Ellen G. White: The Early Elmshaven Years: 1900-1905 (vol. 5)


The Organizational Status of the Church

The basic structure of church organization with its local conferences bound together in a General Conference had remained unchanged from 1863 to 1901. In 1889 the thirty-three conferences and missions in the United States were divided into six districts. But these had no organizational or administrative status. The leaders in each district served merely in an advisory capacity. A union conference was formed in Australia in 1894 and steps were under way toward forming a general conference in Europe. But the basic constitutional structure stood unchanged from what it was since the church had been organized. There were two recognized organizational levels—the local conference and the General Conference. And when the delegates were seated for the conference of 1901 it was on the basis of local conferences within a General Conference; they are so listed in the daily Bulletin. Of the forty-five local conferences, thirty-one were within the United States. 5BIO 70.3

Michigan, with its 7,122 members, was the largest State conference; California was second, with 4,485. The smallest was South Australia, with 193 members. At the time of the organization of the General Conference in 1863, the church had one institution—a publishing house at Battle Creek. But the work of the denomination soon expanded. The health work began with the establishment of a sanitarium in 1866. Educational work was started with the opening of Battle Creek College in 1874. Other publishing houses were added, and sanitariums and schools were opened. 5BIO 71.1

As work in different lines developed, associations were formed to foster the interests. There were the International Medical Missionary and Benevolent Association; the International Sabbath School Association; and the International Tract Society, which fostered “home missionary” interests. Certain issues in the United States led the church into the religious-liberty field. From this activity the National Religious Liberty Association was organized. To aid in the development of a foreign mission program, a foreign mission board was set up, with headquarters in New York City. 5BIO 71.2

These were all autonomous organizations represented by independent corporations, operated by Seventh-day Adventists but not integral parts of the General Conference organization. The various branches of the work were not thought of or directed as departments of the General Conference, but as independent entities. 5BIO 71.3

As the institutional interests in Battle Creek grew, businessmen were drawn in to head them, and a strong center developed. A General Conference Executive Committee, beginning with three members in 1863, some twenty years later was increased to five. Its work was “to carry out the plans of the body, and to direct the affairs of the denomination in all parts of the world when the conference is not in session.”—Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, 1889, p. 4. 5BIO 71.4

In 1887 the Committee was increased to seven, and in 1889 it was enlarged to nine. There it stood for four years until 1893, when it was increased to eleven, and in 1899 to thirteen. Even so, the group was widely scattered and did not often meet for a full meeting. Six of the thirteen men were the district leaders spread out across North America. Two men represented overseas work and resided overseas. This left four members of the General Conference Executive Committee resident in Battle Creek. These, with the secretary and the treasurer of the General Conference, who were not members of the Committee, formed a sort of unofficial officer group that carried the day-to-day responsibilities of the operation of the church. 5BIO 71.5

It is not difficult, then, to grasp the situation that developed with the world work outgrowing the organizational structure that must administer it. Those at headquarters naturally felt that they were prepared to give the wisest and best management to even the minute details of Seventh-day Adventist interests in the remotest parts of the world. One area in particular in which serious problems developed was in financial support of the cause. Without carefully planned budgets to serve as guidelines in the expenditure of funds, great inequities developed, with the needs nearest at hand often gaining the favor of the treasury men. 5BIO 72.1