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READING ELLEN WHITE

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Let's examine the "readability" of Ellen White's "Conflict of the Ages" series


BOTTOM LINE: IS ELLEN WHITE READABLE?

I processed the 1.15 million words in Ellen White's five-volume "Conflict of the Ages" series to see how "readable" it was according to several modern tests.


Bottom Line: Ellen White's writings are able to be read around a 6th-10th grade level. If you want to know how I reached that conclusion and how it compares to other books in her day (i.e., the nerdy stuff), read on.


READABILITY AND READABILITY TESTS

Edgar Dale and Jeanne Shall define readability for us:

“The sum total (including all the interactions) of all those elements within a given piece of printed material that affect the success a group of readers have with it. The success is the extent to which they understand it, read it at an optimal speed, and find it interesting.”

Not a very readable definition, if you ask me.


Readability tests are used by states, corporations, and even the U.S. military to ensure that training materials and forms are uniformly written and able to be understood. They are also high controversial for a buffet of reasons, but mostly because of how they define "readability":


A number of readability tests, like Flesch Reading Ease and Gunning Fog, focus on the number of words in a sentence/paragraph and the number of syllables those words have. Using fewer, shorter words in a sentence does not mean that the author's meaning is easier to understand, but that the words themselves are (usually) easier to read.


Readability tests are useful for getting authors - many of whom are naturally and violently resistant to any revision of their writing - to think about the words they use. And, if your goal as a writer is to appeal to a broad cross-section of the population (as Ellen White undoubtedly intended her words to do), then readability tests can be one way of evaluating success.


METHODOLOGY

I uploaded a .pdf of each of the five books in the "Conflict" series to a website that ran several tests: Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Gunning Fog Score, Coleman Liau Index, SMOG ("Simple Measure of Gobbledygook") Index, and more. The .pdfs were downloaded from the White Estate and were not optimized for this kind of test (such as by removing headings, page numbers, and cover art). This was not a strictly scientific process...obviously.


ELLEN WHITE PASSES BASIC TRAINING

With these caveats in mind, testing the readability of our writings can help make sure our thoughts are accessible to our intended audience(s). The United States Army offers some recommendations for readability:

  • Use fewer than seven sentences per paragraph.

  • Average sentence length should be 18-20 words.

  • Write for an eighth-grade reading level.

Ellen White meets all three standards in her "Conflict of the Ages" series:

  • 2.1 sentences per paragraph.

  • 14.7 words per sentence.

  • According to Flesch-Kincaid, the "Conflict" series is written for a 6.60 grade level.

Well done, Ellen (and her editors)!


THE MORMON CONNECTION

Another way we can use readability tests is by comparing Ellen White's results with that of other authors in her day. Is she more (or less?) readable than her contemporaries?


I compared Ellen White's chapter on the sabbath in The Desire of Ages (1898) with that of another chapter written on the sabbath, that of Latter-day Saint James Talmage in his book, Jesus the Christ (1915). This wasn't exactly a fair test, as Talmage was adapting his college course on the life of Jesus and thus was aiming for a more educated audience than Ellen White.


But it sounded fun to compare these two chapters written on the same topic and so I did.

Desire of Ages

Jesus the Christ

Notes

Flesch Reading Ease

78.29

59.74

Target score: 70-80

Gunning Fog

8.15

13.11

Target score: 8-10

SMOG

9.30

13.44

Target score: 8-10

Lensear Write

80.96

66.75

Target score: 70-80

You can learn all about these tests here. What's interesting is that Ellen White's writings consistently hit the ideal that these tests are looking for.


"WE WEREN'T EVEN TESTING FOR THAT..."

Now, let's share the results of how the "Conflict" series did with these tests. These are listened in order of publication/revision:

​Test

SCALE

PP (1890)

DOA (1898)

AA (1911)

GC (1911)

PK (1917)

​Total

Flesch Reading Ease

1-100 (100 = as easiest to read)

69.75

74.64

68.67

66.92

79.02

72.20

Gunning Fog

Reading Grade Level

9.90

8.65

10.35

9.92

6.58

8.90

SMOG

Reading Grade Level

10.76

9.81

11.11

11.04

8.57

10.20

Fry Grade Level

Reading Grade Level

7

6

7

7

5

6

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level

Reading Grade Level

7.47

6.15

7.75

7.60

4.61

6.60

The first thing you'll notice is that none of these tests produced the same results.


There are several interesting things to note. First, Prophets and Kings is Ellen White's most readable book in the series (despite, according to my hunch, being the least-read in the series), followed by The Desire of Ages. There might be a reason for this, as the book was published after Ellen White's death.


The hardest book to read, for reasons I cannot understand, is Acts of the Apostles.


What do these distinctions in readability actually mean? Does Ellen White show a trend over the nearly two-decade publication range of these books indicate anything?


We need better-trained people to do more of this kind of analysis. If you're one of those people, hit me up and let's talk about where this kind of research could lead!


THE 1888 GREAT CONTROVERSY

I was also curious how the 1911 Great Controversy compared to its previous iteration, published in 1888. Did Ellen's revision improve its readability?


GC (1888)

GC (1911)

Flesch Reading Ease

66.47

66.92

Gunning Fog

10.34

9.92

SMOG

11.28

11.04

As you can see, there was a very modest improvement in readability with the revision. The difference is probably not outside the realm of statistical error, but the trend toward greater readability in each test suggests the 1911 Great Controversy was slightly more readable than its predecessor. That's probably what should happen when you revise a book.


CONCLUSION

In the end, we must confess that these scores hold up pretty well for modern audiences despite all of these books being at least 100 years old.


I sure hope my writing remains this readable 100 years after I'm gone!


P.S.

(For those who are wondering, the Flesch-Kincaid grade level of this blog post is 6.6. So if you can read this post, you can read Ellen White.)






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2 Comments


Jonathan Burnett
Jonathan Burnett
Aug 05, 2023

This is really cool Matthew. It’s amazing that someone with a 2rd grade education produced books at a higher reading level than she was educated to.

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Tim Cromwell
Tim Cromwell
Aug 03, 2023

Hmmm... I wonder why people think she's so hard to read, then? Perhaps because most online posts are written for the third grade level instead of being artistic? Or maybe it's her cadence and mannerisms? I've heard that her writing is similar in structure to ancient Hebrew, though I wouldn't be able to tell. Hmmm...

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