Context is EverythingDecember 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.