The Sanitarium Fire

The big buildings of the Battle Creek Sanitarium were hunkered down against the cold. It had been a frosty night and a deep blanket of snow covered the frozen ground. The night staff at the Sanitarium went quietly about their duties; checking on patients and filling out paperwork when suddenly the quiet of the early morning snapped apart with the screech of the building’s fire alarms. Patients were startled awake and staff quickly swung into action to evacuate the building. It was 4 am on February 18th 1902 and the basement of the main building of the Battle Creek Sanitarium was on fire. The fire roared through the elevator shafts and ventilation system soon engulfing the entire building in flames. The staff managed to evacuate al the patients to safety while firefighters battled the blaze but its intensity couldn’t be quelled. Before long the fire snaked across the street and wrapped itself around the five-storey hospital building as well. By 7 am that morning both buildings had been reduced to charred ruins.

When the insurance inspector came to look over the ruins of the building a few days later he commented that nothing but  Divine power could have enabled the staff to evacuate all the patients safely and in time.

Only one life was lost and that not as a result of a failure to evacuate. Old man Case didn’t trust banks and liked to keep all his money stuffed in an old satchel. He was safely brought out of the building with his wife and daughter but later snuck back in unnoticed for his satchel of money. He was never seen again.

When Ellen White and Willie White heard about the fire that morning on the West Coast they were disbelieving. Ellen White wrote “I would at this time speak words of wisdom, but what can I say? We are afflicted with those whose life interests are bound up in this institution. Let us pray that this calamity shall work together for good to those who must feel it very deeply. We can indeed weep with those who weep.”

Lessons From The Ashes

John Kellogg, the founder and driving force behind the Battle Creek Sanitarium was en route to Battle Creek from the West Coast when the fire broke out. He heard about it when he reached Chicago. Without skipping a beat his brain whirred into action. On the train journey home from Chicago to Battle Creek, he asked for a table and then spent the two hours drawing up plans for a new Sanitarium building.

Five months prior to the Sanitarium fire Ellen White had written to the manager of the Review and Herald Publishing house stating “I have been almost afraid to open the Review, fearing to see that God has cleansed the publishing house by fire.” By 1901 the Review and Herald Publishing House had grown to become the largest printing press in the state of Michigan and was taking on more and more commercial work. On the 30th of December 1902, the 40,000 square foot building was destroyed by fire. All that was left standing was the West building that housed the General Conference office and the book and bank depositories.

At the time the fire ravaged the press a book by John Harvey Kellogg entitled “The Living Temple” was ready to be published. The book was riddled with pantheism and would have caused great harm if it had been published by the Review. In the year since the Sanitarium had burned down, John Kellogg had begun to spiral more and more dangerously out of control, clashing with Ellen White and A.G. Daniells who was General Conference president at the time. He had begun to lean increasingly toward pantheism during this time and the book was an effort to raise money to complete his grand plans for rebuilding the Sanitarium.

Dr Kellogg went on to rebuild the Sanitarium in defiance of counsel from both Ellen White and other leaders of the General Conference. He doubled its size to accommodate over 7000 patients in 1906. Due to his increasingly dictatorial and controlling spirit and his embracing of pantheism, John Kellogg was disfellowshipped and left the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1907.

When John Kellogg broke away from the church many of the members felt that the church would be brought to its knees. Almost the entirety of the Health Work of the church was run by him and many of the properties that housed the operation were deeded to him. He had more employees working for him than the entire General Conference put together. Some called for the church to compromise to keep Dr Kellogg on board, warning that there was no way the church would survive a fallout of such epic proportions if he was to leave. But as it turned out the church chose to stand firm to principle and weathered the storm. However, over the following years, the Sanitarium began to slowly decline and struggled to keep its doors open when the Great Depression swept through America. It eventually closed down for good.

The stories of John Kellogg and the various fires in Battle Creek teach us a few lessons. First that the work of God is not dependant on a single person. John Kellogg was in many ways larger than life and was a tremendous blessing to the work of God when he chose to be faithful but when he chose to walk away God was still able to keep the work of the church steadily moving forward. Secondly, these stories teach us that God is no respecter of institutions either. Regardless of whether an institution bears his name if it is not in harmony with the principles of his word he will remove his protection from it and allow it to fall. Lastly and probably most importantly these stories teach us that human greatness, talent or capability don’t really matter to God; faithfulness and surrender however, most certainly do.

Further Reading

  • White, A.L. (1981) – Ellen White: The Early Elmshaven Years