May 18, 2023 | Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Ted N.C. Wilson, President, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
Ted Wilson (TW): Greetings, friends! As you may know, we have been going through the marvelous book, The Great Controversy, tracing Christian history down through the ages. Most recently, we have been looking at the Protestant Reformation, and how God continued guiding His people even through terrible persecution. We will continue our regular study next week, but today we are remembering a very important date in the history of God’s last-day remnant movement—May 20, 1863.
Nancy Wilson (NW): We read in page 343 of The Great Controversy that “The work of God in the earth presents, from age to age, a striking similarity in every great reformation or religious movement. . . . The important movements of the present have their parallel in those of the past, and the experience of the church in former ages has lessons of great value for our own time. No truth is more clearly taught in the Bible than that God by His Holy Spirit especially directs His servants on earth in the great movements for the carrying forward of the work of salvation” (The Great Controversy, p. 343).
TW: William Miller, who we will be talking more about in the coming weeks, was a well-respected American farmer who lived in the northeastern United States during the mid-nineteenth century. At one time, he doubted the divine authority of Scripture, but after several years of disbelief, he began to feel hopeless. Nevertheless, God had not forgotten this honest man, and gently opened his eyes to the truth of His Word. Miller began studying the Bible earnestly, verse by verse, using only a concordance as his guide. As he prayerfully studied, he experienced the truth found in Psalm 119:130—”The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.”
NW: While studying the book of Daniel, Miller came to this key verse: “And he said to me, ‘For two thousand three hundred days, then the sanctuary shall be cleansed’” (Daniel 8:14). After studying this passage for some time, he concluded that the return of Jesus was imminent. Miller became a prominent leader in what became known as “The Second Great Awakening.” Thousands of people across the United States and beyond were convinced Jesus was coming soon. Based on the prophecies of Daniel, it was finally determined that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844. Eagerly they waited for their Lord to appear, but when the clock struck midnight at the end of that fateful day, their sorrow knew no bounds. They wept and wept until the break of day.
TW: This experience was foretold in the book of Revelation, where the apostle John is told by a voice from heaven to “Go, take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the earth” (Rev. 10:8). When John asks for the little book, the angel tells him, “Take and eat it; and it will make your stomach bitter, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth” (vs. 9). John followed the instructions and found it to be just as the angel had said. He was then told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings” (vs. 11).
NW: This prophecy perfectly describes the experience of the Millerites. While many believers fell away after such a bitter experience, a smaller group continued studying the Bible, convinced the error was not in God’s Word, but in their interpretation of it. Through careful study, comparing Scripture with Scripture, they realized that nowhere did the Bible call the Earth “the sanctuary”—a common misconception in those days leading to the assumption that the “cleansing the sanctuary,” must be referring to the Earth.
As this small group of believers continued studying God’s Word, they realized that “the sanctuary” referred to in the book of Daniel was far greater than anything here on Earth–it was the sanctuary in heaven, of which the Israelite sanctuary on Earth was merely a type.
TW: The study of the sanctuary is an important topic which we will discuss in future videos, but for now, we will note that this understanding of Bible prophecy was the beginning of an end-time prophetic movement that led to deeper and deeper Bible study. By the end of 1848, this group of believers had formed the basic concepts of a number of very important Bible teachings, including the seventh-day Sabbath, the two-fold ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, the state of the dead, the gift of the Spirit of Prophecy, an understanding of the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14, and the Second Coming of Christ. Many details of these doctrines were still to be understood more deeply, but the basic concepts were there.
NW: The little group of believers grew quickly and, over the next few years, developed a publishing ministry, producing magazines, tracts, books, and more. Furthermore, as the number of Sabbath-keeping Adventists grew, churches were built in numerous places.
By 1854, Ellen White, whom Seventh-day Adventists believe received the prophetic gift, began calling for the movement to “become established upon gospel order.” She had been instructed in vision that order in the church should reflect the order of heaven and of the New Testament church.
TW: There was at first some resistance to organizing as an official body, as some feared that if organized, the church would become Babylon. But the need for organization was becoming more apparent; it would provide some form of formal endorsement and support for those in ministry, and a way of recognizing members. There also needed to be a legal provision for holding property, such as the printing press and church buildings.
NW: At last, an important step was taken in the fall of 1860, when the name, “Seventh-day Adventist” was officially voted at a special conference held in Battle Creek, Michigan. The following spring, the “Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association” was legally incorporated.
In April 1861, more steps were taken during a meeting in Battle Creek, where it was decided to form State conferences and a General Conference.
TW: Several months later, the churches in Michigan came together to form the first State conference. This was highly significant as many other important steps were taken, including adopting a procedure for providing conference ministers with credentials, as well as procedures for the election of church officers and for accepting new members into fellowship. Soon, churches in several other states also came together to form conferences. Thus, the stage was set for all State conferences to come together to form a General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
NW: How did this happen? David Trim, director of the General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, explains in his book, Hearts of Faith: How We Became Seventh-day Adventists.
TW: The important meeting began on the evening of Wednesday, May 20, 1863, after delegates arrived by train at Battle Creek. There were 18 delegates coming from five of the six existing State Conferences, including Michigan, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. The Vermont Conference did not send any delegates, but the churches in Ohio, which had not yet formed into a conference, sent two delegates. In addition, there were many interested observers, including Ellen White.
NW: The first action of the delegates was to elect a temporary chairman and secretary—the chairman was Jotham M. Aldrich, who was 35 years old and had converted just three years earlier. Uriah Smith was 31 and was elected secretary. Interestingly, he was not a delegate.
The group then sang “Long Upon the Mountains” from the hymnal James White published two years earlier. The delegates presented their credentials for verification, and the meeting was adjourned until the following morning.
TW: The next day, Thursday, May 21, eight delegates were chosen to draft a constitution, which was approved unanimously. And with that, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was officially founded. This provided for a permanent structure with conferences as the constituency, and annual sessions. There would be three permanent officers–president, secretary, and treasurer, and an executive committee of three.
It is interesting that the original constitution began with a Preamble, explaining why the General Conference was being established, which was: “For the purpose of securing unity and efficiency in labor, and promoting the general interests of the cause of present truth.” In addition, the constitution pointed out that the Executive Committee was to supervise all missionary work, decide where such labor was needed, and who would go as missionaries.
NW: Since that time, God has blessed His Church tremendously, growing from just 3,500 members and six conferences in 1863 to more than 22 million members, with a presence in more than 200 countries and territories around the world. The Church operates thousands of schools, hospitals, publishing houses, media ministries, and more– all with the purpose of ministering to others and sharing the hope we have with the world.
TW: You see, friends, God organized the Seventh-day Adventist Church for unity, identity, and mission—to proclaim His last-day three angels’ messages to a world in need. It is the prophetic movement described in the book of Revelation, and God invites us to move forward today in His special calling. His prophetic Word is 100 percent reliable—we can count on it.
As we close, I would like to share with you these amazing words recorded in Habakkuk 2:2-4—
“Then the Lord answered me and said:
‘Write the vision
And make it plain on tablets,
That he may run who reads it.
For the vision is yet for an appointed time;
But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
Because it will surely come,
It will not tarry.
Behold the proud,
His soul is not upright in him;
But the just shall live by his faith.'”
Let’s pray together just now.
Father in Heaven, thank you for leading your movement down through the decades. Yes, even down through the centuries. From the beginning of time. Thank you for having a people throughout history who would adhere to the commandments of God and the principles of heaven itself. Thank you for the recent history of establishing a mighty movement and advent movement that will take the final proclamation of the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 to the world and prepare people through the power of the Holy Spirit for Jesus’ soon coming. Thank you for being with us and for guiding your people. Bless us now, as we truly look to you, the One who can help us to truly live by faith completely in you and through the grace of Jesus Christ. We ask all of this in Christ’s name, Amen.