Ways of Working

by David Ridley

Action is for the sake of contemplation... to labour is to pray. Work is the discipline by means of which 'body holds its noise and leaves Soul free a little.'  - Eric Gill, A Holy Tradition of Working

Religious life is full of paradox. The 18th century American sect known as the Shakers expected the destruction of the world at any moment. Nonetheless, they were meticulous craftsmen and farmers, leaving a legacy of elegant furniture and beautiful orchards. The Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton said of them: "When you expect the world to end at any moment, you know there is no need to hurry. You take your time, you do your work well." What seems self-contradictory often illuminates the profound understandings of human communities. A paradox of this sort resides in Seventh-Day Adventism. Arising out of nineteenth century American revivalism and millenialism, this Protestant denomination has historically "...expect[ed] a kingdom of God from the heavens, [while they] work diligently for one on earth."

The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates schools, health care facilities and publishing houses, all of these attentive to this-worldly realities. The very number and success of Seventh-day Adventist institutions shows a substantial organization and work ethic. This link between diligent work and the expected Advent is reflected in the curriculum and philosophy of Canadian University College (CUC) Since its founding in 1907, manual training has been integral to the Seventh-day Adventist formation of mind and spirit in Central Alberta.

Of course, the desire to instill a work ethic in the young is not the exclusive preserve of the Seventh-day Adventists who built CUC. The agrarian ideals that historically made up the Alberta zeitgeist look to manual work as a way of cultivating the virtues of industry, sobriety and self-reliance. Nor is the concern overlooked by other religious schools in Central Alberta. Prairie Bible Institute at Three Hills and the turn-of-the-century Red Deer Methodist Industrial School saw student work as part of the moral formation, as much as helping these institutions to subsist. Work experience programs in contemporary schools also use this method of formation. However, the history of manual training at CUC serves as a window on the particular religious ethos of Seventh-day Adventists in this region. Manual training has not only been instructive in "teaching the dignity of labour" and helping students defray the cost of tuition. Its history at CUC provides a glimpse of the living traditions and experience of Seventh-day Adventists in central Alberta. Through this, one can see how the core concerns of the community have fared, while accommodating the sea change in worklife that has occurred through the post-war decades.

For the first generation of Adventist students in Alberta study was contingent on actually building a school. One of the forerunners of CUC, the Alberta Industrial Academy, was established on farmland west of Leduc in 1907, after prospective students passed part of the winter cutting timber from a government lease for the first classrooms. When the school opened in November of 1907, one hour of labour per day was required of each student, supplementing the $3.00 per week charge for lodging and tuition. The school settled on its present site in 1909 as part of an educational-medical venture of the Alberta Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. It was proposed that the Edmonton Adventist sanatarium would move and serve as a source of medical care for the young town of Lacombe. The need for the school took priority and the sanatarium plans were not carried through.

By 1912, students were compensated for their forty to fifty hours of labour each month at the rate of ten cents per hour. This was raised to twenty cents per hour by 1927. "Skilled labour," provided by those familiar with building construction, earned a premium on the general wage, as did those who took on the less savoury task of hauling coal for the school's heaters and boilers. By 1918, the school had forty acres under cultivation, including ten acres of potatoes, a three acre vegetable garden and the remainder in feed oats. Milk cows and laying hens were tended by students. The student work was subject to grading. And to a large degree, student work sustained the fledgling Academy, creating a strong internal economy and making the school largely self-sufficient within the Seventh-day Adventist community.

The early academic curriculum at Canadian Union College accommodated the work regimen. The American four unit system of academic study was organized so that book study lasted the mornings, leaving afternoons free for work and other physical activities. In the 1920s, the Academy, by then renamed Canadian Junior College, added woodworking, dressmaking and printing shops. By 1930, the printing venture was commercialized. This provided work for students as printing assistants or "printer's devils"- a name derived from the earliest days of the printing press when the astounding increase in volume and output of print material was thought of as a black art, the consequence of the printer selling his soul in exchange for the secrets of the trade. Some of these students would continue in the press and publishing industry, a hallmark activity for Seventh-day Adventists who worked as colporteurs offering both a physical and spiritual health and healing message to the public. A short-lived wheat puffing industry was also established. The development and production of healthy foodstuffs is key for Seventh-day Adventism; corn flakes were developed at an Adventist sanitarium by John W. Kellogg. The technique used to explode the wheat in the basement of the Administration building shook the foundation. The school soon divested itself of the enterprise, apparently recognizing that while tumbling walls were biblically instructive, this time it was not to their favour. In 1940, H.M. Johnson became president and was responsible for adding to the land holdings of the school, eventually growing to some 3000 acres.

Renamed Canadian Union College in 1946, the school emerged from the difficulties of the Great Depression and the Second World War with a greatly expanded program of student labour. Under the administration of H.T. Johnson (1951-65), the press and farm were expanded and a bookbindery, commercial laundry and furniture factory were established. Johnson's commitment to student work stemmed from his experience at Union College, the Seventh-day Adventist institution in Lincoln, Nebraska. Similar provisions for work at Union enabled Johnson to study, despite meagre family resources.

Motivated by a class in bookbinding in the early 1950s, a student named John Bidulock assessed the commercial possibilities and by 1955 the bindery employed two managers and 16 students. CUC's bindery operated until 1980, when manual techniques were outmoded by the efficiencies of mechanized binding. The furniture factory developed into CUC's flagship industry, providing part-time employment for as many as 90 students.5 In 1980, Parkland furniture had 55 fulltime employees and 60 students working in 3- and 4-hour shifts, to accommodate student class schedules. Modernization of the farm's milking facilities and the introduction of larger tractors and harvesters increased farm production. Agriculture continued to be part of the curriculum into the 1970s, whereby students received instruction in animal husbandry, worked CUC's barns and earned financial credit to defray their tuition costs.

By 1980, student employment and vocational training had burgeoned. But mounting operating losses and high interest rates - related to expansion and the demands of technical upgrading - dictated that the school's industries could not be justified if it burdened CUC's larger purpose of educating students. In 1986 the college sold the press, furniture factory and its dairy and stock holdings. While control of these enterprises remained largely in the hands of members of the community and those respectful of Seventh-day Adventist observances, CUC's link with the industries was greatly diminished.

While the expansion of the 1950s greatly increased the varieties and possibilities of student work, it also tethered the college to the chain of innovations needed to make these industries financially viable. CUC's commitment to the industries was largely educational, with the added benefit of providing a system of student finance and creating a reliable internal economy for the college. Such commitments tended to mitigate business decisions regarding the industries. Consequently, in the event of reduced sales or low demand for the industries' products and services, it was unlikely student that workers would be released. Workplaces were expected to accommodate the training of students, with the pursuant turnover, while still operating profitably and ensuring the industries would not be a financial burden for the college. Inevitably, technical improvements reduced the need for student manual labour and requiring more highly trained workers. In this situation, CUC had attempted to straddle the difficult and dramatic shifts in worklife that have faced many of Central Alberta's rural communities in the post-war decades. CUC students could still obtain employment at the industries located on or adjacent to the campus.

However, the divestment did not occur without some tension at the College itself and among its supporters. In a denomination noted for its pragmatism, the solution to the economic and administrative problem of the industries was interpreted by some as modifying the church's historical position on the benefits of manual labour. CUC's academic programs had also come under some scrutiny from its supporting congregations, over perceptions of the liberalizing and relativizing of Church teaching under the guise of "higher education." This larger tension was a backdrop to the selling of the industries.

It has been the case in many of Alberta's rural communities that rapid and significant change, such as that at CUC, gives rise to particular memories around the experience of earlier generations. The work and vision of the first generations stands as a symbol of moral fortitude and hardiness, something found wanting in the younger generations. Appropriately, the earlier generations look to the past as a way of assessing and understanding recent developments. This, after all, is how tradition works in religious communities: it provides a check on what G.K. Chesterton called "the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around," although the decision to divest at CUC was in no way cavalier or intentionally pushing the margins of Seventh-day Adventist self-understanding.

It would be simplistic to explain the dilemma at CUC with that worn-out catch all, "the generation gap" for these concerns for the integrity of education and manual labour are deeply rooted in the memory and experience of the denomination. The Seventh-day Adventist co-founder Ellen Harmon Gould White (1826-1915) devoted a substantial portion of her more than 100 published books and pamphlets to manual training and the health-benefits of physical labour. In her 1903 treatise entitled Education, Ellen White writes:

At the creation, labor was appointed as a blessing... the curse of sin has brought a change in the conditions of labor; yet though now attended with anxiety, weariness, and pain, it is still a source of happiness and development. And it is a safeguard against temptation. Its discipline places a check on self indulgence, and promotes industry, purity and firmness. Thus it becomes a part of God's great plan for our recovery from the Fall.

Labour, in this respect, is redemptive, the restorer of humankind to the desired image of the maker. Given the enormous influence of Ellen White's writing on Seventh-day Adventism, this concern is foundational for Adventist teaching. Understanding "God's great plan for our recovery from the Fall," is a source and means to attaining moral perfection and the paradise lost.

In order to give full expression to this redemptive work, Ellen White's ideal instructional setting was in the country, away from the city, that students might better see the created order in learning to tend it. Given the early development of Seventh-day Adventism in the rural communities of the American mid-west, the rural setting and the accompanying work ethic is part of the denomination's cultural memory. These communities were shaped by the "self-evident truths" and agrarian thinking articulated by Thomas Jefferson, namely that a society of industrious and self-supporting landowners were critical for social stability and moral development. Such an ideal would have travelled with the Adventist settlers arriving in Wilfrid Laurier's "Last Best West," easily taking root with the agrarian sentiments prevalent in Alberta's early years. Consequently, CUC's rural setting is by design, its landholdings creating a pastoral belt around the College. Ellen White's observation that "agriculture is the ABC of education" has been sublimated through CUC's --and indeed the entire Seventh-day Adventist movement's- relationship to agriculture.

This historical relationship stands in relief with the educational and economic achievements of Seventh-day Adventism, which have firmly established the denomination in the middle class. One observer has pointed to Seventh-day Adventism as a "modern version of the protestant ethic," whereby a transformation of the world is enacted through the virtues of work and economic activity. Such a transformation is indicated in figures showing the proportion of Adventists in professional and technical work as twice that of the general population and the proportion of Adventists with some college education three times as great. The educational programs at Canadian University College (CUC - previously named Canadian Union College) are one of the means to realizing this middle-class status, and the ability of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to maintain and develop these institutions depends on this achievement. Along with the dramatic demographic shift from country to city for the population at large, including Seventh-day Adventists, the transition markedly shifted the community's understanding of work in respect to the agrarian ideals set out by Ellen White and as practised in much of the history of CUC.

It was not unforeseeable, then, that a shift in the relationship between CUC and its industries, particularly its farm holdings, would result in some disaffection within the Seventh-day Adventist community. On one hand, the community holds a biblical vision of the possibility of the restored Creation, reinforced by the 19th-century rural ideal pertaining to work and the moral life. These have been shaped and articulated by White and given institutional form. At CUC, those antecedents mingle with the need to nurture the professional and intellectual capacities to effectively communicate the Adventist message in the contemporary world. Of course, students come with career aspirations shaped by mass culture and the possibilities as presented in urban life.

CUC continues to remunerate students working as groundskeepers, cleaners, kitchen staff and support to academic departments. The administration plans to attract enterprises to the campus that will employ students. These possibilities, such as they are in the new dispensation of worklife, demonstrate a ready pragmatism and an ability to come to terms with the world. Yet these possibilities preserve the Seventh-day Adventist concern for the dignity of labour and the moral outcome of diligent work. In this respect, students at CUC receive a formation still informed by the understanding that "[they] are instruments in the hand of God, employed by Him to accomplish His purposes of grace and mercy.  This understanding properly moves the life of the faithful into the ways of working, putting one's labour into the light of eternal reality.