James White and Church Organization

It was the year of 1863. The United States of America was in the deadly embrace of a civil war. The eyes of the world were directed towards this nation. Could Protestantism and Republicanism stand? Even in 1863, this nation had already fallen far from what she once was. That very year the prophet wrote, “The people of this nation have forsaken and forgotten God. They have chosen other gods and followed their own corrupt ways until God has turned from them. The inhabitants of the earth have trampled upon the law of God and broken His everlasting covenant.” Testimonies, vol. 1, 355, 356. But while the nations of this earth looked on with disgust and indignation at the atrocities of the civil war, the most important battle of the day was little known.

This battle was being fought and won in humble homes and churches, in little known offices and most of all in the hearts of men. By the year 1863 many major victories had already been won in this battle of establishing a people in the third angel’s message. The Bible doctrines that were her foundation were in place. Each belief had been dug from the Scriptures. Each had the living testimony of the messenger of the Lord in its support. In various states, conferences were being formed to stabilize the work and guard against fanaticism. But in this year, there were new heights to be scaled and new victories to be won.

On June 6, 1863, the “health vision” was given. In and of itself the message of God on health reform marks 1863 as a never to be forgotten year. Health reform is the right arm of the message. “It is as closely connected with the third angel’s message as the hand is with the body.” Counsels on Diet and Foods, 69. For a people preparing for translation, the health reform was mandatory. “It is impossible for those who indulge in appetite to attain to Christian perfection.” Ibid., 22.

Yoked up with health reform was the vital matter of church organization which was finalized just two weeks before the vision on health. On May 20–23, 1863, the state conferences met and formed a general conference. John Byington served as chairman after the refusal of James of White. But that should deceive no one as to who was the driving force causing the formation of the General Conference. “Without James White’s dynamic leadership there would have been no organization of the Adventist Church in the 1860’s. For week after week, month by month, year after year, through the columns of the Review and Herald, he presented the importance of gospel order and led the members forward step by step toward his goal. A problem that he had to face was that he could see farther ahead than most of his brethren. And, of course, he was married to Ellen White, through whom God spoke directly to him on many occasions, counseling, encouraging, and stimulating his thinking.” James White, 164, by Virgil Robinson.

This man, James White, who brought about many victories for God’s cause: just what kind of a man was he? In our time we can only rely on pen pictures, as no one living was his personal acquaintance. This man, like Jesus’ disciples, had many natural abilities. However, as important as that is, we could never ascribe his success to that alone. Alexander the great, Napoleon and Nebuchadnazzer, all had many natural abilities, but James White’s abilities were surrendered to the use of God’s cause on earth. His wife, God’s prophet, “recognized the special talents God had given her husband. She wrote to him: ‘God has given you a good intellect—I might say a giant intellect . . . The cause of God cannot spare you without experiencing a great loss.’ ” Ibid. Later she wrote to her son, “Your father does the work of three men at all these meetings. I never saw a man work so energetically, so constantly as your father. God does give him more than mortal energy. If there is any place that is hard your father takes it.” Ibid.

In the 1990’s we are (or should be) well acquainted with the writings of Ellen White, the Lord’s special messenger. We know that those who read and study the testimonies from her pen become settled into the third angel’s message. But we are often unaware of the role James White played in the establishment of the remnant church. He ever had a great mission in mind, and was ever planning for its accomplishment. His mission was to cause the triumph of the third angel’s message over the powers of evil. His life was bound up in its welfare. When it prospered, he was comforted. But, when it languished, he sorrowed and went to work to heal it. He knew that for its final triumph, it must be a united body moving in perfect order against the powers of evil. For this cause, under God, he bent the powers of his “giant intellect.” Few men in God’s remnant church have ever had such a wonderful blend of executive ability combined with a profound theological knowledge of Biblical truth. But God saw that is what it would take to organize His church on earth.

With all that said, one would think those around him would see and appreciate his abilities. But history proves that this is seldom the case with anyone. We have only to remind ourselves of Paul, John the Baptist, Elijah, and Joseph to mention a few. The one, who with keen vision looks down the path and sees what course is needed, is usually derided by his contemporaries. It proved thus for James White. We should not be surprised, for our Lord and Master was scorned, and He was perfect. It was through His cruel humiliation that we were brought the blessing of salvation. And once again in the life experience of James White, we will see how the Lord turned scorn and derision into large blessings for his people.

This scorn and evil speaking played its role in bringing about the first General Conference meeting in May of 1863. When going through some bad experience we seldom grasp the full meaning of the promise, “For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.” 2 Corinthians 13:8. But, the historian of later years can look back and be amazed at the reality of the promise. As we will see by the story below, this is what happened with the rumors started against James White.

In 1862 and 1863, the work in Wisconsin was suffering from fanaticism. One of the leaders who was caught up in it was a Mr. T.M. Steward and his wife. They were claiming that Mrs. Steward had received visions. Because of this many sincere believers threw out all visions—including Ellen White’s. Others, in leadership positions, wanted to deny fellowship to new converts to the three angels’ messages until they had a chance to evaluate the prophetic gift and who consequently would not instantly state their belief in Ellen White’s visions. The Lord sent counsel to His people about the course to follow in this situation in Testimonies, vol. 1, 326–340 and 382–384.

Mr. Steward also opposed and criticized the idea of the organization of the believers. As is often the case, instead of attacking the message which cut across his ideas, he attacked the messenger—James White. The story is recorded in Ellen White: The Progressive Years, by Arthur White. It will be quoted here at length.

One way the great adversary sought to cripple the work of James White was in the circulation of rumors and falsehoods regarding his business integrity and honesty. Such criticism centered in northern Wisconsin, influenced by T.M. Steward. (See Testimonies, vol. 1, 311–323.) But criticisms were being heard from other areas where organization had been resisted. In early 1863 the Battle Creek church took steps to halt the malicious criticism. They recognized that James White’s reputation was not only of great value to him but also to “those who may be connected with the cause.” At a business meeting convened on Sunday, March 29, actions were taken to clear his name:

Resolved: That we, the church of Seventh-day Adventists of Battle Creek, deem it our duty to take measures to ascertain the grounds of the charges, complaints, and murmurs that are in circulation, that they may be sustained, and action taken accordingly, or may be proved to be groundless, and the envenomed mouth of calumny and slander be effectually stopped.

Resolved: That we appoint Brethren U. Smith, G.W. Amadon, and E.S. Walker, a committee to take this matter in charge.— RH, March 31, 1863.

The breadth of the proposed investigation is seen in the next action taken by the church:

Resolved: That we hereby earnestly request all those far and near who think they have any grounds of complaint against Elder White, all who have handed to him means that he has not appropriated as directed, all who think that he has wronged the aged, the widow, and the fatherless, or that he has not in all his dealings in temporal matters manifested the strictest integrity, probity, and uprightness, to immediately report their grievances, and the grounds upon which they base them, to Uriah Smith, chairman of the above named committee, that they may be received previous to the middle of May next.—Ibid.

Testimonials were solicited from all who had had dealings with James White since the beginning of his public ministry. These were to be laid before the coming General Conference session, called for late May.

In a last-page note in the next issue of the Review, White called attention to the action of the Battle Creek church. He stated:

The church deemed it necessary, for the good of the cause that there should be an investigation of our business career connected with the cause, and a printed report made. If flying reports be true, we should be separated from the cause. If an open and critical investigation proves them false, a printed report in the hands of the friends of the cause with which we have been connected may, in some instances at least, paralyze the tongue of slander.—Ibid., April 7, 1863.

He urged a prompt response “for the sake of the cause.”

The Call For A General Conference

The same issue of the Review carried the call for a meeting of the General Conference, at which it was hoped that church organization could be rounded out by binding the State conferences together in a unified body of believers across the land. The delegates were called to meet on Wednesday, May 20. The notice stated:

The several conference committees in the different States are requested to send delegates, or letters at their discretion. The brethren in those localities where there is no State conference can also be represented in the conference by delegates or letters.—Ibid.

On Wednesday afternoon, May 20, twenty ministers and laymen assembled in Battle Creek were ready to present their credentials. The conference moved into its work, in organizing the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, as noted elsewhere. (See Ellen G. White: The Early Years, 479–481.) The conference elected John Byington as president; Uriah Smith , secretary; and E.S. Walker, treasurer. James White was first unanimously elected to the presidency, but he thought it best to let another carry that responsibility. Byington would be joined by J.N. Andrews and G.W. Amadon, making an executive committee of three. The main thrust of the conference related to organization in both the State conferences and the General Conference.

Further Business of The Conference

The wording was brief, but the results were far-reaching. Actions were taken relating to the publication of charts for use in public proclamation of the message: a new prophetic chart, and one on the Ten Commandments (RH, May 26, 1863).

The General Conference took action regarding the survey of James White’s business integrity:

As no one had reported any grievances pertaining to the subject in hand, according to the request in the Review, the committee could only report that fact to the conference, and place in its hands the more than threescore and ten fervent testimonials which have been received on the other side, with the recommendation that, as it seemed that no one dared appear, to sustain the aforesaid reports, some action be taken by this conference to show the falsity of these reports, and vindicate before the world the character and course of Brother White. . . .

Resolved, That the committee employed by the Battle Creek church be empowered to act further in this matter in behalf of this conference, and prepare for publication a record of the action of the Battle Creek church relative to the accusations against Brother James White, and the substance of the responses received.—Ibid.

It was thought well to hold open the time for reports on White for another two months. The report finally appeared in the form of a forty-page pamphlet, which was circulated under the title “Vindication of the Business Career of Elder James White.” The introduction to the pamphlet, signed by the committee of three, declared that “no one has reported himself aggrieved.” It added:

His enemies have thus betrayed their utter want of confidence in the work they have been doing. Their silence has sealed their ignominy. Hereafter, in view of this fact, none will be willing to place themselves in the contemptible position of circulating such reports, except those whose enmity and prejudice overcome their convictions of right and reason,—Vindication of the Business Career of Elder James White, 3, 4.

The “Vindication” pamphlet consists of the signed statements of some seventy individuals who were well acquainted with White; many of these had had business dealings with him.

The conference was the first official General Conference session. It marked the completion of the organizational structure among Seventh-day Adventists. Attendance was such that meetings were held in the tent on the green across the street from the Review office. Uriah Smith, in his editorial report, declared:

Taking general view of this meeting as a religious gathering we hardly know what feature of the joyful occasion to notice first. We can say to the readers of the Review, think of everything good that has been written of every previous meeting, and apply it to this. All this would be true, and more than this.

Perhaps no previous meeting that we have ever enjoyed was characterized by such unity of feeling and harmony of sentiment. In all the important steps taken at this conference, in the organization of a General Conference, and the further perfecting of State conferences, defining the authority of each, and the important duties belonging to their various officers, there was not a dissenting voice, and we may reasonably doubt if there was even a dissenting thought. Such union, on such points, affords the strongest grounds of hope for the immediate advancement of the cause, and its future glorious prosperity and triumph.—RH, May 26, 1863.

This step in organization brought the church into a unified denominational structure in time to meet the emergencies of the military draft, and prepared to make advance steps as the health message came, through vision, two weeks after the session.

Taken from Ellen White: The Progressive Years, 30–33.

God turned the charges against James White into a blessing. This very situation showed the need for just such a conference. It seems that whenever the cause of God is marked with the promise of progress, the enemy of truth is on the ground to contend every inch of advance. Thus it was in the days of Moses, Jesus, Paul and Martin Luther.

Today the Lord can turn the apparent troubles in God’s work into blessings if we stay humble and obedient. We must watch and pray and keep our garments unspotted from the prevailing iniquity around us. Our lips must be firmly sealed against idle words and evil speaking. Otherwise, we could innocently fall into Satan’s snares and unknowingly be carrying out his plans. Thus it was with the disciples of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist lived a very austere life. The Pharisees secretly hated him. They “had not accepted the mission of the Baptist. They had pointed in scorn to his abstemious life, his simple habits, his coarse garments, and had declared him a fanatic. Because he denounced their hypocrisy, they had resisted his words, and had tried to stir up the people against him. The Spirit of God moved upon the hearts of these scorners, convicting them of sin; but they had rejected the counsel of God, and had declared that John was possessed of a devil . . . Although they had opposed the mission of the Baptist, they were now ready to court the friendship of his disciples, hoping to secure their co-operation against Jesus . . . They contrasted the austere piety of the Baptist with the course of Jesus in feasting with publicans and sinners . . . The disciples of John had not a clear understanding of Christ’s work; they thought there might be some foundation for the charges of the Pharisees.” Desire of Ages, 275, 276.

These poor men, without knowing what they were doing played into the hands of the Pharisees, who were Christ’s bitterest enemies. And they came and questioned Jesus about why He and His disciples did not fast as often as they and the Pharisees did. You can read the whole story in Desire of Ages, 272–280.

This accusing spirit repeats itself over and over again in the work of God. James White contended with it all his life, not only from his enemies, but often from his “best” of friends. Rumors are still floating around today of what a hard man he was. One wonders how many of those are founded upon even a shred of truth! But we can be sure, whatever is said about him, that God accepted his labors. Ellen White was shown in vision that he will be saved. We know that God’s grace was sufficient for him and that his weakness was submitted to God’s strength. “For consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” Hebrews 12:3.

The End

by Gwen Reeves