This five-part series is highlighting actions taken by the General Conference during the first 20 years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The selection is based on my personal taste, but highlights particularly significant early actions, historical or human interest items, or simply actions that reveal how different things were 150 years ago. Original (mis)spellings have been retained. I have added a few personal observations in parenthetical italicized text.
May 1870 (8th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI 15 states plus Switzerland are represented.
GC is in debt to the tune of $272.90.
“RESOLVED, That in view of the repeated admonitions of the Spirit of God of the alarming prevalence of licentiousness in its various forms, and of the purity of life requisite to stand before a holy God; and of the sad instances of depravity manifested by some professing to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ, we regard the book recently published, entitled, Solemn Appeal, as most timely, and we cordially recommend it to all as a valuable and much-needed work.”
“RESOLVED, That we express our high regard for the labors of Brother James White, not only as a minister and a writer, but also for his efficient management of our publishing department; and we further express our perfect confidence in his integrity as an honest man and a devoted Christian; and we request him to accept the oversight of our business affairs, for the coming year.”
“RESOLVED, That we deplore the errors and wrongs committed by those who had the management of the Publishing Association and the Health Institute during the period of Brother White's prostration by sickness, and that we acknowledge the painful experience as teaching us the lesson that those who neglect the Testimonies of the Spirit of God, will be sure to commit serious errors in the work of the third angel's message.”
“MOVED, To pay the California missionaries their own fare to field of labor, transportation of tent, and tent and traveling expenses for themselves, and a weekly allowance equal to the highest amount paid to any laborers in the Conference.” (California was an early focus of the GC; it continues to receive considerable GC attention).
Feb 1871 (9th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI1 GC cash balance: $453.36
“RESOLVED, That we recognize in the present condition of the Pope of Rome and the Sultan of Turkey, unmistakable evidence that we have reached the very conclusion of the great lines of prophecy, and that our confidence in the speedy advent of our Lord is unwavering.”
(In hindsight, the results of their correlational approach to prophetic interpretation look rather silly. That doesn’t stop Adventists, including GC officers in San Antonio, from continuing this tradition of triangulating from current events to claim the nearness of Christ’s Second Coming).
“RESOLVED, That we express our deep interest in the work of Brother Matteson in carrying the truth to the Danes and Norwegians in our country, and that we assure him of our sympathy and support.”
“RESOLVED, That we regret the lack of a missionary spirit among our people, and that we encourage proper men and women, especially the young, to consecrate themselves to the work of God…” (Some GC admonishments haven’t changed).
Dec. 29, 1871 (10th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI (Battle Creek in late December? What were they thinking?!)
George Ide Butler elected president, Uriah Smith, secretary, and Mrs. A.P. Van Horn, treasurer.
Cash balance $916.99.
“On motion, all visiting brethren were invited to participate in the deliberations of the Conference.” (This was common in the early years, but certainly is not true today).
Continuing an effort towards reconciliation begun 4 years before, a Seventh-day Baptist delegate is welcomed for the second time, J.N. Andrews reports his attendance at the Seventh-day Baptist General Conference as the first SDA delegate, and warm words are expressed by James White, apologizing for his earlier overzealous approach and that of other Adventists, spurning the Seventh-day Baptists and treating them as competitors instead of colaborers for the Sabbath truth. Despite differences, James White says they share the main pillars of the faith. “In some points of theory we may see an importance that our Seventh-day Baptist brethren do not see. We are not inclined to urge these. And we will try to remember that, on these points, they do not differ with us any further than we differ with them.” (The entire exchange is an example of true Christian graciousness and humility, and well worth reading).
“RESOLVED, That in view of the great saving of money, and the increase of health and strength, and of the general blessing of God enjoyed by us as a people, because of adopting the health reform, we hereby recommend that ten thousand dollars be raised as a thank-offering, to be used as a fund for the issuing of health publications.”
March 1873 (11th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI Treasury balance: $4376.63
“RESOLVED, That we regard it as the imperative duty of Seventh-day Adventists to take immediate steps for the formation of an Educational Society, and the establishment of a denominational school.”
(Later, the GC Committee was given responsibility to establish a school. A primary motivation was the need to educate people to speak several languages so they could “teach the word” in other lands).
“RESOLVED, That we recommend to the Trustees of the Publishing Association that they put forth an earnest effort to secure the preparation of a suitable series of tracts for translation into other languages, and to secure the best translators for these tracts, and also, by all possible means to oversee this work of translation, that it be done in the best manner possible.”
“The committee to whom was referred the question, ‘What can be done to render our General Conference of greater interest to the mass of our people?’ recommend the following as worthy of trial:” There followed recommendations including special speakers/sermons, and an invitation to visiting members to participate in the proceedings. (I wonder what the 1873 GC delegates would have thought of a full Alamodome!).
The committee on removals to Battle Creek, reported verbally through the chairman, recommending "that this Conference request the General Conference Committee to continue the same course of action as that which has been pursued the past year, relative to removal of families to Battle Creek." Which recommendation was adopted. (This continued an effort begun earlier, to recruit families to move to Battle Creek to provide more labor at the publishing house and other institutions there).
Nov. 1873 (12th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI Due to short notice, many conferences were not represented with delegates, so by vote of the delegates, other attendees were appointed by President Butler to represent those conferences.
(Many delegates have been unable to attend recent GC sessions because of visa problems. Can you imagine the uproar if the GC president were allowed to appoint attendees to take their place?!).
“Brother White made remarks explaining the call for a Conference at the present time. It was for the purpose of arranging matters preparatory to extending the work on the Pacific Coast, sending a missionary to Switzerland, etc.”
“RESOLVED, That we fully indorse the position taken in the paper read by Elder Butler on Leadership.” (This later developed into a controversy with James White taking an opposing view).
It was “with deep regret [that] we have noticed a declension from both the health and dress reforms.” Members were urged to take a stand.
“RESOLVED, That we feel the deepest interest in the work among people of other tongues, and recommend to our Executive Committee to take steps for the speedy publication of tracts and periodicals in other languages…”
“RESOLVED, That our confidence is increased in the gift of the spirit of prophecy which God has so mercifully placed in the third angel's message; and that we will endeavor to maintain an affectionate regard for its presence and its teachings; and we hereby request our Executive Committee to prepare or cause to be prepared a work giving our reasons for believing the testimonies of Sister White to be the teachings of the Holy Spirit.”
“The Conference Committee, having been intrusted with the matter of raising funds for a denominational school, reported through the chairman. Fifty-two thousand dollars have been pledged.”
Aug. 1874 (13th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI James White returned to the presidency, replacing George Butler.
Missionary and Tract societies in each conference were reorganized on a common basis for better representation at the GC and coordination of work.
“RESOLVED, That the General Conference, feeling the same interest in the Swiss Mission that has been expressed in former sessions, instruct the Executive Committee to send Elder J. N. Andrews to Switzerland as soon as practicable.”
Aug. 1875 (14th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI Recognition was given, and gratitude expressed, for the new school (Battle Creek College) that had been built.
“RESOLVED, That we hereby express our confidence in the principles of health reform, and urge its more thorough adoption by those among us who have as yet made but little progress in this direction.”
“RESOLVED, That we recommend the Executive Committee to take immediate steps to establish a printing office in Europe, to issue periodicals and publications in the French and German languages, and also to enter the openings presenting themselves in Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Hungary, Africa, and Australia.”
“RESOLVED, That we have great cause of gratitude, in the continued prosperity of the work on the Pacific Coast.”
“RESOLVED, That we approve of the invitation extended by the Michigan Conference to Elder J. N. Loughborough, to labor for a time in Michigan, to help the suffering cause in that State.”
(One might wonder why Michigan Conference was suffering when all the major church institutions were there, along with a new school. However, there was considerable turmoil in Allegan, Michigan due to W.H. Littlejohn’s involvement in the Butler-White leadership debate, denunciation of the Whites, disfellowshipment, and work against the Adventists. A reconciliation led to Littlejohn’s restoration in 1877).
“Leadership. The following resolution was submitted to the Conference by Elder George I. Butler: WHEREAS, In the session of the General Conference held in the autumn of 1873, a resolution was passed endorsing a tract entitled ‘Leadership,’ written by Elder Butler; and WHEREAS, It has been shown that some of the sentiments contained in said tract were incorrect; therefore, RESOLVED, That the resolution above referred to be, and the same is hereby rescinded.”
“Pending the adoption of this resolution, Elder White made very clear and forcible remarks on the subject, setting forth the manner in which his mind had been led in this matter, resulting in his writing out almost immediately the articles which subsequently appeared over his signature in the Signs and the Review, before he knew that any objection was raised against the address referred to. He also set forth ably the principles of leadership which, according to the Scriptures, must hold in the church of Christ. It was then moved to amend the resolution by striking out its second and third clauses, and substituting in their place the following:
"WHEREAS, Further examination has shown that some of the sentiments contained in said tract were incorrect; therefore, "RESOLVED, That the tract referred to be placed in the hands of a committee (said committee to be appointed by this Conference) to be so revised as to correspond with the better understanding which now exists on the subject of leadership." The amendment was carried, and the resolution as amended was then unanimously adopted.
“Evening session, Tuesday, August 17. Prayer by U. Smith. A brief history was given by Brother White of the embarrassments under which he had labored in connection with Brother Butler. On motion, Elder Butler was invited to make an explanation of his course as set forth by Brother White, whereupon he responded. Brother White rejoined. The following resolutions were then passed: RESOLVED, That we cannot so interpret the testimony given by Sister White to Brother Butler, as to justify the course he has taken, in withdrawing himself from important positions in this work. RESOLVED, That we consider it very evident that this course on the part of Brother Butler, has had the effect to throw distrust over the minds of the brethren, and thus most effectually throw a weight of discouragement upon Brother White, and cripple his energies in the work. Therefore, further, RESOLVED, That we consider that Brother White has had cause for his feelings in reference to the action of Brother Butler, and that Brother White's position in this respect, is such as to entitle him to our sympathy and support.”
(There is obviously a back-story on this discussion, worth an article of its own! Butler had written that the GC president should be given special respect, standing in a position of authority as Moses was to Israel; James White repudiated that view, arguing that the GC president and all ministers are subject to one another, and ultimately to Jesus Christ, the true leader of the church; there must be no papacy in the Adventist church. An account of this leadership conflict was recently published by Kevin Burton).2
“On motion, it was voted to appropriate one thousand dollars ($1000) to Elder James White from the general missionary fund, toward the debt incurred by him in establishing the Signs of the Times, on the Pacific Coast.”
“Special session called Wednesday, August 18, at 11:30 a.m., at the church. Prayer by U. Smith. After remarks by Brother Butler that he would accept the judgment of his brethren in his case, and try to act upon it, it was VOTED, That we recommend that Brother Butler immediately visit Allegan County, to help affected brethren there, and that we pray that he may have the help and blessing of God in the undertaking. Adjourned sine die.”
Mar. 1876 (Special Session)—Battle Creek, MI1 “The session was occupied by an address from the president stating the wants of the cause, and some of the questions to come before us at this meeting. The meeting was not called to meet the emergency of any difficulties that are pressing upon us and threatening to distract and divide us; for there is nothing of the kind. There never was a stronger influence for unity among us, generally considered, than exists at the present time. This meeting is called to consider what we shall do next, not in the sense of men who are out of work and are looking about for something to do, but as those who have so much pressing upon them that they know not what to take hold of first. We have come to confer together how we may best husband our strength to meet the demands of the work which is rising in such magnitude before us.”
“Brother Canright reported he had never found such unity among brethren in any state. With the exception of the slight defection in Allegan County, he found no place in the state where there was any murmuring or complaining.” (G.I. Butler did not attend this GC meeting. Was he working in Allegan?)
“RESOLVED, That we believe it to be the duty of all our brethren and sisters, whether connected with churches or living alone, under ordinary circumstances, to devote one-tenth of all their income from whatever source, to the cause of God.” (Systematic benevolence had previously used a percentage of property and a different income-based approach).
In response to Brother Strong apparently complaining about James White in a private letter, he was examined at the conference. Then, “Brother White having made certain remarks on the subject of church order, and the course to be pursued with murmurers and complainers, it was VOTED, That we endorse the sentiments expressed, and request him to put them into the form of a resolution to be incorporated into the resolutions of the Conference, whereupon he presented the following, which was heartily adopted: --RESOLVED, That it is the sense of this Conference, that the simple organization of our churches, state conferences, and the General Conference, is good and satisfactory, therefore should be respected by all our people.
RESOLVED, That church and Conference officers should be sustained in the performance of their duty while held in office, and that all persons whether preachers or common members who carelessly or willfully disregard the rules and by-laws of our organizations, become subjects of censure and discipline.” (Freedom had its limits…)
“RESOLVED, That D. M. Canright be a committee to address Elder M. E. Cornell, now in the State of Texas, and request him to either take immediate measures to give satisfaction to the Michigan Conference Committee that he is a proper person to preach the gospel, or to cease teaching the doctrines held by Seventh-day Adventists.”
(No word on what happened to the house the church raised money for him to buy in 1867. In other records we find that he was counseled by Ellen White about his improper conduct with women, 3T 227-243, dropped out of the ministry for a time, had his credentials revoked at the Sept. 1876 GC session, spent some time working in Colorado with White’s encouragement, then after 13 years of freelance ministry, returned to the organized ministry for the last 3 years of his life).3
Sept. 1876 (15th Annual Session)—Lansing, MI The denomination now had over 10,000 members and 398 churches.
Resolutions were adopted to again remind members of the need for health reform (in the face of backsliding in this area), and another call for more young men to enter the ministry as there was a need for more ministers in the rapidly growing denomination.
Revoked M.E. Cornell’s ministerial credentials for immoral conduct.
Nov. 1876 (Special Session)—Battle Creek, MI “Elder White mentioned the representation of our publications at the Centennial, the expense of which would be presented for consideration at the evening session after Dr. Kellogg should report.” (Later) “Dr. J. H. Kellogg presented his report of the exhibition of our publications at the Centennial as follows:
“RESOLVED, That this Conference recommend to the several state conferences that each individual raise a sum equal to one-third of his systematic benevolence pledge for the year, to meet the demand for means to be used as far as necessary in the proposed increase of the circulation of the Signs, the Reformer, and other publications, this offering to be paid, if convenient, the first of January 1877, or, if more favorable, in four installments, the first to be paid January 1; the second, April 1; the third, July 1; and the fourth, October 1, 1877.” __________________
- Location not given in the minutes but was Battle Creek, MI, according to the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics and Research.
- Kevin Burton, “The Adventist Leadership Controversy of the 1870s: A Brief Historical Overview,” downloaded from Adventist Archives.
- “Some Highlights of the Life of Merritt E. Cornell (1827-1893),” downloaded from www.APLib.org.
Title Image: James White and George Ide Butler, two early presidents of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
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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