Was Ellen White Wrong About the Effects of Corsets?

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Was Ellen White Wrong About the Effect of Corsets?
By Christopher John Sernaque


Ellen White claimed that woman can inherit small waists from corset wearing Mothers. This is advocacy of Lamarckian evolution, a concept rejected by Creationists and Evolutionists alike as pseudoscience. 


Ellen White was a human with a beating heart just like we all are, i.e. without infinite knowledge. Occasionally, as the Apostle Paul did, she would draw from common reports in her day that were not entirely accurate. This does not in any wise negate her inspiration, as she would include tentative statements, much like Hezekiah or Job, to separate her own thoughts based on her personal research and inspired thoughts revealed to her by the Holy Spirit. We need to have a whole person view of inspiration and allow God to be God and not rob His messengers of their humanity.


As a baptized Seventh-day Adventist for over a decade, and a psychotherapeutic scientist, I got a stomach churching shock when I thought that Ellen White was advocating Lamarckian evolution. (1) This is the idea, rejected as pseudo-science by both creationists and by evolutionists, that acquired characteristics are inheritable. (2)

In her article counselling women to cease from wearing corsets, which are unhealthy, she said: “Some women have naturally small waists. But rather than regard such forms as beautiful, they should be viewed as defective. These wasp waists may have been transmitted to them from their mothers, as the result of their indulgence in the sinful practice of tight-lacing, and in consequence of imperfect breathing.” (3)


I called a friend, a non-SDA Christian geneticist and, not telling him the source, read it to him and he confirmed what I had feared: this quote seems to smack of Lamarckian evolution, which would mean, then, that it would seem that she was mistaken.  And though one does not have to confer infallibility on one of God’s prophets, I nevertheless found this disturbing. (4)


After rereading Ellen White’s article in its entirety, I realized that there are “prophetic precedents” in the Bible that, in this instance, serve as a pattern for Ellen White’s writings. (5)  First, she was quoting from four different sources in the article: The Herald of Health, Western Rural, Marshall Statesmen, and Good Health, all of which were magazines of her time. The statements from these publications were, largely, accurate in terms of the potential health concerns that result from wearing a corset but were inaccurate when dealing the heredity of small waists. In other words, Ellen White was quoting from a source that was only partly true.

We find a prophetic precedent in the writings of the apostle Paul, who himself, in certain instances, relied on information that was only partly accurate. For example, we find Paul using language like, “It hath been declared unto me of you…” (6) and “It is reported commonly…” (7). Likewise, when Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, we find him claiming that he and his fellow laborers had heard accounts of busybodies meddling and prying the church, saying, “For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.” (8) In all these instances Paul made reference to source material that was available in his day. Finally, Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerning their discord saying, “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.” (9)

Here we find a prime prophetic precedent of Paul relying on information that was only partly believable or accurate. While Paul quoted from reports that were not entirely accurate, that does not overshadow the points he was making to his Thessalonian or Corinthian audience. Correspondingly, Ellen White’s health counsel on the unsoundness of corsets is not negated by the inaccuracies in the several sources she was quoting from.   

Furthermore, the Ellen White Estate had addressed Ellen White’s “wasp-waist inheritance” statement by saying, “Her (Ellen White’s) cautious, qualified assertion (“may have inherited”) indicates that she was not claiming revelation here.” (10) My research determined that both King Hezekiah and Job made qualified assertions in their experience.

Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, had attacked Judah and his emissary Rabshakeh boasted against God and Hezekiah. When faced with imminent assault and ridicule from the Assyrian adversary, Hezekiah had hope that the Lord would rebuff these foes, and he made the qualified declaration, “It may be the LORD thy God will hear all the words of Rabshakeh, whom the king of Assyria his master hath sent to reproach the living God; and will reprove the words which the LORD thy God hath heard: wherefore lift up thy prayer for the remnant that are left.” (11)

Unlike King Hezekiah, Job was more concerned with evil within than evil without. Knowing that his sons “went and feasted in their houses” and their three sisters came to “eat and to drink with them”, (12) Job prayed his children would maintain the principles of moral integrity he instilled in them. Like King Hezekiah, Job too made a statement of anticipation saying, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” (13) King Hezekiah and Job’s experiences provide a prophetic precedent for Ellen White making statements of possibility and reservation. More often than not, when we come across what we perceive to be a difficulty in the writings of Ellen White, a prayerful study of the Bible will reveal a prophetic precedent as, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” (14)

In the Bible, we find several prophetic precedents of prophets expressing merely their opinion. Paul said that he, regarding some topics related to marriage, spoke “by permission, and not of commandment.” (15) Paul acknowledged, “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord…” (16) and freely attested that he gave his own “…judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.” (17) Paul’s writing in this passage, he claimed, was a union of “my (his) judgment” and “the Spirit of God.” (18) We can thus see from this passage that the work of a prophet is a joining together of humanity with divinity, but in this work, God alone remains “worthy to be praised” (19), while the prophet forever pleads this faithful saying, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” (20)

We also find two instances where two separate prophets expressed opinionated inaccuracies, both related to David. Nathan, a prophet of God, had a sincere, yet mistaken opinion or belief, that David would construct the Lord’s Temple, when God in actuality willed that Solomon construct His Temple. (21) Samuel, a prophet who was favored “both with the LORD, and also with men,” (22) had the incorrect idea that Eliab, a handsome and tall son of Jesse, (23) was to be the King who would replace the present King Saul, when in actuality Jesse’s youngest son David was the Lord’s chosen. Just as we embrace the humanity of Samuel, Nathan, and Paul, in our understanding of their work we should heartily embrace the humanity of Ellen White in our understanding of her life’s calling. Ellen White is not a goddess.

Though her “writings speak with prophetic authority” (24), Ellen White herself never claimed perfection. “In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible” (25). She went on to say that concerning common non-religious subjects, not every statement she has ever said or written is given “as a revelation from the Lord, but simply as a human opinion…” (26)

Even “the best of us” are but dust. John the Baptist, after being imprisoned by Herod, found himself being buffeted by doubts that were shaking His faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Here was the greatest of the prophets, the man who had baptized his own Savior, doubting his own prophetic authority and the validity of the divinity of Jesus. John had sent his disciples to inquire, “Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?” (27) Jesus told these disciples to use their senses, perceive the miracles at work, the spreading of the gospel, and the blessing that comes to those who “shall not be offended.” (28)

God’s chosen instruments are “subject to like passions as we are” (29).  Nonetheless, God is God and Ellen White is His messenger. Speaking of the message the Lord gave her, Ellen White’s words on the chief subject of her life and writings, provide us with a fitting end. “You know that my whole theme…is the life of Christ.” (30) When in doubt, we must forever and always keep our eyes on Christ Jesus.



  1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. 11 October 2017. <https://www.britannica.com/science/Lamarckism>.
  2. Geoscience Research Institute. n.d. <https://www.grisda.org/>.
  3. On the Subject of Life, Health, and Happiness. Vol. 3. Review and Herald, 1871. <https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/821.1252#1254>.
  4. Romans 3:23. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  5. 1 Corinthians 14:29, 32. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  6. 1 Corinthians 1:11. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  7. 1 Corinthians 5:1. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  8. 2 Thessalonians 3:11. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  9. 1 Corinthians 11:18. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  10. Ellen G. White Estate. Wasp Waists Inherited? n.d. <https://whiteestate.org/about/issues1/unusual/scientific-issues/wasp-waists-inherited/>.
  11. 2 Kings 19:4. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  12. Job 1:3. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  13. Job 1:5. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  14. 1 Corinthians 14:32. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  15. 1 Corinthians 7:6. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  16.  1 Corinthians 7:12. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  17.  1 Corinthians 7:25. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  18.  1 Corinthians 7:40. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  19.  2 Samuel 22:4. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  20.  1 Timothy 1:15. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  21.  2 Samuel 7:3-17. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  22.  1 Samuel 2:26. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  23.  1 Samuel 16:6-7. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  24. The Gift of Prophecy. n.d. <https://www.adventist.org/beliefs/fundamental-beliefs/church/the-gift-of-prophecy/>.
  25.  Selected Messages. Vol. 1. 37
  26.  Selected Messages. Vol. 1. 38-39
  27.  Matthew 11:3. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  28.  Matthew 11:6. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  29.  James 5:17. Cambridge Edition: 1769, n.d. <www.kingjamesbibleonline.org>.
  30. White, Ellen. 118 Letter 41. 1895.


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About The Author

Christopher John Sernaque

Christopher Sernaque is a psychotherapist and Crisis Counselor who studied psychology and forensic science at Ashworth College and integrative mental health at Texas State University. He is a baptized member of the organized Seventh-day Adventist church and is in good standing. He is an SDA apologist, was trained by AFCOE, and is an Amazing Facts correspondence team member. He is a manager and is the head of communications for Christ Jesus Ministries, an official supporting ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist church. His deepest personal conviction is that we are all called to reflect the image of Jesus and that we are to idolize no man. Christopher firmly believes that it is the Truth that saves and he deeply cares for his beloved family.

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