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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 946

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This is the grave of James and Ellen White.

Born in 1821 in Palmyra, Maine, James White was a sickly child from a large family who became interested in the reform movements of the antebellum period, particularly religious revivalism. The family became Millerites. These were followers of William Miller, a preacher who announced in 1831 that Christ would return in 1843 or 1844, based on his own special calculations. Debates occurred between different Millerite sects over which day. It may not surprised you that the correct day was none of them. But such details rarely stopped the religious zealots of this period. White became a minister of Millerite philosophies in 1843, when it was decided that October 22, 1844 was the day of Christ’s return and the coming of a 1,000 years of peace.

White did not question Miller’s fundamental beliefs, even when Christ didn’t come say hi. He continued to preach. In 1845, he met Ellen Harmon. She was born in 1827 in Gorham, Maine. As a child, she was hit in the face by a flying rock and evidently suffered a concussion. From that point forward, she converted to follow Jesus. She gave herself to Christ at the age of 12 during a Methodist camp meeting in Maine. The next year, the family converted to the Millerites and was baptized in his followings in 1842. Again, in 1842, she met James White. They married the next year. They connected in part because he believed her visions, which again may have been spawned by whatever untreated brain injury she had suffered as a child, were genuine messages from Christ.

James and Ellen White would work together to create a new offshoot of the Millerites–the Seventh Day Adventists. This would be by far the most successful of the endless divisions that followed The Great Disappointment, as October 22 was called. They were driven in no small part by Ellen’s visions, which became more common after 1844. These visions were seen as explaining the failure of Christ to come back in 1844 and move His flock forward to see that truth eventually come through. These could be pretty weird. Probably the most famous happened during a funeral the Whites attended in Ohio in 1858. Her vision led her to write The Great Controversy. Published later that year, it displayed to Ellen White the history of humanity’s sins, the evils of Catholicism as desecrating Christ’s teachings (they might have been antebellum weirdos but the Whites definitely the period’s strongly held hatred of Catholics) and the fears that an nonspiritual nation would soon lead to a unification between the U.S. government and the papacy that would oppress those who kept the Sabbath holy. OK………. In any case, this was a hugely popular book and significant increased the sway of the Adventists in American life. A lot of the second part of it came in the later editions, especially the 1888 version that Ellen White worked hard to publish.

So the Whites traveled around and spread their doctrine, making a home base in Battle Creek, Michigan, which would become the Adventist center in the nation for the next several decades. It had its followers among the perfectionists of the era. One of them was Sojourner Truth, who like many of these people had migrated between all sorts of oddball Protestant movements over the years, though of course her background was quite different than the white majority. Ellen was by far the more influential of the two whites. Much of this is the visions, but some of it is that James had declining health. He had a stroke in 1865 and slowly declined from there, eventually giving up his ministry. He put his health into the hands of his quack follower John Harvey Kellogg, which didn’t help. He died in 1881.

Ellen kept on without James. Like Kellogg, she became a big supporter of food faddism and health reform, if you want to call it that. She also published widely later in her life. Many of these books were her takes on the history of Christianity and the stories of the Bible. The Ministry of Healing, from 1905, presented her quack ideas about health that included fears about the horrors of masturbation. In recent decades, Adventists have tried to explain this away. The problem with it is that quote her own words, which are totally unhinged. For instance, take this 2008 article in Spectrum, the Adventist magazine:

Those who have studied the writings of Ellen White know that she said some things about the physical consequences of “solitary vice,” a term that many take to be a euphemism for masturbation, which the majority of medical specialists today do not confirm. In An Appeal to Mothers, one of her early publications, she attributes a number of maladies to its practice. These include headaches, dizziness, depression, irritability, insomnia, fatigue, guilt, absent-mindedness, forgetfulness, bodily pain, sullenness, rebelliousness and jealousy, all of which may be at least partly psychological.

She connected masturbation with more physical problems as well. “Everywhere I looked,” she wrote of one of her visionary experiences, “I saw imbecility, dwarfed forms, crippled limbs, misshapen heads, and deformity of every description.” She stated that in females, who possess less vital force than men, the consequences of self-abuse are “seen in various diseases, such as catarrh, dropsy, headache, loss of memory and sight, great weakness in the back and loins, affections of the spine, [and] the head often decays inwardly. Cancerous humor,” she went on, “which would lay dormant in the system in their life-time, is inflamed and commences it eating, destructive work. The mind is often utterly ruined and insanity takes place.” Those who masturbate, she wrote, “are just as surely self-murderers as though they pointed a pistol to their own breast, and destroyed their life instantly.”

But in the context of her time, she was still OK…..

I mean, this is true enough I suppose. But I also don’t have a lot of patience for trying to explain away this ridiculousness as actually OK, especially given the harsh treatments used on kids who were caught masturbating, boys or girls. Admittedly, I am allergic to all religion and all religions have much that needs explaining away. It’s not that I think these ideas are per se kookier than believing in a dude who walked on water or a virgin who gave birth and now intercedes for you with God. But still…..

It’s hard to overstate how important Ellen White remains today, especially on a global scale. The Adventists still remain in the U.S., but have never moved beyond a fringe group. But in Latin America, the Adventists are one of the many extremists Protestant groups that developed in the U.S. that have had huge success finding converts. The Mormons and Christian Scientists have done well too, not to mention exported more mainstream evangelicalism. The Adventists are huge in Brazil, for instance. Their books have been translated into many languages and are well known in many nations today. Unfortunately.

Ellen White died in 1915, at the age of 87. By that time, she was living in the Napa Valley.

James and Ellen White are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Battle Creek, Michigan.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with the Millerites (at the very least, we can enjoy the weirdness), you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Miller is Low Hampton, New York and Joshua Vaughn Himes, who was the first real prophet of Miller’s ideas, is in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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