Perhaps there was no more unlikely preacher of the Seventh-day Adventist Church than Joseph Bates. Born in Rochester, Massachusetts, when he was young his family moved to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, a port city, where he became fascinated with the sea. He set out from Fairhaven at the age of 15 as a cabin boy. He experienced shipwreck, capture, and forced service in the British Navy, and was for two-and-a-half years a prisoner of war in England, being released in 1815. Bates eventually served as captain of his own ship, beginning in 1820. In 1821 he gave up smoking and chewing tobacco, as well as the use of profane language. He later quit using tea and coffee, and in 1843 became a vegetarian. Bates retired from the sea in 1827, with a small fortune for the time, of $11,000. During his years at sea he was converted, and helped found the Fairhaven Christian church.
After his retirement at age 35, Bates became associated with several reforms, including temperance and antislavery. In 1839 he accepted the second advent preaching of William Miller, and became an active and successful Millerite preacher. He eventually invested all of his money in the advent movement. Bates experienced the 1844 disappointment without losing his faith. In 1845 he read a T. M. Prebletract on the Sabbath, published in Nashua, near Washington, New Hampshire. Bates traveled there to study for himself. Upon his return to Fairhaven, he met a friend, Captain Hall, at the old bridge approach. Hall asked him: "What's the news, Captain Bates?" His reply was: "The news is that the seventh day is the Sabbath." Hall became a convert to the Sabbath as well.
The next year, 1846, Bates wrote a tract on the subject of the Bible Sabbath. This tract came to the attention of James and Ellen White, around the time of their marriage in August of that year. They accepted the seventh-day Sabbath as a result of their study. It is interesting to note that Bates argued in the tract for beginning the Sabbath at 6 p.m. Friday. For more than ten years, many Sabbathkeepers, including the Whites, began the Sabbath at 6 p.m. Other Adventists kept it from sunrise, sunset, or midnight. In 1855 James White asked J. N. Andrews to make a study of the Bible on the subject. His paper was presented at a meeting in Battle Creek, in November. His conclusion supported sunset. After the meeting, Ellen White had a vision confirming the result of his Bible study, and unity on the subject was gained.
Joseph Bates was often the chairman at the "Sabbath conferences" of 1848-1850. He became more closely associated with the Whites at that time. Earlier, he had written about his efforts to verify Ellen White's visionary experiences for himself:
"I therefore sought opportunities in presence of others, when her mind seemed freed from excitement, (out of meeting) to question, and cross question her, and her friends which accompanied her, especially her elder sister, to get if possible at the truth. . . . I have seen her in vision a number of times, and also in Topsham, Me., and those who were present during some of these exciting scenes know well with what interest and intensity I listened to every word, and watched every move to detect deception, or mesmeric influence. And I thank God for the opportunity I have had with others to witness these things. I can now confidently speak for myself."--A Word to the "Little Flock," p. 21.
Joseph Bates is considered one of the co-founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, along with James and Ellen White. When he left the sea, he continued his travels to many places, including Battle Creek, where he won the first convert there. The year before he died he preached at least 100 times. He died at the age of 80 at the Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, and is buried at Monterey, Michigan.