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Should Adventists Care? Ellen G. White and the Immigrant


A few years ago, two Oakwood University students, my wife and I, crossed the Atlantic en route to an archeological dig in the Middle East. On the first Sabbath, we walked into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Amman — Jordan’s capital. Three Asian women sang from the podium, with half of the congregation immigrants from the Philippines. Expecting a church full of Jordanians speaking Arabic, I stood baffled. I wondered, “Why are so many Filipino immigrants in a Seventh-day Adventist Church in the middle of the Arab world?”

Adventism attracts immigrants. In London, Adventist churches fill up with Jamaicans or Ghanaians; in Paris, Haitians; in Germany, Nigerians and Turks; in Australia, Indians and Afghans. On all continents, Adventist draw men, women, and children pushed or pulled from their homeland. In the United States, the Church endures because of Latino, Asian, African, and West Indian immigrants. A new trend? Or a long-standing tradition? Although Adventist histories gloss over the presence of immigrants in the Adventist Church, a closer look reveals a much more complex portrait.

American historians exploit the escalator metaphor to describe the history of the Nation. In the glow of the escalator, citizens welcome immigrants who arrive at the base of the moving staircase and trek into the Promised Land. Those who came before stand higher on the stairway. The mythology palpitates with the idea that those standing at the top of the escalator come from New England Puritan stock. The further immigrants trek up the incline, the more they shed the frills of immigrant culture. Modern Adventist histories, including those taught at several Adventist colleges in North America, echo the escalator vision. More often than not, Adventist historians paint the founders of Adventist history as men and women grounded in Puritan pedigree.

This imagery, despite its brilliant and easy portrayal, distorts rather than clarifies the Adventist past. A well-grounded account reveals a much more nuanced and complex history. A brief review of the Adventist experience in America may help.

Before the founding of the Adventist Church, Adventist culture welcomed immigrants into its community. The first Adventist church in Rochester, New York, in the 1850s, gave a warm reception to Irish and Scottish immigrants who made up a good portion of the group.[1] In 1863, the year of Adventist formation, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald published a letter from Poy Sippi, Wisconsin which read, in part,

I am a native of Denmark, and as I endeavor to spread the truth among my countrymen, I often feel the want of tracts in that language to sell or distribute among them. The Norwegians use the same language and many of the Swedes can also read it. I sincerely hope that the Lord will open some way to have such tracts printed and scattered among the people before the last message of mercy shall be finished.[2]

In the 1860s and 1870s, Scandinavians in the Church had snowballed into congregations so quickly that, by 1872, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald published a 24-page journal called the Advent Tidende (The Advent Herald) for immigrants living in the Midwest. In 1874, a Swedish Journal, Sanningens Harold, launched its first issue.[3] When Union College opened in 1891, Norwegian-Dutch, Swedish, and German immigrants sat in the classrooms listening to lectures in their Native tongues.[4] In 1903, a publishing house, founded at Union College, produced books and magazines in many of the languages spoken by immigrants in the United States.[5] By the end of the nineteenth century, immigrant communities founded seminaries and elected the first immigrant president of the General Conference, O. A. Olsen. The Germans founded Clinton Theological Seminary in Missouri, the Swedes Broadview Theological Seminary on the outskirts of Chicago, and Germans, who migrated from Russia, Hutchinson Theological Seminary in Minnesota.[6]

Immigrants lined church rosters since the founding of the SDA Church. Although most Adventist historians have largely overlooked or ignored them, migrants and immigrants have always founded a sizable element in the Church. Adventist schools, colleges, and universities worldwide to this day attract immigrants and their children. I taught at Oakwood University for 15 years with immigrant students in my classes and immigrant professors as colleagues. Without the immigrants, the University would have closed.

Adventism has lured immigrants and migrants into the Church throughout its history. Why?

The issue of immigration generally surfaces in American life during presidential elections, stirring passion, fear, bewilderment, and excitement. Our current president, along with the GOP (Republican Party), has fueled the issue of launching attacks at millions of undocumented immigrants living in the Nation. President Trump got elected in 2016 in large because of his stance on immigration. Building the Wall, changing the Constitution to stop the birthing of “anchor babies,” putting an end to sanctuary cities, caging immigrant mothers and children, and a variety of related disputes have taken center stage in the heated and frantic quarrels.

Should Adventists care?

Customarily, Adventists look to Ellen G. White for answers. On this issue, it happens to be a good idea. White played a crucial role in encouraging the presence of immigrants in the Church. Adventist churches do not attract immigrants accidentally. White’s influence, her writings, her personality, and the ideas infused into Adventist culture by White consistently draw migrants and immigrants to Adventism. Three elements, flowing from her life and writings, reveal the centrality of immigrants in the growth and success of Adventism: first the Great Divergence, second White’s shepherd like leading, and third her teachings. Unified, these ingredients generate a powerful pull on immigrants.

The Great Divergence

White was born and matured during the Great Divergence, the years beginning in the early decades of the nineteenth century when the world rushed into a series of remarkable transformations. For most of human history, economic development progressed at a snail’s pace. Most people on the planet existed in similar standards of living, whether they lived in Europe, Africa, Asia, or the Americas. The gap between the rich and the poor stood negligible. Then, during White’s life, the routine collapsed. Economic growth wolfed down the planet with speed never witnessed before in history. The world bolted into enormous productivity, which led to manufacturing and industrialization at breakneck speed. For a few, this created unimaginable wealth, but for the many, it generated staggering impoverishment. Income inequality sprinted unstoppable for the rest of White’s life and well into the future. Some parts of the world became powerful empires with plump middle classes, the likes of which were never before seen. Other parts of the world turned into dependent colonies with widespread poverty.[7]

During the Great Divergence, White grew up and matured, facing its staggering effects. She saw the impact and the collisions created by the Great Divergence. She saw factories along New England rivers rise like mushrooms. Men, women, and children working 12 to 16 hours in a day in humid, noisy factory floors, became her friends. She observed the wealthy in their carriages, met the working class in their tenements, developing and maturing her thought. It provided the fuel for her books and articles, shaping her leadership skills. Misunderstanding this world makes it impossible to understand Ellen White.

One of the many changes provoked by the Great Divergence, redesigning of the economic and social scaffolding of the world, thrust millions into massive migrations. In 1820, immigration to the United States totaled at 8,385. In the next decade, 1830, it almost tripled to 23,322. Then between 1830–1840, it exploded to 599,000. Between 1841 and 1850, when Sabbath-keeping Adventists began meeting in private homes, the numbers jumped to 1,713,000. Keep in mind this happened when the United States’ total population was less than 24 million. During the years when Ellen White began her ministry, 781,000 Irishmen, 435,000 Germans, and 77,000 French immigrants arrived in the United States.[8]

During her most important years of leadership in the Adventist Church, from the 1850s to 1915, the United States launched into one of the most massive waves of immigration. About 5 million Germans arrived in the United States. After 1880, when large steam-powered ocean-going ships replaced older sailing ships, nearly 25 million European immigrants arrived in the industrial cities of the North. During these years, the bulk of the immigrants came from Italy, Greece, Hungry, Poland, and other Slavic speaking nations, including 2.5 to 4 million Jews.[9] In the tenements of the industrial cities of the North, where they settled, Adventists planted city missions, clinics, dispensaries, and witnessed the birth of dozens of its first and largest Adventist churches. During these years, White insisted that Adventists work in the cities. Her writings and sermons left no doubt that Adventists must identify as servants of the migrants and immigrants.

Every wave of migrants and immigrants transformed and reshaped the Adventist Church. The Northern European Protestants who came before the Civil War left their stamp on the Church. The Eastern and Southern European Catholics and Jews, after the Civil War, did the same. In the twentieth century, Mexicans crossing the border and Blacks leaving the South for the industrial cities of the North during the Great Migration followed the same pattern. And in the second half of the twentieth century, Caribbean, Central Americans, and Africans followed. I can think of no more powerful impact on Adventism by migrants than the birth of Black conferences, which were founded during the Great Migration (1910–1970) when 6 million African Americans left the cotton fields for the industrial cities of the South and North, birthing Black conferences.[10]

The Impact of the Great Divergence, which transformed the world and continues to do so today, played a central role in shaping Ellen White’s thinking.

Leading like a Shepherd

During the years of the Great Migration, White sharpened her leadership skills, skills which she used effectively in birthing a Church. What may have had the most impact on Ellen White’s thinking was the fact that she lived the life of a migrant. Like millions of families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, White and family moved again and again. She left the country farm, which she loved dearly, moving to the most impoverished community in Portland, Maine. White migrated her whole life. From the east coast to Western New York, from Rochester, New York to Battle Creek, Michigan, from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast, then back to Michigan again, from Michigan to Europe, from California to Australia, and back to California when she was in her 70s. The life of a migrant shaped her life and leadership style.

Ellen White’s shepherd-like leadership escalated from experience. Pushed off the farm and forced to live in a neighborhood of fishers and artisans in a port city, White began her life.[11] There her family suffered the repercussions of the Great Divergence as machines slowly destroyed the shops and business of artisans. Most of the products in Portland, before the Great Divergence, came from the hands of craftspeople like her father, a hat maker. Her brothers and sister, as well as Ellen, worked in the home shop, crafting by hand. But with the arrival of machines and factories, master artisans and their shops were decimated. In the home of a doomed artisan, she experienced firsthand the devastation of scarcity and poverty.[12]

Furthermore, during the first ten years of married life, Ellen and husband migrated through towns and villages in New England and Upstate New York. Although she would have loved to have her own home and care for her children in a stable environment, poverty forced her to migrate and leave her first two boys with friends. The first house the couple rented in Rochester, New York, turned into a commune where 22 people lived. In that house, Ellen witnessed Cholera take the lives of several family members and friends, living in constant fear, like most migrants, in her case, fearing death for her husband and her three boys to a mysterious pandemic.[13]

Within this context, White learned to be a wife and a mother. She learned the patience that only a mother attains. White supported her husband during his frequent bouts of depression. Often, when James White was ready to “throw in the towel,” she learned to pick him up. During the migrating years, she learned to listen, to read body language, to endure suffering, pain, and adversity. When most give up and call it quits, a pit bull-like determination helped White stick with it.[14]

By the time she was 30, several years before the founding of the Adventist Church, she had become a wise, confident, and tenacious mother. These skills prepared her to be a sound and consistent voice as the Church crawled into existence. She never led from the front of the pack, frequently sitting on the side, observing the men and their posturing. But like a shepherd, White walked along or followed. Occasionally, when directives became important, her messages rose with unmistakable authority. This approach led the Church through rough terrain as it searched for an identity.

Teaching Content

At the center of her teachings were a set of ideas honed by experience, insights which consistently infiltrated Adventist culture, granting it distinctiveness.

First came the notion that Seventh-day Adventists walked through life as “pilgrims.” In modern terminology, migrants, men, and women were passing through. According to White, Adventists did not belong to this world but rather trekked a narrow path that led to the Kingdom of God. She wrote:

We have no home here; we are only pilgrims and strangers, passing to a better country, even a heavenly. Place your mind upon these things, and while you are doing this, Christ will be right by your side. May God help us to win the precious boon of eternal life.[15]

Pushed and pulled from the homeland, immigrants understand this idiom better than any other group. Once they arrive at their new destination, they find they are not wanted. They do not belong where they came from and do not belong where they are. The words of White captured the immigrant with precision. Her articles and writings touched sensitive threads in the hearts of immigrants. Migrants understood her.

Second, besides being pilgrims, according to White, the Adventists formed the remnant, the chosen few, the marginalized. Immigrants, who already perceive themselves to be different from the larger society, often unwanted, frequently the object of discrimination and bigotry, easily identified with Ellen White’s idea of the remnant. A lot of verbiage to explain this idea turns out to be unnecessary. The idea grows appealing in the mind of the immigrant, despite the lowly statutes it signifies; in the end, it means chosen of God. White’s feelings on this issue appeared when she wrote about the name she preferred for the Church:

No name which we can take will be appropriate but that which accords with our profession, and expresses our faith, and marks us as a peculiar people. The name, Seventh-day Adventist, is a standing rebuke to the Protestant world. Here is the line of distinction between the worshipers of God, and those who worship the beast, and receive his mark. The great conflict is between the commandments of God and the requirements of the beast. It is because the saints are keeping all ten of the commandments that the dragon makes war upon them; and if they will lower the standard and yield the peculiarities of their faith, the dragon will be at peace. But God’s people excite the ire of the dragon because they have dared to raise the standard, and unfurl their banner in opposition to the Protestant world, who are worshiping the institution of Papacy.

The name, Seventh-day Adventist, carries the true features of our faith in front, and will convict the inquiring mind. Like an arrow from the Lord’s quiver, it will wound the transgressors of God’s law, and will lead to repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.[16]

Third, a 24-hour day of rest uplifted immigrants. Industrial factories forced workers to work for low wages for as many hours as they could squeeze out of them. In the early days of industrialization, when the Adventist Movement was in its infancy, this meant working 14 or more hours a day. Children six, seven, and eight years of age worked in the factories from sunup to sundown. Men and women gave the best days of their lives in factories, which left their bodies numb from exhaustion. Then along comes the idea that God wants men and women to rest for 24 hours every six days. White insisted a day of rest sat at the center of the movement. In her first published Testimony for the Church, she wrote:

December 25, 1865, I was shown that there has been too much slackness in regard to the observance of the Sabbath. There has not been promptness to fulfill the secular duties within the six working days which God has given to man and carefulness not to infringe upon one hour of the holy, sacred time which He has reserved to Himself. There is no business of man’s that should be considered of sufficient importance to cause him to transgress the fourth precept of Jehovah.[17]

To a hard-working migrant, this is Good News. It might not be attractive to a white-collar worker pushing paper and doing little physical work eight hours a day, but to the blue-collar worker who falls exhausted at the end of the workday, twenty-four hours of rest descends like cold, fresh air on a hot, humid day.

Maybe the most crucial element in Ellen White’s teachings for immigrants came in the form of a vision in 1858. In the spring of that year, in Lovett’s Grove, Ohio, she had a vision which in later years she referred to as the “Great Controversy Vision.”[18] In essence, the vision contained a way of looking at her world. Not only what was happening in her life but also what had been happening since the beginning of history. The Great Controversy Vision contained a worldview that helped her understand the Great Divergence. A few months after the vision, she finished a document, about 200 pages, explaining the content of the vision. She would continue to elaborate and perfect the material, revising it several times during her lifetime. Its message, White felt, was to be an essential portion of her work.

For immigrants, with their world turned upside down, like the African and Syrian migrants moving across the Mediterranean into Europe, a worldview clarifying current events flows like water to a child dying of thirst. Immigrants, who face the dark side of human behavior every day, embrace the worldview proposed by White because it helps to understand the turmoil in their lives. It helped them recognize and be aware of the world. Millions of men, women, and children joined the ranks of Adventism because, for the first time in their lives, the Great Controversy worldview unpacked the chaos of the world.

In summary, the Adventist Church is an immigrant church because White shaped Adventist culture and made it a migrant draw. Since the beginning of the movement, White identified with migrants and immigrants, housed them in her home, and helped them through college. She gave them jobs. When White moved to California in 1876, she hired China John in Oakland, a Chinese immigrant who cooked and cared for her and her husband. Although she could not understand a word he spoke, White wrote he “flies round quick and cheerful.”[19]

She wrote this at a time when the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, wrote, “The Chinese are uncivilized. Unclean, and filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations, lustful and sensual in their disposition, every female is a prostitute of the bases order.”[20] In California, a few years before her arrival, in 1871, five hundred white and Hispanic men attacked Chinatown, looted, and lynched 17 Chinese men.[21] The anti-Chinese sentiment in California poured from the words of Father Buchard, a prominent California Jesuit, who characterized the Chinese as “these pagan, these vicious, theses immoral creatures that are incapable of rising to the virtue that is inculcated by the religion of Jesus Christ, the World’s Redeemer.”[22] White could have easily floated with the stream of xenophobia or bowed to the bigotry of her community. But she opted for compassion and empathy for the immigrant.

White provided a sound solution to the false dilemma concocted every four years in our Nation as politicians attempt to grab the presidency. Bureaucrats speak of “immigration reform” while erecting smokescreens that allow large corporations to force immigrants into a meatpacking plant where COVID-19 runs unchecked. In contrast, White suggested we become servants of the immigrant, feed them, clothe them, and welcome them into our Church as if blood relatives.

In other words, Ellen White welcomed immigrants with open arms. She sided with social justice — the kind of fairness flowing through Jesus. By doing so, she helped us understand who we are and invites us to join Jesus as he serves immigrants in all corners of the world.


Notes & References:

[1] The house that the Whites rented was on the side of the Erie Canal, which had been built mostly by immigrant labor, especially Irish immigrants. John Loughborough, one of the first itinerant preachers who joined the Church in Rochester was of Irish decent. Jenny Fraser the cook and young lady who helped Ellen care for Edson was of Scottish decent.

[2] John Matteson. "From Brother Matteson," Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Vol 22. Number 24. November, 1863 7.

[3] M. Ellsworth Olsen. A History of the Origin and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists, Washington D.C. Review and Herald Publishing Association 1926 345-362

[4] Emma E. Howell. The Great Advent Movement, Washington D.C. Review and Herald Publishing Association 1935 117

[5] John N. Loughborough. The Great Second Advent Movement: Its Rise and Progress, Washington D.C. Review and Herald Publishing Association 1905 391

[6] M. E. Olsen. History of the Origin and Progress, 687-698.

[7] There are many books that refer to this phenomenon. Some of the better known are: Edward Baines, History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, London; H. Fisher, R. Fisher and P. Jackson 1835, Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern Economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2000; David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are so Rich an Some So Poor, New York: Norton, 1998; Sven Beckert Empire of Cotton: A Global History, New York, Alfred Knopf 2014.

[8] See United States Census 1820, 1830, 1840, and 1850.

[9] See United States Census 1850-1920.

[10] William H. Frey. “The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965-2000,” The Brookings Institution, May 2004 1-3 accessed on October 1, 2015.

[11] See Ciro Sepulveda. On the Margins of Empires: A History of Seventh-day Adventists Huntsville, AL, Oakwood College Press 2007.

[12] For a good description of what was happening in Portland, Maine during the childhood of Ellen White see Robert H. Babcock, “The Decline of Artisan Republicanism in Portland, Maine 1825-1850.” New England Quarterly March 1990 3-34.

[13] See Ellen G. White Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White, ebook Ellen White Estate Inc., Ellen G. White. Early Writings, eBook Ellen G. White Estate Inc. Ellen G. White. Life Sketches of James and Ellen G. White 1880, eBook Ellen G. White Estate Inc.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ellen G. White. Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, eBook Ellen G. White Estate 1915

[16] Ellen G. White. Spiritual Gifts. Vol 4b eBook: Ellen G. White Estate Inc. 2010 54,55.

[17] Ellen G. White. Testimonies for the Church Volume I, eBook Ellen G. White Estate, published 1868 531

[18] Ellen G. White. Early Writings, eBook Ellen G. White Estate published in 1882 xxxi

[19] Ellen White. Letter 1a 1876 part 5

[20] Patti Duncan. Tell This Silence: Asian American Women Writers and the Politics of Speech. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press 2004 50

[22] Robert Seager, II “Some Denominational Reactions to Chinese Immigration to California 1856-1892” Pacific Historical Review, Volume 28 Number 1 February 1959 55


Ciro Sepulveda, a retired historian (Ph.D. Notre Dame University, 1976), lives with his wife on a farm in Southern Tennessee. His latest book A Path Out: Educating the Children of Poverty, traces the birth and spread of Adventist Manual Training Schools, which became the motor behind the growth of the Adventist Church. Before his retirement, he chaired the History Department at Oakwood University for twelve years.

Image: Ellen G. White at the Reno, Nevada, camp meeting, May 24-June 4, 1888. Courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate.


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