Fresh Perspectives on Adventist
At Battle Creek’s Historic Adventist Village,
movement’s lessons recounted
By Mark A. Kellner, news editor, Adventist World, and Elizabeth Lechleitner, Adventist News Network, reporting from Battle Creek, Michigan, United States
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 officers. “Church leaders sitting down for two days listening to history—may it happen many more times!”
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 biannual business sessions, understand the roots of present-day Adventism, as well as to draw lessons from the lives of pioneers, early believers, 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 Sanitarium, but later wrested it from church control, and in 1907 was dropped from membership because of his advocacy of pantheistic ideas. Toward the end of his life, reported Bill Knott, editor and executive publisher of Adventist Review andAdventist 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 long 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 gray was just as unwilling to be counseled by anyone named White.” Knott explained, referring to much counsel given by church cofounder Ellen G. 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 teaching of “righteousness by faith” promulgated in 1888 and endorsed by Ellen White. Years later he was recalled to service as president of the church’s Southern Union Conference (southern U.S.), and acknowledged that his Florida sojourn had given him a chance to reflect and accept the biblical teaching he had once opposed.
Butler’s remarkable acknowledgment is often overlooked, said historian Merlin Burt of the Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Butler also went on to offer valuable mentoring of 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 midday break, delegates witnessed the groundbreaking of two new buildings on the campus of Historic Adventist Village — replicas of the church’s first publishing house and first health reform institute in Battle Creek.
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.
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.”
Ella Smith Simmons, an Adventist educational system veteran 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 Battle Creek Sanitarium, destroyed by fire, rebuilt, and later snatched away by Kellogg; 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 cited Ellen White’s comment that “the vineyard includes the whole world and every part of it.”*
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.”
*Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 24.