February 25, 2024

John Nevins Andrews

The making of our “first” missionary

Gilbert Valentine

John Nevins Andrews preached his first sermon as a missionary in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, on October 18, 1874. It was Sabbath, just two days after his arrival in his new mission field, and the worshippers gathered in the home of Swiss watchmaker Albert Vuilleumier. Andrews and his two children, Mary and Charles, felt not a little bewildered and strange. They could not understand the conversations. With the aid of a halting translator, Andrews related the story of the Advent movement and of the work of Joseph Bates and James and Ellen White. He also told of his own experience of Advent hope as an early believer in the movement.

An Impossible Task

Four days later, on October 22, Andrews found himself looking out from the third-floor window of the Vuilleumier home that was the family’s temporary lodging place and thinking about the strange foreign country that was now his mission territory. It struck him that the great disappointment of 1844 had occurred 30 years ago, which meant that “the time to work is short.” How was he to warn this vast population about “the preparation we must make in order to stand in the judgment”?1

It had not been an easy decision for the still-youthful Advent movement to send its first official missionary overseas. The General Conference had procrastinated for more than a year because some were not sure that the recently widowed John Andrews was the best person to send. James White had suffered further serious strokes and had become disabled. Would Andrews be what the new mission field needed? Or would his skills perhaps be more needed in Battle Creek? Eventually the new General Conference president, George Butler, on the last night of the August 1874 General Conference Session, insisted on a resolution. Delegates agreed, and voted to “instruct” the executive committee to send Andrews to Switzerland “as soon as possible.”

From an economic perspective it was not a good time to send someone to Europe, although this was not initially understood. Just a few months previously, extreme financial hardship had descended on the church and on economies around the world as what would become the “long depression” of the 1870s took deep root. Financially, sending out the first missionary could not have been at a worse time.

Even more problematic, the General Conference did not yet have in place any developed policy framework for sending missionaries abroad. Andrews set off without a salary. The General Conference apparently expected the Swiss believers to cover it. But Swiss Sabbathkeepers themselves were deep in debt. It was a rocky start, but Andrews persevered even if he sometimes had to scrimp on food and often draw down on his own scant savings or that of work colleagues.

Painful, severe culture shock and a desperate struggle to learn to converse in the local language darkened the first year as the 45-year-old missionary slowly found his feet. But he won hearts, wrote letters, advertised about the Sabbath in newspapers, preached in hotels and town halls, baptized converts, planted churches, and organized the mission. And he established Les Signs des Temps, an effective missionary magazine that still serves the church to this day.

The victories won were, however, at enormous personal cost. At a low point in the journey to success, some local believers, having difficulty with his American ways, criticized Andrews and made things difficult. When the criticism reached Ellen White, she assured the Swiss believers that the church had sent across the “ablest man in all our ranks” and that this had been at immense sacrifice both to him and to the senders. Andrews’ determination ultimately paid off. But what had prepared him for such a mission?2

Life Lessons

John Andrews, as a 14-year-old in Maine, had experienced disappointed Advent hope and the trauma that followed. But he had held on to his faith, and in 1849 had become part of the inner circle of Advent leaders who helped uncover new Bible truths that lay at the core of Adventist belief. He had become an authoritative exponent of the three angels’ messages and their supporting doctrines. His many articles and pamphlets were highly valued by the church.

Of a scholarly bent, he had taught himself to read several foreign languages and was proficient in the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. He had become a successful evangelist and planter of churches throughout the New England states and had mentored other evangelists and pastors, helping them to succeed. He had farmed with his relatives for a while out on the prairies of Iowa and had developed practical skills and animal husbandry.

Andrews had experienced economic hardship and struggled through consequent ill-health. As a result, he had become a committed health reformer. He had served as General Conference president when James White was too ill to continue in the role. He had also served as editor of the Review and Herald and become thoroughly familiar with the publishing industry. As president of the New York Conference, Andrews had nurtured steady growth and learned church management skills. He had been called upon to mediate tensions at the church headquarters and developed skills as a valued counselor. He had represented the fledgling church to government officialdom when it sought conscientious objector status during the Civil War. He knew how to be diplomatic. And he had become a widely respected scholar on the antiquity of the Sabbath doctrine though his magnum opus, the much-cited History of the Sabbath (1861, 1873).

When, in 1871, a group of inquiring Sabbathkeepers in Switzerland got in touch with church headquarters, Andrews, with his language skills, was the natural one to correspond with them. And when they sent Jakob Erzberger as a delegate to America to learn more about Adventism, John Andrews was the natural one to teach him about evangelistic campaigns and church pastoring. Andrews had never planned to be a missionary, but Providence had surely prepared him for such a role. In 1874, as Providence opened the door of international mission opportunity, the deeply spiritual John Andrews, the “ablest” worker available, was willing to respond. And in spite of the culture shock and financial distress, John Andrews, our first official missionary, succeeded in helping the church find its way in undertaking its worldwide task.

1 John N. Andrews, “Our Work,” Review and Herald, Dec. 15, 1874, p. 4.

2 Readers wanting to learn more will enjoy reading Valentine’s full-length biography, J. N. Andrews: Mission Pioneer, Evangelist and Thought Leader, published by Pacific Press (2019).