Battle Creek’s Long Shadow
BATTLE CREEK, MICHIGAN, where the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was organized 150 years ago, may loom larger in Adventist memory than it does in real life. Signs in the downtown business district point tourists toward the “Historic Adventist Village,” but apart from a certain, well-known breakfast cereal maker’s headquarters, there’s little to suggest an Adventist “flavor” to the place.
Yes, the Seventh-day Adventist Tabernacle sits on a downtown corner, and several hundred come each Sabbath for Bible study and worship. But if you look for “The San,” as the Battle Creek Sanitarium was familiarly called, you’ll find a massive federal office complex—and a historical site marker. John Harvey Kellogg, longtime Adventist and later apostate, has truly “left the building.”
I came to such somber reflections when in this city for the General Conference’s Spring Meeting. The fellowship was grand; the historical presentations were both excellent and informative. I learned a lot, and so did many others who’d had far more years in this movement than I can claim.
Driving around Battle Creek (my hotel was not the main venue, hence I had a daily commute), I saw, as noted, little evidence of a Seventh-day Adventist impact on the town. In a way, that’s understandable: after the fire that claimed the Review and Herald Publishing Association building and after Ellen White’s vision that our headquarters should be close to Washington, D.C., the Adventists moved on, and Battle Creek went its own way.
The aforementioned Dr. Kellogg—whose brother, Will, founded the eponymous breakfast food empire—built the San into a major institution, only to see it destroyed by fire in 1902. Ellen White counseled that the facility should not be rebuilt, but Kellogg ignored her advice. Forty years later the U.S. government bought the property for use as a hospital for returning World War II soldiers, and John Harvey Kellogg died a year later.
What are the lessons Seventh-day Adventists can take from the Battle Creek experience? I can’t claim a complete list, but here are a few thoughts that came to mind after five days in Battle Creek, Michigan.
First, God knows our destiny better than we do. It might well have seemed—to some of our pioneers and their successors—that staying in Battle Creek and expanding our “empire” there would have been a good thing. But the Lord had a different plan, and that difference may well have shaped our destiny. Being in and around Washington, D.C., has created great opportunities for our movement’s leadership and our people, ones that might not have been available elsewhere.
At the same time, we have a responsibility to remember the past. The Historic Adventist Village in Battle Creek is a fine reminder of our heritage, but much more can—and shall, God willing—be done to show that heritage off. Not to boast, but to remind our people and to inform others that what began in a small Michigan city has since circled the globe. I believe the Village and its sponsors, the Adventist Heritage Ministry, deserve your support, including financial, to accomplish this task.
I believe we also should brighten the corner where we are, to borrow from the old chorus. While there’s no doubt that much was done for Battle Creek when it was an Adventist stronghold, perhaps more could have been done to ingrain our message in the community. What might Battle Creek be like if our health message had continued promulgation after leaders decamped for the shores of the Potomac?
I wonder what we’re doing today in each of our towns and cities in which we have a major presence. Can we do more for others? Can we be of greater service to those in physical and spiritual need? Can we touch more lives in the manner that Jesus did?
For me, one of the greatest lessons of the Battle Creek experience is that not only should we learn from the past, but we must apply those lessons! Wherever we find ourselves, we should be good and fruitful ambassadors for Christ and for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, sharing the blessed hope we have with others, and helping them find that which we have discovered.