Ellen White and Fiction

The controversy

The question of fiction and novels is one that rises from time to time. It is a matter that takes some careful study and requires a great deal of patience on the part of teachers or libarians who will have parents or well-meaning church members confront them on this matter from time to time. The controversy over fiction has been a Seventh-day Adventist concern (actually true of most conservative Christians) for decades, although the intensity of interest and concern has ebbed and flowed at different times in our church's history. In the last decade it has subsided somewhat.

Obviously, the fact that Ellen White found it necessary to make even one statement about fiction and reading matter, much less the scores of comments she does make, suggests that there was a problem in the area of fiction. Yet this controversy over fiction, and particularly over novels, was especially prevalent, and at times even virulent, in the 70s and 80s. It is still a bothersome issue at times and one that has affected me as a teacher of literature in our schools. In fact, in nearly thirty years of teaching (and in 5 earlier years of college and graduate study) there has hardly been a year in which I have not heard someone raise questions of what is appropriate reading for Christians. On several occasions I have been directly questioned on this controversy myself because of specific textbooks I was using in the classroom. On a number of occasions I have been asked about the material that one of the teachers had chosen as reading material or that had been found in the school library.

E. G. White Statements

When we examine the writings of Ellen White, it appears, at first glance, that there should be no controversy at all. For example, in Messages to Young People, p 272, she writes, "The readers of fiction are indulging an evil that destroys spirituality." Also, in the same work, she says, "Put away every novel . . ." (p 286). Similar comments abound elsewhere. On one occasion she writes: "For the lover of fiction . . . total abstinence is his only safety" (Ministry of Healing, p 446). Another time she says that "all [novels] are pernicious in their influence" (2 Testimonies, p 236). With such statements to guide us, it would seem that anyone who reads a novel, or any form of fiction, is treading on dangerous ground. Such a person is in fact, putting his or her spiritual life in danger. The result of such statements has been that many Seventh-day Adventists completely avoid all writing that they think is fiction -- and particularly novels. Similar statements can be found in the religious writings of most conservative Christians -- particularly in the writings of the 19th century.

What makes this issue controversial, however, are some apparent contradictions between what Ellen White says and what literary critics know about literature, especially its definitions. Incidentally, by the phrase "literary critic" I mean anyone who has studied literature at any length or who has read widely in the literatures of various nations, or cultures, or peoples and who thus has a knowledge of the terminology, nature and purpose of literature.


But before looking at the two words that cause the most difficulty, "fiction" and "novel," we need to recognize something about most words -- that is, the many levels of meaning that one word can have or evoke. At times, a single word can even have somewhat contradictory meanings. For instance, think for a minute about the simple English word "blue" (B-L-U-E). If you look it up in a standard dictionary, you will find that it has nearly a dozen meanings. (The Oxford English Dictionary lists even more.) The most straight-forward, commonly used meaning is its reference to a specific color as in the "blue" sky or a "blue" shirt But even this simple usage often goes beyond a mere color reference since we often associated "blue" with images of peace, beauty, and idealism. Thus we often subtly use the word "blue" to suggest ideal concepts. However, the word can have a slightly negative meaning as well, for it also means "discolored" or "livid"--as in the sentence, "he talked until he was blue in the face." It also can mean to be "depressed" or "melancholy"--as in the sentence, "He feels blue." Then, in a meaning which is almost completely opposite to the first meaning I gave (the meaning of color which evokes images of beauty and peace), it can mean "indecent" or "immoral"--as in a reference to a "blue" movie or a "blue" joke. Thus, we can see that even a simple word really is quite complex.

Defining Fiction and Novel

The word "fiction" can be seen in a similar way. Often it is used as an antonym to the word "fact." Thus "fiction" is often immediately associated with falsehood, lies, and attempts to deceive. However, when a literary critic uses the word "fiction," this is not the level of meaning that he or she has in mind, although there are naturally some overtones of the first meaning that carry over. Fiction, in a literary sense, refers to any writing that has been "imagined or invented."

Now you might immediately think, what is the difference between "false" and "imagined" If it is invented or made up, of course it is false. This is the normal reaction when we are talking about facts and literal situations. But, when it comes to the writing process, this poses a real conundrum. In a very real sense, all writing is imaginative. Occasionally, someone writes down verbatim what someone has said (or it may be recorded on a tape recorder, a video recorder, on film, or on some other literal format like these). But even the most literal, obvious factual writing is still imaginative. A writer has to "remember" what he or she saw or heard. Anytime someone relies on memory, the event or situation becomes changed by individual perceptions. Then, a writer has to find a format most appropriate to record a particular message or idea. This too causes factual material to be arranged to fit into the chosen format. In other words, all writers have to use imagination. Fiction happens to be a form of writing that takes advantage of this writing process.

In addition, serious literary critics talk about the "truth" of fiction because fiction, for the most part, is expected to be a mirror of reality. One of the tests that literary critics apply to a literary work is whether it is universal and probable. They expect good fiction and good novels to have a close resemblance to reality and to reflect what is known to be true about human experience and character. In fact many novels are based on literal incidents and situations. At the same time, good fiction and good novels are expected to be written up in a form that is pleasing and even beautiful to the perceptions of the reader.

The word "novel," which is often used synonymously with "fiction," is perhaps somewhat easier to define. A novel is a prose work (that is, one written in sentence form) which tells a story, which is somewhat lengthy (usually between 100 and 1000 pages long), and which involves recognizably human characters in what is recognized to be human activities. (This also includes the relatively few stories with animals as characters.)

Thus, when we just look at the basic definitions of these two words--"fiction" and "novel" -- as seen from the perspective of a literary critic and then compare them with what Ellen White says, a question arises. How can a particular method of writing be inherently bad, or immoral, or evil, or destructive of spirituality, especially when one of the goals of this literary method is presenting truth?

Fiction in the Bible

What makes this question of fiction and novels an even greater problem is that many see further contradictions between Ellen White's statements and the accounts we have of her own writings as well as the practice of her own life. Even more problematic, in a sense, is the contradiction between what Ellen White says and what we find and recognize as fiction in the Bible itself. While the Bible does not have any extensive passages that we can call fiction, there are occasional passages in both the Old and the New Testaments that are clearly fictional -- that is, they are imaginative or invented stories that tell the truth about some human situation, action, or condition. Most Seventh-day Adventists, or most Christians for that matter, do not refer to these passages as fiction. Instead they use what they feel are less negative, or less pejorative terms like "parable" or "fable" or "allegory." Nevertheless, from a literary perspective, they must be considered as fiction.

In the Old Testament, for instance, we find, in Judges 9, Jotham's Fable of the Trees. No one is particularly bothered by the non-factual aspects of this story in which one tree talk to another. Instead we recognize that the writer has purposely chosen a non-literal format to make a particular point that could not be easily done in any other manner. Another example of fiction in the Old Testament is the book of Esther. While I do not in any way question its essential historical accuracy, it uses many of the techniques that literary critics associate with fiction and the novel -- recreated dialogues, hyperbole, structured plot, and stylized characters.

In the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 12, we have Paul's allegory on the parts of the body. Again, we are not usually disturbed about the literal inaccuracy of one part of the body speaking to another. Again we recognize the truth underlying the factual discrepency. The most notable fiction of the Bible, in fact, is the many parables of Jesus. Most of these do not demand a literal reading to ascertain the truth in them. One parable in particular, "The Rich Man and Lazarus," if taken literally as a factual account, leads to some interesting theological problems on the immorality of the soul. In fact, we must recognize and explain the literary basis of the parable if we are to avoid a doctrinal misreading.

Obviously, then, from the example of the Bible itself, we can see that fiction as a form of writing is not forbidden. While it is not the most common literary form, it can be found in certain circumstances. The fact that Christ made such extensive use of fiction suggests that it functions more appropriately for some situations than any other form of writing or telling.

Ellen White's Use of Fiction

Ellen White own practice appears to be somewhat contradictory. While she condemns fiction on one hand, she reads and uses it on the other. It is not an exaggeration to say that even some of her dreams or visions are written or presented in a fictional format. I am thinking particularly of the non-literal basis of the dream that is recorded in 2 Testimonies (pp 594-597) in which she tells of a journey in which a group of travelers begin with loaded wagons and drive along a precipice. As the road narrows, they change from wagons to horseback. Then, as the journey continues, they are forced to cut the loads off their horses. A little later, they have to dismount and travel on foot. At that time small white cords appear and dangle along side them from the cliff which has been beside them throughout their journey. They find that they have to grasp these cords to keep their balance on the increasingly narrow path. As the path gets ever narrower, they have to take off their shoes in order to keep from slipping. Finally they come to a chasm and the only way to cross to the other side is to swing over on the slender cords. As Ellen White herself says, "this dream needs no comment" (p. 597). It dramatically and effectively presents in allegory (or fiction) a story that needs no further elaboration. Yet the dream is clearly not factual and reads more like short story or a piece of fiction. When we read this dream story, we do not take either the role of the individuals or the situation as a literal occurrence for we quickly understand that Ellen White is really talking about the role of faith in the Christian experience. Putting it into a "fictional" format actually makes it easier to understand and more enjoyable to read.

Some years ago, while Dr. John Waller was head of the English Department here at Andrews University, he made a fairly thorough study of Ellen White and this question of fiction. His study made many Seventh-day Adventists aware of the material in the voluminous scrapbooks of stories and articles she kept throughout much of her life and to the published work that came out of those scrapbooks -- Sabbath Readings for the Home Circle. Throughout her life, Ellen White read widely. It became her practice to clip out stories she read in many of the magazines of her day, stories that she found useful or interesting. She made at least nine scrapbooks of stories and articles. While four of them have been lost, the five remaining scrapbooks are with the White Estate. Dr. Waller examined these scrapbooks and found that most of the stories were anonymous, that many of them were fiction, and that a few of them were by recognized and well-known fiction writers of her time, including Hans Christian Andersen, who is noted for his fairy tales, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dr. Waller reached the conclusion that "On the evidence of the scrapbooks and Sabbath Readings . . . that absence of sheer factuality was not Mrs. White's definition of fiction. At least between 1850 and 1880 she herself read and preserved for future reference many relatively short, . . . non-factual stories that appeared in various magazines. . . . Thus, in practice, she established the principle of exercising moral discrimination in dealing with simple, clearly moralistic fiction" (p. 21, Waller monograph).

One final complicating factor is that Ellen White recommended the reading of at least one novel, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, calling it, in The Great Controversy, a "wonderful allegory" (p 252). While some have argued that this work is not a novel but that it is really an allegory, this misses the point entirely. To be an allegory does not mean that it can not also be a novel or a work of fiction. Literary critics recognize it as such and, in most literary histories, it is pointed to as one of the pivotal early works that helped establish the novel as a major literary form in the eighteenth and subsequent centuries. Pilgrim's Progress has all the characteristics of a novel -- imagined settings, imagined characters who are not true to historical fact, plot, dialogue, conflict, and all the whole parphrenalia that novelists and fiction writers use today as their primary writing techniques.

One immediate solution to these apparent contradictions between Ellen White's condemning statement on the one hand and the apparent practice of her life on the other hand, as well as the examples in the Bible that we find of fiction, is to say that she was evidently wrong when she made her condemnations about fiction. This, however, leads to even more serious problems. If we insist that Ellen White was wrong here, the next logical step is to reject not only this one aspect of her teachings but other aspects with which we do not personally agree. Ultimately, we reject all of Ellen White in terms of her role as a prophet. This is not an approach that I consider viable. I am convinced of the accuracy of Ellen White's counsel. Although there have been a number of attempts to discredit her writings and counsel, my purpose is to strengthen your faith in the basic principles she is advocating. Rather than questioning Ellen White to the point that we reject her counsel, what we need to do instead is carefully consider exactly what it is she had to say, and, when there appear to be problems or inconsistencies, consider the context of her times and the context in which she said something in order to see if there is a solution to be found. At times the contractions can be resolved. But, let me emphasize that at times we may have to accept the truth of Ellen White`s counsel even if it runs against our personal desires or wishes. Truth is not always easy.

Historical Context of Ellen White's Statements

A historical or contextual study of the novels and fiction in the nineteenth century is necessary to make sense of Ellen White's comments on fiction. This has been done fairly extensively by John Wood in a master's thesis he did working on a degree here Andrews University. He rewrote some of his findings and published them in an article called "The Trashy Novel Revisited: Popular Fiction in the Age of Ellen White" (Spectrum, 1976). Wood points out a number of interesting facts about popular fiction and novels in the period from 1850 to 1900 when Ellen White was making her most scathing statements against fiction. First of all, there were literally millions of copies of certain types of novels widely available. For instance, a novel by a Mary Jane Holmes sold over 2 million copies in 10 years. The Lamplighter by Maria Cummings sold 40,000 copies in the first 8 weeks after it was published. The most prolific novelist of the time was a Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth who wrote over 50 novels and each of them sold over 100,000 copies. This one author alone had over 5 million copies of her novels published.

What we also need to recognized is the type of novels these were. They belonged to a class called "domestic" or "sentimental." They usually involved a melodramatic plot revolving around the unpleasant experiences of a wife or young woman heroine who had to deal with a husband or boss who drank liquor or chased women, or with erring daughter and straying sons, or with sickness, poverty, and insecurity. But the heroine would always triumph over these trials by living a pure life. Another common type of novel was the "sensational" novel involving tribal Indian and Civil wars, rags to riches experiences, and good pioneers versus bad outlaws -- stories that were filled with incredible accounts of bloodshed and dire dangers. These were essential the American Western stories was we know them today.

We also need to note the publisher's attitudes toward these works and the particular labels they gave them. Publishers began issuing them in storybook magazines as serialized stories that came out on a weekly or monthly basis. The public appeared to wish all of the story at one time so the publishers began issuing them in inexpensive paperbacks -- inexpensive meaning 10 cents, thus the term the "dime novel." There was no concern for anything but ease of publication and quick sales. The writers of such works churned them out as quickly as possible. We have the account of one novelist who wrote a 40,000 word novel in a 24-hour stretch. Such works were not considered to be significant literature. However, if a work became popular and sold enough, it was reissued in a slightly more expensive format and somehow its stature improved in the eyes of the both the public and the publisher. If sales still increased or, as Wood notes, "if a novel was successful enough to arrive eventually in the beautifully embossed and gilt bindings . . . it was considered 'High Class Fiction.' Advertisements referred to it as such, fit for the shelf of the fine lady or gentleman. Thus popularity became an index of worth" (Wood, p 18).

It is clear from studies of this sort that what was called "classic fiction" by publisher of novels in the last half of the nineteenth century would, by all literary standards today, be categorized as "pulp" or "popular" fiction, or as "trash" -- fiction which no literary critic of any standing recognizes as having any significant literary merit. It is as condemned today as it was by Ellen White in her time. In fact, Ellen White, it should be recognized, was not alone in her condemnation of this popular type of fiction. For a time, most conservative churches were as vehement in their denunciations as Ellen White. What is significant, in fact, is that Ellen White continued to denounce these trashy novels even when the churches of her time began to accept them and even to publish them themselves in order to make money.

If we go back to Ellen White's actual comments against fiction, we can recognize that she was condemning a particular type of fiction that was incredibly prevalent in her day and one that rightfully deserves condemnation. A careful study of her comments brings out certain recurring adjectives and phrases -- "sentimental," "trash," "sensational," "worthless," "love stories," "frivolous," "exciting tales," or "books published as money-making schemes," (Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students, p 134). This described exactly the most common type of fiction that was being read by a majority of American readers during this time. In fact, the literary history of the United States between 1860 and 1900 is often regarded as a wasteland as far a serious novels and other types of fiction are concerned. The several major novelists that are now widely read and acclaimed by scholars today--Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Melville's Moby Dick -- when published at the beginning of this period were not popular and were read, not by the masses, but by a few discerning, serious readers. The only major exception to this which comes near the end of this bleak period in American literature is two novels by Mark Twain -- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While these two novels were popular, commercial successes -- particularly the latter, they still were not as highly received as most of the "domestic" and "adventure" novels that were so prevalent during this time. And Twain's novels, in comparison to these hundreds of other novels were relatively tame in their adventure and not domestic enough to receive the support of the general reading public.

One other factor of publication also needs to be pointed out. Most of these novels were aimed at children and it should also be noted that most of Ellen White's comments are largely directed towards the reading matter of children. Thus, Ellen White is primarily concerned not only with a particular type of fiction but also with what children should read, particular since they would not yet have achieved the skills to distinguish good literature from bad or to readily tell truth from error.

What makes the reading situation of Ellen White's time even more problematic was the fact that in the 1870's many of the other denominations, which had earlier been so critical of pulp fiction began to enter the publishing business and to issue religious magazines of their own -- partly to counter the violence and sentimentality of most of the pulp fiction and partly to earn some of the ready money that was available in publishing. These religious magazine were filled with stories that were actual similar to those found in the secular magazine -- but with an obvious religious cast. Thus, when Ellen White criticizes stories with a semblance of religion, she is probably referring not only to the often morally correct domestic stories of the pulp novels but also to the stories found in many so-called religious magazines which were primarily issued to take advantage of the desire for quick, easy reading.

Ellen White and Literary Art

Thus, what needs finally to be recognized is that Ellen White is not categorically rejecting all fiction or all novels but rather she is condemning a particular manifestation of the novel and of fiction as it appeared most overwhelmingly in the last half of the nineteenth century and specifically in North America. In fact, when we consider Ellen White's statements advocating literary study, we recognized how highly she admired literary art. In Fundamentals of Christian Education she writes of the "pressing need of men and women of literary qualification" (p 192). She also says that "The minds of men need literary as well as spiritual training that they may be harmoniously developed; for without literary training, men cannot fill acceptably various positions of trust" (p 256). Finally, in the same work, she writes, "It is no sin to appreciate literary talent, if it is not idolized" (p 120-121). Ellen White, then, admired good writing but deplored writing that had neither moral nor literary value. Thus, we need to recognize that she is essentially calling on readers to develop the power to discriminate between good and bad writing rather than rejecting all types of writing, but particularly fiction and the novel. Her experience, her practice, and her counsel, if understood within the appropriate context, suggest that reading matter should not be determined on the basis of its approach--such a novel, or fiction, or poetry, or essay -- but rather on the basis of intellectual and spiritual discrimination of the content and the purpose of that writing. In fact, Ellen White's positive counsel is for men and women to become as highly literate as is possible.

SDA Church Response to Fiction Issue

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has attempt to come to grips with this issue of reading material in recent years. In fact, as a result of several studies and several short publications, the controversy over fiction and novels is somewhat muted at the present time. During the early 1970's there were a series of conferences held by the Education Department of the General Conference of Seventh Day-Adventists in Washington, D.C. Out of these conferences involving church administrators, theologians, and teachers, came a statement on the reading and teaching of literature, including fictions and novels, that has satisfied most Seventh-day Adventist -- although admitted not all or I would not have made this controversy the subject of my presentation today.

First of all, as I have tried to do today, the statement from the GC characterizes the type of fiction that Ellen White condemns:

Ellen White used the term fiction to apply to works with the following characteristics:

From this statement I think it can be quite clearly seen that Ellen White had in mind the sentimental fiction that was so prevalent in her day. It was this type of writing that she was criticizing and not the work by serious writers of fiction, the novelist of the last three centuries who have always had a small and knowledgeable rather than a popular general audience. This is not to say that popularity is a means of determining good from bad but rather a recognition that the general population often has little training or interest in good literature, although occasionally popular taste and good literature do coincide.

So far, I have dealt primarily with Ellen White`s negative statements on literature. Once we recognize what qualities to avoid, it is equally important is to understand what qualities we should look for in the literature we read.

The General Conference Education Department statement has also identified some of the traits of literature that make it appropriate to read and which would be in line with Ellen White`s comments on literature. The statement reads as follows:

Literature assigned in Seventh-day Adventist schools should:

What I would like to close with is just a brief comment on the need to consider individual conscience in this matter of appropriate literature. While I have been studying this issue of appropriate reading for many years, it is not my primary intent to make you either a more conservative or a more liberal reader. I don't expect you to read something or not read something just because of what I have said here today. Rather, I hope you will consider prayerfully this issue of what you and the children in your care should read -- and then make a wise and spiritual decision on what it right for you, a decision that is based on principle.

The General Conference Education Department has also made a statement on the need to consider the individual conscience. The statement reads as follows:

In view of the fact that some students come to SDA classrooms with deep conscientious convictions about the kinds of assignments they may or may not accept, every effort should be made by all teachers of literature to provide optional acceptable reading on related topics for these students so that no one be embarrassed because of his [or her] individual interpretation of Spirit of prophecy quotations. (Pamphlet, GC Dept. of Education, p 10).

What is implicit in this statement is the need for tolerance as well as the need to allow conscience.

Yet as we accept the truth of a particular issue, we need to recognize and accept the individual consciences of others. We must recognize and accept the rights of others, those who have gone though this same search for truth, to follow what their conscience guides them to do. This matter of conscience works two ways. You have your conscience and your fellow believer has his. If the two do not exactly agree on some issue, the role that should be followed is that of tolerance and respect. You must respect the conscience of a fellow believer even as he must also respect and accept your belief.