James White: The Engine that Drove Seventh-day Adventism

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James White: The Engine that Drove Seventh-day Adventism

The Workhorse

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who did more to propel the Adventist movement forward than James White. Joseph Bates provided the theological spark, and Ellen White’s inspired messages guided the church through troubling times, but without James White, it would be hard to imagine Seventh-day Adventism being where it is today.

“He had founded Seventh-day Adventist publishing, including the Review and Herald and the church’s first publishing house; he had spearheaded the church’s organizational structure; he had been active in the development of its first medical institution and college; he had established a state conference and a second publishing house in California with its Signs of the Times church periodical; and he had raised large sums of money to evangelize Europe.”[1]

As the prophets of old couldn’t accomplish much without kings like David and Josiah working hard to set things in order and rally the people, so the same goes for modern times.

James White’s life was full of passion for his God, endless work, and ended in a tragic early death. Let us learn of this amazing man, and what lessons we can glean from history.

The Dyslexic Farmer Boy

James had problems with his health early on in life. He suffered from worm fever when he was around 3 years old that left him cross-eyed for most of his youth. In his autobiography he wrote, “I am reported to have been… a feeble, nervous, partially blind boy.”[2]

When he tried to go to school he found that he had an extremely hard time reading. It was too hard for him to pick out individual letters, and he came to believe that he would never become educated.

That didn’t keep him from working with his father on their family farm, though. James’s time spent farming helped him to develop an incredible physical stature by the time he was 18.[3]

When he was 19 his eyesight had improved enough for him to actually get an education. This is what he had always longed for, and now nothing could hold him back.

The Farmer Boy Becomes the Teacher

James poured himself into his studies with the same intensity of his later life. “During his brief schooling he would study up to 18 hours a day… Eventually the schoolmaster… handed him a certificate that allowed him to teach elementary grade subjects.”[4]

White would use this certificate to teach in the winter so that he could pay to further his education. He was hungry to learn and become successful in the world. But those dreams would soon be crushed by conviction.

The Call to Preach the Second Coming

At first James White was not interested in the Millerite belief that Jesus would come in the year 1843. It was only after his mother believed that he became concerned about it. After she talked with him, he couldn’t shake the conviction that he should be telling more people about the soon coming of Christ.

James tried to shake the feeling that he should be preaching, and went back to school. But, “Thoughts of Christ’s return made it impossible for him to concentrate on his studies.”[5] White decided to put school on hold to answer God’s call.

After hearing William Miller himself preach, and seeing the new prophetic charts that had been developed, White paid for one and set out on a preaching tour in the winter of 1843. “Reports show that during the winter months of 1842-1843 more than 1,000 people responded to his preaching.”[6]

One story that sticks out on this trip is when a mob opposed to his preaching surrounded the schoolhouse he was speaking in. When he started his sermon they all began to throw snowballs in through the windows and kept screaming so that his words couldn’t be heard. After getting soaked with the melted snow thrown at him, James appealed to his listeners with an illustration of the cross. “The hands of Jesus were nailed to a cruel cross. Why should His followers expect better treatment?”[7] A hundred people responded to his call to follow Jesus that night.

From Disappointment to Marriage

Once Jesus did not come on October 22, 1844, the only thing James White could do was help his father and brothers harvest what crops were in the field to prepare for winter.

After thinking things through, he concluded that Jesus’ coming must still be soon. This caused him to start setting other dates for Jesus’ coming. He wrote to a friend, “All who see this light will receive a certainty that before the 10th day of the 7th month, 1845, our King will come, and we will watch, and like Noah, know the day.”[8] His friendship with Ellen Harmon would soon cure him of setting any more dates for the second coming.

James, after being impressed that her visions were from God, became Ellen’s escort as she went about testifying of what God had shown her. Although they traveled with another of Ellen’s companions, the two soon faced rumors that improper things were going on between them.

For James White, getting married was a hard decision at first. He himself had accused a couple who had recently gotten married that they were denying their faith in the soon coming of Jesus. He called marriage “a wile of the devil” in 1845.[9] But his conviction that he and Ellen had a work to do together would overpower this misbelief. On August 30, 1846, the two were joined together in marriage with a simple civil ceremony.

Their early marriage was nothing like most couples of today. They barely had any money, no house, and very little possessions. Some think that their marriage was only done for practical reasons, but their letters to one another over the years show the genuine love they had for each other. They both would refer to the other as their “crown of rejoicing.”[10]

The Publishing Work

Two years after their marriage, in 1848, Ellen White had a vision showing that James needed to start a paper. This would help to spread the Advent truths to others who had believed Jesus was coming in 1844. Joseph Bates, James White, and others had studied out doctrines such as the sanctuary and the law of God to explain their disappointment, and it was now time to get those truths to as many as possible.

Like a tiny mustard seed, the paper started. James had very little resources to print anything and didn’t start writing until the summer of 1849. Even then, he was discouraged by the lack of response the paper, Present Truth, was receiving. On top of that, Joseph Bates was also expressing his negative views about the Adventists using papers to spread the message. “Bates thought tracts and pamphlets were all that the movement required.”[11]

If it wasn’t for the visions of his wife, James White would have given up on the periodical. But with the conviction that God was guiding, James pressed forward. Because of his perseverance, the paper became something members of the Advent movement couldn’t do without. One quote from its readers goes to show this: “I feel I should almost faint, by the way, were it not for the Review and Herald which comes weekly bringing the blessed tidings of the kingdom and prosperity of the cause.”[12]

The paper became a means of keeping the young movement together, as they didn’t have their own houses of worship. On top of the doctrinal articles, you also found testimonies from believers about how the message had changed their lives. It provided a community atmosphere that the scattered believers largely lacked in the beginning.

The Present Truth would go on to become the Review and Herald and would move from New York to finally settle in Battle Creek, Michigan. James White also started up the Pacific Press Publishing Association in California later in life, which put out the famous periodical Signs of the Times to reach the western states. For most of his life, he would be intimately involved with the publishing work.

Organizing the Church

Getting the church to officially organize became a priority for James White. The publishing houses were in his name, and he was carrying the debt load of the industry. If anything went wrong, bankruptcy could ruin the lives of James and his family. Also, it was becoming clear that to do evangelism efficiently, some sort of organization needed to be in place.

Others in Adventism didn’t share the same sentiments, though. There were many who remembered the pain of being kicked out of their past churches just for preaching the second coming. Organized churches were still considered “Babylon” to them.

All through the 1850s, James and Ellen White would call for the church to take up what they called “gospel order.” The practical reasons such as avoiding one man having control of the most valuable evangelistic tool of the Advent believers, and the need for church property to be under the control of one entity, should have been enough to move things forward. But the White’s growing understanding of their mission to the world also spurred them to create a church that would be able to take the gospel everywhere it needed to go.[13]

The hard work of James and others finally paid off in 1860, when the churches in Michigan organized themselves into the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, becoming the first state conference. Many state conferences would follow, and in 1863 the General Conference was formed to oversee them all. The church might have looked very different today without James White’s perseverance.

Stricken by a Stroke

In August of 1865, after nearly 20 years of carrying the Adventist church on his back, James suffered a stroke when he was only 45 years old. Ellen White warned her husband of the dangers of overwork since her health vision two years prior, and now her fears had proven true.

James was taken to a health institute that he and Ellen had visited before in Dansville, New York, that specialized in natural healing and hydrotherapy. When James was only halfway through his recovery they left due to the secular practices at the facility they disagreed with. It was on this trip back home that Ellen had a vision showing that Adventists needed to make their own health institutions, where they could practice healing methods consistent with their faith.[14]

For a time, James resigned from the publishing work to further his recovery. Ellen White was adamant that he needed to get away from the large duties that had rested upon him for so many years.

Her advice went unheeded in the long run, unfortunately. This stroke would only be the first of five that James would have throughout the rest of his life. He was unable to take a backseat to the major movements going on in the church he loved.

Starting Up Adventist Education

In 1868 James White took interest in a little school that had started up in Battle Creek. He immediately wanted to expand it. “The man who had had no opportunity to attend college now organized one for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”[15]

The General Conference instituted an Educational Society in 1873, of which James became president. This would make him both president of the Battle Creek school, and General Conference President at the same time during the years of 1874-1880.

James White saw the school as “a way of preparing young people to serve in leadership roles and responsibilities of the growing denomination.”[16] This school would go on to become what is now known as Andrews University. Although it was a grand vision, it became one more responsibility James would take on that would lead to his early death.

The Engine Breaks Down

In July of 1881, both James and Ellen White were stricken with sickness after preaching a weekend meeting in Charlotte, Michigan. When they returned to Battle Creek John Harvey Kellogg diagnosed them both with malaria, which was common in Michigan at the time.[17]

Ellen was handling the illness a little better than James, and when she came to his room she knew that he was dying. “Taking his hand and kneeling beside his bed, she prayed that God would spare his life if it were His will. Then she asked her husband if Jesus was precious to him. ‘Yes, oh, yes!’ he answered. When she questioned if he had any desire to live, he replied, ‘No.’”[18]

It seems James was ready to lay down the burdens that he had been carrying for so long. That Sabbath he drifted into a coma and eventually stopped breathing. James White was so revered as a leader that on the day of his funeral people closed their shops in Battle Creek to pay their respect.

After five strokes and malaria, James White passed away just before he turned 61. The development we see today in our publishing work, health institutes and hospitals, and academies and colleges around the world largely owe their beginnings to this great man.

Positive Lessons from James White 

Brilliance in Handling Money

James was hands down the best businessman the Adventist movement had in its start-up days. It’s arguable that his business savvy hasn’t been rivaled since. Through his guidance, a tiny little newspaper that was completely dependent upon the donations of others grew into something that covered the entire eastern part of the United States. He then duplicated that by starting the Pacific Press to cover the western part of the country.

White had to resign from the publishing work for a time after his first stroke. Gerald Wheeler writes, “During his absence the Review had raised the salaries of its staff quite significantly above other denominational employees, not increased the prices of its publications to meet increased overhead and expenses, and otherwise operated in a way that had caused the institution to lose thousands of dollars.”[19]

When James came back as president of the Review and Herald he was able to erase the deficit created through poor management. He would have to do something similar when he took over management of the Western Health Reform Institute as well.[20]

Even D. M. Canright, after he left the church, in a book written against Seventh-day Adventists, said of James White:

“He had large business ability, and was a born leader of men. His study and work were largely devoted to building up large business institutions, such as publishing houses, the sanitarium, the college, general and state conferences, and to finances. Here he made a success.”[21]

James White’s life teaches us the importance of understanding business principles to push forward God’s work in the world.

Great Visionary and Planner

James White had a knack for seeing farther ahead than most of his colleagues.

Even after his strokes, James was dreaming up more ways for the church to reach the world. In the 1870s he started to push the denomination to translate their literature into foreign languages. This idea would soon lead him to push for evangelistic work to be done abroad, something that was not a huge priority to Seventh-day Adventists at that time. This led to J. N. Andrews becoming the denomination’s first official overseas missionary in 1874.

James was never one to sit complacently and congratulate himself or the church on what they had accomplished. He continually pushed himself and the denomination to do more for the cause of truth. We need this vision today to help us utilize everything at our disposal to preach the everlasting gospel as effectively as possible.

Shortcomings of James White We can Learn From


It’s inevitable that a “go-getter” like James White would also demand the same tenacity out of those working under him. Unfortunately, he was known for doing this in a way that hurt people.

Correspondences with Uriah Smith and J. N. Andrews reveal that their relationships were often strained with White due to the older man’s sharpness with them.[22]

James was hard to deal with even for his own family at times. His relationship with his son Edson was strained all the way up until White’s death. James and Ellen also stayed apart from each other, with James ministering in the east, and Ellen in the west later in life because of his temper.[23]

Science has shown that a person’s personality can shift after a stroke. Historians now believe this is what happened to James White. Ellen White herself expressed in a letter that, “I sometimes think he is not really a sane man, but I don’t know.”[24]

God was very merciful to James, working through him in incredible ways despite his health complications. If White could have also mastered the art of tact in his dealings with the other major figures in the church, how much more might have been accomplished?

Micromanaging Leader

With James White being so gifted in management, the temptation to think that things would fail without his presence often overcame him. This led to the vicious cycle of overwork that plagued most of his life.

James left the management of the Pacific Press to his son Willie after heading back east to Battle Creek. But even his trust in his own son didn’t prove to be great. Letters to his son reveal that he “would nitpick on grammatical details of Signs, and though across the country, he would send Willie detailed editorial instructions.”[25]

The unwillingness to let go of certain parts of the work and trust others was probably the biggest cause of his death. His early passing brought about what he feared anyway, others taking over. With more temperance in work, he may have remained alive much longer to mentor younger ministers. As we press on in this life, let us learn these great lessons of self-control and humility, and avoid making ourselves too important in our own eyes.

Click here to read the rest of this series on the Adventist pioneers!



[1] Gerald Wheeler, James White: Innovator and Overcomer, p. 16.

[2] James White, Life Incidents, p. 12.

[3] Virgil Robinson, James White, p. 17.

[4] Gerald Wheeler, James White: Innovator and Overcomer, p. 22.

[5] Ibid, p. 23.

[6] Ibid, p. 27.

[7] James White, Life Incidents, p. 78.

[8] Gerald Wheeler, James White: Innovator and Overcomer, p. 38.

[9] Day Star, October 11, 1845.

[10] Life Sketches (1888), p. 125.

[11] Gerald Wheeler, James White: Innovator and Overcomer, p. 55.

[12] Ibid, p. 61.

[13] George Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil: The Development of Adventist Church Structure, p. 47.

[14] Gerald Wheeler, James White: Innovator and Overcomer, p. 165.

[15] Ibid, p. 189.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, p. 240.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, p. 175.

[20] Virgil Robinson, James White, p. 194.

[21] D. M. Canright, Life of Mrs. E. G. White: Seventh-day Adventist Prophet: Her False Claims Refuted, p. 65.

[22] Gerald Wheeler, James White: Innovator and Overcomer, p. 176-182.

[23] Ibid, p. 218-223.

[24] Ellen White to Lucinda Hall (Letter 66, 1876), May 16, 1876.

[25] Gerald Wheeler, James White: Innovator and Overcomer, p. 200.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.