A high and sacred calling: a look at the origins of Seventh-day Adventist ministerial training
Seventh-day Adventist ministerial education has had a clear development in Adventist history. The earliest stage lasted from the beginnings of Sabbatarian Adventism through the early twentieth century. Ministers were desperately needed, but the majority of ministers were converts from other denominations. By 1919 this had begun to change. This second period was defined by the ministry of A. G. Daniells, who articulated a clear plan to increase the proficiency and effectiveness of Adventist clergy. A third and final phase would occur when Daniells’s dreams were posthumously realized with the beginning of the “Advanced Bible School,” which was the nucleus for what would become the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.
Early attempts at ministerial training
Ministerial training has had a long journey in the history of the Adventist Church. James White, one of the three co-founders of Sabbatarian Adventism, was an itinerant Christian Connexion minister. The majority of early Adventist ministers, largely self-supporting and itinerant, had been ministers in other denominations, and they considered their ordination as still valid. The threat of imposters and some who departed from the faith led to the need for ministerial credentials to certify legitimate ministers. In addition, a small group of young people began to be mentored by more experienced clergy. These young ministerial apprentices would help conduct evangelistic meetings and Bible studies. If the youthful minister was successful, this was considered a clear indication that God had truly called the person.
This plan of apprenticeship worked well up until the 1870s when the Adventist denomination recognized the increasing need for education. They responded by starting a small school in Battle Creek that developed into Battle Creek College. By the 1880s an Adventist youth who desired to become a minister studied the classical curriculum at Battle Creek College. The curriculum was supplemented by Bible institutes and on-the-job training with a more experienced minister. While this still continued to work, the expansive vision for Adventist education combined with inherent need for more ministers as the church grew and expanded would provide significant growth in the number of young people entering ministry. The dominant focus was to train workers for Christ who would fulfill the gospel commission.
A call for change
So how would the church achieve a quality system for training ministers? Perhaps the earliest attempt at achieving this was by A. G. Daniells, who gave a presentation on pastoral training to the Bible and history teachers present at the 1919 Bible Conference. At this conference, the first of three major twentieth-century Bible conferences in the Adventist Church, sixty-five teachers, administrators, and editors studied issues related to exegesis and prophetic interpretation.
Daniells estimated that nearly half of those present at the 1919 Bible Conference were involved in pastoral education. After finishing a grueling interrogation about the nature of inspiration and the authority of Ellen White (for which this particular Bible Conference became best known), Daniells, who had come to talk about pastoral training instead of issues related to Ellen White, gave one more attempt to share his burden for ministerial education. He stated to those present that he would pour out his heart to his fellow teachers then present. These ideals, expressed more than eight decades ago and almost two decades before the beginning of the Advanced Bible School (the forerunner of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary), shed insight on the importance our church placed upon developing formal ministerial training and Daniells’s dream of what such training should entail. Together these would lead eventually into a full-fledged system of ministerial education within Adventism.
“I think, brethren,” spoke A. G. Daniells to the group of history and Bible teachers gathered at the 1919 Bible Conference, “that among all the vocations in the world, that of the minister is the highest and most sacred, and calls for the greatest care on the part of those who enter it.”1With these words, Daniells set the bar high for the high calling and thus the importance for the denomination to invest in quality training for ministers.
Daniells, as a church administrator, was particularly perturbed at the quality of ministerial graduates whom he saw starting out. He was particularly concerned at how ministerial students, who had often studied intensely, were poorly prepared for what the grueling task of ministry often entailed. Those who taught ministers had a responsibility to not only theoretically train future pastors but prepare them for the actual life of ministry.
Even more important was that those who taught ministers should model what true ministry entails. Teachers should model core values, including honesty, sincerity, integrity, and good judgment. This was both a responsibility and an opportunity for the teacher to go beyond theoretical knowledge and to impress upon the student the importance of a godly life.
Prospective students should be studious and learn to work hard. It went without saying that the teachers should recommend good books. In order to balance all of this, “regularity in their habits of study, working, and living” (or as he later put it, the “value of time”) was “essential. A great deal of time is lost and effort wasted by [the] lack of [such] a program.”
The Bible should be “supreme” in ministerial education. It is a book that “contains great power” and students need to have this “revolutionizing and regenerating influence” impact their minds and hearts. The denomination in 1919, according to Daniells’s observation, was not doing “all that they can do along this line.” He speculated that perhaps this was because they already had a “stiff line of study.” He wondered if they were really getting the lessons that they were being taught at that time, and such students were in need of deeper study of God’s Word.
Daniells encouraged the teachers that they had more influence than anyone else for improving “the class of preachers among us.”2 The church’s concept of preaching needed to change, he urged. In addition to making the Bible the center of ministerial education, ministers needed to expound upon God’s Word in their sermons. If one did that, it would transform the way Adventist ministers preached.
Daniells was supported by W. W. Prescott during the conference. The two of them would call for Adventist ministers to learn how to give expository sermons. In addition, Prescott urged for a more Christ-centered approach to Adventist theology. Putting Christ at the center of all doctrine would transform the way ministers preached. It would also reveal Christ as the converting Word.3 This, they both believed, was the real power behind Adventist preaching and was a real opportunity for Adventist preachers to share God’s Word.
Plans were laid, about the time of Daniells’s appeal, to start a graduate school for Adventist students. Very little is known about these early plans, but because of “certain contingencies,” these plans were never realized.4
The Advanced Bible School
Although these plans would not be realized for more than two more decades, they did take shape in the form of the Advanced Bible School. By 1932 the General Conference Committee began to consider plans for advanced ministerial training. Such training was clearly needed, and the church wanted to offer a place so that students would not feel compelled to study in “outside seminaries or universities.” This school would be led by six to ten Bible teachers “of outstanding promise and ability” who would guide students during a one-year graduate program.
The “graduate” curriculum included courses on the Bible, the Spirit of Prophecy, religion, and evangelism. In addition, minors were offered in church history, secular history, Greek and Hebrew, and “spoken and written” English. During 1933 a committee set up by the General Conference began to evaluate locations. The first summer session began on the campus of Pacific Union College on June 6, 1934.
The expenses of transporting a minister or teacher and supporting them while at the Advanced Bible School were provided by the sending organization. A matriculation and library fee of $5 was charged to each student, and the tuition was $3 per semester hour of credit. The General Conference committee voted a sizable $1,500 toward this first summer school. M. E. Kern was appointed the first dean, and when the school opened its doors, forty students showed up. After the session was over the students passed a resolution of appreciation to the General Conference. The positive outcome paved the way for three more successive sessions.5
In 1937 the seminary moved to Takoma Park, Washington, District of Columbia, where it became a part of what would be known as Potomac University, and later it became a part of Andrews University when the school moved yet a third time.6By this time Adventist ministerial education had achieved respected status. The dream of Daniells for young ministers to receive quality training was finally realized.
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1 Report of Bible Conference (RBC), August 1, 1919, 1261.
2 RBC, August 1, 1919, 1258.
3 RBC, July 3, 1919, 128.
4 In 1936 M. E. Kern recalled that about twenty years earlier initial plans had been laid for establishing an Adventist graduate school. See M. E. Kern, “The Advanced Bible School,” Review and Herald, Dec. 24, 1936, 18.
5 Shirley Annette Welch, “History of the Advanced Bible School, 1934–1937,” term paper, Andrews University, 1977.
6 For a description of this third move from Takoma Park, Maryland, to Berrien Springs, Michigan, see Leona Glidden Running and Mary Jane Mitchell, “From All the World, Into All the World,” Focus 20, no. 3 (Summer 1984): 8–15.