The Big Bible Legend
By Dirk Anderson, last updated August 13, 2023
One popular SDA legend tells of Mrs. White performing a feat of incredible supernatural strength. Arthur White and staff from the White Estate used to visit SDA schools and tell this fantastic story to wide-eyed students. The setting for this event was the Harmon home in Portland, Maine in 1845. As the story goes, the seventeen-year-old Ellen purportedly held up a heavy Bible above her head for over 30 minutes, turned the pages, and without looking, quoted the verses she was pointing at with her finger. This legend originates from an incident that J.N. Loughborough wrote about in a book published nearly fifty years after the event occurred. In 1892, he described an incident where Mrs. White lofted an 18-pound Bible as follows:
I will here state some facts respecting her third vision, the one given in her father's house, mentioned in Chapter XIII, page 212, as related to me by Mrs. White's father and mother, by her sister, Mrs. Sarah Belden, and others.
It is worth noting that Mr. Loughborough was not an eyewitness to the above vision. The story is a second-hand account as related to him by Mrs. White's parents and sister who attended the event.
Loughborough then quotes Mrs. Lunt's eyewitness account of second incident which took place at the Thayer home in Randolph, Massachusetts, and was first reported fifteen years after the incident:
I, with my father's family, attended the meetings of Sister Harmon in Topsham, in 1845, and during these meetings she had a vision. It was the first time we ever saw her in vision. One of those old-fashioned Bibles [the Teale Family Bible, weighing eighteen pounds was] owned by Brother Curtiss. This big Bible taken from the bureau by Sister Harmon while in vision, and texts of Scripture were pointed out by her as she turned from leaf to leaf, while her eyes were looking upward, and away from the book. The texts she repeated were either words of instruction, encouragement, or reproof. Another peculiarity of the manifestation at that time was the position of the book. It was held on her open hand at an angle of forty-five degrees, and no one else was able to hold any book at a similar angle without its slipping at once from the hands; but Sister Harmon held this Bible at that angle for several minutes, as firmly as though it was stuck to her hand, she passing meanwhile from one to another in the room.2
Ellen White a Superhero?
As a boy, I recall how an SDA teacher told us the legend of how a weak and sickly teen-aged Ellen held out a heavy Bible in her hand. He challenged us to go home and see how long we could hold up a heavy book in our hand with our arm fully outstretched at 90 degrees. That evening, I did just that. I discovered I could hold a 16-pound weight at that angle for only 20 seconds! Needless to say, as a boy who grew up in an era of superheroes like Batman, Superman, and the Bionic Man, I was very much in awe of Ellen White's supernatural strength! I figured that proved she was a real prophet.
Later in life, as I examined the story in more detail, questions arose. Was Mrs. White really holding the Bible in her palm with her arm straight out at 90-degrees for the whole 30 minutes? If so, that is an obvious supernatural feat. However, a careful reading of Loughborough's quote shows that after she lifted the Bible, Ellen was pointing at verses in the book. That is physically impossible with the arm fully out-stretched. Thus, the book must have been brought much closer to the body in order to point at specific verses. Furthermore, it can be observed in Mrs. Lunt's testimony of the second event, there is no mention of right angles or supernatural strength. Could Ellen's family have exaggerated about the first event in order to promote her prophetic career? How good was Loughborough's memory? After all, 50 years is a long time to remember exactly what her family said. What really happened at these events?
A simplified Physics lesson
Just how much weight should an average-sized 17-year-old woman be able to lift? A big part of that question depends on two factors:
1. The location of the weight on the arm
2. The angle of the arm.
Let us review a little high-schools physics. The amount of force required to hold something out in your hand is expressed by the formula:
TORQUE = WEIGHT x DISTANCE x SINE of the angle
So if Mrs. White held an 18-pound weight in her palm, 2 feet from her shoulder at a 90-degree angle, then it would feel like lifting 36 pounds...
18 x 2 x 1 = 36
If Mrs. White held the weight on her arm with the center of gravity at her elbow...
18 x 1 x 1 = 18
If Mrs. White held it on her arm at a 45-degree angle...
18 x 1 x .7 = 12.6
Thus, it takes only one-third the strength to hold the weight in the last position. In fact, the more the arm is lowered, the less strength is required.
Now let us investigate this story again to see if it can be determined where the Bible was held.
Where was the Bible?
Loughborough says the book was resting on Ellen's "left arm," not her hand. If the book was resting on her left arm, the book was most likely centered near her elbow. Having the spine of the book near the elbow would cut the effort required to hold the book by nearly 50%. Also, from this position she could have pointed to verses with her right hand. So, when my SDA teacher told me to hold a weight out in my hand, he was teaching a farce, because even Loughborough admits the book was held on the arm, not the hand.
Look at how the young lady on the right is holding her arm. We believe this is how Mrs. White most likely carried the book for the majority of the meeting. This position is the natural way a person would support a heavy awkward weight on the arm. This is similar to the way a mother holds a child in her arm. The upper arm is straight down close to the body, bringing the center of gravity very close to the body. The elbow can be rested on the left hip for further support. The forearm is bent at a 45-degree angle, further reducing the effort. Holding a book in this position would require less than one twentieth of the strength required to hold it straight out on an outstretched arm at a right angle.
Notice the elderly man at the right holding out the large Bible on his arm. Notice how his upper arm is bent down at a 45-degree angle, thereby reducing the load by 30%. Notice also how the spine of the book is on his forearm, near his elbow. This reduces the load by nearly 50% over what it would take to hold the book in one's palm.
Notice how the man's left hand is used to steady the Bible (and hold some of the weight of the book). If a person wanted to hold a Bible of this size with one hand, and point to verses with the other, it would be nearly impossible to keep the book balanced on the arm, especially while moving around a room. In order to keep the Bible from falling off the arm, it must be brought close against the body so the body can be used to hold the book steady and prevent it from slipping off the arm. This illustrates why we believe Ellen cradled the Bible in her arm close to her body. It would be extremely difficult, like a circus act, to balance the Bible on the arm unless it was resting against the body.
A miraculous "sticky hand"?
In Mrs. Lunt's account of the tale, she describes the book in Mrs. White's palm at a 45-degree angle for "several minutes." In the photo on the right, I asked my 12-year-old son, who was similar in size to Mrs. White, to hold a large book, similar to the one held by Mrs. White, at a 45-degree angle. He did not have any problem holding the book with his palm, even when opening up his fingers. The weight of the book pressed into his palm, keeping it from slipping. In fact, the only way to make the book slip and fall was to open the palm and point the fingers towards the floor. If Mrs. White had actually done this, it would certainly be a strange way to hold a book! So, did Mrs. Lunt really see a miraculous "sticky hand" as some have claimed? Or was she simply a dedicated believer who thought she saw something amazing, something that could be used to convince others to adopt her belief in Ellen White?
Reciting texts from memory
During the meeting, Mrs. White was said to be able to point to scriptures and recite them without looking. Now, to be able to locate a text in the Bible and point at it without looking would be quite an accomplishment. This seems to be what Loughborough wants us to believe, and we can only hope that Mrs. White was not peaking out of the corner of her eye when she was looking up the verses. As for reciting verses from memory, Mrs. White was fond of committing Scripture to memory, as can be seen from her writings which frequently extol the benefits of such:
Let the more important passages of Scripture connected with the lesson be committed to memory, not as a task, but as a privilege. Though at first the memory may be defective, it will gain strength by exercise, so that after a time you will delight in thus treasuring up the precious words of truth.3
The most likely scenario
So what really happened? Supernatural strength? A miraculous "sticky hand"? A supernatural ability to locate and recite verses? Perhaps any or all of that happened. Or perhaps none of that happened. We cannot say for sure because we were not there. Is it possible her friends and family exaggerated her abilities in order to convince others to believe in her? If we look for the supernatural in this account, and if we are predisposed to believing something supernatural happened there, then we will find what we are looking for. However, can we find a natural explanation for all this?
Here is what we believe to be the most likely scenario of events for that evening at her father's house.
Mrs. White was in a meeting, surrounded by friends, family, and supporters. Mrs. White walked over and picked up the Teale Bible, placing it in her left arm, with the center of the book near her elbow, her elbow against her body, cradling it in a manner similar to the way a mother cradles a baby. From this position she could:
1. Point to it with her free hand
2. Keep it from falling off her arm by resting part of it against her body
3. Rest the weight of the Bible against the side of her body, reducing the load by 95%, which enabled her to carry the book around the room for 20 or 30 minutes
From this position she could also see what chapter and verse the Bible was opened to. When she found a verse she had memorized, she recited it from memory. At times she held the book out at right angles to her body, at other times she held it above her shoulder, but probably only for a short duration. After the event, her friends and family, wanting to convince others to believe in her supernatural powers, reported the event in the most glowing terms.
As for Mrs. Lunt's account, she said the book was on her "open hand" for "several minutes". Apparently Ellen shifted the Bible towards her viewers (as in the photo above) with the spine of the Bible resting on her palm and held it briefly at what appeared to Mrs. Lunt to be an awkward angle. Was it a miracle? Or did Mrs. Lunt simply see what she wanted to see that evening? You decide.
Dubious origin of the tale
Neither James or Ellen White ever mentioned this tale in any of their writings or public sermon transcriptions. Mrs. White wrote about the vision in which she reportedly lifted a heavy Bible in her biography, Life Sketches, but says nothing about a big Bible. According to former White Estate Director Ronald Graybill:
The story seems to have surfaced orally in the late 1880s [40 years after the supposed event] and then finally in print in 1892, in Loughborough's Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists. Loughborough was more hagiographer than historian, and often proved unreliable in the latter role.4
According to Graybill, Loughborough made "numerous" major errors in his writing, and those errors always seemed to "fall into a pattern" to "enhance the reputation of Ellen White."5 Graybill goes on to note that W.C. White heard the story of the first incident from his parents, but reported that they told him the Bible was shut, not open.6
A General Conference president speaks
SDA General Conference president A.G. Daniels, who knew Mrs. White for over forty years, said in the 1919 conference on the Spirit of Prophecy:
Now with reference to the evidences: I differ with some of the brethren who have put together proofs or evidences of the genuineness of this gift, in this respect, - I believe that the strongest proof is found in the fruits of this gift to the church, not in physical and outward demonstrations. For instance, I have heard some ministers preach, and have seen it in writing, that Sister White once carried a heavy Bible - I believe they said it weighed 40 pounds - on her out-stretched hand, and looking up toward the heavens quoted texts and turned the leaves over and pointed to the texts, with her eyes toward the heavens. I do not know whether that was ever done or not. I am not sure. I did not see it, and I do not know that I ever talked with anybody that did see it. But, brethren, I do not count that sort of thing as a very great proof. I do not think that is the best kind of evidence. If I were a stranger in an audience, and heard a preacher enlarging on that, I would have my doubts. That is, I would want to know if he saw it. He would have to say, No, he never did. Then I would ask, "Did you ever see the man that did see it?" And he would have to answer, "No, I never did."
You should see their faces!
Visitors to the White Estate in Takoma Park, Maryland, can view the heavy Bible that Mrs. White purportedly held up in vision. Former SDA Wallace Slattery writes of an experience:
My aide in my last SDA teaching position in Pennsylvania was a great-granddaughter of Sister White. I discussed this supposed event with her, and she agreed that undoubtedly it never happened. She telephoned her mother, who worked at the White Estate in Washington, D.C., and asked her,
Category: Visions Examined
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