History of Upper Columbia Conference

by Doug R. Johnson


During the post-Civil War years of the 1860s and 1870s, the young Seventh-day Adventist Church moved into the frontiers of the Great Plains and West Coast. They pushed into the newly established territories and states on both sides of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1868, the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church sent John Loughborough and Daniel T. Bourdeau to California to secure a foothold on the west side of the Rockies. Within five years they established seven churches totaling 238 members in this isolated mission field.

In 1861, Augusta Moorhouse and her non-Adventist husband, Thomas, crossed the Oregon Trail and settled in the remote frontier of the Walla Walla Valley in the Washington Territory. By 1871, several other Adventist families had also moved to the area. In time these isolated believers, who lived nearly 1000 miles from the nearest Adventist church or preacher, began petitioning the General Conference for a minister. Finally in 1874, the General Conference responded to these requests by sending Isaac and Adelia Van Horn to the region.

Van Horn, the first Adventist minister to work in the Pacific Northwest, started by pitching his 60 foot tent in Walla Walla and holding evangelistic meetings. At the time Walla Walla, a village of around 2,000, was the largest town in the Washington Territory.

The tent meetings met with tremendous success. By 1875, Van Horn had organized a church of over 60 members; and these Adventists had erected a church building (32 by 46 feet) that cost nearly $3,000. At the time it was one of the nicest church structures in Walla Walla.


One of the individuals who attended Van Horn’s meetings and joined the newly established church was a young soldier by the name of Alonzo T. Jones. When he was discharged from the military in November, 1875, he began helping Van Horn with his evangelistic work. He continued to serve as a minister in the Northwest for nearly ten years.

The General Conference’s original plan was for the Van Horns to spend one year in the remote Walla Walla Valley. Then they were to move to the more populated Willamette Valley of western Oregon. Because of Adelia’s poor health, the Van Horns spent two years east of the Cascade Mountains. During this time, Isaac established two small churches, Milton and Dayton, in addition to the larger Walla Walla Church.

When Joseph Waggoner came in 1876 to help with tent meetings in Salem, he brought with him a surprise—Adelia’s sister Frances. Originally, Frances was planning to leave the Northwest with Waggoner at the end of the tent season but decided to stay longer.



Undoubtedly, her attraction to Van Horn’s assistant was an important factor in her decision. For in April of the next year, Frances married Alonzo T. Jones.


Because of neglect by Van Horn, the three Adventist churches on the east side of the Cascade Mountains experienced little growth in the next few years. Ellen White wrote in 1880, "the poor scattered sheep [Adventists east of the Cascade Mountains] have been left to be torn by wolves and starve without food... These poor souls have had not labor and yet they seem to cling to the truth."

In 1877, John Loughborough, president of the California Conference, traveled to the Northwest and organized the region’s five churches and 200 members as the North Pacific Conference. Isaac Van Horn was elected president of this new Conference with his wife as secretary, and Alonzo T. Jones as treasurer.

In 1878, the first Adventist camp meeting in the Pacific Northwest took place in Salem. The next year camp meetings were held on both sides of the Cascade Mountains with the one on the east side taking place in Walla Walla (just east of Rooks Park).


The 1880 camp meeting was held in Milton. At this gathering the territory east of the Cascade Mountains was formed into a separate conference (Upper Columbia Conference/UCC) with four churches and 119 members. The General Conference sent George Colcord from Battle Creek College in Michigan to work in this new conference and the delegates to the conference’s first session elected him as their president. Alonzo T. Jones was assigned to work with Colcord as his assistant.

The early 1880s were difficult years for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Pacific Northwest. In the Upper Columbia Conference a number of the leading members were extremely strong-willed and independent-minded. Their influence discouraged the new president and broke his health.

Since similar problems plagued the North Pacific Conference (territory west of the Cascade Mountains), six ministers and Ellen White traveled to the Northwest in the summer of 1884 to meet the crisis. At the Upper Columbia Conference camp meeting in Walla Walla, these members approached the California delegation with instructions on what they should preach. Ellen White described what happened in a letter to Uriah Smith:


"We heard them respectfully and preached the word of the Lord without any reference to their suggestions... Just as soon as we preached the plain principles of truth there was a buzzing in the camp like a swarm of bees."

After much work the situation was turned around. Since Colcord moved to Nevada to regain his health, John Loughborough stepped in as interim president. He was soon followed by Henry Decker of Wisconsin.


Under Decker’s leadership the Upper Columbia Conference made good progress in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Ten years later (1894), the Upper Columbia Conference had 1,091 members and 22 churches, including churches in Boise City (Boise), College Place, Moscow, and Spokane Falls (Spokane). The next year a church was started in North Yakima (Yakima).

Some of this membership growth took place because of the arrival of the transcontinental railroad (Northern Pacific RR) in the Pacific Northwest. With this rapid and safe form of transportation to the region, the population of the Northwestern states mushroomed including many Adventists who moved to the Inland Northwest.


In 1886, the Milton Church started the Milton Academy that grew rapidly. In the early 1890s, this academy along with the North Pacific Academy in Portland closed so that a college could be started in the newly established town of College Place.

Originally, the Upper Columbia Conference included the eastern portions of Oregon and Washington Territory and all of the Idaho Territory. For several years in the mid-1880s, it also included the Montana Territory. In 1907, the Upper Columbia Conference was divided into two separate conferences. Southern Idaho and portions of eastern Oregon formed a new conference known as the Southern Idaho Conference (today: Idaho Conference).

During the late 1800s, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg turned the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan into one of the most prominent health-related institutions in the nation. As a result of his influence, Adventists throughout the nation started small sanitariums.

In 1893 Isaac Dunlap, the business manager of the newly opened Walla Walla College, moved to Battle Creek College to get medical training. In 1899, he returned to College Place and established a small sanitarium in the basement of the Administration Building on the campus of Walla Walla College.


The next year the Upper Columbia Conference started the Mountain View Sanitarium in Spokane. When this institution burned in 1904, the Conference leadership decided to take over Dunlap’s sanitarium in College Place instead of rebuilding in Spokane.


In 1906, the Walla Walla Sanitarium purchased the old College Place public school building and moved it to the college campus. The building was remodeled into a three-story building. The sanitarium, that was located where the library is today, became a successful institution.

In 1931, the Conference purchased a new hospital building on Bonsella Street in Walla Walla and moved the sanitarium. Five years earlier a group of businessmen and physicians had erected the structure but had been unsuccessful in their attempts to operate a hospital. At this new site, the sanitarium became known as the Walla Walla General Hospital.

Starting in the 1890s, Adventists in the Upper Columbia Conference began working for two ethnic groups—Germans and Scandinavians. The German work grew more rapidly than the Scandinavian. By 1906, there were nine German-speaking churches with a total membership of 200 in the Upper Columbia Conference. Though the German membership continued to grow for a number of years, eventually the German churches either joined with or became English-speaking churches.


Today the Upper Columbia Conference is working with four ethnic groups—Black, Native American, Russian and Spanish. From its start in the mid-1970s, there have been seventeen Spanish groups with a total membership of over 1,500 started in the Upper Columbia Conference.

The twentieth century produced an amazing amount of change. Transportation moved from horse, wagon and train to car, truck and airplane. Communication shifted from print and telegraph to telephone, radio, TV and computer. Life today in the Inland Northwest is vastly different from what it was 100 years ago.

The region has also experienced a lot of change. There have been large irrigation projects--Yakima Valley, Grand Coulee, and Hermiston; the U.S. Government project at Hanford near the Tri-Cities, and a shift of the population away from farms and small towns towards population centers. Consider the population changes!