Today most Seventh-day Adventists think of Mrs. White primarily as a writer. Many families have copies of her numerous books on their library shelves. But many who lived during her lifetime knew her better as a public speaker. At first she presented most of what she saw and learned in her visions through sermons and talks. When an angel instructed her to “make known to others what I have revealed to you,” teen-age Ellen naturally took the command as a divine order for her to speak. With books and newspapers scarce throughout the young United States, public speaking was the most common form of public communication.
To a timid seventeen-year-old girl with only three grades of formal education, public speaking seemed terrifying. In addition, three months of throat and lung disease had left her voice little more than a whisper. She did not know how she could possibly talk before large groups of people.
Her whole nature shrank in horror from the thought
of being God’s spokesman to the church. If she had someone to go with her, she thought, then she might be able to present the instruction God had given her. But her brother—two years older than she—had even worse health than she did and was even more shy about meeting people. Because of his family and business, her father could not travel with her. He did tell her, however, that if God wanted her to journey to other towns and cities to speak for Him, He would arrange things so that she could travel safely.
But her father’s assurance failed to cheer Ellen. She slipped into greater depression and melancholy. Her problem seemed to daily become more complicated and unsolvable. Although she wanted to obey God, she did not know how she could. Afraid of meeting people, her health poor, her voice nearly gone, she shrank from speaking to others about her visions. Death seemed to be the only way she could escape from disobeying God.
Ellen’s friends added to her misery. Noticing her growing depression without knowing what caused it, they thought it sinful that she should let herself become so sad, especially since God had honored her by giving her a vision. The Portland, Maine, Adventists met in the Harmon home, but Ellen could not force herself to attend the meetings. The turmoil in her mind made her want to remain in her room or go somewhere else. One day someone did persuade her to come.
The little group of Adventists gathered and prayed for Ellen, prayed that she would be able to accept God’s purpose for her life. John Pearson, an elderly family
friend who had looked upon Ellen’s earlier vision as possibly from Satan, now tried to encourage and comfort the distressed young woman. Too exhausted and depressed to do anything, she just sat there, unable to pray. Her thoughts, however, joined her friends’ prayers, and she realized that she would do anything possible to please God. She no longer had any fear about going out to speak to people.
In the middle of the prayers Ellen felt the mental depression that had plagued her for several days leave, and a brilliant light suddenly appeared in the room. Pearson, who had not kneeled during the prayers because of his rheumatism-crippled legs, saw a glowing sphere of light flash toward Ellen’s heart. “I saw it!” he exclaimed after she came out of the vision and regained her sight and hearing. “I saw it! I will never forget it. It has changed my whole being. Ellen, have courage in the Lord.”
The young woman nodded, the vision still vivid in her mind. She had seen several angels, and one of them had repeated the command, “Make known to others what I have revealed to you.” Her chance to fulfill it came quickly when she went with her brother-in-law to visit her sisters living in Poland, Maine, thirty miles away.
While there she had an opportunity to speak at a small religious meeting. For the first five minutes her voice remained little more than a hoarse whisper. Then her speaking difficulty dramatically vanished, and she spoke clearly and strongly for nearly two hours. But when she finished, the soreness and difficulty in breathing
returned and remained until the next time she spoke at a meeting.
More and more speaking appointments came. First she traveled throughout Maine, then to other parts of New England and to New York, and finally across the United States. Years later she journeyed and spoke in Europe and Australia. Her voice strengthened until people claimed they could hear her distinctly outdoors at distances up to a mile without any kind of electronic amplification or loudspeaker system. Audiences ranged from five to twenty thousand people, and she often kept their attention for hours. Grace White Jacques, a granddaughter of Ellen White, who often listened to her talks and sermons, said Mrs. White spoke simply, wasting no words, in a soothing but expressive tone.
Mrs. White obtained a reputation as an excellent speaker not only among Seventh-day Adventists, but among others as well. One day a young minister named A. J. Breed attended a large gathering held in Battle Creek, Michigan. Wanting to get a good seat in order to hear Mrs. White well, he went early and sat on the front row. As he waited for the meeting to start, a stranger came in and took the seat beside him.
Glancing around a moment, he turned to Breed and asked, “I understand that Mrs. White will speak here today. Is that true?”
The minister assured him that she would.
“I have come all the way from Chicago to hear her,” the man said.
The arrival of Mrs. White and several ministers on
the platform ended his attempt at conversation. After the usual opening exercises Mrs. White stepped to the lectern. During the talk Breed noticed the stranger out of the corner of his eye. The man seemed extremely interested, sometimes leaning forward in his seat in concentration as he studied her movements and expressions.
When the meeting closed and the audience prepared to leave, the man from Chicago touched Breed on the shoulder and asked, “Could you tell me what school of elocution Mrs. White attended and where she learned public speaking?”
“She has never attended any,” the young minister told him.
“But she must have. I can see the training in the way she speaks. It’s obvious.”
Shaking his head, Breed insisted, “No, I’m sure she hasn’t had any formal training in public speaking. In fact, she’s had little formal education.” He briefly described the accident and sickness that had plagued her childhood and prevented her from going to school.
The stranger’s face mirrored disbelief. “I head an elocution school in Chicago,” he said after a pause, “and I am positive someone has taught her public speaking. She did everything tonight perfectly. For example, we teach our students the best movements to make with their hands. When they step forward with their right foot, they use their right hand to make things balance. And that’s what she did every time. Her breathing, her articulation—everything she did followed what we teach. I had hoped tonight to learn the name of the school she’d gone to.”
Again Breed repeated that she had never had any formal training in public speaking. The man stared at the floor a moment, then commented, “There’s only one thing I can say: If no human being taught her how to speak, then the angels must have, because she’s an expert at it.”
Besides sermons and talks at Adventist religious meetings, Ellen G. White also lectured widely on temperance. The nineteenth century was a time of widespread national interest in temperance, especially as it related to the use of alcohol. Men and women of all denominations actively supported various programs either to encourage people to give up drinking or to pass laws restricting the sale of alcoholic drinks. Mrs. White, however, spent most of the time she devoted to temperance activities in educating people about the health and moral dangers of the problem.
Sometimes she held public lectures in rented or donated halls and auditoriums. Other times she took advantage of the interest many persons then had to attend camp meetings. Today for the most part only Adventists go to Seventh-day Adventist camp meetings; but during the past century people of all denominations attended the Adventist camp meetings, and church leaders conducted them as evangelistic meetings. When Ellen White spoke about temperance to a camp meeting audience, her listeners included not only Adventists, but Baptists, Methodists, and people of all faiths.
In August, 1877, Seventh-day Adventists held a camp meeting at Groveland, Massachusetts, a village located on the Merrimack River. The Boston and Maine Railroad
constructed a temporary spur track to the camp meeting site and ran special trains to the campground on Sunday, August 26. Five hundred people lived in forty-seven tents, and on the weekend, carriages, boats, and the special trains brought an estimated additional 20,000 people to the meetings.
The weekend had almost constant rain. Sunday dawned cloudy, but the sun broke through the clouds just before the first meeting in the morning.
The large main tent became so crowded that Mrs. White had to force her way through the mass of people to the speaking platform Sunday afternoon. Thousands, unable to get into the jammed 80-by-125-foot tent, ringed its edge, forming a living wall. Many perched in nearby trees to see and hear better.
Before the meeting Mrs. White had trouble breathing, and her throat bothered her. But as she stood, the pain left during the hour she spoke. The massive audience listened quietly and attentively. The knowledge that the people had come to hear her instruction on Christian temperance encouraged her. The crowd wanted to listen—they valued her teaching—and the receptiveness of the people made her talk even more effectively.
Two months earlier—June 28—Mrs. White had combined her lectures with a practical project to promote temperance. Near the end of June, P. T. Barnum’s circus rolled into Battle Creek on its special railroad cars. Since people did not have television or radio then and had few other sources of mass entertainment, the circus menagerie and sideshows attracted large numbers from Battle Creek
and nearby villages and towns. Church groups and civic leaders, knowing that many of the people would stay in town all day, feared that the visitors would go to the local cheap eating places and taverns for their meals. Widespread drunkenness could result, and Battle Creek did not want to have to repair the resulting damage. The community organized to prevent this from happening.
Under the direction of the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the city organized a special restaurant for the circus-goers, using the five-thousand-capacity tent belonging to the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. The large tent contained fifteen or twenty tables for its patrons to use. The W.C.T.U. asked the Battle Creek Sanitarium—the Adventists’ first and most famous hospital—to set up a vegetarian buffet table in the center of the tent. More people bought meals at it than from any of the other food counters, crowding its thirty-foot length until its operators had to add a twenty-foot extension.
Three days later the W.C.T.U. scheduled a series of temperance lectures in the huge tent, asking Battle Creek Mayor Austin, First National Bank cashier W. H. Skinner, C. C. Peavey, and Ellen G. White to speak. Mrs. White lectured for ninety minutes, holding her five-thousand-member audience in almost breathless silence.
Mrs. White did not limit her lectures on temperance to the United States. Visiting England, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, she spent from August, 1885, to August, 1887, on the European continent.
In Drammen, a city about thirty miles from Oslo,
Norway, she gave a sermon in a concert hall, using six beer hall tables placed together as a speaking platform. The Norwegians filled the two narrow side galleries, all the available seats, and crammed into the limited standing room. On Sunday, five days later, she accepted an invitation of the local temperance society to lecture in a military gymnasium, the largest hall in Oslo. She stood under an American flag used as a canopy to address sixteen hundred people on the religious aspects of temperance. Her audience included a bishop of the Norwegian Lutheran Church, several Lutheran clergymen, and many members of the upper social classes.
Returning to the United States, Mrs. White settled in California, then attended the important General Conference of 1888 in Minneapolis, where she gave nine major sermons and talks. The delegates to the Minneapolis meetings were divided over the issue of which should be stressed more—strict obedience to the Ten Commandments as a means of salvation, or righteousness by faith, which teaches that only Christ, not obedience as a means of earning God’s favor, can restore the relationship of man and God. Supporting the idea of righteousness by faith—that only Christ, and not man’s own efforts, can save him from eternal death—Ellen White spent several months traveling from church to church presenting sermons on this subject. Three years later she sailed to Australia, and among many other activities, visited and spoke at camp meetings there during her nine-year stay.
Until the end of her long life she used every opportunity to speak to the people about Christ’s love and His
teaching. But she did not aim her talks to large groups of people only. She tried to present each sermon or lecture as if she had prepared it for each individual present, and her personalized talks had great impact.
Even in her eighties Mrs. White continued to speak publicly. In September, 1908, she visited the camp meetings in southern California, speaking at several of them. During the last Sunday of the Los Angeles gathering, she addressed a large audience that included many members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She tried to relate the importance of her topic—the Sabbath—to each person present, giving Scriptural evidence for her authority. Instead of using emotionalism or flowery and sentimental expressions, she let the Bible do its own speaking through her. At the end of the sermon she did not attempt to frighten people with accounts of God’s future punishment of those who did not keep the Sabbath, but simply urged them to study what the Bible had to say about the Sabbath and then decide for themselves what they would do.
When she finished the sermon, one of the W.C.T.U. members hurried up to Mrs. White and embraced her, exclaiming with tears in her eyes, “I take my position to keep the Bible Sabbath.” The incident deeply impressed everybody present, and it showed the effectiveness of the speaking ability God gave to Ellen G. White.
Mrs. White’s voice is now silent. But the knowledge God revealed to her is preserved in her books and periodical articles. In her lifetime she spoke to audiences of thousands. Today her writings speak to millions.