The work Australia began when a small group of five missionary families set sail from San Francisco bound for Australia in 1885. The expedition was ten years in the making, ever since S.N. Haskell heard Ellen White mention Australia in relation to the need for the global expansion of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The group was made up of S.N. Haskell, Mendel Israel and John Corliss who were ministers and evangelists as well as Henry Scott who had worked at Pacific Press and William Arnold, a colporteur.
The missionaries arrived in Melbourne in June of 1885 and found a small house to rent on Highett Street in the inner city suburb of Richmond. Richmond in the late 1880s was a rough and poor area to live in but it was all the missionaries could afford. They had decided to pioneer the work in Australia in Melbourne because the city was in the midst of a gold rush and had a larger population than Sydney. In addition to this, the city was home to quite a number of public libraries and a large rail network.
Corliss dug into the work at once, renting a Temperance Hall in Richmond and planning a series of six lectures. The turnout on the first night was good; a total of 40 people from the community attended but sadly by the end of the series there were very few left. Melbournians were suspicious of this new sect that was being peddled in their city and by Yankees no less. The city proved to be a difficult place to break ground in.
But the missionaries persisted. They began to print tracts and stand by the busy railway stations handing them out. One of Corliss’ tracts made its way into the hands of W.B. Miller who was a member of the South Melbourne Disciples of Christ Church. Miller invited Corliss to join in a meeting of the Mutual Improvement Society that operated at the church. Corliss accepted the invitation and took part in a debate titled “Is the Sabbath Saturday or Sunday?”
In October of the same year, Corliss was the speaker for the first tent evangelism series that the missionaries ran in the city. The tent was pitched in Mckean Street, North Fitzroy and wad advertised in one of the major newspapers in the city. By April of 1886, the first Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Australia was organised and named the North Fitzroy Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Soon after their arrival the group also set up a publishing house in a building situated on the corner of Rae and Scotchmer Streets in North Fitzroy. Here they began to print and publish the Bible Echo and The Signs of the Times as well as various other tracts that were used for distribution. Later a plot of land was purchased on Best Street, also in North Fitzroy for $1400. A three storey building was erected on the property and the entire printing and publishing operation was moved there. In 1905 the Signs Publishing House moved to Warburton where it remains fully operational today.
Another important component of the mission was health work which began in Melbourne with the establishment of the Sanitarium Health Food Company in 1889. The company was first set up on Clark Street in Northcote in Melbourne and would later move to Cooranbong where it would continue to flourish and grow. Today it is a widely recognised brand throughout Australia, best known for its flagship product, WeetBix. Sanitarium provides a degree of financial support to the church that enables the work of spreading the gospel and caring for those in need to go forward smoothly and efficiently.
When Ellen White arrived in Australia in 1891 there was still a vast swath of work that needed to be done in the young mission field. In mid-1892 she wrote to A.G. Daniells who was then the president of the field, telling him that a training school for missionaries was needed within the conference. It was a bold and visionary step that Daniells welcomed albeit with some trepidation. The membership in Australia was fairly small and many of the members were not wealthy. Setting up a school required funds and Daniells was at a loss for where those funds would come from. Australia was slipping into economic depression and not all the members saw the need for a school. But they moved forward in faith, settling on Melbourne as the preferred location for the school and starting off in a rented building at St. George’s Terrace off St. Kilda Road.
In the first term, the school had a student body numbering between 25 and 30. At the opening service on the 24th of August 1892, Ellen White was among those who spoke. She was weak and sickly and had to be carried onto the platform in order to speak. Looking out at the small company and the modest housing she cast a vision well beyond the reality that lay in front of her. “The missionary work in Australia and New Zealand is yet in its infancy” she declared “but the same work must be accomplished in Australia, New Zealand, in Africa, India, China and the islands of the sea, as has been accomplished in the home field”
A month after the school had been established Ellen White wrote “The school is certainly doing well. The students are the very best…This is indeed a harmonious house, no jealousies, not jangling. It is refreshing” The Australiasian Bible School was a resounding success and would continue to grow rapidly, eventually moving to Cooranbong where it would be renamed Avondale College.
And so it was that the work of the Seventh-Day Adventist church began in Australia in an holistic and comprehensive way, incorporating evangelism, publishing, education and health work which are the hallmarks of Adventist Mission across the globe.