During the winter of 1938, a young George Vandeman preached an evangelistic series in the Odd Fellows’ Hall in Elkhart, Indiana. He was assisted by a number of students and even a staff member from Emmanuel Missionary College in Berrien Springs, Michigan.  These students included Richard Mitchell and Donald Anderson who led the singing each evening, Gladys McCrillis who played the piano, and the EMC school physician, Dr. Robson, or members of the Home Economics department who gave twenty-minute health lectures before each sermon. (Student Movement, February 17, 1938)

As far as I know, no one from my family attended these meetings. But one day afterwards, perhaps as late as 1939, Edith Cross knocked on the door at the home of Bill and Edith Morris where they resided with their three young adult daughters and young son in Elkhart.  According to Grandma Lois (the middle of the three daughters), Mrs. Edith Cross had been hired as a Bible worker by the Indiana Conference in connection with Vandeman’s meetings and she stayed on to continue the work in Elkhart. But who was Edith Cross really?

For one, she is my spiritual great-grandmother. If not for Edith Cross it is unlikely my grandmother would have become a Seventh-day Adventist and faithful Christian. Because of Edith Cross, my mother was raised in a godly home and, when given the opportunity, chose to attend Grand Ledge Academy where she met my father. Because of Edith Cross’ faithfulness and gift for sharing God’s word, I was born into a home where I was taught to love Jesus from the day I was born. That is my spiritual genealogy.

More to the story

But Edith Cross has a much bigger story of which my family could not be aware given their short acquaintance. Edith Ellen Armstrong was born August 30, 1879 in Hillsdale, Michigan to Frank W. Armstrong and Addie S. Coon. Frank Armstrong, a native of New York, did not accept the Adventist message until the early 1880s when he heard Ellen White preach in Jackson, Michigan.

However, Addie’s father, Warren Coon, who was born in New York and had moved to Ohio in 1833, joined the Millerites in 1843 after hearing Charles Fitch preach. In 1853 J. N. Loughborough introduced him to the Three Angels Message and in 1862 he was persuaded to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. Ultimately both the Armstrongs and the Coons moved to Hillsdale, Michigan where Frank and Addie married.

Frank and Addie Armstrong with their children had moved to Battle Creek by the time Edith was old enough to attend Battle Creek College. We do not know what she studied, but quite likely she was already preparing to be a missionary or Bible worker.

On October 15, 1900, Elder Alonzo T. Jones officiated at the marriage of Edith Armstrong and William Niles Cross. William was a skilled printer or pressman. I have not been able to determine if he worked at the Review & Herald or any other Adventist publishing house though. Two sons were born to Edith and William, Carroll in 1904 and Edwin in 1909 (strangely enough in Lincoln, Nebraska­–I have found scant evidence the Crosses ever lived in Nebraska and no rationale for the move). But the marriage was evidently not a happy one because the Crosses divorced on October 27, 1916 for reasons cited as “extreme and repeated cruelty.”

William moved to Washington, DC, where he worked for the Government Printing Office. He remarried and had a daughter. Edith was hired by the West Michigan Conference to be a Bible instructor in 1916. Whether she was hired before or after the divorce, I haven’t determined, but it was the beginning of a lifelong career.

At the time of their divorce, the Crosses were living in Grand Rapids with Edith’s parents. Edith continued this arrangement and her parents appear to have lived with her until they both died in 1933. At first Edith served with summer tent meeting evangelistic teams in Grand Rapids as well as conducting a prison ministry in the same city. As part of the evangelistic teams it was her responsibility to make home visits and give Bible studies one-on-one or in small groups. She was later moved south to Niles for a short time, and then moved just a bit further south, working primarily in the South Bend and northern Indiana region, which at the time was part of the West Michigan Conference.

When the northern tier of Indiana counties was reassigned to the Indiana Conference, Edith’s employment changed to the Indiana Conference and she traveled throughout the northern half of the state including South Bend, Mishawaka, Granger, North Liberty, Rochester, Angola, LaGrange, and Elkhart. She carried a missionary license from 1918 to 1942 or 1943. In 1944 her status changed to “credentialed Bible Instructor.”

Edith’s name appears regularly in the Lake Union Herald—either reports which include her work, or testimonies about her work written by her. On April 9, 1930, the Lake Union Herald published Edith’s story of how the Holy Spirit through her prayers converted one of her Bible study students. She consistently gave credit to the Holy Spirit for the success of her work. That same April, Ministry published an article written by Edith, “The Connecting Link.” This article is a statement of her philosophy of the role of Bible instructor–an assistant to the pastor, a link between colporteur, radio ministry and church member.

In Edith’s experience, the Bible instructor becomes deeply acquainted with members as she visits their homes and studies the Bible with them over significant periods of time. She is a mentor to new and old members alike. In her writing, Edith comes across as warm and caring, someone who took the time to know and understand people.

Church planting ministry: deep and wide

We may never know how many people committed their lives to God because of Edith Cross’ faithful prayers and long hours of work and travel, nor how many churches she helped plant. She was certainly instrumental in the establishment of the Rochester, Indiana church. In other locations she appears to have grown existing churches. Following Vandeman’s Elkhart meetings in 1938, sixteen people were baptized, and later that year Edith reported continuing to study with 41 more.

Grandma Lois says that “Sister Cross” stayed in the Elkhart area for several years. When Edith first visited the Morris family, Grandma’s mother and older sister agreed to Bible studies, but Lois herself and her younger sister were more hesitant. Part of Grandma’s reluctance was the lifestyle change new beliefs might require. She did not want to give up eating bacon.

But ultimately all of the women became deeply interested in what Edith taught them. Grandma says, “It seemed all our lives we had gone to various churches seeking the truth of the scriptures but never found the peace we sought…We became so interested that we bombarded poor Sister Cross with many questions. She’d say, ‘Well, we’ll answer that question for the next study.’” Unfortunately, although the Morris son was baptized at a young age, he did not remain faithful, and their father did not make a commitment until late in life.

Edith Cross was working in Indianapolis when she retired in 1953, after a 37-year career. But once a Bible instructor, always a Bible instructor; when she moved to Maitland, Florida in 1955, she continued to give Bible studies and became a founding member of the Apopka, Florida church. Edith died in Orlando, Florida on March 10, 1960.

Do you know your family’s faith story?

Have you recorded your own faith story? Have you shared it with your children and grandchildren? Have you asked your parents or grandparents to tell you their story? Storytelling is a powerful way to connect with family members and to build a sense of identity, conveying values and beliefs in a compelling way.

If you do not know your family’s story, start by talking to the oldest members of your family.  Using the clues you find in these conversations or in family documents, you can search the Adventist Digital Library (http://adventistdigitallibrary.org/), genealogy tools like Ancestry.com, or look for other denominational archives to discover your family’s spiritual genealogy.

Read the first article in this series

Sabrina Riley recently resigned as library director and historian at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. She is currently a military wife, homeschooling mom, and independent researcher in Northern Virginia. Her current research interests include the Seventh-day Adventist Medical Cadet Corps, Union College-related entries in the new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, and her family’s genealogy.