April 30, 2021

Sterling by Name and Sterling in Service

George Leighton Sterling and his wife, Maybelle, were pioneer missionaries who established the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Cook Islands and the Marquesas Archipelago of the Pacific Ocean. They served there for 30 years, and also for 12 years in New Zealand and Australia, making a total of 42 years, followed by 18 years continued dedication in retirement.

Early Life

George and Maybelle Sterling [Courtesy of South Pacific Division Heritage Centre]Born on December 27, 1885, in Otsego, Michigan, as the eldest of three sons, George Sterling grew up in an Adventist home and community. His grandfather, James G. Sterling, was a minister of the Church of Christ. He and his family met with Ellen and James White during their years in Rochester, New York, and in 1853 accepted “present truth.” From his grandfather and from his parents, Harvey and Emma Sterling, George grew up hearing stories of early Seventh-day Adventist history.

In 1903, six-feet tall and studious, George Sterling attended Mount Vernon College in Ohio. Eager to join God’s work, he graduated from the normal academic course (teacher training) in May 1908, being already under appointment to denominational work from April 1908. Graduating from the same course was 20-year-old Maybelle Henrietta Klopfenstein, born in Bowling Green, Ohio, a small farming community, on May 14, 1888. The couple married in June 1908. On July 1, four weeks later, the couple sailed from San Francisco on the Mariposa, under appointment as missionaries to the Eastern Polynesian Mission with headquarters at Tahiti.1 They received no outfitting allowance, taking with them only one trunk, two suitcases, and two small boxes of books. On the tropical island of Raiatea, they lived a simple lifestyle with few household possessions, and Maybelle became a competent cook, using local foods. Their only child, Bernita Talia, was born in Tahiti on June 20, 1924.

Mission Service

In Tahiti the couple expected to be teachers, but they encountered fierce opposition from French authorities. This caused them to engage in pioneering evangelism using materials they had brought with them and improvising others. Two years later, in 1910, they were appointed to the Cook Islands. Here they lived and served in primitive conditions for nine years, and often they were derided as “dogs.”2 Earnestly using every method they could—preaching, teaching, literature distribution, generosity, and kindness—they established believers in Aitutaki, Bora Bora, Mauke, and Rarotonga. George Sterling is remembered today for beginning a school in Aitutaki, where believers have multiplied since his initial earnest endeavors.3

In September 1914, George Sterling attended the Australasian Union Conference Session as a delegate and was ordained to the gospel ministry at an Australian camp meeting in Gore Hill. Four years later he was called to pioneer mission work in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, where he baptized both French and indigenous believers. 

In 1922 George and Maybelle returned to the United States as delegates to the General Conference Session in San Francisco. During their only furlough in 1923, George contributed to evangelism in Detroit, Michigan. On return to the Pacific, they were appointed to work again in the Society Islands, where George became president in 1930. With his usual pioneering zeal, he extended the Adventist mission to the Austral and Tuamotu Islands.

Later Life and Ministry

In 1938, 30 years after they had left their homeland to work for God in the Southern Hemisphere, Sterling spent four years as a Bible teacher at the New Zealand Missionary College in Longburn. From 1942 on, the couple ministered in Christchurch, New Zealand; and in Newcastle, Cessnock, and Tamworth in New South Wales, Australia.

In 1951 the Sterlings retired to Quirindi, in northern New South Wales, a country town with an Adventist church and school. There they contributed as subsidized workers. 

On January 27, 1972, Maybelle, age 84, died at the Sydney Sanitarium after a brief illness and was buried in Cooranbong.4 On May 5, 1979, George passed away at age 95 at the Parklea Adventist Village nursing home in Blacktown, Sydney.5

This article is from the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, which is available here.

Marye Trim, Ph.D., retired in 2008 as a senior lecturer in Australia, England, India, and Thailand. A New Zealander, Marye is married to John B. Trim, a pastor, and the couple has five adult children. Trained in journalism and creative writing, Marye has published books, stories, poems, inspirational articles, and academic publications.

1 W. G. Turner, “Pioneer Missionaries Celebrate Diamond Wedding,” Australasian Record, July 22, 1968, p. 1.

2 Personal knowledge of the author as a colleague in ministry with George and Maybelle Sterling between 1953      and 1960.

3 George C. Porter, “Second Primary School Opens,” Australasian Record, June 9, 1975, p. 2.

4 Turner, “Sterling, Sister Maybelle H. obituary.”

5 S. M. Uttley, “Sterling, George Leighton, obituary,” Australasian Record, June 18, 1979, p. 15.