Why do Ellen and James White have an obelisk on their graves?

Some people have expressed surprise and concern to find a monument in the shape of an obelisk on the family cemetery plot of James and Ellen White. The obelisk (one, not two) isn’t a tombstone for any one person buried there but rather serves as the family marker in the center of the plot. The concern arises because of the obelisk’s connection to pagan worship in Egypt and to other questionable associations. Evidently, however, many people in the nineteenth century didn’t think this was a problem. Obelisks were common markers in cemeteries of the day. Within sight of the White family plot there may be as many as twenty or thirty other grave or plot markers in the form of an obelisk. A similar situation exists at the cemetery in Rochester, New York, where some of Adventism’s early pioneers were laid to rest. It’s quite unlikely that all these people were Freemasons, nor were they adherents of ancient sun-worship religions. Use of the obelisk for a marker in a cemetery was simply a common occurrence, not a tribute to Masonic or pagan beliefs. Adventists of that era seem to be among the ones who saw no problem with the use of an obelisk.

We recently found correspondence relating to this question among the letters of George I. Butler, who was General Conference president when James White died in 1881 and for a number of years after. On February 12, 1884, Elder Butler wrote to Mrs. White: “The dark colored granite monument at B.C. [Battle Creek] which you looked at I ordered for your husband’s grave last week at your son Willie’s invitation. He told me to have it charged to you.”

This indicates that Mrs. White had seen the monument chosen, and probably W. C. White had seen it too. W. C. White gave Elder Butler approval for its purchase. A letter from Elder Butler to W. C. White on February 10 of that year discussed the cost of the monument “with the headstone and other stones” and said that it “will be erected as soon as you send on the inscription.” It is clear that the White family was involved in the selection of the monument.

Twenty years later, in 1904, Mrs. White wrote about a different suggestion for James White’s monument: “After my husband had been laid away in the grave, his friends thought of putting up a broken shaft as a monument. ‘Never!’ said I, ‘never! He has done, singlehanded, the work of three men. Never shall a broken monument be placed over his grave!’ ” (Selected Messages, 1:105). We can only guess, but it may be that in contrast to that suggestion, she was quite pleased to have such a well-formed, symmetrical monument placed on the family plot.

Some have asked about the supposed connection of the obelisk to Freemasonry. Seeing the obelisk on the family plot, a few have even supposed that Mrs. White herself must have been involved in the Masonic movement. This is an unwarranted conclusion. Mrs. White was an outspoken opponent of Freemasonry. While she was in Australia, she urged an Adventist worker who was deeply entangled in Freemasonry to sever his connection with it. She also counseled others against involvement with Masonic orders. (See Evangelism, 617–623; Selected Messages, 2:120–140.)

So why the obelisk on the White family cemetery plot? Evidently, Mrs. White didn’t regard it as inherently a Masonic or pagan symbol, regardless of the fact—whether known to her or not—that Masons and sun worshipers had used it that way. Symbols mean what people take them to mean. The cross itself was once an abhorrent symbol of Roman oppression and cruelty, but today, Christians around the world hold it as a symbol of our redemption through Christ.

Symbols may change their meaning. When James White began to publish the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald as a biweekly paper (it became weekly in September of 1853), each issue carried both the date of publication and the standard name for the day of the week on which it was published, whether Monday or Thursday. (The day of publication varied some at that time.) Soon, however, he made a change. The issue published “Thursday, May 12, 1853,” was followed two weeks later by one bearing the date of publication “Fifth-day, May 26, 1853.” For several decades after that, the paper designated its publication day variously as “Fifth-day” and “Third-day” (for Tuesday)—apparently out of concern over the days of the week having been named for pagan gods. By the January 1, 1880, issue, however, the paper returned to us-ing the standard names of the days of the week. Apparently our pioneers decided that the use of those names didn’t compromise their faith.

People who use the standard names of the days of the week today don’t do so to express devotion to pagan gods. The names simply don’t symbolize those gods anymore, regardless of what they may have meant originally. Similarly, while obelisks may once have communicated occult meaning, by the nineteenth century, this meaning was no longer significant for most people other than Freemasons. Clearly, Mrs. White didn’t hold such beliefs herself. (This answer has been modified substantially from the one that was originally used on the Web site in answer to the question above.)