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The Ellen White Research Project: Exposing the Subtle Attack on the Bible's Authority
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Zinc Deficiency: A Multitude of Diseases

A popular quibble against Ellen White is that she attributed so many diseases to masturbation, which she called "secret" or "solitary vice," or "self-abuse." Maybe it won't be a popular quibble much longer, for we just found a web site that, while claiming that the practice "is a healthy . . . behavior," goes on to tell how it can cause "fatigue," "lower back pain," "anxiety," "fuzzy vision," and "memory loss." These are the very same problems that Ellen White attributed to "secret vice."

What critics typically fail to mention is that many physicians, preachers, and lecturers of her day gave similar lists of diseases. For example, consider the list given in the famed Wesleyan Bible commentary authored by Adam Clarke:

  1. "speedily exhaust the vital principle and energy"
  2. "the muscles become flaccid and feeble"
  3. "the tone and natural action of the nerves relaxed and impeded"
  4. "the understanding confused"
  5. "the memory oblivious"
  6. "the judgment perverted"
  7. "the will indeterminate and wholly without energy to resist"
  8. "the eyes appear languishing and without expression"
  9. "the countenance vacant"
  10. "the appetite ceases for the stomach is incapable of performing its proper office"
  11. "nutrition fails"
  12. "tremors, fears, and terrors are generated"
  13. "a mind often debilitated even to a state of idiotism" (vol. 1, p. 417)

Now Dr. Clarke, are you sure about all this?

Reader, this is no caricature, nor are the colourings overcharged in this shocking picture. Worse woes than my pen can relate I have witnessed in those addicted to this fascinating, unnatural, and most destructive of crimes. If thou hast entered into this snare, flee from the destruction both of body and soul that awaits thee! God alone can save thee.—Ibid.

No Methodist need be embarrassed by Dr. Clarke's comments. Neither should Methodists worry about some critic accusing them of being cultists on account of such sentiments in their Bible commentary. Why not? Because in recent years scientists have found a medical basis for these claims in their discovery of the role of zinc in the human body. (See "Zinc in the Brain" for why it appears that Ellen White was referring to zinc.)

Before we quote what Ellen White had to say on this topic, we must in all fairness say that not every list of diseases floating around among critics was actually written by her. We have compared some of these lists with their original source, and have found that the source clearly identified them as being the work of someone other than Ellen White, someone who wasn't even a Seventh-day Adventist.

The following comments, on the other hand, did originate from her pen, and specifically deal with what the practice does to a growing child or youth:

The frame is weak and stunted; the muscles are flabby; the eyes become small, and appear at times swollen; the memory is treacherous, and becomes sievelike; and inability to concentrate the thoughts upon study increases.—Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, p. 402.

H and I [To protect the identities of the guilty, Ellen White replaced their names with the consecutive letters of the alphabet. These two youth are thus identified as "H" and "I."—Webmaster] have gone to great lengths in this crime of self-abuse; especially is this true of H, who has gone so far in the practice of this sin that his intellect is affected, his eye-sight is weakened, and disease is fastening itself upon him.—Ibid., p. 404.

You listen to numerous complaints of headache, catarrh, dizziness, nervousness, pain in the shoulders and side, loss of appetite, pain in the back and limbs, wakeful, feverish nights, of tired feelings in the morning, and great exhaustion after exercising? . . .

And have you not noticed that there was a deficiency in the mental health of your children? that their course seemed to be marked with extremes? that they were absent minded? that they started nervously when spoken to? and were easily irritated? . . . Have you not noticed their reluctance to engage in active labor? . . . The tendency of many is to live in indolence.

Have you not witnessed the gloomy sadness upon the countenance, and frequent exhibitions of a morose temper in those who once were cheerful, kind, and affectionate?—Solemn Appeal, pp. 49, 50.

Thus Ellen White identified a number of physical and mental problems that result from "secret vice." While we by no means understand everything about this issue, there are some things that we definitely do know today:

Dr. David Horrobin, an M.D. and Ph.D. from Oxford University, states:

"The amount of zinc in semen is such that one ejaculation may get rid of all the zinc that can be absorbed from the intestines in one day. This has a number of consequences. Unless the amount lost is replaced by an increased dietary intake, repeated ejaculation may lead to a real zinc deficiency with various problems developing, including impotence.

"It is even possible, given the importance of zinc for the brain, that 19th century moralists were correct when they said that repeated masturbation could make one mad!"—Zinc (Vitabooks: St. Albans, Vermont, 1981), p. 8.

This statement is similar to that made by Carl C. Pfeiffer, Ph.D., M.D., in his book on zinc. He declares:

"We hate to say it, but in a zinc-deficient adolescent, sexual excitement and excessive masturbation might precipitate insanity."—Zinc and Other Micro-nutrients (Keats: New Canaan, Conn., 1978), p. 45.

Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce, pp. 269, 270.

"Self-abuse" lowers zinc levels, at least in men. The role of zinc in the body is a complex topic. It plays such an important role in so many processes and enzymes, and even the immune system, that literally a host of diseases will result from a deficiency of zinc, even diseases that Ellen White never mentioned.

In the above quotations, Mrs. White connected "secret vice" with poor memory, weak eyesight, stunted growth, lethargy, irritability, and depression. Zinc deficiency has been proven to cause these very problems. Just for starters, consider the following quote we found on a U.S. government web site:

The clinical manifestations in severe cases of zinc deficiency included bullous-pustular dermatitis, alopecia, diarrhoea, emotional disorder, weight loss, intercurrent infections, hypogonadism in males and it is fatal if untreated. A moderate deficiency of zinc is characterized by growth retardation and delayed puberty in adolescents, hypogonadism in males, rough skin, poor appetite, mental lethargy, delayed wound healing, taste abnormalities and abnormal dark adaptation [night blindness].—Abstract of "Clinical, endocrinological and biochemical effects of zinc deficiency," A. S. Prasad, Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 1985 Aug;14(3):567-89.

One question remains. Did Ellen White get her list of the diseases associated with "self-abuse" from Adam Clarke, some other preacher or doctor or lecturer, from her own observation, or from God? Actually, another question should be asked first.

The apostle Paul wrote, "For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you" (1 Cor. 1:11). Since this bit of information came from the house of Chloe instead of from a divine dream or vision, does that make this particular verse in 1 Corinthians uninspired? We think not.

Come to think of it, there are likely a lot of details that the Bible writers gleaned from their own observations or from the testimony of others, instead of obtaining them directly from God. The Holy Spirit in such cases must have guided the inspired Bible writer to choose the true and reject the false. Thus there really is no difficulty if one of the diseases in Ellen White's list wasn't explicitly shown to her in vision.

At any rate, it is interesting that in an area in which Ellen White has garnered more than a little criticism for her statements, medical science has now documented that she was correct after all.

Give Us Your Opinion

What do you think about zinc deficiency causing all these diseases?
I don't think I need zinc. Prasad is wrong when he says that zinc deficiency can be fatal.
Looks like Ellen White was right again. I think she was inspired of God.
While it looks like she was right again, I need to know more before I can decide if she was inspired or not.
I think Ellen White was extremely lucky in getting this one right, rather than inspired.
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