White's visionary experiences began after the so-called "Great Disappointment" of 1844, when the return of Jesus Christ predicted by William Miller failed to materialize. White's prophetic visions, published in numerous books and articles, formed the basis for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church that was formally established in 1863.
White's extensive writings are available online here. I spent just a few minutes searching on terms such as "stature" and "degeneration" and wanted to share some of the passages that popped up:
1858: "I was informed that the inhabitants of earth had been degenerating, losing their strength and comeliness. Satan has the power of disease and death, and in every age the curse has been more visible, and the power of Satan more plainly seen. . . I was informed that those who lived in the days of Noah and Abraham were more like the angels in form, in comeliness and strength. But every generation has been growing weaker, and more subject to disease, and their lives of shorter duration. Satan has been learning how to annoy men, and to enfeeble the race." (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1, 69.2)
1864: "After the earth was created, and the beasts upon it, the Father and Son carried out their purpose, which was designed before the fall of Satan, to make man in their own image. They had wrought together in the creation of the earth and every living thing upon it. And now God says to his Son, “Let us make man in our image.” As Adam came forth from the hand of his Creator, he was of noble height, and of beautiful symmetry. He was more than twice as tall as men now living upon the earth, and was well proportioned. His features were perfect and beautiful. His complexion was neither white, nor sallow, but ruddy, glowing with the rich tint of health. Eve was not quite as tall as Adam. Her head reached a little above his shoulders. She, too, was noble—perfect in symmetry, and very beautiful." (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 3, 33.2)
1864: "Those who lived before the flood, come forth with their giant-like stature, more than twice as tall as men now living upon the earth, and well proportioned. The generations after the flood were less in stature. There was a continual decrease through successive generations, down to the last that lived upon the earth." (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 3, 83.2)
1864: "The race of men then living [before the Flood] were of very great stature, and possessed wonderful strength. The trees were vastly larger, and far surpassing in beauty and perfect proportions anything mortals can now look upon. The wood of these trees was of fine grain and hard substance—in this respect more like stone. It required much more time and labor, even of that powerful race, to prepare the timber for building, than it requires in this degenerate age to prepare trees that are now growing upon the earth, even with the present weaker strength men now possess. These trees were of great durability, and would know nothing of decay for very many years." (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 3, 61.2)
1864: "Adam and Eve in Eden were noble in stature, and perfect in symmetry and beauty. They were sinless, and in perfect health. What a contrast to the human race now! Beauty is gone. Perfect health is not known. Every where we look we see disease, deformity and imbecility. I inquired the cause of this wonderful degeneracy, and was pointed back to Eden. The beautiful Eve was beguiled by the serpent to eat of the fruit of the only tree of which God had forbidden them to eat, or even touch it lest they die." (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 4a, 120.10.
1864: "In strength of intellect, men who now live can bear no comparison to the ancients. There has been more ancient arts lost that the present generation now possess. For skill and art those living in this degenerate age will not compare with the knowledge possessed by strong men who lived near one thousand years." (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 4a 155.40)
1870: "Adam, who stands among the risen throng, is of lofty height and majestic form, in stature but little below the Son of God. He presents a marked contrast to the people of later generations; in this one respect is shown the great degeneracy of the race." (The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 4, 463.2)
1884: "In that vast throng are multitudes of the long-lived race that existed before the flood; men of lofty stature and giant intellect, who, yielding to the control of fallen angels, devoted all their skill and knowledge to the exaltation of themselves; men whose wonderful works of art led the world to idolize their genius, but whose cruelty and evil inventions, defiling the earth and defacing the image of God, caused him to blot them from the face of his creation." (Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 4, 478.1)
1884: "Men sometimes flatter themselves that in this enlightened age they are superior in knowledge and talents to those who lived before the flood; but those who think this do not rightly estimate the physical and mental strength of that long-lived race. Growth was slow and firm. Men did not, as at the present time, flash into maturity early, use up their vital forces, and only live out half their days. Their minds were of a high order, and were strong and clear. Had these men, with their rare powers to conceive and execute, devoted themselves to the service of God, they would have made their Creator’s name a praise in the earth, and would have answered the purpose for which he gave them being. But they failed to do this. Man corrupted his way on the earth. There were many giants, men of great stature and strength, renowned for wisdom, skillful in devising the most cunning and wonderful work; but in proportion to their skill and mental ability was their great guilt because of unbridled iniquity. They were apostates from God, and were cruel and oppressive to those who were not able to resist them." (The Signs of the Times, November 27, 1884, paragraph 5)
1890: "Thus were revealed to Adam important events in the history of mankind, from the time when the divine sentence was pronounced in Eden, to the Flood, and onward to the first advent of the Son of God. He was shown that while the sacrifice of Christ would be of sufficient value to save the whole world, many would choose a life of sin rather than of repentance and obedience. Crime would increase through successive generations, and the curse of sin would rest more and more heavily upon the human race, upon the beasts, and upon the earth. The days of man would be shortened by his own course of sin; he would deteriorate in physical stature and endurance and in moral and intellectual power, until the world would be filled with misery of every type. Through the indulgence of appetite and passion men would become incapable of appreciating the great truths of the plan of redemption." (Patriarchs and Prophets 67.3)
The tenets of what I have called the "doctrine of degeneracy" are apparent in this small sampling of Ellen White's writings. It would be an interesting project to delve into the enormous amount of material that she produced and do an analysis of the content and influence of her work in the context of rapidly-changing late nineteenth century thought about the natural and human past. The period during which White was writing (1845 to 1917) also saw the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), the aggressive Euroamerican colonization and exploration of the American west, the American Civil War, the rise and fall of reports of "giant skeletons" in American newspapers, and the emergence of numerous new religious sects in America. I do not know if anyone has attempted any kind of systematic analysis of White's writings, but they surely look promising.
Although the "degeneracy doctrine" of the Seventh-day Adventist Church appears to have come straight from Ellen White, I'm sure she didn't create it from thin air. The general idea that modern life on earth has "degenerated" from a previous state can be found in many places (such as Greek mythology). I wrote a short piece about an 1831 letter attributing a decrease in the size of animals (and people) over time to changes in air pressure, for example.
How prevalent and important is the "degeneracy doctrine" today? I've previously written about glimpses of the idea revealed in interviews with Joe Taylor and Kent Hovind, and, most recently, presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. Carson tipped his "degeneracy doctrine" hand in this 2011 presentation when he said this (starting about 28:35):
"Do you know, your brain -- and this is a conservative estimate -- could take in one new fact every second for over three million years before you'd begin to challenge its capacity? . . . And that's our brains in their degenerated state. Can you imagine what they were like before?"
It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: all the direct evidence of which I am aware contradicts the idea that humans have become smaller, weaker, and stupider over time. Ellen White believed in giants in the late 1800s, at a time when our ideas about the human past were rapidly changing. Although we know a lot more about the human past today than we did when Ellen White was writing, the creationist belief in giants has persisted (along with its ideological underpinnings). Ellen White's writings are interesting to me from a historical perspective, but Ben Carson's thoughts on the matter are important because of where we are in this country in terms of the rejection of science.
Does Ben Carson believe in giants? I still hope someday someone asks him the question. I Tweeted Jake Tapper (CNN) before the last debate and Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) yesterday morning. The issues of how our would-be leaders regard scientific information, education, and research and the articulation of science and faith is relevant.
Someone please, please ask Ben Carson if he believes in giants.