Adventist Leaders Hear Fresh
Perspectives on Early Church History

At Battle Creek's 'Historic Adventist Village,' Movement's Lessons Recounted (Posted April 14, 2013)

BY MARK A. KELLNER, News Editor, and ELIZABETH LECHLEITNER, Adventist News Network

In the end, it seemed fitting that an archivist -- in this case, David Trim of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists -- would encapsulate two days of presentations about a variety of topics related to the 150-year anniversary of the movement's formal organization.

"This is a historian's dream," the waistcoated Trim said the afternoon of Sabbath, April 13, 2013, before an assemblage of world church offiicers. "Church leaders sitting down for two days listening to history -- may it happen many more times!"

LESSONS FROM LOST LEADERS: Bill Knott, editor and executive publisher of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines, shares a presentation on the lessons from the lives and careers of three pioneers who were subsequently lost to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They were Moses Hull, John Harvey Kellogg and A.T. Jones. [Photos: Brandan Roberts/ANN]
The two days of programs were not, however, merely an academic exercise. Instead, the presentations were designed to help delegates to the movement'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. Towards the end of his life, reported Bill Knott, editor and executive publisher of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines, Kellogg acknowledged his errors, at least privately, but declined rebaptism for fear of igniting controversy.

Sadly, though, Knott said, "Kellogg's story ended well before his death," because of his separation from the movement.

Knott also discussed the lives and church careers of Hull, an Adventist for only six years, and A.T. Jones, whose involvement spanned decades and included some of the church's most influential roles.  For all his energy and skill, however, "the mind that could never grasp the shades of grey was just as unwilling to be counseled by anyone named White." Knott explained, referring to much counsel given by church co-founder Ellen White to Jones.

G.I. Butler, an early church leader who served twice as president of the church's General Conference for a total of 10 years, suffered broken health during his succession of leadership roles, and retired to Florida and tended orange groves. Butler also struggled with the "righteousness by faith" teaching promulgated in 1888 and endorsed by Ellen White. Years later, he was recalled to service as president of the church's Southern Union (southern U.S.), and acknowleged that his Florida sojourn had given him a chance to  reflect and accept the Biblical teaching he had once opposed..

MISSION DEVELOPMENT: David Trim, a historian and director of the General Conference's Archives, Statistics and Research office, addresses Battle Creek delegates, April 13, 2013, on the development of a missions consciousness in the early Seventh-day Adventist movement.
Butler's remarkable acknowledgement is often overlooked, said historian Merlin Burt of the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich.  Butler also went on to offer valuable mentoring other younger leaders of the Church.

Burt observed that the key lesson of Butler's life is the power of redemption, even in the life of a leader.

“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.

Pastor Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the General Conference, was flanked by presidents of the church’s 13 world divisions.  The leaders raised bright blue shovels into the air for a photo shoot, 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 rebuilt publishing house.

During a Friday 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.  Adventist Church pioneers were uniformly abolitionists, he noted.

LIFT UP THE SHOVELS: Officials of the Seventh-day Adventist Church raise shovels at symbolic groundbreaking for construction of a replica of the movement's first Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan, on April 12, 2013, at the Historic Adventist Village. [Photo: Henry Stober/ANN]
Indeed, Baker said, early Adventists were a diverse group, well representing gender, age and ethnicity diversity in their culture. A former slave named Charles Kinney became the church’s first black minister. Missionary Anna Knight was the first black female missionary of any faith to labor in India.

Progress, however, “was not accidental” or “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 struggles 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.”

OUT OF THE ASHES: Ella Smith Simmons, veteran educator and a general Vice President of the Adventist world church, discusses the demise of facilities in Battle Creek, Mich., and the subsequent rise of institutions such as Andrews University and Loma Linda University.
Formal organization led to burgeoning church growth worldwide. When the church was officially established in 1863, there were 3,500 Adventists. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were 75,000 church members worldwide in America, Europe, the South Pacific and other so-called “mission fields.”

Looking at the present day, Oliver said the church "must not let the voices that clamor for change destroy the unity" of the Seventh-day Adventist family. "We have unity, but that unity is a precious thing."

Ella Smith Simmons, an Adventist educational system veteran and now in her second term as a general vice president of the 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 -- and noted that the failures and problems were the ashes from which major institutions such as Loma Linda University and Andrews University grew.

In his Sabbath afternoon presentation, Trim noted 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," as many church signs proclaimed. Trim quoted Ellen White's comment that "the vineyard includes the whole world and every part of it," as quoted in Testimonies to the Church, vol. 6, page 23.

Concluding the weekend, Wilson drew this lesson from the life of G.I. Butler: "You can't be a leader and think you know it all -- you have to come to the foot of the cross, every day."

He said the church must "reignite our fervor for the Second Coming. ... Never succumb to the temptation to relax [this]: we need to go home! I hope this weekend will reenergize us for mission."

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