The primary force behind the organizational formation of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination himself came from a denomination that resisted organization, but today’s Seventh-day Adventist church has his fingerprints even today. James White: Innovator and Overcomer by Gerald Wheeler, examines the life and times of one of the three main founders of the church whose drive was both a blessing and a curse.
Beginning and ending this biography at the funeral of James White, Wheeler highlights an important theme throughout White’s life, his seemingly paradoxical personality that drove him to everything he could for the church he helped to found but that could also cause friction with others from coworkers, friends, and family. Wheeler then shifts to White’s early life in Maine, a tough place that made tough people who endured the harsh climate of the area. Though encouraged to just become a farmer though he yearned for education, White became convinced the message of William Miller and soon felt the call to preacher the 1844 message while becoming accredited with the Christian Connection, whose views would influence him for years and decades to come. After the Great Disappointment, White was among those who believed something occurred on October 22 but shied away from the fanaticism of others through he was drawn to the encouraging visions of Ellen Harmon and began escorting her to various groups of Millerites before social conventions led the two to wed. The couple along with others, most notably Joseph Bates and Hiram Edson, began development the theological underpinnings of the future Seventh-day Adventist church and Ellen’s encouragement lead to White beginning ‘Review and Herald’ which would eventually place White at the forefront of the movement and eventually the main proponent of organization for almost a decade before it became a reality. Once organized, White wanted others to lead the church with him—famously refusing to become the denomination’s first president—but given his drive for its creation and want of its success he wasn’t the easiest to work with and would butt heads with many in the final 20 years of his life that grew worse as his many strokes would magnify his personality’s positive and negative traits. Throughout his endeavors with the church, Wheeler described White’s personally frugal nature that would make him squeeze out all he could with his money for himself and his family while at the same time being generous to less fortunate believes and church institutions. Though busy running two to three periodicals and a newly formed church, White was a business man and real estate investor so as to provide himself and family economic security but this led to accusations that he enriched himself with church funds that dogged him even after his passing.
In almost 250 pages of text and references, Wheeler provided an eye-opening look into the life of James White through the use of White’s own autobiography but also letters written by himself and others as well as other sources from individuals who knew him throughout his life. Wheeler fleshes out James White into a real person that like us today had strengths and flaws that he used and dealt with his entire life while getting closer and closer to Christ, something every Adventist—or any Christian—should identify with today. Though information and use of primary sources is excellent, the structure Wheeler used in the book was sometimes questionable. While the not so strictly chronological layout of the chapters was fine, some of the content of the chapters resulted in several short chapters that could have been merged into other chapters to make the book flow better to the reader.
James White: Innovator and Overcomer is a very good book for those Adventists looking to learn about one of the three founders of the church. Gerald Wheeler helps take White from being a picture on the wall, or book cover, and make him flesh-and-bone man who struggled just like us today with strengths and flaws. I highly recommend this for those interested in SDA church history.