Ellen White and Mesmerism
By Dirk Anderson, Feb. 2022
Mesmerism was a hypnotic healing technique developed in the late 1700s by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). It became popular in the 1800s and was commonly known as "animal magnetism." During a mesmeric session, an individual enters a trance-like state.1 It was an early form of energy-healing. Mesmerism creeped into Adventism around the time of the Great Disappointment of 1844, and Millerite leader Joshua Himes complained of being in "mesmerism seven feet deep".2
Ellen Harmon first encountered mesmerism as a teenager. In 1845, Joseph Turner, an Adventist minister in Maine, began practicing mesmerism on young girls and women. It is unknown if he practiced his mesmerism on her at that time. However, it is possible, since Ellen was known to have been sickly at that time, and there was also at least one incident when she was alone with Turner in his home. Later on, she accused him of trying to mesmerize her at a meeting in Poland, Maine. During that meeting, she had a vision, and although she did not denounce him for practicing mesmerism, she did accuse him of giving too much attention to other women. After that vision, Turner accused Ellen of being under mesmerism herself. She left the room and went upstairs to warn a young lady in the home not to see him alone.3 Shortly thereafter, in another meeting, Ellen reports that Turner was giving Sarah Jordan "mesmeric passes, and she was having these so-called visions, and it was all mesmerism."4 Thus, Ellen had an early introduction to mesmerism and was aware that it could produce "visions" or hallucinations.
In the early days of her career, when she was having public "visions," some accused Sister White of practicing "mesmerism."5 She wrote:
If I had a vision in meeting, many would say that it was excitement and that someone mesmerized me. ... I was told by some that I mesmerized myself.6
In 1851, James White wrote:
...many honest seekers after truth...are prejudiced against visions. Two great causes have created this prejudice. First, fanaticism, accompanied by false visions and exercises, [and] [s]econdly, the exhibition of mesmerism...8
Even SDA pioneer J.N. Loughborough was initially skeptical when he heard of Ellen White's "visions," suspecting they were nothing more than "either pretensions or mesmerism."9 Lucinda Burdick, who witnessed Ellen White's early "visions," reported that James had the uncanny ability to communicate to her while she was in vision, and to call her out of what Burdick described as Ellen's "trance condition."10 Despite these accusations, Mrs. White consistently denied being a victim of mesmerism, and frequently wrote of mesmerism as being Satanic.11
Visions and Mesmerism
Historical reports reveal that many who observed Ellen White's early public visions felt they were not supernatural at all, but were nothing more than mesmeric trances. How could people believe the manifestations in her "visions" were nothing more than mesmerism? The reason is that her manifestations were very similar to the manifestations exhibited in mesmeric sessions. La Roy Sunderland was a practicing mesmerist who studied mesmerism and ran experiments for decades. He was the scientific expert on mesmerism. He induced over 5,000 trances during his studies. He wrote:
Many people have been deceived by the assumed visions of the Anabaptists, Quakers, Mormons and others.12
Sunderland was able to bring people into a deep trance-like state, and then bring them back out of it. He describes one such experience he observed:
He put her into a trance. In this state she sung with an unearthly sweetness; and then such a calm, heavenly look! It was all beyond description. The audience was moved to tears.13
Amazingly, Sunderland discovered that people having "visions" under religious excitement often experienced similar "visions" during his mesmeric sessions:
...in witnessing cases of trance, in which persons under religious excitement 'lost their strength,' as it was termed, and sometimes lay prostrate upon the earth; at other times they became perfectly rigid in their muscles, and in this condition have known them to remain for a number of days. These persons would, generally, on recovering...seemed to think they had actually entered the spiritual sphere, where they saw and heard things not to be described in human language. And I was not a little struck with the fact, when I found that persons whom I caused incidentally to fall into that state, gave precisely the same accounts of it on coming out... The accounts they gave of their dreams of 'heaven' and 'hell,' and the 'planets,' their visits to the moon, and their assumed conversations with the dead, have often been quite interesting; and, but for my knowning to the contrary, I might have believed them "inspired," or miraculously assisted to disclose the secrets of the dead. But I saw at once, that their testimonies did not agree, when speaking of the same things; and, not only so, I could perceive in almost every case, that each one gave the views on coming out of the trance, which were the most in agreement with those he held upon the same subject in his normal state...14
Of the 6,000 trances he witnessed or participated in, he noted, "I have not found any two of them who agree, exactly, about the spirit world."15 During these trances, Sunderland cured "cases of...Headache, Paralysis, Instanity...Stammering...Deafness...Loss of Voice...Toothache...Blindness..."16
One of Sunderson's experiments was published in 1842, in The Magnet:
A lady in A , had been quite zealous in religion, a few years ago, and, during that time, she was known frequently to lose her strength,' as it is called, when she would appear to be exceedingly happy, and remain hours in a state of apparent catalepsy. But, sometime since, she sunk into a state of mental despair, and supposed herself abandoned of God and doomed to perdition. On putting her to sleep, (she had been magnetised before) we not only removed her despair, but by exciting some of the organs, she declared herself perfectly happy, and what is remarkable, when we excited a particular organ she instantly lost her strength and her limbs became rigid, precisely as she was formerly affected, under religious excitement. Indeed, she declared the two states to be precisely the same.
On February 15, 1843, the editor of the American Millenarian wrote of one experiement:
The first experiment was on an intelligent Christian lady of about twenty six. ...her eyes closed in a few minutes; and to all appearance, she was in a sound sleep, with this exception, that she seemed partially conscious of what was said in her presence, but she manifested great unwillingness to talk. She described her state, as one of complete abstraction, her mind, she said, seemed elevated far above the body, and the things of this world. Her countenance assumed a most expressive and heavenly appearance, and she declared that her perceptions of the spiritual world, and the happiness of its inhabitants was as real as any thing she had ever seen with her eyes.
Another published experiment:
...leaning back in her chair, she closed her eyes in a state of trance. "In a few moments," according to Sunderland, she appeared to be in a state of ecstatic joy, when she grasped my hand and said: "O, Brother Sunderland, this is the happiest state I was ever in. It is heaven. And do you remember how I went into this state under that powerful sermon you preached in our church in Scituate Harbor years ago? I was then 'caught up to Paradise,' as St. Paul was, and where I saw Jesus and all the angels so happy. Yes, Brother Sunderland, and this is the same heaven—the same as when my soul was converted and filled with the love of God."17
Sunderland discovered that his mesmeric sessions could produce the same effects as the "visions" people had under religious excitement. This includes a deep trance, rigid body, hallucinations of travelling to the planets and to heaven, and the lifting of depression. In many ways, his experiments appear to correlate very closely with Ellen White's early visions. Perhaps this is why so many who saw her in "vision" concluded that they were merely witnessing mesmerism.
2. Joshua Himes was quoted by James White in, Review and Herald, Apr. 21, 1851, 69.
3. Ellen White, manuscript 131, 1906 (Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 21).
5. Ellen White, Life Sketches (1880), 219.
6. Ellen White, Early Writings (1882), 21.
7. Ellen White, Experience and Views (1851), 8.
8. James White, "Preface," Experience and Views (1851), 2.
9. J.N. Loughborough, “Remarkable Fulfillment of the Visions,” Review and Herald, Dec. 25, 1866, 30.
10. E.g. Ellen White, Spiritual Gifts vol. 4, 80.
11. Lucinda Burdick, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Sept. 26, 1908.
12. La Roy Sunderland, Pathetism, (Boston: White & Potter, 1848), 115.
13. Ibid., 149.
14. Ibid., 133.
15. Ibid., 131.
16. Ibid., 107.
17. James Monroe Buckley, "La Roy Sunderland—II," The Christian Advocate vol. 60, no. 23 (June 4, 1885): 358.
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