A House Divided (2A): Adventism’s Brief Experiment with a ‘King’

 

(This is article 3 in a 9 article series by Adrian Zahid)

Introduction:

When the Sabbatarian Adventists organized the General Conference on May 21, 1863, the almost two decades-long debate over the issue of whether to organize or not, died a quiet death. From here on out, the ‘fights’ shifted to the scope of the authority of the General Conference. There was tremendous growth in the church as new areas were opened to work. Mrs. White received visions regarding health principles and medical missionary work began to augment the work of the Gospel ministry. Even though James White declined the unanimous election to be the first president, he poured all of his energies into the work and two years later he was elected as President of the General Conference. James’ working habits and strong personality led to conflicts with the other “Big Three” in the denomination, which at that time were J.N. Andrews, Uriah Smith, and John Loughborough.

In the 1860s, the papacy declined in influence so much that Uriah Smith felt compelled to introduce his interpretation on Daniel 11 that saw Turkey having an outsized influence in the Time of the End. James White instantly termed Smith’s views as “New Theology.” Other personality driven conflicts over the next decade within this group of leaders led to G.I. Butler’s infamous essay on ‘Leadership.’ In it he attempted to resolve the conflicts between the leaders by proposing that in every major movement in history there had been a person who was indispensable to the movement and essentially its leader. While he recognized that Christ was the ultimate leader, he put forward his philosophy of leadership which held that the church should centralize power within one person for the sake of protection. His essay launched an intense debate in the church over the liberty of conscience and the scope of authority of the General Conference.

Mrs. White issued several statements on the scope of the General Conference’s authority, the last of which, were a part of her final talks given at the General Conference in 1909. We examine careful analysis done on her expressed thoughts in section II of this part. Rather than replicate the excellent analysis done on this subject by Kevin Burton in his Master’s Theses Centralized for Protection: G.I. Butler’s and His Philosophy of One-Person Leadership,[1] I rely on his thesis for the historical background for this article. Others have drawn lessons from this time period in history and cited Burton’s work most notably, Dr. George Knight in several papers and presentations. In a later article in this series, I will analyze Knight’s citation of Burton’s work and contrast his arguments against Burton’s research.

Section I: Historical Background

Burton cites Ellen White’s statement,

“In the commencement of this work, there was needed a man to propose, to execute with determination, and to lead out, battling with error and surmounting obstacles. My husband bore the heaviest burden, and met the most determined opposition. But when we became a fully organized body [in 1863], and several men were chosen to act in responsible positions, then was the proper time for my husband to act no longer as one man to stand under the responsibilities”[2]

as evidence of her claim that from 1844 (and even earlier) till 1863, the leadership of the movement was essentially done by James White and was adequate. Burton labels this first concept of leadership quasi-monarchical.[3] In 1863, when the Adventist church formed it took the “first steps towards developing and defining ecclesiological concepts of leadership and authority.”[4] The Constitution stated, “The officers of this Conference shall be a President, Secretary, Treasurer and an Executive committee of three.”[5] The constitution did not define the official responsibilities of the President and Secretary. It gave the delegates the power to amend the Constitution with a two-thirds majority vote. Burton holds that, “In this way, the general body was able to determine the operating procedures of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Though this Constitution gave Adventists a representative church structure, it did not explicitly define the topics of leadership and authority. The primary focus of the Constitution implicitly suggested that the General Conference Executive Committee held the highest authority in the Adventist Church. In November 1863, James White specifically affirmed that “the General Conference Committee [is] the highest authority in the church.”[6] The Constitution also implicitly suggested that General Conference sessions have the highest authority along with the Executive Committee, as they have the ability to elect all of the officers of the General Conference. However, as Dr. George R. Knight explains, “the General Conference delegates from the local conferences met with each other in session for only a few [days] . . . each year. That resulted quite naturally in Adventists looking to the president of the General Conference and the members of the small executive committee for leadership.”[7] Therefore, since the locus of authority officially broadened from one informal leader to three elected officers in 1863, it is apparent on the basis of praxis, that the second concept of leadership and authority within the Adventist Church was quasi-oligarchical as a small group of persons primarily oversaw operations as representatives of the body.”[8]

It was difficult for the church to transition from a quasi-monarchical model of leadership to a quasi-oligarchical model of leadership. James White had a strong personality and those elected to lead with him struggled to find their place alongside him. “As G. I. Butler explained, “Even among leading brethren in reference to Brother White—attitude, position and methods of management . . . Some thought he assumed prerogatives that did not properly belong to him, which infringed on their right of private judgment . . . Some of his leading brethren did not feel free to express their opinions in his presence lest they should be censored by him.”[9] Burton adds that it is not simply good enough to say that James White worked himself into the grave, he did, but it is also equally true that his brethren persistently worked him into the grave.[10]

It was these conflicts in personality and conflicts over leadership styles that led Butler to seek to resolve the tension between the “Big Four” in the denomination. Burton writes that, “Butler observed that Adventists needed a workable definition of leadership and authority so that their organizational system could function more effectively. He began to reflect on these topics in the early 1870s and eventually articulated his views in a tract, titled, Leadership, in 1873. This theological and philosophical treatise was readily accepted at first, but became controversial because it centralized authority within one person, effectively moving the denomination back toward a monarchical form of ecclesiology. This caused a controversy between leaders to develop into the Leadership Controversy.”[11] Ellen White’s own concept of leadership grew from this particular episode and she continued to grow in wisdom and understanding from God regarding the scope of the authority of the General Conference. G.I. Butler looked back on this time period of his life and realized that for a while there, he really was in danger of losing his salvation. But to his credit, he took Mrs. White’s cutting testimonies to him to heart and the Lord preserved his faith.

All this began with good intentions on Butler’s part. He just wanted to resolve the problems between the leadership that were holding the work back. In this there is a lesson for us today. Even good intentions can lead in the wrong direction and be detrimental to the Cause and the organization that exists to further it. Only by relying solely on Scripture, and understanding the way the Lord has led us in the past, in our denomination’s journey, can we avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Butler’s ‘Leadership’ Paper:

In the opening of his paper, Butler claimed five points: 1) It is necessary to have a strong leader if a great movement is going to be successful. 2) Leadership is hierarchical, ordered from top to bottom. 3) Only certain people are qualified to hold the highest position in the church. Those not qualified should be satisfied with other callings. 4) A true leader benevolently serves people in an unselfish manner. This person is gifted, qualified, recognized by others, and selected by God. 5) The followers in the church should never question the judgment of this person (unless they act as a tyrant) because by challenging their leader’s authority, they challenge the authority of God.[12] After outlining the five points above, he turned to provide the necessary support for his philosophy with arguments from Scripture and history. Burton notes that Butler used a prima Scriptura approach to buttress his arguments which included references to the Civil War leadership of General Grant, biblical references to leaders of movements in Scripture’s history, and a version of apostolic succession that was different from the Catholic version but similar in certain aspects. He even anticipated some objections and wrote answers to those objections into his essay. A full analysis of his paper is out of the scope of this article however Burton’s analysis of his paper is excellent and I’ve included Butler’s Leadership essay and a link to Burton’s thesis in the supplementary documents attached to this series for the reader to read at leisure.

The Supporting Reaction:

The problems with Butler’s leadership paper were not noticed immediately. In fact, in the short term it actually succeeded in bringing unity. Burton writes that “it proved to be a face-saving device for the other three who had disagreed strongly and fought against James White.” They signed their names in support of the document and it was published shortly thereafter. The Big Four reconciled their personal differences and the denomination breathed a collective sigh of relief.  The General Conference in Session voted to accept it as the basis for official policy.

The Opposite Reaction:

While James White praised the effects of the paper he was careful to avoid commenting on the actual contents of the paper. He was guarded because he had experienced so much heartbreak and frustration in the past that this new unity seemed too good to be true. However, the implications of the dangerous ideas within the paper began to be apparent to him within weeks of the publication of the document, as everybody suddenly was extra deferential to him. He sat down and wrote out his thoughts that formed the backbone of rebuttal. He showed his response to his wife and she counseled him to not send it. She did not see any danger with what Butler had proposed in his paper.[13] Against his wife’s advice, James mailed his paper in. Later, Ellen White agreed that her husband’s view on the issue had been clear and correct.

James White was not the only one to write a negative response. W. H. Littlejohn wrote a rebuttal as well. In time Ellen White would write against it as well. She received a vision on the issue and she issued a Testimony that in Butler’s words “exploded” the issue or brought it to a halt. She began to carefully think through the problem of the scope of the authority of the General Conference and over the course of the next few decades she would write on that topic. Her statements regarding the authority of the General Conference and the important context around those statements will be the bulk of the focus for the rest of this paper. However, it is important to understand that her initial statements regarding the authority of the General Conference arose from the context of Butler’s views that sought to make a ‘king’ or a “leader” out of James White with everyone having to submit their views to him. Butler’s philosophy of centralizing power through a one-man leadership was wrong even though the motives behind it were praise worthy.

In discussing W.H. Littlejohn’s objections, and the subsequent reversal of the GC Session vote, Dr. Knight dwells on the question of whether or not a General Conference in Session’s vote is infallible in his paper Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle over Authority.[14] Knight correctly highlights the implications that Littlejohn raised in his paper with regard to the liberty of conscience. However, he ignores the context in which it was written for example, the stated motives behind his concerns, which included a personal dislike of James White, and also the fact his views were also wrong, according to Ellen White. Ellen White issued corrections to both Butler and Littlejohn and her careful analysis of their views is missing from Knight’s narrative.

According to Burton, Littlejohn’s concerns regarding the liberty of conscience were tinged by the fact that he felt James White was personally not worthy for such an elevation. In his letters, he went to the other extreme in concentrating power in individuals and rendering the body incapable of accomplishing or agreeing on anything. Thus, both Littlejohn and Butler were for One-man leadership but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Knight focuses on the reversal of the General Conference Session decision without this important context and findings. With all this necessary context in place, we will now look at Mrs. White’s statements regarding the highest authority, its jurisdiction, the liberty of conscience, private judgment and the scope of the authority of the General Conference.

Section II: Analysis of Ellen White’s Statements on the Authority of the General Conference Session

Regarding the Surrendering of Judgment to One Man & the Highest Authority

Burton writes, “Ellen White confronted the issue of authority directly, stating to Butler, “Your position on Leadership is correct if you give to the highest organized authority in the church what you have given to one man. God never designed that his work should bear the stamp of one man’s mind and one man’s judgment.[15] Two points are emphasized in this statement: first, Ellen White affirmed that there is a supreme earthly authority in the Adventist Church, and second, that this authority was not limited to one individual. In an even stronger statement, she wrote, “When this power which God has placed in the church is accredited to one man, and he is invested with the authority to be judgment for other minds, then the true Bible order is changed. Satan’s efforts upon such a man’s mind will be the most subtle and sometimes overpowering, because through this mind he thinks he can affect many others.”[16] Burton continues, “While it is clear that one leader should not rule the church, further examination is required to accurately identify “the highest authority” of the church. Ellen White explained, “I have been shown that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any one man. But when the judgment of the General conference, which is the highest authority God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.”[17] Burton holds that at this point in Adventist history, Ellen White held that both the General Conference in Session and the General Conference Executive Committee constituted the highest authority.[18]

Ellen White’s Definition of “Private Judgment” And George Butler

“After discussing “the highest authority” in the church, it is also important to recognize the limitations Ellen White subtly placed on its jurisdiction.” In order to do so, Burton writes, “it is first necessary to understand Ellen White’s definition of the right of private judgment – her second major critique of Butler’s Leadership. According to Ellen White, this Protestant principle has two divergent extremes, both of which deviate from a balanced interpretation of this philosophical concept. Leaders go to one extreme when they surrender their private judgment to one person. “Satan is pleased to have one man’s mind and one man’s judgment control the minds and judgment of those who believe present truth,” she wrote.[19] Leaders that suffer from this extreme lack of self-confidence and doubt their ability and fulfill their duty.[20] These leaders are not “self-reliant,” oftentimes because “they have shunned responsibilities…assuming…their deficiencies would be brought to light.”[21] Since these people have no confidence that God is leading them,[22] they rely too much on “one man to plan for them, and to do the thinking they are highly capable of doing themselves.”[23] Those lacking confidence “will feel inferior, and leave an impression of inferiority, which will greatly limit the influence you might have for good.”[24] Rather than produce strong leaders, Ellen White suggested that those who go to this extreme are nothing but “mere machines.”[25] This radical view of private judgement is only one example of one-person leadership.[26]

Burton writes, “The second extreme of the right of private judgment is the polar opposite of the first as well as another example of one-person leadership. Ellen White explained, “If you form too high opinion of yourself, you will think your labors are of more real consequence than they will bear, and you will plead individual independence which borders on arrogance.”[27] When leaders go to this extreme, holding “marked and decided views in regard to individual independence and right to private judgment,” they refuse to counsel with others in regard to their duty. As these leaders “firmly maintain” that they have “done right in following [their] own convictions of duty,”[28] they demonstrate their belief that they are the only one that can tell themselves what to do or how to do it. Due to its individualistic nature, this interpretation of private judgment is also an extreme identifiable as one-person leadership. Whereas the first extreme places all authority into one person’s hands, this second extreme places all authority into every individual’s hands. In either radical view of private judgment, authority is centralized in one person.”[29] According to Ellen White, leaders “should avoid either extreme.”

Burton writes, “According to Ellen White, Butler was guilty of both of these extremes at different times during his first years as General Conference president. On the norm, he relied too much upon James White for orders throughout the 1870s. As a result, Ellen White informed Butler, “You will never gain the experience necessary for any important position in being told what to do.”[30] Though this extreme of one-person leadership was Butler’s greatest weakness, he also shifted to the other extreme for a brief period of time in late 1872 and early 1873. When Ellen White commented on the topic of authority and acknowledged “the highest authority” within the church, she made these statements in relation to Butler’s experience regarding the second extreme of one-person leadership. As mentioned previously, she wrote, “You had very marked and decided views in regard to individual independence and right to private judgment. But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.”[31] During the fall of 1872 Butler seemingly became proud when he thought he had solved the crisis in Battle Creek regarding dress reform. Due to his success, he apparently decided that he no longer needed the advice of his peers and traveled south to minister wherever he wished, without seeking the advice of others. He also sought to dictate James White’s duty, refusing to hold another General Conference session until White could be present. Therefore, it is in the context of the extreme of ultra- independence (rather than ultra-submissiveness) that Ellen White endeavored to discuss the topic of authority.”[32]

Burton asserts that “this assessment is vital in understanding Ellen White’s view of the jurisdiction of “the highest authority” within the church. She reproved Butler for not listening to the elected officers of the General Conference when his presence was requested in Battle Creek to assist in business matters. Butler was the president of the General Conference at this time, yet refused the repeated and urgent calls from his brethren. These details emphasize that Ellen White limited the jurisdiction of General Conference officers to matters of business executed by church employees. In other words, she did not specify that the highest power in the church had any authority over anyone in regard to doctrine or theological matters—such an interpretation is not supported by the context of the testimony or the accompanying historical background.”[33]

“This information clarifies the following statement: “But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.”[34] Ellen White did not suggest that any Adventist should surrender his or her private judgment to the General Conference officers in regard to matters of conscience. Rather, a minister of the gospel or church administrator should not oppose the General Conference Executive Committee’s recommendation when they agree that said person should labor in a particular area or fulfill a certain mission-related task. Instead, church employees should surrender their “private judgment” and counsel with others in regard to ministerial duties. Therefore, Ellen White indicates that the General Conference Executive Committee and General Conference sessions hold “the highest” position of authority within the church, but does not suggest that these bodies have the authority to encroach upon matters of conscience by dictating doctrinal beliefs or establishing theological interpretations for the body of believers.”[35] In other words, I believe what I believe based on my reading of Scripture and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit not because the General Conference voted on it.

“Ellen White’s definition of authority and perspective on the right of private judgment are in stark contrast to Butler’s views on these topics. Butler gave one man “the highest authority” in the church while Ellen White affirmed that it was best to distribute this authority among a group of leaders. Butler’s Leadership also abolished the Protestant principle by requiring people to surrender their judgment to one person. In contrast, Ellen White declared, “Individual independence and individual power is what is now needed. Individual character need not be sacrificed, but modulated, refined, elevated.”[36] Though she indicated that this independence should be balanced, it is evident that her “testimony endorsed the right of private judgment”[37] rather than abolish the Protestant principle.” [38]

Ellen White and Littlejohn

Though Littlejohn had accurately realized the theological problems with Leadership, Burton writes, “his analysis of current events was skewed. Littlejohn began to assert that James White was not trustworthy and that he should be suspiciously watched. This perspective was neither fair of White, who was a proven leader, nor a safe theory to follow in regard to authority within the church. According to Littlejohn, every person should have authority to critique his or her leader. By advocating such a view, he had recommended a polar opposite of that of Butler. Whereas Butler sought to centralize authority within one person, Littlejohn sought to centralize authority in every individual. Both men had advocated one-person leadership, though through opposite extremes. For Butler leadership was defined somewhat monarchically while for Littlejohn it was interpreted individualistically.

On January 15, 1875, Ellen White wrote, “I was shown, Jan. 3, that our dear Brother Littlejohn was going into darkness.” She explained that he had “a very, independent mind” that believed that “he would sacrifice his right of private judgment if he should yield his ideas and plans to accept the judgment and views of any other man.” He was a man, she stated, that “takes the position not in words but actions of infallibility . . . for it is next to an impossibility for Brother Littlejohn to yield or give up his opinion.” Ellen White stated, “This bears not the marks of God’s hand. The word of God will not justify [his] extreme independence. This is one man power indeed which would claim that everything must bend to this one mind, this one will.”[39]

“Ellen White tried to help Littlejohn understand that his views on leadership were insufficient in a similar way to Butler’s. As stated previously, both men advocated one- person leadership, but from opposite extremes: Butler preferred a more centralized authority while Littlejohn opted for an authority entirely devolved of power. Though both perspectives were flawed, Ellen White was apparently more upset with Littlejohn. Butler’s view did possess dangerous tenets, but it was at least written for a positive purpose. Whereas Butler tried to proactively assist the church with a much-needed policy on leadership, Littlejohn made no real contribution. He was overly critical and refused to write out his perspective for publication.”[40]

Butler and Littlejohn and Others’ Reaction to Ellen White’s Testimony

Littlejohn most likely had the privilege of reading Mrs. White’s testimony in private, Butler had no such luxury. The testimony was read to him orally in early January 1875, in the “presence of quite a number.” After hearing the testimony,[41]Butler resigned [all the public offices] at once. He returned home and spent several months in reflection. He bought up all the copies of his Leadership tract that he could find and burned them. For this reason, only two copies of his work exist today. Littlejohn would in four years’ time reconcile himself to the General Conference. D.M. Canwright, tried to revive elements from the Leadership tract but over time the General Conference came to view James White’s exposition arguing for the locus of authority to reside in the body of believers rather than a single person to be correct. Despite the attempts of some, James White continually and vigorously rejected this privilege by writing (and republishing) on the topic of one-person leadership several more times before his death in 1881.[42] At least one article appeared in the Review and Herald in 1878, two more in 1880, and a final occurrence showed up in the first edition of White’s second autobiography, Life Sketches (1880). In the latter publication, White admitted, “Some taking extreme positions upon the subject of leadership, have been ready to acknowledge us [i.e. James White] as the Leader of this people. This position, however, we [i.e. James White] have never for a moment accepted. Those who in all honesty took this position, did not clearly see the subject in all its bearings upon a people that might consent to be led, and upon the one who might accept the position of leader.”[43] James White was dogged to his grave over this controversy and a few months before he passed away, he expressed the desire to write a treatise on Christ. He wanted to see the denomination move more towards a Christ-centered exposition of the gospel than the law oriented one that it was currently mired in. Unfortunately, his untimely death cut short that last contribution to the church. We can imagine from his body of work close to his death, that in his book, James would have written a chapter or two on Christ as the head of the church and would have centered the authority of the church on Him and His highest authority on earth, the General Conference.

Butler’s Second Term as General Conference President

During the 1880’s, Butler held a second term as president of the General Conference. His last three years were particularly controversial according to Burton, as Ellen White explained in 1888, “Elder Butler…has been in office three years too long, and now all humility and lowliness of mind have departed from him. He thinks his position gives him such power that “his voice is infallible.”[44] A short time later, she wrote, “I am pained to the heart, for I have been shown that if our brethren had stood in their proper place, seeking counsel of God and trusting God, they would not have placed Elder Butler in the place of God and Elder Butler’s judgment would not have been considered “as the judgment of God.”

In a carefully worded analysis, Burton rejects the assertion by Knight and other scholars who hold that Butler’s later abuses of power were because he never really gave up his views that he espoused in Leadership. [45] Instead he asserts that it is the constitutional authority granted to the 3-man General Conference Executive committee as being the highest authority (along with the General Conference Session) as being the problem. Mrs. White’s Testimony of the Church, No. 25, and the 1877 statement on authority made by the General Conference, all contributed to Butler’s views on authority that hardened during this second tour of duty in the Presidency. The Seventh-day Adventist church had rejected one-person leadership and “centralized” the authority in the body of believers and the three-person GC Executive committee. It definitely was a better solution but not the best one, as the 1888 General Conference Session brought all this to a head. Burton writes, “since the highest authority in the church remained in the hands of this small group of leaders, it was only natural for Butler, as the General Conference president, to assume the position of first among equals. Butler, (as well as other General Conference presidents) did not need to operate upon his rejected policy on leadership since he could assume a prime role on the basis of official church policy – policy that supported an oligarchic definition of authority between the annual meetings. This reality is vital for understanding subsequent events in Seventh-day Adventist history and the development of Ellen G. White’s view of leadership and authority.”[46]

Conclusion:

Burton’s analysis of her statements from the mid-1870s untill her last statement at the General Conference Session in 1915, shows her growth in understanding and the maturing of her views regarding the Adventist philosophy of leadership and the role of the General Conference in Session and its authority. Despite early decentralizing efforts and an expansion of the Executive committee from three to five in 1883, and then from five to seven in 1886, this power centralized with the General Conference presidents acting as if they were first among equals. This power asserted itself when Br. Kilgore could not imagine the General Conference Session starting without Elder Butler being present. Ellen White’s quick rebuke of that sentiment, “shall the Lord’s work wait on one man set the stage for change in her mind regarding leadership and authority. Through her own experience and visions from the Lord, Ellen White came to realize that the power of the General Conference must not reside in one man, or a few men, it should reside in the Session with people from all over the world.

Burton writes that “Her perspective grew with time and experience, particularly when she noticed that the locus of authority did not broaden as the church grew larger. By 1891, it was quite clear that she no longer considered a small group of persons to be the highest authority within the church.”[47] Beginning in the mid-1870s, the topics of leadership and authority became wrapped up in the potent phrase, “the voice of God.” In Testimony for the Church, No. 24, Ellen White emphasized that “God has invested his church with special authority and power which no one can be justified in disregarding and despising; for in thus doing he despises the voice of God.”[48] Though she hinted that the “special authority” within the church was like “the voice of God,” she did not identify this special authority within this document. A short time later, in Testimony for the Church, No. 25, Ellen White named this authority, writing, “God has invested in his church [authority and influence] in the judgment and voice of the General Conference.”[49] In this same document, she also declared that “the voice” of the General Conference was “the highest authority the Lord has upon the earth.”[50] Since these statements indicate that Ellen White no longer considered a small group of persons to be “the voice of God,” it is evident that she eventually rejected her former claim as expressed to Butler in 1875. By the 1890s her view of ecclesiastical authority broadened. Whereas she realized that one person should not possess too much power in the mid-1870s, she also recognized that it was unwise for only a few persons to have too much authority and control after 1888. In light of this new understanding, Ellen White progressively began to exhort Seventh-day Adventists to recognize this new perspective on leadership and authority, which resulted in some major ecclesiastical changes in 1901.

Burton conclusively shows, that during the 1901 General Conference session, which is a watershed moment in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist organization, Ellen White gave explicit and urgent calls to adopt her new perspective on leadership and authority. She made several points very strongly during the 1901 General Conference session. First, the oligarchical power in Battle Creek (i.e., the “narrow compass” or the “[Executive] Committee . . . [of] merely half a dozen”) must be reorganized to include more people. As she stated at a different time during these meetings, “Two or three voices are not to control everything in the whole field.” Second, the General Conference should include members from the educational and medical sectors of the church. Third, the locus of authority should “constantly broaden”—a principle of leadership that Ellen White stated was God’s desire.[51] In summary, she explained, “That these men [in responsible positions] should stand in a sacred place, to be as the voice of God to the people, as we once believed the General Conference to be,—that is past. What we want now is a reorganization. We want to begin at the foundation, and to build upon a different principle.”[52]

In response to Ellen White’s calls for reorganization, the Adventist Church did broaden the locus of authority by expanding the General Conference Executive Committee to 25 members. More significantly, union conferences were created “as the constituent bodies of the General Conference.” As Barry D. Oliver explains, this effectively decentralized much of the “decision-making from the General Conference administration to union conference executive committees.” Specifically, it allowed those “on the ground” to take care of their own missionary fields rather than allow the General Conference Executive Committee in Battle Creek to have complete control of all missionary work. Though other important changes were made in 1901, the establishment of union conferences enabled the Adventist Church to function as a representative body more effectively.[53]

Ellen White wrote once more on the topic of church governance for the 1909 General Conference session. This statement denotes her final view regarding the topics of leadership and authority and highlights important contrasts from her perspective in the 1870s. She declared, “At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God’s work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God.” Once again, Ellen White admitted her perspective had changed. Whereas she once believed that “a small group of men” could represent “the voice of God,” she again affirmed that she could no longer regard this as true. This did not imply that an ultimate authority was removed from the Adventist Church, but rather indicates that her view on this point was redefined. She continued,

But this is not saying that the decisions of a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work.[54]

Burton shows now that “unlike her previous statements, it is now explicitly clear that Ellen White considered General Conferences sessions to solitarily be the highest authority in the church. Her definition of “General Conference,” is firmly recognizable by the use of the indefinite article (“a General Conference”), her description of this body (“composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all part of the field”), her use of the phrase “the general body,” and her specific negation of oligarchic power (“a small group of men”). Rather than re-endorse her view of leadership in the 1870s, Ellen White completely changed it by broadening her concept of authority in the Adventist Church.”

Burton’s interpretation here is further supported by the fact that Ellen White’s declaration at the 1909 General Conference session was an explicit alteration to her testimony to Butler in 1875. Rather than write a completely new statement on the locus of authority, he shows that Ellen White chose to re-write the second, fourth, and fifth paragraphs of her testimony on “Leadership” found in Testimony for the Church, No. 25. He compares these two statements with underlined words showing the exact same wording in both documents, the italicized words noting very similar wording or minor additions, and the bolded words highlighting significant changes or additions. It is reproduced for readers here below.

Comparison between Ellen G. White’s 1875 and 1909 statements on leadership and authority (Table reproduced from: Burton, Kevin M., “Centralized for Protection: George I. Butler and His Philosophy of One-Person Leadership” (2015).Master’s Theses. Paper 87.)

The 1875 Statement on
Leadership and Authority

The 1909 Statement on
Leadership and Authority

I have been shown that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any one man. But when the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But you greatly err in giving to one man’s mind and judgment that authority and influence which God has invested in his church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference.

 

When this power which God has placed in the church is accredited to one man, and he is invested with the authority to be judgment for other minds, then the true Bible order is changed. Satan’s efforts upon such a man’s mind will be the most subtle and sometimes overpowering, because through this mind he thinks he can affect many others. Your position on Leadership is correct if you give to the highest organized authority in the church what you have given to one man.

I have often been instructed by the Lord that no man’s judgment should be surrendered to the judgment of any other one man. 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 to say what plans shall be followed. But when, in a General Conference, the judgment of the brethren assembled from all parts of the field is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be stubbornly maintained, but surrendered. Never should a laborer regard as a virtue the persistent maintenance of his position of independence, contrary to the decision of the general body. At times, when a small group of men entrusted with the general management of the work have, in the name of the

General Conference, sought to carry out unwise plans and to restrict God’s work, I have said that I could no longer regard the voice of the General Conference, represented by these few men, as the voice of God. But this is not saying that the decisions of a General

Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field should not be respected. God has ordained that the representatives of His church from all parts of the earth, when assembled in a General Conference, shall have authority. The error that some are in danger of committing is in giving to the mind and judgment of one man, or of a small group of men, the full measure of authority and influence that God has vested in His church in the judgment and voice of the General Conference assembled to plan for the prosperity and advancement of His work.

 

When this power, which God has placed in the church, is accredited wholly to one man, and he is invested with the authority to be judgment for other minds, then the true Bible order is changed. Satan’s efforts upon such a man’s mind would be most subtle and sometimes well-nigh overpowering, for the enemy would hope that through his mind he could affect many others. Let us give to the highest organized authority in the church that which we are prone to give to one man or to a small group of men.

 

“Ellen White clearly wrestled with the principles of leadership throughout her lifetime. Rather than hold a stagnant view, her understanding grew considerably over time and with experience. Though she had affirmed that “the highest authority” in the church resided in the hands of the General Conference Executive Committee as well as General Conference sessions in the 1870s, it became clearer after 1888 that she believed no one should surrender their private judgment to any one person or a small group of persons. Ellen White, therefore, rejected a monarchical form of ecclesiology in the 1870s and later disavowed an oligarchic model of church governance in the 1890s and 1900s. This was accomplished when she realized that it was safest to broaden the locus of authority in corresponding measure with the growth of the church. Her maturing view on his topic is most noticeable when comparing her 1875 and 1909 statements. In 1875, she gave utmost authority to “the General Conference,” whereas by 1909 it was clear that only “a General Conference composed of an assembly of duly appointed, representative men from all parts of the field” should possess ultimate authority.”[55]

“Ellen White never explicitly reaffirmed that the General Conference was “the voice of God” after the 1870s. She became increasingly cautious of such a weighty phrase, clearly revoking her earlier endorsement that the Executive Committee of the General Conference was “the voice of God” on earth. When she rewrote her view of leadership and authority in 1909, she reaffirmed that “the General Conference, represented by . . . [a] few men, [was not] as the voice of God” and specifically abstained from using the phrase, “the voice of God” in relation to General Conference sessions. Numerous events in the 1880s and 1890s motivated her to use less weighty phrases (“be respected” and “have authority”) to describe the highest authority within the church. Ellen White was not so cautious in the 1870s, but as she continued to journey through life, her concept and expression of leadership and authority continued to broaden and refine as the Adventist message spread around the world.[56]

It should be clear from this article and Burton’s analysis that our pioneers wrestled with the role of the General Conference and came up with ideas of just how the work of God should be managed. The Lord through Ellen White and through the process of debate and refinement guided the church to a better understanding of how the work should be conducted and how individuals should relate to the General Conference. We believe what we believe from Scripture that is based on our own individual reading of it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We are not to sacrifice this sacred duty to anyone else or let anyone else be conscience for us. At the same time, we need to avoid the trap that Littlejohn fell into by assuming an extreme version of individual independence that deprived the Session of its authority. Finally, we must recognize that historical arguments are only valid when they take into consideration the entire body of data, not just sections that agree with our own views. Butler was thankful that the whole leadership issue was now behind him. In his eightieth year, he told a friend that he was amazed how the Lord has used him even when he was working at cross-purposes with His Will. It is a lesson that all of us can learn. Christ is our only leader and the Bible is to be our guide. We need to look less to man and more to Christ. We now turn our attention to the Reorganization effort of 1901-1903 to see the principles of reorganization that Ellen White laid down to guide the work. We will also examine the principles of unity and diversity.

[1] Burton, Kevin. “Centralized for Protection: G.I. Butler, and His Philosophy of One-Person Leadership.” Sourced here: http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1084&context=theses

[2] Emphasis is Burton’s. Ellen G. White, Testimony for the Church, No. 25 (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press, 1875), 57; cf. Ellen G. White, 3T (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), 500.

[3]Burton, Kevin M., “Centralized for Protection: George I. Butler and His Philosophy of One-Person Leadership” (2015). Master’s Theses. Paper 87.

[4] Burton, pg. 1

[5] John Byington and U. Smith, “Report of General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,” RH, May 26, 1863, 204-205. Cited by Burton, pg. 2

[6] White, James. “Systematic Labor,” RH, November 24, 1863, 204; cf. General Conference Committee, “Question,” RH, April 24, 1866, 168.

[7] George R. Knight, Organizing for Mission and Growth: The Development of Adventist Church Structure (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2006), 72. Burton. pg. 3

[8] Burton, Direct quote. Pg. 3

[9] George I. Butler to Clarence C. Crisler, September 25, 1914, Heritage M-Film 52, White Estate Incoming Correspondence 103, CAR. Quoted by Burton, pg. 4

[10] Burton, 24.

[11] Burton, 4.

[12] Burton, 79

[13] White. Ellen G. Letter to Wolcott H. Littlejohn, Nov. 4, 1874, LT 058, 1874.

[14] Knight, G. R., “Catholic or Adventist: The Ongoing Struggle over Authority,” 12-13.

[15] White, Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 45; cf. White, 3T, 493.

[16] Ibid.

[17] White, Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 43; cf. White. 3T, 492.

[18] Burton, 152

[19] White, Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 58; cf. White, 3T, 500.

[20] White, Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 65; cf. White, 3T, 505.

[21] White, Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 45; cf. White, 3T, 493.

[22] While Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 46; cf. White, 3T, 494.

[23] White Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 49; cf. White, 3T, 495.

[24] White Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 66; cf. White 3T, 506.

[25] White Ellen G. Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 50; cf. White, 3T, 495.

[26] Burton, 156.

[27] White, Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 66; cf. White, 3T, 506.

[28] White, Testimony for the Church. No. 25, 43; cf. White, 3T, 492.

[29] Burton, 156.

[30] White, Testimonies for the Church. No. 25, 48; cf. White, 3T, 495.

[31] White, Testimonies for the Church. No. 25, 43; cf. White, 3T, 492.

[32] Burton, 157-158. Direct quote.

[33] Burton, 158. Direct quote.

[34] White, Ellen G. Testimony for the Church, No. 25, 43; cf. White, 3T, 492.

[35] Burton, 158. Direct quote. In his footnote Burton writes: “It is important to recognize that this conclusion coincides precisely with Article V of the Constitution of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Article V specifies that the Executive Committee’s jurisdiction is limited to “ministerial labor” and “missionary labor.” Byington and Smith, “Report of General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,” RH, May 26, 1863, 205. Early Adventists avoided anything that appeared creedal, or even quasi-creedal. For this reason, it was understood that the General Conference had no jurisdiction over matters of conscience. If the general body discussed and voted on a theological issue, this adopted position still needed to be ratified by other Adventists before it was considered a standard belief or practice. Systematic Benevolence, or even the organization of the General and State Conferences, illustrates this point. Once approved by a general conference, the voted positions on these issues were presented to Adventists in different localities for their ratification. This practice was still followed in the 1870s, which is demonstrated by the vote to adopt Butler’s leadership theology. The General Conference resolution stated, “That we fully indorse the position taken in the paper read by Eld. Butler on Leadership . . . And we hereby express our full purpose of heart faithfully to regard these principles, and we invite all our brethren to unite with us in this action.” Emphasis is mine. Butler and Smith, “Business Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Meeting of the S. D. A. General Conference,” RH, November 25, 1873, 190. Littlejohn recognized that this official policy of the General Conference still needed to be ratified by Adventists throughout the country. He claimed that the crafters of this resolution were afraid of stating their acceptance of Butler’s essay too strongly and the resolution was toned down “lest their doctrine should prove too bold for general acceptance.” Emphasis Burton’s. Wolcott H. Littlejohn to Ellen G. White, October 26, 1874.

[36] White, Ellen, G. Testimony for the Church, No. 25, 51; cf. White, 3T, 496.

[37] Butler, George, I. to Clarence C. Crisler, Sept. 25, 1914.

[38] Burton, 159, Direct quote.

[39] White, Ellen, G. Testimony re. Br. Littlejohn, MS 003, 1875.

[40] Burton, 160, Direct quote.

[41] Burton’s footnote: George I. Butler to James White, March 29, 1875. These facts correct three misunderstandings regarding this situation. First, these events happened in early January 1875, not in 1874. Second, Butler did not resign from the General Conference presidency in 1874. James White was elected General Conference president in 1874 and held that office in January 1875. Third, no “eighteen-page letter” was ever sent to Butler as the testimony was delivered orally. Cf. Vande Vere, Rugged Heart, 42; Knight, Organizing for Mission and Growth, 71-72; Leonard, “The Adventist Rubicon,” 46; Michael W. Campbell, “Butler, George Ide and Lentha (Lockwood),” The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, (2014), 331.

[42] Burton, 180.

[43] White, James. “Leadership,” RH, 13, 1880, 31; J[ames] W[hite], “Leadership,” RH, June 17, 1880, 392.

[44] White, Ellen, G. “Letter to Mary White,” Nov. 4, 1888, LT 082, 1888.

[45] See Burton 185 -187.

[46] Burton, 187.

[47] Burton, 189

[48] Emphasis is Burton’s. Ellen G. White, Testimony for the Church, No. 24 (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press, 1875), 125; White, 3T, 417. This phrase also became part of the book Acts of the Apostles. White, The Acts of the Apostles, 163-164.

[49] It is important to realize that both of these statements begin the same (i.e., “God has invested his church”) and include the key word “voice.”

[50] White, Ellen, G. Testimony for the Church, No. 25, 43-44; cf. White, 3T, 492-493. Direct quote from Burton, 189

[51] Burton’s footnote: Ellen G. White, Talk/“I would prefer not to speak today . . .,” MS 043d, 1901 (cf. Ellen G. White, Talk/“I would prefer not to speak today . . .,” MS 043a, 1901; Ellen G. White, Talk/“I would prefer not to speak today . . .,” MS 043c, 1901); Ellen G. White, Talk/Regarding the Southern Work, MS 037, 1901. Direct quote from Burton. 190

[52] Emphasis is Burton’s. “General Conference Proceedings: First Meeting, Tuesday, 9 a.m., April 2,” GCDB, April 3, 1901, 25. Direct quote Burton, 190

[53] Burton, 190.

[54] Emphasis is Burton’s. Ellen G. White, Talk/The Spirit of Independence, MS 038a, 1909; Ellen G. White, 9T (Takoma Park, MD: Review and Herald, 1909), 260

[55] Burton, 190. Direct quote

[56] Burton, 190. Direct quote

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