“The Battle Creek Church,” noted James White, “though large, is an unfortunate church.” During the late 1860s and early 1870s James, and his wife, Ellen G. White, had some severe difficulties with this particular congregation. The stress of life in Battle Creek increased to the breaking point. James White suffered a series of strokes and they moved out of town. Things reached crisis proportions by late 1872. The denomination was in a deadlock–as they laid plans for the future there did not seem to be any way forward. Even plans for a new school were put on hold. The Whites, for instance, in light of the spiritual crisis.
So how could they have revival and reformation? If a group of people ever needed this, then the congregation in Battle Creek (which included most of the denominational leadership) definitely needed it!
The Whites traveled west to Colorado for some time off to recuperate, emotionally and physically. Then they went on to California. During this time James White came up with his plan to bring about change. He advocated for a group of “select men” or families who would come from various conferences. This “new blood” would serve to energize the Battle Creek Church. For a time it appeared that his plan would work.
The problem was that James White’s plan failed. Some of the families that came only made things worse, not better. Any hope of revival and reformation was wishful thinking. The pastor of the Battle Creek Church, W. H. Littlejohn, defected. Conflict intensified. Ellen G. White admonished Uriah Smith and J. N. Andrews for their lack of spiritual eyesight. Apparently there had been a conflict over lifestyle standards as some church members complained that others were not meeting their requirements suggesting a conflict over legalism.
Despite James White’s initial plan, the seeds of revival and reformation came about in an unexpected way. It occurred while James White was in California. He spent a week in personal prayer, Bible study, and reflection. The Lord convicted Him over some of the warnings he had received from his wife, Ellen, and that they applied to his own Christian experience. He realized that he had contributed to the problem and began in earnest to make things right with those whom he had wronged.
When James and Ellen returned to Battle Creek, Michigan, in November 1873 they started a series of daily meetings. Although their sermons are no longer extant, several witnesses described the meetings. Together they emphasized the need of personal conversion. James White shared his testimony about how God changed his life. Revival could only happen as individual hearts surrendered to the softening influence of the Holy Spirit. As they shared from their own experience about how God had worked in their lives, hearts were “melted.” What is interesting is that the accounts are devoid of emotionalism. Instead, people apologized to one another and pledged to make wrongs right. Some even printed public confessions in the Review and Herald.
This is perhaps the greatest revival in the early history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The quagmire that existed in Battle Creek lifted as church leaders now began to work together. The detrimental spiritual environment that had led the Whites to caution against locating a new school in Battle Creek changed; now the Whites actively supported the building of a new school. The whole spiritual environment in Battle Creek changed, and for years afterward people remembered this as a turning point in their lives. The most visible aspect of the revival occurred when church members signed their names to a special scroll pledging their mutual support to one another, and in particular, to uphold and support the leadership of the Whites. The lasting impact of this revival can also be seen as one of the highest growth rates in church membership growth occurred in the two years after this revival. Battle Creek College was organized the following year, and the church sent its first official missionaries: the family of J. N. Andrews to Europe.
Clearly, revival and reformation was badly needed in Battle Creek. Elaborate plans to effect revival and reformation did not happen by bringing new people into town. James White discovered that revival and reformation began with him: through personal prayer, Bible study, and confession. He also learned that revival and reformation isn’t something contrived. Apparently this experience had a lasting impact on James White, too, because after this revival (up until his death in 1881) James White began published a series of articles and tracts that emphasized the need for Christ to be the center of Adventism. A significant shift occurred that can be seen in his theological writings.
[Photograph of the 1866 Meeting House in Battle Creek, Michigan, the third church edifice in Battle Creek, Michigan, where James and Ellen G. White held revival meetings in 1873. Photograph from the Center for Adventist Research]