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Adventist Pioneers and the Problem of Policy Non-Compliance


At a meeting of the General Conference Executive Committee at its Annual Council last year (2017), a proposal was discussed that had as its purpose the enforcing of “compliance” of certain Union Conferences with the rules of the church about who could be called “ordained” and who could not. The document was eventually rejected because most Committee members considered it had been introduced in a less than truly ethical and transparent way and because it proposed, remarkably, that all Executive Committee members would be required to sign a loyalty pledge to be administered by administration. The document also proposed that official leaders of organizations that were “non-compliant” would be denied voice and vote in meetings of the Committee — as if they were the people at fault. The approach seemed to ignore the fact that the leaders were simply carrying out the instructions and convictions of their very large constituencies — church members who believed they were witnessing the Spirit of God at work in women pastors. The document caused enormous discomfort suggesting that the very nature of the church as a community of shared faith and mission and as a community of the Spirit was somehow under attack.

If things go according to plan, in October this year, the major item on the Annual Council agenda will be a one-page proposal again setting out a policy for disciplining Union Conferences for being “out of harmony” or “non-compliant” with Church practice in ministry and mission. The proposal, if reports are correct, will seek to remove the voting right of a Union President whose constituency has instructed him through its constituency meeting to implement the equal treatment of men and women whom church members and leaders have recognized God has called to ministry.

Does such a strategy for dealing with conflict over moral convictions and the task of mission lead the church into unprecedented dangerous territory?

Before taking such a perilous step, might it be instructive for both the Unity Oversight Committee and for the General Conference Executive Committee to pause and reflect on the danger of introducing punitive processes and using a policy manual to achieve compliance? Such measures will change the nature of church relationships. A review of our Church’s historical views about the use of policy to achieve compliance is instructive. Perhaps the spirit of the pioneers might yet still be able to speak to us.

Early Adventist Convictions about the Use of Church Manuals

In 1863 our denominational forefathers took the momentous step to organize themselves into a General Conference in the middle of a Civil War. God blessed and the Church grew. Fifteen years later to help shape and unify that growth, the idea of the need for a church manual was first suggested. The project was considered and materials were developed and discussed through five General Conference sessions. A book of church policies that could help guide the movement into the future seemed to have many advantages. But after five years of careful consideration, in 1883 our forefathers decisively rejected adopting a Church Manual, and they lived without such a policy book to prescribe their future for the next fifty years.1

What is important to note about the 1883 decision is not the rejection itself. Fifty years later after significant expansion, the church reversed itself and did adopt a Church Manual. This code of church practice has proved exceedingly helpful as a descriptive statement of “this is how Adventists do church.” And a later similar “policy book” outlining procedures for the church’s organizational structure also became critically important. No organization today could survive without such an agreed code of practice for financial and personnel matters, for example. Policy is critically important in a bureaucratic entity.2 How else could an organization ensure the fair allocation of its resources for mission or the equitable reimbursement of employees, protected from the whim or caprice of any given officeholder?

But why did our Adventist forefathers so firmly reject the adoption of a Church Manual and hold out in resistance on the matter for so long? Simply because they feared it would be wrongly used to achieve compliance. This was what they feared most.

The Backstory3

When discussion of a “manual” had first arisen at the General Conference Session in 1878, what had been requested was really a policy book with “Constitutions and By-Laws” and guidance on parliamentary procedure.4 Dudley Canright was asked to write up the material, and he circulated it informally. Then in 1882 the General Conference session further refined the task. By this time, church membership had risen to fifteen thousand members who worshiped in almost seven hundred churches. One hundred and fifty fully ordained pastors and a similar number of licensed ministers serviced these congregations.5 The call for a manual was now more pressing, and perceptions of the kind of document needed had become clearer.

Session delegates in 1882, therefore, specifically asked for a “manual” that would provide “Instruction to Church Officers” at the local church level. Respected church elders were commissioned to write up the document. During the following year, W. H. Littlejohn, John Corliss, and A. H. St. John all brought their considerable experience and expertise to the task, reworking and revising the materials previously prepared by Dudley Canright. At the end of the writing task, to ensure transparency, the final document was published in segments over a period of seventeen weeks in the Review.6 Thus, the stage was set for formal adoption of the Church Manual at the 1883 session.

The material prepared for the proposed manual addressed both church life and organizational governance needs. After dealing with the name of the church and the principles of organization, it dealt with matters such as how to organize a local church, appoint officers, admit new members, and discipline existing members. It outlined the duties of church officers and explained how to conduct quarterly church business meetings, ordinances, weddings, and funerals, as well as how to care for tithe. It dealt with the work of the ministry and the matter of ministerial credentials, and it addressed the holding of church property. Substantial parts of the material provided biblical justification for particular Adventist practices and beliefs. The manual was basically descriptive, as indicated by the frequent use of such phrases as “it is customary among Adventists,” “at the present time,” and “experience has shown.” The manual also included Uriah Smith’s summary “Statement on Fundamentals.”

1883 had been a very difficult year for the Church. Battle Creek College, which had been closed for a year due to intense conflicts between staff and students, had just opened again in the Fall, and the atmosphere, though better, was still tense and factionalized. Church administration and the College Board had become deeply polarized over the issues. The previous Annual Council had been held away from Battle Creek at a town in New York because of the intense political atmosphere connected with the closure of the College, and the General Conference President had moved out of town and out of state so that his children could attend the new Adventist School in Massachusetts. The dismissed college president had linked up with the dissident Marian Party in Iowa, and there had been much public criticism of the church and Ellen White over early inadequate teachings about the “Shut Door.” The church was still adjusting to the loss of James White from leadership—he had died in August 1881. And now as delegates assembled in Battle Creek for the 1883 year-end meeting, they again grieved, this time the loss of pioneer missionary John Andrews who had died of consumption just a month previously. It would have been very tempting to the assembled delegates to become conservative, settle things, and embrace the future in the secure arms of a church manual. But no, the 1883 General Conference Session approached its numerous problems with an open, progressive, and confident spirit.

One of the resounding actions session delegates took was to articulate in print their understanding of how inspiration worked. The Spirit inspired “thoughts” and “ideas” not generally “words” — and they thus approved revision to the wording of Ellen White’s Testimonies. The other stand-out action that defined the 1883 session was what delegates did with the Church Manual. They resoundingly rejected it not because of its words but because of the very idea of a Manual. In particular, they rejected it for the dangers of its potential misuse. They thus rejected it in principle. They wished to remain a movement shaped and molded by the leading of the Spirit rather than by the rules and constraints of a policy book.

During the session, a committee of ten church leaders had been appointed by the delegates to join with the three-member General Conference Executive Committee to look carefully and closely at the Church Manual proposal. Ellen White had been invited in to address the task force, and according to her son W. C. White, she had “spoken well.”7 The committee concluded its work with the unanimous recommendation that session delegates definitively reject the church manual. The authors of the manuscript were stunned, but the recommendation to reject was defended, and the delegates agreed and then asked President George Butler to explain to the wider church membership the important question of “why.” A week later, Butler published the explanation.

The Dangers and Fears

There were six specific dangers along the path the Church would enter upon if it adopted a Manual, explained the President. The church in session had determined that it needed to stop now for the end result would surely be “the formation of a creed, or a discipline, other than the Bible.” Butler listed the dangers.

1. The danger of moving away from the Bible as the “word of counsel” and the Church’s only creed and discipline. Session delegates felt it would be inevitable that the manual would eventually take the role of shaping the Church instead of the Bible. The Church had already successfully surmounted the “difficulties” associated with adopting a formal, structured organization without the aid of a manual. Would not the adoption of one make further growth and development more difficult rather than less difficult?

2. The danger of formalism. Church members and ministers would tend to rely on the manual instead of on their individual God-given powers of judgment and the direction of the Holy Spirit.

3. The danger of trying to define, too closely, things upon which the Bible is silent. If God had wanted the Church to have a manual containing such instruction about church life, the Spirit would have left one “with the stamp of inspiration upon it.”

4. The danger of insisting on uniformity. Circumstances vary. Individual problems should be dealt with on merit. “Union” already prevailed throughout the body. “Uniformity” was not necessary.

5. The danger that the document would become a test of orthodoxy. Although, of course, not intended “to have authority or settle disputed points” nevertheless, because the document would be approved by the General Conference and be issued under its “auspices,” it would inevitably carry “much weight of authority.” It would become prescriptive of what must be done, not just descriptive of what generally had been done. Those who did not follow would be considered “out of harmony with established principles.”

6. The danger of the slippery slope: Where does one stop? Churches in the past, feeling the need for uniformity, had prepared documents to “guide the inexperienced.” These had grown in number and authority until they had become “authoritative.” It was best not to start down that road and give “even the appearance of such a thing.”

Butler was so certain of the strength of these reasons for the Church not being bound by a Church Manual but being open to the Spirit that he thought it “probable that it [the question of having a church manual] will never be brought forward again.”8

He was wrong. Fifty years later, a manual was adopted, and it has been immensely helpful. But in his other assertions, Butler seems to have been right. The manual would eventually become prescriptive – not just descriptive. It would be used as an instrument of establishing uniformity. It would eventually be the basis of formulating a punishment for those who believe they are following the Spirit rather than just replicating past practice — and that may be the more perilous problem of all. Butler’s explanation of the dangers of seeking compliance and uniformity are worth reading, and the full text of his article is included in the appendix.

Will the actions of Annual Council this coming October fulfill the worst fears of early Adventist leaders? Or might Church leaders and Committee Members be willing to adjust the manual to allow it to dynamically describe the current ways the Spirit is at work amongst us?


Notes & References:

1. The organized church lived without a Church Manual for the first 70 years of its 175 years to date (1863-2018).

2. The term is used here not in a pejorative way but in its technical sense. A bureaucracy as an organization where responsibilities are assigned to “offices” is dependent on policies for its efficient functioning.

3. A more complete discussion of the history of the Church Manual can be found in Gilbert M. Valentine’s two-part study, “The Stop-Start Journey on the Road to a Church Manual,” Ministry, April, 1999, pp. 14-19; June, 1999, pp. 16-23.

4. RH, October 17, 1878 p. ?

5. RH June 5, 1883, p. 368.

6. The seventeen-part series appeared under the “Minister’s Department” as “Church Manual,” from June 5 through to October 9, 1883. See also RH, November 20, 1883 p. 733.

7. WCW to May White, November, 1883. (EGWE-DC)  There is no extant report of what she said to the committee, but the general thrust of her counsel at this time was on the need for the church and its ministry to rely more on the Scriptures as an adequate guide. See for example, “Word to Ministers,” (MS 2) November. 1883: “Letter to Brethren,” MS 11, November, 1883.

8. RH November 27, 1883 p. 746



“No Church Manual” by George Butler

Review and Herald, November 27, 1883, pp 745,746

The writer was requested by the recent General Conference to make a brief statement through the Review of the action taken in reference to the proposed Church Manual. For four or five years past, there has been with some of our brethren a desire to have some manual of directions for the use of young ministers and church officers, etc. It was thought that this would lead to uniformity in all parts of the field, and afford means of instruction to those who were inexperienced, and be very convenient in many respects. Steps were taken several years ago to prepare a manual, but for a time it was left unfinished. Last year, at the Rome Conference, the matter came up for consideration, and three brethren were appointed a committee to prepare a manual, and submit it to the Conference this year for its approval or rejection. During the past summer the matter they have prepared has appeared in the Review, and has doubtless been well considered by its readers.

At the recent Conference a committee of thirteen leading brethren were appointed to consider the whole subject, and report. They did so, and unanimously recommended to the Conference that it was not advisable to have “a church manual.” Their reasons were briefly given in the report of Conference proceedings given in last week’s Review. The Conference acted upon this recommendation, and quite unanimously decided against having any manual. In doing so, they did not intend any disrespect to the worthy brethren who had labored diligently to prepare such a work.

They had presented much excellent matter, and given many valuable directions concerning church ordinances, holding business meetings, and many other important questions, and had done as well, no doubt, as any others would have done in their place. The reasons underlying this action of the Conference were of a broader character. They relate to the desirability of any manual whatever.

The Bible contains our creed and discipline. It thoroughly furnishes the man of God unto all good works. What it has not revealed relative to church organization and management, the duties of officers and ministers, and kindred subjects, should not be strictly defined and drawn out into minute specifications for the sake of uniformity, but rather be left to individual judgment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Had it been best to have a book of directions of this sort, the Spirit would doubtless have gone further, and left one on record with the stamp of inspiration upon it. Man cannot safely supplement this matter with his weak judgment. All attempts to do it in the past have proved lamentable failures. A variation of circumstances requires variation in action. God requires us to study important principles which he reveals in his word, but the minutia in carrying them out he leaves to individual judgment, promising heavenly wisdom in times of need. His ministers are constantly placed where they must, feel their helplessness, and their need of seeking God for light, rather than to go to any church manual for specific directions, placed therein by other uninspired men. Minute, specific directions tend to weakness, rather than power. They lead to dependence rather than self-reliance. Better make some mistakes and learn profitable lessons thereby, than to have our way all marked out for us by others, and the judgment have but a small field in which to reason and consider.

While brethren who have favored a manual have ever contended that such a work was not to be anything like a creed or a discipline, or to have authority to settle disputed points, but was only to be considered as a book containing hints for the help of those of little experience, yet it must be evident that such a work, issued under the auspices of the General Conference, would at once carry with it much weight of authority, and would be consulted by most of our younger ministers. It would gradually shape and mold the whole body; and those who did not follow it would be considered out of harmony with established principles of church order. And, really, is this not the object of the manual? And what would be the use of one if not to accomplish such a result? But would this result, on the whole, be a benefit? Would our ministers be broader, more original, more self-reliant men? Could they be better depended on in great emergencies? Would their spiritual experiences likely be deeper and their judgment more reliable? We think the tendency all the other way.

The religious movement in which we are engaged has the same influences to meet which all genuine reformations have had to cope with. After reaching a certain magnitude, they have seen the need of uniformity, and to attain to it they have tried to prepare directions to guide the inexperienced. These have grown in number and authority till, accepted by all, they really become authoritative. There seems to be no logical stopping-place, when once started upon this road, till this result is reached.

Their history is before us; we have no desire to follow it. Hence we stop without a church manual before we get started. Our brethren who have favored such a work, we presume never anticipated such a conclusion as we have indicated. Very likely those in other denominations did not at first. The Conference thought best not to give even the appearance of such a thing.

Thus far we have got along well with our simple organization without a manual. Union prevails throughout the body. The difficulties before us, so far as organization is concerned, are far less than those we have had in the past. We have preserved simplicity, and have prospered in so doing. It is best to let well enough alone. For these and other reasons, the church manual was rejected. It is probable it will never be brought forward again.

Geo. I Butler




Gilbert M. Valentine lives and writes in Riverside, California. He is author of a scholarly biography on W. W. Prescott (2005), a history of the White Estate titled The Struggle for the Prophetic Heritage (2006), a study of the political influence of Ellen White in The Prophet and the Presidents (2011), and coedited, with Woodrow Whidden, a Festschrift for George Knight entitled Adventist Maverick (2014).

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash


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