James and Ellen White Begin Their Journey

James and Ellen White began married life in a somewhat unconventional way. Ellen Harmon had been receiving visions from God and had been directed by Him to travel among the scattered Advent believers to reprove and encourage them as the needs presented themselves. To do this she traveled with her older sister Sarah as a chaperone and they were often accompanied by other ladies. One of the most significant additions to their traveling party was James Springer White, a young Millerite preacher who had a reputation of having converted over 1000 souls during his labors for the Millerite movement.

James White’s close association with the young messenger of the Lord soon set tongues wagging and Mrs. Eunice Harmon, wrote to her young daughter asking her to return home immediately to stem the rising tide of gossip. As Ellen began preparation to head home to Maine, James White came up to her with a proposal.

“Now Ellen” he began rather briskly “something has come up, and I have to go away for a while and you’ll have to get around the best way you can. Or else we must be married. But something has to be done!”

So and they were married and according to Ellen White, he was the best man that ever trod shoe leather.

The funny thing about the situation though was that James White had been one of the most outspoken advocates against marriage citing the fact that the nearness of Christ’s coming made marriage an unnecessary hindrance. However, Ellen White was instructed by God that the tarrying time leading up to Christ Second Advent would take longer than the disappointed Millerites had initially thought. In light of this, both James White and Ellen Harmon saw that marriage was in God’s order and would greatly benefit and enhance their ministry for God.

 Despite his rather matter of fact proposal James White had come to grow rather fond of Ellen Harmon and Ellen for her part shared his sentiments. They committed the matter to prayer and when they were both certain that it was God’s will for them to proceed they took the important step.

They were married on August 30, 1846, by a justice of the peace which in all likelihood was the only ceremony they had for their wedding. They began married life as poor as church mice. James was committed to the cause of preaching and Ellen was committed to her calling as a messenger of the Lord which meant that neither of them had a steady source of income. James worked mowing hay or hauling rock for the railroad in the early days of the their marriage to make a little bit of money to help them get by.

They began married life living with Ellen’s parents for a short period of time and their first child, Henry Nichols White was born on the 26th of August 1847, almost a year after they were married.

The Sabbath Conferences

One of the first things they did as a married couple was to read Joseph Bates’ tract on the Sabbath. After carefully studying each Bible reference on the subject that Elder Bates had provided they were fully convinced of its validity and began to keep the Sabbath together as a family. A few months later Ellen was given a vision in which she saw the law of God in the ark of the heavenly sanctuary. She saw a soft halo of light encircling the fourth commandment. This vision strengthened the faith of the small band of Sabbath keeping Adventists and also provided them with a clearer understanding of the importance of the Sabbath.

The Whites then attended the six Sabbath conferences in 1848. The first was held in Rocky Hill, Connecticut in the home of Albert Belden. Albert Belden’s son Stephen would later marry Ellen’s sister and longtime travel companion Sarah. God provided the Whites with the funds they needed to travel to each of the conferences. The Belden’s offered James and Ellen White the use of a large unfurnished room in their home. This offer was an answer to prayer and they gratefully accepted it.

They had no furniture and no money to buy any but God provided for them in this respect as well by sending Clarissa Bonfoey to live with them. Clarissa’s parents had recently passed away leaving her with enough furniture to set up a home and she was willing to take care of little Henry while the Whites traveled. The arrangement provided for the needs of both the young White family and Clarissa Bonfoey.

For the fifth of the six Sabbath Conferences, the Whites traveled to Topsham, Maine where they stayed with their friends the Howlands. Two months later they needed to travel to Dorchester, Massachusetts and at this point, the young parents were faced with a heart-wrenching decision. They had to make the trip from Topsham to Dorchester with Winter approaching which made travel tiring and difficult. The trip would not be suitable for an infant and yet Ellen White needed to accompany her husband. The Howlands kindly offered to keep Henry while the Whites traveled and after much prayer, Ellen White reluctantly agreed to leave her 15-month-old baby with the Howlands in order to travel. Henry White would live with the Howlands until he was six years old.

The Howlands were tender-hearted, generous people and Mr. and Mrs. Howland together with their daughter Frances loved and cared for Henry White as if he were their own. But the separation was hard on the young mother and she missed her little boy terribly however God had shown her that nothing, not even her love for her child, could stand in the way of her call to serve as his messenger.

Starting The Publishing Work

A little while later God gave Ellen White a vision in which she was shown that James should begin to publish a little paper. She was shown that the paper would be a success right from the start and that this work would grow from its humble beginnings to encircle the globe like streams of light. James was broke and had no experience at all in printing or publishing but he decided to go forward in faith. His first publication was entitled “Present Truth” and was published in 1852. He had managed to find a printer, Charles Pelton by name, in the little township of Middletown, Connecticut about 8 miles from Rocky Hill where they lived with the Beldens. Pelton contracted to print four issues of a thousand copies each for the princely sum of $64.50. He generously offered to allow James White to pay for the paper with funds that were sent in by those who received the paper.

James White walked the sixteen miles to and from Rocky Hill to Middletown most days of the week in order to proofread the paper and prepare it for publication. When the paper was finally ready James White borrowed Albert Belden’s horse and buggy in order to pick up the 1000 printed copies and transport them home to Rocky Hill. Once there the Beldens joined the Whites in folding and addressing the 1000 copies by hand. James then loaded up his old carpet bag with small batches of the paper and walked down to the Middletown post office where he mailed them. The first copies of the present truth were sent out in July 1849.

Several days later Ellen White gave birth to their second child, another son whom they named James Edson White. Soon money began to pour in from grateful recipients of the paper and James White was able to pay Charles Pelton for the first issue of the present truth. The Publishing work of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church had officially been launched.

Sometime later the fledgling Sabbatarian Advent movement decided that it was time for their new paper to be printed on their own press. This would significantly cut costs, raise the standard of the publication and ensure that the paper would not be printed on Sabbath as was sometimes the case. A small committee was formed to move forward with the decision making and they voted to purchase a Washington Hand Press for $600.

James White rented a sprawling old home at 124, Mount Hope Avenue in Rochester, New York for $175 a year and moved his family and the press there. They furnished the house with 10 weatherbeaten chairs which they bought for $1.64 and two ancient bedsteads which cost 25 cents a piece. They improvised for a table by slapping a board over two empty flour barrels.

The house became home to the press and publishing office as well as all the workers who were employed by the operation. During this time James and Ellen White made many sacrifices and worked hard to establish the printing work but they were surrounded by a family of like-minded young people who were willing to cheerfully put their shoulders to the wheel and this was a source of encouragement to everyone involved in the work.

In 1855 the publishing work was moved to Battle Creek and the Whites along with many of the workers moved as well. A publishing association was formed in order to free James White from the burden of sole ownership and he was given a salary. Here they purchased two blocks of land on Wood Street and built their own home, their first and settled their family into it. They lived here for six years.

Laboring Through Trials

During their years in Battle Creek, the young parents were faced with the trauma of nearly losing one of their children. Young Willie who was only 20 months old fell into a large washtub full of soapy cleaning water. Jennie, the family helper, discovered him when she spied a little foot sticking out of the tub. Screaming for Ellen, Jennie grabbed the toddler out of the water only to discover that he was not breathing. Ellen took the baby from her and asked Jennie to call for the doctor and get James. Ellen then proceeded to roll the baby back and forth on the ground in the front yard. After a long tense and arduous battle, Willie revived and went on to make a full recovery.

Even though they were settled with their family in Michigan, James and Ellen White were frequently called upon to travel. Much of their travelling was for the purpose of strengthening and encouraging the little flock of Adventists that were scattered around the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest. Many of these visits entailed the painful task of reproof and rebuke but Ellen White was faithful to take up this work regardless of how distasteful it was.

In Washington, New Hampshire she was called upon to share messages of warning and reproof that had been given to her in vision. Some of these were particularly strong and addressed to certain individuals in the church such as the testimonies given to Worcester Ball and William Farnsworth.

In Waukon, Iowa, she delivered messages of warning to the entire group of believers and to particular individuals including J.N. Loughborough and J.N. Andrews. These instances are a sampling of the countless hours James and Ellen White spent travelling and counselling the God’s people.

Ellen White was also given special visions regarding the work of spreading the gospel and regarding the truths so essential to the spiritual growth of the church. In 1858 while visiting Lovett’s Grove, Ohio, James White was asked to preach at a funeral service. While he was doing so Ellen White was given a vision that lasted two hours. Needless to say, the funeral service came to an abrupt halt until the vision had ended.

In this vision, she was given the history of the great controversy between Christ and Satan from its beginnings in heaven right down to its great culmination at the end of time. The day after the vision the Whites travelled to Jackson, Michigan where they spent some time with their friends Dan and Abigail Palmer.  While they were at the Palmer home Ellen White suffered a stroke. Both James and the Palmers were sure that she was about to die but as they continued in prayer for her she seemed to revive and was fit enough to travel to Battle Creek the next morning. When they arrived home James carried her up the steep stairs of their home in Wood Street where she recuperated in bed for a number of weeks. While she was in this condition she began the painful and difficult task of writing out the vision that she had been shown.

At first, she could only manage to write a page a day but gradually her health improved and she was able to clip along at a steady pace. When the manuscript was about half finished Ellen was called to the bedside of a friend who was seriously ill and on the verge of death. As she prayed for her Ellen was given a vision in which she was shown that Satan had been responsible for the stroke she had suffered in Jackson right after she had been given the vision of the Great Controversy. She was shown that he had wanted to prevent her from writing out what she had been shown and was ready to take her life but angels of God had come to her rescue and had preserved her life.

Then in 1863 while visiting the home of brother and sister Hillard in Otsego, Michigan, Ellen White received her first health reform vision. In this vision, she was given broad instructions regarding health touching on ten categories, ranging from the importance of pure air and water to the need for adequate rest and physical exercise. Part of the message included counsel on dress reform as well as counsel for James and Ellen White regarding their working hours.

This vision would form the basis for much of the health work that was carried on within the denomination and was followed by other visions relating to the health work revealing to the young church that the work of health reform was, in fact, the right arm of the gospel.

During this time of progress in ministerial lines, James and Ellen White suffered terrible losses. In 1860 their fourth son John Herbert was born, only to be taken from them a few months after his birth in December of the same year. Later in December of 1863, while the family was visiting the Howlands their oldest son Henry White was stricken with pneumonia and died. It was a bitter blow to the parents as well as to the Howlands who looked on Henry as their own son. Despite their terrible grief James and Ellen White chose to cling steadfastly to the arm of God, looking to him for hope and strength to carry them through their trials.

James White’s First Stroke

In August of 1866, James White suffered his first stroke.  Though he received treatment in Battle Creek this didn’t provide much relief and the Whites spent some time at Dr Jackson’s health retreat in Dansville. However, while they appreciated the simple, natural treatments they were not very comfortable with some of the recreational activities that the guests were expected to participate in. Ellen White decided that James needed to get back to Battle Creek in order to continue the process of healing.

On their way to Battle Creek, they spent some time in Rochester where the brethren prayed earnestly for James’ recovery. Once they were back in Battle Creek, James White was relieved of his work at the printing office and the General Conference however though he didn’t go into the office that didn’t stop the office from coming to him. Many of the workers and other brethren flocked the White home to solicit advice from James and Ellen soon realised that if he was to fully recover he would need to do it away from Battle Creek.

The stroke had left James, weak and dispirited and Ellen recognised that he needed not just physical restoration but mental restoration as well. In the dead of winter, Ellen made plans to take James away from Battle Creek in order for him to get well. Many of the brethren thought that this was a serious mistake and counselled her against it. They pleaded with her to consider her own frail health and for the sake of their children to refrain from placing burdens upon herself that could lead to a breakdown in her own health. Even James’ parents tearfully pleaded with her to stay, telling her that she had done everything in her power to help James and that she should not sacrifice her own wellbeing any further. Doctors told her that James White would not make a full recovery, stating that they had never known of a recovery in a case such as his. But Ellen was determined and her answer to them all was “God will raise him up”

In the middle of a snowstorm in December James, Ellen and twelve-year-old Willie headed North with the help of Brother Rogers who sat in the driver’s seat. They headed north to Wright, Michigan. In Wright, they spent six weeks with the Root family and attended the little Adventist Church in the community. James’ health improved remarkably and he was able to preach for small periods at a time.

Next, they spent time with the Maynards in Greenville for another six weeks and while they were there they made the decision to sell their home in Battle Creek and moved to Greenville. Brother Maynard was more than happy to help them find a suitable plot of land on which they could build a home. After three months away James White had sufficiently recovered to be able to return to Battle Creek and Ellen was extremely grateful to God for the marked improvements in her husband’s health.

They looked forward to returning to Battle Creek, fully expecting that their friends would joyfully welcome the changes in James’ health but they were disappointed. The brethren in Battle Creek were angry that Ellen had chosen to follow her own judgment under the direction of God in taking James away rather than listen to their counsel. They were faced with bitter accusations rather than the warm and loving welcome they had been expecting. It was almost a year before all the misunderstandings were sufficiently cleared up and the icy attitudes towards them began to thaw out.

James and Ellen White went on to follow through with their plan to move to Greenville. They purchased a plot of land there and built a little home. They planted fruit trees, blackberries, strawberries and planted a small garden. James was cautious about engaging in too much labour, to begin with. His mind still replayed some of the warnings Dr Jackson had given him the early days soon after his stroke against engaging in physical activity. Ellen disagreed with this counsel and believed that James needed to work in order to recover fully.

Ellen managed to devise a plan that brought James out into the field gathering hay for six to twelve hours a day. He slept soundly at night and slowly began to regain his strength. A few days after the hay was all taken in James White held a baptismal service for the first time in four years. It was a high Sabbath for the White family because one of the candidates was his own son, Willie.

James White’s Final Illness

Around this time Merritt Kellogg, one of John Harvey Kellogg’s brothers, decided to do a short medical course and asked Edson and Willie White to join him. James encouraged John Kellogg to go with them. John Kellogg was so fascinated by medicine that James and Ellen White financed a year of his training at the University of Michigan. John Kellogg would go on to become the director of the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek at the urging of James White. He also took over the editorial responsibilities of the Health Reformer, a health magazine published by the church.

In the summer of 1872, the Whites headed to California but made a few pit stops along the way. First they visited Ellen’s sister Caroline whom she had not seen in 25 years. They spent two weeks with her in Kansas before travelling to Colorado where they spent time with Caroline’s daughters Lou Walling and Mary Clough. While they were in Colorado they spent some time camping at Sulphur Springs before hurrying on to Oakland where they fell in love with the place and immediately wanted to settle there.

They returned to Battle Creek in 1873 to attend the General Conference session in March. It was a long and exhausting five day trip by train from California to Michigan. When they arrived the dived right into the business of the Conference which included a motion to begin a denominational school.

On the morning of April 22, Battle Creek was covered in a thick layer of snow. After spending the morning writing, Ellen decided to take a short walk to the home of the Ginley family where she and James had been invited to lunch that day. Minutes after she arrived she received a message summoning her to the home of Ira Abbey where James had had another stroke this time leaving him partially paralyzed. The second stroke led James White to shift many of the responsibilities of leadership that were weighing him down. They then made their way to their mountain retreat in Colorado where they settled into a cottage near the Walling family for the summer.

During this time Will and Lou Walling began the process of a messy divorce and Will asked James and Ellen to care for his two children Addie and May. The Whites were happy to do so and sent the girls onward to California in the care of Lucinda Hall while they hurried back to Battle Creek for meetings. In 1874 James White was appointed the president of the General Conference and he took on the responsibility of overseeing the work of the church in its entirety which meant that Ellen had to fill much of the camp meeting appointments.

From that time onwards James and Ellen White shuttled back and forth between Battle Creek and Oakland. Overseeing the work of the General Conference as well as establishing much of the work in California such as the Pacific Press Publishing Association.

Over the last years of his life, James White struggled with the decision to retire. The work of God was dear to his heart and yet the burdens and the responsibilities associated with his position were taxing and heavy to bear. He had five strokes which altered his personality greatly. He was depressed, moody and irritable, often lashing out at his friends and colleagues with a low tolerance for being crossed in any way.

In late July of 1881, the Whites were invited to speak in Charlotte, Michigan where they had a blessed time. They returned home to Battle Creek on the 27th of July and that Sabbath spent their usual time in prayer in their prayer grove. The following Monday James was stricken with a severe chill and Ellen came down with chills and fever on Tuesday night. They were both taken to the Sanitarium by Dr Kellogg so they could receive proper treatment. By Friday Ellen was recovering but James’ condition had worsened. When Ellen was taken to his room she knew that he was dying. Going to his side she spoke gently to him and told him that she thought he was dying. He didn’t seem surprised.

“James,” she asked him “is Jesus precious to you?”

“Yes, Oh Yes” was his feeble but emphatic reply.

At that point, Ellen and those who were in the room with her knelt down to pray for him. James White was at peace and Ellen whispered to him “Jesus loves you, the everlasting arms are beneath you”

Uriah Smith and some of the other brethren who had come to pray for him then left the room and spent the entire night in prayer for their beloved brother and friend. Ellen White stayed with him and was at his side when he breathed his last just after 5 pm on Sabbath Afternoon August 6th.

Ellen was grief-stricken at the sudden loss but she chose to cling to the arm of God in faith. The funeral was planned for the following Sabbath which would give Willie and Mary White time to travel to Battle Creek from California.

On the day of the funeral over 2500 people attended the service. Many business owners closed their doors as a mark of respect for the man they loved and respected. Employees from the Review and Herald office who attended wore black armbands in a show of respect and solidarity to the man who had founded the publishing house they now worked for.

Ellen White spoke at the funeral. Steadying herself with her hand on James’ casket she said “When taken from my sickbed to be with my husband in his dying moments, at first the suddenness of the stroke seemed too heavy to bear, and I cried to God to spare him to me, not to take him away, and leave me to labour alone. Two weeks ago we stood side by side in this desk but when I shall stand before you again, he will be missing. He will not be present to help me then. Now I take up my lifework alone…when I saw my husband breathe his last, I felt that Jesus was more precious to me then than he ever had been in any previous hour of my life…now he upon whose large affections I have leaned, with whom I have laboured, and we have been united in labour for 36 years, is taken away; but I can lay my hands upon his eyes and say, I commit my treasure to thee until the morning of the resurrection”

The funeral procession of 95 carriages wound slowly to Oak Hill Cemetery where James White was buried beside his two sons and his father and mother. He was 60 years old when he died. Ellen White took up the work alone and laboured faithfully until her own death, 34 years later in 1915.

They were united in service for 36 years and when they shall, at last, be united on the sea of glass, their labours will have secured for them a rich and eternal reward.  

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1915) – Life Sketches of Ellen G. White
  • Maxwell, C.M. (1976) – Tell It To The World – The Story of Seventh-Day Adventists
  • Schawrz, R.W. and Greenleaf, F. (1979) – Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Revised Edition)
  • White, A.L. (1985) – Ellen White: The Early Years
  • White, A.L. (1986) – Ellen White: The Progressive Years
  • White, A.L. (1984) – Ellen White: The Lonely Years
  • Wheeler, G.(2003) – James White: Innovator and Overcomer
  • Collins, N.J. (2005) – Heartwarming Stories of Adventist Pioneers (Book 1)
  • Burt, M.D. (2011) – Adventist Pioneer Places (New York and New England)