In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the union connects the local or regional level to the overarching structure and thus is the pivot of the denomination: the central point on which the mechanism of our organization turns. To understand why unions were created, their role in our 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 “General Conference” is so familiar that many church leaders probably never think about why it has that title or what it means. Our pioneers used “conference” in two ways.
One was for a general meeting of believers. At a general conference in September 1860, Sabbatarian adventists agreed that all local congregations should organize themselves legally, and adopt a common name: Seventh-day Adventist. An October 1861 general conference encouraged these newly organized Seventh-day Adventist churches to form state-based associations, and churches in Michigan did so, creating what they called “the Michigan Conference.” In the next 15 months, six “state conferences” were created. Then in May 1863, at Battle Creek, Michigan, delegates from these 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 for state conferences, an executive committee, and three officers.1 As these examples show, Adventists also used “conference” in a second sense, one used less commonly today: a permanent association, especially one that regulates the activities of its members. It was a familiar term to our pioneers because the Methodist Episcopalian Church and the Mennonites called their regional organizations “conferences.” In our church polity, a Conference thus was (and is) a conference of local churches. 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, which all conferences had to adopt in order to become members of the General Conference. It was a conference of conferences until far-reaching organizational reforms at the 34th GC Session in 1901.2 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 our history, there were three levels of denominational organization: local (the congregation); provincial (the conference); and whole-church (the General Conference). This worked well for a small sect in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. But as a result of the General Conference’s emphasis on mission, the denomination expanded both geographically and numerically. The first overseas conference was admitted in 1880, when the 19th GC Session voted: “That the conference in Denmark be received into the General Conference.”3
At the end of 1866 (the first year for which we have statistics), the General Conference was made up of seven conferences, plus one mission (functionally equivalent to the conference but with less autonomy), comprising 4,320 church members. By the controversial 1888 GC Session, there were 32 conferences, five outside the United States, plus six missions, with a total membership of 26,112 on four continents plus the islands of the Pacific. By the epochal 1901 Session, the General Conference 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.”4 The 1882 GC Session approved a “European Council” to coordinate mission across the continent. The 1899 GC Session demarcated six “districts” in North America, shown in this map from the 1890 Yearbook.
At the 1893 GC Session, Australasia and Europe were designated, respectively, Districts 7 and 8.5 A district, however, lacked a constituency and permanent headquarters, and GC leaders were unwilling to delegate much authority to district superintendents.
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.” Ellen G. White and her son, Willie, both serving as missionaries in Australia, like Daniells, felt that a new body was needed to handle “South Paci c Ocean questions, Australasian problems, so that any conference might get this word from a center of authority right there.”6 In 1894, the Australasian Union Conference was created and Daniells elected rst president. The terminology “union conference” indicated 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, so leaders in Battle Creek had to accept it. For the next seven years, however, they opposed adoption of the union model elsewhere. In 1898, Europe’s nine conferences and missions formed the “European Union Conference”; but no unions were formed in North America before 1901.
1901 AND THE NEED FOR REFORM
By 1901, Adventist organization had become sclerotic. Today, the largest division, the Inter-American, interacts with 22 unions in a relatively limited area. In an era before instant communications or jet travel, the Adventist world headquarters was trying to administer 87 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 in Australia, irate that the denomination’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?”
On the eve of the 34th Session in 1901, Ellen White told 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.”8 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 all recently “returned from extended periods of foreign missionary service,” and they sought reorganization to enable further church growth around the globe.9 The most consequential reform was that unions were formed in the rest of the world; in fact, most North American Unions were formally organized during the Session’s breaks.10
THE UNIONS AND THE GC SINCE 1901
The General Conference became a conference of unions. It remains so. The world divisions are sub-divisions 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 back to the world headquarters. 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
The decisions of GC Sessions are not the expression of something other than the unions; they are the collective voice of its members, all of whom have contributed to the decisions.
from North America. It emphatically was “not a representative body for a worldwide church.”11 One of the 1901 reforms made each union president ex officio a member of the Executive Committee. This made the committee far more representative. But it also bound the General Conference far more closely together. None of the member unions could ever after say that its views had not been 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.”12 Completely independent associations became departments, under the authority of the Executive Committee. As a result, the Unions henceforth had a say in the oversight of departments at the General Conference level, not just the union and conference levels.
In sum, the 1901 reforms resulted in a more flexible form of organization and a more interdependent system of governance. They devolved operational authority downwards, as well as assigning it upwards, particularly on matters of wide concern.
As we have seen, unions are not merely components of the General Conference; they constitute the General Conference. This is why their constitutions, by laws, and working policies must harmonize with those of the General Conference. The General Conference, as an organization, is more than the permanent headquarters: it is the sum of its constituent parts. When the General Conference makes a decision, it is not something unions can depart from (though some church members or church leaders
When the General Conference makes a decision, it is not something unions can depart from.
sometimes disagree with those decisions), because the General Conference, in a real sense, is not distinct from the unions. The decisions of GC Sessions, or, in constitutionally delegated areas, of the GC Executive Committee, are not the expression of something other than the unions; they are the collective voice of its members, all of whom have contributed to the decisions.
The answer to the question, “What is the General Conference a conference of?” is crucial to a complete understanding of the collaborative and interdependent nature of our ecclesiastical polity, which is one of the greatest strengths of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
1See D. J. B. Trim, “The spirit of ’63”, Adventist Review: General Conference Bulletin, no. 1 (5 July 2015): available at https://www.adventistreview. org/1514-8
2On organizational problems in the late 1890s, the 1901 Session, 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).
3Nineteenth GC Session, 3rd meeting, Oct. 12, 1880, “Seventh-day Adventist General Conference Records,” Vol. 2 (GC Archives, box 6873). The terminology of “state conference” was gradually dropped as the denomination spread beyond the United States.
4A. G. Daniells, speech at 38th GC Session, 13th meeting, May 22, 1913, General Conference Bulletin [GCB] 7 (1913): 108.
5Twenty-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.
6Daniells speech (cited n. 4), GCB 7 (1913): 108.
7J. E. White to E. G. White, June 18, 1899.
8 Ellen G. White, MS 43, 1901.
9 Oliver, SDA organizational structure, 291-92.
10Thirty-Fourth Session, remarks made in the 30th meeting (April 23, 1901) by the chairman (George Irwin); and see “Organization of Southern Union,” “Constitution and By-laws of the Southwestern Union,” and “Constitution[s]” of the Lake, North West and Eastern Unions: GCB 4 (1901): 442, 447, 449, 475–77.
11GC Secretariat, A Study of Church Governance and Unity (Sept. 2017), 22.
12Summary of 34th Session actions, GCB 4 (1901): 501.
Originally published in the GC Executive Committee Newsletter, October, 2018, accessible at executivecommittee.adventist.org/newsletter