Joseph Bates: From Seaman to Fisher of Men

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Joseph Bates: From Seaman to Fisher of Men

Pioneer History: Old News or Good News?

 “In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what God has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”[1]

We’ve heard this quote many times, especially the last half of it. The only way to truly appreciate it, though, is to actually know the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

I’ve taken the time to read through many of the amazing biographies of our early pioneers. The purpose of this series is to condense the thousands of pages of biographical material into easy-to-read articles on each individual.

My goal is to reveal how the good news of the gospel inspired each of these men and women to do incredible things for God. And also, to show the real-life struggles and mistakes they made, so that we can take heed and learn from them as well. Let’s get started with Joseph Bates.


Way Ahead of the Game

It’s hard to talk about the forming of the SDA church without mentioning Joseph Bates. Bates was keeping the seventh-day Sabbath before James and Ellen White. He understood how the Sabbath and the sanctuary fit into Revelation 14 before James and Ellen White. And he was a vegetarian long before James and Ellen White.

But before we get into those details, we’re going to take a look at the early life of Joseph Bates. His seafaring days.


The Young Sailor

Bates started his career serving on ships in 1807, just before his 15th birthday. On his first voyage, he had a near-death experience when he fell overboard with a shark in the water near the ship. Miraculously, the shark moved to the other side of the ship before he hit the water, and never attacked him.

In 1809 the ship Joseph was serving on was captured and turned over to the authorities in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“Prior to that time the shipowner had attempted to bribe them not to tell the truth about the vessel’s business dealings in Great Britain, in the hope that he could extricate both his ship and cargo. Their captors called Bates, the youngest of the crew, in first. Before they began the questioning they showed him a box crafted to lop off the two forefingers and thumb (kind of a mini-guillotine) of everyone swearing falsely.”[2]

Bates valued his fingers more than the bribe. His many writings later in life go to show that his hand was in good working order.

The biggest story of Bates’ young tenure on the seas is his five years spent as a prisoner of the British Navy. In 1810 Joseph was taken captive in England and forced into service on British ships to help in the war against Napoleon.

Bates made many escape attempts, and in time went from forced service to prisoner of war. Post-war, in 1815, he was finally released just three weeks after witnessing the “Dartmoor massacre, in which the guards killed or wounded more than 60 of his fellow Americans for protesting their continuing imprisonment four months after the end of the war.”[3]

At the young age of 22, Joseph Bates had seen more adventures than most of us would like to see in a lifetime.


The Sea Captain

Near-death experiences and long imprisonments didn’t scare Bates away from the sea, though. He continued to serve on different vessels until finally becoming a captain himself in 1821.

After having to conduct the funeral of a crewman who died in 1824, Bates made a covenant with God that led to his baptism. In 1827 he became a member of the Christian Connexion (the same denomination as J. V. Himes and James White).

Extreme honesty characterized most of Joseph’s life, especially as a sea captain. One story, taken from his autobiography, illustrates this perfectly:

In 1828, Bates was overpaid almost a year’s salary because of another merchant’s mistake. He sailed away not realizing it until days later. Instead of keeping the money, he commanded his men to turn the ship around and went all the way back to return the funds. And all this while having to face dangerous sandbars and rough seas.[4]

Bates was also not one to keep his religion to himself. On his last voyage, he announced to his crew that “his would be a temperance ship and that he expected them to behave as Christians on the voyage. His announcement greatly shocked the men, but having already set sail they couldn’t do much about it.”[5]

The autobiography of Joseph Bates is full of exciting stories from his days at sea. I will end this part of Bates’s life by mentioning that he was able to retire when he was only 36 years old. He had saved up over $10,000 to rest on (a good amount of money in those days).

The retired sea captain’s adventures were far from over, though. It is now time to move into his conversion to the Millerite message.


Bates Converted to Millerism

 In the fall of 1839, Bates attended a meeting where he heard what he considered to be truly biblical evidence that Jesus would return in the year 1843. He soon after got a hold of William Miller’s writings to study them for himself. Finding nothing to disagree with he became “the earliest of all those who later became Seventh-day Adventists, to embrace and participate in the advent movement.”[6]

Bates became a huge activist in the movement to spread the message of the soon coming of Christ. One story that stands out is his evangelistic journey down south with his friend H. S. Gurney.

Early in 1844, they felt that the slaves in the southern states needed to hear about Christ’s second coming too. The only problem was that many Millerites were known to be associated with the abolitionists (anti-slavery reformers). Although they faced violent threats, they pressed on with their preaching.

During the preaching tour, the two men got stopped by a southern judge who was accusing them of coming to take away their slaves. Bates replied:

“Yes, Judge, I am an abolitionist, and have come to get your slaves, and you too! As to getting your slaves from you, we have no such intention; for if you should give us all you have (and I was informed he owned quite a number), we should not know what to do with them. We teach that Christ is coming and we want you all saved.”[7]

Bates was thoroughly convicted that Jesus would return first in 1843, and then in 1844. Convicted enough to risk his life to tell others, and also to spend all of his amassed wealth in helping the cause.


Dealing with the Great Disappointment

After Christ did not return on October 22, 1844, Joseph Bates found himself almost penniless. When he went to buy some flour on October 23 he reports, “The boys of the street followed and hooted after me, and men pointed the finger of scorn at me, saying, ‘I thought you were going up yesterday.’”[8]

With his life in shambles, and needing to provide both financially and emotionally for his wife, Bates continued to put the Bible first. He kept studying, waiting for God to show him what went wrong.

Many different groups formed out of the great disappointment. One group, led by William Miller, J. V. Himes, and others eventually decided that they had made some type of mistake in their interpretation of the time prophecies.

Another group said that they were correct about the time prophecy and that Jesus had come spiritually into the hearts of true believers. These people became known as “spiritualizers.”

Still another group believed that the prophetic time periods must have been correct, but that they were just wrong about the event to take place. This group would eventually grow into the Seventh-day Adventist movement. Bates belonged to this third group.


The Sabbath and the Three Angels

Less than six months after the disappointment, in February of 1845, Joseph Bates accepted the seventh-day Sabbath after reading a tract written by T. M. Preble.

Although Preble gave up the Sabbath a few years later because it seemingly interfered with his business affairs, Bates went on to become Seventh-day Adventism’s first apostle of the Sabbath.[9]

In 1846 Bates had the opportunity to share a Bible study with James White and Ellen Harmon weeks before their marriage. Surprisingly, they did not take too well to Joseph’s passion on the subject. By the time of the wedding, they still had not accepted Bates’s belief in the seventh-day Sabbath.

But soon after the marriage of the Whites, Bates put out his own small book on the Sabbath. The Whites were finally convinced to keep the Sabbath after reading this pamphlet.

Bates made his biggest contribution to Adventist theology in 1847 with an expanded edition to his first book. He became the first to understand how the sanctuary and the Sabbath fit into Revelation 14:6-12.

James White would go on to straighten out some of Bates’s explanations. But the fact remains that Joseph Bates was completely ahead of any pioneer when it came to understanding the prophetic identity of the Adventist movement. George Knight says this of Bates in his biography:

“His interpretations not only helped those who were becoming part of a movement see themselves in terms of their place in past history, but it also set the stage for an understanding of the movement’s future history as described in the book of Revelation. It is in the outlining of that future history that he set forth what has now become known as ‘great controversy theology.’”[10]


Preaching the Present Truth To the End

For the rest of his life Joseph Bates hardly ever slowed down as an evangelist. From Vermont to New Hampshire, New York to New England, and all through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana Bates took the Advent message.

His methods were simple, yet very effective. “As occasion permitted he would hang up a prophetic chart in a train station or on the deck of a boat, draw a crowd, and launch into his presentation.”[11]

Bates was responsible for bringing many of Adventism’s biggest names into the church. Not only had he brought the Sabbath to James and Ellen White, but in 1852 he was instrumental in bringing J. P. Kellogg to the truth, who was the father of John Harvey Kellogg. He also helped to convert E. P. Butler in the 1850s, who was the father of G. I. Butler, who went on to serve as General Conference President from 1871 to 1874 and 1880 to 1888.

Other converts include the Smith family, from which came Annie and Uriah Smith, both of whom served with James and Ellen White in the publishing ministry. And lastly, S. N. Haskell came to the truth in 1854 because of Bates. Haskell would go on to do much work for the church both in America and abroad.


Positive Lessons from Joseph Bates

Untiring Zeal for Spreading the Message

Joseph Bates used up all of his $10,000 of retirement in supporting the Millerite movement up through 1844. He could have felt very bitter looking at his bleak financial situation after the disappointment, but his love for God and His message helped him to overcome those trying times.

Not only was his financial situation troubling, but his wife was not always in agreement with him when it came to their religious beliefs. “For more than five years he had preached the Sabbath, written the Sabbath, and traveled and sacrificed for the Sabbath even though his own wife hadn’t accepted his message.”[12]

Bates traveled around as an itinerant preacher for many years without receiving payment from the church. There was no organized body of Seventh-day Adventists until the 1860s, which made it very hard for those serving as ministers at that time. How many of us would have chosen to sacrifice so much for the cause of truth?


Diligent Student of Bible Prophecy

Bates teaches us the importance of putting the Bible first. Many people think that Adventist theology is based upon the visions of Ellen White. Bates’s life proves that that assumption is far from the truth.

His 1847 book, Seventh Day Sabbath, which taught his beliefs on Revelation chapter 14, came out three months before Ellen White had her vision describing how she went into the Most Holy place of the heavenly sanctuary and saw the Sabbath commandment shining brighter than all the others.[13] Her vision only complemented what Bates had begun to show through the Bible.

This is very important to remember. Especially for those who often attempt to use the writings of Ellen White to prove our beliefs about prophecy, rather than the scriptures.


The First to Adopt Reform

The time that Joseph Bates spent as a sailor opened his eyes to the harmful effects of intemperance. He saw what the constant consumption of alcohol did to him and his crewmates, and eventually decided to give it up altogether. Years later he followed with a complete overhaul of his diet. By 1843 he was eating completely vegetarian.[14] He also joined the abolitionist movement, becoming one of the founders of the Fairhaven Antislavery Society.[15]

Bates believed Christianity was truly manifested in a wholistic care for ourselves, as well as others. This belief was later made very prominent by John Harvey Kellogg and Ellen White. But once again, Bates was ahead of the game.


Mistakes We Should Learn From

Legalistic Tendencies

Joseph Bates’s heavy conviction on things like the Sabbath and the Law of God, unfortunately, led him down a legalistic path at times.

After quoting Jesus talking to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, Bates went on to write in one article, “Thus we… find only one… condition to inherit eternal life held forth to mortal man, and that is to keep the ten commandments of God… Dear friends, if you really desire to have eternal life when Jesus comes, be sure, Oh! be sure, that you keep all the ten commandments of God.”[16]

A sad result of his heavy emphasis on behaviorism in his Christian thought is the fact that there is no record of any of his four adult children ever accepting the Adventist message.

It is our duty as Adventists today to help people understand the perfect blending of Law and Gospel.

Slow to Accept the Gift of Prophecy

Bates was always respectful of the young Ellen White, but he felt at first that her visions were simply a result of her poor health.

It wasn’t until Ellen had a vision describing the planets in our solar system that he became convinced that the visions were from God. Because of his experience as a sea captain and familiarity with astronomy, he knew she was telling the truth.[17] God was very merciful to give her this vision just to convert the elder Bates.

God clearly wanted His people to be united in their belief in the spirit of prophecy given to Ellen White. This is a very important lesson for our time today as we continue to seek for ways to spread the gospel to “every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.” Having a good understanding of our history, and what we have been shown through the spiritual gift of prophecy will help us immensely as we go forth to win souls for God.

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



[1] Ellen G. White, Christian Experience and Teachings, p. 204.

[2] George R. Knight, Joseph Bates: The Real Founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, p. 17.

[3] Ibid., p. 20

[4] Joseph Bates, Autobiography, p. 223

[5] George R. Knight, Joseph Bates: The Real Founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, p. 34

[6] Everett Dick, Founders of the Message, p. 125

[7] Joseph Bates, Autobiography, p. 281

[8] George R. Knight, Joseph Bates: The Real Founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, p. 71.

[9] Ibid., p. 82.

[10] Ibid, p. 114

[11] Ibid, p. 183

[12] Ibid, p. 179

[13] Ibid, p. 116

[14] Ibid, p. 49

[15] Ibid, p. 53

[16] Joseph Bates, “The Perpetuity of God’s Commanded Covenant of Ten Commandments,” Review and Herald, Oct. 27, 1868, p. 218.

[17] Joseph Bates, Autobiography, p. 151

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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.