John Norton Loughborough was born in Victor, New York on the 26th of January 1832. His parents were church-going folk and his father was a dedicated Methodist preacher and carpenter. From an early age, John was exposed to spiritual things and many of his encounters with older believers touched him deeply.
When he was a young boy John earned twelve and a half cents helping his father and uncle on a building project they were working on. He sent the money for missionary work in Africa, having a deep burden to see souls won into the kingdom through this means.
John’s father passed away at the young age of 35 when John was still quite young and his death was a terrible blow for John to bear. Soon after his father’s death, John went to live with his grandparents who were simple sensible people and urged young John to gain a good education. He threw himself into his studies enthusiastically studying philosophy and science. His grandparents were deeply spiritual people and lived out their religion in their daily lives, this had a profound impact on John as he grew into manhood. However, John’s perception of God was of a fearful and angry tyrant waiting to punish him or destroy him for his sins.
In 1843 John and his entire family attended a series of Millerite meetings and as a result became part of the Millerite movement. As he along with other Millerites waited for Christ’s coming in 1844 John Loughborough wrestled with a sense of unworthiness. He felt as though he was not ready to meet Christ and not ready to be saved. As the year wore on and the date for Christ’s coming came and went John continued to wrestle with God and his desire to be saved only deepened.
In the winter of 1848-1849, he had moved out of his grandparents home and was living with his mother in Victor. While he was here he went to school and paid his fees by sweeping the schoolroom floor and lighting the morning fires. John loved school but he shrank from spiritual pursuits. When his mother would try to persuade him to attend church with her he would make up any excuse to decline her invitation. During this time John vacillated between God and the pull of his friends. When he paused to reflect on his life an overwhelming desire to surrender himself to God would well up inside him but this desire was soon squashed by the trepidation of having to give up his friends. As he himself puts it he “had no strength to leave his companions and make a start to serve the Lord”
Then, while visiting his older brother he attended a meeting held by a first Day Adventist minister by the name of P.A. Smith and he was greatly convicted by what he heard. After the meeting, he made a commitment to serve God and to attend follow up meetings that were being held in two weeks time. He was dreading the idea of going back to school and mixing with his friends, knowing that their influence might serve to shake his newfound faith. However, an opportunity to work as a blacksmith’s apprentice learning to build iron carriages opened up in Adam’s Basin, the town his brother lived in. Thinking of going into business with his brother he took the job and then went home to tie up loose ends before returning to Adam’s Basin in time to attend the Adventist meetings. Commenting on this decision and time of his life in his autobiography Loughborough writes “I turned away from teachers, friends and even my own mother, deciding that I must give it all up or be lost. I was longing for truth, light and pardon”
The first-day Adventist meetings made a deep impression on John’s mind and he soon began to study the Bible earnestly even taking a small pocket Bible to work with him and going to the coal shed at the back of the blacksmith shop to spend time in prayer during breaks. He soon began to be impressed that he should be baptised. He spoke the matter over with his brother and Elder P.A. Smith and they both encouraged him to take the step and he was baptised as a first day Adventist.
Shortly after his baptism he returned home to Victor to live with his mother but was stricken with malaria. After nine gruelling weeks, the malaria abated and John Loughborough embarked on the journey of becoming a full-time preacher. He worked digging potatoes and cutting wood to make enough money to finance his trip. His neighbours and his brother lent him some clothes which were far from being a good fit and dressed rather curiously with his newly earned money in his pocket he set out on his new adventure. His first preaching tour was a resounding success, cementing in his heart his call to ministry.
In 1852 he married his wife Mary and in order to support her, he went into business selling sash locks. The new business gave his finances a much-needed boost while still allowing him to fill the preaching appointments he had lined up for Sundays. Then in the summer of 1852, he was invited to a series of Seventh-Day Adventist meetings being held at 124, Mount Hope Avenue in Rochester, where he and his wife were living at the time. At first, he refused to go but Brother Orton, who had invited him to go pointed out that he had to because some of his own flock had joined the Seventh-Day Adventists.
“You ought to go and get them out of this heresy,” Brother Orton said waxing eloquent “they give you a chance to speak in their meeting. Get your texts ready and you can show them in two minutes that the Sabbath is abolished”
And so armed with his bible and accompanied by seven other first day Adventists John Loughborough went for the Seventh-Day Adventist meeting. John Andrews was the speaker that evening and when he stood up he admitted that he had been planning to speak on a certain topic but that the Lord had impressed him to speak regarding the Sabbath, especially the texts that were used to prove that it had been abolished.
Loughborough listened gobsmacked as Andrews took each of the texts he had earmarked in his Bible, in order and explained them thoroughly one by one. Loughborough was convinced not just by Andrews’ presentation but also by the providential workings he had just witnessed. Loughborough accepted the Sabbath truth in September 1852. Altogether there were eight first day Adventists who accepted the Sabbath and the three angels message and became Seventh-Day Adventists as a result of John Andrew’s preaching.
Soon after he became a Seventh-Day Adventist John had the opportunity of meeting James and Ellen White. During this meeting, he witnessed Ellen in vision and after she came out of the vision she gave him a personal testimony that the Lord had given her for him.
After becoming a Seventh-Day Adventist Loughborough continued to press forward with his window lock business but he was deeply convicted to step out in faith and preach the new truths he had learned. He struggled with the conviction feeling that he needed to keep working in order to support his family. During this time his business began to fail and it seemed that no matter how hard he worked his business just wouldn’t prosper. Finally, at a meeting in mid-December, all he had rattling in his pocket were three cents.
At a meeting one Sabbath as the congregation was praying Ellen White went into vision and she was instructed by God to tell John Loughborough to stop fighting against conviction and to step out in faith, wholly giving himself to preaching the message. John listened to the message but didn’t take a stand at that moment. When he went home he got onto his knees and began to wrestle with God. At first, he bargained, offering to go out if God would provide for them financially before he did but the Lord would not be bargained with. Finally, John surrendered praying “I will obey Lord and you will open the way”
Peace filled his heart and soon after there was a rap on his door and a gentleman stood on his doorstep asking to buy $80 worth of sash locks. Loughborough made a good profit off the sale which was able to provide for himself and his wife for quite a while. Soon after he started on a six-week preaching tour of southwestern New York accompanied by Hiram Edson. The work was hard and he was away from his wife for long periods of time. For her part, Mary Loughborough never complained and was a faithful companion in life and ministry. However, the dismal circumstances surrounding the work soon began to take their toll on Elder Loughborough. More often than not he was paid in ham and potatoes rather than actual cash and many times he had to work mowing hay to make ends meet while still preaching 5 nights a week.
In 1856 exhausted and discouraged he and his wife moved to the town of Waukon, Iowa where a small group of Sabbatarian Adventists had formed a community. Among them was John Andrews, who, after an extended stint preaching had been completely broken in health and had moved to Iowa to recover. However, during this time Ellen White was shown a vision of the declining spiritual condition among the believers in Waukon and she and Elder White travelled to the town in the dead of winter in the most treacherous conditions in order to persuade Loughborough and Andrews, in particular, to return to the ministry.
On encountering Loughborough for the first time in Iowa, Ellen White greeted him with the words “What doest thou here Elijah?” repeating the question three times while Loughborough stood in awkward, shamefaced silence. The Whites proceeded to hold a series of meetings in the town which led to a revival among the believers. Loughborough and Andrews were both convicted that they needed to return to full-time ministry and when the Whites left Elder Loughborough accompanied them and proceeded to go on a preaching tour of Michigan during the harsh winter months. Later he sold everything in Waukon and moved his family to Battle Creek. Soon after the Loughborough’s settled in Battle Creek in 1857 a little daughter was added to their family. Elder Loughborough records that the winter of 1857 was hard for their family economically. Instead of being paid in cash he was still paid in goods and during the winter months, the family had to survive on maples sugar, wheat, apples, half a pig some beans and only four dollars in cash.
In the 1860s Elder Loughborough served as the president of the Michigan Conference, a member of the General Conference executive committee and the president of the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek. Later in the 1870s, he was the president of the California Conference, Editor of the Signs of the TImes and President of the Pacific Press Publishing Association among various other positions he held within the California Conference.
He would go on to serve in various capacities within the church in America and Great Britain pioneering many different evangelistic methods and administrative initiatives such as the use of tents for evangelistic meetings, selling tracts to the public and suggesting the use of tithing as a system to pay ministerial workers.
Some of his more cutting edge outreach initiatives include establishing the first inner-city mission and the Chicago Bible School. He also pioneered children’s story time during worship services. His service to the ministry of the Seventh-Day Adventist church was immense.
In 1878 Elder Loughborough was called to pioneer the work in England and he spent a period of five years building the church there. It was not an easy task and the work of planting a church was slow and tedious but he persevered and was able to taste the fruits of his labour as the church began to show steady growth.
John Loughborough is often referred to as the last of the Adventist Pioneers. He was a man of diminutive size and yet he made a massive impact on the mission and growth of the Seventh-Day Adventist church. His example is interesting in that even though he struggled with discouragement and setbacks his deep love for God and devotion to his cause always helped him stand up and see his way clear through the trials. He willingly and wholeheartedly served God and his legacy of service is one we would do well to emulate.