A Look at Ellen White’s Bookshelves

This window into Ellen White’s libraries reveals her keen appreciation for good literature

Tim Poirier
A Look at Ellen White’s Bookshelves
Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

In early November 1871 Ellen White interrupted a letter she had been writing to her teenage son Willie to keep an appointment in Boston, Massachusetts, with the celebrated health reformer Diocletian Lewis. A few weeks earlier she and James had left their home in Battle Creek, Michigan, for a two-month itinerary throughout the northeastern United States. Now they were staying at the Stratton home, not far from the doctor’s residence.

Resuming her letter to Willie after the visit, Ellen White related how they had first been seated on a sofa and then “elevated by steam power up four stories. When up at this distance,” she continued, “we were in the doctor’s parlor. . . . We found a very affable, social, open-hearted man.”

With their common interest in the benefits of exercise and the use of natural remedies, Ellen White reported that their “interview was the most pleasant. We chatted as familiarly as though meeting friends of long acquaintance.” During their conversation Dr. Lewis invited the Whites to visit the famous Boston Athenaeum Library, one of the foremost semiprivate libraries in the world.

Ellen White was captivated by her surroundings. “It is quite a sight,” she wrote, “curiosities in the form of books of almost every date. Some hundreds of years old. The style of type, margin of books, arrangements of matter, were a literary curiosity. Books, books, books on every shelf, from story to story, of every description, of every order.”1

Her fascination with the variety of literary productions confirms what other records bear out—that Ellen White was a great lover of books, one who enjoyed the sights and smells of old bookstores and the satisfaction of finding just the right volume to add to a growing library.

Ellen White also encouraged others to acquire quality reading material, recommending, for example, Conybeare and Howson’s Life of St. Paul as “a book of great merit, and one of rare usefulness to the earnest student of the New Testament history.”2

Personal and Office Libraries

Ellen White owned two libraries—a personal one and one for her office staff. An inventory of both collections taken shortly after her death reveals that she had acquired approximately 1,400 titles. However, as nearly 600 of them were purchased in 1913 from her secretary, Clarence C. Crisler, it is likely that most of those were never used by her. A realistic number of volumes that she had accumulated over the course of her lifetime would be around 800. Today the Ellen G. White Estate has about 500 of her original library books, the oldest of which was printed in 1600.3 Forty of them contain her handwritten signature inside the cover and occasional marks within the text.

How do we know that it was Ellen White who marked the passages, since she purchased some of them at secondhand bookstores? Ellen White had her own characteristic style in the way she treated her books, just as some of us highlight and underline passages, while others of us wouldn’t think of writing on a page.

Unlike J. N. Andrews, who corrected misspellings and added further references while reading a book, Ellen White had a style that was much “gentler.” There are occasional ink-stained fingerprints on the edges of the pages, but the printed text is devoid of any obtrusive marking. It wasn’t her practice to underline. Rather, she made simple vertical pen strokes in the margins, hardly more than ¼ inch in length, next to lines that drew her special interest. Sometimes she would make a small “x” beside the paragraph or simply fold back the corner of the page.

A Window Into Her Collection

What kinds of books did Ellen White have in her libraries?4 Not surprisingly, she collected books on the topics that held the greatest interest to her—Bible history and commentary, the life and teachings of Christ, health, education, church histories and biographies, and practical Christian living. She used many of them in her own writing.

While Seventh-day Adventist authors are certainly among the titles, the vast majority are non-Adventist authors. Part of the reason for this is the limited number of Adventist-authored books in Ellen White’s lifetime.5 Ellen White did not believe that any one person or group held a monopoly on truth. In reply to a question about his mother’s reading habits, W. C. White wrote:

“I have been present when conscientious souls would quote what she [Ellen White] had written as authority for putting all reading, except the Bible, away; and I was most interested to hear her statement when her attention was called to this. She took the position that these things written by godly men, containing expositions of Scripture, and presenting Scripture truths, were also to be included in our reading.”6

Though we must sift what we read with the “gospel sieve,”7 not mistaking error for truth, Ellen White recognized that the Holy Spirit impresses many and varied minds with gems of truth in the study of God’s Word.

This window into Ellen White’s libraries reveals her keen appreciation for good literature, but she fully knew the shortcomings of mere human productions.

“Of all the books that have flooded the world, be they ever so valuable, the Bible is the Book of books, and is most deserving of the closest study and attention. It gives not only the history of the creation of this world, but a description of the world to come. It contains instruction concerning the wonders of the universe, and it reveals to our understanding the Author of the heavens and the earth.”8 That Author still lives and is the one we soon shall meet.

1 Ellen G. White to W. C. White, Nov. 10, 1871 (letter 17, 1871).

2 In Signs of the Times, Feb. 22, 1883, p. 96. She also suggested J. H. Merle D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation as an “interesting and profitable” holiday gift book. See Review and Herald, Dec. 26, 1882, p. 789.

3 After Ellen White’s death many of her books were given to Adventist educational institutions or sold.

4 The full inventory may be accessed at https://library.llu.edu/heritage-research-center/egw-estate-branch-office/egw-private-and-office-libraries.

5 A 1911 Catalogue of Publications from the church’s International Tract Society listed fewer than 30 non-Ellen White English titles.

6 W. C. White to L. E. Froom, Feb. 14, 1926.

7 Referring to church members being cared for at popular health institutions, Ellen White wrote that “they have to carry along with them at all times the gospel sieve and sift everything they hear, that they may choose the good and refuse the bad” (Testimonies for the Church [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub.Assn., 1948], vol. 1, p. 490).

8 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Aug. 21, 1888.

Tim Poirier