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How Former Farmers Grew Adventism in the American South and Southern Africa

Melvin and Margaret Jane Sturdevant

In 1895, an American farmer and Methodist-turned-Seventh-day-Adventist named Melvin C. Sturdevant, his wife, Margaret Jane, and their son walked off their Illinois farm and set out on a lifelong journey. The first leg of their trip took them south for several years. Responding to a call from the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, their first assignment led them to a small school in Graysville, Tennessee.1

Following their time in Tennessee, the Sturdevants crossed the Atlantic to spend most of their lives in Southern Africa. They helped plant hundreds of schools in several countries and took part in establishing the first generation of Adventists on the continent.

Until the 1890s, Adventism grew intermittently. Fewer than 70,000 members lived along the southern edge of the Great Lakes and in the state of California; very few lived outside of the United States. However, a couple of years after the 1897 reforms in Adventist education, hundreds of children from families experiencing poverty enrolled in Adventist schools.2 The Sturdevants and other couples—mostly Midwest farmers as well—spearheaded a movement that crossed the globe like a prairie fire.

Some have credited the explosive growth of Adventism at the turn of the century to leaders of the General Conference, chiefly General Conference President A. G. Daniells, who sent missionaries abroad. Richard Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, who co-wrote the official history of the Adventist Church, infer that Daniells mobilized the church for worldwide expansion.3 Their thesis reflects a well-established theory that argues “great men” provoke significant changes in human history. The Scottish historian and London Library principal founder Thomas Carlyle may have been the first to articulate the Great Man Theory. He wrote, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The theory argues that a few men with natural abilities and talents became influential leaders.4

Crediting A. G. Daniells with masterminding Adventism’s early growth overlooks many men and women indispensable to the denomination’s spread. The idea that great men are the motors that propel history pushes vital histories under the rug. It leaves hundreds of contributors forgotten in folders and drawers. Most Adventists have not heard the story of Melvin and Margaret Jane Sturdevant, their two sons who both died before adulthood, or they ways they and their students introduced thousands to the Adventist faith.

While working in the American South, the Sturdevants absorbed ideas from three distinct sources: a group of Adventist laymen operating a steamship in the Mississippi Delta; the experiments of Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama; and Ellen G. White in Avondale, Australia at the time. Drawing inspiration from each, they designed and operated schools for impoverished children. They established “manual training schools,” with curriculums that prioritized agriculture and manufacturing. New Adventist schools sprang up worldwide as pedagogical blueprints appeared in journals, personal testimonies, and books—especially Ellen White’s Education.

A few days after arriving in Graysville, Tennessee, Sturdevant got thrown in jail for cutting firewood and building a fence in his backyard. Wood cutting and fence building were not crimes, but working on Sunday was. County officials considered it disrespecting the Sabbath, an offense punishable with jail time. Sturdevant may not have known the law or he might have ignored it. Whatever the case, he landed in jail with bail set too high to get out.5

When the Sturdevants settled in Tennessee, only 555 Seventh-day Adventists lived in the southern states, making up the church’s two administrative units: the Tennessee River Conference and the Cumberland Mission. With no formal training, Sturdevant and his wife began work at a school founded and directed by self-supporting Adventist minister George W. Colcord. In March 1893, the General Conference voted to support the school that would become Graysville Academy, but most of its financing fell on Seventh-day Adventist laypeople living in Central Tennessee.6 Amid a devastating economic depression, the General Conference could not afford to give much more than moral support.

On the Sunday of Sturdevant’s arrest, the school director and eight teachers landed in jail. The school closed indefinitely. The arrests may have specifically targeted the Adventists in Graysville. Records suggest residents knew the officials enforced the law selectively. Hundreds of Graysville residents worked Sundays in the Dayton Coal and Iron Company in nearby Dayton, Tennessee. They continued working Sunday after Sunday while Sturdevant remained in jail.7 

After serving his time, Sturdevant moved the family from Graysville to Birmingham, Alabama, where he grew acquainted with the work of the Adventists in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Accounts in Edson White’s Gospel Herald guided Sturdevant’s service in Alabama.8

In Birmingham the Sturdevant family worked in the African-American community.9 The largest city in Alabama, Birmingham attracted hundreds of poor whites and Blacks into its mines and foundries. For most of the 19th century, Mobile, a city of 40,000, had been Alabama’s most prominent urban area. But after the American Civil War, Birmingham burst onto the landscape due to its plentiful iron ore. Named after the industrial city of Birmingham in England and incorporated in 1871, Birmingham’s rapid land and population growth earned it the nickname the Magic City. In 1880, 3,086 lived there. By 1890, the population exploded to 26,178.

When the Sturdevants arrived in 1895, Birmingham added new industries almost daily. Two years after they settled there, the city counted 200 industrial plants that primarily employed African-Americans, many of them formerly enslaved people or their children who had abandoned Southern cotton fields.10 By 1920, Birmingham had become the most important industrial city in the South with a population of over 180,000.11

In 1895, the General Conference granted Melvin Sturdevant a missionary license. The family gravitated toward the horrendous poverty in the city. Low wages, high rents, and the price of food set by company stores forced Birmingham’s miners and oven workers to toil long, grueling hours. Many workers arrived as prisoners, leased to the foundries by local, county, and federal prisons. Long working hours and high accident rates engendered deprivation and hunger. Segregation made life more difficult still. Black people lived in the Black section of town. They went to Black churches, sent their children to Black schools and were buried in Black cemeteries.12

Sturdevant began giving Bible readings in his home. Most Southern white people never ventured into Black communities. Although they considered African Americans good workers, they did not see them as good citizens.13 But on Bible reading nights, African American families crowded the Sturdevant home—at times over 30 workers and family members came to hear the presentations.

In the summer of 1895, General Conference President O. A. Olsen, visited the Sturdevant home and participated in one of the meetings.14 White Southerners considered helping Blacks a waste of time. However, Sturdevant worked among whites and Blacks alike.15 The work of Sturdevant and several Black and white families led to the first Seventh-day Adventist Church in Birmingham.16 

By the end of 1898, an integrated Adventist School opened in Alabama largely because of the Sturdevant family’s work. That December, Melvin Sturdevant reported to the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald:

The school work increased till it became necessary to secure another teacher; and now the burden has been rolled upon us to start a rescue home mission in the slums of our City. Accordingly, we have rented a building, and today it stands empty, waiting for money to fit it up. This we believe will be done soon; we want to open it on Christmas day.

The police tell me there are ten colored men in this City without food and shelter to one white man. The colored population here numbers from twenty to twenty-five thousand. We are greatly in need of money and clothing to help men, women, and children.17

In 1901, the Sturdevants, who had lost their son to illness in Birmingham, moved to Atlanta, Georgia, hoping to replicate their earlier work. Birmingham, Atlanta, and the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta all presented similar challenges. Located in the American Black Belt, the three areas were home to the majority of African Americans in the Deep South.18 After the Civil War Black Americans many moved out of the country into large cities like Birmingham and Atlanta.19

Writing from Atlanta, Sturdevant reported: “We hope soon to start a night school for the grown people, and a day school for the children, for the public schools are so overcrowded that hundreds cannot attend. There is an abundance of work to be done here, and we are of good courage.” 20

Atlanta’s burgeoning Black community made the city attractive to people leaving rural Georgia and to Blacks from neighboring states. Population growth allowed the founding of two African American banks in 1888 that served Atlanta’s Black-owned retail stores, grocery stores, cemeteries, and realty associations. Besides its healthy business community, the city also saw the birth of the Atlanta University Center with five institutions of higher learning for African Americans.21

During the Sturdevants’ time in Atlanta, more and more Blacks entered the middle class. Whites felt threatened by their presence. From 1890 to 1900, Georgia had the second-highest number of lynchings in the United States. During those ten years, 3,000 men and women lost their lives to lynchings. The white population’s inability to reconcile their Black neighbors’ prosperity undoubtedly accounted for much of the violence. Atlanta became prosperous but also dangerous. 22 In that tense environment, the Sturdevants found an eager population looking for betterment and opportunity.

Tensions between the white population and the growing Black community exploded in 1906 with the Atlanta Race Riot.23 But by then the Sturdevants had left Atlanta and the United States.

In 1902, at the request of the Adventist Church’s Foreign Mission Board, the Sturdevants moved again, this time to Africa. They visited family and friends in Illinois and passed by Battle Creek on their way to the Solusi Mission in Matabeleland, Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe).24 The government had given the Adventist Church several hundred acres of land in the continent’s interior, where they founded Solusi Mission in 1894. The school suffered ethnic warfare, illness, and high staff turnover. Solusi’s workers fled to the nearby city of Bulawayo from 1896 to 1897, abandoning the mission because of military conflict. In February 1898, an epidemic broke out, killing several Adventist leaders and native people.25 The Americans who did not die returned to the United States.

Sturdevant and his wife began work in Solusi in 1902. Three years later, the following report appeared in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald:

The Lord has blessed Brother and Sister Sturdevant in their labors at this place. They now have fifty-four boys and girls in the mission home, and many more are knocking for admittance, but our funds will not permit us to receive others at present. A real interest is being awakened among the natives in some sections by our native teachers as they labor among the people.26

A picture of the newly dedicated church at the Solusi Mission appeared in the Advent Review. Interestingly, the church in Solusi was almost identical in size and architecture to the school founded by the Morning Star Mission in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1895. The influence of Sturdevant and his wife appears not only in the architecture but also in many other elements of the school, including a waiting list of students who wanted admittance. In a 1906 report, W. S. Hyatt called the mission’s financial condition its best in many years. The Mission planted and sold 350 bags of corn at one pound a bag, not counting food the students grew in the mission gardens. This pushed Solusi steadily toward financial independence and toward planting new schools.27

By 1907, the Sturdevants and their associates prompted church leaders in South Africa to consider establishing a manual training school at a higher educational level. General Conference President G. A. Irwin wrote in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald:

In the minds of the brethren the time has fully come when an advanced school must be established at the Solusi Mission, to give not only the older and more advanced boys of that station a more thorough Bible training but to take boys from the other stations who have come to the point where they are in need of similar help.

There are fifteen boys at the Solusi Mission ready to enter such a school.28

Since the 1890s, African Adventists had attempted to establish a college in their part of the world without success. When one church member found diamonds on his land, the influx of money allowed conference officials to build a brand-new college, sanitarium, and publishing house in Cape Town, South Africa. However, the college encountered the same problems that Battle Creek College in Michigan confronted in the 1890s. The South African college boasted a brand-new campus and professors but no students. Few African Adventist students, white or Black, had the schooling necessary for college work. The few who did usually went to Oxford, Cambridge, or other colleges in England. In the end, the college in Cape Town, lacking students, closed its doors.29

In several respects, South Africa paralleled the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Both functioned within the shadows of a caste system. Although the South African caste system had more layers, those at the bottom suffered similar poverty and discrimination to those in the Mississippi Delta. As in America, the Black community in South Africa was segregated and prevented access to education. As in the American South, keeping Blacks in their place had become a central goal of the dominant, white culture. The words of Cecil John Rhodes, the most powerful man in South Africa, speaking to the House of Assembly in Cape Town in 1887, reflect the kind of Africa the English Empire wanted: 

These are my politics on the native affairs, and these are the politics of South Africa. . . . The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise . . . We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works so well in India, in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.30

Rhodes worked painstakingly to attain apartheid when the English arrived in South Africa. Although the Solusi Mission in Matabeleland began in the early 1890s, it only began functioning in earnest during the early 20th century when the Sturdevants arrived.

In part the Solusi Mission floundered before 1902 because early missionaries depended on resources from the United States. Those early workers struggled to cultivate the land or teach students to farm. As one-time farmers drawing on Booker T. Washington’s methodology, the Sturdevants understood the importance of agriculture and began cultivating the land.

By 1907, as part of their curriculum, students farmed 200 acres, harvesting five or six crops every fall. That produce allowed the community to live healthier, employ students, finance education, and enrich surrounding villages.31

That year the Sturdevants uprooted again, leaving the Solusi Mission in trained hands, and moving further into the continent’s interior to establish another mission. “And now we feel that we can no longer stay here at Solusi, for we greatly desire to push on into places not yet entered,” Sturdevant wrote in 1907.32 The Sturdevants developed a clear plan. They looked for land to plant another manual training school. They wanted to recreate Solusi. The plan included what they called out-schools—primary feeder schools whose students would transfer to the mission school. In November 1907, Sturdevant reported to the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald:

The work is onward at Solusi. Three more young men were baptized last month. Our out-schools are doing quite well, rather better than last year. The home school is holding its own nicely. Our crops were extra good last year, but prices were very low, the country being full of grain. We are hoping for good crops again this season, as it has not dried out as usual this winter. May the Lord bless the dear workers at home.33

In time, Solusi Mission, its teachers, students, and graduates established hundreds of manual training schools across Africa. The mission transformed into Solusi University. In 100 years’ time, the manual training schools grew the Adventist Church by hundreds of thousands. The African Adventist Church outgrew the church everywhere else. The Sturdevants worked in African planting schools for almost 35 years.

When Melvin fell ill in 1929, the Sturdevants returned to Illinois, but the manual training schools they birthed and the hundreds of students they mentored continued producing teachers, nurses, doctors, and preachers.

Although many of those late 19th century manual training schools eventually closed, some continue the work started by Melvin and Margaret Jane Sturdevant. The Sturdevants’ place in Adventist history accounts for much of Adventism’s appearing and flourishing throughout the African continent, one of the most vibrant parts of the Worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church today.

About the author

Ciro Sepulveda is chair of the History Department at Oakwood College. His doctoral degree from the University of Notre Dame is in Latin American history. He has written a biography of Ellen White published in Spanish. More from Ciro Sepulveda.
  1. This school would become the forerunner of what in the 20th century would become Southern Adventist University. ↩︎
  2. In 1897, Adventist education started a reform movement that transformed Adventist schools, which led to expansive growth. ↩︎
  3. Richard Schwarz and Floy Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2000), 274–275. ↩︎
  4. See Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (New York: Fredrick A. Stokes & Brother, 1888). ↩︎
  5. See notice in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 19, 1895, 192. Also Milton T. Reiber, Graysville: Battle Creek of the South 1888-1988 (Collegedale, Tennessee, 1988). ↩︎
  6. See the first few chapters of Reiber, Graysville: Battle Creek of the South 1888-1988. ↩︎
  7. See the first three chapters of Reiber, Graysville: Battle Creek of the South 1888-1988. ↩︎
  8. The Gospel Herald began publication in 1897 in the Mississippi Delta and reported on the work of several white and Black teachers who founded a handful of schools in Mississippi. ↩︎
  9. O. A. Olsen, “Visit to Birmingham and Vicksburg,” Advent Review and the Sabbath Herald, August 27, 1895, 553–554. ↩︎
  10. See the United States Census 1880, 1890, and 1900. ↩︎
  11. William H. Worger, “Convict Labour, Industrialists and the State in the US South and South Africa, 1870-1930,” Journal of Southern African Studies 30, no. 1 (March 1, 2004): 64. ↩︎
  12. Worger, “Convict Labour, Industrialists and the State in the US South and South Africa, 1870-1930”: 528. ↩︎
  13. Carl V. Harris, “Reforms in Government Control of Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama, 1890-1920,” The Journal of Southern History 38, no. 4 (November 1, 1972): 568. ↩︎
  14. O. A. Olsen, “Visit to Birmingham and Vicksburg,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, August 27, 1895, 535. ↩︎
  15. There is strong evidence that another Sturdevant worked in the Chicago City Mission in the early 1890s. It could have been his brother who also moved South at about the same time Matthew moved. ↩︎
  16. O. A. Olsen, “Visit to Birmingham and Vicksburg, 553. ↩︎
  17. M. C. Sturdevant, “Alabama,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 28, 1898, 836. ↩︎
  18. The term Black Belt generally referred to the portions of the Deep Southern States blessed with rich black soil ideal for growing cotton, the region of the states that imported Black Slaves in the first half of the 19th century. ↩︎
  19. Albert C. Smith, “‘Southern Violence’ Reconsidered: Arson as Protest in Black-Belt Georgia, 1865-1910,” The Journal of Southern History 51, no. 4 (November 1, 1985): 350. ↩︎
  20. Melvin C. Sturdevant, “Report from Atlanta,” Gospel Herald Volume II, Number 1, 1901, 14. ↩︎
  21. August Meier and David Lewis, “History of the Negro Upper Class in Atlanta, Georgia, 1890-1958,” The Journal of Negro Education 28, no. 2 (April 1, 1959): 120–130. ↩︎
  22. See Sarah A. Soule, “Populism and Black Lynching in Georgia, 1890-1900,” Social Forces 71, no. 2 (December 1992): 431–49. ↩︎
  23. See Charles Crowe, “Racial Massacre in Atlanta September 22, 1906,” The Journal of Negro History 54, no. 2 (April 1, 1969): 150–173. ↩︎
  24. Notice in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 4, 1902, 144. ↩︎
  25. G. A. Irwin, “Baretseland and Solusi (Matabele) Missions,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 20, 1907, 15. ↩︎
  26. W. S. Haytt, “Church Dedication at Solusi,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 25, 1906, 17. ↩︎
  27. W. S. Hyatt, “Our Matabeleland Missions,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 29, 1906, 15. ↩︎
  28. G. A. Irwin, “Advance Moments of the Message in South Africa,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 4, 1907, 14. ↩︎
  29. See Ciro Sepulveda, On the Margins of Empires (Huntsville, Alabama: Oakwood College Press, 2007). ↩︎
  30. Antony Thomas, The Race for Africa: Rhodes (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 9. ↩︎
  31. G. A. Irwin, “Solusi Mission and Experience with African Fever,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 27, 1907, 13. ↩︎
  32. M. C. Sturdevant and M. J. Sturdevant, “Solusi Mission, Matebeeland,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 3, 1907, 18. ↩︎
  33. M. C. Sturdevant, “South Africa,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald,  November 28, 1913, 17. ↩︎
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