Ellen White and Fiction

By admin On January 31, 2016 Under Ellen White

Ellen White and Fiction

Many have read the comments of Ellen White on fiction and wondered what she could have meant. Is she really condemning fiction of all kinds? I have long pondered this myself, trying to make realistic sense of it.

A Sampling of Ellen White’s Statements

A few quotes will suffice to give us an idea of the nature of her comments:

  • “That mind is ruined which is allowed to be absorbed in story-reading. The imagination becomes diseased, sentimentalism takes possession of the mind, and there is a vague unrest, a strange appetite for unwholesome mental food, which is constantly unbalancing the mind. Thousands are today in the insane asylum whose minds became unbalanced by novel reading, which results in air-castle building and lovesick sentimentalism.” – The Signs of the Times, February 10, 1881. MYP 290.3
  • “The readers of fiction are indulging an evil that destroys spirituality, eclipsing the beauty of the sacred page.” – The Adventist Home, 412
  • “All [novels] are pernicious in their influence.” – Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 2, 236
  • “Novel and story-book reading are the greatest evils that youth can indulge in.” –“Proper Education,” The Health Reformer, April 1, 1873

The Contradiction of Ellen White’s Practice

Now we have the idea of what Ellen White said, but her practice is where the contradiction comes. She seems to condemn fiction on one hand, and read it—even recommend it—on the other. Here are a few examples:

  • Some of her dreams and visions are presented in a fictional format. Her story of the ever-narrowing path to heaven is a good example. This dream is not factual and reads like a short work of fiction.
  • She kept scrapbooks, full of stories and articles, throughout her life. Five of them still remain, and it can be clearly seen that many of the stories in them are fiction, some by well-known fiction writers of her time such as Hans Christian Andersen of fairy tale fame and Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s own Harriet Beecher Stowe. After thoroughly examining Ellen White’s scrapbooks, Dr. John Waller, the head of the English Department at Andrews University, had this to say, “On the evidence of the scrapbooks and Sabbath Readings…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.”
  • In The Great Controversy (p. 252) she recommends reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, calling it “a wonderful allegory.” Just because it is an allegory doesn’t mean it isn’t also fiction: a novel. Actually, most literary critics point to Pilgrim’s Progress as one of the pivotal books that established the novel as a mainstream literary form in modern times. The characteristics of a novel—all the elements that modern fiction writers use—are there in Pilgrim’s Progress.
  • Ellen White read and borrowed from Paradise Lost by John Milton, a classic and one of the greatest epic poems in English, also a work of fiction and fantasy.

Ellen White and Fiction In Historical Context

The only way to understand the apparent discrepancy between Ellen White’s statements and her practice is to understand what was happening in the literary world of her time. In the late 1850s “sentimental” and “domestic” novels became wildly popular. These were melodramatic stories that soon became known as “dime” novels. Today these would be categorized as “pulp” or “trash” fiction that no critic would give any significant literary merit.

During this time, the best American writers, like Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, could hardly sell their books. Their frustration is expressed in the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “America is now given over to a damn mob of scribbling women.”

What Ellen White has to say about these novels is no different than what the authors, librarians, and churches of the time had to say. Indeed, this type of fiction is as condemned now as it was then.

Fiction and Non-Fiction: What’s the Difference?

In the end, all of this controversy may be unwarranted. Peter Selgin believes that no genre has a monopoly on “the truth.” He comments:
“What’s different about nonfiction is not the result but the intent, which is to try and get at the truth, however impossible. Therefore, when I say that the nonfiction writer swears to tell the truth ‘mainly,’ I mean to the best of his—and his memory’s—ability (which, unless he’s kept extremely detailed on-the-spot records, will be extremely limited).”

It becomes quickly clear that the difference between fiction and nonfiction is quite marginal. Many stories—fictional and nonfictional—are not true stories, but they are real. At least their emotional struggles are. Any serious literary critic expects fiction to mirror reality and, if it is to be successful, it had better do a pretty good job of it. This representation of reality is not only why non-fiction matters, but also why fiction matters. There are fictional elements even in non-fiction, and as much of the author’s truth (maybe more) goes into fiction as goes into non-fiction. I like what Lisa Unger says, “Everything is autobiographical or nothing is.”

At the end of the day, we cannot say that one genre is superior to another because it is more truthful. Each form of storytelling has its own unique strengths. Turns out, on closer inspection, that a “true” story is not so much different from a fictional one.


It is important to take Ellen White’s statements on novel reading in the context of her time and of her contrasting statements and actions. As with much that she wrote, it is easy to make her say things she never intended.

In practice she was discriminating. What she read (and therefore recommended in practice) was based on its morality, not its genre. Reading bad novels can certainly ruin the mind, but Ellen White obviously didn’t put all novels in the same class. She read and praised some and denounced others. Yet why should we be surprised at this? After all, the Bible itself contains fictional stories, and Jesus often used fiction and myth in His teaching.

Our world is split by two forces. They contend for our minds in every sphere, including our reading. Ellen White gives us sound advice on what the good looks like, even in the world of novels. Yes, there are two kinds of novels. Let’s not confuse the good with the bad.

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