In December 1952, the sprawling metropolis of London, Europe’s largest city, was brought to a standstill for five days by an extraordinary conjunction of meteorological event and pollution. Winter fogs were a London commonplace, immortalized in nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury literary works such as Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories; but this was the ultimate London fog. For five successive cold December days, a heavy natural fog, the product of winter weather, combined with sulfurous fumes from vehicle exhaust, the smokestacks of factories and power plants, and from the city’s millions of chimneys out of which billowed forth the smoke of the coal fires that almost all of London’s citizens relied on for warmth. The result was a dense blanket of toxic smog that reduced visibility to a few feet. Traffic ground to a halt. People who then abandoned buses found that even on foot they struggled to find their way home in the thick, dark, miasma. Football matches had to be cancelled because the goals could not be seen from the halfway line. The smog not only blocked the sun, stopped public events, and brought London’s street life to a standstill; it was also a public health catastrophe. The 1952 fog was the worst air pollution crisis in European history. Initial reports estimated that about 4,000 died prematurely during and immediately after the five days of fog, mostly from respiratory ailments, but many in traffic accidents. Deaths from bronchitis and pneumonia were more than 700 per cent greater than the usual annual average. In London’s East End, an area characterized by slums and industry, the increase in deaths was 900 per cent. The detrimental effects lingered, moreover, and mortality rates remained well above normal into the summer of 1953, because of the lasting effects on Londoners’ lungs. The usual death toll given for the Great Smog is now 8,000 lives, but recently experts have estimated that perhaps as many as 12,000 died— victims of mid-twentieth-century life in big cities.1 It is not surprising, then, that in the middle of the twentieth century, just six years before London was afflicted by the great smog, that Ellen G. White’s statements on the virtues of rural as opposed to the evils of urban life; the book, Country Living, proved immensely influential.2 Denis Fortin argues that it is “one of the smallest yet most influential compilations of Ellen White’s writings,” and that it has had a “profound impact upon many aspects of Adventist ethos” encompassing education, home life, and evangelism. The counsels compiled and edited in Country Living were “largely responsible for Adventism’s intrinsic fear of the cities” and may have contributed to the slow growth of present-day urban mission.3 Indeed, Country Living, and its companion volume, From City to Country Living (meant to aid Adventists in their steady flight from the cities), were products of the General Conference’s Commission on Rural Living. The secretary of the commission, Edward A. Sutherland, presented following the carefully chosen and compiled counsel in Country Living as a test of faithfulness to the Spirit of Prophecy. In 1951, he wrote: Some years ago our denomination gave heed to the message to establish church schools, but it was many years behind time. Likewise we awoke to the importance of the health message after long delay and lack of faith. Now we face another test—the removal of our people from the cities, and the establishment of families on the land where they are to operate as mission centers and rural outposts from which to carry the closing message to the cities. Will we be able to meet this test? If we do not, then World War III, with all its attendant troubles, will be upon us, and our people may be like Lot and his family when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. To loiter now is fatal for all of us. The time has come for us to give attention to this neglected work. Many of our people must be gotten out of the great cities and established in country homes. It must be not a stampede or a mass movement but a quiet, steady, progressive movement, as the result of education.4 Sutherland’s statements here are clearly antithetical to many of Ellen White’s statements about cities, as we will see later. Still, the counsel in Country Living was, or seemed to be, unambiguous, unmistakable, and could probably be quoted by many modern Adventists: “‘Out of the cities; out of the cities!’—this is the message the Lord has been giving me,” wrote Ellen White, who then declares: “The earthquakes will come; the floods will come; and we are not to establish ourselves in the wicked cities, where the enemy is served in every way, and where God is so often forgotten.”5 This is from an article that had first appeared in the Review and Herald in July 1906.6 It was based on a sermon she had given at the dedication of Loma Linda Sanitarium three months before, which included the stirring admonition: “‘Out of the cities! Out of the cities!’—this has been my message for many years.”7 And indeed as early as 1882 she had published a testimony encouraging Adventist families to move out of cities; so it had truly been Ellen White’s message for many years.8 And yet against that are equally ringing statements, equally unequivocal. Two years after her 1882 testimony she posed a rhetorical question to church leaders, asking “shall the prince of darkness be left in undisputed possession of our great cities because it costs something to sustain missions?” She gave the answer: “Let those who would follow Christ fully come up to the work, even if it be over the heads of ministers and presidents.”9 And three years after her Loma Linda statements, she declared: “There is no change in the messages that God has sent in the past. The work in the cities is the essential work for this time.”10 Working in cities is the essential work for the end time. These statements are not exceptions to the rule—far from it. Ellen White wrote those words in 1909, but a year earlier, in 1908, she had written of “the unworked cities in Europe, Australia, and America, and in the regions beyond” (the latter, in her writings, typically means Asia, Africa, and the islands of the Pacific). She continues in that letter: “These cities have been neglected for years.”11 In a letter of 1909, to the General Conference officers, she firmly admonishes them: “As I look over the past testimonies, I see that for years the importance of working the cities has been urged. But . . . excuses have been made, and this great work has been sadly neglected.”12 In 1910, in a testimony dedicated to city ministry, she writes: “For years the work in the cities has been presented before me and has been urged upon our people. . . . Before this time, every large city should have heard the testing message, and thousands should have been brought to a knowledge of the truth. Wake up the churches, take the light from under the bushel.”13 In 1911, again, she writes: “We must throw ourselves with more earnestness into the work of giving the truth to those in the cities. For years the Lord has been calling our attention to this work.”14 So, Ellen White’s “message for many years,” from at least 1882 to around 1907, was to get out of the cities. Yet for what she describes as years and years, from at least 1884 until at least 1911, she urged Adventists to go into cities to work for those who dwelt in them. On the face of it, and summarized thus, it may seem that Ellen White’s writings on cities support the cynical view that she was not inspired, and so we should not be surprised when she is inconsistent. Is there another way to make sense of these apparently conflicting counsels?
Trim, D. J. B. and Chism, A. L.
"“If God gives me strength, I shall be in the cities”: Ellen G. White, “Outpost Centers,” and Mission Work in Cities,"
Journal of the Adventist Theological Society: Vol. 31:
1, Article 12.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/jats/vol31/iss1/12