Only a 3rd-grade Education?
By Dirk Anderson
Mrs. White suffered a severe head injury when she was in the third grade of school. This injury forced her to drop out of school. Adventists sometimes point to her later writings and proclaim:
"How could someone with only a 3rd-grade education write such wonderful books?"
Those asking this question are implying that Mrs. White must have received supernatural assistance in writing her books. What they may not realize is that many accomplished and famous people succeeded in life with little or no formal education. For example, consider Thomas Edison, the American inventor who lived during Mrs. White's era. Mr. Edison was perhaps the greatest inventor in American history. He invented the phonograph, incandescent light bulbs and many other important items. Not only was Mr. Edison virtually deaf, he never had more than a few months of formal education. The fact that someone with limited formal education can be successful in their chosen line of work is no proof of divine intervention.
More than a 3rd-grade education
The truth is that Mrs. White had more than a third grade education. We do not know when Mrs. White started school. Children in her era and location sometimes started school as early as age four or five. We know that she was a good enough reader to be called "downstairs to the primary room" to read lessons to smaller children, clearly indicating that she had advanced beyond the primary grades herself.1 After she had recovered somewhat from her accident, Ellen Harmon attended school sporadically for the next two years, attempting to continue her education with great difficulty:
"For two years I could not breathe through my nose, and was able to attend school but little. It seemed impossible for me to study and retain what I learned."2
A year later, when attempting to resume her education, she enrolled for a short time in a "seminary" rather than a grammar school:
"I again became very anxious to attend school and make another trial to obtain an education, and I entered a ladies' seminary in Portland. But upon attempting to resume my studies, my health rapidly failed, and it became apparent that if I persisted in attending school, it would be at the expense of my life. With great sadness I returned to my home."3
This attempt ended Ellen Harmon's "formal" schooling:
"I did not attend school after I was twelve years old."4
However, she continued with her informal education. She was tutored for a while at home, and her mother assisted in her education:
"Her mother, a wise and careful woman, did not allow Ellen to grow up in ignorance; at home she learned many of the practical lessons needed in preparation for life."5
It is difficult to assess exactly how much education she actually received, but we know it was more than a third grade education. Her education was sufficient to allow her to become an avid reader. Furthermore, it appears her education provided her with the basic skills of writing. However, she was apparently not as well versed in the sciences, because her writings include a number of unscientific statements.
Supernatural or human assistance?
Followers of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, point to the writings of this illiterate man as evidence of his divine inspiration. They say, "How could an illiterate man write such wonderful works, such as the Quran, without divine assistance?" The truth is that Muhammad had secretaries who assisted him in writing. Likewise, Mrs. White almost always had assistance with her writing. In the beginning it was James White. Later, as she became wealthier, she hired a professional staff to write her books, articles, and even her personal letters. She hired Marian Davis, who was a professional writer, to assist her with her books. Her secretary, Fannie Bolton, was involved in writing for Mrs. White for many years.
Mrs. White also received substantial assistance in writing by copying material from some of the top Christian authors of her era. There is some debate as to the exact amount of material that was plagiarized from other authors. Some studies have suggested that in some books, as much as 90% was copied from others.
Whether or not Mrs. White had supernatural assistance in writing her books only God can judge. However, it is clearly evident that she had substantial human assistance.
Do her writings prove she was inspired?
Imagine you were given the opportunity to write a book. What if you were given permission to copy any material you wanted from the top Christian authors in the world? And what if you had a staff of competent editors and professional writers to assist you in this effort? Do you think you could put together an inspiring book? Of course you could! In this regard, Mrs. White's inspiring books do not prove her to be any more of a prophet than you are!
1. See White Estate document file #733c.
2. Ellen White, Life Sketches, 1880, p. 134.
3. Ellen White, Life Sketches, 1915, p. 26.
4. Ellen White, Testimonies, Vol. 1, p. 13.
5. Ellen White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years Volume 1 - 1827-1862, p. 32.
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