Bell’s Select School (1903) grew into Battle Creek College, which included elementary and high school classes. The elementary and high school levels expanded into a 13-grade school in Battle Creek and today celebrates the 150th year of the Seventh-day Adventist education system in 2022. Photo courtesy of Center for Adventist Research
A young widower with four young daughters—largely self-educated, newly introduced to the Seventh-day Adventist church, and a recent patient of the Western Reform Health Institute (forerunner of Battle Creek Sanitarium)—might seem like an unlikely teacher to launch a worldwide, denominationally sponsored, education system. Yet Goodloe Harper Bell, who took up the challenge in 1867, is considered the first of the denomination’s sponsored teachers. By 1872, the denomination’s leaders voted to officially support Adventist education.
Up to this time, Adventists, for the most part, did not seriously consider formal education. Some fully opposed it. This did not negate that others had tried with home schools to educate as far back as 1853 with Martha Byington teaching in Bucks Bridge, New York.
The slender, humbly attired, long-bearded educator, Bell, who started his teaching career at a one-teacher country school at age 19 after a short stint at Oberlin College in Ohio, didn’t apply for the task even though he was out of work. It seems some young boys who wanted school learning begged him. Of those, it was Willie White who, while not keen on learning English, ended up as the one to challenge Bell to be their teacher. Thus, private tutoring began on the first floor of the Review and Herald Publishing building. With that meager start, Bell’s Select School grew into Battle Creek College, which included elementary and high school classes; its college classes were moved to Berrien Springs in 1901, becoming at first Emmanuel Missionary College, and now Andrews University.1 The elementary and high school levels expanded into a 13-grade school in Battle Creek and today celebrates the 150th year of the Seventh-day Adventist education system in 2022.
Some of Bell’s first students were two of James and Ellen White’s sons, Willie and Edson. In 1871, their mother was given a vision about Bell “in connection of the cause and work in Battle Creek.” She both commended and reproved Bell, and took into consideration, as she asked others to do, that he was new in the faith and that he fell into discouragement. She admonished him to return to his original enthusiasm. Sister Ellen actually felt that Bell was underappreciated.
Others of those first students are names of fellows who became some of the best-known denominational leaders: John Harvey Kellogg; his brother, William Keith Kellogg; Homer Aldrich; E.R. Jones; E.C. Loughborough; J. Byron Sperry; and James Edson White, Willie White’s brother.
Bell’s approach to education fits the description, “wholistic”—that of educating the mind, body and spirit. What he learned at Oberlin College (which taught education reform) combined with his newly found spiritual life as a Seventh-day Adventist (that included a female leader ordained by God with the gift of prophecy) pointed him to urge practical education for the entirety of a student’s being. Thus, the cornerstone for his service as a Christian teacher: moral character development.
His specialty in the classroom part of education: English. He wrote texts and taught grammar, rhetoric and literature. His books and his teaching methods were highly lauded, although his strictness was not as appreciated. However, Ellen White admonished that discipline is needed to effectively educate.
Bell also developed the first Seventh-day Adventist correspondence school. His contributions for including all aspects of educating the church as well as the school seems remarkably endless, as one contemplates what he taught and produced long before the age of technology.
Even in retirement, Bell founded and edited the Sabbath School Worker. He also edited The Fireside Journal, dedicated “to the moral and character benefits of a Christian home.” He believed that education included the home circle. And he wrote many texts. He emphasized Bible-based education. As well, both James and Ellen White realized the need for a college to prepare well-educated ministers to serve. Sister Ellen especially noted the importance of teaching physiology to balance knowledge in the other subjects. She stressed the importance of understanding how to be good stewards of our bodies by saying, “True education is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers.” (True Education, p. 9.1)
While all this progress continued, home schools were being established by Seventh-day Adventists across the United States. Then, in 1888, the first teachers’ institute convened in Battle Creek. It was, however, almost into the twentieth century before Alma McKibben started the first Adventist full-grade elementary school, which opened in Centralia, California. While Bell is often called the “father” of Seventh-day Adventist education, it is McKibben who is likewise called the Adventist’s education system’s “mother.”
So to the question, “What do Seventh-day Adventists now show for the early pattern Bell laid for us?” From the modest beginnings, Seventh-day Adventists are recognized for developing the largest parochial school system in the world, second only to the Catholics. The latest statistics [December 2020] reveal that our schools are found in 212 countries, comprised of 9,429 primary, secondary and vocational schools, and 117 colleges and universities. These include medical, nursing, dental and allied health professional education schools in support of the denomination’s medical missionary vision and its healthcare network.
In 2020 alone, forty-eight of those schools were established in the following countries: Argentina, Botswana, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Chile, Guatemala, Malawi, Mexico, Panama, Romania and the United States. Then we count 113,640 teachers, and approximately 2,025,000 students. That there are dedicated teachers and students who remain loyal to the cause of Christ is because of the values taught in Seventh-day Adventist schools which are undoubtedly the denomination’s greatest evangelism tool. As students go from the halls of learning—be it one-teacher schools or grand universities—into their communities and abroad, the list of possibilities to serve—not only as missionaries but in almost every discipline of employment and career from medicine, business, statesmen and -women, to the arts—is endless.
Dr. Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, General Conference director of Education, points to the founding of Battle Creek College “as pivotal, spurred by the need to train leaders, pastors, printers and other denominational ‘workers’ to proclaim the soon return of Christ. Sister White proved to be the undergirding of the education system as she wrote about “proper” or “true” education.’”
Beardsley-Hardy notes that, in addition to Battle Creek College, the American Medical Missionary College (AMMC) became an outgrowth of classes at Battle Creek Sanitarium starting in 1878. It eventually merged with what is now the University of Illinois College of Medicine and ceased affiliation with the Seventh-day Adventist lineage of present schools (1908). Yet, when in 1909 the medical college opened at what is now Loma Linda University, many of AMMC’s alumni came aboard to teach and connect medical missionary work with the message of Revelation 14: 9‒12. As Sister White expounded, “The medical work, in connection with the giving of the third angel’s message, is to accomplish wonderful results.” (Counsels on Health, p. 540.4)
It is not likely that Bell ever imagined that God’s plan included a worldwide network of schools to emerge from such a meager start. He simply wanted to learn for himself and share his knowledge with others. Most of all, his willing spirit motivated him, even against odds that often discouraged him.
Oh, that we had detailed diaries of Bell’s to peruse. We can only imagine in the Kingdom this scene with Bell: early students gathering around and thanking him, along with the vastly counted students since those first few, plus the grand substance of dedicated educators.
Seventh-day Adventist educators, students, parents and church members everywhere around the globe owe much to Bell’s willingness to take on the magnitude of the work he did. Because if he had not, there is the question, “What if he had not?
From his own experience, Larry Blackmer, recently retired educator, North American Division NAD vice president of Education, shares his thoughts. “It is the responsibility of Adventist education to help young people grow and develop into well-rounded, healthy, happy and Christ-like adults. We need to instill in their hearts not only the hope for our heavenly homeland, but an assurance, through the grace of our Lord, that Christ has paid the price for each young person and that the hope they possess is more than a hope for something that is possible in the future. It is a tangible hope, or assurance, in something that has already been purchased for us. In today’s world, hope is an elusive commodity. Adventist education has the answer: Jesus.”
In August 2021, Battle Creek Academy welcomed a new principal in Ranjan Fernando, who holds a worthy background in Christian education as he has served in several countries and is committed to the wholistic aspect of education. “It is imperative, while we educate for eternity, [to understand that] we are called to maintain a quality educational program with emphasis on health and outdoor education. Engaging students through agri-science and our re-designed land area for the pursuit of physical education also balances the time spent in learning through technology at BCA.” Fernando speaks with great affection for the many missionary-minded mentors God placed in his life who positively influenced him.
Pastor Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the worldwide denomination, shares his thoughts about the 150th-year milestone. “Seventh-day Adventist education is one of those gems that God has bestowed on His church. Christian education brings our students in touch on a daily basis with our Creator, Redeemer, High Priest and Coming King!”
Wilson continues, with his expression of gladness for his own church school education, “I praise God for the experience and the wonderful teachers who provided not only scholastic instruction but also spiritual guidance.” Then he stressed, “Seventh-day Adventist education is a must during these last days of earth’s history. I urge you to support Christian education and encourage young parents to plan well for having their children attend our schools which help to prepare young people for heaven through dedicated Seventh-day Adventist teachers and the power of the Master Teacher Who is coming soon to take us home and to our eternal classroom experience with Him!”
A part of Battle Creek Academy’s mission statement reads, “We are intentional about developing servant-leaders who build the community and who are ambassadors for the Lord.” While we consider how God led in the establishment of Seventh-day Adventist schools, we affirm the aim to Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).
When one drives on to the campus of Battle Creek Academy, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination’s flagship school, there is an emblazoned structure, the school motto, that serves as a battle cry for the students who are taught there and those who teach them: The Pursuit of Excellence in Christ: The reason that all Adventist schools worldwide exist.
Betty Kossick was a professional freelance writer, journalist and poet with 50-plus years of experience. She remained faithful to her calling until her passing on Feb. 2, 2022.