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William Miller was a Baptist "lay leader" in New York state who began studying Biblical
prophecy in earnest around 1820, and developed elaborate theories about the timing
of the Second Coming. He attempted at first to present his theories to the ordained
ministers in his area, hoping that they would preach them to the public. But his
attempts to convince others to spread his ideas were mostly ineffective. So in 1831
he reluctantly started preaching about them himself. In 1833 he published his first
official pamphlet on end-
Miller based his prophetic scenario in particular on Daniel 8, in which the prophet Daniel, in vision, hears two "saints" talking about some of the events he saw earlier in the vision:
13 Then I heard one saint speaking, and another saint said unto that certain saint which spake, How long shall be the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, and the transgression of desolation, to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden under foot?
14 And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.
Miller accepted a popular theory proposed by many Bible students of his time (and
still popular in many circles today) that a day in prophetic passages is almost always
intended to stand for a year in fulfillment. (This theory is based on passages such
as Ezekiel 4:6.) And thus he taught that this prophecy would be 2300 years in fulfillment.
He believed that the 2300 years started in 457 BCE with a decree from Babylonian
monarch Artaxerxes allowing those Israelites who had been in captivity in Babylon
who wished to, to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. Thus Miller
was convinced that the "cleansing of the temple" (which he believed to be symbolic
of the Second Coming-
Miller also established to his own satisfaction a number of other alleged "proofs" of this chronology from comparing other Biblical passages and historical events.
By the early 1830s, he was circuit-
Conservative estimates indicate Miller and his associates presented his theories
ultimately to hundreds of thousands of people in America (Miller himself claimed
to have spoken to over 500,000 people, in over 4,500 meetings), along with large
numbers overseas, particularly in English-
For the first several years of his preaching efforts, Miller encouraged his supporters to remain in their local church denominations and just attempt to share their beliefs with their brethren there. Toward the approach of the predicted dates, it became obvious that the beliefs such supporters embraced from Miller's teachings left them more and more estranged from the religious mainstream. And thus in the final years and months before the expected Advent, many left their former congregations and formed independent fellowship groups based on their distinctive beliefs.
Outsiders usually referred to such groups as "Millerites," but their preferred designation for themselves was "adventists." Since there was no specific "organization" that such individuals and fellowship groups could "join," it is impossible to accurately estimate their numbers. But it seems likely from various records of the time period that from 25,000 to 50,000 people were ultimately committed to various levels of involvement in the Millerite movement by 1843.
When both March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, passed without the Return, Samuel Snow, one of Miller's followers, suggested that a prophetic principle regarding "tarrying" in Habbakuk 2:3 might be used to extend the expected date by 7 months and 10 days. This would push the Return forward to October 22, 1844, mistakenly believed by Miller and others to be the date of the annual Biblical Holy Day of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in that year. Miller accepted this reasoning, and he and many of his followers once again waited in anticipation. But that date too, passed, and Miller finally gave up the effort to pinpoint a specific date.
How did Miller himself deal with what later became known as "The Great Disappointment"?
From The Disappointed, p. 32 (Chapter 2, "William Miller: Disappointed Prophet" by Wayne R. Judd)
He refused to bear responsibility for deception. 'No one can honestly say that he has been deceived by me. My advice has always been for each to study the evidence of his faith for himself.' [letter from Miller to T.E. Jones, 11/29/44] He speculated that God may have designed the delay so that people would turn to the Bible to study further and be reconciled to God. After all, to have erred in the precise date did not reduce the advent urgency. Every passing day was one day nearer the end.
But many thousands of former "True Believers" who had cut ties with their former religious affiliations were now left wondering how to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on. Many swallowed their pride and went back to their old churches. Others became greatly disillusioned with religion in general and drifted away from any specific faith. Some stayed together and created their own new small denominations, still convinced that the Return would be "soon," but realizing now that it was foolish to set dates. One such group developed into the Advent Christian Church, which still exists to this day.
(For an overview of the psychology of the choices people make when confronted with the fact that they have believed in a false prophecy, see the When Prophecy Fails section of this Field Guide.)
But a minority held on to their convictions that something important had happened
in 1844. They decided that the date must have been true, but their understanding
of what was to happen on that date was the factor that was the error. An Adventist
named O.R.L. Crosier published an article in February, 1846, in the adventist publication
In addition, a number of these believers had come to accept that the seventh day of the week, commonly called Saturday, was actually the Sabbath of the Fourth Commandment, and should be kept by Christians. They had been exposed to this doctrine by individuals who had learned of it from the Seventh Day Baptist denomination. Miller himself was never converted to Sabbatarianism. And he was not ultimately completely convinced of any sort of explanation of the continuing significance of the date 1844. He died in 1849 without any clear view on where the various factions of the movement he had spawned were headed.
One of the former Miller supporters who accepted both the seventh day Sabbath teaching and the suggestion that the 1844 date had been prophetically significant was Ellen G. Harmon. Ellen and her twin sister Elizabeth were born in Maine in 1827, two of eight children in the Harmon family. At age nine, Ellen received a severe injury when a rock was thrown at her face by an older girl. Her nose was crushed, and there was possible damage to the temporal lobe of her brain. She was mostly unconscious for the first three weeks after the incident, and for a time was not expected to live. Her recovery was very slow, and she was in poor health for many years after.
Ellen was only 17 when the 1844 Great Disappointment had occurred. Her family, former
members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, had come out of their Methodist church
and made a total commitment to the Millerite movement in 1843. Former EGW associate
D.M. Canright wrote of Ellen's earliest influence by Miller in his book The Life
of Ellen White-
In her "Testimonies for the Church" (Vol. I., pp. 9-
…In 1840, at the age of thirteen, she heard William Miller preach that the end of the world would come in 1843. She was terribly frightened, and thought she would be lost (p. 15). Returning home, she spent nearly all night in prayer and tears (p. 16).
She continued in this hopeless condition for months (p. 16). Then, at a Methodist camp meeting, she had a wonderful conversion (p. 18). Here she saw many fall unconscious with the "power," as was common then. Her parents were with her there, and in full sympathy with these exercises.
Again, in 1842, she heard Miller prove that Christ would come in one short year. She was terribly frightened again. She says: "Condemnation rang in my ears day and night" (p. 23). "I feared that I would lose my reason” (p. 25). "Despair overwhelmed me. I frequently remained in prayer all night, groaning and trembling with inexpressible anguish" (p. 26).
This indicates her mental condition. In dreams she went to heaven and met Jesus, and was relieved (p. 28). Then she attended prayer meeting and fell unconscious, and remained in this state all night (p. 31). This was often repeated. She seeks to give the impression that her exercises were all the work of the Spirit of God. But where they? No; they were simply the result of her physical and mental condition, wrought upon by the religious excitements with which she was unfortunately surrounded. Miller's alarming predictions nearly unbalanced her hysterical mind in her feeble body.
Later she herself confesses this. She says: "Could the truth have been presented to me as I now understand it, much perplexity and sorrow would have been spared me" (p. 25). She simply had a wrong conception of God and the simplicity of the gospel. That misconception never wholly left her. The idea of a severe God and his service runs all through her writings. It shows how completely she was influenced by her associates and the spiritual atmosphere surrounding her. Instead of the Spirit of God controlling her mind all her life as she supposed, it was her own spirit influenced by leading minds around her.
In December, 1844, shortly after the final failure of the dates set by the Millerite
movement for the Advent, Ellen Harmon experienced the first of what were to be many
"visions" she believed to be from the Lord. She described this vision in a little
booklet titled A Word to the Little Flock, published first in 1847. This account
of her alleged vision had been written December 20, 1845, as a personal letter to
Enoch Jacobs. It had been previously published in The Day-
While praying at the family altar, the Holy Ghost fell on me, and I seemed to
be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world. I turned to look for the Advent
people in the world, but could not find them-
From the content of this vision, it is obvious that EGW believed at the time in what was usually referred to as the "shut door doctrine," as outlined in Crosier's Day Star article in 1846.
In 1847, EGW wrote to another Adventist about an 1845 vision she had related to this doctrine:
"Brother Bates, you write in a letter to James something about the Bridegroom's coming, as stated in the first published visions. By the letter you would like to know whether I had light on the Bridegroom's coming before I saw it in vision. I can readily answer, No. The Lord showed me the travail of the Advent band and midnight cry in December, but did not show me the Bridegroom's coming until February following.
"Perhaps you would like to have me give a statement in relation to both visions. At the time I had the vision of the midnight cry I had given it up in the past and thought it future, as also most of the band had. I know not what time J. Turner got out his paper. I knew he had one out and one was in the house, but I knew not what was in it, for I had not read a word in it. I had been, and still was very sick. I took no interest in reading, for it injured my head and made me nervous.
"After I had the vision and God gave me light, he bade me deliver it to the band, but I shrank from it. I was young, and I thought they would not receive it from me. I disobeyed the Lord, and instead of remaining at home, where the meeting was to be that night, I got in a sleigh in the morning and rode three or four miles and there I found Joseph Turner. He merely inquired how I was and if I was in the way of my duty. I said nothing, for I knew I was not.
"I passed up [to the] chamber and did not see him again for two hours, when he came up, asked if I was to be at meeting that night. I told him, no. He said he wanted to hear my vision and thought it duty for me to go home. I told him I should not. He said no more, but went away.
"I thought, and told those around me, if I went I would have to come out against his views, thinking he believed with the rest. I had not told any of them what God had shown me, and I did not tell them in what I should cross his track...
"Very early next morning Joseph Turner called, said he was in haste going out of the city in a short time, and wanted I should tell him all that God had shown me in vision. It was with fear and trembling I told him all. After I had got through he said he had told out the same last evening. I rejoiced, for I had expected he was coming out against me, for all the while I had not heard any one say what he believed. He said the Lord had sent him to talk the evening before, but as I would not, he meant his children should have the light in some way, so he took him.
"There were but few out when he talked, so the next meeting I told my vision, and the band, believing my visions from God, received what God bade me deliver to them.
"The view about the Bridegroom's coming I had about the middle of February, 1845, while in Exeter, Maine, in meeting with Israel Dammon, James, and many others. Many of them did not believe in a shut door. I suffered much at the commencement of the meeting. Unbelief seemed to be on every hand.
"There was one sister there that was called very spiritual. She had traveled and been a powerful preacher the most of the time for twenty years. She had been truly a mother in Israel. But a division had risen in the band on the shut door. She had great sympathy, and could not believe the door was shut. I had known nothing of their difference. Sister Durben got up to talk. I felt very, very sad.
"At length my soul seemed to be in agony, and while she was talking I fell from my chair to the floor. It was then I had a view of Jesus rising from His mediatorial throne and going to the holiest as Bridegroom to receive His kingdom. They were all deeply interested in the view. They all said it was entirely new to them. The Lord worked in mighty power, setting the truth home to their hearts.
"Sister Durben knew what the power of the Lord was, for she had felt it many times; and a short time after I fell she was struck down, and fell to the floor, crying to God to have mercy on her. When I came out of vision, my ears were saluted with Sister Durben's singing and shouting with a loud voice.
"Most of them received the vision, and were settled upon the shut door. Previous to this I had no light on the coming of the Bridegroom, but had expected him to this earth to deliver His people on the tenth day of the seventh month. I did not hear a lecture or a word in any relating to the Bridegroom's going to the holiest."
Obviously, the SDA movement had to eventually let go of belief in this doctrine,
or they would never survive. The "door" that was supposedly shut had to somehow be
opened again, and more new converts made. And in order to validate EGW's role as
Beginnings of ministry
Ellen married James White in 1846. She accepted his teachings about the seventh day Sabbath, and he accepted her visions as truly from God. Together they began traveling about New England visiting small groups of people who still clung to the Millerite teachings, spreading the Sabbath doctrine and Ellen's prophetic claims.
Canright continues the story of Ellen's rise to prominence in Adventist circles:
In 1849, Elder White began publishing his first paper, Present Truth. Some numbers were printed in one place, and some in another, for two years.
In 1850, at Paris, Me., he issued the first number of the Review and Herald. In 1852 they moved to Rochester, N.Y. Here he started a small printing office. In 1853 they came as far west as Michigan, where they found scattered brethren; then visited Wisconsin. In 1855 they moved their office to Battle Creek, Mich. This remained the headquarters of the denomination for about fifty years. Gradually large interests were built up here, a great printing plant, the large Sanitarium, the College, the Tabernacle, etc. These were the days of greatest harmony and material prosperity. These were the days when I was most prominent with them, and helped in building all these institutions. Finally Dr. Kellogg and Mrs. White parted company, and he, with the Sanitarium, was separated from the denomination. Then the headquarters were moved to Washington, D.C., in 1903.
After locating in Battle Creek in 1855, for the next twenty-
As the claims for Ellen's visions began spreading among the former Millerites, they
soon became a central cause of division within adventist circles. There was an increased
enthusiasm toward the idea of forming an actual denomination, but the visions were
a sticking point with many. A number of those who rejected her claims but who clung
to the Sabbath doctrine and the adventist emphasis eventually had to pull away from
the others and organize their own fellowships. This directly led to the formation
of the Church of God, Seventh Day (COG7). A number of small denominations with roots
in the COG7 movement of the 1860s still continue to this day, including the Worldwide
Church of God and its off-
Those who accepted Ellen's visions went on to form their own official Seventh-
Visions and Writings
As noted above, the first published record of Ellen G White's visions and teachings
was the little booklet A Word to the Little Flock distributed in 1847, in which her
1844 first vision was described. Ellen continued to have alleged visions and divinely-
The first full small book (64 pages) of her writings, Experiences and Views, was published in 1851. A supplement of 48 pages was added two years later, including descriptions of more "divine revelations" she had allegedly received.
In 1858, EGW was attending a funeral and suddenly went into an alleged visionary
state lasting two hours in which she claimed to receive an extensive revelation about
the "great controversy" that had gone on between Christ and Satan throughout history.
In September that year, the 219-
In 1860 came the 300+ page Spiritual Gifts II : My Christian Experience. This was an extensive elaboration on more revelations she had received in recent years.
About this time, Ellen also began receiving what have eventually been labeled "Testimonies." These dealt not with major doctrinal issues:
Different in nature from the largely historical and biographical "Conflict" books, the Testimonies are made up of letters, articles, records of visions, sermons, and addresses containing simple, straightforward instruction concerning the everyday affairs of life. While they outline broad principles that all can apply, they also bring the principles down to specific applications. Mrs. White sets forth the purpose of the volumes succinctly in Testimonies, volume 2, page 608. There she quotes the words spoken to her in a prophetic dream. "One stood by my side," she said, and spoke, among other things, these words: "‘Your success is in your simplicity. As soon as you depart from this, and fashion your testimony to meet the minds of any, your power is gone. Almost everything in this age is glossed and unreal. The world abounds in testimonies given to please and charm for a moment, and to exalt self. Your testimony is of a different character. It is to come down to the minutiae of life, keeping the feeble faith from dying, and pressing home upon believers the necessity of shining as lights in the world.’" (A Prophet Among You, T. Housel Jemison, 1955; ch. 16, p. 315 available free in PDF formonline.)
And thus began Ellen's career of micro-
In June, 1863, while visiting in Otsego, Michigan, she had what was later referred to as the "Health Reform Vision," the alleged source of a number of teachings and practices she introduced into the Adventist movement. This included the emphasis on vegetarianism and a wide variety of other matters which are now claimed by the SDA denomination to have been "far ahead of her time" in understanding scientific health principles. Information on the content of these "Health Reform" measures can be seen elsewhere in this profile of the SDA Movement on this Field Guide website.
Meanwhile, she also continued writing major volumes based on the alleged visions and revelations that she had received. The following is the current view of the logical "order" of her most significant books, now called the "Conflict of the Ages" series, based on their content, not order of publication:
Spirit of Prophecy I : Patriarchs and Prophets 1890
Spirit of Prophecy II: Prophets and Kings 1916
Spirit of Prophecy III: The Desire of Ages 1898
Spirit of Prophecy IV: Acts of the Apostles 1911
Spirit of Prophecy V: The Great Controversy 1884
The "White Estate"
The “White Estate” has described itself in the past on its own website this way:
When Ellen G. White died in 1915, her will indicated that she left the care of her writings to five trustees, men in whom she had confidence. They were given custody of her letters and manuscripts, and they were charged with overseeing and promoting the circulation of her writings, both in English and in other languages as needed, and with publishing topical collections from her writings to meet future needs as they saw fit. Such compilations now slightly outnumber the original 49 books published during Mrs. White's lifetime.
Over the years the number of trustees has grown (currently 15), and so has the number of facilities at which one may research the writings of Ellen G. White in depth. Below is a listing of the Ellen G. White centers worldwide, most of which are connected with an educational institution. These facilities all have a complete set of the letters and manuscripts of Mrs. White besides having her complete published writings and substantial additional material about her life and work.
In addition to arranging for the publication of these works in printed form,
the trustees of the Ellen G. White Estate have recently ventured into electronic
publishing, making the complete published writings of Mrs. White available on CD-
The main HQ of the Estate is in Silver Springs, Maryland. Offices of the Estate ("centers" as labeled above) in the US are at SDA Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan; SDA Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California; and SDA Oakwood, California.
Below is a brief overview of the writings of EGW by the "White Estate":
During her lifetime she wrote more than 5,000 periodical articles and 49 books;
but today, including compilations from her manuscripts, more than 100 titles are
available in English. She is the most translated woman writer in the entire history
of literature and the most translated American author of either gender. Her writings
cover a broad range of subjects, including religion, education, health, social relationships,
evangelism, prophecy, publishing, nutrition, and management. Her life-
Leadership of the SDA Church
Although Ellen G White and her visions and teachings were extremely influential in the SDA denomination during her lifetime, she was not viewed technically as a church administrator. In spite of the fact that the organization had a woman prophet, they did not have women in the power structure of the church. Ellen's husband James and a number of other men were the actual administrators of the organization. This was true during her lifetime, and remains true to today.
Rumblings of future problems
In 1883, the denomination published a book written by Ellen called Sketches from the Life of Paul. It was not long before the publishers were approached by the publishers of The Life and Epistles of the Apostle Paul, a book written thirty years earlier by William J. Conybeare and John S. Howson. It seems that EGW's description of the life of Paul wasn't just similar to Conybeare and Howson's because it was discussing the same person's life. It was similar because she had obviously plagiarized the content of her book directly from the earlier book. The SDA's withdrew Ellen's book from distribution and tried to sweep the matter under the carpet.
But over the coming century, the issue of Ellen "borrowing" from the writings of others material which she claimed to be getting in visions from God never went away. In the early years after the Life of Paul incident it was quietly admitted by those in the top leadership among themselves that perhaps the Paul book wasn't an isolated incident. And disaffected former SDA members and leaders would occasionally come forward and make public accusations of plagiarism against Ellen. But for some reason this problem wasn't widely known among the rank and file loyal SDA members. They were taught year after year to look to the writings of Ellen G White as the evidence that their church was the End Time Remnant Church that alone had "the Spirit of Prophecy."
The Future Arrives
In the 1970s, this issue finally surfaced in ways that could not be ignored in SDA
circles. A number of researchers had been documenting more and more incidents of
blatant plagiarism in Ellen's writings. And finally in 1982, former long-
Since the publication of Rea's book, many other researchers have come forward with continuing revelations of the sources of more and more of Ellen's writing. It has been determined that what is perhaps her most beloved book, the Desire of Ages, contains virtually no material that could be attributed to any "special insight" by Ellen via revelation from God … all of the ideas are found in the writings of others of Ellen's generation and before, whose writings she plagiarized to create the book.
But instead of addressing this reality head-
This is understandable … in spite of the protests of the denomination that their doctrines are all based on the Bible, the reality is that almost all of the most distinctive aspects of the denomination's belief system and practices are squarely based on the writings of Ellen G White. If her credibility is destroyed, there would be many aspects of the SDA faith that would have no basis at all.
For extensive documentation on these facts about the career of Ellen G White, see the Documentation section at the end of the main page of the SDA Movement profile .
For details of references cited in this overview, please consult the Bibliography section at the end of the main page of the SDA Movement profile.
Unless otherwise noted, all original material on this Field Guide website
is © 2001-
Careful effort has been made to give credit as clearly as possible to any specific material quoted or ideas extensively adapted from any one resource. Corrections and clarifications regarding citations for any source material are welcome, and will be promptly added to any sections which are found to be inadequately documented as to source.