by Kit Watts

I'm a pilgrim, and I'm a stranger;
I can tarry, I can tarry but a night;
Do not detain me, for I am going
To where the fountains are ever flowing.
I'm a pilgrim, and I'm a stranger;
I can tarry, I can tarry but a night.

Mary S. B. Dana. SDA Hymnal, 444

The words to this hymn were written in 1841 and would probably have been familiar to the people in this story. If you lived in a time when people believed the Lord was coming right away, perhaps within a couple of years, or even within a few months, but certainly coming soon, you too might feel like a pilgrim. You too might be traveling light - carrying only your hopes, bearing only your prayers, and tarrying along the way "but a night."

In 1869 the Adventist pilgrims in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, were having to deal with the fact that they had tarried longer than a night. It had been 25 years since 1844. Many did cherish bright visions of their future home "where the fountains are ever flowing." "Their longing hearts, their long hearts were there."

But some of their children had drifted away. Some of their friends had lost hope. And some of their neighbors had never believed to begin with.

Four women decided to meet in Mary Haskell's home on Wednesday afternoons at 3 o'clock to pray about all this. And prayer changed things. It rejuvenated their energy and expanded their vision. On June 9, 1869, nine women organized themselves as the Vigilant Missionary Society. The records show that they chose Mrs. Roxie Rice for president; Mrs. Haskell, vice president; Mrs. Mary Priest, secretary; and Rhoda Wheeler as treasurer.

Mary Haskell had been invalid. She was partially paralyzed and 40 years old when her dying father asked Stephen Haskell, his hired man, to take care of Mary for him. Stephen was only 17 years old. The only way he knew how to keep his promise was to marry Mary - which he did.

Twenty years later it was Mary Haskell who accepted the responsibility of vice president for the Vigilant Missionary Society.

The group was not distinguished. Most of the women had little formal education. Several had severe health problems. But handicaps do not deter the vigilant! They divided up their neighborhoods into sections, visited the sick, and cheered the lonely. Everywhere they lent books and left free tracts.

Next, they began writing letters and sending pamphlets all over the world. Maria Huntley taught herself French and Mary Martin took up German so they could correspond about the gospel with individuals who spoke those languages. Mary Priest, another member with bad health, served as secretary of the group for 20 years until her death in 1889. During this time she wrote 6,000 missionary letters. Longhand, of course. No wonder the group was called "The Vigilant Missionary Society."

The praying women in South Lancaster exerted an influence throughout the church. With Stephen Haskell as their vigilant promoter they renamed themselves the Tract and Missionary Society. Eventually there sprang from this one source three revered branches of Adventist outreach - the Publishing Department, the Adventist Book Centers, and the Home Missionary Department.

* * *

In 1874 Mrs. Henry Gardner invited eight women to come to her home in Battle Creek for a prayer band. They studied the Bible, too, and prayed over it. They were touched as they thought of Dorcas and her ministry described in Acts 9. Finally, their prayers could no longer be contained in words; they burst into action. In October 1874 they organized the first Dorcas and Benevolent Association. Martha Byington Amadon became the association's first president.

Martha was a capable woman. In 1852 when a few families had become Adventists in Buck’s Bridge, New York, these Sabbath-keepers decided to begin a church school for their children. They chose Martha, who was just 19, to teach one dozen pupils in Aaron Hilliard's parlour that first year.

Under Martha's leadership the Dorcas Society flourished. By 1878 they were meeting in the northwest belfry of the Dime Tabernacle. They sewed, mended clothing, collected food, and organized a caring outreach to widows, orphans, and the sick.

Like the vigilant women in South Lancaster, the yeasty prayers and practical ministry of this Battle Creek group eventually leavened the whole lump. Adventists everywhere began establishing Dorcas societies. Finally, about 40 years later in 1915, the General Conference took action. It set up a Home Missionary Department under the leadership of Edith Graham - another woman of great administrative ability. The Dorcas Welfare Society was now fully grafted into the church as a sturdy limb of service.

We today are well acquainted with the Community Service units in nearly every Adventist Church, and their impressive joint efforts. First named Seventh-day Adventist World Service, we not call it the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). Thank God for Mrs. Gardner's prayer band back in Battle Creek!

* * *

But none of this would have happened without five teenagers. They watched and waited for Jesus on October 22, 1844. When the sun rose the next morning they were nearly crushed with disappointment. The weeks that followed grew cold, and dim. It was a winter of despair. Even so, they decided to pray about it and gathered in an upper room in Portland, Maine. Some say that Ellen Harmon came in a wheel chair. That she could barely speak above a whisper. That when she coughed, she coughed blood.

When you think about it, it's hard to believe that God should specifically choose to visit this prayer band, and to so strikingly answer their prayers. Many others throughout New England were also asking God for light, for understanding, for hope. Many godly preachers were praying and great evangelists were calling upon the Lord.

Why would God entrust the message that so many Christians wanted to this handful of girls? Why would He give new theological light to young women?

Who would believe their report? Who could accept the idea that the arm of the Lord had been revealed to them – the unschooled, the untrained, the simple, the female. And, even if they had a message from God, who would let them give it? Women were not permitted to speak in public or to preach from the pulpit. Is it any wonder that Ellen Harmon shrank from the task and begged God to find somebody else? But she had prayed for new light - and God gave it.

Startling things can happen when we pray. Years later Ellen Harmon White wrote: "Why should the sons and daughters of God be reluctant to pray, when prayer is the key in the hand of faith to unlock heaven's storehouse, where are treasured the boundless resources of Omnipotence?" (Steps to Christ, 94).

Few of us know what it is to "wait on the Lord," to linger, to ask and ask again. Few of us open our lives or offer our energy to God in the company of praying friends.

Are we afraid God might actually answer us? Surprise us? Might He actually keep His word that "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them"? Might He enter our lives - or change our minds - or turn the church around?

If history speaks, it is saying Yes.