Leading up to and immediately after the great disappointment, many Adventist parents felt that basic education was an unnecessary and unimportant component in the upbringing of their children. However, this paradigm began to shift in the 1850s when Adventists were instructed not to set a specific date for Christ’s return. This meant that their children would need at least a basic education to survive and thrive in the secular world.
This led to the question of where to send their children to gain such an education. Many felt the need to shield their children from the inevitable teasing they would encounter from their classmates because of their peculiar beliefs. This, coupled with other parental concerns led to the formation of small homeschool cooperatives.
Within these homeschool co-ops, parents instructed their children themselves or hired an Adventist tutor to do so. However, this system soon began to disintegrate because of a number of different reasons. Some of the more significant of these was a lack of central direction, cramped school rooms and a lack of proper equipment and properly qualified teachers.
In early 1858 the Adventists in Battle Creek invited John Fletcher Byington to establish a school for their children. The school was even opened to Adventist families living outside of Battle Creek who did not have access to a local homeschool co-op. Unfortunately, Byington’s venture was not successful and after a few terms, the lack of financial support forced him to abandon the school altogether.
It wasn’t until 1867, with the arrival of G.H. Bell to Battle Creek that plans for an Adventist School were revived once more. Bell was an exceptionally good teacher and his gifts were recognised and appreciated among the Adventist community in Battle Creek. Bell soon started up a small school which was attended by the children of Seventh-Day Adventists in Battle Creek, but Bell’s school was a private venture and not funded by the church.
Bell asked the publishing house management for permission to use the original building that housed the Review and Herald. When he was given access to it, he moved his family to the first floor and fitted the second floor to function as a classroom. The school took of remarkably well leading James White to call for a proper denominationally funded school to be established. But this was slow getting off the ground and mired in various difficulties.
Over the next few years, church leaders continued to see the need for a proper educational institution that would train denominational workers and provide a quality basic education for Adventist children but they were unable to pull their plans together. Finally, in 1872 Ellen White was given her first detailed vision on education which she wrote out and published as a thirty-page pamphlet. The vision presented a skeletal blueprint for establishing a Seventh-Day Adventist educational system.
Detailing the vision, Ellen White emphasised the need for a balanced education focusing not merely on academic excellence but on physical and moral education as well. She also emphasized the need for manual labour and education in the practical duties of life. She further stated that the Bible was to be one of the central aspects of the curriculum having its principles infused throughout the whole. This was a unique view because it turned the focus away from the classics as the main thrust of academic education and focused it on the Bible and sacred history.
Initially many of the administrators and teachers struggled to implement much of this counsel as they most likely couldn’t fully understand how to do so but over time the plans slowly began to crystallize. Above and beyond any other consideration the most important work of the Adventist Educational system was to train young men and women for a life of missionary service. This ethos is reflected in the names given to some of the early Adventist educational institutions, such as; The College of Medical Evangelists, Emmanuel Missionary College, Southern Missionary College, Australasian Missionary College, and Oakwood Industrial School.
The purpose and focus of Adventist Education have always been twofold; training for mission and leading to redemption. Today Adventist Education spans the globe and is the largest Protestant educational system in the world but our strength lies not in our size but in our focus; practical education that is both redemptive and evangelistic.