The Morning Star Boat
Seventh-day Adventists are message oriented and mission driven. Rooted in the Great Second Advent Movement of the nineteenth century, their folk hero, William Miller, was a New England farmer who was first a Deist, then a Baptist lay preacher, and ultimately the leader of the great American religious awakening. Seventh-day Adventists were a coming together out of many denominations. They refused to be labeled, to be put in a box. They had something to share. One major text of Scripture was their magnificent obsession; it gave them focus and vision:
“And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters” (Revelation 14:6,7).
They were a feisty, multicultural group who felt urged to get the message out in the face of ridicule and opposition. When their efforts seemed to flag, one of their number, a young woman whom they soon came to regard as a prophet although she never made that claim, urged the group to stay on mission and message.
During the Reconstruction, the time after the Civil War when the federal government undertook the rebuilding of the South, Ellen White urged church leaders to go to work in that troubled area. “There is a great work to be done in the Southern field. This is one of the barren places of the earth to be worked” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 19, p. 247).
After years of further urging and chiding by pen and voice, even from faraway Australia, her own son, Edson, heard the call. Ellen White gave her son counsel as he shared his vision of building a missionary boat: “I see no reason why a boat should not be utilized in bringing to those in darkness the light of Him who is ‘the bright and morning Star” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, p. 270).
Edson and his good friend, Will Palmer, supervised the building of the boat in Allegan, Michigan, on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. They hired a crew and sailed to Douglass, a port on the east side of Lake Michigan. They then set out for Chicago, assisted by a fruit steamer, the Bon Ami. It was a night’s journey, and they ran into a severe storm. They struggled for 14 hours, but were spared. The captain of the boat that assisted them said it was more than human power that brought them through. The rest of the journey south was less perilous. But these young missionaries did not know very much about the dangers that awaited.
Ellen White, though insisting that it was the Lord’s will that they go, at the same time warned them of the difficulties they would have to face in the Deep South. They would be looked on as Yankees, carpetbaggers, and troublemakers. The local people did not want an invasion of do-gooders teaching Black people to read and write and thus making them more difficult to control. Also the Black clergy would become upset when the former slaves were taught that Saturday was the Sabbath. The establishment of churches and meetinghouses threatened their power and influence. These White people from Michigan were bold enough to have Blacks as crew eating and sleeping on the same boat.
Finally, they docked at Vicksburg, Mississippi, a town still bitter about General Grant’s merciless siege of their proud city during the war.
My interest in this is quite personal: my mother was a girl of about 14 at the time. Her family—mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins—came to see this strange sight—a boat that was a church, schoolhouse, occasional clinic, and dormitory. The ship’s deck was 105 feet long and 24 feet across. There was a boiler room and printing presses, two staterooms, and a dining room. The boat had two paddle wheels. The people flocked to see it. The presses were kept busy publishing tracts and schoolbooks. Some of the people became firm believers in the message of hope and salvation they heard and saw on the boat.
Of course, there were bumps in the road. At times the Morning Star people were forced to change their venue, once just to escape a dynamite threat. They did move to Yazoo City. I know there were converts there, because my aunt Lucy Kincaid and her daughter, Henrietta, were among them.
We cannot ignore the Oakwood School connection. Several of the first 16 students were Morning Star converts. Education was a priority. Edson White encouraged the young people to enroll at the Oakwood School. In fact, the Morning Star team started church schools in the Mississippi delta and throughout the South, and until this day, Oakwood College has supplied teachers for these schools.
A letter from Ellen White to her son is extremely insightful—even prophetic:
“Dear Son Edson: In answer to your question as to whether it would be well to fit up your steamer Morning Star, to be used for the conveyance of missionary workers to places that otherwise they could not reach, I will say that I have been shown how, when you first went to the Southern field, you used this boat as your home, and as a place on which to receive those interested in the truth. The novelty of the idea excited curiosity, and many came to see and hear. I know that, through the agency of this boat, places have been reached where till then the light of truth had never shone—places represented to me as ‘the hedges’” Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, p. 269).
Morning Star has been instrumental in sowing the seeds of truth in many hearts, and there are those who have first seen the light of truth while on this boat. On it angel feet have trodden” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, p. 269).
The Morning Star Legacy
Very recently I attended a celebration of 110 years of continuous church school operation at the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which was founded by sons and daughters of slaves. What I found interesting is about nine people, representing five generations, were present for the celebration. They came from all parts of the United States. Their ancestors were Morning Star children. This family for more than a century has sent its sons and daughters to educational institutions that are indebted to the Morning Star for their very existence!
There is yet another reason for my personal connection with the Morning Star. Here it is: If a hand sketch of the Morning Star published in the Gospel Herald is to be trusted, the boat’s emblem, a large metal star, was suspended between the smokestacks at the bow. The star is now a cherished possession of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama.
As an upperclassman at Oakwood College, I had the privilege with a few other ministerial students of making a little former schoolhouse our home. That big metal star hung over the front door of this mini dorm.
We cannot truly teach denominational history without giving recognition to Edson White’s boat and the rivers of blessings that ripple out from Vicksburg and Yazoo City and places unnamed. One of these ripples carried my mother, Etta Littlejohn Bradford, from Vicksburg to the Oakwood School—she was one of the first 16 students to enroll—on up to the Boston, Massachusetts, area where she received her nurses training at Melrose Sanitarium. It was here that she attended Ellen White as a student nurse, and had the rare privilege of observing Dr. J. H. Kellogg in surgery. Mother carried out the Morning Star tradition as she accompanied her preacher husband, Robert L. Bradford, in ministry in many places in the United States, always “bringing to those in darkness the light of Him who is ‘the bright and morning Star” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, p. 270). Etta also started the nurses training course at Oakwood College.
The story is gripping, it is the stuff that legend is made of, but more than that it is a part of salvation history, a part of that noble effort by scores of young northern Christians of many denominations to bring hope and meaning to a people disfranchised and marginalized by the system. Please do not despise or overlook the day of small beginnings!
CHARLES E. BRADFORD, president retired, Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America; founder, Sabbath in Africa Study Group. He writes and fills speaking appointments from his home in Spring Hill, Florida.
*Texts credited to Clear Word are from The Clear Word, copyright©1994, 2000, 2003, 2004 by Review and Herald Publishing Association. All rights reserved.