Maybe I’m weird, but I enjoy reading the minutes of General Conference meetings! You never know what you may find. So, just in case you haven’t had enough of GC debates and intrigue for the year, here are some nuggets from the early days of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.1 I have included the first 20 years because it is a nice, round number, but also because that covers the period of the founding of the church and its major institutions, and the period of James White’s presidency (three separate time blocks totaling 10 years). The selections are based on my personal taste, but highlight particularly significant early actions, human interest items, or simply actions that reveal how different things were 150 years ago compared to today. Original (mis)spellings have been retained. I have added a few personal observations in parenthetic italicized text.
The series will be presented in five parts. The first four parts will review highlights from the General Conference minutes—providing the historical data. The fifth part will offer concluding remarks based on these data. Since even these “few” selected highlights make for a lengthy read, readers bored by such details may wish to wait for Part 5. (But, they’ll miss most of the fun!).
May 1863 (1st Annual Session)2—Battle Creek, MI
The first GC session organized the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There were a total of 20 delegates from eight states (NY, OH, IN, MI, WI, IA, MN). James White was nominated president but declined, leading eventually to John Byington’s election. (James White later served as president starting in 1865). Uriah Smith was elected secretary, and E.S. Walker, treasurer. The GC Executive Committee had three members, one of whom was the president. The nominating committee originally nominated John Byington and J.N. Loughborough to serve on the Executive Committee (along with president James White). After James White declined the presidency, J.N. Andrews and G.W. Amadon were elected as the members of the Executive Committee, along with Byington. (One is left wondering why Loughborough wasn’t elected).
A constitution and bylaws were drafted and adopted for the GC. Voted a recommended constitution for state conferences.
Recommended the Publishing Association to publish a new prophetic chart and a chart of the Ten Commandments, suitable for public lecture. Voted that a committee of the Battle Creek Church be empowered to “prepare for publication a record of the action of the Battle Creek Church relative to the accusations against Brother James White.” (James White was accused of financial improprieties and other misdealings in the publishing work; an investigative committee found no substance to the accusations).3
A committee was formed to recommend regulations for those building and holding meeting-houses.
May 1864 (2nd Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
Cash on hand in the GC treasury: $1139.29.
Voted that state conferences “choose a committee of six to act with the executive committee in the settlement of accounts with ministers for the preceding year.” (The appearance of impropriety with ministers deciding their own remuneration was recognized).
The following motion by J.N. Andrews was unanimously adopted:4
“WHEREAS, We deem the recent work of Sister White, entitled, An Appeal to Mothers, a work of great importance for general circulation, therefore--RESOLVED, That we earnestly commend this book to the attention of our brethren everywhere, and that we especially call the attention of parents and guardians to the duty of placing it in the hands of the young.” (This is the first of many GC actions promoting Ellen White’s publications).
May 1865 (3rd Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
James White was elected GC president (and accepted). The nominating committee was unable to settle on the Executive Committee members, so they made no nominations for it! James White then moved that J.N. Andrews be elected as an Executive Committee member, and the motion passed. James White then moved that J.N. Loughborough be the other Executive Committee member; that, too, was passed. (Thus, James White chose his own Executive Committee. In several later GC sessions, by motion of the delegates, the GC president appointed the nominating committee. Modern GC presidents have that much control over elections only in their dreams!).
Several resolutions were unanimously adopted, among them the following:
“RESOLVED, That in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper; but that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife.” (Ben Carson and Sheila Jackson Lee, among others, take note.)
“RESOLVED, That we acknowledge the pamphlet entitled Extracts From the Publications of Seventh-day Adventists Setting Forth Their Views of the Sinfulness of War, "as a truthful representation of the views held by us from the beginning of our existence as a people, relative to bearing arms.”
“RESOLVED, That we recognize civil government as ordained of God, that order, justice, and quiet may be maintained in the land; and that the people of God may lead quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty. In accordance with this fact we acknowledge the justice of rendering tribute, custom, honor, and reverence to the civil power, as enjoined in the New Testament. While we thus cheerfully render to Caesar the things which the Scriptures show to be his, we are compelled to decline all participation in acts of war and bloodshed as being inconsistent with the duties enjoined upon us by our divine Master toward our enemies and toward all mankind.” (This seems to be a minority viewpoint among Adventists today, even among some conservatives who otherwise claim to believe as historic Adventists did).
“WHEREAS, Abraham Lincoln, the noble-minded and upright chief magistrate of this nation, has fallen by the hand of an assassin, RESOLVED, That we hereby record our deep distress at the loss of this "prince and great man," 2 Samuel 3:28-38, who was stricken down by his enemies at the very moment when he was studying how to forgive them all, and that we recognize in this most atrocious crime the true character of the slaveholders' rebellion.” (Adventism at this stage was a Yankee enterprise).
“RESOLVED, That a field is now opened in the South for labor among the colored people and should be entered upon according to our ability.”
It was voted to build a meeting house in Battle Creek to host the annual GC meeting.
May 1866 (4th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
“RESOLVED, That Brother J. N. Andrews be requested to prepare an article setting forth the teachings of the Scripture on the subject of war.”
“RESOLVED, That Brother G. W. Amadon, superintendent of the Battle Creek Sabbath School, be requested to prepare immediately, question books for the use of Sabbath Schools, in a progressive series adapted to the use of infant classes, children and adults.”
“MOVED by Brother Andrews, that we refer the subject of issuing a small collection of revival hymns to the General Conference Committee, with a request that they give it their favorable consideration. Carried.” (More on the above three actions at next year's session…)
The GC adopted several resolutions of the Battle Creek Church, including, "We think the brethren greatly err from the sobriety of the Christian in wearing the moustache or goatee." The ladies didn’t get off either, with the GC voting to republish non-SDA missionary to Burma Adoniram Judson’s "A Letter to the Women of America on Dress,” in recognition of the fact that, “The Scriptures enjoin the use of modest apparel, prohibiting the wearing of broidered hair, gold, pearls, and costly array.”
Since B. F. Snook and W. H. Brinkerhoff, the two delegates from Iowa to the first (1863) GC session, had “openly renounced the work of the Third Angel’s Message,” it was voted to recommend that the Iowa State Conference drop their names from their minutes.
“RESOLVED, That in our judgment the expulsion of members from church fellowship should never be effected by less than a two-thirds vote of the entire membership of the church in question; and such action should not take place without previous faithful labor with the erring member, and also due notice of the trial.” (One senses the painful memory of former Millerites expelled from their churches without fair trial. That memory has faded; the current Church Manual only calls for a simple majority of members present at a duly called business meeting).
“WHEREAS, The subject of health is now attracting much attention among us as a people, and we are now learning the great truth that the proper way to avoid disease, or to recover from it, is to adopt correct habits of life, therefore--RESOLVED, That this Conference request our brother Dr. H. S. Lay, whom we deem fully competent so to do, to furnish through the Review a series of articles on the health reform.”
“RESOLVED, That we acknowledge the health reform as set forth in the testimony of Sister White, as part of the work of God incumbent on us at this time; and that we pledge ourselves to live in accordance with these principles, and that we will use our best endeavors to impress their importance upon others.”
“RESOLVED, That in the judgment of this Conference it is much to be regretted that in small churches where two or three substantial and efficient members constitute the chief pillars of strength, these members frequently move away with no weighty reason for so doing, leaving the church of which they were members to be scattered and extinguished.” (The “Great Advent Movement” is still problematic for small churches; see also the 1867 action).
“RESOLVED, That we empower the General Conference Committee to solicit aid for Brethren Cornell and Cottrell, in their efforts to obtain for themselves a humble home; and that they solicit this aid through the Review, or in any other way that they may think proper.” (Systematic Benevolence apparently didn’t fully meet ministerial needs).
May, 1867 (5th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
“Brother White stated that he had simply come to excuse himself from serving as chairman of the meeting, and in view of his state of health, and his anticipated change of location, as he wished for rest and retirement awhile, he requested to be released from all office in the Conference during the coming year.”
J.N. Andrews elected president, replacing James White.
“Brother Cornell being called on to report in reference to the amount raised for his benefit, gratefully acknowledged the liberal donations of the brethren, in the sum raised, $648.10, and reported that he had no need of further help in this direction.” (Presumably this was enough to procure a “humble home” in 1867).
“Brother Andrews being called upon to speak in reference to the task allotted him at the last Conference of writing on the subject of war, reported that for want of time the work was in an unfinished condition.”
“On the subject of question books for children, youth and adults, Brother Amadon reported that from sickness, and press of labor what time he had been able to work, he had not been able to carry out the instructions of the Conference. He made some progress on a question book for small children, and marked out a plan for the whole, in which condition the work now stands.”
“The General Conference Committee to whom was referred the subject of issuing a collection of revival hymns, reported that nothing had been done on it, but they had had under consideration the subject of a hymn book for general use.”
(Andrews, Amadon and the GC Committee were 0 for 3! The Adventist pioneers weren’t superhuman).
Cash in treasury: $652.92
“RESOLVED, That we deem it worthy of severe censure that our brethren frequently move from churches to which they belong when there is no sufficient reason for so doing, and when the churches of which they were members are thereby so weakened as to have their very existence endangered: and, that in our judgment such churches may at its discretion withhold letters of commendation from members moving under such circumstances.” (Last year’s resolution wasn’t enough, apparently; now the GC recommended church discipline for members who moved frequently!).
“RESOLVED, That in our judgment, the ordinances of the Christian church belong only to those who accept the duties and responsibilities of church membership.” (Adventists now practice an open communion).
“RESOLVED, That we deem it duty to caution our brethren against purchasing patent rights; and that we express our surprise and regret that our friends should so often forget the warnings given on this subject through the Testimonies.” (See 1T 455. Exploiting trusting fellow believers for business or investment sales continues to harm the church; perhaps these 1867 GC delegates wouldn’t have fallen for post office building schemes or nutritional supplement MLM opportunities).
“RESOLVED, That in the judgment of this Conference, it is to be regretted that some persons travel about without a license from the Conference, introducing a few points of present truth, and those points in an objectionable manner; and we hereby enter our protest against such a course.” (Independent ministries are an old but persistent challenge to the GC).
“RESOLVED, That we express our solemn convictions that in some places our brethren have been more anxious to impress upon the public the idea that they were an upright worthy people, than to call their attention to the awful importance of the truths we cherish.” (One suspects these GC delegates might have been sympathetic to anti-papacy billboards).
“RESOLVED, That we request Brother U. Smith to prepare for publication in pamphlet form his argument in answer to the objections against the visions.”
“RESOLVED, That we deem it important to call anew the attention of parents and guardians to the work of Sister White, entitled Appeal to Mothers, and that we earnestly invite them to place this work in the hands of such young persons as are under their care.”
May 1868 (6th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
J.N. Andrews re-elected president.
The hymnbook committee reported some progress: “The Hymn Book Committee reported through brother Waggoner, showing the progress that had been made in the work, and the general plan which the Committee would recommend. Remarks by Brother White.” Later in the session the delegates voted: “MOVED, That the matter of hymn book be referred to the Executive Committee to take such action as they see fit. Carried. They were instructed to attend to this thing at their earliest convenience.” J.N. Andrews reported that the publication on war required much study and he was still unable to complete it. (No word on Brother Amadon’s project).
“WHEREAS, A wrong use has been made of the resolution passed by the General Conference of last year relative to our brethren moving from place to place,--RESOLVED, That we hereby rescind the above-named resolution of last year.” (The GC admitted its mistaken policy. One can well imagine the futility of trying to prevent Americans from moving!)
In response to Joseph Bates’s motion to address the needs of the poor, a committee was formed that recommended the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Benevolent Association, supported voluntarily by members at $10/year, with the funds raised distributed to elders and deacons of churches to act as agents of the Benevolent Association.
“RESOLVED, That we feel called upon to renew our request to our brethren to abstain from worldly strife of every nature, believing that war was never justifiable except under the immediate direction of God, who of right holds the lives of all creatures in his hand; and that no such circumstance now appearing, we cannot believe it to be right for the servants of Christ to take up arms to destroy the lives of their fellow-men.” (One wonders if a President Ben Carson would require God’s direction before leading America into war).
“Brethren and sisters united in considering the subject of dress. Sister Doctor Lamson was chosen chairman; Sister Van Horn, secretary, and Sisters White, Chamberlain, and Burnham, as committee of a convention of sisters, to take into consideration the matter of deciding upon a proper style and manufacture of hats for their use.” (Apparently manufacturing appropriately styled hats for women was a pressing matter, worthy of GC attention!)
“RESOLVED, That we heartily indorse the efforts lately made to circulate Spiritual Gifts, and recommend to the brethren at large to continue their efforts by contributing to the book fund, and placing our works in the hands of honest inquirers.”
May 1869 (7th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
James White elected president, replacing J.N. Andrews.
The hymnbook is finally finished: “Brother White reported on Hymn Book, as the matter was left in hands of General Conference Committee. Reported the book in the hands of the binder, to be here before the Conference closes.” “RESOLVED, That this Conference accept the new Hymn Book at the hands of our Executive Committee, and return our thanks to them for a book which we can so cordially recommend to our people, as well suited to our wants, both in public and social worship.”
No mention of J.N. Andrews’ writing project on war, but it was voted that he, “be invited to write an appeal to young men in reference to entering the ministry.”
“RESOLVED, That we wish to express our unabated interest in the California Mission, and our pleasure in the prospect before the ministers in that field; and we still extend assurance of our hearty sympathy and co-operation in their work, and our fraternal greeting to those who have embraced the present truth in that State.”
“…we earnestly recommend to all the scattered flock a more careful reading of, and more strict compliance with, the Testimonies to the Church.”
- All minutes downloaded from http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Minutes/GCSM/GCB1863-88.pdf.
- Note: GC sessions were held annually in the early years.
- This document, published by Uriah Smith, may be downloaded here: http://www.adventpioneerbooks.com/Text/pioneer/USMITH/BUSINESS.pdf.
- Throughout this series, if a resolution was adopted, that generally will not be specifically stated. If a resolution failed, was tabled, or was referred, that will always be stated.
Image: Original building of the General Conference office and Review and Herald, 1907. Courtesy, General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics and Research.
Robert T. Johnston is a retired research chemist who lives with his wife in Lake Jackson, Texas, where he enjoyed a career developing new polymer technologies for The Dow Chemical Company and DuPont Dow Elastomers. He is a graduate of Andrews University and a member of the Brazosport Seventh-day Adventist Church.
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