John F. Bahler, whose role in the Texas Tract and Missionary Society contributed to the organization of the Texas Conference, was born in Switzerland in 1840. He emigrated with his parents to Rochester, New York, at age five.
Orphaned in childhood, Bahler was apprenticed to a confectioner. At age 18 he lost his eyesight as the result of an infection and subsequent eye surgeries. After joining the Methodist Episcopal Church, Bahler attended a school for the blind in Janesville, Wisconsin, for three years. In 1865, he married Emma Smith, with whom he had a son, Robert. After Emma died, John returned to Rochester. In 1869, he married Mary J. Cottrell, a niece of Roswell F. Cottrell, and author of numerous articles and poems in denominational periodicals.
Bahler was a natural salesman who peddled brooms, books, and other items throughout his life. Although blind, he became known as “a man of great energy and ambition” who “made himself independent.”1
After his return to Rochester, Bahler, already convinced by the prophecies pointing to the soon second advent of Christ, became intrigued by the Sabbath question. But his blindness prevented the in-depth study and research he desired. When he learned that Angeline Andrews was opening the Andrews home in Rochester for a series of readings of seven lectures on the history of the Sabbath, written by her husband, J. N. Andrews, Bahler attended and accepted the doctrine that the seventh day of the week is still the Sabbath.
From this experience he recognized the importance of distributing Adventist doctrines through literature, and began to make sacrificial pledges to assist in the spread of pamphlets and books. In the mid-1870s, when James White made appeals for Tract and Missionary Societies, the Bahlers sold their home in Missouri and donated a portion of the proceeds.
Bahler and his family were among the earliest Seventh-day Adventists in Texas when they moved there in 1875. They were preceded only by the Rust families — five brothers with their families and their mother, who had moved from Michigan during the months previous. Bahler helped establish the first Seventh-day Adventist church in the state, near Dallas, in 1875, following a series of meetings conducted by Dudley M. Canright. A Tract and Missionary Society was also quickly organized, with membership larger than the church membership. This tract society spread literature throughout North Texas, particularly in the counties near Dallas. Tent meetings eventually followed, leading to the establishment of the four original churches of the Texas Conference, organized in November 1878.
In 1876, following another series of meetings, this time led by Merritt E. Cornell, the Dallas church membership became very unsettled. Soon Bahler became entangled in controversy with deacon-in-charge, E. G. Rust, along with his siblings and their families.
Robert M. Kilgore, a pastor from Iowa who had accepted a call from James White to labor in Texas, arrived in 1877 to find the Dallas church deeply divided. The plan was for Kilgore to follow up interests that had been generated from the literature distribution by holding tent meetings. But first, he needed to settle the conflict in Dallas. He met with the members of the church, conducted a church trial, and sided with the Rust families in their accusations against Bahler. The camaraderie that Kilgore and the Rust brothers shared by virtue of having served in the Union army during the American Civil War may have been a factor.
Ellen White, who was in Oregon at that time, wrote two lengthy testimonies in which she described seeing that church trial in vision. She reprimanded Kilgore, and excoriated the Rust brothers for their verbal abuse of Bahler. Others, including Joseph S. Clarke, a teacher from Ohio who had moved to Texas to work among the freedmen, were also included in the rebuke. The letter to Kilgore also included a gentle reproof to Bahler, stating that he had lost a spiritual victory in allowing the “false accusations” to cause him to “let go his hold on God.”2
James White concurred with his wife regarding the conflict between Bahler and the Rust brothers. In an 1878 Review editorial, White stated that Bahler had played the noble part in decreasing the debt of the Tract Society, following the bad financial management by “individuals from Michigan.” White admired Bahler’s enthusiastic involvement in the activities of the Tract Society, and announced plans to locate a Tract and Missionary Society publishing house for the southern states in Denison, where Bahler resided.3
James White wrote this editorial from Texas, where he and Ellen had arrived in November for an extended winter visit.4 They accepted Bahler’s offer to use two large rooms in his newly constructed home on Morgan Street in southwest Denison. Residents of that home at the time also included the Bahlers’ son and infant daughter, Grace, and a young pastor, A. G. Daniells, with his wife, Mary, and Ellen White’s assistant, Marian Davis.
In appreciation for Bahler’s hospitality, James White worked with the publishing house in Battle Creek to bring out an enlarged edition of Bahler’s autobiography, which would include doctrinal information on the Sabbath and second advent of Christ. The Whites lived in the Bahler home until their departure by wagon train in late April 1879.
Bahler served for a time as a licensed minister in the Texas Conference, and initiated the founding of an orphanage. In addition to preaching, he was known for his financial generosity, massive distribution of tracts and other literature, as well as giving Bible studies.5 Following Mary’s death in 1893,6 he married Pauline Paulson, a Seventh-day Adventist resident of a large Norwegian community southwest of Dallas.7 During his later years Bahler traveled through the South, residing in Florida, and finally in Texas again with his daughter, Grace. He again experienced discouragement during these years, but before his death was reconciled to the Dallas church. He died in Dallas on April 1, 1918.8
Bahler, J.F. Thrilling Incidents in the Life and Experience of John F. Bahler. Battle Creek, MI: SDA Pub. Assn., 1897.
Carter, G. Tom. The 19th Century Odyssey of John and Judith: From the Battlefields of the Civil War to Spiritual Battlefields on the Texas Frontier. Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Ministerial Association, 2007.
McCutchen, W.A. “John F. Bahler obituary.” Southwestern Union Record, May 14, 1918.
White, Ellen G. Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4. Ellen G. White Writings, https://egwwritings.org/
White, James. “Texas Camp-Meeting.” ARH, December 5, 1878.
W. A. McCutchen, “John F. Bahler Obituary,” Southwestern Union Record, May 14, 1918, 1.↩
Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 4, 321-340. In these testimonies, the Rust brothers are “Brethren B,” and Bahler is “Brother D.” “Brother A” is Robert M. Kilgore, to whom the first letter (Chapter 28) is addressed.
In the second testimony (Chapter 29) Ellen White speaks directly to the Rust brothers. The original letter is archived at the Ellen G. White – Seventh-day Adventist Research Center on the campus of Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. Provenance of the letter: Elder G. Thomas (Tom) Carter, great-grandson of John and Judith Rust. John Rust was the only one of the Rust brothers to remain loyal members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the only one of the brothers with whom Ellen White made an exception from her sharp rebuke.↩
James White, “Texas Camp-meeting,” ARH, December 5, 1878, 180.↩
James White, “Sherman City Camp-Meeting,” ARH, November 21, 1878, 164.↩
John F. Bahler Obituary, 1.↩
Otho C. Godsmark, “Mary J. Bahler Obituary,” ARH, September 19, 1893, 612.↩
A.W. Jenson, “Pauline Paulson Bahler Obituary,” Southwestern Union Record, May 30, 1911, 6.↩
John F. Bahler Obituary, 1.↩