Earlier this year, in my capacity of Conference Secretary, I was requested to undertake research of the beginnings of the Victorian Conference for what is the single biggest project ever attempted by the Seventh-day Adventist Church – the online Encyclopedia of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It is anticipated that from the South Pacific Division alone, there will be 665 articles.
While the enormity of the task did not enthuse me, as I knew it would take many hours of digging through old dusty files of Executive Committee minutes and reading hundreds of historical articles, within a short time I found myself being drawn in to the world of the 19th Century.
It was at Battle Creek in 1884, that the annual session of the General Conference decided to start a mission in Australia. Just six months later, in May 1885 S. N. Haskell, J. 0. Corliss & family, and M. C. Israel & family, Henry Scott, and W. Arnold set sail on a 29 day voyage, choosing to settle in Melbourne.
In the first six months the small team of missionaries found themselves up against many obstacles and strong opposition. Yet despite this, people identifying as Seventh-day Adventists have grown from zero in 1885 to 11,114 in 2018, all based upon a successful strategy that included: Media, Public Evangelism, Organisation, Education, Health and Big Camp.
By January 1886, just six months after arriving, their very first publication was being distributed – the Bible Echo And Signs Of The Times. This was initially a 16-page monthly journal, that focussed largely on the distinctive teachings of the Sabbath and Second-Coming. During the first three months of the publication of the paper, about four hundred paying subscribers were obtained, and many thousands of copies were sold. The second edition in February 1886 made an interesting statement that reveals the determination of these early missionaries:
“A NUMBER of inquiries have reached us of late regarding our object in coming to this country, and how long we expect to remain. We are happy to announce that we came here to see the truths of the Third Angel’s Message (See Rev. 14:9-12) established in these parts, and expect to remain until that work is accomplished.”
By 1888 the potential of the use of print media was so clear that US$25,000 was invested in building and establishing the Echo Publishing House. It its time it was one of the biggest and best known publishing firms in Melbourne with 80 employees. You can walk past the building still, at 16 Best Street North Fitzroy.
To complement the use of media, public evangelist meetings were held in those early days in tents erected in parks in North Fiztroy and Ballarat. From the start this method was successful, in that at the conclusion of the tent meetings, a church was established, and the tent would be moved to elsewhere to start anew. Thus North Fitzroy church was formed on 10 January 1886 with 29 members, and within a short time this number had increased to about 100. This was soon followed by the organisation of the church in Ballarat with 21 members, in the same year.
The World Exposition was in Melbourne in 1888, and this was seen as a great opportunity to be able to set up a booth in the “United States Court”. The booth was constantly attended throughout with the hope to awaken an interest in the minds of tens of thousands of visitors, by giving out many thousand pages of literature, including about 12,000 copies of the BIBLE ECHO.
Work progressed quickly and efficiently throughout Australia, so in 1888, the Australian Conference was formed, with the head office in Melbourne. In 1894 with other conferences forming, Victoria became part of what was called the Central Australian Conference (initially including Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia), under the guidance of the newly formed Australian Union Conference. On 1 January 1900, we became known by our current name, the Victorian Conference.
With the encouragement of the General Conference, on July 21 1892, it was voted to open a school at 1 George’s Terrace, St. Kilda Rd., Melbourne. First day of class was Wednesday, August 24, with 25 students present. Keynote speakers included at the schools official opening included
G. B. Starr, A. G. Daniells, E. G. White and W. C. White.
The school offered two streams: Grades 1-4, and Biblical courses. The Australian Union took over responsibility for the school on 22 January 1894, and made the decision to cease operations in September 1894, with the intent to commence a training school in central location for the benefit of all Australia. Thus the school was moved to Cooranbong, and became known as Avondale. From this start, primary and secondary education has continued to flourish in Victoria, with a 2,400 students in our schools in 2018.
Until the decision was made to establish the Sanitarium in Cooranbong, which was formally established in August 1898, a team in Victoria had leased a bakery premises in Northcote, and manufactured several lines of the health foods.
In January 1894, a different type of tent meeting was held – the equivalent of “Big Camp” today. The three week camp-meeting was held at Middle Brighton, and was the first meeting of its kind ever held by Seventh-day Adventists in Australia. It included a workers’ meeting, and had Mrs White as the keynote speaker. The Bible Echo (Vol 9, 1894 No. 3 page 21) stated, “Sr. White’s talks have been most excellent, as they always are. She urges the people to prepare for the end, and says she has not come to Australia to fold her hands, or to give a peace-and-safety cry.”
As early as 1888 it was reported that the work in Australia was self-supporting. The missionaries and their converts were faithful, hardworking people, who were using the cutting edge technology and methodologies of their time to share the everlasting gospel. The story of the early beginnings of our Conference inspires me to consider how to also use the cutting edge technology and methodologies of our day to complete the work that was so well started.
It is my hope and belief, that as we work together with the Harvest Victoria initiative through the use of modern forms of media that we will see many more people given opportunity to respond to the everlasting gospel.