Something strange was happening in Middle Brighton, Victoria. A “cotton city” of 100 white tents had appeared in a 10-acre field, planted with military precision (except for the stubborn blue gum trees standing their ground). Calling it a “city” was hardly an exaggeration: there was running water, gas for stoves—and even a mail delivery. Seemingly overnight, a bizarre new neighbourhood had been pitched in the midst of the Melbourne suburb of Brighton.
Your new neighbours
The summer of 1893–94 was not an auspicious time for an expensive camp meeting, let alone one organised by a relatively new group of Christians in the colonies: Seventh-day Adventists. Australia was suffering a devastating depression and Australian Adventists then numbered only in the hundreds. Many of those were on loan from America, such as the resident of tent 15—an elderly American by the name of Ellen G White. She saw the Brighton camp meeting as an opportunity for Adventists to introduce themselves to the people of Melbourne and so people from across the continent gathered in force at the corner of Dendy and Roslyn Street.
The spectacle of a camp meeting during a depression ensured that the scoffers, sceptics and curious would alike come to hear Adventist preachers talking from sunrise until well into the evening. One local minister took the bait and tried to turn one meeting into a formal debate. Yet, there were cheaper ways for people to hear an Adventist sermon. The genius of the Brighton camp meeting is how it opened Adventists up for inspection. As a local reporter perceptively put it, “The camp is really a reflection of the home life of the people, and what the public will see there, is the Seventh-day Adventists at home”. Newspapers routinely commented on the cleanliness and order of the camp as they did upon the preaching. It was as if the Adventists of Australia had gathered in one place to say: “Hear what we have to say and see how we live.” The curious Melburnian could stop by any Adventist tent for a chat, not just those trained to speak for the faith. This transparency worked, given how dozens of Adventist obituaries over the next half-century testified of a person first hearing the message in Brighton.
On the outside, the Brighton camp meeting looked like other camp meetings, if a bit tidier. Those who paid close attention would have realised that the preaching and the pageantry were all part of Adventism’s incredible ambition to reform the entire world.
Religious liberty was a particular concern for Adventists, especially as some members had been arrested and fined for working on Sunday. Along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the New South Wales Council of Churches formed to promote Sunday observance in the colony by pushing for a constitutional preamble recognising God as “the ultimate source of all law and authority” in Australia. Embracing Adventist teachings could make life troublesome, even in an ostensibly Christian society.
Two brothers, Albert and Richard Anderson, accepted Saturday as the Sabbath. They closed their music store in North Fitzroy on Saturdays, against the vehement objections from their family, who warned that the business could never survive. The mother of one of the Anderson wives “looked upon her as a disgrace to the family” for accepting the Sabbath, though both the business and the family went on to thrive.
The call for religious liberty was for the home, too. When one wife decided to accept Saturday as the biblical Sabbath, her husband demanded she renounce the Sabbath or move out. Insisting that she ought to obey God, she stunned him by leaving. Their teenage daughter then accepted the Sabbath and she too was given the same choice. Distraught, the husband pleaded with his wife to go see their pastor. She reluctantly agreed and they showed up at the unwitting pastor’s house at 10pm at night. After laying the case out, the husband asked, “Did I do right in treating my wife thus?” The pastor reassured him that he had done the right thing. But the husband shot back with unexpected anger. “No, I did not do right. I abused my wife and was unkind and abusive to my child. I see now how shameful was my course in treating a woman, the mother of my children, in so heartless a manner.” The husband then asked forgiveness from his family and loved and respected his wife more than he had before.
The Adventist plea for religious liberty in Australian society was a plea for space to be Adventist in Australia without being penalised. It was a plea to legislators, the public and families to open their minds about what it means to be a Christian and a citizen.
Christian help bands
The Adventists in Brighton also wanted to help alleviate the suffering caused by the depression. Ellen White encouraged the formation of “Christian help bands” in Australia. Pioneered by John Harvey Kellogg in Chicago, these squads of spiritual and medical care volunteers were tasked with “looking up those in the city who were not able to take care of themselves . . . and helping them in every way to a higher appreciation of life”.1 Kellogg believed that “God’s cause is the cause of all humanity, and God’s work is to help and bless every human being”. Shortly after the Brighton camp meeting, some 60 believers in North Fitzroy joined a help band with each member given charge over a street. They would visit each home, asking, “If there be any sickness or distress in the home?” Food and clothes were quickly donated but two doctors were also ready for a free house call if needed.
Seventh-day Adventists wanted to reform Australia’s practices at Brighton, too. Before the camp meeting was opened to the public, White appealed to Adventist leaders to begin producing healthy foods as Kellogg was doing in America. There was little money and even less experience in manufacturing food but within a few years, the first health food company in Australia was registered: Sanitarium Health Food.
Health reform was hardly a popular subject. One writer called the Adventist health reform in Brighton to be “a manifestly national danger”, given that meat, tobacco and alcohol were significant sectors of the Australian economy. This writer called for a special tax to be levied on vegetarians, non-drinkers and “anti-tobacconists” for failing in their patriotic duty to contribute to the national economy.
Still, Adventists had allies in promoting reform. Though Adventists were at odds with some in the WCTU over Sunday laws, they united in promoting temperance. Responding to a letter from a woman in the temperance movement, White assured her that “all [Adventists] are vegetarians.”2 White clearly understood the phrase “all are vegetarian” to be aspirational, for she still served meat in her home. Yet White finally decided to give up meat for good when a Catholic woman knelt at White’s feet to plead with her that eating meat was animal cruelty. White said, “I felt ashamed and distressed.” Later, she wrote: “The battle was at an end.”
Seventh-day Adventists are fundamentally reformers. If the Adventist message was taken seriously, no aspect of life would be left untouched, from the State to the dinner plate. Knowing how radical their idea of change was, Adventists (temporarily) made their home in Middle Brighton and invited their neighbours to see what it looks like to live the Adventist message. Reform ended up being a two-way street, as White realised she needed to be more consistent in modelling the health message. In the end, dozens—if not hundreds—gave their lives to Jesus and were baptised. In the Brighton camp meeting, the audacity of the Adventist mission of reform for the world was plainly seen and captured by the phrase: “We aim at nothing less than the whole world.”
Matthew J Lucio is a pastor hailing from Peoria, Illinois. He is also a podcaster and founder of the Adventist History Project. To find out more, head to adventisthistorypodcast.org
1. The Sanitarium Medical Mission
2. Letter from EGW to MMJ O’Kavanagh, 8 Jan 1894.