Looking back at our history helps us realize just how far we have come, and how much we have accomplished since our work was first established in this region.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized in 1863, but had virtually no presence in the South until several years after the Civil War. Although the denomination sent its first missionary overseas in 1874, no work was done in Arkansas until 1877 or in Louisiana until about 1880.
Arkansas Seventh-day Adventist History
The Civil War and Reconstruction hampered membership growth in the SDA Church, especially in the South, causing Arkansas not to see SDA evangelical work until 1877, even though the Church sent missionaries overseas as early as 1874. Missionaries (who were sent into an area to perform evangelism or ministries of service) and canvassers (who sold SDA books and magazines door-to-door) in Arkansas often delivered their messages from the back of a horse in circuit-rider fashion. Arkansas at this time, however, presented some particular cultural obstacles to SDA doctrine. Some of the early SDA missionaries to Arkansas often had difficulty overcoming the almost universal use of tobacco by Arkansans. There was also resistance to SDA’s celebration of the Sabbath on Saturday. Elder D. A. Wellman, a lay canvasser, approached the town of Argenta—now North Little Rock—in the spring of 1884, hoping for conversions. Argenta was a train town, so nearly all of the town’s 500 residents were employed by railroads. One of the first three converts to the SDA message in Argenta was quickly fired from his railroad job, as all railroad employees were expected to work on Saturdays.
The first Sabbath-keepers in Arkansas seem to be Zachariah and Rachel Swearingen, who lived near Springdale and began keeping the Sabbath about 1862.
In January 1885, J. G. Wood baptized five new members in Springdale, after which he organized a church of thirty-nine members, ordained an elder, and established the first Seventh-day Adventist church in Arkansas. The members quickly laid the foundation and built their twenty-six-by-forty-foot church, which was only the second church built in Springdale. From May 15 to May 21, 1888, a organizational meeting was held in Springdale for the purpose of establishing a state conference. Delegates from nine of the ten existing churches—Brentwood, Cincinnati, Hindsville, Little Rock, Malvern, Mount Pleasant, Springdale, Star of the West, and Siloam Springs attended.
Membership grew from 273 in 1890 to 509 in 1897, but dropped to 275 members in 1899. On January 4, 1902, the church in Little Rock was reorganized with twelve members, meeting in a room at the Little Rock Sanitarium until the group built a church on Jefferson Street in 1908. The first African-American SDA church was organized in Little Rock on July 12, 1912. Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, was a member of this church before moving to Los Angeles, California, in 1958 to finish high school.
Church records show a steady growth of new churches in Arkansas throughout the twentieth century. SDA churches in cities such as Hope, established in 1976, and Arkadelphia, established in 1981, organized later in the century, while other SDA churches in Arkansas faded away, were disbanded, or merged during the same time period.
In Arkansas, there are two areas where SDA churches are most concentrated. The first is northwest Arkansas, including churches in Gentry, Siloam Springs, Decatur, Fayetteville, Springdale, Bentonville, and Rogers.
Central Arkansas is the second area of concentration. Churches in this area include Little Rock, North Little Rock, Conway, Searcy, Benton, Pine Bluff, Hot Springs, and Bonnerdale.
Gentry is the location of the only SDA boarding academy (Ozark Adventist Academy) in the Arkansas-Louisiana Conference; it serves grades 9–12. However, SDA churches do sponsor additional schools in Arkansas, which are located in De Queen, Bentonville, Bonnerdale, Harrison, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Gentry, Springdale, Texarkana, and Umpire. Schools in Louisiana are located in Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.
Louisiana Seventh-day Adventist History
The first Sabbath-keeper in Louisiana appears to have been Mary Nugent in New Orleans in 1866. New Orleans is also the site of the organization of the first church in the state.
In 1884 the World Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition was held in New Orleans. People came from everywhere to see it. An exhibit of SDA publications was held there, with hopes of spreading the gospel. Interests were followed up by members canvassing and giving Bible studies. The few converts that resulted were baptized and organized into a church by G. K. Owen. By December of 1885 about 45 people had begun to observe the Sabbath in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, an interest was growing in Marthaville, a small city in the west central part of Louisiana. Word of this reached Elder Gibbs, in New Orleans and he immediately went there, and preached for about six weeks. Sixteen adults took a firm stand for the Sabbath. Elder Gibbs did report some problems, however. He said, “Pork is the principal article of diet, and tobacco—oh how the people are bound by this monster—men, women, young ladies, and small children.”
One difficulty in developing the work was the instability of the membership. After joining a small church, people might lose employment or suffer a crop failure, and move elsewhere. Almost everywhere the new Adventist churches, with inexperienced members, and infrequent pastoral visits, faced fierce anti-Adventist propaganda, which resulted in a loss of members.
Other early churches to be established were those in Evergreen, Galvez, Hope Villa, Shreveport and Welsh. Hope Villa built the first SDA church building in the state. The principal factors contributing to church growth were annual camp meetings, literature evangelism, and tent crusades.
The first camp meeting was held in a grove outside the city limits of Alexandria in July 1898. A second camp meeting followed in 1889 at Welsh, Louisiana, and the third in 1900 was at Marthaville. Camp meeting had to be cancelled in 1905, due to an outbreak of yellow fever. We are grateful that this is no longer a problem for us.
The church in Louisiana was listed as a mission field in General Conference District #2 until the fourth camp meeting, held in Crowley in 1901. It was there that the Louisiana Conference was organized and became part of the Southern Union Conference. At that time there were six churches, 178 members, one company, and two ordained ministers. Conference headquarters were in New Orleans.
It is noted that the work of Mrs. Frances Goodwin, a Bible instructor, contributed to a substantial growth in membership. The conference also carried on an active colporteur work.
It is also interesting to observe that women held several leadership positions during the early years of the conference. In 1906, Mrs. King was the conference secretary-treasurer, and Kate Bickham was in charge of the Sabbath School, Youth and Education Departments. And in 1907 Mrs. Saxby became secretary- treasurer and Ruby Roach was SS secretary.
The church promoted Christian education. The first church school was organized in 1899, two years before Louisiana was a conference, in Marthaville, with Mrs. C.F. Dart as teacher. Other early schools were located in DeRidder, Jennings, Hope Villa, Welsh, and New Orleans.
In 1920 a new conference was organized in Jackson, Mississippi by combining the members in Louisiana and Mississippi. At that time there were 1,144 members, 8 ordained ministers, and 12 teachers.
In 1932 the economic depression led to adjustments in administration and territorial changes in several unions across the United States. These were the crisis years of the Great Depression, necessitating major cut-backs. It was at this time that Louisiana was transferred to the Southwestern Union Conference and joined Arkansas. W. H. Heckman was the transition president, presiding over the process of making the two states into one conference. At this time there were 33 churches, with 2,078 members, 9 ordained ministers, and 18 teachers. The conference office was located in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In 1960, during the administration of I.M. Evans, the conference headquarters was moved to Shreveport, a more central location. Membership had grown to almost 4,000, with 49 churches and 9 companies.
Truly, we can see how God has blessed this Conference. As we go forward, we are reminded of the following Ellen G. White quotation:
“We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching, in our past history.”
E.G. White, Life Sketches, p. 196.