Revisiting Ellen White on Masturbation

Those who have studied the writings of Ellen White know that she said some things about the physical consequences of “solitary vice,” a term that many take to be a euphemism for masturbation, which the majority of medical specialists today do not confirm. In An Appeal to Mothers, one of her early publications, she attributes a number of maladies to its practice. These include headaches, dizziness, depression, irritability, insomnia, fatigue, guilt, absent-mindedness, forgetfulness, bodily pain, sullenness, rebelliousness and jealousy, all of which may be at least partly psychological.

She connected masturbation with more physical problems as well. “Everywhere I looked,” she wrote of one of her visionary experiences, “I saw imbecility, dwarfed forms, crippled limbs, misshapen heads, and deformity of every description.” She stated that in females, who possess less vital force than men, the consequences of self-abuse are “seen in various diseases, such as catarrh, dropsy, headache, loss of memory and sight, great weakness in the back and loins, affections of the spine, [and] the head often decays inwardly. Cancerous humor,” she went on, “which would lay dormant in the system in their life-time, is inflamed and commences it eating, destructive work. The mind is often utterly ruined and insanity takes place.” Those who masturbate, she wrote, “are just as surely self-murderers as though they pointed a pistol to their own breast, and destroyed their life instantly.”

Such discrepancies between what Ellen White wrote and what modern medical science thinks prompt some to question whether she was inspired by God, as Seventh-day Adventists generally believe. It is my view that we cannot answer this question unless we look at her life and work as a whole. When we do that, I think she fares very well even though she made many mistakes along the way.

If she did nothing more than help establish Loma Linda University, that would be enough evidence to convince me that God used her in a special way; however, she did this sort of thing several times! Clearly, not everything she said and did will pass the test of time. I think it unreasonable to think that it should.

I find it helpful to compare Ellen White’s remedies for masturbation with what many in the medical community were practicing in her time. Over the last several decades, this has become more evident to researchers. For instance, in the spring of 2003, The Journal of Social History published a review essay by Robert Darby titled “The Masturbation Taboo and the Rise of Routine Male Circumcision: A Review of the Historiography.” Written from the point of view of one who believes that there is no more justification for circumcising infant boys than girls, it summarizes and evaluates many recent historical studies.

According to Darby’s summary,

It can be seen that doctors in English-speaking countries introduced widespread circumcision of male infants in the late nineteenth century. At the time this innovation was justified largely in terms of discouraging masturbation, then regarded as a serious disease in its own right and the cause of many more, but this rationale was increasingly overlaid by others in the early twentieth century.…Mainstream paediatric and child care manuals continued to assert the value of circumcision as a disincentive to masturbation right up until the 1950s.

As late as 1970, one urology text stated that “Parents readily recognize the importance of local cleanness and genital hygiene in their children and are usually ready to adopt measures which may avert masturbation. Circumcision is usually advised on these grounds.”

The circumcision of infant boys to prevent masturbation varied in severity. The more drastic methods cut away enough skin to leave the penis too tight for comfortable erections. In 1895, one doctor wrote that “there must be no play in the skin after the wound has thoroughly healed, but it must fit tightly over the penis, for should there be any play the patient will be found readily to resume his practice, not begrudging the time and extra energy required to produce orgasm.” According to Darby, this same doctor “went on to suggest that a supplementary circumcision might be necessary as the remaining skin stretched.” Some doctors held that the circumcision of boys and men should be done without anesthesia in order to make a more memorable impression. Jagged scissors were sometimes used for the same reason.

For a brief time, some doctors used clitoridectomies to “cure” masturbation among girls and women; however, the outcry against this practice was so swift and intense that it had a short life. A doctor who was expelled from on obstetrical society in 1867 for performing this surgery defended himself “by claiming that masturbation caused hysteria, epilepsy, mania, and, eventually, and insanity and death.”

Circumcision was not the only “cure” for masturbation. Other options provided by some members of the medical community included blistering, acid burns, cauterization, hand restraints, chastity cages, snipping the dorsal nerve of the penis, inserting electrodes, sewing the foreskin with silver wire, douches, spiked penis rings, brass poisoning and castration.

The summaries that Darby and others provide impress me in two ways. On the one hand, I am struck by how similar Ellen White’s accounts of the medical consequences of masturbation are to what a number in the medical community of her time, including John Harvey Kellogg, whom many recall as one of the nineteenth century’s most vigorous foes of masturbation, were saying. The parallels strike me as being unmistakable.

On the other hand, I am startled by how much less severe her remedies were. She emphasized educating youngsters about the dangers of “solitary vice.” She suggested that children not sleep together and that they not eat spicy food. She emphasized the importance of keeping youngsters busy with important projects so as to leave them little idle time. “Be not hasty and agitated, and [do not treat] your children with censure,” she wrote. “Such a course would only cause rebellion in them.”

Unless we are talking about sexual addictions, by today’s standards Ellen White’s views seem odd and perhaps even troubling. But maybe what she wrote is less offensive when we compare it with what other people were writing in her time instead of what people are saying in ours. This is usually the better test.

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/851
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I was curious to see what the church’s stance on this subject was, but WOW, after reading Ellen White’s position, I am totally flabbergasted! Surely Adventists don’t follow this thinking? I was in love with an Adventist who told me that being in theChurch was essential for a relationship with him, even though he doesn’t go to church on Saturday very often. We used Togo hiking on Saturday. Anyway, he left me to pursue a woman who was an Adventist but it didn’t work out. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can about Adventists. I’m aChristian, but no particular church at this time.

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Do a lot of research on Ellen White. There’s lots more “flabbergasting” things to be found!:scream:

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i see egw’s counsel on masturbation as an example of the type of cultural anachronism we often see in the bible…for instance, moses told the church to stone rebellious sons, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and to execute married people who have affairs outside their marriages, Leviticus 20:10…while i wouldn’t see a green light for disregarding this counsel, i wouldn’t consider it in terms of the literal text…this is because imposing something from an ancient culture onto ours doesn’t always achieve the same meaning it had in the original culture…

reading egw can be as jolting as reading moses, and possibly more so, because the proximity of her time to ours tends to increase the expectation for full cultural alignment…but victorian american thought is very far from how most people think today, especially in areas of sexuality, gender and race…in the case of her counsel against masturbation, the similarity between her reasoning and the reasoning of her peers - whom she may have borrowed from - means her reasoning is a reflection of her culture…today, if we refrain from things like masturbation and pornography, it wouldn’t be to stave off insanity and cancer…it would be to keep ourselves available for the indwelling of the holy spirit, so that we can benefit from his presence, and be used to do his will…

the principle behind this counsel in egw, as i see it, is that sensuality of any kind and spirituality do not mix…interestingly, this is the same message i see in paul, e.g., 1Thes 4:3-5; 1Cor 6:18-20; Eph 5:3, 11-12; Col 3:5-6; Gal 5:19; Heb 13:4…because this convergence of antagonism between sensuality and spirituality in the messages of egw and paul are expressed from the viewpoints of very disparate cultures, it means it is unlikely that this antagonism is a mere product of these cultures…

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This is the argument of Mormons about Joseph Smith as well. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own problems defending the Watch Tower. I’ve come to the conclusion that people view their “prophets” like teenagers view the objects of their affection: through rose-coloured glasses.

Ellen White’s comments on “solitary vice” are trivial. There are much weightier theological matters about which she pontificated that disqualifies her. Do SDA care? I doubt it.

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EGW’s opinions on masturbation are excellent indications on how to read the Bible itself , that is, with discernment and with the greater perspectives of modern science, medicine, historical analyses, study of ancient cultures, and also from the alledged direct words of GOD, himself, bearing in mind that these were given to a largely prescientific, and non-space-travelling peoples. (See the descriptions of stalwarts ofn the day such as Enoch with his miraculous vision of a “sea of glass” for instance, perhaps a heat shield and/or a magnifier to bring distant objects into clear view for analysis). This is not to say that objective truth is not to be found in the writings of visionaries such as the Bible writers or of Mrs White, but that clearly misguided opinions such as masturbation causing causing brain cancer in men should clearfly be disregarded. In fact While I woulkd recommend her writings on Education for my university-age kids I would definitely suppress or hide much , if not all, of her advice on sexual relations , lest they then dismiss everything I advise them about pre-marital sex, for instance, and then run the terrible risk of having children in college. If so, what then for the girls?(abortion or dropout?) or the boys drop out to support a family? These are my major concerns. Thank God I devised a plan to deal with pre-teen and young adult masturbation. Its very simple. From VERY early I frewarded every CORRECT homework exercise book with something—trips to the zoo, Disney World, soccer matches, boxing contests etc and evry FAIL with feigned extreme sadness and physical collapse. Since my kids loved me theyb were determined to make me happy. IF SO, I could care less if they masturbated now and then.

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Brother, EGW’s writ on masturbation simply exposes that self indulgence breeds sinful interior thoughts which drive one away from the Creator. So many try to detract her statements on this, but why? What does ANYONE think about when masturbating? Giving bible studies or mowing the lawn? Of course not. Masturbation is about pleasing the flesh and it leads down a twisted path. There’s no getting around that.

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“Sinful interior thoughts”? Wow. And no normal human being thinks about the Creator every waking moment. The SDA religion doesn’t allow sex between unmarried people, and also disallows them the perfectly normal human inclination to masturbate if they aren’t married? “Pleasing the flesh” is a normal desire. It’’s no wonder the wife of the man I dated divorced him after 35 years! I’m sure those two people didn’t deviate from Ms. White’s doctrine and instead were miserable together.

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Sure, EGW was reflecting the thoughts of the day. It’s also clear that she was given no vision or any other type of “thus saith the Lord” on this particular issue. It appears that the only thing going on when addressing this and other issues was that she had a burden and was throwing her opinion out there, backed up by the misguided publications and stated opinions of some less than professional operators like Kellogg, et al.

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Nelson, do you think that just because sinful thoughts are normal and natural then we are to indulge them? Based on reading your post, you are saying that.
YOU THEN WROTE: "The SDA religion doesn’t allow sex between unmarried people"
CORRECTION - that’s not an SDA doctrine. In scripture it is called “fornication”, and is forbidden.

YOU: "and also disallows them the perfectly normal human inclination to masturbate if they aren’t married?"
RESPONSE: Correct

YOU: " “Pleasing the flesh” is a normal desire."
RESPONSE: Correct, but that doesn’t make it right in the sight of the Lord. Paul spent much pen-to-paper time on the errors of pleasing the flesh and how it drives us away from God.

YOU: "It’’s no wonder the wife of the man I dated divorced him after 35 years! I’m sure those two people didn’t deviate from Ms. White’s doctrine and instead were miserable together."
RESPONSE: Non sequitur.

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No, it isn’t. They were two sexually incompatible people, who would have found that out by not waiting until their wedding night.

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It occurs to me, the more severe the warning of a behavior the more likely people will heed those warnings.

Such as stoning disobedient sons and adulterers. WOW, I’m certain the thought of being stoned would deter most people. They might feel temptation, then think of how bad those stones would hurt and turn away from sinful temptation.

I’m sure in our modern society which focuses on human rights those things sound excessive. But if we examine how precarious life was at the time it was written, perhaps we shall gain insight. Moses was concerned with raising children who would become an asset to society, someone who would continue to build their society. There were many nations around that sought to annihilate Israel so it was imperative that their children be obedient. Big scare factor I know, but it seems to have worked.

As for Mrs. White making those claims about the effects of masturbation, I see that as scare factor. Look at the other side of it. She was recommending children be kept busy so they not fall into mischief. Take a look at our current society and you can see the results of children with too much idle time. Numerous hours on the couch playing video games. Too often with violence rather than helping with housework or outside getting exercise and fresh air. Childhood obesity is a growing problem. Gangs, drugs, violence, early teen sex with its accompanying pregnancy that means a young woman will have a child that prevents them from getting a better education and finding work, or a husband to help provide a stable home. Our prisons have many men and women who did not have the opportunity to grow up in a stable home. Why? They were bored. They had too much idle time. They focused on self. Self feelings, self pursuits, and self love.

If you have to interact with someone like that in the work place, you will know what is wrong with that. And you will begin to understand why those scary, over the top words were written.

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After I posted these thoughts I found this site in another tab I had opened but not visited.
As regarding mental health, it has been verified by science that zinc is a crucial element in the body, especially in the brain.

This article goes into detail regarding the necessity of zinc for normal brain activity and the fact that one discharge of semen can contain all the zinc the body can absorb in a normal day.

http://www.truthorfables.net/zinc_brain.htm

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Really? Have you actually read the scriptures? It doesn’t appear so. I suggest you go back and reread the entirety of the OT then come back and give us a 15 minute speech on how effective your “scare factor” was. :slight_smile:

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I guess sex is out entirely in this case. Procreation is over with. The human species will die out with this generation. :astonished:

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You missed my point.
Israel survived, rather surrendering to the hordes who sought to destroy them.
They have had their bad moments, been driven out of Jerusalem, repented and were returned several times. Their history is a warning to all of Gods children of what can happen when you chose to ignore the fathers good instructions.

They ARE back in Jerusalem after a very difficult era.

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Not because that’s what God wanted but it’s because what they wanted and they were/are willing to commit all manner of atrocities to get there and stay there, not altogether unlike other unfortunate atrocities they, themselves endured.

You are over reacting.

The problem with masturbating is that people get in the habit of doing it too frequently. Some do it several times per day. That could lead to a zinc deficit which according to modern science can leave the brain lacking a crucial mineral it needs for thought processing.

How do you suppose Mrs. White knew that a bout 100 years before science discovered it?

Most married couples make love 3-4 times per week. That leaves sufficient time for the body to replenish the mans zinc supply.

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No, I was illustrating absurdity by being absurd. It’s called sarcasm in some circles.

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So be it.

I was being serious. I was intending to have an intelligent conversation using science, religion, and the bible

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