No Work More Important
Chester Clark, III
In June of 1904 E. A. Sutherland and Percy T. Magan sat dejectedly on a pile of rubble at the old Nelson Farm near Nashville, Tennessee. In fact they wept.
Ellen White had persistently counseled them to buy the farm and start a school there for underprivileged people in the South. A school where young men and women could both work and study while receiving a practical training that would enable them to be self-sustaining missionaries wherever they went.
While Sutherland and Magan didn’t see it that June day, Madison College—as the school became known—eventually thrived. And Madison graduates in turn started so many successful self-supporting institutions in the South that it captured the attention of prominent leaders of the day. Including Dr. Philip P. Claxton, Commissioner of Education under three United States Presidents. “These smaller schools alone would justify all the cost of the school at Madison,” remarked Dr. Claxton.
The numerous “units” of Madison, as they were called, also captured the attention of Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders. Thus in 1947 the Association of Self-Supporting Institutions, or ASI, was formed to provide an official link between the denomination and the lay-operated educational and health institutions.
A closer look at key Madison principles provides insight into why its model was duplicated successfully so many times, and it sheds light on the continued success of ASI and its membership more than half a century later.
Principle #1: Self-Support While donations helped initiate and even sustain the work of Madison and its units, for the most part they were self-supporting. They were not dependent on the church or other donors for ongoing operations. Through industries and businesses these hard-working lay members found ways to sustain their outreach and ministry.
Students were taught by example that each person should be doing his or her part to advance the work of the gospel—even if it was not their professional vocation. No philosophy is more central to ASI members than that.
Principle #2: Seeking Simplicity Early ASI organizations were certainly not known for extravagance or lifestyles of ease. Industry, economy, and frugality were necessary for survival. Every resource was carefully utilized to accomplish the heavenly mission. Today’s ASI members exhibit this characteristic as well.
Principle #3: Study of the Scriptures Luther once observed, “Every institution in which men are not unceasingly occupied with the word of God must become corrupt.” The goal at Madison was to apply biblical principles as a guide for daily living. I’m struck, as I walk through the exhibits at ASI Convention, at the focus of our members on studying, living, and sharing the Word of God.
Principle #4: Self-Sacrificing Service Madison graduates didn’t strike off into the hill country of Tennessee or Alabama and start schools or sanitariums with the intention of getting rich. They went to help those with serious needs. This is also a prominent characteristic of ASI members—they live not to be ministered unto, but to minister. They come to ASI not looking for what they can get, but what they can give. They have learned that life is best lived when it’s lived for others.
One can hardly estimate the influence of the school Sutherland and Magan built on the old Nelson Farm. The principles guiding them then still inspire ASI members today, including the many self-supporting schools operating in the spirit of Madison. Perhaps this far-reaching impact moved Ellen White to write, in Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, “There is no work more important than the education of our youth.”