A Sword of Fire Hung over Battle Creek

By Gerald Carson, The Cornflake Crusade, (New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc, © 1957), pp. 129-139, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 57-9631

Mrs. Ellen White preferred a purely pastoral setting for the “untaught” people of the Advent connection, many of whom were farmers anyway. As Battle Creek became more and more an industrial center, the venerated prophetess became ever more stubbornly agrarian in her outlook.

´Way back in 1882, she remarked, “The Lord says to many at Battle Creek, ‘What doest thou here?’” Again, she recounted how—it was at Cooranbony, Australia—she wrestled through a sleepless night with the problem. She was rewarded for her insomnia with a vision in which One stood in the midst of the Battle Creek Advents, saying, “Scatter.”

“I have spent hours in agonizing with God over this matter,” she reported. Apparently an amicable understanding was reached. For she warned, “We need to get ready. It is not God’s plan for our people to crowd into Battle Creek.” They were to be pilgrims, not colonists.

Battle Creek Sanitarium before the fire destroyed it
Battle Creek Sanitarium Before the Fire Source: Wikipedia

At the biennial General Conference of the church in 1901, Battle Creek overflowed with delegates. Many a weary elder walked the streets of the West End, carrying his cot, looking for a night’s shelter, even before the sessions opened. By Monday when the ministerial excursion rate went into effect, and the Michigan Central pulled long strings of loaded day coaches into the homeland of the Adventists, the town was crawling. During the Conference it was decided to comply with the insistent Testimonies of Sister White which directed that the College should be moved to a less worldly setting, far from the sophisticated atmosphere of the “San.” Battle Creek College went to Berrien Springs, Michigan.

“The College has been moved and God is pleased,” Sister White reported.

But still the flock seemed to like Battle Creek better than their seeress did.

When Noah’s descendants built a city on the plain of Shinar, beside the river Euphrates, they relapsed into apostasy. Mrs. White saw a parallel developing in the valley of the Kalamazoo. Ambitious men were contending for power. It was evident in the printing office where there had been too much commercial printing done for Chicago business concerns. Worse still was the way the Sanitarium threatened to wag the church. Most publicized, most prosperous of all Adventist institutions, the “San” claimed all the far-flung sanitaria of the church as its own branches—St. Helena, Los Angeles and San Diego in California; Boulder and Colorado Springs in Colorado; Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma in Washington; Lincoln, Nebraska; Chicago, Peoria and Moline in Illinois; Detroit, Jackson and Grand Rapids in Michigan, and so on. And overseas, there were branches in England, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany; in Egypt, Palestine, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan.

However, the Battle Creek Sanitarium did not export money for the support of all its scattered children. In the reorganization of 1897, under auspices friendly to Dr. Kellogg, the new charter continued the tax-exempt status of the institution. At the same time certain other features were changed. It had been a requirement that the original stockholders should have these qualifications: belief in the literal Word, belief that when Dr. Kellogg operated, an angel’s hand was on his, guiding the knife. They made a small payment of ten dollars per year and were saluted as “constituents.”

Sister White had often addressed words of advice and reproof to Dr. Kellogg. And not infrequently she reminded The Doctor that God had given him the success which had come to him.

“I have tried constantly to keep this before him,” she told her ministers.

Such impertinences were hard enough to bear. But Dr. Kellogg was not going to have Sister White leeching on his cashbox. He could tell by the look in her eye when she wanted a piano for the Philadelphia dispensary, and a new bathhouse for an Australian venture. Most opportunely, a controversy on an entirely different front provided him with a plausible excuse for putting the Sanitarium cash beyond the reach of the church’s long arm.

From time to time a strong sentiment developed among the taxpayers and local officials in Battle Creek that the Sanitarium was not a philanthropic enterprise, and that it should pay taxes like any commercial concern. This was one of those times. A Citizens’ Committee investigated, found the “San” was “wholly philanthropic in law and in fact,” that The Doctor received no salary, and lived by “lofty motives.” And so the tax issue provided the climate for inserting one of Dr. Kellogg’s neatest gimmicks into the new bylaws. First, the Sanitarium was declared officially to be nonsectarian, welcoming, as Horace Fletcher, the champion masticator, said, even “honest agnostics and born Buddhists.” Second, to make certain and secure the tax-exempt status of the “San,” it was written into the charter that its income must, by law, be expended in the state of Michigan. Both features, The Doctor explained, were necessary to secure, and deserve, broad public support.

The operative effect of this provision was that the Adventists could not divert the money made at Battle Creek to bolster up their treatment rooms scattered here and there. As soon as he was operating under the new charter, Dr. Kellogg could feel reasonably certain that no conversion of funds by the elders would be possible. Never had the skills of the many-sided nutritionist shown to greater advantage than in his handling of the incorporation papers. The new bylaws did not require the constituents to be Seventh-day Adventists, and the further declaration was made, that the work was “undenominational and unsectarian, purely charitable, benevolent, Christian and philanthropic.” These words were often quoted later by Dr. Kellogg. At the time he smoothly explained that they were necessary to preserve a tax-free status. As a hospital, of course, the establishment had to be not for a certain class, but for all. It was not a candid explanation; for later, when the differences between the Advents and the Sanitarium became critical, The Doctor stated crisply that of course the Sanitarium was not run in the interests of the church—“as stated in the charter.” The elders had been outsmarted.

Two groups were forming, each around an egocentric leader. When the bell tolled, half the congregation went to the “Tab,” half trudged up the hill to the “San” chapel. Elders G. C. Tenney and Lycurgus McCoy, the “San” chaplain, like most of those connected with the medical work, were militantly for Dr. Kellogg. His was, in general, the party which couldn’t swallow Mrs. White’s claims of miraculous instruction. It should also be noticed that the “San” staff was economically dependent upon The Doctor. The “Kellogg” Adventists resented the influence of Elder W. C. White who headed up the church camarilla. Willy was a kind of male nurse to his mother. He never preached, never appeared in public, but he manipulated her revelations, and quietly led the anti-Kellogg group.

“Dr. Kellogg,” said one of Mrs. White’s elders, A. G. Daniels, President of the General Conference in 1901, “has an imperious will which needs to be broken.”

It was brought up as quite a handle against The Doctor that he not only kept the Battle Creek Sanitarium funds out of the reach of the sectarians, but rounded up all the likely young men for the Sanitarium, leaving none for the church work. And then he taught them “spurious scientific theories,” i.e., evolution. Also involved was an element of economic competition. The pastors depended upon free-will offerings, but the medics had a better source of revenue because their work was income producing. In addition, the “San” received gifts from both church members and wealthy philanthropists not in the least bit interested in spreading the Seventh Day Adventist religion.

“We want one hundred thousand dollars,” The Doctor would say, as head of a nondenominational benevolent Sanitarium. “We are not going to be bashful. We want one hundred thousand dollars.” He could do that, The Doctor would point out, because the work was not sectarian, just Christian. He even made the division retroactive.

“Although the original incorporators were members of a peculiar sect,” Kellogg said, “the institution was never owned, endowed or controlled by that body.”

Fulminations and warnings came from Mrs. White. She had been shown in a vision a great sword, gleaming and flashing and turning. It was a sword of fire—poised over Battle Creek. The prediction, if that is what it was, did not make any extraordinary stir. Adventist symbolism was always greatly preoccupied with swords and flames. The rafters rung on the Sabbath to:

Thy God, insulted, seems
To draw his glittering sword;
And o’er thy guilty head it gleams,
To vindicate his word.
And again
We, while the stars of heaven shall fall,
And mountains are on mountains hurled,
Shall stand unmoved amidst them all,
And smile to see a burning world.

On July 19, 1898, there was a fire at the Sanitarium Health Food Co. There was another fire on July 21, 1900, this time at the Sanitas Food Company plant. But these were only curtain raisers.

Battle Creek Sanitarium burning to rubble
              Battle Creek Sanitarium on Fire         Source: Loma Linda University

Early in the morning on Tuesday, February 18, 1902, fire was discovered at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. When the steamer raced up the hill and the firemen saw the red glare on the snow, they knew it wasn’t a portiere fire. This was the real thing. The little department got five lines playing on the fire, but the drafty old building was made for burning. It had open elevator shafts, vasty corridors, and even a tunnel beneath, to provide an extra draft. Within a few hours, the great Sanitarium, the Sanitarium Hospital, a house nearby where hygienic corsets were manufactured, and several smaller structures had all gone up in smoke. It happened so fast that the building was doomed even before the long orderly lines of patients filed down the fire escapes, each waiting his turn with a marvelous courtesy, no panic, no pushing, the devoted nurses and male attendants efficiently clearing the building. Ira D. Sankey, the gospel singer, of the Moody and Sankey team, just barely escaped. The guests saved their lives but little else. One patient who did not believe in banks, lingered too long in Room 123 to look after his valise containing eleven hundred dollars and was not seen again, though some boys later found some osseous substance, a humerus, a thigh bone, in the ashes of the north end. They were presumed to be the remains of the man with the carpetbag. Thus, fatalities connected with the unfolding of Mother White’s prophecy were practically negligible. Half a million dollars in diamonds were lost, for this was the period when every American lady had a diamond.

All equipment was lost, including oil paintings with sentimental associations, such as a portrait of Elder James White, and the picture of old Sojourner Truth, depicting her historic visit to the White House in 1864, when she chatted with President Lincoln and collected his autograph. Evangelist Stucker lost two hundred sermons, “some of my best efforts,” he mourned.

Dr. Kellogg, who had been on the West Coast, arrived the next morning and announced that the “San” would be rebuilt. Legend has it that he worked all night on the train and had a set of rough plans in his pocket when he detrained.

On December thirtieth, that same year, the Review and Herald building plant burned to the ground and on May 18, 1903, the “San” was again visited. This time only the stables burned, with the loss of thirteen horses and a charity patient.

The community and the press noticed the possible element of human agency in all these conflagrations. The sheriff offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the torch who set “any one of the several fires in the ‘West End’,” but the reward was never claimed. People have speculated down through the years that some addled follower of Mother White might have been involved. One can imagine him—or her—padding through the darkness, muttering “For behold, the day cometh, it burneth as a furnace”—some stray, demented, Millerite in spirit, left over from the frenzy of the 1840’s, elevated by the thought that he was the chosen instrument for carrying out the dictates.

The “San” fire was discovered in the pharmacy. Chemicals may have been involved. The electric wiring, too, was primitive. Officially the cause was never determined. “I can’t be positive,” said Dr. Rand, discussing the cause at the coroner’s inquest. When the “San” barn went up, a callboy made a confession, but later repudiated it.

There was some talk of moving the Sanitarium to other cities. Offers were reported. Some fifty locations were involved. They all got into the papers. But the Sanitarium management finally responded to the way in which the rank-and-file Adventists, the helpers, enthusiastic patients, admirers of Dr. Kellogg, and the city generally came forward with pledges of help and money, so that The Doctor, as President of the Board of Directors, at last promised in somewhat florid style, that “the noblest temple of health and healing that the sun ever shone upon,” would be erected on the old site.

In Battle Creek, people began to see the “San” in a new perspective. The General Committee which issued a call for a citywide mass meeting said, “The origin and location of nearly one-third of our business interests can be justly attributed to the Battle Creek Sanitarium.” A speaker, Miles S. Curtis, a Battle Creek businessman, attributed to the influence of the “San” all such improvements as the Postum works, the leading hotel, theatre and office building—”the idea of all the food companies came from the Sanitarium.”

Sister Ellen C. White happened to be in Battle Greek at the time of the burning of the “San.” At first she called the fire “mysterious”; later described it as a punishment for a laggard church. The burning of the Review plant a few months later reinforced the point. She reminded her followers that she had had a vision of the sword of fire before the event. Summarizing, she said, “The Lord is not very well pleased with Battle Creek.”

These statements of divine displeasure were the cause of a certain amount of sardonic mirth on the part of Dr. Kellogg, Dr. Charles E. Stewart and others of the “Sanitarium party.” Among them it was a saying, almost a slogan, “Someone told Sister ‘White,” meaning that her sources of information were always human, sometimes extremely so.

In 1903, with the College already moved out of Battle Creek, the printing house burned down, Sister White got her way on relocating the General Conference. In August, the world headquarters of Adventism moved to Tacoma Park, a suburb of Washington, just outside the District, yet only seven miles from the dome of the capitol. It was a more dignified, more suitable vantage point for sending out the literature of a world movement, a strategic spot for heading off calendar reform or a National Sunday Law. A number of other locations on the Atlantic seaboard had been considered, even New York City. Mrs. White shuddered at the idea of settling down in such a Sodom and wrote to the Locating Committee that New York was too near hell. She plumped for the rural purlieus of Washington. As she expressed it, “Let the light show forth from the very seat of government.”

Thus came about the humbling of Battle Creek Adventism. The town lost the Adventist College, its distinction as the sect’s world headquarters, the “San,” too, in so far as it was considered an adjunct of the Adventist movement, and Mrs. White. She moved to California. Battle Creek lived through the peculiar religious experience of dropping from world leadership to a parochial level. By 1922, seven years after Mother White’s death, not even the great Tabernacle remained. In that year it, too, burned down.

Many Adventists, reluctant to follow the hegira to Washington, shared the thought expressed by the Detroit News:

While the idea that the fire was a fulfillment of the “flaming sword” prophecy of Mrs. Ellen White, founder of the denomination, is flouted to some extent, it is pointed out that this [the burning of the Tabernacle] was the thirteenth big fire in Battle Creek’s West End and every building save one that was a part of the Adventist group at the time Mrs. White gave what was purported to be a vision, has fallen victim of the fire god.
. . .

The language of humility could not conceal the fact that the “San’s” disaster had not brought the congregation into harmony. The schism grew wider as Dr. Kellogg developed his ambitious plans for a new sanitarium building.

“The great display you are making…”Sister White warned, “is not after God’s order.”

Providence, as she saw it, did not want a six-story, 560-foot long, Italian Renaissance monolithic pile, fireproof throughout, with mosaic marble floors, just like those of the Library of Congress in Washington, with a solarium, roof garden, glass-domed palm garden with a twenty-foot banana tree, Kellogg health chairs and a closet in every room. Here was a temple of Health reborn in a more stately mansion, a great dietetic laboratory, where the experimental work of Voit, Boas, Dujardin-Beaumetz, Ewald in Berlin, Bouchard and Pavlov, was joined to that of the recently fruitful Americans, Chittenden, Mendel, Professor Atwater, the brilliant nutritional researcher down at the Department of Agriculture—and Kellogg, just down the hall.

On the top floor, was the Grand Dining Room, at its head the imperative “Fletcherize,” posted prominently to remind the guests of a pleasant and wholesome duty. Here the Duchess of Manchester, Nazimova, a covey of missionaries from the foreign field, Professor Hieronyinous, on from Urbana (Ill.), all dutifully imitated the colony of great apes which Dr. Kellogg had recently visited in Algeria, with their wise, instinctive knowledge of roughage foods.

The new Main building was dedicated May 11, 1902, with impressive exercises. The procession of nurses and matrons formed on the old Battle Creek College grounds, marched across Washington Street through a waiting crowd of five thousand. Many an aging veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic, many a hero of ‘98 sat there, many a pioneer Adventist—all links with the disappearing nineteenth century—and applauded or wiped away a tear, as the Sanitarium staff swung starchily to right and left of the speakers’ stand, matrons in cream white, nurses in blue and white, the gentlemen nurses in crisp white duck.

The dedication was a three-day, gala affair, with excursion rates on the railroads and reunions of old comrades in the battle for health. The occasion and the season—it was warm for May—gave the affair the ivied air of a college commencement, as did also the announcement of financial pledges.

There was a “health banquet” in the evening and the New York Tribune noted that “Everything passed off smoothly and most pleasantly . . . without accident . . . or incident.” The Tribune had evidently heard something. It is difficult, more than fifty years later, to conceive of the tensions and passions which swept through Advent Town after the West End fires. Wild rumors went the rounds as the date approached for the “San” dedication. It was whispered, for instance, that the new Main would be dynamited at the Grand Opening.

The atmosphere is caught up in a New York Tribune headline:

Planned for These Adventists, but the Plot was Discovered Through a Warning Letter

According to the Battle Creek Journal, an anonymous letter had advised the Sanitarium officials to search the building. Doing so, they found a large quantity of oil-soaked rags in the dormitory and two sticks of dynamite in the pipe that supplied the building with gas. The story was denied by the Sanitarium management, and, as the Tribune said, there was no incident.

See also

Category: Visions Examined
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