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Spencer Nelson Curtiss. Credit: Review and Herald, July 9, 1925.

Curtiss, Spencer Nelson (1862–1925)

By Douglas Morgan

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Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College (B.A., theology, 1978) in Lincoln, Nebraska and the University of Chicago (Ph.D., history of Christianity, 1992). He has served on the faculties of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland and Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. His publications include Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald, 2010). He is the ESDA assistant editor for North America.

First Published: May 1, 2024

Spencer N. Curtiss served for nearly four decades in managerial positions at both the Review and Herald and Pacific Press publishing associations.

Early Life

When Adventist pioneer Joseph Bates came to the small town of Camden, in Oneida County, New York, in 1851, Harriet Spencer (1830-1924) was among those who accepted his teaching concerning the seventh-day Sabbath and the near second advent of Christ and formed a church in that community. Two years later, Harriet married Alvro Nelson Curtiss (1811-1864), a farmer and widower who had a daughter, Clarissa, from his first marriage. Harriet and Alvro’s union produced two children, both born in Camden: Nellie, on June 4, 1855, and Spencer Nelson, on April 10, 1862.1

Alvro Curtiss, also a devout Seventh-day Adventist, died suddenly in April 1864, just as the family was completing a move to West Monroe, New York.2 Relatives helped Harriet raise her two children and Spencer spent a portion of his teen years at Holland Patent, New York, where he received two years of secondary education. He enrolled at Battle Creek College in 1879 and during his first semester there a sermon by Ellen G. White prompted him to make his decision for baptism. He completed three years in the classical course at the college but due to divisive conflict involving the administration and faculty, the board closed the college during what would have been Spencer’s senior year, 1882-1883, and he never completed a degree.3

Curtiss began a lifelong career at Seventh-day Adventist publishing companies while still a student in 1881, working at the Review and Herald office on Sundays, holidays, and evenings. He married Della E. Wright (1863-1954) in Jackson, Michigan, on May 2, 1883. The couple’s only child, Spencer Wilbur (d. 1947) was born February 19, 1884.4

Managerial Roles with Pacific Press

The young family moved to Oakland, California, in 1887 where Curtiss became manager of the book department at Pacific Press Publishing Company.5 His career in Seventh-day Adventist publishing would unfold during an era of rapid growth and change, as well as major conflict over matters of distribution, marketing, and editorial control.

To resolve conflict between Pacific Press and Review and Herald, an agreement reached in 1888 gave each exclusive marketing rights in three of the six General Conference districts in North America while also creating a system for both publishing houses to print and distribute books in their territory that originated in the other publishing house. To facilitate distribution of its products in the East (District 1), Pacific Press established a branch office in New York City in 1888 that also housed the editorial office of the religious liberty periodical, the American Sentinel, beginning in 1890.6 In 1892, Curtiss was appointed to establish and manage another branch, this one located in Kansas City, Missouri, to serve District 5 (the Great Plains and Southwest).7

After a year in Kansas City, Curtiss was recalled to Oakland, resuming his role as Pacific Press book department manager. He was subsequently appointed superintendent of the factory.8 He also served as secretary and treasurer for the Helping Hand and Medical Mission that served the homeless and unemployed in San Francisco.9

Resistance to Centralized Dominance

In 1895, the denomination initiated a plan for centralized control of all its publications under the General Conference Association (GCA), a move vigorously protested by Pacific Press general manager C. H. Jones.10 Curtiss also made the case against the GCA plan in a lengthy letter to F. L. Mead on June 24, 1895, asking, “shall the Publishing Houses drop out of the business, and give up the field to the General Conference Association?” Curtiss did not think this was the Lord’s will. Instead, referring to a testimony from Ellen White sent April 8, 1894 to the General Conference Committee and the members of the publishing house boards, he asserted: “I do know that the spirit of the Lord has told us that certain plans would be formed in Battle Creek which would threaten the work, and that ‘propositions that to the author seemed wise would be introduced to the formation of a confederacy that would make Battle Creek, like Rome, the head of the work, and enable the office of publication there to swallow up everything in the publishing line among us.’”11

The opposition, supported by counsel from Ellen White, brought the centralizing experiment to an end in October 1895. For more than a century to come, the Review and Herald and Pacific Press would serve the church as major independent publishing houses and for much of the 20th century would be joined by a third—Southern Publishing Association.

Review and Herald Manager at an Historic Juncture

Curtiss was appointed manager of the Pacific Press’s New York branch in 1899 but a series of major developments that unfolded soon thereafter—denominational reorganization initiated in 1901, destruction of the Review and Herald’s Battle Creek printing facilities in by fire December 1902, and the move of the publishing house and General Conference headquarters from Battle Creek to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1903—would bring him to a new responsibility of critical importance. Just prior to the move, he was called upon to serve as manager of the Review and Herald Publishing Association.

His first task, then, was to oversee the transfer of operations from Battle Creek to the new office building secured at 222 North Capitol Street. Curtiss and William W. Prescott, along with John and Mary Coyle, were the “first on the ground” early in the morning of the move-in date, August 10, 1903.12 It was a momentous transition, and in remarks at a ceremony of dedication for the new building on August 24, Curtiss expressed gratitude for the privilege of being “connected with this work at this particular juncture in its history.”13

The Review and Herald and other periodicals continued to be printed at Battle Creek in down-sized printing facilities acquired with insurance money from the 1902 fire until legal matters were finalized on February 13, 1905, for dissolution of the former Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association (the company’s official name in Battle Creek) and transfer of its assets to the newly-formed Review and Herald Publishing Association (RHPA) in Washington, D.C. Thus, the next challenge for Curtiss was executing the movement of the printing equipment and remaining inventory from the Battle Creek branch while overseeing the design and construction of a new printing facility, located on the Washington, D.C. side of the border between Maryland and the District of Columbia.14

After production began at the new RHPA factory in 1906, it quickly became apparent that the building would not be large enough to meet the needs of the booming operation, and work began on a second building, completed in 1908. Along with publication of new books and tracts, the RHPA added new periodicals, Life and Health (formerly the Pacific Health Journal at Pacific Press) in 1905, Liberty magazine (successor to the American Sentinel) in 1906, and the Protestant magazine in 1909. The volume of work quickly made it possible to eliminate the non-denominational commercial work previously needed to keep operations profitable. The number of workers on the RHPA payroll increased from 31 in May 1905 to 102 in May 1909.15

When Curtiss accepted transfer back to Pacific Press in 1912, the Review noted that the “transferring of the business [RHPA] to Washington, the pioneering of the work here, with the erection of buildings, together with the routine labor and strain of carrying on an enterprise of this character, have been attended with many perplexities, which can be known only by those who have gone through the experience.” The editorial note attributed the success in part to “the faithful labors of Brother Curtiss as manager.”16

Final Years

Curtiss resumed his role as manager of Pacific Press’s Kansas City branch in 1912. In 1916 he was placed in charge of the press’s new International Branch in Brookfield, Illinois, west of Chicago.17 This facility printed Adventist literature translated into 27 different languages in order to reach an estimated 30 million non-English speaking residents of the United States and Canada. After six years, Curtiss acknowledged that the branch had operated at a financial loss, but, in view of its missionary impact, he believed that it “was established in the providence of God.”18

In 1922, Curtiss was called back to California to resume his role as superintendent of the factory at Pacific Press’s main plant, by then located in Mountain View. Soon afterwards, however, he became seriously ill. He enjoyed periods of partial recovery before passing away at his home in Mountain View on May 23, 1925, at age 63. In the words of his long-time colleague, Pacific Press manager C. H. Jones, S. N. Curtiss left behind “the stirring memory of a life of consecrated service.”19 Della Wright Curtiss, remembered especially for her unflagging dedication to Sabbath school work, survived her husband for nearly three decades before going to her rest in Mountain View on September 19, 1954.20

Sources

Curtiss, Harriet S. “Almost a Centenarian.” ARH, November 13, 1924.

Curtiss, Spencer Nelson. Biographical Information Blank, September 5 1905. RG 21, Record 114887, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Archives, Silver Spring, MD (GCA).

Curtiss, S. N. “Helping Hand Mission.” Signs of the Times, January 25, 1899.

Curtiss, S. N. “Annual Report of the Review and Herald Publishing Association.” General Conference Bulletin, May 19, 1909.

Curtiss, S. N. “Review and Herald Publishing Association, Second Annual Meeting.” ARH, May 18, 1905.

Curtiss, S. N. S. N. Curtiss to F. L. Mead, June 24, 1895. Ellen G. White Estate. https://ellenwhite.org/.

“Dedication of the New Headquarters in Washington.” ARH, September 3, 1903.

“Della Wright Curtiss obituary.” Pacific Union Recorder, March 14, 1954.

“From Sister Curtiss.” ARH, April 26, 1864.

Jones, C. H. “Spencer N. Curtiss obituary.” ARH, July 9, 1925.

“Report of the Publishing Department.” General Conference Bulletin, May 15, 1922.

“Several Weeks Ago Brother S. N. Curtiss . . . .” ARH, May 30, 1912.

Wilcox, M. C. “Harriet Spencer Curtiss obituary.” ARH, November 13, 1924.

Notes

  1. Harriet S. Curtiss, “Almost a Centenarian,” ARH, November 13, 1924, 15; M.C. Wilcox, “Harriet Spencer Curtiss obituary,” ARH, November 13, 1924, 22; S.N. Curtiss, “Nellie R. Curtiss Davis obituary,” ARH, September 28, 1922, 22; C.H. Jones, “Spencer N. Curtiss obituary,” ARH, July 9, 1925, 22.

  2. “From Sister Curtiss,” ARH, April 26, 1864, 179.”

  3. Spencer Nelson Curtiss Biographical Information Blank, September 5, 1905, Secretariat Missionary Files, RG 21, Record 114887, GCA; Jones, “Spencer N. Curtiss obituary.”

  4. Jones, “Spencer N. Curtiss obituary”; “Spencer W. Curtiss obituary,” ARH, May 27, 1948, 20.

  5. Curtiss Biographical Information Blank, GCA; Jones, “Spencer N. Curtiss obituary.”

  6. On these developments see: Donald R. McAdams, “Jones, Charles Harriman (1850–1936),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, January 29, 2020, accessed April 08, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=39L0; Douglas Morgan, “Bollman, Calvin Porter (1853–1943),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, November 07, 2023, accessed April 08, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=5JJ1.

  7. Jones, “Spencer N. Curtiss obituary.”

  8. Ibid; Curtiss Biographical Information Blank, GCA.

  9. S.N. Curtiss, “Helping Hand Mission,” Signs of the Times, January 25, 1899, 10.

  10. McAdams, “Jones, Charles Harriman (1850–1936).”

  11. S.N. Curtiss to F.L. Mead, June 24, 1895, Ellen G. White Estate, accessed April 5, 2024, https://ellenwhite.org/. Curtiss quotes E. G. White to General Conference Committee and Publishing Boards of the Review and Herald and Pacific Press, April 8, 1894, Letter 71, 1894, in Letters and Manuscripts, Vol. 9, Ellen G. White Estate, https://m.egwwritings.org/en/book/14059/info.

  12. A.G. Daniells, “Arrival in Washington, D.C.,” ARH, August 20, 1903, 6.

  13. “Dedication of the New Headquarters in Washington,” ARH, September 3, 1903, 10.

  14. S.N. Curtiss, “Review and Herald Publishing Association, Second Annual Meeting,” ARH, May 18, 1905, 19-20.

  15. S.N. Curtiss, “Annual Report of the Review and Herald Publishing Association,” General Conference Bulletin, May 19, 1909, 70-71.

  16. “Several Weeks Ago Brother S. N. Curtiss . . . ,” ARH, May 30, 1912, 24.

  17. Jones, “Spencer N. Curtiss obituary.”

  18. “Report of the Publishing Department,” General Conference Bulletin, May 15, 1922, 42-43.

  19. Jones, “Spencer N. Curtiss obituary.”

  20. “Della Wright Curtiss obituary,” Pacific Union Recorder, March 14, 1954, 11.

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Morgan, Douglas. "Curtiss, Spencer Nelson (1862–1925)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. May 01, 2024. Accessed June 18, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=996X.

Morgan, Douglas. "Curtiss, Spencer Nelson (1862–1925)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. May 01, 2024. Date of access June 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=996X.

Morgan, Douglas (2024, May 01). Curtiss, Spencer Nelson (1862–1925). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved June 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=996X.