In 1867, when Edson White was 18 years old and working at the Adventist type-room in Battle Creek, Michigan, he had a transformative conversation with Mr Bell.
After learning that he was speaking with a primary school teacher, Edson confessed to Mr Bell that he found grammar very difficult. They were both sitting by a large pile of firewood that Mr. Bell had yet to finish cutting. The teacher wiped the perspiration off his forehead with his sleeve and replied, looking into the boy’s curious eyes: “Grammar can be one of the most interesting studies in the world—if it is taught well.”
Edson listened in amazement to these words and, delighted at the prospect, he asked his new friend, with due politeness: “Would you teach a few of us?” He stood up, looking towards the door of the type-room from which he had just come out and where he was supposed to return, to get back to work. “Yes. Come around some time,” replied Mr. Bell, and got up to finish chopping the remaining pieces of wood for the day.
Edson White had no formal education and had learned everything he knew from his mother, Ellen, and from his father, James. He and other boys of his age were employed at the publishing house without having graduated from any school, either because their parents did not trust the public schooling system, or because they considered it more urgent for them to work for God. However, Edson and his friends sometimes dreamed of how nice it would be to learn the craft of ink letters, allegories, and complex calculations. That afternoon’s meeting would redefine Edson’s goals and path in life.
Mr. Bell, the teacher, whose full name was Goodloe Harper Bell, was 34 years old and had come to Battle Creek for treatment, after he had heard about the fame of the local Adventist health centre. Physical labour was also included in the health recovery plan, so that day he was tasked with cutting firewood for the hot water boiler. This is how he met Edson White, who was taking a break from his work in the type-room for a short walk in the yard, and who, polite by nature, had started a conversation with him.
Bell had been teaching since he was 19, when his father died. As a teenager, he had studied for a time at Oberlin College, recognised for its reforming principles, but the death of his father prevented him from remaining there to finish his studies. He was sincerely seeking God and the meeting with the Adventists made him think seriously about the Bible and the need for a faith modelled consistently according to the sacred text of the Bible. So, Edson’s proposal seemed downright providential.
That evening, Professor Bell gave his first lesson, and the boys were captivated by the teacher’s simple and open style, so they promised him to come every evening to learn the secrets of grammar with him. And so they did. Little did the two men realise that their discussion would lay the foundations of an educational system that would spread throughout the world, succeeding in just a few decades to become one of the most developed faith-based educational systems worldwide.
In just a few generations’ time, the small community in which young Edson wanted to learn came to possess one of the most developed private education systems in the world. Edson’s interest became emblematic for thousands of boys and girls from all around the world, and Bell’s dedication the secret to the success of this endeavour.
An analysis of the beginning of this project deepens the paradox of its current success. Apart from Bell, who had just joined the ranks of the Adventist Church, there were not many Adventists with a teaching career or advanced education. Even if some had unsuspectedly vast knowledge for self-taught farmers (John Andrews is said, for example, to have had a thorough knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and was able to reproduce from memory the whole of the New Testament and a large part of the Old Testament), they did not have the necessary pedagogical experience to coordinate such a project.
Still, in 1872, Bell started the first church-sponsored school with 12 students. The approach of 1867 had shown them that it was possible; only the funds had to be found to support such a bold dream. A little more than 150 years later, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has come to have quality schools in 145 states of the world.
Surprising recipes for success
In order to understand what was the basis of this notable development in the history of pedagogy, we must first analyse the context in which the Adventist philosophy of education was formed.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the leaders of the spiritual awakening movements in America had begun to give increasing importance to the educational system. The tradition of the great American Universities, Harvard and Yale, was Catholic. Students had to study a certain well-established curriculum without the possibility of opting for one course or another, which limited their freedom of intellectual development.
They spoke out against the custom of awarding diplomas and prizes to the best students in lavish festivities, which encouraged the accentuation of inequality and individual pride. Horace Mann, the famous educator and writer, the father of the American public school, said: “I hold and always have held it too unchristian to place two children in such relation to each other that if one wins the other must lose. So placed, what scholars gain in intellect, yes, and a thousand times more, they lose in virtue.”
What is more, under the influence of the ideas promoted by nutritional reformer Sylvester Graham, the other reformers recognised the importance of a healthy lifestyle, demanding the avoidance of alcohol and coffee, and even recommending the adoption of a vegetarian diet.
Oberlin College is emblematic of this movement. Founded in 1833, the college is known as the first college in the USA where women and African-Americans were enrolled. The entire school curriculum was designed as a response to the traditional Catholic education system, and offered the student the opportunity to gain a very wide range of practical knowledge, thus promoting the principle of freedom and independence in matters of moral and religious convictions.
Even if the Oberlin College gradually gave up many of the original reforming ideas, Adventists took over the model and developed it under the influence of one of the important figures of Adventism in that era, Ellen White, offering a viable alternative to the traditional education system.
The Adventist philosophy of education did not focus only on the academic achievement of the student, but sought to provide means by which education could be done holistically. Thus, Adventist schools were interested in developing each student’s maximum potential, including intellectually, socially and practically.
Using the Bible as a reference point, these denominational schools provided students with a framework in which to seek excellence, both personally and in their relationships with colleagues, and encouraged a healthy lifestyle based on regular physical activity and vegetarian nutrition. They enrolled students in many constructive extracurricular activities, for the purpose of gaining experience and for improving various practical skills.
The road was not and could not always be easy. Battle Creek College, for instance, had to be closed for a while, 10 years after its opening, and this is because the curriculum had become a “philosophic betrayal”—students from the main specialisation had to allocate between four and six years to study ancient Greek authors and very little time for the subjects that really prepared them for life.
In 1883, the college reopened with much greater care for the evangelical principles from which it had started, managing to become a successful model. To this day, the ideal of providing an alternative to an educational system that fosters addiction and pride continues to represent the great challenge of the Adventist education system.
Between the lines
Edson White eventually became a publisher. In 1894, he built the famous Morning Star, the boat equipped with a small printing press, a camera obscura for photographs, a chapel, and several bedrooms for himself and his collaborators. On this vessel he travelled the Mississippi to educate and evangelise the African-American population. In just five years, he managed to establish 50 churches and several schools.
Adrian Neagu is the editorial director of Life and Health Publishing House Romania and holds a PhD in History.