by T Joe Willey

By T Joe Willey, October 3, 2013

     The first Sunday schools were created to provide education (i.e., reading and writing) to working children on their day off from work.  These first schools were organized in churches beginning around the 1780s.  The schools were for poor children.  In this setting it was natural to teach reading from the Bible.  By the middle of the 19th century, Sunday school attendance was nearly a universal aspect of childhood.  Parents who themselves did not regularly attend church insisted that their children go to Sunday school.

     Early Adventists adopted the Sunday school format as a major backdrop for religious education.  One of the first mentions of teaching “bright young little girls” in Sabbath-school was reported in the Review & Herald by Mary Howard in December 1866. [i]  By 1880 a number of operations of the Sabbath-school system had sprung up, including “penny banks, missionary auxiliaries … and the thousand and one good and useful agencies which cluster around the Sabbath-school.” [ii]
  
     Today, worship in Sabbath-school takes many styles and forms.  Nearly all classes focus on a study of the standard doctrines of the church using a quarterly produced by the Sabbath School Department of the General Conference.  Generally smaller group discussions using this quarterly are formed on the main floor the sanctuary.  There is a trusted teacher who oversee the organization of the class.  Some classes might move to the mother’s or choir room or to the balcony.  After the lesson study members return to the sanctuary for the main preaching service.  This is the traditional Sabbath-school orientation.

     In larger churches or on the campus of an Adventist college or university it is not uncommon for members to attend classes in a nearby lecture room and spend thirty minutes or an hour discussing the quarterly, or perhaps an interesting topic such as unearthing ancient secrets from the Holy Land.  Maybe the class will study the Bible chapter by chapter or religious topics of interest.  There are many variations.

     The most notable classes at Loma Linda University in the past were held by Drs. Jack Provonshia and Graham Maxwell.  Their classes were always well attended and let out in time to attend the main preaching service.  Over time these independent classes develop their own legacy or reputation.

     This is a report about one long-standing alternative class called Sabbath Seminars (“Where great minds meet”).  The class meets each Sabbath from 10:30 AM until 12:30.  It is held in the Centennial Complex on the Loma Linda University campus.  Apparently, the origin of this class began in the early 1970s in Prof. Dalton Baldwin’s home.  Baldwin (now deceased) was a member of the religion faculty.  Over the course of many decades other religion leaders were prominent in leading the class, including Professors Jim Walters, Richard Rice and David Larson.  Currently, Dr. James Walters (Ethics Department in the School of Religion) and Dennis Hokama, a retired high school teacher from Los Angeles, have kept the class together for the past several years and maintain its structures. 

     Generally the seminar centers around an interesting book the class agrees to read and discuss.  Going through the book, a speaker is invited each week to present a chapter or group of chapters. The facilitator is likely to be a member of the class selected by expertise or background.  The speaker may also be invited from outside the class or an active or retired professor from Loma Linda or La Sierra University campus. On occasion the presenter might be the author of the book.  The presentation is followed by another hour of spirited dialogue with the speaker.  A handout of the presentation is expected.

     Everyone is given an opportunity to ask a question or express their viewpoints following the presentation.  A timekeeper imposes a three-minute limit on members in the class who speak during the second hour and one minute on a related interjection into the thread of the dialogue that was just given.
 
     Sounds too organized?  The timing rules had to be imposed because some earnest individuals had a tendency to be long-winded while others wanted a chance to speak.  Class members are from academic or professional backgrounds, but not all by any means. One goal is to stay on topic and remain focused on the materials presented by the speaker. Jan Hackleman is the timekeeper for the class.

     The class uses a website on the Internet called “sabbathseminars.com” developed specifically for its members.  The Internet resources at this website are designed to announce the next topic and integrate the activities of class and to store the presentation handouts online.  In addition, the website supports several activities or events, which will be briefly mentioned below.  The class centers its activities around reading and discussing significant religious and intellectual ideas from a chosen book in the hopes of creating an authentic religious experience for the members.  The website is integrated into this activity.
 
     The weekly experiences begin when the class selects an important book to read and different speakers are invited each week to lead the discussion.  Often the bookis discussed chapter-by-chapter (see above schedule screen).  There are deviations on occasion.   

     Just a little more about what the class reads in preparation for each week.  It is usually a book of religious interest.  For example, the class is currently reading chapter-by-chapter, “The Creationists” by Ronald L. Numbers.
 
     A book committee reviews class suggestions and recommends three possible books.  After discussing the merits of each one the class votes.  Members in the class also have access on the website to propose a book for future discussions to add to the list.  Here is one of the screens used by the class in making reading recommendations.

     The “Proposed Books for Future Selection” encourages class member to “pitch a useful book” one they would like to see the class adopt.  They can summarize what the book is about.  And at the bottom of the screen is a place where other members can vote (clicking on the stars) and a tally is kept of class responses.  Other members who are also enthusiastic or not in favor about adopting the book can add their own comments in the “Add New Comment.”

     After each presentation is completed the handout is downloaded and stored for later retrieval in the online archives of the website.  Consequently, if an individual misses the class they can return to this section of the website and retrieve the handout from the archives.  A portion of the archives screen for a previous book “The Religion of the Earliest Churches” along with date, chapter pages covered and title and who gave the presentation is shown.  Members can also print out the handout.
   
     In addition, the website has facilities to create class announcements, a section devoted to continuing conversations or interchanges through a blog, or store interesting media recordings (podcasts), etc.  Currently, there are more than two hundred listed members who have access to theactivities of the class.  This project started almost four years ago, so there is some history of past presentations stored on the website.  A few members live in other countries or areas of the United States who also follow the activities of this class using this website.
 
    The class also uses the website to announce upcoming potlucks.  The time and place is listed, there is a map to the location over Google Maps which can be obtained with the click of the mouse.  Instructions on what to bring can also be included.

     Finally, just to mention one more useful feature, members can search the data base for key words or phrases.  This allows the member to locate various papers that were handed out in class.  It is presumed at this point that you have a general idea on how the Internet is being used to administer the Reflections Class and broaden the experiences of its members.

     The software platform that supports this website is the same software that is widely used for such purposes on the Internet.  The software is Drupal which is an open source content management platform.  This software literally powers millions of websites and applications.  It’s built, used, and supported by an active and diverse community of people around the world.  In our own case, we designed the website, then hired a website developer familiar with Drupal to obtain and merge the different functions that are discussed here.  If you want more details, or even to explore the website on your own you may apply by following the instructions on the first screen found at www.sabbathseminars.com.  Several individuals outside the area participate on the website, including members from Canada and England.  Apply for an account and you can be made an active member of the website to following along with the discussions.

[i] The Review & Herald.  February 5, 1867. p. 101.
[ii] The Review & Herald.  August 5, 1880. p. 103.