A House Divided (1B): The Moment of Truth – The Rise of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

(This is article 2 in a 9 article series by Adrian Zahid)

When we read history books, it seems as if time moves at the speed of our turning of the page. This can be both exhilarating and frustrating as we compare the heroes in the books to our own ‘mundane’ lives. It is easy to lose track of the time between events that are commonly highlighted as part of our history. For example, the time lapse from the Great Disappointment on October 22, 1844 to the founding of the General Conference on May 21, 1863 is roughly 18 years and 6 months.[1] The reality is that it took that long for our pioneers to discover our doctrines, develop a sense of the worldwide nature of our mission and organize the structure responsible for carrying out that mission, all of which we take largely for granted today. We will now take a look at some of those developments in some detail.

Section I: The Historical Background of the Millerite Movement

In this section, we will look at the national conditions before 1844, the denominational makeup of the Millerite movement, explore the administrative models for these ‘feeder’ denominations from which the Millerite Movement drew people, the reasons behind why the Millerites began to organize themselves post-1844 and the formation of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church structure they settled on for the General Conference.

Historical Background for the Formation of Adventism

Social-Political & Religious Milieu

Commenting on the socio-political milieu of the time, Dr. Andrew Mustard writes, “The political arena in America was marked by a sense of national destiny and buoyant optimism concerning America’s future. American 19th Century Christianity, along with its European counterpart’s vitality, was partly a reaction against the atheistic or agnostic philosophies of the age, and partly the result of a desire to restore the original simplicity and purity of the New Testament faith. Many Americans also regarded their new nation as having a part to play in a grand divine plan.” While classifying the religious fervor of the time, Mustard writes on the religious influences of the movement, “Some of its outstanding features which had an influence on the Millerite movement. These features are revivalism and perfectionism,[2] Puritanism,[3] Congregationalism,[4] and denominationalism[5].” Revivalism and perfectibility according to Dr. P. Gerard Damsteegt, “stressed on the improvement of society by human effort reflected a theology that emphasized man’s freedom and minimized his depravity.” Each of these religious features shaped the views of the Millerites from accepting the Bible as their only creed, to giving evidence of practical Christian living before being granted membership, to ordination, to their views on church structure and governance before and after the Great Disappointment.

Models of Governance: Methodist, Baptist & Christian Connexion Denominations

A study of the 174 Millerite preachers showed that 44.3 percent were Methodists, 27 percent Baptists, 9 percent Congregationalists, and 8 percent members of the Christian Church. Let’s look at the Organizational Models that these three denominations had and the impact these models had on the future founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The Methodist Church

Most of the preachers were Methodists, which may explain why early Millerites adopted several Methodist practices: circuit riders with no settled pulpit or church. They traveled from town to town seeking converts, leaving responsible laymen in charge of worship and discipline. They viewed organizational matters pragmatically, fitting the character of the leadership and discipline of the church to the task at hand. The practical nature of Methodism soon resulted…in a very strong organizational structure so that it became the “most hierarchical of the Nonconformist Churches in England.” The Methodist Church in America used the title and office of bishop, other main features — such as the conference system of organized Methodism — persisted. The term “conference” implied both an area of jurisdiction and a regularly-called meeting (usually annual). Meetings were designed as district conferences if local in nature, and general conferences if they represented an entire area. The “Methodist economy” is described as including “field preaching, the erection of a plain functional chapel, proper supervision of the flock, the principle of caring for one another as fellow members of one sanctified church, and a system of rules “so simple, so strict, so broad, so comprehensive, that no one could obey them, and not be a consistent Christian. The most distinctive feature of the economy…was “its organized effective missionary work.”

The Baptist Church

Baptist Church organization was characterized by “determined efforts to reestablish the New Testament pattern for the church.” It recognized that in the primitive church organizational structures were simple and functional, the exact structure depending on the needs of the local situation. This meant that Baptist organization was less centralized and hierarchical than the Methodist, the independence of the local church being “practically unquestioned.” The desire for local autonomy was particularly strong among the Freewill Baptists, especially among those who had experienced an emotional conversion such as occurred during the revivals of the Great Awakening. They, like the Methodists, held that membership should consist of the regenerate only.

The Christian Connexion (or Christian Connection)

Closely affiliated with the Freewill Baptists, the Christian Connexion began with three independent branches. The group most directly involved with the Millerite Movement was the one originating in Vermont. In ecclesiology, the Bible was its only creed, “Christian” it’s only name. The Eastern Church had practiced open communion and was congregational in structure. In practice, of the three denominations, they were the most anti-organizational, in their beginning. However that stance didn’t last for long. Central Organization of the New England Church branch of the Christian Church was particularly rapid. They held minister’s conferences for itinerant ministers (1805). Annual general conferences were held, which after 1834 became quadrennial. At these conferences, a standing committee was elected to transact the business of the church between sessions, and by 1834, a strong organizational foundation was being laid by the leaders of the church.  Their reasons for doing so are noteworthy, “According to Milo T. Morrill, the conference system of organization was adopted by “Christians” because an unsupervised church “laid laity and ministry open to endless imposition, loss of prestige, and charge of abetting charlatans.” In addition, ministers were ordained and provided with letters of commendation, and church discipline was administered at these conferences. The conferences also carried a strong publishing program. James White’s views on organization would later show how much his former denomination’s structure played a formative role.


Many of the Millerite preachers belonged to denominations that had established structural models for governance. Some of these structures were adopted by the Millerites in their own movement which itself was a precursor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. While some anti-organizational elements were present in each denomination; the members of these denominations developed different models of organization to avoid “endless imposition, doctrinal error, and heresy,” with an ordained clergy, well-maintained local and regional system of conferences and standing committees to transact business and administer church discipline. When looking at various models for organization in history, it is important to consider the social and political views in the days of the Millerites. Often regional differences in governance were a result of national origin, prior theological heritage, personalities, and even the method of conversion played a role in the style of church governance that was implemented.

After 1844, the Millerites would draw from these various models of organization, a system of organization that would eventually form the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. If some of the terms highlighted here sound familiar to you, it is because they are the source of organizational inspiration for the Millerites as they looked to consolidate themselves after the Great Disappointment. We now take up the task of understanding how the Seventh-day Adventist church was systematically constructed doctrinally and organizationally, during the time period from 1844 to 1863.

Section II: The Journey towards the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

For this discussion, I will focus on a few broad areas: William Miller and the early Adventist biblical hermeneutics, the Sabbatarian Adventist development of doctrines and the development of church order which culminated in the organization of the church. I will highlight the importance of these principle concepts and in subsequent articles, I will tie the relevance of these concepts to the current constitutional debate in our church.

Adventist history begins with Scripture. It is crucial to understand the underlying assumptions and approach to Scripture that led to the Millerite movement and later the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Consequently, we start with  William Miller and systematically work our way through doctrinal consolidation and the development of the clergy to the formation of the Adventist church. Because this current discussion in the church has brought to the forefront the principles of unity and diversity we will explore these concepts in some depth here to see their significance in the current debate.

William Miller & the Early Adventist Biblical Hermeneutics

In his dissertation, The Sanctuary and the Three Angels’ Messages 1844-1863: Integrating factors in the Development of Adventist doctrines, Dr. Alberto R. Timm, writing about William Miller notes that, in 1816, Miller was “disappointed with the dryness of contemporary deistic ideas and the divergent opinions of Bible commentators and decided to study the Scriptures for himself.”[6] By Miller’s day, about three hundred years from the start of the Reformation, the Protestant experiment had yielded hundreds, if not thousands, of denominational movements because of mutually exclusive interpretations of Scripture. The inability to decide on a source of authority for the interpretation of Scripture lay at the heart of the theological fragmentation in Protestantism. Each denomination was proclaiming their support for Sola Scriptura while coming up with divergent theological findings and splitting over those divergent views. Dr. Fernando Canale’s research shows how the Greek view on the timelessness of God had deeply affected Christian theologians’ presuppositions and their theological method of using a multiplex of authority sources to interpret Scripture had directly led to the divergent opinions in Christendom.[7] Contemporary mutually exclusive hermeneutics and approaches to Scripture directly led to divergent views on prophecy and the interpretation of Scripture that caused William Miller to reject all present and past human expositors and to study Scripture alone in response to a challenge from a deist friend.[8] Miller’s challenge was to defend his belief in Jesus as his Savior and the Bible as being revealed truth. In his reply to his friend, Miller wrote, “If the bible was the word of God, everything therein might be understood, and all its parts be made to harmonize.” He added that, if his friend would give him time, he would either harmonize all the apparent contradictions of the Bible, to his own satisfaction, or continue as a deist. When he took up the challenge, and decided to rely solely on Scripture, William Miller, and later his followers, unwittingly set on a path that unleashed what Dr. Canale calls, “a theological revolution.”[9]

Under the assumption that “Scripture must be its own expositor,” in the fall of 1816 Miller began a period of intensive, systematic study of the Bible. His main tools were the Authorized Version and Cruden’s concordance. His “rules of interpretation” followed the mainstream Protestant hermeneutical tradition. His methodology was a sequential “verse by verse” study of Scripture. Starting with the book of Genesis, Miller did not stop until he reached the book of Revelation. Whenever he found an obscure passage, he tried to solve the problem by comparing it with “all collateral passages” of Scriptures “in which were found any of the prominent words” of the passage under consideration. In addition, by comparing “Scripture with history,” he tried to discover the most reasonable historical fulfillment of biblical prophecies. His first two years of study convinced Miller that “the Bible is a system of revealed truths, so clearly and simply given, that the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein.”[10] After studying for fifteen years and distilling no less than fourteen principles for biblical hermeneutics from his study of Scripture, he finally went public with his views and the rest is history.

After the Great Disappointment in 1844, we find the early Adventists continuing with his understanding of hermeneutics by letting Scripture be its own expositor to lead them to an entire system of truth. This wasn’t easy of course, the task of finding out what went wrong would have to be done in the face of mass defections from the Millerite movement, insult and ridicule, being disfellowshipped from their churches, and having left their harvests un-gathered with impending winter. Over the next few years, the remaining Millerite movement split into two groups: Non-Sabbatarian Adventists who numbered between 30,000 – 50,000 and Sabbatarian Adventists who numbered around 100 in 1848, with the Sabbatarian Adventists being the precursors to the Seventh-day Adventist church. The basic structure of the early Sabbatarian Adventist doctrinal system was built during the period between 1844 and 1850. During that period, the main Sabbatarian Adventist distinctive doctrines were gradually integrated into that system through the means of the sanctuary and the three angels’ messages. From 1850-1863, the Sabbatarian Adventists consolidated and refined their doctrinal beliefs into a system that they called Present Truth. We now turn to the development of the system within which our pioneers built the doctrines.

The Development of Foundation & Doctrines

According to Dr. Timm, “After the October 1844 Disappointment, the founders of Sabbatarian Adventism started on a period of almost two decades of intensive study of Scripture. One by one, such doctrines as the perpetuity of God’s law and the seventh-day Sabbath, Christ’s two phase heavenly ministry, Christ’s personal and visible Second Coming, the conditional immortality of the soul, and the modern manifestation of the gift of prophecy in the person and writings of Ellen G. White were incorporated into the new doctrinal system. Foundational in the development of that system were two major concepts – the cleansing of the Sanctuary of Daniel 8:14 and the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12.

Writing on the Millerite and early Adventist hermeneutics, the Late Adventist Church Historian C. Mervyn Maxwell identified four basic characteristics of the hermeneutics and method on which early Adventist theology was constructed: deconstruction of Tradition, the Tota Scriptura principle, typological understanding, and the Vision.

  • Deconstruction of Tradition: While Protestant reformers rejected some customs and traditions as we noted earlier, Adventist writers manifested a sharper rejection of tradition. Early Adventists were aware of the traditions of Christianity their former churches embraced. Yet, instead of taking them as either sources of theology or hermeneutical guides for interpretation of Scripture or understanding doctrines, they decided to engage them critically. Unless we deconstruct tradition and distinguish it from Scripture we may be in danger of confusing ideas received from tradition with biblical ones.
  • The Tota Scriptura Principle: Luther was well known to have rejected the Epistle of James and made very little use of the book of Hebrews, and set up a cannon within a cannon. Calvin virtually rejected the book of Revelation. Contemporary theologians of the Adventist pioneers rejected the entire Old Testament. The Adventist pioneers however insisted on taking truth from the entire Bible.
  • Typological understanding: Maxwell remarks that ‘whereas the Reformers made enthusiastic use of the Old Testament types of the cross, Adventist writers made richer use of biblical types and antitypes that were seen to anticipate last day developments.’ The Adventist pioneers used the first three characteristics of their hermeneutics to derive the fourth one.
  • The [Macro-Hermeneutical] Vision: The final difference between Protestant and Adventist hermeneutics should be traced back to the early pioneers’ use of prophetic fulfillment as a hermeneutical tool. Once established as scriptural, the fulfillment of prophecy in the Second Advent movement became a hermeneutical tool for helping establish the Sabbath, sanctuary, spiritual gifts, the true church (remnant), Second Advent and other doctrines.[11]

Several Sabbatarian Adventist authors recognized the theological centrality of the heavenly sanctuary in their doctrinal system. Joseph Bates, for example, saw a “harmonious perfect chain” of truth in the antitypical fulfillment of the typology of the sanctuary.[12] James White regarded the Sanctuary as the place where “all the great columns of present truth center.”[13] He also called it “the great center around which all revealed truth relative to salvation clusters.”[14] For R.F. Cottrell, the sanctuary was the “grand center of the Christian system” and “the center of present truth.”[15] Uriah Smith spoke of the Sanctuary as the “grand nucleus around which cluster the glorious constellations of present truth.”[16] J.N. Andrews considered the sanctuary to be “the great central doctrine” in the Seventh-day Adventist system, because “it inseparably connects all the points in their faith, and presents the subject as one grand whole.”[17] According to Ellen G. White, the sanctuary was the key that “opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious.”[18]

The pivotal nature of the three angels’ messages for Sabbatarian Adventist theology was also stressed by several of the Sabbatarian writers. Joseph Bates, for instance, referred to Revelation 14 as providing “a most graphic delineation of the Second Advent movement, from its rise in about 1840, to a glorious state of immortality.”[19] J. N. Andrews stated that “at the present time, no portion of the Holy Scriptures more deeply concerns the church of Christ than Rev. [14].”[20] For James White, the three angels’ messages were “links in the golden chain of truth, that connects the past with the present and future, and show a beautiful harmony in the great whole.”[21] Ellen White explained that many Millerites “saw the perfect chain of truth in the angels’ messages, and gladly received them in their order, and followed Jesus by faith into the heavenly sanctuary.”[22]

We conclude our treatment of early Adventist hermeneutics here, with Timm, “Both the sanctuary and the three angels’ messages integrated the Sabbatarian Adventist doctrinal system in an outer and an inner dimension. In the outer dimension, both the sanctuary and the three angels’ messages integrated that system to the larger context of salvation history. While the sanctuary typology set the system in line with the unfolding plan of salvation, the three angels’ messages placed it within the framework of the historical-cosmic controversy between God and His followers and Satan and his followers. In the inner dimension, both the sanctuary and the three angels’ messages provided the framework for inner integration of the main components of the Sabbatarian system. While the sanctuary typology integrated those components theological-historically, the three angels’ messages integrated them historical-theologically. The theological-historical integration was due to the fact that the post-1844 cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary was theologically connected to almost all basic Sabbatarian Adventist teachings. The historical-theological integration of the system was brought about by the incorporation of those teachings into the chronological structure provided by the consecutive preaching of the three angels’ messages.”[23]

The Development of Church Order (1844-1863)

1844-1848: Discovery of Doctrine & Moves toward Consolidation

Dr. Mustard notes that “the time immediately after the Great Disappointment was marked by varied attempts to come to terms with and explain the failure of the Millerite hopes. Strenuous efforts were made by the leaders to hold the movement together in the face of fanaticism in some quarters and dying interest in others.”[24] Historians divide the post-disappointment Millerites into three main categories: 1) Those who still believed in the imminent Advent, but who assumed that there had been an error in time calculations. 2) Those who ascribed to the Seventh Month movement a satanic influence and gave it (and in some cases all religion) up entirely. And 3) Those who “contended that it [the Seventh Month movement] was all ordained and ordered of God.” Most Millerites who still believed, believed also in the ‘shut door’ theory immediately after October 22,1844. The scorn and derision heaped on them by scoffers only served to make them more resolute in their belief. However, by March 10, 1845, William Miller signaled to his followers that his mind was changing on the issue because of reports of conversions after 1844 had apparently swayed his thinking.

Faced with the threat of the complete disintegration of Millerism, the leaders called an Advent Conference, which opened in Albany, New York, on April 29, 1845. The meeting was convened, as Miller stated after the event, “to deliberate respecting, and if possible to extricate ourselves from the anarchy and confusion of BABYLON in which we had so unexpectedly found ourselves.”[25] A ten-point statement of “Important Truths” was produced, which it was hoped would end the splintering of the movement and terminate the fanatical practices springing up among them. The first line of statement they issued read: “Order is heaven’s first law.” Mustard continues that “the system of church order proposed at Albany clearly reflected the congregational method of organization, in that the Body of Christ is fully represented in each local church and each congregation is independent of any higher authority than Christ Himself. When they refined their beliefs at the conference again four years later, Mustard notes that “a major fact in this change of opinion [regarding the aversion to ‘creeds’ and creedalism] was the perceived danger of heresy and schism within the ranks which drove delegates to a more precise definition of their beliefs than would otherwise have been needed” (Italics all mine).[26] “It is also clear that Millerites had been held together as a community by a single issue – their characteristic belief in the Second Coming. The Disappointment called this issue into question and thus removed the primary basis of their unity. The leaders, therefore, felt obliged to hold the group together by outlining other fundamental beliefs which were shared by the majority.”[27] Mustard also notes, “Everyone was free to interpret or misinterpret the Bible on his own and promote his ideas in the name of Adventism. The Albany Conference sought to correct this situation.”[28] Responding to the expressed opinion that Adventists should have no creed but the Bible, Miller wrote:

“The objector replies, we want nothing short of the entire Scriptures for our creed; they alone are sufficient. And they alone are sufficient for me. But while I receive the entire word of God according to my understanding of its teachings…have I no right to inform the world what I conceive to be the truths it inculcates?”

While William Miller thought the congregational model of church was the way to go because of his Baptist background that used Congregationalism as its organizing model, he believed in Gospel order. Clearly, Mustard writes, “the distinction in Miller’s mind between a creed and a statement of beliefs was that a creed was devised as a means of separation between denominations, while a statement of beliefs was intended to be a means of witness to the world (Italics mine). Miller concluded his arguments by presenting a clear choice for his readers:

“Shall we continue in the anarchy in which we have been, or shall we take gospel measures to restore gospel order, that at the Master’s coming we may be approved of him?”[29]

Mustard goes on to point out:

“The Millerites in general were ­not anti-organizational in their attitude. They did not wish initially to form another denomination, but were not averse to efficient planning and order for their work. The heat of the controversies and struggles with the established churches in 1843 and 1844 led, for a short time, to extreme positions’ being expressed by some against organization, but even then, it was the existence of sectarian human creeds rather than organization per se that the Millerites condemned.

From the perspective of church organization, the post-Disappointment Millerites arrived at a system of church government which was essential at the time for their survival. This congregational form was chosen on the basis of its perceived fidelity to the New Testament pattern, and because it provided as much autonomy as possible while helping to allay fears that any organization would in time become “Babylon.”[30]

The earliest statement by James White on church order appeared in September 1849. He wrote:

“Now it does seem to me that those whom God has called to travel and labor in His cause should first be supported before those who have no calling from God are encouraged to go from place to place.”[31]

Mustard believes that “though it was rudimentary in form, the idea of financial support for traveling preachers had already formed in his mind. This idea may have been a carryover from his days in the Christian [Connection] Church, which was based largely upon an itinerant ministry.” These comments by White were made in connection with his analysis of some individuals who were “self-sent” or according to him not fit for Gospel ministry.[32]

Ellen G. White’s first comments on the subject of church order appeared in December of 1850, based on a vision received earlier in the same year. She wrote:

“I saw how great and holy God was. Said the angle, “Walk carefully before Him, for He is high and lifted up, and the train of His glory fills the temple.” I saw that everything in heaven was in perfect order. Said the angel, “Look ye, Christ is the head, move in order, move in order. Have a meaning to everything.” Said the angel, “Behold ye and know how perfect, how beautiful, the order in heaven; follow it.”[33]

“The theme of the perfect order of heaven as the pattern upon which the church should build its organization occurs in the writings of Ellen G. White several times. She suggested that the nearer God’s people came to the order of heaven the closer they will be to the state necessary for subjects of the kingdom of heaven. Ellen White’s comments in December 1850 referred to individuals who had engaged in some ecstatic experiences in their worship meetings.” Mustard concludes that, “thus, the earliest remarks by both James and Ellen G. White spoke of the need to meet the divisive forces of fanaticism and unauthorized representatives within the scattered group.” The concern about the threat of fanatical practices or unorthodox beliefs in the early days of Sabbatarian Adventism implies that the most prominent leaders at least, namely the Whites and Bates, had in their minds a clear conviction as to what constituted orthodox teaching and regarded the fledgling movement as a tangible entity to be protected by vigilant leaders.”[34]

Other important elements of church order emerged as White reported:

“Gospel order and perfect union among the brethren, especially those who preach the Word, were also dwelt upon, and all seemed to feel the importance of following our perfect guide, the Bible, on these subjects as well as all others.”[35]

One of the earliest methods used to consolidate the beliefs and practices of the group was to issue cards of identification for the “traveling brethren” in order to thwart imposters. These ministerial “credentials” were usually signed by White and Bates. Mustard notes that this practice began in 1853 if not earlier.[36]

Mustard writes that, “at the end of 1853, White wrote his first carefully considered exposition on the matter of church order, the first such study by a Sabbatarian Adventist. The theme of the series was borrowed from 1 Cor. 14:33, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” White argued that Sabbatarian Adventists must avoid, on the one hand, the extreme of confusion and lack of order that characterized other sects which were “a perfect Babel of confusion”; and, on the other hand, the inflexibility of human creeds.”

Proper order, White continued, should be based on the New Testament evidence which provides for order and strict discipline in the church of Christ. It is especially vital that religious teachers should be perfectly united in sentiment and action. The specific suggestions he drew from the New Testament were as follows: (1) Jesus’ appointment of apostles is a perfect example of the mission of Christ’s ministers today (Matt. 28-16-20; Eph. 4:11-16); (2) It is God who calls the minister to preach the gospel, and the church will recognize that fact; (3) Baptism should be administered upon an individual’s acceptance of the faith, not after a six-month period of waiting to see if he backslides (Acts 2:28, 41; 8:12, 26-40; 16:13-15); (4) Only those who are called to preach may administer baptism; (5) the terms “elder” and “bishop” are interchangeable in the New Testament (Titus 1:5-7); (6) those who are called by God to preach and baptize should be set apart for the ministry by the laying of hands, an act on behalf of the church (2 Tim. 1:16); (7) The purpose of ordination is to qualify one to preach the Word, to secure the union of the church, and to shut the door against Satan – that is, to protect the church against false teachers.


It was approximately 1851, when the Sabbatarian Adventists began to realize that their mission was to a “much wider audience” than they had previously anticipated. By 1854, “James White had established in his own mind the practical need and biblical basis for the ordination, authorization, and financial support of the ministry; and also, the appointment of deacons, centrally organized assignments for ministers, and regular conferences to make plans for the work.”[37]

According to Mustard, “in as much as White had come to firm conclusions on church order by the middle of 1854, little on the subject appeared from his pen until the spring of 1860. What he did say during this time may be summarized in three points: First, he wished to avoid the extremes of “popery” on the one hand and of “anarchy” on the other. Between these extremes, he believed, lies the true Bible position of order and discipline which is in accordance with the gospel. “A church united without a human creed, built on Bible discipline and Bible union, will be a glorious edifice indeed.”

Second, he was aware that the idea of gospel order would be opposed by some, such as “Brother Over-cautious” and “Brother Confusion.” He wrote, “We lack system. And we should not be afraid of that system which is not opposed by the Bible, and is approved by sound sense.” Mustard notes here that James White’s incorporation of ‘sound sense’ fitted with his pragmatic nature and echoed the common-sense approach of the Millerites who believed that the Bible and sanctified human reason were in total harmony. Mustard’s careful research here regarding James White’s hermeneutic contradicts Dr. Knight’s assertion that James White experienced a shift from a literal to a pragmatic hermeneutic.

The third theme focused on the role of the spirit of prophecy and the work of Ellen G. White. From 1850-1855, the editorial policy had been to not mention her visions in print. However, in James’ exposition, without mentioning his wife’s name, he built the case from Scripture for the gift of prophecy and its manifestation in the remnant church.”[38]

James White’s views on the centralization of organization pitted him against those who believed that every aspect of organization needed a verse from Scripture explicitly stating a “thus saith the Lord.” White held that only general principles could be drawn from Scripture and might be found in the New Testament church. White’s work in publishing and the difficulties experienced there had convinced him of the need for a wider, more centralized structure and broader support for the work. The concept of “Systematic Benevolence” matured and a decade later reached the full ten percent of tithe. The Laodicean message that Bates and White pushed caused a great stir among the Sabbatarian Adventists and also helped push towards an organization that furthered the worldwide mission.


The debate over organization increased and the arguments back and forth were vigorous. The newest impetus for the debate came from White’s move to search for a name for the denomination and the question of legal organization. Mustard writes, “the two issues were closely related, as it was necessary to provide a name for the organization if it was to be recognized as an incorporated body by the State of Michigan, legally empowered to own the Review printing office and the Battle Creek meeting house.[39] The strongest opposition came from R.F. Cottrell who raised the familiar theme of “Babylon” as an argument against both a name and legal organization.[40] He reasoned that the steps necessary for legal incorporation would require the church to enter into an alliance with the state. By definition, in his view, such an alliance constituted “Babylon.” He suggested that individuals could own property for the organization. This brought a spirited reply from White, who was “not a little surprised” that Cottrell should take such a stand. He asked what would happen if the individual owner should apostatize, and cited instances where such defections in the Millerite movement had taken place.[41] Ironically, Ellen G. White, and the General Conference would have to deal with this level of defection on an institutional level with the departure of Dr. Kellogg from Adventism nearly fifty years later. A few weeks later, faced with a more detailed reply in the Review from White, Cottrell backed down, and James White in turn bowed to the wishes of his brethren in their opposition to getting insurance for the equipment and property. Even the name of the organization caused some of those on the losing side of their particular suggestion for a name to withdraw their membership! In the end, the name “Seventh-day Adventist” won defeating “Remnant,” and “Church of God,” among other suggestions. Some even objected to having church rolls with members names listed in them however in the end White won on two of the five objectives he started out with. The last one he was aiming for was a General Conference organization. The battle for that would be white hot.

From this time on however, further developments in church organization came more rapidly. Still the response from some ministers was tepid. Ellen G. White wrote that some local churches were “perfect Babylon” and she placed the blame on “cowardly” ministers who believed in organization but did not speak out in favor of it. She accused them of waiting to see what the popular position was before taking a stand, although she did not mention names.[42] A testimony from her supported the concept of legal ownership of property.[43] Mustard writes, “She stated that Cottrell’s opposition to the church order had brought about a “scattering influence” in the church. Clearly referring to her husband’s experience, she wrote:

“Those who do not feel the weight of the cause upon them, do not feel the necessity of anything being done to establish church order.”

With influential leaders in the movement now firmly behind James White, and at a conference held from October 4 to 6, 1861, the churches of Michigan joined together to form the first state conference. Joseph Bates was appointed chairman. The Michigan churches adopted a covenant which stated:

“We, the undersigned, herby associate ourselves together as a church, taking the name Seventh-day Adventists, covenanting to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ.”[44]

Within a year of the organizing of the Michigan State Conference, seven more State Conferences were organized. There was a question of the case of ministers of other denominations who joined the Adventist ministry. The answer was that they should be re-ordained. This was somewhat inconsistent as James White and others were ordained in other denominations prior to 1844 and had not been re-ordained. The decision to require re-ordination and restrict baptisms to only ordained ministers was part of a trend according to Mustard to concentrate authority in the ministers who administered the work at the state conference or General Conference level. It was not only a simple matter of ordination that qualified one to maintain discipline and unity, but, as White had remarked on other occasions, a question of experience. He believed that only when one had struggled through challenging circumstances, such as Sabbatarian Adventist pioneers had done in the years immediately after the Disappointment, could an individual be prepared to direct the work of the church on a wider scale. The refusal to recognize the validity of ordination performed in other denominations was justified on the basis that other churches held doctrines and creeds that were contrary to Bible truth. Any minister ordained by them was therefore “ordained in error.”

“Must not the General Conference be the great regulator?” asked James White in an editorial in the Review. He highlighted how some areas of the work were destitute of ministers while other areas were saturated. He further argued that to avoid such inequalities, the General Conference must have jurisdiction over state conferences, and over the ministers, and must also be responsible for their support, not the local congregation. The conference convened on May 20, 1863, with Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio represented, though not yet on a numerically proportionate basis. A constitution was adopted and one also recommended for state conferences to promote “unity and concerted action.” White was unanimously elected as president, but because of his role in urging organization he declined to serve. John Byington took his place.

Mustard concludes with the relationship of doctrinal unity in the church to a centralized structure:

“In order to maintain doctrinal unity in the church it would seem that a centralized structure was needed.” The most effective cure for a feeling of unimportance among members is to recapture the full meaning of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9). Such belief implies that all members of the church should share in its mission and ministry. These two ideas (centrality of organization and the local congregation as the “bulwark of Adventist mission and ministry”) must be kept in creative tension. Exaggeration of either aspect may lead to distortion of the church’s message and mission. For example, in the interests of efficiency, there may well be a temptation to cut short consultation and decision-making processes and concentrate authority in a few leaders. The challenges of dissidents within the church and the threat of schism may be seen as good reasons to increase the powers of those on higher administrative levels. Such temptations should be resisted, as also moves toward congregationalism (perhaps in the name of greater autonomy) should be withstood.”[45]


The historical data presented in this article raises some relevant issues and important questions for us to consider. We explore some of them here before moving on to the second article in the series.

The Foundation

We start our analysis with the Great Disappointment. Dr. Timm’s research showed us the deep regard for Scripture that William Miller and his followers had and their approach to Scripture. When we understand the Millerite movement in its place within the wide expanse of Christian history going back to 100 AD, we can see how radical their decision was to completely embrace the Protestant principle of Sola Tota Scriptura. By discarding nearly two millennia of tradition, and taking a systematic-total approach to Scripture, they were able to discern the inner logic of Scripture. Dr. Canale’s analysis shows that their building of their faith using the Sanctuary discarded the timelessness of God concept that had pervaded much of Christian history up to that point and even to our day. It gave them a new worldview that perhaps had been lost since 100 AD. It opened to them a system of truth that unlocked Scripture. The deep integration of the Sanctuary and the three angels’ messages anchored their faith and provided a unique worldview that brought with it a sense of a worldwide message and mission.

The Message

Any discussion of Adventism’s roots must center on the message that they derived from Scripture. That message encapsulated in Revelation 14:1-12 is source for the remnant identity of our church and also the source of our mission. At the heart of their new sense of mission was the conviction of Sabbatarian Adventists that they constituted a prophetic movement—the “remnant church of Revelation 12:17 – which was called by God in the last days to proclaim the Second Coming of Christ. We were called into existence to give glory to God, highlight His judgment both now occurring and to come, and call His people out of Babylon. The message preceded formal organization because it is the message that gives reason for our organization.

The Importance of Doctrinal Unity & Church Order

In his prayer for the unity of the church (John 17:22-23), Mustard writes, Jesus expressed the importance of Christian harmony and fellowship if the world were to believe in Him. Sabbatarian Adventists attached a similar importance in post-Disappointment years to the doctrinal unity achieved by the end of the 1848 conference. It was the integration of the Sanctuary and the Sabbath that afforded them the rationale for understanding the Disappointment and provided a foundation on which to build a theology of mission. It is difficult to conceive that Seventh-day Adventists could have developed a sense of mission without doctrinal consensus. They contrasted their doctrinal unity with the confused sects around them. In succeeding years, Seventh-day Adventist writers returned frequently to the theme of doctrinal unity and identified church order as the most important instrument in maintaining that unity.[46] Ellen White regarded unity and love within the church as a “powerful evidence” to the world “in favor of the Christian religion.” Such unity and love, she wrote, created by and manifested in proper organization, are “the divine credentials which the Christian bears to the world.”[47] Another reason given by Ellen White for efficient church order and unity in the church was “the perversity of human nature.”[48]

While she did not provide specifics regarding the structure, she gave general principles and left it up to her husband and others to study Scripture and create a structure that met the practical needs of the time. Mustard writes, “in the minds of early Seventh-day Adventists including Ellen G. White, the unity of the church which had been achieved through organization was an essential part of the church’s witness. Thus, mission could not be accomplished without order, nor could there be a message. No church, if it is to accomplish its mission, can lose sight of its origins and reason for existence: neither can it afford to remain static and fail to adjust to meet new circumstances.”[49] Servanthood was at the heart of church order. Traveling evangelists and elders were expected to administer discipline to the local churches treating them as Christ’s under-shepherds. This concept of servanthood would balance the church authority.

James White declared on several occasions that church order developed ‘through the sheer necessity of the case.’ Organization was established in order to secure unity of doctrine and action and to fortify the church against “outside influence.”

The Conscience

From its inception, the Adventist church has always maintained the liberty of conscience for the individual member. People left to form their own organizations or join other denominations whenever they chose to. Some left over disputes while others could not see a way forward when the debate turned away from their ideas. The freedom to stay or leave is available to any member. However, to stay within the denomination implies certain things. The implication of being a part of the denomination means that the member understands and accepts the foundational presuppositions of the Adventist church. This includes an embrace of its message that is formed on the foundation of the Sanctuary and the three angels’ messages. It includes supporting the organization through systematic tithing. It also means participation in church conversations and the study of Scripture. Every step of the way, every decision made from the day after 1844 until 1863, there were “winners” and “losers” in debates. James White lost several times on issues he felt were critical to the movement and yet he stayed. R.F. Cottrell lost when the Sabbatarian Adventists decided to organize into a denomination and yet he was willing to change his mind.

The conscience is developed and nurtured through the study of Scripture. Adventists base their beliefs and their practices on Scripture and principles that are derived from Scripture’s teachings. When a member embraces a hermeneutic that is different from Sola Tota Scriptura, and refuses to use the Sanctuary system and the three angels’ messages as the foundation for interpretation, then they end up with a different interpretation of Scripture. This interpretation informs their conscience of a different standard of belief and practice. It is at this hermeneutical level for the lay member and the expert theologian[50] that different worldviews arise and differences in ministry practices and approaches to church organization result. In our church today, Adventist pastors and leaders are following the Adventist doctrines with their brains and evangelical practices with their hearts.[51] The theological fragmentation that is in Protestantism due to differences in biblical hermeneutics and sources of authority used to interpret Scripture, is now manifest in our church. This is why, even our own fallible reasoning processes must be subjected to the infallible word of God so that our conscience which may be informed by wrong presuppositions will not lead us astray.


The early Sabbatarian Adventists used compliance measures to safeguard the message. What role should compliance play in our day? If cards were handed out then to ministers what form should current compliance measures take for the Gospel ministry? We will look at some of these questions in depth later in this series but it should suffice to say here that compliance is not a new thing. As we look at the role of the unions and the authority of the General Conference, we will seek to determine the guiding principles for compliance in the context of unity and diversity. We will look at examples of abuse of compliance and determine what Ellen White had to say about those abuses and what the way forward is.


In some sectors of Adventism, the ‘Shut Door’ period from 1844-1848, along with

oft-repeated statements from Mrs. White, have been used to defend “progressive” views that question the authenticity of the Genesis creation and global flood accounts. Some have even ascribed socio-cultural notions of change to Mrs. White’s own views and used these arguments to support doctrinal change. While we agree that age does not turn error into truth, and we affirm that our truth can withstand scrutiny, is that license to preach and teach a worldview built on theological constructs that are based on theistic evolution which conflict on a foundational level with our biblical worldview? What is the depth of theological-hermeneutical diversity our church can take before mutually exclusive views hamper our sense of a worldwide mission based on the three angels’ messages? With conflicting views on the remnant and divergent views on mission, can we achieve true unity? Can the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17, be based on something other than Scripture? We will look at these issues later in this series as well as to how they relate to administrative compliance, conscience, and the ministry. The constitutional issues surrounding this debate will establish precedence for the future actions of the world church at every level. Regardless of what your view is on the ordination of women these constitutional issues affect you.

The church was created under the presupposition that it had a calling, a mission, from God. The same God that called this church into existence also calls individuals into His service. The church’s foundation is built on Scripture and informed by the worldwide sense of mission and the three angels’ messages. Our church order, and our organization reflect our desire to accomplish this mission. Just as in the days of the pioneers, so it is today, the acceptance of multiple sources of authority from science to culture to personal experience etc., for the interpretation of Scripture is still practiced by protestant theologians today and doctrinal and ecclesiological fragmentation is attendant to it. Incompatible theological doctrines give rise to incompatible missions and local expressions of belief. This theological pluralism manifests itself across Protestantism where pluralistic views of God, that are supposedly derived from Scripture, simultaneously exist and are considered equally valid.[52] This acceptance of a multiple source matrix for the interpretation of Scripture is found not only in other Protestant denominations but is also practiced inside the Seventh-day Adventist church.

Our unity is based on our shared understanding of Scripture that stems from following the true Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura and letting Scripture correct us as it did during the dark days right after the Great Disappointment. Without it, our unity and our witness are lost and we become like all the churches in Protestantism that our pioneers came out of to form the Seventh-day Adventist church.


[1] According to a Time calculator online. https://www.timeanddate.com/date/durationresult.html?m1=10&d1=22&y1=1844&m2=05&d2=21&y2=1863&h1=0&i1=0&s1=0&h2=0&i2=0&s2=0

[2] Mustard writes, “In the religious sphere, optimism was also reflected in the Numerous evangelical revivals that flourished all over the frontier. The most prominent Second Great Awakening preacher was Charles Finney. Allied to the view of America as the redemptive instrument of the world was the prevailing post-millennialism, the view that a thousand years of peace and prosperity were at the door. This belief in the perfectibility of man and his institutions resulted in numerous movements of a humanitarian or reform nature. The beginning of the 19th century saw the formation of numerous missionary societies. The most prominent of these organizations were the temperance societies, though other groups also crusaded against such improprieties as Sabbath-breaking and profanity, and in favor of dress and dietary reform. Humanitarian concerns that grew out of this time of religious revival included prison reform, better treatment of the handicapped and the insane, and the abolition of slavery.”

Mustard continues, “The success of revivalism among freewill churches also had a significant influence on the attitudes toward the nature of the church. Most notably, membership was reserved for those who had experienced conversion and followed a consistent Christian lifestyle. Methodists required a period of probation for many converts, and such religious exercises as attendance at worship services and missionary benevolent activities were required of the believers.

[3] ‘Puritanism had a strong influence on 19th-century Adventism. It was able to hold in balance a marked emphasis on learning and rational thought with a proper regard to religious feelings. “Puritanism had always required a delicate balance between intellect…and emotion, which was necessary to the strength and durability of Puritan piety. Thus, the revivals that swept through American religion in the 19th century should not be regarded as unrestrained outpourings of emotion. While appeals to the emotions were made…converts were expected to make intelligent decisions.

[4] The congregational system of church polity was much more widespread than the Congregational name. Baptists, Disciples of Christ, the Plymouth Brethren, Unitarians, and some sections of the Lutheran Church were congregationally governed…Churches organized according to the congregational system were local associations of experiential Christians. Each Church regarded Christ as its only head and was completely self-governing. The members joined together by signing a covenant expressive of their common faith. The only offices of the church were those for which there is a precedent in the New Testament, i.e. pastors, teachers, elders, deacons, helpers. Ordination, being the charge of a particular church, was repeated on each fresh entry into office, and until 1648 was carried out by the local congregation. This custom was changed in that year by the Cambridge Platform, on which occasion ordination became the act of the ministry.

[5] Numerous reasons have been given in an attempt to explain the vast array of religious groups characteristic of the 19th century, a phenomenon which seems to have been, at that time atlas, almost exclusively American. This multiplication of religious groups reached a high point in the 1830’s and 1840’s. Sidney E. Mead traced the origin of Protestant diversity to the Reformation, which broke up the unity of Christendom. The Reformers insisted that each group or even each individual should be free interpret Scripture. This self-sufficient attitude among American Protestants was reflected in the phrase “We will accept no creed but the Bible.” Each group sought to justify its own interpretations and practices by the teaching of the New Testament. Under Puritan influences…it was assumed that God’s Will for man was clearly indicated by Scripture. In the minds of “free” churches it was not individualism that was the cause of the splintering of Christendom but the failure of many church leaders to follow the teachings of the Bible and trust instead in human creeds. Freewill churches benefited the most in terms of rapid growth from the revivals of the Great Awakening. These denominations, in turn contributed the greatest number of adherents and preachers to the Millerite movement. [For more on denominationalism please see a selected history of Christian hermeneutics in the third article of the series on the One project]

[6] Timm, Alberto R., ” The Sanctuary and the Three Angels’ Messages 1844-1863: Integrating Factors in the Development of Seventh-day Adventist Doctrines” (1995). Dissertations. 155.

[7] Canale, Fernando L. “Basic Elements of Christian Theology.”

[8] Timm. Pgs. 4, 5.

[9] Canale, Fernando. L. “From Vision to System: Part 1” Please see his comments on early Adventist Hermenuetics

[10] W. Miller, Apology and Defence, 2-6, cited in Timm. Pgs. 5-6

[11] Maxwell. C. Mervyn. “A Brief History of Adventist Hermeneutics.” http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/jats/vol4/iss2/11/ and Cited by Fernando Canale in “From Vision to System.”

[12] Bates, Joseph, “A Vindication of the Seventh-Day Sabbath, and the Commandments of God: With a Further History of God’s Peculiar People, from 1847 to 1848 (New Bedford, [MA]: Press of Benjamin Lindsey, 1848), 90. Cited by Timm. Xiii

[13] [James White], “The Sanctuary,” RH, Dec. 1, 1863, 5. Cited by Timm xiii

[14] White, James. Life Incidents, in Connection with the Great Advent Movement, as Illustrated by the Three Angels of Revelation 14 (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1868), 309.

See also idem, “The Sanctuary and the 2300 Days,” RH, Mar. 17, 1853, 172. Cited in Timm xiii

[15] Cottrell, R.F., “The Sanctuary,” RH, Dec. 15, 1863, 21. Cited by Timm xiii

[16] Smith, Uriah. “Synopsis of the Present Truth. No. 19,” RH, March 25, 1858, 148. Cited in Tim xiii

[17] Andrews, J.N. “The Sanctuary,” RH, June 18, 1867, 12. Cited in Timm xiv

[18] White. Ellen. G., “The Spirit of Prophecy (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1884), 4:268. “The two Dispensations,” RH, March 2, 1886, 129; idem, The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan during the Christian Dispensation (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press, 1888), 423, 454, 488; Cited by Timm xiv

[19] Bates, Vindication, 92. Cited by Timm xv

[20] Andrews, J.N. “The Sanctuary,” RH, June 18, 1867, 12. Cited by Timm xiv

[21] Andrews, J.N. “The Three Angels of Revelation 14: 6-12,” RH, Jan. 23, 1855, [161]. See also idem, “Thoughts on Revelation xiii and xiv,” RH, May 19, 1851, 81.

[22] White. Ellen. G., “Spiritual Gifts” (Battle Creek, MI: James White, 1858), 1:165-66. See also idem, 133-73, passim; idem, Great Controversy (1888), 435-54; passim idem, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, n.d.), 6:17-18 Cited by Timm. xvi

[23] Timm. Xii-Xiii

[24] Mustard, 67

[25] Mustard, 83

[26] Mustard, 85

[27] Ibid. 85

[28] Ibid 85

[29] Mustard, 88-89.

[30] Mustard, 90-91.

[31] Letter, James White to Bro. and Sister Collins, Sept. 8, 1849. Cited by Mustard, 118.

[32] For more on James White’s views on the selection of ministers, the differences between local and itinerant leadership please see part 2 of my 5th article on the One Project where I cover Early Adventist Ecclesiology in some detail. Cf. Also with Dr. P. G. Damsteegt’s paper on “New Models of Leadership” in the book “Here We Stand” edited by Dr. S-K. Pipim.

[33] White, Ellen G., MS 11, 1850. Cf. A. L. White, “Messenger to the Remnant” (1969), p. 45 cited by Mustard, 120.

[34] Cf. Loughborough’s comment: “It seemed to require some adverse experiences to arouse them (Sabbatarian Adventists) fully to a sense of the necessity of the organization of conferences and church and associations for the management of the temporalities of the cause” (Loughborough, The Great Second Advent Movement, p. 343). Cited by Mustard, 120.

[35] White, James. “Our Tour East,” p. 52. Cited by Mustard, 123.

[36] According to Loughborough, in “The Great Second Advent Movement,” pp. 348-349, the first cards were issued in 1850. He received his first card, signed by White and Bates, in January 1853.

[37] Mustard, 129

[38] Mustard, 130-133

[39] Interestingly, the Commissioned Pastor Status also arose from a legal requirement regarding a tax designation.

[40] Cottrell, R.F. “Making us a Name.” RH. March 27, 1860, pp. 140-141. Cited by Mustard p. 143

[41] White, James. “Making Us a Name.” RH. March 29, 1860. P. 152. Cited by Mustard p. 144

[42] White, Ellen, G. “Communication from Sister White,” RH. August 27, 1861, pp. 100-102. Cited by Mustard, p. 151.

[43] White, Ellen, G. “Testimony for the Church. No. 6 (Battle Creek, Michigan: Review and Herald Pub. Assn, 1061). Ibid 153.

[44] Bates and Uriah Smith: “Doings of the Battle Creek Conference, October 5 and 6, 1861.” RH. October 8, 1861, pp. 148-149. Ibid 154.

[45] Mustard, 282

[46] Mustard 206-208

[47] Ellen G. White. “Unity of the Church,” p. 113

[48] Ellen G. White. “Order in the Church” RH April 15, 1880, p. 241. Cited by Mustard, 210.

[49] Mustard, 211

[50] See Dr. Desmond Ford for his evangelical macro-hermeneutical articulating principle of Christ and Dr. Fritz Guy for his multiple source matrix for interpretation of Scripture that leads both of them to embrace theistic evolution.

[51] See Canale’s series here: http://www.atsjats.org/publication_file.php?pub_id=374&journal=1&type=pdf

[52] For example, God created the world in six literal days and over millions of years. He has already destined you to heaven or hell or lets you choose your destiny. God simultaneously is a person or an immaterial mystical force, He is both present and absent, reachable and not, unchanging or changing, transcendent or immanent, a loving Father and a vengeful angry Judge. Which of these inherently contradictory theological views of God would you use to derive other relevant doctrines and mission from?

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