The Need For Organisation

As Sabbatarian Adventists began to gather momentum and come together with a common vision and shared doctrinal beliefs formal organization was the last thing on their minds. This was largely due to their Millerite heritage. Millerites had been uncomfortable with the idea of forming a denomination, believing that their movement existed to herald the second advent of Christ and not to put down roots and solidify its position as an organization. Early on George Storr’s had ominously warned against the dangers of organization with the words “no church can be organized by man’s invention but that it will become Babylon the moment it is organized.” Many of the early Sabbatarian Adventist leaders firmly believed in this but as the movement grew and expanded it also became unwieldy to manage without the help of some kind of established structure.

Following the great disappointment, none of the Adventists were in a position to organize anything. They were heartbroken by the disappointment and soon their grief began to teeter between discouragement and confusion. Added to this mix was the flood of new doctrines that began to waft on every wind around them. Everyone was trying to make sense of what had happened at the same time and it seemed that a dozen voices began to preach and teach a dozen different things. Adventists needed time to settle after the disappointment. To work through the heartbreak and discouragement. To pick through the different ideas floating around and to decide which ones were biblical and safe to embrace. To decide how to live at the intersection of believing in Christ’s soon return and not knowing when that event would take place.

In 1854 based on visions she had received Ellen White started encouraging the fledgling movement to consider organization based upon the idea of gospel order. James White was in agreement and had already published his views on organization in a series of articles published in the Review just prior to Ellen White’s counsel. His opinion has been influenced by his travels among the scattered flock of Sabbatarian Adventists. As he spent time with them and understood their needs he realized that there was an overarching need to organize the small pockets of believers into a single cohesive unit.

By the mid-1850s Sabbatarian Adventists were united in their doctrinal views but they had started to slip into spiritual lethargy. Many of them found it increasingly difficult to sustain their early Millerite experience with the same level of fervor and commitment. Life seemed to creep up on them and threaten to swallow them whole. Many of them had decided to join the wagon trains heading westward in search of more fertile land and a shot at improved living conditions. During this time a few Adventist families, in particular, decided to band together and form an Adventist colony of sorts in the little township of Waukon, Iowa. Among this group was the E.P Butler family from Vermont, the Edward Andrews family and the Cyprian Stevens family from Maine. It wasn’t long before John Loughborough and his wife Mary joined the burgeoning group of Adventist is Waukon.

This was a perilous period for Sabbatarian Adventists. Being so scattered with limited means of communication made it hard for interaction among the scattered flock. It also meant that many of them did not have access to Ellen White and the words of warning and counsel that God provided for them through her. This was one of the main factors for much of the spiritual decline in their ranks. In addition to distance, James White had also deliberately decided against publishing Ellen White’s visions in the Review and Herald, because of the criticisms of those who were prejudiced against her visions. He was determined to demonstrate that Sabbatarian Adventist doctrines were based solely upon the Word of God and were not influenced by Ellen White’s visions in any way. Interestingly during this period, Ellen White’s visions became less frequent and Sabbatarian Adventists started to become less certain of their role and importance. Ellen White herself believed that her special work as a messenger of the Lord was almost coming to an end.

Organisation And The Ministry

In addition to this, it was extremely hard for preachers to juggle a hectic preaching schedule and make a living for their families. Men like Andrews, Cottrell and J.H. Waggoner travelled extensively ministering to the scattered groups of believers but it was sometimes months before a congregation heard a sermon from a Sabbatarian Adventist minister. The vast swath of land from Maine to Minnesota was just too large for the scant few Adventist preachers to cover consistently and regularly. When they added the fact that they had to work a day job into the mix the work became too strenuous to bear. After a few months of working at this kind of pace, John Andrews’ health buckled and he was forced to retire to Waukon and take up a job with his Uncle.

John Loughborough decided to move to Waukon for similar reasons. He had spent the summer of 1856 running tent meetings in New York. Since there was not much money available to pay him a salary he was forced to spend four and a half days a week in the field during haying and harvest engaged in backbreaking manual labour in addition to spending almost as many nights a week preaching. For all this work he managed to earn $1 a day. When the tent meetings ended, the brethren in New York collected enough money to pay him what averaged to about $4 week if he added in the money he earned working in the fields. Discouraged and exhausted he set his sights on Iowa, deciding that he would preach in the area as time and finances permitted.

James and Ellen White saw this as a troubling pattern. Many young gifted ministers like Andrews and Loughborough were retiring to work day jobs when they needed to be out working for the cause of God but the Whites did not have any answers. Then during a visit to Northern Illinois Ellen White was given a vision showing her the spiritual declension and apathy of those who had moved to Waukon. She and her husband immediately felt a burden to visit the brethren in Waukon and they decided to make the 200 mile trip in the dead of winter in an open sleigh. It was a long, arduous and dangerous journey but they finally reached Waukon in one piece.

When they got there Ellen White met John Loughborough and challenged him with the confronting words “What doest thou here Elijah?” A question she posed to the stuttering Loughborough three consecutive times. Needless to say, the Waukon Adventists were less than enthusiastic about the visit but they grudgingly agreed to call for a meeting the night after the Whites arrived. During the meeting, Ellen White was given a vision in which she was given the message “Return unto me saith the Lord and I will return to thee and heal all thy backslidings” The message touched a chord in the hearts of those present and Mary Loughborough was the first to respond to Ellen White’s appeal. Others followed in quick succession and over the next week there was a deep spiritual revival in Waukon.

When the Whites and their companions returned East, John Loughborough went with them and preached over the rest of the winter in Northern Illinois while Mary stayed alone in Waukon. As soon as John Andrews was strong enough to get back in the saddle he too began to travel and preach once more. But their renewed commitment to full time ministry didn’t magically solve their financial troubles. For the first three months after returning to full time ministry during the winter, John Loughborough’s salary was made up of room and board, a buffalo skin overcoat and $10 in cash. To save money Loughborough walked the last 26 miles back home to Waukon after his preaching tour had ended. The following year is salary was more colourful. For a Winter’s work in Michigan, he was paid in maple sugar, wheat, apples, potatoes, beans, ham and half a pig. He also made $4 in cash.

But John Loughborough was one of the lucky ones. He had access to James White’s team of horses while he travelled. Others, like J.H. Waggoner, were not so fortunate and he had to walk from place to place as he preached. The lack of funds and the incessant travel in less than optimal conditions made the preachers look shabby, travel worn and a little sickly. Not the best look when you’re looking to convert people to the three angels’ messages.

Organisation And Sister Betsy

Finally, in 1858 the Battle Creek church formed a study group under the leadership of John Andrews to search the Scriptures for God’s plans regarding the financial support of ministers. In Early 1859 this group submitted a proposed plan of systematic giving for the purpose of supporting workers. The plan was approved by the Battle Creek church and was soon promoted in the pages of the Review. Later that year at a General Conference of Sabbatarian Adventists the plan was recommended to all the delegates.

The plan was based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 16:2 and suggested that every believer set aside a specified amount each Sunday. Men were encouraged to pledge between five and twenty cents a week and women between two and ten cents. In addition to this, it was suggested that an amount of up to five cents a week be put aside for every $100 worth of property owned. The scheme was christened Systematic Benevolence or Sister Betsy for short. The problem then arose with regards to where the money should be sent.

Most people liked Sister Betsy but posed the question of who would take responsibility for the collection and distribution of the funds. Each company of believers was encouraged to appoint a treasurer to manage the funds and to keep a minimum of $5 cash in hand to help out a preacher who was visiting. The rest could be sent to the State’s evangelistic tent meetings to cover expenses there. It was a shaky start but at least it was something.

Two years later in 1861, John Loughborough suggested the introduction of tithing based on the Bible and James White strongly endorsed the idea but it turned out to be too premature and the idea didn’t gain traction among members.  

So far the need for spiritual growth and financial stability had pointed towards a need for organization but it was soon seen that organization could help with evangelism as well. Though tent meetings worked well in each state there was a need for coordination and structure. Then there was the fact that evangelism meant a growth in membership and not just growth but diversity in membership as well. All this kept pointing to the need for organization.

Evangelism, Growth And Organisation 

In 1856 the Bourdeau brothers, French-speaking Canadians began to work among the French-speaking population of Quebec. In Wisconsin, the Olsens, a Norwegian family who had heard about the Sabbath even before migrating to America were converted and began to share the gospel. In 1863 John G. Matteson who was a Danish Baptist preacher accepted the three angels’ message and began to work among Scandinavians in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. Then there was Michael Czechowski who, after being converted in Ohio in 1857 went to Europe to preach the three angels’ message independently

During the period of 1857-58, the work began to grow rapidly in the east and many of the itinerant Adventist Evangelists like Bates, Loughborough, Merritt Cornell, and J.H. Waggoner began to work extensively in Michigan and Ohio. Moses Hull, who was converted to Sabbatarian Adventism around this time began to help Cornell preach in Iowa. Angeline Lyon Cornell, who accompanied her husband Merritt was a Bible worker and would help with the follow-up efforts after the evangelistic meetings had come to an end. Not only did Angeline travel with her husband but she bravely endured the strain of constant travel and financial hardship without complaint.

As James White surveyed the growth, diversity and the financial and spiritual needs of the church he realized that the movement had come to a crossroads. They needed to become organized in order to continue effectively. The idea of a formal organization was met with resistance but the reality was that despite this resistance the Sabbatarian Adventism was organically developing its own nerve-center. Battle Creek, Michigan was turning out to be the unofficial headquarters of the unofficial Sabbatarian Adventist denomination which had no official name.

This was due to a few factors. Adventism was introduced to Battle Creek by Joseph Bates when he came searching for the most honest man living there. By the Spring of 1853, there were 8 Adventists meeting in Dave Hewitt’s parlor. Frisbie worked extensively in the area in collaboration with men like Loughborough and Cornell and soon the group of Adventists felt they needed to have a church building of their own. They raised the funds to erect a building which could seat 40 people. Before long there was an influx of Adventists streaming into the little town. The Kelloggs, the Cornells and the Lyons came in from Eastern Michigan. Then in the fall of 1855, the publishing office moved to Battle Creek and brought with it the Whites, Steven and Sarah Belden, Uriah Smith and George Amadon. By 1857 Battle Creek had built its second Adventist church and was coming to look upon itself as the center of Sabbatarian Adventism. All it needed was for the title to be made official.

Discipline And Church Organisation 

During this time there were also several splinter groups that broke away from the main body of Sabbatarian Adventism due to doctrinal differences. One of the most prominent cases was that of the Messenger Party. H.S. Case and C.P. Russell split from Sabbatarian Adventism in 1853 due to a minor episode that took place in Jackson, Michigan. The incident involved an Adventist sister who had lost her temper while dealing with a difficult neighbor. Case and Russell were not happy with the way she had behaved and were quick to tell her as much. They also alleged that she had used a swear word while dealing with the neighbor and demanded that she apologize publicly and confess her error. The woman denied any wrongdoing and the brouhaha led the church to take sides.

Around this time the Whites visited Jackson and Ellen White was given a vision regarding the entire episode. She was shown that the sister in question had been wrong to lose her temper. Case and Russell were present when she had her vision and declared it to be genuine. Added to this was the fact that her vision seemed to vindicate their position regarding the sister as well. Soon after this Ellen White was given a second vision in which she was shown that the woman had not used the swear word that Case and Russell had accused her of using but one that sounded like it. She was also shown that Case and Russell had exhibited a harsh and unchristian manner in the way they dealt with the sister and they were reproved.

When she heard both visions the sister in question humbled herself and publicly acknowledged that the facts were as Ellen White had stated them. Case and Russell, however, were stung by Ellen White’s rebuke and they immediately began to challenge the validity of her visions and also James White’s financial management of the printing office. To promote their accusations and views they began to publish their own paper titled “The Messenger of Truth.” However, after a brief run, the paper shut down after the messenger party began to fight amongst themselves.

This and other groups like it highlighted the need to an organization with authority which could deal with doctrinal differences and defections.

The Issue Comes To A Head

Despite all of these factors, what finally brought the debate regarding formal organization to a head was the question of legal ownership of property. The question was raised “Who would own church buildings and the publishing office?” Even though each local congregation had a measure of organisation in place they could not operate as legal corporations. This meant that they could not hold the title to the meeting houses which had been built through their contributions. Rather the building was the legal property of the church member who had provided the land. In the event that the owner died the church could potentially be thrown into confusion depending on what provisions had been made in the will of the deceased with regards to the church building.

For example in Cincinnati, Ohio, the owner of the parcel of land that held the little Adventist meeting house left Sabbatarian Adventism. The congregation was evicted from the building that they had contributed to erecting and the owner turned the church into a vinegar factory. In the face of such difficulties, some of the local congregations began to take steps towards legally incorporating themselves but each gave themselves a different name which proved to be confusing and not very conducive to unity or the forward momentum of the work.

With all of these issues swirling the debate surrounding organization intensified during the first half of 1860. James White pointed out that as the General Agent of the Review and Herald office he was considered his legal owner, this was despite the fact that scores of believers across the eastern seaboard and the Midwest had donated money towards setting up and upgrading the plant and its equipment. The leadership of the church was divided over how to proceed. R.F. Cottrell wrote, “those investing in the work lend it to the Lord and they must trust the Lord for it, if he sees fit to let them lose it here, if they are faithful he will repay them in the hereafter”. James White disagreed writing “we regard 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…if God calls upon us to act the part of faithful stewards of his goods we had better attend to these matters in a legal manner, the only way we can handle real estate in this world”

In September 1860, James White convened a conference to discuss the legal future of the publishing office. Delegates from five states attended and it was one of the most important Sabbatarian Adventist conferences that had been held up to that point. Joseph Bates acted as chairman and Uriah Smith as secretary. The conference plunged into a full-scale discussion regarding organization. The one thing that everyone could agree on was that whatever was done had to be based upon Scripture but there was a diversity of opinion with regards to the application of biblical principle.

Some staunchly argued that they could not agree to anything that was not specifically outlined in scripture to which James White wryly commented: “I have not yet been able to find in the good book any suggestion in regard to a power press, running tents or how Sabbath keepers should hold their office of publication”. After a long processing of arguing back and forth, everyone finally agreed that organization as a legal association for the purpose of holding property and transacting business was in harmony with scripture. However, the jury was still out when it came to the organization as a church.

As chairman Bates appointed a committee of three to bring in recommendations regarding a name for the publishing office and the church. The committee was made up on J.N. Andrews, J.H Waggoner (both of whom were in favor of organization) and T.J. Butler (who was one of the most outspoken opponents of organization). It was an interesting move because it placed the responsibility of suggesting an alternate course of action on Butler who was hesitant to move forward with organization. Though the committee didn’t come up with a name for the church they did recommend that the conference elect seven men to apply to the state legislature for an act enabling them to organize the publishing house as the Advent Review Publishing Association.

 The expectation was that organization would allow for broader participation in the ownership and control of the publishing office and once this was clarified the proposal to appoint the seven-member committee was unanimously passed. The committee was made up of James White, J.H. Waggoner, J.N Loughborough, G.W. Amadon, Uriah Smith, George Lay, and Dan Palmer. The Seventh-Day Adventist Publishing Association was formally incorporated and until his death in 1881 James White served as president and general manager of the Association.

By the first of October 1860, the delegates at the conference were ready to decide on a name for the denomination. Some argued that taking a name would make them just another denomination but James White disagreed, arguing that they were already classed as a denomination adding “I do not know how we can prevent it unless we disband and scatter and give up the thing altogether.” The general feeling among the delegates was that the name they adopted should quickly and efficiently identify the major doctrines that Sabbatarian Adventists held. The name Seventh-Day Adventist was tossed around for a while before Dave Hewitt formally moved that the conference adopt the name. T.J. Butler was the only one who opposed it to the bitter end while a few others abstained from voting altogether.

During the conference, Ellen White had deliberately kept a low profile but once the name was chosen and voted on she gave it her heartiest endorsement. Commenting on it she wrote “the name Seventh-Day Adventist carries the true features of our faith in front and will convict the inquiring mind…like an arrow from the Lord’s quiver it will wound the transgressors of God’s law and will lead towards repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ”

Organising The General Conference 

In 1861 the nine ministers of the church recommended that the local churches act as the foundational building blocks for the church structure. They suggested grouping local churches into state and district conferences and finally that a general conference should be organized to oversee and represent all the churches. In October 1861 the Michigan Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists was formed. Conference officials were limited to a president, a clerk, and a three-man executive committee. Joseph Bates and Uriah Smith were appointed as president and clerk and Loughborough, Cornell and Hull were appointed as the first executive committee. Within a year six other conferences were organized.

In 1862 the Michigan Conference invited delegates from other conferences to meet with them during their annual conference in 1863 so that a General Conference could be organized. The first General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists ran from the 20-23 of May 1863. Items on the agenda included adopting a constitution and electing officers for the General Conference. The constitution provided for a three-man executive committee to have oversight of all the ministers. The delegates invited James White to be the first president of the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists but he declined. He feared that since he had so vocally championed organization there was room for some to accuse him of being power hungry. Subsequently, John Byington was appointed as president and Uriah Smith became the first secretary of the General Conference. E.L Walker from Iowa was appointed as treasurer and James White and J.N. Loughborough were named to serve alongside Byington on the executive committee. Soon after that, the committee was expanded to include J.N. Andrews and George Amadon.

And so it was after a long and difficult struggle the new movement finally had a name and finally had the structure it needed to move forward in concert. The best days of the Seventh-Day Adventist church lay just over the horizon.

Further Reading

  • The Education Department of the General Conference (1956) – The Story of Our Church
  • Maxwell, C.M. (1976) – Tell It To The World – The Story of Seventh-Day Adventists
  • Schawrz, R.W. and Greenleaf, F. (1979) – Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Revised Edition)
  • Knight, G.R. (2006) – Organizing For Mission And Growth: The Development Of Adventist Church Structure
  • Knight, G.R. (2013) – A Brief History Of Seventh-Day Adventists

Recommended Listening 

  • Pathways Of The Pioneers (1998) – Volume 12 – The Babies Need A Name
  • Pathways Of The Pioneers (1998) – Volume 12 – Pains Of Organizational Growth