Over Her Tent
Ellen G. White spent almost ten years in Australia. She first went to the island continent at the request of the mission board after the General Conference of 1891. Stephen N. Haskell, an Adventist leader who had gone to Australia in 1885, urged that the church send Mrs. White to help guide the newly formed groups and institution there. On November 12, 1891, she, her son William C. White, and several assistants sailed from San Francisco aboard the steamer Alameda.
In Australia she directed many important projects. At her strong urging, the Australian Adventists established a college. At first it was conducted in rented quarters in Melbourne, but at her insistence, a special committee found a site for it at Cooranbong, seventy-six miles north of Sydney. This college was the first to use her idea of combining work and study in a rural location, a pattern later followed in creating most of the other Adventist colleges and academies. Avondale College still continues to educate Australian young people for service for the church.
Also she helped pioneer the organization of Australia into regions called local conferences. These united to become a union conference, the first in the denomination. When the church set up a worldwide organization several years later, it followed the organizational pattern developed in Australia.
As always, she spent much time speaking and writing. Camp meetings provided her with many speaking opportunities. During the years from 1891 to 1900 she wrote countless letters to church leaders in the United States, plus many articles for the Review and Herald, Signs of the Times, and The Youth's Instructor. In 1896 she finished the book Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing. The Desire of Ages followed in 1898. The year 1900 saw the publication of Christ's Object Lessons and volume six of Testimonies for the Church.
Although always busy, Mrs. White still found time for evangelistic activities. At the camp meetings she presented series of talks to large crowds. One such series she conducted during the Brighton Beach camp meeting held from December 29, 1893, to January 15, 1894, in a Melbourne suburb. It was the first Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting ever held in Australia. Mrs. White had just returned from New Zealand, where she had attended camp meetings at Napier and Wellington, the first and second such assemblies the Adventists convened south of the equator.
Arthur G. Daniells, Mrs. White, and other church leaders urged all the Australian Adventists that could to attend the meetings. To house the people expected to come, those arranging the camp meeting made thirty-five family-sized tents. Few thought more than that would be needed. But as reservations came in, the preparations committee had to buy and rent additional tents.
When Mrs. White arrived at Brighton Beach, the campsite contained more than one hundred tents, housing 511 people. The careful, orderly arrangement of the tents and grounds impressed the many non-Adventist visitors who flocked to the meetings. The large audiences included doctors, ministers of other churches, and businessmen. They crowded into the main tent to hear Mrs. White speak on such topics as the Ten Commandments, Sabbathkeeping, and the events heralding the second coming of Christ. The wonders of the Adventist camp meeting quickly became a local topic of conversation. Mrs. White said herself that she had not seen such deep religious dedication and enthusiasm since the Millerite meetings of 1843 and 1844.
But not everybody appreciated the camp meeting so highly. To a group of juvenile delinquents—larrikins, the Australians called them—living in a nearby town, it represented a chance to have some fun. They began to do little acts of vandalism and mischief. They attacked the tents, hurling stones at them and pulling one down. The camp meeting staff had appointed several students from the Australian Bible School to act as guards. They helped control the larrikins. Unable to do much damage, the delinquents decided on a bolder scheme. Their leader outlined a plan to pull Mrs. White's tent down on her the next night. He considered her the most important person among the Adventists.
But some of the gang bragged about their plan to the camp's student guards. Learning what the larrikins wanted to do, Fairly Masters, one of the Bible School's students, went to the faculty and warned them about the teen-age gang's schemes. The teachers hurried to the Melbourne police headquarters and asked for protection for the campsite. The city sent a tall, heavy-built Irish Roman Catholic policeman out to the little tent city to guard Mrs. White's tent.
Actually Mrs. White did not worry when she heard about the teen-agers’ plan. She had often faced greater dangers in her long life. Time after time angels had protected her from disease, accident, and the violence and hatred of men. Since God had taken care of her for so long, she did not see any reason for fear now. Most of the time Mrs. White did not let people give her police protection. Now she accepted it only to please those with her. After the meeting that night, she walked to her tent, prepared for bed, prayed, and fell asleep in perfect peace. She would have slept just as peacefully without the policeman. Outside, the policeman patrolled the area around the tent, watching for the troublemakers. But the boys never showed up. Some of the youthful camp guards warned the gang members not to try anything, because the city had sent a law officer.
Yawning occasionally, the policeman kept at his post. Not long after midnight, when only subdued snores and the rustle of the night wind among the leaves disturbed the campground, he paused in his circuit of Mrs. White's tent and glanced toward it. He thought he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. But the tent stood peacefully in the darkness. He started to turn his attention to another part of the campground, but before he could, he saw a beam of light suddenly hover over Mrs. White's tent. Gradually the light assumed a shape and became more solid looking. Gripping his night stick, he watched the shape of an angel form in the light and stand guard above the tent. Instinctively he dropped to his knees and crossed himself. Awestruck, he stared at the angel for several minutes, then slowly rose to his feet and began to walk away. He had decided that Mrs. White no longer needed his protection. God guarded her.
Back at the Melbourne police station, he explained to his sergeant and the other officers on duty there why he had left his post. He explained that he felt Mrs. White had greater safety than he could give her. Strangely, his superiors did not question his story, but believed it and did not send him back to the campground that night.
The Irish policeman, however, went to the campsite on his own the next day. He wanted to see the woman the angel guarded, to hear what she had to say. He attended the main services that day and every following day. What he saw and learned about Mrs. White did not disappoint him. The more he heard, the more interested he became; and he joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Later he resigned from the police force and moved to the country, becoming an active lay member responsible for many others joining the church. God had overruled Mrs. White's usual reluctance to accept police protection to provide a chance for the policeman to come to the campgrounds. And He had allowed the man to see the angel because He knew it would appeal to his Roman Catholic background, which stressed miracles. Seeing the angel was the key to the man's mind, the thing that created his interest in Adventism. Afterward, God used Mrs. White's sermons in instructing and bringing the policeman into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But he was not the only one converted through her speaking at the camp meeting.
Two brothers, operators of a music store, had joined the church, but their wives refused to accept its teachings. Nothing the men could do seemed to change their minds. They wanted nothing to do with their husbands’ religion. Somehow the brothers did manage to persuade them to attend a few of the meetings at Brighton Beach.
One night Mrs. White preached on the gospel's invitation for all to accept Christ and be saved for eternal life. She appealed so strongly that the two women dropped their resistance to the Holy Spirit and walked to the front of the tent to indicate that they had decided to accept Christ and join the church. The son of one of the couples served as a leading Adventist minister for years.
A thirty-five-year-old former missionary to China attended the evangelistic services. Contact with Mrs. White at the camp meeting completely changed her life. Only the Holy Spirit can convert a person, but God used Mrs. White as a tool to help in the woman's conversion to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
A woman from nearby Melbourne decided to obey God's teachings and to observe the Sabbath after hearing Mrs. White speak. Her decision made her husband terribly angry. “You either give up this silly seventh-day Sabbath notion or get out of here,” he shouted after she tried to explain what she was going to do. When she refused to stop worshiping on the Sabbath, he ordered her to leave their home. Although she was a timid woman, she had enough faith to help her stay by her decision. She left. A little later her sixteen-year-old daughter also decided to join the church. The girl told her mother about her plans, and her mother promised to come and take the teen-ager to live with her.
When she appeared at the house to pick up her daughter, the angry husband saw her and exclaimed, “Well, you have decided to give up that Sabbath nonsense, have you? And you have come back to live with me?”
She shook her head. “No,” she answered, “I have come for my daughter, whom you have also driven out of the house.”
Confused, the man did not know what to reply. “What are you going to do now?” he demanded after thinking a moment.
“I am going to support myself and my daughter,” his wife said simply. “She will help me all she can. Somehow we'll manage.”
The husband's conscience began to trouble him. He realized that as a father and husband he should support his family. In a melodramatic gesture typical of the nineteenth century, he dropped to his knees and begged his wife to give up her “terrible doctrines” and return to him.
For a moment the wife's will and courage wavered, but God strengthened her to keep her vow. “No,” she said firmly, “I shall never give up the Sabbath. I shall observe it as long as I live. Although I have a duty to obey you, I have a greater duty to obey God.”
Seeing that he could not force his wife to change her mind, he became worried and tried another approach. “If you will come back to me,” he offered, “you may keep the Sabbath. But only promise me that you will never go to any Adventist meetings again.”
She sadly shook her head, tears in her eyes. “I cannot make such a promise, though I will be a faithful wife in everything else. But you don't understand. You want me to be a faithful wife, yet you also want me to disobey God. If I ignore His will for me, how can anyone ever say I was being a faithful wife? Could I possibly be a good wife then?”
“Now I don't know what to do,” he groaned. Dropping into a nearby chair, he sat for several moments holding his head. “Will you go with me to see our minister about this?” he asked, glancing up at her.
The woman hesitated before answering. Something about the idea bothered her. But because her husband begged her to go, she finally consented.
Hitching the horse to the family buggy, they drove through the dark Melbourne streets and reached the minister's house about ten o'clock.
The minister had gone to bed, but their knocking woke him up. Sleepily he invited them in and listened to their problem. The husband told the preacher how he made his wife leave because she had kept the Sabbath. “Now,” he asked in puzzlement, “did I do the right thing?”
The minister's eyes blinked in the light of the kerosene lamp. Setting it on a table, he replied, “You did perfectly right under the circumstances.”
For a moment the husband stared in amazement at the minister. Suddenly angry, he told him, “You're wrong. I didn't do right. I abused my wife. I failed as a husband and father. I mistreated my oldest child. I have acted terrible, and you should have told me so. Instead you approved of what I did. What kind of minister are you?”
Turning to his wife, he asked her forgiveness. Together they went out to the carriage and drove home. Never again did he try to control how she worshiped. His wife found peace and happiness. But something still troubled the man—his relationship with God. His wife's life—her happiness and her faithfulness to God—made him feel guilty. He wanted a life like hers. Mrs. White, learning about the case, wrote in a letter that after the night at the minister's house, the man began to show a real interest in Adventism.
The more Mrs. White spoke, the greater her reputation as an evangelist grew. It spread to Broken Hill, a silver-mining town 450 miles northwest of Melbourne. Mrs. Roberts, a Sabbathkeeper, learned about the woman prophet and preacher, and wanted to hear her speak. She spoke constantly to her friends and neighbors about Ellen G. White until some of them knew almost as much about her as Mrs. Roberts did. One day Mrs. Roberts mentioned to a neighbor woman that she planned to visit Melbourne and hear Mrs. White.
The neighbor—who owned a local shop—had listened to Mrs. Roberts talk so much about Mrs. White that she became skeptical that anyone could possibly have the talents and abilities Mrs. Roberts claimed she had. She particularly doubted that Mrs. White could hold the attention of a large audience for several hours and often expressed her belief on the matter to Mrs. Roberts.
As Mrs. Roberts described her planned trip, the woman suddenly remarked, “You know, I've always wanted to take a holiday to Melbourne. If you don't mind, I'll go with you.”
“What about your shop?” the Adventist asked in surprise.
“I'll arrange for someone to run it.”
The journey to Melbourne was long. No direct rail connection existed between Broken Hill and the larger city. They had to follow a longer route that swung west, then south.
In Melbourne they learned that Mrs. White was scheduled to speak in one of the city's larger halls. Hiring a carriage, they arrived at the hall and found it crowded.
When Mrs. White walked onto the platform, the neighbor noticed her small size. “That's the woman you're always talking about?” she whispered to Mrs. Roberts. “That little lady?”
After the introduction and preliminaries, Mrs. White rose to speak. Momentarily she stood looking around at the audience, something she usually did before each sermon or lecture. Occasionally her gaze rested on a particular person. Nervously the woman whispered to Mrs. Roberts, “I'm afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” her friend asked.
“That woman is looking straight at me. I'm sure of it. She knows all about me.”
Mrs. White began her sermon. Her voice, which some said reminded them of the clear tones of a bell, reached each person in the large crowd. The people sat attentive throughout the long meeting. The neighbor seemed as interested in it as everybody else. At its close, as the people filed out of the hall, she turned to Mrs. Roberts and said, “I must send a telegram to Broken Hill immediately.”
“What's your hurry?”
“I want to notify those at home to close my shop on the Sabbath.”
Besides speaking to large groups, Mrs. White also did personal evangelism. Near her home in Cooranbong, New South Wales—which she called Sunnyside—lived a family who owned a large fruit farm. She had a great interest in the family. The father raised excellent oranges and lemons. An avid reader, he had learned much about Adventist doctrines, but he never fully accepted them. Although he knew better, he clung to many of his old habits. Mrs. White felt disappointment that the farmer and his family did not join the church.
In a vision one night an angel stood by her bed and directed her to visit the citrus grower with copies of her books. The books, the angel said, would help convert him. Obeying the instruction, the next day she collected a few of her longer books, and placing them on the buggy seat beside her, drove over to the fruit farm. Although the man was working out in the orchards, he came up to the house when he learned that she had stopped by.
In a few minutes Mrs. White turned the conversation to religion. Speaking to him as she would to a Seventh-day Adventist church member, she said, “You have great responsibilities. Here are your neighbors all around you.” She motioned to the distant farms with her hand. “You are accountable for every one of them because you have Biblical knowledge they don't have. If you love what you know and follow it, you will help convert many to Christ.”
He looked at her strangely. His expression seemed to be trying to tell her that he had long ago given up those points of Adventist belief that he had accepted. But Mrs. White knew it already. Ignoring his expression, she continued to talk to him as if he were an Adventist. “We are going to help you to begin to convert your neighbors.” She balanced the books on her lap. “I want to give you a present of some books you can use.”
The farmer politely tried to refuse them. “We have a local library from which to get books,” he protested, trying to think of a way to change the subject.
She looked around the room. “I don't see any here. Apparently you have returned all those you have borrowed. Perhaps you don't like to go to the bother of taking out books from the public library.” Libraries then had much stricter rules about who could take books and how they could do it. “I have brought some books for you and your children to read.” By ignoring his protests, she silenced them, and he finally accepted the books.
Before she left, Mrs. White knelt and prayed with him.
When they stood again, tears rolled down his leathery cheeks. “I'm glad you came to see me. I thank you for the books,” he repeated over and over.
The next time she visited the fruit farm, the man told her that he had read part of Patriarchs and Prophets. “There is not one syllable I could change,” he commented. “Every paragraph speaks right to the soul.”
“Which book do you consider the most important?” she asked.
“I lend them all to my neighbors, and the hotelkeeper thinks The Great Controversy is the best.” Suddenly his lips began to quiver. “But I think Patriarchs and Prophets is the best. It is the one that has pulled me out of the mire.”
Mrs. White understood human nature. She knew that a person becomes most interested in those things he is actively involved in. Getting the farmer to work for his neighbors by lending them books made him interested in Adventism again. Reading Mrs. White's books also touched his heart. He and his family joined the church, and together they helped bring in several neighboring families. Mrs. White's influence on one man had far-reaching results.
D. A. Delafield and Gerald Wheeler