With eager anticipation, 149 delegates from 28 conferences in the United States, plus another eight conferences in Europe and Australia, gathered in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, February 15, 1899. They were there for the opening of the thirty-third session of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists—the seventh General Conference session to convene outside Battle Creek, Michigan, then the location of the denomination’s headquarters. General Conference president George A. Irwin called the meeting to order.
The Captain Arrives
On Monday, February 27, Frank H. Westphal, the church’s pioneer missionary to Argentina, reached the session. A special guest, Captain Henry Norman—whom Westphal had met on a ship en route to the session and with whom he’d had opportunity to share something about his religious faith—accompanied him.
Two days later President Irwin read to the conference attendees an urgent appeal for funds from Ellen White in Australia for the mission work there. Many responded. The General Conference Daily Bulletin later reported that 126 delegates pledged $3,478 [$96,611 in 2012 dollars] for the work in Australia—not including pledge number 96, made by Captain Norman.
One can almost still hear the amens that most assuredly arose from the congregation when Captain Norman, a Methodist, spoke his pledge: $5,000 [$138,889 in 2012 dollars]! Including this unprecedented generous gift, the grand total—pledged or donated—for Australia amounted to $8,478 [$235,500]!
George A. Irwin: George Irwin was General Conference president during the time of the Captain Norman affair.That evening Signs of the Times editor M. C. Wilcox added a postscript to the letter he had written to Ellen White in Australia. It read, “After the reading of one of your testimonies today, over $8,000 was raised in cash and pledges to be paid soon. One sea captain said he would give $5,000.” This is the earliest known letter written to Ellen White that mentioned the captain and his pledge.
Norman told certain delegates at the session that he wanted “to do the Lord’s will,” and that as a result of his business and a legacy an uncle left him, he had “all the money that [he] can use.” He said he was thankful that the Adventists were “willing to take it and use it for the Lord.” Later the captain made an even more magnanimous offer by pledging $400,000 [$11,111,111] for the work of the General Conference and for missions. Nothing at this point indicated anything other than a sincere Christian with a “very humble spirit” who indicated his desire to join the Adventist Church and keep holy the seventh-day Sabbath.
The General Conference session adjourned on the morning of March 7. That afternoon an approximately 150-person delegation—including the captain and Westphal—boarded the train in South Lancaster for the 30-hour trip to Battle Creek.
The Captain’s Physical Appearance
Word soon spread throughout the Adventist community in Battle Creek that Captain Norman, Adventism’s new wealthy benefactor, was in town. The only known physical description of him was written by Dr. Lottie Isbell Blake 70 years after the captain’s arrival there. Blake, an African-American, was a medical student at the time, and she heard Norman speak at a meeting Dr. John Harvey Kellogg arranged for Battle Creek Sanitarium workers, presumably held Sabbath afternoon, March 11.
“He was a small man with a low, receding forehead,” Lottie wrote. “He was lavishly decorated with jewelry upon his fingers, and the gems flashed as he waved his hands about freely to emphasize his remarks. His complexion
. . . was strange. Almost unnatural. It was gray. His hair was gray, and both skin and hair presented the most remarkable sameness of coloration.”
After sundown on March 11 the General Conference Committee met. Among the business items considered was the appointment of J. O. Corliss to serve as a “minister-missionary” on Norman’s ship. The captain was invited to attend. Previously he had indicated his interest to financially support a minister to serve as chaplain on his ship, Fox Hall, which reportedly sailed between Melbourne, Australia, and Singapore. The immense potential for evangelism was not lost on the members of the committee, given that the captain’s ship was said to carry from 1,500 to 2,500 passengers per month between those two ports. Approval was voted unanimously. The captain later also offered the church his yacht that he reportedly kept docked in Bath, Maine. It was to be used for missionary work in the harbor of New York City.
The Captain Goes Courting
Following that evening meeting the captain and Westphal left Battle Creek for Wisconsin, where Westphal’s parents lived. It appears that while there, Norman developed an interest in Frank and Jacob Westphal’s 28-year-old sister, Minnie. With the encouragement of her two older brothers, Minnie consented—albeit reluctantly—to break her engagement to another young man in order to marry the captain.
Captain Norman had specifically requested that his donation pledges not be publicized. The March 14 issue of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, however, carried a brief news note regarding the $400,000 pledge. Professor E. A. Sutherland again mentioned the $400,000 gift in an article about the Battle Creek College debt published in an April 4 issue of the magazine. The story also was picked up by newspapers all across the country.
A letter sent to Ellen White in Australia mentioning the captain’s gift was written on March 18 by her longtime friend Jennie Ings. Other letters and reports referring to Captain Norman also were sent to Ellen White, including correspondence from President Irwin. On March 26 Irwin wrote, “This gift will be a great help to the cause at this time, and to our own people, provided they relate themselves properly to it. Instead of sitting back and thinking that now as the money is coming in, they will have no more to do, they should press right into the work, and redouble their energies.” He also expressed his confidence in the captain, saying that he seemed to be an “honest” and “very modest” man.
Preparation for Service
Despite the fact that plans involving Norman and his ship continued to move forward, no evidence has been found that he actually returned to Battle Creek after leaving for Wisconsin on March 11. Because of the passage of time with no word from Norman, by early April some members apparently were starting to question whether he was an imposter. President Irwin, in a letter dated April 5 to Elder W. H. Saxby in Kentucky, expressed his take on the rumors then making the rounds in Battle Creek: “In regard to Captain Norman, I will say that we have not heard anything definitely about him since he left here, although there is a rumor current in Battle Creek that he has been down in Springfield, Ohio, courting [Kittie] Miller [while apparently still courting Minnie], and the prospects are that they are to be married. . . . I have all along felt that he was not an imposter, but of course, only time will tell.”
Meanwhile, in Australia, the issue of the General Conference Daily Bulletin detailing the March 1 offering taken for work in that country finally reached Ellen White at her Sunnyside home on April 6. The exciting news about Captain Norman’s gift soon became the basis for a chapel talk at the Avondale school, as well as for meetings at the church.
The Captain Goes Courting—Again
What Irwin reported as rumor in his letter to Saxby was soon confirmed. Announcement of Norman’s engagement to Katherine (“Kittie”) E. Miller, the 31-year-old editor of the Ohio Conference paper The Welcome Visitor, was made on April 6 in Springfield, Ohio. Several newspapers and at least one Adventist conference paper announced the pending marriage.
Meanwhile, back in Battle Creek, in anticipation of traveling to Singapore to meet Norman’s ship, Corliss applied for a passport. His wife and two children also were listed on the application. Corliss is reported to have spent about $400 [$11,111] of his own funds preparing for the venture.
Things Turn Sour
With no word from Norman, by late April Irwin no longer seemed so optimistic regarding the captain’s promised gifts, and wrote that “it is rather questionable now” whether the pledges would materialize. Sufficient uncertainties now existed regarding whether Corliss would ever connect with Norman’s ship, Fox Hall, to cause the General Conference Committee to discuss the situation on April 26 and then again the next day. The committee voted to pursue temporary employment possibilities for Corliss, who eventually accepted a position at Pacific Press.
On April 28, the day before President Irwin was to leave on a trip to Australia, he wrote to Kittie. His postscript read: “Elder F. H. Westphal . . . is of the opinion that the Captain is an unmitigated fraud; and he verifies the statement that he was after his sister, and trying to arrange with her [at] the same time that he was with you; and he had some of the same story to tell her, only more. He tried to get two thousand dollars out of her. . . . So it seems as though . . . the whole thing is a fraud.”
Persistent rumors exist that Captain Norman was never heard from again after he left Battle Creek, although it does seem likely that he went to Springfield, Ohio, to see Kittie Miller at the time their engagement was announced. Whatever the captain’s movements were, when told years later the story indicated that “Captain Norman went down to the station [in Battle Creek], took the train for New York City, and no one has seen or heard of Captain Norman since that time.” Inquiries by cable and mail brought no information.
It doesn’t take much imagination to sense the deep feelings of embarrassment and hurt that Kittie Miller, as well as Frank Westphal and his younger sister, Minnie, surely felt when they discovered that they had been conned. The same also could be said for Corliss, Irwin, and others.
For whatever reason, the Lord chose not to give Ellen White advance warning on the Norman situation. On May 4 in far-off Australia she wrote a handwritten letter to Captain Norman appealing for funds to aid the work there. Given the challenges in communication at the time, she had not yet heard about his disappearance. If she hadn’t received any information about it before Irwin’s visit to Australia, however, she did so soon after his arrival. In a June 1 letter to a Brother Haynes, Ellen White wrote, “Captain Norman . . . has proved a fraud. Not one dollar has been realized. He has disappeared, no one can tell where. It is a strange affair, and a great disappointment to us.”
Writing from Australia on July 19, Ellen White also commented about the Norman affair in a letter to her friend Mrs. S.M.I. Henry: “If [Captain Norman] had kept out of the way, then the work begun [in South Lancaster] would have gone through the churches, and we could have had sufficient to erect a sanitarium. But the spirit of sacrifice stopped there and then.”
On August 2 Irwin sailed for San Francisco, California, arriving August 25. While there, he related the “Norman” affair to those at Pacific Press as well as to members in Oakland and St. Helena, and about $2,000 was raised for “the cause in Australia.” On September 10 Irwin once again “spoke on the Norman case” at the Kansas camp meeting.
It seems likely that the president continued telling the “Norman” story at various stops on his return to Battle Creek.
President as Pastor
Eventually President Irwin reached Battle Creek. While there, on October 1, he responded in a most caring and pastoral way in a letter to Kittie Miller, placing the blame for the situation largely on church leaders and not on her. He then wrote, “Covetousness had so taken possession of all our hearts and minds and lives that our spiritual discernment was befogged and beclouded, so that we were in a position to be deceived by that emissary of the evil one when it came in the shape of a gift that would relieve the burden from the cause without our making self-sacrifice. Had this so-called Norman gift materialized at that time in our then present condition, it would have been the greatest curse that ever came to the denomination, because it would have simply confirmed us in our spirit of covetousness.”
If Irwin’s letter to Kittie is a valid indicator of the candor he expressed in his various talks to church members about the Norman experience, his willingness to be so vulnerable publicly is refreshing.
On January 16, 1900, Ellen White wrote to Review and Herald office leaders and said: “I see that by this Norman case the Lord tested and proved men, to see what they would do under temptation. If the money promised had been given to the various objects specified, more harm than good would have been done to our people.”
This was Ellen White’s last reference to Captain Norman—at least by name.
Evidence of Fraud
Despite efforts to locate records of the captain’s ship, alleged to be named the Fox Hall and registered to sail between Singapore and Melbourne, to date none has been located, nor any evidence to support his claims to ownership of other vessels.
Several accounts state that Norman’s nationality was English. Despite the claim that he was from Bath, Maine, no record of a Henry Norman born in England has been found in any census records for Bath, or Sagadahoc County, Maine, from 1850 to 1900. To date it has been impossible to determine his actual origins.
The captain was also remembered as “living high” the entire time he was with the Adventists. In no instance did anyone recall his ever paying for anything.
Lessons to Be Learned
Several lessons are suggested from the Captain Norman experience. Large financial gifts have the potential to impact negatively on the giving of smaller donations. In reality it is the privilege of all—however rich or poor—to do their part in sustaining the work of God. Also, it’s important to remember that God does not always choose to reveal everything to His messengers. Consequently, Ellen White knew nothing more regarding Captain Norman than what church leaders told her. Apparently God wanted His people to learn important lessons from this situation that could not have been learned had Ellen White been shown ahead of time the captain’s true character and intentions.
How a person reacts to disappointments and embarrassments in life demonstrates much about that individual. Although the Norman experience was highly embarrassing to the major parties involved, all reacted positively in the aftermath and continued serving the church in various leadership roles.
All of us make mistakes, but the real measure of a person is how he or she reacts when such things happen. Do we forsake God and/or become critical of His church? Or do we move forward, believing that God still loves us and still wants to work through us? All the key individuals from the Captain Norman story chose by God’s grace to move forward!
Most important, we must keep close to God. President Irwin believed that had church leaders kept close to God, the Norman situation could not have happened.
As we approach the end of time, the need to stay close to God becomes increasingly important. President Irwin’s openness and candid admissions regarding the Captain Norman situation seem especially refreshing today when very few in our society are willing to accept responsibility for their actions. The president’s actions probably also go a long way toward explaining why today the Captain Norman incident is all but forgotten.
James R. Nix is director of the White Estate in Silver Spring, Maryland. This article was published June 21, 2012.