SIGNIFICANT AMERICAN: Two pages in the Spring 2015 issue of the Smithsonian magazine are devoted to Ellen G. White.

Adventist News

Andrew McChesney

News editor, Adventist Review
E-mail: | Twitter: @armcchesney

Ellen G. White Named Among 100 Most Significant Americans

A White scholar welcomes the decision by the Smithsonian magazine to acknowledge White’s influence on religion.

A leading scholar on Ellen G. White welcomed a decision by Smithsonian magazine to name the cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as one of the 100 most significant Americans of all times.

The magazine places White in a group that includes the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Helen Keller in its Spring 2015 issue. The individuals were chosen with the use of an algorithm that measures data taken from Wikipedia pages and Google book scans.

“It is good to see an institution of Smithsonian’s caliber giving proper acknowledgement to Ellen White,” said William Fagal, associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, a depository of White's writings.

The cover of the Spring 2015 issue of the Smithsonian magazine that profiles its list of the 100 most significant Amercians of all time.

The Smithsonian, the main publication of the Smithsonian Institute, the world's largest museum and research complex, does not rank the 100 people. Instead, it divides them into 10 categories of 10 people each, and White appears in the category “Religious Figures.” But the magazine did give White the distinction of being the most interesting religious figure in U.S. history by, as it explained in a preface to the list, providing her with more space than the other 10 choices—a full-page article illustrated with a full-page drawing.

The non-bylined article focuses largely on the some 2,000 visions and dreams that White said she experienced from the age of 17 in 1844 until she died 70 years later. It offers a detailed description from White and eyewitnesses about the visions, and it notes that skeptics later hypothesized that the visions might have been caused by epilepsy or mercury poisoning. The article also suggests that White herself connected the visions with a serious childhood head injury that she suffered when she was struck with a stone.

White, however, only said in her lifetime that the injury caused her to seek Jesus, not that it caused the visions themselves.

“The article downplays the supernatural basis for her contribution—not surprising for a publication of this type—but we welcome its recognition of her significance to religion, not just in America, but throughout the world,” Fagal said Sunday.

The article leaves the origin of the visions up in the air.

“Whatever the cause,” the article says, “she would have as many as 2,000 seemingly divine experiences over the next few decades and they, along with her prolific writings (more than 100,000 pages by the time of her death), would help shape Seventh-day Adventism as it became an organized denomination in the 1860s.”

The article also mentions the Adventist belief that Jesus began the process of end-time judgment of people in 1844 and gives a nod to the movement’s emphasis on healthy living.

It incorrectly says the Adventist Church has “some 14 million followers.” Church membership currently stands at 18.1 million, according to figures presented at the church’s Annual Council business meeting this fall.

Seventh-day Adventists view White as a gifted writer and a special messenger appointed by God to draw the world's attention to the Bible and help prepare people for Jesus’ second coming, according to a biography on the White Estate’s website.

White also is the most translated woman author in the history of literature, writing more than 5,000 journal articles and 40 books on religion, education, nutrition, and Christian living, among other topics.

Among the other religious figures named on the Smithsonian list are two Mormon leaders, Joseph Smith Jr. and Brigham Young; Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard; Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy; and 16th- to 18th-century figures William Penn, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Jonathan Edwards, and Cotton Mather. An honorary editor’s mention is given to evangelist Billy Graham.

The formula used by the Smithsonian to compile its list was constructed by Steven Skiena, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University, and Charles B. Ward, an engineer at Google. The duo came up with an algorithm that uses Wikipedia’s 840,000 pages about individuals and data from 15 million books that Google has scanned to measure people’s accomplishments and how well they are remembered for them.

Using this method, the top five figures in world history are, in order of importance: Jesus, Napoleon, Muhammad, William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln.

Related links

Smithsonian magazine, Spring 2015: “Meet the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” (only preface is available online)

Biography of Ellen G. White from the Ellen G. White Estate

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