In 1888, the General Conference’s Home Mission secretary, E. W. Farnsworth, reported that there were 22 city missions in North America and 6 more overseas (2 in Scandinavia, 3 in England, and 1 in Australia). In the 22 American missions, there were “131 workers engaged in Bible work” who had “made 43,021 visits, with 10,353 families.” There had been 258 baptisms in the nine months leading up to June 30, 1888, and, according to Farnsworth: “Fully 1,000 persons have been converted since these missions began their work.”

In the 1880s “city work” meant systematic visitation to people’s homes, which contrasted with the public evangelistic campaigns regularly used in small towns. In addition to meeting spiritual needs, early Adventist city missions also met a range of social needs. For example, in 1884, “donations of bedding, fruit, flour, potatoes, etc.,” were solicited from church members. This trend toward a broadly conceived approach to city mission was to be reinforced by Ellen G. White.

Ellen G. White sits for a portrait in 1899 in Australia. During her time there, Adventists in Melbourne opened a city mission, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, helping men find employment, and performing medical missionary work.
Missionaries and staff of the Bow Bazaar Mission in Calcutta, India. Dores Robinson is in the third row, second from the left.
General Conference president George A. Irwin emphasized the importance of city missions to the 1899 General Conference session.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was the most prominent leader of city work in the 1890s, and city missions were something for which he strongly advocated.

In 1894, the Review and Herald published an article by Mrs. White entitled “Our Duty to the Poor and Afflicted.” She quoted Isaiah 1:17 (“Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow”) and then starkly declared: “Can we wonder that the curse of God is upon the earth . . . when his law is set aside as a thing of naught?” Here, defying God’s law is defiance of the repeated Old Testament injunctions to care for widows, orphans, and immigrants. White drives the point home: “Through selfish pride, through selfish gratification, the blessing of God has been shut away from men and from his professed people, because they have despised his words, and have failed to relieve the sufferings of humanity.”

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg adopted “Our Duty to the Poor and Afflicted” as a blueprint for the Chicago mission, which he led. In 1896, the mission founded a maternity home for pregnant prostitutes; it later added a home for jobless working-class males. In 1897, the earliest Adventist welfare organization outside America was founded in Hamburg, Germany. By 1898, the Bow Bazaar Mission in Calcutta, India, directed by Dores Robinson, included a vegetarian restaurant, cooking school, and orphanage.

In 1900, Ellen White wrote approvingly of the “hygienic restaurant” and “also a food store and treatment rooms” in the San Francisco mission, and urged that this model should be emulated widely. In 1899, the General Conference president, George A. Irwin, spoke at length to that year’s General Conference about city work. He emphasized the meeting of socioeconomic needs and medical missionary work and stated, with satisfaction, that “this work has spread until now medical and rescue missions have been established, and are being successfully carried on, in nearly all the prominent cities in the United States. Thousands in this way are being clothed and fed, and souls are being rescued from sin and degradation.”

Why was it, then, that in 2010, the world church, in embracing “mission to the cities,” had in effect to start anew? What had gone wrong?

The answer is complicated and includes theological and organizational missteps in the early 1900s, especially by John Kellogg, who was disfellowshipped in 1907. He had been the most prominent leader of city work in the 1890s, and city missions seem to have been deemed guilty by association. Yet Ellen White rebuked church leaders for the failure to work in large cities and continued to tell them, as one veteran administrator acknowledged to the autumn council of 1910, “that it was not so much by public evangelists that the work was to be done, as by seeking out the people one by one through Bible work and canvassing effort, and medical missionary work.” It was Kellogg’s theology and ecclesiology that were the problem, not the urban methodologies that some associated with him (though widely used by Adventist city missionaries).

As the Seventh-day Adventist Church once again takes seriously the challenge of mission to the cities, Adventists would do well to rediscover and recover the methods used by our city-mission pioneers. Like them, we should focus on “relieving the sufferings of humanity”—on clothing and feeding the poor; on promoting wholistic health; on rescuing souls from “sin and degradation.” This is Christ’s method of ministry. It was also once the Adventist model of city ministry.

Photos courtesy of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research and the White Estate.

David Trim
Born to missionary parents in India, David Trim is the director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the Seventh-day Adventist Church world headquarters.