Did Ellen White plagiarize other people’s books?

Around 1980 or so, an Adventist minister by the name of Walter Rea began to make serious charges against Ellen G. White to the effect that she got her messages out of books by other authors rather than from the Lord and that her writings were merely plagiarisms from the writings of others passed off as her own.1 Rea wrote a book expounding his charges with considerable bombast. Church publications such as the Adventist Review and Ministry carried articles relating to these matters through a good part of the 1980s. In addition, as you might expect, the Ellen G. White Estate prepared documents about these things.

Did Ellen White ever use the wording of someone else in her writings without giving credit? Yes, she did. Here at the office we have a set of her books in which we have marked all the passages that the critics or our own staff and others have found that bear a clear resemblance to passages in other works that she had access to. Walter Rea once claimed that 90 percent of her work was copied. This is both an overstatement and a misrepresentation. No objective measure of this phenomenon comes anywhere near that amount.

The General Conference asked Dr. Fred Veltman, then chairman of the religion department at Pacific Union College, to undertake a study of the book The Desire of Ages to ascertain how much literary relationship it might hold to previously published books. Dr. Veltman chose fifteen chapters randomly in order to keep the study manageable. Even so, it took him and a few helpers several years to do the job.

Dr. Veltman drew up about seven classifications of possible relationship,

1. Ed.: Not the first such charge, but one that raised the issue for current genera-tions.from the very remote to a word-for-word parallel. I don’t recall that he found any of the latter, but he did find close paraphrases and other looser correspondences. The looser they are, the more debatable they may be, but for the sake of completeness, he included them. He came up with a figure of around 30 percent of the material he studied that resembled, to a greater or lesser degree, the works of others that Ellen G. White may have consulted. Where the correspondence is fairly close, I don’t think there is any doubt that Mrs. White utilized the other work. Where it is not so close, borrowing would be more difficult to prove. On those, I am more willing to reserve judgment.

What does this all mean? Was Mrs. White a fraud, attempting to deceive people by passing off the works of others as her own? No, I don’t believe so. In the Review and Herald and in Signs of the Times, she recommended The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, by Conybeare and Howson—a book she was drawing on for her own book Sketches From the Life of Paul, which would be published the following year. This is not the behavior of someone attempting to hide a dishonest practice. Further, she openly proclaimed in the introduction to The Great Controversy that she had used the writings of others, sometimes without giving credit. She also says why. Here is the statement from pages xi and xii:

The great events which have marked the progress of reform in past ages are matters of history, well known and universally acknowledged by the Protestant world; they are facts which none can gainsay. This history I have presented briefly, in accordance with the scope of the book, and the brevity which must necessarily be observed, the facts having been condensed into as little space as seemed consistent with a proper understanding of their application. In some cases where a historian has so grouped together events as to afford, in brief, a comprehensive view of the subject, or has summarized details in a convenient manner, his words have been quoted; but in some instances no specific credit has been given, since the quotations are not given for the purpose of citing that writer as authority, but because his statement affords a ready and forcible presentation of the subject. In narrating the experience and views of those carrying forward the work of reform in our own time, similar use has been made of their published works (emphasis added).

Mrs. White’s concern was to get the meaning across. If others had expressed well the meaning that she wanted to convey, she felt free to use their words without credit if she was not citing the other author as an authority. Was this legitimate? Several Adventist scholars who have done substantial, careful reading in nineteenth-century Bible commentators came to the conclusion that this was common practice in Ellen White’s day and before; the commentators borrowed heavily from one another and almost never gave credit. (For example, Fred Veltman in a Ministry magazine article reported on his findings in the study of The Desire of Ages.)

Before Mrs. White’s time, John Wesley followed the same practice. I have a statement of his in which he says that when he began to write and preach, he determined that he would note the source of every idea he drew from someone else. But then he said he finally decided to note none of them because it distracted from the point that he wanted to make and he couldn’t always be sure he had properly given the source for every such item. Mrs. White grew up in the Methodist tradition; perhaps this view of Wesley’s was something she adopted early on.

In any event, we can say that Mrs. White’s practice was not inconsistent with the standards of her day, and she acknowledged her practice and the reasons for it in the introduction to The Great Controversy.

Was it plagiarism? The General Conference legal department hired a lawyer who specializes in copyright issues to review Mrs. White’s writings and the charges that were being brought against her. After the lawyer spent three hundred hours at this task, he said there is no case. Ramik said that he would be delighted to defend Mrs. White in a court of law on these issues (not that any such case was going to be brought) because he felt he could win hands down. (See “There Simply Is No Case,” Adventist Review, September 17, 1981, 6. This article is an interview by the Adventist Review staff of attorney Vincent Ramik, senior partner of Diller, Ramik, & Wight, Ltd., specialists in patent, trademark, and copyright cases, Washington, D.C. The article and three others on the same topic have been reprinted in a pamphlet—“Was Ellen G. White a Plagiarist?”—available from the Ellen G. White Estate.)