Humor, Common Sense,
and a Practical Counselor“Let us pursue the things that make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19).
Ellen White has been stereotyped by the uninformed as a grim, severe kill-joy. Far from the truth!
L. H. Christian reported the memories of his wife’s mother who lived in the White home while she was Ellen White’s secretary. She remembered especially "the sunny spirit of the home" and Ellen White’s "kindly humor and good sense."1
Often Mrs. White’s writings reveal a touch of humor. In 1882 she had just moved from Oakland to Healdsburg. At 55 she enjoyed buying grain and hay, a cow with its calf, and horses for farm work and transportation. One of her horses she named Dolly—a horse that seemed allergic to work. Ellen White wrote, "She stares at the mountains and hills as if she was a tourist viewing the scenery."2
In 1885 she was sailing for Europe on the S.S. Cephalonia, which was to depart on Sabbath. Her party made arrangements to embark on Friday afternoon in order to be settled for the Sabbath. She noted in her diary, "We accomplished this nearly."3While in Italy, 1886, she was writing about the ministerial personnel in Torre Pellice. The minister in charge was great on planning, but was accomplishing little. Ellen White depicted his efforts as "the array of Quaker guns."4A few months later, still in Italy, she was enjoying some sunny days after a stretch of rain, and wrote in her diary: "We drove very slowly, for the horse, although strong, had no idea of hurting his constitution."5After a boat trip, she penned, "When I got off the boat, when I walked up through the streets, it seemed to me as though I was still on the boat, and I would step so high that people must have thought I was drunk."6
Ellen White’s oldest brother, John, apparently was a poor correspondent. In a January 21, 1873, letter to him, Ellen gently chided him with humor: "Dear Brother John: I have written you several letters but have not heard one word from you. We concluded you must be dead, but then again we thought if this was the case, your children would write us."7She showed her humor as well as her practical bent when she wrote about the careless dress of certain women: "Their clothing often looks as if it flew and lit upon their persons."8 Or, "Sisters when about their work should not put on clothing which would make them look like images to frighten the crows from the corn."9At the time when Ellen White was issuing warnings to safeguard the ownership of the Battle Creek Tabernacle10 she received a letter from A. T. Jones challenging her to provide the names of those involved in the effort to take control of the property. Realizing the true intent of his request, Ellen White responded to her secretary, Dores Robinson, that "if she should write to Brother Jones at all, she would tell him that everything is written in the books of heaven, but she does not have these books at her disposal to send him."11
Mrs. White knew how to handle potentially embarrassing public moments. Son Willie frequently assisted his mother in her speaking tours. During a Sabbath sermon in St. Helena, California, Willie sat on the platform while his mother spoke. Noticing a ripple of suppressed laughter in the audience, Mrs. White turned to find him taking a nap. She apologized with a touch of humor: "When Willie was a baby, I used to take him into the pulpit and let him sleep in a basket beneath the pulpit, and he has never gotten over the habit."12
In her late years at Elmshaven, Ellen White was given cold-mitten friction treatments. That meant standing in a tub while someone applied cold water and then rubbed her with mittens to increase circulation. Twice a week she was given a salt rub ("salt glow").One day, sensing a difference in the liquid, she wet her finger and tasted it. The worker had used sugar by mistake! With good humor, Ellen White observed: "Just trying to sweeten me up, huh?"13
Common-Sense Interpreter of Truth
One of the soundest principles for getting a picture of Ellen White (as well as the intent of her writings) is to study the time, place, and circumstance that governed what she wrote.14
In other words, Ellen White’s plea throughout her ministry was for common sense. For example, the constituency for the church school at St. Helena, California, in 1904, had a problem. Some strongly felt that no provision should be made for children under the age of ten. Why? Because Mrs. White had counseled some years earlier that "parents should be the only teachers of their children until they have reached eight or ten years of age."15 Others felt that some children would be better off in school than roaming the village while their parents either worked at the hospital or for other reasons were unable to supervise their children.
The problem was not confined to St. Helena; church schools were being established throughout the world wherever Adventists planted churches. So the question everywhere was: What shall we do with Mrs. White’s counsel regarding when to start children in school?
Ellen White was at that St. Helena school board meeting (it was held in her home at Elmshaven) and took the initiative in resolving the impasse. She reviewed her frequently emphasized counsel regarding parental responsibilities and firm discipline in the home. Then she indicated that she too had observed parental neglect, with certain children running loose (especially on the sanitarium grounds), "sharp-eyed, lynx-eyed, wandering about with nothing to do . . . getting into mischief" —not the best recommendation of Adventist decorum before the sanitarium guests!
Under the circumstances, she said: "The very best thing that can be done is to have a school . . . for those who [should] have the restraining influence upon them which a schoolteacher should exert."
Then she explained her earlier statements about holding children out of school until they are ten —a teaching that some were faithfully trying to implement. She spoke clearly: "I wanted to tell you that there was not a Sabbath keeping school when the light was given to me that the children should not attend school until they were old enough to be instructed. They should be taught at home to know what proper manners were when they went to school, and not be led astray. The wickedness carried on in the common schools is almost beyond conception. That is how it is."
She went further, expressing her concern about those who make an unreasonable application of her writings: "My mind has been greatly stirred in regard to the idea, ‘Why, Sister White has said so and so, . . . and therefore we are going right up to it.’ God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things."16Along with key words that best describe the real Ellen White, we must include "common sense." The principles she disclosed were clear, timely, and timeless. But applying them required sanctified common sense.
Ellen White understood well the ellipse of truth.17 She knew that theology without common sense and a corresponding life style could create prejudice against the gospel. Throughout her writings she emphasized that word and deed, doctrine and life, should never be separated.18
Common sense is not to negate Bible counsel; sanctified common sense applies immutable truths to the human situation, taking all circumstances into account. Common sense does not lower God’s instructions regarding human thought and behavior; it lifts people up to them, within the capabilities and possibilities of time, place, and circumstance. Principles are timeless; applying them requires common sense. On one occasion when asked about certain Sabbath school practices, Ellen White answered: "Exactly; it is not the place for it. That is to be done; but it has its time and place."19For example, she wrote extensively about health principles. She stated clearly certain health practices that were far in advance of the conventional thinking of her day. But these principles must be understood and applied through common sense.
Regarding eating two meals a day, she wrote: "Some eat three meals a day, when two would be more conducive to physical and spiritual health."20 But she also wrote: "The practice of eating but two meals a day is generally found a benefit to health; yet under some circumstances persons may require a third meal."21Further revealing her common sense, she wrote in 1903: "I eat only two meals a day. But I do not think that the number of meals should be made a test. If there are those who are better in health when eating three meals, it is their privilege to have three."22
Whatever Is Best
The principle of what is best under all circumstances, not merely what is good, should be the Christian’s benchmark. Too often, the good is the enemy of the best.
In other areas of healthful living also, Ellen White’s counsel has been beneficial for millions. Why? Because of her principle of common sense—for example, in the area of food combinations23 or recommending the same health practices for everyone.24 Beyond most people of her time she saw the close connection between vitality, good health generally, and exercise. Not only exercise but having the right attitude when one exercises! It was all a matter of common sense.25In conducting public work, especially in our health institutions, Ellen White admonished: "Act so that the patients will see that Seventh-day Adventists are a people who have common sense."26Further, Adventist ministerial and medical workers must not create the impression, as some other Christian groups were doing, that the sick could be healed by prayer alone. Again, Ellen White appealed to common sense.27
In every area, it seemed, she had common-sense counsel. Some ministers were falling victim to the prevailing elocution fashion of preaching in an unnatural voice pitch, far from a conversational style that would best reflect calm reason. She appealed to ministers to study the "wisest manner" of using their vocal organs "by the exercise of a little common sense."28
Ellen White was concerned about how the youth were educated for the real world. No one seemed to be more optimistic about the possibilities open to industrious, dedicated young people. At the same time, she was troubled with those who "are merely useless creatures, only good to breathe, eat, wear, chat, and talk nonsense. . . . But few of the youth show real sound judgment and good common sense. They lead a butterfly life with no special object in view."29
She often wrote that manual training as a practical preparation for life must be part of Christian education. Such training would make a person preparing for the various scientific and academic professions even more fit for his or her duties: "An education derived chiefly from books leads to superficial thinking. Practical work encourages close observation and independent thought. Rightly performed, it tends to develop that practical wisdom which we call common sense."30After seeing worship services in some churches, Mrs. White observed: "It is sometimes more difficult to discipline the singers and keep them in working order, than to improve the habits of praying and exhorting. Many want to do things after their own style; they object to consultation, and are impatient under leadership. Well-matured plans are needed in the service of God. Common sense is an excellent thing in the worship of the Lord."31
This principle of common sense should be applied in all areas of Christian living, such as in the kind of clothing one wears.32
From time to time, people would push the dress question into a church controversy. Here again, Ellen White used common sense and gave practical advice: "The dress question is not to be our present truth. . . . Follow the customs in dress so far as they conform to health principles. Let our sisters dress plainly, as many do, having the dress of good, durable material, appropriate for this age, and let not the dress question fill the mind."33At Christiana (Oslo), Norway, in 1885, Ellen White counseled about 120 new Adventists, some needing guidance pertaining to children attending public schools on Sabbath, and Sabbath business operations.
Some, however, were overconscientious "in making the matter of dress of first importance, criticizing articles of dress worn by others, and standing ready to condemn everyone who did not exactly meet their ideas. A few condemned pictures, urging that they are prohibited by the second commandment, and that everything of this kind should be destroyed."34What problem did she see? She feared that "unbelievers" would get the impression that Adventists "were a set of fanatics and extremists, and that their peculiar faith rendered them unkind, uncourteous, and really unchristian in character." Further, "one fanatic, with his strong spirit and radical ideas, who will oppress the conscience of those who want to do right, will do great harm."35 As time went on, she was pleased that common sense prevailed.In her sermons and in many letters to young people she knew well, Mrs. White emphasized the need for common sense in choosing a life mate.36
Her far-ranging counsel included direct and candid guidance to married church members. She pointed out that home tensions often were caused by spousal irresponsibility and the lack of common sense.37
Practical religion seemed to be the harmonizing theme throughout Ellen White’s writings. She saw a direct connection between doing church work and properly representing the character of God. When the young Australian publishing house was near bankruptcy, she pointed out the problems: Job estimates were bid too low, cost-control management was lacking, office overhead was too high. Then she wrote: "I was shown that this was not the way to do business. It is not the will of our heavenly Father that His work should be so conducted as to be a continual embarrassment. . . . Some of the workers were not willing to help and instruct their fellow workmen. . . . The workers in the Echo office had very little insight into the right methods of obtaining success."
She ended her counsel with these words: "Brethren and sisters connected with the work of the Echo office, these words I have written were spoken to you by my guide."38During those difficult days, when the future of a college in Australia seemed uncertain, Ellen White was confident that the land purchased at such a "cheap price" would indeed fulfill all the needs of a future school. But none of the committee members were convinced regarding what she had been shown. She was distressed at their "unsanctified caution."39In a letter to Marian Davis, her confidante and efficient helper in book-making, Mrs. White used her practical imagination regarding Avondale, and, based on the counsel of her Guide, wrote: "I have planned what can be raised in different places. I have said, ‘Here can be a crop of alfalfa; there can be strawberries; here can be sweet corn and common corn; and this ground will raise good potatoes, while that will raise good fruit of all kinds.’"40Part of the problem in the early days in Australia was that not much had been done along the lines of scientific farming. Ellen White knew that if Avondale would show the way in proper soil management, more than just the college would benefit. She knew that poverty in that area of Australia would be greatly reduced when people saw how successfully they could raise their own food. In a letter to Edson, she emphasized what she had been exemplifying in the development of orchards at the school and on her own two acres: "The cultivation of our land requires the exercise of all the brainpower and tact we possess. The lands around us testify to the indolence of men. . . . We hope to see intelligent farmers, who will be rewarded for their earnest labor. . . . If we accomplish this, we shall have done good missionary work."41
Healing of Herbert Lacey
Practical counsel was often needed in the treatment of the sick. Professor Herbert Lacey, leading out in the school program at Avondale early in 1897, was quickly devastated by typhoid fever. He lost twenty pounds in one week; his vitality was low and his fever high. Convinced of Dr. Kellogg’s success with hydrotherapy, the medical team applied ice to reduce the fever and to restore circulation in "his bowels." Hearing of this, Ellen White dashed off a telegram to the medical workers: "Use no ice, but hot applications."
Why did she do this, and do it with dispatch? She saw too many dying of typhoid, largely because of conventional drugs that wasted the patient’s ability to overcome the enervation brought on by the drugs. But she also knew that hydrotherapy should be used wisely. With Lacey’s low vitality, ice on his head and body would further weaken him.
Mrs. White later wrote of this serious event: "I was not going to be so delicate in regard to the physician as to permit Herbert Lacey’s life to be put out. . . . There might be cases where the ice applications would work well. But books with prescriptions that are followed to the letter in regard to ice applications should have further explanations, that persons with low vitality should use hot in the place of cold. . . . To go just as the book of Dr. Kellogg shall direct without considering the subject is simply wild."42
Of Ellen White’s practicality, as well as her common sense, her granddaughter Grace White Jacques once said: "I recall a young nurse who had only a few clothes, and so Grandmother gave her three dress lengths of material, one of red, one blue, one a golden color. She told this young lady, as she did several young women, that she should have at least one red dress."43 Ellen White never lost her ability to relate to people in practical ways.
1. Christian, Fruitage of Spiritual Gifts, p. 48.
2. Bio., vol. 3, p. 195.
3. Ibid., p. 290.
4. Delafield, Ellen White in Europe, p. 174.
5. Ibid., p. 177.
6. Manuscript 4, 1878, cited in MR, vol. 5, p. 178.
7. Glen Baker, "The Humor of Ellen White," Adventist Review, April 30, 1987.8. Child Guidance, p. 415.
9. Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 464.
10. Bio., vol. 6, pp. 124-129.
11. D. E. Robinson to W. C. White, Sept. 30, 1906.
12. Baker, op cit.
14. See p. 395. "Regarding the testimonies, nothing is ignored; nothing is cast aside; but time and place must be considered. Nothing must be done untimely. Some matters must be withheld because some persons would make an improper use of the light given. Every jot and tittle is essential and must appear at an opportune time. In the past, the testimonies were carefully prepared before they were sent out for publication. And all matter is still carefully studied after the first writing."—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 57.
15. Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 137.
16. Bio., vol. 5, pp. 312-315. Read the whole section, pages 315-317, for additional comments that display Ellen White’s clear principles regarding early education, for whom and how it should be provided.17. See Appendix P.
18. "We are to be guided by true theology and common sense. Our souls are to be surrounded by the atmosphere of heaven. Men and women are to watch themselves; they are to be constantly on guard, allowing no word or act that would cause their good to be evil spoken of. He who professes to be a follower of Christ is to watch himself, keeping himself pure and undefiled in thought, word, and deed. His influence upon others is to be uplifting. His life is to reflect the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness."—Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 257.
19. Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 186.
20. Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 416, 417.
21. The Ministry of Healing, p. 321. See also Education, p. 205.
22. Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 178.
23. "In the use of foods we should exercise good judgment, and sound sense. When we find that something does not agree with us, we need not write letters of inquiry [to Ellen White] to learn the cause of the disturbance. We are to use our reason. Change the diet; use less of some of the foods; try other preparations. Soon we shall know the effect that certain combinations have on us. We are not machines; we are intelligent human beings; and we are to exercise our common sense. We can experiment with different combinations of foods."—The Kress Collection, p. 144
.24. "There is real common sense in dietetic reform. The subject should be studied broadly and deeply, and no one should criticize others because their practice is not, in all things, in harmony with his own. It is impossible to make an unvarying rule to regulate everyone’s habits, and no one should think himself a criterion for all. Not all can eat the same things. Foods that are palatable and wholesome to one person may be distasteful, and even harmful, to another. Some cannot use milk, while others thrive on it. Some persons cannot digest peas and beans; others find them wholesome. For some the coarser grain preparations are good food, while others cannot use them."—The Ministry of Healing, p. 319."We don’t make the health reform an iron bedstead, cutting people off or stretching them out to fit it. One person cannot be a standard for everybody else. What we want is a little sprinkling of good common sense. Don’t be extremists. If you err, it would be better to err on the side of the people than on the side where you cannot reach them. Do not be peculiar for the sake of being peculiar. Away with cake. Persons may kill themselves with sweets. More harm is done to children by sweets than by anything else."—Sermons and Talks, vol. 1, p. 12.
25. "The world is full of women with but little vitality and less common sense. Society is in great need of healthful, sensible young women who are not afraid to work and soil their hands. God gave them hands to employ in useful labor. God did not give us the wonderful human machinery of the body to become paralyzed by inaction. The living machinery God designed should be in daily activity, and in this activity or motion of the machinery is its preserving power. Manual labor quickens the circulation of the blood. The more active the circulation the more free will be the blood from obstructions and impurities. The blood nourishes the body. The health of the body depends upon the healthful circulation of the blood. If work is performed without the heart being in it, it is simply drudgery, and the benefit which should result from the exercise is not gained."—Signs of the Times, April 29, 1885
.26. Evangelism, p. 540.
27. "Do not let the idea prevail that the Health Retreat is a place where the sick are healed by the prayer of faith. There are instances when this will be done, and we need to have faith in God constantly. Let no one think that those who have abused themselves and taken no intelligent care of themselves can come to the Health Retreat and be healed by the prayer of faith, for this is presumption. I see so little wisdom, so little common sense exercised by some of our brethren, that my heart is sick, sore, and distressed. They do not have sensible ideas and do not honor God. They have need of a divine touch. If the idea should once prevail that the sick can come to the Institute to be cured by the prayer of faith, you will have such a state of things there that you cannot now discern even if I should point it out to you in the best English language I could command."—MR, vol. 7, p. 370 (1886)
.28. "I was shown that our ministers were doing themselves great injury by carelessness in the use of their vocal organs. Their attention was called to this important matter, and cautions and instructions were given them by the Spirit of God. It was their duty to learn the wisest manner of using these organs. The voice, this gift of heaven, is a powerful faculty for good, and if not perverted, would glorify God. All that was essential was to study and conscientiously follow a few simple rules. But instead of educating themselves, as they might have done by the exercise of a little common sense, they employed a professor of elocution."—Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 604. See also Medical Ministry, pp. 264, 265
.29. Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 394.
30. Education, p. 220.
31. Evangelism, p. 505.
32. "Christians should not take pains to make themselves a gazing stock by dressing differently from the world. But if, when following out their convictions of duty in respect to dressing modestly and healthfully, they find themselves out of fashion, they should not change their dress in order to be like the world; but they should manifest a noble independence and moral courage to be right, if all the world differ from them. If the world introduce a modest, convenient, and healthful mode of dress, which is in accordance with the Bible, it will not change our relation to God or to the world to adopt such a style of dress. Christians should follow Christ and make their dress conform to God’s Word. They should shun extremes. They should humbly pursue a straightforward course, irrespective of applause or of censure, and should cling to the right because of its own merits."— Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 458, 459 (1864).
33. Ibid., p. 333. For the full Manuscript 167, 1897 wherein Ellen White stated guiding principles in dress reform, see the Appendix in D. E. Robinson, The Story of Our Health Message (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1965, Third edition), pp. 441-445.
34. Selected Messages, book 2, p. 319.
35. Ibid., pp. 318.
36. "The youth trust altogether too much to impulse. They should not give themselves away too easily nor be captivated too readily by the winning exterior of the lover. . . . Common sense is needed here if anywhere; but the fact is, it has little to do in the matter."—Review and Herald, Jan. 26, 1886. See Messages to Young People, p. 450.
37. In appealing to a self-centered wife, Ellen White wrote: "Do you think it is no disappointment to your husband that he finds you what God has shown me you are? Did he marry you with the expectation that you would bear no burdens, share no perplexities, exercise no self-denial? Did he think that you would feel under no obligation to control self, to be cheerful, kind, and forbearing, and to exercise common sense?"—MR, vol. 16, p. 310.
38. Bio., vol. 4, pp. 26, 27.
39. Ibid., p. 215.
40. Ibid., p. 154. For further reading on the divinely guided development of Avondale College, see p. 355.
41. Ibid., p. 224.
42. Ibid., pp. 292, 293.
43. "My ‘Special’ Grandmother," The Youth’s Instructor, Dec. 5, 1961.
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