Ellen G. White: Prophet or Profit?

By D. Anderson


Most Seventh-day Adventists have heard stories of how the Whites started their ministry "penniless," and how Mrs. White died "in debt." Mrs. White's writings are filled with lessons of self-denial and sacrifice. What few SDAs realize is that her early years of poverty were quickly erased as she and James amassed an enormous fortune in money, assets and real estate. This page will present evidence that Mrs. White enjoyed the luxuries of the "rich and famous." In terms of today's dollars, her income was literally in the millions of dollars!

How did Ellen White amass her great fortune?

Book Royalties - The vast majority of her income came through royalties on her books. She made well over $100,000 in book royalties in her lifetime. In today's (year 2005) dollars, that is over 2.2 million dollars!1

She may have started out penniless in the 1840s, but that situation was soon reversed. By the late 1850s she was making over $1,000 a year on royalties. Mrs. White earned $11,435 in the decade of 1856 to 1866. In terms of year 2005 dollars, that is $234,905, or over $23,000 per year. Yet these were still lean years compared to what she would make later on. In the 1890s and 1900s she was making $8,000 to $12,000 a year in book royalties. In year 2005 dollars, that amounts to $175,000 to $265,000 a year! That type of income would easily place her among the top 1% of wage-earners in the world.2

In addition, James wrote books, and although we have no figures on his royalties, it can be presumed the Whites enjoyed the income from his writings as well. James was known as a shrewd and gifted businessman. He wrote a letter encouraging Ellen to write more books, holding out the prospect of increasing their income:

"With the increased demand for our writings...there will be an income of several thousand dollars annually, besides the immense amount of good our writings will do."3
James understood how to generate wealth from their writings and he wrote in a letter to his wife:
"Our financial matters stand well, and there is wealth yet in our pens."4

Minister's Salary - The Whites each received a salary from the SDA church. Mrs. White received a salary similar to that paid to ministers. Granted this was not much compared to their book royalties, but both of their salaries were larger than was paid to most ministers in the denomination.

Other Income - Mrs. White received pay for all the articles she wrote for denominational papers. (Interestingly enough, most other authors contributed their articles gratuitously). The Whites peddled various other merchandise, such as religious pictures. When the "Reform Dress" was being pushed by the Whites in the early 1860s, Mrs. White went to the various churches and sold paper dress patterns for a dollar apiece. In year 2005 dollars that is approximately $20 a pattern!5

Furthermore, we must remember that Mrs. White lived in an era before the United States' government invented the Personal Income Tax and the Social Security Tax! Therefore, the Whites were able to keep the vast majority of their income.

Evidence of her Wealth

Unlike Jesus, the apostles, and many of the Biblical prophets who were often poor and desolate, Mrs. White lived a life reserved for the wealthiest of her day:

Posh Multi-Million-Dollar Estate - The last fifteen years of Mrs. White's life were spent at Elmshaven, her elegant ranch home in the exclusive Napa Valley area near San Francisco in Northern California. While the estate was purchased for a bargain $5,000 (over $100,000 in today's dollars), if the property were sold today, the beautifully furnished mansion and 74-acre estate would possibly be valued at up to ten million dollars.6 In addition to the mansion, the property included:


Personal Staff - A large chunk of Mrs. White's income went to pay for her extensive staff. Mrs. White is pictured on the right surrounded by her household and office staff at her Elmshaven estate in 1913. Her large staff of 14 people included a personal nurse (Sara McEnterfer), a cook, a copyist, a seamstress, farm hands, several secretaries and various other office assistants and office personnel. It is uncertain how many of the staff were paid directly by Ellen White, and how many volunteered their labor. It is possible that some of the office staff may have been on the payroll of the SDA church.

Lavish Lifestyle - Not only did the Whites earn big money--they spent big! There is no doubt that they gave liberally to their cause, the Seventh-day Adventist movement. There is also no doubt they spent money lavishly on themselves:

Used God to sell her books?

Mrs. White had an incredible advantage in selling her books. She could write a testimony promoting her books, and her loyal followers, thinking the testimony was direct from God's mouth, would rush out to purchase her books and peddle them to others. Notice how she promoted her works:

"The larger books, Patriarchs and Prophets, Great Controversy, and Desire of Ages, should be sold everywhere. These books contain truth for this time,--truth that is to be proclaimed in all parts of the world. Nothing is to hinder their sale. Many more of our larger books might have been sold if church-members had been awake to the importance of the truths these books contain, and had realized their responsibility to circulate them. My brethren and sisters, will you not now make an effort to circulate these books? Work earnestly."10

"And in many instances, if promising youth were wisely encouraged and properly directed, they could be led to earn their own schooling by taking up the sale of Christ's Object Lessons or Ministry of Healing."11

"The volumes of Spirit of Prophecy, [THE GREAT CONTROVERSY ] and also the Testimonies, should be introduced into every Sabbathkeeping family, and the brethren should know their value and be urged to read them. It was not the wisest plan to place these books at a low figure and have only one set in a church. They should be in the library of every family and be read again and again."12

"Let every stroke tell for the Master in the selling of Christ's Object Lessons. Let all who possibly can, join the workers."13

"The volumes of Spirit of Prophecy, and also the Testimonies, should be introduced into every Sabbathkeeping family, and the brethren should know their value and be urged to read them. It was not the wisest plan to place these books at a low figure and have only one set in a church. They should be in the library of every family and read again and again. ... God has caused precious light to be brought out in publications, and these should be owned and read by every family. Parents, your children are in danger of going contrary to the light given of heaven, and you should both purchase and read the books, for they will be a blessing to you and yours. You should lend Spirit of Prophecy to your neighbors and prevail upon them to buy copies for themselves."14

Not only were the faithful followers exhorted to buy Ellen White's books for themselves and their neighbors, but they also had to pay outrageous prices for them. In 1890, the Norwich Town SDA Church complained of this testimony:
"This testimony appears very significant when we take into consideration the price for which these books are sold. Books as large, and bound equally as well, can be bought for fifty cents per volume. The Testimonies sell for $1.50 per volume. Now here are directions professing to come from a divine source that call upon all to buy these books. If these Testimonies contain the 'revealed will of God,' why not sell them at a 'live and let live' price? Do I need to say more? -- selling Testimonies at $1.50 per volume which call for free contributions! Is this what the 'gift of prophecy' is for, to sell books at an exorbitant price? to 'move the brethren' to contribute freely?"15

Contradicts plain Bible teachings

Mrs. White frequently exhorted her followers to fill the church's coffers with their hard-earned money. As we have seen earlier, James and Ellen both received a minister's salary which was paid from tithe. Mrs. White's sons also earned ministerial salaries. Therefore, Mrs. White had a vested interest in giving specific instructions that tithe money was to be used exclusively for the gospel ministry:

"The tithe is set apart for a special use. It is not to be regarded as a poor fund. It is to be especially devoted to the support of those who are bearing God's message to the world; and it should not be diverted from this purpose."16
Mrs. White said tithe was not to go to the poor. She wanted to horde all the tithe money for Seventh-day Adventist ministers, but what does the Bible teach about tithe money?
"At the end of three years thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase the same year, and shalt lay [it] up within thy gates: And the Levite, (because he hath no part nor inheritance with thee,) and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, which [are] within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand which thou doest."17
The Bible instructs the Israelites to save up their tithe for three years, and then disburse it amongst the Levites, foreign visitors, orphans, and widows. Doesn't this sound like a "poor fund" to you? Of course it was! A portion was to go to the ministers (the Levites), but the people were also commanded by God to share their tithe money with those who were poor and could not support themselves. When it came to money, it is clear that Mrs. White put the mighty dollar above God's law.

The great controversy over royalties

Ellen White would not tolerate the suggestion of lowering the royalties on her books. At one time in her career, some brethren urged her to lower her royalties so the work could move forward. They presented to her the self-sacrificing example of Uriah Smith, who agreed to lower royalties on his book so the work could go forward. She responds with a well-timed "vision":

"I have been shown that some men worked with Elder Smith, in an underhanded manner, in order to lead him to place the lowest possible royalties on his books. Elder Smith was deceived in the object of these men; he thought that they were really trying to advance the cause of God; and they obtained their desire. Then they came to me and to others, telling us that Brother Smith received only so much for his books, and urging that the canvassers would rather handle books that would sell rapidly.

"But the night after this plea was made, the matter was opened before me. I saw that they had visited Brother Smith and obtained his consent to a low royalty in order that they might present this as that which I and others should do. This was obtaining terms of royalty by fraud. I was shown the spirit that prompted these men to action."18

While we may never know the real motives of the men who suggested she lower her royalties, it is safe to assume that after this stinging testimony, SDA publishers were probably very wary about bringing up the subject of royalties with Sister White.

In 1885, Mrs. White found herself in a dispute with the publishers of her books. Mrs. White was concerned about the way her book royalties were being handled by the brethren. Mrs. White was upset because she was only getting $0.15 per book sold (in 2005 dollars, that is equivalent to $3.08 per book).

Under previous arrangements with her book publishers, Mrs. White got all the profits from the first edition of a book. Profits from later editions (at least the 2nd) were split between the book salesmen and herself. As we will see from the letter below, she viewed the paying of those selling the books, at least for the first edition, to be "unjust."
Compare and Contrast
Gilbert Cranmer--Not a Single Penny
Gilbert Cranmer left the Adventists in the early 1860s and started the Church of God (seventh day). He labored in active ministry for that church for more than 40 years. Although not a wealthy man, although supporting a wife and four children, during his 60+ years of ministry he refused to take a salary for his labors, not a single penny!

Gilbert Cranmer...

  ...never attended health resorts
  ...never had a mansion on this earth
  ...never traveled the world
  ...never had a cook or seamstress
  ...never was "rich and famous"

Gilbert Cranmer didn't just talk about self-denial and sacrifice. He lived it.

In the past, Mrs. White was accustomed to getting some special deals on the publishing of her books. According to the Nov. 6, 1866, Hope of Israel, “We are credibly informed that her books are all published free; so that she will have all the profit on their sale.” However, by 1885 the situation had changed, and in the following letter Ellen White threatens to take her book publishing business elsewhere:

With reference to my book, I desire to say that I am not complaining because I think the office has been receiving too much for publishing it, but because I am not satisfied with the income it brings to me. Some plan should have been devised whereby more than fifteen cents royalty per copy would come to me. I do not remember that I was ever consulted regarding this matter. I thought that my brethren would guard my interests as sacredly as they would their own interests or the interests of the office. I know where to apply means to help the cause fully as well as my brethren know where to apply my means for me. ...

Only the expense of publishing and selling my book, Vol. IV, should have been taken from the profits. The rest should have been saved for the author. No canvassers were needed for Vol. IV. It could have been sold without going to all this expense. I am not satisfied with the result. Those who have felt that they were doing me justice by awarding me fifteen cents for each copy sold have erred in judgment. ...

I will make no rash moves, but I cannot submit to the arrangements made. They are unjust. The money used in paying canvassers for selling the first edition was misspent, for I should have received the profits on that edition. I know where to use this means to the very best advantage, and yet I have nothing to use in any way. I economize in every way possible, and still do not have sufficient to meet running expenses.19

Conclusion

Some have tried to paint Ellen White as an impoverished, self-denying prophet. They point to her early ministry when the Whites barely made enough money to survive. They point to the fact that she died "in debt." However, they never tell you that in today's dollars, her books alone brought her an income equivalent to more than two million dollars. This is not to mention the wealth amassed by James White. This is not to mention the income from her minister's salary, and the money from the other business enterprises the Whites engaged in. The truth is that according to the living standards of the 1800s, the Whites were enormously wealthy. Yes, they gave some of their money to church projects. But they also lived the life of the "rich and famous." Mrs. White visited exclusive spas and health resorts, wore fine clothing, dined on the best food, traveled the world, and finally settled in a posh multi-million-dollar mansion with her staff, including a nurse, a cook, and a seamstress.

Seventh-day Adventism was highly profitable for Ellen White. The question you must answer today is:

Was it Prophet or Profit?

Links for Further Study

"Used Her Gift to Get Money" by D.M. Canright

"The Desirer of Wages" by Dr. Jack Gent

"Mrs. White and Royalties" by E.S. Ballenger

An Examination of Ellen White's Final Will and Testament by Robert K. Sanders

Consumer Price Index Calculator Calculates the comparable value of the U.S. dollar for different years.


NOTES

1. $100,000 in the year 1900 is worth $2215560.46 in 2005 using the Inflation Calculator

2. Mrs. White's earnings were reported in the November 6, 1866, issue of Hope of Israel. $11,435 in 1861 (the mid-point of the decade) was worth $234,05.25 in 2005. $8,000 in 1900 was worth $177,244.84 in 2005. $12,000 in 1900 was worth $265,867.25 in 2005. (The Inflation Calculator)

3. James White, Letter to Ellen White, Apr. 18, 1880.

4. James White, Letter to Ellen White, Feb. 18, 1881.

5. $1 in 1862 was worth $20.54 in 2005. (The Inflation Calculator)

6. The average price of a home in St. Helena in 2001 is reported to be $749,000. (www.realtor.com) According to one resident of St. Helena, "From personal experience, that doesn't buy much of a home. (The very mediocre house my in-laws still rent, a stone's throw from the St. Helena SDA church, is valued at roughly $600,000 -- and it is in a rather sad state of repair.) Having recently toured Elmshaven, and being somewhat familiar with real estate values in that area, I would estimate that the value of Elmshaven would much likely be more than $10,000,000!! Particularly given the amount of extremely coveted vineyard space the grounds of that estate could provide."

7. $500 in 1876 was worth $8,405.16 in 2005.

8. Ellen White, Letter 16, 1882.

9. J.H. Kellogg letter to E.S. Ballenger, January 9, 1936.

10. Ellen White, Southern Watchman, Jan. 15, 1903.

11. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 77.

12. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 681.

13. Ellen White, General Conference Bulletin, Apr. 14, 1901.

14. Ellen White, Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 390-391.

15. The Claims of Mrs. Ellen G. White, tract No. 1, issued by the SDA Church, Norwich Town, Conn., 1890, http://www.ex-sda.com/newpage25.htm.

16. Ellen White, Review and Herald Supplement, Dec. 1, 1896.

17. Deut. 14:28-29, KJV.

18. Ellen White, Manuscript Releases, Vol. 17, p. 191.

19. Ellen White, Letter written to J. H. Waggoner and C. H. Jones, March 7, 1885, from Healdsburg, California. Letter 15, 1885. Released by Ellen G. White Estate, Washington, D.C. January 22, 1989. Manuscript Releases, Vol. 20, pp. 48-50.