Great things begin small and then grow larger.” So begins an article by Lora E. Clement1 in the first Bulletin of the 1926 General Conference Session.2 Her words might actually be considered prophetic, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to when it all began.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was organized in 1863, during its first General Conference Session, held in Battle Creek, Michigan. The proceedings of the next Session, in 1864, were also duly reported in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald,3 closing with this: “Voted, That the doings of this Conference be published in the Advent Review.”4 Thus began a tradition that has continued since the beginnings of this denomination—a relationship between General Conference Sessions and the Review as the official recorder for its members.
Sessions were held annually from 1863 to 1889. All of the meetings were held in Michigan, with but three exceptions: Rome, New York (1882); Oakland, California (1887); and Minneapolis, Minnesota (1888). Since the ability to communicate over long distances was limited to the written report and postal system, there was a delay before any reports appeared in the Review. For example, when the Session met in Oakland, California, in 1887, the first reports were printed about 10 days after they had been written. They consisted of an eyewitness account presumably written by editor Uriah Smith from Salt Lake City, Utah, on his way to the Session, and upon arrival before the meetings commenced. Both are newsy, firsthand reports offering members a vivid and detailed account with such clarity that readers today can still feel part of the experience.
Distance Complicates Things
The 1930 Session brought new challenges. The General Conference, editorial offices of the Review, and the Review and Herald Publishing Association (RHPA) were located in Takoma Park, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., while the Session was in San Francisco, California. The commitment to deliver timely reports now had the added complication of 3,000 miles. Undeterred, the staff, with help from the Dictaphone Company of Washington, D.C., created an ingenious system that allowed the daily Bulletins to be delivered with little delay in reporting Session events (see illustration on p. 10).
Similar to today, a portion of the Bulletins were completed before the Session actually began. Reports and features were designed and ready for the press. Each evening at 6:00 p.m. in San Francisco, the editor transmitted the important events of the day by telephone. The receiving telephone in the Maryland office recorded the message on wax records. As soon as a record was filled, a stenographer transcribed the message. As a page was completed, it was hurried to the typesetters. Each of these articles would be marked “telephone copy” to indicate its breaking news quality. Less-urgent material was sent via airmail. The combination of the telephone and airmail system allowed the Bulletins to be placed on a plane and sent to San Francisco in time to be read in California the next day.5
For more than four years prior to the 1946 Session, plans were to hold the General Conference Session in St. Louis, Missouri. A short time before the Session was to begin, administration was made aware that the city of St. Louis would not be able to accommodate the 900 delegates expected or the thousands of guests that would descend upon the city. After serious discussion and prayer, it was decided to hold the 1946 Session in Takoma Park, where the General Conference office was located. While this must have been joyous news for the Review staff, it would be disappointing to the many who wanted to attend. The “denominational public” were cordially asked to stay home, as this would be a “strictly delegated Session.” This development allowed the daily Bulletins to report the daily news within 24 hours, something that has remained until today.
Technology Expands, Men (and Women) Run To and Fro
The 1950 Session brought even better technology when “scientific recording instruments” were making their appearance. This time, not for reporting, but for the transcription of each meeting. General Conference Secretariat was responsible for a word-for-word transcription of each meeting. Until this Session, proficient secretaries in amazingly rapid shorthand took the minutes. For the first time, a SoundScriber machine wrote on five-minute discs. Each disc was handed to a secretary who transcribed the proceedings using a typewriter. It was reported that 40 to 50 discs were needed per meeting.
The same concept, developed in 1930, was used in 1954, but expanded. When the editor called into the Maryland office, church members were invited to attend. The telephone not only created wax discs but was connected to an amplifier in the Review and Herald Publishing Association (RHPA) chapel. In this, members could hear the news even before seeing it in print.
By 1975, when the experienced Review staff could run a Session from miles away, the General Conference Session was in Vienna, Austria! Foregoing the tradition of producing a daily Bulletin wasn’t an option anyone wanted to consider, so a new plan was developed. The first seven of the 10 Bulletins were printed in two places—Vienna and Takoma Park. Three thousand copies were printed and distributed to the delegates in Vienna. Then every second day, the pasteup of the pages and photo negatives were sent via airmail from Vienna to Washington, D.C. Plates were made; Bulletins were printed and mailed to subscribers. Because half of each magazine was prepared in Maryland prior to the Session and the rest finished onsite, the resulting product had two different typefaces within the same magazine.
As someone about to participate in the production of the daily Bulletins for the fourth time, I can absolutely affirm the stress documented by each Review team no matter where the Session was located or what year it occurred. The stress is real. Even with the advance of computers and digital cameras, publishing a 48-page magazine in less than 24 hours produces its own kind of pressure. Hearts are grateful when the work stops for the Sabbath, and the staff gains a respite . . . until Saturday night, that is.
Until the 2015 Session the Bulletins were still printed in Maryland and flown to the Session. Melinda Worden, RHPA vice president, has memories that still cause her stomach to flip-flop. The 2005 Session in St. Louis had the first magazines arriving at the airport and being driven by truck to the stadium. Unfortunately the date, July 4, was a national holiday in the United States, which included a parade that blocked off city streets. Prayers and a rising sense of panic were mixed among the staff as the magazines arrived just in time for editor Bill Johnsson to ascend the platform and present the first magazine to president Jan Paulsen.
The 2010 Session brought magazines to Atlanta via private plane. Imagine Worden’s surprise when she got a call at 2:00 a.m. from the pilot saying he’d lost the alternator of his plane and had to make an emergency landing. Safe but incapacitated, he managed to get to another plane and fly the magazines in to make the morning deadline.
Former assistant editor Steve Chavez has fond memories of his work with Adventist Review. His best memories come from the camaraderie of the staff. While it was a stressful environment, the staff worked together toward a common task that created strong working relationships. One notable memory for him was the 2000 Session in Toronto, Canada, where the Review staff worked in a glass-walled enclosure in the middle of the exhibit hall. Chavez remembers it as something that sounded like a good idea, but in reality caused much distraction and disruption.
A Virtual Feast
One interesting parallel in each Session is the advance of technology. As was noted, while each Session had something to overcome, new technology would be available to resolve the challenges. It has been seven years since the Review staff produced daily Bulletins. While we had a modest digital presence in 2015, 2022 will prove to be a virtual banquet for not only delegates but all members around the globe. Producing a monthly magazine as a daily is certainly challenging, the reality today is that no one waits 24 hours for news. So while it might seem fast, it’s no longer fast enough. We will, in addition to the daily 48-page print Bulletins, now provide up-to-the minute news, podcasts, video, and social media, along with the business proceedings and actions. All will be found at one location on our website, making it easily accessible to all users (adventistreview.org/gcsession). Video of the meetings will also be live-streamed on the Adventist Review website. Plan each day to visit, where you will find helpful navigation tools to access regular and bonus features.
Not everyone can attend a General Conference Session. Since the beginning Review readers have read reports that serve as their eyes and ears at the Session. Reporters made an effort to help members experience their world church. You will find this Session no different. We are committed to using every technology possible to bring you everything from St. Louis—the sights, sounds, and colors, in print, in video, and through amazing photography. And, if we don’t see Jesus come before 2025, I promise we will be here to serve you again. That you can count on.
Merle Poirier serves as operations manager for Adventist Review Ministries.