Shadows and lights at the White House

Daughters of God,
Appendix E — James and Ellen White’s Relationship

For the first time the White Estate is publishing in their entirety letters 64, 65, 66, and 67, 1876. The letters, like others written by James and Ellen White, were written without any thought that they would be published someday. But in these letters we gain uncommon insights into how committed Christians handled marital stress. Through these letters we believe that other couples can take heart and learn how to handle their own tensions and conflicts.

We have endeavored to put the letters in a setting that shows the genuine love and affection between James and Ellen White during their long marriage, both before and after James’ strokes. To understand the background of the letters, we ask that you read this complete section, including the covering statement.

James and Ellen White

The Saviour’s Eye Is on James White—We will present your case to God, dear James, every time we pray, and will press our petitions to the throne. At times I have had a blessed assurance that God heard me pray through His dear Son and that His blessing rested on you there at Dansville. I feel the sweet presence of God at times when I pray, and feel such an evidence that God has set His love upon you, and although you are afflicted, Jesus is with you, strengthening and supporting you by His all-powerful arm. He that stretched out His hand to save sinking Peter upon the troubled water will save His servant who has labored for souls and devoted his energies to His cause. Yes, James, the eye of the compassionate Saviour is upon you. He is touched with the feelings of your infirmities. He loves you. He pities you as we cannot. He will make you to triumph in His own dear name. Be of good courage, my poor suffering husband, wait patiently a little longer and you shall see of the salvation of God. We know in whom we have believed. We have not run as uncertainly. All will come out just right in the end.—Manuscript Releases 10:28 (1865).

Ellen Misses James’ “Manly Arm” During His Illness—Yesterday after I left the cars I rode twelve miles in the stage. The scenery was beautiful. The trees with their varied hues, the beautiful evergreens interspersed among them, the green grass, the high and lofty mountains, the high bluffs of rocks—all are interesting to the eye. These things I could enjoy, but I am alone. The strong, manly arm I have ever leaned upon is not now my support. Tears are my meat night and day. My spirit is constantly bowed down by grief. I cannot consent that your father [James White] shall go down into the grave. Oh, that God would pity and heal him! Edson, my dear boy, give yourself to God. Wherein you have erred, frankly acknowledge it by confession and humility. Draw nigh to God and do unite with me in pleading with God for his recovery. If we chasten our souls before God and truly repent of all our wrongs, will He not be entreated, for the sake of His dear Son, to heal your father?—Manuscript Releases 10:28, 29 (1866).

Edson Urged to Treat His Father Tenderly—Dear Edson, do not on any account move rashly in regard to the letter written by your father. [After several strokes, James White had some personality changes, sometimes becoming unreasonable and thinking that everybody was against him. He was harsh and severe toward Edson and wrote him a very unkind letter. He later apologized to Edson for his criticism.] Keep quiet; wait and trust; be faithful; make every concession you can, even if you have done so before; and may God give you a soft and tender heart to your poor, overburdened, worn, harassed father.—Manuscript Releases 10:29 (1871).

James White Very Attentive—My husband is very attentive to me, seeking in every way to make my journeyings and labor pleasant and relieve it of weariness. He is very cheerful and of good courage. We must now work and with carefulness preserve our strength, for there are thirteen more camp meetings to attend.—Manuscript Releases 10:33 (1875).

Letters (Written May 10, 12, 16, and 17, 1876)

In 1973 a collection of approximately 2,000 letters, written between 1860 and 1899, was acquired by the Ellen G. White Estate. Originally addressed to Lucinda Hall, one of Ellen White’s closest friends, the letters were written by such well-known Adventists as James and Ellen White, Kellogg, Loughborough, Amadon, and Haskell. The story of how the collection came to the White Estate was told by Elder Arthur White in the Review and Herald, August 16, 1973.

Among the collection were 48 previously unknown Ellen White letters. Most are the newsy-type letters that one friend would write to another. But Ellen considered Lucinda more than just a casual friend. On July 14, 1875, she wrote:

“I wish I could see you, Lucinda…. How I have missed you on this journey. Not but that I have friends, but you are nearest and dearest, next to my own family, and I feel no differences than that you belonged to me and my blood flowed in your veins.”—Letter 48, 1875 (Manuscript Releases 10:33).

Because of her special closeness to Lucinda, Ellen White poured out her heart to her friend about some family matters in a series of four letters written between May 10 and 17, 1876. Considering the circumstances she was trying to cope with at the time, that was a very human thing for Ellen White to do. But only a day after writing the third letter, she had second thoughts about what she had done. In the last of the series, dated May 17, 1876, Ellen White began by saying:

“I am sorry I wrote you the letters I have. Whatever may have been my feelings, I need not have troubled you with them. Burn all my letters, and I will relate no matters that perplex me to you…. I will not be guilty of uttering a word again, whatever may be the circumstances. Silence in all things of a disagreeable or perplexing character has ever been a blessing to me. When I have departed from this, I have regretted it so much.”—Letter 67, 1876.

But Lucinda did not destroy the letters as requested. Thus they came into the possession of the White Estate in 1973. The Estate, being uncertain as to how to deal with these four letters, laid them aside, and did not place them in the regular file. Since then, some have suggested that the White Estate should have burned the letters, in harmony with Ellen White’s original request. But others have felt that the letters should be preserved, for two reasons: 1. The situation confronting the White Estate is different from that which faced Lucinda Hall. Lucinda was the one who was asked to burn the letters. Since she did not, the White Estate board must consider the request in the light of its own situation. Critics might accuse the Estate of destroying not merely these letters, but other correspondence and manuscripts; (2) the account of how Ellen White related to an extremely difficult time in her life could be of help to individuals facing similar circumstances today.

Because many are aware of the situation in the White family that Ellen White was wrestling with at the time, and with the hope that others facing similar circumstances today may find encouragement from them, the letters, with adequate background to help understand them, are herewith being made available.

The Setting of the Letters

Anyone who has dealt with stroke victims can identify with Ellen White when she wrote, “I have not lost my love for my husband, but I cannot explain things.”—Letter 67, 1876. A week earlier she had written, “I can but dread the liability of James’ changeable moods.” —Letter 64, 1876. The change in personality exhibited by James White in the years after 1865, during which he experienced several strokes, was very difficult for his wife and associates to understand.

Before his illness, James White was a dynamic and forceful leader. But after his strokes, he experienced serious personality changes. From time to time he seemed much like his former self, but often he was suspicious and demanding. Such was the situation Ellen White was facing at the time she wrote these four letters to Lucinda.

Never one to mince words, James White frequently expressed himself forcefully. In his autobiography he wrote about a man who had criticized him:

“To see a coarse, hard-hearted man, possessing in his very nature but little more tenderness than a crocodile, and nearly as destitute of moral religious training as a hyena, shedding hypocritical tears for effect, is enough to stir the mirthfulness of the gravest saint.”—Life Incidents, 115, 116 (1868).

The force of James White’s personality was an invaluable asset during the formative years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. With his wife’s visions constantly challenging him, Elder White started publications, built institutions, promoted church organization, and spiritually fed the flock. In addition, for 10 years he served as president of the General Conference. (His life story is told by Virgil Robinson in a biography entitled James White, published by the Review and Herald Publishing Association in 1976.)

But when that strong personality, altered by a series of strokes, was turned on his family and associates—including his wife—Ellen found her strength and patience stretched nearly to their limits. A person who reads only these four letters will certainly obtain a distorted picture of the relationship between James and Ellen White. One must keep in mind statements such as the following, written by James about Ellen:

“Marriage marks an important era in the lives of men. ‘Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord,’ is the language of wisdom. Proverbs 18:22…. We were married August 30, 1846, and from that hour unto the present she has been my crown of rejoicing.”—Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 125, 126 (1880).

Even in his illness, James realized at times that his actions were not in harmony with his good intentions. In 1879 he wrote his children:

“I wish now to call your attention to a subject of graver importance. Probably, dear children, I may have erred in some sharp things I have written relative to the mistakes of younger heads. It is my nature to retaliate when pressed beyond measure. I wish I was a better man.”—James White to Willie and Mary, February 27, 1879.

We do not know all that happened after the fourth letter was written, but in less than 10 days Ellen was by her husband’s side at the Kansas camp meeting. On May 16, the same day on which the third of the four letters was written to Lucinda, Ellen wrote, in part, to her husband:

“It grieves me that I have said or written anything to grieve you. Forgive me and I will be cautious not to start any subject to annoy and distress you.”—Letter 27, 1876.

Unfortunately, James never completely recovered from his illness. He had some good days, but these were intermixed with periods of depression. A comment made by the president of the General Conference two years after James White’s death indicates the charitable interpretation that his close associates placed on his illness-induced actions:

“Our dear Brother White thought we were his enemies because we did not see things as he did. I have never laid up anything against that man of God, that noble pioneer who labored so hard for this cause. I attributed it all to disease and infirmity.”—G. I. Butler to J. N. Andrews, May 25, 1883.

This overview of the circumstances under which Ellen White wrote the four letters to Lucinda Hall (May 10-17, 1876) is brief, but we believe it provides a needed perspective for readers who examine the only letters that Ellen White requested to be burned.

Ellen G. White Estate, August 6, 1987.

 

Dear Sister Lucinda,

We received your letter last evening. We also received one from James. Lucinda, I have no idea now of exchanging a certainty for an uncertainty. I can write more, and am free. Should I come east, James’ happiness might suddenly change to complaining and fretting.

I am thoroughly disgusted with this state of things, and do not mean to place myself where there is the least liability of its occurring. The more I think of the matter the more settled and determined I am, unless God gives me light, to remain where I am. I can never have an opportunity such as God has favored me with at the present. I must work as God should direct. I plead and entreat for light. If it is my duty to attend the camp meetings, I shall know it.

Mary is now secured. I may lose her if I should go east. Satan has hindered me for long years from doing my writing, and now I must not be drawn off. I can but dread the liability of James’ changeable moods, his strong feelings, his censures, his viewing me in the light he does, and has felt free to tell me his ideas of my being led by a wrong spirit, my restricting his liberty, et cetera. All this is not easy to jump over and place myself voluntarily in a position where he will stand in my way and I in his.

No, Lucinda, no camp meetings shall I attend this season. God in His providence has given us each our work, and we will do it separately, independently. He is happy; I am happy; but the happiness might be all changed should we meet, I fear. Your judgment I prize, but I must be left free to do my work. I cannot endure the thought of marring the work and cause of God by such depression as I have experienced all unnecessarily. My work is at Oakland. I shall not move east one step unless the Lord says “Go.” Then, without one murmur, I will cheerfully go, not before.

A great share of my life’s usefulness has been lost. If James had made retraction, it would be different. He has said we must not seek to control each other. I do not own to doing it, but he has, and much more. I never felt as I do now in this matter. I cannot have confidence in James’ judgment in reference to my duty. He seems to want to dictate to me as though I was a child—tells me not to go here, I must come east for fear of Sister Willis’ influence, or fearing that I should go to Petaluma, et cetera. I hope God has not left me to receive my duty through my husband. He will teach me if I trust in Him.

I am cheerful and happy. My nerves are getting calm. My sleep is sweet. My health is good. I hope I have not written anything wrong, but these are just my feelings, and no one but you knows anything about it.

May the Lord help me to do and feel just right. If things had been different, I might feel [it was my] duty to go to camp meetings. As they are, I have no duty. God blesses me in doing my work. If I can get light in [a] dream or in any way, I will cheerfully follow the light. God lives and reigns. I shall answer to His claims, and seek to do His will.

In love.—Letter 64, 1876 (May 10, 1876).

 

Dear Sister Lucinda,

I wish you would write some news. Write often.

I have decided to remain here, and not attend any of the camp meetings. I dare not go east without an assurance that God would have me go. I am perfectly willing to go if the light shines that way. But the Lord knows what is best for me, for James, and the cause of God. My husband is now happy—blessed news. If he will only remain happy, I would be willing to ever remain from him. If my presence is detrimental to his happiness, God forbid I should be connected with him. I will do my work as God leads me. He may do his work as God leads him. We will not get in each other’s way. My heart is fixed, trusting in God. I shall wait for God to open my way before me.

I do not think my husband really desires my society. He would be glad for me to be present at the camp meetings, but he has such views of me, which he freely has expressed from time to time, that I do not feel happy in his society, and I never can till he views matters entirely differently. He charges a good share of his unhappiness upon me, when he has made it himself by his own lack of self-control. These things exist, and I cannot be in harmony with him till he views things differently. He has said too much for me to feel freedom with him in prayer or to unite with him in labor, therefore as time passes and he removes nothing out of my way, my duty is plain never to place myself where he will be tempted to act out his feelings and talk them out as he has done. I cannot, and will not, be crippled as I have been.—Letter 65, 1876 (May 12, 1876). 

 

Dear Lucinda,

A letter received from my husband last night shows me that he is prepared to dictate to me and take positions more trying than ever before. I have decided to attend no camp meetings this season. I shall remain and write. My husband can labor alone best. I am sure I can.

He writes [that] Walling wants me to bring the children over the plains to attend the Centennial. But they have crossed the plains for the last time, to pay out fifty dollars. If he wants them, he can come and get them. I could send them by Brother Jones, but it would be to have them no more under my charge. I have too much care to prepare these children even for a journey. James did not express his mind in the matter. He takes exceptions to the sketches of life in Signs. Shall stop just here. He only mentions one thing, the putting in of [Israel] Dammon’s name. I think he would be satisfied if he had the entire control of me, soul and body, but this he cannot have. I sometimes think he is not really a sane man, but I don’t know. May God teach and lead and guide. His last letter has fully decided me to remain this side of the mountains.

He has in his letters to me written harshly in regard to Edson, and then told me that he did not write to call me out. He did not want me to make any references to Edson. I wrote thus—I give you the words, for he has returned the letter: “Will you, please, if you are happy, to be thankful and not agitate disagreeable matters which you feel called upon to write me, to make no reference to them. Please take the same cautions yourself. When you wish to make these statements in reference to your own son, please lay down your pen and stop just there. I think God would be better pleased, and it would do no harm to your own soul. Leave me to be guided by the Lord in reference to Edson, for I still trust in His guiding hand and have confidence He will lead me. The same guiding hand is my trust.”

He has felt called upon to press upon me the danger of being drawn in by Edson and deceived by him. He has felt called upon to write in regard to my danger of being deceived by Sister Willis, in regard to my being called to Petaluma, et cetera. I hope [that] when my husband left he did not take God with him and leave us to walk by the light of our own eyes and the wisdom of our own hearts.

In his last [letter] he repeats [that] he does not want me to make any references to what he writes till “you see things differently. And be assured of this, that none of these things sink me down a hair. I shall be happy to meet you and Mary at the Kansas camp meeting provided that, with the exception of a direct revelation from God, you put me on a level with yourself. I will gladly come to that position and labor with you, but while entrusted with the supervision of the whole work I think it wrong to be second to the private opinions of anyone. The moment I come to this I can be turned by the will of others’ infallibility. When I cannot take this position I can gracefully cast off responsibilities. I shall have no more controversies with my dear wife. She may call it a ‘mouse or a bat’ and have her own way. If she doesn’t like my position in reference to Edson or other matters, will she please [keep] her opinion to herself and let me enjoy mine? Your remarks called me out. And now that you cannot endure my speaking as plainly as you do, I have done.

“As to your coming to Kansas, I am not the least anxious. Judging from what I can gather from that last page, I think we can better labor apart than together until you can lay down your continual efforts to hold me in condemnation. When you have a message from the Lord for me, I hope I shall be where I shall tremble at His word. But aside from that, you must let me be an equal, or we had better work alone.

“Don’t be anxious about my dwelling on disagreeables any more. I have them in my heart. But while on the stage of action I shall use the good old head God gave me until He reveals that I am wrong. Your head won’t fit my shoulders. Keep it where it belongs, and I will try to honor God in using my own. I shall be glad to hear from you, but don’t waste your precious time and strength lecturing me on matters of mere opinions.”

There is considerable more of the same kind.

Now, Lucinda, my course is clear. I shall not cross the plains this summer. I would be glad to bear my testimony in the meetings, but this cannot be without worse results than we could gain.

Will you not write me something in reference to these things? Why do you keep so silent? How is James’ health? I had a dream that troubled me in reference to James. What is your mind in reference to the children?

In haste.—Letter 66, 1876 (May 16, 1876).

[The following sentences were written in the margin of the first page of the letter:] “This arrangement of Walling’s to have his family go to the Centennial, May does not like. She does not want to see Walling, and is opposed to going East. I shall not go East. I am decided. I get no light to go anywhere. EGW.”

 

Dear Sister Lucinda,

I am sorry I wrote you the letters I have. Whatever may have been my feelings, I need not have troubled you with them. Burn all my letters, and I will relate no matters that perplex me to you. The [Sin]bearer is my refuge. He has invited me to come to Him for rest when weary and heavy laden. I will not be guilty of uttering a word again, whatever may be the circumstances. Silence in all things of a disagreeable or perplexing character has ever been a blessing to me. When I have departed from this, I have regretted it so much.

You knew when you left that there was no one I could speak with, however distressed I might be; but this is no excuse. I have written to James a letter of confession. You may read all letters that come from Oakland to him, and remail [them to him] where he is. I know not who to send letters in the care of at Kansas.

I received last night a letter from James expressing a very [different] tone of feelings. But I dare not cross the plains. It is better for us both to be separated. I have not lost my love for my husband, but I cannot explain things. I shall not attend any of the eastern camp meetings. I shall remain in California and write.

The last letters have fully decided me. I regard it the light that I have asked for. I would have come to the Kansas meeting but felt forbidden to start. It is all right. The Lord knows what is best for us all.

I have no confidence that it was your duty to go east when you did. Had you remained, I might have accomplished much more. But I understand all the circumstances, and have not a word of censure to lay on you or my husband or anyone.

I am writing frequently twenty pages a day. I have dropped Sketches of Life.[We] have got off two more forms [of the testimony]. One more form will complete it. Mary Clough is just the same; she works with interest and cheerfulness. She proves to be a precious help; I don’t know how we could keep house without him. He makes bread, just excellent pies, buns; and cooks vegetables. All that they have paid him as yet is two dollars each week, till last two weeks, two and [a] half. Shall pay three in two weeks more. Mary [is teaching him] to cook. He is neat; takes care of the whole house.

Where is Frankie Patten? Is she coming or not? Why do you not say something about these things?

Love to all.—Letter 67, 1876 (May 17, 1876).

 

The following was written to “Dear Husband,” May 16, 1876, from Oakland, California, the same day the third letter was written to Lucinda Hall.

It grieves me that I have said or written anything to grieve you. Forgive me and I will be cautious not to start any subject to annoy and distress you. We are living in a most solemn time and we cannot afford to have in our old age [Ellen White was 48 years of age and her husband was 54 when this letter was written.] differences to separate our feelings. I may not view all things as you do, but I do not think it would be my place or duty to try to make you see as I see and feel as I feel. Wherein I have done this, I am sorry.

I want a humble heart, a meek and quiet spirit. Wherein my feelings have been permitted to arise in any instance, it was wrong. Jesus has said, “Learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” Matthew 11:29.

I wish that self should be hid in Jesus. I wish self to be crucified. I do not claim infallibility, or even perfection of Christian character. I am not free from mistakes and errors in my life. Had I followed my Saviour more closely, I should not have to mourn so much my unlikeness to His dear image.

Time is short, very short. Life is uncertain. We know not when our probation may close. If we walk humbly before God, He will let us end our labors with joy. No more shall a line be traced by me or expression made in my letter to distress you. Again I say, forgive me every word or act that has grieved you.

I have earnestly prayed for light in reference to going east and I have now decided my work is here, to write and do those things that the Spirit of God shall dictate. I am seeking earnestly for the higher life. Mary and myself are at work as hard as we can. God in His providence has given me my work. I dare not leave it. We will pray that God may sustain you, but I see no light for me east.—Manuscript Releases 20:23 (1876).

[A few days later Ellen apparently changed her mind and joined her husband for the 1876 summer camp meeting season. They met 14 camp meeting appointments, working in perfect harmony. Returning to Battle Creek, they met publishing deadlines for Spirit of Prophecy, volume 2. They went back to California together, where they again took up the work there.]

James White Recovering After Another Stroke—Our camp meeting has ended. We are all at home again. Father endured the camp meeting as well as we could expect. He comes up very slowly—cannot eat enough to sustain strength. We have very precious seasons of prayer in his behalf and our faith is tested but we do not become discouraged.

I am now satisfied that he had a stroke of paralysis. He is very quiet, not exacting, patient, tender and kind. The care falls principally upon me. He seems to feel that if I am with him he is at rest. But our faith claims the promises of God for his complete restoration. We believe it will be done. God has a great work for him and me. We shall have strength to perform it.

God has sustained me in bearing my double burden at the five camp meetings I have attended. I feel of the best of courage. I have labored exceedingly hard and God has helped me. I now mean to complete my book and then let writing go for the present.—Manuscript Releases 10:36, 37 (1877).

James White Like Himself Again—I had great freedom in speaking one hour. All were deeply attentive. But the best part of the matter was that Father went into the stand, sang and prayed like his own self. This is God’s doing and His name shall have all the glory.—Manuscript Releases 10:36 (1877).

A Few Weeks After James White’s Death—I miss Father more and more. Especially do I feel his loss while here in the mountains. I find it a very different thing being in the mountains with my husband and in the mountains without him. I am fully of the opinion that my life was so entwined or interwoven with my husband’s that it is about impossible for me to be of any great account without him.—Letter 17, 1881. DG 273.6

Years After James White’s Death—My husband, the faithful servant of Jesus Christ, who had stood by my side for thirty-six years, was taken from me, and I was left to labor alone. He sleeps in Jesus. I have no tears to shed over his grave. But how I miss him! How I long for his words of counsel and wisdom! How I long to hear his prayers blending with my prayers for light and guidance, for wisdom to know how to plan and lay out the work!—Selected Messages 2:259 (1899).

My husband died in 1881. Since that time I have done more work than in all my life before in carrying responsibilities and in writing and publishing books. When my husband was dying, I promised him that with the help of my two sons I would carry on the work that he and I had done unitedly, if the Lord would be pleased to give me strength. I have not studied my ease. I have refused to fail or become discouraged. And I have not been told in words that I shall see my husband in the City of God. I hope that I should not need the evidence of words to give me this assurance. I have the evidence of the Word of God that my husband loved the truth and kept the faith. And I have the assurance that if I follow on trustingly, faithfully, doing God’s will as a faithful messenger, my husband and I will be reunited in the kingdom of God. I have not one particle of doubt regarding my husband’s preparedness to lay off the armor.

The year [after] [This word was previously transcribed as “before,” but internal evidence suggests that it should have been “after.”] my husband’s death was the most trying one I ever experienced. But since the life-giving power came to me as I stood in the large tent at the Healdsburg camp meeting, I have felt in a special sense that the Lord spared my life that I might bear a definite message, and that the angels of God are by my side. Were it not for the evidence that the Lord is my helper, I could not work as I do. While He spares my life, I shall faithfully discharge my duty. I am not doing my work, but the work of the Lord.

Now, my sister, we have a right to take the Lord at His word. I have never asked God to reveal to me whether I should be saved, or whether my husband will be saved. I believe that if I live in obedience to all the commandments of God, and do not become discouraged, but walk in the light as Christ is in the light, I shall at last meet my Saviour and see His face. For this I am striving. I will not trust in man or make flesh my arm. I have the promise that if I am faithful in bearing the messages God gives me, I shall receive the crown of life. My gaining this crown depends on my believing the message of truth, and holding by faith the promise of God that I shall have His grace to sustain me in discharging the duties He requires of me. If I discharge faithfully my duty, what others choose to do will not be charged to my account because I did not warn them.—Letter 82, 1906.

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