Route to Roots
Tracking Adventist pioneers
By Gerald A. Klingbeil
SOON AND VERY SOON: On Ascension Rock, close to the farm of William Miller in White Hall, New York, we try to imagine the moment. Below: MEET SOM FRIENDS: Adventist World associate editor Gerald Klingbeil with the life-size photos of Ellen and James White at the Adventist Historic Village in Battle Creek, Michigan.In October 2013 associate editor Gerald A. Klingbeil went on a journey to rediscover Adventist roots. He joined an Adventist Heritage Tour, led by James Nix, director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference. For 9 days, they traveled nearly 2,200 miles (3,540 km) in the northeastern United States. Starting off as a group of 35 strangers, ranging in age from 8 to 80, they parted as friends; no, more than that, as family. The following offers glimpses into his blog.1
There are many routes to our roots. Roots determine who and what we are. A tree with deep roots will grow strong and tall. Shallow roots will result in superficial growth. The root metaphor also helps us understand our Adventist heritage. James and Ellen White, Uriah Smith, or J. N. Andrews are easily recognized Adventist brand names. However, what about the lesser-known heroes of the Advent movement? What about the nitty-gritty of a young movement struggling to stick together and to articulate—by God’s special guidance—the unique message that Adventists are to bring to a world that needs to hear the cries of the three angels?
The “good ol’ days” sound safe and comforting and uncomplicated. Yet life in the early nineteenth century lacked most of the conveniences that we take for granted. Every loaf of bread meant an investment of many days of accumulated work. And think of printing in nineteenth century New England. The eight-page pamphlet Present Truth (forerunner of the Adventist Review) would take at least a day to set and proof the type. The actual printing of 1,000 copies would take another day or two, after which the print sheets would have to be dried before they could be cut to size and folded together. Depending on the season of year and temperatures, the drying of the printed sheets could take more days. Not surprisingly, printing wasn’t cheap. In an age of laser printers and print-on-demand books, I have a new admiration for those hard-working Adventist pioneers who, despite their long days, made time to focus on first things with eternal dividends.
Before Ellen Harmon received her first vision, God chose two men to communicate His will. William Foy, an African American, and Hazen Foss both received visions, according to their later testimonies. While Foy, albeit timidly, related these visions publicly and continued to be a faithful Baptist preacher, Foss, afraid of being ridiculed, decided not to share the visions given him. Sadly, he died an agnostic in 1893. In contrast, Joseph Bates, James White, and Ellen Harmon, the three key founders of Seventh-day Adventism, all responded willingly to God’s call to preach the soon return of Jesus and the many other truths they were discovering in Scripture.
What made the difference? It couldn’t have been age or experience. Bates was 52 in 1844, but both Ellen and James were young adults (Ellen was 17 years old in 1844, and James was 23). We know that all of them at times struggled with new light, emotional challenges, and other issues. In the end, I think it was their passion for Jesus that made the difference.
I was moved by our visit to the Gorham North Street Cemetery where Ellen White’s twin sister, Elizabeth, is buried. As far as we know, Elizabeth never accepted Christ. Listening to one of Ellen’s letters to "Lizzie "(as she was known), in which Ellen pleaded with her sister to give her heart to her Savior, made me swallow hard. Faces of family members or good friends who walked away from Jesus (or never accepted Him) flashed before me. In Ellen’s appealing words, I heard something of God’s longing to wrap those I love in His arms.
What kind of story would I hear if Annie Smith—poet and unofficial managing editor of the fledgling Adventist paper in Rochester, New York—could speak today? I think I would hear enthusiasm, optimism, passion, deep convictions, and the seemingly limitless energy of young adults. I can still feel that passion today when I speak with my teenage daughter about topics that she is passionate about. When Adventist teenagers get it, nothing can stop them. That was a vital part of the success story of early Adventism. They were few; they had limited resources—yet they were ready to move forward, convicted by truth, and assured of divine appointment. I need to rediscover that drive in my own life.
As I listened to the stories of William Miller and those who followed him, their sacrificial spirit and fortitude touched me again. They were willing to hold their beliefs regardless of ridicule, scorn, or derision.
For all his later faithfulness, it took William Miller many years to fix his heart on Jesus. Once converted, he spent two years studying Scripture. He didn’t surrender his brains when he entered church. He realized that the God of revelation was also the God who created our powers of reasoning. Following his intensive study, he wrote: “I was constrained to admit that the Scriptures must be a revelation from God. They became my delight; and in Jesus I found a friend.” His friendship with Jesus sustained him as he preached the imminent second coming of Jesus before thousands of people for more than a dozen years. Scholars estimate that the Millerite movement encompassed at its height approximately 500,000 people in North America. This was no irrelevant, backwater Christian sideshow—it was loud; it was noisy; it was fearless; and it was passionate.
Faithfulness in difficult circumstances seems to have been a trademark of many of our early leaders. Percy T. Magan, one of the early educators of the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist Church, at times faced opposition to his wholistic approach to education. One day he received a tempting invitation from W. K. Kellogg to join the new company producing cornflakes as director of the sales department. Magan spent an entire night praying about this tempting invitation. In the morning, he knew the direction he had to go. Many years later he wrote to a friend, “I must stick to this message.” Selling cornflakes (and making money) just couldn’t compare to shaping and molding young minds searching for direction and a mission.
As early Advent believers grappled with the reality that Jesus didn’t come in 1844, many questioned the soundness of their prophetic interpretations. Others, feeling embarrassed and misled, rejected Christianity altogether. A small group, including Hiram Edson of Port Gibson, New York, cried and prayed.Their tears and questions did not go unanswered. On the morning following the Great Disappointment, as Edson crossed a cornfield, he suddenly felt as if heaven had been opened and he could see right into the heavenly sanctuary.
This discovery helped the scattered Advent believers make sense of the big picture of Bible prophecy. I wish we could capture its centrality for the total package of what makes the Seventh-day Adventist Church.2 The sanctuary is the glue that keeps all elements of our theology together—and Jesus is right at the center of the sanctuary!
One of the most important lessons I am bringing home from my journey is that family sticks together. Family members cry together—and sometimes they even disagree. Yet, at the end ofthe day, we stick together. When I read the history of early Adventist pioneers, I find strong convictions and passionate discussions. However, that was not the end. There was something bigger that moved us forward: a world that needed to know. From the beginnings of early Adventism this vision has grown. Early Adventists thought that they had to reach the world in the United States; after all, this was a country of immigrants from all over the world. As they grew in their understanding of God’s global mission, they realized that the world was much bigger. They never spoke of the 10/40 window, but following the departure of J. N. Andrews to Europe in 1874, mission and service became the rallying cry of Adventism. It must be still today.
There is one more insight from this route to our roots: Our pioneers were real people, living in a real world; and they were no saints. They would not want us to try to go back to the “good ol’ days.” They embraced the changing world that surrounded them and constantly wrestled with the question of how the new could be used to further God’s plan. They used innovative papier-mâché beasts when they wanted to talk about God’s prophetic panorama found in Daniel and Revelation.3 They were willing to climb into unproven means of transportation (just think train or later automobile) in order to reach their nextappointment. They pushed forward because they knew that time was short.
As we hugged and shook hands at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago it felt as if I had found important roots. Irrespective of my birthplace, my language, or my culture, I am first and foremost a member of God’s family, waiting for the Blessed Hope to become a sweet reality. And while I wait, I want to share the Good News.
1You can read the complete blog of this journey, including also many more images, at http://adventistreview.org/route-to-roots.
2Gerald A. Klingbeil, “Big Picture Thinking: The Sanctuary and the Heart of Adventist Theology,” Adventist Review, Oct. 20, 2011, pp. 18–21.
3See Glúder Quispe, “William Ward Simpson
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist World who loves history and photography. He lives with his wife Chantal and their three daughters in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.