A. G. Daniells: The Administrative Extraordinaire

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A. G. Daniells: The Administrative Extraordinaire

Mr. President

Arthur Grosvenor Daniells was the longest-serving president the Adventist church has ever had. During his 21 years of presidency, he led the church through the reorganization of 1901 and 1903, the Kellogg crisis in the early 1900s, the first World War, and the famous 1919 Bible conference. Daniells was also the first General Conference president who had to navigate the church forward without the guidance of Ellen White’s prophetic voice after she passed away in 1915.

The administrative ability of Arthur was just what the church needed at the turn of the 20th century, as the church went through a massive reorganization. It took a firm and patient hand to lead the denomination through the difficult times of change. The lessons learned from studying his presidency, as well as his experiences before and after his time as leader of the church, are invaluable.

A Difficult Childhood

Arthur was born in Iowa in 1858, just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. His father died during the war, leaving his mother to take care of him and his younger twin siblings. He and his siblings were eventually placed in an orphanage due to his mother’s inability to care for them adequately.

Daniells was able to return to his mother when he was nine after she remarried. Arthur’s stepfather was a farmer who worked him hard throughout his childhood. The untiring work ethic of the future General Conference president was most likely forged during these challenging years.

Adventists were very active in Iowa during the late 1850s and into the 60s. Arthur’s mother accepted Adventism “about the time of her husband’s death and the temporary surrendering of her children to the orphanage.”[1] Daniells was baptized at the age of ten by a man who would serve as president of the General Conference years before him, G. I. Butler.

From Attempted Education to Evangelism

In 1875, at the age of 17, Daniells set out for Battle Creek, Michigan, to further his education at the then-new Adventist college. After his first year, he suffered a heat stroke in the summer while working on his stepfather’s farm back in Iowa. When he returned to school in the Fall, he still suffered from “chronic headaches and fainting spells.” Even after being treated by the young Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, he made little progress in recovery and had to return home.[2] Daniells was never able to fully complete his schooling.

Arthur didn’t leave Battle Creek empty-handed, though. While there, he developed a close relationship with Mary Hoyt, who left school to help nurse Daniells back to health in Iowa. The two were married toward the end of 1876. For the first couple of years, they sold books together and taught at country schools. They left for Texas in 1878 after Arthur felt the call to enter the ministry.

Daniells struggled with a stammer from a young age (probably due to his traumatic childhood), so public evangelism was more difficult for him than most. With the patient help from the evangelist he served under and from his dedicated wife, Arthur overcame his stammer and fear of public speaking.

In 1880, G. I. Butler, then serving as president of the Iowa Conference, called Daniells back to his home state to minister. Arthur did well as an evangelist in the more comfortable home environment. He served for almost seven years and gained administrative experience organizing meetings, Tract and Missionary Societies, and colporteur teams. This knowledge would serve him well in his next assignment, which wasn’t so close to home.

Missionary Down Under

In 1886, with much prayer, Daniells and his wife accepted a call from the General Conference to serve as missionaries in Australia. His willingness to leave his comfortable home state for a place he had never been eventually led Arthur to the presidency of the General Conference. It was in Australia that Arthur further developed the administrative capabilities that made him an able church leader. He also formed a close relationship with Ellen White, who joined him in 1891, which added to his influence.

After five years of effective labor in New Zealand and Australia, Daniells was named Australian Conference president in 1891. His most significant task as an administrator was spearheading the development of an Adventist college that would furnish more trained workers to help in the region.

While Ellen White and S. N. Haskell worked heavily on the spiritual and educational aspects of the new Avondale College in Cooranbong, Daniells went about procuring the funds needed to help the institution survive. The depression of the 1890s made this an arduous chore. It was so difficult that Daniells was tempted to divert tithe money to support the school, for which Ellen White kindly rebuked him.[3]

Despite the economic struggles, the school was ultimately established on solid financial ground. W. W. Prescott’s stay in Australia during 1896 helped the educational department of the college run more efficiently and on a sounder theological basis. With the combined efforts of a prophet, excellent theological minds like Prescott and Haskell, and the leadership ability of A. G. Daniells, Avondale became the pattern to which all other Adventist colleges were to look to.

Church Reorganization

At the turn of the 20th century, Daniells visited his homeland after 14 years of missionary service. He fully expected to return to his post in Australia after the 1901 General Conference Session, but his skills were about to be put to use on a broader scale.

For years different voices had been calling for the church to move beyond the organizational structure first adopted in 1863. The denomination was too widespread for just a few leaders in Battle Creek, Michigan, to adequately lead. Ellen White and A. G. Daniells felt that they had experimented with a system of organization in Australia that would work well if applied to the church at large.

In 1894, the Australasian Union Conference was formed. “It simultaneously provided for greater centralization and democratization. Information and directions from the General Conference would flow down to the local conferences… through the union conference. But it also allowed for decision-making more attuned to its region.”[4] The plan was essentially what Jethro told Moses in Exodus 18. Moses chose leaders to handle the problems they were capable of handling and to only refer issues to him that were beyond them.

Ellen White felt strongly that the leaders in Battle Creek were hoarding too much authority. In her opening remarks at the General Conference Session, she said, “There are to be no kings in our work, no man who will put out his hand and say to God’s workman, ‘You cannot go there. We will not support you if you go there.’”[5] In her mind, the old structure was hindering evangelism, and the time for change was overdue.

Since A. G. Daniells had become the president of the Australasian Union Conference in 1897, he was the go-to man in helping the other delegates of the General Conference understand how the new structure would work worldwide. The leadership qualities that had been honed over years of ministry were now put on full display.

Once the new organization was approved, Daniells was nominated as president by none other than Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, and A. T. Jones seconded the motion. Seeing what would happen between these three men in the next few years, Benjamin McArthur calls this action one of the “most ironic of Adventist history.”[6]

Clash of the Titans

A. G. Daniells inherited the leadership of a church that was heavily in debt and could barely pay the salaries of its ministers. This caused the General Conference to adopt a no-debt policy, which set them on a collision course with the ambitious Dr. Kellogg. The doctor had dreams of building another sanitarium in England. This idea had to be firmly shot down by Daniells if he was going to stick by the promise of getting the church out of debt.

If Kellogg was furious over the inability to take on some debt to build another fine institution overseas like the one in Michigan, he became irate when the General Conference refused to support the sale of his book, The Living Temple, to pay for the rebuilding of the Battle Creek Sanitarium after it burned down in 1902.

At the meetings that ensued concerning using Kellogg’s book to rebuild the sanitarium, the doctor met his match in the strong leadership of A. G. Daniells. One conference president wrote to Daniells during the crisis, “He [Kellogg] has had his own way so long and has domineered and berated every body that it is hard on him to be checked in his career.”[7]

Kellogg went on to do his own print run of The Living Temple without the permission of the General Conference through the Review and Herald. “Once printed, these were soon consumed in the great fire of December 1902, a development some observers considered divine interposition.”[8]

Even this development couldn’t stop the doctor. He had the book printed by another publisher, which was “soon hawked about the country by a cadre of Adventist youth Kellogg recruited.”[9] During this time, Ellen White still encouraged Daniells to reconcile with the doctor, even though Kellogg also sought to unseat Arthur from the presidency and set up A. T. Jones in his place in 1903.[10]

Things didn’t get better until Ellen actually read The Living Temple herself. She had earnestly sought to help Kellogg stay with the church, but was forced to speak out against the theological error in his book. A long battle of words ensued between the General Conference and Battle Creek leaders. Eventually, Kellogg went too far in speaking against the testimonies of Ellen White, which cost him the confidence of other church members. The patience and endurance of Daniells paid off.

“The conflict between Arthur G. Daniells and John Harvey Kellogg was the most bitter leadership feud in Adventist Church history.”[11] Daniells and the General Conference moved the church headquarters and the Review and Herald to Washington D. C. to have a better base for a now worldwide church. But also to get Adventists away from Kellogg’s influence in Battle Creek. Weathering this storm early in his presidency strengthened Daniells for the long years of leadership that lied ahead.

Dealing with WWI and the Death of Ellen White

Daniells kept himself very busy during his years as president. His passion for world missions was a massive catalyst for the church’s explosive growth outside of the U. S. during the first decade of the 1900s. There were still controversies during these years of development back in America that needed his attention, though.

The battles over “the daily” interpretation have been discussed in the articles on S. N. Haskell and W. W. Prescott in this series. Also, the important issue of the color line and the conflict with the black Adventist pastor Lewis Sheafe can be found in the book review done on Douglas Morgan’s biography of Sheafe.

After struggling through these issues in the first decade of his presidency, Arthur found a new dilemma facing him and the church. The beginning of World War 1 in 1914 threatened the connectivity of the worldwide church. Communication with the European field was nearly impossible as the combat there ramped up.

On top of the difficulties presented by the war, the death of Ellen White in 1915 shook the church. It was probably the most significant shift A. G. Daniells went through in his career. He became the first General Conference President to have to lead the church without the guidance of a living prophet.

Daniells gave the life sketch of Ellen at the funeral service held in Battle Creek. He “used Ellen White’s memorial service as an occasion to remind his community… of the continued meaning of Adventism.”[12] Arthur’s leadership during this time helped to keep the minds of church members focused on their mission of spreading the gospel.

The combination of the biggest war the world had ever seen and the death of Ellen White brought a sense of urgency to Adventist church members and evangelists. Daniells himself became highly focused on expounding upon the prophecies of Daniel 11 in connection with wartime events.

Although Arthur and other evangelists tended to focus on the “Eastern Question,” a misguided focus on events in Turkey that some Adventist preachers then thought was the interpretation of Daniel 11:40-42, their emphasis on prophecy resonated with many people during the war. “The reluctance of mainline Protestant churches to address prophetic issues of the war opened a door for Adventist evangelism.”[13]

Despite being dead wrong in some of his prophetic interpretations, Daniells’s focus on evangelism and his willingness to still travel the world during a dangerous conflict contributed to the growth of Adventism throughout the war.

The 1919 Bible Conference

For a long time, Daniells wanted to hold an educational meeting for church ministers and teachers. Various interpretations of prophecy and questions about Ellen White’s inspiration and authority were the principal matters for discussion. Once the world was at peace again in 1919, Daniells got his wish.

Because such touchy subjects would be talked about in a way that probably had not occurred until that time, the attendance was limited. This would cause suspicion in the church, some of which would lead to Daniells not being reelected in 1922. The president and others at the conference felt that the conference minutes were liable to shake the faith of many lay members, so they were locked away, not to be recovered until over 50 years later.

Some teachers openly expressed that they had not believed some of Uriah Smith’s interpretations of prophecy in his famous Daniel and the Revelation for some time during the conference. This was big because the book was still the most popular amongst Adventists for interpreting the apocalyptic books of the Bible.

The largest bombshells of the conference had to do with the recently deceased prophet. First was the admittance that Ellen White was not infallible when it came to historical and scientific details. Many in the church still believed that she was verbally inspired (meaning God dictated every word she wrote), but this idea was also firmly resisted at the conference.

Probably the biggest question was whether Ellen White was an infallible interpreter of Scripture (meaning her word was the final authority on doctrinal issues). “Daniells knew that some ministers advocated the Spirit of Prophecy as interpreter of the Bible (even preached at the General Conference!), but to him this was ‘false doctrine.’”[14]

Although the minutes of the conference were never released in his lifetime, comments like these caused people to believe that Daniells was not a believer in the spirit of prophecy. This was far from the case, but the 1919 Bible Conference shows us how difficult it can be to fight traditionalism in the church. Getting the church to progress forward in its understanding was a long uphill battle for Daniells that eventually cost him the presidency.

Handing Over the Presidency and Final Labors

Those who were staunch traditionalists and Fundamentalists in Adventism began to arouse opposition against A. G. Daniells in the early 1920s. These ministers and lay members believed that Daniells and others at the General Conference were trying to tear down what Adventism stood for and degrade the ministry of Ellen White. These forces gained enough support to unseat Daniells from the presidential position at the General Conference Session in 1922.

A. G. Daniells was far from finished in church leadership, though. He was still voted executive secretary of the General Conference, which was essentially the number two position. Despite being assaulted with false accusations, he continued to serve the church faithfully.

He went on to write two influential books, Christ our Righteousness and The Abiding Gift of Prophecy. The first compiled many quotes from Ellen White on the importance of righteousness by faith and discussed the crucial 1888 General Conference message given by Jones and Waggoner. The second sought to show that God had always preserved the gift of prophecy throughout the Christian age and talked of how the gift was manifested through Ellen White. Both books served to show that the attacks of his critics were unfounded.

Daniells, unfortunately, developed stomach cancer and died at the age of 77 in 1935. Some sought to make others believe that his disease and death were divine judgments because of his mistakes. But we would do much better to focus on his triumphs as a great leader and his passion for spreading the Adventist message to the whole world.

Positive Lessons from the Life of A. G. Daniells

Progressive Leadership

Whether it came to the church’s organizational structure or the theological interpretation of prophecy, Daniells was not a man to stick to rigid traditions that hindered growth. He was the man for the hour when it came to the reorganization of the church because of his willingness to try something new in Australia.

Daniells opened the 1919 Bible Conference with this quote from Ellen White:

“The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people, should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what.”[15]

Controversy usually didn’t stop Arthur Daniells from trying to move his church forward. Ever since he took hold of the Adventist message from his youth, he was dedicated to serving Jesus. He faced plenty of criticism for his methods, but the church may not be where it is today without his progressive attitude.

Mistakes We Can Learn From

Locking Up the 1919 Bible Conference Minutes

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. Seeing now how the minutes of the 1919 Bible Conference could have helped the church avoid the controversies over Ellen White’s writings and prophetic interpretation that erupted in the 1970s and 80s, it is easy to say that those minutes should never have been hidden away.

Benjamin McArthur says in his biography of Daniells:

“The legacy of the 1919 Bible Conference represented a failure of leadership. A. G. Daniells understood that, even more than unified prophetic interpretation, his church needed a clear grasp of Ellen White’s inspiration. He was confident that a realistic view of how her writings were produced would not weaken confidence in her authority; it certainly had not for him… But Daniells had a failure of nerve when the time came to initiate this discussion among the broad Adventist public… So Daniells took the safe path. Lock the transcripts away. Leave it to a later generation to learn what he knew firsthand.”[16]

To be fair to Daniells, the decision to lock up the minutes was not only made by him but was voted by the conference at large. It is hard to tell if releasing the minutes right after the meeting would have saved future generations from having to wrestle Walter Rea’s The White Lie, or Desmond Ford’s attack on the sanctuary and the investigative judgment. But it might’ve led to more honest discussions in the church, instead of staunch traditionalism that brushed the problematic questions about the Bible and Ellen White under the rug.

Click here to read the rest of this series on the Adventist pioneers!



[1] Benjamin McArthur, A. G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth-Century Adventism, p. 20.

[2] Ibid, p. 23.

[3] Ibid, p. 70.

[4] Ibid, p. 95.

[5] General Conference Bulletin, Extra No. 3, April 5, 1901, p. 66.

[6] Benjamin McArthur, A. G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth-Century Adventism, p. 108.

[7] Ibid, p. 192.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] George Knight, A. T. Jones: Point Man on Adventism’s Charismatic Frontier, p. 234.

[11] Benjamin McArthur, A. G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth-Century Adventism, p. 208.

[12] Ibid, p. 342.

[13] Ibid, p. 364.

[14] Ibid, p. 395.

[15] Ellen G. White, Testimonies to the Church, Vol. 5, p. 707.

[16] Benjamin McArthur, A. G. Daniells: Shaper of Twentieth-Century Adventism, p. 397.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.