circumstances and being unable to pray for you, there remained the probability that Mrs. White would send you a testimony of reproof for the way in which you had flouted the health reform. In this event, the testimony would probably be like the one of which A.T. Jones complained of receiving, and would not come to you directly, but you would hear about it from someone else.41

Compare Mrs. White with a church member who was eating meat, clean and unclean, overworking, continuously ill, frequently depressed, seeing earthly physicians and probably using their prescriptions, causing great upset to other church members, paying tithe as he saw fit, had his home full of photographs and making provision for relatives in his will. If this member came to Mrs. White seeking comfort for illness which he claimed was a consequence of attacks by Satan upon him, what would have been her response? Certainly she would not pray for him42 but a testimony of rebuke would have been almost certain to arrive.

Had you, a contemporary of Mrs. White, behaved as she did, and had suffered the poor standard of health of which she constantly complains, she would have rebuked you and refused to pray for you because you would be seen as the author of your own problems. Yet in her case the causes of her health problems were either "attacks of Satan" or the result of being grossly overworked. When she had problems, someone else was always at fault. Ellen White was always the victim.


1. Arthur White, Early Years 1827 - 1862 Vol. 1, p. 115

2. Early Years 1827 - 1862 Vol. 1, p. 292

3. EGW Manuscript Releases, Vol. 6, p. 171

4. EGW Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 9, 1914

5. EGW Manuscript Releases Vol. 16, P. 251-252

6. EGW Letter 17, 1881, pages 2-4 (written to W. C. White, September 12, 1881).

7. Arthur White, Australian years 1891 - 1900, p. 31

8. EGW Manuscript Releases Vol. 21, P 359

9. EGW Selected Messages, Book 2, P 281; Manuscript Releases Vol. 15, P.276

10. EGW Manuscript Releases VOL. 2, P 48

11. Arthur White, Progressive Years Vol. II, p. 120

12. Progressive Years Vol. II, p. 84

13. EGW In Heavenly Places, p. 247

14. Spalding and Magan, p38

15. E.G.W. Letter to E.S. Ballenger, January 9, 1936

16. J.H. Kellogg - Letter to E.S. Ballenger January 9, 1936

17. EGW - letter to Mary Kelsey Dated May 31, 1862

18. EGW Manuscript Releases Vol. 7, p. 346

19. EGW Manuscript Releases Vol. 14, p. 353

20. EGW Manuscript Releases Vol. 20, p. 211

21. Arthur White, Lonely Years 1876 - 1891 Vol. 3, p 109

22. 1919 Conference

23. EGW Testimonies Vol. 4, p.435

24. EGW and Arthur White, Early Years, 1827 - 1862 Vol. 1, p. 406, 407; Progressive Years V2. P. 430; Australian Years 1891 - 1900 p. 71; Manuscript Releases Vol. 7, p.278

25. EGW Manuscript Releases Vol. 2, p.99-100

26. Arthur White, Progressive Years Vol. II, p. 83

27. Arthur White, Progressive Years Vol. II, p. 84

28. EGW Evangelism P. 605

29. EGW Manuscript Releases, Vol. 6, p. 346

30. A.G. Daniells, 1919 Conference Minutes

31. EGW Child Guidance P. 397

32. EGW Testimonies Vol. 7, p 298 (1902).

33. EGW Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 20, 1866

34. EGW Letter to Brother and sister Belden, Nov 26, 1905.

35. EGW Healthful Living P. 24; Testimonies, Vol. III, p. 164

36. EGW To those Who are Receiving the Seal of the Living God, Jan. 31, 1849.

37. EGW Healthful Living p. 65; Testimonies Vol. 1, p. 566

38. EGW Healthful Living p. 53; Testimonies Vol. III, p. 136

39. General Conference Daily Bulletin, Feb. 26, 1897

40. EGW Healthful Living p. 237

41. A.T. Jones - Letter to E.G.W. April 26, 1906

42. EGW Healthful Living p. 237

43. Table provided by Brother Anderson from Ellen White's statements found in Manuscript 10, 1859 (regarding events in 1845); Life Sketches (1880), 195 (regarding events in 1845); Life Sketches (1880), 273 (regarding events in 1848); Letter 5, 1857; Diary entries, January 9, 11, 12, 16, 22, March 8, 1859, Manuscript 5 (1859); Diary entries, April 2, May 19, May 25, June 2, Manuscript 6, 1859; Letter 21, 1862; February 21, Manuscript 13, 1868; Testimony for the Church #20 (1871), p. 20; Letter 88, Feb. 6, 1894 (MR 926, p. 28); Letter 139, Apr. 17, 1904; Letter 344, Dec. 12, 1908.

44 Jonathan Butler, "A Portrait," Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet (NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 5.

Category: Visions Examined
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