Adventist Education: Beginnings And Birth Pangs

To many Adventist parents, the imminence of Christ’s return made education, even basic education, a relatively unimportant issue. Many of the early Adventist pioneers were not really interested in educational reform either, their Millerite experience having led them to be somewhat skeptical of higher education in general. However, this paradigm began to shift by the mid-1850s when many Adventists began to abandon the idea of looking for a specific date for Christ’s return. Slowly they came to the realization that they as well as their children needed to be able to function as citizens in society. This meant that their children needed a basic education to be able to earn an honest living and make their way through the world. But Sabbatarian Adventist parents were also concerned about the negative influences that their children would be exposed to as a result of attending public schools. In addition, feared that their children would be bullied because of their peculiar religious beliefs as well.

With all of this in play, Adventist parents in the mid-1850s started to run private homeschool Co-Operatives where they would either appoint one of their own or hire a tutor to operate in the capacity of a teacher. These cooperatives were rarely supported by church leaders and they usually operated wherever there was a need and wherever there were funds.

For their part, James and Ellen White, who were themselves, parents of young children, wrote extensively on the subject of parental responsibility and education during the 1850s. In these articles, they observed the need to ensure that Adventist children received a well-rounded education in an environment that was conducive to spiritual growth and character development. James White encouraged parents to train their children at home or to employ an Adventist tutor to do so where they were able to.

However, despite all this, homeschool cooperatives struggled. They were plagued by the lack of central direction, financial sponsorship, and adequate facilities and equipment. Then in early 1858, James White announced that Adventists in Battle Creek had invited John Fletcher Byington to open a school for their children. He even went so far as to invite parents outside of Battle Creek who didn’t have access to a homeschool cooperative to send their children to Battle Creek to receive an education. Unfortunately, after a couple of terms, lack of support forced Byington to abandon the new school altogether. The failure of this first attempt led many church leaders including James White to take a pessimistic view of a church-sponsored school.

In 1867 the arrival of Goodloe Harper Bell in Battle Creek renewed interest in a Seventh-Day Adventist Church School. Bell had been a patient at the Western Health Reform Institute and had studied briefly at Oberlin College. At the age of 19, after the death of his father, he started teaching in the local country school and soon became one of the best teachers in the area. However, by the time he turned 34 overwork and failure to live a healthy lifestyle had taken their toll on his health and he came to Battle Creek for treatment. Bell was a spiritual man who had been a Baptist when he was young and had later joined the Disciples of Christ.

At the Western Health Reform Institute, he boarded with a Seventh-Day Adventist who took a personal interest in his well being. His roommate’s love and concern soon melted away any prejudice Bell may have had towards Adventists and, he studied the Bible with the man. A short time later he became a Seventh-Day Adventist and began to saw wood for the boilers at the Review and Herald.

One day Edson White, who was working at the office, happened to meet Bell when he went outside for a break. Bell and Edson struck up a conversation and when Edson found out that Bell was a teacher he confided in him about his educational deficiencies and especially his struggle with grammar. Bell encouraged him to persevere. Impressed by Bell, Edson asked him if he would be willing to teach some of the young men at the Review office grammar and writing. Bell agreed and before long he was running a night school at the review. People soon started to talk about his skills and the Battle Creek church hired him to run a school for the member’s children during the winter. Unfortunately, the church wasn’t able to accept the responsibility of keeping the venture afloat on an ongoing basis. But as it turned out Bell’s school didn’t peter out, instead it continued into the following year after the winter and when it did it was a privately funded venture.

With the help of his friends at the office, Bell managed to persuade the management of the publishing house to let him use a vacant building that had originally been used to house the Review offices. He moved his family to the first floor and set up the second floor as a classroom. James White became so enthusiastic about the new school that he began to champion the organization of an educational society to raise money so that a denominational schoolhouse could be built. But after some consideration, the Whites hesitated unsure if an influx of young people coming into Battle Creek was a good idea. The primary cause for concern was the negative influence that many of the adults and children of the Battle Creek church would have on visiting students.

All the local challenges made it impossible for Bell to make the school a financial success and though he continued to give private lessons to small groups periodically the idea of a school was indefinitely put on hold. However, Bell’s talents were not left to languish and he was made Editor of The Youth’s Instructor in 1869. He then began to produce Sabbath School materials and to introduce administrative improvements in the Battle Creek Sabbath School. These ideas were so successful that he soon became a traveling consultant helping other churches to improve the effectiveness of their Sabbath Schools.

By 1870 there were quite a few young Adventists working at the Publishing office and the health institute and many of them wanted to further their education. Also during this time, James White became aware of a growing need among ministers to improve speaking and writing skills to improve effectiveness in service. As a way of promoting this White collaborated with Uriah Smith and launched the Minister’s Lecture Association of Seventh-Day Adventists, which entitled members to attend a series of Bible, grammar and penmanship classes for a small annual fee. Sadly the association folded by 1871. But James White was not one to give up and that same year he launched another self-improvement venture which was also doomed to a short life; “The Review And Herald Literary Society”. The purpose of the society was to upgrade the quality of Adventist publications by encouraging reading, discussion, and writing of high quality moral and religious literature.

James White and other leaders saw the need to educate and train not just Adventist children but also Adventist workers but they struggled to find the right avenues to accomplish their purposes.

The Education Vision and The First School

Finally, in 1872 Ellen White was given her first detailed vision outlining the biblical principles for Education. She wrote out the vision in a 30-page pamphlet and published it later that same year.

The final sentences of the testimony declared “ we need a school, where those who are just entering the ministry may be taught at least the common branches of education and where they may learn more perfectly the truths of God’s word for this time. In connection with these schools, lectures should be given upon the prophecies. Those who really have good abilities such as God will accept to labor in his vineyard would be very much benefitted by only a few months instruction at such a school.”

Much of the testimony on Education was addressed to parents instructing them to serve as their children’s only teacher until they reached the age of 8 or 10. However, amongst the parental counsel, there were many other broad educational principles that were outlined as well. Teachers were instructed not to control the mind, will or conscience of their students. They were instructed to guide their students to respect and follow experienced counsel while balancing that against learning to act on the basis of principle and reason.

 The testimony emphasized that regardless of the academic qualifications held by teachers the most important consideration was the teacher’s principles and habits. These would influence and define the students placed in their care. She also encouraged teachers to come close to their students and personally connect with them, helping them to see that they loved their students, thereby helping them to understand that love was the motivating factor behind their actions toward them.

She also emphasized the need for spacious, well-ventilated classrooms and the importance of educating students regarding health and hygiene. The ideal plans for education would combine study with physical labor which meant that schools should have an industrial department where all students would be taught to work.

She encouraged young men to be educated in agricultural and mechanical lines while young women were to be educated in basic domestic arts. The vision of 1872 laid out a blueprint for Adventist education in a skeletal form giving educators sound educational principles to build off of.

Then in the Spring of 1872 James and Ellen White began to talk with other members of the Battle Creek church about the need for a denominationally sponsored school. This led to the formation of a school committee and an invitation was extended to the members of the General Conference committee to join the planning. The idea was also floated to the church at large through the Review and Herald inviting members to express their opinions about the idea and to donate funds to get the venture up and running.

This was followed up by another article a months later asking prospective students to let the committee know their current educational background and to submit a list of the subjects they wanted to study. One of the questions posed to each of these prospective students was “Is your goal to fit yourself to take some part in the work of God?” This question summed up the basic thrust of Adventist Education which was to equip men and women for effective service in the Lord’s’ vineyard. Not only was Adventist Education meant to shield young people from the negative social influences that were present in public schools but it was also meant to give them a different motivation for education. In an age where the focus of education was self advancement, the focus of Adventist education was on character building, spirituality and service.

By mid-May of 1872, the General Conference committee had agreed to assume financial and administrative responsibility for the school which was scheduled to begin on the 3rd of June that year. This made the school a denominationally sponsored venture as opposed to a local church sponsored project. The committee chose to adopt Bell’s select school which was already operational as a private venture and Bell was only too happy to merge with the interests of the denomination at large. Twelve students were present on the first day of the new term with two more enrolling a little bit later. Though it was a small and humble beginning the General Conference was satisfied and General Conference president George Butler strongly supported the school.

 

Growing Pains And The Struggle To Implement The Vision

As the summer progressed enthusiasm for the school began to blossom among Adventists. Church leaders began to realise that young people could be trained to be teachers who could then return to their local areas to run small primary schools which could be financed and supported by local Adventist congregations. They also realized the importance of the language arts which would enable the gospel to be preached globally. During the fall term attendance at Bell’s school doubled and in addition to the forty regular students, another fifteen enrolled. These were mainly press workers who attended night school to brush up on the grammar and language skills.

John Kellogg taught at the school for a short period of time while Bell was sick with Malaria and Uriah Smith taught a special bi-weekly Bible class that was attended by most of the students. By the time the winter term rolled around the school had outgrown its quarters and arrangements had to be made to use the Battle Creek church, where drop shelves were attached to the backs of the pews to function as makeshift desks.

By March of 1873, the General Conference session formally approved the formation of a denominational school with a focus on establishing a denominationally funded and run college. The desire was to educate both children and workers to equip both parties for better service. A few weeks later the General Conference committee recommended the establishment of the Seventh-Day Adventist Educational Society to own and operate the school. When the General Conference met again in November of the same year $52,000 had been pledged toward the school.

Administrators then turned their attention to the next issue at hand which was finding a suitable plot of land for the school. Using the vision of 1872 as guidance both James and Ellen White wanted the church to purchase a large parcel of land so that the school could have both academic and industrial education built into its curriculum. The White’s had their eye on the fifty-acre fairgrounds that were located on the Western edge of Battle Creek which was available for a reasonable sum on money. But before the purchase could be finalized the Whites left for California and with them gone George Butler and his associates couldn’t really see why the school needed such a large plot of land in the country. They purchased a twelve-acre plot sitting on the highest point of the West End of Battle Creek sitting just across the street from the Health Institute, in close proximity to the church and the publishing office. They purchased the land for $16,000 at the end of 1873.

When Ellen White received the news in California she was heartbroken. She realized that the brethren had disregarded divine counsel and she wept at the thought. During the summer of 1873, the leaders of the school decided that the kind of school they envisioned needed a thoroughly qualified man. Bell didn’t have a college degree and so he was replaced by Sidney Brownsberger, an amiable man with a B.A. from the University of Michigan. Bell continued as head of the English department under Brownsberger.

By the beginning of the winter term in 1873, the school was moved from the church to a building that had been recently completed for the publishing house but had been left unoccupied. The school was housed there for a year. In the spring of 1874, the Seventh-Day Adventist Educational Society became a legal entity and plans were made to construct a three-story building which could hold 400 students. The school was officially dedicated on the 4th of January 1875.

Just prior to its official opening the school board met with Principal Brownsberger and James and Ellen White to discuss adding a mechanical and technical department to the school. The idea was abandoned because the board realized that the twelve acres they had originally purchased were too small for such an addition and Brownsberger admitted that he had no idea how to run a hybrid school such as was being proposed. Instead, he decided to establish the school upon a strong academic foundation declaring “When the Lord comes Adventists expect to leave their farms, their businesses and their homes and take their brains with them!”

Brownsbergers academic program won the respect of both the community and the church but the situation surrounding the school soon began to decline. John Kellogg and George Butler, who both sat on the school board began to pressure Brownsberger to add a vocational component to the curriculum but Brownsberger refused to budge. Eventually, the pressure became too great for Brownsberger to bear and he resigned his post and moved to Northern Michigan. The board then hired Alexander McLearn to replace Brownsberger. McLearn was not a Seventh-Day Adventist and wasn’t philosophically aligned to the principles that God had given Ellen White in the vision of 1872. Under McLearn the school began to steadily decline and matters reached a climax when McLearn and Bell locked horns so forcefully that Bell left the school. After Bell left the school declined rapidly was was finally shut down.

 

Making Headway

During the fall of 1881, the Adventists in California decided that they needed a school and W.C. White was put in charge of the venture. Willie White went to Northern Michigan and fished Brownsberger out of retirement and together they set up a school in Healdsburg, California. There in April 1882, assisted by his wife Brownsberger began to teach 33 students. Having learned from his previous experience at Battle Creek College, Brownsberger was more determined to combine spiritual, physical and vocational education to form a more holistic curriculum. Brownsberger was joined by W.C. Grainger and when Brownsberger left Healdsburg in 1886, Grainger continued to develop the industrial component of the school and to provide student housing on campus which had not been available in Battle Creek.

Around the same time in New England, S.N. Haskell teamed up with G.H. Bell and they founded a school in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. The primary focus of the school was to prepare gospel workers who could labor effectively in the field. Bell worked hard to add in practical components to the curriculum, teaching students to think rather than rely on rote memory. He introduced courses such as tent making, harness making, shoe repair, and printing and made Bible study the primary focus of the school. Even though South Lancaster academy didn’t grow academically or numerically as quickly as Healdsburg College or Battle Creek College it proved to be a success.

Finally, after years of trial and error and an arguably botched experiment, Adventist Education was on the move.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1903) – Education
  • Schawrz, R.W. and Greenleaf, F. (1979) – Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Revised Edition)
  • The Education Department of the General Conference (1956) – The Story of Our Church

Recommended Listening 

  • The Pathways Of The Pioneers (1998) – Volume 21 (Education’s Shaky Beginning)
  • The Pathways Of The Pioneers (1998) – Volume 21 (High Education-Recuperating In Colorado
  • The Pathways Of The Pioneers (1998) – Volume 21 (Battle Creek Schools Established)
  • The Pathways Of The Pioneers (1998) – Volume 21 (The Devil Makes Trouble)
  • The Pathways Of The Pioneers (1998) – Volume 21 (Bell and South Lancaster Academy Grow Together)
  • The Pathways Of The Pioneers (1998) – Volume 21 (Healdsburg College- Origin Of Pacific Union College)