God’s Bountiful Care
The beginnings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America
By Silvia Scholtus Roscher
Reading about the beginnings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America brings to mind the words of the hymn “O Worship the King”: “Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?”1 As I have found out, however, few of those providential stories were written down for future generations.
The circumstances that allowed for the spreading of the blessed hope in South America are as rich and varied as is the contribution of every person of this continent who decides to become one of God’s people.2 The Lord uses the most diverse means to accomplish His purpose: a piece of literature, a casual encounter, a dream, a healing miracle, a testimony of faith.
The following three stories make up just a few links of the encompassing set of circumstances that contributed to the explosive growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America.
Before the Beginning
In the mid-nineteenth century various ethnic groups from Europe were migrating to South America. As those new immigrants exchanged letters with their relatives in Europe, they started receiving literature and news about the Seventh-day Adventist message being shared in their home countries. Thus, before the arrival of the first Seventh-day Adventist missionaries to the southern continent, God was preparing the way, creating a growing interest for the message of the Adventist hope. Years later, when the first foreign missionaries arrived, those first interests stepped forward to assist them as interpreters and helped them spread the gospel in the region.
A Strange Intervention
Sometime in the 1880s or 1890s, in Santa Catarina, Brazil, Carlos Dreefke got a package of German magazines from the United States. Since he had not requested any literature, he at first rejected the package. His neighbor, David Hort, however, encouraged him to open it, and the magazines were soon shared and read among the local settlers.
Interestingly, the arrival of Adventist literature was directly connected with the decision of Carlos’ stepson to travel to the United States as a stowaway on a German ship some months before. Seventh-day Adventist missionaries in the United States who were interested in sharing the gospel in the German settlements in southern Brazil gave the stepson Bible studies, secured his stepfather’s name and address, and sent Carlos Dreefke the package of magazines. A growing interest in that literature prompted several immigrants to subscribe to the magazine.
Guillermo Belz, from Gaspar Alto, received Uriah Smith’s book Gedanken über dar Buch Daniel (Thoughts on the Book of Daniel). After studying the Bible, several families began to keep the Sabbath. Thus they got acquainted with the blessed hope before a single Seventh-day Adventist missionary stepped onto the southern continent.
A Baptism Thousands of Miles Away
In the town of Felicia, in Santa Fe, Argentina, several Swiss French Baptist settlers began keeping the Sabbath in 1885, well before any missionary visited them, once more as a result of a “strange” set of circumstances.
One day they read in a newspaper they received from Switzerland about an Adventist baptism in Lake Neuchâtel. The story also mentioned the magazine Les Signes des Temps (Signs of the Times), and soon Julio Dupertuis and his wife, Ida, asked their Baptist pastor to get them a subscription. At first their pastor was reluctant, but they insisted to the point that he relented.
After receiving the magazines and studying the Bible, the Dupertuis family was persuaded about Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. They began to share their newfound faith with their neighbors. For more than a century now, members of the Dupertuis, Arn, Mathieu, Dobanton, and Pidoux families have been spreading the message of the Adventist hope in Argentina and elsewhere.
INTRODUCED IN A DREAM: Victor Thomann (top) dreamed about two men reading Psalm 103. When he heard Bishop (center) and Davis (bottom) reading from their Spanish Bibles, he knew his dream had come true.
A Providential Solution
One setback against spreading the gospel in South America was the lack of Adventist literature in the local languages of Portuguese and Spanish. Colporteurs usually sold books in English, French, and German among the immigrant population. But once more God’s providence facilitated the spreading of the blessed message.
Two foreign colporteurs, Frederick Bishop and Thomas Davis, arrived in Santiago, Chile, in 1896. Their task was not easy, since they did not speak a word of Spanish. One day as they walked down a major street in Santiago reading their Bible in Spanish aloud in order to learn the language, Víctor Thomann overheard them.
Víctor had dreamed about two men reading Psalm 103, so he approached them and began to chat. Since Víctor did not know a single word in English, they communicated by exchanging verses from the Bible. As a result, Víctor and his brother Eduardo—who had already been keeping the Sabbath—were eventually baptized. Both brothers began to take part in meetings with other people where the colporteurs were staying. In fact, the colporteurs’ landlady, Prudence Nuñez Balada, the wife of a Protestant pastor, was the first Adventist convert in Chile.
After their baptism Victor and Eduardo Thomann dedicated their lives to printing and spreading Seventh-day Adventist literature in Spanish, not only in Chile but also in Peru and Bolivia. Eduardo was in charge of the first Adventist printing press in the southern continent, which was eventually moved to Argentina to launch what is now the South American Spanish Publishing House.
The Story Goes On
Adventist literature is not the only important means for spreading the Adventist message today. Radio and television broadcasts, as well as the Internet, now complement the contributions of individual faithful believers. God knows no barriers, and His work knows no boundaries.
These three stories are just a few samples of God’s bigger plans for the continent. The Lord’s bountiful care was revealed in countless examples of His providence along the years, which contributed to the exponential growth of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the region.3
Some of the stories about Adventist pioneers in South America have been recorded, and many more are waiting to be written. Other stories, however, are known only by heaven. In South America Christ’s promise to one of His disciples is still in full force: “You will see greater things than these” (John 1:50).
In spite of all the human and technological resources now available, God’s bountiful care is still present. How wonderful it is to work side by side with God’s Holy Spirit in spreading the message of salvation! May the Lord keep working the miracles of His providence in South America!
1 The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), no. 83.
2 The South American Division comprises Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.
3 The South American Division was organized in 1916 with 4,903 members in 88 churches. Membership now stands well above 2 million, in 11,535 churches.
Silvia Scholtus Roscher teaches theology at River Plate Adventist University, and serves as an editor of the River Plate Adventist University Press in Argentina. She has authored many articles and a book on the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South America.