The Mind of Ellen White

By Dr.'s Ronald and Janet Numbers

Prophetess of Health, pp. 210-223

In her correspondence and autobiographical writings Ellen White reported a dazzling array of physical and psychological problems; yet despite even repeated expectations of imminent death, she lived to the ripe age of eighty-seven. A self-described "great sufferer from disease" and "lifelong invalid," she from time to time complained of weakness and fainting, episodes of unconsciousness, breathing difficulties, "heart disease," pain in her lungs, "pressure of blood on the brain," intense headaches and "inflammation on the brain," dropsy, weak back, lameness, "tenderness of the stomach," nosebleeds, pleurisy, and rheumatism. On occasion she experienced dimmed eyesight, paralysis, lack of sensation, and muteness-to say nothing of repeated visions and hallucinations. She frequently suffered form depression and despondency.

For understanding reasons, Ellen White attributed all of her visions and many ailments to supernatural causes, thus deviating from her customary reliance on etiological naturalism. But what should we make of them? If she were to seek medical assistance today, how would she be diagnosed and treated? What explanations would be offered? The diagnosis of mental problems can be difficult under the best of circumstances and becomes increasingly problematic with the passage of time. Nosologies have changed over the years in response to both scientific and social developments. For example, neurasthenia, "the national disease" of Victorian America, disappeared as a diagnosis when physicians, aided by new medical techniques, began interpreting exhaustion as a mere symptom of other diseases; and in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association, responding to social and political concerns, defined homosexuality out of existence as a mental illness.18 But despite changing nomenclatures, many psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, seem to be relatively constant across time and space.

For the historian, retrospective diagnosis also raises the specter of imposing present-day categories on past behavior. And psychiatric labels are particularly subject to abuse. In a recent essay on "Psychohistory As History" Thomas A. Kohut censures those who write what he calls, "pathographies," descriptive psychiatric histories of notable persons that often degenerate into character assassination by diagnosis. He offers the useful criterion that "information about the personal life of a historical figure should only be presented if that information either directly or indirectly has relevance for the understanding of his historical significance."19 We agree. And precisely because so much of Ellen White's self-identity and ministry revolved around visions and ill health, we feel that we cannot adequately understand her without exploring the underlying causes. We have no desire to reduce her experience to a mere diagnostic label; in fact, we readily grant that cultural and religious explanations account for much of her behavior. Nevertheless, we hope to enhance our comprehension of a complex life by delineating personality patterns that gave meaning to her experience, colored her thinking, informed her emotional responses, and guided her behavior. Ultimately, the better we get to know White and to comprehend the ways in which she coped with her cornucopia of mental and physical afflictions, the more empathic we become and the more we admire what she accomplished.

As mentioned above, two physicians have speculated recently that Ellen White suffered from complex partial seizures, the result of the childhood injury she received when struck in the face by a rock. Such seizures, often entailing altered consciousness, auditory or visual hallucinations, automatic movements, staring, and perseveration of speech, occur in roughly 10 percent of cases involving a serious head injury. To be sure, White in vision displayed many of these symptoms; however, her behavior also differed in significant ways from what might be expected of someone experiencing complex partial seizures. She apparently spoke clearly and lucidly during her visions, emerged from them with a clear mind, and did not suffer the amnesia, disorientation, or terror so often associated with complex partial seizures.20

Besides, it seems unlikely that the childhood injury to her nose damaged her brain sufficiently to cause complex partial seizures. Although the accident produced severe bleeding and left her in "a stupid state" for about three weeks, there is no conclusive evidence that it induced a prolonged coma suggestive of severe brain injury. The neurologist Donald I. Peterson thinks it more likely that she suffered from a prolonged case of pneumonia:

If, while she was unconscious, Ellen aspirated blood and secretions from her nose and throat (not an unlikely possibility, give the lack of adequate first aid knowledge in those days), she probably contracted pneumonia. Thus blood loss and pneumonia, not severe brain injury, is the more reasonable explanation of what she referred to as 'my sickness.'21

Complex partial seizures also shed little light on her manifold physical complaints, and they inadequately account for the degree to which her visions depended on the approval of others. But most telling of all, this diagnosis fails to recognize the large number of White's contemporaries who claimed to have had visionary episodes similar to hers-but reported no brain-damaging injuries. Thus we must look beyond complex partial seizures for an adequate explanation of her distinctive medical history.22

A more convincing diagnosis, which not only accounts for many of her physical and psychological symptoms but acknowledges the importance of social and cultural factors, is what mental-health experts today call somatization disorder with an accompanying histrionic personality style. These categories encompass the behaviors and symptoms formerly grouped together under the now-discarded label "hysteria." According to the current edition of the diagnostician's guidebook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders put out by the American Psychiatric Association, the essential features of somatization disorder "are recurrent and multiple somatic complaints, of several years' duration, for which medical attention has been sought, but that apparently are not due to any physical disorder." In other words, persons suffering from this disorder repeatedly complain of a wide range of physical problems and believe themselves to be sickly but are not physically ill. Symptoms, which range from gastrointestinal difficulties, chest pains, shortness of breath, palpitations, and dizziness to loss of voice, blurred or double vision, fainting, paralysis, difficulty walking, and amnesia, usually begin in the teens and occur most commonly in females. Although often described in a dramatic or exaggerated manner, the symptoms are neither intentional nor conscious; the typical sufferer has no sense of controlling them and sincerely believes them to be of organic origin. However, it is possible, as the historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has suggested, that some women diagnosed as hysterics unconsciously succumbed to this malady as a way of opting out of the traditional roles society assigned to them.23

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes persons with a histrionic personality disorder as presenting "a pervasive patter of excessive emotionality and attention-seeking, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. . . . People with this disorder constantly seek or demand reassurance, approval, or praise from others and are uncomfortable in situations in which they are not the center of attention." They may also dramatize personal experiences, interpret nonsexual situations sexually yet be fearful of sex, display dependent and demanding interpersonal behavior, indulge in role-playing, easily fall prey to the suggestions of others, and overly react to disappointments. They typically deny internal conflicts or externalize them by attributing unacceptable emotions to others, blaming someone or something else, or somatizing, which shifts the conscious focus of attention from inner psychological conflicts to outer physical discomfort. Histrionic personality disorder often coexists with somatization disorder.24

As described by the psychologist Alan Krohn, histrionic persons often appear to be relatively "normal" and rarely go "far enough to be considered substantially deviant." Their self-identity commonly incorporates desirable roles and pleasing behaviors, but this is done unconsciously, not deliberately or deceptively. "This identity, . . . though seldom overlooked and often flamboyant, remains within the bounds of convention," writes Krohn. "Indeed, this flamboyance, rarely iconoclastic, resides in novel, fashion-setting modifications of what is in vogue."25

In this diagnostic context, which, for our purposes, possesses greater heuristic than deterministic value, White's frequent dreams and visions shrink to mere epiphenomena. Histrionic persons today rarely report seeing visions, largely because such experiences have gone out of fashion. In the nineteenth century, however, trances and visions were the order of the day for a host of mesmerists, spiritualists, and religious enthusiasts. Self-proclaimed seers not only modeled themselves after the biblical writers, particularly Daniel and John the Revelator, but saw themselves as the fulfillment of the prophecy that "in the last days…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams" (Acts 2:17). In view of White's suggestibility and the attention and reinforcement her dissociative experiences elicited from others, her claim to visions is hardly surprising. The exact mechanism that triggered these apparently self-hypnotic episodes is of less historical interest than the fact that phenomenologically her visions in no way differed from the trances of the run-of-the-mill mesmerist or spiritualist. The proof of this claim is White's own inability to distinguish empirically between her visions and those of her contemporaries. She distanced herself from other trance mediums not on the basis of physical evidence, but spiritual content.26

From White's own testimony we are convinced that beginning in childhood she suffered from episodes of depressions and anxiety that often left her debilitated and at times even crippled. Unfortunately, little is known about the biological or social matrix in which these disorders developed and in which her personality was rooted. It seems likely, however, that her unhappiness stemmed at least in part from insufficiently gratifying relationships with parents and siblings, perhaps aggravated by the experience of being a twin. Her inadequate sense of identity left her vulnerable to fluctuations in self-esteem and consequently dependent on others to enhance her sense of self. Within a few years, certainly by adolescence, she was responding to outer stress and inn distress by unconsciously constructing a defensive system that allowed her to ward off unpleasant conflict through poor health. This gained her the supportive attention of others, who tended to see external rather than internal problems. By her adult years she had developed a full-fledged somatization disorder and a histrionic personality style.27

Let us now examine some of the evidence that favors this assessment. In describing her childhood "misfortune" nearly a quarter-century after the event, White dramatically emphasized the severity of the injury, claiming that it threatened her life, turned her into an invalid, and destroyed her "natural looks." Seeing herself in a mirror left her dismayed:

"Every feature of my face seemed changed. The sight was more than I could bear… The idea of carrying my misfortune through life was unsupportable."28

In all likelihood the accident caused ugly bruising and swelling but produced greater psychological than physical trauma. Its occurrence at a time when children are commonly becoming self-conscious about their bodies undoubtedly heightened her distress and embarrassment, though later photographs give no indication of facial disfigurement or permanent damage. Her greatest trauma probably resulted from the narcissistic wound she received from being publicly assaulted by a schoolmate. Her own words reveal a socially insecure child in the grips of recurrent and at times severe anxiety, no doubt exacerbated by the memory of her humiliating injury and the anticipation of further ridicule. Her professed love of learning and eagerness to continue her education caught her on the horns of a classic wish-fear dilemma: wanting desperately to do something but too afraid to do it. Indeed, severe anxiety about school rather than physical disability seems to account for the hand trembling, blurred vision, sweating, faintness, and dizziness that plagued her when she attempted to resume her education. Interpreting these symptoms as medical problems allowed her to skip school and avoid an unpleasant situation-a dynamic critical to the development of her somatization disorder.29

By the age of fourteen or fifteen she seems also to have been in the throes of a major clinical depression. Her autobiography lists all the classic symptoms:

Five of these symptoms alone would today warrant a diagnosis of major depression.30 To cope with this unspeakable anguish, she unconsciously hid behind histrionic defenses constructed out of the fragments of her own religious experience. By attributing her suffering to a passion for salvation-both her own and others'-she externalized the source of conflict and diffusely projected personal concerns onto religious ones. In the process she also denied other troubling sources of anxiety, such as sexuality and interpersonal relationships, common to adolescents.

Ellen's first public prayer, during which she apparently fainted, marks the beginning of another critical stage in the development of her histrionic style. At the time, her mother and "other experienced Christians" attributed her prostration to the wondrous power of God."31 The significance of such social reinforcement can hardly be exaggerated. Her accident and her anxieties had removed her from the society of her schoolmates and had truncated the normal development routes to social acceptance and approval. At home she had to compete with her twin sister and other siblings for the limited attention of her busy parents-and do so while feeling handicapped by her physical appearance. In the contest for parental nurturance an unconsciously assumed sick role could only be an advantage. Psychological studies of twins show them to be particularly sensitive to issues of identity and independence, especially as they journey through adolescence. As God's chosen messenger, Ellen definitively separated herself from her twin sister, Elizabeth, and acquired an enviable identity-though not one her sister acknowledged.32

Ellen's early fainting spells connected her emotionally with others, brought her attention and special notice, and thrust upon the socially awkward youth-"naturally so timid and retiring that it was painful for me to meet strangers"-a positive role by which she could relate to others.33 The onset of visions a couple of years later seems to have brought temporary freedom from depression, thus further reinforcing the trances. Perhaps most important, her visionary visits with heavenly beings endowed her with a positive self-image that surely helped to dissipate the feelings of low self-esteem that had tormented her for so long. Years later she described her feelings of exhilaration and exaltation:

An unspeakable awe filled me, that I, so young and feeble, should be chosen as the instrument by which God would give light to His people.34

For a period of six months in 1843-44 Ellen repeated fell under the power of "the Spirit of the Lord" and consequently enjoyed improved mental and physical well-being. But following the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, her health declined rapidly. She complained primarily of cardiopulmonary symptoms, which repeatedly caused even her physician to fear that she might die suddenly. In writing of this period, she admitted to harboring dark thoughts about the world, but in the exaggerated manner of the histrionic she chose to highlight her physical rather than depressive symptoms: intense suffering, imminent death, and gory detail. A short time later the criticism of others left her literally speechless. Clearly, by this time illness had become an important part of her defensive repertoire against depression. Given the attention and adoration of others, she felt healthy and whole; without them, she slipped into a psychosomatic slough.

Ellen White's close identification with the sufferings of Christ undoubtedly colored the way she viewed her episodes of poor health. In fact, she grandiosely predicted for herself the same fate that had befallen him:

For forty years, Satan has made the most determined efforts to cut off this testimony from the church; but it has continued from year to year to warn the erring, to unmask the deceiver, to encourage the desponding. My trust is in God. I have learned not to be surprised at opposition in any form or from almost any source. I expect to be betrayed, as was my Master, by professed friends.35

In this context suffering became a virtue.

It seems likely that White's somatization helped her to avoid conscious feelings of anxiety, by repressing emotional needs and conflicts, and to externalize depression, by blaming others for her suffering. It may also have salved the narcissistic wounds inflicted by the verbal barbs of skeptics, which caused as much pain and humiliation in adulthood as the stone had caused her in childhood. Physical pain, which made her the object of sympathetic attention rather than derision, thus served to mask emotional anguish. Besides, in a culture that regarded assertive and ambitious women with considerable ambivalence, White's poor health allowed her to project a nonthreatening image of vulnerability while she relentlessly fought to stay on top of a male-dominated subculture. As a prophet, she could sublimate unacceptable and competitive urges in a socially acceptable and divinely sanctioned role. In denying any personal striving for success and in externalizing the source of her ambition-God made her do it-she displayed common histrionic characteristics.

In reading White's autobiographical accounts, one is immediately struck by the exaggerated, dramatic manner in which she portrays personal events. For example, she tells of how in 1858, following her vision of the "Great Controversy" between Christ and Satan, she suffered from temporary paralysis and loss of speech, followed by several weeks of unsteadiness and impaired sensation. Her explanation:

Satan designed to take my life to hinder the work I was about to write; but angels of God were sent to my rescue, to raise me above the effects of Satan's attack.36

White hungered for the attention that attached to her role as a latter-day prophet. As early as 1845, public questioning of the divine nature of her visions so filled her with anguish her family thought she would die-at least that's what she reported. Later, in the mid-1850's, when her self-conscious husband refused to publish her testimonies and fellow believers neglected them, her visions dwindled and she sank into despair.37 As her fame spread, the utility of illness in gaining and holding an audience became increasingly apparent. At times she experienced miraculous cures while addressing a crowd. In 1877, for example, ill health almost forced her to cancel a dreaded appointment in Danvers, Massachusetts, where she would be preaching to a hostile audience. Though almost too weak to stand, she mounted the platform and attempted to speak:

Like a shock of electricity I felt it upon my heart, and all pain was instantly removed. I had suffered great pain in the nerves centering in the brain; this also was entirely removed. My irritated throat and sore lungs were relieved. My left arm and hand had become nearly useless in consequence of pain in my heart, but natural feeling was now restored. My mind was clear; my soul was full of the light and love of God. Angels of God seemed to be on every side, like a wall of fire.38

Several years later she attended a camp meeting so indisposed she asked for a sofa near the speaker's stand to lie on. At the close of the sermon she mustered the energy to rise to her feet. As she began to speak, the "power of God" swept over her, healing her instantly. "It cannot be attributed to imagination," she insisted. "The people saw me in my feebleness, and many remarked that to all appearance I was a candidate for the grave. Nearly all present marked the change which took place in me while I was addressing them."39 Such public healings not only highlighted and validated her ministry but served as a substitute for more conventional healing services, in which ailing members of the audience were restored to health.

Ellen White often relied on her visions and ill health to control the distasteful behavior of family members and followers, at times even holding her own children responsible for her indispositions. Writing of her offspring in the mid-1850's, she said: "I was keenly sensitive to faults in my children, and every wrong they committed brought on me such heartache as to affect my health." Blaming her sons for her suffering may not have changed their behavior, but it undoubtedly induced considerable guilt. Even for relatively mundane matters she invoked the threat of becoming sick. When congregations failed to meet her demands for the ventilation of buildings, she on one occasion "fell very sick with nervous prostration…suffering much with inflammation of head, stomach, and lungs," and on another she refused to speak altogether out of fear that the poisonous air "would cost me my life," in effect saying, "Open the windows, or I'll die."40

White's visions, like her ailments, served to keep family and followers in line. For how could they acknowledge her as God's inspired messenger and still dispute her messages, whether theological or personal? Those audacious enough to challenge her authority found themselves the objects of divinely sent reprimands. When Fannie Bolton, one of White's literary assistants, raised embarrassing questions about her boss's writings, White hear a voice saying, "Beware and not place your dependence upon Fannie to prepare articles or to make books. … She is your adversary. … She is not true to her duty, yet flatters herself she is doing a very important work." Similar warnings discredited the claims of rival prophets, present and future. "I have been shown," said White, that there will be "many who will claim to be especially taught of God, and will attempt to lead others, and they will undertake a work from mistaken ideas of duty that God has never laid upon them; and confusion will be the result."41

Indirect evidence suggests that Ellen White experienced deep-seated conflicts over sexuality and aggression. Her accident confined her to bed for "many months" and left her an invalid for years. At about age twelve-often the onset of puberty-she described herself as feeling terribly guilty, unworthy, and sinful. One might suspect that these guilt feelings arose as a result not only of the sexual fantasies common to children of this age, but also from the first sexual stirrings of pre-adolescence-and possibly from the sexual exploration of her own body as well, though White later insisted that she did not discover the fact of female masturbation until adulthood, when Adventist sisters began confessing their sins to her. During periods of her adult life she found sexuality a morbidly fascinating topic: both her 1863 health-reform vision and her first booklet on health focused on the horrors of masturbation. Her occasional testimonies about the secret sins of others, given under the cloak of divine immunity, smacked of voyeurism and possibly served to displace personal guilt about sexual fantasies and behavior.

Unacceptable aggressive and competitive impulses may also have induced guilt. Her conscious self-image is reflected in the following passage: "All through my life, it has been terribly hard for me to hurt the feelings of any, or disturb their self-deception… It is contrary to my nature. It costs me great pain, and many sleepless nights."42 Such protests notwithstanding, her visions often betrayed a distinctly aggressive quality-so much so that others sometimes criticized her for unnecessary harshness in reproving her followers. The visions allowed her to deny her aggression in two ways:

  1. She could externalize the impulse by pointing outside herself to the sins of others.
  2. She could silence her critics by asserting that she was not responsible for the content of her messages because she was only acting as God's instrument. "In no case have I given my own judgment or opinion," she wrote in 1882. "I have enough to write of what has been shown me without falling back on my own opinions."43

Finally, to what extent does Ellen White's histrionic personality help us understand her tendency to appropriate the writings of others as her own? Recent research has shown in embarrassing detail the extent to which she lifted substantial portions of her published works, especially on biblical history, from contemporary sources.44 Was she a self-conscious plagiarist or a self-deceived copyist? We lean toward the latter view, though the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. In analyzing White's behavior, we need to keep in mind psychologist David Shapiro's observation that the histrionic style of thinking is generally "global, relatively diffuse, and lacking in sharpness, particularly in sharp detail. In a word, it is impressionistic." Thus, when pressed for specific answers to questions, the histrionic person is more likely to give vague impressions than hard facts and to ignore such conventions as crediting one's sources and telling the exact truth. In assuming her prophetic role, White no doubt suppressed conscious knowledge of the extent to which she was borrowing the language of theirs and actually came to believe that the words were her own. When quizzed about the similarity of her writings to those of others, she defended herself in characteristic fashion. By both denying her indebtedness and blaming her accusers for acting inappropriately, she deflected disapproval from her to her critics.45

In a compelling book called Creative Malady the distinguished British physician Sir George Pickering has explored the relationship between creativity and illness in the lives of such eminent Victorians as Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. Despite debilitating illnesses, which Pickering attributes in most cases to psychological causes, all made significant contributions to their chosen fields; and they did so, he argues, because of their ailments, which they variously used to protect themselves from unwanted intrusions, to manipulate those around them, or as in the case of Eddy, to create a new system of healing.46 Ellen White's life conforms to a strikingly similar pattern. Rather than falling victim to illness, she used it to escape anxiety-provoking or unwanted tasks, to elicit sympathy and support, to fashion a rewarding career, and to construct a religious system that prominently featured the ministry of healing. Hers was truly a creative malady.

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18 Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald L Numbers, eds., Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health (2nd ed.; Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), p. 11.
19 Thomas a Kohut, "Psychohistory as History," American Historical Review, XCI (1986), 341.
20 Hoddler, "Vision or Partial Complex Seizures?" 30-37.
21 Peterson, Visions or Seizures, pp. 12-13.
22 On nineteenth-century visionaries see pp. 15-18 of this book.
23 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3rd ed. Rev.; Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 1987), pp. 261-264; Carr9oll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Hysterical Women: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in 19th Century America," Social Research XXXIX (1972), 652-78. On the history of Hysteria, see Ilza Veith, Hysteria: The History of a Disease (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).
24 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, pp. 348-49.
25 Krohn, Hysteria, pp. 160-63.
26 See p. 23 of this book.
27 On the relationship between depression and histrionic defenses, see Gerald L. Klerman, "Hysteria and Depression," in Roy, ed., Hysteria, pp. 211-28.
28 EGW, Spiritual Gifts (1860), pp. 7-9.
29 These symptoms are all indicative of a generalized anxiety disorder; see American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, pp. 251-53. The evidence presented in Appendix 1 of this book suggests she continued to suffer from occasional anxiety episodes in her adult life.
30 EGW, Life Sketches, pp. 29-31. The diagnostic criteria for major depression are given in American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, pp. 222-24.
31 EGW, Life Sketches, p. 38.
32 See Ricardo C. Ainslie, The Psychology of Twinship (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).
33 EGW, Life Sketches, p. 69.
34 Ibid.
35 Quoted in Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, 6 vols. (Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 1981-86), III, 229.
36 EGW, Spiritual Gifts (1860), II, 271-72.
37 EGW, Life Sketches, p. 69; "Communication from Sister White," Review and Herald, VII (1856), 118.
38 EGW, "Experience and Labors," Testimonies, IV, 280-81.
39 EGW, Life Sketches, p. 264.
40 EGW, Spiritual Gifts, pp. 211-12; A.L. White, Ellen G. White, III, 353, V, 50-51.
41 EGW, Letter 59, 1894, quoted in A.L. White, Ellen G. White, IV, 241; EGW, Letter 54, 1893, quoted ibid., pp. 126-27.
42 EGW, "Camp Meeting Address," Testimonies, V, 19-20.
43 EGW, Testimony for the Battle Creek Church, quoted in A.L. White, Ellen G. White, III, 199-200.
44 See Walter T. Rea, The White Lie (Turlock, Calif.: M&R Publications, 1982).
45 David Shapiro, Neurotic Styles (New York: Basic Books, 1965), p. 111.
46 Pickering, Creative Malady.