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Book review: A. G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth-Century Adventism

Michael W. Campbell

 

In the history of Adventist leadership, A. G. Daniells belongs right beside James White, Joseph Bates, and Ellen G. White. Certainly Daniells’s position is secure despite his rise from relative obscurity. Benjamin McArthur’s biography is a tour de force of Adventist history. In a masterful way, this consummate historian gives color to the rich tapestry of Daniells’s life.

As a young man, Daniells found ministry to be a steep learning curve, particularly as a young missionary to Australia and New Zealand. He rose to leadership at a pivotal moment when Ellen G. White challenged church leaders to restructure the denomination after several aborted attempts. He went on to become the longest-serving General Conference president in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination (1901–1922), and his administrative decisions in many ways continue to shape the denomination to the present day.

McArthur’s biography narrates two central motifs that drove Daniells as a person. First, Daniells was one of the most capable administrators the Seventh-day Adventist Church has ever known, and second, Daniells was a champion of world missions. His great- est legacy was his ability to merge these two interests into one. He was a driven man, yet despite his intense schedule of meetings, speaking appointments, and demanding correspondence, he maintained a focus on what he believed was his purpose and overall sense of mission, namely to convey the conviction that God was accompanying their efforts and had commissioned the Seventh-day Adventist Church with a message for the world.

During Daniells’s lifetime, the denomination went through its “turbulent teenage” years as it in many ways grew up. If Adventism is “a movement of institutions” (164, 165), then the career of Daniells essentially represents the bureaucratization of the church. He was a man obsessed with numbers. It represented his need to objectify progress. “Denominational numeracy spoke to a long-standing Adventist predilection for hard data as the proper measure of progress” (376, 377). If numbers are therefore a measure of success, the rapid proliferation of institutions combined with the multiplication of church members cemented Daniells as a great administrator.

Yet McArthur does not avoid discussing how even one of the administrative “greats” of Adventist history had “growing pains” along the journey. For Daniells, there was no greater conflict than his conflict with Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the so-called “golden boy” of Adventism. Here Daniells at last met his match. Each had an opposite personality, and sadly the battle lines were drawn so firmly that Kellogg eventually parted company with the church (taking the Battle Creek Sanitarium along with him). The journey down this exit ramp is the most bitter leadership feud in Adventist history, replete with a coup d’état attempt by Kellogg to oust Daniells. During turbulent times such as these, Daniells could count on the support of Ellen G. White. It may not have always felt like support at the time, as Daniells was also the recipient of pointed messages of reproof. Still, this relationship with the Adventist messenger to the remnant church—as well as with her son, W. C. White—was the most enriching of his career.

Challenges appeared almost to energize Daniells. Of the many other notable dramas during his tenure, chapter seven is a personal favorite as McArthur narrates the epic story of race relations during Daniells’s presidency. How the denomination dealt with Lewis B. Sheafe set the stage for many future struggles. Chapter eleven is similarly worth the price of the book as it explores the struggle of how to go on without a living messenger. The section on the 1919 Bible Conference is a superb treatment of a controversial meeting that spelled Daniells’s demise. Any church leader, especially one as forceful as Daniells, is bound to make enemies. No enemy was more vitriolic than J. S. Washburn, who devoted his life to unseat Daniells at the 1922 General Conference session. Such bitterness led Washburn to even fabricate a portion of a letter! Daniells navigated through such perilous waters by trying to educate the church about how to properly understand and interpret the writings of Ellen G. White, a role that he fulfilled as the chair of the Ellen G. White Estate Board of Trustees.

Readers of this publication will especially appreciate the passion Daniells had for ministerial education. He believed that the health of the church was dependent upon the health of its clergy. He mentored a cadre of young church leaders, most notably L. E. Froom and T. G. Bunch, among many others. The same year that he was ousted as church president, 1922, he essentially founded what became the ministerial department of the denomination and was also primarily responsible for the founding of Ministry magazine. Pastors will also appreciate how Daniells was concerned that Adventist pastors and evangelists used credible research when speaking in public.

As the tenth volume in the Adventist Pioneer Series, this biography is an invaluable addition that demands to be read. Although the personalities and issues have changed, many Adventists will be able to easily discern similar issues that confront the church today. Whether the issues relate to church governance (issues of “power and control”) or how to interpret properly the inspired writings of Ellen G. White, both the specialist in Adventist studies as well as the novice will find this biography a welcome guide. McArthur provides a much clearer understanding about the role of one influential actor across the stage of Adventist history.

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