Brian E. Strayer, veteran historian and educator at Andrews University, would famously offer in class a reward of $100 to any student who could find a photograph of Sarah Lindsey (1832–1914), the first woman licensed as a Seventh-day Adventist minister. I was merely a graduate student at the time and sitting in the class to study his pedagogy as much as soak in his knowledge of the past as a master teacher. His provocative lectures made one think, and he wasn’t afraid to highlight the contributions of early Adventist women. Hence, his challenge to help fill this visual lacuna from our Adventist past.
This challenge remained until a recently discovered photograph in the George I. Butler Collection at Loma Linda University depicted “Sister Lindsey.”[i] Butler (1834–1918) was the president of the General Conference from 1871 to 1874 and again from 1880 to 1888. Loma Linda University has a family photograph album that contains mostly albumen prints of early Adventist church leaders and family members. These cabinet photos, largely cartes de visites (a popular photograph exchanged among friends from that era) were cursorily identified, and to this day, many remain unidentified.
By a careful process of elimination, other possible options were considered in consultation with a group of leading Adventist historians. For example, there was a “Sarah Lindsay” (with the surname spelled with an “a”) for whom we do have a picture, so we know it was not her. There were also two younger Lindseys who would have been about half her age or younger, but the picture appears to be of a woman about the age of 60. The photograph, along with others, can be largely dated to the late 1880s or early 1890s.
Additional genealogical research reveals there are no other family members by that name either.[ii] Thus, the clear provenance, since Butler would have known and interacted with the Lindseys as church president at various church meetings, makes for an increasingly strong case that, indeed, this must be a picture of this elusive person! Also, thanks to technology, this historic photograph has been colorized using digital algorithms to provide actual “color” to this historic treasure (enhanced thanks to assistance from Rhonda Dinwiddie).
Who was this pioneer Adventist woman?
Sarah was born on April 14, 1832, to Noah (1812–1894) and Hannah Hallock (1813–1895). Her paternal grandfather had fought in the War of 1812, and her parents had moved to Ulysses, Pennsylvania, where she was born. She came from a staunch Seventh Day Baptist family where she attended Alfred University (1851-52).[iii]
In later years, Sarah traced the beginnings of Adventism in their area to a tour by J. N. Andrews and Hiram Edson around 1851.[iv] By the summer of 1857, R. F. Cottrell would conduct evangelistic meetings in Ulysses, where he baptized four people, possibly including Sarah, for their “deep conviction of the truth.” By December 11, 1857, Sarah sent her first note to the editor of The Review and Herald about her newfound faith: “I feel grateful … that the light of his glorious gospel now illumines this once benighted heart of mine.”[v]
By late 1859, Sarah responded to a challenge to women “lacking in that heart consecration” and therefore reticent to preach. In early 1860, she responded by asking the editor to resolve the biblical admonition regarding whether it was right for women to keep silent in churches yet, in other places, the Bible encourages them to teach the gospel.[vi] Even before marriage, it seems clear that Sarah was eager to serve in terms of ministry.
On July 16, 1861, Sarah married John Lindsey (1821–1881), a widower, who had been a Millerite believer and, in 1846, was baptized by Joseph Bates. He had previously married Esther (1818–1860), who tragically died from tuberculosis. They had an 11-year-old child, Mary Ellen (1849–1880).[vii] Together, John and Esther had lived in Waukon, Iowa (1856), and then subsequently moved to Round Grove, Illinois, and by 1859, they had traveled into Wisconsin and Minnesota.
After his wife’s death, John moved to join the Sabbatarian Adventist congregation in Ulysses, Pennsylvania, where he supported himself as a watchmaker. He, no doubt while there, also met Sarah, who was about a decade his junior and must have been vivacious. While not much is documented about their early lives together, she was active in their local church with increasing influence in the region. They also had a daughter of their own, Katherine, born in 1862.
In 1867, Sarah contracted both diphtheria and typhoid and was “almost ready to drop into the grave.” By 1868, there is some indication that she had begun a more active public ministry where she would spend the next 30 years establishing churches across New York and Pennsylvania. The stunning apostasy of Nathan Fuller in the summer of 1869 contributed to the need for individuals, such as John and Sarah, to work closely together in ministry and provide stability to the Advent cause. Also, Sarah, with her strong Seventh Day Baptist background, went as a representative with her husband as Seventh-day Adventist representatives to the 1870 Seventh Day Baptist General Conference session, showing the confidence the denomination had in their leadership and diplomacy.
The years 1871 and 1872 were especially noteworthy, with a wide range of evangelistic meetings. The two frequently traveled together as a team, although Sarah appears to have been the more visible preacher of the two. On August 9, 1871, she received a ministerial license from the New York and Pennsylvania Conference.[viii] She is recognized as the first woman to receive a ministerial license in Adventist history, although it is important to note that during this formative time, such licenses were not always consistently issued.
On October 5, 1871, during a series of evangelistic meetings at Beaver Dams, New York, Sarah competed for the attention of locals against the Barnum and Bailey Circus that showed up at the county fair, some ten miles away, in Corning. She was reported to have drawn larger crowds![ix] In another instance, John and Sarah held evangelistic meetings at Woodhull, New York, where “several” carefully investigated Adventist beliefs. Despite several challenges, they believed the Holy Spirit was “at work here.” It is notable that in their travels, Sarah at times gave funeral discourses, a role that one might expect for her husband.[x]
Through the 1870s, John and Sarah remained active in ministry. After 1872, the couple made Beaver Dams, New York, their primary base from which they ventured out on small preaching tours. On June 17–18, 1876, they held district meetings in Wellsville, New York. They alternatively received both colporteur and ministerial licenses at various conference sessions. By 1880, Sarah reported from the Wellsville Church as part of the Pennsylvania Sabbath School Association.[xi]
Tragically, on October 11, 1881, John died from “cancer of the liver.” In his obituary, he was praised “as one of the pioneers of our cause” stretching back to the Millerite movement. Despite his death, Sarah remained active in ministry. One newspaper reports that in 1883, she shared a “Temperance lecture from charts” in North Bingham, New York, which was reported to be “very interesting and instructive.” Also, after her husband’s death, Sarah made Wellsville her primary residence and remained there the rest of her life.
On December 29, 1914, Sarah passed to her rest and is buried in the Hallock family plot in an unmarked grave in Ulysses, Pennsylvania. This intrepid pioneer couple worked as a team, and both before and after her husband’s death, she showed a strong interest in evangelism. Sarah was a persuasive and successful advocate in sharing her Adventist faith with others, leading new believers to Christ, raising up churches, and even competing with the circus and conducting temperance lectures as the first licensed female minister in Seventh-day Adventist history.
The photograph of Sarah Lindsey was publicly shared for the first time by George R. Knight on June 19, 2022, during the opening meeting of the CALLED Pastors' Family Convention in Lexington, Kentucky. In a series of biographical sketches under the theme “We Stand on Their Shoulders,” Knight shared how, during a time of apostasy, ignominiously led by Nathan Fuller, Sarah became the “foremost preacher” in New York and western Pennsylvania “that rescued that conference.” “Her husband was a talented preacher,” added Knight, “but she was more talented, and he had enough brains to know it. It takes a real man to let your wife outshine you in public.”
“I am excited to see this photo of Sarah Lindsey finally emerge,” stated Brian E. Strayer, “from the dusty pages of the Butler album! May her thrilling career as our first licensed female minister inspire other women to follow her example.”
[i] https://cdm.llu.edu/digital/collection/sdahpfa/id/325/rec/19 [accessed 6/5/22].
[ii] According to Denis Fortin (via email), who has done extensive research on the Butler family in preparation for a forthcoming biography about G. I. Butler, no relative exists by that name, eliminating another possibility.
[iii] These biographical details are accessible at http://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tools/tree/181911285/invitees/accept?inviteId=dc66c9ad-3830-4a10-9f4f-9381dc621c26 [accessed 4/4/22]
[iv] John & S. A. H. Lindsey, “Pennsylvania,” The Review and Herald, May 9, 1871, p. 166.
[v] “From Sister Hallock,” The Review and Herald, December 31, 1857, p. 63.
[vi] Sarah A. Hallock, “A Query.—Bro. Smith,” The Review and Herald 15, no. 8 (January 12, 1860), p. 64.
[vii] Milton Hook, in his ESDA article, incorrectly assumes John and Esther had two children. This is based on incorrect genealogical information. For a comparison of sources, see https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=59OX&highlight=lindsey[accessed 6/7/22]
[viii] “Tenth Annual Report of the N. Y. and Pa. Conference,” The Review and Herald, September 12, 1871, p. 102.
[ix] http://www.classic.circushistory.org/Routes/PTB1871.htm [accessed 4/4/22]; John & S. A. H. Lindsey, “New York and Pennsylvania,” The Review and Herald, November 7, 1871, p. 166. [https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/RH/RH18711107-V38-21.pdf]
[x] Obituary. The Review and Herald, October 27, 1874, p. 143.
[xi] See The Youth’s Instructor, December 8, 1880, p. 215.