January 3, 2017

Ellen White and Modern Medicine

We have to navigate between the real and the ideal.

Michael W. Campbell

The early pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church lived in a world of filth and disease. Before modern health care, ignorance prevailed. Without a knowledge of even the germ theory, people lived considerably fewer years than they do today. Parents could expect on average that only half of their children might survive into adulthood. For James and Ellen White, only two of their four sons reached adulthood.1

Such deplorable conditions meant that it was imperative to pay attention to new developments in health reform that swept across America. People were increasingly suspicious of various forms of “heroic” medicine, which often included toxic treatments that used bloodletting, or poisonous substances such as mercury and even opium. Early Adventists participated in a host of reforms, including health reform. Ellen White simply stated, “We are reformers.”2

Health Visions

As early as 1848 Ellen White received a vision about the dangers of tobacco and other stimulants. This was followed by a much broader and all-encompassing vision in 1863: “I saw,” she wrote, “that it was a sacred duty to attend to our health, and arouse others to their duty. . . . We have a duty to speak, to come out against intemperance of every kind—intemperance in working, in eating, in drinking, and in drugging—and then point them to God’s great medicine: water, pure soft water, for diseases, for health, for cleanliness, and for luxury. . . . I saw that we should not be silent upon the subject of health but should wake up minds to the subject.”3 She also wrote: “The work God requires of us will not shut us away from caring for our health. The more perfect our health, the more perfect will be our labor.”4 Ellen White viewed health as essential to “fit” people for the second coming of Christ.5 After all, “heaven is all health.”6 Thus, Ellen White’s contribution was to integrate health reform into Adventist theology.7

The Physical and Spiritual Connection

At the foundation of a Seventh-day Adventist philosophy of health was the connection between the physical and the spiritual. This became an Adventist philosophy of wholeness.8 Adventist health reform was far from merely a list of dietary taboos—it was an all-encompassing way of life. Each person has individual needs, and broad health principles must be applied using “common sense.” She warned against fanatics who sought “to regulate the consciences of others by their own rule.”9

An often overlooked aspect of health reform is the connection between the mind and the body. Such mental health, according to Merlin D. Burt, plays an essential role within an Adventist philosophy of health.10 “Mental health,” for Ellen White, results in “mental clearness, calm nerves, a quiet, peaceful spirit like Jesus.”11 Psychology and theology converged for Ellen White. “The two must interplay and, when correctly integrated, provide the most help for the human mind and emotions. For her the true source of mental and emotional health was God the loving Father, Jesus the ‘Great Physician,’ and the Holy Spirit the ‘Counselor.’ ”12

Adventist historians can easily see the deep emotional pain and anguish that Ellen White herself personally suffered during her lifetime. She recognized mental and emotional brokenness. Yet “one of the remarkable characteristics of her work,” adds Burt, “is her consistent optimism that people can recover, no matter how broken they may be.”13

Modern Medicine

In contrast with her early warnings against early primitive (and dangerous) medical practices, Ellen White took advantage of modern medicine, especially during the latter part of her life. William A. Fagal observes that her own example is instructive. At one point she received X-ray treatments for a cancerous spot on her forehead.14 On another occasion, when queried about using quinine to treat malaria (the only known drug to treat malaria at the time), she stated: “We are expected to do the best we can.”15 Burt concludes that if Ellen White were still “present today, she would probably still argue that natural methods are best where possible but that physiologically based drug therapy has its place.”16

In this same spirit, Ellen White urged that the Seventh-day Adventist Church provide the very best medical training for medical personnel at the College of Medical Evangelists (now Loma Linda University), and that the school should meet the very highest standards required of them.17 Thus, for Ellen White, Adventist health reform was an all-encompassing philosophy of health that connected the mind and body together. She prioritized natural remedies and a healthful lifestyle, but was not afraid to take advantage of modern medical expertise when natural treatments were not enough.

  1. For background, see John B. Blake, “Health Reform,” in The Rise of Adventism, ed. Edwin S. Gaustad (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), pp. 30-49.
  2. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 3, p. 159.
  3. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 3, p. 280.
  4. Ibid., p. 279.
  5. E. G. White, Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 171.
  6. Ibid., p. 172.
  7. George R. Knight, Ellen White’s World: A Fascinating Look at the Times in Which She Lived (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1998), p. 36.
  8. See Herbert E. Douglass, “Health Reform,” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, ed. Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2013), pp. 858-862.
  9. E. G. White, Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 116.
  10. Merlin D. Burt, “Ellen G. White and Mental Health,” Dialogue 20, no. 3 (2008): 11-14.
  11. Ellen G. White letter 7, 1885, to D. T. Bourdeau, Feb. 10, 1885, quoted in Burt.
  12. Burt, p. 11.
  13. Ibid., p. 14.
  14. William A. Fagal, 101 Questions About Ellen White and Her Writings (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2010), pp. 148, 149.
  15. E. G. White, Selected Messages, book 2, p. 282, note.
  16. Merlin D. Burt, “Ellen White and Mental Health Therapeutics,” Dialogue 21, no. 1 (2009): 13.
  17. See Richard A. Schaefer, “College of Medical Evangelists,” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, pp. 722-725.

Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D., is associate professor of Historical and Theological Studies, and editor of the Journal of Asia Adventist Seminary at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.