In the history of Adventism, there are several instances where self-supporting work led the way in opening up opportunities for the church to do its work.
In 1848 at the five Sabbath Conferences, early Seventh-day Adventists began to understand the truths that formed some of Adventism’s core foundation. Those who gathered felt a deep burden and responsibility to spread the message to others. But they faced several major challenges. First, their numbers were few. How could a small group of people make a large impact; how could they make a significant impression on the hearts of those they were trying to reach? The task was large. The responsibility they felt was to preach the “Present Truth” – the fact that Christ was coming again for the second time, that the Seventh-day Sabbath was still binding, the fullness of understanding the message of the third angel in Revelation 14, Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, and the non-immortality of the soul. Their endeavor to teach others such necessary biblical truths was, indeed, a very large task. Not only were their numbers few and their task large; but the small group of believers had another significant challenge to deal with: they were poor and widely separated. They had very little means to sustain themselves and working together was challenging because they did not have the benefit of being close. All of the above combined to add, perhaps the biggest challenge of all: communication.
But the small band did not give up. They accomplished their tasks as best as they could. They did this in two key ways. First, they did it through spoken word as they personally went out conducting visitations. Secondly, when it was possible for them to do so, they preached.
Although those who eventually composed the early Seventh-day Adventist Church got by in accomplishing the burden of responsibility they felt in their souls, God had greater plans. The work may have been growing, but it needed to grow faster, still. The work needed to expand more and more. Thus began the publishing work. In a sense, the publishing work was the first self-supporting ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church even though it had not yet been established officially. Indeed, it was – at least to some degree – because of this self-supporting ministry that the church gained enough traction to officially organize. Ellen White received a vision on printing the Present Truth, given the assurance that it would be a success from the very beginning. It was a self-supporting ministry because James and Ellen White started it on their own and, most importantly, took responsibility for its work and success. It could be argued that outside of self-supporting ministry, the church would not have started or experience the strength that it enjoyed since its very inception.
The work continued to grow not just by the church, but also in the church. Like in the New Testament Church of Acts, not only were members being added to the church, its understanding of doctrine increased and new light was continually bestowed on the newly developing organization.
As early as 1848, health reform was given to the church regarding the dangers of tobacco and caffeine. Less than a decade later – in 1854, Ellen White received instruction regarding clean and unclean foods. Instead of eating foods deemed unclean by scripture, members were to partake of a simple and natural diet. By 1863, after the church had already been established as an organized body with the General Conference, sweeping health reform visions were given in regards to treatment of the sick and dietary practices and habits. Most of the 3,500 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church began to make changes in their diet and lifestyle. It is important to note, that up to this time, the reforms were given primarily to impact the wellbeing of church members. Health reform was given for the sake of the church and not really as a way to evangelize.
It was not until the Christmas of 1865 that a vision was given to Ellen White regarding the establishment of health institutions. Ellen White wrote regarding this:
The health reform is a branch of the special work of God for the benefit of His people. I saw that in an institution established among us the greatest danger would be of its managers’ departing from the spirit of the present truth and from that simplicity which should ever characterize the disciples of Christ. A warning was given me against lowering the standard of truth in any way in such an institution in order to help the feelings of unbelievers and thus secure their patronage. The great object of receiving unbelievers into the institution is to lead them to embrace the truth. If the standard be lowered, they will get the impression that the truth is of little importance, and they will go away in a state of mind harder to access than before. (Testimonies Vol. 1, p. 560)
According to White, “the great object of receiving unbelievers into the institution is to lead them to embrace the truth.” With the growth of truth, came the growth of mission. No longer was the message of health reform suppose to primarily stay with the Adventist Church, it was supposed to be spread to unbelievers as well.
Eventually, as the work grew, the church’s mission was clarified. Health work was to
(1) relief the infirmities of mankind,
(2) teach how to care for the body – prevention,
(3) assist public relations purposes – so that others would have a positive view of the church, and
(4) acquaint people with the third angel’s message.
With a growing interest in health, once again, self-supporting work was as essential as it was with the printing work. Self-supporting workers were called. These individuals were among the best the church had to offer. They were to have good address, tact, keen foresight, and ability. They were considered missionaries. Missionaries were to introduce people to our publications – or scripture – in the homes and converse and pray with people. These self-supporting workers were to work hand in hand with the denominational employment by educating men and women in pastoral labor:
Missionaries are wanted everywhere. In all parts of the field canvassers should be selected, not from the floating element in society, not from among men and women who are good for nothing else and have made a success of nothing, but from among those who have good address, tact, keen foresight, and ability. Such are needed to make a success as colporteurs, canvassers, and agents. Men suited to this work undertake it, but some injudicious minister will flatter them that their gift should be employed in the desk instead of simply in the work of the colporteur. Thus this work is belittled. They are influenced to get a license to preach; and the very ones who might have been trained to make good missionaries to visit families at their homes and talk and pray with them are caught up to make poor ministers; and the field where so much labor is needed, and where so much good might be accomplished for the cause, is neglected. The efficient colporteur, as well as the minister, should have a sufficient remuneration for his services if his work is faithfully done. (Testimonies Vol. 4, p. 389-390)
Self-supporting work in canvassing and in health ministry was not for everyone. Regarding the work of self-supporting, missionary service, Ellen White said:
Everyone is not fitted for this work. Those of the best talent and ability, who will take hold of the work understandingly and systematically, and carry it forward with persevering energy, are the ones who should be selected. There should be a most thoroughly organized plan; and this should be faithfully carried out. Churches in every place should feel the deepest interest in the tract and missionary work. (Testimonies Vol. 4, p. 390)
Not only did self-supporting work grow in the ministry of the printed page, it also grew in the health work. With the health work expanding to the public, there was a call for health institutes to be assisted by vegetarian restaurants. These self-supporting workers were to advance health reform principles wherever there was an interest. They were called to manufacture good food for schools to impact that industry. Restaurants were to be a way of making vegetarianism more easily adopted and Adventists better known. Furthermore, these self-supporting industries were to help Adventist employment – especially for people who faced problems at work due to Sabbath observance.
In that great city the message of truth will be given with the power of God. The Lord calls for workmen. He calls upon those who have gained an experience in the cause to take up and carry forward in His fear the work to be done in New York and in other large cities of America. He calls also for means to be used in this work.
It was presented to me that we should not rest satisfied because we have a vegetarian restaurant in Brooklyn, but that others should be established in other sections of the city. The people living in one part of Greater New York do not know what is going on in other parts of that great city. Men and women who eat at the restaurants established in different places will become conscious of an improvement in health. Their confidence once gained, they will be more ready to accept God’s special message of truth.
Wherever medical missionary work is carried on in our large cities, cooking schools should be held; and wherever a strong educational missionary work is in progress, a hygienic restaurant of some sort should be established, which shall give a practical illustration of the proper selection and the healthful preparation of foods.
When in Los Angeles I was instructed that not only in various sections of that city, but in San Diego and in other tourist resorts of Southern California, health restaurants and treatment rooms should be established. Our efforts in these lines should include the great seaside resorts. As the voice of John the Baptist was heard in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” so must the voice of the Lord’s messengers be heard in the great tourist and seaside resorts. (Testimonies Vol. 7, p. 56)
Indeed, self-supporting restaurants and the treatment rooms that were to be attached to them were supposed to be essential and necessary for the advancement of God’s work. This was to be done so that people would be conscious of an improvement in health; so that confidence might be gained by the people in order to present God’s special message of truth. Everywhere that the church had established medical institutions, self-supporting institutions were to be placed along their side for the practical purpose of evangelism.
The practices of self-supporting work are to be a practical addition to the work of the organized church. Self-supporting work is essentially the other hand of the body of Christ. Without the self-supporting ministry, it is not possible for the church of Christ to advance, to develop, and to grow.
Public Campus Ministry is the training ground for self-supporting workers. It is our graduates from these institutions that will serve as doctors and business professionals of the highest caliber — prime candidates for self-supporting workers.