159 years ago, two years into the American Civil War, at 6:00pm on May 20, 1863, 21 Adventist believers from churches around the Midwest and Northeast met together in Battle Creek, Michigan “for the purpose of organizing a General Conference.” And thus, the first General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church began.
Four delegates from the New York Conference, one from Minnesota, eleven delegates from Michigan, two delegates from Ohio, one from Wisconsin, and two from Iowa, collected to create the blueprint of the Seventh-day Adventist Church structure. This first session made history because the Church Constitution was developed, the leadership structure was built, Pastor and Abolitionist John Byington was elected as the first General Conference (GC) President, author and educator Uriah Smith was elected as the first GC Secretary, and Eli S. Walker was elected as the first Treasurer.
Don’t be mistaken, this was not the first church organizational structure to be developed. Before this, in October of 1861, Battle Creek, Michigan saw the development of the Michigan Conference. After James White praised the efficiency and expansion of ministry of the Michigan churches that united under the conference, a year later, conferences were organized in Iowa, Vermont, Illinois-Wisconsin, Minnesota, and finally New York and Ohio.
Our modern perception of the General Conference Session is very different from that of the first session. We are used to major stadiums housing thousands of believers from around the world, dozens of vendors showcasing ministries, organizations, institutions, and missions from every corner of the globe. However, the first GC Sessions were distinctly smaller in scale, both in number and reach, with the first 26 sessions hosted in Battle Creek, Michigan, where it all began. The grassroots elements of the GC Session highlight the simplistic purity and structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The development of the General Conference in 1863 was the first step of creating what would become a world church. It was the beginning of the structures we have today to manage the day-to-day operations of the church. The humble origins of the GC Session remind us of the intentions that formed our denomination. From a belief, to a church, to a movement, to a world church; as we move forward, we must look back every once in a while, and realize that the first GC Session was monumental in its formation, and profound in its impact.