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Exiting the General Conference Presidency—Part 1


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.  


It was clear from the highly defamatory propaganda literature circulating around many Adventist churches in the lead up to the General Conference Session of May 1922 that President Arthur G. Daniells was in trouble. His role in the 1919 Bible Conference had become a major reason for deep discontent among angry fundamentalists in the church. In their minds, he had gone too far. The propaganda pamphlets, authored by conservative evangelist Judson Washburn and biblical inerrantist, linotype operator, Claude Holmes, alleged that the General Conference leadership had become heretical and constituted the “Omega” of apostasy.1 The literature was distributed to every delegate attending the San Francisco session and to many besides.

Held in the summer of 1919, the Bible Conference had involved many Bible and history teachers in the discussion of topics at times considered so sensitive that the transcripts of the discussions had been securely stored in a General Conference vault. Even so, reports of the progressive ideas that had been aired had leaked out and damaging rumors had circulated. Because Daniells had led out in the conference and was the responsible administrator, he became the primary target of the fundamentalist anger. “You [Daniells] more than any other one man are responsible,” fumed Judson Washburn. The ugly propaganda and the factionalism that produced it, fanned by the rising winds of a newly energized fundamentalism in the church, may not ultimately have been the only reason Daniells was not reelected in 1922. He had, after all, been in office 21 years. But the political campaign against him certainly created a highly charged environment that heavily influenced the electoral process and provided the bitter context for a very undignified exit for the sixty-four-year-old president. In Ben MacArthur’s assessment, the charges of heterodoxy and lack of confidence in the Spirit of Prophecy, stoked by deep fears of “higher criticism” among Adventist conservatives, prevented Daniells from becoming a truly transformational leader. The criticism scarred him badly and spoiled his reputation, at least among conservatives.2

Daniells’s uncomfortable and contentious exit from the General Conference presidency was not unique. In 1888, George Butler also exited the office in very uncomfortable and undignified circumstances at another highly contentious session, but not because he was perceived to be unorthodox. Rather he was forced out because of ill-health brought on by an excess of orthodoxy. He had become too rigidly orthodox and his approach to the defense of orthodoxy posed a real threat to the unity of the church. This article explores the particular circumstances surrounding the exit from office of these two presidents and then broadens in scope to survey the circumstances involved in the exit of the other occupants of the office of General Conference president since it was established in 1863. As the church approaches another important session in 2022, it may also be helpful to understand what patterns in presidential tenure are evident, what commonalities are to be observed in reasons for exiting the office, such as health or age, and which incumbents desired to be returned to office but were not reelected. We will also consider whether there are evident linkages between reasons for exit and a rationale for the kind of person selected as the new appointee.

Part I: The Agonies of A.G. Daniells’s 1922 Exit

In the eyes of his opponents, the 1919 Bible Conference meetings served as a dreadful capstone for Daniells’s apostasy. The conference was “the crowning act in a program of doubt and darkness.” Critics became increasingly vocal and strident in their public criticism, labeling the 1919 Conference as “a diet of doubts” and a “counsel of darkness.” In the opinion of one of Washburn’s unnamed hyperbolic colleagues (“one of our most faithful workers”), the 1919 Bible Conference was “the most terrible thing that has ever happened in the history of the denomination.”3 But the meetings were not the only clouds that shadowed the last years of Daniells’s presidency. Other theological and administrative issues of the day added fuel to the fire of the fundamentalist’s anger.

The lingering issue of “the daily” still smoldered. Daniells’s quiet advocacy of this new interpretation of Daniel 8:13 and his solid support of other colleagues in his administration who advocated the “new view” such as W. W. Prescott, L. R. Conradi, and Bible teachers H. C. Lacey and C. M. Sorenson, among numerous others, deeply rankled his critics. Defenders of the old orthodoxy saw the chief danger in the new interpretation to be the fact that it undermined faith in an inerrant Ellen White.

The fundamentalist critics of Daniells’s administration also vigorously defended the standard “fundamental pillars of prophetical landmarks” such as the interpretation of Daniel 11 and 12 that saw Turkey as the King of the North and Armageddon as a literal battle in Palestine. For progressive Adventist interpreters, the old “sick man of Europe” interpretation of the prophecy had failed. The outcome of the war had made it untenable. As E. F. Albertsworth of Washington Missionary College had pointed out, history was the final interpreter of prophecy and the evidence from that history was now clear. The predictions had failed. Daniells’s conservative critics also objected to new interpretations of the 144,000, the “last Generation” and the new trinitarian Christology that Prescott had promoted. There was general resistance to what they derisively called “the Prescott-Lacey theology.”4

The chief objection to the “new” theology was that it dissented from the view that the authority of Ellen White was equal with the authority of Scripture. In the view of Washburn and Holmes, the two inspired sources were on exactly “the same level.” The Bible was “God's general word, for all time and for every people. The Testimonies are God's special word, for this special time.”5 In Claude Holmes’s view, as the New Testament was to the Old, so Ellen White was to the whole of scripture. Both testaments were determinative for establishing doctrine and Ellen White’s writings were no different. Holmes was representative of many. Daniells, along with Spicer, Prescott, Lacey, and others, of course, vigorously asserted their orthodoxy and took offense at the accusations that they were undermining the authenticity of Ellen White’s gift even as they asserted that her writings were not equal in authority to Scripture nor determinative of its meaning. In their view, Holmes and Washburn were clearly the ones in error.

In 1919, the posthumous publication of former Adventist Dudley M. Canright’s attack on Ellen White in his Life of Mrs E. G. White: Her Claims Refuted further complicated theological perspectives for the church and for Daniells. It became difficult to concede legitimate difficulties and at the same time defend against unwarranted and unjust criticism. Daniells found himself under pressure trying to combine the roles of apologist in chief and progressive. He had also become a marked man because he had come to the defense of progressive teachers at WMC and other colleges at this time. The period after World War I became a time of troubled transitions in Adventist theology. On the administrative side of things, Daniells’s resistance to what he saw as an over-rapid expansion of health institutions after the war had also attracted dissent from medical personnel, particularly in the Columbia Union. The numerous tensions combined to create dark, poisonous clouds of criticism over the 1922 Session.6

Earlier Exit Hazards

Daniells had faced the possibility of exiting the presidency several times prior to 1922. He had in fact faced six reelection processes during his tenure. At the end of his first year in office (November 1902), he had confronted an attempted coup d’etat from the Kellogg faction that almost succeeded in tipping him out of office, and he had fought to hold on to the chairmanship of the executive committee. He felt it was critical for him to stay put in order to steer through the new organizational reforms. He was reported by A. T. Jones at the time as claiming (probably outside of the committee) that he was “not a football; to be kicked into the ring and then kicked out again.”7 Again in 1903, he reported that “in the very heart of a great crisis” some of the Kellogg faction who blamed him for the conflict with the Sanitarium and the troubles in Battle Creek had made another attempt at removing him. He “did not feel very much like being gotten rid of in that way and for that purpose,” he noted, and on that occasion both Ellen White and W. C. White defended him. He was “somewhat relieved” to be reelected so that he could continue.8 There was still the work of organizational reform to be completed, and he thought another two years could be sufficient for that. In 1905, Daniells did not object when the nominating committee talked to him again about continuing and he felt then that it must be his “duty” to continue, although he thought at the time that four more years would surely “terminate my position in this part of the work.”9 The session that year decided to extend the term between sessions from two to four years.

Approaching the 1909 General Conference Session four years later, Daniells fully expected to be replaced. Whether he knew that several conservative minister friends of Ellen White (S. N. Haskell, J. N. Loughborough, and G. B. Starr) had lobbied her in the months leading up to the session, encouraging her to secure his replacement because of his support for the new “Daily” theory, is not clear. W. C. White may have alerted him. In any event, Daniells chose, in a highly unusual initiative, to speak directly and candidly to session delegates just before his name was voted. He reported that in his talk with the brethren on the nominating committee, he had “consented” quite “reluctantly to accept the office again” feeling quite “perplexed in my own mind” as to whether it was really best for him to continue.

The 1909 elections were troubled by significant theological ferment over the “Daily” and by the trial of former church leader A. T. Jones. The trial resulted in the removal of Jones’s credentials. During the session, a pamphlet with sharp personal attacks on Daniells and Prescott had been circulated around the tents by evangelist O. A. Johnson, alleging that both men had abandoned faith in the Spirit of Prophecy.10 Leon A. Smith (son of the late Uriah Smith) had followed Johnson with another pamphlet laden with similar ad hominem arguments. Following the session, W. W. Prescott had been relieved of his office as Review and Herald editor at the urging of Ellen White, it seems because of the agitation by the conservative brethren over his part in the “Daily” controversy. Colleagues felt he had been treated unfairly. Johnson and Smith continued to circulate their pamphlets widely.11

In 1913, there had been little debate or discussion over Daniells’s reelection, but that had been a very complex session with much of the time taken up restructuring the European field under Ludwig Conradi. A division conference structure was set up with its own constituency. North American delegates jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute, advocating for a similar constituency arrangement for their own division, which complicated the session even more and it seems that continuity at the helm was important. Again in 1918, immediately after the war, because the division structures created a distribution of power problem that posed a threat to church unity, there was a reversal of the organizational arrangements of five years previously.12 Continuity in leadership may again have been an important issue. There was no major discussion over the reappointment of Daniells on either occasion. Reelection at these two sessions was almost routine.

Twice during his twenty-one-year tenure, Daniells had offered to resign outside of session times. In 1907, he had firmly but gently disagreed with Ellen White over the issue of allocating General Conference funds to the formally independent Madison College, in Tennessee. On that occasion, he had stated that he could not in good conscience follow such a policy and offered to step aside if making such payments was considered essential. Ellen White had not taken him up on his offer-cum-threat to resign, and the matter was dropped. Again in 1910, Daniells thought Ellen White was suggesting it was time for him to leave office over a misunderstanding about city evangelistic work, and he had again offered to resign to make way for another. W. C. White informed him on this latter occasion that replacing him was not his mother’s intention, and he continued in the role.13 During 1920 and 1921, if Daniells is to be believed in the speech that he made to delegates at the 1922 Session, he expected not to continue in office, anticipating that a younger man would be chosen. He reported that during the previous two years, he had begun to look forward “to my relief” from the role. Why then did he not withdraw his name from consideration when the 1922 Session first convened?

The Dark Cloud of Heterodoxy

The development of the highly politicized, conservative, public campaign against Daniells prior to the 1922 Session changed things for him. The propaganda seriously besmirched his good name and called into question his orthodoxy. Some of his staunch supporters in various places began to advocate for his reelection primarily in defense of his reputation and his legacy. It is true that they did not see many qualified candidates who could just then replace him. Some suggested that the best way forward was to reappoint Daniells with the idea that Pacific Union Conference President J. E. Fulton would be groomed to succeed him shortly afterward. (Fulton had had extensive overseas administrative experience). Daniells’s supporters did not want to see him exit the presidency under circumstances of such vicious personal attack and criticism. Nor did he. He left his name in contention.14

Washburn and Holmes’ propaganda pamphlets with their unauthorized publishing of personal correspondence and other open letters to the president hung heavily over the session, making it one of the most stridently political sessions the church has ever experienced. W. A. Spicer, who had been General Conference secretary since 1903, had picked up from conversations on his way to the session through the Michigan Conference in late April that at least that region was hoping for a change in leadership.15 He was astonished, however, at the extent of political agitation he encountered when he arrived in San Francisco. “The opposition to Eld. D. filled the corridors and halls with gossip and accusation,” he reported to his wife two weeks after arrival in the city. “It was a fright. Old men said they never knew the like.” The propaganda pamphlets had done their work.

Spicer had confided to his wife en route to the session that, personally, he was hoping for a reassignment to less demanding responsibilities.16 He wanted to be a field secretary with less pressure and the opportunity for more editorial work. As it turned out, however, Spicer found himself unavoidably thrown into the middle of the fracas.

Politicking among the session delegates in 1922 resulted in a divided and deadlocked nominating committee, which, for the first twelve days of the seventeen-day session, could not resolve their indecision over two candidates: Daniells and Spicer. The deadlock also meant no progress could be made on other nominations. Normal session processes simply marked time. According to Spicer’s confidential account to his wife, voting stood at 20 for Daniells and 19 for Spicer for a full nine days until some foreign delegates eventually shifted their votes, and for the next three days Spicer had 26 and Daniells had 20.17

For the nominating committee, this kind of margin was still not a resolution. They were looking for unanimity. According to Daniells, on the floor and in the corridors, “hundreds” of church members protested to the leadership against the political campaign. Those that supported Daniells may not actually have thought it was best that he continue but were simply adamant that the best way to repudiate the unethical political propaganda was to refuse to yield to it and to put Daniells back in office in spite of the politics. Finally on day twelve, in a highly unusual maneuver to resolve the deadlock, a special “executive session” of only formally registered delegates was convened, excluding all other attendees. The politics were openly addressed. The politicking and propaganda campaign was roundly condemned in a proposal put to the floor by Signs of the Times editor, A. O Tait. Conceding that individuals, of course, had the right to “express a conviction regarding appointments of posts of responsibility,” delegates, nevertheless, felt it necessary to “pronounce our decided rebuke upon and repudiation of all unchristian propaganda, insinuation and vilification.” The “baleful influences” of the minority faction had sought to destroy “the good reputation of honored officials among us.” The effects were “evil.”18 A window onto the high drama of the session is provided by a report in the daily bulletin that some special morning meetings drew huge attendances when they were given over to discussions establishing the rightful place of the testimonies in the work of the church. Conservative pastors George B. Starr and Frederick C. Gilbert, with their inerrantist views of Ellen White and convictions of her “biblical authority” in the church, were the featured speakers at these apparently impromptu meetings.19

Once Tait’s resolution condemning the politics was approved, the nominating committee reported their voting impasse to the executive session, also a highly unusual development. They presented both a majority and a minority report. On hearing the report, Daniells immediately withdrew his name from consideration. But then the fifty-seven-year-old Spicer refused to accept appointment. He did not want to be in a position where it might appear that he had sought election because his name had been talked up outside the committee by so many. How could it be right, he reasoned, to hold an office where it would be thought that the propaganda had brought about his election?20 He recommended that the committee look for someone younger outside the existing circle of leaders and then retired to his hotel room for a rest. During the last days of the session paralysis, major headlines had appeared in the local and national press over the deadlock, interpreting it as the result of a personal power struggle between Spicer and Daniells through their supporters. This was not true.21

With the political propaganda finally publicly and officially rebuked, late in the evening of the day of the executive session, the nominating committee met once again and this time agreed unanimously on Spicer’s name. They sent the chairman to speak again to Spicer, insisting that he accept the appointment. After consulting with Daniells and other senior colleagues in leadership Spicer was persuaded to accept nomination as president, albeit reluctantly.22

According to Daniells, “hundreds” of delegates had agreed that he “ought to be returned as a rebuke to these reprehensible methods used to get me out.” In the resolution of the issue, and as an explicit repudiation of the character assassination and charges of heterodoxy on the part of Washburn, Holmes, and their faction, Daniells was appointed as General Conference secretary. The nominating committee agreed that exiting the presidency with dignity was as important for the welfare of the church as it might be for Daniells himself.

Daniells held the position of secretary for four years and then in 1926 took up full-time work promoting the newly established Ministerial Association and the writing of two important books, Christ Our Righteousness (1928) and The Abiding Gift of Prophecy (1935). His last years were spent on the West Coast where he served in retirement as the chair of the Loma Linda Board and as chair of the White Estate. After his bruising exit from the General Conference presidency, Daniells gave a further thirteen years of service in senior levels of leadership to the church and his writing helped the church inch forward toward a broader understanding of Righteousness by Faith. In a very mild way against the strong winds of fundamentalism, he attempted to help develop an understanding of the work of Ellen White that was more grounded in reality. His critics, Washburn and Holmes, however, did not cease their cry of heterodoxy.23 The circumstances of his exit from the presidency tell us a lot about the deepening fundamentalist trends in the church he had been leading.

Daniells did not exit the presidency for reasons of age or health, even though his tenure in office was the longest of any of the sixteen who have exited the office. It seems, however, that he has been the only president to have exited under a cloud of suspicion about his orthodoxy.

George Butler: The Defender of Orthodoxy

If Daniells’s exit was clouded by charges of apostasy and leading the denomination astray, George Butler, by striking contrast, found himself exiting the office under a cloud of criticism for being too rigid a defender of orthodoxy, stifling the growth of the church and threatening its unity. Butler served two terms in the office of president. His second exit in 1888 was a very undignified and unhappy ending to an eight-and-a-half-year term of service. The church-wide theological conflict that he had mishandled and which led to his departure also scarred him badly and led to an exit so humiliating it caused him for a time to withdraw from ministry altogether and to even suggest that his membership should be dropped.

Two years earlier in 1886 when visiting the West Coast, Butler had learned that two editor-teachers he regarded as upstart “young fledglings” had been teaching a new interpretation of Galatians 3:19–24. Furthermore, they had been teaching it since 1884. Butler viewed the teaching as a fatal undermining of a foundation teaching of the church. E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones argued that in the Galatians passage, the Apostle Paul had in mind the Ten-Commandment “moral” law, not the ceremonial law, which dealt with “particularly Jewish” requirements. What troubled Butler more was that they had “spread their views out broadcast” in the classroom, in Sabbath School lessons, and in published articles without any respect for “the oldest pioneers” of the message. They had made a reckless “raid” upon the traditional settled view accepted by Adventists and in Butler’s view, their activity was subversive and plainly “dangerous.” Uriah Smith, the Review editor, strongly supported Butler in this assessment. Why was it so dangerous?

Interpreting the passage about the “added law” in Galatians 3:19 (KJV) as the Healdsburg College teachers did created two major problems for the church. First, it undermined a deeply entrenched Adventist apologetic for the Seventh-day Sabbath. In Butler’s view, the implications of Waggoner’s teaching had already precipitated Dudley M. Canright’s 1887 abandonment of the Seventh-day Sabbath. Leading evangelist Canright felt he could no longer defend it, and thus he also rejected the Adventist church. Waggoner’s approach might sound spiritually insightful to the uninitiated, asserted Smith, but it threatened in fact to undo teachings “vital to the existence of our faith.” Butler saw himself called to uphold historic Adventism and to protect the church’s key Sabbath doctrine. It was not a trivial or inconsequential issue.

What also increased the perception of danger for Butler was that he clearly recalled that thirty-four years earlier, in 1854, Ellen White had intervened in this very same dispute over which law Galatians referred to. On that occasion, she had declared that the Moral Law interpretation was wrong. Ellen White’s intervention at the time, through a letter read to Joseph H. Waggoner, the younger Waggoner’s father, had persuaded George Butler to change his own mind 180 degrees on the question.24 Butler knew that Ellen White also recalled the content of the 1854 testimony letter because in early 1887 she had cautioned the Healdsburg teachers about their new teaching and did so on the basis of the 1854 letter.25 In Butler’s mind and in the mind of Uriah Smith, accepting the teaching of the West Coast teachers would, therefore, undermine the authority of the Spirit of Prophecy and cause widespread confusion. For the two leaders, this was as much a problem as the exegetical problem undermining the Sabbath truth.

From Butler’s perspective, the West Coast teachers’ promotion of the new interpretation had led to “a wide division” in the church letting in a “deluge” that was “injurious to the cause” and had proved “destructive of peace and union.” During the three years prior to the 1888 Session, he had tried to hold the fort in a number of ways. He had labored to enact policies at the General Conference to ensure compliance with the established views and to prevent the spread of the teaching or of any new teaching that the leaders did not first approve.26 He had vigorously preached the accepted interpretation and he had written a defensive pamphlet on the subject, which he had not formally published but nevertheless had sent to a wide circle of church leaders. The pamphlet affirmed the old view and warned of the dangers of the Waggoner position. When Ellen White had rebuked him for “striking” at the West Coast men in this way, Butler had felt broken.

In a long thirty-nine-page letter written to Ellen White just prior to the Minneapolis session, Butler reported that in his travels, he had encountered pastors and conference presidents in the Northwest and in other places who were upset over the unorthodox teaching, and he informed Ellen White that it was damaging “the prosperity of your Healdsburg College” [emphasis mine]. He had learned that parents were resolving to “withdraw their patronage” and were reluctant to send their young people to be taught such heresy. Butler was worried because “our other literary institutions” were being affected. If the ideas continued to “be pushed” at Healdsburg, “I shall not give my influence for our young people to attend,” he declared.27 He could no longer recommend that students attend Healdsburg. (General Conference presidential unhappiness with West Coast schools has a long history.)

Other issues in the church also gave Butler anxiety, such as “the worldly spirit,” which seemed to be “running riot among us.” There was a “lack of spirituality” among many and an “avalanche of dark sins.” But it was the departure from orthodoxy in the new teaching on the Law in Galatians “more than any other one thing” that really worried him. And Ellen White’s recent insistence that since he had circulated his own pamphlet there now had to be an open discussion of the issue—in order to be fair to both sides—puzzled and offended him to no end. How could that contribute to a defense of orthodoxy? He was sure that “the shaking time for which we have been looking” had already arrived. Nevertheless, he reluctantly organized a Bible Institute to precede the General Conference Session to discuss the disputed matters. The extreme anxiety involved in all this, and his frustrated effort to defend orthodoxy, by late summer led to a serious breakdown in his nervous health. With the approach of fall weather, a seasonal respiratory illness made things worse.

During the first week of October, from his sickbed, Butler composed his long, “frank” letter recounting his frustration and alarm, and he sent it by personal courier to Ellen White. No one else had seen it other than two members of his family. In the letter, he recounted his difficulties and his despair, criticized the West Coast teachers, and found fault with Willie and Ellen White herself for their role in the affair. He saw them making a difficult situation worse. He concluded by suggesting that he did not think he should stand for reelection as president. He had burned out. He was too ill to continue. “I have concluded to withdraw my name from the candidates for office,” he wrote. He was too ill even to attend the Biblical Institute in Minneapolis planned to begin on October 10, a week before the start of the General Conference Session itself on October 17. But he held out some hope. This was not yet a formal notice of his standing aside from office. If his health improved, he thought he might “manage to crawl up for a few days during the session.”28 And thus he did not officially withdraw his name.

Ellen White received the letter just as she arrived in Minneapolis on October 9, and she read it with “surprise.” Her first reaction was that it did not have “the right ring.” To her daughter-in-law, she noted that it was “a most curious production of accusations and charges against me,” but these did not trouble her. In fact, the letter persuaded her even more of the rightness of insisting on an open discussion of the question on Galatians. Four days later, on Saturday evening, October 13, she had the entire letter read aloud to her again, this time with a small circle of her advisers around her. Others in the tight senior leadership circle, therefore, were aware that Butler may not be available for reelection.

The next day, Ellen White wrote the first of two long pastoral letters replying to Butler and explaining her actions of the past two years. The letters are highly informative. She strongly critiqued not only his bungled approach to defending the doctrinal foundations of the church but his presidency as a whole, and particularly his view of the exalted authority he thought the office of president bestowed on him. Though absent from Minneapolis, Butler still exercised a strong polarizing influence on the delegates and during the meetings encouraged a resistance to the new theological insights. He had a large cohort of loyal supporters. This troubled Ellen White deeply. It created a hostile environment and Butler helped it along by sending telegrams appealing to delegates to stand by the old landmarks.

Ellen White told Butler she was sorry that he had “not kept pace with the opening providence of God.”29 She was distressed that he had become a divisive leader, not a unifying leader. He placed value, for example, only on those fellow workers who considered his work and his “way of doing it, all right,” and looked at others “with suspicion.” He had built up relationships with some and not others, thereby creating “strong barriers between God’s workmen.” He was a polarizing leader, not one who was effective in bringing about unity. “Those who have marked out a certain course in which the light must come will fail to receive it, for God works in His own appointed way,” she warned the ailing president. She was worried that Butler thought of a brother as “a heretic” even though he had not sat down with him in an attempt to understand his real position and what evidence there was for it. But above all, it was his attitude that everyone had to think the same on a biblical issue and that they could be coerced into thinking alike that really troubled her. “Let no man feel that his position as president either of the General Conference or of a state conference clothes him with a power over the consciences of others that is the least degree oppressive, for God will not sanction anything of this kind,” she cautioned.30

Butler’s constricted view of the work also troubled her. She was fearful that the work had grown beyond him. If God had laid a different view of the work on others and granted a different ability, why should Butler feel he had to say “just how that work should be done? Those who do not discern and adapt themselves to the increasing demands of the work should not stand blocking the wheels and thus hindering the advancement of others,” she warned him in a follow-up letter.31 His autocratic ways and his stout defense of tradition and orthodoxy were now exceedingly counter-productive. His leadership had brought the church to the brink of schism.

It seems that Butler’s letter to Ellen White with his expectation that he “probably” would not be able to continue in office was not known beyond Ellen White’s inner circle. Most delegates assumed that he would be returned to office. In Butler’s temporary absence from the session, S. N. Haskell had been appointed as presiding officer. Five days into the session, a letter from Butler was read to delegates that reported his improving health, and it seems that there was a sigh of relief.32 The nominating committee waited. Two days later, the regular business was laid aside for the reading of yet another letter from Battle Creek. This time Butler tendered his formal withdrawal to the somber delegates. “He could not bear “any more heavy responsibilities.”33 It seems clear that if he had not voluntarily stepped aside he would have been reelected.

At last, a week into the session, the nominating committee could begin to act. They considered the name of William Ostrander, the Colorado president whose only merit, according to Ellen White, was that he was “fully in the confidence of Elder Butler.” Ellen White, however, also pointed out to the committee that there should be objection to Ostrander because he was “unbalanced in mind,” almost like an “insane man,” by which she meant he was given to domestic violence.34 Eventually, after further counsel with Ellen White, the committee turned to a unifier and a peacemaker, Oles A. Olsen.35 Olsen was out of the country at the time and could be considered neutral in the dispute.

The partisanship that had colored the entire 1888 meetings, however, also spilled over into the rest of the nominating committee report. Though Butler was not reelected president, there were those who thought he should still be a member of the executive committee, and from the floor of the session the committee’s report was amended to try and accomplish this. The action to get Butler back on the committee by taking Prescott off succeeded by a razor-thin margin of 40 in favor to 39 against. A motion to make the motion unanimous failed to get a unanimous vote. Apparently, Butler later declined to accept and the president of Ohio, R. A. Underwood, succeeded him on the executive committee. Supporters ensured that Butler was reappointed to the chairmanship of the Publishing Association and the Battle Creek College Board. These appointments, however, lasted but a short time before Butler moved to Florida to try and repair his health.

Ellen White was relieved at Butler’s departure from leadership. She had come to see that he had been in the office “three years too long.” Commenting to her daughter-in-law on the last day of the conference, she observed that “a sick man’s mind has had a controlling power over the General Conference Committee, and the ministers have been the shadow and echo of Elder Butler about as long as it is healthy and for the good of the cause.” The nurturing of “evil surmisings” and “jealousies” had resulted in a divisive spirit and the president’s authoritarianism and sense of “infallibility” had worked in the church “like leaven.”36 Coping with the “case” of the ex-president afterward might “be difficult to handle” but she and her colleagues were trusting in God.

Butler was deeply hurt by the turn of events at Battle Creek. It was a very undignified and unhappy exit. But in large part, according to Ellen White, he had brought it on himself. He spent the next thirteen years of his life as an orchardist in Florida and only in 1903 did he make his way back into the organized work of the church, eventually serving again in leadership of the Southern Union Conference

Arthur Daniells’s departure from the presidency is of interest because he did not really want to continue in office but felt obliged not to withdraw his name from consideration because of wider issues at stake in the church. George Butler would have liked to continue but his authoritarian ways, the demands of the role, and his vision of himself as a defender of the established order burned him out. What do we know about the exit of the other fourteen presidents who have exited the office and what patterns might be observed?


To be continued in Part 2


Notes & References:

1. J. S. Washburn, “The Startling Omega and its True Genealogy and an Open Letter to Elder A. G. Daniells,” (1922). C. E. Holmes, “Have We an Infallible ‘Spirit of Prophecy’?” (April 1, 1920). This document is an open letter in pamphlet form. Claude Holmes had earlier been dismissed from his position at the Review and Herald because of his misuse of unpublished Ellen White manuscripts in attacks on church leadership.

2. Ben MacArthur, A. G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth Century Adventism (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2015) 398. MacArthur does not consider that Daniells’s “failure of leadership” in developing a more positive legacy for the 1919 Bible Conference as detracting from his “admirable hopes for change” that were the goals of the conference but that he “faced a situation with complexities beyond his ability to solve.”

3. J. S. Washburn to A. G. Daniells May 2, 1922, 14. An insightful overview of the 1919 Bible Conference can be found in Michael. W. Campbell, 1919: The Untold Story of Adventism’s Struggle with Fundamentalism (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2019) which is a condensation of his dissertation: “The 1919 Bible Conference and Its Significance for Seventh-day Adventist History and Theology,” (PhD dissertation, Andrews University, 2008).

4. A list of the key issues at dispute in the 1919 Bible Conference is given by Loma Linda Bible teacher N. J. Waldorf. See N. J. Waldorf to L. E. Froom October 22, 1922.

5. Washburn, 14.

6. MacArthur, 398-408.

7. A. G. Daniells to G. A. Irwin, December 12, 1902. George R. Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy: The Case of A. T. Jones (Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1987) 189.

8. “Partial Report of the Nominating Committee,” General Conference Bulletin, May 30, 1909, 212.

9. Ibid.

10. O. A. Johnson, “The Daily: Is it Paganism?” (College Place, WA: np. [1909]).

11. Gilbert M Valentine, W. W. Prescott: Forgotten Giant of Adventism’s Second Generation, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2005) 228, 231.

12. R. W. Schwarz, Lightbearers to the Remnant, (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1979) 374, 375.

13. A. G. Daniells to W. C. White, August 5, 1910; W. C. White to A. G. Daniells, August 11, 1910.

14. Ben MacArthur, A. G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth Century Adventism (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2015) 410. MacArthur reports that Mary Daniells also became involved in the lobbying in defense of her husband’s reputation. See D. A. Parsons, “Dan” to B. E. Beddoe, September 5, 1924.

15. W. A. Spicer to Georgina Spicer, April 20, 1922.

16. Ibid.

17. MacArthurs’ account of the 1922 electoral procedures and Nominating Committee problems appears to be unaware of the information available in Spicer’s correspondence with his wife. See W. A. Spicer to Georgina Spicer, April 30, May 20, 1922. The “foreign” delegates were Americans who were serving in overseas missionary assignments.

18. “Resolution Passed In Executive Session,” General Conference Bulletin, May 23, 1922, 240.

19. “The Six O’clock Meeting,” General Conference Bulletin, May 23, 1922, 240.

20. W. A. Spicer to Georgina Spicer, May 22 1922.

21. See for example, San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 1922, 5; May 23, 1922, 9 and San Francisco Examiner, May 23, 1922, 4.

22. “General Conference Proceedings,” General Conference Bulletin, May 23, 1922, 228.

23. Ben MacArthur, A. G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth Century Adventism (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2015) 425.

24. Ellen G. White to A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner, February 18, 1887. U Smith to A. T. Robinson, September 21, 1892. The interpretation of Galatians 3:24-25 had been discussed in the church in 1854 when it had involved a disagreement between James White and Joseph Waggoner (Ellet Waggoner’s father). Smith and Butler recalled that Ellen White had written her letter to Joseph Waggoner on the basis of a vision asserting that Waggoner had been wrong in his hermeneutics.

25. Ellen G. White to E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, February 18, 1887. She clearly recalled the essence of the letter but had not been able to find a copy of it.

26. Such policy restrictions had been adopted at the 1886 Session. “Transcription of Minutes of GC sessions from 1863 to 1888,” December 6, 1886, 334. General Conference Archives, Silver Spring, MD. See also “General Conference Proceedings,” RH November 23, 1886, 728“General Conference Proceedings” RH, December 14, 1886, 779.

27. These observations are made in Butler’s October 1 letter to Ellen White.

28. G. I. Butler to E. G. White, October 1, & 8, 1888. The postscript is dated October 8.

29. EGW to G. I. Butler, October 14, 1888.

30. Ibid.

31. Ellen G. White to G. I. Butler October 15, 1888. The second letter was begun at 2.30 am.

32. “Fifth Day’s Proceedings, Monday October 22.” GC Daily Bulletin, October 23, 1888, 1.

33. “Seventh Day’s Proceedings, Wednesday, October 24.” GC Daily Bulletin, October 25, 1888, 1

34. Ellen G. White to J. Fargo, May 9, 1889.

35. Valentine, Ibid. 65.

36. E. G. White to Mary White, November 4, 1888.


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

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