On Sunday, May 17, 1874, Isaac D. Van Horn (1834-1910) calls a meeting in a tent in the City of Walla Walla to organize the First Walla Walla Seventh-day Adventist Church. By the early 1870s, a group of Seventh-day Adventists in the Walla Walla Valley were taking steps to establish a formal Adventist church. Van Horn arrived in 1874 with his wife Adelia (1839-1922) and a 60-foot tent to organize and build up an Adventist church. In 1875, the church will erect a church building, the first Adventist structure in the Pacific Northwest. The Walla Walla Valley will become an important center of Seventh-day Adventism with the founding of Walla Walla College (now University) in 1892.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church emerged out of an apocalyptic movement that anticipated the return of Jesus Christ in the 1840s. When Christ did not appear on earth at the expected time, some came to believe that Christ had begun the final phase of his saving ministry in heaven. This group began observing a Saturday Sabbath and was inspired by the teaching of Ellen White (1827-1915). In 1863, this group organized as the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Adventism began to grow through missional outreach, publishing, and the establishment of health and educational institutions.
The first Adventist missionaries arrived in California in the late 1860s. The Adventist message spread to the Walla Walla Valley and, by 1873, several individuals had become converts to Adventism. A church was organized in the City of Walla Walla in April 1873, and a request for a minister was submitted to denominational leaders. The denomination sent Isaac and Adelia Van Horn west in 1873 to help establish and build up the church in Walla Walla.
Adventism in the Walla Walla Valley
In 1874, the Van Horns arrived with their 60-foot tent in the City of Walla Walla, which at that time, with a population of about 2,000, was the largest town in the Washington Territory. A French Catholic, Toussaint (“Charlie”) Chabot, let Van Horn set up his tent near his vineyard at the corner of 4th Avenue and Birch Street and Van Horn began a series of evangelistic meetings. Hundreds attended these meetings and a few dozen were converted. Chabot was one of these, and he donated the land of the meeting site to the church.
Van Horn formally organized the First Walla Walla Seventh-day Adventist Church on May 17, 1874. Thirty-five members joined and four were baptized by Van Horn in Mill Creek. In 1875, the church erected a building on the land that Chabot had donated. The Walla Walla Statesman described it as “the best house of worship in Oregon and Washington Territory, except one, east of the Cascade Mountains” (Johnson, 17). When the building was dedicated in July of that year, the church had 75 members. Van Horn held meetings elsewhere around the region, and in 1877 a regional organization of the Adventist church, made up of five churches and some 200 members, was organized in Walla Walla.
The Adventist church in Walla Walla attempted to start a school in the 1880s, but in the 1880s Adventism in the region had entered a period of decline. But by 1890, Northwest Adventist had decided to establish a college in the region. In 1892, on land donated by Walla Walla Mayor Nelson G. Blalock (1836-1913), Adventists built and opened Walla Walla College (now Walla Walla University) a few miles west of the town of Walla Walla. In 1899, the Walla Walla Sanitarium (now Walla Walla General Hospital) began to take form in the college’s basement.