January 18, 2024

In the Beginning

A cause, a movement, a people, and a “little paper”

Merle Poirier

To tell the story of the Review is to reveal the beginnings of a movement and the people who gave their lives to its cause, because they are inextricably intertwined. James White was born into a farming family in Maine in 1821. James was a sickly child; an illness resulted in his eyes becoming crossed. While he attempted to attend school, all efforts to learn to read were useless. He was eventually sent home to work the farm.

White was a strapping farmboy of six feet, giving his father much support in the field. Miraculously, in his late teens his eyes became uncrossed, and at age 19 he enrolled himself in the local school. The tall, muscular teen must have looked odd seated among the smaller pupils, but there he sat, determined to make up for lost time. His tenacity, later revealed as a strong personality trait, caused him to finish his entire elementary education in 12 weeks. At the end of the term the teacher not only awarded him a certificate of completion, but one that stated he was qualified to teach!

James took a job as a schoolteacher the following year. In addition, he enrolled in a Methodist school to complete his high school education, where he spent 29 weeks with his eyes set on college. When he was one semester away from completion, his life took an unexpected turn. Little did he know then that this would be the end of his formal education—totaling less than a year.

An Adventist meeting in 1842 convinced him that Jesus was returning soon. He vowed to do his part in warning others. Embarking on a preaching circuit in Maine, White traveled through the hot days of summer and cold days of winter, sometimes wearing only a thin jacket and riding a sick and weary horse. He went from schoolhouse to schoolhouse, where in four months it was reported that 1,000 people had joined the movement because of his efforts.

He met Ellen Harmon, a young woman with a prophetic gift. He believed in her visions and accompanied her from place to place until rumors began to circulate that what they were doing was dishonorable. She needed him and he her, so the obvious solution was to marry, which they did in 1846. In 1848 his wife gave him a message from God to publish a “little paper.” By the summer of 1849, we find him pondering the important message to write in the paper he would call The Present Truth.

The Burden of Publishing

It wasn’t easy. He was not only the writer, but the publisher and the shipping and production manager. Eight-mile walks one way took the material to the printer in Middletown, Connecticut, with subsequent walks to bring the little paper back to Rocky Hill. There the small group prayed over the first 1,000 copies, then folded and hand-addressed them, with James again walking the eight miles to put them in the mail.

The Present Truth gave way eventually to a revised publication with a new name, the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, with a new intentionality to carry specifically Sabbathkeeping Adventist truth. It was free, but readers were encouraged to give what they could. The financial burden and sometimes critical letters from readers often threatened to keep the publication from continuing. Six times James vowed to quit publishing, but each time God intervened, and he was told to continue.

In 1851 the Whites moved to Saratoga Springs, New York, taking the publishing business with them. A young woman, Annie Smith, sent in a poem for publication. Intrigued, James offered her a position at the paper. Smith would go on to manage the paper, allowing James and Ellen White to travel on preaching circuits. But the burden of the publishing work took its toll on James.

“We are unusually well, all but myself,” he wrote. “I cannot long endure the labors of traveling and the care of publishing. Wednesday night we worked until two o’clock in the morning, folding and wrapping No. 12 of the Review and Herald; then I retired and coughed till daylight. Pray for me. The cause is prospering gloriously. Perhaps the Lord will not have need of me longer, and will let me rest in the grave. I hope to be free from the paper. I have stood by it in extreme adversity; and now when its friends are many, I feel free to leave it, if someone can be found who will take it. I hope my way will be made clear. May the Lord direct.”1 

“U. S.”

That someone was found in Uriah Smith, who in 1853, at age 21, came to work for the Review office. His first job was learning to operate the hand press. By 1854 he was a member of the publishing committee, and had added the jobs of proofreader, mailing clerk, shipping clerk, treasurer, cashier, bookkeeper, and sometimes editor. In 1855, after the move to Battle Creek, Michigan, James relinquished his role because of failing health. Smith became the “resident editor” at age 23, with five “corresponding editors”—J. N. Andrews, James White, J. H. Waggoner, R. F. Cottrell, and Stephen Pierce.

“I do not enter upon this position for ease, or comfort, or worldly profit, for I have seen by my connection with the Review thus far, that neither of these were to be found here. But there are burdens to be borne, there are sacrifices to be made, and it becomes us each in the light of present truth, willingly and cheerfully to do what we can in the cause of God,” wrote Uriah Smith in his first issue as editor (known for the next 50 years as “U. S.”).2

In the beginning the work of editor was strictly volunteer. James White summed up the role in 1856 writing about Smith:

“It is all hurry, hurry, hurry with the Editor. He has no time to rest, or to be cheered and refreshed by visiting Christian friends, and looking out upon new scenery; but he must be shut up to his task, and grow pale, and hurry on towards the grave. One who served you five years, but just escaped the grave, with his life, and now (having taken leave of his editorial post) is fast recovering his health and former freedom of spirits. He can feel for our present Editor, as he knows his cares, his confinement, his sacrifices, while shut up to his duties fifteen hours of the twenty-four.”3 Three years later Smith was paid $5 a week for his work as editor. White resumed editorship in 1861, serving until 1864, when he again lightened his load by returning the editorship to Smith. This seesawing back and forth between the two would continue until James died in 1881.

1 James White to Stockbridge Howland, Feb. 20, 1852, in Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), p. 141.

2 Review and Herald, Dec. 4, 1855.

3 Review and Herald, Dec. 11, 1856.