James Edson White
1849 - 1928
James Edson was the second and oldest surviving son of James and Ellen Gould Harmon White. He started working at age fifteen in the Review and Herald Publishing Association and became proficient in all aspects of printing. That skill was coupled with an astute business sense inherited from his father. In 1870 he married Emma MacDearmon, whose sister later married Franklin Edson Belden, a noted early Seventh-day Adventist musician.
In 1877 White was asked to go to Oakland, California, to serve as secretary for the recently established Pacific SDA Publishing Association, where, in his three years there, he was business manager. While there, he became deeply involved in and worked closely with Belden and D. S. Hakes in the production of the 1878 Song Anchor, a Choice Collection of Favorites for Sabbath School and Praise Service.
Printed at the Pacific Press, The Song Anchor was a collection of gospel songs, with 137 Hymns and 133 tunes, ten composed by Edson. A copyrighted publication, it was in horizontal instead of vertical format, all of its songs were set to music, authors’ and composers’ names were listed, and it included the first works of F.E. Belden.
After returning to Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1880, he connected with the Sabbath School work, serving for over six years in developing this aspect of the church. In 1886 he assisted in producing a second Sabbath School songbook, Joyful Greetings for the Sabbath School.
During this time White also started the J. E. White Publishing Company, which in the mid-1880s did the typesetting for music and words for Hymns and Tunes, the second official hymnal of the Adventist church. It included 1,413 hymns and would be used, along with Christ in Song, a collection released by Belden in 1900 and revised in 1908, until 1941, when The Church Hymnal was published.
In his forties, he felt the need to reach out to the Black community, inspired by “Our Duty to the Colored People,” an appeal written by his mother in 1891. In 1894 he outfitted a steamboat, The Morning Star, on which he, his wife, and other like-minded persons could live and conduct schools for the illiterate on board at different ports of call along the Yazoo River in Mississippi.
White also printed a 115 page booklet, The Southern Work, which included his mother’s first appeal and nine more articles she wrote in 1895 and 1896 along with other of her writings on this subject. Later in that decade he added 32 more pages of her writings to the booklet. He also published and wrote another dozen books which facilitated not only this work but the evangelistic outreach of the church as a whole.
This work led to the building of fifty schools in the South at places where the boat had stopped and helped establish the Adventist church in that region. He also established a printing press at Nashville, Tennessee, in 1900 under the auspices of the Southern Missionary Society, those efforts being the forerunner of today’s Southern Publishing Association.
In 1912 the Whites returned to Michigan because of Emma’s failing health. Following her death in 1917 he moved to Battle Creek, where he married Rebecca Burrill five years later. They were living in Otsego, Michigan, when he died in 1928, at age 78.
Sources: Wayne H. Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, 1988, Review and Herald Publishing Association, 313-14; Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, Second Revised Edition, Volume 11, (Review and Herald Publishing Association 1996) 889; “Significant Mileposts in Seventh-day Adventist Hymnody,” a detailed listing available from the Adventist Heritage Center in the Andrews University James White Library.