Sealing the Deal
By Alberto R. Timm
Early Sabbathkeeping Adventists were initially opposed to any kind of church organization beyond the local level. Their minds still echoed the words of George Storrs, a Millerite preacher who wrote in early 1844: “No church can be organized by man’s invention but what it becomes Babylon the moment it is organized.” Two main factors, however, led early Sabbathkeeping Adventists to eventually establish an organizational structure that could integrate their scattered congregations into a harmonious body.
One factor was the practical challenges derived from the numerical growth and geographical expansion of their movement. By the early 1860s several Sabbathkeeping congregations were scattered throughout New England and as far west as Iowa and Wisconsin, which, left by themselves, would certainly move into congregationalism and doctrinal disputes.
Another main factor that stimulated the organization process was the doctrinal understanding of the unity of all believers (see John 17:20-23; 1 Cor. 12:12-30; Eph. 4:11-16), which could only be realized through a model of church organization able to function within each congregation and above all congregations. So, after the election of specific leaders for the local congregations during the 1850s, the process of organization continued with delegates from those churches helping to elect first their regional leaders and eventually their general leaders.
Naming the Child
Crucial for the organizing process was the selection of an official name for the publishing work and, by extension, for the denomination itself. On October 1, 1860, the General Conference session in Battle Creek, Michigan, took the following action: “Resolved, That we call ourselves Seventh-day Adventists.” Later, Ellen White declared that “no name which we can take will be appropriate but that which accords with our profession and expresses our faith and marks us a peculiar people. . . . The name Seventh-day Adventist carries the true features of our faith in front, and will convict the inquiring mind.”1
Putting Structures in Place
The first major step in establishing a church organization beyond the local level was the formation of state conferences. In October 1861 the first Seventh-day Adventist conference was established in Michigan, with J. N. Loughborough, Moses Hull, and M. E. Cornell as the conference committee. In 1862 six other conferences were organized—Southern Iowa (March 16), Northern Iowa (May 10), Vermont (June 15), Illinois-Wisconsin (September 27), Minnesota (October), and New York (October 25).
The process of organization culminated with the establishment of a General Conference that would coordinate and supervise the activities of the state conferences. On May 20-23, 1863, delegates from New York, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota gathered together in Battle Creek, Michigan, to formulate a constitution for a general conference and to elect its officers. A representative form of church organization was adopted, in which delegates sent by the various state conferences would elect the officers of the General Conference on an annual basis.
James White was elected unanimously as the first president of the General Conference, but he declined the office so as to avoid misunderstandings about his intentions in helping to establish that organization. Finally John Byington was chosen instead of White. Uriah Smith and E. S. Walker became secretary and treasurer, respectively, of the General Conference. The Executive Committee consisted of James White, John Byington, J. N. Loughborough, J. N. Andrews, and G. W. Amadon. Thus, by mid-1863 the Seventh-day Adventist Church had the following three organizational levels: local congregations, state conferences, and the General Conference. Unions and division would be added only in the early twentieth century.
Ellen White viewed the organizational structure as indispensable for the church in all its stages, including the final days in this world. She warned: “Some have advanced the thought that, as we near the close of time, every child of God will act independently of any religious organization. But I have been instructed by the Lord that in this work there is no such thing as every man’s being independent. The stars of heaven are all under law, each influencing the other to do the will of God, yielding their common obedience to the law that controls their action. And, in order that the Lord’s work may advance healthfully and solidly, His people must draw together.”2
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, pp. 223, 224.
2 E. G. White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 258.
Adventist Historical Dates in Context
All photos courtesy of the Ellen G. White Estate unless otherwise noted.
Alberto R. Timm, Ph.D., is a native of Brazil and recently joined the Ellen G. White Estate as an associate director. He is married to Marly, and they have three children.