My friend D, a history major at one of the Seventh-day Adventist colleges in Washington, decided for his book club pick that we’d read a new biography of one of the church founding mothers, Ellen G. White. She’s received a lot of attention from a theological perspective, but she’s barely made any indentation on 19th century American studies from a cultural or historical perspective. I was interested to see what a variety of scholars would produce. I also wanted to read this volume, since my beloved history advisor, Gary Land, was a coeditor of this volume. Sadly, Dr. Land died last year, before this book was published. So, there was a brief moment of melancholy when I began reading–especially during his chapter on biography.
There is a chapter on her life story, biographies about her, on theology, on her writing self, on her impact with the health message (including temperance), her relationship to race and slavery, and culture, among many other facets. My favorite chapter was the one on culture. The scholars explained how White’s limited education made her somewhat unaware of literature, music, and other cultural texts outside middlebrow culture. Therefore, she recommended avoiding fiction, since the fiction she was mostly exposed to was the pulp writing put forth by magazines and published cheaply in serials.
For me, as an Adventist literature scholar, I have encountered some resistance to literature by other Adventists. Some have taken White’s writings very seriously and avoid “fiction,” because “Mrs. White says…” But, as this volume has shown, we have to take these writings in context and understand what they are talking about, particularly because White herself used fiction (repackaged as parables or stories) to convey lessons to children. This collection has taught me to read for myself and not take another person’s authority on face value, unless I’ve done reading and studying for my own sake.