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Acquired or Inspired?
Groundbreaking Research on Ellen White and Health

by Arthur Patrick


The past several months (that is, since late 2004) have seen the publication of four books about Ellen Gould White (1827-1915). For authors and presses to invest time and money in this way demonstrates that ninety years after her death Ellen White retains a unique significance amongst Seventh-day Adventists. Two of these volumes present the research of an Australian medical specialist: Acquired or Inspired? Exploring the Origins of the Adventist Lifestyle (Warburton, Victoria, Australia: Signs Publishing Company, 2005) and The Prophet and Her Critics (Nampa, Idaho, United States of America: Pacific Press, 2005).

The Prophet and Her Critics is co-authored by Dr Leonard Brand of Loma Linda University and Dr Don S. McMahon of Melbourne, Australia. Brand is uniquely qualified to intensify the appeal of McMahon's research for North American readers. Brand provides a context for re-evaluating the earlier research of Ron Numbers on health (1976), Jon Butler on prophetic fulfilment (1979) and Walter Rea on literary relationships (1982) in particular, and proposes that the "quality of their research" should be examined to see "(1) whether their logic meets an acceptable scholarly standard, avoiding serious logical errors; (2) whether their data support the conclusions they reach; and (3) whether their research design adequately supports their conclusions" (page 14). Then Chapter 5, entitled "The Test," summarises McMahon's research and suggests the value of the CD included with McMahon's volume, making available the data from which his conclusions were formed.

The core issue treated in both these books is the doctrine of inspiration as illumined by a study of Ellen White's writings on health. In 1976, Ronald L. Numbers published the first edition of Prophetess of Health, demonstrating the value of careful historical research in the primary sources of Adventist history. Numbers frankly stated that he "refrained from using divine inspiration as an historical explanation" (Preface, page xi), a somewhat understandable stance since neither his familial upbringing nor his church nurture had offered him a doctrine of inspiration that was adequate in view of his discoveries. Since then, excellent studies have enlarged the church's understanding of Ellen White's contribution with reference to health and the benefits of the Adventist lifestyle, as in a doctoral dissertation by George Reid and a volume by Gary Fraser. In addition, the doctrine of inspiration has been explored at depth in constructive ways.

Enter Don S. McMahon, M.B., B.S., F.R.A.C.S., D.L.O. McMahon's Adventist lifestyle as a young medical student in the late1950s was deemed by then current medical opinion as either "irrelevant" or "dangerous," hence the labelling he experienced from a lecturer in the University of Melbourne and the "friendly ridicule" of fellow students (page 1). However, at the 25-year reunion of his class, McMahon found that many of his colleagues remembered his "humiliation" at their hands, but also by that time a lot of them had adopted important features of his lifestyle and were advocating the same for their patients (page 2).

By 1987 McMahon was re-reading The Ministry of Healing, testing his hunch "that most-if not all-modern, health/lifestyle risk factors were covered by Ellen White" (page 139). A long engagement with the historical and scientific issues followed, as he identified "health and medical statements" that implied what should be done by the individual and why it should be done. Finally, with the help of a CD-ROM that enabled him to search Ellen White's writings on computer and date any given statement, he was ready to compare her writings with those of five other nineteenth-century health advocates. Three of his medical colleagues checked McMahon's analyses; a statistician contributed a probability study that gave him his greatest surprise: "The chances were astronomically against random chance" (page 141). Or, as Brand expresses the outcome:

After study of his findings, I find it difficult to see how it would be possible to explain Ellen White's health principles without a definite input of information from a non-human source, since her health principles of how we should live reveal an accuracy level far above anything available anywhere in human health concepts anytime in the 19th century. McMahon's work also gives fascinating insight into the nature and limits of the communication Ellen White received regarding health and the reasons for these health principles (Foreword, page iv).

There may well be extended discussion amongst medicos and others about the specifics within McMahon's analyses of the whats and the whys enunciated by Ellen White, and the ways in which these transcend or compare with the recommendations of Graham, Alcott, Coles, Jackson and Kellogg. Maths experts and statisticians will, no doubt, pore over the issues of probability and variance that are proposed. But the big issue is clear: whereas most nineteenth-century medical writers wilt under scrutiny, Ellen White is exceptional. McMahon concludes: "When the knowledge of the mid-19th century is taken into consideration, it is impossible to exclude inspiration from Ellen White's writings"; indeed, these writings "should not be rejected; it is essential they be carefully studied and appreciatively implemented" (page 142).

McMahon's research reinforces the contemporary relevance of the Adventist health message. Further, reinforced by Brand's contextual framework and prescriptions for research design, it offers a compelling case study in the process of inspiration. This is of profound significance for historians, students of Scripture and, indeed, for everyone interested in Adventist thought, lifestyle and mission. No single finding under the rubric of Adventist Studies during the past two decades has such potential to enrich the ongoing conversation about Ellen White and how to understand and apply her spiritual gift.

Arthur Patrick
Research Fellow,
Avondale College
17 April 2005

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