May 2, 2016

​Cities: An Adventist Challenge

Our movement to reach the world began in small towns and villages.

George R. Knight

Adventism and cities may not always have  mixed well. But thanks to recent initiatives,  such as Mission to the Cities, that is  changing.

How We Began

The nineteenth-century world in which Adventism began was deeply influenced by the Jeffersonian ideal of small towns and independent farmers. The Millerite movement thrived in that environment. It took the ingenuity and perseverance of Joshua V. Himes to help farmer William Miller enter such places as New York and Philadelphia.

But Himes never became part of Sabbatarian Adventism. Our pioneers could have used the financial firepower and know-how of a man like him to penetrate their cities. They were a rural and village type of folk whose evangelistic style worked well in such places.

Typically a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist would enter a village in which there might be an Adventist family or two and post notification of meetings to take place in the local schoolhouse. Such provocative titles as “Which Day Is the Sabbath?” or “What Happens When a Person Dies?” often brought forth a challenge from local clergy. The debate that followed elicited widespread interest. Absent our modern-day entertainment distractions, a debate between two preachers was the best show in town.

Such tactics worked well in small-town America. Larger cities had other diversions much more alluring than a sermon title on the local bulletin board. As a result, nineteenth-century Adventism tended to flourish much better in the hinterlands than it did in highly populated areas. Beyond that, the general Protestant wisdom of the day feared the evils of the city, where people could all too easily become involved in dissipation and enslaving vices.

For Adventists, the fact that Ellen White shared the Jeffersonian perspective provided additional reason to avoid the cities, with their corruption, wickedness, and health-related problems. By contrast, she uplifted the spiritually nourishing qualities that could be developed in the atmosphere of nature.1

Changing Attitudes: Three Stages

Taking hold of the commission to preach the third angel’s message “to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev. 14:6) brought significant change to Adventist thinking about the cities. They knew that they had to reach the world’s great cities.

Their first major attempt took place in the early 1880s, during which S. N. Haskell and others sponsored Adventist pioneer missions in such cities as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Those missions generally provided reading and lecture rooms and living quarters for the staff, who distributed reading materials and invited people to attend meetings at the center. Converts were formed into Sabbath Schools, some of which became the nuclei for churches. Unfortunately, the cost of such missions was beyond the ability of the conferences to support, and few lasted beyond the 1880s. However, because of them we begin to find more urban Adventists. But not many.

The second wave of Adventist mission to the cities took place in the 1890s, largely through the efforts of J. H. Kellogg and his Medical Missionary and Benevolent Association. These missions tended to be more for the down-and-out sector of the population and emphasized welfare more than evangelism. But they did stimulate some growth in the numbers of church members living in large cities.

The third stage in the development of Adventist interest in the cities came in the first decade of the twentieth century through the burden of Ellen White for the unreached masses in America’s great cities. She took two approaches to city evangelism. The more well known has come to be known as “outpost evangelism.” In that model she counseled that Adventist institutions should be established near large cities, but that workers should not live in them. “From these outposts,” they were to “warn the cities, and raise in them memorials for God.”2 The other approach she put forth was for Adventists to move into the cities so they could work with their neighbors “to set up there the standard of Christ.”3

Interestingly, the outpost model got nearly all the publicity. But the early years of the twentieth century found Ellen White obsessed with reaching the urban centers. By 1910 she was so upset with the lack of progress in cities that she questioned General Conference president Arthur G. Daniells’ conversion, suggesting that in the face of what she perceived to be a lack of interest for urban evangelism, he was not qualified to lead the denomination. She even went so far as to refuse interviews with him until he came up with aggressive strategies to evangelize cities.4

Where We Are Now

Because of Ellen White’s emphasis and the evangelistic work it stimulated, Adventist work in the cities grew, but not as rapidly as it could have. In 2016 Adventism is still dealing with some anti-urban bias, and some cities are still Adventist “deserts.”

In North America most Adventists in such cities as New York and Miami are immigrants or have an immigrant background. One of the denomination’s most forbidding challenges has been reaching native-born North Americans of all races in large population centers.

Adventist urban witness has seen some success in cities such as São Paulo, Brazil, and Sydney, Australia. But whatever the case, Adventism continues to be fully devoted to our God-given task of taking the good news “to every nation, tribe, language and people,” cities and their populations not excluded.

  1. See Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 7, p. 87.
  2. Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 76.
  3. Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1925), p. 180.
  4. A. L. White, Ellen G. White: The Later Elmshaven Years, 1905-1915 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), vol. 6, pp. 223-228.

George Knight, professor emeritus of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, has made decades of contributions to the history and development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.