Corliss In The Heart Of Bleakness

The rain was falling in sheets. Great, twisted silver ropes that pummeled the dry brown earth, darkening and softening it. John Corliss stood in the shade of a spreading tree watching the rain. Trickles of it seeped through the canopy of leaves over his head and fell gently onto his dark coat, dampening it.

He paid little attention as the water seeped through the layers of clothing and came to settle against his skin.

It was cold. Bitingly so and the rain precipitated the weather, making it not only cold but bleak.

Bleak.

If he were to choose a single word to describe the entire situation he found himself in that would be his word of choice. Bleak.

Bleak weather.

Bleak people.

Bleak city.

Sighing John looked down at the little, neatly folded broadside in his hand. He had been handing out pamphlets all afternoon with little luck. Nobody was interested in what he was pedaling.

He had arrived in Melbourne, Australia two short months ago and now he found himself deep in the heart of a wet, windy and particularly miserable Australian winter.

He tugged his coat firmly around himself, sheltering the bedraggled pamphlet in its folds. When they had first arrived in Australia they had been full of hope. It had been a mission that had been ten years in the making.

Haskell was the point man of the whole operation. Ten years ago in 1875, he had heard Ellen White share a vision and he had made that vision his own.

Ellen had been shown that the work of Seventh-Day Adventists needed to spread beyond the borders of the United States and embrace new frontiers across the ocean. Fascinated, Stephen Haskell had asked her which countries were particularly mentioned in her vision.

She told him that they had not been named but then she paused and thought for a moment. She remembered one. One country had been named.

“The angel said Australia”

Ten years later in 1885, they had made the voyage from San Francisco to Sydney and then on to Melbourne. The group of missionaries comprised of Stephen Haskell, Mendel Israel, his wife, and two children, John Corliss, his wife, and two children, Henry Scott, and Stephen Arnold.  They arrived in Melbourne in June and threw themselves into the work of preaching the Advent messaged.

It was hard work.

First of all, people didn’t particularly cotton to their accents and soon they found themselves being referred to as “those Yankees.” It was not a favorable label to wear. The prejudice didn’t end there. Not only were they Yankees they were also preaching the most bizarre message anyone had heard.

Sabbath on Saturday?

That was just one of the strange new doctrines that fell on the ears of well-to-do Melbournians with a kind of suspicious surprise.

Who were these people?

John Corliss stood in various places around the city handing out pamphlets but encountered little success in catching people’s attention. Which had brought him to where he was now. Standing in the freezing August rain with his last tract in hand. He looked around him and saw many of the other tracts he had given out strewn on the ground at intervals turning to pulp in the beating rain.

People had grabbed them from him only to let them flutter to the ground a few feet later.

John Corliss was discouraged. No one wanted to hear what they had to say. They had uprooted their lives and their families and come to Australia in the hope that they would be able to plant a church but he was now beginning to doubt if they could accomplish their mission.

Allowing the discouragement to wash over him like a wave, Corliss turned around and faced the wrought iron fence behind him. He was standing on the edge of the Exhibition Gardens a little to the north of the city center. Folding his soggy pamphlet he wedged it between the wrought iron spikes of the fence, then he turned his collar up against the rain and trudged out into the night.

Dawning

God would need to intervene on behalf of the struggling group of missionaries and make their dreams a reality.

And God did.

Walking down the road that evening, splashing in the puddles of silvery rain was William H. B. Miller. A printer. He was in a hurry but not in such a hurry that he failed to notice a soggy pamphlet fluttering in the cold Melbourne air.

His curiosity was piqued and he reached out and grabbed it as he walked past. He read the pamphlet which contained an article on the Seventh-Day Sabbath. He went through the Bible texts over and over again and his heart was stirred.

Miller managed to track Corliss down and one night just as Corliss and his family sat down for dinner they heard a knock at their door.

William Miller stood in the doorway. He had a proposition for John Corliss. Would he be willing to come and speak at Miller’s debating society about the Sabbath?

Corliss was overjoyed.

He accepted Miller’s invitation and attended an open meeting of the Mutual Improvement Society held at the Melbourne Disciples of Christ Church in South Melbourne. 17 people from the Society accepted the Sabbath and were later baptized as Seventh-Day Adventists.

Corliss, Haskell and the other missionaries continued their work in Melbourne, holding evangelistic meetings in a big tent they pitched in the suburb of North Fitzroy just north of the city center.

As a result of all their work on April 10th, 1886, the first Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Australia was formed. When Corliss left Australia to return home to the United States two years later there were 200 Seventh-Day Adventists worshipping across the state of Victoria.

Corliss had been right.

It was a bleak city.

But he served a God who had the power to take every ounce of that bleakness and turn it into light by the power of His word. He can do the same thing for you. Whatever your bleak city might be today give it to God. He can turn it around for His glory.

Further Reading and Citations

  • Goldstone, S.R. (1980) – The Angel Said Australia
  • Clapham, E.N. (1985) – Seventh-Day Adventists In The South Pacific
  • Jones, L. (2012) – Beginnings – A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Melbourne
  • Bews, A. (2017) – Leaves Of Hope – The John Corliss Story

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.