Man on a mission
“It is time to go west.” That’s how this story began. In last month’s issue, we trudged alongside a 26-year-old Merritt G. Kellogg as he headed west from Michigan to California. We felt the flicker of warmth as he lit the missionary torch in the West; he was the first Seventh-day Adventist to preach in California.
M.G. Kellogg—the oldest brother of John Harvey of medical fame11Richard W. Schwartz, John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer, Adventist Pioneer Series, George R. Knight, ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2006). and Will Keith, the “Cornflakes King”22″Corn Flakes King to Make Home in State,” Healdsburg Tribune (July 2, 1925), p. 4.—set the pace for his brothers in pioneering. He did not stay put for long; he liked starting things more than he liked to manage them. It was only a matter of time before he found a way to go west again (and south), beyond the shores of California.
South Sea mission
At age 60, Merritt’s missionary heart drew him to a fresh need. The missionary ship Pitcairn needed a new mission-minded doctor to sail the Pacific.33A.G. Stewart, “Memorial to a Missionary Mariner,” Australian Record, vol. 65, no. 30 (July 24, 1961), pp. 1-2. Kellogg answered the call, departing for the South Seas on January 17, 1893.44Adelaide Bee Evans, “Early Seed Sowing in the South Pacific Islands,” The Youth’s Instructor, vol. 64, no. 12 (March 21, 1916), p. 5. The venture found success but not without peril. Merritt “nearly drowned in Bounty Bay when going ashore from the mission schooner Pitcairn to visit the island of the mutineers. The longboat broke up on the rocks, and only the strength and agility of a good island lass saved the medico.”55″Sydney Adventist Hospital Delves into Its Past,” Australian Record, vol. 88, no. 32 (Aug. 20, 1983), p. 8. He survived to bring his missional tenacity to the work in the South Seas.
Back home in California, tragedy struck. Merritt’s wife Louisa died on November 4, 1894, while he was away.66W. T. Knox, “Obituary Notices,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, vol. 71, no. 50 (Dec. 18, 1894), p. 799. With less reason to go home, he worked in Pitcairn, Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Tasmania, and mainland Australia for eight more years.77″Missionary Returns,” The Press Democrat (Feb. 12, 1904), p. 2. Not only was he an able doctor and evangelist, he also built sanitariums in Tonga888Joy Totenhofer, “Aunt Ellie’s Husband Worked Very Hard,” Australian Record, vol. 83, no. 44 (Oct. 30, 1978), p. 10. and Sydney.99Merritt Gardner Kellogg, “The Rise of the Sydney Sanitarium,” The Australasian Good Health, vol. 6, no. 2 (Feb. 1, 1903), pp. 39-40.1010James R. Nix, Passion, Purpose, and Power: Recapturing the Spirit of the Adventist Pioneers Today (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2013), p. 132. And, amidst the flurry of activity, he found romance again with the much younger1111Vital records show that she was 42 years his junior. Eleanor Nolan of Australia. They married on July 29, 1895, and had two children together.1212Elsie P. Willoughby, “In Memoriam,” The Healdsburg Enterprise (Dec. 29, 1921), p. 4.
After a full decade of service in the global South, in 1904, Merritt and Ellie moved to the United States and settled on Brown Street in Healdsburg, California.1313″Missionary Returns,” The Press Democrat (Feb. 12, 1904), p. 2. When he slowed down enough to count the years, he found that he had served the church unpaid1414Nix, p. 214. for well over half a century.
As he enjoyed the restful Healdsburg climate, sporadically ambling down the sidewalk to buy more paper and pencils, he shifted from protagonist to narrator. Instead of living each new chapter of the Adventist mission, he contented himself with telling the story. He wrote letters about past advances in the mission and even took time to pen a bit of his own story.1515Merritt Gardner Kellogg, Notes Concerning the Kelloggs (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1927). Students at nearby Healdsburg College reveled in his firsthand accounts of the olden days.
In the final years of his life, Merritt went almost blind, but that didn’t stop him from telling stories. As usual, he innovated, creating a tool for the blind author. He explained that because “I cannot see a single word of what I am writing…I have devised a frame in which I place my paper, to hold it in place. It has a movable crossbar with which I guide my fingers, to keep the lines straight. The frame is notched so as to enable me to space the lines at regular intervals.”1616Kellogg, Notes Concerning the Kelloggs, p. 53. Merritt Kellogg was a confirmed pioneer to the end.
Dr. Kellogg was a man worthy of our admiration, but he was far from perfect. After telling his stirring story, it might seem prudent—or, at least, more satisfying—to leave his shining example untarnished. However, heroes are made of real people, and it is that reality that will let his story inspire ordinary people like us. Knowing that he too was deeply flawed can leave breathing room for the hope that we also can be God’s pioneers.
What were his flaws? He tangled with the equally stubborn James White over money, angering Ellen.1717E. G. White to J. E. White, Aug. 9, 1873. He also defended his brother John1818M. G. Kellogg to J. H. Kellogg, May 18, 1906. when Ellen White criticized his business dealings, raising questions about his support of her prophetic gift.1919M. G. Kellogg to W. C. White, May 29, 1906. Despite this, he kept up a friendship with the Whites into later life.2020M. G. Kellogg to W. C. White, May 21, 1912. Another flaw was his creative restlessness, which swept him from task to task, leaving others to finish what he started.
Merritt Gardner Kellogg was a flawed hero. He made serious mistakes. The story—the inspiration—is in the fact that God used this flawed man profoundly. That truth is a ready source of hope for any human who stumbles through this earth.
When the last brick was laid, the last sermon preached, the last letter written, Merritt Gardner Kellogg had served the church for more than six decades. He was the first to preach the Adventist message in California, built California Adventism into a hub of missional progress, strengthened the work in the South Seas, and more. He left his mark on all branches of Adventist mission—church, conference, publishing, healthcare, and education.
Merritt died with Christmas in full display throughout Healdsburg—streetlamps strung with garlands, bells suspended from doorknobs, candles in windows, carolers singing house to house, the fragrance of spiced treats in the air, and a tree lit in the town square. On December 20, 1921, Merritt G. Kellogg passed to his rest, firm in his Adventist faith.2121H. W. Reed, “Obituaries,” Pacific Union Recorder, vol. 21, no. 23 (Feb. 19, 1922), pp. 6-7.
Ellie and the kids laid him to rest among the oaks of Oak Mound Cemetery, near his home in Healdsburg, with the simplest eight-inch stone placed over his head. It reads, “M. G. K. 1833 – 1921.” The casual passerby would likely never know how much that simple inscription means.
As amazing as his story is, Kellogg is a mostly forgotten pioneer. We rediscovered his grave on November 14, 2020. That rediscovery a century after his death is our opportunity to find inspiration in his life and reflect on our own place in the same mission. Dr. Merritt G. Kellogg was the consummate Adventist pioneer. We need his example, because it is our turn to carry the same torch and become a new generation of pioneers.
James Wibberding is professor of Applied Theology and Biblical Studies at Pacific Union College.