the road to a church-manual

the stop-start journey on the road to a church-manual

Part 2: How the church adopted a manual in 1932

GilbertM. Valentine, Ph.D., is a vicepresident of Avondale College, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.

The first of this two-part article told of a failed attempt in 1883 by the Adventist Church to adopt a church manual.

In this article, the author examines how the church addressed the need for a manual during the next 50 years until finally adopting one for the whole denomination in 1932.

In 1883 Adventist Church leader ship categorically rejected the need for a church manual. At the time, General Conference President George Butler was certain that the church had no intention of heading down a formalistic, creedalistic road.

This determined stance, however, did nothing to address the need for some compendium of guidance on local church life and ministerial practice. Nor did it stop the ongoing codification of church polity as local conferences and the General Conference continued to legislate uniform practice for the growing sisterhood of churches. But the decision had been made. Pastors, churches, and conferences were to labor on with the Bible as the "only rule of faith and practice." This did not mean, however, that the need for a general volume would vanish.

So how did the church change its mind and adopt a formal church manual 50 years later? To begin with, in place of a "manual," a variety of books by individual writers appeared to fill the void. The story of these interim efforts provides a fascinating backdrop to the church's about-face.

The closed communion advocate

Less than two years after rejecting the manual, the General Conference had the issue back on its agenda, the matter being pursued by J. H. Waggoner.

As editor of Signs of the Times, he had published a manuscript for a manual in the Signs.1 But when he broached the idea of the General Conference endorsing the document, session delegates deftly sidestepped the issue. They referred it to the California publishing house to be dealt with as any other manuscript published under an author's own name. Pacific Press® pubished the eight-chapter, 122-page volume in 1887. Only 20 copies were printed, and it was never revised or reissued.2

Even without ideological opposition to a manual, the content of Waggoner's manuscript indicates why it did not qualify. The style is sermonic, chatty, hortatory, polemical, and is peppered with personal illustrations. Both nameless ministers and churches come in for critique. It would not have been difficult for some to have identified themselves and their faults.3

Also limiting the usefulness of Waggoner's manual was his vigorous advocacy of a "closed" Communion which would have offended Adventists who came from a Freewill Baptist or Christian-connection background. Further, Waggoner's argumentative approach was inappropriate for a general manual.4 No wonder Waggoner's manual didn't go farther than a few churches in southern California.

A veteran speaks

At the turn of the century came the turmoil of denominational restructuring, followed immediately by the seismic upheavals of the Kellogg schism. These events added weight to the perceived need for a manual on church order. It seemed as important to explain and defend the validity of the new pat tern of the denomination's organizational practice as to provide guidance on matters of congregational life.

In 1906 John N. Loughborough took up the challenge. Published by the Review and Herald in 1907, Loughborough's 183-page book, The Church: Its Organization, Order, and Discipline, proved exceptionally helpful as a compact guide. In 1908, the General Conference sent the author on a world tour to promote the volume and to speak about church order and organization. The book was not an official manual, although it represented a strong consensus on church polity. In fact, it came to be accepted as a de facto church manual for the next 20 years.

Loughborough's book illustrates a clear development in the culture of the denomination, during this period, to ward a more centralized approach to denominational life. The volume was assertive, prescriptive, and almost authoritarian in tone. The dominant metaphor was military. The emphasis was on recognizing and submitting to "authority." Loughborough conveyed the feeling that the church had "arrived" in its organizational development and things were now the way they should have been all along.5 The integrating theme was based on an often repeated 1893 statement from Ellen White that "the Lord has wrought in the organization that has been perfected."6 The first 14 chapters dealt with broad principles of church organization and consisted almost entirely of lengthy quotations from Scripture and Ellen White. The last 15 began with a historical review of Adventist church organization and moved on to discuss conference structure, committee procedures, elections, and the jurisdiction of officers. While the book touched on local church is sues, its focus is on the church as a broad organization as opposed to the individual worshiping congregation.

A pastoral approach

Even as Loughborough was working on his manuscript, H. M. J. Richards of Colorado was also writing a church manual in order to answer "the great need for a plainly written work of moderate size and easy reference on the subject of Gospel Order."7

Richards's 12-chapter volume begins with a catechetical approach: answers supported by extensive quotations. Like Loughborough's work, the first chapters deal with broad principles, while the latter chapters deal with the practical application of these principles. In contrast to the authoritarian and triumphalist tenor of Loughborough, Richards's manual has a warm, soft, pastoral tone and focuses more on issues of congregational life and the work of the pastor. While the writing is less polished, the approach is more winsome.

Richards's work was based on the understanding that a manual on church order is supposed to be primarily descriptive. It acknowledged the need to yield individual interests for the sake of the whole body. It dealt with authority sensitively. It also reflected a creeping sacramentalism in the church; for ex ample, the advocacy of the sanctity of the pulpit as opposed to the Sabbath School desk. Yet Richards conveyed these ideas with pastoral and persuasive warmth. In many ways the manual was superior to Loughborough's. The two volumes helped fill the church manual vacuum, each in its sphere, for almost twenty years. But as the decades wore on, both became dated.

A departmental leader's turn

In 1922 General Conference Home Mission Secretary, James Adams Stevens, freshened things up with The Officers of the Church and Their Work.8 This volume became the forerunner of an official church manual.

Stevens had 13 years of pastoral and departmental leadership experience before being elected to the General Conference. His approach was more polished and scholarly than that of his predecessors. He began with a historical overview, tracing the roots of Christian church order back to the Jewish synagogue system and on through the New Testament church. His emphasis was on the local church and its officers, reflecting the new departmental approach to church life that had developed during the first two decades of the century. With a didactic approach, Stevens addressed the contemporary problems and procedures that church officers should know about. The book was a "how to" handbook of instructions; it included a stronger emphasis on the leadership of the local elder who, in Stevens's view, almost rivals the role of the local ordained pastor. In fact, if Stevens's prescriptions had been fol lowed, local elders would soon have felt overburdened with the duties of their office.9

While Stevens's work was prescriptive in its focus on the role of church officers, it did not convey heavy prescription with regard to church order per se. The book illustrated, however, the changed perspectives since the days when George Butler and Ellen White had set the agenda and pointed out the danger that formalism might sap spirituality. Stevens was heading in the other direction. "Experience has demonstrated that faithful adherence to certain rules in the conduct of our church work results in a deeper spiritual life on the part of the members and consequent progress in every phase of church activity." 10 Stevens's book showed that things were changing.

In 1929, H. S. Miller, a theology lecturer at Southwestern Junior College, wrote to the General Conference ask ing if Stevens's volume was "authoritative." Miller had heard that the status of the book was "seriously questioned." Was its "mission and counsel endorsed unquestionably" by the General Conference? If not, was "there anything to substitute it?" 11 T. E. Bowen, editor of the Church Officers' Gazette, who replied for the General Conference, hedged. He could assure Miller that as far as he knew "there was no outstanding defect in the book" 12 regarding the questions under consideration. But the manuscript had only been "passed upon" by the book committee of Pacific Press®. It is significant to note that questions such as Miller's suggest that the church was on the way to being ready for a formally endorsed manual.

A periodical approach

The Church Officers' Gazette was another attempt to fill the void. In 1913, the North American Division requested that a "Church Officers' Manual" be prepared. Whether the 1883 episode was still too fresh and there was lingering resistance to a manual is not clear. What is clear is that in place of a "manual" the Gazette was initiated. The 16-page monthly carried articles on church order and on the role of church officers. Feature articles, both sermonic and didactic, elaborated on the way officers should carry out their duties. The Gazette lasted for 37 years before it was replaced in 1951 by two publications, the MV Program Kit for the Youth Department and Go for the Home Missions Department.

Minor manuals

Two smaller volumes bearing the word manual staged an appearance during the 1920s. One for foreign missionaries set out policies and served as a guidebook for those appointed to serve overseas. The other, in 1925, a Manual for Ministers, detailed the work of the pastor with explanations of ordination and credentials and suggested service outlines and scripts for the celebration of Communion, marriage, and funerals. Although the scripts were even more detailed and specific in some areas than the general suggestions in Littlejohn's rejected 1883 manuscript, the two volumes were accepted without objection. They provided useful guidelines for these important and usually formal occasions.

A manual again

Perhaps the success that attended these two smaller manuals persuaded church leaders that the church might be ready to accept a formal manual on church order—if handled properly. The codification of matters of church polity had burgeoned through the years as the church grew, becoming more inter national, institutional, and complex. This codified material needed to be in an accessible compendium. The emergence of a distinct organizational "policy" book dealing specifically with matters of denominational employ ment, organizational and institutional relationships, and industrial issues had also perhaps clarified what needed to be included in an official "church" manual, thus making the task easier.

The old rationale for a manual had gathered fresh intensity. Inexperienced ministers were being employed. The church had spread to many countries. The number of new churches had grown rapidly, and this meant waves of new church leaders. The means of providing the necessary instruction without a standardized document seemed out of reach. But given the church's past experience, the question still remained: how to get such a volume as a church manual? General Conference leaders decided to brave it.

During late 1926, James L. McElhany was asked by General Conference officials to draft a document. He began work on it the following year. 13

The background to the request is mysterious. General Conference correspondence and committee actions indicate that church leaders understood that the invitation to McElhany had been a formal request from the General Conference Committee. 14 There is, however, no extant record of such formal authorization. Whether the General Conference officers were sensitive to possible criticism and wished to initiate the project discreetly without a minuted action or whether an action was taken that was "inadvertently" not minuted is not known.

What is known is that the officers were enthusiastically behind the idea. The book would be comprehensive, explained T. E. Bowen to an enquirer; it would pick up "the principles of the book Elder Loughborough first brought out, as well as the main features of Brother Stevens' book, and then go even beyond this in a careful survey of the church work and problems often arising in the church with a view of offering suggestions and principles developed by long usage that would more fully meet the requirements of the churches." 15

McElhany had to fit the project around his regular duties as a union president. Although he did not discuss the task, at least not in the extensive correspondence held in the General Conference archives, there was clearly much consultation. 16 But it was not until five years later, in October 1931, that McElhany submitted his work to the General Conference officers. 17

The approval process moved rapidly. In an interesting appropriation of authority, the General Conference officers "authorized" the Executive Committee "to take steps towards editing the manuscript." 18 The president quickly nominated an editorial committee of seven, endorsed by the Executive Committee, to fulfill this task. 19 Two months after the manuscript had been handed over, the General Conference Executive Committee received the report of the editorial review group and approved the amended manuscript. They added the proviso that the galley proofs be furnished to local members of the Executive Committee. In early 1932 President C. H. Watson declined the invitation to write a personal foreword for the manuscript (he wanted to give the project universal appeal). Instead, a small subcommittee drafted a statement that could be signed by the whole General Conference Committee.20 In late March, last-minute revisions were added before the Review and Herald presses rolled for a midyear release. A formal church manual bearing the authority of the General Conference was finally a reality.

No recorded discussions or actions approving the manual indicate an awareness of the rejection 50 years earlier. Neither, it seemed, was there any reaction from George Butler, who was pastoring churches in Ohio when the manual was issued. One wonders whether leadership might, in fact, have been familiar with the first attempt and judiciously avoided the need for approval by a full General Conference Session.

A manual for the church

McElhany's 1932 Church Manual did not break new ground. It was primarily descriptive of church life and practice as it existed, but it incorporated recent consensus agreements voted at the General Conference on such matters as committee procedures, churchboard membership, and issues concerning disfellowshiping of members. The approach was "this is our custom," with room for variations at the local level. It was prescriptive in the sense that new churches were to be organized on the basis of the manual. The General Conference agreed that local fields could develop their own adaptations of the manual (provided they were approved). The British Union Conference was the only organization to take up the offer in the early years.

The preface avoided a heavy-handed creedal approach; it stated that the manual was set forth "as a guide" in matters of church administration. It was not, however, just to set forth "denominational practices and polity"— but also to "preserve" these. For those who feared a drift toward creedalism, the worrying word was preserve, which suggested an element of prescription and raised the difficulty of how the manual could be revised should that need arise.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the manual was the inclusion of a new statement of fundamental beliefs. Drawn up by a committee of four, chaired by Adventist Review editor Francis M. Wilcox,21 the 22-article document was not formally approved by any committee but was passed to Edson Rogers, General Conference statistician, for inclusion in the 1931 SDA Yearbook. Endorsement occurred later as part of the approval process for the manual as a whole. There was no review or wide consultation on the statement, nor formal vote of the wider church. Sensitivities about the appropriateness of voting on statements of belief and the prospect of being charged with creedalism possibly explain the unusual way in which the Statement of Fundamental Beliefs became "official."22

Keeping the document current soon became a problem. Revisions were authorized by the General Conference Committee, appearing in 1934 and 1940. But in 1946 the General Conference Session resolved that changes could be approved only by its delegates in session.23


Today the Church Manual is a matured document, accepted as an authoritative guide. It has been of inestimable value to countless ministers and churches and has played an immensely helpful role in keeping the church a cohesive body. But a church manual, in an important sense, is a backwardlooking rather than a forward-looking document. It began primarily as a descriptive document: "This is the way the church does things." As variation, growth, and development occur in the light of Scripture, future editions of the manual will describe what is customary and what has proved helpful. In this way, while benefiting from an authoritative guide, the church will avoid the trap feared so intensely in 1883, that such a document may become narrowly determinative for the future.

1 "The Church: Its Organization,
Ordinances and Discipline," Signs (January 1,
1885 to August 6, 1885).

2 See Book Committee Proceedings,
Oakland Session 1887, 78; The Church: Its Or
ganization, Ordinances and Discipline
nia: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1886), 3.

3 Ibid., 84.

4 Ibid.,104ff.

5 Ibid., Preface.

6 Ellen G. White, Christian Education
(Battle Creek, Mich.: International Tract
Society, 1893), 135. See Loughborough, 50,51,
61, 62, 90-94, 127.

7 H. M. J. Richards, Church Order and Its
Divine Origin and Importance
Colorado Tract Society, 1906).
8 Pacific Press® commissioned and pub
lished the book.

9 James Adams Stevens, The Offices of the
Church and Their Work
, 20-27.

10 Ibid., 5.

11 H. S. Miller to T. E. Bowen, January 11,

12 T. E. Bowen to H. S. Miller, January 20,

13 J. L. McElhany to T. E. Bowen, August
12, 1927.

14 General Conference Minutes, Novem
ber 9, 1932.

15 T. E. Bowen to H. S. Miller, January 20,

16 J. L. McElhany to Union and Local
Presidents, August 14, 1929; General
Conference Officers' Minutes, October 15,
1930; G. C. Minutes, May 6, 1931.

17 General Conference Officers' Minutes,
October 28, 1931.

18 Ibid.

19 General Conference Officers' Minutes,
November 11,1931; General Conference Min
utes, November 12,1931; November 13,1931.

20 General Conference Officers' Minutes,
February 11, 1932.

21 Other members of the panel: M. E.
Kern, dean of the seminary; E. R. Palmer,
publishing director; and C. H. Watson, General
Conference president. Wilcox appears to have
been the chief draftsman.

22 See L. E. Froom, "Creeds," 5; General
Conference Archives; also Gottfried Oosterval,
"The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Mission:
1919—1979", unpublished paper cited in
Lawrence Geraty; "A New Statement of
Fundamental Beliefs," Spectrum 11 (1983): 1:3.

23 See Review and Herald, June 14, 1946,
197-199; also Gary Land, Adventism in America
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 180.

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GilbertM. Valentine, Ph.D., is a vicepresident of Avondale College, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.

June 1999

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