James Springer White (1821-1881) was one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He was barely twenty years old when he was already a full-time preacher in the small community of people who had, totally disappointed, come out of the Miller movement, and were now trying to make sense of their recent experiences. Within a few years James became one of the leaders of this group which organized itself in 1863 as the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Three times—between 1867 and 1880—he served a term of two years as president of the General Conference. In 1880 this meant that he was in charge of a church that had grown to just over 15,000 members.
James was not only the “president” of the church, but he was also the leader of its publishing branch, first in the East of the USA, but later also in California. He was one of the church’s most important authors and played an important role in establishing the church’s first health institutions and its first schools. In addition, and perhaps this was even more important than all the tasks mentioned, he was also Ellen White’s husband. His influence on the prophetess of the church should not be underestimated.
One could say that James White was a genius. He had many talents and an enormous zest for work. With his wife and a number of other “pioneers” he made unprecedented sacrifices in the early days of the church. But there is another side to the story as well. James experienced periods of depression and total exhaustion. He had at least five strokes, after which he struggled to regain his strength. His personality was affected in an unfavorable way and this often made him an extremely difficult person to deal with. He had an extraordinarily sharp tongue and pen, and he would often severely criticize or even humiliate closest colleagues. Moreover, there were periods in which the relationship between him and his wife Ellen was under great strain; they did not live together for a considerable time.
What would always haunt James White were his financial activities. In the first few decades the preachers in the Advent Movement were often poverty-stricken. There was hardly any regular salary system and the workers often experienced outright poverty. It is understandable that they were looking for ways to earn some extra money and this brought little or no criticism from the church members. But James was, despite all the activities for the church, constantly busy with trade–much more than any of the other preachers. He always saw opportunities to make some money, by acting as an agent for certain products, or by buying and selling real estate or goods. Twice the church’s leadership conducted a thorough investigation into James’ business dealings. The outcome was in both cases in James White’s favor, but that he was a shrewd businessman is beyond question.
I knew a lot about James White’s extra-ecclesial activities, but only very recently did I read about an episode I hadn’t heard of before. Many Adventists of the first generation, including their leaders, lived very unhealthy lives and had to struggle with illness time and again. The State of Colorado, with its mountains, had a reputation for being a place where one could regain one’s health. In 1876, a group of Adventists in North Texas decided to migrate to Colorado for health reasons. Somehow James White became involved. He would help these people to make the challenging journey. But he also immediately saw dollar-signs. Mules were in great demand in Colorado, because of the fast growing mining industry, in which large numbers of mules were needed. James discovered that he could buy a mule in Texas for $80, and that in Colorado it could bring around $200. And so, in March of 1876, a small colonne of eight covered wagons, and the 2-seater carriage of James and Ellen White, departed from Dallas with a herd of mules (how many is unclear). Three or four cowboys were hired to help with the transport, over about 700 kilometers, along the Chisholm Trail that was often used for such animal transports. It was an adventurous journey of several months. James was the leader of the expedition, while Ellen and her assistant Marion Davis took care of the catering. Ellen kept anything but pleasant memories of this experience. Immediately after arriving at their destination, she left by train for California, while James remained behind to sell the mules, and stayed for some time in the “cabin” that the Whites now owned in Colorado.
It’s a strange story. The president of the General Conference is traveling with a herd of mules through an area that was largely still inhabited by indigenous tribes. And one of the travel companions, who apparently had a great talent for herding animals and keeping them together, was young Arthur Daniels, who would later become president of the church, like James White.
What is the moral of the story? It illustrates that the ‘pioneers’ were not otherworldly saints, but people of flesh and blood, who could do rather unexpected things. They command admiration for their tremendous sacrifice and their commitment to their ideal, but they are not the undisputed “role models” for us, as some maintain, who think that the Church can only prosper if we take these leaders of the first hour as our guide in everything we say and do.