Signs magazine is one of Australia and New Zealand’s longest, continuous-running magazines. In January 1886, the first issue of Signs of the Times wore the title of Bible Echo and Signs of the Times.
The story begins with a group of 11 Seventh-day Adventists from the United States landing in Sydney on June 6, 1885. Within the group were three preachers, a printer and a book salesman—plus wives and children. They settled in Melbourne—in North Fitzroy—and began their work of attempting to find supporters for their faith. One newspaper at the time (June 28, 1885) noted, “The members [of the group] observe Saturday as the Sabbath and do not take alcohol or tobacco, as they are not deemed good for the health.”
Regular Signs readers will recognise that there’s a health emphasis—in lifestyle, diet and relationships—in every issue and that the Saturday Sabbath also gains an occasional mention. The first Signs was typeset in the bedroom of one of the workers and then carried to a nearby printer to prepare it for launch in January 1886. Some 8000 copies were printed.
This magazine had 16 pages and on page 8 it suggested that “many honest queries will arise in reference to its design, and the scope it will occupy in the religious field. To many, the name of the journal, Bible Echo and Signs of the Times, will be sufficient enough. ”For those who did not understand what the magazine was about, the promise was made that it would be a “thorough exponent of the Bible”, adding that “we firmly believe the Bible to be the revealed will of God concerning His people on earth”.
Further, “It will also be a chronicler of events which mark the times pointed out in the prophecies. These, it cannot be denied, are an important part of the Bible, for without them its inspiration would be a matter of doubt.” The article spoke specifically about the prophecies concerning Jesus but added that a “portion of the prophetic word has its fulfilment in the present generation”.
The Early Years
Fortunately for the un-named worker, his bedroom wasn’t needed to set type for the second issue.
The back page announced that “friends of the Bible Echo will be gratified to learn that this issue of the paper is printed at our own place of business”.
There’s an apology for some errors in the first issue and an offer of sending a copy to any who missed it if they send in “two two-penny stamps”. Importantly, there’s an answer to queries about how long they planned to remain in Australia. Readers are told of a “good-sized” congregation growing in Melbourne (meeting in the Temperance Hall in Russell Street) and two “companies” established in New Zealand.
With these followers, their printing work and book stocks available, “We would therefore have our friends understand that we have ‘come to stay’.”
The third issue gives an annual subscription price of 3 shillings and 6 pence. In 1889 it was published twice a month and the price rose to 5 shillings, 6 pence. Single copies could be bought for a penny. In 1894, Signs became an eight-page weekly magazine. For a time, from August 15, 1892, the Signs front page called it The Bible Echo, but the masthead retained The Bible Echo and Signs of the Times. That changed on January 26, 1903 when the front page and the masthead proclaimed it the Australasian Signs of the Times.
This came about after the deputy postmaster contacted the Echo Publishing Company to ask why the magazine should be registered as a newspaper and enjoy reduced postage rates. The publishers responded that they believed they were within the law because the Postal Act stated that “a substantial part” of their magazine must be of a “religious, technical or practical” content—as news. They were told that a “substantial part” was 50 per cent, and they weren’t meeting their obligation, so the content was adjusted to meet the requirements and the name changed. The January 2, 1905 issue was shortened to its current title Signs of the Times.
The title, Signs of the Times, comes from the words of Jesus: “You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times!” (Matthew 16:3, NLT). For Adventists, a group watching for and awaiting the advent of Jesus, this fitted well.
Lessons learned along the way have helped mature the magazine. The lifestyle features of the magazine not only use the latest information, but also help readers sift through available information by using credible writers and sources. During its history, Signs has seen many changes: monthly, fortnightly, weekly publication and back to monthly. It has been through the process of going from black and white to experiments with colour headlines, to what would now be considered insipid colour photographs, to vibrant colour. Technology has helped create these advances. The change to the current, smaller size in the 1990s seemed dramatic at the time, but it’s now just accepted.
We live in a digital world and while Signs is still available in print form, it can be found in various forms online with a podcast and other digital opportunities to engage, such as social media. Change will continue.
What Hasn’t Changed
Now, 135 years after its launch, the underlying purpose of Signs hasn’t changed. It is still driven by a Christian philosophy that takes the Bible seriously; recognises Jesus as the ultimate hope in people’s lives and for our planet; and takes a whole-of-life approach to lifestyle, health and relationships. These remain as important in 2021 as they were in 1886. And this is what has helped keep Signs timely.
*This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Signs.
Bruce Manners is retired Signs of the Times and Adventist Record editor, having served in the role from 1989–2003. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.