Pilgrimage is universal. All faiths engage in it. Animists and Hindus go to sacred rivers, springs, wells, or mountains. Buddhists go to temples and to shrines encasing the Buddha’s remains. Muslims go on the Hajj to Mecca, visiting sites they associate with incidents in the lives of Abraham and Muhammad. Jews make aliyah to Jerusalem. Catholics go to the Holy Land, or to Rome, or to shrines associated with saints. And Protestants go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to locations associated with faithful men and women of all ages.
We have a human urge to go, as depicted by Chaucer–something in the air calls to us as soon as April’s showers bring forth the first flowers of Spring. Perhaps because these shrines, these waymarks in the journey of a people, provide waymarks for our spiritual lives as well. They recall that we are on individual journeys from the City of Destruction to the Desired Country, the Celestial City, whose builder and maker is God. Recalling the journeys of others, walking the ground they trod, gives us courage.
My first experience of pilgrimage was in 1975, when I went to Andrews University and Battle Creek, MI, for the first time. Battle Creek was the headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church from the 1850s to the turn of the century. It was the center of Adventist organization, education, and health reform. We went to the Battle Creek church (called the Battle Creek Tabernacle), took a tour of the home of James and Ellen White, and visited Oak Hill Cemetery, where many of the Adventist pioneers are buried.
I returned to Battle Creek in 1998. I was in the midwest for my D.Min. graduation; a brother had suggested I visit friends of his in South Bend; they were Adventists (though I was not at the time), and decided to visit Battle Creek that Sabbath. I was fine with this, viewing myself this time as a tourist with an interest in history. The White house was closed for renovation, so we could only go on the cemetery tour. I had not studied SDA history much in the immediately preceding years, but the stories flooded back. That’s what visits to a pilgrimage site do: they remind us of details in the story we had forgotten, or never knew, and put flesh on the dry bones.
I went back to Battle Creek yesterday. The Adventist church has taken great strides in ten years to build up this monument to memory. Several blocks in the old Adventist dominated neighborhood are now owned by Adventist Heritage Ministries. Homes of other Adventist pioneers have been restored; an historic church has been moved there, and another reconstructed. It now takes a couple of hours to take it all in, with excellent guides telling the story–not as historians, but as people of faith, recalling spiritual lessons, calling us to renewed faith, inviting us to prayer and perseverance.
While in Vermont a couple weeks ago, we took a side trip to Low Hampton, NY, fifteen miles west of Rutland, to another site owned by Adventist Heritage Ministries, the house and farm built by William Miller.
The effect of visiting these sites was to recall my roots, my journey of faith (a pilgrimage in the truest sense, entailing a going out and a return), and to renew my faith in the Blessed Hope, the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was the hope that burned in the hearts of these men and women.