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White was born in Maine to descendants of Mayflower passengers. He suffered health and learning problems as a child. His formal education of less than 12 months did not prevent him from obtaining a teaching certificate and teaching elementary school for a short time. The family belonged to the Christian Connexion, the first indigenous American religious movement. White was baptized at age 16 and in 1843 was ordained as a minister. Mostly due to his mother’s influence White seriously evaluated and accepted the Millerite message of Christ’s soon return, and became a Millerite preacher, leading some 1000 persons to conversion.
The passing of the time in October 1844 sorely tested White’s faith, but he remained an Adventist. Some time after Ellen Harmon’s vision in December showing God’s leading the Advent Movement, James became associated with her and another lady traveling to relate Ellen’s visions. Propriety indicated that he should not travel with a single woman, and being impressed with her piety and convinced of her prophetic gift, he decided God wished them to marry, which they did August 1846. That fall they began keeping the Sabbath that Joseph Bates had shared with them earlier in the year. They were very poor with no home of their own, but continued to travel and speak, James supporting her prophetic mission, printing her messages, and doing manual labor to earn a little to support them. The first publication, To the Remnant Scattered Abroad, was printed the year they married.
In 1848 conferences were held that gathered Sabbatarian Adventist to explore and develop a unity of belief. In response to a vision of Ellen at one of these conferences, James began regular publishing in 1849 of a periodical which became the Review and Herald. After using the services of various printers, the believers voted in 1852 to purchase a printing press, which was set up at Rochester, New York, moving in 1855 to Battle Creek, Michigan. This publishing work flourished, and led to the first formal organization among the Sabbatarian Adventists, the Advent Review Publishing Association in 1860. Publishing would be James’ major focus the rest of his life. The organization of local churches into conferences, and conferences into the General Conference followed quickly.
James White served a total of 10 years as president of the GC at various times. His vision and executive abilities would drive him to overwork, and in 1865 he suffered the first of several strokes that would affect his health and effectiveness the rest of his life. He and Ellen traveled to California not long after the rail link was completed, and in the 1870s he established the Pacific Press to publish on the West Coast. He was active in the establishment of Battle Creek College in the 1870s as well. He invested tens of thousands of his own money in building up the church’s institutions. Ellen frequently urged him to find others to lighten his work load, but he found it hard to delegate and to find men who could do the job. Shortly before his death August 1881 he seemed to foresee the turbulence and needs of the coming decade when he stated, “I feel assured there is a crisis before us. We should preserve our physical and mental powers for future service. The glorious subject of Redemption should long ago have been more fully presented to the people…” (PH168 54.2).
Adventist Pioneer Library, Ellen G. White Writings, Comprehensive Research Edition 2008, https://egwwritings.org/