The Ellen G. White Letters and Manuscripts: Volume 1


WHITE, James Edson (1849-1928) and (first wife) Emma L. (1848-1917) and (second wife) Rebecca (1884-1953)

Second son of James and Ellen White, James Edson White was best known for his pioneering mission work among African-Americans in the Southern states. He was also a successful author and educator. Born in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, he spent his early years in Battle Creek, Michigan. Eager for further education, Edson (he was known by his middle name) studied commercial subjects and took medical courses in New Jersey and at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, during his late teens and early 20s. At various times during this period he worked at the Review and Herald press in Battle Creek, learning the printing trade. In 1870 he married Emma McDearmon. 1EGWLM 905.2

In 1874 Edson was invited to join the staff of the soon-to-be-launched Pacific Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association in Oakland, California. Starting as a bookkeeper, he later became one of the directors. His five-year tenure at the press, however, was not a great success. His tendency toward unrealistic business expansion on borrowed money led to several financial crises for the press and to his termination in 1879 or early 1880. However, Edson White's years in California were not without their successes. His musical and printing talents combined in the compilation of two Adventist hymnals in 1878—Hymns of Praise for Use at Lectures and Revival Meetings and Song Anchor: A Choice Collection of Favorites for Sabbath School and Praise Service. Emma helped with some of the typesetting of the music. This beginning led to Edson's compiling of five further hymnals. While in California he also worked actively for the improvement and organization of Sabbath schools. In 1877 he was elected superintendent of the California State Sabbath School Society, the first such state society. Later, during the 1880s, he served several years on the executive committee of the General (International) Sabbath School Association in Battle Creek. 1EGWLM 905.3

After leaving denominational employment at the Pacific SDA Publishing Association, Edson worked mainly as an independent book publisher from 1880 to 1893, although he experienced little financial success. Toward the end of this period he went through a spiritual decline, finally declaring himself “not at all religiously inclined” in a letter to his mother in the summer of 1893. Shortly thereafter, however, Edson experienced reconversion, sold his business, and from 1895 to 1899 led an innovative mission to Mississippi, focusing on the African-American population. He established literacy classes (some taught by Emma) and schools, creating the goodwill that opened the way for churches to be established. Much of the financing for the initial venture came from the sale of The Gospel Primer, a book of Bible stories Edson wrote in 1894 that doubled as a reading primer for the schools and literacy classes. It was the first of several similar children's books White wrote during the next decade or so in order to help fund the Southern work. Some titles, such as Best Stories From the Best Book and The Gospel Primer, sold by the hundreds of thousands. He also authored major books for adults, such as The Coming King, which had similar sales and were translated into other languages. 1EGWLM 905.4

The scores of extant letters from Ellen White to her son Edson make for gripping reading. There can be little doubt that the letters of appeal and encouragement Edson received from his mother during his years of struggle in the 1880s and early 1890s were instrumental in his spiritual revival in 1893 and his return to church work. Ellen's letters to her son demonstrated “tough love,” not hesitating to point out his weaknesses (such as lack of fiscal responsibility), but all the while assuring him of her constant love and concern. 1EGWLM 906.1

Edson and Emma White had no children. In 1922, five years after Emma's death, Edson married Rebecca Landon Segerhorn (née Burrill), who had a son, Alfred B., from her previous marriage to a Mr. Segerhorn. In the early 1930s, after Edson's death, Rebecca married a Mr. Stephenson from Chico, California. 1EGWLM 906.2

See: Obituary: “James Edson White,” Review, July 5, 1928, p. 22; obituary: “Emma L. White,” Review, Aug. 30, 1917, p. 21; J. E. White to W. C. White, Oct. 11, 1873; “California State Sabbath School Society,” Review, Nov. 8, 1877, p. 151; Ellen G. White, Lt 123, 1893 (June 21). No full-length biography of Edson White has been published, but the following accounts provide useful information: Ronald D. Graybill, Mission to Black America. The True Story of Edson White and the Riverboat Morning Star (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1971); Alta Robinson, “James Edson White: Innovator,” in George R. Knight, ed., Early Adventist Educators (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1983), pp. 137-158. Regarding Rebecca's marriage to Marcus Landon, see “Items,” Canadian Union Messenger, Jan. 26, 1905, p. 15; to Segerhorn, “Rebecca M. Segerhorn,” 1920 U.S. Federal Census, California, Butte County, Chico, p. 3A; to Stephenson, “Rebecca Stephenson,” [Rebecca Burrill], California Death Index, 1940-1997 [database online], Provo, Utah, Operations, Inc., 2000. 1EGWLM 906.3