This five-part series has highlighted actions taken by the General Conference during the first 20 years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. If you missed the previous installments, you can read part one of this series HERE, part two HERE, part three HERE, and part four HERE.
In this part, some final observations and general conclusions are offered.
This series has highlighted actions taken by the General Conference during the first 20 years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as recorded in the minutes of GC sessions. The minutes of the early sessions were brief. With the passage of time the development, growth and management of Seventh-day Adventist institutions demanded increasing attention from church leadership. As the breadth of institutional presence grew, along with the size of the church and global expansion, the duration of GC sessions and the volume of GC minutes also grew.
Anyone who attended the 2015 GC session in San Antonio and listened to the floor debates and later read the official proceedings published in Adventist Review knows that the published proceedings were highly edited and sometimes altered the meaning of a delegate’s words, omitted important comments, or distorted the sense of the overall discussion. This may not have been intentional; short of a complete transcript, it would be difficult to accurately represent such a meeting (video recordings of business sessions are now made and kept in the GC archives). The minutes we have of the early GC sessions are similarly incomplete. How much we would like to know today about what was actually said during discussion of the 1881 resolution on women’s ordination! And how much we wish the minutes of the GC Committee for subsequent years were available! This episode highlights the importance to posterity of accurate minutes and robust archival procedures. The roles of recording secretary and archivist are underappreciated but significant!
One striking feature of even the earliest GC minutes is the apparent familiarity of delegates—often relatively uneducated—with parliamentary procedure and the orderly structure of debate. There were no attorneys counseling the chair, as occurs today. Rather, one gets the sense that Americans in that era had more experience with participatory democracy, with town hall meetings, greater access to elected representatives given the smaller population, more citizen-politicians vs. professionals, and exposure to formal debates (unlike what passes for debates on TV today), and that this background provided early Adventist GC delegates with the skills to conduct business in an efficient and orderly manner.
The early General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (GC) was small, with just a handful of officers and, on a good day, a score of delegates. Leaders knew everybody personally, and probably most other delegates knew one another as well. Perhaps as a result, this group was able to develop consensus on many decisions quickly. As the GC grew, however, factions developed and controversies became more intractable.
The small size of the early GC concentrated power in a few hands. Several times the delegates asked the president to appoint the nominating committee. A motion to increase the Executive Committee from 3 people to 5 people was defeated. The level of mutual trust seems to have been high. Despite the concentration of power, there was a great deal of accountability within the group, and officers were elected for only one year terms. The leadership controversy between George Butler and James White helped define the role of GC President as a minister among ministers, not a pope. Some of James White’s warnings from this period have subsequently been ignored, changing the nature of church leadership in the Adventist church. Perhaps growth to a multi-million member global organization made this inevitable, but his arguments retain relevance.
The small size of the early GC facilitated agility. Many—perhaps most—times, when a subject or need was raised during a GC session, a committee was created, it met, prepared recommendations or the constitution and bylaws for a new organization, and then the whole thing was passed—all in the same GC session. Never was something assigned to a committee to study for five years and return with recommendations to be debated by thousands of delegates with numerous points of order!
There was a sense of communal responsibility and obligation, leading to a degree of intrusion into personal lives that many today would find unacceptable—even extending to attempting to control the living locations of members including non-employees. Employees were directly managed by the GC in the early years, and lived and worked where they were assigned. As the church grew and state conferences were formed, they assumed some of this responsibility.
Publishing was a large part of the effort in the early days, along with camp meetings and tent based evangelism. Ministers worked much as traveling evangelists do today, with churches left in the care of elders. It took many years for the GC to acknowledge—and they eventually did—that nurture was also important, and to start assigning ministers to a fixed territory.
Several appeals show up in the minutes repeatedly: for more workers; for more money; for members to send their children to the denominational college; for compliance with health reform principles; for simple dress; to distribute and read Ellen White’s books and other denominational literature. Most of these remain items of recurring emphasis by GC leadership today.
Personalities loomed large. People were deeply committed to the cause and sacrificed greatly, but this commitment was accompanied by strongly held beliefs. The minutes record a few surprisingly frank discussions of individuals. Important issues were dealt with, but sometimes feelings were hurt; ministers left the work.
Many workers assumed massive responsibilities and were severely overworked. Disease prevention and cure in the mid-nineteenth century was deficient. Exhaustion, sickness or premature death impacted many workers.
The GC was a strong supporter of Ellen White’s visions and publications. Other than that, however, there is little mention of her direct participation in the GC sessions of the first 20 years. She was assigned to several early committees or tasks, but never was elected to a GC office.
This limited role of Ellen White was not because she was a woman; other women served as GC delegates (thus exercising “the highest authority under God among Seventh-day Adventists”) and one served as GC treasurer for many years, while another served one term. This level of female participation, together with the endorsement of women teachers (1881) and the resolution on women’s ordination for ministry the same year, indicates that mid-19th century Adventists did not interpret I Timothy 2:12 as a barrier to participation of women in teaching and leadership roles in the Seventh-day Adventist church, in contrast to contemporary headship theorists like Stephen Bohr who interpret I Timothy 2:12 as generally applicable to the church today (recoiling at a hermeneutic that would interpret it as applicable “only to a problem in first century Ephesus”).1
James White was a hard-working, entrepreneurial leader who apparently created some enemies, but was widely respected and appreciated. He was aggressive in developing new territories and enterprises, moving ahead in faith yet with a keen business sense, understanding how to extract enough income from these enterprises to fund their growth. One senses a bit of floundering and inward/procedural focus at the GC when James White was sick or otherwise not in a strong leadership position.
Overall, when one reads the early minutes of the GC, one is impressed with how hard these men and women worked, how much they sacrificed, and all they accomplished in a short time.
One is also struck with their humanity. Mistakes were made, and sometimes later acknowledged and repented. People were hurt, but also supported. Their decisions were imperfect, and sometimes reversed. Their statements and policies are interesting history and worthy of contemplation, but should not be considered as binding obligations for the church today. The early Seventh-day Adventists certainly didn’t view them thus.
Can the spirit of the early GC be recaptured today in a denomination that is 4-5 orders of magnitude larger in membership and spans the globe? I’m doubtful. Neither are all aspects of the early GC worthy of emulation. However, the entrepreneurial, risk-taking, pioneering spirit; the willingness to confess wrongs and reverse bad decisions; the passion for the work of Christ, accompanied by a strong work ethic; the self-sacrificing spirit; the efforts to recover lost members and ministers; the eagerness to find and train new ministers for the rapidly growing church; the opposition to creeds; the opposition to expulsion of church members without broad agreement and due process; the rejection of papal-style leadership; the willingness to work with those of similar yet different beliefs; the flexibility to adapt policy as circumstances changed—these are some of the admirable qualities of the early GC.
The minutes reveal many changes in the GC during its first 20 years, as it responded to a changing world and changing church. Can the 20 years after San Antonio bring as much change as the first 20 years did? As a larger, more mature organization, the GC is naturally more resistant to change than during its formative years. Its beliefs and policies are now thoroughly codified and documented in the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs, the Church Manual, and organizational Working Policy. However, the pace of change in our world is increasing, suggesting that the church will need to accelerate change or lose relevance.
- Stephen Bohr, “Reflections on San Antonio,” Secrets Unsealed Ministry Update, Third Quarter 2015, downloaded from http://www.secretsunsealed.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/3QTR15News-web..., Oct. 17, 2015.
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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