Hi, I am a long time SDA and someone just loaned me an old book by Dr Walter Rea on the "White Lie" I have read it and now wonder is there an answer to these many charges of plagarism? Thanks for your reply!
Thank you for contacting the Ellen G. White Estate. I can understand your concern over the charges Walter Rea made and your interest in knowing if there is an answer to them. I believe there is, and I will outline for your briefly here what I think some of the main issues are.
Going directly to the key issues, did Mrs. White "borrow" from other writings? Yes. Did she admit to doing so? Yes. Was this somehow improper--plagiarism, deception, lawsuit fodder? After considering the evidence, you may come to agree with me that it was not.
First, note that Mrs. White wrote quite openly of her method. You probably have the book The Great Controversy. Take a look at the last 6 or 7 paragraphs of the Introduction. In the standard paging this begins on p. xi, paragraph 2. (I'll include them, and a couple of additional paragraphs that precede them, at the end of this message.) Here Mrs. White gives an overview of her objectives and methods for the book. I will quote one paragraph here from pp. xi-xii, though it would be useful to review the half-dozen or so paragraphs I have referred to:
"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 xii
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."
This was Mrs. White's concern--to communicate as effectively as she could the messages she had to give. In the 19th century such "borrowing" as she describes was commonplace, even among the most prominent religious writers. Here is what Raymond Cottrell wrote about this matter in a paper on Ellen White's use of sources in preparing The Desire of Ages:
"An editor [Cottrell refers to his own experience as editor for The Review and Herald] must also be alert for an author's use of sources in relation to both literary ethics and copyright laws. Suffice it to say that there is not one DA passage where words, phrases, ideas, or sequences would raise the least question of copyright infringement.
"While editing the SDA Bible Commentary I had occasion to compare thirty nineteenth-century Bible commentaries on the Book of 1 Corinthians. The first thing I noticed was the extent to which these nineteenth-century writers, many of them well known and respected, copied significant amounts of material from one another without once giving credit. I concluded that nineteenth-century literary ethics, even among the best writers, approved of, or at least did not seriously question, generous literary borrowing without giving credit. Ellen White frankly acknowledged borrowing from various historical writers in the process of writing The Great Controversy, sometimes with and sometimes without credit. It is not fair to a nineteenth-century writer to judge him (or her) by our standards today. We must judge them by their standards and accepted practice of their days." (From Raymond F. Cottrell, "The Literary Relationship Between The Desire of Ages, by Ellen G. White, and The Life of Christ, by William Hanna" , p. 6, available from the White Estate.)
Charles Wesley, founder of Methodism (which Ellen White grew up in), wrote this about his own literary practice:
"It was a doubt with me for some time, whether I should not subjoin to every note I received from them the name of the author from whom it was taken; especially considering I had transcribed some, and abridged many more, almost in the words of the author. But upon further consideration, I resolved to name none, that nothing might divert the mind of the reader from keeping close to the point of view, and receiving what was spoken only according to its own intrinsic value." Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Preface Quoted in F. D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics, p. 406
I cite Wesley here, not because I believe he was inspired in the way I believe Ellen White was, but because his reason for not giving references is essentially the same as Ellen White's. Her concern was not to cite an author as authority, but to provide a ready and forcible presentation of the subject. Communication was the aim, in both instances. And their literary practice was very similar. Likewise, as Cottrell observed, other prominent 19th century authors followed the same practice.
Ellen White's son, W. C. White, wrote of his mother's literary practice and the reasons for it:
"In her early experience when she was sorely distressed over the difficulty of putting into human language the revelations of truths that had been imparted to her, she was reminded of the fact that all wisdom and knowledge comes from God and she was assured that God would bestow grace and guidance. She was told that in the reading of reli- gious books and journals, she would find precious gems of truth ex- pressed in acceptable language, and that she would be given help from heaven to recognize these and to separate them from the rubbish of error with which she would sometimes find them associated." "Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White," p. 5, by W. C. White and D. E. Robinson, Ellen G. White Estate "Elmshaven" Office, 1933; Reprinted as a supplement to the Adventist Review, June 4, 1981
I hope that this might be helpful to you in understanding the dynamics of the "borrowing" question in the 19th century. From another perspective, we have a paper here that you might be interested in: "The Ramik Report: Memorandum of Law, Literary Property Rights, 1790-1915 (August 14, 1981)." This was the result of the study Vincent Ramik, a prominent Washington DC copyright attorney (and a Roman Catholic), undertook for the General Conference Department of General Counsel in the aftermath of some plagiarism charges against Mrs. White that arose within the Adventist church. Ramik looked at issues of copyright infringement, literary theft, and plagiarism in the 19th century context (and beyond, through Mrs. White's lifetime). He found that her use was well within the limits of the legal and ethical provisions of her day. It is really quite enlightening reading. If you'd like a copy of the Ramik report, let me know and I'll send it to you.
Some have claimed that the publishing house was threatened with a lawsuit for copyright infringement by the publishers of a book that Mrs. White drew from in developing her own "Sketches from the Life of Paul." But we even have a letter from the publisher stating that no such suit was ever filed, and that there could not have been copyright violation since the original work was not under copyright.
I have a copy of "Sketches from the Life of Paul" here that has every known "borrowed" passage marked in yellow. In fact, I have a whole set of Mrs. White's books marked that way. When they arrived, the first one I wanted to see was "Sketches from the Life of Paul," because I had heard such stories about it, and I wanted to see how much was marked. Someone I know had been told that it was *entirely* "lifted" from other sources. (I never did hear anyone claim that much, but it just goes to show how stories can grow.) I expected to find vast expanses of material marked. Instead, I was surprised at how little had been traced to other works.
Interestingly enough, in the early 1880s the Signs of the Times was trying to build its subscription list by offering a premium along with the subscription. It was a book on the life of Paul, one that Mrs. White was even then drawing from in writing "Sketches from the Life of Paul." In connection with their announcement, the Signs ran an endorsement from Mrs. White about the premium book, saying that she had found it to be helpful, etc. So here she was encouraging other people to obtain the book that she was using in her own writing. One who is trying to plagiarize--to pass off someone else's work as his own--does not call attention to the other book and recommend that people obtain it! It is one more evidence that the use she made of other writings was considered quite acceptable in her day.
She declined to republish "Sketches from the Life of Paul" when the edition ran out because she intended to prepare a larger work that would take its place. This eventually appeared as "The Acts of the Apostles."
Contrary to what Walter Rea seems to believe, originality is not a test of inspiration. (Rea claims that if what Mrs. White wrote shows close similarity to that of a previously-published work, then she got her information from that work instead of from the Lord, and she lied when she claimed the latter.) The following paragraph is from a book Mrs. White had in her library, written while she was still a little girl:
"Suppose, for example, an inspired prophet were now to appear in the church, to add a supplement to the canonical books,--what a Babel of opinions would he find existing on almost every theological sub- ject!--and how highly probable it is that his ministry would consist, or seem to consist, in the mere selection and ratification of such of these opinions as accorded with the mind of God. Absolute originality would seem to be almost impossible. The inventive mind of man has already bodied forth speculative opinions in almost every conceivable form; forestalling and robbing the future of its fair proportion of novelties; and leaving little more, even to a divine messenger, than the office of taking some of these opinions, and impressing them with the seal of heaven." The Great Teacher, by John Harris, 2nd ed., 1836, pp. xxxiii-xxxiv From the Introduction by Heman Humphrey, D.D., president of Amherst College
So drawing on something that someone else has said or written does not necessarily mean that the author is not working under inspiration, nor does it impute inspiration to the original source.
This is a brief summary of some points I believe relevant in this discussion. Besides the Ramik paper I referred to above and offered to send you, there are a couple of other documents you may be interested in if you would like to explore these matters at greater depth. The two that seem to address your concerns most directly are "The Truth About the White Lie," which responds more specifically to issues raised in Rea's book. It is 16 page, and costs $1.00. Another is "Was Ellen G. White a Plagiarist?", a reprint of several articles from the Adventist Review, including an interview with Vincent Ramik, the non-Adventist attorney I've already mentioned. It is really quite enlightening. That is 8 pages and costs 50 cents. Beyond those, we have some materials from the first couple of decades after Mrs. White's death, when these issues were also being talked about: "Brief Statements Regarding the Writings of Ellen G. White," a discussion of her use of sources (by W. C. White and D. E. Robinson), 16 pp., 80 cents; and "How Ellen White's Books Were Written," addresses by W. C. White to the faculty and students of the 1935 Advanced Bible School, 37 pp., 1.50. Finally, you might be interested in a little paper by Paul Gordon, recently retired as director of the Ellen G. White Estate, "Why Did Ellen White Borrow?", 14 pp., 50 cents. Postage on these items is additional. If you'd like any of these, let me know and I will send them off to you.
Well, I hope some of this may be helpful to you. Thank you for getting in touch. May God bless and guide you as you study these matters through.
William Fagal, Director
Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office
Berrien Springs, MI 49104-1400 USA
Phone: 616 471-3209
FAX: 616 471-6166
From The Great Controversy, pp. x-xii (Introduction):
Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the scenes of the long-continued conflict between good and evil have been opened to the writer of these pages. From time to time I have been permitted to behold the working, in different ages, of the great controversy between Christ, the Prince of life, the Author of our salvation, and Satan, the prince of evil, the author of sin, the first transgressor of God's holy law. Satan's enmity against Christ has been manifested against His followers. The same hatred of the principles of God's law, the same policy of deception, by which error is made to appear as truth, by which human laws are substituted for the law of God, and men are led to worship the creature rather than the Creator, may be traced in all the history of the past. Satan's efforts to misrepresent the character of God, to cause men to cherish a false conception of the Creator, and thus to regard Him with fear and hate rather than with love; his endeavors to set aside the divine law, leading the people to think themselves free from its requirements; and his persecution of those who dare to resist his deceptions, have been steadfastly pursued in all ages. They may be traced xi
in the history of patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, of martyrs and reformers. In the great final conflict, Satan will employ the same policy, manifest the same spirit, and work for the same end as in all preceding ages. That which has been, will be, except that the coming struggle will be marked with a terrible intensity such as the world has never witnessed. Satan's deceptions will be more subtle, his assaults more determined. If it were possible, he would lead astray the elect. Mark 13:22, R.V. As the Spirit of God has opened to my mind the great truths of His word, and the scenes of the past and the future, I have been bidden to make known to others that which has thus been revealed--to trace the history of the controversy in past ages, and especially so to present it as to shed a light on the fast-approaching struggle of the future. In pursuance of this purpose, I have endeavored to select and group together events in the history of the church in such a manner as to trace the unfolding of the great testing truths that at different periods have been given to the world, that have excited the wrath of Satan, and the enmity of a world-loving church, and that have been maintained by the witness of those who "loved not their lives unto the death." In these records we may see a foreshadowing of the conflict before us. Regarding them in the light of God's word, and by the illumination of His Spirit, we may see unveiled the devices of the wicked one, and the dangers which they must shun who would be found "without fault" before the Lord at His coming. 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 xii
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. It is not so much the object of this book to present new truths concerning the struggles of former times, as to bring out facts and principles which have a bearing on coming events. Yet viewed as a part of the controversy between the forces of light and darkness, all these records of the past are seen to have a new significance; and through them a light is cast upon the future, illumining the pathway of those who, like the reformers of past ages, will be called, even at the peril of all earthly good, to witness "for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ." To unfold the scenes of the great controversy between truth and error; to reveal the wiles of Satan, and the means by which he may be successfully resisted; to present a satisfactory solution of the great problem of evil, shedding such a light upon the origin and the final disposition of sin as to make fully manifest the justice and benevolence of God in all His dealings with His creatures; and to show the holy, unchanging nature of His law, is the object of this book. That through its influence souls may be delivered from the power of darkness, and become "partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light," to the praise of Him who loved us, and gave Himself for us, is the earnest prayer of the writer. E.G.W.