REH417: SDA Church History LECTURE 6: Further Doctrinal & Organizational Development
By 1848, there were a number of Adventists convinced of the truth of one or more of the three distinctive Sabbatarian Adventist doctrines, but as Knight points out, these believers “lacked a common consensus.” As Hewitt states, “The stage was now set for the melding of the sanctuary, the Sabbatarian, and the Spirit of Prophecy beliefs.” Knight, Millennial Fever , 319. Hewitt, Midnight and Morning , 185.
Hence, in 1848, a series of six conferences were held in Connecticut, New York, Maine, and Massachusetts. This first series was followed by six more in 1849, and ten in 1850. The purpose of these conferences was outlined by James White as being the “uniting [of] the brethren on the great truths connected with the message of the third angel.” James White, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald , May 6, 1852, 5.
Both James and Ellen White took on a strong leadership role, working to convince the Adventists who attended of the truth as they saw it. Ellen White reported following the second meeting in Volney, New York: “ There were about thirty-five present, all that could be collected in that part of the State. There were hardly two agreed. Each was strenuous for his views, declaring that they were according to the Bible. All were anxious for the opportunity to advance their sentiments, or to preach to us. They were told we had not come so great a distance to hear them, but we had come to teach them the truth.” White, Spiritual Gifts , 97. Italics added.
James White’s letter to a Bro. Howland following the first conference in Rocky Hill, Connecticut explains the result: “ Friday morning the brethren came in till we numbered about fifty. They were not all fully in the truth. Our meeting that day was very interesting. Bro. Bates presented the commandments in a clear light, and their importance was urged home by powerful testimonies. The word had effect to establish those already in the truth and to awaken those who were not fully decided .” Quoted in White, Spiritual Gifts , 93. Italics added.
In addition to their acceptance of the doctrines of the sanctuary and the Sabbath, and their recognition of Ellen White as a prophet, these groups came to embrace the doctrine of conditional immortality. Knight points out that as Millerism was viewed as a “one-doctrine movement,” conditional immortality was not widely promoted—in fact, in April 1844, Josiah Litch began publishing a periodical in opposition to Storrs called The Anti-Annihilationist . George R. Knight, A Search for Identity , 72.
Methodist minister George Storrs was the first prominent Millerite to promote the doctrine of conditional immortality. In 1841—prior to his acceptance of Millerite beliefs in 1842, Storrs published An Enquiry: Are the Souls of the Wicked Immortal? In Three Letters . This work was expanded a year later into An Inquiry: Are the Souls of the Wicked Immortal? In Six Sermons.
Acceptance was again increased when Ellen White responded favourably. Later she reflected: “ My mind had often been disturbed by its efforts to reconcile the immediate reward or punishment of the dead, with the undoubted fact of a future resurrection and Judgment. If the soul, at death, entered upon eternal happiness or misery, where was the need of a resurrection of the poor mouldered body? But this new and beautiful faith taught me the reason that inspired writers had dwelt so much upon the resurrection of the body, it was because the entire being was slumbering in the grave.” Ellen G. White, “ Mrs Ellen G. White: Her Life, Christian Experience, and Labors ,” Signs of the Times , March 9, 1876.
Thus, by early 1848, a group—the Sabbatarian Adventists—had formed with basic agreement on five doctrines:
The original Millerite belief in the personal, visible, premillennial return of Christ was retained.
To this was added the new explanation for the October 22, 1844 disappointment: the two-phase ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary developed by Edson and Crosier.
The doctrine of the seventh-day Sabbath was accepted—and it’s end-time importance noted.
Ellen White’s ministry was recognised
Lastly, the doctrine of conditional immortality was added.
Knight, Search for Identity , 74.
Given the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s present hierarchical, highly organized church structure; it is difficult to believe that the majority of early Adventists opposed any form of church organization beyond the level of the local congregation. In 1844, the Millerite George Storrs expressed the position of many when he stated that “no church can be organized by man’s invention but that it becomes Babylon the moment it is organized.” George Storrs, The Midnight Cry , February 15, 1844, 238.
As a result of these attitudes, for the first fifteen years of their existence, the Sabbatarian Adventists “were a movement without any formal organization.” The group was held together by the leadership of James and Ellen White, Joseph Bates, and Hiram Edson; and by the publishing of journals like The Present Truth and The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald . Ingemar Linden, The Last Trump (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1978), 106.
The need to maintain orthodoxy was one driving force towards the establishment of a formal organization. Some individuals had been excommunicated because of “dangerous errors in the field of eschatology” and “fanciful views of unfulfilled prophecies.” Another contributing force was the need for some sort of legal entity in which to register property such as the new church building and publishing house built in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1855. Linden, The Last Trump , 106, 108. (These buildings were originally registered in James White’s name.)
In 1859 James White strongly advocated formal organisation in an editorial published in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald on July 21. “We lack system. And we should not be afraid of that system which is not opposed by the Bible, and by sound sense. The lack of system is felt everywhere.” James White, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald , July 21, 1859, 68.
Those opposed to a centralized organization pointed to the lack of explicit biblical support for such an organization. Apocalyptic arguments were also used by some opponents, with Roswell F. Cottrell expressing the belief that the two-horned beast of Revelation 13 was the United States, and that the horns themselves represented the twin evils of slavery and a denominational organization. Linden, The Last Trump , 108.
A “General Conference” was called by Sabbatarian leaders for September 28 to October 1, 1860. At the meeting—despite the impassioned pleas of the anti-organisation group, those delegates present voted to incorporate the publishing house and also adopted the name, “Seventh-day Adventist.” Knight, A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists , 63.
Anderson points out that “In the months following its adoption, the name “Seventh-day Adventist” began appearing regularly in announcements and notices in the Review and Herald . Individual churches officially adopted the name, usually by unanimous vote.” Anderson, “Sectarianism and Organisation, 1846-1864,” 48-49.
Not everyone was comfortable with the decision however, and a number of Sabbatarians left the organisation. Their feelings are typified by those expressed by Waterman Phelps, who wrote in a letter to the editor of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald : “ Advent people are very dear to me. I have felt that their trials have been my trials, and their prosperity has been my prosperity. But I have not that unison of feeling at present. I feel that the union is broken, for I do not sympathize with the body of Adventists in relation to organizing under the name, Seventh-day Adventists, and enrolling names under that head. As I feel, I never could consent to have my name enrolled on any class-book, or church-book, under any sectarian name.” James White, “Organization,” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald , 16 July, 1861, 68.
Organisation began slowly, but continued steadily—the publishing house was formally incorporated on May 3, 1861, and in October of that year the first “conference”—the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists—was formed, with other areas following in 1862. In May 1863 representatives from these conferences met and formed the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists with John Byington as the first president. At this time the Seventh-day Adventist Church had about 3,500 members and about 30 ministers. Knight, A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists , 64.
Day to day decision making was in the hands of the GC President, Secretary, and Treasurer and in an additional three members of the Executive Committee. General Conference Sessions were to be held annually. According to Barry Oliver, this form of church government and organization occurred “more by accident than design.” Barry Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure: Past, Present, and Future , 70. It incorporated and adapted elements from the episcopal, congregational, and presbyterian forms of government. This reflected the varied backgrounds of the early Adventist leaders.
By 1888, institutionalization was well under way. There were thirty organized conferences, with 889 organized churches, 227 ordained, and 182 licensed ministers. In addition, there were six publishing houses, 3 tertiary colleges, and two medical institutions.
In addition, a number of auxiliary (somewhat independent) organizations existed including the:
SDA Publishing Association
General Tract and Missionary Society
General SS Association
Health and Temperance Association
General Conference Association
REFEENCES: Godfrey T. Anderson, “Make Us a Name.” Adventist Heritage 1:2 (1974), 28-34. Godfrey T. Anderson, “Sectarianism and Organization 1846-1864.” In Adventism in America (Revised ed.) Gary Land (Ed.) (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1998), 29-52. George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: the development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs ( Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2000). George R. Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil: the development of Adventist church structure . (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2001).
This PowerPoint presentation has been produced by Jeff Crocombe for a class on SDA Church history at Helderberg College in Semester 1, 2008. It should not be used without giving credit to its compiler, nor reproduced in any way without permission. You may contact Jeff Crocombe at: [email_address]