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Ellen Gould White:
Pioneer of Adventist Health Emphasis

by Arthur Patrick

Some observers and even a few scholars identify the outstanding characteristic of Seventh-day Adventism as its health-related initiatives. We recall Ellen Gould White (1827-1915) offers us this far-reaching challenge, “Of all professing Christians Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world.” Then we remember her assertion that Jesus spent more time ministering to the sick than in preaching, so we realise health ministry is a must for the followers of Jesus. Suffice it to say that “the right arm of the message” is so important to the body of Adventism that without it we would lack the wholeness and strength to aggressively press forward with our mission to bring good news to every “nation, tribe, language and people” (Revelation 14:6, NIV).

For the purpose of this presentation, it is sufficient to emphasise that Adventist identity includes a distinctive emphasis on human wellbeing. Moreover, as we consider that reality, it becomes apparent that Adventists owe a great deal to the spiritual giftedness made available in the voluminous writings of Ellen White, their most innovative, outstanding and influential pioneer in health matters. Therefore, we will here attempt a succinct overview of her contribution in this regard.

I. The Life of Ellen White

A nineteenth-century woman born in the New England state of Maine would be unlikely to envision travel throughout the United States, plus eleven years in Europe and Australasia. Nor would she be expected to become a prolific author, dynamic speaker and creative institutional pioneer in addition to being a wife and mother. Widely recognised as a co-founder (along with James White, 1821-1881, and Joseph Bates, 1792-1872) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen White’s writings embrace an array of themes: Scripture, Christian history, home and family life, education, Christian service amongst many others. Thus we must, in citing her writings on health, always remember that health is but one of the many issues that she addresses.

A short survey of Ellen White’s life is readily accessible in the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1996), 873-881; more detail is available in six biographical volumes written by her grandson, Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White (Washington, D.C., and Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1981-1986). Probably fifty theses and dissertations can be deemed to offer an adequate account of her life and its symbiotic relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

II. The Context of Ellen White’s Early Health Emphases

One of the many useful dissertations that illumine aspects of Ellen White’s ministry is that by George Reid, best known from its popular book form under the title A Sound of Trumpets: Americans, Adventists, and Health Reform (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1982). In his first chapter, Reid gives a helpful review of the many ways in which health and disease have been interpreted through human history, before devoting chapter 2 to “The Great American Health Movement—1800-1850” and chapter 4 to “The Second American Health Movement—1850-1870.” Medical knowledge was minimal in both these eras, compared with its current status. However, a plethora of health reformers arose and advocated ideas that would be quickly dismissed as well as some concepts that have stood well the test of both time and scrutiny. In this regard, an alphabet of long forgotten names merit much more attention than they have been given: William A. Alcott, Larkin B. Coles, Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), James C. Jackson, Dioclesian Lewis, Horace Mann, Russell T. Trall amongst them. The early nineteenth century effervesced with numerous and sometimes mutually-exclusive reforms (focused on education, gender, health, slavery and such), as surveyed briefly by Richard W. Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Nampa: Pacific press, 2000, 13-22. A stimulating contextual account is that by George Knight, Ellen White’s World: A fascinating look at the times in which she lived (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1998), see especially chapter 3, “Era of Reform.”

Ronald Numbers has revised and enlarged his 1970s historical study as Prophetess of Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventist Health Reform (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992). Numbers’ book is the most scholarly account yet written; George Reid describes it as “a thorough, compact, and well documented study of Ellen White’s role in Adventist health reform,” even as he warns “its clear tenor leans toward discrediting much of what Mrs. White claimed” (page 171). Many of Numbers’ critics may not have read carefully his page xv where he states that his is the first book about Ellen White “that seeks neither to defend nor to damn but simply to understand” her. He adds that, in order to be objective, he “refrained from using divine inspiration as an historical explanation.” Fortunately, this conference will hear evidence from a medical specialist who presents, in a thoughtful and compelling way, important data that adds balance to Numbers’ volume.

III. The Content of Ellen White’s Health Emphases

Ellen White’s emphasis on health was greatly enhanced by her major health reform vision received soon after the May 1863 formation of the General Conference, that is, on the evening of 5 June 1863. The Adventist leaders of the time gave much evidence of needing a better grasp of healthful living. One of the best accounts of this vision is that by Roger Coon, The Great Visions of Ellen G. White (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1992), 90-107; another useful one is that by Herbert Douglass, Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White (Nampa: Pacific Press, 1998), 283-284. Dr Douglass lists more than thirty important ideas recounted in this vision, of which Dr Coon claim ten as being most significant. We may package them briefly as follows:

The care of health is a religious duty.
The cause of disease is a violation of health laws.
Human intemperance comes in many forms, such as stimulating drinks, tobacco,
highly spiced foods, overwork, indulgence of base passions.
Vegetarianism is a worthy and viable ideal.
The control of appetite is important for human health.
The control of the mind is vital for human wellbeing.
Natural remedies are of primary importance in the healing process.
Personal cleanliness is essential for healthful living.
Environmental concerns are to be included in the Adventist focus.
Health education is a Christian duty.

From being a peripheral matter, health thereafter became a crucial issue in Ellen White’s writings. In the summer of 1864 she published Spiritual Gifts, volume 4 (see pages 120-151), and then prepared six articles entitled “Disease and Its Causes” that saw the light of day in 1865 as Health; or, How to Live. The long-running magazine Review and Herald carried many health articles, as did such magazines as Health Reformer and Good Health. While her crowning work of this genre is The Ministry of Healing (1905), we also have access to her thought in two compilations entitled Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, D.C., 1938), and Counsels on Health and Instruction to Medical Missionary Workers (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1951). However, Ellen White’s health emphases may be gleaned from allusions and extended treatment in many of her more-than-one-hundred books that are currently available from Adventist Book Centres, and from thousands of her periodical articles. But the serious researcher needs to go beyond all such published materials to about sixty thousand pages of letters and manuscripts that put Ellen White’s health counsels in an illuminating context.

IV. The Effects of Ellen White’s Health Writings

It is noteworthy that the health reformers who were Ellen White’s contemporaries are not widely sought after or promoted by any group of people or organization on earth today, whereas Ellen White continues as a significant pioneer for a growing number (currently over thirteen million) Seventh-day Adventists. Amongst the many effects of her emphases, we will note two examples.

The personal lifestyle of millions of Adventists has been influenced by Ellen White’s writings on the subject of health. Since 1948, Adventists have been increasingly studied, often with the aid of funding from the United States government. Last year, a significant book by a New Zealander at Loma Linda, Dr Gary Fraser, offered an overview of “more than 320 publications in peer-reviewed literature spread over 40 years,” in the book Diet, Life Expectancy, and Chronic Disease: Studies of Seventh-day Adventists and Other Vegetarians (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), xiii. One of many effects on Adventists can be summed up in a couple of sentences: “Adventist vegetarians in California live substantially longer than other Californians. Estimates show an extra 9.5 and 6.2 years, respectively, for males and females,” 270-271. Beyond just vegetarianism, the Adventist lifestyle clearly offers the dual benefits of a better quality of life and a longer duration of life.

The mission of the Church has been enhanced by Ellen White’s writings on the subject of health. Think of the effects during the founding years of Adventism, in what is now the South Pacific Division, deriving from some fourteen institutions in various parts of the homelands and mission fields. How much poorer we would be in the twenty-first century without the work and witness of Sydney Adventist Hospital in Australia. (See my book, The San: 100 Years of Christian Caring, 1903-2003 (Wahroonga: Sydney Adventist Hospital/Signs Publishing, 2003). From its humble beginnings, Adventist health care has been able to cherish Christian values and at the same time embrace scientific medicine. Adventist mission has been enhanced in all its dimensions, from the witness of the local church to the effectiveness of cross-cultural missionary endeavours. Currently, the Church operates 169 hospitals and sanitariums, 393 clinics and dispensaries, 128 nursing homes and retirement centres, and treats over ten million outpatients per year. This engagement with the needs of the world would not have happened without the pioneering influence of Ellen White.

V. The Application of Ellen White’s Health Writings

The weekly magazine, Record, published during February 2004 a series of four interviews that editor Bruce Manners had with me, under the general title “Ellen White for today.” More than twenty of the letters from readers that were published in Record show that Adventists are deeply interested in how to understand and apply Ellen White’s writings. One correspondent in the 20 March 2004 Record gave a summary of what he deems we owe to Ellen White as a pioneer in matters of health, stating that if Australians followed eight principles of health that Ellen White has outlined,

Death from coronary disease would be uncommon; death rates from all cancers would halve; death from lung cancer would reduce by 95 per cent; there would be no AIDS or STDs and virtually no cervical cancer in women; almost no type-2diabetes; far less hypertension and stroke; higher fertility and successful pregnancies in women; lower rates of birth-defects; no risk of diseases transmitted from animal flesh, such as trichinosis, tapeworm, mad cow disease, brucellosis; little cirrhosis; few ulcers; no evil social consequences of alcoholism; no drug overdoses; much less suicide; no hepatitis C and few cases of hepatitis B; fewer cases of liver cancer; and a dramatic reduction in stress-induced mental disease.

The best guide for the effective study and coherent application of Ellen White’s writings is the slim book by George Knight, Reading Ellen White: How to understand and apply her writings (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1997). Perhaps this matter is one of the issues that this group may choose to focus upon in the discussion period that follows the oral presentation.


Seventh-day Adventists are deeply privileged by being given supernatural assistance in the difficult task of developing a holistic program for healthful living that meets their personal needs and supports their outreach to a needy world. These principles we must seek to understand and apply, a task that requires consistent effort. As we treasure these precious principles, and share them, we will better fulfil the purpose God has for us as individual Christians and as His representatives who have a redemptive message for earth-dwellers in the end-times.


Arthur Patrick, Research Fellow, Avondale College, e-mail
Summary of a presentation for the Vegetarian Nutrition Trainers’ Conference at Avondale College
10 July 2004

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