Ellen G. White and Her English Composition Skills: A Brief Summary
by Eduard C. Hanganu, January 23, 2015: This is a guest blog on a subject of interest to many Adventists. Eduard Hanganu is currently an Adjunct English Language Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Evansville, Evansville, Indiana.
The traditional Seventh-day Adventist [SDA] folkloric and theological literature has often pointed to Ellen White’s “beautiful” prose as the indisputable evidence that the numerous books, articles, pamphlets, and other works for which she took credit and which were published under her name have a non-human but rather “celestial” or “divine” origin because the claimed “unique” and “wonderful” English language that defines her religious literature was handed to her through superhuman visions and angelic dictations.
Some readers, though, are not too impressed with the language in her publications and mention that the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters seem to be written in a bombastic rhetoric that appears to be designed to impress, dazzle, and distract rather than inform and convince. The writer seems to wish to impose a certain perspective on the readers – the unverifiable notion that some rhetorical format in a text would prove in itself and without doubt what or who originated the document.
Those who have searched deeper into the writer’s background are also faced with a puzzle that seems hard to solve: how could a woman with a limited or rather absent formal education publish books, articles, pamphlets, and other materials that appear to demonstrate above average English composition skills, a large lexicon, and also remarkable grammatical correctness?
While it is true that Ellen White made numerous, non-factual, and uncorroborated claims about her “visions” and that angelic “guard” that often dictated to her “divine” content, such fantastic claims still fail to explain how her illiterate and illegible longhand scribbles became the “beautiful prose” that continues to amaze and awe the SDA church members and persuade them to believe that the books and articles she published under her name are God-given and contain unadulterated and perfect truths.
This brief discussion is intended to summarize Ellen White’s English language skills from the information contained in her own autobiographical and personal comments which she made at different times in her life, and from information contained in the biographical book that her grandson, Arthur L. White, wrote, and offers some possible explanation for the radical and implausible distance between Ellen White’s non-existent language skills and the well-written documents that were published under her name and for which she took credit.
White’s English “Skills” Summarized
When she lived with her parents in Portland, Maine, Ellen White had an accident that produced a radical change in her life. She was nine at the time, and a classmate hit her on the nose with a stone.1 Due to the adverse health state that followed the trauma, “Ellen’s formal education ended abruptly.”2 She “was able to attend school but little,”3 and “it seemed impossible for [her] to study and to retain what [she] learned.”4 She was so weak that her “hand trembled so that [she] made but little progress in writing,”5 and she “could get no farther than the simple copies in coarse hand.”6 Because she was so debilitated, her teachers recommended that she leave school for a time until she regained her health.7 She never returned to formal education, and evidence shows that her English language skills never developed enough to be adequate for book and article publication.
She was 45 when she complained that she “[was] not a scholar,”8 that she could not “prepare [her] own writings for the press,”9 and that she wished to “become a scholar in the [grammar] science.”10 Her inadequate skills made it imperative that she have “help from her husband and others” at all times.11 The “prophet” even became so discouraged and disappointed with her poor editorial skills that she made the decision that “therefore I shall do no more with them [her documents] at present. I am not a scholar. I cannot prepare my own writings for the press. Until I can do this I shall write no more.”12
Arthur White mentions that “it was ever a source of regret to Mrs. White that her schooling had been very brief, and her knowledge of the technical rules of writing was therefore limited.”13 When she started to publish, she asked James White to “help her in preparing it [the work] technically for publication,”14 and he “would point out weaknesses in composition and faulty grammar.”15 Ellen White emphasizes the fact that her husband corrected her “grammatical errors”16 and eliminated “needless repetition”17 from her sentences and paragraphs. When James White “could not give time to the technical correction of all her writings,” 18 Ellen White was forced to resort to “editorial assistants” for the same work, that is, “the burden of making grammatical corrections.”19 That extensive editorial work was needed because often her sentences and paragraphs were not “grammatically consistent,”20 and were often plagued with “faulty arrangement,”21and “unnecessary repetition.”22 This happened because “she paid little attention to the rules of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling,” 23 and “there was much repetition and faulty grammatical construction [in her paragraphs].”24
Historian Ronald Graybill summarizes in the following manner the illiterate condition that characterized Ellen White’s English language composition skills and defined her handwritten manuscripts before the “editorial assistants” changed those scribbles into the “beautiful” prose for which Ellen White took unfair credit: With effort, Mrs. White could write neatly and compose clear sentences. Early in her career, most of her letters went out in her own hand. But with editors to rely on, she devoted less and less attention to style, grammar, and penmanship [emphasis added].25 She usually wrote in great haste and deep conviction. The result was a torrent of thoughts uninhibited by the conventions of complete sentences and compact paragraphs. Robert Peel said of Mrs. Eddy that “Some of the writing seems to be a rush and tumble of words, as though the writer’s thoughts were flooding ahead of her pen. Sentences are chaotic, punctuation erratic, quotations inexact, meanings obscure.”22 The words might be applied to Ellen White as well [emphasis added].25
Ellen White’s Editorial “Helpers”
Because Ellen White’s composition skills were so minimal and inadequate, she had to depend on what she liked to call “helpers,” “secretaries,” or “editorial assistants” who were hired to correct and edit her sometimes plagiarized pages, paragraphs, and chapters, compile that plagiarized material into books, articles, and pamphlets, and prepare the documents for the press. Jerry Moon, Church History Department chair at Andrews University, mentions the rather unknown and curious fact that “during her lifetime, Ellen White employed some 20 paid and unpaid individuals to help her in preparation of her letters and manuscripts for mailing or publication,”26 while “at any given time Ellen White would have between 6 and 12 employees working in her publishing enterprise.”27
Moon’s document includes ample information about all these known and little known “helpers,” “secretaries,” or “editorial assistants.” The information he provides includes their names, work times, “clearance” (how much freedom these individuals had to “edit” and “improve” Ellen White’s “manuscripts” or “autographs”), and their specific “work descriptions,” or what their particular assignments were.
Ellen White’s “Editorial Assistants”
Moon lists in this category the following “assistants”: James White, Mary Clough, Mary Kelsey White, James Edson White, W.C. White, Marian Davis, Adelia Patten, Miss E. J. Burnham, Miss Sarah Peck, Miss Maggie Hare, Mr. Dores E. Robinson, Miss Minnie Hawkins, “Sister Tenney,” Miss Frances E. Bolton, Mrs. W. F. Caldwell, and Charles C. Crisler. Out of these individuals, James White, Mary Kelsey White, James Edson White, W.C. White, Marian Davis, and Miss Frances E. Bolton had unlimited clearance—that is, they could plagiarize documents, perform heavy editing, and prepare documents for publication. The other people Moon mentions had limited “editorial” clearance. Their work appears to be confined to “copying” (whatever that means), and other similar basic activities.28
Ellen White’s Editorial “Consultants”
Moon also mentions a group of “consultants,” that is, individuals who were requested from time to time to provide her with advice concerning the materials she intended to publish, or perform research for her books and other materials. Among them are J.H. Waggoner, J.N. Loughborough, H. Camden Lacey, Edwin R. Palmer, J. H. Kellogg (the “pantheist”) and Dr. David Paulson, who are mentioned for consulting, and W.W. Prescott, who is mentioned for research.29
The evidence from Ellen White herself, and from her grandson, Arthur L. White, about her absent formal education and her impaired English language skills during her entire lifetime demonstrates that Ellen White did not have the English composition and grammar knowledge required to organize her possible ideas into fluent, coherent, and literate sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, and to prepare her notes and manuscripts for publication.
Given the ample information about the numerous and qualified “editorial assistants” who were used to “work” on her manuscripts all through her career as a writer, the most reasonable solution to the puzzle, and the best explanation as to how an illiterate woman could produce literate and even “beautiful” text that populates the numerous books, articles, and letters for which she took credit, seems to be that it was not Ellen White who wrote those documents and prepared them for the press, but the qualified “editorial assistants” who worked for her in the publication business but never received the due credit for their work.
1Arthur L. White, “Ellen G. White: A Brief Biography.” Retrieved on December 30, 2014 from https://www.whiteestate.org/about/egwbio.asp.
3Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1915), 18-19.
8The White Estate. MR No. 657-E. G. White Not a Grammarian. Manuscript Releases Volume Eight [NOS. 526-663], page 448. Retrieved on December 30, 2014 from https://text.egwwritings.org/publication.php?pubtype=Book&bookCode=8MR&pagenumber=448
11J. Robert Spangler (Editor), “Ellen White and Literary Dependency,” Ministry, June 1980, 5.
13Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant (Ellen G White Publications, 1956), 67-69.
25Ronald D. Graybill, The Power of Prophecy: Ellen G. White and the Women Religious Founders of the Nineteen Century (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press,1983), 191-192.
26Jerry Moon (2004), “Ellen G. White’s Use of Literary Assistants.” Retrieved December 30, 2014 from www.andrews.edu/~jmoon/Documents/…/03.pdf, 1.