Independent congregations or worldwide organized church?

Lessons from early Adventist Church history

Bob Pickle is an author and apologist from Halstad, Minnesota, United States.

Two church leaders accused James White of something absolutely scandalous. And James readily admitted that the accusation was true. So, what was this tale that Iowa Conference president B. F. Snook and secretary W. H. Brinkerhoff spread all around just after the May 17, 1865, General Conference Session in Battle Creek, Michigan?

Some background

Convincing Sabbath-keeping Adventists of the need for “church organization” had not been easy, but in 1860, Sabbath-keeping Adventists chose the name “Seventh-day Adventist.” In the next year came the organization of the Michigan Conference and the publishing association. Then the General Conference organized in 1863.

June 9, 1865, James and Ellen White joined John Loughborough in Monroe, Wisconsin. James and John, two of the three members of the General Conference Committee, decided to move the Iowa annual conference from the fall to June 30–July 2. After all, one member of the committee was supposed to attend the state conferences, and both of these men were already in the west.

After mailing the notice of the rescheduling to appear in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald in the next two issues, W. S. Ingraham shared with James White a disturbing letter he had received from Snook.1 Noticing the postscript (“Bro. Ingraham, what do you think of striking out on the old plan of the independence of the churches?”), White said, “There is rebellion in Iowa.” But none of them really knew what was going on until just hours before meeting Snook and Brinkerhoff at Pilot Grove, Iowa, the afternoon of June 29.

“Meeting of investigation”

Loughborough chaired a “meeting of investigation” on June 30 that addressed the various charges spread by Snook and Brinkerhoff against the Whites and Battle Creek.2

Now that tale about James White went like this: Elder White put his arm “around a woman, and led her the whole length of the tent” to a front seat. He’s not a safe man!3 At the recent General Conference Session? How brazen!

James White responded, “I own to doing that very thing. I put my arm around a woman, and led her the whole length of the tent to the front seat and gave her an easy seat; and it was my good old mother, in whose lap I have sat, and whose arms encircled me in my babyhood.”

The congregation laughed. Ellen White later recounted, “It was truth, don’t you see? It was truth. But there are just such things as that. The truth is taken and so mixed up and mixed up with the carnality of man that it seems that it would deceive, if possible, the very elect.”4

Snook and Brinkerhoff’s confessions

The next morning Snook and Brinkerhoff repeatedly confessed to the Whites and insisted that their confessions be printed in the Review.

Their written, anguished confessions, dated July 12, were published in the July 25 issue and listed three mistaken causes for their rebellion. One of these was, “I have also . . . longed for a freedom that I now see would result in anarchy and universal disorder. I felt that the General Conference Committee were too domineering and were fast becoming a kind of triune papacy. Let me say that I have no such feelings now.”5

Why in these last days has He raised up a fellowship of flawed believers who must cooperate in self-sacrificing love to reach the lost on a global scale?

But not long after, these men were back at it again, trying to alienate members from the Whites and the General Conference. Their confession “was not in the heart,” Ellen White said. So why did they confess at all?

“I will tell you what frightened them: While they were at Brother Adams’s, just a short way from Brother Nicola’s, there was that awful thunderstorm came, and awful lightning, and the men were so scared. The lightning struck the very spot where they had been; and they ran into the house and jumped into the bed. And one got on one side, and the other crawled over him onto the other side, and there they groaned and prayed and confessed right there. But what about that thunderbolt? It came on the very spot where they had taken their feet off of, and that scared them. It plowed a hole right in the ground.”6

Real cause might not be apparent

While their confessions listed three mistaken causes, there might have been a fourth. Snook reportedly said that though Seventh-day Adventism had the truth, he left it “because there was not enough money in it.”7 The 1864 Iowa State Conference voted to pay Iowa ministers 25 percent more than any other minister and to pay Snook quarterly in advance. The hiding of this action from the brethren at Battle Creek lends credence to this report.

Independence of the churches versus church organization

James White suffered a paralytic stroke on August 16, 1865, and it is not hard to conclude that dealing with this crisis was, in part, to blame. But it is the question of “independence of the churches” versus “church organization” that we want to talk about. In describing the development of Adventist church organization, S. N. Haskell stated: “The independence of our churches was also a question, and it was clearly seen from the Bible that the churches were amenable to some organization that was above them (Acts 15:1–41), and that the ordaining of ministers was by the presbytery (Acts 13:1–3), a higher authority than one single church or one single minister.”8

In the first century, many refused to abide by the decision of Acts 15, and these gave Paul no small amount of grief. Thus, Snook and Brinkerhoff were not the first to resist church organization, nor were they the last. A. T. Jones, in his later years, did too, and he likely influenced L. C. Sheafe.9 Sheafe helped found the Free Seventh-day Adventists in the early 1900s. Free, a word also found in Evangelical Free, and Free Lutheran, denotes congregationalism independent of accountability to a higher authority.

A limit to local authority

Within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the local church makes decisions regarding church membership and discipline. But as J. H. Waggoner explained in 1885, local churches cannot act independently of the entire body. A church that knowingly accepts into membership a person disfellowshiped elsewhere, without that person confessing his wrong, “has violated the rules of the gospel, and subjected itself to censure for subverting discipline. . . .

“And the church of which such person was formerly a member, should duly report the case to the Conference to which the erring church belongs.”10

Waggoner wrote, “Do we not in this deny the independence of the churches, by denying them the right to judge of the qualifications of their own members? . . . We do indeed deny the right of any church to act independently of the rules laid down by Christ and his ambassadors.”11

“Church organization” versus “popery”

Despite the checks and balances within the Adventist Church, where accountability goes both upward and downward, some have argued that accountability upward is akin to popery. W. A. Spicer addresses this in a segment titled, “Divine Warnings Against Disorganization”:

“Of one experience, in which the pastor or officer of a church asserted its independence of apostolic oversight, refusing to receive the laborers sent to minister to it, [John] says:—

“ ‘I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.’ 3 John 9.

“No doubt this advocate of the independence of the churches from the general oversight established, was loud in his denunciation of the effort of the organized body to preserve the unity of the work. He prated against the apostle ‘with malicious words,’ and had the word been coined then, he would surely have called the apostles’ effort popery. Inspiration says that his real difficulty was that he loved to have the pre-eminence among them. This was the spirit of self-exalting independence and disregard of gospel order and organization which led straight on to the papacy.”12

Did the dissent succeed?

Eventually, Snook and Brinkerhoff’s influence helped spawn various different groups that, combined, have been called the Seventh Day Church of God.13 In the early days, this opposition claimed, “If Mrs. White’s Testimonies were out of the way, the message would soon go to the world in its ‘loud cry.’ ” Loughborough in later years recalled that claim and contrasted the considerable growth of the work of Seventh-day Adventists with the lack of growth of the Church of God. That contrast was stark.14

In 1973, Church of God historian Richard Nickels explained why these groups constitute “a dying church,” as he put it, thus addressing Loughborough’s challenge. Nickels identified resistance to church organization and lack of doctrinal unity as two of the causes.15 The titles of Nickels’s two concluding chapters, written later, paint an even bleaker picture: “The ‘Church Depression Period,’ 1974–1987,” and “The 1990s: Spiritual Abyss and Rays of Hope.”

A part of that “abyss” concerned the Worldwide Church of God founded by Herbert W. Armstrong. Just before Armstrong died, he passed the reins of control on to a single individual. In a relatively short time afterward, that denomination changed its worship day to Sunday, made tithing optional, switched to evolution, approved the eating of pork, and became Trinitarian, causing considerable controversy and loss of membership.

In contrast, the Seventh-day Adventist Church does not concentrate power in the hands of one, or even several. The highest authority under God Himself is the General Conference Session, with thousands of delegates. The second-highest authority is the General Conference Executive Committee, comprised of hundreds. A few people could never hijack the denomination and so radically change its beliefs contrary to the consensus of the whole body. Those groups who consider the General Conference to be “popery” would do well to consider adopting a similar system.

Thoughts from a Mennonite

In 2011, representatives from the Mennonite World Conference met with General Conference leaders. These were some of the observations:

“ ‘Mennonite leaders also identified the structure of their global communion as inverted compared to the Adventist Church. Though based in Strasbourg, France, Mennonite congregations are autonomous, which generates more diversity,’ said Robert Suderman, former general secretary of the Mennonite Church Canada, who co-chaired the meeting. . . .

“ ‘The administrative structure may have been responsible for some of the Adventist Church’s success,’ Suderman said.

“ ‘Adventists have grown very quickly in 150 years and we haven’t,’ he said.”16

At the time of this 2011 meeting, the Mennonite World Conference represented 1.6 million members in a movement that had begun 500 years before, while Seventh-day Adventists had grown to 17 million in less than a third of that time span.

Suderman is at least partly correct. Imagine for a moment where the Seventh-day Adventist Church would be today if it had reversed course on “church organization.” If local churches were accountable only to their own constituencies, their own memberships, what would happen if substantial numbers of churches decided to retain most of their tithe for their own use? Instead, the collaboration and cooperation that church organization encourages and requires have made resources available for greatly expanding the work.

Church organization in light of the great controversy

Today, every person on the planet can conceivably be reached with the third angel’s message in a relatively short time. So why has God ordained that, with few exceptions, human beings be the ones to spread the gospel? Why in these last days has He raised up a fellowship of flawed believers who must cooperate in self-sacrificing love to reach the lost on a global scale?

One reason might be that it is the ultimate defeat of Satan in the great controversy. Satan, in his rebellion, convinced nearly half the angels, God’s “ministering spirits,”17 to forsake their ministry of self-sacrificing service in order to promote self-centeredness. In these last days, many of Satan’s subjects repudiate self-centeredness, switch sides, and engage in a work of self-sacrificing service akin to what Satan and his angels once did.

The church “is not to be disorganized or broken up into independent atoms. There is not the least consistency in this; there is not the least evidence that such a thing will be.”18

Flawed people, harmoniously cooperating in service, accountable to those below and submitting to authority above, find in God’s service training for eternal responsibilities in the world to come. How is your training coming along?

  1. J. N. Loughborough, “Certificate,” in Uriah Smith, “A Gross Misrepresentation,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 12, 1867, 162. Later accounts, such as George States’s in the October 17, 1907, Review, may have misinterpreted the meeting notice as being issued because of Snook’s letter—when in fact it was mailed before White and Loughborough had read that letter.
  2. J. N. Loughborough, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists (Battle Creek, MI: Gen. Conf. Assn. of the SDAs, 1892), 268. Instead of June 29, we use the date of June 30 used by Loughborough’s 1867 statement, referred to in note 1, and by Brinkerhoff’s confession in the Review of July 25, 1865, 67, 68. The business session originally planned for June 30 was postponed until July 3. G. I. Butler and H. E. Carver, “Business Proceedings of the Iowa State Conference Held at Pilot Grove, Iowa, Jul. 3, 1865,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, August 1, 1865, 70.
  3. Ellen G. White, Manuscript 70a, 1905.
  4. White, Manuscript 70a, 1905.
  5. B. F. Snook, “From Bro. Snook,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 25, 1865, 68.
  6. White, Manuscript 70a, 1905.
  7. J. N. Loughborough, “Sketches of the Past—No. 134,” Pacific Union Recorder, January 9, 1913, 1, 2. See also Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 625.
  8. S. N. Haskell, “A Few Thoughts on Organization,” The Church Officer’s Gazette, April 1915, 2.
  9. George R. Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987), 178–193, 240–251.
  10. J. H. Waggoner, “The Church. No. 16,” Signs of the Times, Aug. 13, 1885, 488.
  11. J. H. Waggoner, “The Church.—No. 16,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 1, 1885, 553.
  12. W. A. Spicer, “Gospel Order—No. 8 (Concluded),” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 13, 1909, 7.
  13. Richard C. Nickels, History of the Seventh Day Church of God (Neck City, MO: Giving & Sharing, 1999), ch. 15, giveshare.org/churchhistory/historysdcog/history15.html.
  14. J. N. Loughborough, “Sketches of the Past—No. 135,” Pacific Union Recorder, January 23, 1913, 3.
  15. Nickels, History, ch. 14. Nickels also identifies Millerism and Seventh-day Adventism as causes for Seventh Day Church of God decline. Yet this seems implausible since Seventh-day Adventism continues to grow, and still teaches that the 2300 days ended in 1844.
  16. Bettina Krause and Ansel Oliver, “First Conversation between Adventists, Mennonites Focuses on Living Christian Life,” Adventist News Network, July 11, 2011, news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2011-07-11/first-conversation-between-adventists-mennonites-focuses-on-living-christian-life/.
  17. Heb. 1:14, (KJV and NIV).
  18. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 2 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 68.
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Bob Pickle is an author and apologist from Halstad, Minnesota, United States.

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