April 1, 2020

​A Pivotal Session

This year’s General Conference session won’t happen in a vacuum.

Barry Oliver

As we approach the 2020 General Conference session, we thought it interesting to learn about previous sessions. This article deals primarily with the 1901 General Conference session. It’s adapted from a longer paper. You may read the entire article online at www.adventistreview.org/2004-50

The General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formally organized in May 1863 at a meeting in Battle Creek, Michigan.1 In order to provide a structure for the emerging group of believers, it was decided that there would be three administrative levels of church organization: the local church, the conference, and the General Conference (headquartered in Battle Creek, Michigan). The officers of the General Conference were president, secretary, and treasurer. Three people were appointed as members of a General Conference Executive Committee. General Confer­ence sessions were to be held annually.2

A major reorganization of denominational structures occurred between the years 1901 and 1903 at the General Conference sessions held in those years.3 While later adjustments have been made, the reorganization of 1901 to 1903 was the most significant period of major organizational reform in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The structures put in place at that time still form the organizational building blocks of the denomination.4

Why Reorganize?

Despite the simplicity of the organization set up in 1863, the need for major modification of those structures became evident. A number of factors precipitated the need for change.

1. The Growth of Institutions and Entities

The organization of 1863 did not anticipate the need to accommodate organizational entities to care for the publishing, educational, health, and missionary interests of the church. Consequently, these organizations emerged not as integrated parts of the conference administrative structure of the church, but as independent units apart from it. Although they had a separate infrastructure, most shared personnel with the administrative structure of the denomination.

2. Loss of Coordination and Integration

These secondary organizations were legally incorporated as independent bodies, with their own officers and executive boards or committees. Although they were all part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—officers appointed by, and reporting to the General Conference session—they were not administered directly by the General Conference. Because of their independent status, issues of coordination and integration were constant problems during the 1890s.

3. Membership Growth and Diversity

Seventh-day Adventists understood themselves to be simply “a body of believers associating together, taking the name of Seventh-day Adventists, and attaching their names to a covenant simply to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus,” with the Bible as “their only creed and discipline.”5 But by 1888 there were already 30 organized conferences containing 889 organized churches, and 227 ordained and 182 licensed ministers. The constituency was supporting six publishing houses, three senior educational institutions, and two medical establishments.6

By the turn of the twentieth century the church had 66,547 members spread not only across the United States but also in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other “mission fields.”
7 As the church continued to grow and diversify, it was evident that the organizational framework set in place in 1863 could not cope with this numerical and geographical growth.

4. The Centralization of Control

The growing global missionary consciousness of the church during the 1870s and 1880s was accompanied by increased centralization of administrative control. The concept of administration grew from General Conference president George I. Butler’s idea of leadership.

Butler had written an essay in 1873 in response to some observations he had made on the leadership style of James White and other church leaders at that time. It revealed his attitude toward leadership.8 Butler described a leader as a benevolent monarch. He supported this assertion by references to numerous biblical examples of authoritarian leaders. While he was willing to concede that Christ was indeed head of the church, he insisted that some men were “placed higher in authority in the church than others.”9

The 1877 General Conference session withdrew its support for all parts of the Butler essay that referenced the leadership of the church as residing in one man. This was supported by a resolution stating:

The highest authority under God among Seventh-day Adventists is found in the will of the body of that people, as expressed in the decisions of the General Conference when acting within its proper jurisdiction; and that such decisions should be submitted to by all without exception, unless they can be shown to conflict with the Word of God and the rights of individual conscience.10

In the early 1880s, Ellen White began to rebuke General Conference administrators for taking too much of the responsibility for decision-making on themselves and failing to give others opportunity to have input. In 1883, Ellen White pointed out that “every one of our leading men” considered that “he was the very one who must bear all the responsibilities” and “failed to educate others to think” and “to act.” In fact, she charged, the leading men gave the others “no chance.”11

5. Financial Crisis

Another precipitating factor that led to restructuring was the state of the church’s finances. When G. A. Irwin assumed the presidency of the General Conference in 1897, he faced a woeful financial predicament. Within a few weeks of his appointment, the situation was so desperate that he wrote that the General Conference was “living from hand to mouth, so to speak. . . . Some days we get in two or three hundred dollars, and other days we have nothing.” On the particular day that he was writing, he lamented that the treasury was “practically empty,” even though there were at that time “a number of calls for means.”12

6. Decreasing Ability to Support Missionary Expansion

The inability of the denomination to financially support its growth began to limit the rate of its missionary expansion. During the last five years of the nineteenth century there was a diminishing of missionary activity by the denomination, exacerbated by the lingering impact of the global financial recession of the mid-1890s. Change was needed not only to accommodate the growth of the past, but also to facilitate growth in the future.

Organizational Changes13

At the 1901 General Conference session held in Battle Creek, Michigan, major changes in administrative structures of the church were voted. Sound principles of organization were established at the denomination’s founding between 1861 to 1863. But by 1901 it was recognized that those principles needed fresh application.

Ellen White was particularly pointed in her endorsement of change. The day before the official opening of the 1901 General Conference session, she declared, “God wants a change. . . . We want to know what can be done right here, . . . right now.”14

The principal changes at the 1901 session were:

  1. The formation of union conferences as the constituent bodies of the General Conference.15
  2. The decentralization of decision-making from the General Conference administration to union conference executive committees.
  3. The consolidation of departments of the General Conference and the dissolution of independent incorporated entities that had been operating departments and some institutions.
  4. The title of the chief officer of the General Conference was to be “chairman of the board” rather than “president.”

Mission Is Important

When it came to the need for organization, Arthur Daniells, who was appointed General Conference chairman (president) at the 1901 session, began with the certainty and imminence of the return of Jesus Christ. This, for him, determined the urgency of the mission and the need for reorganization.

Because the need arose from a perceived sense of urgency—both in the soon return of Jesus and mission—there was no doubt among those who held this view that the structure they had erected was biblically based. They believed the New Testament affirmed that Christ was returning and the transmission of the gospel to the world was the primary precondition for His return. With a consciousness of divine providence, they understood that Seventh-day Adventists had been specifically chosen within a precise time reference to herald the “everlasting gospel” to the world. Reorganization was undertaken not because the end was coming, but because there was a “work” to do
before the end could come. It was the mission policy of the church and the urgency associated with that mission that was the more precipitating factor in reorganization.16

Persuading Principles

The principles that appear to have most strongly influenced reorganization were as follows:

1. Decentralization: For Daniells, decentralization as a principle of reorganization was paramount. Daniells affirmed that “the guiding principle [of reorganization] had been the decentralization of authority by the distribution of responsibility.” One of Daniells’ favorite expressions was that those “on the ground” should bear the burden of administration and have the prerogative of decision-making.17 He saw the implementation of the union conference structure as the manner in which administrative responsibility was being delegated to those “on the ground.”

2. Unity and Diversity: When Daniells discussed the principles that were to govern the reorganization of the church, and described the benefits that would accrue from the implementation of the union conference plan, he did not emphasize unity. Ellen White had done so in her address the day before the 1901 session.18 The principle of unity had always been a top priority for Seventh-day Adventists, and would continue to be so. But for both Ellen White and A. G. Daniells, the immediate priorities were elsewhere.

The principle of diversity, rather than unity, was the more determinative factor in establishing an additional level of administration, and in delegating some functions to union conferences, but not without consequences. As the new structures were put into practice, Ellen White found that the new organization could be abused just as the old. She reproved church leaders because of the tendency to gather power to themselves. Whenever the need to promote unity was prioritized to the extent that it disrupted the maintenance of equilibrium between the principles of unity and diversity, centralization was the result.

By 1903, Daniells included unity among the list of advantages and benefits realized by reorganization. He summarized: “In short, the plan recognizes one message, one body of people, and one general organization.”19

3. Participation/Representation: The Executive Committee selected in 1901 comprised representatives of departments and institutions, with only union conference presidents as representatives of “the people” who were supposed to be the authority base in the church. The union presidents were outnumbered 17 to eight and could easily be outvoted. Further, as chairs or executive board members of the institutions within their own unions, union presidents were more often focused on institutional matters than on the concerns of local churches and church members. They were, therefore, more likely to be sympathetic to institutional problems and needs than to the needs and concerns of the church at large.

Representation was understood as being compatible with the higher principle of decentralization. The church and its members were very much in the mind of Daniells, both at the General Conference session in 1901 and the year that followed. Though he was conscious “more and more” of the “influence and power” that the General Conference had, he was anxious to use that power “rightly” and get into “sympathetic touch” with the “rank and file” of the church constituency. He censured conference officers for failing to consult their constituencies when decisions of importance were to be made. In 1901, he wanted administration and government in the church to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”20

4. Decision by Consensus: Along with his regard for the rights of church members to implement a participatory decision-making process at the local conference level, Daniells advocated decision-making by consensus in 1901 and 1902, rather than by majority vote. It’s not clear what he had in mind when he advocated consensus decision-making. Whatever the case, his attitude changed, so that by the 1903, General Conference session vital decisions were being made by majority vote. The shift from emphasizing participatory representation and consensus decision-making to emphasizing more structured representation and majority-vote decision-making indicated a shift from emphasis on diversity (or decentralization) to emphasis on unity.

5. Constituent Authority: Daniells intended that the General Conference Executive Committee in 1901 should be advisory, not executive. That is, it was not to make decisions, but to advise other bodies in their decision-making prerogatives. Daniells’ answer to the centralization of power in the General Conference committee was that the committee would not make executive decisions. It was going to be a fostering, advisory board, whose interest was coordination, not supervision.

6. Simplicity: In view of the complication and confusion that had characterized denominational administration in the 1890s, reorganization was perceived as a simplification of the organizational system. In 1903, simplicity was still described as a desirable principle of reorganization, but it was proving to be an elusive quality. It was to remain so, especially in parts of the world in which the administrative machinery necessary in North America or Europe was just “too complicated.”

7. Adaptability: The fact that the church was willing to enter into a process of radical reorganization is indicative of the principle of adaptability in organizational structures. Further adaptations in 1903 indicate that the commitment to adaptability remained.


Major changes were made in Adventist administrative structures in 1901 and 1903, and have continued in their application for almost 120 years. From time to time modifications have been made, but the four-tiered constituent structure—local church, local conference, union conference, General Conference—that was implemented in 1901 remains. The global mission and ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church continues to be facilitated by the structures implemented in 1901 and 1903. Time will tell if further major revision is necessary.

  1. John Byington and Uriah Smith, “Report of General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 26, 1863, p. 204.
  2. For a detailed discussion on denominational organization in 1863, see Andrew G. Mustard, James White and SDA Organization: Historical Development, 1844–1881 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1987).
  3. The minutes of those General Conference sessions may be accessed at the General Conference Archives webpage at http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Minutes; also see the General Conference Bulletins for 1901 and 1903.
  4. Much of the content is directly drawn from research conducted by the author when preparing and writing a Ph.D. dissertation at Andrews University in 1989, and from the published version of the dissertation. See Barry David Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure: Past, Present, and Future (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1989).
  5. Ibid., pp. 11, 12.
  6. Ibid., pp. 9-40.
  7. Annual Statistical Report of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, December 31, 1900, accessed March 4, 2018,http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Statistics/ASR/ASR1900.pdf.
  8. See Kevin M. Burton, “Centralized for Protection: George I. Butler and His Philosophy of One-Person Leadership” (M.A. Thesis, Andrews University, 2015).
  9. George I. Butler, “Leadership,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Nov. 18, 1873, pp. 180, 181.
  10. “Sixteenth Annual Session of the General Conference of S. D. Adventists,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 4, 1877, p. 106.
  11. Ellen G. White to W. C. White and Mary White, letter 24, Aug. 23, 1883.
  12. G. A. Irwin to N. W. Allee, May 5, 1897, Record Group 11, Letter Book 18, General Conference Archives, Silver Spring, Maryland.
  13. A comprehensive directory of organizations, institutions, and employees of the global church as they were subsequent to the reorganization of 1901 can be consulted in the 1901 General Conference Bulletin, pp. 520-559.
  14. “Talk of Mrs E. G. White, Before Representative Brethren, in the College Library, April 1, 1901, 2:30 P.M.,” Ellen G. White manuscript 43a, 1901. (Italics supplied.)
  15. A. G. Daniells, “A Brief Glance at the Work of Reorganization,” General Conference Bulletin 4, no. 3 (Third Quarter 1901): 513-515.
  16. A. G. Daniells, “The President’s Address: A Review and an Outlook—Suggestions for Conference Action,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 11, 1905, p. 8.
  17. A. G. Daniells to W. T. Knox, May 21, 1901, Record Group 11, Letter Book 23, General Conference Archives, Silver Spring, Maryland; and many others (see full paper).
  18. “Talk of Mrs. E. G. White, Before Representative Brethren.”
  19. General Conference Bulletin (1903): 17-21.
  20. A. G. Daniells to E. A. Sutherland, December 20, 1901, Record Group 11, Letter Book 25, General Conference Archives, Silver Spring, Maryland; and others (see full paper).

Barry Oliver retired as president of the South Pacific Division in 2015. He has worked as a pastor, evangelist, college teacher, and administrator. He and his wife, Julie, have worked in Australia and Papua New Guinea.