Ellen White and Health Extremism

During her lifetime, Ellen White wrote and spoke much on the topic of health. I think her best book is The Ministry of Healing. After her death, many snippets of her counsels to individuals were collected and published without giving the context in compilations such as Counsels on Diet and Food.

In July 1919 Adventist religion teachers and administrators met and one of the topics was how to interpret the writings of Ellen White, especially those on health. Those assembled were already concerned that some were using her writings to battle others, and some were taking extreme positions that were harming themselves.

Here is an extract from the discussion. It speaks for itself.

W. G. Wirth (religion teacher at PUC): Now as to health reform: Frequently a student will come to me and quote what Sister White says about butter. But we serve butter on our tables right along. And they will bring up about meat, how under no consideration is that to be eaten. And I know that that is unreasonable, and there are times when it is necessary to eat meat. What shall we do about that? I would like a little light on some of those details, as to whether we ought to take them at full value.

A. G. Daniells (President of the General Conference): I am willing to answer part of that, for I have had it about a thousand times. Take this question of health reform. It is well known from the writings themselves and from personal contact with Sister White, and from common sense, that in traveling and in knowledge of different parts of the world, that the instruction set forth in the Testimonies was never intended to be one great wholesale blanket regulation for peoples’ eating and drinking, and it applies to various individuals according to their physical condition and according to the situation in which they find themselves. I have always explained it that way to our ministers in ministers’ meetings. We had a ministers’ meeting over in Scandinavia, and we had one man there from the “land of the midnight sun,” up in Hammerfest where you never grow a banana or an apple or a peach, and hardly even a green thing. It is snow and cold there nearly all the time, and the people live to a large extent on fish and various animal foods that they get there. We had sent a nurse from Christiania up there as a missionary. He had the strict idea of the diet according to the Testimonies, and he would not touch a fish or a bit of reindeer, nor any kind of animal food, and he was getting poor; because missionaries that are sent out do not have much money, and they cannot import fresh fruits; and it was in the days when even canned goods were not shipped much. The fellow nearly starved to death. He came down to attend that meeting, and he was nearly as white as your dress [speaking to Sister Williams]. He had hardly any blood in his body. I talked to him, and I said, “Brother Olson, what is the matter with you? We will have to bring you away from up there if you do not get better. You have no red blood corpuscles in your blood.” I talked with him a while, and finally asked him, “What do you live on?”

“Well,” he said, “I live a good deal on the north wind.”

I said, “You look like it, sure enough.”

We went on talking, and I found out that the man wasn’t eating much but potatoes and starchy foods, — just a limited dietary. I went at him with all the terror I could inspire for such foolishness.

Voice: Did you make any impression?

A. G. Daniells: Yes, I did. And I got other brethren to join me. We told that man he would be buried up there if he tried to live that way. We talked with him straight about it.

When I got back to this country I talked with Sister White about it, and she said, “Why don’t the people use common sense? Why don’t they know that we are to be governed by the places we are located?” You will find in a little testimony a caution thrown out, modifying the extreme statements that were made.

F. M. Wilcox (editor of the Review and Herald): Sister White says in a copy of the Instructor that there are some classes that she would not say should not eat some meat.

A. G. Daniells: There are very conscientious men and ministers who are very much afraid they will eat something they ought not to. On that very point Paul says that the kingdom of God is not meat or drink, but righteousness and peace; and we are working and trying to get through to the kingdom just as much on the ground of works by eating or not eating as by any other thing in this world. You never can put down vegetarianism as the way to heaven. I have been over in India where they are mighty strict about their eating, but they do not get righteousness that way.

C. L. Taylor (head of the Bible department at Canadian Junior College): It is true of all works, isn’t it?

A. G. Daniells: Certainly. You take men who have never allowed a piece of animal food to pass their lips, and some of them are the most tyrannical, brutal men; and when we try to reach them with the gospel, we have to tell them that is not the way to God, that they will have to come and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and have His righteousness imputed to them on confession, forgiveness, and all of that. We have people among us that are just as much in danger of trying to establish this righteousness by works in the matter of the dietary as the world has seen in any thing. You know from what Sister White brought out on the matter of righteousness that it was not her purpose to put down eating and drinking as the way to heaven. It has its place. It is important, and I would not want to see this denomination swing away over to the position of other denominations; but I do not like to hear of teaching that would lead this people to fall back on eating and drinking for righteousness, for Paul said that is not the way. I do not think proper caution was used in putting out some of these things, and I have told Sister White so.

Mrs. Williams (Flora Williams, educational superintendent of the East Michigan Conference): You mean in publishing them?

A .G. Daniells: Yes, when they were written. I told Sister White that it seems to me that if conditions in the arctic regions and in the heart of China and other places had been taken into account, some of those things would have been modified. “Why,” she said, “yes, if the people are not going to use their judgment, then of course we will have to fix it for them.” It seemed so sensible to me. Sister White was never a fanatic, she was never an extremist. She was a level-headed woman. She was well-balanced. I found that so during a period of 40 years of association with her. When we were down in Texas, and old Brother White was breaking down, that woman just got the most beautiful venison every day to eat, and my wife cooked it; and he would sit down and eat some of that and say, “O, Ellen, that is just the thing!” She did not hold him up and make him live on a diet of starch! I always found her well-balanced. There are some people who are extremists, who are fanatical; but I do not think we should allow those people to fix the platform and guide this denomination. I do not propose to do it, for one. And yet I believe that we should use all the caution and all the care that is set out for the maintenance of health. And brethren, I have tried to do it, but I have not lived all my life on the strictest dietary set down there. I have had to go all over this world, and as you know, I have had to be exposed to all the disease germs. I have had to live on a very spare dietary in places in my travel, and I have. lived on wheels, and under great pressure, and it was prophesied when I went into this in 1901 that a decade would finish me, and I would either be a broken-down old man on the shelf or in the grave. That is the way my friends talked, and they sympathized with me, and regretted that I ever took this position; but I said to myself, “By the grace of God, I will live in every possible way just right as far as I know it, to conserve my strength.” This is my 19th year, and I am not broken down, and I am not on the shelf or in the grave. I am strong and well. I am weary, but I can get rested. I have tried to be honest and to be true to my sense of what was the right thing to do, and it has kept me well and strong. That is the basis on which I propose to work. I do not propose to have any extremist lay down the law to me as to what I shall eat up in the heart of China. I propose to use my sense as to what I ought to eat in those places where you can not get a green thing, hardly.

Mrs. Williams: In the interior of Africa, we had to cook everything we ate, so as to kill the germs.

A. G. Daniells: Why, yes, in China you must sterilize your hands and your knife, and if you eat an apple, it must be sterilized after it is peeled, and even then it is not always safe. I do not think we have to take an extreme position on the question of the diet for all classes. We are not all alike. What is good for one man is not good for another. I have seen Elder Irwin sit down and eat two or three raw apples at night just before going to bed; but one apple at night would upset me so that my tongue would be covered with fur and my head all swelled up. I would not eat one if you would give me five dollars. I count that health reform, to reject that which I know injures me and take that which I know strengthens me and maintains me in the strongest physical trim for service and hard work. That is my health reform. Raw apples are good for people that have the right digestion for them; but if a person hasn’t that sort of digestion, he must lay down the law, No raw apples for him.

That is the way a lot of things got into the Testimonies. They were many of them written for individuals in various states of health, and then they were hurried into the Testimonies without proper modification. That is not to say that they are false things, but it is to say that they do not apply to every individual the world over alike. And you can not put a health-reform regime or rule down for the whole world alike, because of the different physical conditions that maintain. That is what I tell in ministers’ meetings and I do not think I destroy the force of the message at all, only to the extremist.