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The dawn of a new domination.

It seemed like just another November day in 1855 when a party of travelers alighted on the platform of the Battle Creek train station after a tiring trip from Rochester, New York. But the arrival of this weary band, led by a charismatic couple named James and Ellen White, signaled a new era in the town's development and in American religious history. The Whites would go on to establish the Seventh-day Adventist Church in this southwest Michigan city. Today, that church numbers some 17 million members worldwide.

In 1855, Seventh-day Adventism was a small, struggling movement defined by what many considered peculiar beliefs about the imminent end of the world and Jesus' second coming, as well as a conviction that Saturday--the seventh day of the week was the true Christian Sabbath. Many Adventists also believed that Ellen White was a prophetess whose visions revealed the will of God.

The Whites chose Battle Creek as a convenient base from which to spread their distinctive ideas to the Midwest and beyond. And there they stayed for nearly 40 years, making this Michigan community the headquarters for what would become one of the most successful Christian denominations ever to originate in the United States.

The Origins of Adventism

The Whites were instrumental in the development of Adventism, but they did not initiate the movement. That distinction belongs to William Miller, a Vermont farmer whose conversion from deism to the Baptist faith in 1816 led him to apply the principles of the Enlightenment to prove the reasonableness of the Bible. In so doing, Miller became fascinated with apocalyptic prophecy and convinced that numerical clues round in the prophetic books of the Bible could predict the year of Jesus' second coming: 1843. The press soon tagged the followers of William Miller as "Millerites," and the Millerite excitement spread throughout the Northeast. It round an especially receptive audience in western New York, then known as the "burned-over district" because of the repeated waves of religious revivalism that swept over the region.

The failure of Jesus to return to earth in 1843--or even in 1844, once Miller expanded the apocalyptic window--resulted in what is called (with some understatement) the "Great Disappointment." Seventh-day Adventism grew from one of the many groups that emerged from the wreckage of the Great Disappointment. All of these groups retained the belief the imminent second coming of Jesus--hence the label "Adventist"--but diverged sharply on how they reinterpreted Miller's prophecies and on certain secondary beliefs and practices. One of the most important figures in this process was a young Methodist Millerite from Portland, Maine named Ellen Harmon. In 1844, Harmon experienced a powerful heavenly vision that convinced her of the correctness of Adventism--a vision that some accepted as an example of the kinds of spiritual girls to be expected in the end times. Two years later, Harmon came into the orbit of the Sabbatarian Adventists, who had adopted from the Seventh-day Baptists the distinctive belief that the Old Testament observance of a Saturday Sabbath was still necessary for salvation. 7bat same year, she met and married James White, a committed Sabbatarian Adventist minister and newspaper editor. Together they traveled, preaching the second advent throughout New England and western New York and eventually settling in Rochester. There, White resumed publishing 7he Review and Advent Herald.

Michigan, too, was touched by the Millerite excitement and, despite the Great Disappointment, a few of its citizens steadfastly retained their confidence in Miller's prophecies. Missionaries representing the various varieties of Adventist groups were soon active among these believers, with Seventh-day Adventist Joseph Bates one of the most successful. Bates, a former sea captain, had a dream that he was on a ship bound for a place called Battle Creek. Taking this as a divine prompt, Captain Bates hurried there and soon converted two Presbyterians--David Hewitt and his wife, Olive--and made them the nucleus of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Battle Creek. By 1853, there was a regular meeting of Sabbath-keepers in the town, large enough to attract a visit from the Whites themselves. Impressed, James White predicted, "If the brethren and sisters are faithful, there may be quite a church in Battle Creek."

The Move to Michigan

Two years after their visit, a group of leading Battle Creek Adventists agreed to put up $300 each in order to attract James White's printing operation to the town. The Whites considered this a godsend and readily accepted the invitation. Not only would the move help put the production of Adventist newspapers, tracts, and books on a sounder financial footing, it would also facilitate Adventist evangelization of the great American West, which the Whites saw as a more fertile mission field than the East.

By the time the Whites and their entourage arrived in Battle Creek in late 1855, local Adventists had built a small two-story frame building on the corner of West Main and Washington streets to house the Review and Herald offices. Printing operations were quickly re-established, and the first Battle Creek edition of the newspaper was pulled from the press on December 4. Within six years, it was moved to an imposing two-story brick building also on Washington Street.

In addition to the original Review and Herald office building, a small Adventist meetinghouse was constructed on Cass Street. Reflecting the unsettled state of the organization at that point, none dared call it a church; it was referred to only as the "house of prayer." Indeed, the issue of whether or not Sabbath-keeping Adventists should organize what had up to that point been a loose coalition of individual congregations was controversial. Many believed that--given the imminence of the second coming--such organization indicated a lack of faith, while others believed that creating another sect would further fragment God's church.

Legal concerns, such as how to incorporate the printing operation and who would hold title to church properties, would force the issue.

Both James and Ellen White were proponents of a strong organization, and James would tax his health working for its creation. Beginning in 1855, a series of meetings was held in Battle Creek in order to achieve what James White called "gospel order." For the next eight years, Sabbatarian Adventists gathered to debate such issues as the acceptance of Ellen White's prophetic gifts, financial support for ministers, the propriety of tithing, and even an appropriate name. (They ultimately decided on "Seventh-day Adventist" at the 1860 meeting.) Further organizational steps followed quickly; 1862 saw the incorporation of the printing operation as a joint-stock company and the legal formation of the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. The latter action encouraged the formation of other state conferences. Finally, the following year, all of the existing state conferences--representing Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin--were gathered into a general conference: the capstone organization of the new Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The denomination was now footed on a firm but flexible foundation and ready for new growth. No longer were the Adventists reluctant to create permanent institutions, a fact attested to by the period of brick-and-mortar church building that followed. This culminated in the 1879 dedication in downtown Battle Creek of the massive, 4,000seat "Dime Tabernacle"--so-called because of the thousands of individual 10-cent contributions that helped to finance it.

A Vision of Health

In June 1863, James and Ellen White traveled to Otsego, Michigan, a small village to the northwest of Battle Creek, to participate in a Seventh-day Adventist tent revival. The Whites had hoped the Otsego revival would prove to be a respite from the exhausting burdens of leading a new church. Both were ill, worn out by the monumental task of coordinating dozens of far-flung Adventist congregations into the General Conference, which had met in Battle Creek for the first time a month before. James White, it was said, looked especially depleted.

Ellen White had long been recognized in the Adventist movement as a prophetess. It was not wholly unexpected, then, that at a prayer meeting in the home of Aaron Hilliard shortly after the revival, the spiritual leader fell into a vision that lasted about 45 minutes. An eyewitness to the event, Martha Amadon, reported that, "a heavenly influence filled the room," during which Mrs. White "was given instruction on the health question." The first part of her vision--the contents of which were only later revealed publicly--hit very close to home; God told the prophetess that she and her husband needed to take better care of their health by sharing their responsibilities with others. The second part of the vision was a corollary to the first, but addressed the entire church and would have far-reaching consequences: All Adventists were enjoined by God to "come out against intemperance of every kind,--intemperance in working, in eating, in drinking, and in drugging." This was interpreted to mean that Adventists should get plenty of rest; strive to adopt a vegetarian diet; avoid caffeine, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco in any form; and explore alternative medical treatments such as "hydropathy" (therapeutic baths).

This was not the first time Ellen White had prophesied on aspects of health reform, but her Otsego vision suggested that the subject should become an integral part of Adventism. As a result, prescribed health practices now became a prominent topic in Mrs. White's pamphlet series, titled "Spiritual Gifts," and many within the new church caught her sense of urgency and began to make serious efforts to prepare both their souls and their bodies for Jesus' return. From this point forward, health reform would become an increasingly important part of Seventh-day Adventist identity and, along with the Saturday Sabbath, the most distinctive part of Adventists' public witness. Indeed, Ellen White subsequently experienced another vision in which the Adventists were commanded to create their own health care institution in Battle Creek. From this was born the Western Health Reform Institute, which opened its doors in 1866.

According to advertisements in the Review and Herald, the institute would be "a place where disease will be treated on HYGIENIC PRINCIPLES" and "where instruction will be imparted both Theoretically and Practically, to patients and boarders, on the important subject of so caring for both body and mind, as to preserve health."

Dr. Kellogg Comes on Board

Ten years after its founding, the superintendency of the Western Health Reform Institute was turned over to a young Adventist physician named John Harvey Kellogg. Dr. Kellogg, whose ambition was to transform the institution into a world-class health resort, quickly changed the name to the Battle Creek Sanitarium and began advertising its services to Adventists and non-Adventists alike. The "San," as it came to be called, grew under Dr. Kellogg's enthusiastic leadership to include lodging to accommodate 1,300 guests, a hospital, research facilities, a medical school, a nursing school, several health food companies, and a publishing house dedicated to producing materials on health and wellness. One later observer characterized it as a "combination nineteenth-century European health spa and a twentieth-century Mayo Clinic." Legions of well-heeled health seekers made Battle Creek one of the premier wellness destinations in the United States, if not the world. This, and the fact that he helped to invent flaked breakfast cereals (in order to make vegetarianism more palatable), made Dr. Kellogg the most famous Adventist in America: a distinction that would lead to considerable tension with Mrs. White.

Seventh-day Adventism in Battle Creek was growing institutionally in other directions as well during the last decades of the 19th century. Ellen White had long advocated for a Seventh-day Adventist educational system in order to protect the denomination's children from what she perceived to be the "poisonous influence" of the public schools and society in general. The first such school, which opened in the city in 1868, eventually grew into Battle Creek College, which was housed in a grand, Greek-cross structure across the street from the sanitarium. Adventist education proved so popular with the church's rank and file that it led to the creation in the 20th century of a national Adventist school system that would become second only to the Catholic school system in size and scope.

On August 6, 1881, James White died at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Although he had been in ill health since suffering a stroke in 1865, his death was a hard blow to the church. As one later historian put it, "Seventh Day Adventism would not have been the same without Ellen White; it would not have existed without James." Nevertheless, the church by this time was well established and was spreading rapidly to the West and Northwest as well as overseas. After the death of her husband, Mrs. White spent increasing amounts of time away from Battle Creek, traveling to Europe and Australia, and eventually settling in California. From there, she monitored the continued growth of the church, which included dozens of new Adventist schools and sanitaria both at home and abroad.

A New Headquarters Is Established

The Battle Creek phase of the church's history was now rapidly drawing to a close. For years, Ellen White had counseled against the concentration of Adventist institutions in Battle Creek, which she thought had become too worldly. To escape the perceived corruption of city life, Battle Creek College had already been moved to rural Berrien Springs in 1901, where it would eventually grow into Andrews University. This was followed two years later by the removal of the General Conference and the Review and Herald Publishing Association to Takoma Park, Maryland.

Part of the exodus from Battle Creek was due to the growing tensions between Dr. Kellogg and the Adventist leadership. Kellogg had long wanted the church to devote more time and resources to promoting its health message and financing the continued expansion of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Ellen White, on the other hand, wished to decentralize the medical work and invest in smaller facilities. The issue came to a head in 1902 when, after the sanitarium was devastated by tire, Dr. Kellogg pushed through its rebuilding on a grander scale. He even helped raise money for the project by selling his book, "The Living Temple," which Mrs. White considered filled with theological errors. The ensuing break left Dr. Kellogg in control of the sanitarium, but he was later "disworshipped." By 1907, the Seventh-day Adventist Church had lost its most famous personality and its most famous institution.

On January 3, 1922, a spectacular tire erupted at the massive Dime Tabernacle and burned it to the ground. With it went the last major institution from Adventism's early days in Battle Creek. By this time, however, the Seventh-day church had grown well beyond its origins in southwest Michigan, and was on its way to becoming the worldwide church of some 17 million members it is today. Mindful of its history, though, the church decided to maintain a heritage center in the city to remind its members and others of the time when it was a small frontier denomination, struggling to &fine itself against a multitude of options in the bustling religious scene of the 19th-century Midwest.

Brian C. Wilson is a professor of American religious history at Western Michigan University.
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Title Annotation:Seventh-day Adventism
Author:Wilson, Brian C.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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