A God-given Purpose
When ASI was founded in 1947, nearly half of its charter organizations were educational institutions or included a school as a part of their program. But how did this self-supporting educational work begin? And what role did Adventist lay people play in church growth in the South—which today has the largest membership and greatest number of schools in the North American Division? Prior to the Civil War, Sabbatarian Adventists had no denominational work of any kind in the South. By 1865 the General Conference recognized that “a field is now opened in the South for labor among the colored people and should be entered upon according to our ability.”
But the South was shattered and in chaos, and the Reconstruction era only increased racial tensions. These conditions delayed denominational work there for decades. Though the General Conference sent workers during the 1870s and 80s, by 1888 Seventh-day Adventist membership in the entire South “was about 500 white and 50 colored.”
Thus, during the 1890’s stirring testimonies came from the pen of Ellen G. White admonishing Seventhday Adventists to take up the work of helping the poor in the Southern field.5 She envisioned Adventist lay families moving into rural southern communities where there was little or no Adventist presence. They were to teach African Americans and poor whites improved agriculture methods, how to read and write, better health principles and Bible truths.
One of the first to respond to this call was her son, James Edson White. In 1895 Edson began to work among the black people in the Southern States. His Morning Star steamboat served as a floating mission and school for Negro people along the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers.
To aid their expanding operations, Edson and his associates organized the Southern Missionary Society. “By the early years of the twentieth century the society had nearly fifty schools in operation.”
A Dream Fulfilled
Then in 1904, on a heaven-chosen plot of land in Madison, Tennessee—near Nashville—the young reform-minded educator Edward Sutherland and his associate Percy Magan, along with their sturdy band of pioneers, started a school.
The Nashville Agricultural and Normal Institute— later named Madison College—was “established to train home and foreign missionary teachers” who were to be self-supporting.8 Ellen White instructed that their school should “be of an entirely different order from those we have instituted.” They were “not to follow the methods that have been adopted in our older established schools.”
In this new school at Madison “teachers worked side by side with students in building, farming, and whatever else needed to be done”10 Students saw firsthand the needs of the rural southern poor and were instructed in their obligation to help these people of the hills.
Ellen White was instrumental in the development of Madison. She helped form the school, wrote a series of special testimonies titled “The Madison School” and was a charter member of the board of trustees—the only college board she ever served on. Mrs. White continued in that capacity until failing heath caused her to resign in 1914.
A Spectacle to the World
As early as 1908, Mrs. White made the striking prophecy that if the Madison plan were properly expanded and faithfully carried out, “we as a people would be a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.”
At the time, no one would have thought this possible. But suddenly, in 1938, Madison College captured the spotlight of public acclaim. In a Reader’s Digest that year, Eleanor Roosevelt, in her “My Day” column, praised this self-supporting college in which students could work to pay for their education.
This positive opinion was echoed in many other newspapers and magazines at the time. Dr. Philip P. Claxton, former United States Commissioner of Education, praised Madison College as one of the “best schools in the nation.”
Encouragement to expand this self-supporting work came from Ellen White, who wrote, “Every possible means should be devised to establish schools of the Madison order in various parts of the South.” Many responded to her instruction and ventured out from Madison to start educational, medical and agricultural work in the South and beyond.
The earliest school to be established by students from Madison was the Oak Grove Garden School near Goodletsville, Tennessee—founded in 1906 by Charles Alden and Braden Mulford. In 1907 Mulford along with Forest West started the Fountain Head School, which is today Highland Academy. That same year C. Holm established a school at Paradise Ridge, Tennessee, after being offered thirty acres of land if he would start a school on the ridge.
Then in 1908 the Walen and Wallace families bought a farm near Portland, Tennessee and founded the Chestnut Hill Farm Schools. Within four years Chestnut Hill had fifty-six students.
That same year a Madison-modeled school for African American children was established about five miles outside Nashville. In 1909 T. A. Graves started a school at Lawrenceburg, Tennessee which first met in his woodshed. This school was eventually turned over to the local conference and is today the Bill Egly Seventh-day Adventist School.
By 1912, E. A. Sutherland could report that there were 28 schools with nearly 1,000 pupils as a result of the educational work at Madison. Over the next decade Madison students started schools in Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky and the Carolinas.
A school was started at Reeves, Georgie on the site that is today Georgia-Cumberland Academy. The Pine Mountain School was begun at Long Island, Alabama. The Flat Rock School was established at Douglasville, Georgia. The Kingsfield School at Franklin, Tennessee, the Swallen School at St. Andrews, Tennessee, and the Cumberland Industrial School at Daylight, Tennessee were among the many self-supporting schools started in the first two decades after Madison began.
Still more schools came onto the scene in subsequent years. Leland and Alice Straw launched the Little Creek School in 1940 at Concord, Tennessee. Pine Forest Academy, originally established by the Alabama-Mississippi Conference, eventually became a self-supporting school. Others from this era included Pewee Valley Junior Academy, Pine Hill Academy, the Wildwood elementary school, Laurelbrook School, Harbert Hills The Flat Rock School in Douglasville, Georgia. Academy, and many more.
North Carolina in particular saw tremendous growth in self-supporting schools. In 1910 a group near Asheville, North Carolina responded to Ellen White’s call for workers in the South. In that year the Brownsbergers and the Spaldings started the Asheville Agricultural School, which is today Fletcher Academy. 18 Workers from Fletcher started the Pisgah Industrial Institute in 1914, known today as Mt. Pisgah Academy. Fletcher also aided in the development of a school at Banner Elk, North Carolina and the Glen Alpine Industrial School near Morganton, North Carolina.
Some of these schools across the South existed for a short time and then, having accomplished their purpose, passed out of existence. Some have been in continuous self-supporting operation to this day and others are now run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Approximately fifteen schools in existence today are in this latter category. Including Madison Academy, Mount Pisgah Academy, Highland Academy, Pewee Valley Junior Academy, Silver Creek Adventist School, Floral Crest Junior Academy, High County Christian and Meister Memorial SDA School.
The educational example at Madison and Fletcher and the schools that grew out from them have given inspiration for other such institutions across North America: Castle Valley Academy in Utah, which is today DayStar Adventist Academy; Fountainview Academy in British Columbia; Oklahoma Academy; La Vida Mission School in New Mexico; Advent Home Learning Center in Tennessee; the Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia; Weimar Academy in California; Miracle Meadows School in West Virginia; Ouachita Hills Academy and College in Arkansas; Laurelwood Academy in Oregon; and Heritage Academy in Tennessee. Today there are more than 20 schools across North America that are affiliated with ASI.
The General Conference in its 1946 Autumn Council voted to create the Commission on Rural Living for the purpose of providing information and guidance to Adventist families and individuals who chose “wholesome rural environments for their homes as conducive to spiritual life and growth; as a safeguard to the children; as a means of evangelizing the towns, villages, and country regions; as an aid to economic security; and as a means of avoiding labor strife and escaping the impending destruction of the cities.”
Dr. E. A. Sutherland was called from Madison College to the General Conference to head this new commission, which in 1947 brought into being the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Self-supporting Institutions, or ASI.
Ellen White’s vision of lay people entering rural communities for the purpose of uplifting, educating, and ministering to the spiritual, physical and mental needs of the people had become the curriculum and passion of Madison College and its satellite institutions. Now, through ASI, this effective model was to be spread throughout all of North America.
By following divine counsel and direction concerning proper education, the self-supporting schools connected with ASI are, and will continue to be, centers that lead young people to their Savior, equip them for service and duty to their fellow man, and provide them with opportunities for evangelism.
Surely “We have an army of youth today who can do much if they are properly directed and encouraged… Let all be so trained that they may rightly represent the truth, giving the reason of the hope that is within them, and honoring God in any branch of the work where they are qualified to labor.”