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When Might “Non-Compliance” Be a Good Thing?


This October, when the Annual Council meets in Battle Creek, the problem of “non-compliant” church entities and how to deal with them will be very much on the minds of leadership. It is the dominating concern of the moment for the problem is perceived to threaten the unity of the church.1

The Battle Creek location was selected some time ago with the specific intent of enabling church leaders to reconnect with the vision of pioneers and to provide a more tangible context for the oft repeated counsel of Ellen White, “we have nothing to fear for the future except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and his teaching in our past history” (Life Sketches, 196). Doubtless, members of the executive committee and other participants will hear these lines repeatedly this fall. Historians call this “the moral utility of history,” and there is great value in it.

Already in Adventist discussions about the role and authority of the General Conference much has been made of the principle that when an individual’s ideas clash with the decisions of the majority in a session of the General Conference which functions in the community as the highest authority, individual judgment is yielded. An attitude of compliance is important to the well-being of the community. Ellen White was quite specific about this important principle of submission and “compliance” when she spoke at the 1909 General Conference Session. At the time, A. T. Jones was arguing for the priority of individual judgment over the common consensus. He was given opportunity at the session to make a defense of his viewpoint. Ellen White’s famous lines about the need to yield individual judgment were made in this specific context as a correction to Jones’ position and they need to be carefully understood in that context.

Ellen White on “Compliance”

It is important to note that Ellen White in her oft quoted statement in 1909 (which reiterated her counsel of 1875) is talking about one single individual privately standing against the authority of the General Conference. “When in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body.”2 This single individual was A. T. Jones.

Ellen White’s original 1875 use of these expressions and the assertion of the General Conference being the highest authority was also framed in the context of a problem with a single individual. Originally the context was the giving of a rebuke to George Butler (Brother A) who in 1872 decidedly did not want to be the General Conference President even though the thirteen or so delegates in session had elected him as such. Butler believed that he was being forced to take the role and did not feel comfortable working alongside James White.3 Ellen White reminded Butler that it was the whole delegation that had voted and she said that he must yield his “individual judgement” in this situation and accept the presidency.4

It is a serious misuse of these quotations to apply them to the kind of situation that exists between Union Conferences and the General Conference today. Ellen White was not referencing a situation where many thousands of constituent church members after careful study, long consultation, and due process have developed a deep moral conviction about the work of God in their midst and about the needs of mission and find themselves in disagreement with the General Conference.

Ellen White on “Non-Compliance”

The very same Ellen White in 1896, in defense of “non-compliance,” could also very provocatively say “the God of Heaven sometime commissions men to teach that which is regarded as contrary to the established doctrines.” Even more assertively she could add in the same letter, “men in authority are not always to be obeyed.”5 Really? How would an Annual Council today ever be able to identify such a scenario let alone feel comfortable with it? How would delegates really know if it was God who was instructing the very conferences whom they were perceiving to be in non-compliance? At the very least there is need for the greatest of caution.

What was the context for Ellen White’s defense of “non-compliance” in 1896? Was she thinking about the NT apostles defying Herod? Yes.6 Was she thinking about the sixteenth century reformers? Yes. But more particularly, the immediate context she had in mind involved church leaders in Battle Creek who had just declined to publish W. W. Prescott’s sermon on “Christ and the Sabbath.” She had heard Prescott preach the sermon in Melbourne, Australia and it had already been published in Australia in the Bible Echo. She was indignant that church leaders at headquarters could not hear the voice of God in Prescott’s preaching and she was fearful of their deafness.

Could non-compliance then sometimes be a good thing? That is not something that an administrator typically wants to hear. But genuinely, how can one really know? Does God whisper in an administrative ear that this time the non-compliance is OK, and the next time that it is not? Are there historical precedents that might serve as some sort of guide?

There are two episodes of “non-compliance” in early Adventism that might be instructive for Annual Council participants to consider as they gather in Battle Creek this year.

Episode I: The “non-compliant” developmental pathway for Conference Departments.

At the 1889 General Conference meeting in Battle Creek, three separate discussion sessions were given to the consideration of a proposal to re-engineer the ministry functions of the church such as Sabbath School, Home Missions, Education, Religious Liberty and Health. Each of these ministries was governed by its own society. They constituted a set of multi-layered para-church semi-autonomous entities that replicated the officer structures of the local conferences. The re-organization proposal had been developed by a committee chaired by W. W. Prescott, the Education Secretary for the General Conference, and was composed of experienced church leaders. But the plan to re-configure the ministries into a more efficient system was perceived as very threatening to incumbent officers and as a threat to the unity of the church. The resolution was soundly rejected and then buried. The proposal had appeared so radical to established church order and it so troubled the delegates that even the discussion itself was expunged from the session minutes. The defenders of the status quo did not want the average church members to even read about the ideas.7

Two years later, in 1891, one of the members of the 1889 Resolutions Committee, Asa T. Robinson, was assigned to South Africa to organize a local conference in the field. He was confronted with an acute lack of personnel and figured that the 1889 plan rejected by the General Conference delegates might in fact work much better in his new situation with all the ministries functioning under the conference in a coordinated way instead of alongside of it. He explains what he did:

I wrote out a carefully prepared plan of conference organization, and sent it to Elder Olsen, president of the General Conference. He had copies of it made and sent it to the absent members of the committee, with a request that they give him their opinion of it. He wrote me that when their replies came to hand he would send them to me. This caused so much delay before my receiving them, that the conference was organized before they came to hand. And when they came, I found that they were nearly all adverse to the plan.”8

Olsen was initially favorable to the idea but changed his mind after receiving input from his committee. Willie White’s opinion of the matter was that there was no sense in “sweeping away” the auxiliary organizations. Robinson’s plan was “disorganization.” Furthermore he saw it as flying in the face of counsels from his mother about not centralizing too much. He reported that his mother’s counsel was that it would be “a great misfortune” to organize in the way Robinson proposed, because it would “tear down what had been built up with so much labor.”9 In view of all the negative reaction Olsen instructed Robinson to follow the “old lines,” and he quietly noted to W. C. White that if the idea spread it would be “a disaster.” He feared that if the issue came to the General Conference session again it would “waste much precious time” because the idea “was not practical.”10

Robinson later recalled former president George Butler’s assessment as the most frank. Butler had complained to Olsen that “when we send men abroad” we “ought to know whether they are going out to build up our work or tear it down.” But all the advice and instruction to the contrary had arrived too late. Robinson had already set the new plan in place. Robinson’s pattern of conference organization was clearly “non-compliant.” It was put in place against advice and without approval. But the new plan worked smoothly and efficiently and away down in a corner of the African continent it had time to breathe and grow.

Not Anarchy

Six years later in 1897, Robinson was called to Australia to be the president of the Central Australian Conference. At his first session in Melbourne he talked up the South African plan to the delegates and the laymen immediately saw advantages and the plans committee recommended its adoption. Robinson explains what happened:11

This was like a bombshell to Elders Daniells [the union president] and White. Elder White made the first speech against it. He said, ‘when we begin to sow in the winds, we are quite sure to reap the whirlwind.’ Elder Daniells said, ‘this is anarchy, this is confusion. We are not going to have any of this in Australia.’”12

Embarrassed, Robinson tried to persuade the planning committee to withdraw the proposal but the lay chair Nathan Faulkhead, the publishing house treasurer, refused saying that his committee had thought carefully about it and that the plan was wise and good. Delegates approved the proposal unanimously in spite of the speeches from the Union President and Ellen White’s son.

As it turned out, the plan worked. In fact it worked very well. It did not produce anarchy. Remarkably by the next camp meeting season in 1898, Daniells was touting the new plan around the other conferences in Australia and in 1901 he persuaded the General Conference to adopt it.

Episode II: The Problematic “non-compliant” developmental path of Union Conferences.

Even before he had assumed the General Conference presidency in Battle Creek in mid-1889 (he had been elected in 1888), Norwegian-born Ole Olsen was aware that the rapid growth of the church and the increasing complexity of its organizational structure was making it inefficient and unwieldy. He had chaired committees at the previous session in 1887 seeking to provide wider administrative support to the “overburdening” of the presidency. At the time, the General Conference presided directly over thirty American conferences and directly employed workers in eleven designated domestic and foreign mission territories. There were a dozen institutions (publishing, educational, and medical) to supervise and within each conference and mission there were additional layers of quasi-independent para-church organizations coordinating various outreach, educational, or health ministries each replicating the governance, administrative, and electoral processes of the conferences themselves. The span of administrative oversight had become way too wide, administrative processes too complex, and the exercise of decision-making too narrow at the top.13

In 1887 Olsen had spoken in favor of an administrative mechanism between the State Conferences and the General Conference but his committee on resolutions had been unable to convince the delegates. The next session in 1888 succeeded in introducing four “districts” that might liaise and coordinate but not actually manage matters. They had no administrative authority. Olsen persuaded delegates to expand the system to six at the session in late-1889 but they still resisted giving the entities any administrative role. In March 1891, when Olsen was re-elected for a third term, he again proposed that the districts be strengthened through the appointment of full-time administrators and granted the right to hold their own legal property, but the concept was too threatening and the idea was shelved.14

Olsen’s extended visit to New Zealand and Australia in late 1893 and early 1894 gave opportunity to make progress on these contentious governance issues that produced so much resistance in America. During year-end meetings in Melbourne, local leaders W. C. White and A. G. Daniells, with Olsen’s encouragement, implemented the establishment of an “ecclesiastical body to stand mid-way between State and Colonial Conferences and the General Conference.” White and Olsen had discussed the issue previously. The entity, created with its own constituency, was called a “Union Conference” and given administrative oversight of the work in the Australasian region.15 The initiative did not have General Conference session or Committee approval and in fact the idea had been formally rejected and resisted for several years.

Not Rebellious

It is important to notice how long-time president A. G. Daniells defended the act of “non-compliance.” In 1913 at the General Conference session in Washington D.C. he recalled the formative events of two decades previously. Daniells explained to the delegates how pressing had been the local need in Australia. Sometimes inordinately long delays were experienced in getting questions answered and permissions granted in Battle Creek to do something in far-away Melbourne. “This was impeding the progress of the work; it was hampering us,” he explained and he then described how Olsen and Willie White “put their heads together and fixed up a union conference organization,” quite outside of policy and quite against formal official counsel.16 That such action was regarded as problematic by the policy police was noted by Daniells.

“I know some of our brethren thought then that the work was going to be wrecked, that we were going to tear the organization all to pieces and get up secession out there in the South Sea Island,” the president confessed. “But we did not get up any secession; we did not raise any rebellion, and our brethren have found that out there in the Australasian field…the people have been so loyal to this denomination, as loyal to this organization, too, as anybody in the wide world.” He concluded by noting that in Australia “we worked away at this for seven years, and then the brethren came to see the advantages of it.”

What might be difficult or impossible and unwise to try and enact on a whole of organization basis can be implemented on a local basis, piloted, tested, and assessed for problems and inadequacies. It would have been much better for the General Conference to be flexible enough to allow such an approach in the 1890s. It was not able to be flexible. In this case leaders in Australia proceeded — they were “non-compliant” — for a while, and then they were compliant because the church saw where God was leading and adjusted. In fact, the church by 1902 was able to utilize the idea of Union conferences world-wide.


“Non-compliance” may not always be a bad thing if we would be instructed by our own history. Wise leaders who are able to recognize this find ways to help the church embrace change as they recognize the work that God is already doing in new ways in our midst.

We have nothing to fear for the future except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us…”

It is very clear that sometimes God has led the Advent movement in the past through episodes of “non-compliance.” In fact, it becomes clear in hindsight that at times it was the only way God could continue leading us. Might we be in such a place again?


Notes & References:

1. As an earlier article has demonstrated, however, the non-compliance that is presently of such concern to Church leadership is not about the ordination of women but about what names we will use to describe the men and women who in compliance with the Church Manual work alongside each other in ministry and perform the same functions as each other. See Gilbert Valentine, “A Functional Analysis of Adventist Ministry,” Spectrum, July 12, 2018.

2. Testimonies. 260.

3. See “Business Proceedings,” Review and Herald, January. 2, 1872, 21 and George I Butler to James White, January. 24, 1872.

4. Ellen G. White to G. I Butler, Letter 49, 1875 published in 3 Testimonies, 492.

5. Ellen G. White to S. N. Haskell, May 30, 1896 (Letter 38). The letter needs to be read in the context of Manuscript 148, October 26, 1898 which on the basis of internal evidence should be dated two years earlier in 1896. See Gilbert M Valentine, W. W. Prescott: Forgotten Giant of Adventism’s Second Generation, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2005), 115, 116.

6. The letter to Haskell contains an extended reflection on the early days of the Christian church and the tensions between the apostles and the Jewish authorities. The parallels between the NT period and the way Prescott has been treated disturb her and she is anxious that Haskell in South Africa will be more welcoming of Prescott than the prejudiced men at Battle Creek.

7. A. T. Robinson, “An Autobiographical Sketch in the Life of A. T. Robinson,” (1947) Center for Adventist Research, Andrews University, Berrien Spring, MI.

8. Ibid.

9. W. C. White to O. A. Olsen, September 28, 1892.

10. O. A. Olsen to A. T. Robinson, October 25, 1892; O. A. Olsen to W. C. White, November 1, 1892.

11. For a fuller discussion of the development of the Union Conference idea and of Conference departments, see Gilbert M Valentine, “A. G. Daniells, Administrator, and the Development of Conference Organization in Australia,” in Symposium on Adventist History in the South Pacific: 1885-1918, ed Arthur J. Ferch, (Wahroonga, NSW: South Pacific Division, 1986), 76-91.

12. A. T. Robinson, “An Autobiographical Sketch.”

13. Valentine, 73.

14. Valentine, 74, 75.

15. ]W. C. White to O. A. Olsen, December 21, 1892, May 8, 1893. Barry D. Oliver, SDA Organization: Past Present and Future, Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, (Berrien Spring, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009) 105.

16. “Thirteenth Meeting,” Review and Herald, June 5, 1913, 6.


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 Farago Tudor Andrei on Unsplash.


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