Background Statement for the 2013 Action by the Ellen G. White Estate Board of Trustees
Granting Complete Online Access to
Ellen G. White’s Letters and Manuscripts in 2015
By James R. Nix
The Ellen G. White Estate today owns approximately 8,300 typed documents from Ellen White comprising about 50,000 pages of letters and manuscripts dating from 1845 to 1915. Many of these documents were used by her in publications during her lifetime. Others were private and family letters. Of the 50,000 pages approximately 30,000 were left to the Trustees named by Ellen White in her Last Will and Testament and their successors, for use in preparing compilations as well as for other future needs as they arose in the church. The other 20,000 pages consist of personal family letters and additional materials left by her in her Will to her son, William C. White. The entire 50,000-page collection is available for study and research at 23 White Estate offices worldwide.
Collection Access History:
Because Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts were her personal property, access to them during her lifetime was according to her own discretion.
As provided for in the FIFTH section of Ellen White’s Will, she bequeathed to five named Trustees a number of books listed by title, including their printing bookplates in all languages, and the copyrights to them, along with the letters and manuscripts in her “general manuscript file.” In addition, this FIFTH section also directed that among other things “my said trustees shall use the over-plus for the improvement of the books and manuscripts held in trust by them, and herein provided; for the securing and printing of new translations thereof; [and] for the printing of compilations from my manuscripts . . . .”
By bequeathing her “general manuscript file” to the five Trustees named in her Will rather than directly to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and by providing a mechanism for filling future vacancies among her literary Trustees, Ellen White indicated that she must have had reasons (which she apparently nowhere stated) for wanting closer supervision of her materials than might have otherwise been the case had the church at large been made their legal custodian.
In the FOURTH section of Ellen White’s Will dated 1912, she bequeathed to her son, William C. White, a number of books listed by title, including “Also, my personal library, and all manuscripts, letters, diaries, and writings not otherwise herein devised.”
By leaving to her son, W. C. White, the materials that were not included in her “general manuscript file” at the time of her death, Ellen White showed that she did not intend for either the other four Trustees of her literary estate, or the Seventh-day Adventist Church in general, to have direct access to those materials (mostly family letters and her personal diaries). These handwritten materials were given to the Estate by W. C. White in 1937, from which approximately 20,000 typed pages were added to the manuscript file in subsequent decades. The process of identifying and adding to the collection remaining untranscribed diary materials willed to W. C. White continues.
The plans Ellen White put in place for all of her literary materials at the time of her death indicate that she envisioned the judicious use of any relevant materials by her Trustees as needed on behalf of the church while at the same time protecting the rights and personal feelings of individuals—including both church members and employees, as well as personal family members—who are named in the materials. This is further evidenced by what she wrote to her son in 1910 concerning her diary writings, that “I want that which is deemed worthy to appear” before the people (Selected Messages, book 3, p. 32, italics added).
Lastly, as provided for in the TWELFTH section of her Will, any future vacancies among the Trustees were to be filled by the action of the majority of the remaining Trustees of her literary estate. If they could not agree on a new Trustee, the Executive Committee of the General Conference Committee would choose someone to fill the vacancy. (Use of this latter provision has never been necessary.)
On October 2, 1916, due to the outstanding financial obligations of Ellen White’s estate, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists purchased her entire estate, including the literary portion, from the Probate Court. Then the General Conference, under no legal obligation but desiring to follow the wishes of Ellen White as stated in her Last Will and Testament, gave to her five named Trustees the literary materials she had left to them (meaning her “general manuscript file,” book copyrights, etc.). The General Conference also gave to W. C. White the literary materials willed to him by his mother, which included the personal family letters and diaries. However, he was not given the copyrights to several books that his mother had specifically left to him in her Will.
Because of the purchase by the General Conference of her entire estate from the Probate Court, certain provisions of Ellen White’s Will were not followed exactly as she had anticipated. However, in terms of her literary materials, the provisions that bequeathed some things to her son, William C. White (except for certain copyrights), and her “general manuscript file” to her five named Trustees, were carried out precisely as she had instructed. Through the years the General Conference has taken several subsequent actions affirming that the Ellen White Trustees, and after January 29, 1933, the Trustees of the Ellen G. White Estate, Incorporated, are the legal owners of all of Ellen White’s literary materials.1 The statement printed in the General Conference Working Policy reflects this longstanding legal recognition.2
With but few exceptions, individuals other than White Estate office staff and Trustees did not have access to the manuscript collection during these years. Despite the fact that several compilations came out in this period, it was not until 1932 when Medical Ministry was published that any previously unpublished materials were included in a posthumously published Ellen White book. Earlier, during the 1920s, W. C. White brought out a couple of small collections that involved previously unpublished material, including Notebook Leaflets, without seeking the authorization of the White Estate Trustees.
Throughout their history, the Trustees of the White Estate have tried to maintain a balance between the interests of Ellen White in properly protecting and preserving her literary materials and their responsibility to make the relevant counsels contained in them available to the church in an appropriate manner as genuine needs arise. This endeavor by the Trustees, lasting now for nearly 100 years, also takes into account the fact that with the passing of time, research interests by church members and others have changed, as have also the diminishing sensitivities of persons actually mentioned in the letters, as well as of their descendants.
Actions of the White Estate Trustees to expand access to Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts began with the introduction of the Manuscript Release Policy in 1934. Its adoption gave limited access to materials that up to then, for all practical purposes, had not been available to researchers. The release policy was modified through the years, providing increased access and usage along with the establishment of White Estate Branch Offices and Research Centers around the world (beginning in the 1960s). Not only were researchers given access to Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts but also to many other historical resources that aided in understanding their context and application.
The White Estate first voted in 1983 to start annotating the letter and manuscript collection for the purpose of, among other objectives, “prepar[ing] such documents for eventual release.” Volunteers were enlisted to begin the process of digitizing and reading to copy the entire collection—a project that continued into the 1990s. Verification of the accuracy of what was digitized continued until 2005. Due to this new annotation project and the amount of staff-time allocated to working on it, the Manuscript Release Policy was terminated in 1991.
In 2001 the General Conference provided funding for the White Estate to employ a full time annotator. It was anticipated that the materials could be readied within two years. After a 12-month pilot period, the White Estate Board recognized that such a timetable was unrealistic given the level of annotation they had decided upon. Although the process has been much longer than envisioned, the final manuscript for the first volume, annotating all the documents from 1845-1859, was sent to the Review and Herald Publishing Association in 2012. Work on the second annotation volume, covering the years 1860-1863, is currently underway. In the meantime, since 2005 the entire electronic database of Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts has been available for research purposes at 23 sites—the White Estate Main Office, Branch Offices, and Research Centers worldwide, under supervision of the local directors.
Access at the worldwide Research Center offices plus the ever-increasing availability of historical Adventist resource materials in print and on the Internet make it easier for persons to study the background and contexts of the individuals, theological concepts, and historical situations mentioned in Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts. Specifically, the addition of resource materials on the White Estate’s Website; the nearly complete files of major denominational papers now available on the General Conference Archives’ Website; the development of the Adventist Digital Library, which it is hoped will soon (within the next two to three years) also include most of the historic publications housed in the vault of the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University; the publication of scholarly biographies of Adventist pioneers; and the forthcoming Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (expected in 2013/2014) make plans for Internet access of the manuscript file possible.
In consideration of the unexpected length of time it is taking to produce the first two annotation volumes covering the years 1845-1859 and 1860-1863, on January 4, 2013, the White Estate Board discussed making Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts, including the diary material being typed and digitized, publicly available on its Website on the centennial of Ellen White’s death in 2015.
After a full discussion, the White Estate Board took the following action,
WHEREAS, Ellen G. White entrusted the custody of her literary estate to the five Trustees she named in her Will, the same five Trustees that legally incorporated in 1933 as the Ellen G. White Estate, Inc., thus making the White Estate the legal owner of her literary materials—as repeatedly recognized by the General Conference; and
WHEREAS, the passing of time now makes it possible for the White Estate to consider making even more widely available materials that in the past would have involved the sensitivities of individuals and/or family members mentioned in the letters and manuscripts; and
WHEREAS, throughout the years the Trustees have endeavored to the best of their ability to fulfill the duties outlined for them in Ellen White’s Will, including making the literary materials she entrusted to their custody increasingly available in a responsible manner through the publication of compilations, 21 volumes of Manuscript Releases, and providing hard copies of, and electronic access to, the complete collection at research facilities in each of the church’s divisions worldwide; and
WHEREAS, an ever-increasing amount of historical and theological resources is available in print and on the Internet with additional resources planned to be placed online within the next two to three years,
THEREFORE, the following action was
VOTED, that in light of the worldwide growth of the church, the ever-increasing interest in the materials owned by the White Estate, and the availability of both print and online contextual resources, all of Ellen White’s letters and manuscripts (which are currently available for study only at White Estate offices worldwide) be made available also online on the White Estate’s Website effective Thursday, July 16, 2015, in conjunction with other items and events being planned for the centennial of Ellen White’s death.
And FURTHER, that it is the intention of the White Estate to move forward in an expedited manner with digitizing the incoming correspondence and other manuscript resources in its collection dating through 1915, in order also to make them available as quickly as time and monetary resources will allow.
‘Dated June 12, 1958.
‘GENERAL CONFERENCE CORPORATION
‘(Signed) By D. H. Adair, Secretary’
2. General Conference Working Policy GE 05 10: General Conference Recognition—The General Conference recognizes the Ellen G White Estate, Incorporated, established by Ellen G White herself, as the owner and proprietor of all her writings, thus bearing responsibility for their care, publication, and widest possible distribution. This understanding relates to all Ellen G White writings whether or not under copyright. Permission for publication of these writings emanates from the Board. The General Conference calls upon organizations and persons, within or without the church, to honor the provisions of the author for the continuing custody of her writings.