By Arthur W. Spalding
The global faith community of Seventh-day Adventists now embraces literally millions of children and youth in more than 200 countries, almost all of them served by the Sabbath school ministry and an array of age-appropriate journals. Here, from the pen of one of the church’s best-known historians, is the story of how that ministry began.—Editors.
James and Ellen White had appointments out from Rochester to Bangor, Maine, traveling by horse and buggy. But their younger child, Edson, three years old, was stricken with the cholera. How could they leave? With brethren and sisters, they took him to the Lord, and the disease was stayed; but he remained weak and unresponsive. They could not abandon him; yet thus must go. Placing him upon a pillow, one afternoon at four o’clock, his mother rode for twenty miles, his father driving, before they halted for the night.
“If you go on,” said their hosts, “you’ll bury that child by the roadside.” Yet they went on, a hundred miles in two days, the mother exhausted and sleeping much of the way with her child tied to her waist by a cord, lest he fall. Little Edson revived, and continually improved as the parents filled their appointments, beginning in Vermont.
Was it the sight of his sick child that stirred James White’s mind to a need in the infant cause? Was it the voice of the Master that called to him as he drove, silently praying while he looked upon his sleeping wife and babe, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven”? There were other babes and other children of the believers, few hundreds though they were, who were languishing, not from disease, but from spiritual neglect. The child—what was he? Simply a little man, and as a little man he should take a little of what greater men took. He should listen to the sermon, dangling his feet from the high bench and wagging his weary body against his mother; if he did not know all the big words, he knew the little ones: sin, fall, angel, Jesus, end of the world. Time was short, the Lord would come before the child would be grown; why bother to educate him? James White wrote, “Some have thought that because Christ was so soon coming they need not bestow much labor on their children. This is a grievous error, sufficient to call down the frown of Heaven.”
ADVENTIST ORIGINALS: An early hymnal for
Adventist youth (upper left) was compiled by
Anna White, James White’s sister. She also
edited the Youth’s Instructor. After her death,
Roswell F. Cottrell (upper right) became editor.
This man who loved children, who had been a teacher of children, who early in his ministry had taken pleasure in confuting adults who opposed the conversion and baptism of children, was now, in the midst of his cares and burdens in starting this final gospel message, stirred to the depths of his soul by the needs of the children; and he was made the instrument in the hands of God to plant the seed of a mighty movement in the church for the education of children and youth.
This purpose was immediately announced in their only existing paper, the Review and Herald [now the Adventist Review]: “We design publishing a small monthly paper, containing matter for the benefit of the youth. And we are satisfied that our brethren and sisters will agree with us, that something of the kind is very much needed. The children should have a paper of their own, one that will interest and instruct them.
“God is at work among the children who have believing parents, or guardians, and many of them are being converted, and they need to be instructed in the present truth. And there is a portion of the children who have believing parents, or guardians, who are neglected, and do not have right instruction, consequently, they do not manifest much interest for their own salvation. We trust that such a paper as we design publishing will interest such children, and also be the means of waking up their parents or guardians to a sense of their important duty. On them rests the awful responsibility of training souls for the kingdom of God. But it is a lamentable fact that many of their children are left without suitable instruction. We feel more on this subject than we can express. May God wake up His people to a sense of their duty to those young minds, entrusted to their care, to guide in the channel of virtue and holiness.
“We intend to give four or five lessons, in the form of questions and answers, in each number, one for each week for Sabbath school lessons. These schools can be held where there are but two or three children as well as where there are more.”
The first number of the Youth’s Instructor was published at Rochester, New York, in August 1852, a monthly, with subscription price twenty-five cents a year, but free to children who themselves or whose sponsors could not pay. The editorship was not declared but it was under the care of James White, who was greatly assisted at this time by Annie Smith. A year later the editor was Anna White, the sister of James White, who with her brother Nathanael had come to live with them, in the autumn of 1852….
James White had prepared an initial series of nineteen Bible lessons on the main points of the faith. While they were designed for children and youth—an omnibus assignment—they served also, in the absence of other Sabbath school material, as the lesson studies for adults. These first lessons were followed by seventeen others selected from a non-Adventist paper. Eight lessons on the sanctuary followed, and then the momentum was exhausted. While the mother of the Sabbath school, the Youth’s Instructor, continued to be published as a monthly, its child was left forlornly crying for attention. Bowed under many cares, and ill, James White could barely keep the Advent ship pointed on her true course, and the interests of the Sabbath school languished for eight months.
Then the soul of Roswell F. Cottrell was roused to action, and he prepared a year’s course of weekly lessons, which in 1854 appeared in the Youth’s Instructor, and the next year were published in book form, The Bible Class. This little book served as the Sabbath school guide for two or three years, until the edition of two thousand was exhausted. Like the first lessons, they were designed as food for children and youth; and, again like them, they became meat as well for the old. But if the science of feeding the child was not greatly developed in that day, at least the will to nourish was there, and the children’s teeth were strong.
Arthur W. Spalding (1877-1953) was a much-admired Adventist educator, author, and editor. His four-volume history of the church, Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists, from which this selection is drawn (vol. 2, pp. 61-65), was published in 1962.