The Sought-for Speaker“They read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8). “Encourage all to use simple, pure, elevated language. Speech, pronunciation, and voice—cultivate these talents, not under any great elocutionist of the world, but under the power of the Holy Spirit of God.”1
Probably no public speaker had a more unlikely beginning than Ellen Harmon, but late in 1844 she heard the invitation: “Make known to others what I have revealed to you.” Nothing caused her more despair. She prayed to be released from this burden; she even “coveted death.”2
Was she merely being modest? Was her reluctance prompted by Christian humility? In a way, Yes, to both questions, but she was also a realist, along with anyone else who knew this eighty-pound, “frail,” seventeen-year-old. Contemporaries did not expect her to live; her respiratory problems appeared terminal. In her own words, “[I] was unused to society, and naturally so timid and retiring that it was painful for me to meet strangers.”3
What happened when Ellen Harmon accepted her first invitation to relate her vision in Poland, Maine? Driven by a sense of duty, able to speak only in a whisper, she began “to make known to others” what God had revealed to her. After five minutes her “voice became clear and strong,” and she spoke for nearly two hours “with perfect ease.”4 When she finished, her vocal problems returned—until the next time she stood in public to share her message. With each repeated “restoration” of vocal strength and ease, she became more certain that she was following in the path of duty.
From that unlikely beginning, Ellen White’s seventy years of public service reveals an astonishing and unforeseen record. She became a sought-after speaker by Adventists and non-Adventists alike. For many decades she was one of the major speakers at General Conference sessions and possibly the most wanted speaker at camp meetings from coast to coast. Non-Adventists by the thousands (audiences ranging from 20 to 20,000) listened to her evangelistic sermons with great appreciation, long before there were public address systems.5
How did she do it? No doubt God gave her special help when she stepped out in faith in 1845. Other experiences were similar to the following at the Healdsburg, California, camp meeting, in October, 1882. During the summer she exhausted herself in heavy traveling, much preaching, and writing vigorously.6 Though confined to her bed, she asked that she be taken to the large tent to rest on a sofa. After J. H. Waggoner finished his sermon, she asked her son to help her to the pulpit.
Recalling later, she wrote: “For five minutes I stood there trying to speak, and thinking that it was the last speech I should ever make—my farewell address. . . . All at once I felt a power come upon me, like a shock of electricity. It passed through my body and up to my head. The people said that they plainly saw the blood mounting to my lips, my ears, my cheeks, my forehead.”
A businessman from town, standing to his feet, exclaimed: “We are seeing a miracle performed before our eyes; Mrs. White is healed!”
Elder Waggoner, the previous speaker that day, wrote in his Signs report: “Her voice and appearance changed, and she spoke for some time with clearness and energy. She then invited those who wished to make a start in the service of God, and those who were far backslidden, to come forward, and a goodly number answered to the call.”7
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Ellen White’s vocal characteristics were considered unusually pleasing and powerful. A minister, reporting on his experience at the 1874 Biblical Institute in Battle Creek, wrote about James and Ellen White: “I venture the assertion that no fine-minded person can listen to either of them and not feel assured that God is with them. Sister White’s style and language is altogether solemn and impressive, and sways a congregation beyond description, and in a direction always heavenward.”8
L. H. Christian heard Ellen White for the first time in Minneapolis in 1888. Of this experience he wrote: “She began to talk in her low, pleasing, melodious voice . . . so beautifully natural. One would think she was talking to people within four or five feet of where she was standing. I wondered whether the other folks could hear. Later, at the 1905 conference in Takoma Park, Washington, D.C., after I had entered the ministry, I had a chance to test her voice. She was standing on the large platform in front addressing an audience of five thousand people, some of them in the very back of a large tent. I sat in front, and I said to myself, They never can hear in the rear so as to know what she is saying. Slipping out, I walked outside the tent to the rear, and when I came in and stood behind the great crowd I could hear every word and almost every syllable of every word just as plainly as I could up in the front.
“With her magnificent gift of speaking and her ability to control an audience and to move them either to solid thinking or to the deepest emotion, she seemed quietly sure of herself as a messenger of God; yet she did nothing to call attention to herself or exalt her authority. She merely stood there as a mouthpiece for the Lord, thinking only of His Word and seeking only to lift up Jesus, so that we might see Him alone.”9
For students of speech and persuasion, Ellen White’s speaking style is a treasure house for sustained examples of clarity, forcefulness, and beauty. “She achieved clearness by choosing uncomplicated words and sentences that were marked with directness and not likely to be misunderstood. She gained force by means of reiteration, repetitive linking, climax, anaphora, challenge, and command. She attained the higher peaks of beauty in her descriptive imagery through tropes and figures that, though familiar and common, were in balance with her themes. There was often a pleasing cadence in her prose rhythm that echoed a familiarity with the language of Scripture.”10
S. P. S. Edwards, a physician, remembered how Ellen White had both a “conversational voice” and a “public speaking voice.” In conversation, she was a “mezzo soprano,” a “sweet tone, not monotonous, but especially noticeable because of the sweet smile and the personal touch she put into what she said.”
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Ellen White’s speaking voice, her “stomach voice,” as Edwards described it, was a “deep contralto with a wonderful carrying power. . . . We could always hear her. . . . I am not sure whether it was her voice that carried or the power of the words she spoke. . . . Everyone could hear always . . . whether it was 10,000 outdoors or a lonely heart in the privacy of her own room.”11
In 1957-1959, Horace Shaw, long-time professor of speech at Emmanuel Missionary College (Andrews University), developed a list of 366 people who had heard Ellen White speak. He asked them to recall her platform manner, whether the event was public or private, what impressed them most, and what they remembered about her message. He also asked them to describe the influence of her speaking on the audience.12
Since these “hearers” were interviewed late in life, obviously they observed Mrs. White in her later years. Typical phrases included, “at 82, bent with age,” “little and frail,” “structurally short. . . . rather stockily built but not over obese.”
Of her physical features, her face seemed to be remembered the longest—“features round and full,” “sweetest smile broke out occasionally,” “noticed her nose, but soon forgot it—thinking she was really pretty, dignified,” and “face seemed to light up.”
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Her eyes—“beautiful brown eyes and far-away look,” “truthful eye,” “earnest look that seemed to penetrate,” “her eyes were large and became larger if she was in earnest or excited, and grew smaller when she smiled.”
There was general agreement regarding Ellen White’s hair: “wore a net over neat hair,” “plain hair style,” “hair dark and always parted and combed back simply to a braided knot in the back of her neck.”
Twenty-nine referred to her dress material, describing it as “black velvet or silk,” “two-piece garment,” “dress did not seem to adorn her, she seemed to adorn the dress.” As an accent to the black, Mrs. White often wore white cuffs and collar. Other accessories mentioned were a “gold watch chain” with a “silver watch in her pocket, and a simple brooch.”
The hundreds of respondents alike recalled that Mrs. White used few gestures, no swinging of her arms and hands—“natural poise and gentle and easy manner.”
She most often preached without notes, though on some occasions she read from a manuscript. With her Bible open, she spoke with force and logic that enthralled her audiences.13 A Detroit Post reporter described observing one of Mrs. White’s sermons as a “remarkable and thrilling” experience: “Although her eloquence and persuasive powers were well-known by the audience, still they were unprepared for the powerful and unanswerable appeal which she made. She seemed indeed almost inspired as she implored sinners to flee from their sins. The effect of her magnetic speech and manner was most remarkable.”14
Obviously, Mrs. White heard and saw these comments on her remarkable speaking ability. She gave God the glory but she did not always call the phenomenon a miracle. She learned how to speak by studying the fundamentals of voice projection. Further, she wrote much general counsel on effective vocal communication, and many times, specifically, to ministers who were ruining not only their voices but their health by improper speech habits.
She advocated support by the diaphragm, plus deep breathing: “Speaking from the throat, letting the words come out from the upper extremity of the vocal organs, all the time fretting and irritating them, is not the best way to preserve health or to increase the efficiency of those organs . . . . If you let your words come from deep down, exercising the abdominal muscles, you can speak to thousands with just as much ease as you can speak to ten.”15
Ellen White’s instruction on public speaking involved more than the ability to speak to thousands. Above all else, it was a spiritual matter, especially for the gospel minister: “Those who consider it a little thing to speak with an imperfect utterance dishonor God.”16 “Let the students in training for the Master’s service make determined efforts to learn to speak correctly and forcibly, in order that when conversing with others in regard to the truth, or when engaged in public ministry, they may properly present the truths of heavenly origin.”17
For Ellen White, wrong methods of speaking directly affect the speaker’s health. She wrote: “Their excessive use [vocal organs] . . . will, if often repeated, not only injure the organs of speech, but will bring an undue strain upon the whole nervous system. . . . The training of the voice has an important place in physical culture, since it tends to expand and strengthen the lungs, and thus to ward off disease.”18
Through the years, serious students of all ages have been grateful for Ellen White’s counsel on public speaking. Her own experience, beginning with a hoarse whisper and developing into an often-sought-after speaker, provided profound authenticity to her principles. These principles expressed in topics such as “Christian Attitudes in Speaking,” “Voice Culture,” “Effective Methods of Public Speaking,” “Content of Our Discourses,” and “Use of the Voice in Singing,” have been brought together in the volume entitled, The Voice in Speech and Song.19
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What were Mrs. White’s general topics? Her public messages, according to listeners, focused on joy, on lifting the downcast, and presenting the charm of a loving Lord. A typical sermon closing would be: “This life is a conflict, and we have a foe who never sleeps, who is watching constantly to destroy our minds and lure us away from our precious Saviour, who has given His life for us. Shall we lift the cross given to us? or shall we go on in selfish gratification, and lose the eternity of bliss? . . .”20
Ellen White preached most often from Isaiah in the Old Testament, and the Gospel of John in the New. The New Testament chapters that she used most often were John 15 (“I am the Vine . . .”), 2 Peter 1 (ladder of Christian growth), and 1 John 3 (“What manner of love. . .”).21
Ministers noted that her messages on the simplest of Bible topics, such as conversion, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the love of God, became unusually heart-searching moments that lifted their spirits with courage and deeper insights. At the last General Conference session she attended (1909), now 81, she asked to speak to the ministers. The ministers could think of many subjects on which they wanted her opinion.
L. H. Christian reported that she chose John 3:1-5 as her text, focusing on “Ye must be born again.” The ministers were disappointed, feeling that the topic was not appropriate; they wanted something more solid.
However, after two minutes Christian was saying to himself, “That is something new. That is deeper and higher and grander than anything I have ever read or heard on the topic of the new birth, and the new birth as a daily experience for the preacher.”
Then he recorded his further thoughts: “I had never before, nor have I since, heard such a heart-searching and yet kind and beautiful presentation of the work of the Holy Spirit in transforming human lives into the glorious likeness of Christ as she presented to us. . . . When her talk was finished (it lasted less than thirty minutes), we preachers said, ‘That is the best for our own souls we have ever heard.’ It was not critical; it was not discouraging; it did not condemn us; but it did give us a glimpse of the heights of spiritual excellence to which we might attain and to which we ought to attain if we were really servants of Christ to lead people on to a living faith in the Lord Jesus.”22
Interesting phenomena often occurred when Ellen White was in the pulpit. Occasionally she would stop her prepared message and recognize people in the audience that she had not seen before except in vision. At Bushnell, Michigan, on July 20, 1867, Ellen and James White found a spiritually bleak group outside under the trees. James reported that shortly after his wife began to speak, she laid aside her Bible and began to address those who recently had been baptized. Because she had not seen them before, except in vision, she “designated each brother and sister by his or her position, as the one by that tree, or the one sitting by that brother or sister of the Greenville or Orleans church, with whom she was personally acquainted, and whom she called by name.”
For the next hour, she reviewed the cases, one by one, stating that the Lord had shown her their condition two years before, that while she was reading her text from the Bible their individual needs were illuminated “like sudden lightning in a dark night distinctly revealing every object around.”
What was the response? Each person, when addressed, arose and “testified that their cases had been described better than they could have done it themselves.” Wrongs were righted and a reformation unfolded that led to a strong church.23
Sometimes Ellen White was taken off in vision while preaching. At Lovett’s Grove, Ohio, mid-March, 1858, after her husband preached a funeral sermon, she was bearing her testimony on the cheery hope of the Second Advent. Then, she wrote later, “I was wrapt in a vision of God’s glory.” For the next two hours she remained in vision as those in that crowded schoolhouse watched with avid interest. That Lovett’s Grove vision has come to be known as “the great controversy vision.”24
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Non-Adventist audiences listened to her messages, often lasting more than an hour, in rapt and grateful appreciation. A newspaper reporter covered a lecture that she gave in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1887:
“There was a good attendance including a large number of our most prominent people, at the lecture of Mrs. Ellen White, at the Tabernacle, last evening. This lady gave her audience a most eloquent discourse, which was listened to with marked interest and attention. Her talk was interspersed with instructive facts which she had gathered in her recent visit to foreign lands, and demonstrated that this gifted lady has, in addition to her many other rare qualifications, a great faculty for attentive careful observation and a remarkable memory of details; this together with her fine delivery and her faculty of clothing her ideas in choice, beautiful and appropriate language, made her lecture one of the best that has ever been delivered by any lady in our city. That she may soon favor our community with another address, is the earnest wish of all who attended last evening, and should she do so, there will be a large attendance.”25
At times some have asserted that the beauty, force, and power of Ellen White’s writings are due to her editorial assistants. But who were the editorial assistants who interposed between her and her audiences? No literary assistant stood by her side, “polishing up” her grammar, “correcting” her details, etc., as she used “choice, beautiful and appropriate language.”
This “gifted lady” with a “remarkable memory of details” demonstrated, as is true for many other public persons, that speaking skills are often different from one’s writing techniques. Writing habits often reveal that the author’s mind is racing faster than the pen can write; regardless, the author knows that the end product is what really matters, not the hasty techniques the author uses to get thought on paper.
Clifton L. Taylor, a long-time college Bible teacher, reflected on an occasion when he heard Ellen White for the first time: “All my life I had heard of this woman, and had wished to hear and see for myself. . . . I had heard her critics declare that her writings were largely the work of her secretaries. Now I observed that in her extemporaneous speech her statements were filled with expressions exactly like those I had read so many times in her writings. . . . As she related her various experiences . . . she impressed me as one who was glad to share with others the richness and blessing she had received.”26
Comments by the journalistic world were not limited to Ellen White’s “gifted” platform skills. They also included her straightforward message: “I would that all other religious beliefs in Battle Creek were as true to morality as Mrs. White and her adherents. Then we would have no infamous dens of vice, no grog shops, no tobacco stores, no gambling hells, no air polluted with the fumes of rum and that fell destroyer of man, tobacco.”27
Mrs. White enjoyed responding to invitations from non-Adventist churches. In 1880, after she had spoken at the Salem, Oregon, camp meeting (which was held in the town square), some Methodists were impressed. Church leaders requested that she speak to them on the following Sunday. In a letter to James, she described the event: “Sunday evening the Methodist church, a grand building, was well filled. I spoke to about seven hundred people who listened with deep interest. The Methodist minister thanked me for the discourse. The Methodist minister’s wife and all seemed much pleased.”28
In that remarkable wagon-train trail ride in 1879, James and Ellen White preached most every evening to those “on the ride” and to those along the way. Writing of one experience, she said: “Last night I spoke to one hundred people assembled in a respectable meetinghouse. We find here an excellent class of people. . . . I had great freedom in presenting before them the love of God evidenced to man in the gift of His Son. All listened with the deepest interest. The Baptist minister arose and said we had heard the gospel that night and he hoped all would heed the words spoken.”29
Adventist leaders realized the unique contribution of the Whites to their various meetings. Uriah Smith reported on the Sparta, Wisconsin, camp meeting in 1876: “Here, as in Iowa, the presence of Brother and Sister White constituted, in a large measure, the life of the meeting, their counsel and labors giving tone to the exercises and progress of the work. Sister White, especially, was at times called out in powerful appeals, and most forcible descriptions of scenes in the life of Christ from which lessons can be drawn applicable to everyday Christian experience. These were of absorbing interest to all the congregation. These servants of the church, though now of so long and large experience, and notwithstanding all their wearing labors, are still growing in mental and spiritual strength.”30
One of the Ablest Platform Speakers
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When James died in 1881, his contributions were recorded in several newspapers. Included in these life sketches and eulogies were comments on Mrs. White and her public work: “He has been admirably aided in his ministerial and educational labors by his wife, Ellen White, one of the ablest platform speakers and writers in the west.”31
“In 1846 he married Ellen G. Harmon, a woman of extraordinary endowments, who has been a co-laborer in all his work and contributed largely to his success by her gifts as a writer and especially her power as a public speaker.”32
In 1878, at the age of 50, Ellen White was included in the reference book, American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men of the State of Michigan, Third Congressional District, page 108: “Mrs. White is a woman of singularly well-balanced mental organization. Benevolence, spirituality, conscientiousness, and ideality are the predominating traits. Her personal qualities are such as to win for her the warmest fellowship of all with whom she comes in contact, and to inspire them with the utmost confidence in her sincerity. . . . Notwithstanding her many years of public labor, she has retained all the simplicity and honesty which characterized her early life.
“As a speaker, Mrs. White is one of the most successful of the few ladies who have become noteworthy as lecturers, in this country, during the last twenty years. Constant use has so strengthened her vocal organs as to give her voice rare depth and power. Her clearness and strength of articulation are so great that, when speaking in the open air, she has frequently been distinctly heard at the distance of a mile. Her language, though simple, is always forcible and elegant. When inspired with her subject, she is often marvelously eloquent, holding the largest audiences spellbound for hours without a sign of impatience or weariness.
“The subject matter of her discourses is always of a practical character, bearing chiefly on fireside duties, the religious education of children, temperance, and kindred topics. On revival occasions, she is always the most effective speaker. She has frequently spoken to immense audiences, in the large cities, on her favorite themes, and has always been received with great favor.”33
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1.The Voice in Speech and Song, p. 15.
2.Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 63; Life Sketches, p. 70.
3.Life Sketches, pp. 69, 70.
4.Ibid., p. 72.
5.The attendance of about 20,000 at the Groveland camp meeting, Groveland, Massachusetts, August 25-30, 1876, reached an all-time high in Adventist camp meetings. Many more were denied access to the meetings because all transportation services, including trains, river steamers, barges, etc., were taxed beyond their capacity to accommodate all who wished to attend, according to a local news reporter.—Review and Herald, Sept. 7, 1876, p. 84. As soon as she finished, Ellen White was invited by the Haverhill Temperance Reform Club to speak the next evening. She reported: “The Queen of England could not have been more honored. . . . One thousand people were before me of the finest and most select of the city. I was stopped several times with clapping of hands and stomping of feet. . . . Never did I witness such enthusiasm as these noble men leading out in temperance reform manifested over my talk upon temperance. It was new to them. I spoke of Christ’s fast in the wilderness and its object. I spoke against tobacco. I was besieged after the meeting and commended, and I was urged, if I came to Haverhill, to speak to them again.”—Letter 42, 1876, cited in Bio., vol. 3, p. 46; see Uriah Smith, “Grand Rally in New England,” Review and Herald, Sept. 7, 1876, p. 84.
6.In July she had written five hundred manuscript pages. See Bio., vol. 3, p. 202.
7.Bio., vol. 3, p. 204; see also p. 158. Reflecting on this phenomenon that happened often, Mervyn Maxwell suggests that “God could have healed her outright, but evidently He preferred to provide this proof of His nearness when she stood up to speak.”—Maxwell, Tell It to the World, p. 197.
8.Review and Herald, Jan. 8, 1875, p. 14. On another occasion, J. N. Loughborough observed: “Sister White gave two searching and powerful, practical discourses.”—Signs of the Times, Jan. 11, 1877, p. 24. D. M. Canright, then president of the Ohio Conference, wrote: “Sister White spoke for a little while on the great importance of the Sabbath school work, in her usually forcible and eloquent manner.”—Review and Herald, Sept. 4, 1879, p. 85.
9.Christian, Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts, pp. 45, 46.
10. Horace Shaw, “A Rhetorical Analysis of the Speaking of Mrs. Ellen White, A Pioneer Leader and Spokeswoman of the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (Michigan State University, 1959, a doctoral dissertation), p. 282.
11. Ibid., p. 514.
12. Ibid., pp. 502-510, 606-644.
13. “When I am speaking to the people, I say much that I have not premeditated. The Spirit of the Lord frequently comes upon me. I seem to be carried out of, and away from myself; the life and character of different persons are clearly presented before my mind. I see their errors and dangers, and feel compelled to speak of what is thus brought before me.”—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 678.
14. Cited in Review and Herald, Aug. 18, 1874, p. 68.
15. Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 616. “The right use of the abdominal muscles in reading and speaking will prove a remedy for many voice and chest difficulties, and the means of prolonging life.”—Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p. 297.
16. Evangelism, p. 665.
17. Ibid., p. 666.
18. Ibid., pp. 667, 669.
19. Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1988.
20. Life Sketches, pp. 291, 292.
21. Shaw, “A Rhetorical Analysis of the Speaking of Mrs. Ellen White,” p. 355.
22. Christian, Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts, p. 47.
23. Signs of the Times, Aug. 29, 1878, p. 260.
24. See Chapter 22; Bio., vol. 1, pp. 368-375.
25. “Mrs. Ellen White’s Able Address. A Characteristic and Eloquent Discourse by This Remarkable Lady,” Battle Creek Daily Journal, Oct. 5, 1887. The editor and publisher of the Newton (Iowa) Free Press gave extended space to the Adventist camp meeting in early June, 1875. Among his remarks, he said: “Mrs. White is a preacher of great ability and force, much called for as a speaker at the camp meetings of the denomination all over the Union, and a large share of her time is given to this work.”
26. Review and Herald, Sept. 25, 1958, p. 3.
27. Lansing [Michigan] Republican, Jan. 7, 1880, cited in Bio., vol. 3, p. 131.
28. Letter 33a, 1880, cited in Bio., vol. 3, p. 142; later in the letter she mentioned: “One of the Methodist ministers said to Brother Levitt that he regretted Mrs. White was not a staunch Methodist, for they would make her a bishop at once; she could do justice to the office.” See also Ibid., p. 88.
29. Letter 36, 1879, cited in Ibid., p. 111. In October, 1886, Ellen White presented twelve consecutive evangelistic messages, ten of which are available today. Her sermon texts and topics reveal the Christ-centered emphasis of her sermons. See also Delafield, Ellen White in Europe, pp. 239, 240.
30. Review and Herald, June 29, 1876, p. 4.
31. Lansing [Michigan] Republican, Aug. 9, 1881, cited in Nichol, Ellen White and Her Critics, p. 475.
32. The Echo [Detroit], Aug. 10, 1881, cited in Nichol, Ibid., p. 475.
33. Cited in Shaw, “A Rhetorical Analysis of the Speaking of Mrs. Ellen White,“ pp. 28, 29, and in Arthur White, Messenger to the Remnant, pp. 114-115.
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