Sister, Mother, Wife, Prophet: The Visions of Ellen Harmon White

Carol Faulkner

In a 1907 biography of spiritualist Moses Hull, his brother Daniel described Moses's time as the "champion" of the loosely-organized Adventists, former followers of the apocalyptic William Miller, in the 1850s. In 1857, Hull joined those loyal to Ellen Harmon White (1827-1915), whose trance-like visions allowed her to experience and transmit direct messages from God. As spiritualists, the Hulls understood White's visions as similar to other clairvoyants. Her visions, Hull wrote, came after her husband James laid his hands on her shoulders. In contrast to spiritualists, however, these visions allowed the Whites to govern believers with a "rod of iron." In 1863, the Whites organized their followers into the Seventh-Day Adventist church. Two years later, Moses Hull and his wife Elvira left the church for spiritualism. Elvira remembered the Whites' efforts to retain her husband's talents:

"A series of house to house prayer meetings were inaugurated, all of which he was almost forced to attend, and, invariably, Elder and Mrs. White, the psychological influence of whom was almost irresistable, and other magnetic brothers and sisters were present.... Mrs. White, always prolific of visions 'from the Lord' in emergencies, had a vision on this occasion in which 'she had been shown' by the Lord, of course, that Elvira...was the cause of all the trouble."*

Moses Hull was unconvinced. Still, these descriptions of the early Seventh-Day Adventist church indicate the importance of both gender and religious competition to Ellen Harmon White's growing movement.

A new collection of essays, Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, seeks to place White at the center of American religious history and culture.** The authors, each covering a key aspect of White's life and thought, view her as operating within Victorian gender and religious ideals. As Jonathan M. Butler writes in his biographical "Portrait": "She shaped Adventism into a domestic religion with her concern for child nurture and education, diet and health, marriage and family" (12). White's status as the mother (or sister, with its more democratic implications) of the church meant that she had to balance her personal role as submissive wife and mother with her public obligation to testify and communicate with followers around the nation and the world. She struggled with this balance in her own life. Yet while she gave women an important role in the church, her religious teachings emphasized their duties to their family. It was not surprising that White perceived the independent Elvira Hull as a threat.

James and Ellen Harmon White

Still, White would have vigorously protested Hull's description of her husband's participation in her visions. Ann Taves places White in the "shouting Methodist" tradition (see also Fits, Trances and Visions), and explores the important split between moderate and radical Adventists following the "Great Disappointment" (or the failure of the world to come to an end) in 1844. It was only by distancing herself from radicals, many of whom were other visionaries, and by repudiating all accusations that James "mesmerized" her, that White established her leadership. In their essay on "Science and Medicine," Ronald L. Numbers and Rennie B. Schoepflin discuss White's criticism of spiritualism, and its claims of offering healing connections to the spirit world, as the work of "seducing spirits and doctrines of devils": "In White's view, these systems all required patients to submit their will to that of the healer, and only persons under the influence of Satan would put themselves under the influence of another human" (208). In Hull's description of White's visions and her control over her followers, then, was an intense, personal dispute between two groups offering separate, yet similar, paths to religious truth. Their definitions of religious authority also intersected, as both claimed to offer direct access to spiritual knowledge.

These essays emphasize White's similarity to other nineteenth-century Americans. Outside of Seventh-Day Adventism, most historians know Ellen Harmon White for her interest in health reform: promoting vegetarianism, temperance, and the water cure, advising sexual abstinence, and decrying masturbation. In these interests, she overlapped with Sylvester Graham, Mary Gove Nichols, and other reformers. White undoubtedly borrowed many of their ideas, and several of the essays address the controversy over White's plagiarism, a charge that she denied until her death. In a religion that accepted White's writings as literal truth, such accusations were divisive. But perhaps it was her ability to translate and even transform these familiar cultural aspirations that made her movement a success.

*Daniel Hull and Others, Moses Hull (Wellesley, A: Maugus Printing Co., 1907)
** For reports on the 2009 conference that inspired this volume, see here and here.


newer post older post