Ellen G. White and the SDA Church: Visions or Partial-Complex Seizures?

Gregory L. Holmes, M.D.
Director of the Division of Clinical Neurophysiology and Epilepsy at Boston Children's Hospital. Dr. Holmes is also a professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. He is board-certified in neurology, pediatrics, and clinical neurophysiology.
Delbert H. Hodder, M.D.
Board-certified pediatrician with a special interest in pediatric neurology. Dr. Hodder is a graduate of Loma Linda University.

By Delbert H. Hodder, M.D. and Gregory Holmes, M.D.

Editorial Comment: This is the abstract presented by Dr. Hodder and Dr. Holmes at the 1981 meeting of the American Academy of Neurology held in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Holmes, a professor at Harvard Medical School, is a nationally recognized neurologist and has published numerous articles. In 1984, the White Estate appointed a panel of nine Loma Linda University health professionals to conduct their own investigation into the epilepsy charges. It is certainly no surprise to anyone the panel concluded, "there is no convincing evidence Ellen G. White suffered from any type of epilepsy." Now you can review the evidence and decide for yourself.

During 1844, thousands of sincere people left their churches, severed earthly ties, and joined the "Millerite Movement", a movement that was predicting the end of the world and the coming of Jesus Christ on October 22, 1844. Christ obviously did not return as expected and it was from the group of people who suffered and survived this disappointment that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was conceived and subsequently has grown to become a major Protestant denomination now [in 1981] containing more than 3.5 million members around the world.

Although there is no one individual entirely responsible for the success of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, there is no question that Ellen Gould White was the one most influential person during the time of its formation in 1865 and during its first 50 years until her death in 1915. Her 46 volumes of writing containing 25 million words combine with the Bible as the doctrinal basis of the Adventist Church today.

Mrs. White was accepted as a "prophet" based on the specific instructions and guidance given her through nearly 2,000 visions [Note: Some researchers claim the number of visions was far less than 2,000]. It was the seemingly supernatural nature of these "visions" that was the most significant early evidence suggesting that she was being used by God as a prophet. It is the purpose of this paper to point out the similarity of her visions with partial-complex seizures.


Ellen was in good health until age 9, when she was hit on her nose and forehead by a rock thrown by a classmate. The impact resulted in an immediate loss of consciousness followed by a lucid interval and then the re-loss of consciousness. She is described as being in a stupor, wavering between life and death, for a full three weeks thereafter.

Following this serious head injury, Ellen is described as being shunned by her friends because of her disfigured face that was such that even her father was said to have been scarcely able to recognize her. She was unable to successfully return to school because of difficulty with reading and shaking of her hands that prevented writing, thus, she never finished the third grade. Her personality also changed, and she is described as becoming an avid Bible student and an intensely religious person after the accident.


It was at the age of 17, during an intense prayer session, that Ellen White had her first "vision." Her "visions" occurred frequently while in intense prayer sessions but also, abruptly, while preaching or talking with friends, or when alone. Following are eyewitness descriptions of her while in "vision."

J.N. Loughborough - organizer of the Seventh-day Adventist Church:

"In passing into vision, she gives three enrapturing shouts of 'Glory!' which echo and re-echo, the second and, especially the third, fainter. For about four or five seconds she seems to drop down like a person in a swoon, or one having lost his strength; she then seems to be instantly filled with superhuman strength, sometimes rising at once to her feet and walking about the room. There are frequent movements of the hands and arms, pointing to the right or left, as her head turns. All these movements are made in a most graceful manner. In whatever position the hand or arm may be placed, it is impossible for anyone to move it. Her eyes are always open, but she does not wink; her head is raised and she is looking upward, not with a vacant stare but with a pleasant expression, only differing from the normal in that she appears to be looking intently at some distant object."
George I. Butler - 1874 -- President General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Church:
"… the eyes are always wide open and seem to be gazing at some far-distant object, and are never fixed on any person or thing in the room. They are always directed upward; they exhibit a pleasant expression... The brightest light may be suddenly brought near her eyes. . . there is never the slightest wink or change of expression on that account; and it is sometimes hours and even days after she comes out of this condition before she recovers her natural sight..."
M. C. Kellogg, M.D. - December 28, 1890:
"As Sister White gave that triumphant shout of 'Glory! G-l-o-r-y! G-l-o-r-y!' … Brother White arose and informed the audience that his wife was in vision. The coming out of the vision was as marked as her going into it. The first indication we had that the vision was ended was in her again beginning to breathe. She drew her first breath deep, long, and full, in a manner showing that her lungs had been entirely empty of air. After drawing the first breath, several minutes passed before she drew the second, which filled the lungs precisely as did the first; then a pause of two minutes, and a third inhalation, after which the breathing became natural. When the vision was ended…she would exclaim with a long drawn sigh, as she took her first natural breath, 'D-a-r-k!' She was then limp and strengthless."
James White - 1868 (husband) President General Conference, Seventh-day Adventist Church:
(1) "She is utterly unconscious of everything transpiring around her…but views herself as removed from this world, and in the presence of heavenly beings.

(2) "She does not breathe.. during the entire period of her continuance in vision, which has, at different times, ranged from 15 minutes to 3 hours."

(3) "Immediately on entering vision, her muscles become rigid, and joints fixed, so far as any external force can influence them. At the same time, her movements and gestures, which are frequent, are free and graceful, and cannot be hindered nor controlled by the strongest person."

(4) "On coming out of vision, whether in the daytime or a well-lighted room at night, all is total darkness. Her power to distinguish even the most brilliant objects, held within a few inches of the eyes, returns but gradually, sometimes not being fully established for three hours."

In summary, the visions that Ellen White had were typical of partial-complex seizures in that they were characterized by:

  1. paroxysmal loss of consciousness
  2. eyes staring upwards
  3. visual hallucinations
  4. affective changes
  5. gestural automatisms
  6. preservation of speech
  7. post-ictal-like period


Ellen White's personality traits also show significant resemblance to the personality traits described in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. The traits that seem to most commonly discriminate between controls and epileptics are paranoia, anger, dependence, religiosity, sadness, philosophical interest, and humorlessness. Bear and Fedio in 1977 described the different behavioral characteristics in patients with left versus right temporal foci. The left temporal patients were identified with a sense of personal destiny and a concern for meaning and significance behind events. Related items emphasized powerful forces working with one's life and the need for sober intellectual and moral scrutiny. This theme permeates the 100,000 pages of writing she produced which itself--hypergraphia--is a characteristic of patients with partial-complex seizures.


It has been 66 years since the death of Ellen White. A number of Adventist scholars have recently questioned the validity of much of her writings, pointing out that much of what she wrote was actually copied from other nineteenth century writers. There has also been recent publicity concerning the inconsistency of some of her writings with Biblical teachings. Although it would be impossible to prove retrospectively that Ellen White suffered from partial-complex seizures, it appears possible that not only her visions, but also her writing and the nature of her revelations, may reflect temporal lobe dysfunction and prove to be the explanation to the questions plaguing many scholars within the Adventist Church today.


Category: Visions Examined
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