The history of the Inter-American Division chronicles the amazing power of divine providence, especially in the areas of literature evangelism, education, and medical endeavors. Without question, the colorful expansion of the IAD was a movement ordained by God as He worked through the lives of men and women of strong conviction and remarkable faith. Such individuals were inspired to venture from the comfort of family to new areas at great sacrifice and, in some instances, risk their lives in the planting of the gospel. Indeed, an exciting and intriguing history! However, for the purpose of this historical perspective, primary focus is given to the role of the literature ministry and its definite impact on the initial development and growth of the Inter-American Division. Additionally, tribute is paid to some of the leaders whom God placed at the helm of the organization from its inception.
The tracing of the Inter-American Division’s beginning may be understood best by looking at the genesis of the Seventh-day Adventist church in general. In doing so, it is difficult to overlook the great disappointment of 1844 that was experienced by a group of Millerites who expected Jesus to return that year. When He did not, this dejected, disappointed group, after further study, would later discover where they went wrong. Then, inspired by Revelation 10:11 (“You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings”), they resolved to proclaim the message of the sanctuary to people everywhere.
Compelled by a desire to share the good news of Jesus and His return, this group sought ways to communicate the truth near and far. God would direct them through inspired counsels from one of their pioneers, Ellen White, who told her husband, “print a little paper and send it out to the people. Let it be small at first; but as the people read, they will send you means with which to print, and it will be a success from the first” (Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, p. 125).
Motivated by this directive, the early believers and leaders carried the Advent message just about everywhere. Indeed, it was as “streams of light that went clear round the world¨ (Ibid.). Who would have imagined such efforts would give rise to the Inter-American Division (IAD) in 1922?
In 1868, James White made a special appeal through the Review and Herald for US$1,000 to sponsor two men, D. T. Bordeau and J. N. Loughborough, to travel to Panama and other parts of Central America. Fifteen years later, in 1883, W. J. Boynton, one of the workers of the International Tract Society, took a bundle of papers down to a ship that was scheduled to sail from New York to British Guiana. He asked the captain whether he would be so kind as to distribute the papers and tracts when he arrived there. With some reluctance, the captain consented. When the ship arrived at the port, he went ashore; and taking the papers and tracts, he scattered them on the wharf, saying as he did so, “I have fulfilled my promise.” As desired by the senders, numerous persons read and shared these tracts, thus sparking an interest in the truth. (Amundsen, The Advent Message in Inter-America, pp. 78, 79)
In 1887, G. G. Rupert, a minister, and George A. King, the first colporteur of the denomination, arrived in Georgetown, British Guiana. During their three months’ stay, King sold about $800 worth of books, and Rupert baptized 30 persons, leaving an organized Sabbath School of 40 persons (Ibid., pp. 80, 81)
Another colporteur, William Arnold, followed and sold more than $8,000 worth of books in British Guiana. It is no wonder the first Seventh-day Adventist church of Inter-America was established in British Guiana in 1887 (see Ibid.)!
Passionate about spreading the message, an attempt in 1882 was made to get tracts and other publications to Cuba. In 1885, Mrs. E. Gauterau, of Honduras, who accepted the truth while in California, returned to her Central American home and distributed tracts and other literature to friends and neighbors. Consequently, the General Conference, in 1887, sent colporteur T. H. Gibbs to Honduras and the Bay Islands. (Ibid., pp. 81, 82)
Other places, such as Panama, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Venezuela, and Colombia, were also targeted (though not in the order as written). In fact, in the 1892–1908 minutes of the Foreign Mission Board, Mexico appeared 270 times, thus underscoring significant outreach activities in the territory. Therefore, in 1922, at the GC Session held in California, it was voted to establish the IAD with two unions, the Eastern Union and the Western Union, and a membership of 7,500. Elder Elmer E. Andross was elected as president; S.E. Kellman, as secretary-treasurer. The administration was encouraged “to foster the interest of the publishing work,” no doubt in adherence to the inspired counsel of Ellen White (see History of IAD by David Trim).
Given the aforementioned, it is without doubt that the genesis of Adventism in Inter-America predated the establishment of its headquarters by some 35 – 40 years. Simply put, there were Seventh-day Adventists present in the territory of Inter-America for more than 100 years.
With the vote of the General Conference to establish the IAD, thought was given to locating the headquarters in New York, though New Orleans was also considered. However, the location of the office in New York would be for a short period as later in the year, the office was relocated to Panama. It operated in Panama until 1942 and then moved to Cuba until 1945. In 1946, the headquarters was relocated to Coconut Grove, FL, and, then, in 1955, to 760 Ponce de Leon Boulevard, in Coral Gables, a highly regarded residential area outside of Miami. In 2001, the division office was relocated to its current site in Kendall, FL.
From its inception to the present, the IAD was blessed with numerous leaders, workers, and laypersons who, guided by the Holy Spirit, provided spiritual, visionary, and dedicated service. It is obvious from the reading of the division’s magazine, The Inter-American Division Messenger, that evangelism was the primary focus. The 1950 edition of this magazine records the following resolution on evangelism: “WHEREAS, The call for concerted action in finishing the work has been sounded, and the needs of this solemn hour constitute a summons to every member of the Church to share his faith by giving God’s last warning message to all men. …Voted,
- That two Sabbaths each year … be set apart for a division-wide visitation campaign
- That each department advances this campaign. . .
- That … supreme emphasis be laid on personal visitation
- That a meeting of each church for the recounting of experiences be conducted following the visitation endeavor etc. (Inter-American Division Messenger, p. 9)
Leaders before and after 1950, such as E. Andross, Grant Roberts (1936–1941), and Glenn Calkins (1941–1947 and 1951–1954) were of a similar mindset. During the short period between the two tenures of Calkins, Earl F. Hackman (1948–1950) served as president before succumbing to an illness. At his funeral service, his wife remarked, “His great love for you, and for the work that so filled his life, weighed heavily upon his heart unto the very end. He fought valiantly for his life, that he might return to your field, but when he saw that it was not in divine providence that he should be healed, he said, like Job of old, ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him’” (Inter-American Division Messenger, March 1951, No. 3, p. 4).
Arthur Roth (1954–1962) followed Calkins, and C.L. Powers (1962–1970) succeeded Roth. Notedly, in 1966, the first native son of Inter-America, Pastor Bender L. Archbold, of Providencia, emerged as executive secretary. After serving for four years, he became president in 1970 and served until 1980. He was assisted by Pastor Jose Figueroa, a native of Puerto Rico, as executive secretary. This paved the way for other IAD native workers to follow in leadership. This transition proved significant in that the membership of the division more than doubled, from 278,599 to 649,969.
The period of 1980–1993 would also be noteworthy as another son from the territory, Pastor George Brown, of the Dominican Republic, was elected as president. His administrative team included all IAD natives such as Figueroa, Ramon Maury (Colombia), and Agustin Galicia (Mexico). Growth in numerous areas occurred, especially in membership, as it reached and exceeded the 1 million mark. Following Brown was the tenure of the longest-serving leader of Inter-America, Pastor Israel Leito, a native of Curacao, who served from 1994–2018. Once again, we see a team of native leaders, including Juan Perla (El Salvador), Filiberto Verduzco (Mexico), and Elie Henry (Haiti). The church membership would reach nearly 4 million; unions increased from 11 to 24; and local fields from 60 to 150. Indeed, it was a period of significant growth and development.
In 2018, Henry, a gifted and highly educated leader who worked at every level of church and was a former university professor, was elected as president. Leonard Johnson, of the Bahamas, became the new executive secretary, and Verduzco continued to serve as treasurer. This administration, from the onset, embraced and launched three strategic focuses: namely, evangelism, education, and service to the community, endeavoring to advance the mission.
Indeed, the story of Inter-America is a colorful and dynamic one. One hundred years later, the focus on mission has not diminished. Leaders and members across the territory remain steadfast in accomplishing the task of spreading the gospel with minds fixed on the return of Christ our Lord. Maranatha!