The History of a Historian

Despite his prolific contributions to Adventist publications, his role as first historian for the church, and his decades as a missionary throughout the world, there has never been a scholarly biography of J.N. Loughborough. Brian Strayer, professor of history, is changing that with his new biography of the early Adventist pioneer (Review and Herald Press, January 2013). The book, part of the Review and Herald’s Adventist Pioneer series, represents the first scholarly history of the first Adventist historian, and the authoritative book written on his life.

John Norton Loughborough was born in 1832 in upstate New York, and as a boy joined the Millerite movement. He encountered the newly formed group of Seventh-day Adventists in the early 1850s, and enthusiastically joined the movement. He quickly became a traveling Adventist preacher and evangelist in the Midwest and California. He traveled to England as the Church’s first sponsored missionary in 1878 and stayed there for five years, starting churches throughout the British Isles. He returned to California and began to consolidate the Church along the West Coast. He wrote the first histories of the Adventist movement, Rise and Progress of the Advent Movement (1892) and The Great Second Advent Movement (1905), as well as hundreds of articles in denominational publications. “His legacy is his writing of the histories, his articles about practical Christianity, and his organizational development. He established new churches, conferences and unions throughout North America, England, Australia and South Africa, as well as other satellite organizations,” says Strayer.

The book began as a request in 2009 from George Knight, general editor of the Adventist Pioneer Series, to write a biography on any one of “half a dozen different pioneers,” says Strayer. “But he tipped the scales a little when he said he’d like a historian to deal with our first Adventist writer of history.” Preliminary research revealed to Strayer that Loughborough had been born only a few miles from Strayer’s hometown, “so that was a little emotional tie,” he says. “I agreed to do Loughborough. This was before I knew the huge amount of material we have at Andrews,” he jokes. “Sixty-some diaries; over three hundred letters—I bit off a bit more than I thought I could chew.” With a manuscript deadline of January 2012, Strayer began his research by reading all available secondary literature on Loughborough. “It wasn’t much—a children’s book gave me the outline of his childhood; I checked every reference to him in the denominational history textbook, and any references in current literature.” Once he had the big picture of Loughborough’s life, Strayer began reading all of Loughborough’s articles—and there are many—in denominational publications from across the country and spanning over 70 years. Then Strayer turned to Loughborough’s unpublished writings: more than 300 letters and 60 diaries, “little pocket-sized things in which he recorded his personal, private life.”

Strayer spent more than two years sifting through articles, diaries and letters to find “the real Loughborough.” While much of Loughborough’s life was lived in the public eye and printed in denominational publications, Strayer was able to discover several previously unknown or obscure facts about Loughborough. To begin with, Loughborough wasn’t his real name: he was born John Loofborough, and changed his name when he married in 1851. “He was Irish, not English as he liked to portray himself,” says Strayer. “The Irish were much hated in America at the time, and it’s probable that his new wife wanted to change the name as quickly as possible.” Loughborough also outlived three wives, which is a known fact but unusual for the time, as most early Adventists only married once and the women tended to outlive the men.

Loughborough’s diaries also reveal more personal sides of him: he wasn’t a good speller, for instance, often writing of going to “Calafornia” and “Great Britian.” Strayer was personally surprised by the fact that Loughborough was only 5’4”. “He often wrote about his height and weight, and was never over 130 pounds. He was tiny, like a leprechaun. Given his importance to our church and its development, we think he must have been almost six feet tall.” The diaries also reveal a close female friend who took care of him in his last years, which he never mentioned to anyone.

A closer look into the diaries showed Strayer that Loughborough kept a lot of things from the public. “He was an eternal optimist,” Strayer says. “He always put a positive spin on things.” This optimism appears in everything from accounts of his travels where he glosses over his seasickness to, unfortunately, his writing of Adventist history. “His history writing is apologetic; always whitewashed and striving to present the best picture.” Loughborough either ignored or passed over some of the largest controversies in early Adventist history, perhaps because he often had friends on both sides.

“Loughborough’s approach to history can be characterized as apologetic and devotional rather than objective and critical,” says Strayer of the historian whose books set the tone for Adventist histories until the 1950s. “Because his intent was to build faith in God’s leading in the prophetic history of the SDA Church, he omitted much of the conflict and controversy that Adventist historians since the 1970s have been bringing to light. While Loughborough’s two historical works make interesting reading today, they more accurately reflect the mindset of the nineteenth-century pioneers (many of whom wrote historical sketches, autobiographies, and biographies in the same vein) than they portray the past ‘warts and all.’”

Strayer, who earned a doctorate in 17th and 18th-century French history, says Adventist history is “more of an avocation” for him. He has published a number of books and articles on religious conflicts in 17th and 18th century France, but finds “there are fewer scholars in the field [of Adventist history] and you can discover new things more frequently.” He is already in the middle of his next project, a biography of Andrews alumna Blythe Owen, one of the first women in the United States to earn a PhD in music composition, which he is co-writing with Linda Mack, music librarian.

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