Trudy J. Morgan-Cole
In its very earliest days, the Seventh-day Adventist Church had no specific "youth ministry"; young people were as active and involved in the work of the church as older ones were. Indeed, the original Advent movement was very much a youth movement, led by people like James White, who began preaching at twentyone, Ellen White, who received her first vision at age seventeen and John Loughborough, who began preaching when he was seventeen. These young people needed no one to minister to them; they themselves were the ministers, sharing the exciting truths they had discovered in God's Word.
Soon after the Adventist Church was organized and began to grow, people recognized the need for a work specifically directed at young people. And from those earliest days, the emphasis was on youth who would be workers for God. Ellen White's best-known statement about youth makes this emphasis quite clear: "With such an army of workers as our youth, rightly trained, might furnish, how soon the message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming Savior might be carried to the whole world!" 1 Ellen White strongly advocated youth work within the church, but the work she envisioned was not one in which youth would be passive recipients of adult-directed programs. She foresaw a youth work in which youth would be trained and equipped for evangel isticwork that they themselves would carry out—a true "army" to finish God's workin the world.
Appropriately, the credit for actually starting Adventist youth ministry goes to two teenagers who felt a need and sought God's help in meeting it. Many lifelong Adventists are familiar with the story of 14-year-old Luther Warren and 17-year-old Harry Fenner, who in 1879 knelt under a tree in their hometown of Hazelton, Michigan, to ask God's guidance in how to win other young people to Christ. Inspired by that prayer, the two teenagers formed the church's first young people's missionary band, with a charter membership of nine boys.
That Hazelton youth meeting, which included prayer, hymn-singing, election of officers, a report on mission work done, and an offering to purchase literature, soon expanded into a young people's society that included both boys and girls. Their activities involved not only religious services but such popular nineteenth-century social events as taffy pulls, sleigh rides, and sugaring-off parties. Though parents and other adults in the church became involved, leadership was still very much in the hands of the youth, particularly of young Luther Warren, who went on to a lifetime of youth ministry and evangelism within the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
A group similar to the Hazelton missionary band was formed in 1891 in Antigo, Wisconsin, by Meade MacGuire. Looking back on the experience in later years, MacGuire said," I was but a youth, and had no one to counsel with, but I felt that something ought to be done to help and inspire the young people. I had never heard of any young people's organization among our people, but acquaintances of mine attended meetings of the local Christian Endeavor Society and the Epworth League, and I felt that our own young people needed something of this kind as much as did those of other denominations. I proposed holding a young people's meeting, but my proposal was met with almost universal disapproval. However, the elder, a saintly old man. . .placed his hand on my shoulder and said, 'My boy, you go right ahead. You may have the church for your meeting, and I will stand by you'"2
The Antigo young people's society had 30 members, and their meetings were similar to the ones Luther Warren had organized in Hazelton. Along with singing, Bible study, and prayer, there was time for personal testimonies. Participation was wholehearted; MacGuire recalled that there was intense disappointment if even one member failed to testify, but that this hardly ever happened. Reflecting on the success of that early society and the initial reluctance of the church to support it, he commented: "I believe God restrained the enemy because He wanted this work to go forward, and the people were not sufficiently in favor of it to stand by us if mistakes were made." 3
Within a few years of the formation of the first young people's societies, similar groups sprang up in Adventist churches all over the United States. The first such society outside North America was organized in Adelaide, Australia, in 1892. Ellen White encouraged the growth of Adventist youth ministries, and, like Meade MacGuire, she suggested as a model the Christian Endeavour Society, a youth organization active in many Protestant churches on that time, which emphasized missionary activity.
At the General Conference session in 1901, the Seventh-day Adventist Church took the first steps towards organizing its youth ministry. A recommendation was passed to organize young people's societies and form a committee to plan their organization; Luther Warren, at that time the most active youth worker in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, chaired the committee. For the first time, youth ministry began to move forward at the denominational level. The Sabbath School Department of the General Conference was given responsibility for encouraging young people's work, and that responsibility was enthusiastically taken up by the department's secretary, Mrs. L. Flora Plummer, another pioneer of Adventist youth ministry whose name deserves to be remembered. By the summer of 1901, the tireless Mrs. Plummer had contacted church leaders all over the United States, "agitating the organization of young people's societies everywhere."4 When confronted with the fact that only three of the fifty conferences were able, or willing, to appoint young people's secretaries to be responsible for this work, Mrs. Plummer simply wrote to all the Sabbath school secretaries in the remaining fortyseven conferences and informed them that until a youth secretary was chosen in their conference, they would be regarded as leaders of the young people's work. Her ploy worked, and the Sabbath school secretaries added youth work to their agendas.
By 1905 Adventist youth work was growing, not just in the United States, but in Australia, Germany, England, Trinidad, Jamaica, Canada, and other countries. In 1907, at the Sabbath school and young people's convention in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the name "Seventh-day Adventist Young People's Society of Missionary Volunteers" was chosen for the new youth department of the General Conference. Usually shortened to "Missionary Volunteers" or simply MV, this name served the denominational youth work for many years and highlighted the emphasis on youth as active participants in soul-winning. From that meeting also came the resolution that "the primary object of young people's societies is the salvation and development of our youth by means of prayer, study, and personal missionary effort." 5
In the years immediately following the 1907 convention, Adventist young people's societies sprang up in Africa, Tahiti, Singapore, Fiji, Portugal, Bermuda, Japan, the Philippines, and Central America. Missionary Volunteers were truly becoming a worldwide army. Familiar elements of the Missionary Volunteer program, which older church members today will recall from their youth, began during these early years. These included the Morning Watch devotional calendar, the Missionary Volunteer Leaflet Series, the Reading Course, and the Bible Year reading plan.
During these years, separate Junior MV societies for younger children also began to spring up in Adventist churches around the world. At first, the JMV societies were very similar in structure to the senior MV societies, incorporating a Junior Reading Course and Junior Bible Year. But in the years following the first World War, many Adventist youth leaders became convinced that junior youth needed a different approach. JMV societies began to include storytelling, hiking, camping, arts, and crafts—a more "hands-on" approach to suit the more active learning style of juniors. Many leaders used the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts program, as a pattern for these junior youth societies. This new direction in junior youth ministry naturally led to the development of junior youth camps in the 1920s. The Junior Missionary Volunteer society was formed as a separate branch of the Missionary Volunteer Department during those same years. The JMV society, which in 1950 became the Pathfinder Club, was a tremendous success in attracting junior youth and helping them to become active in God's church. Today, the work of the Pathfinder Club continues around the world, channeling the energies and interests of youth in their pre-teen and early teenage years.
The first Seventh-day Adventist Youth Congress was held in Germany in 1928, and was attended by three 3,000 youth and youth leaders from all over Europe. Twelve thousand youth attended a North American youth congress in San Francisco in 1947, and 6,000 youth from 25 countries gathered in Paris, France, in 1951. As youth congresses grew and spread, the emphasis on youth sharing their faith with others remained constant. Today, youth rallies and conventions are held all over the world at the local, national, and international level, sometimes with special emphases such as Bible study, prayer, or drug-abuse prevention. Pathfinder camporees, also organized on every level from the local up to the international, have become another effective way of drawing Adventist youth together. An amazing 22,000 young people gathered in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA, in August 1999 for the "Discover the Power" Pathfinder camporee. For Adventist young people, especially for the many who attend small churches and small church schools in isolated communities, gatherings like camporees and youth rallies do indeed help them to "Discover the Power"—the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives first and foremost, but also the power of belonging to a worldwide movement of young people.
Another aspect of Adventist youth work that has always been central to the movement is the publication of youth-oriented magazines. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has always been a church that believes in the power of the printed word, as evidenced by the avalanche of books and periodicals produced by our publishing houses over the years. A paper for young people, The Youth's Instructor, was being published long before Adventist youth work was formally organized: it was started by James White in 1852. For many years The Youth's Instructor was the staple of Adventist youth work, aided by other materials such as the MV Program Kit (renamed Youth Ministry Accent in 1975) and the Sabbath school lesson quarterlies.
After 118 years, The Youth's Instructor was given a fresher, more contemporary look in 1970, under the new title Insight. Insight magazine continues to minister to the high-school-aged youth of the church, but it is no longer alone in the field of Adventist youth publications. In 1953 the junior Guide (now Guide magazine) was launched, "packed with stories, pictures, games, puzzles, campcraft, Junior Sabbath school lessons, and interesting Pathfinder activity." 6 Guide has changed its appearance and format many times over the intervening years, but it still appeals to its target audience of 10-14-year-old readers, perhaps because it is still "packed" with many of the same features it advertised back in 1953.
Seventh-day Adventist youth work has grown so much and in so many ways since Luther Warren and Harry Fenner first knelt together in 1879 that the movement we are a part of today would probably have astounded those first pioneers. Let us hope, though, that it would not have disappointed them. The focus of Adventist youth ministry—preparing youth for service in God's work—has remained the same in over a century of growth, and is manifesting itself in new and exciting ways each year.
The General Conference department responsible for youth work changed its name in 1978. The term "Missionary Volunteers" was cherished by generations of Adventists, but it carried unfortunate connotations in some parts of the world. At a time when many countries had won their independence from their former colonial masters, the term "missionary" carried echoes of centuries of colonial domination by Western nations. The more widely acceptable term "Youth Department" replaced the old name. But the focus on service to God and others has not changed. Programs such as the college student missionary program, which began in the 1950s, and the shortterm mission projects for high school and college students that became so popular in the 1980s and 1990s, continue to give young people the experience of serving God outside their own countries. Local youth programs involve young people in service and outreach within their own communities in a variety of ways. The "Missionary Volunteer" spirit marches on.
As youth leaders, we often focus so much on the day-to-day aspects of our ministry— teaching the Sabbath school lessons, planning the weekend retreat, hosting the Saturday-night social—that we lose sight of the "big picture." A glance back at the long and proud history of Seventh-day Adventist youth work helps put our work into perspective. And the most important part of looking back is recognizing that this youth ministry has always been about leading youth to know Jesus, and then training them to share Him with others. We are still training that army of youth Ellen White dreamed about—and they are accomplishing His work. Through the Spirit's power, they will soon finish it.
1. Ellen G. White, Education, p. 271.
2.Nathaniel Krum, The MV Story (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1963), pp. 11, 12.
3. Ibid., p. 12.
4. Ibid., p. 25.
5. "Report of Sabbath School and Young People's Convention," p. 188. Quoted in Krum, p. 39.
6. Ibid., p. 65.