One popular Adventist legend tells of Mrs. White performing a feat of incredible supernatural strength. As the story goes, she purportedly held up a 40-pound Bible above her head for over 30 minutes, turned the pages, and without looking, quoted the verses she was pointing at with her finger. J.N. Loughborough describes this amazing incident as follows:
I will here state some facts respecting her third vision, the one given in her father's house, mentioned in Chapter XIII, page 212, as related to me by Mrs. White's father and mother, by her sister, Mrs. Sarah Belden, and others.Perhaps it is worth noting here that Mr. Loughborough was not an eyewitness to the above events. The story is a second-hand account as related to him by Mrs. White's supporters, her family and friends, who attended the vision.
In the room where the vision was given, there was lying on the bureau a very large family Bible. It was one of an edition printed in Boston by Joseph Teale, in the year 1822. The book is eighteen by eleven inches, four inches in thickness, and weighs a little over eighteen pounds. While in vision, she arose, and took this heavy Bible on her left arm, the book lying open, and held it out at right angles with her body; and then for over half an hour, with her right hand, turned from place to place, and pointed to different texts of Scriptures, which she repeated while her eyes were looking upward, and in an opposite direction from the book. Her sister Sarah (afterward the wife of Stephen Belden), or, at times, some other person present, looked at every text to which her finger pointed, and saw clearly that in every instance she was repeating the scripture upon which her finger was resting. Mother Harmon said her daughter Ellen in her natural condition "was unable, for lack of strength, to lift that heavy Bible from the bureau; but in the vision she held it as easily, apparently, as though it were only a pocket Testament." (Great Second Advent Movement, pp. 236-37)
Loughborough then quotes Mrs. Lunt's eyewitness account of another incident:
"I, with my father's family, attended the meetings of Sister Harmon in Topsham, in 1845, and during these meetings she had a vision. It was the first time we ever saw her in vision. One of those old-fashioned Bibles [the Teale Family Bible, weighing eighteen pounds was] owned by Brother Curtiss. This big Bible taken from the bureau by Sister Harmon while in vision, and texts of Scripture were pointed out by her as she turned from leaf to leaf, while her eyes were looking upward, and away from the book. The texts she repeated were either words of instruction, encouragement, or reproof. Another peculiarity of the manifestation at that time was the position of the book. It was held on her open hand at an angle of forty-five degrees, and no one else was able to hold any book at a similar angle without its slipping at once from the hands; but Sister Harmon held this Bible at that angle for several minutes, as firmly as though it was stuck to her hand, she passing meanwhile from one to another in the room." (Ibid., pp. 238)
Loughborough's story leaves plenty of room for imagination. Was Mrs. White holding the Bible with her arm straight out at 90-degrees for the whole 30 minutes? An obvious miracle! Try it and you will see. I was only able to hold a 16-pound weight out like this for 20 seconds! But wait. He never said she was holding it out like that the whole time, and in Mrs. Lunt's testimony there is no mention of right angles or supernatural strength. In fact, Loughborough says Mrs. White was pointing at verses in the book--an impossibility with the arm fully out-stretched (try it if you don't believe me).
Here is a simplified lesson in physics. The amount of force required to hold something out in your hand is expressed by the formula:
Torque = Weight x Distance x Sine of the angle So if Mrs. White held an 18-pound weight in her palm, 2 feet from her shoulder at a 90-degree angle... 18 x 2 x 1 = 36 If Mrs. White held the weight on her arm with the center of gravity at her elbow... 18 x 1 x 1 = 18 If Mrs. White held it on her arm at a 45-degree angle... 18 x 1 x .7 = 12.6As you can see, the amount of strength required varies greatly depending upon where the object is held on the arm. So let's take a closer look at the story again to see if we can figure out where the Bible was held.
Loughborough says the book was resting on Ellen's "left arm" for "30 minutes. Therefore, we can conclude the book was on her left arm for most of the time, with the center of gravity probably near her elbow. Having the spine of the book near the elbow would cut the effort required to hold the book by nearly 50%. And from this position she could have pointed to verses with her right hand.
Look at the lady on the right. We believe this is how Mrs. White most likely carried the book for the majority of the meeting. This position is the natural way a person would support a heavy awkward weight on the arm. This is similar to the way a mother holds a child in her arm. The upper arm is straight down close to the body, bringing the center of gravity very close to the body. The elbow can be rested on the left hip for further support. The forearm is bent at a 45-degree angle, further reducing the effort. Holding a book in this position would require less than one twentieth of the strength required to hold it straight out on an outstretched arm at a right angle.
Notice the man at the left holding out the large Bible. Notice how his upper arm is bent down at a 45-degree angle, reducing the load by 30%. Notice also how the spine of the book is on his forearm, near his elbow, further reducing the load by an additional 50%. Notice how the other hand is required in order to steady the Bible. In order to hold the Bible with one hand and point with the other hand, the Bible must be brought close against the body so the body can be used to steady the book and keep it from falling from the arm. This illustrates why we believe Ellen cradled the Bible in her arm close her body. It would be very difficult to balance the Bible on the arm unless it rested against the body.
Loughborough says nothing about the angle of the Bible on Mrs. White's palm because his account has the book resting on her left arm, not in her palm. In Mrs. Lunt's account, she sees the book in Mrs. White's palm at a very awkward 45-degree angle for "several minutes". Now, unless the leather on the Bible was quite rough, this would have been quite a trick to pull off. This could be called the miracle of the sticky hand! Try this yourself. Try holding a book at a 45-degree angle. Not easy. Now try holding it at a 30-degree angle. A lot easier. So the question we may want to ask is, how good was Mrs. Lunt at geometry?
During the meeting, Mrs. White was said to be able to point to scriptures and recite them without looking. Now, to be able to locate a text in the Bible and point at it without looking would be quite an accomplishment. This seems to be what Loughborough wants us to believe, and we can only hope that Mrs. White was not peaking out of the corner of her eye when she was looking up the verses. As for reciting verses from memory, Mrs. White was fond of committing Scripture to memory, as can be seen from her writings which frequently extol the benefits of such:
"Let the more important passages of Scripture connected with the lesson be committed to memory, not as a task, but as a privilege. Though at first the memory may be defective, it will gain strength by exercise, so that after a time you will delight in thus treasuring up the precious words of truth." (Signs of the Times, May 19, 1887)
So what really happened? Supernatural strength? A miraculous "sticky hand"? A supernatural ability to locate and recite verses? Perhaps any or all of that happened. Or perhaps none of that happened. We cannot say for sure because we were not there. We don't know how likely it was for her friends and family to exaggerate about her abilities in order to convince others to believe in her. If we look for the supernatural in this account, and if we are predisposed to believing something supernatural happened there, then we will find what we are looking for. However, can we find a natural explanation for all this?
Here is what we believe to be the most likely scenario of events for that evening at her father's house.
Mrs. White was in a meeting, surrounded by friends, family, and supporters. Mrs. White walked over and picked up the Teale Bible, placing it in her left arm, with the center of the book near her elbow, her elbow against her body, cradling it in a manner similar to the way a mother cradles a baby. From this position she could both point to it and rest the weight of the Bible against the side of her body, enabling her to carry the book around the room for 30 minutes. From this position she could also see what chapter and verse the Bible was opened to. When she found a verse she had memorized, she recited it from memory. At times she held the book out at right angles to her body, at other times she held it above her shoulder, but probably only for a short duration. After the event, her friends and family, wanting to convince others to believe in her powers, reported the event in the most glowing terms.
As for Mrs. Lunt's account, she said the book was on her "open hand" for "several minutes". Apparently Ellen took the Bible onto her palm briefly and held it at what appeared to Mrs. Lunt to be an awkward angle. Was it a miracle? Or did Mrs. Lunt simply see what she wanted to see that evening? You decide.
SDA General Conference president A.G. Daniels knew Mrs. White for over forty years. Listen to the wise counsel he presented on July 30, 1919, at the "Conference on the Use of the Spirit of Prophecy":
Now with reference to the evidences: I differ with some of the brethren who have put together proofs or evidences of the genuineness of this gift, in this respect, - I believe that the strongest proof is found in the fruits of this gift to the church, not in physical and outward demonstrations. For instance, I have heard some ministers preach, and have seen it in writing, that Sister White once carried a heavy Bible - I believe they said it weighed 40 pounds - on her out-stretched hand, and looking up toward the heavens quoted texts and turned the leaves over and pointed to the texts, with her eyes toward the heavens. I do not know whether that was ever done or not. I am not sure. I did not see it, and I do not know that I ever talked with anybody that did see it. But, brethren, I do not count that sort of thing as a very great proof. I do not think that is the best kind of evidence. If I were a stranger in an audience, and heard a preacher enlarging on that, I would have my doubts. That is, I would want to know if he saw it. He would have to say, No, he never did. Then I would ask, "Did you ever see the man that did see it?" And he would have to answer, "No, I never did."
Well, just how much of that is genuine, and how much has crawled into the story? - I do not know. But I do not think that is the kind of proof we want to use. It has been a long time since I have brought forward this sort of thing, - no breath in the body, and the eyes wide open. That may have accompanied the exercise of this gift in the early days, but it surely did not in the latter days, and yet I believe this gift was just as genuine and exercised just the same through these later years as in the early years.
Visitors to the White Estate in Takoma Park, Maryland, can view the heavy Bible that Mrs. White purportedly held up in vision. Former SDA Wallace D. Slattery writes of an experience:
My aide in my last SDA teaching position in Pennsylvania was a great-granddaughter of Sister White. I discussed this supposed event with her, and she agreed that undoubtedly it never happened. She telephoned her mother, who worked at the White Estate in Washington, D.C., and asked her,
"Why do you still show that big Bible to people who come in, when you know that the event never took place?"
Her mother answered, "But you should see their faces when they see it!"
(Are Seventh-day Adventists False Prophets? A Former Insider Speaks Out, p. 5)