“God’s Beautiful Farm”
It was not at all the place E.A. Sutherland had envisioned for starting a self-sustaining school. He had been on the Morning Star with Ellen White, her sons and some friends. When they needed to dock on the banks of the Cumberland River for repairs, they found a farm for sale just minutes from shore. “Not this piece of land! Not this piece of land!” Sutherland kept saying. “Certainly not this run-down, rocky farm.”

But “there are no limits to those who don’t take themselves too seriously, let the Holy Spirit work in their lives and lead a life consecrated to God.” friends Edward Sutherland and Percy Magan take to heart. And so they finally bought Madison Farm, which had once served as a trading post for a slave trader’s “goods.” The year was 1904. Edward and Percy met in 1888 as students at Battle Creek College. They had quickly become friends – almost like David and Jonathan. During their college days, they had been in and out of the White family. Percy even lived there for a while. Both witnessed Sister White receive the message of righteousness by faith in late fall, which she described as the true message of the third angel. In the home of Ellen White, Sutherland and Magan studied the deep truths of the three angels’ messages, the investigative judgment, sanctuary doctrine, and atonement, all under the glorious light of the 1888 message. Through close contact with Ellen White, they both learned the wonderful gift know that God had given to the remnant church through this humble woman. After graduating from Battle Creek College, E. Sutherland and his wife, Sally, taught together, first in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and then at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. After just one year, he received a call back to Battle Creek College, where he met his friend Percy again, who had been teaching Old Testament history in Battle Creek for the last few years. Now they had another opportunity to exchange experiences and ideas. Together they made the decision to implement Ellen White’s latest findings in health matters. They cautiously introduced a vegetarian diet at Battle Creek College. When Edward Sutherland and Percy Magan began their studies at Battle Creek College in 1886, there were only two other Adventist schools: Healdsburg College in California and South Lancaster Academy in Massachusetts.

A special message arrived from Ellen White, who was now in Australia. Their cause was the establishment of a school for the Northwest of the U.S.A. The General Conference of 1891 supported this cause. Walla Walla College in Washington State was born. And young Sutherland was appointed head of the college which was to be newly established. He now designed the Walla Walla College according to the new educational principles of the Australian Avondale School. In a short time the institution had over 100 students. But he wasn’t satisfied yet. What worried him most was that the farmland belonging to the college had been sold. But this deficit should soon be compensated. With the harbingers of an economic crisis, some of those farmers who bought the land from the school were unable to meet their obligations to the banks. In this way, the college was able to buy back a large part of the land. Now Sutherland could finally start farming. On the one hand, it was supposed to provide the college with fresh fruit and vegetables, on the other hand, the students could earn part of their tuition here. After successfully establishing Walla Walla College, Sutherland was called to President Battle Creek College in 1887. In the years that followed, Battle Creek established over 150 satellite schools across the United States. After further important experiences, Sutherland and Magan were finally ready in 1904 to take the step towards financial independence. In the last few years in Battle Creek, the friends had repeatedly seen themselves confronted with the results of earlier wrong decisions. Contrary to all of Ellen White’s recommendations, Battle Creek had no significant agricultural area either. Gifted students had to be turned away if they could not afford the tuition fees, because here they could not earn their tuition on the side.

Now, in June 1904, when they inspected Madison Farm, Sister White gave Percy Magan a clear basis for decision: “I am convinced that God wants you, Ed Sutherland, to have this farm. It’s exactly the kind of farm that was shown to me in a vision […]” And then, with a warm smile, she named this farm “God’s beautiful farm”. Sutherland and Magan acquired this farm near Nashville, Tennessee, with funds they raised themselves. The school—it was not until 1930 that the Madison School was renamed Madison College—was established with the clear intention of being self-sustaining. Amazingly – and this was the only time she ever did so – Ellen White agreed to serve on the school’s board of directors. Now it was time to gradually build up the school: classrooms, dormitories, kitchen, etc. The concept of being self-supporting applied to all areas of the school. No school fees were charged. Instead, the students could earn their school fees themselves by working on the farm, in the dairy, in the garden, in the kitchen or in the sanatorium that was added later.

Sutherland defined four principles of self-sustaining Madison College:

  1. Self-sacrifice: “If we are to build up men like Paul, we must teach them how to be self-supporting while they study.” Strict and persistent economic planning: All the buildings of the school were solidly built, but without unnecessary luxury.
  2. Strict and persistent economic planning: All the buildings of the school were solidly built, but without unnecessary luxury.
  3. Single Major Study Plan: All students studied only one major at a time. So three hours were planned in this main subject in the morning and three hours for follow-up. The rest of the day the students could work productively in the different areas of the school. Every graduate left the school with a theoretical-academic and a practical training.
  4. Self-government: Both the teachers and the students were represented in the decision-making bodies. The college – even becoming a senior college in 1933 – grew and grew and grew. Madison College students swarmed the world, spreading the concept of the self-sustaining institution. Visitors from all over the world came to visit the college. Among them was Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the then US President. But also well-known newspapers and magazines – among them the Readers Digest – published enthusiastic articles. Then, at its 1946 session, the General Conference decided to establish the North American Commission on Self-Sustaining Institutions. dr Sutherland was appointed the first president of this new commission. Finally, in the spring of 1947, the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Self-supporting Institutions (ASI) was formed in Cincinnati, Ohio. At a later date the organization was renamed Adventist laymen’s Services and Industries.

ASI is a worldwide organization of Adventist self-sustaining institutions, corporations, and business people today. Members are Seventh-day Adventist women and men who support the preaching of the gospel and especially the Advent message with their businesses, practices, law firms, institutions and programs.

[Reading tip: GISH, Ira / CHRISTMAN, Harry (1989): Madison, God’s Beautiful Farm. Nampa, Idaho, U.S.A.]