Rekindling Revival Flames
Lessons from a famous fire
By Alejo Aguilar
What kind of sermon would you expect to hear if the church you usually attend had burned to the ground just four days before? What would have been the topic of your pastor’s sermon if one of the most important hospitals or publishing houses of your denomination had been devastated by a fire? What kind of articles would you expect to be published in the very first issue of Adventist World after such a hypothetical disaster?
On February 18, 1902, the renowned Seventh-day Adventist Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, United States, burned to the ground. This event was the source of a general feeling of dismay among church leaders, and, understandably so, an obvious reference from many pulpits and in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald published exactly one week after the catastrophe.
Outstanding among reactions to the catastrophe was the report made by the sanitarium director John Harvey Kellogg, who made it clear that he planned to start immediately rebuilding a larger and better sanitarium.1
DEVASTATING FLAMES: The Seventh-day Adventist
Battle Creek Sanitarium burns to the ground on
February 18, 1902.A project like the one he envisioned would cost at least $250,000, but Kellogg had it all figured out. With the insurance money he was expecting to get, plus donations by some of the well-off regular patients of the institution, the visionary leader hoped to reach his goal without running into debt.2
Kellogg, however, was not the only one feeling thrilled with his plans for new facilities. The emotional sermon that W. W. Prescott preached at the Battle Creek Tabernacle the first Sabbath after the fire is a proof of the predominant feeling. In his sermon, which he based on Haggai 2:9, Prescott assured his hearers that in the same way the glory of the “second temple” had been greater as a result of Christ’s presence, the glory of a “second sanitarium” would also be greater.3
But beyond these converging opinions, had the prophetic voice anything to say? Would the Lord send a particular message for moments like these? The same issue of the Review and Herald, published on February 25, 1902, includes an important inspired message in that regard.
A Different View
At the beginning of that issue, Ellen G. White wrote an article “The Need of a Revival and a Reformation,” which has certainly become an essential source when studying what the Lord’s messenger wrote about the topic of revival. “A revival and a reformation must take place, under the ministration of the Holy Spirit. Revival and reformation are two different things. Revival signifies a renewal of spiritual life, a quickening of the powers of mind and heart, a resurrection from spiritual death. Reformation signifies a reorganization, a change in ideas and theories, habits and practices. Reformation will not bring forth the good fruit of righteousness unless it is connected with the revival of the Spirit. Revival and reformation are to do their appointed work, and in doing this work they must blend.”4
Even though these statements are well known and important, it is likely we don’t often take into account the particular moment when they were written. Clearly diverging from the thoughts of many church leaders—especially Kellogg—the message Ellen White gave at that watershed moment in the history of our church was certainly meant to make both leaders and members reflect on their priorities.
While for some the most important thing was to build better and larger facilities, the Lord wanted His church to turn from such a path. He wanted His people to understand that no grandiose building would be able to surpass in importance an earnest search for true revival and a deep movement toward reformation.
PLANNER: John Harvey Kellogg
made plans to rebuild the facility after the fire.Now more than a century since the tragic fires of 1902,5 what can we learn from them? Is there something there that may also help us to understand and make the most of our church’s current focus on revival and reformation?
The Battle Creek Fire and Adventist Revival
The growth our church experienced since that time has been outstanding. Presently our church does not own just one sanitarium; it manages hundreds of hospitals, clinics, and dispensaries, as well as numerous schools, health food companies, and publishing companies.
But even though our church budget is—by the grace of God—well above those $250,000 needed to rebuild the burned down sanitarium, could it be possible that our financial and institutional growth is well above our spiritual commitment? Have we reached a point in our spiritual experience that we feel we do not need the appeals of the Spirit of Prophecy to lead us into revival and reformation? Could it be that we also need some “fires” in our midst to help us to reorder our priorities?
Indeed, what Ellen White penned just two days after the Battle Creek Sanitarium fire includes a message for us as well. She wrote: “Trials come to us all to lead us to investigate our hearts, to see if they are purified from all that defiles. Constantly the Lord is working for our present and eternal good. Things occur which seem inexplainable, but if we trust in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him, humbling our hearts before Him, He will not permit the enemy to triumph. . . . The Lord seeks to educate His people to lean wholly upon Him. He desires them, through the lessons that He teaches them, to become more and more spiritualized. If His Word is not followed in all humility and meekness, He brings to them experiences which, if rightly received, will help to prepare them for the work to be done in His name.”6
The lesson is clear: As we keep building and budgeting, as we strive for the best and highest-quality institutions, God wants to remind us that—in spite of it all—there is nothing more important than allowing “the Holy Spirit to realign our lives with biblical values; to submit to God’s will in every area of our lives.”7
It was a priority in 1902, and it has to be our priority as well. Mark Finley is right when he reminds us that “the spirit of revival and reformation will lead every institutional leader and administrative committee to reevaluate the practices of the institution they lead in the light of biblical principles and the counsels of the Spirit of Prophecy. . . . Heaven’s call to reformation is a call to reevaluate every personal and corporate practice in the blazing light of God’s Word. It is an urgent appeal to renew our commitment to doing Christ’s will in every area of our lives.”8
As we move forward to accomplish our mission to the very end, may the Lord help us—with or without destroying fires—to remember to keep building and enlarging that space that only Jesus must fill.
1 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years, 1900-1905 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1981), vol. 5, pp. 200, 201. See also Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 25, 1902.
2 A. L. White, pp. 200, 201.
3 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Feb. 25, 1902. As long as those working at the sanitarium adapted their lives to the principles of the Bible.
4 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), book 1, p. 128.
5 The facilities of the Review and Herald also went through a fire later that same year.
6 Ellen G. White manuscript 76, 1903, Feb. 20, 1902, “The Burning of the Sanitarium,” quoted in Ellen G. White, The Upward Look (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), p. 65.
7 Mark A. Finley, “Is ‘Reformation’ a Confusing Term?” available online at www.adventistreview.org/issue.php?issue=2011-1514&page=6.
Alejo Aguilar teaches Old Testament at Navojoa University, Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico.