For every 20 people in Berrien County, at least one belongs to a Seventh-day Adventist church. The global denomination has deep roots in this corner of Southwest Michigan, as it is the second largest in Berrien, behind only the Roman Catholic Church.
More than 10,000 citizens in Berrien County were recorded as members of the Seventh-day Adventists Church in 2010, which constitutes 6 percent of the county’s overall population. Currently, there are 26 churches within 20 miles of St. Joseph and a university affiliated with the denomination. They’re known for their Saturday Sabbath observance and healthy habits.
With that said, why is there such a concentration of Seventh-day Adventists in Berrien County? To know the denomination, church historians said knowing Andrews University, the first of several Adventists universities, and all its iterations, is a necessity.
The Start of a Denomination
The church was founded following the demise of the Millerite movement in the Northeastern United States, said Jerry Moon, former Andrews University professor and Adventist minister. The group claimed the time of Jesus’ second coming would be in 1844, citing verses in the Bible book of Daniel that spoke of a “cleansing of the sanctuary.” When the predicted day came and went, the movement fractured and dissipated—an event known as the “Great Disappointment.”
“You can’t weasel out of that,” Moon said. “There was a lot of ridicule.”
In the confusion that followed, Moon said two views emerged among the splintered groups: one that claimed the date of Jesus’ coming was just a few dates off; the other that claimed the “cleansing of the sanctuary” marked Jesus’ work of judgment, preceding the second coming.
From the second group, a woman named Ellen White had a dream that the date was correct, but the event was wrong. This group began to coalesce around this idea and the determination that the correct Christian Sabbath was Saturday, not Sunday. From these two ideas, Moon said, the denomination got its name: “Seventh-day” for the Saturday Sabbath and “Adventist” for the second coming of Christ.
The climate in New England, post-Great Disappointment, wasn’t favorable to the young denomination; many still had a bad taste in their mouths, Moon said.
Brian Strayer, an Andrews history professor, said in addition to the spiritual burnout, the Midwest had much cheaper real estate at the time. The American tendency was to look West, and Adventists were no exception.
“With the costs of printing and mailing hundreds of Adventist books, newspapers, and pamphlets rising in the northeast, it was cheaper to move to Michigan and establish our own institutions there, especially the Review and Herald Press, Battle Creek College, and Battle Creek Sanitarium (among others),” Strayer wrote in an email. The Adventists looked westward, settling on Michigan.
The First College
Battle Creek was where the church first settled, becoming home to the famous John Harvey Kellogg Sanitarium, said Meredith Jones Gray, English professor at Andrews. The university asked her to write a table-side history book on Andrews, the first since the 1960s.
“I am a product of the community, and I grew up in it in a time period where I knew everybody,” Jones Gray said.
The university did not start in Berrien Springs but rather in Battle Creek, and was named Battle Creek College.
The denomination was young, but its three big institutions, the church leadership, publishing house, and sanitarium, took root in Battle Creek, Jones Gray said. Her grandmother even worked at the sanitarium at a young age. Young people who were staffing the sanitarium and publishing house began asking leadership for education.
The story goes that Goodloe Harper Bell, a teacher who was at the sanitarium as a patient, opened the door one evening to find 14 young men outside his door, eager to be taught.
Jones Gray said this telling makes a good story, but denomination leadership, organized into the Seventh-day Adventist Educational Society, had already begun to lay the groundwork for the new school, wanting their own institution to train pastors and missionaries, free of worldly influence.
The school, the first Seventh-day Adventist college, was founded in 1874, but the official Battle Creek College building wasn’t available until January 1875. The pipes burst, Jones Gray said, delaying the move.
From the very first year, students of color and females attended the university, a rarity in American higher education at that time. Jones Gray said there were still racist incidents at the college, but the admissions policy was very open from the onset, something of which they’re proud.
Leadership had competing visions for what the school should look like: a Christian liberal arts college, a Bible school, or some fusion, with work-study opportunities built into the education.
Not to mention, the school struggled to keep its doors open, alternating between golden eras and financial hardship.
"I am a product of the community, and I grew up in it in a time period where I knew everybody," said Jones Gray.
White was particularly keen on students having opportunities to learn manual skills and farm work—an impossibility on the small property in Battle Creek. White, a member of the educational society, had wanted the society to buy land outside of Battle Creek.
“When the educational society went ahead and bought this piece of property across from the sanitarium, she was supposed to have cried. She wept,” Jones Gray said, adding that Battle Creek had become such an Adventist hub, and the president at the time, Edward A. Sutherland, was feeling claustrophobic.
Sutherland shared White’s vision and disliked feeling like the eyes of the townspeople were glued to him at all times. He began to search for property with more space and fewer prying eyes around the turn of the 20th century.
Moving to Berrien Springs
Meanwhile, the village of Berrien Springs was feeling snubbed. The county seat had left for St. Joseph, and the courthouse square was abandoned, Jones Gray said.
At the time, it was a resort town, where Chicagoans would come to relax by the river. One feature was a summer lecture series, at which Sutherland spoke in 1899. The abandoned courthouse seemed like prime transitional real estate for a new school. He and the dean at the time searched South Haven and Benton Harbor, but Sutherland kept coming back to Berrien Springs. At the General Conference meeting in 1901, White publicly threw her support behind the move.
“‘God wants the school to be taken out of Battle Creek’ is what [Ellen White] said,” Jones Gray indicated. Purchasing the school’s current property from the Garland family that same year, Sutherland packed up the school’s property on “16 box cars to Berrien Springs.” Jones Gray said he started packing prior to the board giving their blessing.
The village was in full support of the move at the time. The Battle Creek Sanitarium was a large moneymaker, with royalty and presidents as patients, and Jones Gray said Berrien Springs officials hoped the Adventists would start another sanitarium here.
The first classes and assemblies were in the former courthouse, jail, and sheriff’s house in October 1901. About 50 students attended the college at the time.
Having moved away from Battle Creek, Jones Gray said the name “Battle Creek College” no longer made sense. It became Emmanuel Missionary College on the same day the board voted to buy the property. In April 1960, EMC changed its name once again, this time to Andrews University, after the first Seventh-day Adventist overseas missionary, John Nevins Andrews.
A Denominational Hub
Jones Gray said there was a minor SDA presence in the county prior to the move, but nothing substantial. “They didn’t choose this site because there was already a robust Adventist congregation. That never comes up in what I’ve read anyhow. Obviously, EMC is the big reason why the Adventist presence is so strong in Berrien County.”
The school became a magnet for Adventist life. “Just as our institutions [in Battle Creek] had drawn thousands of [Seventh-day Adventists] like bees to a hive from 1855 to 1900, so EMC drew thousands of students, teachers, staff, and support personnel to Berrien County from 1901 to 1959 (when it became Andrews University),” Strayer said, adding that, just like in Battle Creek, the denomination began putting roots down. Adventists opened businesses, raised families, and joined civic organizations.
In Jones Gray’s book As We Set Forth, she detailed how the Adventists were at first closely intertwined with the locals while the university was using the former county offices. After they went to their property outside of town, the Adventists and non-Adventists grew more distant from each other.
Strayer said he’s the only church historian who’s looked into how the outside world viewed the religious group. While in Battle Creek, Adventists were called “Gizzardites” because many of them were, and continue to be, vegetarian. With increased interaction with businesses and civic organizations, the two warmed to one another.
Seventh-day Adventists have a long history of creating schools and hospitals. Although a sanitarium never materialized in Berrien Springs, the denomination has several religious day schools for K–12 students in addition to the university. Additionally, Strayer said the university and its students and faculty are a major financial boon to the area, providing tax and business revenue.
The relations haven’t always been friendly, Strayer said in an email. When he first arrived at Andrews, a local veterinarian wanted to establish a horse-betting track. The denomination and its members were opposed on moral grounds, while those not in the denomination wanted the economic boost. Strayer said he went to see the proceedings where they discussed the tracks, which were three hours long.
“Anyway, I’m sure that incident didn’t garner goodwill for SDAs,” Strayer said via email. However, he thinks they, “as a people,” have won back some goodwill. Adventists run a tent every year at the county fair for health and wellness, as well as a youth tent.
Pastor Roy Castelbuono, the pastor of the St. Joseph and Michiana Filipino-American Seventh-day Adventist churches, said he spent most of his childhood in Berrien Springs, attending Adventist schools, hanging out with other Adventists, and going to church on Saturdays. He has fond memories of this childhood but said it was a bubble, something that’s changed in the last 50 years.
“What I didn’t realize as I was growing up was how isolated I was from the larger community,” Castelbuono said.
A lot of this was practical. Adventists observe Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. During this time, they refrain from all commerce and daily tasks. For non-Adventists, most social events take place during this time.
While Roy’s wife was a principal at a Christian (though non-Adventist) high school in Lansing, their son attended the same school. The Castelbuonos greatly enjoyed their time there, Roy said, but even with great religious overlap, a different Sabbath posed challenges. Not being able to play on Fridays and Saturdays meant his son couldn’t join the basketball team or attend some school dances and football games.
The denomination, through schools and churches, created a parallel community. Castelbuono said they have the largest Protestant school system in the country.
For Mary Ross, a 98-year-old woman who has worked in local SDA schools for more than seven decades, these institutions have built a life. “It’s my reason for being,” she said about her faith and the corresponding institutions. She rattled off the names of the many local and national church leaders and intellectuals she had as elementary school students, teaching them to read and properly pronounce their Rs.
Ross said she sees God’s hand in bringing her to Berrien County from the East Coast. Getting her degree from Andrews, she worked off her student debt as a teacher at the connected elementary school and still lives only a stone’s throw away from the university.
"Obviously, [Emmanuel Missionary College] is the big reason why the Adventist presence is so strong in Berrien County," — Jones Gray said as she considered how she’s been blessed.
Castelbuono said he sees the church’s role as engaging the community while being countercultural. He pointed to Seventh-day Adventist Church founders’ opposition to slavery as a witness and heritage. “When you look at the Gospels, Jesus is always getting in trouble, whether it’s who he’s hanging out with or what he’s saying. He’s responding to authority. That’s the challenge: to represent God’s love to the world and, at the same time, to not be deterred by the authorities and the authority structures of the day.”
The advent of Christ’s second coming is central to the Adventist identity, Castelbuono said, as is sharing that news. “The driving force for the Adventist life comes from the expectation of the return of Christ, the second coming.”
A Community Looking Outward
For both Castelbuono and Ross, the denomination has not only been a tight-knit community but also an opportunity to travel widely. Ross went to Northern Ireland and Mexico, sometimes teaching in violent areas. Castelbuono studied and taught in Japan, Austria, and Israel.
Even the church’s presence in Berrien County is diverse—unsurprising for a global denomination. Ghanaian, Korean, Filipino, and Hispanic churches belong to the denomination, and Andrews draws students from all over the world. In the 2018 U.S. News Best Colleges Edition, Andrews was ranked No. 1 for campus ethnic diversity in the country.
Debbie Michel is the director of communications for the Lake Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and a former journalism professor at Andrews. Unlike Ross and Castelbuono, she wasn’t raised an Adventist but converted 17 years ago in New York City.
Working as a producer for NBC, Michel was dating a man who was a Seventh-day Adventist. She attended a Wednesday night prayer service and was baptized the following Saturday.
The diversity of the denomination is something that drew her in. “It reminds me of NYC, with the globe at my doorsteps,” she said.
Michel’s students at Andrews were shocked that she would leave New York City for Berrien Springs—NBC for Andrews University—but she said this has been a great blessing for her. “A person who (was raised) in the church might not fully appreciate what a gift it is.”
This article was first published in The Herald-Palladium on September 25, 2021, and used with permission.
Juliana Knot, Herald Palladium staff writer