“A Third Rate Lot”: A Brief History of the SDA Ministry

April 1, 2008

Most Millerite preachers who were ordained ministers, received ordination from their own denominations. Typical of this is James White who was ordained in 1843:
“In a few days I returned to Palmyra, where I received ordination to the work of the ministry from the hands of ministers of the Christian denomination, of which I was a member.” (Life Incidents, 1868, 104.)

washington-morse.jpgSabbatarian Adventists, having clearly separated from their parent groups, began to ordain ministers in 1853. The first appears to have been Washington Morse:
“In the winter of 1852, I received a prophetic chart from Eld. White, accompanied with the advice that I engage in public labors in spreading the message. I soon started out, my first effort being at East Randolph, Vt. Here I met Almond Arnold and family, with whom we had been acquainted in the first message, and who had been active in it. This family soon embraced the Sabbath truth. There was also quite a company at East Bethel who took their stand on the Sabbath, and regular Sabbath meetings were soon established at the latter place. The following summer, I was duly ordained to the ministry, and received the most unmistakable evidences of the approbation of God.” (Washington Morse, “Items of Advent Experience During the Past Fifty Years—No. 4”, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 16, 1888, 643.)

Ordinations to the gospel ministry continued:
“We then had a meeting of two hours, in which time the wants of the cause were considered. And it was decided that there were those present that should be ordained to the work of the Gospel ministry, and that there were those (not present) who profess to teach the present truth who were not worthy of the confidence of the church, as teachers. At 1 o’clock at night we adjourned to 8 o’clock in the morning, when the subject of ordination was again taken up. And it was the unanimous expression of all present that our dear Bro. J. N. Andrews, A. S. Hutchins and C. W. Sperry should be set apart to the work of the ministry (that they might feel free to administer the ordinances of the church of God) by prayer and the laying on of hands. And as Bro. Joseph Baker and the writer performed the solemn duty, the Holy Ghost came down upon us. There, bowed before God, we wept together, also rejoice.”
It was then decided that the cause in Vermont required that other brethren in different parts of the State, who labor more or less publicly, should also be set apart by the laying on off hands, that they might administer the ordinances of the gospel. It was the unanimous expression of all present, that Br. B. P. Butler of Waterbury, Elon Everts of New Haven, and Josiah Hart of Northfield, should thus be set apart. And while engaged in this most solemn duty, the presence of the Lord was indeed manifested. We never witnessed a more melting, precious season,— The very atmosphere around us seemed sweet as heaven. How cheering to the Christian to know that his honest endeavors to do his duty are owned and blest of Heaven!
(“The Eastern Tour”, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 15, 1853, 148.)

The Sabbatarian Adventists made some attempts at a theology of ordination to ministry:
“From this [I Timothy 4:11-16] we learn that the order of the gospel is that men who are called of God to teach and baptize, should be ordained, or set apart to the work of the ministry by the laying on of hands. Not that the church has power to call men into the ministry, or that ordination makes them ministers of Jesus Christ; but it is the order of the gospel that those who are called to the ministry should be ordained, for important objects.”

One of those objects was order and unity:
“To produce and secure union in the church. The laying on of hands should be done, we think in behalf of the church. A united expression of the church in this thing would certainly have a tendency to unite the people of God. Some have taken it upon themselves to baptize who profess no calling to teach. Others have gone out to teach the word whose lives were not correct at home. Both have injured the cause. We will not stop to dwell upon painful particulars. To save the flock from imposition of this kind, the gospel plan is sufficient. Let those who are called of God to teach and baptize, be ordained according to the Word, and known abroad as those in whom the body have confidence. By this course the greatest cause of evils that has existed among us as a people, will be removed.” (James White, “Gospel Order”, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, December 20, 1853, 189.)

dt-bourdeau.jpgThe newly formed Seventh-day Adventist Church ordained its first minister in 1861. In a letter dated June 11, A. S. Hutchins recorded:
“At a business meeting on First-day morning, it was the unanimous voice of the church that Bro. D. T. Bourdeau, should be set apart to the work of the gospel ministry, by ordination…. At the close of this meeting, Bro. D. T. Bourdeau was ordained by prayer and the laying on of the hands of preaching brethren present. The Holy Spirit fell sweetly and powerfully upon us, manifestly approving of the solemn and important step. After a discourse in the forenoon…we repaired to the water side, where in accordance with the example of the Son of God, ten were by Bro. D. T. Bourdeau, buried in baptism.” (The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 25, 1861, 189.)

The Michigan Conference in the session of Oct. 6, 1861, decided that its ministers should carry papers of recognition, consisting of a certificate of ordination, and credentials signed by the chairman and secretary of the conference, which credentials should be renewed annually.” (J. N. Loughborough, The Church its Organization, Order and Discipline, 1907, 100.)

It was at this session too, that ministers were for the first time, paid a wage:
“Let every preacher have a certain sum per week for his labor, and be required to report to the Conference each week’s labor during the year, and present his account of all he has received during the year, and if his receipts fall short of the sum necessary to his support, let the amount be made up from the State treasury. ‘The laborer is worthy of his hire.’ If this good rule be suffered to work both ways, then the hire is worthy of its labor. And, further, let all our preachers by mutual consent, and the counsel of the brotherhood, find their fields of labor for the Conference year as far as possible.” (The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 30, 1862, 140.)

Such an understanding was not however universal:
“Brn. Sanborn and Snook then gave a report of their labors, receipts and expenditures in connection with their mission to Minn. Reports accepted. By the advice of Brn. Sanborn and Snook it was decided that those who have been laboring in Minn., as preachers should, for the present, support themselves by laboring with their hands. Adjourned till evening.” (“Doings of the Minnesota State Conference, July 19th, 1863.” The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, August 4, 1863, 75.)

By 1862, ordination in aprevious denomination was no longer sufficient. In answering the following question: “Shall preachers from other denominations embracing the message, preach and baptize among us, on the strength of their former ordination and standing as ministers?”, The Michigan Conference session passed the following resolution: “Resolved, That ministers of other denominations, embracing present truth, should give proof of being called to preach the message, and be ordained among us, before administering the ordinances.” (The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 14, 1862, 157.)

By 1872, the GC had decided that a post-secondary school to train ministers was needed. At the 1873 GC Session, an action was taken to found such a school and the GC Committee raised funds, purchased land, and erected buildings. On January 3, 1875, Battle Creek College opened (though classes had started in 1874).

By the mid 1890s, the system of credentials had become quite structured:
“D. W. Reavis: I have wanted to know for some time what is the difference between ministerial credentials and ministerial license. The Chair: Ministerial credentials are granted to ordained ministers in good standing, and engaged in active labor. Ministerial licenses are granted to licentiates, – those who are engaged in preaching, but who have not yet been ordained to the gospel ministry. Missionary credentials are granted to persons engaged in active missionary work, including our Bible workers, house-to-house missionaries, etc.” (GC Daily Bulletin, March 1895, 147.)

According to John W. Fowler, SDAs have “tended to cast all pastoral leadership in the mold of Paul, who was an itinerant evangelist.” (Adventist Pastoral Ministry, 1990, 10-11.)

This view is typified by the words of A. G. Daniells—GC President—who wrote in 1912:
“We have not settled our ministers over churches as pastors to any large extent. In some of the very large churches we have elected pastors but as a rule we have held ourselves ready for field service, evangelical work, and our brethren and sisters have held themselves ready to maintain their church services and carry forward their church work without settled pastors. And I hope this will never cease to be the order of affairs in this denomination, for when we cease our forward movement work and begin to settle over our churches…then our churches will begin to weaken and to lose their life and spirit and be paralysed and fossilised and our work will be on the retreat.”

Daniells continues:
“There is pastoral work to be done and our plan is this; instead of electing our pastors over the churches individually and having a man devote the greater part of his time to the church, we have him devote the larger part of his time to evangelical work and then visit the churches now and then.” (The Church and Ministry, 1912.)

It was not until the 1950s & 1960s, that the current model of pastoral ministry became dominant.

As early as 1892 GC President O. A. Olsen was disturbed over the poor quality of the ministry—he believed that some senior ministers were so defective it was unsafe to send younger ministers to work with them!

A decade later, A. G. Daniells felt the same way—“I do not know of anything that is demanded more urgently today in our denomination than the improvement of our ministry.” He characterized the young ministers as a “third rate lot.”

Colleges had been established to train workers—including ministers, however the reality was most were called into ministry prior to graduation and did not finish the course. Olsen tried to make up for the lack of training with “short courses.” There were debates over how much training ministers needed.

Australia developed a ministerial association in 1920 headed by A. W. Anderson a “veteran educator and minister”—that offered professional reading courses and a small paper The Evangelist to share study and experience. This development was enthusiastically received and adopted by the GC for the global church. It was headed by a new field secretary—A. G. Daniells.

ministry-1928.jpgDaniells wanted a magazine for the clergy but received no support for the idea—it would be too expensive, so he had to resort to mimeographed sheets and articles. These were hard to distribute and there were the specialist demands of evangelists and Bible teachers. Those who had opposed a separate magazine for ministers caved in and the first edition of The Ministry was published in January 1928 with Leroy Froom as the editor.

Daniells wrote in the first issue of Ministry that a pastor’s efficiency was generally judged by:
“Success in winning people to Christ and His Church.
Establishing these converts in the doctrines of the Church.
The ability to get church members actively involved with their time and money in the mission of the Church.”

Daniells believed formal education in all those areas would be “most helpful.”

At the 1919 Bible Conference Daniells shared his vision of what pastors and Bible teachers should be taught—taking for granted a thorough training in basic doctrines and stressing instead the development of character and personality and constant study as a daily regimen along with good personal grooming and decorum in all that they did.

A theological seminary was opened in 1937 in Takoma Park, Maryland—in the old Review and Herald cafeteria. It operated from this location until permanent buildings were established four years later. It had an international student body. During 1950’s one year of seminary training was required as part of the internship program—to the dismay of many conference presidents. With mandatory seminary attendance enrolment doubled. It increased further when extension schools were held in other divisions. These extension schools became an accepted part of the seminary’s effort to serve the world church.

The relationship between pastoral ministry and formal studies has sometimes been difficult. In The Ministry of April 1944, LeRoy E. Froom (Head of the Ministerial Association) wrote:
“How dare a man contemplate, or have the temerity to present, the degree of doctor of divinity, gained in the universities of Babylon, as a credential for teaching or preaching this threefold message, the second stipulation of which is, ‘Babylon is fallen, is fallen… Come out of her, My people.’ How dare we accept such a Babylonian credential, in lieu of mastery of the truth?….Someone needs to sound an alarm. We need to grip ourselves and halt a growing trend that, if it becomes entrenched, will bring disaster through neutralizing our message.”

The SDA Seminary at Andrews University established two doctoral programs in the 1970’s—a D.Min and a ThD. All seminary degrees were now accredited. This was possible because of the increased recognition of the work of the Seminary faculty in non-Adventist academic circles.


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