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.
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
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.
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.
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
-Benjamin J. Baker