The following article comes from the Adventist Encyclopedia, 1976, pages 465-468:
Beginnings of the Work in the Florida area
One of the first recorded mentions of a Seventh-day Adventist convert states, “S.N. Haskell reported an 1873 convert (place unmentioned), ‘a colored man who…then went to his people in Florida,’ where he found many of them eager for his books and tracts and some willing to adopt the Sabbath” (True Missionary, 1:56, July, 1874). It is not known whether he won any permanent converts.
Beginning as early as 1876, news items from Florida appear in the Review and Herald. In that year, a letter from Jacksonville refers to “a little company here, who have accepted the seventh day.” The next year, there is mention of six Seventh-day Adventists in St. Augustine and about the same number in Jacksonville. About the beginning of 1883, J.O. Corliss visited the few families of adherents scattered throughout the state, but the only evangelism reported was conducted by laymen. One of these was Charles P. Whitford from Vermont. He lived in Moultrie, a new settlement south of St. Augustine. In 1883 and 1884, he wrote of a few Seventh-day Adventist families there and of new converts in that county (St. Johns).
The first Adventist series of meetings in Florida, held early in 1885, was reported by G.G. Rupert, a minister sent by the General Conference. Preaching near Terra Ceia Bay, on the Gulf coast 40 miles south of Tampa, where about 20 Seventh-day Adventists from Michigan had settled, he added 10 converts and organized a church of 22 members. This oldest Seventh-day Adventist church in the state—and still the largest as late as 1895—was the forerunner of the present Palmetto church. Soon after leaving the Terra Ceia church, Rupert baptized six and organized a church at Sorrento, in mid-Florida. Here lived L.H. Crisler who had heard Seventh-day Adventist preaching in Iowa, but had not accepted the faith until moving to Florida, and who was to be, a few years later, the first Florida Conference president. Two churches organized by Rupert in 1886—at Orlando and Jacksonville—were later disbanded because of their members moving away, but were reorganized in 1890 and 1898, respectively.
These two disbanded churches exemplify one of several difficulties met in the early work in Florida—a fluctuating population. Evangelists preaching to winter residents might find their best hearers leaving for their northern homes in the spring. Or small, new churches could melt away almost overnight if their members were among that class of settlers who had arrived in Florida with much enthusiasm but little adaptability to the new climate or the unfamiliar requirements of soil and season, and who soon moved away to seek a better location or other employment. Because of the instability of the population in those early days, S.H. Lane, who was sent to Georgia and Florida in 1888, recommended to the General Conference a delay in the intended organization of a conference in Florida.
Yet, the migratory habits of the population had one advantage, as Samuel Fulton had reported to the General Conference session of 1887 on his return from Florida. Most of the people in the cities and towns, having come recently from elsewhere and having broken their ties with the past to some degree, were more ready to take up new ideas. He reported a liberal spirit, a lack of prejudice. Others after him found this true, though in the more conservative localities, active opposition could develop. It was in a backwoods post office that Evangelist L.H. Crisler encountered an irate citizen who assaulted him viciously until restrained by bystanders.
Other hindrances to progress were the periodic yellow fever scares which inhibited public meetings, and a freeze that brought economic disaster. For example, the threat of yellow fever epidemics prevented tent meetings scheduled in 1887 for Tampa, where there were nine members; kept people away from the 1888 meetings in Lake City; and canceled a Camp Meeting in the 1890s although the epidemic did not actually enter peninsular Florida. The 1895 Camp Meeting was eliminated because of the economic depression consequent upon what was still remembered for more than half a century as “the big freeze,” which not only wiped out the 1894-1895 citrus crop, but killed many groves outright. For several years, church budgets and colporteur sales suffered from the effects.
Organization in the 1890s
Despite setbacks, the 1890s were a decade of organization and progress. By 1890, organized or unorganized groups of adherents were reported at or near Apopka, Earlton, Fernandina, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Lake City, Moultrie, Orange Heights, Orlando, Palmetto, Pine Hill, St. Andrews Bay, St. Augustine, Sorrento, Tampa, and Waldo. Not all of these were permanent.
There were six churches represented in the meeting at Barberville in September, 1893, that organized the Florida Conference and at the same time a tract society and a Sabbath school association. The new conference began life with three ordained ministers, two licentiates, and 139 members, with a territory comprising all of Florida. (There were two territorial changes later: in 1908, seven northwestern counties were given to the Alabama Conference, and two others in 1922; a tenth was transferred in 1932 to the new Alabama-Mississippi Conference, known today as the Gulf States Conference).
During the 1890s, several other firsts are reported: in 1892, the first “company of canvassers,” supervised by canvassing agent S.T. Page, and the first Seventh-day Adventist church building, erected by the members of Barberville (organized in February) and DeLeon Springs; and in November, 1894, the first Camp Meeting and regular session of the new conference, held at Tampa—said to be the first Camp Meeting of any denomination in that area. The campers, including 100 who came up the bay in two schooners from Terra Ceia and elsewhere in Manatee County, were housed in 50 tents and apartments. A.T. Jones spoke twice daily, and other speakers were G.I. Butler, former General Conference president who had retired to Florida in 1888, and R.M. Kilgore, superintendent of the Southern District, who stayed over after the end of the meeting to organize the Tampa church.
In that decade, efforts were made to evangelize several ethnic groups. House-to-house work for blacks as well as whites was reported at Lawtey (1891) and at Milton (1897). In 1897, reference is made to M.T. Ivory, “our colored licentiate” (later ordained), working since April in Orlando. In September, 1899, Ivory reports preaching to white people for three weeks in Punta Gorda and working among the colored in various places all during the year, with the result that a church was organized in Orlando.
There were hopes of beginning mission work among the Seminole Indians in south Florida through contacts made at Chokoloskee, when, in 1896, W.L. Bird visited the little Seventh-day Adventist group there on the southern Gulf coast at Ten Thousand Islands. In 1897, the conference president felt that the way seemed to be opening, yet nothing permanent appears to have come of it. Fifty years later, there were reports of one Adventist half-Seminole trying to reach these Indians—a woman whose tribal membership gave her access to them.
Likewise, little was realized from hopes for a Tampa-based Cuban mission work. Immediately preceding the Spanish-American War in 1898, relief contributions were solicited for the Cuban refugees in Tampa, and plans were made to distribute Spanish publications to the “readers” in the local cigar factories (functionaries who were hired to read to the employees as they rolled cigars). Many years later, some evangelistic work was carried on for the Spanish-speaking people in Tampa, but the few converts were absorbed into the English-speaking church. A Spanish church was not organized in Miami until the mid-1900s.
Development in the Twentieth Century
On May 1, 1901, when the former General Conference District No. 2 (the Southern District) became the Southern Union Conference, the Florida Conference became one of its component conferences. In November, 1901, the Florida Conference elected as president G.I. Butler, who had twice been General Conference president. Because of his health, he had retired to Bowling Green, Florida, in 1888, and then had remained long after his recovery to care for his invalid wife who died just preceding this conference session. The following January, at the first session of the new Southern Union Conference, this former General Conference president was elected the union president, in addition to his Florida work. Thus, until 1904, the Florida Conference had a president who lived in Nashville, Tennessee.
In the first ten-year period, Florida Conference had doubled its membership, growing to 12 churches and 286 members by 1903, and in the second decade to 27 churches and 744 members in 1913. Among the churches organized by that time were those at St. Petersburg (1905), Daytona (1909), and Miami (1910). Meanwhile, the Florida Sanitarium had been opened in Orlando in 1908, and the conference headquarters moved there in 1910.
In a state with a steadily developing population, church membership continued to grow, despite economic setbacks due to the collapse of the Florida “boom” and the great depression of the 1930s. Forest Lake Academy, near Orlando, was established in 1926, and its campus provided a permanent Camp Meeting site. In the 1940s and 50s, several sanitariums and hospitals were opened, also a youth campsite was acquired at High Springs (Camp Kulaqua), and a new conference headquarters building (opened January, 1960) was erected.
Membership figures show one drop which, however, was not an actual decrease. In 1945, the transfer of the colored membership to the newly-organized South Atlantic Conference reduced the Florida Conference totals from 68 to 47 churches, and from 6,038 to 4,579 members.
Addendum—Office Location History
Based on available information, Florida Conference’s earliest decades operated out of a variety of temporary offices, possibly corresponding with Orlando churches. Then, the congregation known today as Orlando Central Church built a facility in 1917 on the corner of Rosalind and Robinson Avenues which was designed to also permanently house the Florida Conference offices. The Conference moved into its own building at some point between 1923 and 1928. The Orlando church continued to use the Rosalind/Robinson building until 1956. It no longer exists today.
In the 1920s, Florida Conference built its own separate office facility neighboring the former Orlando Central Church. The exact year is uncertain since some internal records, including the Centennial issue of Florida Focus (Adobe .PDF link), report 1923 as the move-in date; however, property records for Orange County claim the facility was built in 1928.
The former downtown Orlando headquarters location is still standing and, as of early 2012, was being used by an environmental/civil land surveying and consulting company.
The Rosalind Building sale was finalized before construction of the Rollins building was complete. So, from 1958-1960, Florida Conference operated out of a large old house on Hillcrest Ave., not far from the Rosalind Building. The house no longer exists.
The Rollins Building, completed in 1960 at 616 E. Rollins St., Orlando, initially housed administration on the upper floor, the Adventist Book Center on the lower floor, and ministry departments on a split level. The ABC later moved into an addition made on the building’s west side, and ministry departments expanded into the ABC’s former location on the bottom floor. More information about this new building can be read on page 10 of the November 25, 1959, Southern Tidings, and page 4 of the March 2, 1960, Southern Tidings (Adobe .PDF links).
After vacating the building in 1992, it was used for several years by Florida Hospital for the human resources office and other departments. It was demolished in 2005 to make room for the new Florida Hospital Ginsburg Tower. (Interestingly, the Ginsburg Tower Emergency Room entrance is now in almost the exact spot where the main south entrance to Florida Conference was located.)
The Wymore Road building at 655 N. Wymore Road, Winter Park, stood vacant for a considerable time with no interior walls or features. After Florida Conference purchased the building, the interior was renovated to specification, including space for the Adventist Book Center in the entire north half of the ground floor. The building’s grand opening was in the summer of 1992.
The Wymore building and property were purchased by the Florida Department of Transportation on January 27, 2012, to make room for expansion on Interstate 4. The building was demolished in October 2015. Florida Conference used the facility rent-free until April 2014 when it relocated to 351 S. State Road 434 in Altamonte Springs, just ½ mile south of the intersection of State Roads 434 and 436, and 1¼ miles north of the new Adventist Health System headquarters.
M. F. Cauley