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 parenthetic italicized text.
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.
Read part one of this series HERE, part two HERE, and part three HERE.
Nov. 1879 (18th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
James White, president, presided over the session once again. Cash on hand: $258.60. Although the GC budget had increased substantially since 1863, the GC spent most of what it received, retaining very little in cash reserves.
“RESOLVED, That this Conference elect annually a Mission Board of five, who shall have the special oversight of all our foreign missions, under the advice of the General Conference Committee; said Mission Board to report annually to the General Conference.”
“RESOLVED, That it should not be considered that any minister has fully discharged his duty in any new field where a company of Sabbath-keepers has been raised up, until he has fully advocated, in public and in private, the subjects of Health and Temperance and Spiritual Gifts, and organized Systematic Benevolence; and a failure in this shall be considered worthy of censure; and the Auditing Committee should take this into account when settling with him.”
“The committee on the subject of unhappy marriages and tobacco-selling, reported through its chairman, W. H. Littlejohn, who, after speaking a few words in reference to the circumstances which have brought this question up, offered [a resolution].” Membership would be denied to those who remarried for reasons other than adultery, so long as the prior partner still lived. The resolution was debated extensively, spilling over 3 meetings, and was eventually tabled.
“The committee further reported, presenting the question of tobacco-selling, recommending that the line be drawn between liquor-selling and tobacco-selling. Whereupon it was
MOVED, That the selling of tobacco be not considered a sufficient cause for refusing or withdrawing church fellowship.” The motion was tabled. (This committee was 0 for 2 on the day. Maybe unhappy marriages and tobacco selling don’t go together after all!)
MOVED, That the proceedings of the past four meetings be withheld from the publication. Carried. (Troubled marriages and tobacco sales were sensitive subjects, apparently!)
“RESOLVED, That in the opinion of this body it is the duty of all the members of this denomination to become members of the American Health and Temperance Association, and to use their influence in inducing others to unite in this reformatory effort.” (There is a long tradition of the GC telling members what they should do, and being ignored. One wonders how many tobacco sellers joined AHTA as a result of this action).
“Elder G. I. Butler presented the following resolutions: ORDINATION –
‘WHEREAS, Certain difficulties in the past in connection with this cause have grown out of the subject of ordination, arising from the question, Who is authorized to baptize and administer the other ordinances of the church? and
WHEREAS, In the rapid growth of this cause, these difficulties will probably increase, as it extends to other people and draws from other denominations ministers and official members, and
WHEREAS, It is very desirable that some uniform plan of action should be adopted by our different conferences and ministers in all parts of the field; and as our work has reached that stage where some action on this subject is eminently desirable, therefore
RESOLVED, That to meet this want we express the opinion as the sense of this Conference, that none but those who are Scripturally ordained are properly qualified to administer baptism and other ordinances.’ This was discussed by Elders G. I. Butler, James White, and D. M. Canright, and adopted.”
(Ordination was viewed as a prerequisite for conducting baptisms and administering other ordinances of the church. This resolution does not specify whether the individuals administering church ordinances must be ordained as ministers or if it is sufficient that they be ordained as elders, which is the current requirement for commissioned ministers administering the ordinances).
“The following was also discussed by the brethren last named, and by A. O. Burrill, A. A. John, and E. B. Lane, and adopted:
‘WHEREAS, We regard ordination as a solemn and impressive ceremony, sanctioned by the Holy Scriptures and indicating the setting apart, or separation, of the person receiving it from the body of believers with whom he has been associated, to perform the office to which he is ordained, and as suggestive of the conferring of those spiritual blessings which God must impart to properly qualify him for that position; and WHEREAS, In our age of the world there are many different sets of professing Christians which teach more or less of false doctrine, and whose practices are in many respects inconsistent with the principles of our faith; and
WHEREAS, Ordination signifies the setting apart, or appointment, of a person to some official position; therefore,
RESOLVED, That we consider it inconsistent for our conferences to grant credentials to individuals to occupy official positions among our people, who have never been ordained or set apart by our people.’
MOVED, That G. I. Butler, B. L. Whitney, and W. C. White be a special committee to consider the subject of the proper qualifications of ministers, and report to the next meeting of the Conference. Carried.”
(In this resolution, it appears that ordination was intended to be for specific roles. Without ordination, individuals should not occupy official positions in the church. How this was implemented in practice, especially with respect to women, such as Chapman, is not discussed here. It may have been intended that ministers be ordained to the office of minister, treasurers be ordained to the office of treasurer, and other leaders to their respective roles. Today the Seventh-day Adventist Church “commissions” qualified non-ministerially trained officers such as treasurers as “commissioned ministers.” It appears that the 1879 delegates would have considered them ordained to their office).
“The committee on the proper qualifications of ministers reported verbally through the chairman, G. I. Butler, recommending, as the mind of the committee, that all candidates for the ministry should be thoroughly examined,
1. In reference to their knowledge of all points of our faith, on which they should be well informed.
2. In regard to their spiritual qualifications. Evidence should be sought to determine whether they are really converted men, or whether they hold the truth as a mere theory.
3. In reference to their practical capabilities; namely, whether they can set things in order in the church, give good counsel touching the temporalities of the church, bring up the members to a proper standard in all their practical duties, and thus edify and build up the church.
4. In reference to their general information; and in this direction, a course of study, including different branches, should be systematically pursued.”
“The committee in the case of Elder Cornell reported that they could not recommend that he receive credentials. The report was adopted.”
“The committee in the case of difference between Elders Corliss, Lane, Canright, etc., reported that they had considered the matter, and learned some facts which enlisted their sympathy toward Elders Lane and Corliss; but they were not prepared to present a definite report.”
“MOVED, That the chair appoint a committee of three to look after the case of Simmons (student from Texas) and prevent his leaving Battle Creek in an improper state of mind. Carried. (Simmons wouldn’t be the last Texan thought to have an improper state of mind! He also wasn’t the last person wanting to leave Michigan and head to Texas as winter approached).
Mar. 1880 (Special Session)—Battle Creek, MI “RESOLVED, That we recommend the employment of judicious persons by our state conferences to act as colporters, who shall receive a license from the state conference committees to labor in that capacity; and all such persons will be expected to give quarterly reports of their labors to the conference; and we recommend further that the auditing committees be empowered to consider such cases; and when, in their judgment, such labor has benefited the cause, to give a reasonable remuneration for the same.”
"WHEREAS, Battle Creek is an important center of our work, where our public institutions are located, creating the necessity of large gatherings, and thus bringing heavy burdens upon the church, therefore
RESOLVED, That this Conference considers it the duty of the several state conferences to prevent, as far as possible, the poor from among them, and the unconsecrated, from moving to Battle Creek, and that it is the duty of the state conferences to either induce their poor to move from Battle Creek, or to support them where they are."
(The previous action obviously didn’t stop the flood of Adventist immigrants to Battle Creek! This action suggests that the delegates considered it a church responsibility to care for the poor. However, it was a local/state responsibility, not the GC’s.)
"WHEREAS, We recognize the propriety as well as the duty of the Christian ministry to be an example to the flock in liberality and self-sacrifice, as well as in all other good works; and
WHEREAS, The Scriptures plainly teach that the laborer is worthy of his hire, and that the faithful minister is entitled to a liberal and generous support at the hands of his brethren; therefore
RESOLVED, That it be hereby expressed as the sense of this Conference, that faithful and efficient ministers should receive a liberal compensation for their labor, that they may be fully sustained in their work, and have the means wherewith to donate to the cause, as their sense of duty thereto may dictate.
RESOLVED, That we recommend to the auditing committees of our conferences to make a plain distinction between those who are thorough and efficient in their labor, and those who manifest no proper burden of responsibility in the work, and who, either from lack of consecration or devotion to the cause, fail to show such fruit of their labor as ought to be expected, and to make their award accordingly." (Remuneration based on job performance is no longer practiced).
“All the meetings were opened by singing and prayer. At each meeting the minutes of the preceding meeting were read and approved. Subjects were more freely discussed, pro and con, than at any previous Conference, yet with the utmost cordiality of feeling, and with unanimity of action at the last in every case. It was throughout a most pleasant as well as important and profitable meeting.”
Oct. 1880 (19th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
George Butler was elected president, replacing James White.
“RESOLVED, That this Conference should select a minister to visit Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and the South generally, to labor for the general interests of the cause, and to encourage such men as should be engaged in active labor to enter the field.” (Note: The denomination had 3 GC-sponsored foreign missionaries already by this time). Statistics: 24 conferences, 8 missions, 144 ministers, 116 licentiates, 640 churches, 15570 members, $61,856.88 total expenditures.
Dec. 1881 (20th Annual Session)—Battle Creek, MI
At each GC session, resolutions were prepared and brought to the floor by a Resolutions Committee. The committee on Resolutions for this session, appointed by the chair (S.N. Haskell, filling in for the ill G.I. Butler), was W. H. Littlejohn, B. L. Whitney, and U. Smith.
“WHEREAS, In the providence of God, Elder James White has during the past Conference year, been removed by death from the labors and responsibilities which have devolved upon him for so many years; therefore
RESOLVED, That while we feel that words are inadequate to express the sense of loss which we feel at his death; and while we are deeply conscious that there is no one among us who can fill as he did the position of counselor and laborer in the work of the Third Angel's Message, we will nevertheless earnestly pray that the same God who helped him to devise and execute the plans which have contributed so much to the prosperity of the cause of present truth, may permit the mantle of his faithfulness and power to fall upon others, whose devotion to the cause of God shall be characterized by the same spirit of self-sacrifice and be crowned with the same marked success as that which distinguished his life and labors.
RESOLVED, That we hereby express to our afflicted sister, Ellen G. White, and the other members of her family, our sincere and heartfelt sympathy in this great bereavement which has fallen upon them; and that we assure them of our earnest prayers that our Heavenly Father will graciously sustain them under the deep affliction and great loss which they have experienced. This and the preceding resolution were adopted, not by the Conference only, but by a rising vote unanimously given by the whole congregation.”
“RESOLVED, That we renew the expressions of our confidence in the spirit of prophecy, which has acted so prominent a part thus far in directing the efforts of our people in giving the last message of mercy to the world; and that we will earnestly pray that God in his infinite mercy may remember the humble instrument he has employed in connection with the same, and impart to her in her present enfeebled condition the strength necessary to enable her to visit the different parts of the field, and actively participate in such general gatherings as may be held from time to time. Adopted.”
“Many tender and touching remarks were made by the brethren on these resolutions, and by W. C. White, acknowledging the appreciation by Sister White and the family of the sympathy expressed toward them by this people.”
“RESOLVED, That we express it as our conviction that the College at Battle Creek could greatly advance the interests of the cause of God by preparing young men and women to act as teachers, and that we earnestly recommend the faculty of that institution to spare no pains to secure that end, by giving particular attention to the interest of that department of the school which is devoted to the instruction and drill of those who design to act in that capacity.” (Women were encouraged to teach).
1. That we recommend the establishment, in states where the same can be done to advantage, of schools where students can pursue such branches of study as it will be necessary for them to master before entering the College at Battle Creek;
2. That these preparatory schools be established in such places, and conducted on such principles as the General Conference may recommend.”
“RESOLVED, That all candidates for license and ordination should be examined with reference to their intellectual and spiritual fitness for the successful discharge of the duties which will devolve upon them as licentiates and ordained ministers.”
“RESOLVED, That females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry. This was discussed by J. O. Corliss, A. C. Bourdeau, E. R. Jones, D. H. Lamson, W. H. Littlejohn, A. S. Hutchins, D. M. Canright, and J. N. Loughborough, and referred to the General Conference Committee.”
(The record of this vote and subsequent actions is confusing and incomplete, since the Signs reported that the resolution was adopted while the minutes and the Review record a referral to the GC Committee. Both accounts may be correct, for the referral may have been for implementation, just as many other referrals regarding ministerial assignments were.1 Such resolutions or motions aren’t necessarily recorded as “carried” or “adopted” in the minutes, but simply as “referred.” For example, in the 1880 minutes, “Elder Underwood presented a request from the brethren in Ohio, that Elder E. B. Lane and wife return to labor in Ohio; which request was referred to the General Conference Committee.” Regardless of whether the referral was for implementation or for consideration, or if the GC Committee even acted on the referral, the fact that the Resolutions Committee proposed ordination of women as ministers and the GC Session discussed it and referred it to the GC Committee shows that church leaders did not see a theological contradiction nor were they strongly opposed to the practice, else the resolution would never have been proposed or the motion would have “lost.”2 As Roger Coon explained, “the fact that this could be at least discussed on the floor of a GC Session indicates an open-mindedness on the part of the delegates toward the subject.”3 The referral to the GC Committee also undermines the argument of contemporary headship theology proponents like Stephen Bohr4 who wish to roll back the “unbiblical authorization” for ordination of female elders and commissioned ministers performing most duties of an ordained minister taken at the 1975, 1984 and 1989 Executive Committee meetings; although Bohr’s argument is primarily that these actions lack biblical authority, he also argues that these actions lack authority because they were only voted by the GC Executive Committee and not brought to a GC Session for a vote, where he contends they would have been defeated. The 1881 action shows that women’s ministerial ordination was, in fact, discussed at a GC session and referred to the GC Committee; I have found no record of this action being rescinded.)
“WHEREAS, It frequently occurs that the design of those who make bequests to our institutions, is defeated, either in whole or in part, by the contesting of their wills; therefore RESOLVED, That the only safe course to be pursued is that of donating, during one's life time, those amounts which he wishes to contribute to the cause of God.”
“WHEREAS, The Holy Spirit has emphatically condemned the adorning of the person with "gold or pearls, or costly array" (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3); therefore
RESOLVED, 1. That we reiterate the former exhortations of this body to plainness of dress on the part of our people, and that we express it as our solemn conviction that no person can disregard the positive injunctions of Scripture upon this point, without exposing himself or herself to the frown of Heaven.”
“RESOLVED, That we express it as the judgment of this body that attendance upon circuses, theaters, trotting matches, humorous lectures, and entertainments of like character cannot be reconciled with the plain teachings of the word of God, and the faith which we as a people hold respecting the near coming of Christ, and the session of the Judgment.”
“WHEREAS, There are brethren and sisters in different churches who do not for weeks attend religious meetings, and allow quarter after quarter to pass without being present at the ordinances; therefore RESOLVED, That the chair be empowered to appoint a committee of two to write an article to be published in the Review, setting forth the wrong of such course of action.”
Dec. 1882 (21st Annual Session)—Rome, NY
This meeting was the first GC session held outside of Michigan.
“WHEREAS, Confusion is liable to occur in the accounts of our systematic benevolence treasurers, resulting in the loss of funds, unless all pecuniary transactions are conducted according to careful business principles; therefore
RESOLVED, That we recommend that all persons paying tithes require from the treasurer a receipt for all moneys paid him, and that the treasurer be required to present quarterly to the church, or to an auditing committee appointed by the church, an itemized report of all money received, and all that is paid by him into the conference, showing the receipts of the state treasurer as vouchers therefor.” (Mishandling of donated funds continues to occur from time to time despite increased oversight).
“RESOLVED, That our ministers be instructed to pay more attention to the subject of health reform; to study it in the light of the Bible and to enforce it in our churches as an element of Christian character; and to counteract in a careful and judicious manner the prevailing tendency among our people to backsliding in regard to this important grace.” (Health reform was a tough sell, apparently, and continues to challenge many members, including ministers. To “enforce it” seems impractical).
“RESOLVED, That the ordinances of the Lord's supper and feet-washing are important, and should never be separated in their administration, except in cases where such separation shall be absolutely necessary.”
“RESOLVED, That we recommend that our churches purchase copies of the General Conference proceedings, and make themselves intelligent in reference to the business matters connected with our annual meetings.” (So, congratulate yourself for reading this article!)
“RESOLVED, That this General Conference indorse the action of the Board of Trustees of the Educational Society in closing the College, under the circumstances, and we indorse the resolutions passed at an informal meeting of the Educational Society in this place.” (Problems at Battle Creek College led to its temporary closing. It reopened soon with a revised educational program).
“RESOLVED, That we request the president of the General Conference to arrange with the Publishing Committee of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association to publish a book to be entitled, The Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, which shall contain such portions of the proceedings of the General Conference, and such other matters as the Committee may think best to insert therein.”
- The Signs of the Times, Vol. 5(1), Jan. 5, 1883, reported the resolution on women’s ordination to have been adopted. (The author thanks Stanley Hickerson for bringing this document to his attention and providing a copy). The Review and Herald, Vol. 58(25), p. 392 reported that the resolution was referred to the GC Committee (as the minutes recorded). The apparent discrepancy between the Signs of the Times report and the minutes and Review and Herald report is not explained, but one suggestion is that the referral to the GC Committee was for implementation, since that is what many other referrals to the GC Committee were for. (Stanley Hickerson, E.G. White Estate, personal communication with the author, Sept. 24, 2015). Unfortunately, the archives do not contain minutes from the GC Committee before 1889, nor is its staff aware of any preserved copy of such minutes (Ashlee Chism, Assistant Archivist, GC Archives, personal communication with the author, Oct. 1, 2015).
- The 1881 GC session was characterized by all resolutions being passed, tabled, or referred to either the Resolutions Committee (for revision) or to the GC Committee (for action/implementation). Most other GC sessions were similar. However, when a motion was made and failed to pass, that was duly noted in the minutes. For example, see Meeting 17, Nov. 30, 1879, where a motion to send G.I. Butler to New England for at least 3 months was discussed and then “lost.”
- Roger Coon, “Ellen White’s View on the Role of Women in the Church,” E.G. White Research Center; cited by Michael Bernoi, “Nineteenth-Century Women in Adventist Ministry,” in Nancy Vyhmeister, ed., Women in Ministry, Andrews Univ. Press, Berrien Springs, 1998, p. 224.
- 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.pdf, 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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