Part 2 of the Unfinished Story of Fannie Bolton and Marian Davis

by Alice Elizabeth Gregg

Adventist Currents, October 1983

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The story of Fannie Bolton, Ellen G. White's most controversial literary associate, cannot be told adequately or completely without the story of Ellen's longtime literary associate, Marian Davis.

Marian was born on August 21, 1847, at North Berwick, Maine, to Obadiah and Elmira O. Davis. Her given name was Mary Ann, which she used until she was in her thirties. She was the oldest of four children, Grace being the next younger, then Obadiah, and last Ella. If there are any extant pictures of Marian, none has been found thus far. If she looked anything like her sister Ella, she had brown hair and a small, serious face with pleasing features.

When Marian was four years old, her mother became a Seventh-day Adventist; and soon afterward her father, who had been in California during the gold rush, also accepted the faith. In 1868, the year she was twenty-one, she went with her family to Battle Creek, Michigan. Shortly after that, Marian accepted a position teaching in a country school. Teaching proved to be so taxing that her health was affected, and she had to stay home a year to recuperate. Later she took work as a proofreader at the Review and Herald publishing plant.

Double tragedy struck the family in 1876. Grace died of "lung fever" on March 17, and then ten days later, on March 27, their mother died. Marian and her father wrote the obituaries for the Review. (1)

In 1880 Ella married William K. Kellogg, owner of the W.K. Kellogg Cornflakes Company. Obadiah went into business and became known for the durability of his electric water pumps.

When James and Ellen White took a wagon trip to Colorado in 1879, they invited Marian to accompany them. Marian went by railway from Michigan to Texas to join the eight wagons already en route. The story of the trip is told by Eileen E. Lantry in a children's book entitled Miss Marian's Gold. (2) Marian was thirty-two years of age when she started the journey that was to be the beginning of a quarter century's adventure to exotic and interesting places. When Ellen traveled - to California in 1882, to Europe in 1885, again to California in 1887, to Michigan in 1889, to Australia in 1891, and again to California in 1900 - Marian accompanied her to do her manuscript editing.

Marian became what Ellen called her "bookmaker." "She takes my articles which are published in the papers, and pastes them in blank books," Ellen wrote to George A. Irwin, who would soon become the next president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. "She also has a copy of all the letters I write. In preparing a chapter for a book, Marian remembers that I have written something on that special point, which may make the matter more forcible. She begins to search for this, and if when she finds it, she sees that it will make the chapter more clear, she adds it." (3)

Fortunately Marian's memory was very good. To draw from, she had at least "thirty scrapbooks, a half dozen bound volumes, and fifty manuscripts, all covering thousands of pages" of Ellen White's materials, besides a large library of books. (4) Also she attended classes and meetings and took notes that would help cover a given subject, such as the life of Christ.

Ellen had been "an interested reader of religious journals," according to William C. White, her son, "and during the many years that Uriah Smith was editor of the Review, it was her custom to request him after [he had] made use of the religious exchanges, to pass them over to her and she would spend a portion of her time in scanning them in selecting precious things which sometimes appeared in the Review. In these she also gathered information regarding what was going on in the religious world." (5) This was information that was also available for Marian to peruse for her bookmaking activities.

Marian was extremely conscientious about her work and would be very painstaking about bringing numerous details to the attention of Ellen or Willie for clarification. This could be very annoying to Ellen at times, as she wanted to get on with her "own thing," whatever it might be at the time.

On one occasion Ellen wrote to Mary, her daughter-in-law: "Willie is in meeting early and late, devising, planning for the doing of better and more efficient work in the cause of God.... Marian will go to him for some little matters that it seems she could settle for herself. She is nervous and hurried and he so worn he has to just shut his teeth together and hold his nerves as best he can. I have had a talk with her and told her she must settle many things herself that she has been bringing Willie.... She must just carry some of these things that belong to her part of the work, and not bring them before him nor worry his mind with them. Sometimes I think she will kill us both, all unnecessarily, with her little things she can just as well settle herself as to bring them before us. Every little change of a word she wants us to see. I am about tired of this business." (6)

Marian's experience, for one thing, taught her that the omission, addition, or misuse of a word or a comma can make all the difference in the world to meaning and clarity and can confuse or mislead rather than enlighten the reader. In other words, she was a skilled editor.

Further, Marian herself was clearly searching, studying, and selecting pertinent material not from Ellen's scrapbooks alone but from the works of other religious writers (Alfred Edersheim, William Hanna, John Harris, Daniel March, Henry Melvill, to name some) and from various Adventist ministers she heard lecture or obtained advice from in order to familiarize herself with the subject. Certainly it would follow, then, that she would be anxious that the manuscript work resulting from her searching's, incorporating, and organizing be scrutinized thoroughly. Whose work should be more carefully done than that of "the prophet" speaking for God?

Zealous supporters of Ellen at times referred to Marian, Fannie, and others loosely as "copyists" (which means their editing would be limited to "mechanics" such as correcting simple grammar, spelling, punctuation) - thus subtly minimizing the associate. There are numerous pieces of evidence to indicate that Ellen's literary assistants, by whatever title, in fact did what is called 'substantive editing' - that is, rewriting, reorganizing, and suggesting ways to reinforce or modify the content - plus much more. Marian, who researched for content ideas, organization, and expression and who attended to paraphrasing, was not called "bookmaker" without reason.

The matter of using quotation marks for material drawn from the work of other religious writers eventually came up for discussion. William C. White and Dores E. Robinson wrote: "Mrs. White made no effort to conceal the fact that she had copied from other writers, statements that exactly suited her purpose. And in her handwritten manuscripts, most of the passages that she had copied word for word, were enclosed in quotation marks. But there were also many passages that were paraphrased.... The question arose, How shall these passages be handled? Much time would be required to study each passage and mark it consistently. The printers were waiting for copy, and the public were waiting for the book. Then it was decided to leave out the quotation marks entirely. And in that way the book was printed." (7)

Vesta J. Farnsworth, who was in Australia during the time Ellen was there, wrote that Marian "had shared in the decision to leave out quotation marks in the early edition of [The] Great Controversy and to the using of the general acknowledgment in the Preface. Then when there came severe criticism for this, she, with Sister White and her associates, felt it very keenly." (8)

That Marian was upset and weeping herself to sleep night after night eventually got back to the family, according to Obadiah, and they worried about her because the health of their sister was not robust. (9)

Dudley M. Canright, one of Ellen's biographers, wrote that Marian "was one day heard moaning in her room. Going in, another worker inquired the cause of her trouble. Miss Davis replied: 'I wish I could die! I wish I could die!' 'Why, what is the matter?' asked the other. 'Oh,' Miss Davis said, 'this terrible plagiarism.'" (10)

Farnsworth commented on that story: "If this be true, it is only one of the many things connected with her [Marian's] work over which she was deeply distressed. Sister Marian Davis was exceedingly faithful and conscientious in her labors, and felt keenly her responsibility in the work entrusted to her in connection with Sister White's writings. She was frail of body and often low spirited. Many times she besought the prayers and the counsel of her associates and fellow workers. And by the help of God she did a noble work. She loved the work better than her life, and anything which affected it affected her." (11)

When Marian talked with Charles E. Stewart, a doctor in Battle Creek, she told him about her problems with her editing. He referred to this incident, without divulging the person's name, in a lengthy letter that he wrote to Ellen in 1907: "I am informed by a trustworthy person, that you in the preparation of your various works, consulted freely other authors; and that it was sometimes very difficult to arrange the matter for your books in such a way as to prevent the readers from detecting that many of the ideas had been taken from other authors." (12)

The work seemed to go fairly smoothly between Ellen and Marian until Fannie joined them. Then things began to happen. Ellen wrote that Fannie "would talk to my workers, especially Marian, and get her stirred up so that I could hardly get along with Marian. She was like another person, infused with a spirit that was excitable and unexplainable." (13)

What the editors talked about was the giving of credit to authors and editors. Fannie, according to Ellen in a letter to Ole A. Olsen, General Conference president at the time, "talked these things to Marian and Marian has been led into much of the same views, but not to the extent of Fannie." (14) Fannie talked to various ones about how the books were organized and written, and Ellen wrote, "she presented the matter to them in such as way that they thought injustice had been done to Fannie and Marian.... Fannie represented that she and Marian had brought all the talent and sharpness into my books, yet [they] were both ignored and set aside, and all the credit came to me." (15)

Fannie had "created such a state of things in her representations," Ellen wrote to John Harvey Kellogg, "that you would have supposed her to be the author of the articles she prepared, and maintained that it should be acknowledged that Marian and Fannie were in copartnership with me in the publications bearing my signature." (16)

Ellen finally brought this to a head one day in conversation with Fannie. She recounted the incident thus to Willie: "Should [my writings] be published Mrs. E.G. White, Fannie Bolton, and Marian Davis are a company concern in these productions? "oh," she says, 'I do not know, I do not know. I have been tempted. I am full of pride.'" (17)

After Fannie was discharged, Marian, according to Ellen, became "just as peaceable as she used to be." (18) However, when Ellen was upset with Marian, she was relegated from the "trustworthy bookmaker" to "poor little Marian."

Marian's father died in Battle Creek on March 1, 1903. In May of the same year Marian attended the General Conference meeting in Oakland, California. While she was there she caught a cold that settled in her lungs, and she was hospitalized at the St. Helena Sanitarium and Hospital. Gradually she seemed to recover from her lung problem, and she went back to work on Ellen's latest tome, The Ministry of Healing. But her appetite and strength never returned. Finally, when she became so weak that she could no longer sit at her typewriter, she was hospitalized again. Because she was unable to eat or sleep, she continued wasting away and never recovered. (19)

According to Canright, "it is said that before her death Miss Davis was greatly troubled over the connection she had had with Mrs. White's plagiarism, for she knew how extensively it had been carried on." (20)

That Marian was troubled can be read in letters written to her during that time by Ellen, who was traveling in the East. On August 24, 1904: "Let not one anxious thought come into your mind." On September 16: "I am grieved that you are troubled in mind.... He [God] has no such feelings of condemnation as you imagine. I want you to stop thinking that the Lord does not love you.... You need not think that you have done anything which would lead God to treat you with severity. I know better." (21) Even on October 9, when Ellen returned to California from her trip, she could not succeed in persuading Marian to eat.

At four o'clock on the afternoon of October 25, 1904, Marian - who had made The Desire of Ages sing, and who had given sinew and beauty to many other works for Ellen - was dead. Her funeral was held the next day in the St. Helena Church, and she was buried at St. Helena. In attendance were her sister, Ella Kellogg, and her niece, Beth Kellogg.

Willie wrote the obituary, a full column in length, for the Review. He described her as an "efficient laborer in the literary departments of our work.... [She] has been a most efficient and trusted worker, preparing for the press tracts, pamphlets, and books, and articles for our numerous periodicals." As for the thoughts that were troubling Marian at the time, Willie wrote that "Sister Davis sometimes, during her sickness, mourned because the imperfections of her work and experience, but at the last she grasped the firm promises of God, and found peace and rest and joy in the Lord." (22)

One further account stated that Marian died of tuberculosis. But, curiously, her death certificate states that she died of anemia. She was fifty-seven years old, and she weighed fifty-seven pounds. Could it have been that starvation was the only way out of a situation that she could no longer tolerate?

Even after the deaths of Marian and Fannie, the seeds of doubt about the authorship of Ellen's writings continued to sprout and flourish.

White and Robinson spent the year of 1933 endeavoring to compose an explanation of Ellen's writings so that members of the Adventists denomination would understand, once and for all time, how the "gift" worked. Together they wrote "A Statement Regarding the Experiences of Fannie Bolton in Relation to Her Work for Mrs. Ellen G. White," "Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White," and "The Work of Mrs. E.G. White's Editors." Also, White wrote "The Story of a Popular Book, Steps to Christ," and Robinson wrote "The Authorship of Steps to Christ." All of these were issued at the time in typewritten form.

In their "Brief Statements" they recorded that "in later years when Mrs. White became aware that some of the readers of her books were perplexed over the question as to whether her copying from other writers was an infringement on somebody's rights, the inquiry was raised, 'Who has been injured?' No injustice or injury could be named." (23)

But Ellen knew who would be injured. "Fannie Bolton can hurt me as no other person can," she had said with some warmth to Merritt Kellogg.(24) In 1895, Ellen had said: "She [Fannie] has misrepresented me and hurt me terribly. Only in connection with my work has she hurt me. She has reported to others that she has the same as made over my articles, that she has put her whole soul into them, and I had the credit of the ability she had given to these writings." (25)

According to Ellen, one of the greatest sins was Fannie's talking. Fannie wrote her in 1897: "I thought the only thing you disliked in me was speaking of the matter at all, that you wanted me to maintain secrecy about it all, but I thought that in justice to yourself, your work, your editors and readers, you yourself should have acknowledged your editor's work. In this matter I thought if I did not tell what I thought to be true, I would be a party in what I thought was not perfectly honest, open dealing." (26)

The Fannie Bolton Story was released by the White Estate in 1982 with the expectation, one suspects, of vindicating Ellen. Ironically, Walter T. Rea's The White Lie, which came out almost simultaneously demonstrating that much of Ellen's material was copied, in effect vindicated Fannie and Marian. (27)

The conflict between the protagonist and the two antagonists ended with their deaths - Ellen died in 1915, Marian in 1904, and Fannie in 1926. But the central conflict - with its significant literary, ethical, and theological implications - has never been resolved, and hence the story cannot yet end.

Throughout the years, from the earliest Adventist beginnings, there have been protests - sometimes as muffled mutterings, but in this century as crescendoing cacophony. Officials and apologists in the church have always responded by shifting from one justification to another:

  1. ELLEN DID NOT COPY. "I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas They are what God has opened before me in vision - the precious rays of light shining from the throne." (28) This explanation faded away after assistants for research, writing, and editing were employed for Ellen.

  2. ELLEN USED THE WORDS OF ONLY HISTORIANS. "In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject." (29) That line of justifying was dropped when it became necessary to concede that subject matter other than history was copied: "She was told that in the reading of religious books and journals, she would find precious gems of truth expressed in acceptable language, and that she would be given help from heaven to recognize these and to separate them from the rubbish of error with which she would sometimes find them associated." (30)

  3. ELLEN USED THE AD HOMINEM APPROACH. Fannie is the problem. She is unbalanced; therefore you cannot believe what she says. By giving the inquirer a more lurid topic to pursue, she got him off the subject of copying, a subject about which Ellen could not speak.

  4. PARAPHRASING WAS SAID TO BE ACCEPTABLE A CENTURY AGO. Since "everybody was doing it," it was all right for Ellen to paraphrase ideas. "In the nineteenth century, plagiarism was known and condemned, but uncredited paraphrasing was widely practiced." (31) (It has also been widely practiced by college students whose teachers judged them cheaters.) Do two wrongs make a right? One can use the same analogy to excuse adultery or tax cheating.

  5. BIBLE WRITERS COPIED. "An instructive parallel" is found among the Gospel. More than ninety percent of the Gospel of Mark, the apologists point out, is paralleled by passages in Matthew and Luke.(32) This kind of argument for license is akin to the ad hominem argument; turn your eyes to the Bible and see what its writers did. Published material, however, is not the same as oral tradition.

  6. ELLEN'S COPYING WAS NOT ILLEGAL. On the basis of "our review of the facts and legal precedents, we conclude that Ellen G. White was not a plagiarist and her works did not constitute copyright infringement/piracy," wrote Vincent L. Ramik of Diller, Ramik & Wight, Ltd. (33) It must be said here that any lawyer worth his salt brings forward arguments intended to support or vindicate the clients paying him. Today the problem of legality under the copyright law is not the major issue in the conflict pertaining to the writings of Ellen White. The problems are those of questionable ETHICS (taking and camouflaging matter already published by other writers) and of a muddled meaning of INSPIRATION (presenting the White version of others' material as "precious rays of truth shining from the throne," usually interpreted to mean having come direct to her from God).

  7. ELLEN WAS UNINFORMED ABOUT LITERARY STANDARDS. "She acted without knowledge of the literary standards that would count a moderate use of [others'] writings as unfair or worthy of condemnation." (34) Not so. She had to know, rather early in her experience, that John N. Andrews, her close associate and friend (whose material she copied without crediting him), carefully credited the works he had studied in his preparations. She had to know that Edersheim, and those others from whom she read and drew, credited their sources. That was what Fannie's message was all about (and likewise what was thought to have troubled Marian).

  8. GOD'S WORDS BELONG TO EVERYONE. "God is the author and owner of all truth, just as the tree is the author and owner of its fruit. God provides truth unstintingly to all who will receive it and use it." (35) Perhaps the same argument could hold true for the money in the bank and the cattle on a thousand hills. They belong to God. Is it all right, then, to steal them for God's cause? The end does not justify the means in either case.

  9. THE WORDS ARE NOT THE IMPORTANT PART OF ELLEN'S WRITINGS. "Ellen White closed her letter [July 17, 1906] with a statement suggesting that the problems surrounding her work were the result of focusing on the words rather than the message of her writings," said the White Estate. (36) One wonders if that is really what they meant to say. One cannot have messages without words, unless the messages are on the nonverbal level - and that is another study. Words - their denotation, connotation, and signification - are the symbols or signs that convey meaning when they are arranged in relational patterns. (37) "The essential act of thought is symbolization.... One cannot think without symbols." (38)

This technical and complex philosophical subject in the field of logical empiricism is probably not what the White Estate wanted to get into at all. What they no doubt meant, but could not say, was that "the problems surrounding her work were the result of focusing on the [unacknowledged use of] words rather than the message of her writings."

Creative as these various justifications for copying may be, they are no substitute for truth.

Credit must be given to the White Estate, the Biblical Research Institute, and the President of the General Conference for conceding that "the amount of borrowing was greater than they had previously known." (39) However, when the officials, apologists, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church at large can go that one step further and acknowledge that Ellen was wrong to copy without giving credit to the sources used, then the conflict recounted in "The Unfinished Story of Fannie Bolton and Marian Davis" will end.


1. Adventist Review, 1 December 1904.

2. Eileen S. Lantry, Miss Marian's Gold (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1981).

3. Ellen G. White Estate, comp., The Fannie Bolton Story: A Collection of Source Documents (Washington, DC: General Conference of SDA, 1982), Ellen G. White to George A Irwin, 23 April 1900 (Letter 61-a); p. 93.

4. [Robert W. Olson], "How The Desire of Ages Was Written" (Washington, DC: Ellen G. White Estate, 23 May 1979), Marian Davis to William C. White, 29 March 1893; p. 24.

5. EGW, Selected Messages, 3 bks. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980), bk. 3, pp. 462-463.

6. [Olson], "How DA Was Written," EGW to Mary White, March 1889 (Letter 64-a), p. 22.

7. William C. White and Dores E. Robinson, "Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White (St. Helena, CA: Elmshaven Office, August 1933), p. 16.

8. Vesta J. Farnsworth to Guy C. Jorgensen, 1 December 1921, p. 34.

9. Hugh Williams, Taped Interview, 18 June 1980, pp. 1-2.

10. Dudley M. Canright, Life of Mrs. E.G. White, Seventh-day Adventist Prophet: Her False Claims Refuted (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1919), p. 204.

11. Farnsworth to Jorgensen, p. 34.

12. [Charles E. Stewart], A Response to an Urgent Testimony from Mrs. Ellen G. White, Concerning Contradictions, Inconsistencies and Other Errors in Her Writings [Often called "The Blue Book"] (private printing; preface, 1907), p. 81.

13. The Story, EGW to Children, 2 August 1896 (Letter 154), pp. 72-3.

14. Ibid., EGW to Ole A. Olsen, 5 February 1894 (Letter 59), p. 19.

15. Ibid., EGW to Marian Davis, 29 October 1895 (Letter 102), p. 43.

16. Ibid., EGW to John Harvey Kellogg, 20 December 1895 (Letter 106), p. 60.

17. Ibid., EGW to Willie C. White, 6 February 1894 (Letter 88), p. 30.

18. Ibid., EGW to Children, 2 August 1896 (Letter 154), p. 73.

19. Lantry, Miss Marian's Gold, p. 76.

20. Canright, Life of Mrs. EGW, p. 204.

21. EGW, Selected Messages, (1958), bk. 2, pp. 251-54.

22. Adventist Review 81 (1 December 1904), p. 23.

23. White and Robinson, "Brief Statement," p. 12.

24. The Story, Merritt G. Kellogg, "A Statement" (March 1908), p. 7.

25. Ibid., EGW to J. Edson White, 9 December 1895 (Letter 123-a), p. 54.

26. Ibid., Fannie Bolton to EGW, 5 July 1897; p. 84.

27. Walter T. Rea, The White Lie (Turlock, CA: M&R Publications, 1982).

28. EGW, Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols. (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1948) vol. 5, p. 67.

29. EGW, The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan (Mountain View, CA: PPPA, 1888), Introduction, p. xii.

30. White and Robinson, "Brief Statements," p. 6.

31. [Ellen G. White Estate], "The Truth about the White Lie," Ministry, August 1982, p. 2.

32. Ibid.

33. Vincent C. Ramik, "Memorandum of Law: Literary Property Rights, 1790-1915" (Washington, DC: General Conference of SDA, 1981), p. 17.

34. White and Robinson, "Brief Statements," p. 18.

35. [EGW Estate], "The Truth about the White Lie," p. 4.

36. Ibid., p. 10.

37. A.D. Ritchie, The Natural History of the Mind, pp. 278-79, quoted by Susanne K. Langer in Philosophy in a New Key; a Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (Harvard University Press, 1974), 3rd ed., p. 27.

38. Harold H. Titus, Living Issues in Philosophy (New York: American Book Company, 1964), 4th ed., p. 284.

39. Neal C. Wilson, "This I Believe about Ellen G. White," Adventist Review, 20 March 1980, pp. 8-10.