Inter-American Division’s Early Establishment in 1922

Inter-America, Jan 11, 2022 at 5:54 PM

The following article has been edited and shortened from its original publication in the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. The link to the full article is referenced at the end. -IAD News Staff

January 11, 2022 | Miami, Florida, United States | By Glenn O. Phillips and Israel Leito

Numerous factors led to the establishment of the Inter-American Division (IAD) in May 1922. Rapid membership growth was a major factor. In 1922, the Caribbean Basin and the northern half of Latin America had been home to thousands of SDA members from about four decades earlier. It is believed that Adventist literature first arrived from Britain to Haiti in 1879, sent by Elder J. N. Loughborough, and led to many accepting the Sabbath and following the Three Angels’ Message.6

In 1887, the first SDA church was formally organized with 40 baptized members in Georgetown, British Guiana (Guyana).7 Soon after the turn of the 20th century, the GC approved three SDA conferences: Jamaica Conference in 1903 and South Caribbean Conference and Panama Conference in 1906. In other areas of the region, it had proven difficult to gain acceptance for the Adventist message among the mostly Roman Catholic adherents and mostly Spanish- and French-speaking populations.

During the 1880s, SDA members attempted to send literature into what is now the IAD territory. In 1882, a secretary of the International Tract Society sought to send Adventist literature to Cuba and communicated with the Cuban consul, asking for names and addresses of persons to send religious literature. The official’s response was: “No one could be found who dare to distribute Protestant literature on shore in Cuba, although it might be handed to the sailors in the harbor.”8

The Advent message entered through various ports across countries and islands across the Inter-America as early as 1879 in Haiti. [Image Inter-American Division Photo Archives]After the Spanish-American conflict at the turn of the 20th century, Protestantism would reach Cuba’s shores. During the early 1890s, a few SDA pioneers took their literature into Mexico and spread the Three Angels’ Message in Mexico City among a small group of readers but were unable to effectively reach the millions living there.9

In the early 1870s, Sister Elizabeth Gauterau, who accepted the Seventh-day Adventist message while living in San Francisco, California, desired to share the good news with those who lived in Honduras, the Bay Islands, and Belize. She gathered many issues of “Signs of the Times” magazines and went on a personal missionary trip. She arrived to Honduras in February 1886 and began spreading the gospel among family and friends.10

In 1891, Pastor Frank J. Hutchins and his wife, Cora, were sent as the first official missionaries to the Central American countries. They arrived at the Bay Islands evangelizing the countries of Honduras, Colombia by way of San Andrés Island, Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panamá.11 They sailed on a schooner on the Caribbean Sea and mainly evangelized at places with ports such as Livingston in Guatemala, Limón in Costa Rica, and Bocas del Toro in Panamá, combining “ministerial, dental, and colporteur work.” Also, in 1891, Brother Salvador Marchisio went to Mexico on his own to share the good news. To better help the Mexican people, he went to Battle Creek to become a nurse, and, then, in 1893, he was sent as a missionary to Guadalajara, Mexico.12

Seventh-day Adventism made significant progress in membership over the years. In 1922, at the time of the creation of the Inter-American Division, over 7,000 baptized SDA members lived in the vast region and worshipped in over 200 SDA churches, and over 100 missionaries served in this region.13 Nine mission fields and other groups in various areas of the church’s work existed, but they were detached from formal administrative structures of the worldwide SDA Church.

Seventh-day Adventist leaders from the church around the world pose for a photo during the official organization of Inter-American Division, in San Francisco, California, United States, 1922. [Image: Inter-American Division Photo Archives]In 1922, the membership of the SDA Church showed encouraging results in growth, primarily among the Protestant population of this region, where over 40 million people lived in over 30 countries.14 The majority of Adventist converts and believers resided in English-speaking areas of the Lesser Antilles and the Panama Canal Zone. While political circumstances of the early 1920s had allowed for modest growth in Mexico, there were hardly any Adventist believers in more heavily populated Spanish-speaking countries. In 1922, the Republic of Colombia with almost six million citizens had only one SDA church with 11 believers.15

While SDA church membership across the region was large enough to justify the creation of a division, the finances generated and expenses incurred could have postponed the division’s organization. Church leaders who visited the Caribbean and northern Latin American regions observed the absence of a well-conceived and planned organizational structure that could prevent the various incorporated parts from competing with each other for missionary personnel and scarce resources.

The existing missions, conferences, and union offices mostly operated autonomously. It was almost customary for subordinates to bypass local supervisors and make direct contact with GC leaders on work-related matters.

Consequently, it was believed that, to overcome this glaring organizational weakness and achieve meaningful, ongoing church growth in this region, an organized division was necessary.16

Organizational History

On May 11, 1922, in San Francisco, California, at the 40th Session of the General Conference, the majority of the 581 delegates voted for the existence of the IAD.17 The 1922 General Conference Bulletin recounts the factors that led the delegates to this decision. (see details here)

Inter-American Division Headquarters in Panama, from 1922-1943.  [Image: Inter-American Division Photo Archives]In the early 1920s, this initial geographical and administrative configuration appeared to be the best arrangement for bringing order to what was perceived as a widely scattered and complicated region of the world.

At the 1922 session, the church agreed to a new constitution and bylaws that incorporated the new division structure. Establishing the IAD was the next step in bringing the church’s organizational structure in that region up to date with the worldwide SDA Church. It also took an action necessary to advance church work within the Caribbean and northern Latin American regions; it voted to make this region the eighth division of the SDA Church.19

The most difficult tasks at the establishment of the newly created division were restructuring the organizational and administrative units that existed before establishing the IAD. Three union missions were created: Aztec Union Mission comprising the church work in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Colony of British Honduras (now Belize); Central American Union Mission comprising the other countries of Central America, notably Panamá; and British West Indies Union with headquarters in Jamaica comprising most of the Lesser Antilles and the three Guianas in northern South America.20

A division-wide newsletter was also created to share important news, information, and articles on various topics relevant to all members of the division. This monthly publication was started in 1924 and called the “Inter-American Messenger.” By 1928, it was published in Spanish – the main language of the region’s largest populations.21

IAD Headquarters in Coconut Grove, Miami, Florida, United States, from 1946-1954. [Image: Inter-American Division Photo Archives]Public evangelism and soul winning were very important to the early administrators of this newly-created division. In July 1925, at the division council meeting, its president announced: “Our primary work is that of saving souls rather than simply managing conferences, missions, and institutions.”22 The division administration saw the need to establish more boarding training schools and to develop ways to financially support the few that existed. At the 1930 GC Session, the IAD president declared: “Our schools are the most important institutions in the world; hence, they should be provided with every faculty necessary for successful work in training our youth for efficient service… [In] every line of work, we need laborers who were born in the tropics, whose mother tongue is the vernacular of the people, who know their people as no foreigner can know them, and who are accustomed to the climatic conditions that are often fatal to a foreigner.”23

The most pressing objective of the IAD in its inception was the overall increase of membership. The 1935 division president’s report clearly paints the period’s steady membership growth when he said that, during the ten-year period of 1925-1935, church membership increased by 16,867 members, or 182 percent; Sabbath school membership increased by 26,593, or 227percent; and missionary volunteer membership increased by 6,668, or 235 percent. Also, during the four-year period from 1931-1934, membership increased by 10,472, or 67 percent; Sabbath School membership increased by 68 percent; and total baptisms were: 3,012 in 1931; 3,619 in 1932; 3,774 in 1933; and 3,956 in 1934.24

IAD Headquarters Locations

New York City

A pressing early challenge was to find a suitable location for the division’s headquarters. In the early months, temporary offices were opened in New York City, and there were considerations of establishing the headquarters in New Orleans. The main reasons for these considerations were the need to communicate with and travel to and from the division territory. It must be remembered that, at that time, most travel and communications were done via seaports, and, with the territory being so diverse, the headquarters needed to be in a location that facilitated this.25

Church leaders during Inter-American Division’s Annual Council meetings, held in Miami, Florida, United States, Dec. 12-21, 1949. [Image Inter-American Division Photo Archives]Panamá Canal Zone

The first location of the IAD headquarters was in the US territory of the Panama Canal Zone,26 where it stayed from 1922 to 1943, when, due to entry of the US in the war, all civilians had to be evacuated from the strategic Canal Zone. However, the site of the headquarters in the Canal Zone has remained in hands of the church, has served as the headquarters of Panama Conference, and is currently the headquarters of Panama Union Mission.

Island of Cuba

The second location of the IAD headquarters was at Rancho Boyeros in Cuba, where, for the first and only time, the division was not in the US territory; instead, the new offices were in a 14-room house “in the General Peraza district, a Havana suburb.”28 Its president was a leader with a clear, spiritual vision and wrote in the February 1943 “Inter-American Messenger” that, “instead of 5,000 baptisms a year, we should be baptizing 15,000 or 20,000 new members each year. I believe this is a goal towards which we should bend every effort in the days that still remain in which to labor for the salvation of souls.”29

The Division functioned in Cuba from 1943 to 1945, when the General Conference voted to move the division office to another location on the US mainland. The building erected for the Inter-American Division in Cuba is still being used by the church and is the current headquarters of Cuban Union Conference.

Inter-American Division’s Year-End Committee members held in Coral Gables, Florida, United States, in 1997. [Image Inter-American Division Photo Archives][Image:Suburb of Miami – Coconut Grove, Florida

The third location of the IAD headquarters was on 1921 South Bayshore Drive, Coconut Grove, Florida, due to the need for good communication, ease of travel, etc. with the territory. The IAD continued to build on its legacy from previous decades. Public evangelism continued to be the focus of all activities and programs with its president stating: “Evangelism is the main reason for being. Everything we do we believe should be done with an evangelistic purpose; after all, soul winning is our most important business.”30

Even though all administrative plans were in place to operate from this new location, on February 25, 1954, the division offices were destroyed by fire and the headquarters had to be moved again. Plans were immediately made to build new offices to better facilitate the division’s expanding operations.31

City of Coral Gables, Florida

The fourth location of the IAD headquarters was a necessity due to the fire that had consumed its previous headquarters, and a new location was sought near the one that had been burned. The new offices opened on March 17, 1955, at 760 Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Coral Gables, Florida, a highly regarded business and residential area, and functioned at this location until 2001.32

A group of leaders and staff wave from in front of the Inter-American Division’s headquarter office in Kendall, Miami, Florida, United States, in celebration of the centennial events coming for 2022. [IAD Screengrab file photo]Suburb of Miami – Kendall, Florida

The fifth location of the IAD headquarters was necessary due to the rapid growth of the division and the need for larger space to house its operations. Therefore, the IAD administration decided to build a new office for the division.

The increasing presence of Adventists across the IAD since 1922 illustrates the effectiveness of its visionary leaders; the committed members of the various division committees; and all other workers and leaders, ministers, Bible workers, literature evangelists, and very active laypeople.

For sources used in this article and further details on the growth and leadership of the Inter-American Division throughout the years, view the complete article HERE

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