Deep Diving in Church Archives
Updated: Jan 3
One of the most important reasons for researching family history is to create a deeper emotional connection to family by better understanding the lives and motivations of one's ancestors. Documentary evidence which fleshes out an ancestor's biography may be difficult to find unless the ancestor was socially prominent, politically active, or achieved notoriety for some reason. While most genealogists are familiar with church records in the form of baptismal registers and meeting lists, church archives can yield much deeper and richer information. This is particularly true if your ancestor was connected to the Seventh-day Adventist church.
Adventist church archives are deep and rich. Starting with the flagship publication, The Advent Review & Sabbath Herald (now Adventist Review) in 1851, Adventists have used both denomination-wide and regional magazines as a source of spiritual nurture and social fellowship. In addition to the expected theological discourse, Adventists stayed connected through news, announcements, classifieds, obituaries, and even church employee "society" type columns. The latter appeared generally in regional magazines between 1920 and 1950. Obituaries from earlier eras were greatly concerned with the spiritual state of the deceased as well as any work the individual did for the church. It is possible to flesh out fairly substantive biographies from the disparate bits of information gleaned from these magazines.
My mother's family's experience with the Seventh-day Adventist church began one day in about 1939, when an Indiana Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Bible worker, 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 (pictured above) in the northern Indiana city of Elkhart. My grandmother and her sisters always spoke of "Sister Cross" affectionately, but how much did they really know about her? My grandmother was quite surprised at what I learned combining records available on Ancestry.com with information gleaned from the Adventist Digital Library.
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 for 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 of Seventh-day Adventists 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 became deeply acquainted with members as she visited their homes and studied the Bible with them over significant periods of time. She was 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.
We may never know how many people joined the Adventist church because of Edith Cross’s long hours of work and travel, nor how many churches she helped plant. She was certainly instrumental in the establishment of the Adventist church in Rochester, Indiana. In other locations, she appears to have grown existing churches. Following evangelistic meetings conducted by George Vandeman in Elkhart in 1938, sixteen people were baptized, and later that year Edith reported continuing to study with 41 more. Although my family did not attend the Vandeman meetings, since Grandma does not precisely remember the date she met Edith, it is possible my family is among those 41 individuals.
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, a practice strongly encouraged by the Adventist emphasis on healthy living. 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.’” 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 church in Apopka, Florida. Edith died in Orlando, Florida, on March 10, 1960.
It turns out that you can really get to know a person through bits and pieces of information in a magazine.
"Armstrong" [obituary]. Advent Review and Sabbath Herald v.110 no.33 (August 17, 1933) pg. 22.
"Armstrong" [obituary]. Lake Union Herald v.25 no.4 (January 24, 1933) pg.6.
"Armstrong" [obituary]. Lake Union Herald v.25 no.9 (February 28, 1933) pg.9.
“Coon” [obituary]. Advent Review and Sabbath Herald v.80 no.10 (March 10, 1903) pg. 23.
“College View Items.” The Educational Messenger v.4 no.19 (May 29, 1908) pg. 7.
Cross, Edith. “Elkhart, Indiana.” Lake Union Herald v.31 no.12 (April 9, 1939) pg. 2.
Cross, Edith. “South Bend, Ind.” Lake Union Herald v.22 no.15 (April 9, 1930): 10.
Cross, Edith. “The Connecting Link.” Ministry v.3 no.4 (April 1, 1930): 26-27.
“Cross” [Edith Ellen Armstrong - obituary]. Advent Review and Sabbath Herald v.137 no. 17 (April 28, 1960): 24.
"Cross" [William N. – obituary]. Advent Review and Sabbath Herald v.131 no.61 (December 30, 1954): 23.
"Cross, William N." [obituary]. Columbia Union Visitor v.60 no.3 (January 20, 1955): 10.
"Edith Ellen Armstrong Cross" [obituary]. Lake Union Herald v.52 no.15 (April 12, 1960): 13.
"Cross" [Edith Ellen Armstrong - obituary]. Southern Tidings v.54 no.8 (April 13, 1960): 21.
McKee, W. H. “Grand Rapids Tent Meeting.” Lake Union Herald v.9 no.36 (September 5, 1917) pg. 4-5.
“New Here and There.” The Life Boat v. 28 no. 12 (December 1, 1925): 379.
“News Notes.” Lake Union Herald v.15 no.44 (November 7, 1923): 4.
Piper, J. F. “Evangelistic Campaigns for the Summer.” Lake Union Herald v.14 no.20 (May 17, 1922): 5.
Piper, J. F. “The Fieldwork in Michigan.” Lake Union Herald v.13 no.25 (June 22, 1921): 6-7.
Piper, J. F. “A Visit Among the Tent Companies of West Michigan.” Lake Union Herald v.12 no.29 (July 21, 1920): 6.
Piper, J. F. “Tent Companies.” Lake Union Herald v.12 no.26 (June 30, 1920): 6.
Royer, D. K. “West Michigan Conference Camp Meeting.” Lake Union Herald v.10 no.19 (September 5, 1917): 5.
Sanders, F. O. “Farewell to the Plymouth District.” Lake Union Herald v.28 no.19 (May 12, 1936): 1.
U. S. Census. Ancestry.com.
Walker Edna L. “A Report.” Lake Union Herald v.9 no.19 (May 9, 1917): 9.