William White was born on 11 February 1794, at Ingleton, County Durham, England, the elder son of Francis White and his wife, Hannah Walker. He became a carpenter by trade and a Wesleyan lay preacher. In 1822 he was ordained and sent to New Zealand to help the Reverend Samuel Leigh establish the first Wesleyan mission.
White sailed for Australia in the Deveron in February 1822, and arrived in New Zealand on 16 May 1823, bringing with him in the St Michael stores for the mission station at Whangaroa. Leigh retired ill to Sydney almost immediately, leaving White in charge of the mission. Because of the unsettled situation created among the Māori by the sacking of the Boyd at Whangaroa, the site proved difficult and finally untenable. Not only was Māori interest directed more towards the mission store than to the Christian message but a further vessel, the Mercury, was plundered. White's uncompromising nature and choleric temper produced conflicts with the Māori which his colleagues believed were avoidable. He sought an alternative location, a quest that in 1825 made him possibly the first European to penetrate the central Waikato region.
In early 1826 White returned to England to seek a wife. During his absence the Whangaroa mission station was abandoned because of intertribal fighting. A new station was established in 1827 at Mangungu, Hokianga, under the protection of Patuone and Nene. White, having married Eliza Leigh, at Bluntisham, Huntingdonshire, on 30 June 1829, returned on 30 January 1830 and took up his appointment as superintendent of this station. He later established stations at Kāwhia, Whāingaroa (Raglan), Kaipara and Manukau.
Hokianga had become the main centre for the exploitation of kauri timber. The Europeans involved, considered unworthy individuals by the missionaries, competed strenuously for land and timber. White involved himself in this competition by yielding to the pleas for help from young Māori tribal leaders fearful of losing all their land. He forestalled Europeans by purchasing land, which he then returned to the Māori by an arrangement that allowed them to saw timber on mission land and sell it through his agency; the money thus raised was used to refund White's purchase price. He encouraged acceptable Europeans to settle near the mission and allowed them access to the mission store. Outraged by what they considered unfair competition, the majority of Europeans rallied behind Lieutenant Thomas McDonnell, at adjacent Hōreke, who had the largest establishment and store in the area. White's own colleagues resented the commercialising of the mission, particularly as work at the saw-pits diverted them from preaching. They also disliked his personality.
The conflict with McDonnell and his followers came to a head in 1836. White used his influence to prevent McDonnell from obtaining proper title to a large tract of land at the Kaipara that was to be offered by him to the New Zealand Company for settlement. He also sought to put an end to the importation of ardent spirits, often a potent factor in bringing about land sales. To enforce this McDonnell was persuaded to use his authority as Additional British Resident, but when he refused to search European huts, White threatened to draw up his own code of laws and exact European obedience with Māori force and authority. McDonnell believed that White was instigating Nene to have him arrested and sent for trial in Hobart, Tasmania; he himself appealed unsuccessfully for soldiers to be sent.
Reluctantly the British Resident at the Bay of Islands, James Busby, agreed to adjudicate. However, only White, with 500 Māori at his back, arrived at two appointed meetings. McDonnell stayed at home and fired off his big naval guns. Then McDonnell set up a committee of sawyers and his own employees to inquire into allegations of adultery made against White by Māori women. White was declared guilty and subsequently his own colleagues provided affidavits from mission sources along similar lines. Meanwhile White, recalled to England, left New Zealand on 28 July 1836.
The Wesleyan authorities decided in March 1838 to dismiss White from both the ministry and the mission, on the grounds of excessive commercial activity and misapplication of mission property. These activities, although not strictly in accordance with his standing instructions, were probably those least open to criticism if regard was had to Māori interests. Criticisms of his personal temperament were endorsed; on the adultery charges the evidence was persuasive in some cases, though inconclusive.
While in England awaiting a decision on his future, White was taken up by the New Zealand Company as an expert on emigration prospects. He warmly supported the company until he perceived what he believed was Edward Gibbon Wakefield's hidden agenda of self-aggrandisement and separation of the Māori from their land. On his return to New Zealand in December 1838 White did all he could to discourage the sale of land to the company, including an unsuccessful attempt to forestall the Taranaki purchase.
Back at Hokianga, White took up residence next to the mission, continued to preach, and remained a figure of considerable consequence to the Māori at Hokianga and Kaipara as both consultant and trader. When his nephew became the Wesleyan missionary at Kaipara, White assisted him and facilitated land sales to the Albertlanders and other settlers. His commercial interests never recovered from the blow suffered when, on 27 April 1840, the Aurora was lost on the bar at the entrance to the Kaipara Harbour with his cargo of timber and he was lucky to escape with his life.
William White died at Auckland on 25 November 1875; he was survived by his wife, Eliza, and two sons. In 1845 Eliza White took refuge in Auckland during the northern war. She took a prominent role in religious and charitable movements, becoming president of the Ladies' Christian Association.