The Significance of Ellen White’s Head Injury

Ellen G. White’s Head Injury and Visions

by Molleurus Couperus
Adventist Currents, June 1985

Ellen G. White undoubtedly was one of the most influential individuals in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist church – a spiritual leader considered by many to be a prophet. Seventy years have passed since Ellen died in 1915, and it is the purpose of his presentation to reexamine the life and work of this exceptional Christian woman in the light of current knowledge.

Ellen Gould Harmon and her twin sister, Elizabeth, were born November 26, 1827, in Gorham, Maine. Her parents were devout members of the Methodist Episcopal church, as were their eight children. Of Ellen and her family, James White wrote:

“Both the parents possess a large degree of physical endurance, and the children inherited this blessing, as also the activity, force of character, and executive ability which were especially developed in the mother. In Ellen, both mental and physical development were rapid and vigorous. While but a child she displayed a love of study, a quick perception, and a retentive memory. She was of a buoyant, hopeful disposition, fond of society, courageous, resolute, and persevering.” 1

It was also stated that “reverence for God, and respect for parental authority, were early and firmly inculcated; and the children were faithfully taught, both by precept and example, those lessons of integrity and diligence which have molded the characters of many of the world’s noblest workers.” Such traits typified values of devout, nineteenth-century Methodist families.

When the Harmon family became acquainted with William Miller’s stirring warning of Christ’s imminent return, they accepted his message with deep conviction, finally “coming out” of the Methodist church in 1843.

At the age of nine Ellen was involved in a serious accident that she said affected her whole life.

“In company with my twin sister and one of our schoolmates, I was crossing a common in the city of Portland, Maine, when a girl of about thirteen years of age followed us, threatening to strike us….We were running towards home but the girl was following us rapidly, with a stone in her hand. I turned to see how far she was behind me, and as I turned, the stone hit me on my nose. A blinding, stunning sensation overpowered me and I fell senseless. When consciousness again returned, I found myself in a merchant’s store; my garments covered with the blood streaming from my nose, and a large stream of blood on the floor. A kind stranger offered to take me home in his carriage. I knew not how weak I was, and told him I should greatly soil his carriage with my blood, and that I could walk home. I had walked but a few steps when I grew dizzy and faint. My twin sister and my schoolmate carried me home. I have no recollection of anything for some time after the accident. My mother says that I noticed nothing, but lay in a stupid state for three weeks…. As I aroused to consciousness, it seemed to me that I had been asleep. I was not aware of the accident, and knew not of the cause of my sickness…. I was shocked at the change in my appearance. Every feature of my face seemed changed…. The bones of my nose proved to be broken.” 2

Ellen states that her father was in Georgia when the accident occurred, and when he finally returned home he did not recognize his daughter. Apparently the physicians who were taking care of her considered repairing the broken bones with silver wires. But they decided against this, according to Ellen, because her recovery was unlikely. It is possible that her physicians attempted to align the broken bones manually, but there seems to be no record of this. After regaining consciousness Ellen was confined to bed for many weeks and “was reduced almost to a skeleton.” 3 For two years she was unable to breathe through her nose.

Summarizing the essential facts of Ellen’s injury from a medical standpoint, one finds the following:

1. At age nine Ellen received a projectile-type blunt injury to the nasal area of the face and fell to the ground.
2. She was immediately unconscious.
3. There was severe and prolonged bleeding, and she was carried to a nearby store.
4. After a brief interval of consciousness she becomes unconscious again; this lasted for some three weeks.
5. When she regained consciousness she had no recollection of what had taken place.
6. She noticed that her face was markedly deformed at that time.
7. After regaining consciousness she was confined to bed for “many weeks” and was reduced “almost to a skeleton.”

The area of the head where Ellen received the impact of the stone thrown at her by a thirteen-year old girl contributed significantly to the severity of the injury that followed. The stone hit Ellen on the nose as she turned her head back to see how near the pursuing girl was, and Ellen fell senseless to the ground. Girgis has observed that the temporal lobe is peculiarly vulnerable to injury because of its location low in the skull behind the eye orbit. There the skull bone is thinnest and puncture wounds can penetrate the brain with relatively little force. Landolt and de Jong also have emphasized the fragility and vulnerability of the temporal area of the skull, one reason that resulting temporal lobe epilepsy is so common. 4

When a head injury occurs, there is first the danger of the object in motion (in Ellen’s case a stone) causing injury to the overlying skin and the structures immediately beneath it, such as blood vessels, nerves, and the underlying bone. Following this is the effect of the impact on the brain itself, which sometimes includes direct destructive action if there is a fracture or a hematoma.

In a so-called closed-head injury (such as Ellen apparently sustained), the force or impact of the flying object through its accelerating effect (a jolt) throws the brain against the opposite side of the skull, causing a diffuse injury to the brain. The head of a person thrown from a speeding vehicle, striking a tree trunk, would be subject to the same acceleration and deceleration injury to the brain. The resulting damage in both cases could be either mild or severe, depending on the force of the impact. Most head injuries in civilian life come from such closed-head injuries. In these injuries the temporal lobe is often more extensively damaged than any other part of the brain.

The long period of unconsciousness which followed Ellen’s head injury, and her later amnesia regarding the incident, indicate the seriousness of her brain injury and explained the delayed results of the accident. For a head injury to produce a coma or unconsciousness lasting some three weeks is not common and usually suggests a severe brain insult. In a report of 105 children who suffered a skull injury followed by a period of unconsciousness, in only 4 patients did this last longer than twenty-four hours.

However, patients sustaining head injuries have remained unconscious afterward for three weeks and still survived; but in such cases there are nearly always serious after effects. It may take weeks before recovery starts in such patients and improvement is slow, as it was in Ellen’s case. This is associated with a period of confusion and a time of variable loss of memory regarding what took place – a period of amnesia. Such amnesia may be permanent or may gradually improve to a variable degree. A loss of memory for a period greater than twelve hours following the accident frequently is followed by the development of epilepsy. Epileptic seizures may follow shortly after the accident; or the epilepsy may not manifest itself for many years, sometimes as long as twenty years later. If the head injury occurs in a child, the time interval before the epilepsy manifests itself is likely to be longer; and the longer the interval, the more likely it is that the epilepsy will persist. Russell considers post-traumatic amnesia lasting more than a few days the result of severe brain damage, including possible tearing and twisting of the fiber tracts in the brain. 5

Cyril B. Courville, then-professor of nervous diseases at Loma Linda University, and a leading authority on head injuries, wrote the following in 1944 regarding some of the effects of head injuries:

“…unconsciousness due to application of force to the head may persist for a variable interval, and when uncomplicated is a fairly reliable indication of the degree of force producing the reaction…. The clinical picture of original coma of short duration following injury to the head with consequent lucid (or semilucid) interval, and then relapse into coma is still too often overlooked. It is essential to know that the original period of coma is the result of “concussion”. The patient recovers from his experience more or less completely for the causative injury is not usually severe (exception: gross temporal lobe contusion, in which case there is only partial recovery from the deeply comatose state). The relapse into coma is due to increasing intracranial pressure due to accumulating extradural, subdural intracerebral blood clot, to edema of the temporal lobe, to progressive subdural cerebrospinal fluid accumulation, or to progressive softening (and swelling) of the brain following arterial thrombosis”. 6

Courville late stated “that the length of the period of unconsciousness is a fair index to the severity of concussion.” He specified that an unconsciousness over a period of more than six hours suggests the possibility “that gross lesions of the brain as well as fractures of the skull may be present. Such patients may survive or die, depending on the severity of these associated symptoms”. 7,8

Courville also has pointed out that injury to the temporal lobe is the essential cause of psychomotor epilepsy (a type of temporal lobe epilepsy). 9 In a series of fifty-four clinical cases of psychomotor epilepsy, he found that in thirty-seven percent (twenty cases), injury was the most likely cause. 10 After the recovery from prolonged unconsciousness there usually is only a slow improvement from the amnesia (loss of memory), and only one-third of the patients experience a complete recovery. 11,12

Jennett in 1975 stated that “loss of consciousness or even brief amnesia after injury always implied brain damage…. But the severity of the diffuse brain damage…is best judged by the duration of the post-traumatic amnesia”. In a series of 800 cases of head injuries studied by Jennett, some forty
percent of those who experienced a post-traumatic amnesia of twenty-four hours or longer, developed late epilepsy.13 If Jennett concluded that there was a forty percent likelihood for a patient to develop epilepsy after a head injury resulting in an unconsciousness of twenty-four hours or longer, how much greater would be the chance for Ellen to develop epilepsy if she were unconscious for three weeks and amnesic for the whole incident.

Based on the study of the later results of head injuries in the armed forces, Caveness summarized his findings as follows:

“The post-traumatic syndrome, the most common sequelae [result] to develop from craniocerebral trauma, is generally characterized by the following complaints: headaches, vertigo and dizziness, nervousness, irritability, impaired memory, inability to concentrate, excessive fatigue, difficulty with sleep… Other attributes include a sense of ill health and a reduction in the capacity to earn a livelihood.”

Out of a group of 574 patients who had head injuries, 46 percent developed epileptic seizures.14 The impaired memory, nervousness, inability to concentrate, and excessive fatigue were all symptoms Ellen White had for several years following her head injury.15 Of all seizures in adults that include “behavioral automatism, personality and thought disorders and visual disturbances”, over 50 percent are perhaps due to involvement of the temporal lobe.16

Jennett in another study of 481 cases of so-called late epilepsy after head injury found that temporal lobe epilepsy developed in ninety cases. He determined that 53 percent of the patients had from one-to-six attacks a year, but 18 percent had more than one a month.17

Epilepsy as an entity has been recognized to some extent since the days of ancient Egypt, but it was with Hippocrates (400 B.C.) and Galen (+175 A.D.) that some organized knowledge of this disease began to accumulate.

During the nineteenth century a gradual differentiation was made between several kinds of epilepsy beyond the grand mal and petit mal types, and such comparative analyses have continued. It was Hughlings Jackson in England who in 1888 reported on some fifty cases of epilepsy which had as part of their symptom complex a “dreamy state” or “intellectual aura” that preceded generalized attacks, or that occurred without a full attack.18

There was a steady but slow increase in the knowledge of brain injury and resulting epilepsy during the rest of the nineteenth century. During the two World Wars a large number of head and brain injuries occurred. Many of the injured could be followed closely for a number of years, increasing greatly the knowledge of the late or delayed effects of these injuries. Of the cases in which missile injuries to the head were sustained (in both World Wars and in the Korean War), more than one-third of the victims developed epilepsy. Many head injuries followed by epileptic seizures now result from industrial and traffic accidents.

With the development in 1929 of the electroencephalograph to record the electrical activity of the brain and improved x-ray visualization of the brain and skull (including the CAT scan for variations in anatomical structure, the PET tomography which indicates functional changes in precise areas, and, most recently magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]), a firmer basis for the study and detection of abnormal function and defects of the brain was attained – resulting also in a progressively better understanding of the various types of epilepsy and other cerebral malfunctions.

There are numerous causes for epilepsy, including hereditary predisposition, birth injury, postnatal head injury, meningitis and other infections, tumor, metabolic abnormality, vascular disease, and intoxication. The most common type of epilepsy is temporal lobe epilepsy, and the most common cause for this is head injury.
The Post-traumatic Symptomatology of Ellen G. White After Her Accident

After Ellen Harmon regained consciousness, she was confined to bed for several weeks. She had lost a great deal of weight, probably at least partially due to the difficulty of feeding her during the period of her prolonged coma – no intravenous feeding equipment being available at that time. Fluids put in her mouth might have been swallowed by reflex action, however.

She improved very slowly, and “her health seemed to be completely shattered.” Later Ellen was able to attend school but little; and she states that “it was almost impossible for me to study, and retain what I had learned.” When she did attend school her hand trembled so much that she could make no progress in her writing; and when studying she says “the letters of my book would run together, large drops of perspiration would stand upon my brow, and I would become dizzy and faint.” Her teacher advised her to leave school until her health improved, which she did. Three years later, when she was twelve, she attempted to go to school again; but her health failed once more and she was forced to leave school permanently. This discouraged Ellen greatly. She wrote:

“When I pondered over my disappointed hopes, and the thought that I was to be an invalid for life, I was unreconciled to my lot and at times murmured against the providence of God in thus afflicting me.”19

In another account she says: “I seemed to be cut off from all chance of earthly happiness, and doomed to continual disappointment and mortification.”20

The symptoms experienced by patients who are recovering from a severe head injury include headaches, dizziness, depression, slowness in thinking, and impairment of concentration and memory – all of which Ellen, by her own account, experienced. Ounsted, in his study of temporal lobe epilepsy in children, concluded that “social and schooling difficulties are widespread among temporal lobe epileptics, even when normal intelligence is present… The social and schooling difficulties of children with temporal lobe epilepsy are greater than is commonly thought.”21

James White stated that at the time of Ellen’s first vision, “her nervous condition was such that she could not write, and was dependent on one sitting near her at the table to even pour her drink from the cup to the saucer.”22

Ellen, nearly fifty years later reflecting in the Review and Herald (November 25, 1884) on the effects of her accident, wrote:

“I visited…the spot where I met with the accident that had made me a life-long invalid. This misfortune, which for a time seemed so bitter and was so hard to bear, has proved to be a blessing in disguise. The cruel blow which blighted the joys of earth, was the means of turning my eyes to heaven.”

In 1841 Ellen had attended a series of lectures by William Miller, but she felt unready to be accepted by God because of a lack of sanctification. Ellen states that she “settled down in a melancholy state which increased to despair.”23 She remained in this state for three weeks, and in utter hopelessness, she would fall upon her face:

“I thought that the fate of the condemned sinner would be mine….Many times the wish arose that I had never been born. Total darkness settled upon me and there seemed no way out of the shadows…. I have since thought that many inmates of the lunatic asylums were brought there by experiences similar to my own.”24

At this time, and in this state of mind, Ellen had a significant dream that was probably the first of her many recorded visionary experiences. In this dream she saw a temple supported by a large pillar to which a bleeding lamb was tied. Fear came over Ellen while near the lamb, and she felt a sense of shame when she saw that she must confess her sins before those who had already done so and who seemed happy and expecting a joyful event. Then a trumpet sounded, the building shook, and the saints shouted in triumph. The temple then shone with awful brightness, followed by a terrible darkness in which Ellen found herself alone. She wrote: “The horror of my mind could not be described. I awoke, and it was some time before I could convince myself it was not a reality. Surely, I thought, my doom is fixed.”25

Shortly afterward she had another dream in which she thought she was sitting in deep despair when “a person of beautiful form and countenance” asked her if she wished to see Jesus, and if so, to follow him. She was led to a steep stairway and was told to keep her eyes fixed upwards; for if she would look down, she would become dizzy and fall. She saw that some indeed fell on the way. Then she saw Jesus, and “she tried to shield herself from his piercing gaze.” But Jesus laid His hand upon her head and said: “Fear not.” Ellen fell prostrate at His feet and saw scenes of glory and beauty, while Jesus smiled upon her. The guide then brought her back to the stairs, giving her a green cord with which she would come in contact with Jesus when she so desired.26

Certain features of this vision suggest that it may have been a temporal lobe seizure. First, the circumstances must be remembered. Ellen was discouraged, feeling that she was not ready to be accepted by Christ because of a lack of sanctification, and in deep despair. Her dream probably was conditioned by her emotional state and the specific problems that were troubling her. She felt fear in the dream when she came near to the lamb, and later saw the awful brightness and then the terrible darkness that followed, in which she was alone. All of these (fear, bright light, and darkness) are frequently experienced in temporal lobe seizures, as they were in many of Ellen’s visions.27

In her second recorded dream (1842) she was told to keep her eyes fixed upwards. Jesus looked at her with piercing gaze, but then told her, “Fear not.” Fear apparently was part of this experience also, and her eyes were fixed upwards – both of which are typical factors in temporal lobe epileptic seizures.28

There are obvious similarities between this dream and the much longer vision which she experienced in December 1844. Soon after her second dream (mentioned in previous paragraph), Ellen had another experience while participating in a prayer meeting:

“As I prayed…everything was shut out from me but Jesus and glory, and I knew nothing of what was passing around me. I remained in this state a long time, and when I realized what was around me, everything looked glorious and new, as if smiling and praising God.”

In the account in Early Writings she added: “Wave after wave of glory rolled over me, until my body grew stiff.” 29 This would seem to be her third recorded visionary experience. Ellen participated in the disappointment of the Millerite Adventists, when Jesus did not return in the spring of 1843, and in the still greater disillusionment of October 22, 1844, when again He did not appear.

It was in December of 1844 that Ellen experienced a vision while kneeling in prayer together with four other women at the home of a friend. In this vision she saw the journey of the 144,000 saints on a narrow winding path: some fell down into the dark and wicked world below. Then followed a statement which has given rise to considerable controversy in her church:

“It was just as impossible for them to get on the path again and go to the city, as all the wicked world which God had rejected. They fell all the way along the path one after another, until we heard the voice of God like many waters, which gave us the day and hour of Jesus’ coming.”

Together with most of the little group that later formed the Seventh-day Adventist church, she believed, for several years after October 22, 1844, that probation was closed.30

A week later Ellen experienced another vision in which she saw the trials and oppositions she would pass through in her work of relating her visions to others. Following this she again entered a period of despair because she had no means to support herself in such a ministry; she “coveted death.”

During a prayer session in her father’s home with friends, she suddenly felt as if a ball of fire had struck her over the heart; she fell to the floor and heard a holy being say, “Make known to the others what I have revealed to you.”31 After this Ellen Harmon was faithful to the vision and became increasingly active in speaking to small groups of those who had believed the second advent message of Christ’s soon return. On August 30, 1846, she was married to Elder James White, with whom she then worked for the scattered Adventist companies. Writing, publishing, and traveling became a mode of living for the Whites.

Ellen continued to have many so-called “open visions” during waking hours in the period from 1844 to 1884; after that she had primarily prophetic dreams, or night-visions, until her death on March 3, 1915. It is impossible, of course, to obtain an accurate account of the total number of visionary experiences Ellen White had, but James White claimed that by 1868 she had experienced between 100 and 200 visions.32 Between 1868 and 1884 there are some eighty additional visions listed; and nearly sixty prophetic dreams after 1884 are enumerated in the Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, besides forty-eight which are classified as of uncertain date. Arthur White has stated that “no complete record was preserved of all the visions given Ellen Harmon in the weeks and months succeeding the first revelation. Contemporary documents indicate that the revelations of those early days were frequent.33 It would seem from all this that Ellen had at least 400 lifetime visionary experiences, and perhaps many more.

How was Ellen Harmon persuaded that the visionary experiences and dreams she had had came directly from God? First, probably, was the nature of what she saw – scenes of heaven in which she spoke with angels, spoke with Christ, and saw God. She believed she was receiving important messages and warnings from heaven. Perhaps more crucial in the beginning was the influence of those who were close to her, who believed that her experiences or trances were the workings of God. After her second dream in 1841 she confided to her mother the struggles she was going through. Her mother was sympathetic and encouraged her to visit Elder Stockman. Ellen records:

“Upon hearing my story, he placed his hands affectionately upon my head, saying with tears in his eyes: ‘Ellen, you are only a child. Yours is a most singular experience for one of your tender age. Jesus must be preparing you for some special work’.”34

Ellen’s first public prayer was such an emotional experience for her that she lost consciousness of what was going on around her.

“When I was struck down, some of those present were greatly alarmed and were about to run for a physician, thinking that some sudden and dangerous indisposition had attacked me; but my mother bade them let me alone, for it was plain to her, and to the other experienced Christians, that it was the wondrous power of God that had prostrated me.”35

Ellen was deeply impressed by the religious and emotional excitement of her local Methodist congregation, including the trances and the fainting.36 She found support for her belief in the divine origin of her visions also from James White and Joseph Bates.37 During the middle of the nineteenth century, there were others in the Adventist faith community who were claiming, or who were recognized as having, visions from God. Ellen mentions a number of these in autobiographical sketches.38

There is no question that Ellen White claimed, and no doubt came to believe firmly, that she received visions and messages directly from God. Today one may wonder why Ellen White was so easily accepted by others as a prophetess. During that period of history, prophets and prophetesses were rather common both in England and America. At this time Joseph Smith was accepted as a prophet, and Mormon missionaries claimed that their church had “the spirit of prophecy.” Mary Baker Eddy, also a contemporary of Ellen White’s, became the founder and spiritual leader of the Christian Scientists. Billington has pointed out that between 1830 and 1850, “women preachers were popular. Visions and trances were easily accepted.”39

Arthur White, Ellen’s grandson, agrees that the physical manifestations of Ellen’s visionary experiences – unusual and unexplained as they were to that generation – contributed to their acceptance as being of supernatural origin. “The very manner in which the visions were given was one strong evidence, among many, which settled the matter in the minds of most eyewitnesses.”40

There was a period early in the ministry of Ellen White in which her acceptance rather than unanimous was quite probationary in nature; she certainly was not seen as an authority. In 1851 James White wrote in the Review and Herald (April 21, 1851):

“Every Christian is, therefore, duty bound to take the Bible as a perfect rule of faith and duty…. He is not at liberty to turn from them [the Scriptures] to learn his duty through any of the gifts. We say that the very moment he does, he places the gifts in the wrong place, and takes an extremely dangerous position.”

In the same issue of the Review he added:

“God’s Word is an ever-lasting rock. On that we can stand with confidence at all time. Though the Lord gives dreams, designed generally for the individuals who have them, to comfort, correct, or to instruct in extreme trials or dangers, yet to suppose that he designs to guide in general duties by dreams, is unscriptural, and very dangerous.”

Four years later James White wrote the following:

“There is a class of persons who are determined that the Review and its conductors make the view of Mrs. White a test of doctrine and Christian fellowship…. What has the Review to do with Mrs. W.’s views? The sentiments published in its columns are all drawn from the Holy Scriptures. No writer of the Review has ever referred to them as authority on any point.”41

Twenty-eight years later (in 1883), Elder G.I. Butler, then-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, wrote the following:

“Our enemies try very hard to make it appear that we make the visions a test of fellowship. It would be most absurd and impossible to do so, even if we would do it. With people in all parts of the world embracing our views who never saw Sister White or heard of her, how could we make them a test of fellowship?…. They claim that there are many among us who do not believe the visions. This is true; yet these are in our churches, and are not disfellowshipped. They have claimed…that Elders Smith, Canright, and Gage did not believe the visions; yet all of them are members of our churches, two of them hold credentials as ministers, and one of them holds very important offices….No, we do not make the visions a test, and never have.”42

Neal Wilson, current president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, expressed basically the same attitude in an interview recently.

“When we come to the point as to whether one has to believe in Ellen White, to some degree or another, or accept her visions as real, or simply an imagination or parroting what somebody else said – that one has to believe that these things were real visions in order to be a Seventh-day Adventist or to experience salvation – this church has never taken this position. I hope it never does. It would do great violence to the gift of God the church has been given. It was never intended for that purpose at all.”43

As time went on, Ellen White was more and more accepted in the Seventh-day Adventist church as a person with authority; and her influence became that of a real prophet, even though she herself refused to call herself one – preferring the title “the Lord’s Messenger.” She believed that her work included “much more than the word ‘prophet’ signifies.”44

What she really believed about the importance of, and divine involvement in, her work is clear by the following statements:

“The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil. In arraying yourself against the servants of God you are doing a work either for God or for the devil.”45

“”If you seek to turn aside the counsel of God to suit yourselves, if you lessen the confidence of God’s people in the testimonies He has sent them, you are rebelling against God as certainly as were Korah, Dathan, and Abiram…. In these letters which I write, in the testimonies I bear, I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me. 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. It is true concerning the articles in our papers and in the many volumes of my books.”46,47

Why did Ellen come to these conclusions regarding the nature and significance of her work? Perhaps it was a gradual process, primarily due to the influence and pressure of all those around her who believed that her visionary experiences must be of supernatural, divine origin. This process started with her first dreams and continued until her last vision. It is quite understandable that Ellen became fully persuaded that these dreams and vision were all direct, divine revelations so that she could finally say (and believe): “In ancient times God spoke to men by the mouths of the prophets and apostles. In these days He speaks to them by the Testimonies of His Spirit.”48

However, during Ellen’s lifetime there were those who questioned the divine origin of her visions. James White in 1847 published a letter from “a beloved brother” regarding Ellen’s visions.

“I cannot endorse sister Ellen’s visions as being of divine inspiration, as you and she think them to be; yet I do not suspect the least shade of dishonesty in either of you in this matter….I think that what she and you regard as visions from the Lord, are only religious reveries, in which her imagination runs without control upon themes in which she is most deeply interested. While so absorbed in these reveries, she is lost to everything around her. Reveries are of two kinds, sinful and religious. Hers is the latter.”49

Others suggest mental or physical causes. Ellen mentions mesmerism (a form of hypnosis) as being claimed as a cause or explanation for her visions. This possibility even suggested itself to her. 50

Another explanation given for her visions was hysteria, and this suggestion was repeated throughout her life. It is interesting that Ellen diagnosed one of her fellow church members as suffering from hysteria. She wrote:

“Dear Sister F., you have a diseased imagination…. You are doing positive injury, not only to yourself, but to the other members of your family, and – especially your mother…. Her mind is becoming unbalanced by the frequent fits of hysteria which she is compelled to witness.” 51

There were early coworkers with Ellen and James who rejected the supernatural origin of Ellen’s visions. Among these was Isaac Wellcome, who was baptized by James White in 1844 and was active in the Second Advent Movement. He wrote:

“Ellen G. Harmon… was strangely exercised in body and mind… falling to the floor… (we remember catching her twice to save her from falling upon the floor)… in meetings she would speak with great vehemence and rapidity until falling down, when, as she claimed, wonderful views of heaven and what was being transacted there were shown her. She claimed to have seen that Christ had left the office of mediation and assumed that of Judge, had closed the door of mercy, and was blotting out the names, from the book of life…. We saw her in Poland, Portland, Topsham, and Brunswick during the beginning of this career, and often heard her speak, and several times saw her fall, and heard her relate wonders which she said her heavenly Father permitted her to see. Her supernatural or abnormal views were not readily understood as visions, but as spiritual views of unseen things, which were quite common among the Methodists…. These visions were but the echoes of Elder [Joseph] Turner and others’ preaching, and we regard them as the product of the overexcited imagination of her mind, and not as facts.” 52

Jacob Brinkerhoff and his brother W.H. Brinkerhoff (who was ordained by James White), were active in the work of the Seventh-day Adventist church in the 1860-65 period. Jacob wrote in 1884:

“Mrs. White is in high repute among them as a leader… partly by her claim to divine inspiration. Shortly after the disappointment in 1844, she had what is called her first vision. Those were trying times to the faith of the Advent people, no doubt; and she was very young at the time, and in very poor health…. In the excitement of the time, and while in this weak condition of the body, her mind seemed to depart from her body, in trance, in which the mind continues to be active, and forms conceptions from preconceived opinions, from the excitement of the occasion, or from surrounding circumstances. At that time the experience of the Advent people was the theme of interest among them, and in her vision or trance her mind went forward on the same subject as a natural consequence…. We do not wonder that her visions were considered by her and by those whom she associated with as revelations from the Lord. Such phenomena in nature do not often occur; and at a time when various fanaticism[s] were attributed to the work of God, it is not surprising that this should have been. Being wholly absorbed in her religious views and experience, her mind, while in a trance state, would operate in the same direction while she was in a state of insensibility. A trance is a state of insensibility; catalepsy; ecstasy…. Those at all acquainted with the history of Mrs. White’s visions have read that a principal claim for her divine inspiration is that she is perfectly insensible; but it only corroborates the position we take that they are only produced by an unhealthy and unnatural state of her body and mind.” 53

It almost reads as if Brinkerhoff was going to call it temporal lobe epilepsy. But he stopped short of that; the term had not yet been coined. A little later in his paper her adds: “They overlook the fact that they (the visions) may be inspired by neither God or Satan, but may be only human, or from her own mind, which position we hold to be true as to their source.”

Click to listen highlighted text!