Context is Everything

December 24, 2006

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 Gods 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.

Now, how should one interpret such an essay? Do I have to get rid of the picture of my wife in my office? Throw out my wedding pictures at home?

While Ellen White’s negative statements on bicycle purchase and cycling have frequently been raised, I’ve never seen this particular prohibition against photographs dealt with.

When dealing with such statements, we must recognize indeed that “Ellen G. White was a child of her time?” This is something that both those against Ellen White and those for her, often fail to do.

The biggest difficulty lies in determining the cultural context in which she was writing. Questions that need answering regarding this article include:

  • What was the cost of having your picture taken in 1907?
  • How does this cost compare with the average wage of the time?
  • What was going on in the Seventh-day Adventist church in 1907? Was there are financial crisis etc?

Unfortunately I don’t have complete answers to these questions, however the following points may provide some insight:

  • According to the History of Photography timeline photography was well developed by 1907—the first positive permanent photograph was created in 1834 by Henry Talbot. In 1900 the Kodak box-brownie was introduced, and in 1907 the French Lumiere brothers had introduced the first colour film.
  • During the period 1900-1909, “Many changes during this time were brought about through advances in technology. The turn of the century decade began one of transition and progress and is considered the first decade of materialism and consumerism. The Industrial age was in full swing, mass production made prices fall to all time lows. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs were read more than any book other than the Bible. Teddy Bears became a fad started from a cartoon of a bear with Teddy Roosevelt (Letter’s to his Children) (1902) and were mass produced in 1905. During this decade, safety in food processing and the environment became issues and laws were enacted. There were hundreds of job openings for a typewriter secretary. Radio broadcasts and transportation, especially automobiles, ships, and trains, changed the way people viewed their world.” (http://kclibrary.nhmccd.edu/decade00.html) (Emphasis added.)
  • The “average worker (1900-1909) made $12.98/week for 59 hours [work]”. (http://kclibrary.nhmccd.edu/decade00.html)
  • George R. Knight terms the period 1901-1910, the “Era of Reorganization and Crisis”. (A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists, p108) Knight notes that John Harvey Kellogg was disfellowshipped from the Battle Creek congregation in November 1907 after a long and traumatic feud. He also points out that this decade was a time of major expansion in both education and overseas missions.

It must also be noted that numerous photographs of Ellen G. White exist, the earliest being an ambrotype of James and Ellen most likely taken in the late 1850s:

Here is James and Ellen in 1868:

One of the last photographs taken of Ellen G. White was this one taken as she was addressing local church school children on June 15, 1913, in California:

The photographs of Ellen White include this family group taken in 1907—the year she wrote so vehemently against photographs:

Front row (L to R): Great grandchildren Henry, Gracie, and Herbert; seated- Mrs. W. C. White, Mrs. E. G. White, Elder W. C. White; standing: Ella M. Robinson, D. E. Robinson, W. D. Workman, Mabel E. Workman.

Some photographs of Ellen White have caused controversy:

This 1913 family group photograph shows Ellen G. White’s granddaughter Ella May Robinson seated on the right. Ella is wearing a long dark necklace. The presence of this item of jewellery in close proximity to Ellen, caused the Review and Herald publishers to censor the photograph—removing the necklace—when it was published in the final volume of Arthur L. White’s biography Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years in 1982. The retouched photograph appears at the bottom of page p243. You can see the photographs side-by-side here.

Similarly, this 1878 photograph of Ellen and her twin sister Elizabeth, in which Ellen wears some jewellery—apparently a watch chain of some description—has caused controversy amongst some Ellen White opponents.

There are still a lot of gaps to be filled in this story of Ellen White and photographs. Let me conclude with this: in this Christmas season—a time of overeating, commercialism, rampant consumerism, and selfishness—we would do well to remember Ellen G. White’s words in another passage from that same article:

Christ looks upon a world filled with the din of merchandise and trade, with the dishonesty and scheming of buyers and sellers. In their desire to get gain, men have lost sight of the laws of justice and equity….
We are God’s stewards, and “it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” The money that God has entrusted to us is to be carefully husbanded. We are to increase in efficiency by putting to the best use the talents given us, that at God’s coming we may return to him his own with usury.

Merry Christmas to you all.



  1. I notice the context of the passage broadens from one of of monetary value to matters of the heart. Even the cheap picture or other objects can claim a worship they doesn’t deserve. We mark the value of our loves with abstractions like paper money or coins, but the time we spend with our idols, the work it takes to make them shine for others, and the influence they draw away from Christ are also part of the ledger sheet of our affections. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Thanks for the interesting read. It stimulated a whole lot of (possibly frivolous) questions in my mind.

    My initial thought was that perhaps Context is not exactly everything here. What “context” does in this particular instance is to highlight a problem. Context tells us that Ellen White was critical of something that was widespread, and presumably easily available. (In fact, the text itself points that out). It does not actually fully explain how I should interpret this particular injunction. (Or perhaps, more accurately, – why it should be normative for others).

    I immediately began to wonder if we should not look for other hermeneutical aids. Perhaps I need to look if there is not a pattern in how Ellen White responds to technology/innovation. Perhaps I need to ask some psycho-social questions about the conservative Christian mindset and their relationship to technology. But I admit that each of these approaches relies heavily on context.

    These thoughts were a bit too deep for me, and I began to feel slightly rebellious. Why does this have to pose a problem for me? It was after all her opinion. Why can I not just accept it for what it is: her opinion. (Almost analogous: in the same way that people who work in one department of an organisation will look at the administration and comment on how poorly they spend money when their particular department needs more: “Why do they have money for air conditioning but they cannot afford to buy more books for the library”)

    And then I thought: Argh… it is Christmas. We need such messages from time to time to remind us to live frugally and resist the rampant consumerism. And I went to take some photos of my daughter opening her presents.

  3. Sorry for spamming the comments, but I just had the thought that an anti-technological theme in the writings of Ellen White is actually quite cool :-)

    Here is a perspective by Jacques Ellul who I read with great interest. I think he is truly a prophetic figure himself:

    It is useless to think that a distinction can be made between technique and its use, says Ellul, for techniques have specific social and psychological consequences independent of our desires. There can be no room for moral considerations in their use. “Not even the moral conversion of the technicians could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians.” In the end, technique has only one principle, “efficient ordering.” (p. 18)

    taken from http://www.regent.edu/acad/schcom/rojc/mdic/ellul.html

  4. Hi Jan & Weiers, thanks for your comments.

    Jan, I agree, the underlying theme of White’s article is stewardship. And while I couldn’t ever see myself using such a “hard-sell” technique as she does, it is a great reminder of the biblical call to stewardship and social justice.

    Weiers, you raise an interesting point regarding White & technology that I don’t believe has been explored. I wonder however if she makes enough references/use of, technology to come to adequate conclusions. She certainly made wide-use of trains as transport–a relatively new technology. However, I’m not aware of much else.
    You also raise the issue of interpretation–which was the basis of my statement that context is everything. As you point out, an understanding of the historical/ social/ cultural/ personal context of a particular statement does not tell the reader how to interpret it. What it does do (in my opinion) is to allow us to evaluate various interpretations in terms of internal coherence and plausibility–it allows each reader to make sense of such statements.
    Finally, you ask, “Why can I not just accept it for what it is: her opinion.” Well there are a couple of issues here, the first is that in her initial paragraph (which I did not quote) she states, “During the night I was sorely distressed….I was taken from house to house, through the homes of our people, and as I went from room to room, my Instructor said, ‘Behold the idols which they have accumulated!'” Clearly White is not portraying her words as simply her own opinion. She clearly sources them to God through an “Instructor”–presumably an angel. Thus, the question of interpretation rises in a different form–how does one interpret such words that are ascribed to God? What do we do with themes that we agree with–like her words that “The Lord calls upon us to practise self-denial and self-sacrifice”; when we have difficulty with the example she uses to convey her message?

  5. I agree that context is of great importance in understanding a message. In this case the testimony on photography as idolatry. As we piece together the historical context for her statements, we should not ignore the common Victorian practice, now known as “post mortem photography”. While the photographs were usually taken of small children and babies, for whom no other photograph existed, this was not a strict rule. Often the whole family would pose with the deceased (child) for a portrait. At time the body was “laid out” or even posed. Props such as toys, flowers and crosses were used in the taking of these photographs.

    Often copies were made and sent to family and friends as reminders of the deceased. A simple google search will give you adequate information on the subject as well as copies of such photographs should you wish to see what all the fuss was about.

    Though Ellen White does not specifically mention what type of photographs she saw in the homes she visited, one might certainly safely assume that prints and copies of these “post-mortem photographs” might well have been among them. Though popular in the mid-19th Century, the practice persisted into the early 20th Century.

    Again though we find this strange, morbid and even in bad taste, we forget that mourning customs were very different back then. The practice of “being laid out” was even applied to Ellen herself as she “lay in state” visited by the faithful and other mourners (and photographs were taken!)

    My initial reaction would be to suggest that the comments regarding the numerous photographs had to do with their morbid nature, but that would simply be my prejudice and distaste for the practice.

    Perhaps another aspect of the historical context was also the strong sense of Protestant identity and the distancing from anything that might be an “image”. We know that the Mennonites are generally opposed to the taking of photographs. Is there a connection? Scratching around to augment our understanding of the context might tell us.

    Any thoughts Hobbes?

  6. Thanks for your thoughts Wayne.

    A little more data here:
    “The mushrooming of photographic establishments reflects photography’s growing popularity; from a mere handful in the mid 1840s the number had grown to 66 in 1855, and to 147 two years later. In London, a favourite venue was Regent Street where, in the peak in the mid ‘sixties there were no less than forty-two photographic establishments! In America the growth was just as dramatic: in 1850 there were 77 photographic galleries in New York alone. The demand for photographs was such that Charles Baudelaire (1826-1867), a well known poet of the period and a critic of the medium, commented: ‘our squalid society has rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gloat at its trivial image on a scrap of metal.'”

    Still, that’s 50 years before the White article.

    Wayne, you raise some interesting points–again however, we lack data.
    Info on postmortem photography here, and examples here.

    “Photography was a very popular pastime in Victorian America and, according to author Maureen Delorme, ‘postmortem photography of the deceased, especially of children, was a virtual obsession to nineteenth century Americans.'” From an interesting article on Victorian death rituals.

    My question would be, if postmortem photography really was the issue, why doesn’t she say so? Why not mention other costly Victorian mourning customs like mausoleums, extravagent funerals etc?:
    “Extravagant funerals had become the norm well before the reign of Queen Victoria. The determination to secure a ‘decent’ burial for family members was characteristic of all classes in Victorian society, even if it meant hardship for the surviving family members. The ultimate disgrace was to be assigned a pauper’s grave.” From deathonline.net

    If the “morbid” nature of postmortem photography was the issue, then why didn’t she address other “morbid” customs like mementos with locks of hair etc.? It should also be noted that while we might regard such customs as “morbid” there is no evidence that the people of the Victorian period (including Ellen White) did.

    Your final suggestion is also interesting–however it does not seem to account for the fact that White appears in numerous photographs and had numerous photographs taken of her family–including ones in 1907 and after.

  7. I agree, Ellen White does not specifically mention the exact nature of the phtographs in question. For all we know they were simply a profusion of family portraits; Or a mixture of portrature of the living and the dead. We really have no way of knowing. If we add to our body of knowledge the number of photographs in which Ellen White posed we are led to believe that she did not really take issue with the taking of photographs per se. (Either that, or she was inconsistent.)

    Certainly photograhy was experimental at the time of Ellen’s writing. There was even a growing trade in the photography of “departed spirits” (though virtually all such photographs have been exposed as frauds). Remembering that Mary Baker Eddie lived around the same time as Ellen White, one becomes aware that the Victorians were dabbling in many different pursuits. And certainly the obsessive rise in fascination with death, death rituals, momentos and other “morbid” things ties in with rise in popularity of Spiritism at the time.

    This is not to say that early Adventists were neccesarily dappling in Spiritism, but certainly it is part of the historical context. And we are, after all, to a large extent, children of our times!

    The Victorians were largely sentimental (as evidenced in their various rituals for life, love and even death!) Ellen White wrote, “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.” It seems to me that the issue was more with the overt sentimentality and time spent in reflection upon these pictures.

    This also leads me to believe that certainly there may well have been a number of “port-mortem” pictures among the photographs described. Many examples of these have not survived as they became distasteful to later generations and were removed from family collections.

    Though all of the additional information regarding photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is fascinating, is it leading us closer to “the truth” or at least a better understanding of how to apply the “testimony”? I am almost content to put it in the same category as the bicycles and chess. The testimony appears to be about stewardship, not only of funds, but also of time and our emotions. Is this a case of “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”?

  8. I think EGW just wrote too much. What’s offensive, and doctrinally problematic, is her assertion about what Jesus would say about the photographs. That’s awfully presumptious. And for the many SDA’s that hung on her every word (and still do), this kind of criticism is spiritually damaging and unnecessarily divisive. And by granting EGW an authoritative role in the church, it’s all too easy for statements like this to assume a much greater importance than they deserve.

    I’d actually come across this statement, or one like it, from one of the anti-EGW websites. Obviously when we as a church have ascribed virtual infallibility to her writings, we open ourselves open to this kind of scorn.

  9. Thanks for your comment Glen, you raise some interesting points. It is true that you could argue that her statements are presumptuous–of course if she really was in direct communication with god, than this problem disappears. One can however see some similarities with campaigns like the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?)etc. Indeed, I feel that such questions are legitimate–perhaps central to our experience as Christians–What WOULD Jesus say/do about excessive consumption, comfortable western middle-class lifestyles, racial divisions, gender discrimination etc.?

  10. I took some time to reflect and consider my position on the “photograph” matter. I spent some hours trying to source other comments on the matter by Ellen White, and am more certain than ever that she was attempting to be a moderating voice, rather than one that called for extremes.

    As I read different comments on the matter I noticed that she made several comments about the excessive photographs over a period of time. In 1886 she wrote:

    “Now if the pictures made have a tendency to separate the affections from God, and are worshiped in the place of God, they are idols. Have those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ exalted these things above God, and given their affections to them? Has their love for treasures filled a place in their hearts that Jesus should occupy?”

    She went on to comment that some had taken the testimony to mean that they should burn all their photographs, and it seemed that several had done so. In response she asked the following:

    “Have those who have burned up all their pictures of friends and any kind of pictures they happened to have, come up to a higher state of consecration for this act, and do they seem in words, in deportment, and in soul, to be ennobled, elevated, more heavenly minded? Is their experience richer than before? Do they pray more, and believe with a more perfect faith after this consuming sacrifice which they have made? Have they come up into the mount? Has the holy fire been kindled in their hearts, giving new zeal and greater devotion to God and His work than before? Has a live coal from off the altar of sacrifice touched their hearts and their lips? By their fruits you can tell the character of the work”.–Ms 50, 1886, pp. 3, 4. (“Economy,” July, 1886.) {8MR 79.1}

    The point seemed to be that simply shunning a particular area of potential idolatry did not necessarily produce a closer relationship with the Saviour. Indeed one year prior to her comments in July 1886, Ellen White, on a visit to Norway, addressed the Christiana congregation on division and other matters. One notable matter being those who had burned their photographs and seemed to be claiming a higher level of perfection for having done so!

    “It is true,” Ellen White told them during the course of her visit, “that altogether too much money is expended upon pictures; not a little means which should flow into the treasury of God is paid to the artist. But the evil that will result to the church from the course of these extremists is far greater than that which they are trying to correct.”–Ibid., p. 212. {EGWE 120.1}

    In the Review and Herald, December 23, 1890 Ellen White wrote:

    How the enemy has wrought to place temporal things above spiritual! Many families who have but little to spare for God’s cause, will yet spend money freely to purchase rich furniture or fashionable clothing. How much is spent for the table, and often for that which is only a hurtful indulgence; how much for presents that benefit no one! Many spend considerable sums for photographs to give to their friends. Picture-taking is carried to extravagant lengths, and encourages a species of idolatry. How much more pleasing to God it would be if all this means were invested in publications which would direct souls to Christ and the precious truths for this time! The money wasted on needless things would supply many a table with reading-matter on present truth, which would prove a savor of life unto life. {RH, December 23, 1890 par. 11}

    Eleven year later, the expense involved with the proliferation of photographs came under the spotlight of her pen:

    The money which should be returned to the Lord in tithes and offerings is spent for useless purposes, such as producing pictures of human faces. The many, many photographs in your houses are a dishonor to God. They bear silent witness that you have backslidden from righteousness. I look to heaven and cry, “Lord, how long shall this evil divert means from thy treasury?” {RH, November 26, 1901 par. 9}

    Here, though, she seems to go further than ever before and state most clearly that the chief concern was that members were using tithes and offerings to fund their penchant for photographs!

    In 1899, Ellen White wrote in a letter to G. A. Irwin on the matter. In the letter she makes the following comment:

    Some things have been presented to me which I must set right. In my own home, one after another, pictures have accumulated. I see the same in every home to which I go. Is the Lord in this matter? Does not the charge in the twentieth chapter of Exodus prohibit this multitudinous picture-making which will continue to increase unless there is a decided reform, unless the people of God shall see that there is a decided reform, unless the people of God shall see that they are becoming idolaters? What shall be done in this matter? {15MR 115.2}
    I have light that to spend so much money in photographs is a species of idolatry. Thus means is consumed which should be used in missionary effort rather than in producing pictures which are not essential. {15MR 115.3}

    At times Ellen White comments on the time that is devoted to the keeping and reflecting on, the many photographs (Bible Echo, January 14, 1901) in addition to the funds invested. It would appear that at least three issues are of concern here:

    1. The level of spirituality in the Church as evidenced by the use of tithes and offerings to make these purchases.
    2. Even among those who are faithful with the former, spend extravagant sums of money in the creation of albums and pictures.
    3. Which brings us to the most pertinent question: What is the best manner for Advent Christians to handle their funds? How does one strike a balance between providing for the needs of the family (both for the present and the future), while at the same time making sure the eternal things are not forgotten?

    The concern was not photographs as such. If it were, then they would be wrong in every circumstance. Rather, it would appear that the profusion of photographs at great expense was a “craze” of the time, something that was “done” in good society, and could be carried to the point of idolatry!
    Now if the pictures made have a tendency to separate the affections from God, and are worshiped in the place of God, they are idols. Have those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ exalted these things above God, and given their affections to them? Has their love for treasures filled a place in their hearts that Jesus should occupy? (MR 554)

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