Exiting the General Conference Presidency—Part 2

Exiting the General Conference Presidency—Part 2

May 11, 2022

In this two-part article, Dr. Gilbert Valentine explores the particular circumstances surrounding the exit from office of General Conference presidents Daniells and Butler, and then surveys the circumstances involved in the exit of the other occupants of the office of GC president since it was established in 1863. Originally published in 2019 to give historical context as the next General Conference Session approached, it is republished here as the twice-delayed 2022 Session is now imminent. 

Read Part 1 here.

Part II: Other Presidential Exits and Replacements

Terms of office for the General Conference president have gradually lengthened since the office was established in 1863. During the latter decades of the nineteenth century, thirty-three regular sessions of the General Conference were convened in addition to five special sessions that did not involve elections. For twenty-six years during this period, presidential appointments lasted for one year until 1889 when for a period of twelve years, two-year terms were introduced. After 1905, four-year terms became the norm until in 1970 a five-year term was adopted.

As the church has increased in size and complexity, changes have also been made to the procedures for electing the replacement for an exiting president. Early nominating committees were named by the incumbent or exiting president until the evident conflict of interest involved in such a practice got in the way of needed progress and reform. In 1901, a way was found to allow the delegates themselves to name the members of the nominating committee.1 Then this powerful committee became more representative, increased in size, and over time began to depend on recommendations from regional caucuses. The number of delegates participating in the voting process has steadily increased and ratios of representation have been adjusted to manage the numbers. The actual voting mechanism by the delegates has also varied. At times it has involved simply inviting delegates to stand, raise a hand, or wave a card. Occasionally it has involved secret ballots and more recently secret electronic voting. The most spectacular failure in method occurred in 2015 when the electronic voting was abandoned amid bitter recriminations alleging sabotage or seeking to put the blame on system failure.2

Tenure and Age

The average length of tenure of the six General Conference presidents who occupied the office during the nineteenth century was 6.31 years. During this period, two leaders occupied the office on multiple occasions. James White occupied the office for three different periods and George Butler occupied the office twice. (See chart in Appendix I.) From 1901 until the end of the presidency of Jan Paulsen, the average length of tenure for the ten occupants has been 10.9 years, with A. G. Daniells being an outlier, serving in the office for 21.1 years. The overall length of tenure of all occupants since 1863 has been 9.18 years. See Appendix II.

Of the sixteen presidents who have exited the office, George Butler faced the most elections (12), followed by James White (10), reflecting the short term of appointment in practice at the time. The average age of incumbents at mid-tenure during the nineteenth century was 49.5. For the ten incumbents during the twentieth century the average mid-tenure age rose to 61.35. Clearly maturity and breadth of experience (including overseas mission service) have been increasingly important criteria to consider in candidates for the presidency as membership has diversified and as the organizational structure of the church has become more complex. Overall, the average mid-tenure age sits at 55.4. The youngest leader elected to the office was George Butler at age 37 in 1871. The oldest was John Byington at 65 years of age followed by Jan Paulsen at 64. Byington, as the first president, played a formal ceremonial role even though there was no actual need for much public ceremony. Total church membership at the time was only 3,500 and James White, in reality, was the de facto leader. Paulsen at 75 years of age was the oldest leader to exit the office, but his initial election to office had been under unusual circumstances. The average age at election to office is 51.5 across a range of ages 37 to 65. The retirement age of 70 represented in the cases of James McElhany, Reuben Figuhr, and Neal Wilson seems to be the age the church considered respectable and appropriate for exit.

Reasons for Exiting

Age and health considerations are equally the most common reasons for General Conference presidents exiting their office. Four left for reasons of health. James White was obliged to exit his office three times related to strokes and a resultant inability to function effectively. John Andrews covered White’s absence for two years and George Butler for a further three years. Twenty-two-year-old Willie deputized for his ill father for short periods when his health problems were severe enough to make him dysfunctional in the 1870s. William Branson suffered from Parkinson’s disease and withdrew after only one term. Robert Pierson suffered a heart ailment and withdrew on the advice of his doctors. Charles Watson suffered painful arthritis and withdrew partially because of health and partially because of frustration and emotional exhaustion with the politics of leadership in Washington, even though he was among the younger of the twentieth century presidents to exit the office.3 He was able to continue serving in senior leadership for eight more years back in his home territory of Australia where the politics of leadership were not so complex or intense.

Three presidents stepped aside voluntarily from the office even though they could still have had years of service ahead of them, as we have noted in the case of the Australian Charles Watson. John Andrews voluntarily stepped aside in 1870 because James White’s health had recovered somewhat, and Andrews knew full well that he was really only the acting president. When Ole Olsen stepped aside in 1897, it was the third time he had attempted to do so. He eventually served four terms. Olsen had been called upon to restore a sense of unity in the church after Butler had proved to be such a highly divisive leader in his unsuccessful attempts to defend orthodoxy in 1888. Developing systemic problems in the church organization in the mid-1890s posed challenging problems for Olsen, as he found himself having to work with a team of associates grappling with huge financial pressures and rapidly expanding organizational complexity. In 1893, Olsen tried to resign but Ellen White forbade him to do so. There appeared to be no one who could replace him. Again in 1895, Olsen suggested to Ellen White that her son, Willie White, could and should take his place. She declined. Finally, in 1897, he succeeded in exiting the office because Ellen White thought she now had an appropriate successor in line. Olsen subsequently gave eighteen years of leadership in senior positions in the church.

The 1897 succession did not work out as Ellen White hoped. Prescott, as her favored candidate, was by passed because he proved too enthusiastic in promoting the reforms Ellen White said were needed. George Irwin, whom Ellen White considered but a “stripling,” was elected instead.4

Normal retirement age constituted the reason for exiting the office for six of the presidents (Byington, Spicer, McElhany, Figuhr, N. Wilson, and Paulsen) although the latter two of these had offered to continue in office if needed. Neal Wilson, at seventy years of age, would like to have continued in office and thought he should. Thus, he left his name in contention. North American delegates, however, felt that twenty-four years under one man (twelve as NAD president) was enough for them and conveyed the idea to other nominating committee members that it was time for a change.5 Delegates in 1990 were mindful that the influence of the Wilson family had extended back beyond the then incumbent to his father Nathaniel. By 2022, the influence of the Wilson family in senior leadership will have extended to sixty years and could be perceived as having developed dynastic dimensions. (See Appendix III for details on Wilson family leadership.) Somewhat surprised by the resistance to the Wilson name in 1990 (Spectrum editor Roy Branson described the move as a coup d’ etat), the 224-member committee turned to Robert Folkenberg after first selecting George Brown of Inter-America, who declined nomination. It was the first time a non-Caucasian had been nominated to the office.6

Jan Paulsen in 2010 was ready to retire and was of an age to do so. His willingness to continue in office and leave his name in contention appears not to have been because he really wanted to continue but because of deep misgivings on the part of some about the direction in which his likely successor would take the church. The exit of William Spicer, James McElhaney, and Reuben Figuhr were all almost routine, and the exit from office in each was dignified and their tenure celebrated with genuine gratitude.

Only one president has been required to exit the office of president for disciplinary reasons. In 1999, after eight years of leadership, Robert Folkenberg was found to be involved in financial irregularities that a special committee determined were not in keeping with the high ethical standards for the office of world president and he was forced to resign. He was replaced by Vice President Jan Paulsen at a special session of the executive committee fifteen months before Folkenberg’s second term expired.

Presidents Desiring to Continue but Replaced

Twelve presidents withdrew their names from consideration before the session at which they exited the presidency. Three incumbents left their names in contention at the start of the session but withdrew them as the sessions proceeded. On two occasions, James White was persuaded by personal circumstances of illness or discussion of his health prospects during the session to withdraw his name. George Butler and Arthur Daniells were the other two who withdrew their names midway during a session. Both were unhappy, undignified occasions. (See Appendices IV and V for lists of reasons for exiting the presidency and the circumstances of exit.)

Butler had been reluctant to accept initial appointment to the presidency in 1871 to replace White because he feared it would inevitably involve him in unpleasant conflict with his predecessor. As an “apostle,” James White continued to hover over all presidential operations even when he was not well. Butler’s reluctance was also motivated by the fact that the leadership team around James had understood Ellen White to have stated late in 1865 that God intended James to carry the leadership and that he was sure to get well for that purpose. When White’s health failed again, it posed problems because Ellen White was not able to endorse Butler through any particular vision-based message. He was thus coerced into accepting the office. But in 1875, just as he had intuited at the beginning of his term, he exited the presidency in the midst of a deep conflict with White. He had believed he was actually carrying out “apostle” White’s program, but White did not see it that way.

Butler’s second exit from the presidency in 1888 was, as we have already noticed, also an undignified and unhappy ending to an eight-and-a-half-year term of service. Other than the undignified exit of Butler in 1888, perhaps the most personally traumatic exit for an incumbent who had hoped to continue in office was that of George Irwin in 1901. First elected in 1897 two days before the end of the three-week long session that year as a compromise candidate and as a rather inexperienced administrator, Irwin had the unenviable task of leading the church during a period when its systemic organizational failings had become acute. His difficulties were compounded by the increasingly independent operations of the medical work and serious imbalances developing between the medical and ministerial/evangelistic activities in their demands on the personnel and financial resources of the church. In the power struggle that developed, ugly rumors circulated in church leadership circles before the 1901 General Conference session suggesting that Irwin would be replaced as a result of a conspiratorial plan involving Daniells, Ellen White, and her son Willie White. When Irwin took up the rumors with Ellen White, she assured him, and others in senior leadership, that the rumors of conspiracy were false and the report of a scheme to replace him was a total fabrication. She assured him there was no such plan and that she did not see any reason why he should not continue.

At the 1901 General Conference session, however, Irwin was, in fact, not returned to office when Daniells was elected the new leader. It was a deeply humiliating experience that traumatized him and his family. He was assigned to Australia for four years as a union conference president replacing Daniells but eventually made his way back to the center where for four years he joined Daniells’s administrative team to serve as vice president with responsibility for the North American territory. His last three years took him to the West Coast as president of the Pacific Union Conference. In total, he served a further twelve years in senior elective office.


In most cases, the process of exiting the office of General Conference presidency in the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been a routine and dignified process occasioned either by the advanced age or perhaps the failing health of the incumbent. But exiting the office has not always been a smooth nor dignified process. Ellen White’s involvement in the electoral process would seem to have been at all times to achieve unity and cohesion. In cases where she was involved in directly advising the electoral process or in advocating for a particular candidate for office, her emphasis was on the need for a progressive, forward-looking outlook.

On occasion, presidential exits have involved highly dramatic political struggles, although not ever, it seems, between individuals in a personal contest for the control of the levers of power in the church. Nevertheless, the presidential exit has often been surrounded by struggles over policy, strategic direction, and between strong parties and influences in the church. These have involved at times theological emphases and strong views on what is considered orthodox or heterodox. Subterranean forces have at times quietly and not so quietly struggled for control of the church’s agenda and its future direction, and these have manifested themselves in the removal of General Conference presidents. The church has survived such unpleasant exits in the past.

Presidents have exited their office for a variety of reasons and under a wide array of circumstances. In the future, there will need to be adjustments to the way presidential exits are managed and the way new ones are elected, given the increasing dimensions and complexity of the church. Perhaps the way that progressive local conferences now process their elections will serve as a model. Processes that involve more thoughtfulness and time with greater constituency input might be instructive for the election of the church’s central leadership. But whatever adjustments may be needed for the exit and entrance processes, we may pray for providence to be at work—even if we only recognize it more easily in retrospect.


Appendix I: General Conference Presidents Length of Tenure and Age

Appendix II

Figure I: Graph of Tenure in Office

Figure II: Graph of Age Entering and Leaving Office

Appendix III: Wilson Family Central Role in SDA Church Leadership (does not include 2020–22).

Appendix IV: Reasons for Exiting General Conference Presidency

Appendix V: Circumstances of Exit from the Presidency


Notes & References:

1. See Gilbert Valentine, "Conflict of Interest: An Impediment to Reform, 1897 – 1901," The Adventist Professional, Vol 3, No 3, September 1991, 7-10 for a discussion of this important electoral reform.

2. The electronic system worked without problem within the nominating committee.

3. C. H. Watson to A. G. Daniells, April 15, 1932. For further details see Gilbert M. Valentine, The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage, (Westlake Village, CA: Oak and Acorn, 2018), 55-57. In addition to his pastoral leadership skills Watson brought distinctive financial experience and insight to his presidency when elected at the onset of the great financial depression of the early 1930s. In this first replacement of a leader since the election of Spicer in 1922, it was pointedly noted that there was no “divided sentiment” in the nominating committee. The nomination was unanimous. “Proceedings of the General Conference,” RH June 3, 1930, 69.

4. Irwin had been an Adventist for twelve years and had been involved in conference presidency for six years and as district director for two years. Gilbert M. Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2011) 116, 124.

5. Dewitt S. Williams, Highly Committed: The Captivating Story of the Wilson Family and the Impact of the Adventist Church, (Fort Oglethorpe, GA: TeachServices Inc. 2012) 145. See also Ron Graybill, “The Making of a General Conference President, 1990” Spectrum, 20:5, August 1990, 10-15.

6. Branson wrote that the “1990 General Conference session had less the feel of a constitutionally mandated shift of power than a coup d' etat,” in “Editorial Notes,” Spectrum, 20:5, August 1990, 3. According to Williams, the first ballot produced a 76:75 split in favor of Wilson with other votes for the other 10 nominees. On the third and final ballot, Brown took 130 votes and Wilson only 81. See Williams, 145.


Read Part 1 here.


Gilbert M. Valentine, PhD, recently retired, continues to teach as an adjunct professor in the H. M. S. Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University. His most recent work is “Adventism in America” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (2021). Photo by DDP on Unsplash

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

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