Many leaders within the Seventh-Day Adventist Church as well as the Ellen G. White Estate, love to appeal to a story of Ellen White as a young girl where she, supposedly, held her families 18 pound Bible extended on one arm for over 30 minutes to try and bolster the legitimacy of her being used by God.
While they will admit that “super human strength” is not automatically indicative of God at work (see the Garasene Demoniac in Mark 5:1-20), it’s typically claimed to be something God used to “point people back to the Bible.”
The story goes that at the Harmon family home in Portland, Maine, in 1845, seventeen year old Ellen Harmon (later White) held up the families 18 pound Bible above her head for over 30 minutes, turning the pages, and without looking, quoted the verses she was pointing at. The first documented source of this comes from SDA pioneer J.N. Loughborough who wrote about in his book Great Second Advent Movement which was published almost five decades removed from the incident. Mr. Loughborough was not an eye witness to this visionary event, but had the information relayed to him by members of Ellen’s family. He writes:
In the room where the vision was given, there was lying on the bureau a very large family Bible. It was one of an edition printed in Boston by Joseph Teale, in the year 1822. The book is eighteen by eleven inches, four inches in thickness, and weighs a little over eighteen pounds. While in vision, she arose, and took this heavy Bible on her left arm, the book lying open, and held it out at right angles with her body; and then for over half an hour, with her right hand, turned from place to place, and pointed to different texts of Scriptures, which she repeated while her eyes were looking upward, and in an opposite direction from the book. Her sister Sarah (afterward the wife of Stephen Belden), or, at times, some other person present, looked at every text to which her finger pointed, and saw clearly that in every instance she was repeating the scripture upon which her finger was resting. Mother Harmon said her daughter Ellen in her natural condition was unable, for lack of strength, to lift that heavy Bible from the bureau; but in the vision she held it as easily, apparently, as though it were only a pocket Testament.J.N. Loughborough—Great Second Advent Movement, pg. 236-237
He then goes on to quote another individual, Mrs. Lunt’s eyewitness account of a second incident which supposedly took place in Randolph, Massachusetts:
I, with my father’s family, attended the meetings of Sister Harmon in Topsham, in 1845, and during these meetings she had a vision. It was the first time we ever saw her in vision. One of those old-fashioned Bibles [the Teale Family Bible, weighing eighteen pounds was] owned by Brother Curtiss. This big Bible taken from the bureau by Sister Harmon while in vision, and texts of Scripture were pointed out by her as she turned from leaf to leaf, while her eyes were looking upward, and away from the book. The texts she repeated were either words of instruction, encouragement, or reproof. Another peculiarity of the manifestation at that time was the position of the book. It was held on her open hand at an angle of forty-five degrees, and no one else was able to hold any book at a similar angle without its slipping at once from the hands; but Sister Harmon held this Bible at that angle for several minutes, as firmly as though it was stuck to her hand, she passing meanwhile from one to another in the room.J.N. Loughborough—Great Second Advent Movement, pg. 238
In Mr. Loughborough’s own accounting, he says the “big bible” was held on Ellen’s arm, not in an outstretched hand. The book resting on the arm, into the ditch of the elbow would require significantly less strength than in an outstretched arm with the book predominantly resting on the palm. In Mrs. Lunt’s telling, the bible supposedly was held by an open hand, with her frail arm at a 45 degree angle without the book even slipping. Ellen apparently had a “sticky hand.”
James and Ellen White never documented this in any of their own writings, though, Ellen did write about the first incident in her biography, Life Sketches, and the second incident in Spiritual Gifts, Vol 2. Ron Graybill, who is the former director of her estate, wrote in his book Ellen Harmon White: An American Prophet that the story seems to have surfaced orally in the late 1880s, forty years after the supposed event, and then finally in print in 1892, in J.N. Loughborough’s Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists.
According to Mr. Graybill, Mr. Loughborough made a number of serious errors in his writing, and those errors always seemed to “fall into a pattern” to “enhance the reputation of Ellen White.” He also notes that W.C. White, Ellen’s son, heard the story from his parents, but that they told him the Bible was shut, not open. We see how the telephone game was played with this legend altering the details.
Then in 1919 we get an even further shifting from the primary claim. The then General Conference president, A.G. Daniells, speaking on the legitimacy of Ellen White’s prophetic gifting, mentioned this incident. He stated that the strongest marks of having the spiritual gift of prophecy come from the gifts provided to the church and not external, outward demonstrations. He then went on to say:
I have heard some ministers preach, and have seen it in writing, that Sister White once carried a heavy Bible—I believe they said it weighed 40 pounds—on her out-stretched hand, and looking up toward the heavens quoted texts and turned the leaves over and pointed to the texts, with her eyes toward the heavens. I do not know whether that was ever done or not. I am not sure. I did not see it, and I do not know that I ever talked with anybody that did see it. But, brethren, I do not count that sort of thing as a very great proof. I do not think that is the best kind of evidence. If I were a stranger in an audience, and heard a preacher enlarging on that, I would have my doubts. That is, I would want to know if he saw it. He would have to say, No, he never did. Then I would ask, “Did you ever see the man that did see it?” And he would have to answer, “No, I never did.”
Well, just how much of that is genuine, and how much has crawled into the story? I do not know. But I do not think that is the kind of proof we want to use. It has been a long time since I have brought forward this sort of thing, no breath in the body, and the eyes wide open. That may have accompanied the exercise of this gift in the early days, but it surely did not in the latter days, and yet I believe this gift was just as genuine and exercised just the same through these later years as in the early years.A.G. Daniells, The Use of the Spirit of Prophecy (1919 Conference)
By 1919, the bible had doubled in weight. Mr. Daniells was right, this story proves nothing and it’s validity is on rocky ground as the accounts are from secondhand sources, decades removed from the incident. Furthermore, super strength, even if involving the use of a bible, doesn’t prove that God was behind the acts (Mark 5:1-20). This is simply Adventist folklore that is said in tandem with other things to try and bolster the legitimacy of Ellen White as having the gift of prophecy and that she always pointed people to the bible, which is why God gave her the strength to hold it out like she did. But that doesn’t stop those at the White Estate from still circulating this narrative.
Ironically, this bible included the Apocryphal books, which the SDA Church rejects as scripture.