It Happened Here

New Bedford was a whaling town back in the days when the great sea mammals furnished most of the illuminating oil, the lubricating oil, and even some of the edible oil that the world knew. Not only whalers but merchantmen sailed from New Bedford to ports in Europe, South America (east and west coasts), China, Australia, and even Japan.

But New Bedford, with its junior sister Fairhaven across the Acushnet River, carries a more intimate interest to us, because here was the home of Joseph Bates, the oldest of the three founders of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

Here, in 1793, came to live the boy Joseph Bates when less than a year old. His father, also named Joseph, made his residence on the “Meadow Farm,” the house still standing.

The elder Joseph Bates was one of fourteen men who, in 1798, banded together to build the Fairhaven Academy, which opened in 1800 and continued into the 1840’s. Joseph Bates, the younger, doubtless attended this academy, which still stands under the care of a historical society. Here, with little doubt, the boy, Joseph, attended school from his eight to his fifteenth years.

But “in my schoolboy days,” he says, “my most ardent desire was to become a sailor.” Accordingly, in 1807, Joseph Bates, in his fifteenth year sailed on his maiden voyage to England. On the way he had a spill into the sea where, on the other side of the ship, swam serene and unknowingly the shark that had followed them for days. And from here, on his second voyage, two years later, he became a prisoner of Danish privateers, tools of Napoleon Bonaparte in his fight against all merchandising with Britain. And through escaping from this capture, he reached England, he was not to see home; for before ever he returned he had spent five years of servitude on King George’s fighting ships and as prisoner of war when America and England were fighting in the War of 1812.
From hence, also, after his return in full manhood, he sailed as second mate, first mate, and finally master of ships, first to Europe, then in successful adventurous voyages to South America, coming at last to be captain and part owner of vessels, whereby he made his modest fortune, twelve thousand dollars, and retired. Converted in solitude aboard his ship, reformed from evil habits of drinking, smoking, swearing, he became a model of health reform and spiritual power for a people and a cause as yet he did not know.

It was 1828 when Joseph Bates, home from a voyage to South America, left the sea, twenty-one years from the time when he first sailed as cabin boy. Six weeks before his return his noble, devoted father had died, in his will bidding his son Joseph to help his mother settle the estate. Within a year his mother died also, leaving him the Meadow Farm, where he dwelt for three years.

Joseph Bates had a faithful and devoted wife, who as a girl was Prudence Nye. Prudence he had known while still a youth; and when in 1818 they were married, it was to walk the road of life together for fifty-two years. For the first ten of these years she was the typical sea captain’s wife, waiting through long voyages in hope, happily in her case never disappointed, of seeing him again. She planted a Bible in his sea chest, and other books of devotion that really brought him to his Saviour. And while he doubted his acceptance, she hailed the evidence of his letters and his diaries as proof of his conversion, and she encouraged him to know that he was accepted of Christ. So when he came to land before his last voyage, he joined her church, the Christian Connection.

Now, when in 1831, he sold his first residence to his brother, Franklin Bates, he joined with three others members of his church to build a Christian meetinghouse on Washington Street, in which he kept an interest until a change of views in 1839 induced him to dispose of it. That church building, on the corner of Washington and Walnut Streets, is now used as a recreation center. In March of 1844 William Miller preached in this church and thirty-three persons left the church to form a Second Advent Company.

We do not know where he was living when on that memorable morning in 1846 he sat down to write his first tract on the Sabbath. Nor also where he was living in the fall of 1847 when he decided to write another Sabbath tract with a single York shilling, the remnant of his fortune, in his pocket, and rose to spend his shilling for four pounds (1.8 kilograms) of flour.

“Joseph,” said his wife, coming in from the kitchen, “I haven’t enough flour to finish my baking.” “That so?” commented her husband. “How much flour do you lack?” “Oh, about four pounds (1.8 kilograms),” she said. “All right.” And shortly he rose and went out, and buying four pounds (1.8 kilograms) of flour, came in and left it on the kitchen table while she was temporarily out. But immediately she was at his door again, I fancy with a suspicion which she hoped he might disprove.

“Joseph, where did this flour come from?”

“I bought it. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Yes, but have you, Captain Joseph Bates, a man who has sailed with cargoes worth thousands of dollars, gone out and bought just four pounds (1.8 kilograms) of flour?”

“Wife, for those four pounds (1.8 kilograms) of flour I spent the last money I have on earth.”

It was true, then! Prudence Bates was a devoted wife. She had approved of her husband’s spending his money in the cause of the coming of Christ, for she held with him in that. But she left finances in his hands; and as their fortunes dwindled, she pressed back the fear and the question of how much he had left. Now she knew. Moreover, she was not with him in this new Sabbath truth, nor would she be for another couple or more years. During that time he used to drive with her to her Christian church on Sunday, go home, and come back to get her after service, for he would not keep the pope’s sabbath; he kept the Lord’s Sabbath. In 1850 she followed him into the third angel’s message with its Sabbath truth, and for twenty years, until her death, she was a devoted and beautiful Sabbathkeeping Christian worker. But now!

Her apron flew to her eyes, as the tears flowed, and with sobbing voice she cried, “what are we going to do?”

Joseph Bates rose to his full height. “I am going to write a book on the Sabbath, and distribute it everywhere, to carry the truth to the people,” he said.

“Yes, but what are we going to live on?”

“Oh, the Lord will provide.”

“Yes! ‘The Lord will provide’! That’s what you always say.” Exit, with sobs and tears.

Well, Joseph Bates couldn’t do anything about it, that he knew. So he turned from his husbandly duties to his apostleship duties, and began to write. Within half an hour he was impressed that he should go to the post office, for a letter with money in it. He went, and found the letter, which contained a ten dollar bill, from a man who said he felt impressed that Elder Bates needed money. With this he purchased ample supplies, sending them ahead to a surprised wife. When he arrived at home, she excitedly demanded to know where they came from.

“Oh,” said, he, “The Lord sent them.”

“What do you mean, ‘The Lord sent them’?”

“Prudy,” said he, “read this letter, and you will know how the Lord provides.”

Prudence Bates read it; and then she went in and had another good cry, but for a different reason.

And the message of the Sabbath went over the land. Today more than six million believers throughout the world are the result. Somewhere in Fairhaven Joseph Bates paid his lone York Shilling as an act of faith that he was the servant of Jehovah-jirah, the Lord who would provide. And he believed not in vain.

— Adapted from A. W. Spalding, Footprints, pp. 40-48.