Mrs. White's Health Visions: Was it God? Or Dr. Jackson?

Dirk Anderson, last updated April 2024

Dr. James Caleb Jackson (1811–1895) was a prominent American health reformer in the 19th century. Born on March 28, 1811, in Hastings, New York, Jackson struggled with ill health as a young man. His experiences with sickness and traditional medical treatments left him dissatisfied with the standard practices of the time. Near death, he decided to visit a hydrophatic clinic. After some time, his health improved. This event solidified his interest in alternative healing. Wanting to help others recover their health, he obtained a medical degree and moved to Dansville, New York, in October of 1858, opening a hydrophatic clinic.1

Our Home on the Hillside, ca. 1870

The clinic became known as Our Home on the Hillside, and attained a national reputation. In addition to the water treatments, Dr. Jackson also encouraged his patients to eat a bland, vegan diet. Jackson is credited with the invention of the first cold breakfast cereal, a graham-flour-derived recipe he named Granula.2 Dr. Jackson treated his patient with these ten laws of health:3

  • Air - breathe pure air; sleep in well ventilated rooms
  • Food - no over-eating, no pepper, mustard, salt, or flesh meat; limited use of sugar; two meals a day is better than three
  • Water - drink pure water; no liquor, tea, or coffee; bathe regularly
  • Sunlight
  • Dress - clothing that does not interfere with circulation or restrict organs
  • Exercise - with regularity, especially in the open air
  • Sleep - at least eight hours per day
  • Rest - quiet of mind
  • Social - pleasant social relations
  • Mental and moral - freedom from mental anxiety

Jackson was a great believer in vital force—a theory dismissed by medical science but popular with other alternative health reformers of that era. He believed each individual was born with a full charge of vital energy, but that energy could be drained from the body by overwork or sexual activity. Draining one's vital energy resulted in disease, mental afflictions, debased character, and loss of spiritual interest. He believed stimulating food and drink excited the passions which impaired the vital force necessary for recovery from disease. So, at Our Home on the Hillside, no red meat, sugar, coffee, tea, alcohol, or tobacco were permitted. Instead, patients were fed fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grain. Jackson spread his quirky health reform message through lectures, books, and pamphlets.

Ellen White Before Jackson

An unlikely set of events brought these two characters together, forever altering Mrs. White's life and the teachings of the SDA sect. Ellen White before meeting Dr. Jackson was nothing like Ellen White after Jackson. Before 1863, after having been God's end-time prophet for nearly twenty years, she still ate meat (including pork), drank wine, and used condiments. She wrote nothing about a bland, vegan diet, spices and condiments, or the dangers of masturbation, martial excess, or novels. Despite her frequent illnesses, she and James had four children born between 1847 and 1860.

However, her life changed radically in 1863. First, two of her sons got diphtheria in February and nearly died. Desperate for a solution, the Whites discovered an article on diphtheria by health reformer Caleb Jackson. They applied his techniques, and their children soon recovered. However, before long, she was blind-sided by the unexpected death of her two-month-old son John, who died of erysipelas on May 28. Before she could even recover, her sixteen-year-old son Henry got pneumonia and died on June 20. The grief and loss of two children within months must have been absolutely devastating for the Whites. They must have questioned what they were doing wrong health-wise that led to two of their sons becoming seriously ill in February, and the other ones dying only a few months later. What could they possibly do to improve their family's health?

Enter Dr. Jackson

The Whites realized they needed to make changes. No longer was it just Ellen who was in poor health. The entire family was afflicted. Thus, in 1863, the Whites suddenly became obsessed with health. However, instead of turning to the Bible, or a science-based approach, Ellen turned to what seemingly worked for her boys back in February—Dr. Jackson. They were apparently impressed with him since their boys recovered from illness. They no doubt wondered what other health secrets their savior had in store for them. Before long, they were immersed in reading his books. Jackson's book on sexual health had just recently been published in 1862. In this book Jackson shares his radical views on sex:4

  • No bad physical habit is as pernicious as "sexual excess," and none more "ruinous as that of masturbation."
  • The masturbator eventually becomes "incurably diseased or irretrievably depraved." Masturbation destroys the mind, leads to the development of criminal traits, and "ruins the spiritual sense."
  • To protect children from becoming masturbators, parents should avoid flesh meats, milk, tobacco, spices, condiments, cloves, and cinnamon.
  • A "large share of novels are mere trash, fit simply to kindle fires."
  • Sex should be for procreation only: "Nature never intended that a man should lose his semen for any other purpose than for that of propagating the species."
  • Having sex as frequent as once or twice a week could lead to a whole host of diseases as well as moral deterioration.

Thanks to Dr. Jackson, Ellen and James discovered the doctrine of vital force. With this doctrine, they believed they could improve their family's health, improve SDA sect members' health, and make a handsome profit to boot. Mrs. White adopted nearly all of Jackson's teachings including the Reform Dress, his principles of health, and his bland, vegan diet. She adopted Jackson's philosophies about sex, spirituality, and vital force. She even had an opportunistically-timed vision on health reform, after which she published her first health reform book, Appeal to Mothers, published in 1864. The entire book—supposedly containing light from heaven—was about the terrible health dangers of masturbation. Afterward, the Whites started a subscription-based magazine called Health Reformer that was published for 11 years.

Like other health reformers, Mrs. White began touring America, warning of the terrible dangers of sexual activity that was draining away vital energy, leaving the body too exhausted to fight disease.

Striking similarities

As the Whites traveled in the mid and late 1860s sharing the health reforms God had supposedly given her by vision, those listeners who happened to be familiar with Dr. Jackson's writings were taken aback by the marked similarities between what Mrs. White claimed to have seen in vision and the teachings of Dr. Jackson. Even Mrs. White acknowledged these striking similarities in a letter to her sons:

"We have here met with a lady who was at Our Home at Dansville when we were there. She introduced me to her husband. They attended our meetings. Your father gave a temperance discourse Sunday morning. She sat with her husband in their carriage just outside the curtains of the tent. They are intelligent people and the first in the place. They invited us to visit them, and today we comply with their request. She made the remark in regard to your father's discourse that it seemed to her she was listening to Dr. Jackson again. She spoke especially of my speaking at the convention, said she had never forgotten it; that it had been a great help to her since that time; that it had especially benefited her."5

Mrs. White defends herself

The fact that Mrs. White's health visions so closely resembled the teachings of Dr. Jackson raised some concern in the church. Mrs. White admits that people "often" questioned her as to whether she got her "vision" from Dr. Jackson. Such a controversy arose that Mrs. White was forced to publicly defend herself in the sect's paper:

"Question on the Vision .--Did you receive your views upon health reform before visiting the Health Institute at Dansville, New York, or before you had read works on the subject?

"I did not visit Dansville till August, 1864, fourteen months after I had the view. I did not read any works upon health until I had written Spiritual Gifts, volumes 3 and 4, Appeal to Mothers, and had sketched out most of my six articles in the six numbers of How to Live .

"I did not know that such a paper existed as The Laws of Life, published at Dansville, N.Y. I had not heard of the several works upon health, written by Dr. J. C. Jackson, and other publications at Dansville, at the time I had the view named above. I did not know that such works existed until September, 1863, when in Boston, Mass., my husband saw them advertised in a periodical called the Voice of the Prophets, published by Eld. J. V. Himes. My husband ordered the works from Dansville and received them at Topsham, Maine. His business gave him no time to peruse them, and as I determined not to read them until I had written out my views, the books remained in their wrappers.

"As I introduced the subject of health to friends where I labored in Michigan, New England, and in the State of New York, and spoke against drugs and flesh meats, and in favor of water, pure air, and a proper diet, the reply was often made, 'You speak very nearly the opinions taught in the Laws of Life, and other publications, by Drs. Trall, Jackson, and others. Have you read that paper and those works?'

"My reply was that I had not, neither should I read them till I had fully written out my views, lest it should be said that I have received my light upon the subject of health from physicians, and not from the Lord.

"And after I had written my six articles for How to Live, I then searched the various works on hygiene and was surprised to find them so nearly in harmony with what the Lord had revealed to me. And to show this harmony, and to set before my brethren and sisters the subject as brought out by able writers, I determined to publish How to Live, in which I largely extracted from the works referred to."6

Thus, we have two versions of events:

  1. Suspicious members' version: Mrs. White secretly read Dr. Jackson's books, adopted his health reforms, then decided to bring those same reforms to the entire sect, but instead of giving Dr. Jackson credit, she pretended God gave her a health reform vision and went around telling everyone the info came straight from Heaven.

  2. Mrs. White's version: Mrs. White was given a vision of health reform by God. Later, she happened to come across some writings by Dr. Jackson, and by sheer coincidence they were nearly exactly what she was shown in vision!

A closer study of the events will reveal which version is the truth.


Dr. Harriet Austin posing in the American Costume

The Reform Dress

The Reform Dress incident provides a dramatic illustration of how Mrs. White acquired her reforms from other humans and passed these along to the SDA Church with a "Thus saith the Lord." Prior to her visit to the Dansville Institution in 1864, Ellen White had shown little interest in the "reform dress." She felt spending time on dress reform would distract the church from larger issues. In fact, a couple of years earlier she had told the sisters in the Church that God was not interested in the reform dress either:

God would not have his people adopt the so-called reform dress.7

Can it be any plainer than that? God was not interested whatsoever in the reform dress. In addition, when Sister Carver approached Ellen White with concerns that the SDA Church might adopt the reform dress, Sister White relieved her anxiety, telling her:

Sister Carver, you need not give yourself the least uneasiness about it. We'll never put it on—we despise it at Battle Creek.8

Despite this assurance, when Mrs. White visited the Dansville clinic she began to see value in the reform dress, which Jackson touted as a way for women to retain more of their vital force. She also met Dr. Harriet Austin, a hydropathist and Jackson's adopted daughter. She invented the "American Costume" which was a mid-length skirt worn over trousers

Mrs. White was sold on the concept of the reform dress, and quickly penned out a testimony indicating God had suddenly changed His mind on the subject:

God would now have his people adopt the Reform Dress...9

The Whites soon prevailed upon the SDA sect's leaders to officially adopt the Reform Dress. In 1867, the following was pronounced in the Review:

1. Whereas, The explanations which Bro. and sister White have given of the Reformed Female Dress are consistent, and their reasons for its being healthful, convenient, and modest, are satisfactory; therefore,
Resolved, That it is the opinion of this church that the sisters should adopt it.10

A few women dutifully attempted to wear the awkward dress. However, after much suffering and humiliation, most soon discarded it. After a while, the Reform Dress was quietly abandoned by the sect.

Question: Who told Ellen White to adopt the Reform Dress? Was it God or Dr. Austin? To study the subject further, click here.

The Whites visit Dansville

In February of 1864, the White's son Willie contracted pneumonia. Only last year their eldest son Henry had died from this same illness. At this point the Whites became seriously interested in health reform. After his recovery, Arthur White explains the Whites' new-found interest in health:

Now, more than ever, they knew that they must dig deep and learn how to combat disease, and about sound dietetic principles. They determined then and there that at the earliest possible time they must visit the medical institution operated by Dr. Jackson and his associates at Dansville, New York, and gain all they could in practical lines.11

The Whites spent three weeks at the Dansville clinic in September of 1864. Unlike many of the visitors, the Whites were in good health. They did not go there because they were feeling ill. On the contrary, they went on a fact-finding mission, to learn first-hand about Dr. Jackson's health teachings. James White wrote:

In the month of September, 1864, Mrs. White and self spent three weeks at the health institution at Dansville, Livingston County, New York, called 'Our Home.' Our object in this visit was not to take treatment, as we were enjoying better health than usual, but to see what we could see and hear what we could hear, so as to be able to give to many inquiring friends a somewhat definite report.12

The Whites listened to Dr. Jackson lecture, and even attempted to follow some of his dietary reforms. One such attempt at reform failed, however. It was Dr. Jackson's advice to give up salt. Mrs. White explains:

Many years ago, while at Dr. Jackson's, I undertook to leave it [salt] off entirely, because he advocated this in his lectures.13

On the surface this statement seems to be of little import, but it is highly significant because it shows that at least some of the health reforms that later showed up in Mrs. White's testimonies were first learned from Dr. Jackson and not from her visions. While Mrs. White did not give up salt entirely, she did advise her followers that "food should be prepared" without "an undue amount of salt."14

Not only did Dr. Jackson shape the Whites' thinking on health reform, he also seemed to change their thinking on phrenology. Just a couple years earlier Mrs. White denounced it as a tool of Satan.15 However, while at the Dansville clinic, the good doctor read the heads of both the White boys. Mrs. White reports in a private letter:

I think Dr. Jackson gave an accurate account of the disposition and organization of our children. He pronounces Willie's head to be one of the best that has ever come under his observation. He gave a good description of Edson's character and peculiarities.16
Health Reform Time Line
Date Event
Jan. 1863 Whites learn about Dr. Jackson
Feb. 1863 James reprints Jackson's article in the Review
June 1863 James writes to Jackson requesting some books
June 1863 Mrs. White receives health reform "vision"
Aug. 1863 Dr. Jackson writes James apologizing for delay in book order
Sep. 1863 Ellen claims James first heard of Jackson
Oct. 1863 James prints a chapter from Jackson's book in the Review
Dec. 1863 James mails one of Jackson's books to a sick friend
June 1864 Ellen begins publishing How to Live articles
Aug. 1864 Whites visit Dr. Jackson's Institute

The Whites study Jackson's books and articles

In spite of her three-week fact-finding mission to the Dansville Clinic, Mrs. White assured her followers that other health reformers had no influence on her health writings:

"That which I have written in regard to health was not taken from books or papers. As I related the things which I had been shown to others, the question was asked, 'Have you seen the paper, The Laws of Life or the Water Cure Journal?' I told them No, I had not seen either of the papers. Said they, 'What you have seen agrees very much with much of their teachings.' I talked freely with Dr. Lay and many others upon the things which had been shown me in reference to health. I had never seen a paper treating upon health. After the vision was given me, my husband was aroused upon the health question. He obtained books, upon our eastern journey, but I would not read them. My view was clear, and I did not want to read anything until I had fully completed my books. My views were written independent of books or of the opinions of others.17

Notice from this quote:

  1. People noticed the similarity between Mrs. White's writings and Dr. Jackson's writings.
  2. Mrs. White admitted James had obtained a set of books on health before her views were written.
  3. Mrs. White denied reading "anything" until after she had completed her books.

Here is what Mrs. White wants her followers to believe: God gave her a health reform vision, she wrote it out, and then, to everyone's amazement, the vision "agrees very much" with the teachings of Dr. Jackson, which just so happen to be sitting on a bookshelf in her house. Either this was an amazing coincidence or a White lie.

Despite Mrs. White's bold denial, there is evidence that Mrs. White, an avid reader, had plenty of opportunity to read the writings of Dr. Jackson before the publication of her own health writings.

The Whites did not visit Dr. Jackson's health institute until August of 1864. This was 14 months after Mrs. White was said to have received her June, 1863, vision on health reform.18 She claimed to be unfamiliar with the writings of Dr. Jackson prior to September, 1863. However, the White boys had become ill with Diphtheria in January of 1863, and at that time, the Whites were first familiarized with the writings of Dr. Jackson. Grandson Arthur White tells of their good fortune:

Fortunately--in the providence of God, no doubt--there had come into their hands, probably through an 'exchange' of papers at the Review office, either the Yates County Chronicle, of Penn Yan, New York, or some journal quoting from it, an extended article entitled 'Diphtheria, Its Causes, Treatment and Cure.' It was written by Dr. James C. Jackson, of Dansville, New York.19

Thus we know that the Whites had read at least one article of Dr. Jackson's at least four months prior to the date of the vision. In fact, James reprinted Jackson's article on Diphtheria in the February 17, 1863, edition of the Review and Herald.

On August 13, 1863, one month before James supposedly had any knowledge of Dansville, Dr. Jackson wrote him apologizing for his long delay in replying to James' request for information about his books. It appears that James had written Jackson sometime in June, for in December of 1864, he stated that eighteen months earlier (June 1863) he had sent off to Dansville for some of their books.

When the books finally arrived, Mrs. White claimed they remained in the wrappers, but on December 12, 1863, James was mailing Jackson's Consumption from Topsham to a friend, Ira Abbey, in Brookfield, New York. It appears those wrappers came off those books at least nine months prior to Mrs. White writing out her vision! Furthermore, it is likely Ellen White read the article James White printed from Jackson's Laws of Life in the October 27 issue of the Review and Herald.20 Thus we can see that Mrs. White had plenty of opportunity to read the writings of Dr. Jackson prior to the publication of her own articles on health.

The Doctor's Prognosis
Although Dr. Jackson was quite familiar with Mrs. White, he never accepted her as a prophet. After his medical examination of her he attributed her unusual medical problems to hysteria. Mrs. White reported Jackson's findings to the attendees of a conference, an eyewitness of which later wrote:
When giving to a Conference at Pilot Grove an account of her visit at Dr. Jackson's Health Institute, she stated that the Doctor, upon a medical examination, pronounced her a subject of Hysteria.21

You decide: Was it God or Dr. Jackson?

Questions to ponder:

  • When did the wrappers come off Dr. Jackson's books?

  • Why do her writings on health so closely resemble the teachings of Dr. Jackson?

  • Why do her teachings on the reform dress mimic those of Dr. Austin?

  • Did Mrs. White receive her health reform teachings from reading and talking with Dr. Jackson?

  • Was it God? Or was it Dr. Jackson?

See also


Main biographical source: Ronald Numbers, "The Dansville Days," Prophetess of Health, (NY: Harper & Row, 1976), 77-101.

1. David Gilbert, "Dansville's 'Castle on the Hill'", Dansville Area Historical Society.

2. Ibid.

3. James C. Jackson, How to Treat the Sick Without Medicine (Dansville, NY: Austin, Jackson & Co., 1872), 26-235.

4. James C. Jackson, The Sexual Organism and Its Healthful Management (Boston: B. Leverett Emerson, 1862), 71, 60, 72, 73, 63, 86, 49, 256, 258, 260.

5. Ellen White, Letter 3, 1865. (To Edson and Willie White, June 13, 1865, Manuscript Releases, vol. 5, 384).

6. Ellen White, Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 8, 1867.

7. Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, 421. In 1859, Ellen disdained getting involved in dress reform, claiming she had a vision showing its unimportance: "I was shown that the churches in Vermont have been weakened by leaving the important truth to dwell on little things--to dwell on articles of dress and take notice of little things. ... They neglect the great principles of our faith to descend to little particulars. ...leave the brother or sister to the Lord and the angels to convict them of their wrong in dress or furniture or fixings." (Ellen White, Manuscript 1a, 1859) Many of her later writings on dress reform would lead one to believe dress reform, contrary to her "vision", was not a "little thing" after all.

8. H.E. Carver, Hope of Israel vol. 2, no. 6, Aug. 27, 1867, 47.

9. White, Testimonies, vol. 1, 525.

10. Review and Herald vol. 29, Feb. 5, 1867, 102.

11. Arthur White, Ellen G. White: The Progressive Years 1862-1876, vol. 2, 78, 79.

12. James White, Op. cit. HL, No. 1, 12 in Ellen G. White Volume 2 The Progressive Years 1862-1876, 83.

13. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases vol. 5, 402.

14. Ellen White, Temperance, 157.

15. White, Testimonies, vol. 1, 290, 296-297.

16. Ellen White, Letter 6, 1864, 1. (To Brother and Sister Lockwood, September, 1864.)

17. Ellen White, Manuscript 7, 1867. Manuscript Releases vol. 5, 391, 392.

18. "It was at the house of Bro. A. Hilliard, at Otsego, Mich., June 6, 1863, that the great subject of health reform was opened before me in vision." (Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867).

19. Arthur White, Progressive Years, Vol. 2, 13.

20. J.C. Jackson, "Which Will You Have, Hoops or Health?", Review and Herald, Oct. 27, 1863.

21. H. E. Carver, "Mrs. E. G. White's Claims to Divine Inspiration Examined" (1872).

Category: Health Teachings Plagiarism
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