Phrenology–The Adventist Connection

November 30, 2006

Franz Joseph GallAustrian physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) invented a “science”—that he originally called “craniology” and later “organology”—that pioneered the notion that different mental functions are indeed located in different parts of the brain. Between 1800 and 1812 he worked with Johann Christoph Spurzheim who, after they parted company, renamed the discipline “phrenology”—the science of the mind.
Gall, in his noted work, The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, formulated four basic principles:
1. Human moral and intellectual faculties are innate;
2. their function depends on organic structures;
3. the brain is the organ of “all faculties, of all tendencies, of all feelings”;
4. “the brain is composed of as many organs as there are faculties, tendencies, and feelings.” (Samuel H. Greenblatt, “Phrenology in the Science and Culture of the 19th Century” Neurosurgery, 37:4 (1995) 790-805.)
Furthermore, Gall proposed also that the relative development of mental faculties in an individual would lead to a growth or larger development in the sub-organs responsible for them—and that the external form of the cranium reflects the internal form of the brain, and that the relative development of its organs caused changes of form in the skull, which could be used to diagnose the particular mental faculties of a given individual by doing a proper analysis.Phrenology Diagram
Gall carried out numerous observations and made many experimental measurements on the skulls of his relatives, friends and students. Gall thought that he was able to correlate certain particular mental faculties to bumps and depressions on the surface of the skull, its exterior forms or relative dimensions. Then, he proposed that these external landmarks were caused by the growth of internal brain structures, and that this growth was related to the development of the associated mental faculty. Thus, he was able to produce a complete and extensive theory to support his work, and to use it for practical applications in the mental sciences, by means of detailed topological maps. The logical and easy-to-learn structure of the phrenological theory quickly captured the imagination of thousands of followers.Phrenology Diagram
Gall and his followers identified 37 mental and moral faculties which they thought were represented in the exterior surface of the skull. Gall’s initial list comprised 27 faculties, to which his main collaborator, Spurzheim, added ten more. These faculties were divided into several spheres: intellectual, perceptiveness, mental energy, moral faculties, love, etc. Most of the faculties dealt with abstract and hard-to-define personality traits, such as firmness, approbativeness, cautiousness, marvelousness, eventuality, spirituality, veneration, amativeness. etc. Other phrenological traits have modern scientific counterparts which can be evaluated with proper psychological tests, such as constructiveness, destructiveness, individuality, self-esteem, idealism, affection, etc.
The main result of Gall’s theory was a kind of chart of the skull, which mapped the regions where the bumps and depressions related to the 37 faculties could be palpated, measured and diagnosed.

So what has this to do with Adventist history? Well phrenology and Adventism intersect at least twice (I’d be interested if anyone knows of others) as follows.

1. Sylvester Bliss’ Memoirs of William Miller records the following incident:
From the 6th to the 9th of March, Mr. Miller lectured in Medford, Mass. While here a friend took him to a phrenologist in Boston, with whom he was himself acquainted, but who had no suspicion whose head he was about to examine. The phrenologist commenced by saying that the person under examination had a large, well-developed, and well-balanced head. While examining the moral and intellectual organs, he said to Mr. Miller’s friend:
“I tell you what it is, Mr. Miller could not easily make a convert of this man to his hair-brained theory. He has too much good sense.”
Thus he proceeded, making comparisons between the head he was examining and the head of Mr. Miller, as he fancied it would be.
“O, how I should like to examine Mr. Miller’s head!” said he; “I would give it one squeezing.”
The phrenologist, knowing that the gentleman was a particular friend of Mr. Miller, spared no pains in going out of the way to make remarks upon him. Putting his hand on the organ of marvellousness, he said: “There! I’ll bet you anything that old Miller has got a bump on his head there as big as my fist;” at the same time doubling up his fist as an illustration.
The others present laughed at the perfection of the joke, and he heartily joined them, supposing they were laughing at his witticisms on Mr. Miller.
“He laughed; ‘t was well. The tale applied
Soon made him laugh on t’ other side.”
He pronounced the head of the gentleman under examination the reverse, in every particular, of what he declared Mr. Miller’s must be. When through, he made out his chart, and politely asked Mr. Miller his name.
Mr. Miller said it was of no consequence about putting his name upon the chart; but the phrenologist insisted.
“Very well,” said Mr. M.; “you may call it Miller, if you choose.”
“Miller, Miller,” said he; “what is your first name?”
“They call me William Miller.”
“What! the gentleman who is lecturing on the prophecies?”
“Yes, sir, the same.”
“At this the phrenologist settled back in his chair, the personation of astonishment and dismay, and spoke not a word while the company remained. His feelings may be more easily imagined than described. (p160-161)

Immediately following the above story, Bliss gives the following:
The following description of Mr. Miller’s phrenological developments were furnished by a phrenological friend in 1842, and may be of some interest to those acquainted with that science:
ORGANS VERY LARGE. – Amativeness, Adhesiveness, Combativeness, Firmness, Conscientiousness, Benevolence, Constructiveness, Ideality, Calculation, Comparison.
LARGE. – Philoprogenitiveness, Alimentiveness, Acquisitiveness, Self-esteem, Imitation, Mirthfulness, Form, Size, Order, Locality, Eventuality, Time, Language, Causality.
FULL. – Inhabitiveness, Concentrativeness, Caution, Approbation, Wonder, Veneration, Weight, Color, Tune.
MODERATE. – Marvellousness, Secretiveness, Hope, Individuality. (p161)

2. Ellen G. White was influenced by phrenological principles—particularly through her association with Dr James C. Jackson (below) and his health reform institute in Dansville.

Dr James C. JacksonWhite took her two sons Edson & Willie to Dr. Jackson’s health reform institute in Dansville, New York for a phrenology reading—apparently as part of a complete medical examination (for which Dr. Jackson charged five dollars per reading). Following the readings, she wrote to some friends:
“I think Dr. Jackson gave an accurate account of the disposition and organization of our children. He pronounced Willie’s head to be one of the best that has ever come under his observation. He gave a good description of Edson’s character and peculiarities. I think this examination will be worth everything to Edson.” (Ellen White to Bro. and Sister Lockwood, Sep. 14, 1864, L-6-1864, White Estate, as quoted in Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health New York: Harper & Row, 1976, 90-91.) Number’s book contains copies of the letter to the Lockwoods and a copy of Jackson’s “medical” report on Willie White.

Similarly, when her husband James was healthy, she had spoken of how “large and active” were his “cautiousness, conscientiousness, and benevolence.” She noted that these had “been special blessings in qualifying him for his business career.” However, during his illness these “special developments, which had been a blessing to him in health, were painfully excitable, and a hindrance to his recovery.” (“Our Late Experience” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald February 27, 1866) Here, she is again clearly utilizing phrenological concepts.
The first reference to phrenology in White’s published writings apparently occurs in an 1862 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald article:
“The sciences of phrenology, psychology, and mesmerism, have been the channel through which Satan has come more directly to this generation, and wrought with that power which was to characterize his work near the close of probation….Phrenology and mesmerism are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his most powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls. The detector, the Bible, is destroyed in the minds of thousands, and Satan uses his arts and devices, which are received as from heaven. And Satan here receives the worship which suits his satanic majesty. Thousands are conversing with and receiving instructions from this demon-god, and acting according to his teachings. The world, which is considered to be benefited so much by phrenology and animal magnetism, never was so corrupt. Satan uses these very things to destroy virtue and lay the foundation of Spiritualism.” (Ellen G. White, “Phrenology, Psychology, Mesmerism, and Spiritualism” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald February 18, 1862, 94-95.

In the above passage White is (in my opinion) clearly saying that phrenology and mesmerism “are good in their place”—that is, they are valuable/useful concepts that have been also used by Satan for evil. As a parallel illustration this is similar to saying that Music is good in its place but has also been used for evil. This interpretation is borne out by the fact that the White’s visit to Dr Jackson takes place two years after her statement in the 1862 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald.
Interestingly, Uriah Smith defends White’s statement along much the same lines. In his 1868 book The visions of Mrs. E. G. White he states:
“I told him the Lord had shown me that mesmerism was from the Devil.” Experience and Views, page 6. “Phrenology and mesmerism are very much exalted. They are good in their place.” Testimony No. 7, page 56. Here the objector stops and claims a contradiction. Mesmerism from the Devil, he says, and yet good! He should have continued his quotation from Testimony No. 7, a little further, thus: “They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his most powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls!” It is only by garbling the sentence that the opposer finds his objection; for when it is given in full, it explains the first quotation, and shows in what respect mesmerism is from the Devil, namely, in the use that is made of it. This is all made plain in the work last quoted from. (p115)

White does make a number of other references to phrenology—however it should be noted finally that the subject plays a very minor role in her writings. The exact number of occurrences is difficult to determine because her articles were reprinted multiple times in different magazines & compilations— but it is certainly less than 10 separate occasions. It should also be noted that most references (and all of the positive ones) occur before 1870.
From my perspective this passage where Ellen White writes positively of a now discredited “medical” practice without any scientific or other value, is easy to explain—she was simply reflecting the culture of her time—and the current state of medical/scientific/psychological knowledge. Thus I have no problem with this passage, nor with Ellen White taking her two sons for a phrenology reading.

In all fairness, I will direct you to the Ellen G. White Estate website which addresses this issue also (though from a slightly different approach): http://www.whiteestate.org/books/mol/Chapt43.html#Phrenology

Other occurrences of phrenology in early Adventist writings include:

A letter from Alvarez Pierce was published in the March 6, 1856 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald: “I once attended for a few evenings a Methodist meeting where they thought they were having a great revival and where their preacher instead of going to the great store-house of eternal truth, undertook to prove his doctrine by magnetism and phrenology. Will God approve of such doctrine as this? We answer, No. Then let us take warning and let our hearts and conversation be in heaven, from whence we look for our Lord Jesus.” (p183)

On January 1, 1861, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald published an article by R. C. Farrar entitled “Religion Illustrated by Phrenology”. (Note: this is before White makes reference to the subject.) It is an quite positive towards the subject:
“The science of phrenology proves conclusively that the seat of the mind is the brain; and so intimate is the connection between mind and matter, that any derangement of one produces a marked effect upon the other. How plainly the results of the fall can be traced in our feeble and shattered frames, as well as in the natural depravity of our hearts.
My mind is carried back to the creation of man. When he came from the hand of God, how perfect he was, physically, mentally and morally. All the faculties of his mind were blended together in just that proportion necessary to the development of a perfect character. Benevolence, or love to our fellow-men, veneration, or religious reverence for the Deity, firmness, or fixedness of purpose, resolution, fortitude, conscientiousness, or love of justice and right, occupy the most elevated position of the brain, showing that they are to govern and control the rest of the faculties. When Adam partook of the forbidden fruit, he reversed this order of things very materially. Appetite is one of the lower faculties, and occupies a lower position in the brain. So do the domestic organs, love of home, family and friends, the principle of self-defense, love of property, &c. These faculties are all right in their legitimate use, but they are designed to be held in perfect subjection to the moral powers….It is the design of religion to restore back the just balance of the powers of mind, that each may have just that development God designed at the first. We must not discard a faculty altogether, because its excessive development has led us into sin. We must curb and restrain it within just the limits that God prescribes.”

Information on phrenology on the internet can be found here: http://www.mtn.org/quack/devices/psychist.htm Some of links are not working, the Internet Archive maintains copies of some of the sites. See especially: http://www.epub.org.br/cm/n01/frenolog/frenologia.htm

Samuel H. Greenblatt, “Phrenology in the Science and Culture of the 19th Century” Neurosurgery, 37:4 (1995), 790-805.

Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health New York: Harper & Row, 1976, 90-91.

Robert E. Riegel, “The Introduction of Phrenology to the United States” The American Historical Review, 39:1 (1933), 73-78.



  1. Very impressive. Kudos for publishing this research.

  2. What better evidence that Ellen G. White was a child of her time? But then if one were to read either Paul or Peter on the role of women one would have to agree that they also were tied to their time/thought/ethos. But why the G.C. keeps dragging its “feet” on the issue of women in the ministry as full members. One bumper sticker of merit: “God made so few perfect heads that He had to invent hair”

  3. […] Recently Tom Zwemer commented: “What better evidence that Ellen G. White was a child of her time?” He is correct; for the historian, context is everything. Context is the key to understanding not only Ellen G. White, but every other aspect of our past. Recently while browsing the June 13, 1907 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald I came across an interesting essay by Ellen G. White titled, “No Other God’s Before Me”. In it she states: As I visit the homes of our people and our schools, I see that all the available space on tables, what-nots, and mantelpieces is filled up with photographs. On the right hand and on the left are seen the pictures of human faces. God desires this order of things to be changed. Were Christ on earth, he would say, “Take these things hence.” I have been instructed that these pictures are as so many idols, taking up the time and thought which should be sacredly devoted to God. These photographs cost money. Is it consistent for us, knowing the work that is to be done at this time, to spend God’s money in producing pictures of our own faces and the faces of our friends? Should not every dollar that we can spare be used in the upbuilding of the cause of God? These pictures take money that should be sacredly devoted to God’s service; and they divert the mind from the truths of God’s Word. This making and exchanging photographs is a species of idolatry. Satan is doing all he can to eclipse heaven from our view. Let us not help him by making picture-idols. We need to reach a higher standard than these human faces suggest. The Lord says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Those who claim to believe in Christ need to realize that they are to reflect his image?? It is his likeness that is to be kept before the mind. The words that are spoken are to be freighted with heavenly inspiration…. After going from home to home, and seeing the many photographs, I was instructed to warn our people against this. evil. This much we can do for God. We can put these picture-idols out of sight. They have no power for good, but interpose between God and the soul. They can do nothing to help in sowing the seeds of truth. Christ calls upon those who claim to be following him to put on the whole armor of God. […]

  4. Take a look at what Ellen G. White says in Selected Messages Book
    Two, Chapter 44 “The Perils of Hypnosis”–she seems to have taken a rather antagonistic stance towards phrenology, though she speaks of it only briefly.

  5. excellent reference, thank you

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