Religion: Prophet or Plagiarist?

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Falling into a trance in the presence of friends in Topsham, Me., a 19-year-old girl had a vision. Jesus allowed her to see the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. At the very center in a halo of light was the Fourth Commandment, requiring observance of the seventh day. This meant, an angel explained, that Saturday must be kept as the Christian Sabbath.

The year was 1847, and the girl was Ellen Gould White, who was to become the leader of a new sect, the Seventh-day Adventists. A follower of Baptist Preacher William Miller, she had been one of thousands of Americans who waited in homes and churches on Oct. 22, 1844, convinced that Christ's Second Coming would occur that very day. When by midnight nothing had happened, many of the Millerites lost faith. They called the non-event "the Great Disappointment." But some still believed that Christ's Second Advent was imminent. Among them was Ellen White, whose conviction grew out of several visions as vivid as the one about the Fourth Commandment.

Ellen White is far less well known today than her contemporary Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. But the Adventists—who still expect the Second Coming to occur shortly—have grown into a remarkable denomination, with 2.5 million members in 185 countries, including 480,000 in the U.S. On average, Adventists contribute more to their church ($486 a year per capita) than do members of any other U.S. denomination. Worldwide, they operate an extensive system of 4,218 schools and 421 medical institutions.

2,000 Visions. The Adventists, like many other Protestants, profess belief in the Bible as the "only unerring rule of faith and practice." But they also believe in the "Spirit of Prophecy," which for them is manifested in White's 2,000 or so visions, which she described in her voluminous writings. Among other things she opposed involvement in labor unions, the reading of fiction and the bearing of arms (Adventists are not conscientious objectors, but most serve in the military only as medics).

Many of White's visions concerned diet. She saw her followers making "a god of their bellies" and over the years issued various dietary regulations stressing vegetarianism and forbidding alcohol and tobacco. Another of her visions showed that masturbation could lead to "imbecility, dwarfed forms, crippled limbs, misshapen heads and deformity of every description." During one trance, "companies of females" appeared to her; those wearing the floor-length dresses of the 1860s looked "feeble and languid," while those in shorter skirts had "cheerful countenances." For ten years she struggled to get her Adventist sisters to wear their skirts nine inches above the floor, over long trousers. But her "dress reform" caused complaints and embarrassment till a new vision told her to become silent on the subject. She gratefully complied.

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