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Pre-Ellen White Health Reformers

Was Ellen White Really Ahead of Her Time?

Compiled by D. Anderson

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Contrary to popular myth, Mrs. White brought few, if any, new health reforms to the world. Other popular health reformers were promoting most, if not all of her teachings on health, before she began teaching them.

Influence of Methodist Founder John Wesley1

Having been raised up in the Methodist church, Mrs. White was most likely familiar with the writings and practices of church founder John Wesley. Wesley believed that health and healing were an integral part of the gospel message. In 1746, as a young evangelist Wesley studied medicine and began visiting the sick, prescribing various natural remedies for their health problems. By 1753 he was testing the curative powers of electricity, which he described as the "most efficacious medicine, in nervous disorders of every kind, which has ever yet been discovered."

He authored a number of books on health reform. Here are some of the health reforms he practiced and advocated in the 1700s:

  • Moderation in food and drink
  • Warned against intemperance, indolence, excessive passions
  • Frowned upon medicines such as opium and quinine
  • Recommended two hours of walking a day
  • Advised the ill to exercise in the fresh air
  • Avoided highly seasoned foods
  • Abstained from tea for years
  • Stressed that cleanliness promotes health
  • Advised Methodists to avoid snuff and tobacco
In addition to his many books and tracts on health, Wesley founded a system of Methodist hospitals that is one of the largest private healthcare systems in the world today.

Influence of Elder Joseph Bates

Health reform was an important subject amongst some Adventist pioneers, particularly Captain Joseph Bates. There is no doubt that Bates had a strong influence on the Whites and the development of the early SDA Church. Bates was a health reformer who quit using tobacco in 1821 and crusaded against "tobacco and snuff boxes, and pipes." He further decried the use or trafficking of "alcoholic drinks, from brandy to cider, and beer."2 According to the White Estate, "He later quit using tea and coffee and in 1843 became a vegetarian."3 Dr. Ronald Numbers advises us that Bates also stopped using "butter, cheese, greasy foods, and rich pastries."4 Thus, by 1843, Bates had already laid the foundation for the SDA "health message" even before he met Ellen and James White.

  • Avoid tobacco
  • Do not drink alcohol
  • Do not drink tea or coffee
  • Do not eat meat
  • Avoid butter, cheese, rich pastries

Health Reforms of Mrs. M.L. Shew5

In 1844, a full 19 years before Mrs. White's first "vision" on health reform, Mrs. M.L. Shew published the third edition of an 156-page book on health reform entitled Water Cure for Ladies: a Popular Work on the Health, Diet, and Regimen of Females and Children, and the Prevention and Care of Diseases. In it she teaches:
  • Alcohol is a deadly poison
  • Drug medicines are "most pernicious"
  • Get rid of salt in the diet
  • Spices, such as mustard, pepper, and vinegar are "pernicious"
  • Tea is "one of the most destructive poisons"
  • Tobacco is a very powerful poison
  • Daily bathing, exercise, and fresh air are important for good health
  • Use cream instead of butter
  • A vegetarian diet will promote health
  • Cheese is hard for the body to digest
  • Meals should be six hours apart. Two meals a day is "better for sedentary persons"
  • Bread is the "staff of life." Fresh bread should not be eaten while still warm.

1843 daguerreotype of Joseph Smith, Jr. taken by Lucian Foster (Library of Congress)

Fellow Prophet Joseph Smith

In 1833, thirty years before Ellen White's first health reform "vision", the Prophet Joseph Smith received his health reform vision. Smith wrote out following health reforms:6

  • Use of "wine" and "strong" alcoholic drinks is proscribed.
  • Tobacco is forbidden.
  • "Hot drinks [coffee and tea] are not for the body".
  • Fruits, vegetables, and grains will bring health to the body.
  • Meat is allowed, but should be eaten "sparingly".
Today Mormons proclaim that Joseph Smith was "years ahead" of modern-day science. As further proof of the divine origin of Prophet Smith's revelation they point to the fact that the average Latter Day Saint outlives the average American by approximately 7 years.7

Health Reforms of Sylvester Graham

Sylvester Graham was a minister and a prominent health reformer who in 1849 promoted the following reforms in a book:8

  • Avoid all simulating and unnatural foods, living "entirely on the products of the vegetable kingdom and pure water."
  • Butter should be used "very sparingly."
  • Fresh milk and eggs were frowned upon but not proscribed.
  • Cheese was permitted only if mild and unaged.
  • Condiments and spices, such as pepper, mustard, and cinnamon, were banned as being "all highly exciting and exhausting."
  • Tea and coffee, like alcohol and tobacco, poisoned the system.
  • Pastries, with the exception of fruit pies, were "among the most pernicious articles of human ailment."
  • Sleep was preferable before midnight.
  • Sleep should be taken in a well-ventilated room.
  • A sponge bath every morning was desirable.
  • Clothing should not be restrictive.
  • "All medicine, as such, is itself an evil."

Furthermore, Graham was opposed to both marital excess and self-abuse (masturbation). Graham believed that stimulating foods aroused the sexual passions. Therefore, he concluded that one of the best ways to control sexual urges was to adopt a vegetarian diet and forsake condiments, spices, alcohol, tea, and coffee.9

Two-Meals-a-Day from Dio Lewis

In the 1850s Dio Lewis became a nationally known lecturer on health reform. He taught many of the same things as Graham, but he added the reform of eating only two meals a day. The Whites were well acquainted with Dr. Lewis. In Mrs. White's biography, grandson Arthur notes that in the early 1860's:

"The Review and Herald, edited by James White and Uriah Smith, occasionally carried items on rest, fresh air, exercise, et cetera, selected from other journals or from the writings of a Dr. Dio Lewis. Quite often articles and admonitions discouraging the use of tobacco, tea, and coffee were included."10
Not only were the Whites familiar with Dr. Lewis' health writings, in 1871 they actually visited his home in Boston and held a private discussion with him.11

Millerite Reformer Larkin Coles

Larkin B. Coles was less known than Graham or Lewis. However, he is of special interest to Adventists because he was a Millerite preacher-physician. Before his death in 1856 he authored two books on health. In his books he advocated fresh air, exercise, a vegetarian diet, non-use of stimulants, reform in dress, sexual purity, and drugless medicine. Mrs. White obtained a copy of Cole's book on health, and a large number of her health writings appear strikingly similar to Coles' writings. She rarely disagrees with Coles on any health subject, and nearly every health reform that Coles proposed in his book is also found in her books.

Coles not only warned against meat eating because it increased the animal propensities, but he also discussed the connection between meat-eating and disease. He was noteworthy for sounding a warning (which others health reformers had already voiced) that there was a relationship between tobacco use and carcinomas.12

Ellen White and Health Reform

Ellen White was a "late-comer" to health reform. She did not receive her first "vision" on health reform until 1863, a full 30 years after Prophet Joseph Smith's vision. While Mrs. White was still feasting on pork in the early 1850s the health reform movement was in full swing in America. Health and temperance lecturers traveled throughout the country, speaking in churches and halls, promoting the vegetarian diet, and warning against alcohol, tobacco, and corsets. A full decade before Mrs. White received her "vision" on health reform, all the major tenets of her health teachings were being taught by nationally-known non-Adventist Christian health crusaders.

Her First Attempt at Health Reform

Mrs. White's first attempt at health reform was to write a book called Appeal to Mothers, published in 1864. Like Sylvester Graham's efforts two decades earlier, Mrs. White decided her church members needed to be warned about the health dangers of masturbation. On the first page she warns of the astonishing numbers of deaths caused by masturbation:

"Have you observed the astonishing mortality among the youth?"13
According to Mrs. White, not only does masturbation cause death and a wide range of physical ailments, it also causes mental health problems:
"The mind is often utterly ruined, and insanity takes place."14
Needless to say, Appeal to Mothers is no longer available in print. Like so many other of her writings and visions that were proven incorrect, this book simply disappeared from the public sight. (If you want to learn more about what Mrs. White wrote in this book and other early health writings, click here.)

Later Attempts

While she never achieved the fame in the health reform arena attained by fellow prophet Mary Baker Eddy--whose first book Science and Health, published in 1875, sold over 10 million copies--Mrs. White's later efforts proved more successful. With the assistance of her staff of professional writers and editors, she was able to produce a much better health reform book which is still available today: Ministry of Healing.

Perhaps Mrs. White had the opportunity to read Mrs. Eddy's book:

Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health, 1875 Ellen G. White
Prayer cannot change the Science of being, but it tends to bring us into harmony with it. (p. 1) Prayer is not to work any change in God; it is to bring us into harmony with God. (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 143, 1900)
...will mould and fashion us anew, until we awake in His likeness. (p. 4) Then He will mould and fashion us after the divine likeness... (Signs of the Times, Mar. 11, 1903)
Their imperfections and impurity felt the ever-present rebuke of his perfection and purity. (p. 52) To all things untrue and base His very presence was a rebuke. In the light of His purity, men saw themselves unclean... (Education, p. 79, 1903)

For Further Study:


NOTES
  1. E. Brooks Holifield, Health and Medicine in the Methodist Tradition, 1986.

  2. Joseph Bates, The Sealing Message, pp. 67-68.

  3. "Pathways of the Pioneers, Joseph Bates", http://www.whiteestate.org/pathways/jbates.asp, extracted Oct. 25, 2009.

  4. Ronald Numbers, Ph.D., Prophetess of Health, 1992, p. 38.

  5. Sydney Cleveland, White-Washed, (1998), pp. 93-100.

  6. Joseph Smith, In Doctrine and Covenants, section 89, verses 5-17.

  7. William T. Stephenson, MD, "Cancer, Nutrition, and the Word of Wisdom", July 2008, www.lds.org. Quote: "Life expectancy for Latter-day Saint males living in Utah is 7.3 years longer than their non-LDS counterparts. Female Latter-day Saints appear to live longer too-—an average of 5.8 years." ( Roy M. Merrill, “Life Expectancy among LDS and Non-LDS in Utah,” Demographic Research, Mar. 12, 2004, www.demographic-research.org/volumes/vol10/3.)

  8. Sylvester Graham, Lectures on the Science of Human Life, (1849), pp. 224-286.

  9. Sylvester Graham, Lecture to Young Men on Chastity, pp. 83, 144-148.

  10. Arthur White, Ellen White, vol. 2, p. 73.

  11. Ellen White, letter 15, 1871 to Edson and Emma White, November 15, 1871, Manuscript Releases, vol. 5, p. 397, para. 1.

  12. Larkin B. Coles, The Beauties and Deformities of Tobacco-Using, 1853, p. 142.

  13. Ellen White, An Appeal to Mothers, p. 5.

  14. Ibid., p. 27.


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