W. W. Prescott: The Educational Reformer

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W. W. Prescott: The Educational Reformer

A Highly Educated Gentleman

William Warren Prescott was one of the most highly educated Seventh-day Adventists of his generation. He had the privilege of going to an ivy-league school and used that training to serve the denomination effectively in various roles for over 50 years. From the 1880s to the 1930s, Prescott was a key player in almost every major development of the church.

W. W. Prescott was the first actual educational superintendent of the denomination. He worked hard attempting to implement the educational reforms that Ellen White and other contemporary educators were championing. You can’t study Adventist education without running into Prescott’s name.

Along with the educational work, Prescott served as vice president of the General Conference right after the extensive restructuring of the church in 1901. He was the right-hand man of A. G. Daniells in the battles during the Kellogg crisis of the early 1900s. Because of the significant roles, Prescott held during essential turning points in Adventism, a study of his life yields rich insights into the denomination’s history.

The Sharp Young Student

William’s parents converted to Adventism when he was three years old and provided a deeply religious home for him to grow up in. He made his personal decision for Christ at a camp meeting when he was seventeen. Prescott was impressed by the presentations of the leading scholar of the church, J. N. Andrews, who ended up baptizing him.

William was very studious like Andrews and could teach Latin and Greek before he even finished high school.[1]  Due to his good grades and the income from his father’s booming manufacturing business, Prescott attended one of the top schools in his area, Dartmouth College. He was the only Seventh-day Adventist in the school, most likely due to the tuition being three times as much as the new Battle Creek College in Michigan run by the church.

Prescott “was to spend four years at Dartmouth gaining an education regarded as among the best that America could offer.”[2] Along with intellectual learning, William also received practical training in leadership when his peers elected him to serve as class president.

So much of what Prescott gained at Dartmouth that was unavailable to most Adventists would serve him well once he entered denominational work. But he would also have to unlearn some things that would be detrimental to the educational reforms he sought to implement in the future.

Shifting to Working for the Church

Right out of college, Prescott landed a job as principal of a secular school in Vermont that paid $24 per week (a large sum compared to most people who made $300-$500 annually).[3]  A couple of years later he was offered the principal position at an even more prestigious school that provided a 20% increase in pay.

His time there didn’t last long before William became interested in joining his younger brother Charles in starting up their own newspaper. Dartmouth had given Prescott experience both in educational work and publishing. These were two critical skills he would later serve the church with.

William found success both with his brother and on his own in the publishing field. For six years he thrived in the business, writing articles of a predominantly political nature. Despite the success and good money, Prescott finally followed a conviction to work for the church.

In 1885, he sold his paper and took a massive pay cut to serve as president of the then-struggling Battle Creek College. The school was reeling from previous years of schism and disciplinary issues, and the church was having trouble finding someone willing to take on the job. Prescott believed it was his chance to serve God rather than himself, something he had been convicted about years prior.

In less than a year Prescott had most of the denomination convinced that they had found the right man for the job. “His impressive natural gifts combined with his training and experience made him an imposing, almost overpowering, personality.”[4] His traveling and recruiting for the college quickly made him a household name in Adventism due to his earnest speeches concerning the growing denomination’s need for well-trained personnel.

Revolutionizing Adventist Education

Prescott immediately got to work improving the standard of education at Battle Creek College as its president. He was used to the best type of academic instruction and wanted all Adventists to have that privilege. Along with improving classroom instruction, Prescott moved the board to approve a plan for a school dormitory. In today’s world that may not seem very impressive, but in the 1880s it was a concept that was catching on in America. The dormitory allowed the students and staff to live close together, enabling teachers to be better mentors and models of authentic Christian culture.

By 1887, the General Conference realized that they needed a secretary of education to oversee the denomination’s schools around the country. More and more Adventist students were clamoring to get an education, primarily due to Prescott’s recruiting sermons. William was called to fill the position. He took on the job while still serving as president of Battle Creek College. Prescott’s skills were hard to replace.

One of the first substantial changes that Prescott made to the Adventist educational system was to unify all of the individual pieces. He made it easier for students to transfer between Adventist schools by harmonizing the curriculums throughout the country. His policies helped the church develop a systematized educational system that functioned better to produce the trained workforce needed to fulfill its mission.

Prescott was also very passionate about making Adventist education more Bible-centered. In 1891, he organized a conference in Harbor Springs, Michigan, that concentrated on getting more of the scriptures into the curricula. This institute also “produced for the very first time a college curriculum specifically designed for ministerial training.”[5]

On top of the Biblical studies courses for new students, William wanted to help the church’s clergy be more grounded in biblical truths. The General Conference Session in 1888 had shown the terrible effects of ministers not being adequately trained in Bible study. In 1889, Prescott drew up a 20-week curriculum consisting of “courses in Christian evidences, church history, Greek, Hebrew, church government, logic, civics, biblical studies, and Bible doctrines.”[6]

Although these ministerial institutes commenced with controversy due to the schism between A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner and the older ministers in the church, they soon became popular and immensely effective. By 1896 Ellen White claimed the meetings were no longer needed because the mistakes of 1888 had largely been corrected.[7]

Along with bettering the educational system already in place, Prescott also worked hard to bring more Adventist colleges into existence. “Both Union College in Nebraska and Walla Walla College in the Pacific Northwest stand as enduring monuments to his foresight and vision as an educational leader.”[8]

“Exiled” to Britain

Prescott’s colleagues appreciated many reforms over the years, but not everyone was excited about some of his ideas. William found stiff resistance from board members, parents, and students when it came to changing the curriculums of the schools to a more Bible-centered approach. The fear was that the school’s academics would be diminished if traditional classes were taken out to make room for Bible study.

Prescott fought many battles over topics like these throughout the 1890s until he was finally sent by a vote of the General Conference in 1897 to be the superintendent over the church’s work in England. Some leaders rejoiced that he was out of the way, while some believed he had been unnecessarily pushed away from the center of the church.

During his time in England, William lived right next door to E. J. Waggoner, which allowed the two men to have some provocative theological discussions. Unfortunately, this was when Waggoner’s views were tainted with pantheistic thoughts, and some extreme positions started to creep into Prescott’s beliefs.

For example, other leading men reported of the two that they taught “in some sense every meal was a sacrament in which believers ate the body and drank the blood of Christ.” This led Prescott and Waggoner to teach higher views of diet’s relation to believers’ sanctification than the Bible warranted. Although Prescott would come away from extremes like this in the following few years, they “were enough to ‘taint’ the professor in the eyes of church conservatives for the rest of his days.”[9]

Return to General Conference Prominence

Despite the theological hiccups in England, Prescott continued to provide the church with stellar service. He also continued to agitate a massive restructuring of the denomination to better accomplish their mission. In 1901 this took place due to the return of Ellen White and A. G. Daniells to America.

With some help from Prescott, they convinced the leaders to reshape the church by adding unions, divisions, and conferences. A. G. Daniells became the next president of the General Conference, and Prescott was elected to serve in the influential position of secretary of the Foreign Mission Board. Within a year, William moved into the vice president position and also served as the chief editor of the Review and Herald. He would become the right-hand man of Daniells in the crucial conflicts that would soon erupt.

Catastrophe with Kellogg

Prescott was assigned to review J. H. Kellogg’s book, Living Temple, which was supposed to be used to raise funds for the new sanitarium in Battle Creek after the old one burned to the ground in 1902. Having been exposed to E. J. Waggoner’s pantheistic expressions in England, William found some of Dr. Kellogg’s phrases in the book to be dangerously close to pantheism.

Kellogg disagreed and still went forward with printing and selling the book. Once Prescott took an even closer look at the volume, he found three key problems: “The doctor taught (1) ’a wrong view of God and His dwelling place’; (2) a religion ‘which set aside any need of atonement and the work of Christ as our high priest in the sanctuary above’, and (3) ’a breaking down of the distinction between the sinner and the Christian by teaching that every man is a temple of God regardless of his faith in Christ.’”[10]

The arguments went back and forth with Kellogg and the General Conference for five years. Other issues between the two parties had to do with financing new sanitariums, and the General Conference’s desire to bring the medical work of the church under the control of the denomination. The final straw came when Kellogg started speaking against the prophetic utterances of Ellen White because she sided with Prescott and Daniells on the Living Temple issue. The doctor was disfellowshipped from the church in 1907.

Although Prescott prevailed, huge losses were sustained for him socially. E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones had been his friends and helped him become more Christ-centered after the 1888 conference. Both of those men turned against William and joined Dr. Kellogg in leaving the church. Percy Magan and E. A. Sutherland, prominent educational reformers in the church just like Prescott had been, were also sympathetic toward the doctor. They didn’t leave the church like Jones and Waggoner, but their relationship with Prescott was never the same either. There are times when being a strong leader comes at a high price.

The Daily Crisis

Right after the Kellogg crisis, more trouble started brewing for Prescott. This time it was over the biblical interpretation of the phrase “the daily” found in Daniel chapter 8. Adventists up until that point had mainly believed that the phrase referred to Paganism in the time of Rome that was taken away by the rise of the Papal church.

Along with a few others, Prescott believed that the Hebrew word in the passage pointed to Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary instead. The truth of this ministry is what was taken away from the minds of the people as the Papal church took power. Prescott believed this also made the prophecy in Daniel much more Christ-centered, which was why Prescott found it so important. He had a passion for making every doctrine of the church point to Christ.

S.N. Haskell, another prominent leader in the church who had worked closely with Ellen White for years, felt that this new interpretation went against something Ellen had said back in 1850. Prescott didn’t think that the Ellen White quote Haskell was using said what the older man was trying to make it express. Haskell wouldn’t budge, though, and blew the issue up in the church, claiming that Prescott and other church leaders were tearing down old landmarks.

Ellen White advised Prescott not to make the issue more than it needed to be. Unfortunately, some of Ellen’s advice failed to reach William in time, and he published some statements in the Review and Herald concerning the new view. This caused a backlash from the Haskell faction, who were determined not to let the “pillars” of the truth be demolished.

The argument raged for years, even causing many from the old view standpoint to question whether the General Conference leaders still believed in Ellen White’s prophetic role.[11]  Even though the new view of the “daily” is largely supported by the church today, this controversy also took a heavy toll on Prescott. He was constantly looked at by some suspiciously as a disturber of the peace and a theological renegade for the rest of his life.

Closing Years

Prescott fell into depression shortly after the daily issue exploded. Part of it was due to the negative things many in the church were saying about him, and part of it had to do with his wife’s condition. She had already had surgery to remove cancer years before, but in 1910 the disease returned, and she passed away. William was emotionally unable to work for months.

Despite the negative attitudes of some in the church toward him as well as his wife’s death, he recovered from his depression and served as the first field secretary of the General Conference. He then worked again as president of two colleges, Avondale College in Australia, and Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. By 1926, at the age of 70, Prescott settled for the simple position of professor at Union. He would finish up his career as a teacher at Emmanuel Missionary College in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The distinguished professor seemed unable to avoid controversy throughout his 52 years of serving the church. It is incredible that he stayed faithful to Adventism amidst all of the shots taken at his character by those who disagreed with him. By his patient endurance in the face of insult, he showed what a strong relationship with Christ can do for every true Christian.

Positive Lessons from W. W. Prescott

He Pushed the Church Forward in Its Understanding of Truth

Prescott seldom backed down when it came to a battle over doctrine. He was highly educated and continually did an enormous amount of study into historical and theological topics. He challenged church leaders on their understanding of subjects such as the daily, trinity, prophetic dates, and the interpretation of 666, just to name a few.

Being a professor at heart, Prescott wanted the church to continue to improve in its ability to convey truth. “He wished they [church leaders] could see that doctrines were capable of being expanded or modified in order to express truth more adequately. It was absolutely necessary, he personally believed, if one was to allow for continuing new insights derived from an ongoing study of Scripture.”[12]

He was hated for his progressive ideas by certain groups, and still by others to this day. But the truth of the matter is that most of the concepts suggested by him have become accepted by most teachers and ministers in Adventism. Prescott was truly ahead of his time. Many have benefited today from the roots of his willingness to face criticism and hatred.

Mistakes We Can Learn From

Emotionally Extreme at Times

Prescott suffered from similar extreme tendencies as A. T. Jones, just on a smaller scale. In his younger days, he got caught up with Jones in the faith healing movement that swept through the church in the early 1890s. Doctor Kellogg lamented over a story about a man he had told needed to change his lifestyle and take things easy if he wanted to survive his ailments. Prescott and Jones then informed that same man in a healing gathering that he had been miraculously cured if he only had faith. The man disregarded Kellogg’s scientific advice and died soon after.

The faith healing example is an intense case, but it shows the dangers of the extremes that Prescott let himself get entangled in. It was also mentioned previously how William went too far for a time into the dangerous teachings of pantheism with E. J. Waggoner while he was in England.

Even in his doctrinal battles over things that he might have been correct on, he left a bitter taste in some administrators’ mouths by the way he went about it. Gilbert Valentine, commenting on Prescott’s troubles with church leaders, says, “No doubt some leaders, burdened with administrative responsibility, wished that Prescott would not respond so vigorously to such problems. If he would not take them so seriously, maybe they would just go away.”[13]

Prescott’s personality definitely helped him leave a significant mark on the church. But it came at the cost of depression and huge emotional scars, partly due to his habit of pushing things too far sometimes. It would be good for us to learn how to express our differences with others, or new teachings and beliefs, in constructive ways free from overly emotional expressions. W. W. Prescott might have been able to accomplish even more if he had exercised temperance in some of his reformatory visions.

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

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Notes.

[1] Gilbert Valentine, W. W. Prescott: Forgotten Giant of Adventism’s Second Generation, p. 30.

[2] Ibid, p. 33.

[3] Ibid, p. 37.

[4] Ibid, p. 47.

[5] Ibid, p. 67.

[6] Ibid, p. 74.

[7] Ellen White, Testimonies to the Church, Vol. 6, p. 89.

[8] Gilbert Valentine, W. W. Prescott: Forgotten Giant of Adventism’s Second Generation, p. 68.

[9] Ibid, p. 136-137.

[10] Ibid, p. 185.

[11] Ibid, p. 231.

[12] Ibid, p. 322.

[13] Ibid, p. 319.

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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.