Joseph Smith, Ellen White and Nineteenth-Century Visionary Culture

Speaker: Categories: Feb 08, 1997


[39min, 51sec / 49min, 48sec]


Growing-up-Adventist, being educated exclusively in SDA schools, kindergarten through college, may have created for many a kind of tunnel vision. It is often with a degree of surprise that persons continuing their education in non-SDA institutions only then discover information about religious groups, churches, and other non-Christian religions. Sometimes such enlightenment causes persons to ask questions, many questions, for which the stock answers of earlier years no longer suffice.

It is probably a correct assumption that few Seventh-day Adventists have carefully studied the origin of denominations which emerged as contemporaries of Adventism. Our January presentation by Jeff Needle provided a more complete backdrop against which to understand Adventist origins. Such an understanding will be significantly broadened on February 8 as we learn more of what was the cultural and religious context of Upper New York and the New England states a hundred-plus years ago.

Dr. Richard Bushman, will share his in-depth research into the unusual religious climate of the mid to latter portion of the nineteenth century in his San Diego Adventist Forum presentation. He notes, "Joseph Smith and Ellen White emerged as visionaries and prophets in a period when published accounts of visions abounded." Were visions the norm of the day? Was everybody doing it? What caused such visioning to become less commonplace?

He notes further that in some published accounts" ... other visionary reports resemble the writings of Smith and White, not only in content but in language used. When placed side by side, some texts by the two religious leaders sound very much like texts from less prominent reports of visions."

To those SDAs who have been intrigued, sometimes angered, and more often disappointed to hear the term "plagiarism" and "plagiarist" applied to Ellen G. White, the findings of Dr. Bushman may prove still more disturbing. But he may offer assurance when stating, "The point of the paper is to pose a question to believers in the inspiration of Joseph Smith and Ellen White: does the conventionality of their revelatory language undercut the truth of their messages?"

To assist in understanding better just what was occurring on the religious scene in North America a hundred years ago, Dr. Bushman will distribute examples of these visionaries' texts for comparison. Perhaps, based on such evidence, we will be enabled to reach more rational conclusions regarding this phase of our religious heritage.


Richard Bushman was born in Salt Lake City and reared in Portland, Oregon, in a Latter-day Saint family. He graduated from Harvard College in History and received his Ph.D. in History of American Civilization from the same location. He has taught at Brigham Young University, Boston University, the University of Delaware, and currently is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History at Columbia University. He has written about early American history, the most recent work being The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992). In 1984 he published Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. He is now working on a cultural history of Joseph Smith while holding an appointment as R. Stanton Avery Fellow at the Huntington Library. We are fortunate he is so nearby!!!

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