Edson White stood in the doorway of the large, bare room staring at the papers strewn across the floor. He stooped down to pick up a faded carbon sheet. The painter had been right. Scrawled across the page in his mother’s familiar handwriting were the words “Our Duty to the Coloured People”.
“This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!” he said to himself. He began darting around the room gathering up all the dispersed sheets of paper and putting them in order. When he was done he sat down on the floor and began to read.
The discovery was providential. A short while ago he had been in Chicago enmeshed in a failing business and drowning in debt. His spiritual life had been a farce; filled with apathy and doubt. His mother had written him a moving letter in June of 1893 which struck on chord in his heart. Two months later he reconsecrated his life to God.
He then began to cast about for something to do. Where to next? Being a restless visionary he longed for a new project. He began to pray earnestly for direction and soon a vision began to crystallize in his mind. It seemed that everywhere he turned he was presented with the needs of the black people in the deep south and he wanted to meet at least some of those needs.
During this time he reconnected with Will Palmer. Palmer, like Edson, was somewhat of a maverick and restless visionary. Edson once described him as the wildest son of old brother Palmer. Edson shared his recent experiences with Palmer and outlined his vision to go south in order to reach the black population there. Palmer was interested and the two began to plan and pray. Talking about the process Edson wrote to his mother “I have taken for my consolation in these matters the words of the saviour in John 16:13, in speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit, “he Shall guide you” I am relying fully on that and intend to do so. If I can keep my mind there, I have no fears of being left to run wild in the work I shall try to do for the master.”
Edson asked his mother if she had written any testimonies on the subject of work among the black people and she assured him that she had but neither of them could get their hands on a copy. Then one day, while having a casual conversation with one of the painters at the Review and Herald office, he mentioned his desire to work on behalf of the African American people in the deep south. The painter told him that he should read the tract he had recently seen about it.
“I’m sure it was something written by your mother,” the man said. Edson looked at him with interest “Oh really? Where did you see it?” he asked. “Oh I’ve just seen it strewn about on the floor up there in one of the rooms just above the office,” the man said. Leaving him Edson bounded up the stairs and made his discovery.
Reading the testimony Ellen White had written several years prior titled “Our Duty to The Coloured People” Edson’s heart began to pound in his chest. In one section, she had written “White men and white women should be qualifying themselves to work among the coloured people. Christians, will not, cannot, live in luxury and self-indulgence while there are suffering ones around them. They cannot by their practice sanction any phase of oppression or injustice to the least child of humanity…The black man’s name is written in the book of life beside the white man’s. All are one in Christ. Birth, station, nationality or colour cannot elevate or degrade men. The character makes the man. Those who slight a brother because of his colour are slighting Christ.”
Holding the papers in his hand Edson left the room his mind whirling. He showed the testimony to Will Palmer and they fully committed themselves to work in the south.
First, they decided to build a steamboat which would carry them down the Mississippi River and act as a mobile office, printing press, classroom, and church. Edson developed the idea of printing and publishing a book entitled the gospel primer. The book could generate income for their project while acting as the coalface of the mission by providing African American people with basic literacy skills and a simple biblical message.
Soon the boat and the book were finished and the missionaries were ready to set sail. They christened the vessel “The Morningstar” and ran it down the Kalamazoo River to Saugatuck. From Saugatuck, a lake boat towed them across Lake Michigan to Chicago. Emma White, Edson’s wife and Will Palmer’s wife were on board the lake boat with the captain while Edson and his crew were on board The Morning Star. They ran into a terrible storm as they crossed the lake and those on board the lake boat watched the little riverboat tossed across the choppy waters of Lake Michigan. They fought against the storm for 14 hours trying to keep the shallow hulled, flat bottomed river boat afloat. Brother Reed, an old-time Lake Captain accompanied them on the trip to Chicago and after they had managed to weather the storm and dock safely at the pier he said: “It was the power of God alone that saved your boat last night!”
The little party proceeded south trusting the same hand that had brought them thus far to safely guide them the rest of the way. The south was a volatile field in the 1870s. President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and put an end to slavery but many in the south still held on to prejudices that ran deep. If anyone dared to open a new school or a church servicing black people the building was torched. But Edson White and Will Palmer were undaunted.
They first docked at Vicksburg and set about working in the town but they met with considerable opposition. Two days into building a new church in Vicksburg they realised that they needed a building permit. Will went down to the town council office to apply for one but the gentleman issuing the permits initially refused to give him one when he heard that the building was a church for black folk. Then, after a moment’s consideration, he changed his mind and offered to issue the permit if they could get at least two neighbours to give their written consent to the project. Edson and Palmer managed to get the signatures and the work continued.
Finances were tight and they struggled to finance the building. Initially, Edson and a few others had pledged their own money towards the project but those funds began to dry up sooner than expected. Word got around that they needed more money and soon donations came pouring in from all quarters. The General Conference, The Battle Creek Church, the workers at the Pacific Press, John Kellogg and others all sent in various sums of money to help them meet their target.
The work gathered momentum and spread rapidly across the southern field. School and churches sprang up in Vicksburg, Yazoo City, Lintonia and Palo Alto. Sadly they faced a lot of opposition as well.
In Redwood, Mississippi, Franklin Warwick leapt from a train to escape a lynch mob that had gathered to kill him. In Calmer, Mississippi N.V. Olvin was whipped and his wife was shot at because of their commitment to educate and evangelise African American people in the south.
Around 1895 Edson White established the Southern Missionary Society. The purpose of the society was to carry the Principles of Christian Education to the people of the south. In 1898 he launched the Gospel Herald Magazine and printed the first eight issues aboard the morning star. Later the southern field would see the addition of a food company, a sanitarium and a clinic and by 1908 there were 28 Adventist Mission Schools with a total of 1000 pupils.
In many ways, Edson White was the black sheep of his family. For years he struggled to pull himself together but at the age of 44 he gave his life to God and raised up an entire mission field from scratch. He was a visionary, an entrepreneur, an educator, a publisher, a writer and above all a man deeply devoted to the work of God. When you look at the life of Edson White you realise that nothing is impossible, not when you choose to give yourself wholeheartedly to God.