On the 7th of March 1858, Sister I walked out of her unfinished one-room dwelling in Michigan and rushed to the village of Battle Creek. Her husband, who lay sick with consumption, nursed by their children, waited for her return. Distressed and worried, she darted the first three miles on foot, then rode the next seven miles in the back of a neighbor’s horse-drawn hack. The family had run out of food the day before, triggering her journey. Hopeful of help from her oldest daughter, who worked as a domestic in Battle Creek, Sister I rode engulfed in grief. In Battle Creek, she knocked on the front door of Ellen G. White’s home.[i]
In the 1850s, a thousand or more Adventists, like Sister I, lived isolated, in dark, unsanitary dwellings, with no running water or electricity, in remote rural locales of the Old West.[ii] The Adventists simple beginnings mirrored dozens of religious communities that burst into existence in the nineteenth century during the Second Great Awakening—organizations that roused on the American frontier before slowly dozing off, never to reawaken. They splintered from Protestant churches and birthed various organizations—the Shakers, the Christian Connection, the Campbellites, the Transcendentalist, the Stoneites and dozens of others—who survived only a couple of generations before their demise.
In contrast, the Seventh-day Adventists blossomed, evolving into one of the world’s largest protestant groups. Today, Adventists in the United States thrive in homes networked by electricity, plumbing, phone lines, internet access, delivery trucks and streets enjoying one of the highest living standards in history. In 163 years, Adventism, borne on the ideas of a woman, ballooned into millions of adherents extending its sway into countless homes worldwide. Although, today, Protestant Christianity appears to be on the verge of a breakdown, Woke Adventism sprouts thousands of dispensaries, clinics, hospitals, plant-based food factories, publishing houses, schools and over 100 universities relentlessly transforming the world around them.
American historians have steadily disregarded the Seventh-day Adventist Church as inconsequential, trivial, fringe and of minor importance. Even Adventist historians have accepted the consensus of their non-Adventist colleagues, focusing their research and writing on the movement’s male leaders. A revisionist history of the Adventist Chuch demands a healthier understating of Woke Adventism.
Ellen White greeted Sister I at the door. Later, White wrote, “Sister, I looked like a woman about to faint.” White sensed her sorrow, invited her in, called her daughter, who worked in White’s home, observing that, “Her teeth chattered and her whole body shook.”[iii]
Sadly, the daughter informed her mother that she spent her salary placing a down payment on a pair of boots for her brother and had no money. Ellen White, overhearing the conversation, silently walked out in search of her husband. Moments later, James White entered the house to assure Sister I that she would not go home empty-handed. The White youngsters, picking up on the tragedy, went to their rooms and returned with a contribution of ten cents each.
This story, which appeared in the first issue of The Good Samaritan an Adventist journal published only twice, once in December of 1859 and the other in February of 1860, opens a window into three traits of early Adventist’s wokeness.
First: The joy born of poverty and suffering
A few days after the encounter, the Adventist community in Battle Creek rode in, wagons full of lumber and tools, to the I log house. Upon arrival, the Adventists immediately jumped off their wagons to assess the situation. They discovered the family lived in poverty and slept in a makeshift loft. They decided to build an addition to the cabin, a cook room to make life easier for the sick parents. They also repaired and helped with chores that had been left undone because of the husband’s illness. A few weeks after the intervention, the father passed.
The story, and White’s commentary, reveal essential elements of the Adventist legacy,[iv] which surfaced again and again in early Adventist culture. When a person or a community turns into the servant of the poor to alleviate human suffering, joy appears. Although, unlike short-lived fun and happiness, joy permeates character and shapes enduring values.
In the 1850s, in the Adventist communities of Michigan and surrounding states, joy became a core element of Adventist culture. Choosing to be the joyful servants of poverty and suffering turned out to be second nature to Adventism. Within a few years of the founding of the Adventist Church, in 1863, Adventists began planting a constellation of institutions rooted in joy. In the early days of the Church, Adventists consistently faced suffering and poverty. Ellen White’s response, along with her husband, three sons, and the Battle Creek Church, illustrates how joy shaped the spirit of early Adventism.
Not all humans respond to poverty with sympathy or compassion. Blaming poverty on laziness and slothfulness constitutes a universal reaction to human pain. The idea that the poor are poor because they are not living according to God’s will runs rampant in the National culture. To this day, many believe that the homeless sow their seeds of destruction. The Adventist Community of the 1850s did not belong to that school of thought.
As early as 1854, referring to a slave captured and returned to his master in Boston, Adventists challenged slavery head-on. In the Adventist journal, the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, E.R. Seaman wrote, “A man made in God’s own image is torn from friends and society and all that is dear in life, and dragged back into slavery by the power of that atrocious bargain, the fugitive slave law, the foulest stain that ever blotted the history of any nation,”[v]
Adventists disassociated themselves from the Protestant communities of the North, who defended slavery. J. N. Loughborough, in a two-part article for the Review and Herald, disclosed the stance held by Adventists.
“Protestants also are slave-holders. It appears from the late census report that ‘660,503 slaves are owned in this country (United States) by ministers of the gospel and members of the different Protestant churches; viz., 217,563 Methodists, 77,000 Presbyterians, 125,000 Baptists, 87,000 Episcopalians, 101,000 Campbellites, and 53,000 other denominations.’ If the Church of the North does not hold slaves, she fellowships those of the South who do. It is true that in one of the churches above named, (the M. E. Church,) an attempt was made to free the northern branch from slavery, but as admitted by one of their ministers not long since, there are still many slave-holders in the Northern branch of that church.”[vi]
Ellen G. White probably knew Sister I had already visited Battle Creek for financial aid from her daughter six months before the encounter. She could have taken the attitude, “Has Sister I no shame? How could she lean on her daughter? Where is her husband?” She could also have reasoned that the poor girl was trying to better her life and the mother was not helping, “When will the mother take control of her life and stop living on the welfare of others?”
By 1858 Adventists invariably sided with the victims of poverty and suffering. They did not sit by idly when they discovered the crisis which assaulted the I family. They did not convene a meeting to debate the issue. They did not create a committee to study and report back with recommendations. Instead, they dug into their pockets for money, materials, time, or whatever they had and launched a communal assault.
The 1858 story mirrors thousands of similar stories which soak the history of the Adventist Church. A low-income family in Denmark, an orphan boy in Kenya, a struggling single mother in China, millions in the predicament of suffering and poverty, from the 1850s to the present, have run into Adventists full of empathy. As in the past, facing poverty and suffering today continues to be the source of joy for millions who practice woke Adventism.
Second: Communal generosity
In the mid-1890s, tons of wheat, oats, apples, clothing, shoes, and hats, packaged in wooden barrels, arrived by steamboats in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The barrels came from Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota among others. Adventist Church members across the United States pooled their resources and periodically shipped the barrels to the newly planted Adventist communities in the Yazoo Mississippi Delta. Through word-of-mouth, letters, and Adventist journals, Northern Adventists discovered the horrendous living conditions of African Americans in the Mississippi Delta. Soon the wooden barrels began arriving. Adventist children across the United States broke their piggy banks to contribute. One little boy in Minnesota planted a garden, sold all the vegetables, and sent the money for the children of the Delta Schools founded by Adventists.[vii]
Adventists seem to have a never-ending spring of generosity bubbling at their core. Like the three White boys, Adventist Church members always find the funds to give and assist whenever they witness poverty. Adventist Institution began because the Adventist Church members saw suffering and could not sit by idly and do nothing. Hundreds of Adventist clinics, city missions, dispensaries, and sanitariums grew in the shadows of human misery. Adventist primary, secondary schools, and colleges blossomed amid poverty in the most abandoned communities on the planet. These institutions woke into existence because of Adventist’s communal generosity.
Millions of dollars have flowed and continue to flow to all corners of the planet from the Adventist community. By 1915, When Ellen White passed away, the Adventist Church members donated $1,337,810.20 kept in tithe, and $706,293.50 Adventist dollars found their way to projects in foreign lands, which constituted over 50% of Adventist giving.[viii] In addition, when the colleges came into existence, hundreds of graduates traveled to the most impoverished villages and regions of the earth to alleviate suffering and pain.
Every week during Sabbath School, Adventist members listen to reports on the Church’s work in different parts of the world. Then reach into their pockets to help someone in Nigeria, China, Guatemala or some other part of the world. The Adventist Church’s communal generosity started in the middle of the nineteenth century and continues today. For example, in Church a week ago, I saw a video where the Adventist community in Hanoi, Vietnam, feeds two hundred homeless persons who walk off the street into the courtyard of the Adventist Center every week.
Third: The power of democratic autonomous organizations
The Adventist community in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1858, did not consult a higher authority before loading their wagons with lumber, nails and tools. Instead, they sensed the urgency and probably didn’t even take a vote. Yet, everyone knew the situation demanded action. Similar actions, often inspired by White’s intervention, occurred in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and surrounding states. The details and description of thousands of these acts of kindness, locally executed, can be found in dozens of Adventist journals published across the world. Adventist Churches in all corners of the planet have always served those in need.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, an Adventist community in the hills of eastern Arkansas decided they needed to give their children a proper Adventist education. They knew that the tuition and boarding costs of the existing Adventist colleges and universities in the United States stood beyond their reach. So, they decided to start an Adventist school locally, using Ellen G. White’s book Education. Today, Ouachita Hills College in western Arkansas grants bachelor’s degrees in Education, Accounting, Music and Theology certified by the Arkansas Education Department.
Ouachita Hills College in Arkansas appeared the same decade that the president of the North American Division met with four administrators of Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. He arrived at the college to propose a financial transaction. He offered the college a million dollars if the administrators would devise a plan to close down the college permanently. Apparently, the leadership of the North American Division felt they did not have the funds to continue supporting the existing Adventist colleges and universities in the United States. Although three of the four administrators resigned in protest, in time, the college closed its doors.[ix] One college closed and the other prospered; why? When local Adventists see a need and decide to take action, it’s hard to stop them.
Like the community that birthed Ouachita Hills College, hundreds of Adventist communities all over the planet thrive when they unleash the three traits that have powered Adventist culture. First, the joy that comes from facing off poverty and suffering delivers power and life. Second communal generosity transforms the world. And third, decentralized autonomous organizations possess a vitality tough to snare. In the presence of these three traits, Woke Adventism continues to flourish around the world.
Notes & References:
[ii] By the Old West I am referring to the region of the nation that today we see as the Northern Midwest often called the Rust Belt of the United States.
[iv] By legacy I am referring to things or ideas handed down from generation to generation still alive and well in the present.
[v] E.R. Seaman. “The Day of Noah and the Son of Man.” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald June 13, 1854 157
[vi] J.N. Loughborough. “The Two Horn Beast of Revelation XIII: A Symbol of the United States.” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. July 2, 1857 66
[viii] Statistical Report of the Seventh-day Adventist Church 1915 found on line in the Adventist Archives.
[ix] I know the details of this story because I was one of the administrators of the college and sat in the room where the meeting took place.
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.
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