John clearly was a marked man. His distinct accent set him apart as an immigrant, while his few years of education provided little preparation for better jobs. The skills of his homeland provided few opportunities. Restless, struggling financially, and inclined to set aside worries by drinking, he joined the military and was shipped overseas, leaving his wife to raise their five children.

During his absence, his lonely but resourceful wife turned to religion. An evangelistic series drew her attention, and when John returned from the military, he discovered what Adventism really meant. The family, transformed by Sabbath school and church attendance, left the lower-income city neighborhood for a better life near an Adventist academy. Still poor, but drawn by the Adventist emphasis on Christian education, all their children eventually attended church schools.

This particular John was my grandfather. The family’s conversion to Adventism immensely changed the lives and opportunities of his children and grandchildren. In Christian schools they learned their lessons well and gained visions of a wider world. Christian teachers encouraged further education, a key investment in the family’s climb from poverty to the middle class. Crucially, the teachers did more: they emphasized the importance of healthful living, including abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. Their students also absorbed the importance of serving God and humanity.

Although this specific story happened decades ago, John’s experience is not unique. The impact of Adventism has been repeated countless times, in families of many languages and ethnicities. Yet certainly the purpose of Adventist education remains the same. As explained by Ellen White, it is to restore the image of our Maker in human beings—mentally, socially, spiritually and physically. This is an astounding task. Caught up in controversies over what should be taught, and how that learning should be measured, American society has no comprehension of the grand mission to transform every vital aspect of students’ lives. No state board of education would ever attempt such a challenge.

This sacred task is not easy. Practical difficulties confront us almost daily. The financial sacrifices deter some members and congregations. The demands on parents’ time may be considerable. School facilities often seem small and outdated compared to the buildings and technology that taxpayers provide. Opportunities for the most talented might also seem modest, with smaller music organizations and few advanced courses to provide college education in academy. Parents of children with disabilities that require specialized programs must sometimes choose between a Christian education unable to meet their child’s specific needs and professional support for the children.

While these challenges and others demand perpetual attention, we can draw our inspiration from some outstanding achievements. The Cognitive Genesis study led by Dr. Elisa Kido of La Sierra University surveyed some 50,000 students at more than 800 Adventist schools in North America. The results show, says Dr. Kido, that “in all grades and in all subjects, students in Adventist schools performed above the national average.” This result still holds even after adjustment for socio-economic differences. Furthermore, the advantage enjoyed by Adventist students increases with each year of study.

Working at Union College, every day I see the fine graduates of Mid-America’s church schools and academies. Strangers remark about how nice they are, and employers praise their qualities. But more than social accomplishment and job skills are necessary for success. We live in a society where morality is badly eroded by waves of secularism, lax ethics and self-centeredness. The dominant post-modernist philosophy of our time subtly proclaims that truth is relative—individuals may construct their own. Just like those enrolled in church schools and academies, Adventist college students more than ever need the protective spiritual value of a Christian education.


Author Malcolm Russell is vice president for academic administration at Union College.