In a replica of the meeting house where Seventh-day Adventist Church pioneer and prophet Ellen G. White once spoke for 10 hours on the Great Controversy, world church leaders met yesterday to commemorate the church’s 150th anniversary.
The Second Meeting House is located on the campus of the Adventist Historic Village here in Battle Creek, the birthplace of the Adventist Church and the site of this year’s Spring Meeting, a biannual business session of the church’s Executive Committee, its top governing body.
Delegates received a crash course in Adventist History 101, with a side of some of the more obscure events surrounding the church’s early formation, a strong urging to learn lessons from the past and, above all, a call to rekindle the enthusiasm early Adventists felt for the Second Coming of Christ.
“We must never lose the sense that [Jesus’ Second Coming] is soon,” Adventist historian Jim Nix told delegates. “This is what our pioneers fervently believed.”
Nix, director of the Ellen G. White Estate, explored the church’s early roots in Battle Creek during a morning presentation. When church pioneer Joseph Bates first arrived in the rural Michigan town, Nix said, he asked the local postmaster for “the most honest man in town,” in hopes that man would be open to the emerging Adventist message. The man was David “Penny” Hewitt, a peddler so honest that if he unknowingly cheated a customer so much as a penny, he felt compelled to make immediate amends, Nix said.
After a “morning worship” by Bates extended well into the evening, Hewitt and his wife, Olive, were convinced of the seventh-day Sabbath and the sanctuary doctrine. The couple became Battle Creek’s first Sabbath-keeping Adventists. In 1860, David would suggest naming the growing denomination the “Seventh-day Adventist Church,” three years before it was officially established.
Delegates also learned about some of what Adventist historian Merlin Burt called “spiritual detours in leadership” during the church’s early formation.
“The Bible doesn’t hide the weaknesses of people of faith, and nor should we tell an incomplete story of our pioneers,” he said.
Burt, who directs the Center of Adventist Research at church-owned Andrews University in nearby Berrien Springs, Michigan, took the opportunity to defend the reputation of a man many Adventists have viewed unfavorably as an authoritative legalist.
That man, George Ide Butler, was embroiled in a heated debate with other early Adventist leaders regarding the doctrine of righteousness by faith. Butler rejected the notion, claiming it slackened the reins of God’s law.
By 1888, Butler’s health had collapsed. He had been “thrust” into leadership of the Ohio Conference after two dissenters, Snook and Brinkerhoff, questioned Ellen White’s prophetic authority and unexpectedly left the church, Nix said. Butler would later serve two terms as Adventist Church president.
He retired to a rural citrus farm in Florida, where he cared for orange groves and his wife, Lentha, who had suffered a debilitating stroke. Years later, in a letter, Butler said the setting gave him ample “opportunities for meditation,” and admitted that his mistakes were “manifold.” Mellowed by quiet reflection, Butler fully accepted the doctrine of righteousness by faith and returned to church administration, mentoring A. G. Daniels and other young members.
Calling the story “redemptive,” Burt urged delegates to apply its lessons to their own leadership.
“Even when God works and changes our own lives, our limitations still remain,” Burt said. “Hopefully, though, when we’re dependent upon God we can be more humble in our opinions, more charitable to others, less critical, and try to understand and care for others. When we are aware of the mercy of God, it makes us more merciful and able to be more effective leaders.”
During a mid-day break, delegates witnessed the groundbreaking of two new buildings on the campus of the Adventist Historic Village — replicas of the church’s first publishing house and first health reform institute in Battle Creek.
Adventist world church president Ted N. C. Wilson, flanked by presidents of the church’s 13 world divisions, raised bright blue shovels into the air for a photo opp, a stark contrast to the gray drizzle that clouded the village.
“May this be a reminder of the importance of transferring truth through the spoken word, and the written word,” Wilson said, referring to the future publishing house.
During an afternoon presentation, Adventist world church Vice President Delbert Baker explored how the early church’s outreach method put it at the leading edge of advocacy for equality.
Early Adventists, Baker said, grappled with slavery, equality and other “defining issues” of the mid-19th Century. The church was officially established two years before the end of the Civil War, which pitted the northern and southern U.S. states against each other in a bloody battle over slavery, states’ rights and the preservation of the Union.
Ellen White counseled early Adventists to let “timeless biblical principles” guide their approach to race relations. Using Luke 4 as what Baker called an “outreach blueprint,” Adventists were “unequivocal” in their belief that the Bible prompted ministry to all people and compelled Christians to “set the oppressed free.”
Indeed, Baker said, early Adventists were a diverse group, well representing gender, age and ethnicity. A former slave named Charles Kinney became the church’s first black minister. Missionary Anna Knight was the first black woman to do outreach in India.
Progress, however, “was not accidental” or, at times, even “easy,” Baker reminded delegates. It often required the “prodding of members” and the “confrontation of Ellen White.”
Early Adventists also struggled over whether to formally organize as a church, a subject Barry Oliver, president of the church’s South Pacific Division, explored. Early pioneers such as James White were fervent in their call to “come out of Babylon,” which they first interpreted as a challenge to leave organized religion and return to gospel simplicity.
But financial collapse and an urgent need to fund outreach led the Adventist Church to embrace formal organization.
“The development of mission was a clear impetus for organization,” Oliver said, adding that early leaders were equally clear in cautioning that “when structure inhibited mission, it should be changed.”
Formal organization led to burgeoning church growth worldwide. When the church was officially established in 1863, there were 3,500 Adventists. By the turn of the century, there were 75,000 church members worldwide in America, Europe, the South Pacific and other so-called “mission fields.”
During a question-and-answer period, one delegate asked Oliver whether he feared current tension between world church headquarters and local regions would jeopardize the church’s unity. Some administrative units of the church have lately challenged the world church on the issue of women’s ordination.
“You’re asking me to be a prophet,” Oliver said, eliciting laughter from the delegates. He thought for a moment, then recommended a healthy “balance” between the church’s world headquarters and regional administration.
“We are resilient as a church, but unity must be guarded appropriately,” he said.