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John Orr Corliss

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Corliss, John Orr (1845–1923)

By Milton Hook

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Milton Hook, Ed.D. (Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, the United States). Hook retired in 1997 as a minister in the Greater Sydney Conference, Australia. An Australian by birth Hook has served the Church as a teacher at the elementary, academy and college levels, a missionary in Papua New Guinea, and as a local church pastor. In retirement he is a conjoint senior lecturer at Avondale College of Higher Education. He has authored Flames Over Battle Creek, Avondale: Experiment on the Dora, Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist, the Seventh-day Adventist Heritage Series, and many magazine articles. He is married to Noeleen and has two sons and three grandchildren.

First Published: August 31, 2020

John Orr Corliss was a pioneering evangelist in the United States and in Australia.

Early Life

John Orr Corliss was born to Joseph and Jane (Morang) Corliss on December 26, 1845, in Topsham, Maine.1 His mother was a descendant of the Scottish Earl of Stair. His father’s ancestry the English family of Richard Monkton Milnes, otherwise known as the First Baron of Houghton and a man of questionable character.

Joseph Corliss died in 1850 when John was scarcely 5 years old. His son’s education took place in various local schools at Topsham, Bath, and Lewiston. To escape harsh treatment from his adopted father, at the age of 16 he entered an apprenticeship as a sailor. In this capacity he became a converted Christian about 1862.2

As a 19-year-old, John abandoned seamanship and married 20-year-old Susan Gowell in 18643 and then enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War. His military unit was the Thirtieth Regiment of the Maine Infantry.4 After the war ended in 1865, he returned to Maine, where a Freewill Baptist minister baptized him in 1866.5 All happy prospects came to a tragic end with Susan’s premature death on November 16, 1867. A simple white marble headstone marks her resting place in the Oak Grove cemetery at Bath, Maine.6

At the time of John’s grieving he came in contact with James and Ellen White who were engaged in evangelism with John Andrews in New England. Corliss responded to the White’s invitation to join them in Michigan, and there he became more familiar with the Seventh-day Adventist faith. James White baptized him in 1868. In the same year, at only 23 years of age, he assumed the superintendence and chaplaincy of the fledgling Battle Creek Health Reform Institute.7 Also in 1868, he married Julia Ann Burgess,8 a schoolteacher from the age of 14 who was born in Ohio in 1843.9

Public Evangelism in America

In 1871 Corliss made a significant career shift. He began conducting evangelistic efforts in remote villages in upstate Michigan, places such as Vernon, Mt. Pleasant, and Le Roy.10 He had some success, but initially he and Julia had to be self-supporting, because the Michigan Conference had no funds to pay him. John picked up laboring jobs wherever he could find them and Julia earned two dollars a week cooking for a crew of saw-millers.11

The harsh conditions came with a heavy personal cost. Their first child, Frank, born in 1870, died in 1874. Their second child, Frederick, born in 1873, died when he was only eight months old. During 1875 through 1877 the couple conducted evangelistic series in Maine and Virginia, losing their third child, Lou Ellen or “Louie,” when she was only 18 months old. Their surviving children were Lulu, born in 1877, and William Burr, born in 1882.12 John’s successful evangelistic endeavors culminated in his ordination in October 1874 at the Lapeer, Michigan, camp meeting. Elders James White, Joseph Waggoner, and Stephen Haskell officiated at the service.13

The years 1878 through 1883 were more stable for John’s young family. He used Michigan as a home base from which to conduct evangelistic series and, at times, worked in other locations. For example, he spoke at the 1880 Minnesota Sabbath School Association meeting14 and in early 1883 he conducted meetings during a tour in Georgia and Virginia.15 Nearer to home he served as evangelism director of Michigan’s District No. 3.16

However, his special interest apparently lay in Virginia where he had pioneered previously and possibly had spent some time during the Civil War. At the 1883 General Conference Session in Battle Creek, Corliss introduced the vote to accept the newly formed Virginia Conference into the Seventh-day Adventist organization. He also made a plea for more workers to go to West Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, and Maryland.17

The same proceedings took the extraordinary step to allow Corliss to select his own field of labor for 1884.18 He chose California and conducted evangelistic meetings in Healdsburg, Woodland, Oakland, and in Oregon State.19

Trail-blazing in Australia

The October-November 1884 General Conference Session nominated Corliss to join Haskell and a small team to sail from California to establish a mission base in Australia.20 The group comprised Haskell; Mendel and Lizzie Israel and their two daughters, Jessie and May; John and Julia Corliss and their two children, Lulu and Burr; printer Henry Scott; and colporteur William Arnold. They departed San Francisco aboard the Australia on May 10, 1885, sailing via Hawaii, American Samoa,21 and New Zealand, arriving at Sydney on Sabbath June 6. Haskell and Israel remained in Sydney for a short time to explore the city while the others journeyed on to Melbourne to find lodgings.22

Corliss gave early attention to establishing what became known as the Echo Publishing House and effectively became its managing editor.23 Later reports indicate that he largely financed the enterprise with his own funds.24 At the same time the missionaries purchased a large tent, and he assisted Mendel Israel with five evangelistic series in suburban Melbourne during the warmer southern months, October 1885 through April 1886.25 They established a church there before the two evangelists moved on to frosty Ballarat in the July winter.26

By October 1886 John had transferred to the city of Adelaide where he conducted meetings in the Norwood Town Hall.27 The Adelaide church of 34 members and a larger Sabbath School organized in December.28

The following months, January and February 1887, Corliss conducted another tent series in Geelong, Victoria.29 He began an additional one in the Melbourne suburb of East St Kilda30 when his health suddenly collapsed under the pace he had set for himself. He and his family returned to California in March 1887.31

Recuperation and Renewed Service in America

After spending a few months in California, they moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where he engaged in editorial and religious liberty activities.32 Intermittently, he evangelized in Washington, D.C., where in 1889 he organized the first Adventist church in the nation’s capital and helped pastor the congregation during its early years. He also joined A. T. Jones in an appearance before a United States Senate committee, urging the defeat of a proposed constitutional amendment to “Christianize” public schools.33

The production of Bible Readings for the Home Circle was a major enterprise at the time. Corliss adapted his evangelistic topics for publication in the volume. Its preface acknowledged him with the words, “Prominent among these contributors is J. O. Corliss, who, assisted by others, carefully edited and revised the entire collection …”34 The book became the denominational standard for Bible studies using the proof-text method.

Another Term in Australia

The Corliss family returned to Australia in late 1893, just prior to the January camp meeting at Middle Brighton, suburban Melbourne. John addressed the gathering on the two Sunday evenings, prime time for the general public who wished to hear an evangelist.35 He continued with an evangelistic series after the camp meeting concluded.36 In the same year, 1894, he repeated the series in Hawthorn37 and Auburn38 and then transferred to Tasmania to conduct similar meetings,39 returning to Melbourne to address a convention at the St. Kilda Bible School40 and then proceeded to the October camp meeting in Ashfield, suburban Sydney.41 Once again, at the conclusion of the camp he continued with a public campaign.42 Seventeen-year-old daughter Lulu assisted with a Sunday School.43 He accepted no administrative duties, preferring to take the role of leading evangelist with its punishing pace of public meetings.

While he was in Sydney conducting campaigns, John’s 13-year-old son, Burr, helped to clear the Avondale estate and attended evening classes in 1895 prior to the official opening of the Avondale School.44 John himself, however, became ill with influenza. It weakened him, but early in 1896 the family transferred to Perth, West Australia. Corliss opened a tent series in Beaufort Street, North Perth, but few attended, so he shifted it to Charles Street in West Perth. He had only given two lectures when his health failed. He organized the election of officers for the infant company and left his assistant in charge, departing with his family from Albany on April 18, 1896, for New York via London. Corliss intended to seek medical help at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.45

Two Further Decades of Service

For two years, 1897 and 1898, Corliss taught Bible classes for the medical and nursing trainees at Battle Creek Sanitarium during his recuperation. He spent the last months of 1898 serving in Canada and then returned to California in 1899 where he remained in ministry46 except for 12 months as vice-president of the British Union Conference, 1902-1903.47 His last years of service in California included several terms on the executive committee48 and finally as field director and correspondence secretary in the religious liberty department of the Pacific Union Conference.49 During those years he had less involvement with public evangelism.

John and Julia were attending the 1912 Southern California camp meeting at Glendale when she contracted pneumonia and quickly passed away on Friday, August 16. A memorial service took place at sunset the following day, and she was laid to rest in the Alta Mesa Memorial Park, Palo Alto.50

Corliss married Julia’s younger sister, Florence Betsy Burgess, in 1913.51 Never fully retiring, he continued to hold an honorary ministerial licence from the Pacific Union Conference52 and worked on behalf of needy churches in addition to speaking at camp meetings in various states.

His last Sabbath service was on September 8, 1923, in the Pasadena church. That same evening he fell ill and was taken to Glendale Sanitarium where he passed away on September 17. At the time, his daughter, Lulu Gregory, and her husband were doing self-supporting missionary work in Brazil, and Dr. Burr Corliss was living in California.53

John Orr Corliss rests in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale. His headstone carries the insignia of Union Army veterans.54

Sources

“A letter from Elder J.O. Corliss…” Bible Echo, September 3, 1894.

“A series of tent meetings has begun…” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, March 1887.

Bible Readings for the Home Circle. Battle Creek, Michigan: Review and Herald Publishing Company, 1889.

Butler, Geo[rge] I. “General Conference Proceedings.” ARH, November 20, 1883.

Butler, Geo[rge] I. “General Conference Proceedings.” ARH, November 27, 1883.

Corliss, J[ohn] O. “At the National Capital.” ARH, March 12, 1889.

Corliss, J[ohn] O. “Isabella Co., Mich.” ARH, January 9, 1872.

Corliss, J[ohn] O. “Our Australian Missionaries.” ARH, July 7, 1885.

Corliss, J[ohn] O. “Sarah Brown.” ARH, November 24, 1874.

Corliss, J[ohn] O. “South Atlantic Mission.” ARH, February 27, 1883.

Corliss, J[ohn] O. “The Work in Washington, D.C.” ARH, March 11, 1890.

Corliss, J[ohn] O. “The Work in Washington, D.C.” ARH, August 1, 1893.

Corliss, J[ohn] O. and M[endel] C. Israel. “Labor in the Suburbs of Melbourne.” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, January 1886.

“Corliss Family Tree.” FamilySearch, Intellectual Reserve, 2020. Retrieved from https:/www.familysearch.org/tree/find/name?search=1&birth=Michigan%2CUnitedStates%7C%7C0&self=%7Ccorliss%7C0%7C0parent1=johnorr%7Ccorliss%7C0%7C07Cmale.

“Elder M.C. Israel and the editor…” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, July 1886.

Ford, Jim. “Register of the Julia Anne Corliss Diary (Collection 285).” Center for Adventist Research, James White Library, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

“For some weeks meetings…” Bible Echo, May 21, 1894.

“From a private letter we learn…” Bible Echo, December 17, 1894.

Fulton, John. “Minnesota SS Association.” ARH, August 26, 1880.

Haskell, S[tephen] N. “Australasia.” ARH, August 4, 1885.

“In accordance with the action…” Bible Echo, February 5, 1894.

“In consequence of failing health…” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, April 1887.

“John Orr Corliss.” FamilySearch, Intellectual Reserve, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.familysearch.org/tree/find/name?search=1&gender=male&self=johnorr%7Ccorliss%7C0%7C0.

“John Orr Corliss,” Find A Grave, 2020. Retrieved from https://findagrave.com/memorial/9623479/john-orr-corliss.

“Julia Ann (Burgess) Corliss.” Find A Grave, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/175735526/julia-ann-corliss.

Masthead, Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, April 1886.

McElhany, J[ames] L. “Life Sketch of Elder J. O. Corliss.” ARH, October 25, 1923.

“Preparations have been made…” Bible Echo, September 17, 1894.

“Seventh-day Adventist Camp Meeting.” Bible Echo, December 15, 1893.

“Seventh-day Adventist Camp Meeting.” Bible Echo, October 15, 1894.

Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. Battle Creek, Michigan: Review and Herald Publishing Company, 1889.

Seventh-day Adventist Yearbooks. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1904-1923.

Sisley, Nellie. “Dist. No.3, Michigan.” ARH, 1882.

S[mith], U[riah]. “The Lapeer, Mich., Camp Meeting.” ARH, October 13, 1874.

Spicer, W[illiam] A. “Julia Ann Corliss.” ARH, September 19, 1912.

“Susan (Gowell) Corliss.” Find A Grave: Oak Grove Cemetery, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/90315/memorial-search?firstName=susan&lastName=corliss&page=1#sr-79720508

“The editor of the Echo is holding a series…” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, October 1886.

“The editor of the Echo commenced a series…” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, February 1887.

“The series of meetings that were being held…” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, January 1887.

“The Seventh-day Adventist church of Melbourne…” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, February 1886.

“The tent meetings at Hawthorn…” Bible Echo, April 9, 1894.

“United States Civil War Soldiers Index, 1861-1865: John O. Corliss.” FamilySearch, Intellectual Reserve, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FS4T-5JZ.

Waggoner, J[oseph] H. “California Conference Proceedings.” Signs of the Times, October 9, 1884.

White, Ellen G. to J. Edson and Emma L. White. January 21, 1895. Letter 130, 1895. Ellen G. White Estate.

White, Ellen G. to J. Edson and Emma L. White. August 19, 1895. Letter 126, 1895. Ellen G. White Estate.

White, W[illiam] C. “West Australia.” Bible Echo, August 17, 1896.

Notes

  1. “John Orr Corliss,” FamilySearch, Intellectual Reserve, 2020, accessed March 4, 2020, https://www.familysearch/org/tree/find/name?search=1&gender=male&self=johnorr%7Ccorliss%7C0%7C0.

  2. J[ames] L. McElhany, “Life Sketch of Elder J.O. Corliss,” ARH, October 25, 1923, 19.

  3. “Susan (Gowell) Corliss,” Find A Grave:Oak Grove Cemetery, 2020, accessed March 4, 2020, https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/90315/memorial-search?firstName=susan&lastName=corliss&page=1#sr-79720508.

  4. “United States Civil War Soldiers Index, 1861-1865: John O. Corliss,” FamilySearch, Intellectual Reserve, 2020, accessed March 10, 2020, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FS4T-5JZ.

  5. J[ames] L. McElhany, “Life Sketch of Elder J.O. Corliss,” ARH, October 25, 1923, 19.

  6. “Susan (Gowell) Corliss,” Find A Grave: Oak Grove Cemetery, 2020, accessed March 4, 2020, https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/90315/memorial-search?firstName=susan&lastName=corliss&page=1#sr-79720508.

  7. J[ames] L. McElhany, “Life Sketch of Elder J. O. Corliss,” ARH, October 25, 1923, 19.

  8. W[illiam] A. Spicer, “Julia Ann Corliss,” ARH, September 19, 1912, 23.

  9. Jim Ford, “Register of the Julia Anne Corliss Diary (Collection 285),” Center for Adventist Research, Andrews University, James White Library, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

  10. J[ohn] O. Corliss, “Isabella Co., Mich.,” ARH, January 9, 1872, 30; J[ohn] O. Corliss, “Sarah Brown,” ARH, November 24, 1874, 175.

  11. J[ames] L. McElhany, “Life Sketch of Elder J. O. Corliss,” ARH,” October 25, 1923, 19.

  12. “Corliss Family Tree,” FamilySearch, Intellectual Reserve, 2020, accessed March 4, 2020 https://www.familysearch.org/tree/find/name?search=1&birth=Michigan%2CUnitedStates%7C%7C0&self=%7Ccorliss%7C07C0&parent1=johnorr%7Ccorliss%7C0%7Co%7Cmale.

  13. U[riah] S[mith], “The Lapeer, Mich., Camp Meeting,” AHR, October 13, 1874.

  14. John Fulton, “Minnesota SS Association,” ARH, August 26, 1880, 151.

  15. J[ohn] O. Corliss, “South Atlantic Mission,” ARH, February 27, 1883, 140.

  16. Nellie Sisley, “Dist. No.3, Michigan,” ARH, May 2, 1882, 285.

  17. Geo[rge] I. Butler, “General Conference Proceedings,” ARH, November 20, 1883, 730, 733.

  18. Geo[rge] I. Butler, “General Conference Proceedings,” ARH, November 27, 1883, 741-742.

  19. J[oseph] H. Waggoner, “California Conference Proceedings,” Signs of the Times, October 9, 1884, 600-602.

  20. “General Conference Proceedings,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Battle Creek, Michigan: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1885), 26, 30.

  21. J[ohn] O. Corliss, “Our Australian Missionaries,” ARH, July 7, 1885, 426.

  22. S[tephen] N. Haskell, “Australasia,” ARH, August 4, 1885, 490.

  23. Masthead, Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, April 1886, 56.

  24. J[ames] L. McElhany, “Life Sketch of Elder J.O. Corliss,” ARH, October 25, 1923, 19.

  25. E.g., “J[ohn] O. Corliss and M[endel] C. Israel, “Labor in the Suburbs of Melbourne,” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, January 1886, 11.

  26. “The Seventh-day Adventist church of Melbourne…” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, February 1886, 32; “Elder M.C. Israel and the editor …,” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, July 1886, 112.

  27. “The editor of the Echo is holding a series …,” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, October 1886, 160.

  28. “The series of meetings that were being held …,” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, January 1887, 16.

  29. “The editor of the Echo commenced a series …,” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, February 1887, 32.

  30. “A series of tent meetings has begun …,” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, March 1887, 32.

  31. “In consequence of failing health …,” Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, April 1887, 64.

  32. J[ames] L. McElhany, “Life Sketch of Elder J.O. Corliss,” ARH, October 25, 1923, 19; “Workers’ Directory,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Battle Creek, Michigan: Review and Herald Publishing Company, 1889), 13, 30.

  33. J[ohn] O. Corliss, “At the National Capital,” ARH, March 12, 1889, 169; J[ohn] O. Corliss, “The Work in Washington, D.C.,” ARH, March 11, 1890, 173; J[ohn] O. Corliss, “The Work in Washington, D.C.,” ARH, August 1, 1893, 12.

  34. Bible Readings for the Home Circle (Battle Creek, Michigan: Review and Herald Publishing Company, 1889), ii.

  35. “Seventh-day Adventist Camp Meeting,” Bible Echo, December 15, 1893, [2].

  36. “In accordance with the action …,” Bible Echo, February 5, 1894, 40.

  37. “The tent meetings at Hawthorn …,” Bible Echo, April 9, 1894, 112.

  38. “For some weeks meetings …,” Bible Echo, May 21, 1894, 160.

  39. “A letter from Elder J. O. Corliss …,” Bible Echo, September 3, 1894, 280.

  40. “Preparations have been made …,” Bible Echo, September 17, 1894, 296.

  41. “Seventh-day Adventist Camp Meeting,” Bible Echo, October 15, 1894, [2].

  42. “From a private letter we learn …,” Bible Echo, December 17, 1894, 392.

  43. Ellen G. White to J. Edson and Emma L. White, January 21, 1895, Letter 130, 1895, Ellen G. White Estate.

  44. Ellen G. White to J. Edson and Emma L. White, August 19, 1895, Letter 126, 1895, Ellen G. White Estate.

  45. W[illiam] C. White, “West Australia,” Bible Echo, August 17, 1896, 253.

  46. J[ames] L. McElhany, “Life Sketch of Elder J. O. Corliss,” ARH, 1923, 19.

  47. “British Union Conference,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1904), 65.

  48. “California Conference,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1907), 61, 62.

  49. “Pacific Union Conference,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1911), 59.

  50. W[illiam] A. Spicer, “Julia Ann Corliss,” ARH, September 19, 1912, 23; “Julia Ann Corliss,” Find A Grave, 2020, accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/175735526/julia-ann-corliss.

  51. “John Orr Corliss,” Find A Grave, 2020, accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9623479/john-orr-corliss

  52. “Pacific Union Conference,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1920), 86, 87.

  53. J[ames] L. McElhany, “Life Sketch of Elder J. O. Corliss,” ARH, October 25, 1923, 19.

  54. “John Orr Corliss,” Find A Grave, 2020, accessed March 8, 2020, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9623479/john-orr-corliss.

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Hook, Milton. "Corliss, John Orr (1845–1923)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. August 31, 2020. Accessed June 17, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=6960.

Hook, Milton. "Corliss, John Orr (1845–1923)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. August 31, 2020. Date of access June 17, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=6960.

Hook, Milton (2020, August 31). Corliss, John Orr (1845–1923). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved June 17, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=6960.