Challenging Authority

International Journal of Cultic Studies Vol. 2, 2011, 19-32.

Challenging Authority: The Role of Dissent in the Formation of the Seventh-Day Adventist Sect

Timothy Dunfield

University of Alberta

This paper studies the rise of the Seventh-day Adventist organization (SDA or Adventist hereafter). I apply Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory to the SDA organization in order to better illuminate its history and understand the creation of its unique identity within Christendom. The SDA organization began in the aftermath of William Miller’s failed prophecies advocating the return of Christ to earth in 1844. As a way of easing the dissonance this failure caused them, early Adventist leaders initiated dissonance reducing strategies such as reinterpretation of the failed event, innovative theology leading to a distinctive set of doctrines, acceptance of alternative forms of authority, namely through alleged prophet, Ellen G. White, and mass proselytization.

I examine one of these strategies, the acceptance of Ellen G. White as an alternative source of authority, showing how this distinctive doctrine evolved as early Adventist founders initiated dissonance reducing strategies. I also analyze the effect this distinctive belief had on the relationship the SDA organization had with other Christian groups, as well as ways in which the SDA organization used belief in Ellen White’s prophetic gift as a test of fellowship for adherents. My analysis of the role of Ellen White in the formation of SDA identity invokes and expands on the work of early SDA dissidents, Dudley M. Canright and John Harvey Kellogg (the founder of the Kellogg cereal company). Ultimately, the question of Ellen White’s prophetic status led to the formation of a distinctive set of doctrines and a hierarchic culture of control within the SDA organization.

Although the SDA organization is now over 150 years old and claims to have more than ten million members worldwide, challenges to Ellen White’s prophetic status continue. In the final section of this paper I give a brief analysis of current dissent against Ellen White showing how several modern dissenters are continuing the dissenting opinions of early SDA dissidents.


The creation of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) sect did not happen “ex nihilo.”[2] Many factors contributed to the rise of the SDA sect as it began in the mid-nineteenth century in upstate New York. Commentators differ over how precisely to classify the Adventist organization since it holds a majority of its belief system in common with the larger Protestant community, yet encompasses features common to both cults[3] and sects.[4] Until the late 1960s, Walter Martin, one of the foremost cult experts and author of Kingdom of the Cults (1965), considered the SDA organization a cult. In later editions of his book, after much dialogue with certain SDA academics (a dialogue that SDAs initiated and that continues to cause controversy among Adventists themselves), Martin relegated the SDA organization to an appendix called “The Riddle of Seventh-day Adventists.” For the purpose of this paper, I will refer to Seventh-day Adventism as a religious sect.[5] In so doing, I align with sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, who conducted some of the most thorough research on religious sects, cults, and denominations and concluded that Seventh-day Adventists were a religious sect (Stark and Bainbridge, 1981, p. 138).[6] It is important to note that Seventh-day Adventists consider themselves to be a mainstream Protestant denomination. This paper seeks to analyze the SDA sect through the lens of both Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, and deviance theory as articulated by Emile Durkheim and Kai Erikson, showing how the creation of the SDA organization was the result of sociological and psychological factors rather than the result of a divine calling, as many SDAs claim. Specifically, I will focus on the role of Ellen White, the alleged prophet of the SDA sect, and how her role and those who dissented against her formed the basis of SDA identity.


The Seventh-day Adventist sect is descended from the famous (or infamous) nineteenth-century apocalyptic and millennial revivalist, William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return to earth and usher in the millennium in 1843, and, when this date failed, 1844.[7] Miller reached this conclusion based on his interpretation of Daniel 8:14, which says, “…[the angel] said unto me, ‘for 2300 days; then the sanctuary will be restored.’”[8]

Many people left their original churches to join with the new movement forming under Miller’s prophetic, apocalyptic message; and these ‘believers’ in Miller’s message met together as often as possible in anticipation of the great event. Studies suggest there may have been as many as 50,000 to 100,000 “Millerites” by 1844 (Froom, 1971, p. 70). When Christ didn’t return on October 22, 1844, the last date Miller gave for the end of the world, he set no new dates and the movement collapsed. The late sociologist Joseph Zygmunt wrote that prophetic disconfirmation and the frustration of millenarian expectations can have an acutely disorganizing effect on individual believers and the movement in general. Disconfirmation can invalidate the charisma of the leader, lead to the attrition of members, and also give rise to new leaders whose competition with each other contributes to organizational fragmentation and schism (Zygmunt, 1972, pp. 257–258). The Millerite movement quickly lost focus and dissolved as Miller admitted his error and most of his followers returned to their original churches and confessed their mistakes (Canright, 1919, p. 52; Stark and Bainbridge, 1985, p. 141).[9]

A few of Miller’s followers who still held to the importance of the 1844 date did not return to their old churches but, instead, began to study the Bible together in an attempt to explain, or reinterpret, this failure of Christ to return. They insulated themselves from the world around them and drew upon their internal resources to grope for new explanations (Butler, 1974, p. 178). Their actions were attempts to resolve the cognitive dissonance that the failure of Miller’s prophecies created for them, and to stand firm despite the loss of faith of their parent organization, the Millerite movement.

Cognitive Dissonance

To understand why a group of individuals would cling to faulty reasoning and disconfirming events with such fervour, it is essential to view these individuals through the theoretical framework of cognitive dissonance theory as developed by Leon Festinger in 1957.

In his book When Prophecy Fails (1956), Leon Festinger laid the groundwork for the theory of cognitive dissonance. Festinger and his fellow researchers based the book on an analysis of two alternative religious groups that had predicted certain world-ending events. Both groups had built identities around these predictions, had experienced a failure of these predictions, and had enacted dissonance-reducing strategies in the aftermath of these failed predictions. One of those groups Festinger documented was the Millerite movement.[10] Festinger wrote:

When a person believes a certain tenet of their [sic] faith and orders their life in compliance with that belief, the dissonance that occurs when that certain tenet proves false is very painful and the person will take certain steps to reduce the dissonance. The person may discard the belief that produced the discomfort, however this would mean that they [sic] must also discard many other beliefs and/or actions that the central belief produced. Frequently the behavioral commitment to the belief system is so strong that almost any other course of action is preferable. It may even be less painful to tolerate the dissonance than to discard the belief and admit one had been wrong. A second option is for members to blind themselves to the fact that the certain tenet of their faith has failed. They may attempt to find alternate explanations for the belief. Ultimately, the more support a person or group find for their new explanation allows that person or group to recover from the initial shock of the failure. Because of this, it is common to see an increase in proselytizing after a group finds a new explanation for a failed belief. (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956, pp. 26–28)

A few of Miller’s followers (such as the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist sect) did not discard their beliefs after the disconfirmation they experienced. Instead, as Festinger had suggested, they attempted to find alternate explanations for why Christ did not return, and once they settled upon a new explanation they then began to actively proselytize in order to gain as many adherents as possible to their new belief system. Since the Seventh-day Adventist organization is the offspring of the Millerite movement, I believe that Festinger’s theory applies to the Adventist organization as much as to Miller’s, and this argument formed the basis for my MA thesis (Dunfield, 2008).

According to Festinger’s initial theory, when two pieces of knowledge or information (cognition) do not fit together, the result is dissonant relationships, which Festinger described as psychologically uncomfortable (Festinger, 1957, pp. 3, 11). Since the human psyche desires homeostasis, or consonance, Festinger suggested that when dissonance occurs, individuals (and groups) feel pressure to reduce this dissonance and as a result implement dissonance-reducing strategies. Others, such as the late English psychiatrist Anthony Storr, agree. Storr suggests that “the experience of discord both in the external world and in the inner world of the psyche is characteristic of the human species, and so is the impulse to bring discord to an end by finding a new solution” (Storr, 1996, p. 175).

Festinger suggested two basic dissonance-reducing strategies. The first was changing one’s cognitions, and the second was exposure to new information that supported the new cognition (Festinger, 1957, p. 31).[11] Storr’s suggestion that those experiencing discord attempt to end discord by finding new solutions resonates with Festinger. Agreeing with Storr and Festinger, psychologist Joel Cooper wrote: “Most typically, after dissonance is aroused, individuals reduce dissonance by justifying their behavior. They change attitudes, justify their choices, and rationalize their expenditure of effort to render the consequences of their behavior non-aversive” (2007, pp. 109–110).

While there are other ways of reducing dissonance, I focus on two of Cooper’s suggestions, the justification of choices and rationalization, since they explain SDA identify formation, and also because they represent the majority reaction in the groups Festinger and others studied. The history and formation of the Seventh-day Adventist sect immediately after the failure of William Miller’s predictions show a group of people both actively searching for new information with which they could rationalize their previous expenditure of effort in promoting what now appeared to be an erroneous belief, and attempting to justify (to themselves as much as to the outside world) their continued belief in William Miller, his prophecy, and eventually their own legitimacy.[12]

Expanding the Original Cognitive Dissonance Model

According to Zygmunt, the credibility of a claim is not merely a function of its empirically demonstrable truth, but also a function of its symbolic compatibility with previously developed convictions. When a new conviction is anchored in and tied to aspects of an ideology that is shared by the group (even if the new conviction seriously alters that ideology), the group is more willing to accept it and allow it to influence the group’s understanding of the prophetic failure. This strategy allows the group not only to deny the reality of a prophetic disconfirmation, but also to interpret reality in a novel way from an ideologically structured and socially insulated perspective (Zygmunt, 1972, pp. 263–264).[13] Therefore, as Adventists began to introduce dissonance-reducing strategies, they made sure that these strategies had direct links to Miller, his prophecy, the expected return of Christ, and the Bible, even going so far as to make sure they used the same biblical texts as Miller.

These dissonance-reducing strategies Adventists employed included the reinterpretation of the failed event; the creation of innovative theology leading to a distinctive set of doctrines; the creation and acceptance of alternative forms of authority, namely through alleged Prophet Ellen G. White; and attempts to gain new adherents through mass proselytization.[14] By reinterpreting rather than discarding Miller’s prophecy, the small group of Adventists could claim that Miller had indeed correctly predicted a significant event in eschatological history, and that they, as his followers, had simply found the correct interpretation of the event based on novel explanations of certain Biblical passages. This claim alleviated the dissonance associated with following a discredited prophet and allowed the Adventists to continue predicting the soon coming of Christ and their role in announcing it to the world. They alone had prevailed despite Miller’s mistakes, while all others had lost heart and rejected the “truth” of Miller’s message. The “truth” that Adventists claimed, however, was entirely of their own invention.

To reinterpret the failure of Christ to return in 1844, Adventists implemented an innovative and unique set of doctrines. While not going so far as introducing a new Scripture, such as their contemporary Joseph Smith and the Mormons had done, Adventists significantly altered their interpretation of both the Old and New Testaments in order to justify their new doctrines. This new interpretation presented them with a problem: On what basis or authority could they reinterpret Scripture?

The answer came from a most unlikely source, as a self-professed prophet who claimed to receive direct revelations and visions from God became the new source of authority for Adventists. The revelations and visions this prophet claimed would eventually become the foundation upon which Adventists built their new theology. The prophet’s name was Ellen Gould Harmon (she became Ellen White after she married James White), and belief in her prophetic gift and adherence to her writings became (and still is) a test of membership for all potential converts. Later, after the Adventists established their new theology and identity, they began a program of mass evangelism, focusing primarily on their interpretation of eschatology, which continues today in almost every country in the world.

SDA Identity and the Role of Ellen White

SDAs reasoned that if God had blessed their fledgling sect with a prophet, then everything they discovered and every doctrine they held had to be true since it bore the divine stamp of approval in the form of endorsements from the prophet, and, therefore, God himself.[15] Hence, where William Miller had failed to correctly understand and interpret scripture based on his own flawed human reasoning, the SDA sect allegedly would succeed with the guidance of its prophet. As an alleged messenger from God, the prophet supplied them with a new source of information in the form of direct revelations from God and gave them a sense of legitimization.

The principle cause of SDA dissonance was the failure of Christ to return when Miller had predicted. If SDA leaders could convincingly revise their interpretation of this event, the movement would need to develop other cognitive elements and put them in place to ensure the validity of the new interpretation of the 1844 failure. If the movement was to have any credibility, then it would need to explain that failure in a convincing way. To understand the role of Ellen White in SDA explanations of Millerite failure, however, it is necessary to give a brief overview of two Adventist beliefs as they relate to William Miller’s predictions, and how Adventists interpreted the Biblical view of the end of the world. Following a brief overview of unique SDA doctrines, I will then show how Ellen White’s alleged prophetic gift played a vital role in the creation and validation of these beliefs.

Unique SDA Beliefs

While SDAs hold a majority of their beliefs in common with other Protestant denominations and world religions (including their belief in the necessity of Saturday worship—a belief they share with Seventh-day Baptists and Jews), at least two SDA doctrines are unique to Seventh-day Adventists, and both relate directly to the failure of Christ to return in 1844.

First, Adventists believe that there is an actual sanctuary building in heaven, of which the Jewish sanctuary of the Old Testament was a model, in which Christ serves as a high priest. This is a vital innovation for Seventh-day Adventists since William Miller based his prediction of Christ’s return on Daniel 8:14, which alludes to the cleansing of the “sanctuary.” William Miller believed that the sanctuary represented the earth, and that the cleansing of the sanctuary referred to Christ returning to cleanse the earth (the sanctuary) of evil. Adventist’s reinterpreted this cleansing of the sanctuary by claiming that there was (and is) a literal sanctuary in heaven, and that it was this sanctuary in heaven, not the earth, to which Daniel 8:14 referred. Thus, the cleansing of the sanctuary could not be the return of Christ to earth, but, rather, the beginning of some new phase of ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. In this way, Adventists continued to advocate the correctness of William Miller’s predicted date (October 22, 1844); they simply changed the event that was to have taken place on that date.

Second, Adventists now had to interpret what this new event was that had taken place on October 22, 1844. If Christ was not returning to earth, what was he doing? This question led Adventists to invent their second unique doctrine: the investigative judgment, first suggested by SDA pioneer J. N. Loughborough (Bull and Lockhart, 1989, p. 61). The investigative judgment doctrine, in its most basic form, states that before Christ can save a person, he must investigate that person’s actions and see whether or not that person is correctly keeping the commandments (especially the observance of the Saturday Sabbath) and is therefore worthy of salvation (White, 1888, pp. 479–491).[16] This belief challenged traditional Protestantism by contradicting the biblical view of salvation as a matter of faith.

Because both of these views were novel creations of the fledgling movement, they needed an “authoritative voice” to validate and confirm both the beliefs and the small group that had created them. They could not turn to the Bible for confirmation since they were, in fact, reinterpreting it. They could not turn to history since there were no historical precedents. No one else had ever voiced these alternatives to the biblical narrative before. They also needed some form of confirmation that would validate their findings and beliefs (not only to the rest of the world, but also in their own minds). That confirmation came from a young member of the group who claimed to be a prophet and who would eventually, through alleged visions from God, validate all that the Adventists had invented. This is how Ellen White became so useful to the fledgling movement.

Ellen White

By the time Ellen White (nee Harmon) and her entire family left the Methodist Church to join the Millerite movement, Ellen was already somewhat of an eccentric teenager. Having experienced a traumatic head injury in her early youth, Ellen had been unable to return to formal education; doctors had confined her to bed for long periods of time; and perhaps most importantly, she had admittedly battled severe bouts of depression, in which she wished for death because of her condition (Spalding, 1961, p. 61; Numbers 1992, p. 2). It was during one of these bouts of depression while bed-ridden that White claimed to have received her first two visions. In the second vision, she claimed that Christ implied to her that she was “favored” or special (Spalding, 1961, p. 68).

Storr claims that most gurus (and leaders of new religious movements) often claim special connection to some form of divinity, often beginning after long periods of depression or physical illness. In his book Feet of Clay, Storr writes that “it is frequently the case that the guru’s new insight follows a period of mental distress or physical illness, in which the guru has been fruitlessly searching for an answer to his own emotional problems” (Storr, 1996, p. xiv). White undoubtedly followed this pattern because she was suffering from severe emotional and physical trauma at the time she alleged to have received her first vision. Storr goes on to claim that “when the guru’s ‘dark night of the soul’ has been ended by his new vision of reality, he usually appears to become convinced that he has discovered ‘the truth’” (Storr, 1996, p. xiv). Expanding on this theme, Storr writes,

Gurus usually go through a period of intense mental distress, sometimes amounting to mental illness, before they emerge with a revelation which both marks the end of their period of turmoil and also provides them with the new message which they preach or teach.” (Storr, 1996, p. 153)

There is no doubt that the supposed revelations and visions White claimed to have received during her bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts not only temporarily ended her emotional and psychological turmoil, but also emboldened her with the idea that she was God’s chosen messenger and therefore in possession of unique truth that would not only vindicate the SDA position, but also would save the world. Ellen White dedicated the remainder of her life to teaching, preaching, and writing about the SDA doctrines and beliefs the resulted from her visions.

After the Millerite disappointment of 1844, Ellen White and a few loyal followers sought answers to Miller’s failed prophecy rather than joining with most of Miller’s followers who admitted their mistake in following him and returned to their original denominations. In the months following the “great disappointment” of 1844, Ellen claimed to receive several visions that helped to clarify the doctrinal and theological positions of this newly emerging sect, while also securing her place as its spiritual leader and prophet. Although the Millerites had not believed in private revelation, visions, or dreams (no doubt in response to the fanaticism and extremism of spiritualism), the newly forming SDA organization accepted them as authoritative (Bull and Lockhart, 1989, p. 23).

Ellen White never invented any of the unique views regarding the sanctuary or the investigative judgment (or the Sabbath or state of the dead, for that matter). The creation of the SDA statement of belief came from a core group of men, headed by Ellen White’s eventual husband, James, and through an alleged vision given to a young Adventist convert named Hiram Edson. Edson’s alleged vision regarding the sanctuary in heaven was the impetus for the SDA founders to begin to craft their theory of the heavenly sanctuary and the investigative judgment, yet Edson fades into obscurity since the core leadership did not officially accept these beliefs until Ellen White validated them after receiving an alleged vision in which she claimed God had told her that Hiram Edson’s vision was correct.

All of Ellen White’s alleged visions regarding doctrinal and theological matters were limited to confirmation or invalidation of the matter at hand. It was therefore easy for her to claim authority on theological matters without having any theological training, or even being part of the initial discussions that produced these beliefs. She was able to claim divine approval of the early SDA message and organization, and in so doing not only validate the organization in its own eyes, but also ensure her place as the central figure within the movement. Soon the organization sought her “counsel” (meaning divine confirmation through vision) for every aspect of the organization from building plans, to ministry plans, to internal debates between members. It should come as little surprise that her alleged visions always confirmed her husband James’s position whenever he was in conflict with other members of the organization. Although some disagreed with this “leadership team” at the head of the organization (James served as head of the SDA organization twice during his lifetime), few dared to question the prophet and risk her rebuke if they did.[17]

Ellen White did not want Adventists to call her “prophet” because she felt her work included much more than the work of a prophet. She referred to herself as “the Lord’s messenger” (Knight, 1987, p. 238; Schwarz, 1979, p. 417; White, 1882, pp. 31, 32), although Adventists still refer to her as a prophet. It was not long until belief in Ellen White’s prophet role became a test of membership for all potential Adventists, no doubt since so much of Adventist theology rested on her alleged prophetic gift. To disavow Ellen White was tantamount to disavowing the entire Adventist system. Leaders in the movement, therefore, began to use this belief to test the orthodoxy of the emerging clergy; and, even today, Adventists list belief in Ellen White’s prophetic gift on their statement of faith that all potential adherents must sign before baptism.

There were some among the clergy and leadership of the SDA organization, however, who did not believe in White’s alleged prophetic gift or in the SDA use of her gift as a source of authority. The first of these dissenters was a young SDA minister named Dudley Canright, and the second dissenter was the future head of the Kellogg cereal company, John Harvey Kellogg. Their dissenting opinions and the eventual suppression of their dissent led to a strengthening of the SDA position on Ellen White, and in so doing helped to shape and solidify SDA identity for future generations. The authenticity and interpretation of White’s visions, as well as questions regarding her own authenticity and motivation, were, and continue to be, topics of debate within the organization.

Dissent and Identity Formation

In Wayward Puritans (1966), sociologist Kai Erikson developed the theme of group identity through suppression of deviance (dissent), which he applied to Puritan settlements in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century. Erikson wrote that deviant acts create a sense of mutuality among the people of a community by supplying a focus for group feelings. Deviance makes people more alert to the interests they share in common and draws attention to those values that constitute the collective conscience of the community (Erikson, 1966, p. 4).

Paying homage to Emile Durkheim’s famous thesis that crime is a functional necessity of a healthy society, Erikson wrote that society must recognize and respond to deviant behavior because, as Erikson stated it, “communities are boundary-maintaining.” He continued by saying that a human community maintains boundaries in which its members confine themselves concerning their conduct (and belief) and tends to view any activity that drifts outside those boundaries to be deviant. Erikson wrote:

The material with which a society marks its boundaries is the behavior of its members—or rather, the network of interactions between its members. Therefore, group boundaries remain a meaningful point of reference only so long as persons on the fringes of the group repeatedly test them while at the same time persons chosen to represent the group’s inner morality defend them. For these reasons, deviant behavior may be, in controlled amounts, an important condition for preserving the stability of social life. (Erikson, 1966, pp. 10, 13)

Deviant behavior, then, can include any act that tests the boundaries of the community, ranging from a criminal act in secular society to a challenge to the belief structure of a religious group such as the Seventh-day Adventist organization. It also seems clear from Erikson’s statement that deviant behavior is also important for preserving a stable group identity, a concept that Durkheim also advocated in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895, p. 67).

Durkheim’s work on social formation, especially in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), laid the foundation for Erikson to make these grand claims about group identity and formation.[18] In Elementary Forms, Durkheim posited that a society could achieve its goals only by demanding the cooperation of the individuals who make up that society. Furthermore, he suggested that society requires individuals to put the interests of the society over their own individual interests (Durkheim, 1912, pp. 209–210). According to sociologist Howard S. Becker, society creates deviance through a process of labeling. Becker said that “social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders” (Becker, 1963, pp. 8–9).

The SDA organization has an extensive history of identifying (labeling), and punishing dissenters. During its formative years, however, the identification and punishment of dissenters was especially important as the new movement struggled to form and maintain an identity and establish the boundaries that would contain and shape that identity. While many may view dissenters and dissenting opinions as negative, they are integral to the maintenance of sectarian boundaries as both Durkheim and Erikson suggested. During these formative years, the SDA organization was beginning to gain an understanding of its distinctive identity, to establish its boundaries through theology and practice, and to proclaim boldly that identity to an unbelieving world. As dissenters began to question Ellen White’s prophetic role thereby challenging the emerging SDA identity SDA apologists rushed to defend White and SDA identity. In the words of Erikson, “Deviant persons often supply an important service to society by patrolling the outer edges of group space and by providing a contrast [that] gives the rest of the community some sense of their own territorial identity” (Erikson, 1966, pp. 195–196). Dissenters gave Seventh-day Adventism the opportunity to reinforce its boundaries and in doing so reaffirm its theological territorial identity.

Dudley Canright (1840–1919) published three books in which he documented his disagreements with the SDA sect. His first book, Seventh Day Adventism Renounced (1914), and his third book, Life of Mrs. E. G. White, Seventh-Day Adventist Prophet: Her False Claims Refuted (1919), dealt with the alleged prophetic role of Ellen White. Leaders within an institution or organization define what they consider to be normative behaviors for adherents. These normative behaviors indicate the range of actions and beliefs that organizational leaders expect from adherents (Merton, 1959, p. 178). For the SDA organization, belief in the prophetic role of White was an organizational norm, and the organization expected its adherents to believe in, and not question, her prophetic status. Canright questioned this organizational norm on three fronts.

First, Canright questioned how the early SDA organization could use Ellen White as proof of its special identity when other sectarian groups also claimed to have a prophet. Second, Canright had doubts about the source of White’s alleged visions, and suggested she suffered from a medical condition that brought on those alleged visions. As someone who had worked closely with White, Canright claimed to have intimate knowledge of her peculiar physical and emotional problems, and suggested that she suffered from histrionic disorder.[19] Finally, Canright questioned the authenticity of her prophetic gift based on the contradictory content of her visions. Canright alleged that Ellen White could not be a prophet since her visions contained contradictions, and that she often passed off her ignorance of historical facts as inspired content. He also felt that she used her visions to support her (and her husband’s) agendas. He based these allegations on contradictions that he observed between individual visions, as well as mistakes between her visions and known facts from history, such as the fact that she did not know there were two King Herods who ruled Judea during the Roman occupation. White claimed that God revealed people’s hidden sins to her so that she could reprove them and keep the organization pure. She did not know, however, that one of the leading ministers at the time was having affairs with several women in his congregation. Ellen White stayed at this minister’s house on numerous occasions but remained unaware of his transgressions. This information led Canright to question whether God revealed anything to Ellen White, or if she simply used information she obtained from other sources as the supposed content of these visions. Canright also documented how in one vision Ellen White claimed to have spoken with biblical characters such as Noah, Jacob, and Daniel while visiting other planets in vision. Later, after she adopted a belief in soul sleep, she edited these alleged meetings out of later editions of her books since she no longer believed that they or their souls were on other planets, but rather were asleep in the ground on earth. Canright therefore claimed that White and the SDA organization deliberately altered the content of White’s allegedly divine visions in order to meet with newer beliefs and preserve her reputation.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852–1943) was, among other things, Ellen White’s personal physician for many years and head of the Battle Creek Sanitarium,[20] originally a Seventh-day Adventist hospital. Like Canright, Kellogg documented contradictions in various visions White claimed God gave her. In one instance, he submitted building plans to her for additions to the Sanitarium and received White’s assurance that God had shown her in vision that the plans were in accordance with his (God’s) will. Later, when James White saw the plans, he disagreed with them; and soon Ellen White claimed that God gave her another vision in which he blessed the new plans that James White had submitted. She also admitted that she had lied about the earlier vision (Canright, 1919, pp. 77–79).[21] Kellogg and others believed she had lied about both, and perhaps all, visions.

As White’s personal physician, Kellogg treated her over the course of her lifetime for a variety of mental and physical ailments. Kellogg was not the only person to treat White at Battle Creek Sanitarium who lost faith in her prophetic claims. Many doctors there treated her for her numerous and frequent illness. Several of the best doctors, including Kellogg, renounced their faith in “divine inspiration” as the source of her visions after they had studied her case for years. They attributed her visions to a weakened mental and physical condition (Canright, 1919, pp. 181, 182).

Many of Kellogg’s issues with the SDA sect had nothing to do with White, yet she constantly inserted herself into them by taking sides with the organization and condemning, first, how Kellogg ran the hospital, and second, the contents of his book The Living Temple. When Kellogg submitted the manuscript to the SDA publishing house in 1902, the publishers refused to print it based on White’s claim that the book contained elements of pantheism that would destroy SDA theology. In response, Kellogg began to publicly question White’s prophetic claims; she responded by publicly pointing out what she considered (with the help of alleged visions) to be faults in Kellogg’s character and policies regarding the sanitarium. Although the two tried several times to heal the growing rift, they were not successful; eventually, Kellogg, along with Canright, completely rejected both Ellen White and the sect she now headed. In response, the SDA organization dropped Kellogg from membership, citing his disbelief in Ellen White as the primary reason (Schwarz, 1995, pp. 189, 190).

As dissenters challenged White’s role, the SDA organization was able to reaffirm its belief in her prophetic status and thereby reaffirm and enforce its identity. As dissidents charged the organization with following the visions of a deluded woman over the Bible, the SDA organization responded by reaffirming its belief in the necessity of the Bible and the correct interpretation of it through the writings of White. SDA leaders also argued that the Bible was superior to White’s writings and intimated that the organization would reject Ellen White’s visions if those visions contradicted it (Schwarz, 1979, pp. 179–181). Luckily for the SDA organization, White’s visions allegedly helped to clarify the meaning of the Bible, and therefore her visions could not contradict it. In this atmosphere, it was not long before many ministers in the organization taught that the only way to understand the Bible was through the writings of Ellen White (Bull and Lockhart, 1989, pp. 26–27).

While dissent can lead to benefits for the organization, a failure to suppress the dissenting opinion immediately can have negative repercussions for the organization. Even if the organization ultimately rejects the dissenter and his/her dissenting opinion, a window of time exists in which adherents to the organization may be exposed to the dissenting opinion and even subscribe to it. Without organizational guidance or instruction on how to understand or respond to the dissenting opinion, members of the organization may begin to engage in their own cognitive processing of the dissenting opinion in an effort to understand it. This process can lead some adherents to validate the dissenting opinion and over time may lead certain organizational adherents to convert to the dissenting opinion (De Dreu, 2007, p. 252). Throughout its history, the SDA sect has dealt with dissenters; and in every case in which the dissent challenged the authority and prophetic status of Ellen White, the sect has moved to eliminate the dissent as quickly as possible, almost always through excommunication of the guilty party or parties. This was the case with both Canright and Kellogg, and it continues today with modern dissenters.

EGW and Current SDA Identity and Dissent

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new generation of SDA dissenters again began to challenge Ellen White’s authority and legitimacy within the SDA sect. Three current dissidents stand out. The first, Desmond Ford, a former SDA academic, published Daniel 8:14: The Day of Atonement and the Investigative Judgment (1980) challenging the SDA doctrine of the investigative judgment and thereby indirectly Ellen White’s role in affirming that doctrine. Although Ford’s challenge did not aim his challenge directly at White, his extensive documentation of errors in SDA reasoning, logic, and biblical exegesis, all of which led to the creation of the Investigative Judgment doctrine, indicts Ellen White since it was her alleged prophetic guidance that approved of this doctrine. In response to Ford’s allegations, the SDA sect removed his ministerial credentials and excommunicated him from the organization.

The second dissident, Walter Rea, published The White Lie (1982), in which he documented White’s plagiarism of other authors, which she then attempted to pass off as inspired information given directly from God. Like Canright, Rea also documented the many historical mistakes White made in her allegedly “inspired” visions. Rea’s book painstakingly documents the many contemporary historical records, along with whatever inaccuracies they included, that White copied verbatim in her writing, all the while claiming that God was revealing this information to her through visions. Rea also devotes one chapter of his book to the likely medical conditions that caused the delusions White thought were visions. Although Rea initially tried to meet with SDA leaders to discuss his concerns, the leadership refused to meet with him or discuss his views, a move that eventually caused him to publish the book. Shortly after its publication, the SDA sect terminated Rea’s employment as an SDA minister.

The third dissident, Ronald Numbers, a professor at the SDA Loma Linda University in Southern California, and his wife Janet, published Prophetess of Health (1992), which outlines the development of White’s beliefs related to health, as well as possible alternate explanations for her alleged visions. Like Canright and Kellogg, Ronald and his wife Janet Numbers both suggested that White’s alleged visions were the result of mental and emotional trauma and not divine revelation. Numbers and his wife have argued that Ellen White’s alleged revelations may have been the result of severe psychological disorders brought on by the severity of her early head injury. These disorders include histrionic disorder, clinical depression, and somatization disorder. By her own admission, White experienced feelings of chronic depression and acute despondency after the accident, and often felt as if she did not belong, all symptoms of these disorders (Canright, 1914, pp. 154–155; Numbers, 1992, p. 31; Numbers and Numbers, 1992, p. 212). Numbers also claimed that White plagiarized almost all of her alleged visions related to healthful living from other contemporary health professionals. The SDA sect concluded that Numbers did not believe in White’s prophetic gift and fired him from his teaching position. Numbers currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

These three dissenters, among many, continue a dissenting tradition in the SDA organization begun by Canright, Kellogg, and others. These latest dissidents have given the SDA organization the necessary means to reaffirm its beliefs and show adherents that it is still vigorously defending its identity. Outside observers suggest, however, that the SDA organization may have slightly reinterpreted its stance on Ellen White in light of continued dissent. While still affirming her alleged prophetic status and the belief that her writings constitute an identifying mark of the remnant church, Seventh-day Adventist scholars recently have applied critical scholarship to the Bible and the writings of Ellen White, resulting in a decrease of their alleged supernatural characteristics (Bull and Lockhart, 1989, p. 90). This assertion seems to suggest that the SDA organization holds White’s writings on the same level as the Bible, since they apply the same critical scholarship to both books and have lessened the supernatural characteristics of both, instead of doing so just to White’s writings. It seems that the SDA organization is unwilling to subject White’s writings to any criticism or critique to which they would not also subject the Bible. If White’s writings are suspect, then so too is the Bible. Certain SDA scholars, however, such as George Knight, believe that God did not inspire Ellen White verbally, and therefore mistakes exist in her writings, in his view perhaps lessening her prophetic gift (Knight, 1987, pp. 232, 233). While dissidents have not managed to completely undermine SDA belief in the alleged prophetic status of White, they have managed to make the SDA organization reevaluate its stance on her.


Despite claims of divine origin, the SDA sect came into existence as a reaction to intense feelings of cognitive dissonance among the disillusioned followers of William Miller. To justify the novel theological positions Adventists invented to reduce this cognitive dissonance, they accepted the prophetic claims of a young woman by the name of Ellen White. Adventist identity soon rested in large part on belief and acceptance of White’s prophetic claim and the content of her alleged visions. Although many dissidents challenged White’s claims and her subsequent role in the sect, their challenges failed to persuade Adventists to reject her. Instead, dissenters played an important role in strengthening Adventist identity and in affirming White’s alleged prophetic gift.

During its formative years, the SDA sect built and maintained its religious identity due in large part to the continual eruption of dissent within the organization. Today, the Seventh-day Adventist sect is a multifaceted, worldwide organization claiming over ten million members that unites people of various cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds into one semicohesive group. The SDA sect continues to experience dissent and to reaffirm its identity as it reacts to the challenges these dissenters bring. As long as dissenters continue to challenge the fundamental beliefs of a religious organization, that organization will have ample opportunity to strengthen its identity. It is important to note than an organization may not always reject the dissenter’s opinions, since on occasion the dissenter may raise valid challenges to the organization’s identity. In instances in which the dissenter raises valid objections (objections that the organization recognizes as valid), the organization may benefit from a renegotiation of its traditional identity that includes all or part of the dissenting opinion if it strengthens the organization’s overall integrity. It will be interesting to see how the SDA sect deals with dissent in the future as it continues to face continued dissent over the role of Ellen White. Only time will tell if the continuation of dissenting voices will effectively change the sect’s stand on her. If the SDA sect were to accept that White was not a prophet and, as dissenters insist, her visions and writings were the result of physical and mental deficiencies rather than divine inspiration, this acknowledgement would effectively place the SDA sect within the larger mainstream Protestant wing of Christianity. Until this happens, however, the SDA organization will continue to be a sectarian movement operating on the outer fringes of Christianity.


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About the Author

Timothy Dunfield is a Ph.D. student in the Religious Studies department at the University of Alberta under the supervision of Dr. Stephen Kent. His interests include new religious movements, utopian literature, and religion and popular culture.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 2, 2011

[1] Thanks to Terra Manca, Maryam Razavy, Dr. Steve Kent, and two anonymous reviewers who provided critical insight and edits on various drafts of this paper. An early version of this paper was presented at the International Cultic Studies Association Conference in New York in 2010.

[2] Out of nothing.

[3] According to Stark and Bainbridge, cults represent a deviant religious tradition within society. Cult movements attempt to satisfy all the religious needs of their members and forbid adherents to have dual membership with any other religious body. Often, a spiritual medium guides the cult movement (1985, p. 28– 29). Earlier, Stark and Bainbridge (1979, pp. 156, 157) said that cults are a deviant religious tradition with novel beliefs and practices. Therefore, cult formation is a two-step process. The first step is the invention of new religious ideas. The second step involves gaining social acceptance for the new ideas to the extent of creating a group that adheres to them. The SDA organization believes it provides the most comprehensive interpretation of scripture available and that it has uncovered spiritual “truths” that other organizations have failed to understand. Therefore, the leaders of the SDA organization believe the organization can best satisfy the religious needs of its adherents. Ellen White was a spiritual medium who guided the organization throughout her life and whose writings continue to guide it.

[4] According to Stark and Bainbridge, while both sects and cults are in a high state of tension with the surrounding sociocultural environment, sects have a prior tie with another religious organization. In order to be a sect, a religious movement must have been founded by persons who left another religious body for the purpose of founding the sect. Sects left the “old” faith, not to begin a new faith, but to reestablish the old since they see the old organization drifting from the fundamental truths it once held. Sects claim to be refurbished or purified versions of the faith from which they split. Because sects attempt to restore aspects of practice and doctrine from which the parent body has allegedly drifted, sect families bear rather close resemblances to each other in terms of theology and worship forms (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985, pp. 25–26, 138).

[5] I am indebted to Rod Dubrow-Marshall, who reminded me at the 2010 ICSA conference in New York that in Europe the term sect refers to a cult. I use the term sect not as cult but as an intermediate position between cult and mainstream organization, in line with Stark and Bainbridge.

[6] Stark and Bainbridge said that sects began in a state of tension with their environment. They also said that there were different levels of tension between the sect and the environment, based on three interacting components. First was the difference in beliefs, norms, and behaviors between the sect and its surrounding environment. Second was the level of antagonism these differences generate between the group and surrounding environment; and third was the level of separation between the two, to which this antagonism led. Sects that remained in a high state of tension long after their initial founding included the Seventh-day Adventist organization (there are two levels of higher tension that Stark and Bainbridge identify—groups that ranked as “very high” or “extreme”—that experience greater friction with their environment than do SDAs [Stark and Bainbridge, 1981, p. 138]).

[7] Adventist historian LeRoy Froom suggested that between 1800 and 1844, more than 65 individuals predicted the end of the world (or the fulfillment of the 2,300-year/day prophecy upon which Miller based his predictions) between 1843 and 1847 (in Knight, 1993, p. 16).

[8] Miller first predicted that the return of Christ would happen in 1843; but after Christ failed to return on the specified date in 1843, Miller’s associates convinced him that the correct date was the spring of 1844. After this date also proved false, October 22, 1844 became the final date that Miller predicted for the second coming of Christ (Froom, 1971, p. 65; Schwarz, 1979, p. 49).

[9] The Baptist Church excommunicated Miller; yet, until his death in 1850, he continued to believe in the imminent return of Christ (Cross, 1950, p. 311–132).

[10] The other group Festinger et al. studied was the Guardians. Alison Lurie’s book Imaginary Friends is a fictional story but may have been based on the research Festinger and his researchers undertook with the Guardians before writing When Prophecy Fails. Joseph P. Szimhart’s review of Imaginary Friends, in which he asserts this theory regarding Lurie’s book, is on the International Cultic Studies Association Website:

[11] Changing cognitions may mean changing behaviors that result in dissonance, or changing the environment where the dissonance-causing cognition occurs. Exposure to new information means adding new information (new cognitions) and new sources of information that reduce the importance of the existing dissonance (Festinger, 1957, pp. 18–24).

[12] Lorne Dawson (1999) points to rationalization and reaffirmation as two adaptive strategies used by groups experiencing the failure of prophecy, and uses the Baha’is under the Covenant and Jehovah’s Witnesses as case studies.

[13] A similar situation occurred within the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) when it faced the disconfirmation of prophecies made by its leader and prophet, Elizabeth Claire Prophet. For a study of this incident, see Erin Prophet’s 2009 Prophet’s Daughter (Guilford: Lyons Press).

[14] Not every group experiencing prophetic disconfirmation engages in mass proselytizing efforts. For research on groups that did not proselytize after disconfirmation, see “When the Bombs Drop” (Balch, Farnsworth, and Wilkins, 1983) and “Prophecy Fails Again” (Hardyck and Braden, 1962).

[15] The Seventh-day Adventist organization considers Ellen White’s writings to be the revealed word of God, just as it considers the Bible to be the revealed word of God. While many SDAs would argue that they do not compare White’s authority to Biblical authority, former SDA General Conference President, Robert H. Pierson, wrote that the SDA organization had the gift of revelation in the form of the Bible and the writings of Ellen White. He went on to say that this revelation must be a determining factor in SDA’s acceptance of truth. He concluded by saying that the Bible and the writings of Ellen White are not on trial when it comes to accepting controversial doctrines (Pierson, 1975, p. 58). His statements seem to suggest that the governing body of the SDA organization accepts controversial doctrines based on the alleged revelations and subsequent approval of the controversial doctrine by White. Therefore, White and the Bible seem to provide equal sources of authority in SDA theological development.

[16] The official SDA Website lists all current SDA beliefs.

[17] Rebuke often came in the form of letters in which Ellen White detailed the many “hidden” sins of the person who had dared to question her role or the content of her alleged visions. Many of these letters are available in the SDA series Testimonies to the Church Volumes 1–9 (1885–1909, Mountain View: Pacific Press Publishing Assoc.).

[18] If we apply Durkheim’s concept of a “society” to the official Seventh-day Adventist organization, it is easy to see how his concepts of social identity and control of dissenting (deviant) opinions apply to the formation of this (and other) religious groups. Howard Becker said that any small group that shares a certain kind of common understanding regarding various things is its own culture (society.) A religious group is one example that Becker gave of this kind of small group. He went on to say that culture arises essentially in response to a problem faced in common by a group of people (Becker, 1963: 80-81). The early SDA founders did indeed share a common problem and in responding to that problem created their own ‘society’ or culture. Dissenters reacted to this newly created society.

[19] For a description of hysterical disorder given from nineteenth-century medical textbooks and their correlation to White’s condition, see Canright (1919, pp. 171–180 and pp. 185–186). Histrionic disorder shares many similarities with acute hysterical disorders. For a description of histrionic disorder, see Patrick T. Donlon and Don A. Rockwell (1982), Psychiatric Disorders: Diagnosis and Treatment.

[20] John Harvey Kellogg coined the term sanitarium for his hospital rather than the traditional term sanatorium. Several of Kellogg’s biographies stress that he invented this word to put emphasis on the restorative and healing aspects of his hospital in comparison to the bleak outlook that many patients entering a sanatorium faced.

[21] SDA sources do not make mention of this incident, but Ronald Numbers suggests that it did take place 10 years before Kellogg took control of the institution (Numbers, 1992, pp. 111–115, 124).