When Ellen White was in Australia she had a vision about her son Edson. In the vision, she was shown Edson and a group of his friends frolicking in the waves at the beach front. As the young men laughed playfully together they began to get bolder and bolder and venture further out into the ocean. A group of onlookers had gathered on the beach to gawk and point. As Ellen White watched, the waves rose higher and rushed towards the knot of young men only to break just out of reach and sweep back out to the ocean with a sullen roar.
Someone placed a hand on Ellen White’s shoulder and said to her “isn’t that your son Edson? He can’t hear your voice but he can see you gesturing to him. Tell him to come at once for he will not disobey his mother.” Upon hearing that Ellen White shouted with all her strength “You have not a moment to lose! The undertow! The undertow!”
Writing about the episode to Edson in a letter Ellen White said: “I knew that once you were in the power of the treacherous undertow no human power could avail.” As the vision continued Ellen White saw that a strong rope was fastened around the body of a strong young man who set out to save Edson, risking his own voice and battling the jostling waves. The dream broke off when Ellen White was awoken as she heard a fearful shriek from her son. Immediately waking up she prayed for Edson and then wrote to him. One of the most jarring and yet poignant sentences in that letter is this; “the undertow; what does it represent? It represents the power of Satan and a set, independent, stubborn will of your own which has reached even against God. You have not preserved a surrender to God.”
The letter marked a permanent turning point in Edson White’s life and the beginning of a long and fruitful ministry to the African American people in the deep south of America.
But why was Ellen White give such a dream about her son in the first place? It is natural to assume that as the son of a prophet and a Seventh-Day Adventist minister Edson White would have been naturally spiritual. But this was not the case. Edson White was far from a model child or even a model young adult. Most likely the pressure that came with having both his parents so prominently and actively involved in the shaping and establishment of an entire movement was not easy to manage. Then there was the multitude of other factors; Edson’s brother Henry died suddenly at the age of 16, James White had several strokes and had passed away quite suddenly as well, James and Ellen White travelled continuously and extensively throughout Edson’s childhood and he and his brothers were constantly in the public eye. All of these factors would have added stress to an already challenging set of life circumstances.
Growing up Edson was somewhat of a black sheep. Ellen White worried about him frequently. He had a problem with lying and also with handling finances. His behaviour would at times cause rifts between his parents who had differing views on how he should be dealt with. His financial mismanagement extended to instances when he would trade in his parents’ names only to have his business go bankrupt. He would then skip town leaving James and Ellen White to pick up his bills and clean up his mess. James White was happy to take a hard line and just let him go to court but Ellen White would bail him out and give him a second chance.
After the death of James, White things went from bad to worse. Edson had a quarrel with the Review and Herald over royalties and it was during this time that he wrote to his mother to tell her that he was not at all religiously inclined. Ellen White wrote to him pleadingly, asking him to return to the Lord, telling him that she had seen heaven and that it was real. Ellen White had a warm relationship with Edson’s wife Emma and would write to Emma pleading with her to show Edson her letters and to keep him from burning them.
After reading Ellen White’s letter about the undertow, the 44-year-old Edson had a complete change of heart. He accepted Jesus as his personal saviour and turned his life around. Shortly after this in an old abandoned room in the Review and Herald offices Edson discovered testimonies his mother had written regarding the work that needed to be done in the South. Inspired by this he decided to do something about it. Galvanised to action he raised funds, bought a little steamboat and sailed it down to the Mississippi River into the deep south. Although slavery had been abolished in the 1860s tensions still ran high in the south in the 1870s and it was still a largely untapped field of labour for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Edson used his boat, The Morning Star to provide access to free education for the African American People in the South and he used that as an inroad to share the gospel with them. His idea for using a boat which doubled as a church and schoolroom was a stroke of genius, especially at a time when Churches and Schools set up for African American people were frequently set alight and burned to the ground. During his time in the field, he helped to establish around 15 schools, a publishing house and a sanitarium.
The story of Edson White is fascinating on so many levels. First, it points to the fact that even with deeply spiritual parents, children are individuals and need to have their own individual conversion experience. It also points to the fact that there is no single foolproof method for raising children that will guarantee success every time. Ellen White wrote lots of counsel on child rearing and yet she had troublesome children of her own. But there is power in prayer and faith in God. There is also power in persistence. As Edson White’s story points out we should never give up on people even when all seems lost because they may yet go on to do great things for God if we earnestly labour for them and allow the Lord to have his way.