Primary sources are critical to do effective and accurate research. Part of the job a historian is to track down and ascertain any and all historical sources. “Anything the historian can find–must be brought to play in building up our picture of a particular landscape,” notes historian Peter Brown.
One primary resource sometimes overlooked is photographs. With the advent of photography during the nineteenth century it can be easy to take these for granted. In many ways, the story of photographs has a significant role in early Adventism. Early Adventists, with a tendency toward upward social mobility, took advantage of the opportunity to have their picture taken. Very early on James and Ellen G. White, for example, had their earliest pictures taken in the 1850s.
What some people may not realize is that the “photograph craze” of the late 1860s and early 1870s resulted in a serious theological discussion within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In fact, the only known confession published in the Review and Herald, that I know of, by Ellen G. White was confessing her participation in the “sin” of photography. There is a gap of several years when she and James refused to have their picture taken. From my study of the issue, much like the later “Bicycle craze” that Ellen G. White’s primary objection had to do with the lavish expenditure of funds, although others argued that this was a form of idolatry forbidden in the Ten Commandments. She distanced herself from such a narrow interpretation and later had her picture taken a number of times.
The most significant photograph album in Seventh-day Adventist history is the Leroy T. Nicola photograph album that is housed at the Center for Adventist Research. Nicola was an early Adventist minister from the second generation of Adventism and grew up in Battle Creek. He had an extensive album, including various types of photographs and memorabilia, much of which he labeled that helps us to identify many other photographs that might otherwise remain unidentified. The photographs themselves (such as the picture above of the Ira Abbey family) give us a rich insight into the lives and personalities, and although they are in black and white, they illustrate in a vivid way the colorful personalities of the early pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Some times photographs, or the lack thereof, have a powerful story that they can tell us about the texture of Adventist history.
Now it is possible to look at this colorful and extensive collections of photographs online here.