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Ellen White and the Idolatry of Photography

By Ray Pitts

Mrs. White unequivocally condemned photography as a waste of money and a violation of the second commandment:

"During the night I was sorely distressed. A great burden rested upon me. I had been pleading with God to work in behalf of his people. My attention was called to the money which they had invested in photographs. I was taken from house to house, through the homes of our people, and as I went from room to room, my Instructor said, 'Behold the idols which have accumulated!'"1

"This making and exchanging of photographs is a species of Idolatry. Satan is doing all he can to eclipse heaven from our view. Let us not help him by making picture-idols. We need to reach a higher standard than these human faces suggest. The Lord says, 'Thou shall have no other Gods before me.'"2

"After going from home to home, and seeing the many photographs, I was instructed to warn our people against this evil. This much we can do for God. We can put these picture-idols out of sight. They have no power for good, but interpose between God and the soul."3

"Every true child of God will be sifted as wheat, and in the sifting process every cherished pleasure which diverts the mind from God must be sacrificed. In many families the mantel-shelves, stands, and tables are filled with ornaments and pictures. Albums, filled with photographs of the family and the photographs of their friends, are placed where they will attract the attention of visitors. ... Is this not a species of Idolatry?"4

"As I visit the homes of our people and our schools, I see that all the available space on tables, what-nots, and mantlepieces is filled up with photographs. On the right hand and on the left are seen the pictures of human faces. God desires this order of things to be changed. Were Christ on earth, He would say, 'Take these things hence.' I have been instructed that these pictures are so many idols, taking up the time and thought which should sacredly devoted to God."5

"We have for years been waging war with spiritual idolatry. ..... I am pained to see the photographs multiplied and hanging everywhere."6

Did she practice what she preached?

Amazingly, in the midst of writing these testimonies, while "waging war" against the evil of photography, Mrs. White was having pictures of herself and her family taken! Here is the evidence:

"I do not think I shall ever get a picture to equal the one Dunham has made for me. He says I had better have the large one put on a small card. What do you think of this plan?"7

"Dunham gave me one dozen of these pictures of yours. Shall I send them to you? What do you think of them? I told him I did not like them. They did not look natural, but you can use them. If so let me know."8

Nine years earlier, Mrs. White had made a public apology for her picture-taking activities9:
We acknowledge our error. We deeply regret that we ever consented to sit for our pictures. For years I would not consent to have our pictures taken, although solicited to do so. How many times I have wished we had remained steadfast. But all we can do now is to confess our wrong and ask God to forgive us, and entreat the forgiveness of our brethren and sisters."10
In public she acknowledged and repented of her mistake in 1867, but in private she was still making picture idols in 1876. Ten years later, in 1886, we find Mrs. White privately encouraging others to make photographs, even offering to pay the expenses:
Well, Addie [Walling], I would be pleased to have you get your pictures taken and write to May [Walling] to do the same. I will settle the bills. I want to see the faces of my children once more.11
She must have had a significant collection of pictures when she died because she goes through the trouble of mentioning them in her will:
NINTH: My household furniture, dishes, carpets, pictures, photographs, and clothing, I give and bequeath in equal parts to my sons, James Edson White and William C. White.12

Adventists reap the fruit of Mrs. White's testimony

Apparently some Adventists in Europe took Mrs. White's testimonies to be the Word of God and started burning their pictures. Mrs. White relates the events that happened in Christiana in 1886:

Some had been bringing in false tests, and had made their own ideas and notions a criterion, magnifying matters of little importance into tests of Christian fellowship, and binding heavy burdens upon others. Thus a spirit of criticism, fault-finding, and dissension had come in, which had been a great injury to the church. And the impression was given to unbelievers that Sabbath-keeping Adventists were a set of fanatics and extremists, and that their peculiar faith rendered them unkind, uncourteous, and really unchristian in character. Thus the course of a few extremists prevented the influence of the truth from reaching the people.

Some were making the matter of dress of first importance, criticising articles of dress worn by others, and standing ready to condemn every one who did not exactly meet their ideas. A few condemned pictures, urging that they are prohibited by the second commandment, and that everything of this kind should be destroyed.

These one-idea men can see nothing except to press the one thing that presents itself to their minds. Years ago we had to meet this same spirit and work. Men arose claiming to have been sent with a message condemning pictures, and urging that every likeness of anything should be destroyed. They went to such lengths as even to condemn clocks which had figures, or "pictures," upon them. Now we read in the Bible of a good conscience; and there are not only good but bad consciences. There is a conscientiousness that will carry everything to extremes, and make Christian duties as burdensome as the Jews made the observance of the Sabbath. The rebuke which Jesus gave to the scribes and Pharisees applies to this class as well: "Ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God." One fanatic, with his strong spirit and radical ideas, who will oppress the conscience of those who want to be right, will do great harm. The church needs to be purified from all such influences. ...

It is true that altogether too much money is expended upon pictures; not a little means which should flow into the treasury of God is paid to the artist. But the evil that will result to the church from the course of these extremists is far greater than that which they are trying to correct. It is sometimes a difficult matter to tell just where the line is, where the picture-making becomes a sin. ...

A few in Christiania had gone so far as to burn all the pictures in their possession, destroying even the likenesses of their friends. While we had no sympathy with these fanatical movements, we advised that those who had burned their pictures should not incur the expense of replacing them."13

Notice that she blames the members of the Christiana church for interpreting the 2nd commandment to apply to pictures when she herself had taught it for years from her testimonies which supposedly came from God. She even claimed Christ would say, "Take these things hence", and that an Angel had told her in vision that these photographs were "idols." It is no surprise the people reacted the way they did. They were simply following their consciences in obeying what they thought was a testimony from God Himself! By burning their photographs they were following Mrs. White's instructions to their logical conclusion. If God said a photograph was an idol, then it should be destroyed!

Mrs. White was the one who had been teaching the people that photographs were idols; therefore, she was the origin of the "criticism, fault-finding, and dissension" in the Christiana Adventist Church. She condemns the Christiana people for their "false test" while failing to mention that she was the one who originated that test. In essence, she is saying that to take her testimonies literally and obey them is to be "fanatical" and "extreme".

Photographic Expenses

Photography was a very expensive art in the late 1800s. The Whites had pictures of James taken, as is indicated by Mrs. White's letter to her son W.C. after James' death:

"If you have your father's pictures, please bring them. I want to show them. My pocket album I left at Healdsburg."14
Where did these photos of James come from? One possibility is suggested from this letter written to James in 1876:
"Lathrop is as pleased a man as you ever saw with the pictures, especially of you. He says that she will sell you the negative for five hundred dollars. Beside what we take, it will bring him that much custom. He thinks Ingleson's a flat affair. He [Lathrop] has your picture in the window for show."15
$500 for one negative! That equals 1000 days wages for the average working man in those days! How can this expense be justified in light of what she wrote:
"In the vision given me in Rochester, Dec. 25, 1865, I was shown that picture-taking had been carried to too great lengths by Sabbath-keeping Adventists; and that much means had been spent in multiplying copies which was worse than lost. This means should have been invested in the cause of God. I was shown that we had done wrong in expending means in picture-taking."16

"Again I plead that instead of spending money for pictures of yourself and your friends, you should turn it into another channel. Let the money that has been devoted to the gratification of self, flow into the Lord's treasury [SDA Church] to sustain those who are working to save perishing souls."17

"These photographs cost money. Is it consistent for us, knowing the work that is to be done at this time, to spend God's money in producing pictures of our own faces and the faces of our friends? Should not every dollar that we can spare be used in the upbuilding of the cause of God? These pictures take money that should be sacredly devoted to God's service; and they divert the mind from the truths of God's word." 18

Conclusion

Why did Ellen White tell others that photographs were (1) idols, (2) self gratification, (3) a waste of money, (4) diverting minds from God's Word, (5) eclipsing heaven from our view, (6) interposing between God and the soul, and (7) taking up time and thought that should be devoted to God while at the same time she was privately having photographs taken of herself and her family at great expense? Could it be that she did not really believe her testimonies came from God?

NOTES

1. Ellen White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Sep. 10, 1901.

2. Ellen White, Messages to Young People, p. 316.

3. Ibid., p. 318.

4. Ellen White, Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, Jan. 14, 1901.

5. Ellen White, Messages to Young People, p. 316.

6. Ellen White, The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 887.

7. Ellen White, Letter 17, 1876, p. 2 (To James White, April 30, 1876).

8. Ellen White, Letter 21, 1876, p. 2 (To James White, May 5, 1876).

9. Regarding her activities prior to 1867, in 1865 we find Mrs. White apparently planning to distribute photos of herself to the people at the Dansville clinic:

"Please send to us at Our Home, Dansville, New York, one half a dozen of our pictures, both on one card, and one dozen each separate; also two of James, large, and two of mine, the best you can find." - Letter 6, 1865 (To 'Dear Children,' September 22, 1865. Source: "Manuscript Releases" Vol. 5, p. 385)

10. Ellen White, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Mar. 26, 1867.

11. Ellen White, Letter to Addie and May Walling, July 21, 1886; quoted in Manuscript Releases, Vol. 8, p.79.

12. Ellen White's Last Will and Testament

13. Ellen White, Historical Sketches, pp. 211-212.

14. Ellen White, Letter 15, 1882, p. 1. (To W. C. White, May 23, 1882).

15. Ellen White, Letter 1a, 1876, p.1. (To James White, March 24, 1876).

16. Ellen White, Review, Mar. 26, 1867.

17. Ellen White, Home Missionary, June 1, 1893.

18. Ellen White, Review, Sep. 9, 1901.


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