J. N. Loughborough: The Great Preacher of Adventist History

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J. N. Loughborough: The Great Preacher of Adventist History

The Last Pioneer Standing

J. N. Loughborough lived to be 92 years old before his death in 1924, making him the oldest pioneer who had preached the Adventist message since the 1850s. He lived to see Joseph Bates, James White, J. N. Andrews, Uriah Smith, and Ellen White all pass away.

Although it must have been immensely saddening to watch all his old friends who preached the soon coming of Jesus go to their graves, Loughborough’s longevity gave him a historical advantage. Out of his mouth and pen flowed a never-ending stream of stories about the history of the Seventh-day Adventist movement.

John Loughborough wore many hats throughout his life. He was a traveling preacher in the 1850s and 60s, a conference president in California, a missionary to England, and the writer of two instrumental history books about Adventists. In his personal life, he endured the death of three wives and five children. Through it all, he held on to his faith and grew closer and closer to Jesus. His is a life worth studying.

The Teenage Preacher

J. N. Loughborough started his preaching career at the young age of 16. He had believed in the Millerite message that Jesus was coming in 1844 when he was 12, but after the disappointment, he became disinterested in religion. After going through a spiritual revival a few years later, and then contracting malaria, he vowed to the Lord that he would become a preacher if God would heal him from this disease.

His prayer was answered, and he soon set out on a speaking tour financed by friends and family. Brian Strayer’s biography of Loughborough shows how industrious the young preacher was in those early years: “Filling the roles of preacher, marketer, and booking agent, the teenager posted announcements for his lectures, secured lodgings for himself, arranged the benches or chairs in the meeting place, built the fires to warm the hall, and led the singing.”[1]

Although Loughborough was not yet a Sabbath keeper, he believed in the Advent message that Jesus was still coming soon, and had similar beliefs to Sabbatarian Adventists. He learned that many pastors didn’t know much about the Bible when they sought to debate him on topics such as the state of the dead and hellfire. One minister attempted to use a verse from Revelation chapter 25 to prove to John that wicked people would burn for eternity. The young preacher had to point out to the older pastor that there were only 22 chapters in Revelation, which sent the older man hurrying out of the building to the laughter of the watching crowd.[2]

After spending a few years preaching on and off, and getting married for the first time at the age of 20, Loughborough started to question some first-day Adventist beliefs. He especially wanted to understand why it was taught that the law had been done away with, and became dissatisfied with the explanation of what happened in 1844. God would soon answer these questions in a way that changed John’s life forever.

Conversion to Sabbatarian Adventism

After J. N. Loughborough had a dream about a tall, thin man wearing spectacles preaching about things John was interested in, he attended a meeting where Sabbath-keeping Adventists were scheduled to speak. He was ready to make sure that the congregation wasn’t fooled into believing that the law was still binding. To his surprise, the man in his dream, J. N. Andrews, got up and began speaking about why the law had not been done away with at the cross.

Andrews ended up explaining every text of scripture that Loughborough was ready to use against him. By the end of the discourse, John was ready to keep the Sabbath. He and his wife, Mary, studied more in the following days with Andrews. After these studies, Loughborough was not only ready to join the Sabbath-keepers in church but felt convicted to use his preaching talents to spread this new message.

The only thing holding Loughborough back was a lack of income. In his years as a young preacher, he had lived off of donations that oftentimes were not enough, forcing him to work odd jobs to make ends meet. Now that he was married, John had found a job selling locks that earned him a good living. His wife was unhappy with the thought of him becoming a preacher full time again, giving up the comfortable life they had established.

A divinely inspired message would give J. N. Loughborough the courage he needed to follow his convictions, though. “Ellen White warned John that God had shown her in vision that he was ‘holding back from his duty to preach the message, waiting to secure means for his support.’ She assured him that if he would ‘decide to obey the Lord and go out to preach the message, the Lord will open the way for your support.’”[3]

The supernatural experiences he had already witnessed from Ellen White convinced him of her prophetic gift, and he heeded the call to step out in faith to preach the end-time message.

From Tough Times to Systematic Benevolence

Even with supernatural evidence that God would provide for him and his family, it was still tough for Loughborough to stick with preaching after years of struggling financially. In 1856 John, J. N. Andrews, and a few other Adventist families had moved west to Iowa in the hopes of earning an easier living.

Ellen White was shown that this was perilous for these talented but worn-out, young ministers. She, her husband, and two others went through three snowstorms, and “navigated their sleigh across the partially frozen Mississippi River as hundreds watched in astonishment—all because of a vision that Ellen White had had directing her to share a special message with the six families.”[4]

Ellen greeted J. N. Loughborough with the question, “What doest thou here Elijah?”[5] She felt as though he was running away from his duty, just as Elijah the prophet had run away from Jezebel. After a weekend meeting with the Whites, Loughborough immediately returned to the east with them to continue his evangelistic work.

Life for preachers like Loughborough and Andrews was far from easy. They often had to do tiring manual labor during the week to support their preaching on the weekends. And the labor normally didn’t pay more than a dollar a day. They were barely able to support their families with what they earned, let alone take proper care of their health.

It wasn’t until 1859 that a plan called Systematic Benevolence was put in place, which called believers to give a certain portion of their incomes, based on how much they earned, to support the gospel ministry. At this time Adventists believed that tithing had been done away with along with the ceremonial law, so James White devised something different to meet the needs of the group. It wasn’t until 1873 that tithing became the norm of the church.

J. N. Loughborough played a huge role in getting Sabbath-keepers to accept this plan. His testimony as a traveling preacher carried heavy weight in decisions like this. Adventists were sorely in need of church organization, and Systematic Benevolence was a gigantic step in the right direction. John would continue to be a huge help to James White in getting the movement to adopt gospel order.

Missionary to California

It became evident that the Seventh-day Adventist church needed to have a presence in California after gold rush fever caused many to migrate to the west coast. J. N. Loughborough felt the conviction to take his preaching talents to the golden state, and in 1868 the General Conference agreed to send him.

It is interesting to note that back then “some Adventists… believed that their trip to California proved that ‘the end [of the world] was about due, because the farthest limits of territory were then being reached.’”[6] Their worldwide mission was not even then fully understood by many church leaders.

The first place that John and his partner, Daniel Bourdeau, chose to conduct evangelism was Petaluma. There they encountered an outbreak of smallpox that put the whole town under quarantine. This helped the evangelists, instead of hindering them. They were able to use the health information that Adventists had begun to implement in the 1860s to help people through the epidemic.

Although others fled the town to avoid smallpox, Loughborough and others “remained behind, carrying water, nursing the sick, giving vaccinations, and cooking nourishing food.”[7] Once the evangelists were able to resume their meetings, their tent was packed, due largely to their practical service to the people.

By 1870 the California evangelists had gained enough converts to form the California Conference. J. N. Loughborough became president of the Conference in 1871, and helped it grow significantly in the seven years he served as its leading member.

Missionary to England

In 1878 Loughborough set sail to England with his now third wife, Annie Driscoll. His first wife died at the age of 35 giving birth, and the second died in 1875, also at 35, from tuberculosis.

John had helped lead the Pacific Press, the publishing house set up in California, during his presidency there. One of his main goals in England would be to set up a self-sustaining publishing house there as well. “Establishing a printing press in England would make it cheaper to distribute Adventist literature across Europe… Moreover, having an English publishing address would open doors for Adventist materials in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Pacific Islands.”[8]

Loughborough and others found it much more difficult to conduct evangelism by simply setting up tents and preaching in England. The English distrusted American Protestants and were not as open to new things as the people of America. The wet weather of England also damaged some tents beyond repair.

The English seemed more open to professionally published reading. “Readers all over the British Isles requested so many copies of the Review, Signs, and Good Health that the… team could not keep up with the demand.”[9] S. N. Haskell, reporting to the General Conference after visiting the European missionaries, said, “It is evident that more can be accomplished… by publications than by the living preacher.”[10]

Although J. N. Loughborough only had a few years to work in England, the start made was a good one. One hundred newly baptized Adventists were added to the church from the labors of him and his team. If that seems like a low number, we should remember that things moved slower in England than in America.

When some expressed doubts as to Loughborough’s work in England, Ellen White had this to say: “I think even in England a good work has been done… Here is a good beginning made. Publications have been and still are doing a great work. Let not one grain of unbelief be sown.”[11]

The Adventist Historian

At the beginning of the 1890s, Ellen White and church leaders commissioned J. N. Loughborough to “go here and there, and everywhere, telling what he has seen, and known and handled in the rise of the third angel’s message.”[12] He would spend the rest of his life primarily traveling around America and the rest of the world speaking in churches, at camp meetings, and in schools, strengthening the faith of Adventists in their heritage.

In 1892 he and his wife finished the first major Adventist history book, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-Day Adventists. The book was not very scholarly according to modern judgments, but it accomplished the mission Loughborough had in writing it. The book was meant to impress its readers with how God had led the Advent movement from the beginning and to show the divine nature of Ellen White’s visions.

Many in the church, even leaders of conferences, were expressing doubts in Ellen White’s prophetic gift around this time, and Loughborough wanted to put to rest the negative statements being made. John “recalled that ‘from 1853 to 1868 there was no minister in our ranks who traveled from State to State with Brother and Sister White more than myself.’”[13] He used this experience to testify of the supernatural experiences that he had witnessed while Ellen was in vision.

Loughborough’s history book was so in demand that many found it devastating that the printing plates were burned up in the 1902 fire that destroyed the Review and Herald building. After this, John set to work revising his earlier writing, and with the help of his wife again, created an expanded book in 1905 entitled The Great Second Advent Movement. This work went on to be used as the definitive textbook in Adventist history classes for decades.

After finishing this influential book at the age of 73, Loughborough stayed active well into his 80s, traveling around and preaching Adventist history. He finally settled down in California in his late eighties and passed away peacefully while living at the St. Helena sanitarium at the age of 92.

Positive Lessons from J. N. Loughborough

Devout Follower of the Health Message

It was not by coincidence that J. N. Loughborough lived longer than just about any other pioneer. His 92 years were due in large part to his acceptance of health principles that he began to learn in the 1860s. Before this, he had very little knowledge of what was good for him and even smoked cigars because a doctor told him that it would help his poor lungs.

After hearing Ellen White’s instructions from her vision in 1863, and then helping with the organization of the first health reform institute in 1868, John was able to turn his life around. He was such an advocate of the health message that he was asked by the doctors at the health institute to write a book on anatomy and physiology. It was entitled Hand Book of Health. Although he was not a doctor, there are still many things in the book that people can benefit from, even today.

While other pioneers died young, J. N. Loughborough went on to have a long and productive career. His knowledge of health practices also saved his family money and enhanced his evangelistic power.

He Humbly Accepted Rebuke from Ellen White

Even Ellen White’s husband found it hard to take a rebuke from her at times. This is hardly noticed in Loughborough’s life, though. Many men of her day would send back letters to the prophet giving excuses for actions she had admonished them for, but John had a different mindset.

J. N. Loughborough received much stern advice from Ellen concerning his leadership, his preaching, his love for books, and his sharpness at times. In most cases, the rebukes only made him a better man in the end, because he was willing to change. This is an excellent lesson for us today. Many people still balk at Ellen White’s writings, when they are only meant to help us in our Christian walk. Let us learn from Loughborough’s humility.

Mistakes We Can Learn From

Some Historical Inaccuracy

While Loughborough had good intentions when writing his history books, he was not a trained historian. There are noticeable cases where he either stretched the truth or just got his facts wrong during the research stage.

Some examples are his statements that Sabbatarian Adventists didn’t believe in the “shut-door” theory (no more mercy for sinners) when even Ellen White believed that for some years. He claimed that William Foy “sickened and died” after refusing to share his last vision in 1844 when Foy actually went on preaching for decades. And throughout the books he focuses heavily on the positives of the Millerite and Adventist movements, hardly mentioning any mistakes.[14]

Ellen White also expressed sadness over the fact that Loughborough had given her “a greater role in the early years of Adventism than she deserved” in Rise and Progress.[15] He tried to correct this in his second book but still focuses only on the positive aspects of the growth of Adventism.

Rise and Progress and The Great Second Advent Movement are still excellent and inspiring writings, but they lack the full picture. Only since the last half of the 20th century have historians started to openly discuss some troubling parts of Adventist history. This is good for the church, though. God made sure that both the successes and failures of the patriarchs and prophets were recorded in the Bible for us to learn from. We shouldn’t be afraid to follow His example.

Click here to read the rest of this series on the Adventist pioneers!



[1] Brian E. Strayer, J. N. Loughborough: The Last of the Adventist Pioneers, p. 56.

[2] J. N. Loughborough, The Youth’s Instructor, March, 1865, p. 20-21.

[3] Brian E. Strayer, J. N. Loughborough: The Last of the Adventist Pioneers, p. 71.

[4] Ibid, p. 101.

[5] A. L. White, Ellen G. White: The Early Years, vol. 1, p. 348.

[6] Brian E. Strayer, J. N. Loughborough: The Last of the Adventist Pioneers, p. 172.

[7] Ibid, p. 176.

[8] Ibid, p. 235.

[9] Ibid, p. 275.

[10] Ibid, p. 279.

[11] Ellen G. White to S. N. Haskell, Sept. 1, 1887.

[12] J. N. Loughborough, The Great Second Advent Movement, p. 485.

[13] Brian E. Strayer, J. N. Loughborough: The Last of the Adventist Pioneers, p. 86.

[14] Ibid, p. 329.

[15] Ibid, p. 392.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.