In 1904 E.A. Sutherland and Percy T. Magan decided to resign from their positions at Emmanuel Missionary College and set out to establish a self-supporting school in the south. Arriving in Nashville, Tennessee they fanned out across the state in search of a suitable tract of land but they were unable to find one that met their needs. During this time Ellen White was in Nashville visiting her son Edson. Sutherland and Magan contacted the Whites and plans were made to sail down the Cumberland River aboard the Morning Star in search of a suitable plot of land. They decided to wait for Willie White to finish up his work up north and join them as well.
In June 1904 a group of 16 passengers and crew gathered on board The Morningstar in anticipation of setting off on their adventure. Among them were Ellen White, Edson and Emma White, Willie White, E.A. Sutherland and Percy Magan. They sailed as far as Carthage, Tennessee, which is about 170 miles north of Nashville but couldn’t find land that met their needs or their budget. Ellen White was adamant that the school shouldn’t be located too far away from Nashville either and so they turned around and headed back. Then about 12 miles outside of Nashville they stopped to look at a farm and land for sale at Madison.
Sutherland and Magan were hesitant. The farm, the Ferguson-Nelson Place, was a 412-acre spread of land with a comfortable farmhouse but the price was way above what Sutherland and Magan were prepared to pay. But Ellen White liked the place and she was convinced it was a fine piece of land for the school. An added bonus was that it was located close to Nashville. Writing about it later she said “I have been instructed that the land on which our schools shall be established should be near enough to Nashville for there to be a connection between the school and the workers in Nashville”
Sutherland and Magan considered the matter, especially in light of the work in Australia and the success of the Avondale school, and they decided to take on board Ellen White’s counsel and go ahead with the purchase. There were a few hiccups along the way, first, the owner, Mrs Ferguson’s, refused to sell to Yankees and then she hiked the price an extra thousand dollars and the deal nearly folded. At this point, Ellen White exclaimed “Do you think I’d let the devil beat me out of a place for a thousand dollars? Pay the extra thousand! It’s cheap enough. This is the place the Lord said you should have.” And so Sutherland and Magan bought the farm and set up the school.
They named the school the Nashville Agricultural and Normal Institute and focussed on educating the whole person, body mind and spirit, instilling in the students the spirit of self-sacrifice, service and a love for simplicity and frugality. The students and teachers spent five hours a day working on the land which meant that students could earn money and pay their way through school. The teachers earned a modest salary as well, keeping the operating costs of the school low.
Madison had a different curriculum from that of any other school. Commenting on it Ellen White wrote “The….education given at the Madison school is such as will be accounted a treasure of great value by those who take up missionary work in foreign fields. If many more in other schools were receiving similar training, we as a people would be a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.” The school at Madison didn’t incorporate athletics or sports into their curriculum but instead created an environment that encouraged mission service with a long-range vision of training self-supporting, domestic and foreign missionary teachers and workers.
Madison soon began to plant satellite schools and institutions across the country and by 1914 there were 40 such schools with a cohort of 1000 students. In 1947 these self supporting entities joined together to form the Association of Seventh-Day Adventist Self-Supporting Institutions of ASI. Once a year these schools would meet at Madison for a self supporting workers convention which laid the foundation for the annual ASI convention today. In 1979 the name was changed to Adventist Laymen’s Service and Industries to reflect a more diverse membership. Today ASI is a powerful, mission-driven organisation that has been responsible for incubating and empowering some amazing mission projects in recent years.
The school at Madison closed down in 1964 for varied and complex reasons but it will always be remembered as the institution that pioneered self supporting missionary work. Ellen White spoke strongly in favour of this type of work commenting “There is a large field open before the self-supporting gospel worker. Many may gain valuable experience while toiling a portion of the time at some form of manual labour.”