Historical Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
In fulfillment of the divine plan, the Advent Movement began its prophetic journey toward the kingdom in the year 1844. Few in number, often with unhappy memories of having been cast out of their churches because they had accepted the Advent doctrine, the Movement’s pioneers walked uncertainly at first. They were sure of the doctrines they held, but unsure as to the form of organization, if any, that they should adopt. Indeed, most of them so sharply remembered how strong, well-organized church bodies had used that strength to oppose the Advent truth, that they instinctively feared any centralized order and government. Nevertheless, certain pioneer leaders saw with increasing clarity that some kind of government was imperative if good order was to prevail and the Movement grow strong. Their conviction was greatly strengthened by messages coming from the pen of Ellen G. White.
The result was that in 1860 a church name, Seventh-day Adventist, was chosen and a legal body created to hold church property. This was followed, in 1861, by the organization of our first conference, Michigan. This involved the organizing of local churches, with the members signing a church covenant, and the organizing of the various churches into one united body to constitute what is now called a local conference. Action was also taken to give identifying papers to the ministers, thus protecting the churches against impostors who might seek to prey upon them.
In 1863 the General Conference was organized, thus gathering into one organization a number of local conferences which had been created by that time. This set the Advent Movement on a coordinated, organized course.
Historical Development of the Church Manual
As the General Conference met year by year, in session, actions were taken on various matters of church order in an endeavor to spell out the proper rules for different situations in church life. The 1882 General Conference Session voted to have prepared “instructions to church officers, to be printed in the Review and Herald or in tract form.”– Review and Herald, Dec. 26, 1882. This action revealed the growing realization that church order was imperative if church organization was to function effectively, and that uniformity in such order required its guiding principles to be put into printed form. Accordingly the articles were published. But at the 1883 General Conference Session, when it was proposed that these articles be placed in permanent form as a church manual, the idea was rejected. The brethren feared that it would possibly formalize the church and take from its ministers their freedom to deal with matters of church order as they might individually desire.
But this fear–doubtless reflecting the opposition that had existed twenty years before to any kind of church organization–evidently soon departed. The annual General Conference sessions continued to take actions on matters of church order. In other words, they slowly but surely were producing material for a church manual. At times certain prominent brethren sought to gather together in book or booklet form the generally accepted rules for church life. Perhaps the most impressive of such endeavors was a 184-page book by none other than the pioneer J. N. Loughborough, entitled, The Church, Its Organization, Order and Discipline, which was published in 1907. Elder Loughborough’s book, though in a sense a personal undertaking, dealt with many of the topics now covered by the Church Manual and long held an honored place in the Movement.
Meanwhile the Movement continued to grow rapidly both at home and abroad. It was therefore in the best interests of the very order and proper uniformity that had long been our goal, that the General Conference Committee took action in 1931 to publish a church manual. J. L. McElhany, then vice-president of the General Conference for North America, and later president of the General Conference for fourteen years, was asked to prepare the manuscript. This manuscript was carefully examined by the General Conference Committee and then published in 1932. The opening sentence of the preface of that first edition observes that “it has become increasingly evident that a manual on church government is needed to set forth and preserve our denominational practices and polity.” Note the word preserve. Here was no attempt at a late date to suddenly create a whole pattern of church government. Rather it was an endeavor first to preserve all the good actions taken through the years, and then to add such regulations as the church’s increasing growth and complexity might require
See Chapter 1, “Authority of the Church and the Church Manual,” with respect to the role of the Church Manual in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Content of the Church Manual
The 2000 General Conference Session authorized the reclassification of some existing Church Manual material and approved the process for making modifications to such. The content of this Church Manual, as it is presented in chapters and sections within the chapters, is divided into two types of material. The main content of each chapter is of worldwide value and applicable to every church. Recognizing the need for some variations, additional material which is explanatory in nature appears as Notes at the end of some chapters and is given as guidance. The Notes have subheadings which correspond to chapter subheadings and correlate to specific page numbers.
Procedure for Changes in the Church Manual
Realizing increasingly how important it is that everything “be done decently and in order” in our worldwide work, and that actions on church government should not only express the mind but have the full authority of the church, the 1946 General Conference Session adopted the following procedure: “All changes or revisions of policy that are to be made in the Manual shall be authorized by the General Conference session.”–General Conference Report, No. 8, p. 197 (June 14, 1946).
However, local conditions in different parts of the world sometimes call for special actions. Accordingly, the 1948 Autumn Council, which had taken action to submit suggested revisions of the Church Manual to the 1950 General Conference Session, also voted:
“That each division, including the North American Division of the world field, prepare a ‘Supplement’ to the new Church Manual not in any way modifying it but containing such additional matter as is applicable to the conditions and circumstances prevailing in the division; the manuscripts for these Supplements to be submitted to the General Conference Committee for endorsement before being printed.”–Autumn Council Actions, 1948, p. 19.
Changes in or revisions of the Church Manual, the Notes excepted (see below), can be made only by action of a General Conference session in which delegates of the world body of believers are assembled and have a voice in making revisions. If revisions in the Church Manual are considered necessary by any of the constituent levels (see p. 26), such revisions should be submitted to the next constituent level for wider counsel and study. If approved, the suggested revisions are then submitted to the next constituent level for further evaluation. Any proposed revisions shall then be sent to the General Conference Church Manual Committee. This committee will consider all recommended amendments or revisions and, if approved, prepare them for presentation at an Annual Council and/or General Conference session.
If revisions to the Notes at the end of some chapters of the Church Manual are considered necessary by any of the constituent levels (see p. 26), such revisions should be submitted to the next constituent level for consideration. If approved, the suggested revisions should continue on through the next constituent levels for further evaluation until they are received by the Church Manual Committee. The Church Manual Committee will process the request and, if approved, the revisions will be acted upon by the General Conference Executive Committee at the final Annual Council of the quinquennium to coordinate them with the changes of the main content that the General Conference Executive Committee will recommend to the next General Conference session. However, the General Conference Executive Committee may address changes to the Notes at any Annual Council.
A new edition of the Church Manual is published after every General Conference session. It is recommended that leaders at all levels of the church should always work with the most recent edition of the Church Manual.
Clarification of Meaning
Churches should look to the local conference for advice pertaining to the operating of the church or on questions arising from the Church Manual. If mutual understanding or agreement is not reached, the matter should be referred to the union for clarification.