Ellen White is reported to be the most translated American female author in history: her bookSteps to Christ has been translated into more than 160 languages, and 13 others into more than 25 languages. Her writings have shaped Adventists and many others.
Ellen White was born November 26, 1827, in Gorham, Maine, in the northeastern United States. She and her twin sister Elizabeth were the youngest of eight children born to Robert and Eunice Harmon, members of the Methodist Church. In 1842, she was baptized and joined the church her parents attended in Portland, Maine, where the family had moved. In Portland the family attended meetings conducted by William Miller, a Baptist farmer-turned-preacher, who concluded from Bible prophecy that Christ would return sometime about 1843 (later revised to 1844).
The Harmons became “Millerites,” which resulted in their being disfellowshipped from the Methodist Church in 1843. Young Ellen felt a strong burden to help others find Jesus. She fully expected Him to return on October 22, 1844, the date Millerites believed marked the end of the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:14. When Christ did not return, the Millerites were terribly disappointed. In December 1844, God gave Ellen the first of an estimated 2,000 visions and prophetic night dreams received until her death in 1915. That first vision confirmed that God’s presence was with the fledgling group of believers, and they would eventually reach the Holy City.
Ellen was encouraged to give her messages by a young Adventist minister, James White. They married on August 30, 1846, and soon started keeping the seventh-day Sabbath based upon Bible evidence in a tract written by Joseph Bates. Later, Ellen had a vision confirming the Sabbath as the correct day to keep.
The small group of Sabbathkeepers continued studying their Bibles, searching for truths. The visions given to Ellen often confirmed their conclusions. Sometimes, God’s instruction pointed them away from erroneous conclusions. The visions never replaced their need for Bible study.
In 1851, Ellen White wrote a booklet, reprinted in Early Writings, the first of well over 100 publications currently bearing her name.
James and Ellen White traveled widely, speaking, encouraging, and counseling members of the growing church. Being a mother of four boys was challenge enough without also having the pain of being separated from them. She experienced the sorrow of losing two of her sons through death, John Herbert as a baby of only about 3 months of age, and Henry Nichols at 16. James Edson and William Clarence both became ordained Seventh-day Adventist ministers.
Many of the visions that God gave Ellen White contained messages of hope and encouragement, some warnings and reproofs. It was difficult to deliver some of those strong messages. Being the Lord’s messenger was not an easy assignment! God spoke through her, guiding the church through many challenges.
Ellen became a very popular speaker, often in demand at Adventist meetings. She was perhaps better known as a speaker than a writer. She became a popular speaker on Christian temperance among non-Adventist temperance groups.
In 1863 God gave Mrs. White a major vision on health. It stressed the importance of proper diet, exercise, rest, and fresh air; and the concept that preserving one’s health is a religious duty. The principles of that vision eventually were adopted by many Adventists around the world. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that practicing God’s recommended lifestyle results in a longer average lifespan for Adventists than the general population.
Ellen White felt inadequate as a writer to describe what God had shown her and read widely—other authors helped her to describe what God had shown her. Occasionally choice phrases would stick in her mind, and she used them in sermons or talks. Mrs. White never claimed infallibility or that she was perfect, or that her writings were equal to the Bible. Yet she firmly believed that the messages God gave through her were of divine origin, her writings produced under the guidance of God’s Spirit.
Stories abound about Mrs. White’s generosity. While living in Australia she kept bolts of cloth on hand—if she saw a lady who needed a new dress, she gave her material. She bought pieces of used furniture; then if a need arose, she could assist immediately. She would often send funds to help an elderly minister who needed financial assistance.
Mrs. White often entertained guests and usually retired early in the evening. She would often rise at 2:00 or 3:00 in the stillness of the morning to write. Some books, such as Steps to Christ, are devotional. Others, such as Testimonies for the Church, are selections from many letters and manuscripts she wrote to offer counsel.
The five “Conflict of the Ages” books are more historical, describing the struggle between Christ and Satan that began in heaven and will end with the eradication of all sin at the close of the millennium. Readers are continually invited to choose God’s side in that battle. Today books such as The Ministry of Healing and Education are considered classics in their field.
At the time of her death on July 16, 1915, there were 24 books in print, plus two others nearly completed. Some 5,000 periodical articles were published in various Adventist journals; another 50,000 pages of mostly unpublished manuscripts are housed in the vault in her office building. As she instructed in her will, a number of thematic compilations have been produced.
For 70 years Ellen White faithfully delivered the messages given to her by God. Her counsel was constantly sought by church leaders. Despite little formal education, her visions resulted in today’s worldwide Adventist education system. She had no medical training, yet she encouraged a network of Adventist hospitals, clinics, and medical training facilities around the world. She was never an ordained minister, but her writings continue to influence millions of people in the more than 200 countries where the Adventist Church now operates. God’s messenger continues to help people find the Lord, accept His pardon, and share His grace with others.
During the last years of Ellen White’s life, she enjoyed going riding in her buggy. Passing a home, she would remark, “I wonder if the people in that house know anything about Jesus.” She would stop to visit neighbors in their yards, often leaving fruit from her orchard or garden produce, plus some literature. For several years after her death, she was remembered as the little lady dressed in black who came by in her buggy and talked about Jesus.
In our increasingly rushed world where spiritual things often get overlooked or completely ignored, the example and writings of Ellen White may help the seeker find a deeper experience with God. Her writings point continually to the Scripture, where God has provided guidance for His people.
James R. Nix is the director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland.