Ellen Gould Harmon White (1827-1915)
Born to a Methodist family in Gorham, Maine, Ellen Gould Harmon was the youngest of eight children along with her twin, Elizabeth. When she was about ten and after her family had moved to Portland, she was struck by a rock thrown by a classmate, which rendered her unconscious for nearly three weeks. After waking, she was unable to focus her eyes on a page to read or write and therefore abandoned her attempts to reenter school. Her family was Methodist, and she was baptized in 1842, two years after her first religious awakening at a Methodist camp meeting. Her family soon joined the Millerite movement led by William Miller, a Baptist farmer-preacher who predicted the personal return of Christ in 1843.
When Miller’s prediction proved untrue, many Millerites returned to their former churches, which was not an option for the Harmon family as they were dismissed from the Methodist Church for following Miller. Ellen had her first vision in 1844 while praying at the home of a friend. During her vision, she reputably saw the Advent people “far above the dark work” on their pilgrimage to the City of God. She received two more visions in 1845, the latter of which told her to share her revelations with others. These visions were only the first of a reported two thousand Harmon received during her life.
She started preaching in public shortly thereafter, focusing her ministry on former Millerites and other interested listeners. She was an advocate of the Seventh Day Sabbath, i.e, worship on Saturdays, the last day of the week, instead of Sunday, its first. In late 1846, Ellen met and married James White, another former Millerite who believed in her prophecies. They had four children, all boys, two of whom died. In 1849, the Whites moved to Connecticut and Ellen encouraged her husband to begin publishing a newspaper, which later grew into the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, the Adventist’s official newspaper. After that, Ellen realized the effect that print would have on her missionary work and began publishing articles and books.
The Whites moved to New York in 1852 and then to Battle Creek, Michigan in 1854. In Michigan, the Adventist movement began to center around the Whites and their publications. In 1860, a meeting in Battle Creek chose the name “Seventh-Day Adventists” for their new cohesive organization. In 1863, the new Christian denomination was officially formed, founded by White, her husband and their friend Joseph Bates. White’s visions and her interpretations of scripture formed the backbone of the Adventist theology. Ellen White continued speaking and writing after the founding of the new denomination and her visions led her to begin studying health education and temperance. Battle Creek was a receptive place for new ideas, and during the 1850s, it offered refuge to escaped slaves. White encouraged this, counseling Adventists to disobey the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. She also advised Adventists who were drafted into the military to apply for non-combative duty, much like Quakers and other non-violent believers.
Battle Creek also was home to John Kellogg, who founded the modern cereal company, and in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, White helped establish the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek. It advocated her ideal diet of vegetarianism, water and a strong emphasis on exercise and fresh air. These ideas were new at the time, when most people ate a great deal of meat and routinely drank alcohol, even at breakfast.
In 1874, White and her husband co-founded Battle Creek College to implement her educational ideals of focusing on child-centered learning with free schools for all. Ending alcohol abuse was another critical issue for White, and she worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, although she never officially joined.
James White died in 1881, and Ellen stepped up the expansion of Adventism by travelling through Europe and later to Australia. After a fire destroyed the publishing house in Battle Creek in 1902, White led the move of Adventist headquarters to Takoma Park, Maryland, very near Washington, D.C. This gave the church more visibility, and it continued to flourish in the twentieth century. Ellen White retired to Saint Helena, California in 1903, but11 continued her ministry through her writing and travel until her death at age 88.
C.C. Goen, “White, Ellen Gould Harmon,” in volume 3 of Notable American Women1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971).
Doris Weatherford, volume 2 of A History of Women in the United States: A State-By-State Reference (Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Academic Reference, 2004), 250.