Today (May 11) marks one hundred years since the opening of the 1922 General Conference (GC) Session, the 42nd such gathering by denominational leaders, held at the Exposition Memorial Auditorium in San Francisco, California.(1) In many ways, it can be argued that it is one of the most controversial such gatherings in all of Adventist history.
In many ways this gathering marked the end of an era. Times had changed. Ellen White had
died only seven years earlier, and the world was still reeling from the destructive world war,
and even more perilous pandemic. In turn these events had contributed to a sense of
embattlement for conservative Christians who sought to defend the faith. Such stalwart
advocates of the divine inspiration of the Bible became known as the Fundamentalists.
In many ways 1922 can be seen as the tipping point as Adventism drifted toward
Fundamentalism. While different denominations grappled with the Modernist Fundamentalist controversy, Adventism by and large adopted and appropriated ideas from the Fundamentalists creating what I term “Adventist Fundamentalism”—Adventism would never be seriously tempted toward Modernism, at least not in the 1920s, as the perpetual temptation of Adventism was toward Fundamentalism. Not all of Fundamentalism was bad either, but what made it problematic for Adventists specifically was the proclivity toward an inerrant and infallible view of inspired writings. It became increasingly normative to argue such ideas for both the Bible and Ellen White’s writings.
At 1922 the battle lines were such that some of the old guard, such as Daniells and Prescott, were under attack, most notably by Claude Holmes and J. S. Washburn among others who saw them as “soft” on such issues. This contributed to an impasse at the actual 1922 GC. The executive secretary coming into the meeting, William A. Spicer, caught wind of controversy on his trip across the country. By the time he arrived, he became very concerned as he saw people taking sides, with particular polarization over whether Daniells, who had effectively served as leader of the denomination for 21 years, would and should continue. The long and complicated story of internecine squabbles can be read in my book. Ultimately the two top leaders of the denomination, Daniells and Spicer, would swap roles thereby creating a face-saving compromise. In his letter to his wife (published as an appendix in my book), Spicer ended it by writing these memorable words: “there are no posts of honor, only those of service.”
On this day, as we ponder 1922 from the distance of a century later, this is an opportunity to
reflect not only about a controversial turning point in our Adventist past, but also to seek ways to learn from this past. In 1922 church leaders gathered at this liminal and illuminating turning point in which Adventism veered into Fundamentalism, Adventist Fundamentalism. After 1922 one sees denominational thought leaders espousing with increasing fervor Fundamentalist rhetoric through the rest of the decade—words that shaped and would have a deep impact upon the continued development of Adventist theology. Thus by 1922 I see Adventism a profoundly different, with this new reshaping of Adventism seen in how it articulated statements of Fundamental Beliefs, but also in terms of race and gender. Most of all, it was in the early 1920s that Adventism began to teach in a far-reaching and pervasive way the ideas of Last Generation Theology, the enigmatic origins of which will be the subject of another forthcoming book.(2)
Listen to this episode of the Adventist Pilgrimage podcast to find out more.