“Dangerous submarines” attacking the heart of the church

How can you protect your church from the dangers destroying Sabbath School?

Alberto R. Timm, PhD, is associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

In 1948 Robert H. Pierson warned, “Just as the physical body cannot live without the heart, just so a church without a smoothly functioning Sabbath School will inevitably, sooner or later, (and probably sooner) become a dead church.”1 And in 1966, James J. Aitken affirmed, “The Sabbath school is the heart of the church, and good Sabbath school members make good church members because the Sabbath school is the church at study.”2 By contrast, some church leaders had warned of the dangers that could destroy the Sabbath School efficiency.

The gloomy memories of World War I were very much alive. During the war, German U-boats (military submarines) had attacked and sunk several military ships and some commercial ships of the Allied forces. Within that setting, Mrs. Blanche E. Griggs (wife of Frederick Griggs) published in the Sabbath School Worker for November 1934 an insightful article titled “Dangerous Submarines.” She compared the Sabbath School to a ship sailing over the sea, with the new earth for its destination. The “dangers continually confronting the Sabbath school” were symbolized by the following seven “submarines sent out to injure the ship and destroy its efficiency”: (1) untrained officers and teachers, (2) no interest, (3) disorder, (4) little daily study, (5) small offerings, (6) no teachers’ meeting, and (7) many absent.3

A further study

The disruptive effect of the Great Disappointment in October 1844 challenged the founders of the emerging Seventh-day Adventist movement to further study the Scriptures for biblical answers to the disappointment. In that endeavor, they ended up finding answers not only to that specific question but also to several others they were not even initially concerned about. This generated a major process of (1) breaking away from the credal traditions of the churches and (2) searching for a deeper understanding of God’s Word.

Initially, scattered Bible study groups helped define the basic doctrinal components of the “system of present truth.” Then, the 1848 Sabbatarian Bible Conferences assisted the founders of the Sabbath-keeping Adventist movement in sharing their new Bible-based convictions with other former Millerites.4 Shortly after, James White wrote and published in 1852 the first issue of the Youth’s Instructor as a Bible study guide for those age groups. He encouraged parents to “establish Sabbath Schools, even where there are but two or three children in a place.”5

Improvements and consolidation

One of the most influential tools for preserving the identity of the Sabbath School and improving its quality was the publication of the Sabbath-School Worker, a monthly paper. The Worker suggested many helpful strategies. A crucial one was the establishment of weekly classes for Sabbath School teachers. According to C. H. Jones, the teachers should meet regularly every week to (1) review the content of the Sabbath School lesson, and (2) “consult together in regard to methods of teaching, the management of the school, and plans for the future.”6

Another useful strategy was the establishment of family Sabbath Schools and branch Sabbath Schools. The Worker for January 1886 suggested that the “many scattered families of Sabbath-keepers who cannot meet with others on the Sabbath day” could “hold a Sabbath-school, consisting of the members of their own household.”7 In the April 1886 issue of the magazine, J. E. White proposed that a Sabbath School branch should be established in new fields “as soon as there were from two to four to join in the lessons.”8

A quite innovative strategy for Seventh-day Adventists was the opening of Sunday Schools to reach out to non-Adventists who were used to going to church only on Sundays. At the Eighth Annual Session of the General Sabbath-School Association (1885), J. E. White spoke of calls from the South of the United States for Sunday Schools. D. M. Canright, J. M. Rees, and A. J. Cudney mentioned the positive results from Sunday Schools held in their own conferences. So, the session voted “to assist in establishing Sabbath and Sunday schools in home mission fields.”9

Sabbath School members were not only informed weekly about the growth and expansion of the church but were also themselves expected to engage in effective missionary activities and support the missions overseas with their offerings. So, the Sabbath School offerings of the first six months of 1889, throughout the world, were destined “to build and equip for service, or buy, a vessel of suitable size and construction for missionary operations among the islands of the Pacific Ocean,”10 which was named Pitcairn.11 Adventist children were asked to raise money to support the Pitcairn endeavor, developing in them financial generosity and a passion for missions.12 This successful experience set the trend for Sabbath School offerings to be sent to support missionary projects around the globe.

“The Heart of the Church”

The Sabbath School work received a renewed emphasis under the dynamic leadership of Mrs. L. Flora Plummer, who was in charge of the General Conference Sabbath School Department from 1913 to 1936. At the May 1922 General Conference Session in San Francisco, California, one could visit a special room set apart for the Sabbath School Department, with several goal charts on the walls. The most catching one had a large red heart with the expression “the Sabbath School” written in white letters. The arteries and veins that branched from the heart were identified as “Bible study,” “spirituality,” “harmony,” “missionary spirit,” “adding members,” “training workers,” and “promotes Christian growth.” At the bottom of the illustration, in bold print, appeared the expression “The Heart of the Church.”13 The same illustration also appeared in the Sabbath School Worker for June 1922.14

The notion of the Sabbath School as “the heart of the church” became the most catching and popular nickname for that department through the decades around the globe.15 It expressed the crucial role that department played in keeping both the church and its mission much alive.

For Stemple White, “the importance of the Sabbath school cannot be overestimated. Since every member of the church should be a member of the Sabbath school, and since children and interested outside adults who are not baptized believers may also be members, it is at once clearly seen that the Sabbath school circle should be the largest circle in all our denominational activities.”16 This was illustrated by the following graphic.

In early 1923 General Conference vice president Oliver Montgomery declared, “Second to none, the Sabbath School Department is filling its place and doing splendidly its part in the advancement of the message everywhere. Not only is it a mighty pioneer agency, touching as it does the most remote and far-flung points of interest, and establishing there the first form of organization; but it stands as one of the mighty bulwarks of the church, uniting in study and character building every living soul in the church, from the toddling infant to the white-haired patriarch.”17

Evangelism and nurture

Over time, many local Sabbath Schools for adults and children flourished in North America and, later, in Europe, Australia, and around the globe. On March 4, 1878, the delegates to the Third General Conference Special Session in Battle Creek, Michigan, organized a general Sabbath-school Association, with the recommendation that state associations should be established as well.18 Because Sabbath Schools were already present in several countries outside North America, W. C. White suggested in 1886 that the association should be renamed the International Sabbath-school Association.19 In reality, Sabbath School played a crucial role in the outreach and confirmation of new members in the Adventist message.

In the reorganization of the denominational structure that took place at the 1901 General Conference Session in Battle Creek, the International Sabbath-school Association became the “Sabbath-school Department,” with W. A. Spicer as its chairman.20 In many congregations, the Sabbath School work was so alive and dynamic that there were more Sabbath School members than actual church members. In 1924 Rosamond D. Ginther stated, “The influence of the Sabbath school may be likened to the effect of a pebble thrown into a lake. A wave is formed, and then another, and another; and as the waves increase, the circle widens, and eventually reaches the shore. Even so is the influence of the Sabbath school.”21

In 1933 Mrs. Plummer declared, “The Sabbath school is the church organized and equipped for the systematic study of the word of God. By its form of organization, it is fitted to impart spiritual instruction to the entire flock. It may be likened to a table in a home, bountifully supplied with nourishing food adapted to the needs of each member of the family. The babes of the flock often receive their first impressions of God and His word from the Sabbath school service, and no one is so old or so experienced that he no longer needs the blessing of the Sabbath school in his life and in his study of the Bible. There is no other church service so organized that it can feed all the flock at the same time.”22

In 1938 E. K. Slade stated, “During all these years wherever churches have existed we have had our Sabbath schools. . . . It is impossible to estimate the good results coming from our Sabbath schools. Our strongest financial support of foreign mission work has been by the Sabbath schools.”23 J. K. Jones added that “the Sabbath school is the greatest single unifying agency there is among Seventh-day Adventists.”24 Ellen White affirmed, “The Sabbath-school should be one of the greatest instrumentalities, and the most effectual, in bringing souls to Christ. Our Sabbath-school workers need to be especially imbued with the spirit of Christ.”25

As time went by, often the Sabbath School ended up no longer being seen with the same enthusiasm. In early 1980 Bernard E. Seton acknowledged that “there was a time when the Sabbath school was known as ‘The Heart of the Church.’ . . . But in an increasing number [of churches] it is sadly out of date.”26 No wonder that a decade later (1990), William G. Johnsson would suggest, in more existentialist terms, that the heart of the church is “the people.”27

In an editorial in Adventist Review for September 22, 1988, Myron Widmer declared that “a growing number of Sabbath schools across North America are experiencing an increasingly difficult time in generating enthusiasm for their programming and in attracting members.”28 The following year (1989), the North American Division Church Ministries Department began an extensive evaluation of the adult Sabbath school, culminating with the four-part series titled “Sabbath School: Diagnosis and Cure,” published in the Adventist Review in May 1991. Part 1 of the series presented the results of that study, showing that those who attended Sabbath School did so for the following reasons: 0 percent to learn more about the teachings of the church; 14 percent to learn more about the Bible; 14 percent for Christian fellowship; and 72 percent for spiritual growth.29 The follow-up articles proposed strategies to revitalize the Sabbath School.30 These and other articles can also be helpful for us today.

Planning for the future

So, where do we go from here? The Sabbath School used to be one of the most well-organized and successful agencies of the church. As stated above, it effectively combined social engagement, Bible study, spiritual nourishment, and mission outreach. But in many churches, it is no longer as healthy and well-attended as it used to be. Many church leaders are convinced that the time has come for us to revitalize our Sabbath Schools. In doing so, the following basic questions should be addressed thoroughly:

In our churches today, why do far fewer people come to Sabbath School than attend the Sabbath-morning divine service?

Which Sabbath School characteristics from the past could be still rescued and effectively implemented today?

Could our Sabbath School outreach strategies combine the modern small-group program with the classical Sabbath School branch plan?

What creative ideas, if implemented, could help us transform our modern Sabbath Schools again into “the heart of the church”?

If our generation needs fellowship and acceptance, Sabbath School can provide it. If people want to grow in their spiritual lives, Sabbath School can foster it. If we are expected to become “giants in the understanding of Bible doctrines and the practical lessons of Christ,”31 then we should not miss what we can receive from a well-organized and efficient Sabbath School. And if all of us should be engaged in the task of preaching “the everlasting gospel . . . to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, NKJV), Sabbath School is unquestionably the right place to be.

Over the years, the institution of Sabbath School has written one of the most amazing chapters in the history of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church. The vitality of our Sabbath Schools can still be rescued if we make this a top-priority task, put into it our best efforts, and use the right strategies.

1 Robert H. Pierson, “The Heart of the Church,” British West Indies Visitor, June 1948, 1.

2 James J. Aitken, “South American Division,”Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 22, 1966, 9.

3 Mrs. Frederick Griggs, “Dangerous Submarines,” Sabbath-School Worker, Nov. 1934, 325, 326; see also Elizabeth U. Russell, “Sabbath School Problems,” nine-part series in Sabbath-School Worker, Feb. 1927, 38, 39; Mar. 1927, 70, 71; Apr. 1927, 103–105; May 1927, 133, 134; June 1927, 168, 169; July 1927, 198, 199; Aug. 1927, 230, 231; Sept. 1927, 263, 264; Oct. 1927, 293, 294.

4 Alberto R. Timm, The Sanctuary and the Three Angels’ Messages: Integrating Factors in the Development of Seventh-day Adventist Doctrines (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society, 1995), 55–64.

5 “An Address to Those Who Are Interested in the Youth’s Instructor,” Youth’s Instructor, Aug. 1852, 2.

6 C. H. Jones, “Teachers’ Meetings,”Sabbath-School Worker, July 1885, 38, 39.

7 Eva Bell-Giles, “Family Sabbath-Schools,”Sabbath-School Worker, Jan. 1886, 3, 4.

8 J. E. White, “The Sabbath-School in New Fields,”Sabbath-School Worker, Apr. 1886, 20.

9 “Proceedings of the General Sabbath-School Association: Eighth Annual Session,”Sabbath-School Worker, Jan. 1886, 12; see also D. M. Canright, “Sunday-Schools,” Sabbath-School Worker, Apr. 1886, 22, 23.

10 C. H. Jones, “Sabbath-School Contributions for 1890,”Sabbath-School Worker, Jan. 1890, 12.

11 “Naming the Missionary Ship,” Sabbath-School Worker, Aug. 1890, 139; “Launching of the ‘Pitcairn,’ ” Sabbath-School Worker, Sept. 1890, 155.

12 J. F. W., “Our Little Missionaries,” Sabbath-School Worker, Feb. 1890, 38, 39.

13 J. S. James, “Sabbath School Department,” General Conference Special, no. 4, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 1, 1922, 10.

14 “The Heart of the Church” (illustration), Sabbath-School Worker, June 1922, 162.

15 See, e.g., W. B. Ochs, “Three Weeks in Friendly Norway,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 14, 1952, 18; L. L. Moffitt, “A Growing Work in Cuba,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Aug. 30, 1956, 32; J. Ernest Edwards, “Ninety-One-Year-Old Member Cycles to Church,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 27, 1956, 22.

16 Stemple White, “Enlarge the Circles,” Sabbath-School Worker, Apr. 1922, 105–106.

17 O. Montgomery, “A Mighty Bulwark of the Church,”Sabbath-School Worker, Jan. 1923, 12.

18 S. N. Haskell and J. T. Richards, “The Sabbath-School Work,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Mar. 14, 1878, 85; Executive Board, “Sabbath-school Organizations,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Apr. 18, 1878, 128.

19 Arthur W. Spalding, Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1962), 2:74.

20 “Organization of General Conference Committee,” General Conference Bulletin Thirty-Fourth Session, Apr. 23, 1901, 409; A. G. Daniells, “A Brief Glance at the Work of Reorganization,” General Conference Bulletin, 3rd quarter, 1901, 514, 515.

21 R. D. G., “The Great Commission in Sabbath School Work,” Sabbath-School Worker, Oct. 1924, 293.

22 L. Flora Plummer, “Why This Special Number of the ‘Review,’ ”Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 29, 1933, 3.

23 E. K. Slade, “Reflex Blessings,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 21, 1938, 20.

24 J. K. Jones, “The Sabbath School a Holding Force,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 28, 1938, 23.

25 Ellen G. White, Testimonies on Sabbath School Work (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), 20.

26 Bernard E. Seton, “The Heart of the Church,” Adventist Review, Jan. 31, 1980, 11.

27 William G. Johnsson, “More Prayers for the Church,” Adventist Review, Sept. 20, 1990, 4; William G. Johnsson, “Supporting Ministries,” Adventist Review, Oct. 18, 1990, 4.

28 Myron Widmer, “Sabbath School—In Need of Revitalization—1,” Adventist Review, Sept. 22, 1988, 4.

29 Monte and Norma Sahlin, “Sabbath School: An Institution in Poor Health?” Adventist Review, May 2, 1991, 17–19.

30 J. Lynn Martell, “Sabbath School: Back to Our Roots,” Adventist Review, May 9, 1991, 16–19; Jack Calkins, “Innovative Sabbath Schools,” Adventist Review, May 23, 1991, 16–18; Monte and Norma Sahlin, “How to Turn Your Sabbath School Around,” Adventist Review, May 30, 1991, 16, 17.

31 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), 415.

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Alberto R. Timm, PhD, is associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

August 2019

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