James White turned down a nomination to become the first president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, fearing some would see it as a power grab following his long call for a formal church structure. [photos courtesy Office of Archives, Statistics and Research]
“Around 1854 the movement almost falls apart because they can’t pay their ministers. You have [John Norton] Loughborough asking for a loaf of bread,” said Adventist historian David Trim. “It’s got to where he can’t even support his family.”
Deeply discouraged, Loughborough, John Nevins Andrews and other early workers retreated to Waukon, Iowa, in 1856, where they planned to homestead and serve as missionaries. But the rural setting provided few opportunities for witness, and the inclement weather forced Loughborough to take up carpentry instead of farming.
Shortly afterward, church co-founders Ellen and James White arrived unexpectedly to check up on the seemingly delinquent workers.
“[Ellen] finds Loughborough and three times says to him, ‘What doest thou here, Elijah?’ and sort of shames him back to work,” Trim said. White was referring to the Old Testament prophet who distrusted God and hid in a cave.
“But that’s the moment when they realize they’ve got to find a way to support their ministers, and that means every church needs a treasurer,” Trim said.
The story highlights the balancing act early Adventists faced: they still recoiled at the thought of adopting formal church structure, but it was becoming increasingly clear that zeal alone wasn’t enough to effectively spread the gospel message.
But just how the church should move forward was a fraught topic.
By the late 1840s, the Advent movement consisted of scattered groups loosely connected through periodicals such as the “Advent Review & Sabbath Herald” and sporadic Sabbatarian Conferences, where believers met to discuss and, more often than not, argue the finer points of doctrine. “There were hardly two agreed,” Ellen White said of the second such conference in 1848.
Indeed, according to Adventist historian George Knight, it would require “forceful, goal-oriented leadership to form a body of believers within the chaotic conditions of post-disappointment Adventism.”
Despite lingering fears that church structure was tantamount to “Babylon”—or favoring organized religion over gospel simplicity—leaders such as the Whites and Joseph Bates were increasingly steadfast in their call for structure.
Formal organization, they argued, would give the early church the financial and legal foundation it needed to own church property, pay and send out pastors, and determine how local congregations should relate to each other and to church leadership.
James White went further, suggesting that structure was a gauge of good stewardship. In an 1860 issue of the Review, he called it “dangerous to leave with the Lord what he has left with us, and thus sit down upon the stool of do little, or nothing.” He was especially concerned about the church’s publishing ministry, which he wanted held and insured “in a legal manner.”
Momentum for the cause grew in the months preceding what would be a watershed church business meeting in Battle Creek, Michigan, in October 1860. There, White challenged his rivals to find a biblical passage against organization. When they failed, the group moved forward. They adopted a constitution to legally incorporate the church’s publishing association, admonished local churches to “hold their church property or church buildings legally” and chose a name for the scattered believers—Seventh-day Adventist.
In early 1861, at another business meeting in Battle Creek, church leaders in the Midwest made three more recommendations, adding to the foundation they had built the previous year. They officially incorporated the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, backed the formation of state or district conferences, and urged local churches to keep accurate membership and financial records.
Adventists in the Eastern U.S., Knight said, reacted “forcefully,” rejecting the recommendations and accusing White and his supporters in the Midwest of apostasy.
White blamed the standstill on the silence of prominent church leaders on the subject of organization, Knight said. Ellen White agreed, deploring a lack of “moral courage” among silent leaders. She had received a vision indicating that the real “Babylon” was the confusion and conflict that accompanied disorganization.
“Instead of our being a united people, growing stronger, we are in many places but little better than broken fragments, still scattering and growing weaker. How long shall we wait?” James White wrote in the Review in August 1861.
Shortly afterward, support for organization began pouring in. In October, Adventists in Michigan were the first to organize a state conference. Over the next twelve months, Adventists in six more U.S. states followed suit. Barring a few holdouts in the East, the move toward organization seemed unstoppable by 1862.
But without a top governing body, leaders such as James White, Joseph Harvey Waggoner and Andrews worried that the church would miss out on the full benefits of organization. They proposed that each state conference send a minister, or “delegate,” to a general business meeting, or “general conference.” The need for reliable pastoral ministry was the driving factor. If pastors were entitled to systematic benevolence, White argued, than the church was entitled to “systematic labor.”
So in May of 1863, 20 delegates—10 of whom represented the Michigan Conference—met in Battle Creek to organize the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists “for the purpose of securing unity and efficiency in labor, and promoting the general interests of the cause of present truth, and of perfecting the organization of the Seventh-day Adventists.”
Delegates also adopted a constitution, a model constitution for state conferences and elected the denomination’s top three officers: president, secretary and treasurer. While unanimously elected, James White declined the presidency, fearing the job would sully his campaign for organization as “a calculated grab for personal power,” Knight says. Instead, John Byington served as the denomination’s first president.
But the man behind establishing a framework of decision-making for the church was already one of its most powerful influences. White had introduced the notion that if actions and practices were not “forbidden by the Bible and did not violate common sense,” they were legitimate, Knight said. This challenged the strictly literal interpretation of the Bible favored by early Adventists.
“To stick with the narrower understanding would have largely crippled the church as it moved across time and culture,” Knight said.
With a broader understanding and acceptance of structure, the church would become better equipped to refine its doctrinal identity and organize for mission.