Stephen Hawking, late Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University wrote the classic, A Brief History of Time. Hawking’s interest in time led him to the phenomenon of Christians caught in a long wait for time to end. That wait coincided with the lifespan of an organisation that now sees itself, and others also see as just another church. But there is more to Adventism than what shows on the surface.
Hawking knew that William Miller, a founder of Seventh-day Adventism calculated “the Second Coming” would occur within twelve months of March 1843. When March passed as it has always done, Miller extended his forecast to October 1844. As time continued to pass normally, Miller’s explanation of the non-event fascinated Hawking. Miller believed 1844 was the start of the Second Coming; but first, “names in the Book of Life had to be counted. Only then would the Day of Judgment come for those not in the book.” Well over a century after Miller’s predictions, Hawking added wryly, “the counting seems to be taking a long time.”(1)
I am Adventist, my life intertwined with endless waiting by what seems to be just a church. In 1950, the year I was born, Adventism reset its time to match an apocalypse represented on the Doomsday Clock. For Adventism, the new Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists offered hard evidence of the end time it had been predicting for a century:
The hands of the clock… stand at two minutes to midnight… the clock is intended to be symbolic. Wishing will not stop the clock. The Bulletin may be wrong. It may actually be one minute—perhaps seconds—to midnight. (2)
Atomic scientists alarmed Adventism into urgent proselytising. The pace of new initiatives to double its membership surprised observers and left them lost for words. They detected “a halting move from radical millenarian sect to conventional denomination.”(3) And indeed, in numbers, Adventists were a small sect, with one fourth of a million members in North America and double that number elsewhere.
During the long wait since Miller’s predictions, Adventists worked to make converts. They relied on tracts and other printed matter, personal “witnessing,” door-to-door visits and above all, on sermons to persuade people to escape the day of judgement. Using these methods, from 1950 they redoubled efforts to convert Londoners and New Yorkers. But Seventh-day Adventism never restricted itself to conventional proselytising. “Radical” pointed to work other than conventional proselytising.
The long wait started with a novel approach to the community around Adventist headquarters. As it incorporated, the church opened colleges that trained teachers, first for common schools and after, for schools of its own. There, it taught children traditionally left unschooled.
Among beneficiaries of that unconventional move to teach the unschooled were graduates who rose high above sectarian interests. They won national honours at home and abroad, in countries as diverse as China, Denmark, Jamaica and New Zealand. One African boy become his country’s president. By 1961 in the case of South Africa, a former primary school pupil and teacher won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Remarkably, after losing crops left unharvested in 1844, the long wait saw a “church” of Adventists rely on agriculture to make schools viable. That meant linking agriculture to teacher training, as modelled at Nashville Agricultural and Normal Institute (NANI) in Tennessee.
Among the many visitors who observed that unusual linkage at NANI was Philander P. Claxton. As a former American Commissioner of Education, Claxton understood how issues of quantity, quality and funding dogged any effort to extend educational provision. From the vantage point of extensive travel in Europe and experience at home he commented, “I have seen many schools of all grades.” But “nowhere else have I seen so much accomplished with so little money.”
Parallel to its “halting move” and post World War II proselytising, Adventist priorities clarified. Four years of study at its oldest school, Emmanuel Missionary College (EMC) led to a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. By 1953, thirty-two graduates had benefited from work-study courses, among other subjects, in horticulture, dairy science, soil management, animal nutrition, farm management and plant pathology. Other tertiary institutions accredited this hands-on approach as employers recognised the unique experience these graduates brought to domestic and international work.
Not only had agriculture become the prime discipline at the leading college in Adventism. Its flagship institutions were a School of Medicine and, in 1953, a new School of Dentistry. Phenomenal development of education by a “sect” that was still to organise a seminary at EMC placed in perspective the long wait that drew Hawking’s attention. Compared with two millennia of Christianity, that wait was insignificant. For in that brief time, a penniless, disappointed “sect” created what, at my birth already was the largest Protestant school system on earth.
Come with me as we explore that school system in this blog.
 Stephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (Bantam, 1993), 128-9.
 Maxwell, Arthur S. “No More Delay.” Review 130, 47 (19 Nov 1953): 3.
 The Encyclopedia of Religion,ed. Mircea Eliade, Vol. 13 (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 181.
 Education Commissioner from 1911 to 1921, Claxton personally studied American and European school systems. He became a close friend of NANI, subject of a future blog on its role as a prime model of Adventist education.
 Campbell, V. H. “Agriculture at Emmanuel Missionary College.” Lake Union Herald XLV, 8 (24 Feb 1953): 8.