Partners in Service
Reflections on the Marriage of James & Ellen White
By James R. Nix
Just days before what would have been Ellen White’s sixtieth wedding anniversary, she recalled with loving fondness her late husband, James White. “We were married, and have been married ever since. Although he is dead, I feel that he is the best man that ever trod shoe leather. Whatever [people] might say … I would not link up with any soul in my widowhood, I feel … as though I [am] … to … preserve the memory of my husband.”1
Much in Common
James and Ellen probably first met in the summer of 1844. Both were Millerite Adventists, who eagerly looked for Christ’s return in 1844. Despite ill health, Ellen spoke in meetings and shared her faith in other ways. James was an energetic young preacher who on a four-month preaching tour in deep snow in early 1843 converted 1,000 people.2 In terms of their beliefs, the two of them shared much in common.
A few weeks after October 22, 1844, when Jesus did not return as expected, Ellen received her first vision. Exactly when James first heard about it is unknown, but however it happened, James soon joined the group of Ellen’s friends who traveled with her as she shared her visions.
On August 30, 1846, James Springer White, 25, standing a little more than six feet (1.8 meters), and Ellen Gould Harmon, 18, standing five feet two inches (1.57 meters) tall, were married by Charles Harding, a justice of the peace in Portland, Maine.3It was the beginning of a nearly 35-year partnership that ended with James’s death on August 6, 1881.
The newlyweds started married life in Gorham, Maine, living with Ellen’s parents, Robert and Eunice Harmon. The Whites were still living there when Ellen gave birth to their firstborn son, Henry Nichols, in 1847. Eventually the Whites had three more sons, James Edson in 1849, William Clarence in 1854, and John Herbert in 1860. Only the second and third sons lived to adulthood.
During the next few years James and Ellen traveled in New England, New York State, and Canada, holding meetings and encouraging new converts in the faith. Because of the primitive traveling conditions at the time, for five years they left their eldest son, Henry, in care of the Stockbridge Howland family,4 fellow Adventists in Topsham, Maine.
In late 1848 God instructed Ellen in vision that her husband should begin a paper.5 It would take James, who had no money and little formal education, until the following July to launch the fledgling church’s first paper, Present Truth. 6 That was not the only time God spoke through Ellen to move the young church forward. Despite not always knowing how best to proceed, there is no evidence that James ever responded, “Oh, no! Not another vision!” To the contrary, he served as his wife’s champion, defender, and publisher.
In time, Present Truth gave way to the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, known today as theAdventist Review. Again, Ellen supported the new enterprise. Once when James came home totally discouraged because he did not have enough money to bring out the next issue of the paper, she retrieved a hidden sock full of coins that she had carefully saved for some future emergency. There was just enough to meet the crisis.7
Life Not Always Easy
In 1852 James and Ellen moved to Rochester, New York. Living conditions were very primitive as they continued working together to advance the church. They rented a house for $175 a year. With having the new printing press in their living room and boarding several of the young workers, the couple could hardly have had life easy.
From Rochester, in 1855 the Whites moved the press to Battle Creek, Michigan. There they owned their first home. During the years that followed they continued working as a team, with James preaching in the morning and Ellen speaking in the afternoon. The Whites were sometimes challenged by critical church members. In fact, even their children—particularly their second son, Edson—at times proved challenging. Ellen often found herself in the role of mediator between father and son. Edson’s sometimes rebellious personality was in marked contrast to that of his younger brother, Willie, who tended to be more obedient.
During his life James White suffered at least five strokes, beginning in 1865.8 Each time, Ellen did all within her power to nurse her ailing husband back to health. When his treatments at the health institute in Dansville, New York, to which she had taken him did not agree with what she thought he needed, she took him home to Battle Creek.9 Later they went to Greenville, Michigan.10 Not wanting James to remain inactive, Ellen informed their neighbors that when her invalid husband asked for their help to bring in his hay crop, they were to say that they were too busy to help him. Ellen then pitched the hay up onto the wagon while James loaded it and drove the team of horses.11 Sometime earlier she made a footpath in the snow so that he could go for a walk by stepping in her footsteps.12 Slowly James’s health returned. She rejoiced when once again he was well enough to be back in the pulpit preaching.
Through the years the two prayed together, sometimes even selecting a grove of trees near their home for united prayer times. They generously donated their funds. Ellen White stated in 1885 that she and James had donated $30,000 to God’s work.13 They traveled by horse, buggy, boat, and stagecoach, and they crisscrossed the United States several times by train. They spoke in schoolhouses, tents, groves, churches, barns, at camp meetings, and in people’s homes. They also established institutions, wrote articles for the journals James started, and even went camping together in Colorado. In the early days while stopping for lunch, James sometimes wrote articles using the top of his stovepipe hat for a desk while Ellen prepared their meal.
Although they did not always agree on everything, their love and respect for each other coupled with their shared goal of preparing people to meet Jesus outweighed any disagreements. However, when James got the idea in 1878 to lead a caravan of wagons from Texas to Colorado, Ellen was less than thrilled. But despite her reservations, she went along to prepare the beds each evening, as well as fix the meals. Even so, drenching rains did nothing to enhance the trip for her or anyone else!14
Music was an important part of James and Ellen’s shared ministry. In their home, singing often accompanied family worships. Additionally, James compiled four of the earliest hymnbooks used by Adventist pioneers.15 On one occasion James was presiding at a General Conference session. Things were difficult. Wanting to lift the people’s spirits, he asked his wife to join him, and together they sang a duet that successfully achieved his goal.16 In more ways than one theirs was a team effort.
From 1873 through 1876 James White suffered several more strokes. They greatly altered his moods, so much so that he decided to go alone on a speaking tour while Ellen stayed at home in Oakland, California, where they then lived.17
Although Ellen did not understand all that was causing her husband’s behavior, her letters reveal a woman still very much in love with him. And revealing James’s high regard for the messages God sometimes gave his wife for him is the fact that after admonishing her in a letter not to write him any of her mere wifely advice, he told her that if God gave her a message for him, she should send it! Desperately ill as James was at the time, he recognized his deep need of divine help, so he did not want his wife to withhold any special messages from him. Even so, several different times during the intervening years until his death, James and Ellen found it best to work separately, followed by periods of combined endeavors.
Despite James’s erratic behavior resulting from his strokes, his love for his wife never wavered. In 1874 he urged their son Willie to get his mother what she needed. “Take the tenderest care of your dear mother. . . . Do not consent to her economical ideas, leading you to pinch along.” Always generous with others, Ellen was quite frugal when it came to spending money on herself.18 Similarly, Ellen expressed her loving concern for James. In 1878, after leaving him to vacation in Colorado while she attended some camp meetings, she wrote to him: “Our writing can be done in the winter. Lay it aside now. Throw off every burden, and be a carefree boy again. . . . Roam about, camp out, fish, hunt, go to places that you have not seen, rest as you go, and enjoy everything. Then come back to your work fresh and vigorous.” 19
A Worthy Example
About a year before James’s death from malaria20 on Sabbath afternoon, August 6, 1881, he wrote about Ellen: “She has been my crown of rejoicing.”21 James died just four days following his sixtieth birthday. When someone suggested to Ellen that a broken shaft monument be used to represent her husband’s life, she refused, feeling that it would dishonor his remarkable achievements.22 They had weathered the storms of life, and nothing but death could sever their bond. Now, 130 years after James’s death, his and Ellen’s marriage still provides a worthy example of service to the church they helped found.
1 “Interview With Mrs. E. G. White, RE Early Experiences,” Aug. 13, 1906. White Estate Document File 733c. The date of this interview was just days following the twenty-fifth anniversary of James White’s death, which occurred on August 6, 1881.
2 James White, Life Incidents, in Connection With the Great Advent Movement, as Illustrated by the Three Angels of Revelation XIV (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press, Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1868), vol. 1, p. 96.
3 Marriage certificate for James and Ellen White, Ellen G. White Estate, main office.
4 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, 1827-1862 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), p. 153.
5 Ellen G. White, Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 125.
6 A. L. White, p. 167.
7 Ibid., p. 272.
8 Gerald Wheeler, James White, Innovator and Overcomer (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 2003), p. 216.
9 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Progressive Years, 1862-1876 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1986), pp. 118-127.
10 The correct spelling is “Greenville,” not “Greeneville.”
11 A. L. White, The Progressive Years, pp. 166, 167, 172, 186, 188, 189.
12 Ibid., p. 161.
13 Ellen G. White manuscript 35, 1885.
14 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years, 1876-1891 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 1984), pp. 107-112.
15 Virgil Robinson, James White (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 1976), p. 146.
16 William A. Spicer, Pioneer Days of the Advent Movement (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), pp. 163, 164.
17 A. L. White, The Progressive Years, pp. 442-445.
18 James White to W. C. White, July 5, 1874, in A. L. White, The Progressive Years, pp. 439, 440.
19 Ellen White to James White and children (letter 1, 1878), quoted in A. L. White, The Lonely Years, pp. 94, 95.
20 Telegram from Dr. J. H. Kellogg to W. C. White. Filed in White Estate Document File 720.
21 Life Sketches: Ancestry, Early Life, Christian Experience, and Extensive Labors of Elder James White, and His Wife, Ellen G. White (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1880), p. 126.
22 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), book 1, p. 105.
James R. Nix is director of the Ellen G. White Estate, located at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.