Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years: 1900-1905 (vol. 5)


Chapter 11—The Battle Creek Sanitarium Fire

Had the word that came over the telegraph wires and reached Elmshaven Tuesday morning, February 18, 1902, carried the word that the Review and Herald Publishing House had been destroyed by fire, Ellen White would not have been surprised. Five months earlier she had written to its managers a message that was read to the board: 5BIO 148.1

I have been almost afraid to open the Review, fearing to see that God has cleansed the publishing house by fire.—Letter 138, 1901; Testimonies for the Church 8:91). 5BIO 148.2

But the message that came that rainy morning was that the two main Sanitarium buildings in Battle Creek had just burned to the ground. The first report of the disaster W. C. White refused to believe. But the second report bore evidence of authenticity, and in a letter he explained his feelings: “I join with all our people in mourning at this great loss to us as a people, and to the world” (18 WCW, p. 425). 5BIO 148.3

Ellen White reached for her pen and somewhat in agony noted: 5BIO 148.4

I would at this time speak words of wisdom, but what can I say? We are afflicted with those whose life interests are bound up in this institution. Let us pray that this calamity shall work together for good to those who must feel it very deeply. We can indeed weep with those who weep.—Manuscript 76, 1903.

She was one who could weep. It was the message given to her by God on Christmas Day thirty-six years earlier that led to the establishment of this institution in Battle Creek in August, 1866. 5BIO 148.5

After signing her name to the pledge list to help get the institution started, she wrote $500. Down through the years she had been very close to the Sanitarium and those who worked there. She was a member of the constituency. Why was it, she was led to ask, that this institution, which had been such a great means for good, should suffer such loss? And as her pen traced the words, page after page, she wrote: 5BIO 149.1

I am instructed to say, Let no one attempt to give a reason for the burning of the institution that we have so highly appreciated. Let no one attempt to say why this calamity was permitted to come. Let everyone examine his own course of action. Let everyone ask himself whether he is meeting the standard that God has placed before him.... Let no one try to explain this mysterious providence. Let us thank God that there was not a great loss of life. In this we see God's merciful hand.— Ibid. 5BIO 149.2

What she wrote on the day of the fire and the few days following showed that she would encourage attitudes that would not impede a work that had proved to be such an effective part of the work of the church. Anxiously the staff at Elmshaven waited for word presenting in detail just what had happened. This in some larger features came in the West Coast newspapers and then in more detail in letters and in the next issue of the Review and Herald: 5BIO 149.3

It was a winter night, with snow quite deep on the ground. The Sanitarium had been ever gaining in popularity, and its main buildings were filled to capacity. Its guest list carried names of business and government leaders. Only a skeleton staff was on duty at four o'clock that Tuesday morning when the fire broke out in the basement of the main Sanitarium building, just beneath the treatment rooms. The two main alarms in the building were set off as well as the nearest city fire-alarm box. Equipment from Battle Creek and nearby cities hurried to fight the blaze. But spreading through the ventilating and elevator shafts, the flames soon enveloped the building, making it clear that it could not be saved. 5BIO 149.4

The nurses and other staff members swung into their practiced fire-evacuation plan, taking first the fifty patients who were unable to get out of their beds, then assisting women and children to safety. Ambulatory patients made good use of fire escapes. With the special blessing of God every patient was cleared from the building. This was made certain as physicians and nurses, wet towels about their heads, felt their way through the dense smoke to recheck the rooms and corridors. As the insurance inspector looked over the situation a few days after the fire, he declared: “Nothing but divine power could have assisted those nurses and doctors to do as they did in getting the people out.”—DF 45a, S. H. Lane to AGD, February 28, 1902. 5BIO 149.5

But one man did lose his life. It was “old man Case,” an eccentric patient in his late 80s, who, not trusting the banks, always carried his treasure with him in a satchel—“all the way from one to five thousand dollars” (Ibid.). He, his wife, and daughter were led to a place of safety, and then unnoticed, he must have gone back into the building to retrieve his satchel with its treasure. He never came out. 5BIO 150.1

The fire from the main Sanitarium building soon spread across the street to the hospital, a five-story structure. Situated as it was on a hill, water pressure was insufficient to protect it. So it burned too. 5BIO 150.2

By seven o'clock that Tuesday morning it was all over. The principal Sanitarium structures were gone. The patients, some four hundred in all, had been moved to “the several large buildings which “were rapidly adapted to the purpose, and the cottages which were not included in the disaster” (The Missionary Magazine, April 1902, p. 181). Immediately the staff swung into action to provide for the continued care of the patients. The treatment schedule, modified somewhat, continued that day. 5BIO 150.3

Dr. Kellogg was on the train returning from the West Coast to Battle Creek at the time of the fire; he learned of it when he arrived in Chicago on Tuesday evening. As he continued his journey to Battle Creek he called for a table and utilized the two hours in drawing plans for a new Sanitarium building. 5BIO 150.4

The moving of Battle Creek College to Berrien Springs four months previous to the fire had left buildings vacant that were available to the Sanitarium. The two dormitories, West Hall and South Hall, were soon filled with Sanitarium patients. The old Battle Creek College classroom and administration building furnished space for the business offices. East Hall, the Sanitarium-owned dormitory occupied by nurses, was able to accommodate 150 of the patients. The nurses moved elsewhere. Extensive bath and treatment rooms were quickly fitted up in the basements of two of these buildings. So within a few days’ time the Sanitarium program was moving forward quite normally. 5BIO 150.5

The citizens of Battle Creek asked for the privilege of holding a mass meeting in the Tabernacle on the evening of Wednesday, February 19. It was led by the clergymen of the city. The Tabernacle was packed; eulogies were spoken, and pledges given of moral and financial support. 5BIO 151.1

As Ellen White pondered the first sketchy news of the fire, while the embers were still warm in Battle Creek, she wrote: 5BIO 151.2

Our heavenly Father does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. He has His purpose in the whirlwind and the storm, in the fire and in the flood. The Lord permits calamities to come to His people to save them from greater dangers.—Manuscript 76, 1903. 5BIO 151.3

Five days after the fire, with some of the reports before her, she picked up her pen and wrote to the Druillards: 5BIO 151.4

I feel very much troubled about the burning of the Sanitarium. This is indeed a sad calamity. I fear there are among our people those who will put their own construction on this accident, and will act the part of Job's comforters, searching for something to condemn in Dr. Kellogg.—Letter 29, 1902. 5BIO 151.5

As the days passed and Ellen White had an opportunity to recount both experiences through which she had passed and the visions that had opened up to her the dangers of Dr. Kellogg and those associated with him, she began to write more specifically, emphasizing two points: one, the desirability of smaller sanitariums, and two, the temptation of Dr. Kellogg to build up a very great work that would glorify him with a fruitage for which a sanitarium is established, but in reverse proportion to the sanitarium's size. 5BIO 151.6

Ellen White no doubt at the time recalled this, for she wrote later of a conversation with Kellogg in which he declared: 5BIO 151.7

In many respects it would be an advantage if the Sanitarium were in some place out of and away from Battle Creek. “The climate here,” he said, “is unhealthful for very many. 5BIO 151.8

“If these Sanitarium buildings were not in existence, I know what I would do. I would find a better climate, and establish the institution there. I would have fewer buildings and more land. I would arrange for the sick to live out of doors much of the time, where they would be surrounded by the beauties of nature.”—Letter 110, 1902. 5BIO 152.1

Apparently Dr. Kellogg quickly abandoned any thought of moving to a new location, for in his initial statement concerning the fire, published in the Review and Herald just one week after the destruction of the institution, he envisioned in Battle Creek a fireproof building, a better building, an edifice “standing as a temple of truth, the headquarters for a worldwide movement, represented by hundreds of physicians and nurses, and many thousands of interested friends in all parts of the world” (The Review and Herald, February 25, 1902). 5BIO 152.2

The concept of establishing a great temple of truth in which he would preside dominated his thinking and buttressed his statements, oral and published. In his remarks on Sabbath morning in the Tabernacle, in a special service dedicated to the experience of the fire, he spoke again of a building of a “temple of truth.” Elder W. W. Prescott gave the main address. Then Dr. Kellogg spoke, expressing his confidence that God was in it all “because this is God's work, and not man's work. And if God built the house, and permitted the house to burn, it is for some good purpose.”—Ibid., March 4, 1902. 5BIO 152.3

There was one feature of this talk by Dr. Kellogg that must have encouraged Ellen White as she read it, for he spoke of “a smaller house.” “We must have another house,” he declared, “a better house; not necessarily a larger house, it may be a smaller house, but we must have a better house.”— Ibid. 5BIO 152.4