What a privilege to be in Battle Creek, Michigan—the birthplace of the Seventh-day Adventist Church! Imagine what it must have been like for those faith-filled, forward-looking leaders to gather here 155 years ago, May 20-23, 1863, to officially organize this movement.
At that time, there were about 3,500 members scattered across the United States, with no more than thirty ministers.1 Today, this is a worldwide movement with more than 20 million members, and more than 300,000 denominational workers, including nearly 20,000 ordained ministers.
Clearly, only the blessing and guidance of God could have taken the small, humble beginnings of this prophetic, end-time movement and transformed it into what it is today! God has worked through countless lay members and leaders, missionaries and mothers, workers and retirees, men and women, young people and children—to bring this movement to where it is today.
Since we are at the LEAD conference, it is appropriate that we focus on church leadership. What does it mean to be a faithful leader in God’s church today? What are some of the leadership qualities that lead to success? How can we reflect Christlike, servant-leadership?
To answer these questions, let’s look at a few examples of faith-filled, fearless, yet humble leaders who followed God’s leading, and gain from their experiences wisdom and courage to move forward in our God-given mission today.
ANSWERING THE CALL
The knock on the door early one morning did not bring good news for William Miller. Having made a deal with God, he felt safe. Who would invite him to preach?
He had been studying the Bible diligently, using only Cruden’s Concordance. Beginning with Genesis, “he let the Bible explain itself. One by one, most of its seemingly insoluble inconsistencies faded away.”2
Then one day Miller read Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Getting the prophetic timeline right, but assuming the “cleansing of the sanctuary” meant the end of the world, Miller occasionally shared his discoveries with friends. But the conviction grew that he must share publicly. Finally he prayed, “If You send an invitation to preach, then I will go.” Less than thirty minutes later, the invitation came—and a reluctant leader for God was called.
IF YOU SEND an invitation to preach, then I WILL GO .
William Miller wasn’t the first to reluctantly accept God’s call. We think of Moses—born in slavery yet trained to lead. After an unfortunate misuse of his management skills, this adopted prince spent 40 years learning how to lead like a shepherd—rather than a king. Leaning upon His Deliverer, Moses went from fearful to fearless.
When God called Jeremiah, the young man responded, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth” (Jer. 1:6). But the Lord answered, “Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak” (vs. 7).
During the time of the judges, God spoke through His prophet Deborah to call Barak to deliver His people from their cruel oppressors. Even though God had assured Barak of victory, he refused to go unless Deborah went with him.
Unlike Barak, Deborah was a faith-filled leader. Ellen White describes her as “a woman illustrious for her piety, and through her the Lord chose to deliver His people.
. . . She was known as a prophetess,” writes Ellen White, “and in the absence of the usual magistrates, the people had sought to her for counsel and justice.”3 The Bible tells us that Deborah “would sit under the palm tree . . . between Ramah and Bethel . . . and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:5).
THE CALL OF ANOTHER PROPHET
Thousands of years later, the same God who raised up Deborah called another faithful woman to be His prophet during a critically important time.
Described as, “the weakest of the weak,” Ellen Gould Harmon’s call to serve as God’s prophet was confirmed by her willingness to accept and carry out the responsibilities He gave her, despite her weakness, and the ridicule, scorn, and misrepresentation that she knew would come.
Through God’s strength, Ellen (Harmon) White faithfully served as God’s last-day prophet for 70 years, helping guide this movement from its infancy into a strong, worldwide denomination.
Toward the end of her life, at the 1901 General Conference Session, God used her in a remarkable way to bring revitalized organization and healing to the struggling church.
The 1901 General Conference (GC) Session was not one that Ellen White looked forward to attending. Settled in her “Sunnyside” home near the newly established Avondale College, “she would have been pleased if she could have spent the rest of her life in Australia,” wrote her grandson, Arthur White.4
She had helped guide the work “down under,” and was instrumental in setting up a new college and a health retreat, in addition to writing what became some of her most beloved books focusing on the life and teachings of Jesus.
Nevertheless, by mid-1900, at the age of 72, Ellen White was becoming more certain that she must return to the United States. She had seen in vision troubling situations that were developing there, leading to growing concern.5
While it was not her personal choice to leave Australia, she believed God was calling her back, in part, to attend the GC Session that was scheduled to be held in Battle Creek the following February.
“The call comes in so decided and earnest a way that we dare not refuse,” she wrote to her son Edson. “We are to know the truth as it is in Jesus; then we are to practice it heartily, at any sacrifice. . . There is a great work to be done in a short period of time. . . .We need to understand our work and do that work with fidelity.”6
Two weeks later Ellen White was on the ship, Moana, starting a 7,200-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean. She arrived in San Francisco, California, on September 21, 1900.7
By October 16, Ellen White had purchased a home, soon to be known as “Elmshaven,” in northern California. Here she would live out the remaining 15 years of her life and ministry.
CONCERNS ABOUT THE 1901 SESSION
The 1901 General Conference Session was scheduled to be held in February in Battle Creek. Due to Ellen White’s age and delicate health, leaders decided to hold the Session in April, rather than during the cold Michigan winter.
Many were concerned about what would happen at the 1901 Session. It was clear the church had outgrown its structure. In addition, troubling developments were taking place under the direction of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.
Other concerns included serious problems at the publishing house, the outbreak of fanaticism in Indiana, financial challenges in the southern States, and financial and administrative problems in the rapidly growing work overseas.
A LARGE GC SESSION
The 1901 General Conference Session was the largest held up to that point. The 267 delegates represented a church of 75,000 members, most of whom lived in the United States.
The basic structure of the church had remained unchanged since 1863—the local conference and the General Conference. Of the 45 local conferences, 31 were located in the United States.
EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE ENLARGED
When the church organized in 1863, a General Conference Executive Committee was formed, consisting of three members. By the mid-1880s, that number increased to five, by 1887 to seven, and in 1889 to nine. Two more were added in 1893, and by 1899 the GC Executive Committee totaled thirteen members.
The defined work of the Executive Committee 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.”8
That was a big task for only thirteen people. Worse yet, the group was widely scattered, and the full committee rarely met. Therefore, the administrative work of the church was often left to the four members who lived in Battle Creek, along with the GC secretary and treasurer, who were not Executive Committee members at that time. With this very small group trying to direct the work of the entire church, serious challenges developed, and it was to this situation that Ellen White directed some of her most pointed counsel.
COUNSEL TO CHURCH LEADERS
In a special meeting held in the Battle Creek College library the day before the 1901 GC Session, Ellen White told church leaders:
“Never should the mind of one man or the minds of a few men be regarded as sufficient in wisdom and power to control the work and say what plans shall be followed. The burden of the work in this broad field should not rest upon two or three men. We are not reaching the high standard which, with the great and important truth we are handling, God expects us to reach.”9
Speaking of how the General Conference was being operated at that time, she continued, “As the matter has been presented to me, there is a narrow compass, and within this narrow compass . . . are those who would like to exercise kingly power. But the work carried on all over the field demands an entirely different course of action.”10
She then introduced the concept of reorganization and of greatly broadening the membership of the General Conference Executive Committee by declaring:
“There is need of the laying of a foundation different from the foundation which has been laid in the past. . . . There must be a committee, not composed of half a dozen men, but of representatives from all lines of our work, from our publishing houses, from our educational institutions, and from our sanitariums . . .”11
Regarding leadership in the church and its institutions, Ellen White was very direct. “The interests of the General Conference and all that concerns the handling of the work require minds that are controlled by the Holy Spirit. Unless those who have charge of the work give evidence that they are controlled by the Holy Spirit, unless they give evidence that they receive power from God to impart to the responsibilities with which they are connected, a change should be made without delay.”12
MESSAGE TO THE SESSION
The next morning at the GC Session, Ellen White continued to press home her God-given message, explaining what leaders in God’s work are expected to be.
“The principles of heaven are to be carried out in every family, in the discipline of every church, in every establishment, in every institution, in every school, and in everything that shall be managed. You have no right to manage,” she said, “unless you manage in God’s order. Are you under the control of God? Do you see your responsibility to Him? The word of God is to be our guide. Have you given heed to the Word?”
“God wants you to be converted, and may He help, that this work may go forward. He is a power for His people when they come into order.
. . . If we will take hold of the Master, take hold of all the power He has given us, the salvation of God will be revealed.”13
A WATERSHED MOMENT
The 1901 General Conference Session was a watershed moment for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Leaders humbly submitted to the divine counsel, and a vast reorganization of the church took place. No longer would the entire church be governed by just a handful of men in Battle Creek. The GC Executive Committee was expanded to include leaders from around the world.
The interests of the General Conference and all that concerns the handling of the work require minds that are controlled by the Holy Spirit.
In addition, the 87 conferences and missions of the General Conference, comprising 75,767 church members, were formed into union conferences to more efficiently direct the church’s work within their geographic territories.
Leading up to this move was increasing frustration, particularly on the part of leaders living outside of the United States, to have to wait several months for an answer to arrive by letter from the General Conference before moving ahead in addressing specific needs in the field.
CREATION OF UNION CONFERENCES
Because of these challenges, the first union of local conferences—the Australasian Union Conference—was created in 1894. Ellen White, who was living in Australia, heartily endorsed this development. Four years later, Europe’s nine local conferences and missions formed the “European Union Conference.” But no union conferences were formed in North America until the 1901 GC Session.
The creation of union conferences changed the structure of the General Conference. Instead of it being composed of numerous local conferences, the General Conference now consisted of union conferences. In addition, each union president became an ex officio member of the GC Executive Committee.
The GC Executive Committee’s authority was increased, and the union conferences were given some operational autonomy, although the unions were subordinate to the General Conference Executive Committee—the body that created them.
Several other items were addressed at the 1901 Session, including the establishment of GC departments, a call to move the college out of Battle Creek, and confronting the “Holy Flesh” fanaticism movement.
PEACEABLE AND PRODUCTIVE
From all accounts, the 1901 GC Session was remarkable for its peaceable yet productive action, and all acknowledged the Lord’s miraculous working.
- N. Loughborough, one of the pioneers present in 1863 when the General Conference was first organized, observed at the close of the 1901 Session: “When we have heeded the light that He [God] has given, the cause has gone straight every time; and the difficulties in the way have been when we have not strictly heeded the instruction that God has given.”14
During her closing remarks, Ellen White stated, “Wrongs—serious wrongs—have been committed in Battle Creek. I did not know how we would get along at this meeting. The Lord gave me instruction regarding this. I was referred to an incident in the life of the prophet Elisha.” Recounting the appearance of angels in fiery chariots at Dothan, she continued:
“God presented this to me, and I did not know what it meant. . . . and then, as the lesson was fulfilled, I began to grasp its meaning. . . .
“Who do you suppose has been among us since this conference began? Who has kept away the objectionable features that generally appear in such a meeting? Who has walked up and down the aisles of this Tabernacle? The God of heaven and His angels.
“And they did not come here to tear you in pieces, but to give you right and peaceable minds. They have been among us to work the works of God, to keep back the powers of darkness, that the work God designed should be done should not be hindered. The angels of God have been working among us . . . telling us how to carry the work forward. . . .This is not our work. God has brought it about. . . . God’s angels have been walking up and down in this congregation. . . . God has said that He will heal the wounds of His people.
“Press together, press together,” she urged. “Let us be united in Christ. God is dishonored by disunion.”15
Many rose to share testimonies of how God had wrought at the Session, and it was decided that the final meeting would continue into the evening of April 23, where many more testimonies were shared. Finally, newly elected GC president, A. G. Daniells spoke:
“God has answered the thousands of prayers that have gone up to Him during the past six months, that this might be a conference of peace,” he said. “God has answered those prayers in a signal manner. Praise His holy name. I sincerely pray that this harmony and union may continue forever.”16
A GODLY LEADER
The 1901 General Conference Session required bold, decisive, humble, godly leadership. It required leaders who were as true to duty as the needle to the pole.
One such leader was William Ambrose Spicer. Spicer was a dedicated, mission-minded, selfless leader who would one day become General Conference secretary and later serve as GC president.
When Spicer was a teen, someone gave him The Great Controversy. He read the book eagerly, and it greatly influenced his decision to become a Seventh-day Adventist.
He had a heart for mission and later served in England, India, and as secretary of the Foreign Mission Board.
A BIBLICAL APPROACH
During his report given to the 1901 GC Session regarding the work in India, Spicer explained his simple yet biblical approach:
“The Indians have a complicated philosophy, founded upon principles that they call scientific,” he said. “That need not trouble us at all, for we can give the third angel’s message to India without having more than the remotest idea of all of their philosophic discussions and questions. In fact, it is the study of a lifetime to find out what the Hindu religion is, and anyone who goes there to work will find that he has very little time to study darkness.
“The work in India is simply to let the light shine. . . all that is needed is to tell the simple, saving truth of the third angel’s message.”17
Explaining the effectiveness of this simple approach, Spicer stated, “Many Hindus have been struck with the difference between preaching the word of God and preaching about the word of God. And they appreciate the word of God, and it appeals to their hearts. I am glad that we need not feel . . . that we must give them some argument of our own about the word of God, in order to impress them with the fact that the word is God’s, but we have only to open the word to them, and let God’s voice speak to their hearts; and there is a power in God’s voice to speak to the hearts of the heathen,” he said, using the nomenclature of the time.18
Then, revealing his humble yet straightforward way that endeared Spicer to so many, he confessed, “The heathen man is not so different from ourselves. I have been a heathen myself, and the Lord saved me by His grace. And in heathenism you can see manifested your own disposition, the natural man; you can see in heathenism just what you would be yourself, did not the grace of God save you from your own ways, for heathenism is nothing more nor less than a religion of having your own way.”19
Known for his great love for people, mission, and God, Spicer served the Seventh-day Adventist Church for seventy years in various capacities, but always with faithfulness and humility.
A HUMBLE LEADER
“He was happy to sit up all night on the train to save money that he would have spent for a sleeping berth,” wrote historians Richard Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf. “He often did his own laundry and slept in cheap hotel rooms. He spent little on food, frequently eating from a bag of peanuts all day instead of eating regular meals. . . . Spicer was the glue that held the growing mission work together, traveling broadly and always ready with helpful counsel and encouragement to the world community of Adventists. . . .”20
Spicer also wrote regularly for The Review and Herald and authored numerous books. “His writing had the charm of simplicity, directness of expression, and apt illustration,” wrote F. D. Nichol in an editorial following Spicer’s death.21
A. Spicer’s lifelong friend James Lamar McElhany in a personal tribute published in the Review, gives us a real sense of who he was and what made his leadership so successful.
“He was a man of the people. He had the common touch. Regardless of where he served or the position he held, he was always a man of humble attitudes. He often said that it was not the position or office that man held that mattered, but that any office or phase of service to which one was called was simply a means of helping to finish God’s work.“22
Those who worked with W. A. Spicer knew him to be a man of clear and definite convictions, and yet always ready to include others in seeking solutions to problems.
“He placed tremendous emphasis on the Word of God, and the power of that Word to change the lives of men,” McElhany wrote. “His familiarity with the Bible had a marked effect on his style of preaching. He was always simple and direct. Even children delighted to listen to him.”23
In closing his tribute, McElhany ruminated, “As I think back over the years I have known this man of God and attempt to appraise his work, I realize the inadequacy of my own words. But I know that when the records are thrown open it will be seen that he had fully dedicated his long life, all his talents and gifts and his influence, to the cause and service of God for the saving of men and women for the kingdom.”24
What a testimony of godly leadership! As leaders in God’s church today, could the same be said of us? Are we dedicating all of our talents, gifts, and influence to the cause and service of God? Are we focused on our God-given mission to seek and save the lost?
I believe the same angels, and the same God, who were present and actively involved at the Battle Creek Tabernacle in 1901 are here with us throughout this Annual Council.
Do we recognize and utilize the simplicity and power of the three angels’ messages, as did Spicer? Do we teach and preach the Bible, or do we just talk philosophically about the Bible? Do we listen to, and follow, the counsel given in the Spirit of Prophecy? As leaders, do we come close to the people we serve, or stand aloof, wrapping the cloak of position and influence about us? Are we responsibly frugal with the means God has entrusted with us to do His work? What is the most important thing, the most important goal in your life; in my life; right now?
It is no secret that today as leaders we face serious challenges, not only from outside, but from within. This shouldn’t surprise us, as we read in Revelation 12:17: “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
For centuries Satan has fought against God’s faithful people, seeking to foster disharmony, discord, and division. He sows seeds of doubt, discouragement, and disunion among God’s remnant, knowing that “if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25, NKJV).
So today we have returned to Battle Creek, not to turn the clock back 100 years—no, not at all! We have returned to this historic place to remember that we have a “past with a future,” and in looking back we will be encouraged to move forward, knowing that God is at the helm.
STEERING THE SHIP
It has been said, “God can’t steer a ship that isn’t moving,” and as we consider the fearless, godly, courageous leaders of the past, may their examples inspire us to faithfully move forward in our calling.
I believe the same angels, and the same God, who were present and actively involved at the Battle Creek Tabernacle in 1901 are here today, and will be with us throughout this Annual Council, unseen, yet working among us, walking along the aisles, directing our activities toward heaven’s instruction, urging us to “press together, press together,” and to be united in Christ.
Now is the time to submit ourselves fully to God, to lean into His power, to remember how He has led His people in the past, to plead for the wisdom and indwelling of His Spirit, then in His name move boldly, fearlessly ahead, “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
1 Richard W. Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Pacific Press: Nampa, ID, 1979, p. 94.
3 Ellen G. White, Daughters of God, p. 37, egwwritings.org/?ref=en_DG.37.2¶=27.169
4 Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: Volume 5—The Early Elmshaven Years, 1900-1905, p. 13, egwwritings.org/?ref=en_5BIO.9.5¶=675.14
6 Ellen G. White, Letter to J. E. White and Emma White, Lt 123, 1900, egwwritings.org/?ref=en_Lt123-1900¶=9134.6
7 Arthur L. White, p. 15.
8 Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, 1889, p. 4.
9 “Talk by Mrs. E. G. White in College Library, April 1, 1901,” Manuscript 43, 1901, egwwritings.org/?ref=en_Ms43-1901.3¶=9289.9
13 General Conference Bulletin, 1901, p. 25, documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/GCSessionBulletins/GCB1901-01ex01.pdf
14 Ibid., p. 460, documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/GCSessionBulletins/GCB1901-01ex20.pdf
15 Ibid., p. 464.
16 Ibid., p. 474.
17 General Conference Bulletin, 1901, p. 432, documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/GCSessionBulletins/GCB1901-01ex20.pdf
18 Ibid., p. 433.
20 Schwarz and Greenleaf, p. 273.
21 F. D. Nichol, “The Death of W. A. Spicer,” The Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, October 30, 1952, p. 13.
Originally published in the GC Executive Committee Newsletter, October 2018, accessible at executivecommittee.adventist.org/newsletter