Catherine and Elisha* sat in the wooden pew of their small-town church on Sabbath morning. Their fingers tightly clutched coins they had brought for the mission offering. It was the Adventist Church’s first special mission offering, and it would help build a mission ship. Catherine had helped her mother bake and sell bread, and Elisha had washed windows and delivered groceries for the owner of the general store. Together they had earned 16 cents† to give to the mission-ship fund.
When the offering was announced, the children marched forward. “We’ve brought enough to buy a board!” Elisha told the pastor, his eyes shining. Other children and adults came too. Some brought one cent, while others brought 10 or even 15 cents. “My offering can buy some nails!” one boy almost shouted. “I hope my offering will buy canvas for the sails,” a much quieter girl said.
Adventist believers were excited, for this mission ship was their ship, built and equipped to share God’s love with people in the South Pacific. One boy helped his mother make hundreds of popcorn balls, which he sold to raise $15 for the mission ship! Imagine popping popcorn over a wood-burning stove to make all those popcorn balls!
Every cent had been earned by sacrifice and hard work. It was almost impossible to imagine raising the $12,000 needed to build the missionary ship. ‡
The story of the ship called Pitcairn started many years earlier when a young man named John Tay heard the story of a rebellious crew on a British ship who had put their cruel captain aboard a lifeboat and sailed away. The crew had found refuge on a tiny island in the South Pacific called Pitcairn.
But alcohol nearly destroyed the islanders as the men fought among themselves. Eventually only one man, John Adams, remained alive to care for the women and children on the island. He gave up alcohol and turned to the Bible. Soon he and all the people of Pitcairn gave their hearts to God.
After some time news of Pitcairn Island reached the world. John Tay vowed to visit the island and share the Adventist message with the people there. In 1886 he arranged to sail to the South Pacific in exchange for working aboard a ship. Four months and six ships later John Tay arrived on Pitcairn.
The people of Pitcairn invited Tay to stay on their island until the next ship arrived several weeks later. Tay introduced the people to new Bible truths, and the islanders accepted his message. By the time Tay left the island several weeks later, virtually everyone on Pitcairn was keeping the Sabbath.
“Please baptize us!” the people begged. John Tay promised to send a pastor to baptize them.
Tay returned to the United States and shared the story of Pitcairn. Soon church leaders voted to raise funds to build a mission ship that would sail to Pitcairn and other South Pacific islands to share the gospel with the people there. Fittingly, the boat was named Pitcairn.
Sabbath School members across North America—for that’s where most Adventists lived at the time—joined together to build the mission boat. Penny by penny the ship was built, and in 1890, four years after John Tay had first visited Pitcairn Island, the mission ship Pitcairn sailed with its a crew and three missionary couples, including John and Hannah Tay.
When the little ship arrived at Pitcairn Island, the people of Pitcairn rejoiced! At last they could be baptized! Within a few weeks 82 people were baptized, and a church was formed on Pitcairn Island.
But the Pitcairn’s work wasn’t finished. It continued sailing the seas in the South Pacific, bringing the gospel message to city folk and cannibals alike. And just think: it all started with a dream, a lot of hard work, and hundreds of popcorn balls!
* Children’s names are fictional, as records of individual donors were not kept.
† A little more than US$4.70 today. For comparison, in 1886 a loaf of bread sold for less than five cents.
‡ The final cost of the ship, including furnishings and a pump organ, came to about $19,000.