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Adventist General Conference Organized 150 Years Ago this Week
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Submitted: May 22, 2013
By Adventist Today News Team


This week in 1863, in the midst of the United States Civil War, a small group met in Battle Creek, Michigan, and formed the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, commonly called the GC by employees and members of the denomination. Six state conferences had organized over the previous three or four years and each sent delegates to the meeting.
 
The minutes of the meeting are only seven pages. The constitution and bylaws that the delegates developed during the meeting cover a little more than one page. The document specified a governing body of only three members called an "executive committee," the terminology still used in most denominational policy materials.
 
There were 10 delegates from Michigan, the state conference that hosted the session. Eight were ministers, including many of the most important personalities in the early Adventist movement. Two were lay representatives. New York sent four delegates, Ohio and Iowa sent two each and Minnesota and Wisconsin sent one each. Only 20 individuals made up that founding group.
 
Organization had been a hot issue. James White, the most prominent spokesman for the formation of a denomination, argued practically that he should not have to own the movement's publishing operation personally. It had been paid for with donations and should belong to all the members through some representative system.
 
Others felt that a formal organization was the first step toward worldliness, apostasy and all kinds of problems. The Amish and others insisted that no organization beyond local congregations that elected their own bishops were Biblical in any sense, and many in the first generation of Adventists took a similar view.
 
The state conferences had formed slowly. Initially they were simply an annual gathering and then committees were formed to oversee property such as large tents used for evangelism campaigns and local meetinghouses in a few locations. Most Adventist congregations met in homes.
 
Elder White had become a target because of his activist stance and one item of business in that first GC Session was the report of an investigation of White. The Battle Creek Church had voted at a special meeting on March 29 "to lay before the General Conference, in relation to the charges and reports that are in circulation concerning" White the fact that "no one had reported any grievances" and the 70 "fervent testimonials" in his support. The GC had not even been initiated and the politics had already started.
 
The delegates responded to the issue quite conservatively, allowing White to step aside although the majority evidently wanted him to serve as the first GC president. They also voted to publish an announcement in the Review opening up two months for people to file any comments they wished about White.
 
John Byington was elected the first GC president, a farmer from upstate New York and lay pastor who had been an activist in the anti-slavery movement, hiding fugitives on his property and helping them escape to Canada in defiance of Federal law. Adventists were involved in humanitarian work and took stands for human rights even before a denomination existed; it is part of the Adventist heritage.
 
Uriah Smith was voted GC secretary and E. W. Walker the GC treasurer, but neither of them were members of the executive committee. It included Byington, John N. Andrews and George W. Amadon. Andrews would become the denomination's first official missionary and one of the denomination's major universities is named after him.
 
"One object if the General Conference is to secure uniformity of action throughout all the states," the delegates voted, and then appointed a committee "to draw up a constitution for state conferences," despite the fact that at least the Ohio Conference already had one. Tension over "uniformity" instead of a more flexible and diverse unity began at the very first GC Session and continues to this day.
 
Historians estimate that in the 1860s there were only a few hundred Sabbath-keeping Adventists. They were scattered across the northern tier of the U.S. east and Midwest. There were none in the South, which was currently in rebellion against the Federal government and very likely only a handful in California, although within a few decades it would become home to the largest settlement of Adventists on the globe.
 
The Seventh-day Adventist denomination began as a very small, regional fellowship of mostly house-church groups in the United States, but it was soon to develop a world vision and a broad concept of mission. Within a few years it had started a hospital, a college, schools and city missions. It soon began to connect with believers in other nations and began sending missionaries, both officially sponsored and independent, self-supporting workers. The prophetic gift exercised by Ellen White, who was still in her 30s at the time of the GC founding session, constantly spurred innovation, expansion and a broad vision for the movement.
 
Today the Adventist movement is organized in almost all of the countries recognized by the United Nations, holds worship in more than 800 languages and has more than 30 million adherents. There are more Adventists on the globe than there are Jews or Sikhs or Baha'i, all venerable world religions. Yet the Adventist religion is less than 200 years old, a youngster in this class.
 
The news media has noted that the official recognition of this anniversary evidences ambivalence on the part of GC leaders. "There's not a whole lot of cheer to go around," stated the Religion News Service (RNS). "Not even for all the good they have accomplished through their faith across the world while they wait" for Jesus to return.  The Christian Post noted "8,000 schools ... more than 16 million medical outpatient visits" each year and "millions of dollars [in] charity" as it described the impact of the denomination today.
 
"I would love for [Jesus] to come this second," Janice Maitland, a member of Ephesus Church in Manhattan, was quoted by The Christian Post. "Once He returns there will be less suffering. We will be restored back to our perfect way, so that's always our desire. It always has been and always will be." She added, "I think it's presumptuous as human beings to tell God when He should return. ... We can only hope that He will come as soon as He can but we can't tell Him when to come."
 
"Adventists are fundamentally caught between hope and reality," a retired theologian told Adventist Today. "That tension is at the very core of Adventist faith and it only gets more taut as more and more generations come and go." A growing number of Adventist families in North America, Europe and Australia have multiple generations of believers, "so it becomes a very personal tension in more and more families. It has been a creative tension for many people, while others seem unable to handle it in a creative, compassionate, Christ-like way. It sometimes results in very strange ideas and behavior."
 

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Share your thoughts about this article:

James Ayars
2013-05-24 6:22 PM

It is significant to me, not by way of dissent or discord, that Ellen G. White is never listed in the founding documents and pioneer recollections as a "Founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination."  Given that this is constantly alleged in both modern Adventist articles and internet anti-Adventist/anti-Ellen White propaganda, it would be well for us to correct this false allegation.  I am not anti-Adventist, nor anti-Ellen White.  Our denomination is the result of careful, prayerful thought and consideration by men who shared the common core values which still remain with us, though modified by better, more careful Biblical study.  Happy "un-anniversary."

Jim Hamstra
2013-05-25 7:41 AM

Thanks for a well thought-out article - much better than all the promotional hype from various GC mouthpieces.

It is interesting to note the mention of the Baha'i faith.  This group could be reagrded as the analogue of the SDA church within the larger world of Islam.  It was started by people in the Middle East who parsed the 2,300 day prophecy (and other time prophecies) in Daniel much as did "our" William Miller.  Of course their eschatology was conditioned by Islamic rather than Christian views of end-time events.  Nevertheless, if you search the Internet for information relating to Daniel and the 2,300 days you will find that some of the best explanations of Miller's reckoning of prophetic time are found on Baha'i web sites.

Stephen Ferguson
2013-05-25 7:57 AM

Great observation Jim.  Indeed as the SDA Church is to Christianity, one could argue the Bahai faith is to Islam.  I had a Bahai friend at College and we were talking one day, and were both completely astounded by the coincidence re the 2,3000 year prophecy and 1844.  In 1844 Bab (the forunner) was announced (a John-the Baptist figure).  In 1863, Baha'ullah declared himself.  So 1844 and 1863 are important dates for Bahais - just like Adventists.  

Jim Hamstra
2013-05-25 8:27 AM

So by analogy would the GC President be our Baha'ullah (if you will permit me a bit of levity)?

Elaine Nelson
2013-05-25 11:55 AM

The SDA and LDS church are the two  uniquely American religions that began at approximately the same time and in the same region of the country and have attained about the same number of converts during that time.  They also are the two religions that have their own prophet and own writings that are an inherent part of their beliefs.  With both, belief in their prophet must be accepted as their teachings are derived and blessed by them.

Stephen Ferguson
2013-05-25 10:06 PM

What about JWs.  And one might even add Pentecostals in there, as the 4 Great American religions.

Elaine Nelson
2013-05-25 11:52 PM

Yes, there are others, including Christian Scientists and the Church of Scientology and probably more.  The two I mentioned are the largest and both have prophets, which makes them different than the others.   Are Pentecostals a distinct denomination, or a part of a former one and did the originate in the U.S.?

Stephen Ferguson
2013-05-26 2:27 AM

​Yes good points. I think Pentecostalism, and the tongue-speaking variety we associate with the AOG, is an American religion:​  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentecostalism#Background

Another way of looking at it is, Adventism, JWs, Mormons and Pentecostals are all 'restorationalist' religions.  That is, they all supposed looked back to 'primitive Christianity' of the early Church, rejecting the 'tradition' of the Ecumenical Councils of the first 500-years of Christianity.  

The funny thing is, all 4 movements were largely destined to repeat the mistakes and controversies of the early Church.  For example, the Pentecostals, who claimed to promote primitive Christianity of experience, rather than dogma, ended up having a major split early on over all things about the Trinity.

It would be fascinating to look at all the early controversies of the first 500-years of Christianity, and then compare them to whether and how similar issues were dealt with by each of the 4 American Restorationalist religions.

Elaine Nelson
2013-05-27 6:35 PM

We need ro remember that the Trinity is a constructed doctrine that is not explicitly given in Scripture, but was a long time in constructing, and still cannot be easily explained because it was not a simple teaching of the early church, as were many others.

Edwin A. Schwisow
2013-05-27 4:42 PM

The Adventist Church was formed in the midst of some of the most divisive, hardscrabble political days of American frontier history. I have often reflected that this superheated Victorian plume of fervor seems to continue as an afterglow in many sectors of the Church even today, and in fact certainly became a burden of Ellen White in her later writings. She wrote (in effect) that if the Church would gentle itself down a bit, it would accomplish far more in making friends than it currently was achieving through confrontation.

As Adventists we often seem to phrase things more pointedly and personally than would seem consistent with the hopeful message we wish to deliver.  I have no doubt that many of these messages have no hurtful intent; they are simply presented in a manner consistent with the pulsating waves that seemed to ride high in the early Adventist tide.
 
Rather than complain that our Church is an insufficiently caring church (and it may be), let us all consider the lesson of history—those born in a crucible of strife may tend to reflect that struggle culturally much longer than anticipated. The question, then, is whether we will take pride in and accentuate this trait, or if we will take personal steps to recognize our past and seek to behave in a more redemptive way as we reach out to bind the wounds of the afflicted and commend them to the spiritual care of the end-time remnant.

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