June 2011

Adventism's Aquamaniac

James Edson White, known as Edson throughout his life, was born to Seventh-day Adventist cofounders James and Ellen White on July, 28, 1849, the second of four White sons, only he and his younger brother William surviving to adulthood.  Young Edson was himself plagued with severe illness, and on numerous occasions he seemed on the brink of death, rescued by the take-no-prisoners prayers of his mother. 

At 15 Edson was hired by the Review and Herald office and quickly became expert in the field of publishing.  This skill would serve him well throughout his life.  He married Emma McDearmon on July 28, 1870, and although the couple did not have children, their fruitful and productive partnership lasted 47 years. 

 In 1877 Pacific SDA Publishing Association called Edson to serve as secretary and printing plant manager.  While there the young man began his prolific publishing career with a songbook, Song Anchor and Temperance Songs.  In the 1880s White was active in the Sabbath School work, serving in the General Sabbath School Association’s highest positions often simultaneously.  During that same decade he published numerous books on a variety of subjects through his firm, J.E. White Publishing Company in Battle Creek, Michigan.  White’s business ventures extended to Chicago and he fell into a kind of spiritual malaise around the turn of the decade.

Edson renewed his faith and found a new passion in life when, in 1893 at a Bible study conference in Battle Creek, he came across a tract of his mother’s address to the General Conference in 1891 entitled Our Duty to the Colored People, deciding to engage in educational and evangelistic work for African Americans in the South.  After leaguing with another erstwhile Adventist misfit turned good named Will Palmer, the two assembled a group of brave missionaries—many blacks occupying key positions—and called themselves the Southern Missionary Society (SMS). A self-confessed aquamanic, Edson drafted plans for a riverboat called the Morning Star and had it built at Allegan, Michigan.

The SMS sailed the Morning Star down the Mississippi in the late 1894, and eventually docked in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they labored among African Americans there for several years.  Active for almost 5 years in various locales along the Mississippi River, the SMS missionaries often faced death from infuriated whites who didn’t want to see blacks educated or the two races mixing, and from jealous blacks who didn’t appreciate the way the status quo was being upset.  But the Morning Star team enjoyed hard-won success: some fifty educational centers were established within a few years; a myriad of blacks had been taught to read and obtained employable skills; hundreds accepted the Seventh-day Adventist message; and scores of black denominational workers emerged who would be responsible for the explosive growth of the church in the twentieth century.  Additionally, Edson began Gospel Herald, the magazine that would become MESSAGE, the oldest black Christian magazine; was instrumental in growing Oakwood in its early years by assisting in its founding, serving on its board and establishing its main feeder schools; founded the Herald Publishing Company; and was essential in the founding of Southern Union Conference and South Central Conference.

During his Mississippi years, Ellen G. White kept in contact with Edson though letters from faraway Australia, encouraging and advising him, and keeping before him the importance of the black work.  Simultaneously, she urged SDA administrators to support the SMS and get involved with the Southern program.  Edson published his mother’s statements on the black work in 1898, a volume now known as The Southern Work.  Continuing to write, he authored 12 books in all which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

In early 1899 Edson White’s on the ground evangelistic efforts in Mississippi halted because of life threatening persecution.  Nevertheless, he continued his pioneering in a decade long administrative stint in Nashville, Tennessee, in which he fortified and expanded on his efforts in Mississippi.  The Whites moved to Marshall, Michigan, in 1912 due to Emma’s failing health; she eventually succumbed to malaria complications on July 29, 1917, truly a martyr of the black work.  Edson remarried in 1922 and pursued various business ventures until his death on May 30, 1928.

Somewhat forgotten and underappreciated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a whole, Edson White’s legacy nevertheless lives on, particularly in the South where much of the black membership can trace their spiritual roots to the Mississippi campaign, but more broadly internationally where black Adventists have impacted the globe.

-Benjamin J. Baker