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The Spirit of 1897: Reforming Adventist Education


From the early 1850s to the 1870s, Adventists quarreled over the role education should play in their daily lives. Should Adventists send their children to school, run their schools, or simply educate them at home? In 1862, W. C. Ball, a respected devotee, wrote to James White, the recognized leader of the movement, fueling the debate. White, eager to stimulate the discussion, reprinted portions of Ball's letter in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. One side of the discussion reasoned in favor of formal education, preferably in a school. W. C. Ball, the author of the letter, weighed in on the opposite end, asking rhetorically, “Is it right and consistent for us who believe with all our hearts in the immediate coming of the Lord, to seek to give our children an education? If so, should we send them to a district or a town school, where they learn twice as much evil as good?”[1]

The discord over the role of education in Adventist culture flourished for a couple of generations. Skirmishes over curriculum and what kind of school the Adventist Church should create surfaced and reappeared periodically in Adventist history. The debate in the 1860s, with one side convinced education needs to be practical and limited to the home and the other side convinced it needs be formal and school-based, mirrors the disputes faced by Adventist communities today. Like in the 1860s, today Adventists are deeply divided, some committed to long term formal education and others, for example the numerous self-supporting schools across the globe, to schooling that is fast and useful.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, the theoretical debate about the role of education in the Adventist community lay dormant. Then suddenly, three years before the end of the century, the discussion on the nature of schooling heated up. The question of education and its curriculum grew hot and led to the creation of hundreds of schools that recruited thousands of students. Adventist laymen and women began creating schools, and training students and teachers, with remarkable results. Most Adventist historians agree that in the last three years of the 19th century, the Adventist educational system ignited, spreading throughout the planet.[2] In less than fifty years, the changes drew hundreds of thousands of children to Adventist schools, which multiplied by the hundreds.

In 1897 there were only 43 schools run by the Adventist Church with a total of 2,290 students enrolled.[3] Three years later, in 1900, there were 246 schools and 7,400 students. The increase in schools and students soared. By 1920 there were 1,025 schools and 38,095 students. The disagreements over the nature of schooling and curriculum went to sleep, opening the door to dramatic change and growth. During this period, elementary school teachers increased from 52 in 1897 to 250.[4] Almost 200 new teachers appeared in three years, by a church with less than 70,000 members worldwide.[5] What happened? Had the Adventist educational system found a magic tonic that unleashed staggering vitality?

A careful look at the events that transpired during the last years of the 1890s might account for the dramatic transformation. The most obvious change was the selection of a new administration for Battle Creek College. At the board meeting of the Adventist Education Society in February of 1897, several reformers including John Harvey Kellogg, the director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, pressed the governing Board for change by electing a new president. Edward A. Sutherland, who at that time was president of Walla Walla College, captured the attention of the Board, which voted to bring him to Battle Creek.[6]

Sutherland had the reputation of a reformer since his senior year at Battle Creek College. In the early 1890s, when Sutherland was still a student, the meat had not been eliminated from the meals served in the College cafeteria. Sutherland, a senior, and Percy Magan, his friend, who were taking an Old Testament Class, began reading the first nine chapters of the Book of Genesis. They concluded a vegetarian diet was what God intended. This conviction exploded into a revolt that ended with a petition signed by 150 students who demanded the removal of meat from the College menu.[7] From that date onward, Sutherland became known as a reformer.

A second element that might explain the transformation of Adventist education in 1897 came from the voice of Ellen G. White. Since the 1850s, Ellen White, outspoken on the deficiencies of the American School system, disliked that children were quartered in poorly ventilated and lighted rooms for hours. She insisted that children’s individuality needed to be respected and nurtured, and felt too much attention was given to the development of the intellect while the physical was ignored. She emphasized that schools needed to incorporate manual training into their curriculum. However, her ideas were rarely applied. For about 50 years, she counseled, preached, and wrote on principles of education, but few knew how to incorporate her beliefs into the inner working of schools and much less a college.

For example, in the meeting of the Seventh-day Adventist Educational Society in April of 1895, the followers of Ellen White suggested that manual labor needed incorporation into the curriculum of Battle Creek College.[8] Professor Frederick Griggs, the principle of the preparatory department of Battle Creek College, reported that the children in the lower grades were using the Sloyd System. This method took two hours per week to look at an object and make it, with the supervision of a teacher. To some, this seemed to be the solution to what Ellen White was calling manual training. O. A. Olsen, the president of the General Conference, reported that he visited the Mickelson Sloyd School in Copenhagen, the site of its invention. Olsen seemed impressed by the system.[9] However, others believed manual training, while enriching at the elementary and secondary level, would compromise the educational integrity of a college.[10]

Once again, in 1895, Ellen White’s suggestions were respectfully laid aside. Since she was living on the other side of the planet, in Australia, it became easy to do so. But her followers were increasing in number and becoming more and more vociferous. With the publication of her new book, Special Testimonies on Education, in the early months of 1897, it was becoming more challenging to simply ignore calls for reform. With the arrival of Sutherland, White’s ideas grew in stature, especially when Sutherland plowed the baseball field to create vegetable gardens.[11]

The third and final element that accounts for the changes in the Adventist educational system in 1897 came from the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, where the Morning Star Mission was operated by a group of self-supporting Adventist missionaries.[12] The Morning Star Mission spent most of 1895 funded by the royalties of the book The Gospel Primer,[13] written by Edson White. Sales from the book allowed the founding of several schools in Vicksburg, Mississippi. By the spring of 1896, they had students who wanted to continue their education beyond the training provided by elementary schools.[14] These students pushed the Morning Star team to come up with higher education for African-American youth. At this juncture, they turned to the model created by Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

The Tuskegee model, along with the writings of Booker T. Washington and Ellen White, inspired them to found the first Seventh-day Adventists manual training school a few miles from Calamar Landing on the Yazoo Delta.[15] Edson White, a lifetime friend of the reformers in Battle Creek, maintained a running dialogue with them.[16] He detailed the success and trials to Sutherland, the president of Battle Creek College, and his second in command, Percy Magan. Both of them took a trip to Mississippi to visit the schools in the Delta. In the fall of 1898, they arrived in Mississippi with the intent of buying land and starting a training school affiliated with Battle Creek College, teaching diversified farming.[17]

Although all three of these developments, the change of administration, the difference in educational philosophy, and the change in instructional methods, helped clarify what happened to Adventist education, several questions remained unanswered. From where did the energy to carry out all of the changes come? Why did students, obsessed with having fun and playing competitive sports, suddenly commit to starting one-room schoolhouses in impoverished communities around the globe? Why did teachers, eager to debate the nature of education, grow anxious to go a second mile for a student in need? Or why were administrators, who spent most of their time trying to preserve their institution, go out on a limb, and ignore dearly held traditions? From where did this get-up-and-go come?

The words of one of the workers, who spent years in the Delta teaching African-Americans how to read and write, opens a window into what happened. In an article published in the Advocate, a new journal that sprang to life in Battle Creek College, M. M. Osborne asked two questions: "Who is my neighbor? Our Lord's answer to this question is clear. He to whom mercy can be shown. And who is there more fully meeting this condition than my colored brother of the South?"[18]

The empathy expressed by Osborne illustrates how Adventists linked Adventist education to the weakest and neediest in society. The self-supporting Morning Star Mission identified with the children and grandchildren of former slaves. They became servants to the oppressed, discovering restoring energy. The needs of the Mississippi Delta ignited the planting of schools, dozens of schools founded by the Southern Missionary Society in the several Southern States.[19] This desire to help the underprivileged emerged in a letter written by Edson White to his mother living in Australia:

“There is a crying need for some provision for the destitute and uncared-for colored children of the cities. Such children are surrounded by influences so debasing that they have no chance but to grow up dishonest and immoral. It is to be hoped that some plan may be devised by which these uncared-for children can be placed under different conditions, where they may have the opportunity of developing honest and useful lives. If orphans' homes are a necessity in the North, the demands in this destitute Southern field are tenfold more imperative.”[20]

Urgency, compassion, and empathy not only ignited Southern Adventists, it also surfaced in Battle Creek. Sutherland, describing activities in the reformed college, outlined the need for a new department at the institution:

“One evening, last week, thirty cottage meetings were held in the city by students. Students are seeking out the poor, bringing children in and feeding them and clothing them. The new department that must be opened at once is a city mission. At the present time we are sending about six students to Kalamazoo. The brethren there have kindly given the students an opportunity to co-operate with them in the work, but we must have better facilities and better opportunity to give more students training in this line. We wish to have a mission of sufficient capacity to give every student who comes to Battle Creek College for missionary training, an opportunity to get an experience in the city mission work.”[21]

The Words of Ida Pines, who wrote an article, “Work for the Orphans” in the Advocate in 1899, also illustrates this spirit. She asked:        

“Are we as a people receiving the blessing of God meant for us, or are we shutting up our hearts and homes against it?

There are among us in the United States three orphanages, which care for perhaps two hundred and fifty children, while scores apply for homes and are turned away, because there is no room…

Are there not homes all over the land that might be dedicated to the care of the orphans, where a small family of children might be gathered together and given the special care and education that will fit them for heaven?”[22]

An urgency to help the oppressed seized the Adventist educational system in 1897 — students, teachers, and administrators. Dozens of articles appeared in Adventist journals. Several new journals surfaced with this spirit embedded in them.[23] Hundreds of students from Adventist colleges traveled to all corners of the planet to found schools in peasants and tribal communities. Most of the schools established, after this spirit ignited, were manual training schools. The words of Jesus — I was hungry, I was sick, I was in jail, I was homeless — captured the imagination of the Adventist community, diminished the importance of educational debates, and transformed Adventists.


Notes & References:

[1] “Questions and Answers” Review and Herald December 23, 1862. 29.

[2] Floyd Greenleaf in “Timeline for Seventh-day Adventist Education in Journal of Adventist Education Summer of 2005 calls it “The Movement of 1897” he also dedicates a whole chapter in his textbook on Adventist Education, In Passion for the World: A History of Seventh-day Adventist Education, to this these years. George Knight believes that the changes began with a meeting in 1891 in Harbor Springs, Michigan. The problem with Knight’s position is that the changes in growth did not get started until 1897. See George Kinght, “The Aims of Adventist Education: A Historical Perspective” The Journal of Adventist Education General Conference Session 2000, 7.

[3] Prior to this date schools were on a roller coaster ride, popping up then closing with many on the verge of bankruptcy. For example, seven new schools were founded in 1888 making a total of 14 elementary schools run by the General Conference. Then in 1889 the number dropped to seven schools because five of them closed down. See General Conference Department of Statistics 1853-1987, 6.

[4] Report from the General Conference Department of Educational Statistics found in the digital archive of the Adventist Archives, 6.

[5] See General Conference Bulletin 1901, 163.

[6] General Conference Bulletin Volume II, No 1, First Quarter, 1897, 71,72.

[7] All of the details of C. E. Sutherland are found in Warren S. Ashworth. “Edward Sutherland Reformer” in George R. Knight ed. Early Adventist Educators. Berriens Springs, Michigan.

[8] In the first half of the 19th century, many American Colleges had incorporated work as part of the curriculum, but slowly these programs began to disappear, replaced by exercise programs and eventually competitive sports. Work as part of the curriculum had all but disappeared in Higher Education.

[9] “Report of the Seventh-day Adventist Educational Society” The General Conference Bulletin. Feb. 17, 1895, 244.

[10] Floyd Greenleaf. “Who’s in Charge: Observations on Governance in Seventh-day Adventist Higher Education?” The Journal of Adventist Education April/May 2008, 29.

[11] C. Mervyn Maxwell, Tell It to The World: The Story of Seventh-day Adventists (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1976), 225, 226.

[12] See A. W. Spalding, “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt: Containing the Story of the Southern Missionary Society, the Oakwood School, and the Hillcrest School,” No date.Found in the archives of the Ellen G. White Estate.

[13] The Gospel Primer sold into the hundreds of thousands in 1894 and 1895. The funds for the book were used to finance the Morning Star Mission. Also, Adventist school teachers began using it. Floyd Greenleaf in his text reports that one teacher was using it in California after 1897.

[14] See Edson White, “The Morning Star,” The Gospel Herald 1, No. 1 (May 1898).

[15] Spalding, “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt: Containing the Story of the Southern Missionary Society, the Oakwood School, and the Hillcrest School.”

[16] Besides the Administrators of the college who were committed reformers.

[17] See Spalding, “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt: Containing the Story of the Southern Missionary Society, the Oakwood School, and the Hillcrest School.”Typed manuscript is found in the archives of the Ellen G. White Estate in Washington D.C.

[18] M. M. Osborne. "A Voice From the South" The Training School Advocate. Volume I, Number 4, April, 186.

[19] The Southern Missionary Society was established by the Morning Star Mission in Mississippi with the intent of serving African-Americans in Mississippi first then the whole South. Unofficially the organization became the voice of African-Americans within the Adventist Church.

[20] James Edson White. "Work for the Colored People in Mississippi." Review and Herald, September 14, 1897.

[21] E. A. Sutherland. “A New and Important Department of the College.” The Training School Advocate, December 1898, 11, 12.

[22] Ida Pines. “Work for the Orphans.” The Training School Advocate, December 1899, 5,6,7.

[23] Some of the Journals were: The Training School Advocate, in Battle Creek College, The Educational Messenger in Union College, Christian Education, The Christian Educator.


Ciro Sepulveda, a retired historian (Ph.D. Notre Dame University, 1976), lives with his wife on a farm in Southern, Tennessee. His latest book Ellen G. White: How to Globalize a Movement, reflects a lifetime of interest in the life and times of Ellen G. White. Before his retirement, he chaired the History Department at Oakwood University for twelve years.

Image: Battle Creek College, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (public domain).


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