William Ward Simpson
Adventism’s first successful big-city evangelist
By Glúder Quispe
Visitors to the Center for Adventist Research (CAR) at Andrews University are often fascinated by the seven three-dimensional papier-mâché structures depicting beasts from the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. Who crafted these fine beasts? When and where were they used? Answers to these questions explore one of Adventism’s outstanding evangelistic legacies.
William Ward Simpson, of English descent, was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 1, 1872. Sometime after that his parents returned to England to spend 11 years there, before once again moving their entire family to the United States, settling in Florida. Simpson’s father, William, Sr., only briefly survived this last move. Stricken with pneumonia during the sea voyage, he died shortly after arriving. William, Jr., was the only one of his parents’ six children to survive to adulthood.
The Simpsons were an atheistic family. But when William fell ill, a family named Maxon advised his mother to bring her surviving son to the Battle Creek Sanitarium.1 As his health improved with care, Dr. John H. Kellogg hired him as a callboy at the sanitarium. Working with and for Adventists, and later as an errand boy for the Good Hope Publishing Company, had no impact on Simpson’s faithlessness.
When he was 18 years old, Simpson still looked with ridicule at an advertisement of lectures on the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation at the chapel where he worked. One night, bent on mockery, he sneaked into the chapel during a meeting. But the Holy Spirit was working. That very night he began to be captivated by biblical prophecies. Thereafter he came to every night’s lecture and soon accepted the truth.
Colporteur and Preacher
STATE OF THE ART: William Ward Simpson (inset) used dramatic representations of prophetic symbols to attract audiences and illustrate his evangelistic lectures.As he matured, Simpson worked as a pressman at the Review and Herald in Battle Creek. Conviction rested on the extroverted young man that God was calling him to spread His Word.
Simpson preached his first sermon in Kings’ Mills, Michigan, on April 29, 1894, and became attracted to the ministry of John Fox Ballenger, a vigorous pioneer with creative ways of illustrating Bible truth. Ballenger had built a scale replica of the ancient sanctuary. Wanting to see his visual aids and to learn more about his ministerial methods, Simpson took advantage of the opportunity to visit Ballenger’s home. The two men found much to talk about. Ballenger’s daughter, Nellie, joined them for dinner.
Early in 1895, at the age of 22, Simpson arrived in Canada, where he was called to do some pioneer work. He organized a church in Kent County in the province of Ontario. But pressure from Methodist churches and Sunday blue laws brought the charge of “desecration of the Sabbath day” against Simpson. He was convicted May 2, 1896, and committed to 40 days in the county jail.
Ingenious and indomitable, Simpson used the time in his cell, and materials at his disposal, to prepare a colorful, carefully documented 20-page religious-liberty booklet. On June 10 Simpson was released from prison.
The Ballenger dinner of 1894 continued to yield its profit when the Michigan Conference assigned Simpson to work with Ballenger in a tent effort in Michigan, with Nellie in charge of the music. Though Simpson returned to work in Canada, and Nellie served as dean of women and self-supporting Bible worker at Walla Walla College in Washington, their correspondence continued; because Simpson, who had a jeweler’s license, was fixing Nellie’s watch. Dinner, evangelistic music, watch repairs, and continuous correspondence resulted in marriage on May 10, 1899. The couple was blessed with three children.
After reporting his first lung hemorrhage in October 1902 while living in Canada, Simpson was urged to move to a milder climate. In November the family moved to California, conducting successful evangelistic campaigns in the cities of Redlands, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Diego, Pasadena, Santa Ana, Oakland, and others.2 William Ward Simpson was a persuasive and imaginative speaker.
During the time Simpson worked in California, Ellen White reported, “W. W. Simpson had been holding tent meetings in the heart of the city of Los Angeles. . . . Night after night the large tent, holding two thousand persons, has been crowded. . . . Elder Simpson presents the truth as it was presented in past years. . . . He explains the prophecies very clearly, showing plainly that the end of all things is at hand.” She added, “The Lord certainly works with him, and I wish that there were hundreds of such workers in the field, proclaiming with the same earnestness and enthusiasm the last message of warning.”4
Crowds as large as 2,000 in Los Angeles in 1905 make one wonder what might have been the course of Adventist evangelism had Simpson lived. Before he died at the age of 35 Simpson brought significant innovations to Seventh-day Adventist evangelism. About the time he went to Pasadena, early in 1906, Simpson commissioned a Hollywood firm to build his papier mâché beasts. His granddaughter Lavon M. Ramsey and her husband, Fred, donated them (and some other personal items of her grandfather’s) to CAR in 1976. CAR’s Collection 81, the William Ward Simpson Collection, consists of two boxes that include correspondence, information about the papier mâché beasts, material on the Ballenger family, and Simpson’s evangelistic work and writings, as well as material from his daughter, Winea J. Simpson.
Though coming from a home without God, Simpson became one of His spokespersons par excellence. Ellen White wrote at least eight letters to him, one of which said: “I have a message for you from the Lord. Cultivate your vocal organs.”5 She encouraged him to continue his evangelist campaigns, telling him that “angels are round about you.”6 She also congratulated him for notable results.7 Finally, in his illness she assured: “The Lord has blessed your efforts; but your work is not done. Take the very best treatment you can possibly get.”8
On April 28, 1907, overwork, poor health, or perhaps the detrimental influence of the Ballenger apostasy took Simpson to his rest.
This picturesque quote of his still sounds a remarkable echo for us: “I thank God from the depth of my soul for a humble part in His cause, and with you dedicate myself with all that I have or ever expect to have in helping to sound the loud cry of the third angel’s message in all the earth in this generation.”9
1 Nellie Ballenger Simpson, “Notes,” quoted in Fred M. Ramsey, “A Study of William Ward Simpson’s Evangelistic Personality” (paper prepared for SDA Church History, Andrews University, May 1971), p. 5.
2 Results of those evangelist campaigns can be found in G. W. Reaser, “Southern California: New Items,” Pacific Union Recorder, Dec. 28, 1905, p. 5; idem, “Southern California,” Pacific Union Recorder, Mar. 15, 1906, p. 4; William W. Simpson, “Pasadena,” Review and Herald, June 21, 1906, p. 4. Ellen G. White to John Burden, Sanitarium, California, Apr. 12, 1905.
3 Howard B. Weeks, Adventist Evangelism in the Twentieth Century (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1969), p. 18.
4 Ellen G. White, “Notes of Travel—No. 5: Los Angeles, Cal.,” Review and Herald, Mar. 2, 1905.
5 Ellen G. White to William W. Simpson, Sept. 18, 1904.
6 Ellen G. White to William W. Simpson, Oct. 14, 1905; Ellen G. White to William W. Simpson, Jan. 30, 1906; Ellen G. White to William W. Simpson, Aug. 20, 1906; Ellen G. White to William W. Simpson, Oct. 27, 1906.
7 Ellen G. White to William W. Simpson, Dec. 4, 1906.
8 Ellen G. White to William W. Simpson, Apr. 9, 1907.
9 Simpson, “Pasadena,” Pacific Union Recorder, June 21, 1906, p. 4.
Glúder Quispe is a theology professor at Peruvian Union University, and a Ph.D. candidate in the field of Adventist Studies at Andrews University.