Seventh-day Adventists regard Ellen G. White as a prophet and messenger of God who left their worldwide church with a legacy of 25 million words, including 53 books, when she died in 1915.
A big reason for her prodigious output is now being uncovered by researchers in the 3.5 million-member denomination.
"She was a plagiarist," asserts Elder Walter Rea, pastor of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church here, who says he has spent two years researching White's writings.
Rea is not the first Adventist to find instances of unacknowledged copying and rewriting by White, but his evidence is the most extensive.
The precise extent of White's borrowings probably is incalculable because of paraphrasing, Rea said. But in White's book on Jesus, "The Desire of Ages," Rea has found repeated parallels with six non-Adventist sources.
A professor from Pacific Union College, an Adventist school in Northern California, has been appointed by the church to make a two-study of the sources in that book.
Rea's findings have startled Adventists, who were taught to believe that White's writings were entirely inspired by God. White has been to Adventists very nearly what Mary Baker Eddy is to the Christian Science Church.
Defenders of White in the Adventist leadership contend that she was no less a prophet for having selectively used other material -- just as, they say, the Old Testament teaching about an "eye for an eye" came from ancient sources, and the New Testament authors of Jude and Revelation apparently used some material from apocryphal literature. j
Some church leaders have deprecated Rea's procedures and conclusions as unscholarly. But Rea, an Adventist minister for 36 years, said the evidence he has found is so clear that "I could take a truck driver off the street and he can see it."
He said White's sources often were non-Adventist religious authors of the mid-1800s. Earlier Adventist writers also were used.
For instance, Rea cited a well-known line attributed to White, published about 1906: "The greatest want of the world is men, men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, and who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole."
In the January 1871 issue of the Adventist magazine, Review and Herald, this was attributed to "anonymous:" "The greatest want of this age is men, men who are not for sale, men who are honest, sound from center to circumference, true to the heart's core, men who will condemn wrong in a friend or foe, in themselves as well as others, men whose consciences are as steady as the needle to the pole."
Rea is completing a manuscript for a book based on his research. He said in an interview that he has not found a single major work by White that did not use a previously published source. "And I've only studied eight of the 700 books she had in her library or had access to.
"The important thing is that she and the denomination always claimed that she didn't copy and that she wasn't influenced by anyone," Rea said.
White, a health reformer whose trace-like visions helped guide the fledgling church in its early decades, wrote in an 1867 letter that she was dependent on the spirit of the Lord in receiving and writing her views, "yet the words I employ in describing what I have seen are my own, unless they be spoken to me by an angel, which I always enclose in marks of quotation."
She wrote of herself in a letter in 1906: "All who believe the Lord has spoken through Sister White and has given her a message will be safe from the many delusions that will come in these last days."
The significance of the discovery of literary borrowing cannot be overemphasized, Donald R. McAdams, president of Southwestern Adventist College in Keene, Tex., wrote in the independent Adventist quarterly Spectrum.
"Ellen White is so central to the lives of Seventh-day Adventists that her words impinge on practically every area of Adventist teaching and practice," McAdams said, referring to Adventists' dress, diet, leisure activities and biblical understanding.
"To consider her words as possibly derived from someone else and not necessarily the final authority introduces an element of chaos into the very heart of Adventism that makes all of us uneasy," McAdams said.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church, formally organized in 1863, grew out of a disappointed group of believers who hoped to witness Jesus' Second Coming in 1844. Ellen and James White, married in 1846, were active among Adventists who reinterpreted the year 1844 as the time when Christ moved into a sanctuary in heaven to begin the investigative judgment of deceased Christians prior to his return to earth. Thus, church members still anticipated Christ's return and the "advent" of a 1,000-year reign in heaven for the truly saved believers.
By the time of her death in Napa County, Calif., at age 87, White was the revered prophet of a church body with 136,000 followers and a strong medical missionary thrust overseas. Today, about 590,000 of the church's 3.5 million members live in North America.
The study of Rea's findings has stirred an agonizing, rewarded defense of White.
While acknowledging that White used sources more extensively than previously recognized, church president Neal C. Wilson said in March that a special denominational committee cautioned against the loose use of such terms as "literary dependency" and "extensive borrowing and paraphrasing."
In addition, Wilson wrote in an Adventist magazine, "Originality is not a test of inspiration." God inspires people, not words, he said. "The Holy Spirit holds the messenger to select his material carefully . . . The prophet's use of existing materials does not necessarily mean that the prophet is dependent on these sources," Wilson said.
The demonination officially declares the Bible to be the sole standard for faith.
Nevertheless, delegates to the international Adventist convention last April in Dallas approved a resolution affirming White as "inspired in the same sense as were the Bible prophets" and "as the Lord's messenger, her writings are a continuing and authoritative source of truth . . ."
Her reliability as an inspired prophet was reaffirmed last summer when a church committee rejected a theological challenge to Adventist beliefs about the year 1844. Desmond Ford, who brought the challenge, was later "defrocked."
Part of ford's arguments were based on the evidence of literary borrowing by White from earlier writings by Adventists Uriah Smith and J.N. Andrews.
"It was Rea who first mentioned the parallels to me," said Ford, who now lives near Sacramento, Calif. "Not only was sentence after sentence copied or paraphrased," Ford said, "but her sources contained errors which she repeated."
Four years ago, in a biography of Ellen White, Ronald L. Numbers, another Adventist scholar, described similar examples.
Now inactive in the church, which criticized his book as "biased," Numbers said of current developments: "There's no way they're going to let her authority slip too much. The capacity to believe what one wants to believe is infinite."
Numbers, now on the University of Wisconsin faculty, said he never charged White with plagiarism. "I'm not sure she was conscious of what she was doing," he said. "When you look at her visions, hallucinations, depression and loss of speech, if she weren't a religious leader, you would have had her in therapy."
Robert Olson, secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate in Washington, D.C., said the church is not denying the accumulating evidence of White's copying. "I'm satisfied she had some works before her as she wrote," Olson said.
Olson also said he puts credence in a theory advanced by Adventist Warren Johns that White had a photographic memory and unconciously used the phrasings and word choices of other writers in many cases.
Rea contends that White's husband James played an important role in her writings. He pleaded with her in a letter dated April 18, 1880, that they take time to get out certain books. "We should receive liberally on our books . . . . There will be an income of several thousand dollars annually, besides the immense amount of good our writings will do."