The birth and growth of the Seventh-Day Adventist church and its satellite institutions in Trinidad and Tobago is a success story that began in 1890 with the arrival of William Arnold, a pioneer colporteur who came to Trinidad to establish a literature ministry for the church.
And in just over a century, the Seventh-Day Adventist church has become one of the leading institutions, providing spiritual and secular education as well as medical services in T&T.
First to arrive in Trinidad from the United States was Arnold, who performed the duties of colporteur, a salesman specialising in the sale and distribution of religious literature.
Travelling from house to house throughout the country selling religious books to Christians and non-Christians, Arnold succeeded in his mission at a time when the only Christian denominations in Trinidad were Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Moravian and the Baptist Missionary Society.
A few years after his arrival, Arnold had developed such a large clientele that it became necessary to recruit several colporteurs from the United States to assist in building a solid Christian foundation, through Christian education literature, thus paving the way for the start of the first Seventh-Day Adventist church in Trinidad and Tobago.
The goal of the early pioneers of the church was not limited to construction of churches; its extended mission was to partner with the local community in providing educational facilities at all levels, as well as health education and primary health care.
As a religious group, Adventists are proud of their beginnings which can be traced to the Pentecost, an Israelite-Jewish festival celebrating the feast of the first fruits, and the observance of a day set aside for Sabbatical observance.
Their main religious observances are the Sabbath, baptism by immersion and sharing in the Lord’s Supper through communion.
Doctrinally, Adventists are heirs of the Adventist or Millerite movement which was started in 1890 by William Miller, a New York farmer and Baptist preacher.
Based on prophetic interpretation, a group of Adventists got together later and formed what is known today as the Seventh-Day Adventist church.
Although Arnold was not an elder of the church, he is credited as the pioneer colporteur who on arrival in Trinidad was surprised that there were four people in South Trinidad who were already keeping the Sabbath, and were regular subscribers to Bible Readings for the Home Circle, a popular publication of the Seventh-Day Adventist church.
After several years of colporteuring, there was a marked increase in sales of Christian literature and a number of subscribers had opted to become members of the church.
This increase in sales and membership called for more colporteurs to come to Trinidad, and also an elder to join the ranks established by Arnold.
In September 1895, Elder E W Webster arrived in Trinidad from the Foreign Mission Board of America, but apart from performing duties as a colporteur Webster held public meetings aimed at increasing the number of Christian followers, as well as plans for constructing a building for worship.
His first meeting to discuss the construction of a church was on November 22, 1895, at Exchange Village, Couva, at the Heart and Hand Lodge.
Two years later, on January 15, 1897, Trinidad’s first Seventh-Day Adventist church was completed and dedicated for worship.
The site of the church was at Couva on lands leased to the church by Tate and Lyle Sugar Company of England.
The building was not spectacular or comparable to existing Christian churches in Trinidad. It was a small wooden building 15 feet in height with ten glass windows and seating accommodation for 50 people. Membership in the church at the time was 21, but a few years later the number doubled.
The opening of this historic Seventh-Day Adventist church ushered in a new era for Christian worship.
Today, there are nearly 150 Adventist churches in various districts in Trinidad and Tobago, with a combined membership of more than 23,000 followers.
The next step of the church’s goal in its early years of formation was to establish a primary school in the vicinity of the church compound at Couva.
This was achieved in 1900 when Rachael Peters, an Antigua national, became the first primary school teacher in a small school that catered for boys.
By 1947, a training college was started at Maracas Valley.
This college developed later into a junior college providing two-year courses in theology, teacher training, business and secretarial science.
In 1952, the training college was recognised as a teacher training school by the government and two years later it was renamed Caribbean Union College.
Another important step taken by the Adventists was the creation of treatment rooms at Couva for patients with minor ailments. This was the beginning of a structured health service and a clinic in Port of Spain.
In 1952, a medical unit was started at Queen’s Park West, and in 1974 a community hospital was built at Cocorite on lands leased to the church by government for 99 years.
The first physician to serve the needs of patients in Tobago was Robert Dunlop of Scotland. His service began in 1948 and ran for a number of years, during which he started a clinic and saw the establishment of a nursing home and construction of the hospital at Cocorite.
Before the hospital was opened at Cocorite, patients were receiving medical treatment at New Street, Queen’s Park West and Maracas Valley.
But it was in the area of education that the church excelled. In 1956, the Seventh-Day Adventist College changed its name, on the recommendation of the Department of Education, to the Caribbean Union College.
In the field of music, the first steel orchestra to play at a world session of Seventh-Day Adventists was the Maranatha Steel Orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago.
There was more to come to this expanding church when in 1960 it assumed new dimensions, including a change in status from a local conference to a mission.
During the fifth session of the Caribbean Union Mission, former Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams attended the conference and addressed the gathering.
In his address, Williams spoke about the work of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Trinidad and Tobago, showering praises for its resilience.
By 2006, a significant change in status of the East Caribbean Training School was achieved when it was elevated to university status by the Accreditation Council of Trinidad and Tobago, making the University of the Southern Caribbean the third university in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.