The Review and Herald Fire



It was Tuesday, December 30, 1902, a quiet winter evening in Battle Creek. No snow was on the ground. Most of the three hundred employees of the Review and Herald publishing house had left their machines and editorial offices for the day. A few workers had come in for the night shift. Elder Daniells, the newly elected leader of the General Conference, was still in his office on the second floor of the West Building, just across North Washington Street. A little after six o’clock Elder I. H. Evans, president and general manager of the Review and Herald Publishing Company, and Elder E. R. Palmer had met with him to look over some new tracts in preparation. At seven-twenty Palmer left, and Daniells and Evans were chatting.  

It had been a good year for the Review and Herald—one of the most prosperous. There were bright prospects for a busy 1903, also (RH Supplement, April 28, 1903).  

The Tabernacle bell rang, summoning the faithful to prayer meeting. Then the electric lights went out. Daniells stepped over to the window and saw flames coming from the publishing house.  

A few minutes before, all had been normal in the big building. The night watchman had just made his rounds through the engine room. Then the few employees at work detected the smell of smoke. Immediately the lights throughout the plant went out, leaving everything in total darkness. The dense, oily smoke that filled the building with incredible speed forced everyone to leave hastily; even now some found the stairways cut off and took to the fire escapes. All the workers got out, but one just barely made it,

crawling through smoke-filled rooms to safety. The fire alarm had been turned in at the first detection of the emergency.  

When Elders Daniells and Evans reached the street, the whole pressroom was in flames. A minute or two later fire engines from the city fire department arrived and soon were pouring water onto the blaze. The whole building seemed engulfed. At no place could any fireman enter it. To check the fire was futile. All could see that the flames were beyond control. Nothing could be saved from the editorial offices or library, but Brother Robert of the art department saved a few pieces of furniture and some precious art materials.  

It was now a little past seven-thirty; the firemen directed their efforts toward saving the two-story West Building across the street, and the stores on the east side of the Review plant. Fortunately, the breeze was from the southwest, and the smoke and flames were blown across Main Street into Mc Camly Park. At eight o’clock the roof fell in, and the machinery on the upper floors began to tumble. By eight-thirty the brick-veneer walls were collapsing.    

Although there were a number of employees at work throughout the building, none had seen the fire start; but it was generally agreed that it had begun in the basement in the original engine room, under the dynamo room. The first published report of the fire said:  

The very day on which it occurred the chief of the city fire department, in company with the office electrician, made a tour of inspection throughout the building, examining the wiring for the lights and other possible sources of danger, and pronounced everything in satisfactory condition.—Ibid., January 6, 1903.  

This was done in consideration of the renewal of the insurance on January 1.  

Fire Chief Weeks, who had directed the fighting of a number of big fires in Battle Creek, was later to declare that he had fought every one of the Adventist fires and his score was zero. “‘There is something strange,’” he said, “‘about your SDA fires, with the water poured on acting more like gasoline.’”—P. B. Fairchild to Arthur L. White, December 4, 1965.    

The Review and Herald publishing plant had grown to be one of the largest and best-equipped publishing establishments in the State of Michigan. Now it was just a pile of rubble. Why?   

As some of the board members stood and watched the flames, there must have come to their minds one sentence in a letter from Ellen White, written from California and addressed to the manager of the Review and Herald. It had been read to the board thirteen months earlier: “I have been almost afraid to open the Review, fearing to see that God has cleansed the publishing house by fire.”—Testimonies for the Church 8:91.  

The Word Reaches Ellen White

That Tuesday night, Ellen White at her Elmshaven home had slept but little. In vision she had agonized over conditions in Battle Creek. As she came down for breakfast on Wednesday morning, Sara McEnterfer told her that the Review and Herald publishing plant had burned the night before. C. H. Jones had telephoned the news. It came as no surprise to Ellen White. Only a few days before, with pen in hand, she lost consciousness of her surroundings and again saw a sword of fire over Battle Creek, “turning first in one direction and then in another,” with disaster following disaster (Letter 37, 1903).  

The Sanitarium had burned in February; now the Review was gone. Picking up her pen, she wrote to Edson:  

Oh, I am feeling so sad, because ... the Lord has permitted this, because His people would not hear His warnings and repent, and be converted, that He should heal them. Many have despised the words of warning. Oh, how sad it is. How large the loss is of books and furniture and facilities.... May the Lord have mercy upon us is my prayer.—Letter 214, 1902.    

That day her mind must have retraced a great deal of history. There was the publishing of the Present Truth at Middletown, Connecticut, in the summer of 1849. How they prayed over the little stack of papers before sending them out! Then followed the meeting in 1852 at Saratoga Springs, New York, and the decision to buy a hand press, that the paper might be printed on a press owned by Sabbath-keepers. With type and other equipment it would cost $650. Hiram Edson advanced the money from the sale of his farm and in the following weeks the believers sent in money to repay Edson. This was the first concerted financial effort in which Sabbath-keeping Adventists joined hands to herald the message.  

What memories there were of setting up the press that summer in their big rented house in Rochester, New York—a home that was to serve as family residence, boarding-house, and printing office.  

In 1855, as James White found he must divest himself of the cares of publishing, brethren in Battle Creek, Michigan, provided a publishing house—a brand-new two-story frame building in the west end, at the corner of Washington and Main streets. Two years later a power press was installed in the little publishing house. Now the printing of papers, tracts, and small books became easier. But what days of sacrifice these were. James White’s pay averaged $4.57 a week. James was 36; Uriah Smith, resident editor of the Review, was ten years younger, and the others were in their late teens and 20’s.  

Then there was the new brick building erected in 1861 at the side of the first little plant. It was part of the complex of three three-story buildings linked together that had just burned.    

The “cause” in those days centered largely upon the publishing plant, its staff, and its products. To give the organization that was formed to handle it a name, a term was devised—“Seventh-day Adventists.” When church organization was finally attained, the Review plant was all the office the church leaders had. This was to be so for another forty years.  

As the work had grown, the pocketknife that Uriah Smith used to trim the pamphlets (the Review was not even trimmed) gave way to a paper cutter. The shoe awl and needle and thread were replaced by simple but more efficient binding equipment. Book printing and binding called for more sophisticated equipment and better-trained workmen.  

But there was not enough denominational work to keep the machines and men busy. Printing for other concerns was the answer. Idle equipment would spell disaster—so the Review and Herald became a commercial printer, and a good one too. This was fully justified, but in it were seeds for trouble.  

Dedicated businessmen, some of them recent converts, were brought in by James White to manage the growing interests. This procedure, not without its perils, was continued after his death in 1881.  

How much must have passed through Ellen White’s mind that day after the fire! The Review and Herald publishing plant was a very part of her life. She must have thought of her writing in the library in the old brick building, as she sought a quiet place to work. At the death of her husband it was reported that under his perceptive leadership the institution was among “the first of first-class offices in the State,” and it was declared that  the business principles and the habits of industry and painstaking which were introduced in the infancy of the work, have left their impress upon its management, and have been characteristic of its operations. Therefore its reputation in business circles has always been deservedly high.—Life Sketches of Ellen G. White, 373.

Growing demands had called for additions to the plant, first in 1871 on the west, crowding to Washington Street, doubling its working space; another in 1873, on the east; then the addition of a story in 1878, tying the whole plant together in one four-story building. No doubt Ellen White recalled the warnings given about overbuilding. Why had they not been heeded?



 5BIO 223-227