Ellen White and Phrenology

Compiled by Brother Anderson

Introduction to Phrenology1

Phrenology was the "science" of the human mind developed by two German physicians, Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and his student Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), and brought to the United States in the 1830s by Spurzheim and a Scottish convert, George Combe. According to phrenologocial theory, the human brain was made up of a number of different "organs" each corresponding to an exotically named mental "faculty" like amativeness, acquisitiveness, or philoprogenitiveness. The organs governing man's "animal" propensities were located in the back and lower part of the head, while the organs of intellect and reason occupied the frontal region. Since the relative strength of any propensity could be determined by measuring the size of its matching organ, it was not difficult for the initiated to "read" a person's character by carefully examining the skull.

The amazing popularity of phrenology during the 1840s and 1850s was in large measure the work of its two American high priests, Orson Squire Fowler and his brother Lorenzo. From their headquarters at Clinton Hall in New York City the Fowler brothers created a phrenological empire that reached into every segment of American society. Each month 20,000 families pored over their American Phrenological Journal... Through the years a close relationship developed between the leading phrenologists and health reformers. ... In May, 1850, Clinton Hall was the setting for the organizational meeting of the American Vegetarian Society...the vegetarians, phrenologists, water-cure doctors, and anti-tobacco, anti-corset, and temperance people were so often crossing paths, they began to look like participants in a single reform movement.

Phrenology as Quackery2

Phrenology was introduced as a supposedly scientific medical discipline...but its easy application by self-taught experts quickly led to its use by quacks for commercial exploitation of gullible persons, very much like astrology, palm-reading, tarot and similar esoteric approaches. "Phrenological Parlours" sprouted throughout Europe and the USA in the popular heyday of this movement, between 1820 and 1842. People used the advice of phrenologists for everything, including for hiring employees, for selecting a partner for marriage and for diagnosing mental illness or the origin of psychological afflictions.

Itinerant phrenologists were also common in these days. They would roam the hinterland carrying a portable board or a bust with the maps devised by Gall and his followers, and would talk on the marvels of phrenology to an assembly of credulous on-lookers. Afterwards, he would diagnose and advise those who ventured forward and were willing to pay his modest fees.

Eventually phrenology found its way to the dustbin of medical history. Phrenology was equated to other forms of quackery, mainly due to the abuses in the hands of shady commercial entrepreneurs. Its demise happened in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.

Mrs. White Denounces Phrenology

Mrs. White denounced phrenology in an 1862 testimony:

"The sciences of phrenology, psychology, and mesmerism are the channel through which he comes more directly to this generation and works with that power which is to characterize his efforts near the close of probation.

"Phrenology and mesmerism are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his most powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls. His arts and devices are received as from heaven, and faith in the detector, the Bible, is destroyed in the minds of thousands. Satan here receives the worship which suits his Satanic majesty. Thousands are conversing with, and receiving instructions from, this demon-God and acting according to his teachings. The world which is supposed to be benefited so much by phrenology and animal magnetism, never was so corrupt. Satan uses these very things to destroy virtue and lay the foundation of spiritualism.

"I was directed to this scripture as especially applying to modern spiritualism: Colossians 2:8: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." Thousands, I was shown, have been spoiled through the philosophy of phrenology and animal magnetism, and have been driven into infidelity. If the mind commences to run in this channel, it is almost sure to lose its balance and be controlled by a demon."3

At a camp-meeting in New Zealand in 1893, Mrs. White describes how the people requested her to speak on the dangers of phrenology which she claimed to have seen in vision:

"Elder McCullagh preached in the evening, and in the course of his sermon, spoke of the evil effects of the study of, and placing dependence in, the science of phrenology. He showed that its tendency was to lead men to undervalue the power of the grace of God, and to place too high an estimate on their own judgment. Some who had devoted much time to the study of phrenology, and placed much dependence upon it, were offended, and spoke freely against what had been said. Quite a number spoke of their interest in phrenology, and their desire to know wherein its study was injurious. After breakfast, the regular program for the forenoon was suspended, and I presented to the people some of their dangers, as they had been shown to me before coming to this country."4

Did Mrs. White Practice What She Preached on Phrenology?

In 1864 the Whites visited Dr. Jackson's health reform institute in Dansville, New York. Mrs. White brought her sons Edson and Wille to Dr. Jackson for a phrenology reading (for which Dr. Jackson charged five dollars per reading). She wrote to some close friends sharing her elation with the doctor's flattering findings:

"I think Dr. Jackson gave an accurate account of the disposition and organization of our children. He pronounced Willie's head to be one of the best that has ever come under his observation. He gave a good description of Edson's character and peculiarities. I think this examination will be worth everything to Edson."5

Evidently Mrs. White felt safe from the power that she had warned just two years earlier to be "the most powerful agent to deceive and destroy souls." When James was healthy, she had spoken of how "large and active" were his "cautiousness, conscientiousness, and benevolence." She noted that these had "been special blessings in qualifying him for his business career." However, during his illness these "special developments, which had been a blessing to him in health, were painfully excitable, and a hindrance to his recovery."6

Later, she incorporated some of the teachings of the deceptive and dangerous science of phrenology into her health writings.

Mrs. White Teaches Phrenology Nonsense

According to the "science" of phrenology, the animal organs of the brain were located in the back and lower part of the head, while organs of intellect and sentiment occupied the frontal region. Heating the back of the head brought blood to this area and supposedly stimulated the sexual passions. Therefore, Mrs. White protested against the use of wigs by her followers:

"The artificial hair and pads covering the base of the brain heat and excite the spinal nerves centering in the brain. The head should ever be kept cool. The heat caused by these artificial coverings induces the blood to the brain. The action of the blood upon the lower or animal organs of the brain, causes unnatural activity, tends to recklessness in morals, and the mind and heart are in danger of being corrupted."7


While Mrs. White publicly denounced Phrenology as destroying "virtue" and while claiming to have visions from God showing it was a channel for demons, she was privately paying a physician to perform phrenology readings on her sons. Phrenology had such a hold upon her, that she later incorporated phrenology ideas into her writings. Either Mrs. White was mistaken about it being a channel for demons, or else she was involved in channeling demonic power.


1. This section taken from: Ronald Numbers, PhD, Prophetess of Health, pp. 67-70.

2. Renato M.E. Sabbatini, Phrenology, the History of Brain Localization, Brain & Mind, March 1997.

3. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 290, 296-297.

4. Ellen White, Review and Herald, June 6, 1893.

5. Ellen White to Bro. and Sister Lockwood, Sep. 14, 1864, from Jackson's clinic in Dansville, New York, L-6-1864, White Estate, as quoted in Dr. Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health.

6. Ellen White, "Our Late Experience," Review and Herald, Feb. 27, 1866; James White to Ira Abbey, June 27, 1873.

7. Ellen White, Healthful Living, 1897, p. 185.

Category: Health Teachings
Please SHARE this using the social media icons below