Who we were:
The Origins of the Seventh-day Adventist Church


Dr. Ciro Sepulveda

Devotional
Faculty Colloquium
Oakwood College, August 2000

(This presentation comes from a book on the history of the Seventh-day-Adventist Church Dr. Sepulveda is now writing.)

In the third decade of the 19th Century the Harmon house stood on the hill, almost empty, as the children took the last items to the horse drawn carriage in front of the small structure. From the front door, the kids, who were walking in and out carrying their belongings, the lake in the distance. The wind blew through the trees refreshing the afternoon as the family worked to empty the home in which all of the children had been born. For the eight kids it was a time, full of adventure and intrigue. But for the Robert and Eunice, father and mother, the uncertainty of the future scared them.

The journey they were about to start would lead them to Portland, Maine. They would abandon the countryside where they had lived since childhood like their parents and grandparent before them. The fear of the unknown was tempered by the fact that in the city they would get a new start. Opportunities for employment, schooling for the children pulled, like a magnet, on the Harmons. Poverty pushed them off the land.

In contrast to the Harmons, The 19th Century brought wealth and prosperity to the Cabots. John Cabot established the nation's first cotton mill outside of Boston, in Beverly. Samuel Cabot married into the family of Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins who many called the "Prince" of Boston's Merchants. Samuel died a millionaire. George Cabot once boasted to a friend that in one year he made $130,000 profits on a single ship he owned. The Cabot firms of Boston in the 19th Century were actively involved in most of the fields of New England business that generated fortunes for the family. The 19th Century was the best of times for the Cabots.

Unlike the Harmon's the Cabot's rode a wave of prosperity. The bulk of the wealth had come from the Atlantic trade. Hundreds of ships manned by New Englanders opened the gates that made Boston one of the nation's wealthiest cities.

The Atlantic trade began, when New England ships, with their hulls full of rum, crossed the Atlantic bound for Europe where they unloaded their cargo. In Europe they would again load up with European goods and head for Africa. In Africa they would once again fill their bowels with African Slave and cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean. At their last stop, in the Caribbean, the ships unloaded their human cargo and filled their hulls with molasses and sailed back home to New England.

In 1790 Boston had only one bank in the city. The city was really a small village of artisans and craftsmen. By 1800, rum and slaves opened the door for two new banks. In the decade between 1810-1820 six new banks welcomed the money of the merchants. Then the money really started to roll in, in 1822, in one year, six new banks open there vaults, in 1825 three, in 1826 two, in 1827 one, in 1828 eight, in 1831 six, in 1832 six, in 1833 five. By the 1830s, when the Harmon's packed their belongings and rolled down the hill from Gorham, Maine headed for Portland, Boston the second financial powerhouse in the United States.

The proper Bostonian families made a killing on the high seas. The money in the Boston Banks soon found its way into local industries providing the capital needed to launch the industrial revolution in American. With in a few years most of New England was engulfed in the building of factories and the production of goods that would saturate not only the American market, but in time extend to all corners of the planet. As the production of textiles surged in cities like Lowell and Lawrence or shoes in cities like Lynn, the wealthy Bostonians thrilled at the mountains of money that continued to pill up in their bank accounts.

In contrast to the Cabot's the Harmon's, who lived out on the New England frontier survided, from day to day. For generations the Harmon and Gould cleared and farmed New England land. During the revolutionary war, 1776 and the war of 1812 their men had fought in the front lines. By the 1830s when the money was rolling into the vaults of the Boston Banks, Robert Harmon, his wife and eight children emptied their small rented farmhouse. The Harmon's efforts at farming rented landed, as their forefathers had done for generations, came to an end. Robert could no longer feed his children. Like thousands of others forced off the land Robert, Eunice and the eight kids left the countryside hoping things would improve in the city.

But the city was not heaven.

In 1822 Josiah Quincy addressing the Grand Jury of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, reported that there were 700 men in Boston for whom employment could not be found. He reported, "These men long for work, they beg for work, yet it is not to be found."

For the New England poor, the middle of the 19th Century brought hunger, and illness forcing hundreds to scratch out a living. In the cities, working conditions were dangerous, sanitary conditions were dreadful, medical care was, at best, poor. When men took sick, they usually died, leaving no medical insurance, no inheritance and few assets. Relatives and friends took in the lucky women. Those that were not so lucky were forced into prostitution so that they place food on the table for their children. The older children were forced to work and take care of their brothers and sisters. Many of the children roamed city streets, wharves and woods collecting bits of fuel, or begging.

As the number of poor increased in New England, contempt for then went on the rise. Some cities tried to get rid of them by paying their transportation to other cities. Other municipalities established some form of relief designed to fill anyone who took it with shame. Many city dwellers, like the fathers of Beverly, Massachusetts were against relief for the poor, arguing that it encouraged "idleness" and "improvidence". They were also convince that helping the poor also encouraged the "industrious poor" to become lazy since they saw others got help while doing nothing.

In many communities the poor were auctioned off and treated with barbarity and neglect by their keepers. In many cases the cruelty and torture of their keepers ended in death. The words of Abijah Hammond in October of 1820 describes what generally happened to the poor in the northeastern in the first half of the 19th Century.

"Most of the poor are sold, as the term is, that is, to those who agree to support them on the lowest terms, to purchasers nearly as poor as themselves who treat them in many instances more like brutes than like human beings, and who instead of applying, the amount they received from the poor master, for the comfort of the pauper, spend it to support their own families, or which is too often the case, in purchasing ardent spirits; under the maddening influence of which, they treat these wretched pensioners, and not infrequently their own wives and children, with violence and outrage."

The poor were seen as a dangerous element in 19th Century New England not only because of their supposed laziness, but also because they were associated with illness and disease. When the cholera epidemic of 1832 hit most of the port cities of the northeast, and no logical explanation could be found for the illness, many were quick to blame the immigrants and the poor. The most pious were not at all ashamed of arguing that the wrath of God had fallen on the poor.

Robert Harmon found a house, in the South side of Portland, by the bay where the poor lived. The children helped to unload the families belongings. This was Robert's second attempt at living in Portland. Several years before the Harmonds arrived in Portland and tried to make a go of it, but failed. As he looked across the bay he hoped for a better experience this time. He had learned to make hats and with the help of the children Robert and Eunice were expecting the best as they moved into their new home.

Things could have been worse. They could of migrated to one of the many factory towns along the rivers in Massachusetts where women were needed to run the textile mills. There Eunice and the older sisters could of found work. In the early days of industrialization the first families of Boston tried to create good working conditions for their female workers. However, in time the need for more and more money made the bottom line on a ledger the principle guide for business decisions. To prevent threads from snapping in the large brick factories, all windows were nailed shut and the air was sprayed with water, making the inside of the tall building humid and hot. Twelve and thirteen year old little girls worked 12 to 16 hours in rooms with flying dust and deafening roars.

Wages fell. Work hours increased. The accident rate on the job grew to alarming rates. Un able to bear the conditions, 800 women, in Lowell, walked off the job in 1834. Two years later between 1,500 and 2,000 women shut down the factories once again in protest of working conditions and wages. The older Hamond girls Caroline, Harriet, Maria, and Sarah who were teenagers in the 1830s may have been lucky they had not move south to Massachusetts.

The gulf between the wealthy New Englanders and the poor had been growing wider and wider since the beginning of the 1800s. By 1833 4% of the people in the United States owned 59% of the wealth of the nation. A few years later, in 1848, when one of the youngest Harmon girls became Ellen G. White and started her married life, 81% of the population in the city of Boston owned 4% of the wealth.

This was the world of the first Seventh-Day-Adventist. It was in this world that the founders of the Seventh-day-Adventist Church came to be. A world divided by deep cayons of inequity. A world where someone like Joseph Sebastian Cabot, lawyer, East India merchant, and banker could grow no fewer than six hundred varieties of tulips at one of his mansions while Robert Harmon lacked the resources to nurture his own his children. A world that made men like Thomas Jefferson, who devised schemes to swindle dozens of Indian cultures out of their lands , a national hero. A World that made men like Andrew Jackson who pounced on Indian villages in Alabama killing every man woman and child, president of the nation. A land the elevated men like James Polk to its highest pedastal because he started a war and stole half of the national territory of its neighbor, Mexico. A land that made slaveholders judges in the Supreme Court of the land. This was the land where Abraham Lincoln made repeated promises to plantation owners in the Deep South that if he was elected president he would no touch their property.

In this land, among the poor the northeast, Seventh-day Adventist church came into existance. Not in the mansions of power but in the tenements of misery. Not among the Boston Brahmans but out on the frontiers and in the ghettos of powerlessness. Not among the highly educated of Harvard or Yale but in the midst of the huddles masses and unwanted immigrants.

The first Adventist came from poverty. Most of them had no education. Most of them had been displaced and forced to migrate. They were migrants and immigrants.

James White left the farm because there were to many children to feel on his fathers land. John Loughborough who became the first missionary to California and one of the first administrators of the Church in England painted houses Rochester, New York before he became an Adventist. George Amadon, long time Review and Herald Administrator worked on the Eire Canal towing barges before he visited an Adventist tent meeting. Uriah Smith had to quit school to support his family before he started editing the Review and Herald. O.A. Olsen the President of the General Conference in the 1890s came to American from Norway, an immigrant. L.R. Conradi, who led the church in Germany for more than thirty years, was a German immigrant clearing land in Iowa before he started reading Adventist journals. The Bordeous brothers, who established churches in Minnesota , California, and Europe were French Canadians immigrants. John Mateson, a dutch immigrant, established dozens of Swedish, and Norwegian churches in the large cities of the Midwest.

Some of you may be asking by now, what does all this have to do with faith and learning. You see the reason we are so compulsive with this thing we call faith and learning stems from the fact that the Adventist Church is in the middle of an identity crisis. We do not know who we are. We have to right down our mission statement on little cards to figure out what we are all about.

To understand who we really are we must first know where we came from. There must be no confusion about our roots. To understand our present we can not live under a cloud of historical amnesia.

The Cabots sent their sons to Harvard, believing their daughters needed no education since they had smaller brains. Our forefathers, our poor and uneducated forefathers, saw Harvard as morally bankrupt. That is why they created their own coeducational colleges, well over 50 years before Harvard let women into its classrooms. The Cabots got rich taking slave from African and bringing them to American. Our forefathers our poor and uneducated forefathers, believed that the United States was the two-horned beast of Revelation, in collusion with demonic powers, because it tolerated slavery. And they, our poor and uneducated forefathers, were willing to go to jail before they would return a runaway slave to their masters.

We must not forget who we were.

It has been a150 years since our forefathers founded our church. Many things have change. But one remains the same. The unbridled lust for wealth and power has not diminished.