In the end, it seemed fitting that an archivist—in this case, David Trim of the Seventh-day Adventist world church—would encapsulate two days of presentations reflecting on the 150 years since the denomination's formal organization.
“This is a historian's dream,” the waistcoated Trim said yesterday afternoon to an audience of church officials gathered at the Adventist Historic Village. “Church leaders sitting down for two days listening to history—may it happen many more times.”
The two-day review of history was not, however, merely an academic exercise. Instead, the presentations were designed to help delegates to the church’s Spring Meeting, one of two bi-annual business sessions, understand the roots of present-day Adventism as well as to draw lessons from the lives of pioneers, early believers and even apostates.
The fervor of early Adventists sometimes faded: Moses Hull was one of those who suggested the name "Seventh-day Adventist Church," but later apostatized into Spiritualism. John Harvey Kellogg, leader of the church's early health and education departments, built the famed Battle Creek Sanatorium, but later wrested it from church control, and in 1907 was dropped from membership because of his advocacy of pantheistic ideas. Toward the end of his life, Kellogg acknowledged his errors, at least privately, but declined rebaptism for fear of igniting controversy, said Bill Knott, editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines.
Sadly, though, Knott said, "Kellogg's story ended well before his death," because of his separation from the movement.
Ella Simmons, an Adventist educational system veteran now in her second term as a general vice president of the Adventist world church, spoke of the collapse of institutions centered in Battle Creek—the Sanitarium, snatched away by Kellogg and later burned; the Review and Herald Publishing Association, also burned in a fire; and Battle Creek College, which ultimately collapsed.
Early church pioneer Ellen G. White had warned church officials against what she called the “proliferation of buildings” in Battle Creek, Simmons said. White feared the concentration of institutions in one place would indulge insular thinking and jeopardize the church’s mission and outreach, she said, adding that White later went so far as to call the fires “necessary” in an article for the Adventist Review.
“It’s not the buildings or institutions that give character to the church, but the faithfulness and integrity of its workers,” Simmons said. “We are the temples of God.”
But, Simmons noted, the failures and problems at Battle Creek were the ashes from which major institutions such as Loma Linda University and Andrews University grew.
Simmons also traced the development of the church’s education system, now a network of 112 colleges and universities and about 8,000 schools worldwide, serving an estimated 1.7 million students. Establishing a denominationally-based school system was an afterthought for early Adventists, many of whom questioned the value of investing in education when the end of the world was supposedly imminent.
Church co-founder James White was among early proponents of Adventist education, saying, “The fact that Christ is coming soon is no reason the mind shouldn’t be improved.”
Early Adventists were not always committed to worldwide mission, either. More than a decade passed between when the church was founded and when John Nevins Andrews left for Europe as the church’s first overseas ministry.
In his Sabbath afternoon presentation, Trim recounted the change in Adventist attitudes that moved the church from solely preaching its message in North America to a focus that took it “into all the world.”
At first, early Adventists were preoccupied with the United States’ “providential” place in history, Trim said. They were reluctant to take biblical phrases such as “all the world” and “every nation,” literally, concluding that they “did not need to leave America to fulfill prophetic destiny,” he said. Indeed, some of the church’s first missionary work was to reach immigrant populations in the U.S.
By 1873, it was again James White who called for a change. In one sermon, he mentioned that the Advent message should “go to all people” 14 times. Ultimately, Trim said, it was influential leaders such as James, prophetic counsel from Ellen White and good communication—constant reports from Europe detailed the need for mission work there—that led to world mission. Together, “these implanted passion for mission in the Adventist DNA, which I hope will never be extracted,” Trim said.
Reflecting on the shifts in focus and realizations early church leaders came to, Adventist world church president Ted N. C. Wilson thanked the afternoon presenters for highlighting the need for humility and flexibility in leadership, drawing this lesson from the life of former church President George Ide Butler: “You can’t be a leader and think you know it all. You’ve got to come to the cross every day,” Wilson said.
Echoing his Sabbath sermon, the world church leader also took the opportunity to urge delegates not to become complacent, but to recapture a sense of urgency about the Second Coming.
“Where do we go from here?” Wilson asked. “Use the experiences of this weekend to inspire an unprecedented return to the message that Jesus will soon return. Let’s be part of this great Advent movement.”
In closing the afternoon presentations, Jim Nix, director of the Ellen G. White Estate, thanked former world church President Jan Paulsen who, while in office, first suggested that Spring Meeting be held in Battle Creek to commemorate the church’s 150th anniversary.