Seeing Themselves as Others Saw Them: Battle Creek Adventists in the Public Eye, 1855-1890


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This paper will examine the public’s changing and often conflicting views of Adventists from 1855 to 1890, especially as reflected in the local newspapers of Battle Creek.

When Adventists arrived in Battle Creek in the 1850s, many citizens held negative views towards them, largely because of five practices. First, they settled in the West End of town and kept to themselves. Second, they adopted a vegetarian lifestyle. Third, they observed the seventh day as their Sabbath. Fourth, they taught a rather bleak end-time millennial message. Fifth, they preached and practiced a legalistic doctrine and lifestyle.[1]

Among local citizens, Adventists’ vegetarian habits earned them the nickname of “Gizzardites” (health reform nuts) because they were fussy about what they put in their stomachs (“gizzards”). Because they built their meetinghouses, schools, printing press, and sanitarium all in the West End of town, local citizens also called them “Canaanites” who refused to mix with the “Philistines” (non-Adventists).[2]

However, there were two “Gizzardites” who violated this unwritten code of isolation. On warm summer nights, James and Ellen White left “Canaan” in their horse-drawn spring wagon and ventured into the “Philistine” side of town. There, equipped with Bibles and a kerosene lamp, they boldly preached wherever a few listeners gathered.[3] Thanks largely to their “holy boldness,” Adventists soon began to thrive “like Jonah’s gourd,” as Anson Van Buren, an early settler, put it. In less than two decades, Adventists would surpass all the other religious groups in Battle Creek.[4] In part due to the influx of Adventists after 1855, the town quadrupled in size to over 4,000 citizens by 1860.[5]

The growth of Adventist institutions served as a magnet to attract hundreds of believers to Battle Creek in the 1860s. Further organization of the Adventist Publishing Association (1860), the Michigan Conference (1861), the General Conference (1863), and the Western Health Reform Institute (1866) drew additional Adventists as employees and their families flocked to Battle Creek.[6]

Also during the 1860s, Adventists in growing numbers left “Canaan” to venture forth into business enterprises among the “Philistines” in downtown Battle Creek. Of the two bakeries in town, Adventist J. M. Aldrich operated one at 24 West Main Street, directly across from City Hall. One of three architects in the area, Adventist William K. Loughborough (brother of John Norton Loughborough) had established his office at 77 Champion Street. The only broom maker in the city was Adventist Joseph P. Kellogg (father of John Harvey Kellogg). Ellen White’s son Edson operated one of two music supply stores. In addition, many Adventists sang in Professor Marshall Cobb’s Choral Union, which gave annual concerts with organ accompaniment by Adventist Edwin Barnes. Moreover, Adventists operated the Health Reform Institute, the only sanitarium in Calhoun County. Finally, of the five papers published in Battle Creek in the 1860s, Adventists produced three of them (the Review, the Youth’s Instructor, and the Health Reformer).[7]

Despite its small size, by mid-century, Battle Creek had seen no fewer than twenty-two newspapers rolling off its presses. Walter W. Woolnough started several papers between 1845 and his death in 1904, including the Moon, which appeared in daily, nightly, and weekly editions. As we shall see, the Moon rarely treated Adventists kindly, especially after 1869 when Martin E. Brown became editor and introduced a new kind of journalism. Brown favored what he called “a more cozy manner” of writing; he knew “how to squeeze the juiciest bits from a local scandal.” Often his “subtleties…were as direct hits as a hammer on a nail.” One local citizen declared that reading the Nightly Moon was “more fun than a box of monkeys.” Its satirical style made it a huge success in the city.[8]

Brown fed the changing tastes of his subscribers, who by the 1870s were more secular and who viewed religious sects with jaundiced eyes. By 1870 Battle Creek boasted 5,800 inhabitants. Its 73 merchants did more than a million dollars’ worth of business each year. On the edge of the city, the exclusive Goguac Boat Club staged regattas and sculling competitions. Locals enjoyed swimming, boating, dancing, picnics, camping, and entertaining lecturers.[9]

To most citizens, these developments represented progress and modernization. For many of Battle Creek’s Adventists, on the other hand, the growing crime rate, “worldliness,” and the decline of simple rural values were signs that the end of the world was near. For example, in 1857, half of the city’s residents owned cows. By 1870 there were only 64 bovines left in Battle Creek, many owned by Adventists like the Byingtons and Amadons.[10]

Yet increasingly during the 1870s, many Adventists involved themselves in the city’s cultural life. Among these were the hundreds of young employees at the Review press and Sanitarium, some of whom sneaked off to the Red Onion for a steak, slaked their (illicit) thirst for alcohol at a local saloon, or joined one of the College’s baseball teams that played city competitors.[11]

Other Adventists (like the Amadons) with more refined tastes attended meetings of the Christian Philosophical Society and the Literary Society. They also participated in the city’s Singing School and took their kids to see Fanfough’s Caravan, Lent’s Circus, and the Cardiff Giant Hoax when they came to town.[12] On warm spring and summer days still others took their families fishing, swimming, boating, picnicking, or snake-hunting at Goguac Lake. The social gadabout Martha Amadon often planned elaborate picnics at the lake for dozens of her friends.[13]

As more “Gizzardites” left “Canaan” to mingle with Battle Creek’s “Philistines” in their social and cultural activities, the city’s newspapers began paying increased attention to them. In 1872 the Battle Creek Journal praised Adventists for their “elegant printing and publishing house.”[14] A certain “H.W.,” who routinely criticized most churches for their failure to oppose “the march of intemperance all over our country,” praised Adventists for their opposition to alcohol and tobacco. He described them as “far ahead of most, if not all, other sects.” While he “care[d] not a fig about what they believe as to the Bible or the visions of their leaders,” he valued their honesty and strong advocacy of temperance. He concluded by asserting that “Adventists stand foremost in the scale of real, good citizenship, and the example set by them in dress, sobriety, industry, economy and thrift is worthy of the highest praise.”[15]

A year later (1879), a certain Jack Tobias, praising Adventists for their college, publishing house, sanitarium, and the new Dime Tabernacle, called them “a courageous class of men [sic]” who “are just as anxious to improve this city as the rest of the folks, [even] if they do believe the world is coming to an end.”[16]

Although the newspapers consistently printed positive reports about Uriah Smith (for his useful inventions) and the Byington and Amadon families (for their cultural contributions to the city), not all the news “fit to print” portrayed the Church in a positive light. In 1878 the Battle Creek Journal broke the story of a stealing ring at the College and the Sanitarium operated by students. Constable George Rogers arrested one student from Kentucky and two others from Nebraska for hoarding stolen goods in their rooms. After the three had been jailed, the thievery stopped.[17]

Citizens were further scandalized to read in the Michigan Tribune that an Adventist preacher named Myron Butler had recently been arrested in Flint and charged with rape. Further investigation by Uriah Smith, however, forced the paper to issue a retraction and to clarify that Butler “is not a Seventh-day Adventist, but belongs to another denomination.”[18]

Six months later, the Tribune reported that an Adventist named Freeman had murdered his daughter in Pacassett, Massachusetts. Another Adventist, the Rev. Houghawout, had seduced a woman in Gifford, Iowa, causing her lover to commit suicide. Once again, Uriah Smith forced the Tribune to clarify that both Freeman and Houghawout belonged “to another denomination of Adventists” (probably the Church of God, Seventh Day).[19]

Although Adventists still constituted a minority of the population, by the mid-1870s they were making their voices heard in the city’s political circles. In May of 1874 George Amadon and J. W. Bacheller (both Review employees) signed a petition requesting that sections of Park Street and other streets adjacent to the Michigan Central Railroad and City Park be levelled with gravel. Five years later in 1879, several Adventist men signed yet another petition demanding the resignation or recall of two Board of Education trustees whose recent decisions they saw as “detrimental to the interests of the Public Schools, and consequently to the public welfare.”[20] In yet a third petition, Adventists asked the mayor and Common Council to send a road crew to fill in the potholes and build boardwalks along Hill Street north of the Sanitarium.[21]

During the 1880s, Adventists became increasingly involved in the social, cultural, and political life of the city. Edson White’s prestigious West End Singing School attracted both Adventists and non-Adventists. In the spring of 1882 the College Orchestra and Edson’s Choir performed at Centennial Hall. The concert included a female quartet singing the popular song “The Lovely Star.” The girls’ voices blended so harmoniously that when they finished singing, the audience clapped, whistled, and stomped their feet to show their appreciation.[22]

Three years later, Edson’s choir sang at a WCTU convention in the city, accompanied by the talented organist Kate Amadon, daughter of George and Martha Amadon. Soon Kate began playing the organ not only at the Tabernacle, but also for Sunday services at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Kate was also courting Fred Gage, the son of William C. Gage, lay preacher and printer, who in 1882-83 became Battle Creek’s first Adventist mayor.[23]

As Adventists began playing more prominent roles in the city’s political, social, and cultural life, the local newspapers gave them increased attention. The Daily Journal regularly listed the names of Adventists who attended the Michigan camp meetings in the 1880s.[24] The Daily Moon reported not only on Christmas programs and concerts at the College, but also enlightened its subscribers as to when “our Adventist friends” were observing weeks of prayer. At Christmas 1886, for example, “a large full-rigged ship loaded with presents” filled the front section of the Tabernacle, and all who attended “enjoyed a highly interesting holiday entertainment.”[25] In May of 1887, the Grand Army of the Republic held Memorial Day services in the sanctuary free of charge, thanks to the patriotic generosity of church members.[26]

The Daily Journal regularly praised the denomination for erecting profitable institutions in the city. Calling Adventists “a most exemplary as well as a most useful and enterprising portion of our community,” the editor noted that their ranks included some of “our most honored and influential citizens.” Overall, he concluded, Adventists “have added materially to the growth, prosperity, and wealth of our city.”[27] The editor of The Citizen agreed, calling Adventists “honorable and respected citizens” who as a group had proved themselves to be a “thrifty, moral, well-behaved, energetic class of citizens, who reflect credit upon the community in which they have become domiciled.”[28] The Citizen regretted the manner in which other local newspapers had misrepresented Adventists, calling their negative prose “malicious attacks…and unfounded assertions.”[29]

Doubtless the editor of the Citizen aimed his barb at Martin Brown, editor of the Daily, Nightly, and Weekly Moon, all of which majored in scandal and minored in truth by sharing salacious stories about local citizens and groups, employing a style of writing which in the 1890s would be called “yellow journalism.” Brown refused to allow the facts to get in the way of any juicy rumor that might sell more copies of his papers.[30]

In June of 1880 he reported that Ambrose C. Spicer, a minister and professor at the College, believing he had committed the unpardonable sin, had attempted to commit suicide by stripping naked and trying to drown himself in the Kalamazoo River. Failing at that, he ran onto the railroad tracks hoping the east-bound freight train would kill him. It took four men to subdue him. A great story — except that there was no one named Ambrose Spicer at Battle Creek College between 1874 and 1881.[31]

In 1881 Brown informed the public that Adventists “do not believe in life insurance” because “their prophet, Mrs. Ellen G. White, has issued an edict against it in one of her visions, in which she considers it simply a form of gambling.” She apparently saw no harm in buying property insurance, however, as The Citizen reported in 1884 that a fire causing $500 damage to her home would all be “covered by insurance.”[32]

Editor Brown also delighted in exposing hypocrisy among religious groups. In 1883 he accused Adventists in the West End of making “an unusual amount of noise” on Sunday. Since their “Gentile” neighbors endeavored “to keep quiet on Saturdays,” Brown did not “think it fair for [Adventists] to make such a racket on Sunday.”[33]

In 1884 the Nightly Moon accused the “son of a prominent Adventist” of using chloroform on a girl and sexually assaulting her, alleging that his father, an Adventist minister, was ready to pay $500 (nearly a year’s salary) “to settle” the matter.[34] Likewise, in a “Moonshine” column devoted to rumors, both the Daily Moon and the Weekly Moon ridiculed claims by Ellen White, James M. Garner, his teenage daughter Anna, and an “Adventist prophet or crank in Chicago” that the world would end on October 22, 1884 or January 5, 1885. “I hope so,” Brown exclaimed, “it would settle several disagreeable questions for us.”[35]

When an unnamed man in Brooklyn returned $2,300 he had stolen from the city of Battle Creek years before, Brown smirked, “Now let the Adventists set the judgment day.”[36] But in July of 1887, when a certain Professor Proctor cited scientific evidence to show that the destruction of the earth was imminent, his revelations “frightened even our Adventist friends,” Brown declared, to such a degree “that they will not hereafter put up such substantial buildings.”[37]

In August of 1885, the Daily Moon accused a “gang of about 25 Adventists” of throwing a dozen eggs at Basil Stephenoff, a Macedonian man whose lectures allegedly proved that Sunday was the New Testament Sabbath. “It is a disgrace to every Adventist who participated in [the egging] that they have no more religious tolerance than that,” Brown scolded. “Such fanaticism will always have its day, and subside,” he concluded.[38]

The Daily Moon focused special attention on the “battle” between the two “prophets” — Ellen White and Anna Garmire — in 1885. Brown informed readers that Mrs. White had “denounced” Anna and her father, James Garmire, “as emissaries of the devil.” Torn between two prophets, many Adventists had “lost their reason,” Brown asserted. “Much gunpowder has been expended by the cannons of the Church on the Garmire movement,” the editor opined. General Conference president George I. Butler (“who is very bitter when he is bitter, and that is how he tastes most of the time”) had rebuked both Garmires and was allegedly going “from house to house fighting” them. “The Adventists seem to forget the scriptural warning that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand,’” Brown reprimanded.[39]

When railroad standard time was first introduced in 1885, the Daily Moon informed readers that both Catholics and Adventists had adopted it. “Now let [their] shops [business enterprises] be run on the same uniform legal time,” he suggested.[40] During a severe thunderstorm in 1887, when lightning struck the center pole at the Adventist camp-meeting tent at Bellaire, Michigan, the editor pointed out that “all the saloons and other bad places escaped” damage. Brown clucked, “That kind of business will not do.”[41]

Finally, in December of 1887, the Daily Moon reported on the trial of Ralph Johnson in nearby Marshall for “tapping the till” (stealing money) from the Review and Herald press. Various employees who knew about his theft were prepared to testify in court against him. Given previous cases of theft mentioned in George Amadon’s diaries, this case seems plausible. However, it is worth mentioning that no other Battle Creek newspaper covered any of the above-mentioned stories included in Brown’s three Moon newspapers, probably because, although salacious reporting and providing “alternative facts” and “fake news” sold newspapers in the short term, they did not gain citizens’ respect in the long run.[42]

In conclusion, between 1855 and 1890 Adventists in Battle Creek gradually adapted to their environment. In the 1850s and 1860s, they were seen as an isolated sect of “Gizzardites” living in a West End “Canaan.” By the 1870s and 1880s, however, their growing involvement in the life of Battle Creek gained them both favorable and unfavorable attention in the local press. Despite their determination to be “in the world but not of the world,” however, Adventists’ participation in politics, musical groups, patriotic activities, cultural events, and social organizations gradually transformed both them and the public’s attitude toward Adventists in Battle Creek.

Notes & References:

[1] Rust, Business Directory, 105; Henry B. Peirce, History of Calhoun County, Michigan, with Illustrations Descriptive of Its Scenery, Palatial Residences, Public Buildings, Fine Blocks, and Important Manufactories (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1877), 84; Lowe, Tales, 77.

[3] Rust, Business Directory, 105; Peirce, History of Calhoun County, 84; Lowe, Tales, 77.

[4] Massie and Schmitt, Battle Creek, 8, 20, 21, 39, 40; Ashley and Thornton, Battle Creek, 7; Thornton, Battle Creek, 12, 13; Rust, Business Directory, 103-110.

[5] Battle Creek Centennial, 39; Massie and Schmitt, Battle Creek, 19; Coller, Battle Creek’s Centennial, 10; Ashley and Thornton, Battle Creek, 7; Thornton, Battle Creek, 12, 13.

[6] Rust, Business Directory, 105; Peirce, History of Calhoun County, 84; Lowe, Tales, 77; “Conference Address,” signed by J. H. Waggoner, James White, J. N. Loughborough, Joseph Bates, J. B. Frisbie, M. E. Cornell, Moses Hull, John Byington, and E. W. Shortridge, appeared in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 11, 1861, pp. 21-22.

[7] Rust, Business Directory, 254, 274, 289, 321-34; Lowe, Tales, 172-74.

[8] Lowe, Tales, 114, 117; “Table of Publishing Sales, 1845-1910,” in George W. Amadon, flyleaf of personal diary (1911). By Amadon’s calculations, the Review and Herald press alone, between 1855 and 1864, sold $17,500 worth of literature; this would rise to $73,000 between 1865 and 1874, to $371,000 between 1875 and 1884, and to $3,969,000 between 1885 and 1894.

[9] Massie and Schmitt, Battle Creek, 35-37; Lowe, Tales, 187-190, 195.

[10] Massie and Schmitt, Battle Creek, 37; The Battle Creek Journal, December 18, 1872, p. 3. After four men were shot in Coopersville, Michigan, in August 1873, John Byington wrote in his diary, “The world is wicked.” See John Byington, diary, August 12, 1873.

[11] Massie and Schmitt, Battle Creek, 44, 45.

[12] George W. Amadon, diary, May 1870; March, April, June, July, December 1871; February-April, June-September, December 1873; memoranda section, 1874; January, March, June 1876; July and September 1877; June and July 1878.

[14] Battle Creek Journal, December 18, 1872, p. 3.

[15] “H.W.,” Battle Creek Journal, December 18, 1871, p. 2.

[16] Jack X. Tobias, Battle Creek Daily Journal, March 12, 1879, p. 4.

[17] Ibid., November 20, 1878, p. 3.

[18] Michigan Tribune, November 30, 1878, p. 3.

[19] Ibid., May 24, 1879, p. 3.

[20] Ibid., May 21, 1874; Battle Creek Journal, July 9, 1879, p. 2. Other names on the 1879 petition clearly recognizable as Adventists included Uriah Smith, M. J. Cornell, O. B. Jones, Sidney Brownsberger, E. S. Walker, John Harvey Kellogg, William K. Loughborough, and William C. Gage.

[21] Battle Creek Daily Journal, June 11, 1884, p. 3.

[22] Battle Creek Daily Journal, March 23, 1882, p. 4; idem, June 1, 1882, p. 4.

[23] The Sunday Morning Call, May 3, 1885, p. 1; idem, May 24, 1885, p. 5; idem, June 14, 1885, p. 8; Battle Creek Daily Journal, December 24, 1885, p. 1; idem, January 18, 1886, p. 1; Daily Moon, January 18, 1886, p. 8; the Byington/Amadon Collection 012, Center for Adventist Research, James White Library, Andrews University; Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon, eds., Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, s.v. “Fred Gage” and “William Cloggett Gage”; Rust, Business Directory, 273. For a rather harsh testimony from Ellen White to William Gage in August 1871 rebuking him for his many faults, see Ellen White, Testimonies, 3:18-31.

[24] Battle Creek Daily Journal, September 27, 1882, p. 1; idem, July 20, 1887, p. 1; Sunday Morning Call, May 10, 1885, p. 6.

[25] Daily Moon, December 27, 1886, p. 7.

[26] Battle Creek Daily Journal, May 26, 1887, p. 2.

[27] Ibid., April 29, 1884, p. 3.

[28] The Citizen, June 14, 1884, p. 1.

[31] Nightly Moon, June 19, 1880, p. 1; Meredith Jones Gray, personal e-mail to the author, September 11, 2013. However, Ambrose Coates Spicer’s older son, Hale Julian Spicer, taught Greek and Latin at the College in the 1870s and 1880s, and Ambrose’s younger son, William Ambrose Spicer, was a student at the College in the early 1880s. Could the “spice” in this story have involved another Spicer?

[32] Nightly Moon, March 12, 1881, p. 3; The Citizen, April 26, 1884, p. 3.

[33] Nightly Moon, November 9, 1883, p. 3.

[34] Ibid., January 30, 1884, p. 3.

[35] Daily Moon, November 25, 1884, p. 5; idem, December 26, 1884, p. 5; Weekly Moon, October 18, 1884, p. 3.

[36] Weekly Moon, January 3, 1885, p. 5.

[37] Ibid., July 11, 1887, p. 4.

[38] Daily Moon, August 25, 1885, p. 5.

[40] Daily Moon, September 30, 1885, p. 5.

[41] Ibid., July 9, 1887, p. 5.

[42] Ibid., December 6, 1887, p. 7.

Brian E. Strayer is Professor Emeritus of History at Andrews University. This paper was originally presented for the Michiana Adventist Forum on January 12, 2019, and is reprinted here with permission.

Image: Battle Creek Sanitarium, “Breathing Exercises,” courtesy of Wikipedia (Public Domain).

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