Ellen G. White and Sources
The Plagiarism Debate - 125 Years Later
Tim Poirier
Ellen G. White Estate, Inc.
[A condensed version of this paper is published in
Understanding Ellen White, Merlin Burt, ed., pp. 145-165.]
Ellen White used the writings of others in her books, articles, letters, and manuscripts. While
that statement is undeniably true, what has remained disputed over the past 125 years are her
reasons for so doing, the candidness of her acknowledgments, and the implications of such usage
for her claim of inspiration.
The first part of this chapter summarizes the plagiarism allegations and provides a brief history
of responses to those allegations, with special emphasis on the discussion during Ellen White’s
active ministry and that of her associates. The second part summarizes present understandings of
Ellen White’s use of sources, including contrast and comparison with the historical discussion.
I. Historical Summary
1887 - 1907
1907 - 1933
1933 - 1970
1970 - 2012
1887 - 1907
The genesis of the plagiarism charge has been credited to former Adventist minister D. M.
Canright,1 although there is evidence of earlier questioning of Mrs. White’s use of sources.2 The
first known published criticism of her copying is Canright’s article in the October 8, 1887, issue
of the Michigan Christian Advocate:
She often copies, without credit or sign of quotation, whole sentences and even
paragraphs, almost word for word, from other authors. (Compare “Great Controversy,”
page 96, with “History of the Reformation,” by D’Aubigne, page 41.) This she does page
after page. Was D’Aubigne also inspired?3
1 Ron Graybill, “D. M. Canright in Healdsburg, 1889: The Genesis of the Plagiarism Charge,” Insight, Oct.
21, 1980, 7-10.
2 See Ellen White, “Questions and Answers,” in Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867; J. White in Life Sketches
(Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press, 1880), 328, 329; J. H. Kellogg, “Interview,” Oct. 7, 1907, 34-36 (pagination from
1986 reprint, “The Kellogg File 1907” (Tempe, Ariz.: Omega Historical Research Society, 1986)), EGWE-GC DF
3 Cited in F. D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald Publishing
Assoc., 1951), 417.
The next year this brief accusation was expanded to include the specific charge of “plagiary” in
Canright’s first edition of Seventh-day Adventism Renounced:
She often copies, without credit or sign of quotation, whole sentences, paragraphs and
even pages, word for word, from other authors. Compare “Great Controversy,” page 96,
with “History of the Reformation,” by D’Aubigne, page 41. Indeed, her last book, “Great
Controversy,” which they laud so highly as her greatest work, is merely a compilation
from Andrew’s [sic] History of the Sabbath, History of the Waldenses by Wylie, Life of
Miller by White, Thoughts on Revelation by Smith, and other books. I have compared
many pages from all these and find that she has taken from these word for word and page
after page. She gives no credit to these authors but claims it all as a revelation from God!
She is a literary thief. Webster says: “Plagiary:-A thief in literature; one who purloins
another’s writings and offers them to the public as his own.” Exactly what she does.4
In his second edition, published in 1889, Canright included as support the investigations of the
recent Healdsburg, California, Pastor’s Union,5 which, he wrote, “proves her guilty of stealing
her ideas and matters from other authors.” Interestingly, he omitted the quote from Webster and
the specific mention of
“plagiary” in this and subsequent editions,6 although it features
prominently in his later Life of Mrs. E. G. White (1919).7
How did Ellen White’s contemporaries respond to these allegations? At the public debates in
Healdsburg, Elders W. M. Healey and J. N. Loughborough offered five lines of defense:
That Canright had overstated the amount of copying. This was supported by publishing
parallel columns of White’s writings with her alleged sources, showing greater selectivity
in her borrowing than the impression that had been left by Canright.
When writing on matters of historical record, “if each party told the truth in the case there
must of necessity be similarity in the facts stated.”
The copying presented dealt with “matters of fact, and not in any sense a copying of
ideas or reasoning.
Believers have recognized copying among the Bible writers “without [their] being subject
to the charge of being plagiarists.”
In contrast to Mrs. White’s borrowing of “facts,” a plagiarist will quote “ideas and
arguments” without giving any acknowledgment to the “real author” of what is claimed
4 D. M. Canright, Seventh-day Adventism Renounced (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Kalamazoo Publishing Co.,
1888), 44.
5 See discussion of the debates in Graybill, op cit.
6 Canright, Seventh-day Adventism Renounced, Second Ed. (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1889), 139.
7 Canright, Life of Mrs. E. G. White (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1919), chapter 10, “A Great
as one’s own—“Exhibit A” being the virtual reproduction of Moses Hull’s Bible From
Heaven, under the name of D. M. Canright.8
Consideration of these and other responses will be given in the second part of this chapter. From
1887, we advance 20 years for the next public record of plagiarism charges, the period of the
“Battle Creek controversy.”
1907 - 1933
The earliest discussions of Ellen White’s use of sources up to and including this time appear to
have been limited to her writings on history and health, specifically The Great Controversy,
Sketches From the Life of Paul, and the series Health, or How to Live.9 Two Battle Creek
physicians—Charles E. Stewart and John Harvey Kellogg—reintroduced the plagiarism question
in 1907.
Stewart outlined his “evidences of plagiarism” in a letter to Ellen White sent through W. C.
White, May 9, 1907.10 It consisted of illustrations of copying found in Sketches from the Life of
Paul and The Great Controversy, with the suggestion of similar copying in The Desire of Ages.
In an expanded version printed later that year, Stewart reacted against “various explanations”
that had been offered for the obvious similarities between Mrs. White’s books and other authors.
First, that it was the “fault of the proofreader” he found to be an insufficient argument because
the proofreader’s duty is to “follow copy,” not insert quotation marks where none are found in
the manuscript. Second, quotation marks could not even be “readily used” due to the fact that in
many instances thoughts are paraphrased and not quoted verbatim. Third, Ellen White’s
acknowledgment of her use of other authors in her Preface to the 1888 edition of The Great
Controversy was merely the result of a protest by “a prominent member of the denomination”
against “sending out literature in this manner.”
He summarized by posing a question to Mrs. White in what appears to be as charitable a fashion
as he deemed possible: “Is that special light you claim to have from God revealed to you, at least
to some extent, through your reading the various commentaries and other books treating of
religious subjects?”
Kellogg, in his parting interview with Battle Creek Church elders, also in 1907, made clear that
he was that “prominent member of the denomination” who had protested to W. C. White
concerning The Great Controversy’s use of Wiley’s History of the Waldenses. Apparently also
8 “False Charges Refuted,” Healdsburg Enterprise, Mar. 13, 1889.
9 As per Canright, Kellogg. In his 1907 interview, Kellogg speaks of The Desire of Ages and “other books.”
No earlier mention of borrowing in The Desire of Ages or other books (apart from The Great Controversy and
Health, or How to Live, has been found.
10 Stewart’s introductory letter to W. C. White is dated May 8, 1907. The May 9 letter was published five
months later, with some expansion, as “A Response to An Urgent Testimony from Mrs. Ellen G. White Concerning
Contradictions, Inconsistencies, and Other Errors in Her Writing” (Battle Creek, Mich.: The Liberty Missionary
Society, 1907)—commonly referred to as “the Blue Book.” The publisher’s Preface states that the author of the
letter (unnamed in the booklet) was not responsible for its appearance in print.
the source of Stewart’s rebuttal to the “fault of the proofreader” defense, Kellogg opined that “it
would not have been proper to put [these excerpts] in quotation marks when there were so many
words and phrases changed; they were not quotations; they were borrowed. They were
plagiarisms and not quotations. There is a difference between plagiarism and quotation
you should put it in quotation marks, it would be telling an untruth, because you would be
representing this thing as being word for word from the author when it is not word for word from
the author at all.”11
Kellogg went on to quote W. C. White as responding, “Don’t you think that when Mother sees
things, runs across things that agree with what she has seen in vision, that it is all right for her to
adopt it?” Kellogg disagreed, replying, “‘No, not without giving credit for it. It may be all right
for her to quote it and make use of it, but she ought to put quotation marks on and tell where she
got it, and should say this is in harmony with what she had “seen.”’ She had no right to
incorporate it with what she had ‘seen’ and make it appear that she has seen it first of all.”
Kellogg called Ellen White’s statement in the Preface to the new edition merely a “crawl out.”
Nor did their explanation “help the case at all about other books.” He concluded by informing
the elders that they probably didn’t know that Ellen White had borrowed from Coles’ Philosophy
of Health in her Health, or How to Live. To the contrary, Elder Amadon responded, “I knew a
large share of it was borrowed.”12
What responses did Ellen White’s supporters offer to this round of criticisms? Because Kellogg’s
interview was stenographically recorded but not publicly disseminated at the time, there is no
record of any direct response to his comments. Stewart’s letter, however, was published
anonymously a few months later, and led to discussions among the “Elmshaven” staff and
certain General Conference leaders on how best to deal with the questions raised—which
involved considerably more than the plagiarism issue.
Notes from these discussions suggest that responses to specific questions be assigned to various
named individuals, including W. C. White, A. G. Daniells, W. W. Prescott, or simply “the
brethren in Washington.” Regarding the plagiarism question in particular, it was agreed that “W.
C. White shall prepare quite a full and frank statement of the plans followed in preparing
manuscripts for publication in book form, including (if Sister White gives her consent) a
statement of the instruction which Sister White received in early days as to her use of the
productions of other writers.” The plan continued, “This matter will then be forwarded to
Washington for criticism and suggestions, with a view to its publication in leaflet form.”13 A
parenthetical note offered this additional suggestion: “Show how higher critics claim that Old
11 Kellogg, “Interview,” 34.
12Ronald Numbers, author of Prophetess of Health, attributes his interest in Ellen White’s health reform
sources to his accidental discovery of Kellogg’s personal copy of Coles’ volume, in which he had marked passages
paralleling Mrs. White’s writings. See Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health (Knoxville, Tenn: University of
Tennessee Press, 1992), xv.
13 “Memorandum of Plans Agreed Upon in Dealing With ‘The Blue Book,’” 2. (EGWE-GC DF 213)
Testament writers were plagiarists, etc.,” echoing an earlier defense offered by Loughborough
and Healey during the Canright debates.14
A review of denominational publications in the years immediately following Stewart’s letter
does not yield any article or leaflet on the plagiarism question. Responses seem to have been
given verbally or through meetings with interested parties. A. G. Daniells summarized the five-
pronged approach he took in publicly meeting the plagiarism allegation as follows:
A writer’s use of another’s thoughts and words does not necessarily make him or her a
plagiarist “in either motive or spirit.”
Given the voluminous writings of Ellen White, she had no need to “purloin” the writings
of others.
The themes and subject matter of her books were unique.
Ellen White explained the reasons for her use of others’ writings in her Preface to The
Great Controversy.
Ellen White may have copied material from Conybeare and Howson’s Life and Epistles
of St. Paul without inserting quotation marks that would have alerted the stenographer,
the editor, or the publisher of her use of their work.15
Still, the need for a “clean, clear-cut statement” from W. C. White and his mother was urged—
something the General Conference officers could incorporate into a fuller response.16
In July 1907, W. C. White wrote to M. N. Campbell, pastor of the Battle Creek church,
responding to the plagiarism and suppression charges against Sketches from the Life of Paul
which had been publicized through one of the Battle Creek newspapers. White acknowledged
that a statement similar to what appeared in the author’s Preface to The Great Controversy
should have been made in Sketches from the Life of Paul, faulting his “lack of experience in the
publishing work that such acknowledgment was not made.”17 White reviewed further
circumstances connected with the book and concluded his letter by advising Campbell that what
he had written was not for publication but for his own information and that of the Battle Creek
officers, presumably in meeting the criticisms. “A printed statement regarding this matter,” he
wrote, “will be brought out soon by some officer of the General Conference.”
So far as is known, no such statement was issued by either the “Elmshaven” office or the General
Conference until 1933 when E. S. Ballenger’s renewed agitation of the plagiarism charge led to
14 “Memoranda, Stewart Tract,” 4. (EGWE-GC DF 213)
15 A. G. Daniells to W. C. White, June 24, 1907.
16 Ibid.
17 W. C. White to M. N. Campbell, July 30, 1907. He pointed out that Life of Paul was the first Ellen White
book to be issued after James White’s death, and that “the management of her business affairs was new to me.”
the printing of “Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White,” prepared by W. C.
White and D. E. Robinson.18
Before reviewing the discussion of the 1930s, however, three preceding events should be noted.
First, Ellen White’s new edition of The Great Controversy, published in
1911, provided
opportunity for W. C. White to explain his mother’s use of historians and the role her assistants
played in supplying correct references to what was quoted. W. C. White presented his
explanation in a letter addressed to “Our General Missionary Agents,” and again orally at the
General Conference Fall Council, October 30, 1911. Ellen White signaled her approval of
White’s comments by writing to the editor of the Review, “I think he has presented the matter
correctly and well.”19
Second, Canright’s charge of plagiarism was revived in 1919 with his publication of Life of Mrs.
E. G. White. The two or three paragraphs in Seventh-day Adventism Renounced were expanded
to an 18-page chapter, “A Great Plagiarist,” the bulk of which reprinted Dr. Stewart’s 1907 letter
as published in the “Blue Book.”
Third, the Bible and History Teachers’ Council, following the 1919 Bible Conference, included a
discussion of Ellen White’s use of sources, particularly as it related to the question of inerrancy
and revisions in her writings.20
1933 - 1970
E. S. Ballenger’s Gathering Call publications marked the next major public debate regarding
Ellen White’s alleged plagiarism.
Ballenger included exhibits from Stewart’s letter, additional examples of copying, allegations of
“stolen illustrations,” and unfavorable reports from various unnamed individuals on how Ellen
White did her writing.21 Among other incidents, Ballenger related that “just recently we received
the best of evidence that Fannie Bolton wrote
‘Steps to Christ’ without any dictation or
assistance from Mrs. White whatever. It was her product in toto, but was published as Mrs.
White’s production.” Miss Bolton had died six years earlier, making personal verification of
such an allegation impossible, but the charge—and a host of others reported by Ballenger—
meant increasing questions for the “Elmshaven” staff, which in 1933 consisted of W. C. White
(78), Dores E. Robinson (53), and Arthur L. White, who had begun working in the office three
years earlier at age 22.
18 W. C. White and D. E. Robinson, “Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White,” (St.
Helena, Calif.: “Elmshaven Office,” 1933). Citations in this article follow the pagination of the June 4, 1981
Adventist Review reprint.
19 W. C. White’s statement is reprinted in Selected Messages, book 3, 433-440. Ellen White’s letter is
reprinted on pages 123-124.
20 See the discussion on August 1, 1919, pages 1243-1254.
21 E. S. Ballenger, The Gathering Call, Sept. 1932 and Mar/Apr 1933.
Ballenger, as did Canright before him, presented a barrage of allegations against Ellen White and
the denomination in general, of which plagiarism was but one. These, together with the
challenges of the Adventist Reform movements, the newly formed “Shepherd’s Rod,” and other
elements, led to appeals by W. C. White and Robinson to General Conference leaders for proper
“Defense Literature” to meet the many and varied attacks. The “Elmshaven” staff took up the
task of preparing responses to key Ellen White-related issues, for which they sought counsel
from the “leading brethren.”22
Responses from the “Elmshaven” office relating to the plagiarism charges included: “The
Evolution of ‘Great Controversy’” (1932), “Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G.
White” (1933), “Was Mrs. E. G. White A Plagiarist?” (1936), “Integrity of Mrs. White as an
Author” (1936). These responses were reviewed and refined by select church leaders in
Washington, providing at the same time both helpful input and frustrating delays in the efforts of
the “Elmshaven” office to meet the objections.
The cumulative lines of defense coming from these 1930s responses included these points:23
Ellen White received revelations (“light”) that constituted the basic sources for her
“It is not necessary, nor does God always give direct revelation as a substitute for
knowledge that may be gained by using the powers with which He has entrusted His
Her usage of sources was “incidental” to the unique themes found in her writings—
particularly the conflict between the forces of good and evil. Ellen White read and made
use of “good and reliable historians” to provide convincing evidence for non-believers of
the portrayal of events she had seen in vision or that were in harmony with views she
wished to present. “Her copying from historians was a matter of convenience, and not a
matter of necessity.”
Ellen White had received divine instruction regarding the selection of “gems of truth”
from her reading: “In her early experience when she was sorely distressed over the
difficulty of putting into human language the revelations of truths that had been imparted
to her, she was reminded of the fact that all wisdom and knowledge comes from God and
she was assured that God would bestow grace and guidance. She was told that in the
reading of religious books and journals, she would find precious gems of truth expressed
in acceptable language, and that she would be given help from heaven to recognize these
and to separate them from the rubbish of error with which she would sometimes find
them associated.” This appears to be the statement those responding to the Stewart letter
22 The relationship between the Estate and the General Conference was a topic that generated its own
complications, as the way was being laid for the Trustees of the Estate to form a corporation separate from the
General Conference yet financially supported by the same. See James R. Nix, “A History of the Ellen G. White
Estate,” (Silver Spring, MD: unpublished paper, 2003), 36-45.
23 All the summarizations and quotations that follow are taken from the four documents named above.
in 1907 had earlier requested W. C. White to include in a response to be printed in leaflet
“The pioneers in the Seventh-day Adventist work regarded truth as common property.”
“We find that writers of the Bible used the language of other Bible writers without giving
It is unfair to apply current standards of “literary courtesy” to writers in the 1880s. Ellen
White “acted without knowledge of the literary standards that would count a moderate
use of others’ writings as unfair or worthy of condemnation.” Contemporary authorities
were quoted showing that “plagiarism” involves more than the mere uncredited use of
another’s language. “One who freely appropriates the writings of another without giving
credit is called a plagiarist. If this is done with the intent to deceive or to increase
financial gain, it is plainly censurable.” Ellen White had no such intent, as is evidenced
by her use of familiar and widely read authors. Furthermore, she gave acknowledgment
of using sources in her Preface to The Great Controversy, and instructed that quotation
marks be inserted where they could be used.
The quantity of quoted matter has been greatly exaggerated by critics, and the nature of it
is descriptive, historical, or relating to prophetic and doctrinal exposition.
The charge of “stolen illustrations” [artwork] is refuted by correspondence negotiating
their purchase.
The charge that Steps to Christ had been written by Fannie Bolton “in toto” is refuted by
proving the existence of earlier (pre-Bolton) Ellen White sources for its material.
Regarding Sketches from the Life of Paul, there had never been a lawsuit or threat of
lawsuit. Nor had there ever been an effort to recall the book. It was a decision of
expediency by the publishers not to take the time to properly identify quoted passages in
the manuscript.
Plagiarism, of course, was but one of a series of accusations against Ellen White’s integrity that
had been raised by Ballenger, and Canright before him. The church’s newly formed “Defense
Literature Committee” recognized the need for answers to the full range of criticisms. F. D.
Nichol was assigned the task, resulting in the 1951 publication of Ellen G. White and Her
Critics. Nichol’s stated object was to answer “all the charges against Mrs. White which are
currently prominent, representative, and impressive sounding.”25 It included 65 pages on the
plagiarism charge, roughly 10 per cent of the book.26
Nichol’s response essentially reiterated the points brought out in the 1930s documents, but he
rigorously supported them with extensive documentation. He examined “what really constitutes
plagiarism” from legal and practical viewpoints; the history of Sketches from the Life of Paul and
The Great Controversy; whether Ellen White intended to deceive her readers; the extent of her
borrowing; the threatened lawsuit allegation; and the question of how literary borrowing relates
to inspiration.
24 See above.
25 Nichol, 20.
26 Ibid., 403-467.
We will notice only two examples of Nichol’s fuller presentation of supporting evidences. Both
relate to charges surrounding Sketches from the Life of Paul. Nichol cited an advertisement for
Conybeare and Howson’s book appearing in the Signs of the Times four months before Ellen
White’s book was published. As a part of the advertisement, Ellen White was quoted as highly
recommending the book: “‘The Life of St. Paul’ by Conybeare and Howson, I regard as a book
of great merit, and one of rare usefulness to the earnest student of the New Testament history.”27
Nichol summarized that to draw any other conclusion but that Ellen White knew her readers
would note parallels between the books “would be equivalent to saying that in publishing her
work on Paul Mrs. White deliberately set out to expose herself as a literary thief and a prophetic
Nichol devoted the largest percentage of his defense to a refutation of the persistent allegation
that a lawsuit had been threatened against Ellen White for her alleged plagiarisms in Sketches
from the Life of Paul. After tracking down and reviewing sources for the rumor, he
photographically reproduced a 1924 letter from the Thomas Y. Crowell Company, publishers of
Conybeare and Howson’s work, stating that they did not believe they had ever “raised any
objection or made any claim” against Mrs. White’s Sketches from the Life of Paul—nor could
they have had legal grounds to do so, as the book was not copyrighted.28 Wrote Nichol, “We
believe the reader will conclude that the threatened lawsuit has been quashed.”
Nichol’s volume appeared to supply the forceful refutation that had been called for, providing
answers to the plagiarism question as it had been defined. Inside of 20 years, however, the debate
would resurface in the light of new discoveries, and would continue to the present time.
Research into Ellen White’s use of sources in the late 1960s, 70s, 80s moved the discussion
beyond the mere documentation of copying to an analysis of the sources used, the class of
material in which borrowing occurred, the nature of inspiration, and Ellen White’s apparent
denials of borrowing.
William Peterson challenged the reliability of the Protestant historians Ellen White cited and the
belief that her reading merely “filled in the gaps” of her visions;29 Donald McAdams’s research
further pressed the question of how much history was actually shown Ellen White in vision;30
27 Signs of the Times, Feb. 22, 1883, in Nichol, 423.
28 Nichol, pp. 455-457. Unbeknown to Nichol, and only recently coming to light, is the fact that F. E.
Belden, a prominent critic of Ellen White and denominational leaders since the Kellogg-Battle Creek controversy,
had written the Crowell Company 11 years earlier ostensibly seeking further ammunition on the plagiarism charge.
Crowell’s reply: “We know nothing about the complaint to which you refer.” Thomas Y. Crowell Company to F. E.
Belden, Sept. 9, 1913. (EGWE-GC DF 389)
29 William S. Peterson, “A Textual and Historical Study of Ellen G. White’s Account of the French
Revolution,” Spectrum (Autumn 1970), 57-69.
30 Donald R. McAdams, “Ellen G. White and the Protestant Historians,” unpublished paper (Keene, Texas:
Southwestern Adventist College, 1977 rev.).
Ronald Numbers disputed Ellen White’s originality and accuracy in her health writings;31 and
Walter Rea questioned Ellen White’s originality in virtually all areas of her writing—discounting
any need for a “divine source” for her writings.32
Suddenly F. D. Nichol and his predecessors’ answers came up short. No one had previously
questioned the biases of the historians Ellen White quoted, nor had the extent of her borrowing
been understood to reach beyond The Great Controversy, Sketches from the Life of Paul, and, to
a lesser extent, The Desire of Ages, with sparse examples in two or three other titles. Then, in
1981, evidence came from White Estate researchers that Ellen White had used sources on
occasion when reporting the message of a vision.33
The church published responses to the findings of this new generation of questions through
articles in denominational papers (also Spectrum), symposiums, workshops, and commissioned
reports. We will list here the major denominational responses to the literary borrowing issue,34
and summarize their conclusions in the next section.
The Ellen G. White Writings, by Arthur L. White (1973)
“Literary Relationship Between The Desire of Ages, by Ellen G. White, and The Life of
Christ, by William Hanna,” by Raymond F. Cottrell and Walter F. Specht (1975)
Critique of Prophetess of Health, by the E. G. White Estate (1976)
Appendices A, B, C, in Selected Messages, book 3 (1980)
One Hundred and One Questions, by Robert W. Olson (1981)
“Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White,” by W. C. White and D. E.
Robinson. Reprint insert in Adventist Review, June 4, 1981.
Special issue of Adventist Review, “Was Ellen G. White a Plagiarist,” (Sept. 17, 1981)
The White Truth, by John J. Robertson (1981)35
“The Ramik Report,” by Attorney Vincent L. Ramik (1981)
“E. G. White’s Literary Work: An Update,” by Ron Graybill (1981)
The Truth About The White Lie, by the E. G. White Estate and Biblical Research Institute
Special issue of Ministry, “Ellen White: Prophet or Plagiarist?” (June 1982)
31 Numbers, op cit.
32 Walter T. Rea, The White Lie (Turlock, Calif.: M & R Publications, 1982). Rea’s publication became the
apex for the modern plagiarism charge against Ellen White.
33 See Ron Graybill, “Did Mrs. White ‘borrow’ in reporting a vision?” Adventist Review, Apr. 2, 1981, 7;
“Author writes,” Adventist Review, Apr. 30, 1981, 2; and “The ‘I saw’ parallels in Ellen White’s writings,” Adventist
Review, July 29, 1982, 4-6.
34 This list does not include works that discuss the broader ministry of Ellen White or other apologetic
works in which the literary borrowing question is not their particular focus, nor does it include works that were not
published by Seventh-day Adventist publishing houses.
35 Notwithstanding its title, Robertson’s book was not written as an answer to Rea’s The White Lie, which
had not yet been published.
“Henry Melvill and Ellen G. White: A Study in Literary and Theological Relationship,”
by Ron Graybill, Warren H. Johns, Tim Poirier (1982)
International Prophetic Guidance Workshop, sponsored by the E. G. White Estate (1982)
Luke, a Plagiarist? by George E. Rice (1983)
Full Report of The Life of Christ Research Project, by Fred Veltman (1988)36
“Issues and Answers: Ellen G. White and ‘Plagiarism,’” by Roger W. Coon (1994)
Acquired or Inspired? by Don S. McMahon (2005)
The Prophet and Her Critics, by Leonard Brand and Don S. McMahon (2005)
II. Retrospective Summary and Present Understandings
Definitional and Legal Issues
Ellen White’s Use of Literary Sources
The Inspiration Issue
The Ethical/Moral Issue
Beginning with Canright, it is apparent that, unlike modern allegations of plagiarism against a
novelist or journalist, for example, the question of Ellen White’s use of sources is inextricably
linked to questions about the nature of inspiration and assumptions about how inspired writers
ought to write. In basic terms, Ellen White’s critics maintain that where an uninspired source is
identified in her writings it negates any divine influence in the message being communicated.
The message has to be 100% original revelation or it is a mere human production.
For Canright, that Ellen White copied historians, often rewrote what she had previously written,
and used secretaries, was enough to prove that she was not inspired. “The quotations already
given,” he wrote, “are sufficient to show that Mrs. White’s inspiration was from very human
sources, although she sent her works forth as inspired by the Holy Spirit.” “She was a copyist
rather than an original or inspired writer.”37
Ellen White’s defenders did not—indeed could not—deny that she had incorporated material
from other authors in her writings. However, they did dispute the assumption that “inspired” also
meant “original.” White and Robinson responded by emphasizing the divine source of Ellen
White’s knowledge, notwithstanding her use of others’ language to ably present what she had
been shown in vision. They pointed to the original themes found in her books. While there had
been countless histories written about the Christian Church and the Reformation, they argued
that one could not point to any other book like The Great Controversy with its overarching view
of the conflict between Christ and Satan and its outplay in future events. Ellen White’s use of
Adventist and non-Adventist authors were aids to tell her story
36 While confined to the area of Ellen White’s writing on the life of Christ, this has been the most in-depth
analysis of Ellen White’s use of sources to date. The entire study is accessible online at the General Conference
Archives website: www.adventistarchives.org/DocArchives.asp. Veltman also reported on his research in a two-part
series in the October and December 1990 issues of Ministry. His work is hereafter cited as “Life of Christ Research
37 Canright, Life of Mrs. E. G. White, 200, 205.
Regarding the extent of Ellen White’s borrowing, it is clear that until the 1970s her critics and
supporters alike had underestimated both the amount and the classes of material involved. This
was no doubt due to the fact that the two books that were the focus of criticism were The Great
Controversy and Sketches from the Life of Paul. For the most part, Ellen White’s borrowing in
those books was confined to areas that could be defined as “descriptive,” “historical,” or relating
“prophetic and doctrinal exposition.”38 But even granting that inspired writers may
legitimately incorporate pre-existing material, more challenging for her defenders has been the
question of why acknowledgments of this usage were not provided in her books—apart from The
Great Controversy—and how to understand Mrs. White’s statements that appear to deny such
In the light of the discussion and research of the past 125 years, we may summarize present
understandings of Ellen White’s use of sources as follows:39
The Definitional and Legal Issues
Definitions of “plagiarism” vary. By this is meant that, from the time of Canright, differing
definitions of plagiarism and standards of literary ethics have been cited by both sides of the
debate to provide support for their respective positions. One side defines plagiarism simply as
“literary theft,” and a plagiarist as “one who purloins another’s writings and offers them to the
public as his own.” The other side maintains that there is a distinction between “plagiarism” and
“literary borrowing.” The mere use of another’s language does not constitute plagiarism.
Plagiarism, they argue, is the deliberate passing off of another’s material as one’s own, with the
implied intention of appearing to be the original author; in contrast, literary borrowing is using
the ideas or words of another in one’s own composition to serve new and often improved literary
purposes.40 It is linked to the legal doctrine of “fair use,” and involves entirely different motives
than that of the plagiarist. One hundred and twenty-five years after Canright made the allegation,
it is evident that there is still substantial disagreement over whether the term
accurately describes Ellen White’s use of other authors.41
The literary standards of today are more stringent than those of Ellen White’s time. This is
recognized by both critics and supporters. Not only are standards of attribution more demanding
today, but, complicating the matter, they vary from one genre of writing to another. Jerry Moon
has illustrated how forms of acknowledgment vary among sermons, news accounts, popular
38 As in Brief Statements, 12.
39 The categories of issues, but not the summaries that follow, are adapted from Roger Coon’s “Issues and
Answers: Ellen G. White and Plagiarism,” Ministerial Continuing Education program 7463 (1994).
40 See, for example, Jerry Moon, “Who Owns the Truth? Another Look at the Plagiarism Debate,” in “Ellen
White and Current Issues” Symposium, (Andrews University: Center for Adventist Research, 2005), 46-71. Moon
writes, “Proper literary borrowing is like using apples grown by someone else to make pies that are my own,” 47.
41 For recent discussions within Seventh-day Adventism, see articles by J. Stirling, J. Walters, and T. Joe
Willey in Adventist Today, (May/June 2007) and the three-part series by K. Morgan and D. Conklin in Ministry
(Aug., Oct., Dec. 2007).
writing, and academic works, for example.42 Critics have argued that, as a prophet, Ellen White
should have risen above the common literary practices of her day. Supporters have countered
that, if such were the case, we should similarly expect to find the Bible writers rising to today’s
standards and acknowledging their unnamed sources. To the contrary, we find, for example, that
the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are so similar and contain so much verbatim
copying that scholars for centuries have debated which came first and who copied from whom.
Judged by contemporary legal standards, Ellen White was not a plagiarist. When one factors
into the discussion both intent and legal precedent from court cases of Ellen White’s day, the
case appears to be clearly in Ellen White’s favor. This was the conclusion following a
professional review of Ellen White’s alleged plagiarisms by patent and trademark law attorney,
Vincent L. Ramik. Ramik researched more than 1,000 cases in American literary law from 1790-
1915 and noted several factors that critics of Ellen White’s writings have failed to take into
account when accusing her of literary theft or deceit:
Her selections “stayed well within the legal boundaries of ‘fair use.’”
“Ellen White used the writings of others; but in the way she used them, she made them
uniquely her own”—adapting the selections into her own literary framework.
Ellen White urged her readers to get copies of some of the very books she made use of—
demonstrating that she did not attempt to conceal the fact of her use of literary sources,
and that she had no intention to defraud or commercially displace any other author.43
No lawsuit, or threat of a lawsuit, in connection with Ellen White’s Sketches from the Life of
Paul was instituted. Notwithstanding critics’ continued allegations that such a lawsuit by the
publishers of Conybeare and Howson’s work, direct inquiry of the publishers themselves has
verified that no lawsuit was ever threatened, indeed could not have been, as the book was not
Ellen White’s Use of Literary Sources
Ellen White read widely and used the writings of others in her books, articles, letters, and
manuscripts. The significance of this basic statement is not only that there has been an increased
awareness of Ellen White as a reader, but also that she used sources in all categories of her
writings. Initial discussions of Ellen White’s use of sources focused on The Great Controversy,
Sketches from the Life of Paul, and a handful of other publications. Research has since
documented parallels not only in these well-known works but also in her articles and letters—
whether published or unpublished.44
Literary parallels have been documented not only in Ellen White’s writings on history and health
but also in the areas of Biblical narrative, end-time events, devotional themes, personal
42 Moon, 49.
“Memorandum of Law; Literary Property Rights,
1790-1915,” Aug.
1981. Reprinted at:
44 See, for example, the exhibits cited by W. Johns in Ministry (June 1982).
testimonies, and even autobiographical accounts.45 The latter category is of significance in that it
was obviously not a necessity for Ellen White to borrow another’s language to describe her own
life experiences—yet she did so at times. Similarly, she is known to have borrowed descriptions
of places she visited and saw with her natural eyes.46 These instances lend support to the
argument that one reason for her use of another’s language was the mere fact that another writer
expressed or summarized well the ideas and thoughts she wished to describe. No doubt a sense
of her own literary inadequacies was an additional factor, as noted, for example, in this
communication to a church leader:
Now I must leave this subject so imperfectly presented that I fear you will
misinterpret that which I feel so anxious to make plain. Oh, that God would
quicken the understanding, for I am but a poor writer, and cannot with pen or
voice express the great and deep mysteries of God.47
The same principle carries implications for her borrowing in other areas such as Reformation
history, the life of Christ, or her writings on healthful living. We cannot say that just because a
description in Ellen White’s writings shows literary dependency upon another writer it
necessarily means that the earlier author was Ellen White’s only source of knowledge for that
event or point of information. While we would like to draw a sharp line between writings based
on revelation and writings which reflect knowledge gained from a previous writer, in reality we
must recognize that both factors may be operating at the same time in Ellen White’s borrowing.
As expressed by W. C. White and D. E. Robinson:
She admired the language in which other writers had presented to their readers the scenes
which God had presented to her in vision, and she found it both a pleasure, and a
convenience and an economy of time to use their language fully or in part in presenting
those things which she knew through revelation, and which she wished to pass on to her
It is not necessary, nor does God always give direct revelation as a substitute for
knowledge that may be gained by using the powers with which He has entrusted His
45 Ibid. For examples of autobiographical borrowing, compare Ellen White’s Life Sketches (1915 ed.), pp.
17, 165, 166, with her husband James’s accounts in Signs of the Times, Jan. 6, 1876, p. 4 and Life Sketches (1880
ed), p. 325.
46 Ms 29, 1887, diary entry of May 15, 1887, cited in Adventist Review, Apr. 2, 1981, 7. See also R.
Graybill, “A Letter to Elizabath: Ellen White’s 1880 Trip to California,” Adventist Heritage (Summer 1990), 13:25-
47 Lt 67, 1894, quoted in 3SM 90.
48 W. C. White to L. E. Froom, Jan. 8, 1928, reprinted in 3SM 460.
49 D. E. Robinson, “The Evolution of ‘Great Controversy,’” 3. (EGWE-GC DF 51)
Several instances of verbal parallels have been noted in Ellen White’s reporting of a vision. See
the discussion of this phenomenon below.
Some sources relied upon by Ellen White included factual errors. This was recognized in Ellen
White’s day, as evidenced in part by revisions she made in 1911 to her earlier edition of The
Great Controversy. While making use of “faithful” and “reliable” authors, Ellen White stated
plainly in her introduction to The Great Controversy that the historians she referenced were “not
quoted for the purpose of citing that writer as authority.” Without attempting to differentiate
between significant or insignificant errors, the point remains that inaccuracies have been
documented in certain material Ellen White drew from other authors.50 The fundamental issue is
whether Ellen White claimed infallibility or inerrancy in her writings, or in material she drew
from the works of other authors. In actuality, she and her associates allowed for the possibility of
errors, corrected statements shown to be inaccurate, and expressed that her writings were not to
be treated “as authority regarding the details of history or historical dates.”51
Ellen White drew from at least one popular fictionalized account in her writing on the life of
Christ .52 In the Ellen White material studied by Veltman he noted the mention of an extra-
Biblical incident that may draw on J. Ingraham’s work, Prince of the House of David. Veltman
observed a resemblance to Ingraham’s account but cautioned that “further study is required
before one may speak with certainty of Ellen White’s use of Ingraham here.”53 Elsewhere, the
literary parallels documented from Ingraham consisted of descriptive words and phrases similar
in kind to her use from other authors.
There is no credible evidence that Ellen White’s literary assistants did the copying for her. This
was one of the questions also answered by the Life of Christ Research Project, relating to The
Desire of Ages. As stated by Veltman, “Ellen White, not her literary assistants, did the literary
borrowing.”54 Parallels found in her original handwritten drafts demonstrate that Ellen White
herself incorporated material from those sources.
Any discussion of Ellen White’s use of sources is incomplete if it does not also examine how she
used those sources. This involves not only a comparison between her adaptations and the source
documents, but also her selectivity in the material she did not include from those sources.55 One
study showed how Ellen White used the language of another author while making theological
50 See, for some examples, McAdams, op. cit.; R. Graybill,
“Historical Difficulties in The Great
Controversy,” E. G. White Estate, 1978, 1982.
51 See, for examples, W. C. White to E. E. Eastman, Nov. 4, 1912, reprinted in 3SM 445-450; Brief
Statements, 6.
52 See Veltman’s Life of Christ Research Project, 179-181. In Ingraham’s work, a fictionalized eye-witness
to events in Christ’s life reports scenes and details in the form of letters written to another.
53 Veltman, 185.
54 Ibid., 911.
55 Veltman, among others, points out this need, ibid., 937.
assertions sharply divergent from those of that author.56 Particularly in the transitory and often
contradictory literature presenting medical and health opinions, Ellen White demonstrated
remarkable selectivity,57 giving additional evidence that her borrowing was guided by her own
The amount of Ellen White’s copying is greater than previously recognized; the percentage of
documented parallels is far less than alleged by her critics; the percentage of borrowed material
is irrelevant to the question of inspiration. These three statements belong together in any answer
to the question, “How much did Ellen White copy?” Research since the 1970s has revealed that
Ellen White used sources to a much greater extent than was previously known. At the same time,
estimates that
80 or 90 percent of her material is copied from other authors are wildly
exaggerated and unsupported by the facts. Currently documented parallels put a percentage
estimate in the low single digits when compared to her total literary output.58 However, the
question of how much material Ellen White borrowed is immaterial to her claim of inspiration,
as will be noted in the next section.
The Inspiration Issue
For most Seventh-day Adventists this is the central issue. Even if Ellen White is found to have
been writing within the literary norms of her contemporaries, how does one relate her use of
material from other authors to her claim of inspiration? If a passage is found to have parallels
with pre-existing non-Biblical writings, where is the divine source for the message? Or, put more
directly, Can an inspired writer include material from uninspired sources and still present an
inspired message?
For believers, the only legitimate way to determine an authoritative answer to this question is to
examine the evidence from Scripture. What can we learn from the Bible concerning the use of
other sources by Bible writers? This is where Ellen White’s supporters looked for answers during
the Canright debates, the Stewart/Kellogg/Ballenger criticisms, and the more recent
controversies of the 1970s to the present.
The Biblical model indicates that inspired writers may incorporate material from other inspired
and uninspired sources. “Inspiration is not to be equated with originality.”59 Just as it cannot be
denied that Ellen White used literary sources in her writings, so it cannot be denied that Bible
56 D. Neff, “Ellen White’s Theological and Literary Indebtedness to Calvin Stowe,” unpublished paper,
1979 rev. (EGWE-GC DF 389-c)
57 This is argued in D. McMahon, Acquired or Inspired? Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle
(Victoria, Australia: Signs Publishing Co., 2005). For a recent detailed analysis of Ellen White’s selective use of
sources in The Desire of Ages, see E. Marcella Anderson King and Kevin L. Morgan, More Than Words (n.p.:
Honor Him Publishers, 2009).
58 “Ellen White’s Literary Sources: How Much Borrowing Is There?”
59 Johns, op. cit., 17.
writers also used the writings of others without giving credit. Originality has been shown not to
be a test of inspiration.60
The rebuttal from Ellen White’s opponents to this comparison is that the quantity of copying is
higher in her writings than among the Bible writers.61 But the amount of borrowing is irrelevant
to the question of whether inspired writers may legitimately use the language of other authors—
including extra-Biblical sources.62 Once it is recognized that inspiration is not negated by the use
of pre-existing human sources, who is to say what percentage of an inspired messenger’s
language must be free from such dependency?
Ellen White’s “I saw” parallels, though rare, are not essentially different from any other
parallel. Some who are willing to grant that Ellen White could legitimately use sources in certain
types of writing draw the line when it comes to her use of another’s language in conveying
information received through vision. How could it be that there are examples of parallels even
when Ellen White reports words she has heard in vision? Would this not be proof of a purely
human origin for her visions?63
The presupposition of this criticism is that if Ellen White had truly received divine information,
the words she used in reporting the vision would have been a verbatim account of the precise
words given by revelation—in other words, they would have been verbally dictated expressions.
While some adhere to a mechanical-dictation view of inspiration in which the inspired writer acts
as God’s pen or recording secretary, Adventists have historically recognized from Scripture that
inspiration does not function this way.64 God inspires His messenger with a message, and the
writer conveys that message as best he or she is able, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. If
the message of inspiration is not verbally dictated in the one case, why should we demand that it
be in the other? Rather, we should expect the inspired writer to attempt to report the content of
the vision (what was seen and heard) as faithfully as possible, but not necessarily with only
divinely provided words. “Thought” inspiration allows for the messenger to use language drawn
from prior experiences and associations.
60 G. Rice proposed that the “Lucan model” of inspiration, in contrast to the “prophetic model,” provides
Biblical support for this position. See Luke, a Plagiarist? (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1983). See also D.
Johnson, “The Sources of Inspired Writings,” Adventist Review, Dec. 30, 1982, 4, 5, and T. Crosby, “Does Inspired
Mean Original?” Ministry, Feb. 1986, 4-7. Jud Lake describes how “the nature of inspiration is a major underlying
issue in the debate on Ellen White” in Ellen White Under Fire (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2010), 90-131.
61 Rea, op. cit., 139.
62 Jude 9, 14, 15, being a notable example.
63 Rea, op. cit., 53, 54.
64 See General Conference session action of Nov. 16, 1883: “We believe the light given of God to His
servants is by the enlightenment of the mind, thus imparting thoughts, and not (except in rare cases) the very words
in which the ideas should be expressed.” Review and Herald, Nov. 27, 1883, 741. See Selected Messages, book 1,
15-22, for Ellen White’s understanding.
Looking again at the Biblical model, scholars have noted parallels from extra-Biblical sources in
John the Revelator’s reports of scenes and dialogues from his visions.65 The question arises
whether Ellen White intended for us to understand her “reporting” of a vision as a verbatim
recording of what she saw and heard. The answer is, sometimes “yes,” sometimes “no.” She
wrote in 1867:
The words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be those
spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation.66
Here Ellen White is saying that, except for the words of the angel, the content of the vision was
not given to her in auditory form. At other times, she makes it clear that she is reporting the gist
of what she has heard in vision, and not the exact words:
I was in the night season in my dreams brought in connection with the Health Retreat. I
felt grieved to see you [Dr. Q] unhappy and much discouraged
But while I was
distressed over this revelation to me, there was One speaking with you, Dr. Q. His words
reproved you, but were mingled with tender compassion. I cannot write the exact words
as He spoke them. I will try my best to give you the import of them. He said, “You are
nourishing despondency
If Ellen White is “trying her best” to capture the essence of a divine message, it would not be
surprising for her to use another’s language if it conveyed well the thought she wished to
The Ethical/Moral Issue
Accompanying the plagiarism charge has been the accusation that Ellen White was deceitful not
only in copying from the works of others, but also in denying having done so when she was
challenged by her critics. Even if it is conceded that her use of other authors did not legally
constitute plagiarism, her practice and denials, it is alleged, constitute unethical behavior for one
claiming to be inspired.
Contemporary defenders of Ellen White’s integrity point to many of the same lines of reasoning
as her earlier supporters offered:
How could Ellen White be intending to deceive her readers or cover-up her copying when she
recommended primary source books she utilized to ministers and church members and these
works were in wide circulation?68 Furthermore, her acknowledgment of sources in the
65 See, for example, comparisons cited by Crosby, op. cit.
66 Review and Herald, Oct. 8, 1867, 260.
67 Lt 8, 1888, quoted in Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce, 160. Emphasis supplied.
See Gospel Workers, 94, for another example.
68 For Ellen White’s recommendations, see Signs of the Times, Feb. 22, 1883, 96, and Review and Herald,
Dec. 26, 1882, 789. For the wide circulation of key books she used, see Nichol, op. cit., 413-415.
Introduction to The Great Controversy, while specific to that work, nonetheless refutes the
allegation that she did not want her readers to know that she referenced other works in her
Ellen White’s use of uncredited sources was not out of step with how other respected religious
writers of her day used others’ material. White and Robinson made this case in relation to shared
material among Adventist writers,69 and Nichol expanded this point showing examples from
other nineteenth-century Bible commentators.70 Raymond Cottrell observed the same uncredited
borrowing in his research,71 as did Veltman after reviewing more than 500 works on the life of
Christ. Wrote Veltman: “There were times when we were uncertain as to which literary source
the DA parallel was to be credited. The writers used by Ellen White often exhibited literary
parallels among themselves equal to those found between the writings of Ellen White and these
same writers.”72 This is noted not to excuse any improper literary borrowing, but to illustrate that
Ellen White wrote within a period when less stringent standards were both common and
acceptable—especially among authors of pietistic or moralistic writings, a nineteenth-century
genre particularly favored by Ellen White.
Ellen White instructed that proper credit be given in her revised Great Controversy. Wrote W. C.
White: “When I presented to Mother questions as to what we should do regarding the quotations
from historians and the references to these historians, she was prompt and clear in her opinion
that we ought to give proper credit wherever we can.”73 She further instructed, “Whenever any of
my workers find quotations in my writings, I want those quotations to be exactly like the book
they are taken from. Sometimes they have thought they might change a few words to make it a
little better; but it must not be done; it is not fair. When we quote a thing, we must put it just as it
is.”74 This conforms with W. C. White’s description of Ellen White’s modified perspective on
crediting her sources, when the question became one of fairness to other authors:
When in the early days inquiries came to Mrs. White regarding the passages in
her books that she had copied from historians, they were presented as questions
regarding the authenticity of the statements. The inquiry was: “Are these passages
69 Brief Statements, 7.
70 Nichol, op. cit., 405-407.
71 R. Cottrell, “The Literary Relationship Between The Desire of Ages, by Ellen G. White and The Life of
Christ, by William Hanna,” 1979, 6.
72 Veltman, “Life of Christ Research Project,” 952. More recent research has further documented this free
borrowing among authors used by Ellen White. See D. Conklin and K. Morgan, “Plagiarism: a historical and
cultural survey,” Ministry, Aug., Oct., Dec. 2007); D. Conklin and J. Moon, “A Method for Analyzing Alleged
Plagiarism in Nineteenth-Century Literature Using Ellen White’s Desire of Ages, Chapter 77, as a Case Study,”
73 W. C. White to A. G. Daniells, June 10, 1910. Presumably the qualification “wherever we can” refers to
the fact that many passages were paraphrased and/or condensed, rather than direct quotations.
74 E. G. White to Mary Steward, July 31, 1910 (EGWE-GC DF 83b). Cited in A. L. White, The Later
Elmshaven Years, 311.
that which had been shown her in vision, or were they what she had learned by
the reading of histories?”
She dismissed these questions with few words, stating that what she had presented
in her books was a delineation of that which had been presented to her in vision,
and that her copying from historians was a matter of convenience, and not a
matter of necessity.
In later years when Mrs. White became aware that some of the readers of her
books were perplexed over the question as to whether her copying from other
writers was an infringement on somebody’s rights, the inquiry was raised, “Who
has been injured?” No injustice or injury could be named. Nevertheless, she gave
instruction that, lest anyone should be offended or led to stumble over the fact that
passages from historians had been used without credit, in future editions of her
book Great Controversy, a faithful effort should be made to search out those
passages that had been copied from historians which had not been enclosed in
quotation marks, and that quotation marks should be inserted wherever they could
be used.75
Ellen White’s apparent denials of her copying are specific and not general. In 1991 Robert
Olson, then director of the Ellen G. White Estate, examined each of 10 “denials” or “non-
admissions” that have been cited as evidence that Ellen White was not honest in regard to her use
of sources.76 He showed that, when read in their context, she was not excluding the possibility
that the language of others might be employed in presenting her messages. Her statements were
directed toward specific accusations and were not “intended to describe all of her reading and
writing habits.”
Olson pointed out, however, that one of the “denials” is more difficult to understand than the
others. In 1867, when asked what she knew of other health writings, Ellen White responded that
she had not read “any works on health until I had written Spiritual Gifts, volumes 3 and 4,
Appeal to Mothers, and had sketched out most of my six articles in the six numbers of How to
Live.” These earliest of health writings had been published in 1864 and 1865, respectively. The
specific naming of these works has invited scrutiny of these writings to discover any literary
dependency. Her statement does not rule out the possibility of health sources in the How to Live
articles as she says she had only “sketched” them out before consulting other works. But what
about the two earlier works? To date, two passages in particular have drawn attention. Olson
cited the clearest example:
John C. Gunn: “[Tobacco is] a poison of a most deceitful and malignant kind, that
sends its exciting and paralyzing influence into every nerve of the body.” (1857)
75 Brief Statements, 8.
76 R. Olson, “Ellen White’s Denials,” Ministry, Feb. 1991, 15-18.
Ellen White: “Tobacco is a poison of the most deceitful and malignant kind,
having an exciting, then a paralyzing influence upon the nerves of the body.”
Olson offered six possible explanations for the parallels, favoring the answer that, outside of
reading books on health, Ellen White stated that she had conversed freely with others on the
topics revealed to her in vision. “As Ellen White discussed health topics with those who were
knowledgeable on them, she would naturally have become acquainted with the vocabulary and
expressions used by the health reformers of her day.”
Olson recognized that there are aspects of this
“denial” that we cannot answer with the
information available to us. Interestingly, since his article was printed it has been found that
Gunn did not originate the expressions that parallel Ellen White’s. He appears to have been
borrowing from earlier temperance writers who wrote of the poisons of tobacco (and alcohol)
using the same phraseology—including one whose article had been reprinted in the Review
several weeks before Ellen White’s work was published.77 This discovery lends support to the
possibility that Ellen White’s choice of language in this instance may reflect what had become
relatively common parlance by anti-tobacco reformers regarding its destructive effects.78 It also
gives reason to withhold hasty pronouncements of dishonesty in Ellen White’s 1867 “denial.”
Ellen White viewed truth as of divine, not human, origin. Several authors have pointed to this
concept as perhaps providing the key to understanding why Ellen White chose not to credit her
literary sources as freely as we would expect today.79 Her intention was to credit the source of
her writings to the great Originator of truth—not the human instrument, whether herself or the
authors she made use of. The following passage, though lengthy, no doubt gives us a window
into Ellen White’s self-perspective regarding the Source of her own writings—written within a
year of the Healdsburg plagiarism debates:
Patriarchs, prophets, and apostles spoke as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost,
and they plainly stated that they spoke not by their own power, nor in their own name.
They desired that no credit might be ascribed to them, that no one might regard them as
the originators of anything whereof they might glory. They were jealous for the honor of
77The phrase a “poison, and of the most deceitful and malignant kind,” actually traces to a description of the
effects of alcohol found in the 6th American Temperance Society report of 1833. This was picked up by Rev. B. I.
Lane and applied to tobacco in his The Mysteries of Tobacco (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845, 1846, 1851), 93,
94, and subsequently used by Gunn, who linked it with a phrase apparently borrowed from Larkin B. Coles:
“sending its exciting and paralyzing influence into every nerve of the body,” in The Beauties and Deformities of
Tobacco-Using (Boston: Brown, Taggard, and Chase, 1851), 22. Coles’ essay was reprinted in the Review and
Herald of May 24, 1864, 205, 206, three months before Ellen White’s article entitled “Health” was published in
Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4. (see RH Aug. 23, 1864, 104). The link between Gunn, Lane, and Coles, was first identified by
Kevin Morgan (email to T. Poirier, June 16, 2006).
78 The second strongest example of a parallel in these earliest health writings consists of a passage in
Appeal to Mothers where several destructive effects of “self-abuse” are enumerated in the same sequential order as
by an earlier author (J. C. Jackson), suggesting acquaintance with the source.
79 See, for examples, Veltman, “Life of Christ Research Project,” 172, 173; Moon, “Who Owns the Truth?”
op. cit., citing R. Coon.
God, to whom all praise belongs. They declared that their ability and the messages they
brought, were given them as delegates of the power of God. God was their authority and
Christ is the Author of all truth. Every brilliant conception, every thought of wisdom,
every capacity and talent of men, is the gift of Christ. He borrowed no new ideas from
humanity; for he originated all
Some of the truths that Christ spoke were familiar to
the people. They had heard them from the lips of priests and rulers, and from men of
thought; but for all that, they were distinctively the thoughts of Christ. He had given them
to men in trust, to be communicated to the world. On every occasion He proclaimed the
particular truth He thought appropriate for the needs of His hearers, whether the ideas
had been expressed before or not.
The work of Christ was to take the truth of which the people were in want, and
separate it from error, and present it free from the superstitions of the world, that
the people might accept it on its own intrinsic and eternal merit. He dispersed the
mists of doubt, that the truth might be revealed, and shed distinct rays of light into
the darkness of men's hearts. He placed the truth in clear contrast with error, that
it might appear as truth before the people.80
Current perspectives on Ellen White’s use of sources still indicate a divide between opponents
and supporters over whether her practice should rightly be termed “plagiarism.” This is due, in
part, as to whether one imposes today’s literary standards on Ellen White’s writings.
Though she did not publicly explain her use of other sources
(apart from in The Great
Controversy), neither was her dependence upon others’ works a secret to church members of her
generation who were familiar with the popular books of Andrews, Smith, Wylie, Hanna, Geike,
and a host of other authors advertised and recommended in the pages of the Review and Signs.
Still, one wonders whether the plagiarism discussion would have evolved as it has if
acknowledgments like the one in The Great Controversy had been made in prefaces to her other
works. As President A. G. Daniells wrote to W. C. White, “I presume we all must admit that it
would have been better to have given quotation marks or some other kind of credit than to have
put the matter out as it was.”81
Looking at the Biblical model of inspiration, however, one finds evidence that the Bible writers
utilized pre-existing sources, without credit, to serve the purposes of their own composition.
80 E. G. White, Review and Herald, Jan. 7, 1890, 1. Also, “Let the gems of divine light be reset in the
framework of the gospel. Let nothing be lost of the precious light that comes from the throne of God. It has been
misapplied, and cast aside as worthless; but it is heaven-sent, and each gem is to become the property of God’s
people and find its true position in the framework of truth. Precious jewels of light are to be collected, and by the aid
of the Holy Spirit they are to be fitted into the gospel system.” (Ibid., Oct. 23, 1894, 657).
81 A. G. Daniells to W. C. White, June 24, 1907.
Being the first to say or write a truth, therefore, is not a prerequisite for being an inspired
messenger, nor does dependence upon prior human sources necessarily eliminate divine
superintendence in expressing those truths. This was recognized by an author whose book was
published the same year that a nine-year-old Portland girl would nearly lose her life from a rock
thrown by an angry schoolmate:
Suppose, for example, an inspired prophet were now to appear in the church, to
add a supplement to the canonical books,—what a Babel of opinions would he
find existing on almost every theological subject!—and how highly probable it is
that his ministry would consist, or seem to consist, in the mere selection and
ratification of such of these opinions as accorded with the mind of God. Absolute
originality would seem to be almost impossible. The inventive mind of man has
already bodied forth speculative opinions in almost every conceivable form;
forestalling and robbing the future of its fair proportion of novelties; and leaving
little more, even to a divine messenger, than the office of taking some of these
opinions, and impressing them with the seal of heaven.82
John Harris’s work would later find its place among other worthy titles in Ellen White’s library.
82 John Harris, The Great Teacher (Amherst, Mass.: J. S. and C. Adams, 1836), xxxiii, xxxiv.