For more than a century, Seventh-day Adventists have debated, discussed—and disagreed—about how to understand the counsel of church founder, Ellen G. White, on urban life and ministry.
Two thoughtful articles by well-known Adventist leaders underline how understanding Ellen White’s counsel requires faithfulness, intentionality, and realism.
Is the world of the Bible essentially rural or urban?
The Bible mentions at least 119 cities. The earliest mention of a city is found in Genesis 4, where Cain built a city and named it after his son Enoch. Other cities are mentioned in Genesis 10 and 11 coinciding with the building of the tower of Babel.
In Genesis 18, Abraham was confronted with the fate of Sodom. Realizing the doom that would befall that city, he pleaded with God for grace if there were 50 or 45 or 40 or 30 or 20 or even 10 who might be saved from the impending disaster—and God’s grace abounded.
God called Jonah to prophesy to the people in Nineveh. Having fled from the call, Jonah was brought back to his calling and proclaimed the fate of the proud city. To Jonah’s dismay, the citizens of Nineveh repented and were spared. To calm the prophet’s disappointment, God exclaimed, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).
In the book of Jeremiah we note that the prophet sent a letter from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets, and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. He counseled them with a message from God to settle in and “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7).
Jesus Himself, as He approached Jerusalem for the last time, having ministered to thousands in urban centers throughout the land, wept over this city’s rejection of Him and His ministry there (Luke 13:34, 35; see also Matt. 9:35-38).
It seems therefore that urban centers in every age, with an extraordinary concentration of people, provide a hothouse for human nature to reveal itself in extraordinary ways. Yet it’s no secret that wherever sin abounds, God finds an opportunity for His grace to abound much more (Rom. 5:20).
An Adventist Dilemma
Toward the end of the nineteenth century Ellen White found herself in an ambivalent situation as she wrestled with the issue of ministry in the great cities of the world. On the one hand, she saw the ideal for Christian families to live in rural settings, where they could avoid the corruption, wickedness, and health-related problems of the cities and nourish their spirituality in the tranquility of natural surroundings. On the other hand, she had a burden for the church to be proactive and not neglect the gospel work in the cities. Mitigating that neglect would be a focal point of her ministry between 1901 and 1910.
As we study Ellen White’s writings on city missions, we discover what she called “outpost evangelism.” This concept is found in several places in her writings. For example: “It is God’s design,” she wrote in 1903, “that our people should locate outside the cities, and from these outposts warn the cities, and raise in them memorials for God.” “The cities,” she had written a year earlier, “are to be worked from outposts. Said the messenger of God, ‘Shall not the cities be warned? Yes; not by God’s people living in them, but by their visiting them, to warn them of what is coming upon the earth.’ ” We need to reexamine the position that some have taken that it is wrong to locate Adventist evangelistic workers inside urban areas, and that to do so is apostasy from her clear counsel. It’s all too easy to take her statements and universalize them without examining everything she has written on the topic, or even carefully reading the context of her statements.
It’s helpful in understanding the development of Ellen White’s counsel about city missions to examine her evolving counsel regarding the education of youth. In Australia in the 1890s she wrote, “Never can the proper education be given to the youth in this country, or any other country, unless they are separated a wide distance from the cities. The customs and practices in the cities unfit the minds of the youth for the entrance of truth.” Yet in the early twentieth century, the church had begun to make inroads among the poorer classes in some of the larger cities. Thus she wrote in 1909, “So far as possible these schools should be established outside the cities. But in the cities there are many children who could not attend schools away from the cities; and for the benefit of these, schools should be opened in the cities as well as in the country.” Note that Ellen White wrote in terms of both the ideal and the real. The ideal was always rural schools, but the reality of mission dictated that some Adventist schools would be in cities, where access to Adventist education was urgent.
Ellen White was opposed to the establishment of church institutions in cities if it was possible to avoid it. She recognized the inclination of Adventist families to settle around church hospitals and schools, thus bringing many families into urban areas if church institutions were planted there. But she didn’t urge the outpost approach when it came to planting local churches. To the contrary, she penned in 1907: “Repeatedly the Lord has instructed us that we are to work the cities from outpost centers. In these cities we are to have houses of worship, as memorials for God; but institutions for the publication of our literature, for the healing of the sick, and for the training of workers, are to be established outside the cities.”
Ellen White also noted that “while it is in the order of God that chosen workers of consecration and talent should be stationed in important centers of population to lead out in public efforts, it is also His purpose that the church members living in these cities shall use their God-given talents in working for souls.” In 1909 she wrote that “the Lord has presented before me the work that is to be done in our cities. The believers in these cities are to work for God in the neighborhood of their homes.” A year later she counseled, “Especially are the church members living in the cities to exercise, in all humility, their God-given talents in laboring with those who are willing to hear the message that should come to the world at this time.”
Years earlier, Ellen White had been explicit that some Adventists needed to move to the cities to raise up churches. “We see,” she wrote, “the great need of missionary work to carry the truth not only to foreign countries, but to those who are near us. Close around us are cities and towns in which no efforts are made to save souls. Why should not families who know the present truth settle in these cities and villages, to set up there the standard of Christ, working in humility, not in their own way, but in God’s way, to bring the light before those who have no knowledge of it? . . . There will be laymen who will move into towns and cities, and into apparently out-of-the-way places, that they may let the light which God has given them shine forth to others.”
So we have two sets of parallel counsel—one relating to institutions, advocating outpost ministry, and a second dealing with local church work, advocating working from within the city. That being the case, we need to ask why only one set of counsel has received much publicity. The answer undoubtedly stems from the reality that statements from the one perspective have been collected and repeatedly published in compilations, while statements from the other, even though equally valid and important, have sometimes been neglected.
Thus, some Adventists have highlighted only half of Ellen White’s perspective. A reading of 107 articles on city work in the periodical index of Ellen White’s writings reveals that 24 articles provide instruction on moving out or establishing institutions outside cities, while 75 of them give specific instruction about moving into the cities with a mission, and eight articles critique conditions in urban settings without indicating whether to move toward them or away from them.
The Work in New York City
In 1901, 68-year-old Stephen Haskell and his wife, Hetty, began an innovative ministry in New York City. They rented an apartment on the sixth floor at 400 West 57th Street in Manhattan. They began their gospel work in their own and adjoining buildings, selling books, giving Bible studies, and providing practical medical instruction and care. Ellen White praised their efforts and counseled them to establish ministries appropriate to the needs in their community, including such things as vegetarian restaurants, treatment rooms, and cooking schools. These she called “centers of Influence.”
In early January 1902, when their mission had been operational for about five months, Ellen White wrote to them, “Our manner of working must be after God’s order. The work that is done for God in our large cities must not be according to man’s devising. . . . Brother [Haskell], the Lord has given you an opening in New York City, and your mission work there is to be an example of what mission work in other cities should be. . . . Your work in New York has been started in right lines. You are to make in New York a center for missionary effort. . . . The Lord desires this center to be a training school for workers, and nothing is to be allowed to interrupt the work.”
Ellen White’s counsel on city work is more complex than some have imagined. She always held to the ideal of rural living, but she never let that ideal blind her to the realities of the need for city mission. She firmly held to outpost evangelism for institutions “so far as possible,” and she also felt confident in recommending city work from within the metropolis when it involved the establishment and expansion of churches.
Urban Ministry Principles
It’s evident that evangelizing the cities of the United States and the entire world grew more critical because of the growing urgency to proclaim the first angel’s message, which was to go to “those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev. 14:6). The increasing percentage of the population dwelling in cities, as well as the call for counsel from New York City, recalled the groundbreaking work of John Harvey Kellogg and his team of workers in Chicago. Other efforts in San Francisco were showing great success in bringing the gospel to many through a variety of vital ministries that Ellen White termed the San Francisco “beehive.”
She consequently called for great efforts to be made in the support of urban ministry. Regarding the work of the Haskells, she wrote: “The message that I am bidden to bear to our people at this time is, Work the cities without delay, for time is short. The Lord has kept this work before us for the last twenty years or more. A little has been done in a few places, but much more might be done. I am carrying a burden day and night, because so little is being accomplished to warn the inhabitants of our great centers of population of the judgments that will fall upon the transgressors of God’s law.” In 1910 Ellen White reminded the church’s leadership, “There is no change in the messages that God has sent in the past. The work in the cities is the essential work for this time. When the cities are worked as God would have them, the result will be the setting in operation of a mighty movement such as we have not yet witnessed. God calls for self-sacrificing men converted to the truth to let their light shine forth in clear, distinct rays.”
It’s clear that Ellen White called for city missions to be supported by establishing training centers outside the cities for work in urban neighborhoods. But she also called for workers to establish permanent ministries within urban areas. These workers, along with church members residing in the cities, were to be highly intentional about their mission while residing in urban areas.
Gaspar and May-Ellen Colon retired from denominational employment in 2020 after more than 40 years of service in pastoral, departmental, and humanitarian ministries of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
1 Bible texts are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
2 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 76.
3 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 2, p. 358.
4 Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 312.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 9, p. 201. (Italics supplied.) Cf. Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1915), pp. 396, 397.
6 E. G. White, Selected Messages, book 2, p. 358.
7 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 158.
8 E. G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9, p. 128.
9 Ellen G. White, Medical Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1932), p. 332.
10 Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1925), p. 180.
11 Monte Sahlin, Mission in Metropolis (Milton-Freewater, Oregon: Center for Creative Ministry, 2007), p. 16.
12 Hetty Haskell to E. G. White, July 29, 1901; S. N. Haskell to E. G. White, July 18, 1901; July 29, 1901.
13 Ellen G. White, Ministry to the Cities (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2012), p. 158.
14 E. G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, p. 115.
15 E. G. White. Evangelism, pp. 385, 386.
16 Since 2009, more than half of the world’s population has become urban (see www.un.org).
17 Ellen G. White letter 43, 1895.
18 Ellen G. White, in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 5, 1906.
19 E. G. White, Medical Ministry, p. 300.
20 Ibid., p. 304.