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George and Maybelle Sterling early in their mission service.

Photo courtesy of South Pacific Division Heritage Centre.

Sterling, George Leigthton (1885–1979) and Maybelle Henrietta (Klopfenstein) (1888–1972)

By Marye Trim

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Marye Trim, Ph.D. (Loughborough University, Leicestershire, England), retired in 2008 as a Senior Lecturer in Australia, England, India and Thailand, also at the University of Western Sydney and Loughborough University. A New Zealander, married to Pastor John B. Trim with five adult children, she supported his pastoral and leadership roles for over fifty years. Trained in journalism and creative writing, she has published books, stories, poems and inspirational articles world-wide, also 21 significant academic publications.

 

First Published: January 29, 2020

George Leighton Sterling, pioneer missionary evangelist, who established the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church in the Cook Islands and the Marquesas Archipelago of the Pacific Ocean, serving there for thirty years, and also for 12 years in New Zealand and Australia, a total of 42 years, followed by 18 years continued dedication in retirement.1

Early Life

Born on December 27, 1885, in Otsego, Michigan, eldest of three sons, George Sterling grew up in an Adventist home and community.2 His grandfather, James G. Sterling, was a minister of the Church of Christ who, with his family, met with Ellen and James White during their years in Rochester, New York, and in 1853 accepted “Present Truth.”3 From him and from his parents, Harvey and Emma Sterling, George grew up hearing stories of the early Seventh-day Adventist history, and also of the Otsego church, begun in South Farmer Street in 1867.4 It was a recognized center of Seventh-day Adventist activity, visited initially by Joseph Bates and James White in 1859. It is interesting to note that while staying with the Hilliard family, pillars of the church in Otsego for many decades, with whom the Sterling family worshipped, that Ellen White, on June 6, 1863, received a vision that showed the importance of a healthy diet. This shaped George’s habits, as he was a vegetarian and drank no tea, coffee, or alcohol throughout his long life of 94 years.5

Education and Marriage

In 1903, then aged 18 years, six foot tall, studious George Sterling attended Mount Vernon College in Ohio.6 However, as a young man, before and while attending college, he had taught in a school, sold books in colporteur work and assisted as a Bible worker in a tent mission.7 Afire to join God’s work, he graduated from the normal academic course (teacher training) in May 1908, being already under appointment to denominational work from April 1908.8

Graduating from the same course was twenty-year-old Maybelle Henrietta Klopfenstein, born in Bowling Green, Ohio, a small farming community, on May 14, 1888.9 She was baptized when young and had one sister.10 The couple married in June 1908, and on July I, four weeks later, sailed from San Francisco on the Mariposa, under appointment as missionaries to the Eastern Polynesian Mission with headquarters at Tahiti.11 They received no outfitting allowance, taking with them only one trunk, two suitcases, and two small boxes of books.12 On the tropical island of Raiatea, they lived a simple lifestyle with few household possessions, and Maybelle became a competent cook, using local foods.13 Their only child, Bernita Talia, was born in Tahiti on June 20, 1924.14 She grew up to became a conference Bible worker,15and in 1953 was appointed to serve at the Adventist hospital in Karachi, Pakistan.

Mission Service

In Tahiti the couple expected to be teachers, but encountered fierce opposition from French authorities.16 This caused them to engage in pioneering evangelism using materials they had brought with them and improvising others. Two years later, in 1910, they were appointed to the Cook Islands. Here they lived and served in primitive conditions for nine years, often derided as “dogs.”17 With energy using every method they could—preaching, teaching, literature distribution, generosity, and kindness—they established believers in Aitutaki, Bora Bora, Mauke, and Rarotonga. George Sterling is remembered today for beginning a school in Aitutaki, where believers have multiplied since his initial, earnest endeavors.18

In September 1914 George Sterling attended the Australasian Union Conference session as a delegate and was ordained to the gospel ministry at an Australian camp meeting in Gore Hill.19 Four years later he was called to pioneer mission work in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, where he baptized both French and indigenous believers.

In 1922 they returned to the United States as delegates to the General Conference session in San Francisco.20 During their only furlough in 1923, he contributed to evangelism in Detroit, Michigan. On return to the Pacific, they were appointed to work again in the Society Islands, where George became president in 1930, and with his usual pioneering zeal extended the Adventist mission to the Austral and Tuamotu Islands.21

Later Life and Ministry

In 1938, thirty years after they had left their homeland to work for God in the Southern Hemisphere, Sterling spent four years as a Bible teacher at the New Zealand Missionary College at Longburn. From 1942 on followed ministry in Christchurch, New Zealand, and in Newcastle, Cessnock, and Tamworth in New South Wales, Australia.22

In 1951 the couple retired to Quirindi, in northern New South Wales, a country town with church and school, where they contributed as subsidized workers. In 1957–1959 they assisted the minister of the nearby Tamworth church, J. B. Trim, in outreach activities of collecting funds for missions, Bible studies in homes, and Vacation Bible Schools for children. In the evening and in any spare moments, Mrs. Sterling knitted a beautiful pink outfit for the Trims’ new baby girl.

Their final retirement came in 1964, when they moved to the Adventist retirement village, Kressville, at Cooranbong. Here they were again involved in church life, Sterling as temperance secretary and his wife in active Dorcas work.

Their Legacy

Sterling by name and sterling in character, in his older years George Sterling may have been regarded by some as an uncompromising, stern man, but his smiling and compassionate wife added constant balance to their sacrificial work, making them an effective team together in foreign lands.

On January 27, 1972, Maybelle H. Sterling, age 84, died at the Sydney Sanitarium after a brief illness and was buried at Cooranbong.23

On May 5, 1979, G. L. Sterling passed away at 95 at the Parklea Adventist Village nursing home in Blacktown, Sydney.24

Summary of Service

July 1908–March 1910, Society Islands; March 1910–April 1919, Cook Islands; April 1919–May 1922, Marquesas Archipelago; 1922, Furlough and Delegate to General Conference; 1923, Evangelism, Detroit, Michigan, United States; April 1924–April 1927, Society Islands; April 1927–November 1927, Cook Islands; November 1927–February 1938, Society Islands, president; 1938–1942, Bible Teacher, New Zealand Missionary College; February 1942–March 1945, Christchurch, New Zealand; March 1945–December 1945, Newcastle, Australia; December 1945–February 1949, Cessnock, Australia; February 1949–1951, Tamworth, Australia.25

At the time of the Sterlings’ diamond jubilee of marriage in 1968, W. G. Turner, president of the Australasian Division, wrote, “It is a great privilege to be associated with these good folk and to note their courage in and their service for the Lord whom they both so fruitfully and faithfully followed through their lives.”26

In “Life Sketch” S. M. Uttley wrote of George Sterling, “He was by nature a studious man, and as a missionary for thirty years became fluent in Tahitian and kindred languages, thus in those difficult days of missionary activity he became a very valued worker.”

Sources

George Leighton Sterling Biographical Records. South Pacific Division of the General Conference Archives. Folder: “Sterling, George Leighton.” Document: “Biographical Information Blank.”

Porter, George C. “Second Primary School Opens.” Australasian Record, June 9, 1975.

Turner, W. G. “Pioneer Missionaries Celebrate Diamond Wedding.” Australasian Record, July 22, 1969.

———. “Sterling, Sister Maybelle H., obituary.” Australasian Record, February 28, 1972.

Uttley, S. M. “Life Sketch of George Sterling.” Australasian Record, June 18, 1979.

———. “Sterling, George Leighton, obituary.” Australasian Record, July 22, 1979.

Notes

  1. W. G. Turner, “Pioneer Missionaries Celebrate Diamond Wedding,” Australasian Record, July 22, 1968, 1.

  2. George Leighton Sterling Biographical Records, South Pacific Division of the General Conference Archives (Folder: “Sterling, George Leighton”; Document: “Biographical Information Blank”).

  3. Turner.

  4. S. M. Uttley, “Life Sketch of George Sterling,” Australasian Record, June 18, 1979, 11.

  5. Personal knowledge of the author as a colleague in ministry of George and Maybelle Sterling between 1953 and 1960.

  6. George Leighton Sterling Biographical Records.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Turner, “Pioneer Missionaries Celebrate Diamond Wedding,” 1.

  10. W. G. Turner, “Sterling, Sister Maybelle H, obituary.” Australasian Record, February 28, 1972, 15.

  11. Turner, “Pioneer Missionaries Celebrate Diamond Wedding,” 1.

  12. Personal Knowledge of the author as a colleague in ministry of George and Maybelle Sterling between 1953 and 1960.

  13. Ibid.

  14. George Leighton Sterling Biographical Records.

  15. Uttley, “Life Sketch of George Sterling,” 11.

  16. Turner, “Pioneer Missionaries Celebrate Diamond Wedding,” 1.

  17. Personal knowledge of the author as a colleague in ministry of George and Maybelle Sterling between 1953 and 1960.

  18. George C. Porter, “Second Primary School Opens,” Australasian Record, June 9, 1975, 2.

  19. George Leighton Sterling Biographical Records.

  20. Turner, “Pioneer Missionaries Celebrate Diamond Wedding,” 1.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Turner, “Sterling, Sister Maybelle H. obituary.”

  24. S. M. Uttley, “Sterling, George Leighton, obituary, Australasian Record, June 18, 1979, 15.

  25. George Leighton Sterling Biographical Records.

  26. Turner, “Sterling, Sister Maybelle H., obituary.”

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Trim, Marye. "Sterling, George Leigthton (1885–1979) and Maybelle Henrietta (Klopfenstein) (1888–1972)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Accessed December 02, 2022. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=685O.

Trim, Marye. "Sterling, George Leigthton (1885–1979) and Maybelle Henrietta (Klopfenstein) (1888–1972)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Date of access December 02, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=685O.

Trim, Marye (2020, January 29). Sterling, George Leigthton (1885–1979) and Maybelle Henrietta (Klopfenstein) (1888–1972). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved December 02, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=685O.