by Stephen Ferguson | 27 January 2023 |
I was conversing with some ex-Adventist the other day when I came across a claim that Seventh-day Adventist pioneer and prophetess Ellen White was an alcoholic. It seemed farfetched to me. However, after doing my own research, I was able to find Mrs. White’s own words on the subject, as recorded in Counsels on Diet and Foods (p.54):
“I have just read your letter. You seem to have an earnest desire to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…. There was a time when I was in a situation similar in some respects to yours. I had indulged the desire for vinegar. But I resolved with the help of God to overcome this appetite. I fought the temptation, determined not to be mastered by this habit…. For weeks I was very sick; but I kept saying over and over, The Lord knows all about it. If I die, I die; but I will not yield to this desire. The struggle continued, and I was sorely afflicted for many weeks. I relate this experience to you for your help and encouragement…. As long as you acknowledge this habit by indulging it, Satan will retain his hold on your will, and bring it into obedience to himself.”
Note Mrs. White’s own admissions here:
- She indulged in a desire for vinegar. Many know vinegar is made from alcohol-fermentation.
- The vinegar in question was probably not the condiment you might put on your salad or fish-and-chips. Rather, Mrs. White was probably talking about a vinegar switchel made from apple cider. This was a popular drink originating from 17th-century New England, an area where Mrs. White grew up.
- She was drinking vinegar in such quantities and on such repeated occasions it had become a habit. In fact, Mrs. White uses the word “habit” twice. A habit is not a once-off slip.
- When trying to stop this habit, she suffered chronic physiological effects, which she says lasted for “many weeks”. Mrs. White said she was very sick and thought she might even die, which sounds like a serious addiction. Today, we would probably recognise these as classic withdrawal symptoms.
- This counsel comes from a letter written in 1911, when Mrs. White was 83 years old. While she doesn’t say exactly when she became a vinegar addict, noting Ellen White began to have visions at age 17, we are probably talking about an addiction that arose during her time in the prophetic office. We are not likely talking about some pre-conversion period of her life.
I am not a physician or drug rehabilitation specialist, so I am happy to be corrected by any readers who are experts. Nonetheless, noting the most obvious and straightforward explanation is often the correct one, even if we cannot identify the substance with exacting precision, it seems reasonable to conclude Ellen White was most likely suffering from some sort of alcohol addiction, even if she would not have identified it in those terms.
Was Ellen White a false prophet and hypocrite?
How people handle the claim of Ellen White’s being a potential alcoholic is as interesting as the claim itself. For example, in the ex-Adventist forum where I saw this mentioned, critics took this fact as some sort of proof Ellen White must have been a fake Christian and false prophet. They also seemed to think this makes her a hypocrite, and in turn they assume a hypocrite couldn’t be a true servant of God.
Yet it is almost as if these critics haven’t read the Bible, which is full of liars, cheats, adulterers, and even murderers, many of whom did horrid things while they were supposedly God’s witnesses and agents on earth. Never heard of Noah, who after surviving the flood, planted a vineyard and got drunk? Never heard of David, who committed adultery, then had the woman’s husband killed to cover his crime? Never heard of Paul, who helped persecute Christians before deciding to join them?
Give me someone who claims not to be a hypocrite, and I will give you someone who has a serious case of self-delusion. We are all sinners, every one of us. And the person who says otherwise is just a liar (1 John 1:10).
Then, of course, there are those who have put Ellen White on such a pedestal they honestly can’t bring themselves even to consider the likely truth of this claim. I would probably put the official General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in this camp, who bizarrely dismiss this claim because Mrs. White had preached against alcohol and drugs:
Q: Was Ellen White addicted to alcohol?
A: No. In fact, she spoke and wrote strongly against the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other harmful substances. For an excellent book on Ellen G. White, her life and ministry, go to www.whiteestate.org/books/mol/motl.pdf
Just because Ellen White spoke and wrote strongly against the use of alcohol does not mean she wasn’t an alcoholic. Every Sabbath, pastors preach against sin yet are nothing but sinners themselves. Ellen White was only a human being. Again, it seems the General Conference has the same sort of unrealistic view of prophets as the ex-Adventists!
What other lessons can we learn from an alcoholic Ellen White?
There are a number of other interesting lessons we could take from an alcoholic Ellen White. Without limiting them, the ones that came to my mind include the following:
There are no perfect people getting into heaven
An alcoholic Ellen White would illustrate how broken all human beings are. Even those who claim to have been prophets of God almost their entire lives. No one is perfect – not one. In Ellen White’s defense, she would herself make this clear. Just a few weeks before her death, aged 87, she would say in the Pacific Union Recorder, April 29, 1915, par.7-8:
“I do not say that I am perfect, but I am trying to be perfect. I do not expect others to be perfect; and if I could not associate with my brothers and sisters who are not perfect, I do not know what I should do…. No one is perfect.”
I find it weird, then, that a large segment of Adventism thinks perfection is the minimum requirement for salvation. To be clear, I am not merely talking about some eschatological future last generation. These teachers say each generation must be sinless as the minimum requirement for heaven, with one such leader explaining: “Many have been subtly lured to believe we are saved from obedience and that obedience is merely a fruitage of having been saved… Obedience is both a condition for salvation and an ongoing requirement of salvation.” 1
And with another Adventist leader likewise stating:
“Paul is clear that the sanctifying, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is part of the means—not the result—of our salvation… Obedience to God’s commandments through heaven’s imparted power is the condition of salvation.” 2
If that is the case, heaven is going to be a very lonely place. I am not sure if Ellen White would be there. It seems Paul wouldn’t be there either, with the Apostle also noting in Philippians 3:21: “I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me”.
There is nothing wrong with striving for a better life without sin
Someone will no doubt point out Ellen White did ultimately kick her vinegar habit. I do think that is an important point. No one is saying God wants us simply to remain afflicted in our sins. Grace is not licence to sin, as Paul would also make clear in Romans 6:1-2:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
God clearly wants you to have a better life, whatever your situation. An alcoholic, such as Ellen White, is going to have a better life if she can kick the habit. If you had a friend or family member who was sick, you would want them to be healed.
The late Desmond Ford, arguably the greatest proponent of gospel grace in modern Adventism, would also emphasise the importance of growing closer to Christ, which in Christian jargon terms we call “sanctification”:
“Sanctification is the beginning of a life-long transformation. It’s like crawling backward over broken-necked bottles a centimetre at a time. That is what the way of sanctification is like. It is crucifying the flesh. It is taking up the cross. When Christ calls a person, he calls that person to come and die and to die daily to selfishness, to self-centeredness.”
As Dr Ford explains, sanctification is not pleasant. It is like crawling backward over broken-necked bottles a centimetre at a time! Similarly, Ellen White mentions kicking her own addiction wasn’t easy. It was horrid. Paul likewise mentions he attempted to “strive” towards perfection.
Yet it is important not to get the whole process backwards. As Dr. Ford would go on to explain, being saved from our sins through sanctification comes later. First, we must be saved in our sins through justification, which is to say declared righteous before God:
“Justification always comes first in presenting the gospel, as in the book of Romans. But God gives his gifts with both hands. He justifies no one he does not sanctify. He sanctifies no one he hasn’t justified…. Your justification does not differ one whit. You are 100% in the sight of God. Justification is perfect – it is imputed, reckoned, put to your account. It is a gift and it is perfect.”
Note that Ellen White does not reveal her vinegar habit, and her ultimate victory over it, as some way to gloat over her success. Quite the opposite; she says, “I relate this experience to you for your help and encouragement.”
We are all probably in no position to judge another person
Some might say, quite rightly, that none of us should judge Ellen White about her vinegar habit. After all, Jesus did say, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1-3). Yet the Apostle Paul makes clear while we have no business judging those outside the Church, we can legitimately call out the sin of those within it (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
James, the brother of Jesus, also makes clear that Christian leaders are held to a higher standard (Jam. 3:1). And there is almost no higher leader within the Seventh-day Adventist Church than Ellen White.
I also can’t help observe the irony that by modern standards of Adventism, Ellen White’s vinegar addiction would probably qualify her for formal discipline within the Adventist Church. The SDA Church Manual currently says (page 62):
Reasons for Discipline
The reasons for which members shall be subject to discipline are: …
- The use, manufacture, or sale of alcoholic beverages
Nonetheless, James also tells us that “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jam. 2:13). If you are willing to give Ellen White the benefit of the doubt, are you willing to do the same with your other brothers and sisters?
Personally, I thank God for Ellen White’s alcoholism, and the courage she showed in sharing her struggles. Because if an 83-year-old prophetess can admit her journey through vinegar addiction, I suspect there is hope for all of us yet.
1 Larry Kirkpatrick, Cleanse and Close: Last Generation Theology in 14 Points (2019: Philippians Two Five Publishing), chapter 6, pp. 62, 143.
2 Kevin Paulson, “Does Salvation Require Human Effort?”, ADVindicate, Mar 16, 2019.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.