Chapter 10

The American Pioneer

and the Victorian Woman

“She lifted herself from a sickbed and took her first, feeble, tentative steps toward becoming both a Victorian woman and an Adventist prophet.” 1

Of all the female leaders of social or religious groups in the nineteenth century, Ellen White was virtually unique. She combined the rugged characteristics of the American pioneer with the virtues of the typical Victorian woman.

At Ease With Horses

Here was a once-frail, five-foot-two woman who could harness and ride horses as well as most men.2 Further, based on her own experience, she strongly urged that boys should learn, either at home or in school, how "to make a bed and put a room in order, to wash dishes, to prepare a meal, to wash and repair his own clothing." Girls should "learn to harness and drive a horse, and to use the saw and hammer, as well as the rake and hoe."3

Familiar With Hardships

Ellen White is most often remembered as a powerful speaker and a prolific writer, but her contemporaries knew her also as a competent homemaker and cheerful mother. All this was not easy in a day without electricity or running water. Not easy, either, when neither she nor her husband received any regular income for years. And not having a "fixed place of abode" made life downright difficult.4

Skillful at Sewing

But the Whites, with two of their children, survived, as did most other families with the pioneer spirit of the nineteenth century. Throughout most of her long life Ellen White did her own sewing. At one time she wrote: "sheets and pillowcases and my clothes are in good order."5On a late November day, 1865, in Rochester, New York, she penned a note to James: "Last night was a cold night. I dreaded sleeping alone in a cold room, but my nice warm nightdress was finished and I put it on and it was real comfortable. . . . My sewing is going off bravely without my taxing myself at all."6

A Typical Day

One gets some insight into Ellen White’s daily life by reading her diaries and letters. In an 1873 letter to Elder and Mrs. D. M. Canright, she wrote, in part: "I have felt for some time that I ought to write you, but have not found the time. I have arisen at half past five o’clock in the morning, helped Lucinda wash dishes, have written until dark, then done necessary sewing, sitting up until near midnight; yet we have not gotten sick. I have done the washings for the family after my day’s writing was done. I have frequently been so weary as to stagger like an intoxicated person, but, praise the Lord, I have been sustained."7

Keen Purchaser

At one point in her busy European schedule, Ellen White needed relief from her unrelenting writing and speaking appointments. For diversion, she and Sara McEnterfer, her traveling companion, sewed for themselves and for others. Some women, noticing that she bought with thrift and taste, often wanted her to help with their shopping.8

But with everything, even sewing, she cautioned balance and urged maintaining right priorities. Speaking of mothers, she wrote: "Let her keep cheerful and buoyant. Instead of spending every moment in endless sewing, make the evening a pleasant social season, a family reunion, after the day’s duties."9

Enthusiastic Gardener

Ellen White was an avid gardener, not only to satisfy household needs for vegetables and fruit, but also to beautify the home with fresh flowers. Springtime in Battle Creek (1859) stirred the gardening blood of this busy, 31-year-old mother of three. On a cold, windy March 24, her diary reads: "Arose early. Assisted my husband and Brother Richard [Godsmark] in taking up a currant bush to plant in our garden.

"The weather was warmer on March 30 and she "set out the raspberries. Went to Manchesters’ for strawberry plants. Got some currant bushes. . . . Sent off three letters."

The next day she planted "a patch of strawberries." Two weeks later she wrote: "Spent most of the day making a garden for my children. Feel willing to make home as pleasant for them as I can, that home may be the pleasantest place of any to them."10From their small home in Washington, Iowa, she wrote to Edson: "We are in the midst of flowers of almost every description, but the most beautiful of all is to be surrounded with roses on every hand, of every color and so fragrant. The prairie queen is just opening, also the Baltimore bell. Peonies have been very lovely and fragrant, but now they are fast going to decay. We have had strawberries for several days."11

Gardening for Ellen White meant work, pleasant work. Writing from Oakland, California, to her husband at Battle Creek, she told of a new friend who shared plants for her garden: "I set out my things in my garden of the new house by moonlight and by the aid of lamplight. The two Marys tried to have me wait until morning, but I would not listen to them. We had a beautiful shower last night. I was glad then I persevered in setting out my plants."12In 1881, the Whites were living again in Battle Creek. This time, writing to Mary, her daughter-in-law, Ellen White wanted items from her Oakland garden: "I have a favor to ask of you. Will you get a small box and put in it small pink roots and slips, a few choice rose cuttings, fuchsia, and geraniums, and send [it to] me?"

A few days later she wrote again: "We have the most beautiful situation in Michigan. . . . I have been gathering up shrubs and flowers until we have quite a garden. Peonies, I have a large number of them; hope to get California pinks. I want to get some of that green bordering we get from Sister Rollin. . . . I wish I had some seeds from California."13This long and avid interest in the garden and orchard prepared her for the challenge in Australia during the 1890s. When she noticed that most of her encouragement for expanding agriculture development fell on pessimistic ears, she declared boldly that the men of the area were wrong. In fact, she said, they were bearing "false witness" concerning the land.

She led the way, by example and by visionary exhortation. The result was reviewed in a letter written on February 3, 1896: "We have the testimony that with care taken of the trees and vegetables in the dry season, we shall have good results. Our trees are doing well. . . . I can testify by experience that false witness has been borne of this land. On the school ground, they have tomatoes, squashes, potatoes, and melons. . . . We know the land will do well with proper care."

A few days later, she wrote in her diary that she arose at 4:30, and was in the garden by 5:00, "spading up the ground and preparing to set out my flowers." Then, with two helpers, she set out twenty-eight tomato plants. The next morning she was in the orchard, "tying up the trees. A tuft of grass is put between the stake and the trees so that the tree shall not be marred."14

Intrepid Traveler

Ellen White’s pioneer spirit was probably best manifested in her remarkable travel itinerary. By 1885 she had crossed the United States from California to Michigan about twenty-four times by train, only sixteen years after the transcontinental connection had been made at Promintory, Utah! Obviously, these trips were nothing like what people today can even remember, nothing resembling the "romance" that people attached to rail travel in the first half of the twentieth century.15Wooden passenger cars, hazardous in accidents, were the order of the day, not being replaced by all-steel cars until 1907. "Seats were straight backed and thinly cushioned, if at all. A coal stove furnished the only heat; candles and oil lamps provided the light. Open platform vestibules offered little protection from the weather when walking from one car to another."16 The engineer "could be identified by his aroma of bourbon as readily as a drummer by his sample case."17The first forty years of rail travel to the West were the "heyday of the miner, the cowboy, the train robber, and the bad man, any and all of whom you might find riding the plush or the wooden slats of the steam cars." The country going west "was bare and harsh, buffeted by cruel winters, baked by torrid summers. Rain, when it came, was a destructive torrent. Droughts occurred at regular intervals. . . . In 1874, with most railroad construction halted by the financial panic of 1873, the grasshoppers struck, eating every growing thing from the Canadian border to northern Texas. A Union Pacific train at Kearney [Nebraska] was stalled in a three-foot drift of ‘hoppers.’"18In 1876 the conventional travel time between the Pacific coast and New York was seven days and nights, with changes of cars at Omaha and Chicago.19

Three times Ellen White took the hazardous ocean trip to Oregon (1878, 1880, 1884) when facilities were still primitive. Of her visit in 1878 when she was 50, a worker’s wife reported: "Sister White was so ambitious when here, when contemplating work that was to be done, that it really seemed that she forgot her years. Her visit to Oregon was of the most valuable benefit to the work of Present Truth [sic] here."20In 1852, the Whites left Rochester, New York, for a two-month trip to New England by horse and carriage. James arranged the itinerary and informed Adventists through the church paper as to the time and place they could expect the Whites. The schedule was grueling; one leg of 100 miles was allotted only two days! But with good weather and no breakdowns, they managed to meet their appointments. While they bumped along in an open carriage, James thought of what he would write to the Review and Youth’s Instructor. When they stopped to let Charlie, their horse, eat, he would write the articles "on the cover of our dinner box, or the top of his hat."21Ellen White’s experience trying to get to a camp meeting appointment in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, early in June, 1889, well illustrates her persevering, pioneering spirit. This was the year of the heavy rain and the Johnstown Flood. Many roads and bridges were washed away enroute. 

The train moved slowly from Battle Creek. When they reached Elmira, New York, they were advised to return home. But Mrs. White (now 61) and Sara McEnterfer forged ahead. When the train could go no further, these two women hired a carriage. When the carriage was forced to stop, the women walked—completing the last 40 miles in four days.

The phenomenal journey is described in Ellen White’s report in the Review and Herald, July 30, 1889. In that report she wrote: "We were obliged to walk miles on this journey, and it seemed marvelous that I could endure to travel as I did. Both of my ankles were broken years ago, and ever since they have been weak. Before leaving Battle Creek for Kansas, I sprained one of my ankles, and was confined to crutches for some time; but in this emergency I felt no weakness or inconvenience, and traveled safely over the rough, sliding rocks."22 At the Williamsport camp meeting, she spoke thirteen times, including all the early-morning meetings—and that without a public address system!

This persevering, cheerful, pioneer spirit was evident, as usual, when the Whites crossed the Mississippi River in December 1857. A foot of water flowed over the ice, other teams with wagons had broken through—but the White party pressed on. In Iowa, through fierce, cold winds, with their horses breaking paths through high snow, they finally reached their destination.23

The Victorian Lady

Yet, though a hardy example of the rugged pioneer woman of the nineteenth century, Ellen White displayed the characteristics of the Victorian lady. Researcher Kathleen Joyce noted a widely quoted passage by Barbara Welter who listed four virtues by which the Victorian woman was judged: ". . . piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them all together and they spell mother, daughter, sister, wife—woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement, or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power."24

Joyce added the area of "women’s health and medical care" as another special characteristic of the Victorian woman. She noted that Ellen White’s career was a constant balance between fulfilling her Victorian obligations (marriage, motherhood, homemaker) and responding to her prophetic calling. "Her frailty, the visions over which she had no control, her unwillingness, particularly in the early years, to accept a leadership position that required her to be more than God’s amanuensis, reveal a particularly feminine pattern of religious prophecy. It was a pattern that accommodated the need for women to be servants rather than masters, and served to reinforce the comforting perception of women as passive vessels through whom God and men achieve great works. By adhering to this pattern, Ellen White became the type of female prophet that Victorian America was able to tolerate."25

Mrs. White manifested one of the many characteristics of the Victorian model by her frequent use of euphemisms. For example, in referring to sexual intercourse, she used phrases such as "privilege of the marriage relation,"26 "marriage privileges,"27 and "privacy and privileges of the family relation."28

Her Victorian euphemisms were not mere prudery. She was a loving, devoted wife who won and held the admiration of her husband until the day he died. But she understood mental health and how marital priorities should be established. Her frequent counsel to others regarding marriage relations was generated not only through divine inspiration but articulated out of personal experience. She not only verbally advocated civility and Christian modesty, but practiced it with a husband who adored her.

For example, note her wedding-night tip to Daniel T. Bourdeau, a nervous young man of 26. Bourdeau, ordained at age 23, looked for a wife for three years. In 1861 he was married to Marion Saxby in Bakersfield, Vermont, with James White officiating in a private home. James was 40 and Ellen was 33, still a young woman.

Because the service was late in the day, the newlyweds accepted the invitation of their host to spend the night in his home. The Whites also stayed as house guests.

When Ellen White went upstairs to retire, she saw a very nervous young man pacing back and forth in front of a closed bedroom door. She suspected a problem. Gently she said to the young bridegroom (as the bride later quoted her husband’s recital of the incident): "Daniel, inside that room is a frightened young woman in bed petrified with fear. Now you go in to her right now, and you love her, and you comfort her. And, Daniel, you treat her gently, and you treat her tenderly, and you treat her lovingly. It will do her good.

"Then she added, "Daniel, it will do you good, too!"29

 Here is a Victorian woman who had her priorities straight—and that young couple were ever grateful.

In some other respects, Ellen White was distinctively different from the typical Victorian woman. She did not use her frailty for personal advantage or special attention, but rose above it to the astonishment of her contemporaries. Though respectful of James, she was not typical of Victorian submission to one’s husband, nor did she cater to social expectations (merely to gain male approval) or to Victorian domesticity (to enhance standing among other women). In fulfilling her prophetic role, these Victorian "virtues" took on new meaning. Physical frailty became a challenge to conquer weaknesses by the grace of God, an achievement that gave her increasing strength and endurance as she grew older.

Although submission to her husband and meeting her family’s needs were important, Ellen White’s prophetic responsibilities were paramount in her life. She showed everyone that religious responsibilities do not minimize home responsibilities. Life, for her, was not compartmentalized, as either prophet or homemaker. She saw life as a whole—to fulfill her religious responsibilities she would not diminish her responsibilities as a wife, mother, and neighbor.


1. Jonathan Butler, "Prophecy, Gender and Culture: Ellen Gould Harmon [White] and the Roots of Seventh-day Adventism," Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 1, (Winter 1991), pp. 3-29.2. A number of references describe her horseback riding in the Colorado mountains, for pleasure as well as for travel. See MR, vol. 3, pp. 158, 163, 170; vol. 8, p. 121; vol. 20, p. 208.

3. Education, p. 216.

4. Life Sketches, p. 105. See p. 80.

5. MR, vol. 5, p. 430 (1874).

6. Ibid., vol. 10, p. 27.

7. Ibid., vol. 15, p. 231.

8. Delafield, Ellen White in Europe, p. 200. Willie, traveling with his mother, wrote to his wife Mary in Basel: "Mother and Sara have carried on quite a stroke of dressmaking. If you will rent a store I think they will be able to stock it with a good line of dress goods."

9. The Ministry of Healing, p. 294.

10. Bio., vol. 1, p. 400.

11. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 340.

12. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 24.

13. Ibid., p. 158.

14. Ibid., vol. 4, pp. 261-262.

15. See pp. 84-86.

16. Overland Route (No. Highlands, California: History West, 1981), p. 17.

17. Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, The Age of Steam (New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., n.d.), p. 17. A drummer was a traveling salesman.

18. Oliver O. Jensen, The American Heritage History of Railroads in America (New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, 1975), p. 123. See Appendix C for selections from Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his train ride west in 1879.

19. Lucius Beebe, The Age of Steam, p. 161. In 1848 no one had yet traveled a mile in sixty seconds in any conveyance. President Washington was told by leading physicians "that a stage-coach speed of fifteen miles an hour would invariably result in the death of anyone attempting it by causing all the blood in the body to run to the head."—Lucius Beebe, High Iron (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1938), p. 55. In his chapter, "Overland by Rail, 1869-1890," in Gary Land, The World of Ellen White, pp. 63-76, Randall R. Butler II wrote that before 1880 the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific trains averaged about twenty-two miles per hour. After 1880 average speeds doubled but with stops at more than two hundred stations and water tanks, the total hours spent crossing the country remained the same. Concluding this chapter, Butler wrote: "By midmorning, westbound trains arrived at the Oakland terminal. The tired, weary passengers rejoiced universally with the conclusion of the journey. It was a long, hard four-and-a-half days from Omaha, and most passengers had begun their trip from one to three days further east or south. After a week of noise, dust, and tobacco and locomotive smoke, the disembarking passengers looked forward to a warm bath and quiet rest."

20. Cited in Land, The World of Ellen White, p. 83. For insights into the hardships that early Adventist workers endured, see Ibid., pp. 74-80.

21. Bio., vol. 1, pp. 232-234.

22. L. H. Christian recalled that "this article in the Review was read and discussed and used as an example to follow, but never thought of as something out of the ordinary."—The Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts, p. 152.

23. Bio., vol. 1, pp. 346-349. See also p. 431. For another example of exciting but rigorous pioneer living, review the months spent in Texas during the winter of 1878-79 and the wagon train ordeal in the spring of 1879.—Ibid., pp. 98-120.

24. "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860," American Quarterly, vol. 8 (1966), p. 151, cited in Kathleen Joyce’s "An Ambiguous Woman: Victorian Womanhood and Religious Prophecy in the Life of Ellen Gould White," 1991, an unpublished manuscript.

25. Joyce, Ibid., p. 24.

26. Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 380.

27. Ibid., p. 391.

28. Ibid., p. 90.

29. Roger W. Coon, "Counsel to a Nervous Bridegroom," Adventist Heritage, Summer, 1990, pp. 17-22.