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George and Alma Caviness, 1890s.

Photo courtesy of Center for Adventist Research.

Caviness, George Washington (1857–1923) and Alma Lucille (Wolcott) (1860–1946)

By Michael W. Campbell

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Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D., is North American Division Archives, Statistics, and Research director. Previously, he was professor of church history and systematic theology at Southwestern Adventist University. An ordained minister, he pastored in Colorado and Kansas. He is assistant editor of The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Review and Herald, 2013) and currently is co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Seventh-day Adventism. He also taught at the Adventist International Institute for Advanced Studies (2013-18) and recently wrote the Pocket Dictionary for Understanding Adventism (Pacific Press, 2020).

First Published: August 26, 2020

George and Alma Caviness were educators and missionaries. George was also an ordained minister and college president.

Background

Born to Alfred Caviness [Cavenis1] (1818-1893) and Achsah née Osborn (1822-1892) in Fairfield, Iowa, on March 29, 1857, George was the penultimate child of a dozen offspring.2 His mother was a Quaker and his father never professed religion.3 The family began accepting the Sabbatarian Adventist message in 1860 when George’s oldest brother, William (1842-1927), “took his stand for the truth.” Two years later his mother followed, followed by George and other family members.4 George was baptized in 1876 at Marshalltown, Iowa, by G. I. Butler. At age 17 he began to raise funds to attend Battle Creek College (1877-1882).5

Alma was born October 13, 1860, in Orwell, Ohio, the daughter of Orrin E. Wolcott (1816-1865) and Mary Ann née Cook (1823-1899), the youngest of their six children. Her father enrolled in the Union Calvary on Oct. 8, 1861. While away, Mary Ann attended some evangelistic meetings by J. H. Waggoner that led to her conversion. She corresponded with her husband, who told her that his military duties prevented him from studying the matter, “but added that if she thought this new doctrine was according to the Bible, his advise [sic] was for her to accept it.”6 Captured October 1, 1864, while doing reconnaissance, he later died in a Confederate military prison in Salisbury, North Carolina.7 In 1867 Alma’s mother sold their farm and moved to Michigan, three miles west of Battle Creek. Her older sister, Lottie, married Hiram St. John. Together the siblings worked hard to care for the new farm. Later the family sold it and moved into Battle Creek where Mary Ann married John Jedkins.8 During the summer of 1872 they helped Uriah (1832-1903) and Harriet Smith (1840-1911) care for their baby girl while their hired girl took a vacation.9 Later that same year James White baptized Alma in the Kalamazoo River. She was one of the original group of students who enrolled in Goodloe Harper Bell’s 1872 “Select School.”10 By early 1873, unable to accept her stepfather, Alma received permission from her mother to move in with the Smith family who treated her as if she were their own daughter.11

George and Alma graduated from Battle Creek College in 1882. He finished the classical course while she completed the scientific course.12 The two wedded October 12, 1882, in Battle Creek, with W. C. Gage as the officiating minister.13 Uriah Smith teased the nuptials in a letter titled, “My Dear Naughty Children” for tying the knot while he was away.14 The two educators went to Cedar Lake, Michigan, where they started a school that eventually became Cedar Lake High School (later Academy).15 While at Cedar Lake, he participated in several evangelistic meetings.16 In 1883 he received a ministerial license.17 On August 19, 1884, their only child, Leon Leslie Caviness (1884-1955), was born in Battle Creek.18 As a result of his ministerial labors, George baptized more than 100 people and established several Adventist churches.19 In Edmore, some opponents set the Adventists’ evangelistic tent on fire. Undeterred, he noted that the tent was old and needed replacing anyway.20

Educational Leadership

Ordained to the gospel ministry in 1886,21 he and his wife connected the following year with Battle Creek College as teachers, and he also served as the vice-president of the Michigan Sabbath School Association, traveling to various churches to promote Adventist education.22 Soon he became known for speaking “on the importance of a preparation to work in the cause of God. He [George] remarked that it would be far better when Christ comes, to be found making the necessary preparation to work in his cause, than to be lying idle because we believe time to be very short.”23

In the fall of 1888, George received a call to be the principal of South Lancaster Academy.24 Alma served as chair of the mathematics department25 and occasionally taught Latin classes.26 George Caviness earned a reputation for his personal care for students. His reports frequently recorded their baptism.27 The couple were each noted for their strong emphasis on cultivating “quite a missionary spirit” among students “to fit themselves” as “laborers in foreign fields.”28 In the summer of 1890 George and Alma spent time at the Chautauqua summer institute—part of the larger evangelical network that also included an ever expanding involvement as part of a missionary volunteer system.29 George went on to design similar summer institutes for Adventists in order to train church members about how to conduct evangelism.30 As an educator, it is therefore not surprising that during the summer of 1891 he attended the Harbor Springs Convention, a key turning point in the development of Adventist education.31 By 1893 enrollment had sufficiently increased that South Lancaster Academy rented another building to accommodate all the students.32

In 1894 George became president of Battle Creek College, a position he held for three years.33 There Caviness continued his strong mission focus.34 One particularly innovative idea—the first of its kind in Adventist history—was the development of a “night school” so that those who could not attend classes during the day could obtain a degree.35 Under his leadership, once again the Battle Creek College student body grew. By the summer of 1896 it had an enrollment of 716 with an additional 162 persons in the evening school.36 Also, during that same year, a new “missionary society” organized to encourage students to learn how to give Bible studies and prepare sermons.37 Unfortunately, George found himself in losing side of a power struggle for control of the college in which A. T. Jones and Dr. J. H. Kellogg effectively pushed him out of its leadership. As a result, he tendered his resignation.38 Widely respected as a veteran educator, church leaders affirmed that his work “won for him universal esteem.”39

Bible Translation and Missionaries to Mexico

During the summer of 1897 “the couple decided to go to Mexico to connect with the Spanish work, it being understood that he would represent the denomination on the Bible Revision Committee.”40 They traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, where his knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin enabled him to contribute as part of an inter-denominational committee to produce a new Protestant Spanish translation of the Bible.41 It had begun under a man named Pratt, but he had “taken many liberties” in the passages he translated, so those Protestant churches who were “operating in Mexico” each received invitations to send a representative to participate.42 The first year, George and Alma concentrated on “critical study of the Spanish language.”43 George spent an additional year intensely involved in the Bible translation project. Unfortunately, the American Bible Society refused to publish the result of their work so “the project was abandoned.”44

When it became clear that the translation attempt was no longer viable, George and Alma relocated to Tacubaya, a suburb of Mexico City, in October 1899, with Kate and Salvador Marchisio (1855-1925) to begin evangelism there. It was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the country.45 Early missionary work in Mexico was extremely difficult. At times it was necessary to wait until the opposition from family members subsided before baptizing early believers.46 George noted that the men tended to be secular and not interested in religion, and the women devout Catholics. Characteristic of this formative period, A. G. Daniells (1858-1935) wrote: “all the services [were] being held in private houses.”47 A breakthrough occurred with the establishment of an Adventist school.48 Soon, more than 40 children of high government officials were paying up to $200 a month. The new self-supporting educational enterprise became the entering wedge and made it possible by 1901 to call Frank C. Kelley to take charge of it.49 As a result, the first Sabbath School was organized in connection with the school, and afterward two other schools opened: one at San Luis Potosi and one for local children in La Visnaga.50 In 1906 Caviness held the first series of public evangelistic meetings in Mexico City, leading to a small group of believers who met in a rented building two blocks away from the main junction of the city’s street cars.51 Two years later they had a congregation of 25 to 30 active members who now owned their own church facility.52 George continued to push Adventist education. formally organizing the birth of what would become Universidad de Montemorelos in 1911.

George and Alma loved and embraced the culture, climate, and most of all, the people of Mexico. At one point he remarked that “[t]he heat has never made me uncomfortable enough to cause me to look at a thermometer.”53 He added that Mexico has but two seasons: wet (June until October) and dry (the rest of the year). If water was stored in reservoirs, two or three crops were possible. Land was relatively inexpensive (fifty cents to three dollars an acre) but most farm laborers tended to be poor, earning 37 to 50 cents a day.54 Yet those same early converts, he wrote, were often farmers who gave sacrificially to help share the Adventist message--sometimes they even donated their last centavo.

A major focus of George in Mexico was the development of Adventist publications in the Spanish language. In order to reach the estimated 15 million people in Mexico at that time, he held a firm “conviction” that the “printed page” was the most effective “means” to spread the Advent message.55 Early on George served as editor of the periodical El Mensajero de la Verdad (The Messenger of Truth) that had begun shortly before they arrived in 1896. When George Brown went to Mexico in 1904, leadership decided to establish a printing office. They bought a piece of land, built a small building, and installed a modest printing press.56 George worked closely with Eduardo F. Forga to translate a series of Spanish tracts.57 Opposition came in a variety of forms. He noted how a postmaster friendly to their beliefs and who had helped him distribute copies of their paper, faced significant danger as opponents tried to get him fired.58 Later, when a bishop forbade people from reading El Mansajero de la Verdad, Caviness observed that such opposition only helped increase the number of subscriptions.59 By his accounts, the printed page contributed to some of the earliest converts. In 1906 he returned to Pacific Press for several months to supervise the translation and publication of Coming King, Christ Our Saviour, Gospel Primer, and other similar works to expand their inventory of publications available for colporteurs to sell in the Spanish language and that could also be used as school textbooks.60 In December 1907 church leaders formulated plans to enlarge the publishing program in Mexico. The Pacific Press donated a cylinder press and sent L. E. Borle (d. 1943) to become manager of the expanded printing establishment.61 George spent much of late 1908 through early 1909 translating the book Bible Readings for the Home Circle.62 By 1909 Alma received a request to begin a children’s periodical in Spanish.63 George and Alma saw the printed page in the Spanish language as a key to their evangelistic success. M. E. Olsen observed that “[m]ost of our churches in Mexico had their beginning in the circulation of reading matter.”64

The Caviness home became a center of Adventist missions in Mexico. When early Adventist missionary G. W. Reaser (1859-1945), arrived in Mexico with his family, they stayed with the Caviness family until they could find a place of their own. Similarly, when Arthur A. Reinke (1884-1909), a young Adventist colporteur, became seriously ill, it was Alma Caviness who tried, unsuccessfully, to nurse him back to health.65 George, in his reports to the Review, noted his love for the people and made frequent appeals for others to join them in bringing “light” to the Mexican people. At the 1909 General Conference session he made an impassioned appeal for more funds and missionaries. He shared about his recent trip with Juan Robles (1871-1967) to spread the Adventist message to Mexquitic, where a small group of people had learned of Adventism through some evangelistic publications. After four to five hours travel by railway and on the back of a burro, he found the leader of the company and held meetings in a local believer’s home. The man later took him to his hut where George slept on “the naked earth,” as was customary, on “some skins” along with some blankets he had brought. He loved the food, especially tortillas (corn cakes) and beans, with eggs and cinnamon tea.66 The evangelistic meetings resulted in 16 baptisms.67 As the denomination became more established in Mexico City, George began to make ever larger forays across Mexico, holding meetings and baptizing believers and establishing new churches and schools.68 By 1920 Adventists reported 450 believers with eight organized churches across Mexico.69

Later Years and Contribution

In December 1920 George became seriously ill, and by May 1921 left for Loma Linda Sanitarium for treatment. He remained active, preaching in area churches until he died on February 17, 1923. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. After her husband’s death, Alma often traveled with her son, Leon, and his family, who was serving the denomination in Europe during the 1920s. She especially loved visiting museums and made a memorable trip to see the pyramids of Egypt and the Holy Land.70 In 1930 she attended the General Conference session, but then, due to poor health, stayed with friends to take advantage of the healthcare at Loma Linda Sanitarium.71 In 1933 she went to live in Angwin, California, to be closer to her son and his family, who had returned from overseas mission service to teach at Pacific Union College. In 1942 she travelled to Loma Linda once again to be near friends and to take advantage of its healthcare facilities.72 Here she died on May 8, 1946, and is buried next to her husband.73

George and Alma were lifelong educators who loved to share their faith. Their contagious love of learning flowed forth with their passion for mission service. Ultimately, they led through their own example as pioneer missionaries to Mexico. Not surprisingly, they used their passion for education and learning to develop new churches and schools. They shared a love for the printed page, translating and editing material into the Spanish language as a means to share their faith.

Sources

Caviness, Alma. Unpublished Autobiographical Manuscript, ca. 1946.

Caviness, G. W. “Among the Zapotecan Indians of Mexico.” ARH, April 14, 1910.

Caviness, L. L. “Study for the Missionary Volunteer Society: Mexico, No. 2—Our Mexican Mission.” The Youth’s Instructor, December 15, 1908.

Johnson, Rossiter, ed. Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. Boston, MA, U.S.A.: The Biographical Society, 1904. S.v. “George Washington Caviness.”

Land, Gary. Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2014.

Obituary. ARH, March 29, 1923.

Obituary, ARH, July 18, 1946.

Olsen, M. Ellsworth. A History of the Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1925.

Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Second revised edition. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1996. S.v. “George W. Caviness.”

Notes

  1. The Caviness name first appears in the 1870 Federal Census as Cavenis. It appears that descendants utilized several alternative spellings of the surname although this is the only place where George Caviness is specifically referenced with an alternative spelling, and throughout the rest of his life he appears to have consistently adopted “Caviness.”

  2. Some accounts state there were 11 children, omitting one child who died as an infant. For a complete listing of the family, see the Caviness family tree at: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/175320522/person/422274105810/facts?msg=ntm&msgParams=%7c1%7c1%7c&mpid=422274105810&nec=0&mdbid=2022&mrpid=2653

  3. General Conference Biographical Blank, September 11, 1955, Record #114883.

  4. These details appear in the obituary of Achsa Caviness, ARH, February 16, 1892, 111.

  5. General Conference Biographical Blank, September 11, 1955, Record #114883.

  6. Alma Caviness, Autobiographical Manuscript, 1.

  7. Ibid.

  8. 1870 United States Federal Census, Year: 1870; Census Place: Bedford, Calhoun, Michigan; Roll: M593_666; p: 477B; Family History Library Film: 552165 [Ancestry.com accessed 3/25/21]

  9. Alma Caviness, Autobiographical Manuscript, 4.

  10. Ibid.

  11. This special relationship as a “daughter” in the Smith family is mentioned in both her obituary and is reflected in the 1880 Federal Census where she is listed with the Smith children as a “daughter” as a member of their household. She furthermore lists Uriah and Harriet Smith as her parents. See 1880 United States Federal Census; Year: 1880; Census Place: Battle Creek, Calhoun, Michigan; Roll: 574; Page: 106A; Enumeration District: 043 [accessed from Ancestry.com 3/25/21]. See also Gary Land, Uriah Smith: Apologist and Biblical Commentator (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2014), 112, 164. In Alma’s autobiographical manuscript she mentions that during 1872-1873 after a family trip to Ohio, upon their return, her mother consented to let her live with the Smith family. “Elder and Mrs. Smith wished to adopt me, but while mother was willing I should live with them, she did not want my name changed. They were, though, like a father and mother to me and Elder Smith often introduced me as their daughter” (Alma Caviness, Autobiographical Manuscript, 5).

  12. G. I. B[utler], “The South Lancaster Academy,” ARH, July 24, 1888, 473.

  13. Michigan, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1822-1940 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. [accessed from Ancestry.com 3/24/21]; General Conference Biographical Blank, September 11, 1955, Record #114883.

  14. See Gary Land, Uriah Smith (Review and Herald, 2014), 164. The rest of the letter states: “it was very, very naughty of you to take the time when pater familias was away off out of reach to do as you have done. But I suppose I shall have to let you off this time on ‘suspended sentence,’ the condition being that you will never do so again” (Ibid.).

  15. See note by C. C. Lewis, ARH, July 17, 1883, 460.

  16. Cf. note by Geo. H. Randall, Albert Weeks, and G. W. Caviness, ARH, August 28, 1883, 556. See additional note relating how he led four people to begin keeping the Sabbath. Note by L. A. Kellogg, February 19, 1884, 124. G. W. Caviness and W. C. Wales, “Michigan,” ARH, August 12, 1884, 525; see note of organizing church of 30 members in Ogden Center, Michigan, ARH, September 16, 1884, 603.

  17. W. C. G[age], “Twenty-Third Annual Session of the Michigan Conference,” ARH, October 9, 1883, 636.

  18. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/47731623/leon-leslie-caviness [accessed 3/25/21]

  19. General Conference Biographical Blank, September 11, 1955, Record #114883.

  20. G. W. Caviness, S. M. Butler, and W. C. Hebner, “Michigan,” ARH, September 14, 1886, 587.

  21. A notice of the vote for his ordination appears in the “Michigan Conference Proceedings,” ARH, October 26, 1886, 668.

  22. G. W. Caviness, “Ithaca Sabbath-School Convention,” ARH, August 3, 1886, 493.

  23. “The Maine Conference Proceedings,” ARH, October 1888, 637.

  24. G. I. B[utler], “The Academy Closing at South Lancaster, Mass.,” ARH, May 22, 1888, 329.

  25. “Foundation Day,” Atlantic Union Gleaner, May 7, 1902, 201.

  26. See note, ARH, September 11, 1894, 592.

  27. Cf. ARH, June 18, 1895, 400.

  28. Cf. L. L. C[aviness], “Report from the Field,” The Home Missionary, November 1890, 241.

  29. Helen A. Whiting, “The Work in New England,” ARH, July 15, 1890, 445, 446.

  30. G. W. Caviness, “Special Course at South Lancaster Academy,” ARH, April 2, 1889, 222.

  31. General Conference Committee Minutes, March 29, 1891, pg. 7.

  32. See note in The Signs of the Times, January 2, 1893, 141.

  33. See note that Caviness was succeeded by E. A. Sutherland after the 1896-97 school year. The Christian Educator, July 1897, 15; see note on back page of ARH, May 22, 1894, 336.

  34. G. W. Caviness, “The Greatest Need,” ARH, August 25, 1896, 536, 537.

  35. See note ARH, September 17, 1895, 608.

  36. G. W. Caviness, “Battle Creek College,” ARH, July 14, 1896, 444, 445.

  37. Ibid.

  38. G. W. Reaser, “First Observations in Mexico,” Pacific Union Recorder, December 3, 1908, 2.

  39. See note on back page of ARH, March 30, 1897, 208.

  40. Francis M. Wilcox, “Movements of Missionaries,” ARH, April 13, 1897, 234. See also Joint Meeting General Conference Committee and Mission Board, Spring Session, March 30, 1897, 293. The latter source notes that D. T. Jones had already been on the translation committee and Caviness would take his place and be assisted by Mahlon E. Olsen.

  41. This detail is recorded in numerous places. Cf. note in The Signs of the Times, April 29, 1897, 12.

  42. L. L. Caviness, “Study for the Missionary Volunteer Society: Mexico, No. 2—Our Mexican Mission,” The Youth’s Instructor, December 15, 1908, 12.

  43. “The Gospel in Mexico,” The Missionary Magazine, July 1898, 255.

  44. L. L. Caviness, “Study for the Missionary Volunteer Society: Mexico, No. 2—Our Mexican Mission,” The Youth’s Instructor, December 15, 1908, 12.

  45. G. W. Caviness, “Mexico,” ARH, April 1, 1902, 200, 201.

  46. Cf. G. W. Caviness, “Mexico,” ARH, January 19, 1911, 10.

  47. A. G. Daniells, “A Visit to Mexico,” ARH, March 26, 1908, 16.

  48. M. Ellsworth Olsen, A History of the Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1925), 554.

  49. L. L. Caviness, “Study for the Missionary Volunteer Society: Mexico, No. 2—Our Mexican Mission,” The Youth’s Instructor, December 15, 1908, 12.

  50. Olsen, A History of the Origin and Progress, 554.

  51. G. W. Caviness, “Mexico,” ARH, July 12, 1906, 15.

  52. A. G. Daniells, “A Visit to Mexico,” ARH, March 26, 1908, 16.

  53. G. W. Caviness, “Mexico,” ARH, February 11, 1902, 92.

  54. G. W. Caviness, “Mexico,” ARH, February 18, 1902, 111.

  55. As one of many examples, see the report: H. H. Hall, “A Canvassing Institute in Mexico City,” ARH, September 3, 1908, 16.

  56. Olsen, A History of the Origin and Progress, 554.

  57. “General Progress of the Book Work,” The Educational Messenger, May 22, 1908, 3.

  58. G. W. Caviness, “Mexico,” ARH, July 12, 1906, 15.

  59. G. W. Caviness, “The Work in Mexico,” ARH, May 6, 1909, 16.

  60. “Pacific Press Notes,” The Welcome Visitor, December 19, 1906, 3.

  61. L. L. Caviness, “Study for the Missionary Volunteer Society: Mexico, No. 2—Our Mexican Mission,” The Youth’s Instructor, December 15, 1908, 12.

  62. N. Z. Town, “Our Spanish Literature,” ARH, April 1, 1909, 15.

  63. “Items from the Mexican Field,” Pacific Union Recorder, August 26, 1909, 1.

  64. Olsen, A History of the Origin and Progress, 555.

  65. “Death of A. A. Reinke,” Pacific Union Recorder, February 25, 1909, 5.

  66. G. W. Caviness, “Seekers After God in a Mexican Village,” ARH, November 4, 1909, 31.

  67. Juan Robles, “Mexico,” ARH, December 2, 1909, 15, 16.

  68. G. W. Caviness, “Mexico,” ARH, January 19, 1911, 10.

  69. Olsen, A History of the Origin and Progress, p. 557.

  70. Alma Caviness, Autobiographical Manuscript, 19.

  71. Ibid., 21.

  72. Ibid.

  73. California, U.S., Death Index, 1940-1997 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, U.S.A.: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2000. [Ancestry.com accessed 3/25/21]. See also: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/85363747/alma-lucelia-caviness [accessed 3/25/21]

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Campbell, Michael W. "Caviness, George Washington (1857–1923) and Alma Lucille (Wolcott) (1860–1946)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. August 26, 2020. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=C93K.

Campbell, Michael W. "Caviness, George Washington (1857–1923) and Alma Lucille (Wolcott) (1860–1946)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. August 26, 2020. Date of access April 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=C93K.

Campbell, Michael W. (2020, August 26). Caviness, George Washington (1857–1923) and Alma Lucille (Wolcott) (1860–1946). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved April 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=C93K.