Who Was James Springer White?

James Springer White (1821–1881) was a co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the husband of Ellen White. He played an active part in the Millerite Movement, waiting for Jesus to return in 1844. When this didn’t happen, he joined with other Millerites, including his wife, to continue studying Scripture.

Though sickly from childhood, he was a driven man who perhaps accomplished more in Adventist church history than any other individual.

Let’s learn more about his life:

James White’s early life

James White was born on August 4, 1821, in Palmyra, Maine. He was one of the nine children of John and Elizabeth White— godly people who modeled Christian values to their children. He was baptized into the Christian Connection movement at the age of 15. 1

But from the beginning, he struggled with health.

Severe illness at three years old left him with terrible eyesight. 2 He couldn’t read or attend school for many years.

You can imagine how discouraging this was for someone who loved to learn!

But finally, when he was 19, his eyesight improved enough for him to complete an intense 12-week certification course for elementary teachers. 3 During this time, he would spend as much as 18 hours a day studying! 4

He ended up bringing that same level of commitment into his involvement with the Millerite Movement.

Joining the Millerite Movement

James White had planned to further his education while working as a teacher. But his plans changed when he heard William Miller’s teachings about Christ’s soon return. He felt God’s call to become a preacher.

Miller’s followers, based on his interpretation of prophecies in Daniel, believed Jesus was going to return in 1844.

When James first heard William Miller’s teachings, he thought they were extreme.

But he found that his mother had accepted the belief of the imminent Second Coming. As he tried to object, she calmly shared passages of Scripture that convinced him. 5

Then, the Holy Spirit’s conviction set in.

James White felt God calling him to return to the town where he taught before so he could share the Second Coming message with his students’ families.

And so began his journey to become a preacher.

He purchased some publications about the Second Coming and studied them with his Bible. As 1842 rolled around, he began traveling and preaching full time.

Sometimes he faced opposition—like when a mob followed him to the venue for his meetings and threw snowballs at him through the window. 6

But James White was a determined man who longed to prepare others for Jesus’ return. Within two years, he led over 1,000 people to Christ. 7 He was also ordained as a minister in 1843. 8

So what did he do when Jesus didn’t return as expected?

James White’s life after the Great Disappointment

When Jesus didn’t come on October 22, 1844 (known as the Great Disappointment), James White found comfort in the Word of God. As he and fellow Millerites re-studied the passages of the Bible that led them to expect Jesus’ coming, they found truths that paved the way for the formation of the Adventist Church.

What kinds of truths?

The Millerites had thought that the prophecy of Daniel 8:14, which spoke of the cleansing of the sanctuary, referred to the cleansing of the earth by fire at Jesus’ coming (2 Peter 3:11–12).

But they were wrong.

One Millerite leader, O.R.L. Crosier, went back to his Bible and came to a different conclusion:

The sanctuary referred to the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 8:1–2), and Jesus had begun a work of judgment there, instead (Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14).

Crosier wrote an article on this topic, which James White found and read. 9 As he accepted this new belief, he began a new stage in his Christian journey while he also began a new stage in life: marriage.

Marrying Ellen Harmon

James White saw Ellen Harmon for the first time in 1843 when he attended meetings in her hometown—Portland, Maine. But it wasn’t until 1845 that the two met in Orrington, Maine, when Ellen traveled there to speak. 10 He recognized that her calling came from God and volunteered to travel with her and her sister, Sarah, as their protector. 11

The two had no plans of getting married; they felt Jesus was coming too soon for that! 12

But as rumors spread about James White and Ellen Harmon traveling together, they had to make a decision.

“He told me…he should have to go away and leave me to go with whomsoever l would, or we must be married. So we were married.” 13

And that was that! Seems they just needed a little nudge to realize where their hearts were already heading.

So even though their life together began with unusual circumstances, it was evident that they loved one another deeply. James later wrote about his wife:

“We were married August 30, 1846, and from that hour to the present she has been my crown of rejoicing.” 14

And Ellen affectionately called him “the best man that ever trod shoe leather.” 15

Thus began their life of ministry together in the Adventist Church. Along the way, they would have four children. 16

Working together with Ellen White

James and Ellen White were a power team in the Adventist Church—traveling, speaking and encouraging believers, and helping organize churches. Often, James would speak and then his wife would share her message. 17

He was supportive of his wife’s role, never losing faith in the messages that God gave her.

This trust was significant. As a clear thinker, he was not swayed by extreme views. He used his influence to show the validity of her messages. 18 He also “acted vigorously to implement what she advised and what to him seemed common sense.” 19

And she would become his strength when he hit a health crisis.

Struggling with health

Unfortunately, James White struggled with his health throughout much of his lifetime. In 1865, at only 44 years of age, he suffered his first of five strokes.

This was likely due to overworking himself—something science is now showing us can increase the risk of strokes and shorten a person’s life.

He was so dedicated to God’s work that he found it difficult to delegate his responsibilities. He worried that no one else would invest the same effort and energy that he had, so he pushed himself to his limits. 20

In the end, he cut his own efforts short too, dying on August 6, 1881, at only 60 years old.

But for such a short life, his accomplishments are incredible. Especially all he did for the newly forming Seventh-day Adventist Church.

James White’s role in the Adventist Church

James White was one of the co-founders of the Adventist Church and one of its leaders from the beginning. Both before and after marriage, he traveled, preached, and helped organize churches. He served as the president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (the highest level of church leadership) for a total of ten years.

He also filled these roles:


Throughout his lifetime, James White was involved in publishing materials that would lead people to a deeper understanding of Bible truth.

In 1849, his wife had a vision that instructed him to start a periodical. With this counsel in mind, he began publishing the Present Truth, later known as the Review and Herald.

He also began a periodical for young people, called the Youth’s Instructor.

As the publishing work grew, James and Ellen White established a press in Rochester, New York, in 1852. 21 That little press became the Review and Herald Publishing Association.

Never one to settle, he started another periodical, the Signs of the Times, on the west coast in 1874. He also helped buy land for a publishing house there and started the Pacific Press in 1875. 22

Developing fundamental beliefs and incorporating the church

James White, with his discerning and analytical mind, was a valuable asset in developing Adventist doctrine. From 1848 to 1850, he and his wife attended the first conferences of Sabbath-keeping Adventist believers. There, they earnestly studied the Bible.

James especially helped study out the following fundamental beliefs: 23

As the doctrines became established, he urged the organization of the church.

His reasons?

For one, the church needed a way to own land and institutions. They also needed a way to provide credentials for ministers and pay them. 24

Ever the go-getter, James White wrote five articles in 1853 which advocated for church organization.

Over time, other church leaders saw the light in his suggestions. In October 1861, the Michigan conference was organized. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists became official in 1863.

Before long, James White was pioneering the Church’s institutions, too.

Starting and managing church institutions

Besides starting the Church itself, James White founded and led many of its institutions. These include its first school, Battle Creek College (1868), and its first health center, the Battle Creek Sanitarium. With his aptitude for business and management, he helped institutions out of financial difficulties as well.

Look at this example with the Review and Herald.

Because of sickness, he had to step down from its management for a year. While he was gone, its financial situation plummeted. But when he took it over again, it regained what was lost and made a profit. 25

James White was large-hearted and generous, and at times he would even use his own resources to support the church’s work. He believed in the work and was determined to move it forward.

Encouraging Adventist health reform 26

Ellen White was convicted by the Holy Spirit about the importance of simple health principles, such as water, exercise, fresh air, sunlight, and a healthy diet. When her husband’s health took a turn for the worse in 1865, they realized the need to live out these principles.

After James’s first stroke, Ellen White took him to a health center in Dansville, New York, that specialized in water therapy and natural healing. The couple stayed there for three months, but he saw little improvement in his health.

What to do?

Soon after, she recognized God’s calling for the church to start its own health center in Battle Creek in 1866. Unlike the center in Danville, this one would also incorporate a spiritual component and rejuvenating activity (as opposed to complete bed rest) into its program.

As she put health reform principles into practice, she saw James improve too. But it was difficult to keep him from going back into his habits of overworking. His inability to manage his workload may well be the reason he suffered four more strokes and died young.

Though James White didn’t fully benefit from the health reforms because of his tendency to overdo it, they become an important part of Adventist health teachings and went on to benefit many others.

An ardent pioneer of the Adventist Church

James White contributed to the Adventist Church in countless ways: from helping start the church, to studying its fundamental beliefs, to growing it into a denomination.

Who would have thought that such a sickly young man could do so much? He went against all odds to become a teacher, then brought that same determination into his work for God.

He deeply loved the Bible’s truths and committed himself to the success of the Adventist Church—even at the cost of his health and life.

[1]  Foster, Ray, “Elder James White,” Lest We Forget, vol. 5, no. 1, 1995

[2] White, James, Life Incidents (Battle Creek, MI, Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1868), p. 12

[3]  Foster, “Elder James White”

[4]  White, Life Incidents, p. 13

[5] Cooper, Richard, “A Unique Partnership,” Lest We Forget, vol. 5, no. 2, 1995

[6] White, James, Life Incidents, p. 77

[7] Bischoff, Fred, “Qualified for the Job,” Lest We Forget, vol. 5, no. 3, 1995

[8] Foster, “Elder James White”

[9] Steinweg, Marlene, “James White: A Man of Action,” Lest We Forget, vol. 5, no. 3, 1995

[10] White, Ellen, Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White (Pacific Press, Mountain View, CA, 1922), p. 69

[11] Maxwell, C. Mervyn, Tell It to the World (Pacific Press, Nampa, ID, 1977), p. 60

[12] Maxwell, p. 200

[13] Steinweg, Marlene, “Her Husband’s Crown,” Lest We Forget, vol. 5, no. 2, 1995

[14] White, James, Life Sketches (SDA Steam Press, Battle Creek, MI, 1880), p. 126.

[15] White, A. L., Ellen G. White: The Early Years: 1827–1862, vol. 1 (Review and Herald, Hagerstown, MD, 1985), p. 84.

[16] Ibid., p. 46

[17] Douglass, p. 53

[18] VandeVere, Emmett K., “Years of Expansion, 1865–1885,” The World of Ellen G. White, p. 67, quoted in Douglass, p. 53

[19] White, Ellen, Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White (Pacific Press, Mountain View, CA, 1922), p. 69

[20] Douglass, p. 54

[21] White, James, Life Incidents, p. 293

[22] Loughborough, J. N., The Great Second Advent Movement (Adventist Pioneer Library, Jasper, Oregon, 2016), p. 243

[23] Steinweg, Marlene, “James White: A Man of Action,” Lest We Forget, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1995

[24] Douglass, p. 184

[25] Maxwell, p. 200

[26]  Douglass, pp. 301–305

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