Reaching Blacks in the Deep South
THIS IS the story of an intrepid pioneer, of a riverboat named Morning Star, and of the remarkable ministry of James E. White and his associates among black people in the South. BY NORMAN G. SIMONS
A bout the turn of the century a man decided that God’s mission for him in life was to evangelize Negroes in Mississippi. A bearded dreamer, carpenter, printer, riverboat captain, organizer, author, artist, teacher, and preacher, he chose a steamboat as an evangelistic instrument and black Mississippi as his parish. Before his work ended, he had established scores of churches and schools, a publishing house, a missionary society, and a hospital as monuments to his dedicated enterprise. His name was James Edson White, “J.E.” to his friends.
Following the traumatic years of the Civil War and Reconstruction, blacks found themselves destitute, without educational opportunities, ostracized, and segregated. It was a bleak outlook. At this time James Edson White’s mother, Ellen G. White, issued a series of papers calling upon Christians to do something about the situation. In her efforts to stir her contemporaries she related the “church-colored” relationship to the Jewish churchman’s attitude toward the unfortunate on the Jericho road.
J.E. had engaged in early life in a number of enterprises-some of them unsuccessful-until in 1893 he discovered a soiled copy of his mother’s manuscript dealing with the needs of the colored people in the Southern states. In a few days he had inflamed his soul with the conviction this was his God-given calling, and he began to dream how he might play his part. He thought of a steamboat.
The Morning Star was built for stress out of heavy white oak timbers and planking obtained in trade for a lot in the spring of 1893. It was painted white, with a large star just above the pilothouse. Rooms were designed for living quarters for workers, a print shop provided, and a chapel arranged by hanging an awning over a section of the deck.
When it was completed, Edson White, his wife, and several workers set forth under tow by the steamer Bon Ami to cross Lake Michigan. A gale developed; and heavy waves battered the Morning Star, at times making them despair of completing the crossing. The stormy Michigan voyage was a forecast of the turbulent years ahead as the determined Edson White and his little band sought to lead ex-slaves to Jesus Christ.
In The Gospel Herald, May, 1905, he summed up the trip south by saying, “After various experiences and vicissitudes, the boat reached its destination at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on the tenth of January .”
Vicksburg still bore the scars of war. The open trenches and fortifications were still raw. Cannonballs and the debris of war still littered the ground. The population was still sensitive to “outsiders” and foreign doctrines, but there God had sent J. E., and there he went.
The evangelistic formula was this: They would visit the churches and invite the members to attend religious services on the Morning Star. A church on a steamboat was different, and it attracted all classes. Well-attended meetings were conducted at every community where the boat could dock: Vicksburg, Bruce’s Landing, Calmar, Joe’s Walk, Palo Alto, and Yazoo City all heard the gospel.
As soon as baptisms occurred, a need for church buildings developed. Using funds derived from the sale of his books and money contributed by sympathetic Christians in the North, the little band led by J. E. White and F. W. Halladay helped members build simple chapels.
One of the most potent instruments in J.E.’s arsenal was his gifted pen. He wrote The Gospel Primer, which sold for twenty-five cents. One half of this amount went to the book salesman. Thousands of the little volumes were sold and became in the early years Pastor White’s primary source of income. Later he authored The Coming King, which was a best seller of religious literature.
The printshop featured two steam presses, and with them he produced The Gospel Herald. Regularly The Gospel Herald told of the advances of the Mississippi steamboat mission, advertised White’s books, and appealed for funds. The boat also served as the first headquarters of the Southern Missionary Society.
The Morning Star pioneered in many phases of social service. During the heavy floods that plagued the Mississippi Valley the big steamboat volunteered for rescue operations, bringing in refugees and animals from flooded lowlands and buildings.
J.E. was appalled by the tremendous human need. Most of the people in the delta lived in primitive shacks. One could see the ground through cracks in the floor or the stars through openings in the wall. Battered shutters served for windows. Hunger and poverty were a common lot. He appealed to churches and individuals in the North for food and clothing for the destitute, and the response came in the form of barrels of clothing, meal, flour, and molasses. These were distributed to the needy.
Mississippi was a part of the “Cotton Belt,” which was dedicated to one-crop farming. Through the pages of The Gospel Herald, J. E. White urged diversified farming and insisted on the development of large gardens to provide for much of the family food needs.
He brought in seed-beans, potatoes, and corn. He provided in some communities for the first time strawberry, cherry, and grape plants, and suggested keeping a hive or two of bees. Often revenues from his book were held up or not forthcoming, and J.E. and his family shared the poverty of the area. In later years he developed pellagra, a nutritional condition that produces dark scales on the hands. On one of his itineraries to the churches he wore gloves constantly, fearful lest his illness be contagious.
White saw the need for schools, and before he left the South, more than fifty had been established. In the early years he recruited many concerned white teachers. Later, as he encountered racial difficulties, he sought Negro teachers. Some of the latter group who began as teachers later became pastors and evangelists, as Frank Bryant, T. Murphy, M. C. Strachan, and F. Warnick.
In recent weeks, two persons who were converted under the ministry of the Morning Star met in Nashville: Mrs. Cynthia Gertrude Johnson Millet (the mother of the editor of THE MESSAGE MAGAZINE)’ now eighty-two years of age, and Mrs. Naomi Emily Warnick Simons, seventy eight, the mother of the writer of this article, the administrator of Riverside Hospital. Both vividly recall the personalities, sacrifices, and triumphs of those pioneer days.
Mrs. Naomi Warnick Simons, a daughter of one of the early teacher-pastors, Franklin Warnick, was baptized by the Morning Star ministers in the Cumberland River at the foot of Broadway Street in Nashville, in 1903.
As churches already established began to resent the evangelistic efforts of the Morning Star team, rumors were circulated to raise racial alarm in the white community. The Edson White group was accused of being Northerners and agitators who advocated social reform. Nor was his cause made more popular by his preaching the Seventh-day Adventist doctrines. From that time the work was done under the cloud of duress and persecution.
Mrs. Cynthia Johnson Millet was one of two Negro schoolgirls who lived for a time in the Vicksburg home of Pastor and Mrs. Fred R. Rogers. Because of this, Pastor and Mrs. Rogers were labeled as opponents of segregation. They suffered indignities and threats for their kindnesses to their black parishioners.
Ultimately the Rogers family moved on, after providing black ministers, such as Pastors Dancer and F. Warnick, to carry on the Morning Star ministry. They too worked under adverse circumstances, but they were faithful in their tasks in spite of a rising tide of resentment.
Pastors Dancer and Warnick built a chapel in Lintonia, a black suburb of Yazoo City. The church was built section by section on the Morning Star landing; then it was taken to the site and bolted together, without the sound of nail or hammer, a forerunner of the “prefab” building.
It was soon decided that, because of the opposition, White and his associates should leave the Vicksburg Yazoo City area and take the Morning Star to a city with a more favorable social climate. Nashville, Tennessee, was chosen; and in a few weeks the steamer was brought up the Cumberland River and anchored at Edgefield Junction. There in a fine farming community, Morning Star’s ministry was continued.
Not too long after the arrival in Tennessee, a leak developed; and in thirty-six hours the boat sank in ten feet of water. A diver from Cincinnati was obtained, and at a cost recalled as $300 or $400 the boat was raised.
One of its last major trips was on June 8, 1904, when the Morning Star steamed proudly up the Cumberland with a passenger group consisting of Ellen G. White, P. T. Magan, E. A. Sutherland, and James Edson White. On this trip they located the property for Madison College [now Madison Academy] and Madison Hospital. In 1905, the Morning Star, after an illustrious career in public service and evangelism, caught fire on a bend of the river near the Bordeaux bridge on Clarksville Highway and burned to the waterline. The boiler was salvaged and used in the Rock City Sanitarium.
James Edson White died in 1929. Some said he was an eccentric, a dreamer, hard to get along with, and a generator of too many projects; but he was also a chosen instrument of God to pioneer gospel ministry among a then despised and neglected minority. He was a forerunner of a religious movement which now involves more than 70,000 black American members in approximately 440 Seventh-day Adventist churches across the land. God signally blessed his ministry, and scores of churches and schools, The Southern Missionary Society, the Southern Publishing Association, and the Rock City Sanitarium, as well as thousands won to Christ, owe a tremendous debt to the courage, vision, and determination of this valiant man of God.