Seventh-day Adventists are accustomed to being members of a worldwide church, so much so that probably many take it for granted, not realizing that Protestant denominations are mostly organized around national borders. Adventist ecclesiastical polity is unique and has helped a tiny movement, originating in the northeast of the United States, to become a global church. Adventists embraced a somewhat complex structure because they recognized that preaching the gospel is best facilitated by a robust and responsive church organization: it can direct (and in the Adventist case has directed) finances and personnel from the wider church to support dynamic evangelism, thanks to the resources committed. Structure twinned with powerful preaching has been a foundation of church growth.
Because its origins lie in the nineteenth century, however, the distinctive Adventist ecclesiastical polity is not well understood by many church members, pastors, and administrators. One of the geniuses of its structure is the role of the union. While unique to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a union is roughly comparable to a diocese. It is the point of connection between the local or regional conference, and the General Conference, which is the overarching structure that spans the globe.1 Yet the union is an example of organizational evolution. To understand why unions were created, their role in Adventist ecclesiastical polity, and the nature of their relationship with the larger whole, it is helpful to pose an obvious but rarely asked question: What is the General Conference?
Why a General Conference?
The term General Conference is so familiar in the Seventh-day Adventist Church that many, even within the church, never query the title or its significance. The founders of the Adventist Church used the word conference in two ways. The first was for a general meeting of believers, a usage inherited from the Millerites, who, in the early 1840s, held a series of what they called general conferences.2 Starting in 1852, so, too, did the seventh-day Sabbath-keeping adventists.3 A “general conference” was a conference, or meeting, with general application for all adherents rather than a local or regional focus. Like most ex-Millerites, the Sabbatarian adventists were initially suspicious of any form of organization and any group of believers that claimed to exercise wider authority.4 Yet, in the end, three general conferences of Sabbatarian adventists, held at Battle Creek, Michigan, in the early 1860s made important decisions for all their adherents. The result was the creation of a formal organization that once would have seemed inconceivable.
The first of these conferences, in September 1860, agreed that all local congregations should organize themselves legally and adopt a common name: Seventh-day Adventist. In October 1861, the General Conference encouraged the newly organized Seventh-day Adventist churches to form state-based associations; churches in Michigan did so, creating what they called “the Michigan Conference.” In the next 15 months, six “state conferences” were created.5 Then, in May 1863, delegates from the six conferences founded the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. More than a periodic general meeting, it was also a permanent association, with a constitution, a model constitution that state conferences were obliged to follow, an executive committee, and three officers.6
Seventh-day Adventists, emerging out of other denominations, borrowed terminology from the Christian Connection, Mennonites, and Methodists and adapted organizational concepts from the Methodist Episcopalian Church. 7 Despite similarities, Adventism’s emergent ecclesiastical polity differed, at key points, from those of other contemporary denominations, even ones that used the terminology of conference and general conference. 8
As this brief sketch indicates, starting in 1861, Sabbatarians used conference in a second sense: a permanent association that regulates the activities of its members. It was in this sense that the alliance of Seventh-day Adventist congregations in Michigan was called the Michigan Conference. In Adventist ecclesiastical polity, the conference was (and is) a federation or association of local churches.9 What, then, was the General Conference a conference of?
As established in May 1863, it was originally an association of state conferences—hence the creation of a model constitution that all conferences had to adopt to become members of the General Conference (GC). It remained a conference of conferences until far-reaching organizational reforms at the 34th General Conference Session in 1901.10 Since then, it has been a conference of unions. Things changed because of increasing size and organizational complexity.
Growth and development
For the first 38 years of the Seventh- day Adventist Church, it had three levels of denominational organization: local (the congregation); provincial (the conference); and whole church (General Conference). This worked well for a small sect restricted to the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. Largely thanks to the new GC’s emphasis on mission, however, the denomination expanded both geographically and numerically. The first overseas conference was admitted in 1880, when the 19th General Conference Session voted that “the conference in Denmark be received into the General Conference.”11 As the denomination spread beyond the United States, the terminology of state conference gradually dropped out of use, replaced simply by conference and by mission (a mission being functionally equivalent to the conference but with less autonomy).
At the end of 1866 (the first year for which we have statistics), the GC was made up of seven conferences, plus one mission, comprising 4,320 church members. By the time of the 1888 General Conference Session (one marked by both theological and intergenerational conflict), it comprised 32 conferences (5 outside the United States), plus 6 missions, with a total membership of 26,112 on 4 continents plus the islands of the Pacific. By the epochal 1901 session, the GC had 87 member conferences and missions comprising 75,767 church members drawn from every inhabited continent.
Rapid and widespread growth generated a need for a level of organization between the conferences and General Conference. As an American missionary leader overseas later recalled, “we . . . [felt] the need of something more in the way of organization to expedite our work.”12 The 1882 General Conference Session approved a “European Council” to coordinate mission across the continent. The 1889 General Conference Session demarcated six “districts” in North America (see map). At the 1893 General Conference Session, Australasia and Europe were designated, respectively, Districts 7 and 8.13 A district, however, had neither a constituency nor a permanent headquarters, and GC leaders were unwilling to delegate much authority to them.
The emergence of the union
Outside North America, mission leaders were frustrated by the fact that “all matters outside of the conference must be referred to headquarters.” From Australia, as future GC president Arthur Daniells later recalled, it often took “three or four months before we could get any reply to our questions.” Sometimes it took “six or nine months” to “get the matter settled.” The church’s cofounder and prophet, Ellen G. White, together with her son, Willie, both serving as missionaries in Australia, concurred with Daniells in believing that a new body was needed to handle “South Pacific Ocean questions, Australasian problems, so that any conference” in the region could get a decision “from a center of authority right there.”14
In 1894, the Australasian Union Conference was created; it elected Willie White as its first president. The terminology union conference denoted that, unlike a district, it was a union of conferences—it was, indeed, a conference of conferences, like the General Conference, but subordinate to it.
Ellen White enthusiastically endorsed the move, and thus, although it had implications for Adventist ecclesiastical polity, leaders in Battle Creek had to accept the new type of organization, which was unique to Adventism. For the next seven years, however, GC leaders opposed adoption of the union model anywhere outside Australasia. As a result, even though Europe’s nine conferences and missions formed the European Union Conference in 1898, no unions were formed in North America before 1901.
1901 and the need for reform
By 1901, Adventist organization had become sclerotic. The GC was trying to administer 87 separate subordinate bodies, dispersed globally. Its insistence that all decisions above the conference level be referred back to Battle Creek frustrated more than foreign missionaries. From the US South, Edson White wrote to his mother, Ellen White, irate that the church’s administrative arteries were so hardened that “the General Conference . . . cannot or will not do anything” and wondering “why [they do] not stand aside & let those who will help do something?”15
On the eve of the 34th session in 1901, Ellen White, who had recently returned from mission service in Australia, told the assembled church leaders that there must be “a change . . . with the General Conference. . . . We want to know what can be done right here; . . . what can be done right now.”16 The die was cast.
It is notable that the principal advocates of organizational reform, including Ellen and Willie White, Arthur Daniells (elected GC president in 1901), and William Spicer (elected secretary of the Foreign Mission Board), had, as historian Barry Oliver observes, all recently “returned from extended periods of foreign missionary service,” and they sought reorganization to enable further church growth around the globe.17 The most consequential reform was that unions were formed in the rest of the world; in fact, most of the church’s North American unions were formally organized during breaks in the session.18
The unions and the General Conference since 1901
The General Conference became a conference of unions. It remains so. The world divisions are subdivisions of the General Conference and its branch offices—not its constituency.
Along with unions replacing conferences as the members of the General Conference, there was a change in approach. After 1901, no longer were all major decisions referred to the GC. Unions were given a considerable degree of operational autonomy, as leaders around the world had sought for a decade.
But there was another formal change in ecclesiastical polity too. Prior to 1901, conferences were represented at General Conference sessions but not on the GC Executive Committee, even though it had increased immensely in importance. In 1901, its membership numbered just 13; 11 were from North America. It emphatically was “not a representative body for a worldwide church.”19 One of the 1901 reforms made each union president an ex officio member of the Executive Committee. This made the committee far more representative. But it also bound the General Conference far more closely together. Now all member unions would be assured of having their voice heard.
Furthermore, the GC Executive Committee’s authority was increased, for the 34th session voted that it should “take the place of all the present general boards and committees.”20 Completely independent associations, which had existed since the 1870s, henceforth became departments, under the authority of the Executive Committee. As a result, unions thereafter had a say in the oversight of departments at the General Conference level, as well as at the union and conference levels, where departments also operate.
In sum, the 1901 reforms resulted in a more flexible form of organization and a more interdependent system of governance. Operational decision-making was devolved to unions, while authority on matters of wide concern was reserved to bodies representative of the whole denomination.
Seventh-day Adventists early in their history recognized that proclamation of the gospel is helped, not hindered, by effective structure. For this reason, they formed conferences in 1861, created the General Conference in 1863, and, from 1893–1901, established and eventually embraced unions: all for the purpose of proclamation and mission. In the words of Daniells, Adventists needed “more . . . organization to expedite our work.”21 Structure was not an end in itself. As Ellen White put it: “The church is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world.”22
How do unions contribute to this goal? This is something church members and pastors often misunderstand. The crucial point is that, in Adventist ecclesiastical polity, unions are not merely components of the General Conference; they constitute the General Conference. Adventists tend to use “GC” merely for the headquarters; but it is much more: it is the sum of its constituent parts. Therefore, when the General Conference makes a decision, it is not something unions can depart from (though some church members or church leaders may not always agree with those decisions) because the General Conference, in a real sense, is not distinct from the unions. Decisions of General Conference sessions or, in constitutionally delegated areas, of the GC Executive Committee, are not the expression of something other than the unions but, rather, the collective voice of the General Conference’s members. Because all have contributed to decisions, all have an obligation to carry them out.
In addition to enabling concerted action, the Seventh-day Adventist Church continues to rely on the connectivity that unions provide between conferences of local churches and the world church (GC) administration. The union is truly the pivot of the denomination, for it is the central point on which Adventist organization turns, though it is part of a wider machinery.
After the 1901 General Conference Session, Ellen White declared that the new model of organization based on “Union Conferences was God’s arrangement.”23 The collaborative and interdependent nature of the General Conference, as a conference of unions, promotes unity and enables collective action and, thus, helps to lift up Jesus Christ, who has assured us that “I, when I am lifted up . . . will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, NIV).
1 “Four levels of Church structure lead from the individual believer to the worldwide Church organization: The local church is made up of individual believers. The local conference, or local field/mission, is made up of a number of local churches in a state, province, or territory. The union conference, or union field/mission, is made up of conferences . . . within a larger territory (often a grouping of states or a whole country). The General Conference, the most extensive unit of organization, is made up of all unions/entities in all parts of the world.” There are also divisions: “sections of the General Conference, with administrative responsibility for particular geographical areas.” http://www.nadadventist.org/article/19/about-our -church/organizational-structure.
2 Stephen D. O’Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 102, 103.
3 George R. Knight, Organizing for Mission and Growth: The Development of Adventist Church Structure (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2006), 32. Sabbatarian adventists held what was termed a general conference in upstate New York in August 1852; however, its discussions were less significant than those at three general conferences held in Battle Creek in 1860, 1861, and 1863.
4 E.g., Knight, Organizing, 21–29.
5 The “state conferences” created were: Northern and Southern Iowa Conferences (consolidated to “Iowa Conference” shortly after establishment), Vermont Conference, Illinois Conference, Wisconsin Conference, Minnesota Conference, and New York Conference.
6 See David J. B. Trim, “The Spirit of ’63”, in Adventist World, June 2015, and in Adventist Review: General Conference Bulletin, no. 1 (July 5, 2015), www.adventistreview.org/1514-8.
7 See Andrew G. Mustard, “James White and the Development of Seventh-day Adventist Organization, 1844–1881,” (PhD dissertation, Andrews University, 1987), 253, 254, 258, 259; Andrew G. Mustard, “Seventh-day Adventist Polity: Its Historical Development” (Biblical Research Institute paper, n.d.), 4, www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/sites/default/files /pdf/AMustard-SDA%20polity.pdf.
8 See Mustard, “Development of Adventist Organization,” 261, 262; cf. Knight, Organizing, 16, 19.
9 This is evident in the way the church translates conference into Spanish (“asociación”) and French (“fédération”).
10 On organizational challenges in the late 1890s, the 1901 session and its reforms, and associated controversies, see the authoritative study of Barry D. Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure: Past, Present and Future (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1989).
11 Nineteenth General Conference Session, third meeting, Oct. 12, 1880, in “General Conference Records,” vol. 2 (GC Archives, box 6873).
12 A. G. Daniells, speech at 38th General Conference Session, 13th meeting, May 22, 1913, General Conference Bulletin 7 (1913): 108.
13 Twenty-Eighth Session, 1889: 1st meeting, Oct. 18, 8th meeting, Oct. 25, 20th meeting, Nov. 5, Daily Bulletin of the General Conference 3 (1889): 8, 90, 155. Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure, 103.
14 Daniells’s speech (cited n. 11), 108.
15 J. E. White letter to E. G. White, June 18, 1899.
16 Ellen G. White, Manuscript 43c, 1901.
17 Oliver, SDA Organizational Structure, 291, 292.
18 Remarks made in the 30th meeting (April 23, 1901), “Organization of Southern Union Conference,” “Constitution and By-Laws of the Southwestern Union,” and Constitution[s] of the Lake, North West, and Eastern Union Conferences, The General Conference Bulletin:Thirty-Fourth Session 4, extra no. 19 and no. 2 (April 24, 1901): 442, 447, 449, 475–477.
19 Secretariat, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, A Study of Church Governance and Unity (Sept. 2016), 22, www.adventistarchives.org/a -study-of-church-governance-and-unity.pdf.
20 “Summary of Proceedings of General Conference,” The General Conference Bulletin:Thirty-Fourth Session 4, no. 2 (second quarter, 1901): 501.
21 Daniells, 108.
22 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 9.
23 Quoted by Willie C. White at the 35th (1903) General Conference Session: 19th meeting (April 9, 1903), in The General Conference Bulletin: Thirty-Fifth Session 5, no. 10 (April 10, 1903): 158; printed in full in Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 232.