My encounter with the Seventh-Day Adventist community in Bocas Town sparked my curiosity as to the origins of this tightly knit group which, at the time, was mainly composed of descendants of West Indian people. As such, I’ve borrowed from an excellent account written by Clifton L. Holland entitled Status of Christianity Country Profile: Panama to provide you with a good historical background.
“The Seventh Day Adventist Church began work among West Indians in Panama when American missionaries serving in the Bay Islands of Honduras visited the Caribbean coastal areas in the 1890s. In 1901, regional headquarters for Adventist work were established at Bocas del Toro, where a small gasoline-powered launch aided missionary efforts. Although the work suffered a setback in 1902 when two medical workers died, by the end of 1903 there were three church es and four missions, with a total membership of 129 in western Panama. In 1907, an Adventist church was organized among West Indians at Mount Hope in the Canal Zone, about two miles from Colón. This church, with a membership of 40, provided numerous “canvassers” or colporteurs, who were sent throughout Panama to distribute literature, evangelize and plant churches, mainly among West Indians.
Several institutions were also established by the Adventists in Panama. From 1917 to 1955, the Inter-American branch of the Pacific Press was operated at Cristóbal, which exerted a stabilizing influence on early Adventist work in the Colón area. The West Caribbean Training School was operated by the Adventists from 1921 to 1931 in Las Cascadas, overlooking the Panama Canal. A coeducational boarding school on the senior high school level was opened in 1945 on a 154-acre farm in Pedregalito. This school, called the Panamanian Adventist Institute, is located at La Concepción, near Boquerón, in Chiriquí Province.
Several efforts were made by the Adventists to reach various Amerindian groups in Panama. In 1930, after several visits to the Guaymí Indians in Cerro Iglesia, Chiriquí Province, a church was organized with 33 members. An Adventist school was started there a year later. In 1963, there were 571 baptized members among the Guaymí in this region.
Adventist work began in 1962 among Kuna Indians in the San Blas Islands; by 1964, there were 31 baptized Kuna believers and an Adventist school with 68 pupils. Currently, there are two Adventist congregations among the Kuna. Ministry among the Chocó Indians in the Darien region of eastern Panama began in 1964. Soon, 259 Chocoes were enrolled in the radio Bible school and a small Adventist church was established. In 1967, the number of Adventists among the various Amerindian groups totaled about 1,200 members.
In the mid-1930s, the Adventists were actively engaged in evangelistic work in the interior of Panama among the Hispanic population, while continuing to work among West Indians and North Americans in the Canal Zone, and among West Indians in the provinces of Colón, Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí. Adventist statistics for 1935 reveal 1,639 members and about 5,120 adherents, among 25 congregations and nine preaching points. These efforts were led by 26 missionaries and 18 national workers.
In 1960, the Adventist Church reported 3,898 members a nd almost 7,000 adherents. About half of their 44 congregations and 15 preaching points were located in Chiriquí Province, which accounted for 1,113 members and 2,145 adherents. Eleven foreign missionaries and 34 national workers provided leadership for this growing work nationwide. Adventists were also well represented in the provinces of Colón and Bocas del Toro, in addition to the Canal Zone. Continued Adventist growth since 1960 produced a membership of 6,210 in 1967 and 11,735 in 1978. The period of most rapid growth was between 1960 and 1967 when Adventist membership increased 6.9% (AAGR).
The proportion of Adventists who are Hispanic increased from 40% in 1967 to 60% in 1978 , while West Indians decreased from 40% to 35%. The proportion of Amerindians also decreased, from 20% to about 4%. North Americans accounted for the remaining 1% of Adventist membership in 1978. Adventist work is strongest in the Inter-oceanic Reg ion and in the Province of Chiriquí, although Adventists are also well represented, proportionately, in the Eastern Region. Adventist headquarters are located at Balboa in the old Canal Zone. There were 69 organized congregations in 1978. Today the Adventist Church is the second largest Protestant group in Panama.”
This story continues.