Reading wasn’t Ida’s favorite subject, but this story from her fourth-grade reader intrigued and impressed her. Entitled “The Transport Rider,”
Angels at Work in South Africa
Two hours of study with a stranger
By Elaine Tarr Dodd
Reading wasn’t Ida’s favorite subject, but this story from her fourth-grade reader intrigued and impressed her. Entitled “The Transport Rider,” it was about Fletcher Tarr growing up in South Africa during the 1800s, transporting goods to the diamond mines, and, in the process, learning about the seventh-day Sabbath. As she read she felt so strong a presence that she looked behind her . . .
Born David Fletcher Tarr in 1861, he was the twelfth of 16 children of James and Hannah (Brent) Tarr, godly Wesleyan Methodist Christians. The Tarr and Brent families had chosen South Africa among those now known as the 1820 Settlers. As new immigrants they transformed the wilds into a place they could call home, building houses, wells, and gardens, and a church near a hillock they named Clumber, where people still worship today.
Fletcher Tarr, a good athlete and crack shot who loved his Bible, became a Sunday school teacher at 15, and later a lay preacher. In 1887 his cousin Albert Davies and Albert’s wife decided to transport supplies by ox wagon to the Kimberley diamond mines, about 800 miles to the northwest. Something about the deal drew Fletcher in: something was calling him north.
Journeying Into the New
With loaded wagons, they started out, making their own roads. Weeks later they reached Beaconsfield on the outskirts of Kimberley late on a Friday afternoon. Seeking a place to camp and graze their oxen, Albert was directed to a farmer named Pieter Wessels, who said they could stay as long as no Sabbathbreaking activity took place on his property for the next 24 hours. “The Sabbath begins at sunset today and lasts until the following sunset,” he explained.
Albert, amazed that an intelligent person would not know one day from another, questioned him. At that Wessels plunged into a Bible study, apparently so sound that Albert rushed off to tell his cousin the new biblical interpretation.
Fletcher, the good Bible student, simply dismissed Wessels as somewhat unstable. But at Wessels’ invitation the next morning, he went with him to preach to a large Salvation Army audience in Beaconsfield.
The following morning during Fletcher’s personal devotions, a stranger appeared at the tent. Fletcher invited him inside. The stranger wanted to study, he said, “about the sanctity of the first day of the week.” But after more than two hours of unsatisfying study regarding Sunday’s sacredness, the man suddenly disappeared. Fletcher never saw him again. No area residents had ever seen him. Fletcher became certain the stranger was an angel sent to convince him of the true Sabbath. After hours of soul-searching prayer he decided to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. Now he knew why he had felt urged to travel northward with the ox wagons. God would show through Fletcher’s ministry that that urge was not for his sake alone.
About four months later Albert, his teammate, and Albert’s wife were baptized in the water of Brother Wessels’ dam. Soon after this, his studies among relatives and friends, supported by the public preaching of I. J. Hankins, resulted in a strong church being raised up. Its new converts included five local preachers. Its house of worship, erected by Fletcher on land donated by a cousin, Ebenezer Purdon, is still used by Adventists in the area. Another church at Beaconsfield that he assisted in establishing is a national monument advertised as the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Africa. It is almost on the same spot where the angel met with him in his tent that memorable morning.
A few weeks of study with his eldest brother, James, resulted in seeing his entire family of 15 children join the church, followed by his second-eldest brother, Walter, a widower, and his children. Of these two families, 17 became church workers, including four ordained ministers. Many more descendants have since worked for the church.
In 1890 Fletcher and two nephews sailed to America to attend Battle Creek College, where he became acquainted with, and cherished a friendship, with Ellen White. He returned to South Africa in 1893 accompanied by his new bride, Olive [nee Phillips], who had been chief nurse for John Harvey Kellogg.
As fluent in the Xhosa language as he was in English, Fletcher worked with the native population, often leaving Olive alone in their home, a corrugated iron house with only two rooms—unbearably hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.
One night while drying fruit on the kitchen table, Olive left the upper section of the door open for ventilation. Suddenly a fierce face appeared in the doorway. Quickly she slammed and bolted the upper half, then ran to the open window, screaming for their large pet dog, Peter, and shut it just as the face appeared there. The bedroom window was shut, but as she closed the curtain, a huge rock smashed through. In a moment Peter arrived and caught the intruder by the seat of his trousers. Yelling wildly, the man disappeared into darkness. In the morning his torn clothing lay outside the bedroom window.
In time the Tarrs and their son Percy moved to Cape Town, where Fletcher pastored English and Dutch congregations. Then came evangelistic and pastoral work in various large cities on his national worker’s salary of 7 pounds sterling a month—equivalent then to $7 weekly. Olive fed their five sons and turned faded suits inside out, re-sewing the seams for a newer look. The family usually walked miles rather than ride a trolley for a few pennies.
Around 1916, to the dismay of conference officials and her husband, Olive accepted responsibilities with the City of Port Elizabeth, overseeing the welfare of indigent widows. Her labors upon Port Elizabeth’s hillsides brought the family about $3 a week. But her health suffered. Notwithstanding, the great flu epidemic of 1918 saw her appointed head nurse for the city, because of her experience with Battle Creek Sanitarium. She also conducted Sabbath morning services for Fletcher when he was elsewhere, playing the old pump organ, leading the singing, and occupying the pulpit, all along attending to two little sons wiggling mischievously in the front row.
Furlough and Goodbye
In 1921 Olive took her first and only furlough after a 24-year absence from her friends and family in the U.S. Her old boss, Dr. Kellogg, observed that she needed surgery and insisted that he operate on her himself. She returned to serve for a dozen more years, and passed away in 1933 in East London at age 63.
After her death Fletcher lived alternately with his sons while still pastoring a local church. His grandchildren recall his absorbing stories and his unstoppable commitment to sharing his faith.
While living in Durban in 1947 he developed pneumonia, and passed away at age 86. His tombstone reads: “Awaiting the Lifegiver.” Today countless believers wait along with him, who trace their Adventist faith to David and Olive Tarr’s combined 99 years’ work for the Lord in South Africa.
Back in California
Little Ida grew up and enrolled in the School of Physical Therapy at Loma Linda University, completely forgetting her odd experience while reading the Fletcher Tarr story. At Loma Linda she met dental student David Otis, who shared her love of the Lord. They married and began a family. One day David discovered among his belongings a fourth-grade reader with the story of his great-grandfather, David Fletcher Tarr, the first English-speaking Seventh-day Adventist minister in South Africa. He showed the story to Ida and that long-ago impression came flooding back. It must have been a heavenly presence watching her fascination with a story that would impact her future.
Elaine Tarr Dodd is a former public relations director for It Is Written. This story is her version of one first written by her father, W. F. Tarr, who passed away in 1994. Elaine lives with her husband of 56 years in Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.