In world history, the year 1853 was not particularly eventful. Buenos Aires gained its independence from Argentina, only to be reunited again six years later. The first train in Asia was completed in India—between Bombay and Tanna. A train of another kind, the Underground Railroad, was formed by Harriet Tubman, a system organized to aid the escape of slaves from the U.S. South through various communities northward to freedom in Canada. One of the major stations along the way was Rochester, New York, which in the very same year was also the location of a significant event in the history of Adventism.
In 1853, only a few years after the first group of Sabbathkeeping Adventists was formed in Washington, New Hampshire, James White organized the first regular Sabbath School in Rochester. In 1852, estimating an informal membership of about 1,000 in the state of New York, White had written a series of 19 lessons appearing in the new Youth's Instructor. He authored some of these earliest lessons "in the form of questions and answers" as he traveled in a covered carriage with his wife and three-year-old son, Edson, throughout New England. Ellen White describes how he composed much of this material during noon stops: while the horse was feeding, he used the "dinner box" or the top of his hat as a desk to write on.
From its inception Sabbath School has focused on four emphases that remain essential: fellowship development, community outreach, Bible study, and foreign mission. A solid balance of these elements characterizes the most vital Sabbath Schools around the world. Together they comprise a rich program of discipleship.
• As local members grow closer together in small groups, they help one another to grow spiritually as individuals, to hold one another accountable in positive Christian relationships. Potlucks, picnics, socials, and a variety of other outlets bring members into closer relationship with Jesus and with each other.
"Jesus, the divine Teacher, assured His disciples of His love toward them. He assumed human nature for no other purpose than to display to men the mercy, the love, and the goodness of God in providing for the salvation and happiness of His creatures" (Testimonies on Sabbath School, p. 39). In the family of God, there are no outsiders.
• Vibrant Sabbath Schools also provide rich spiritual growth through an array of community outreach projects: vacation Bible schools, branch Sabbath Schools, hospital and nursing home visitation, singing bands, and a host of other creative approaches to the community. "The object of Sabbath School work should be the ingathering of souls" (Testimonies on Sabbath School Work, p. 47).
Personal ministries have always been an integral part of the vitality of any Sabbath School, and members are ever seeking new ways to represent Christ in their communities. The view from Sabbath School is outward!
• The study of God's Word forms the very heart and center of Sabbath School. "The prayer of Christ for His disciples was, 'Sanctify them through Thy truth: The word is truth' " (Review and Herald, March 4, 1884).
When members interact with Scripture and with one another, they are exposed to the everyday value of the Bible in drawing them into closer relationship with Jesus and with the world around them. Where else can they go for answers to the questions that occur to any half-awake viewer of the six o'clock news?
• Throughout its history the focus of Sabbath School on foreign mission has inspired creative and exciting projects that have impacted the far corners of the earth. "God's people have a mighty work before them, a work that must continually rise to greater prominence. . . . [They] are not to cease their labors until they shall encircle the world" (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, pp. 23, 24).
The Thirteenth Sabbath Offering, weekly mission stories, and Mission Spotlight have focused attention on ministry needs around the world. In 1890 Sabbath School offerings were the sole source for the building of the Pitcairn, a schooner used for ten years to transport missionaries across the Pacific Ocean. The heart of Sabbath School's emphasis on world mission beats north and south, east and west.
Rooted firmly on these timeless four emphases, from its beginning in 1853, Sabbath School membership has exploded from a handful of believers in upstate New York to an estimated 14 million today. Worldwide, in fact, attendance at Sabbath School each week exceeds that of the worship service. This underscores well Ellen White's assertion that "the influence growing out of Sabbath School work should improve and enlarge the church" (Testimonies on Sabbath School Work, p. 29).
The General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department provides a rich resource of creative initiatives and activities to encourage discipline of church members at http://cq.adventist.org/cooltools/ cooltools.htm.
General Conference President Jan Paulsen has said that Sabbath School is like breakfast. For more than 150 years, it has provided the spiritual nourishment that is needed to meet the challenges that arise during the rest of the week.
Gary B. Swanson
General Conference Associate Director Sabbath School and Personal Ministries