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Ole A. Olsen.

Photo courtesy of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Archives.

Olsen, Ole Andres (1845–1915)

By Gilbert M. Valentine


Gilbert M. Valentine, Ph.D. has served internationally in teaching and senior administrative roles in Adventist higher education in Europe, Asia, the South Pacific and North America. He has written extensively in Adventist studies and has authored several books, including biographies of W. W. Prescott (2005) and J. N. Andrews (2019). The Prophet and the Presidents (2011) explored the political influence of Ellen White. He has also written for the Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (2013).

First Published: January 29, 2020

A Norwegian-born American, Ole Andres Olsen served the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a minister and senior administrator for forty-four years, becoming one of the most experienced international leaders of the movement’s second generation. He was elected as president of the General Conference at the age of forty-three and served four terms (1888–1897), providing diplomatic, spiritually sensitive, forward-thinking leadership through a difficult period of doctrinal conflict, deep financial depression, and rapid expansion that exposed the inadequacies of the denomination’s organizational structure.

Early Life and Education (1845–1867)

Ole Olsen was born on July 28, 1845 in a farming community in the parish of Bjelland in the county of Vest-Agder, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) northwest of Kristiansande on the southern coast of Norway. He was the eldest son of Andrew Olsen (1816–1908) and Berthe Olsen (1823–1879).1 His parents and his grandparents, Susannah and Holvard Olsen, were Lutherans who had become discontented with the formalism of their state church and had found spiritual help in an encounter with Quakers from England who had settled in southern Norway. The encounter gave rise to trouble in their relationship to local pastors and with the state church.

When Ole Olsen was three years of age an itinerant Swedish lay pastor by the name of Nyland visited the Olsen home and introduced the idea that if the family was interested in living consistently with the teachings of Scripture they should be worshiping on the seventh day of the week. This challenge further disturbed the community, although the families did not begin practicing Sabbath observance at this time.

In March 1850, when Ole was four years of age, his parents, grandparents, and four other extended families from their community, motivated by a desire for greater religious freedom and economic advancement, migrated to the United States. The Olsen clan initially settled among the 2,600-strong Koshkonong Norwegian immigrant community near the town of Oakland, Wisconsin, about sixty miles due west of Milwaukee. Shortly afterwards, Andrew and Berthe purchased a 240-acre farm.

In their first years of settlement the Olsen family was visited by a Methodist circuit preacher, and they joined the Methodist-Episcopal church in nearby Cambridge. In 1854, when Ole was nine years of age, his extended family encountered a Swedish neighbor, Gustaf Mellberg, who had become a Seventh-day Adventist, and the Sabbath teaching again gained their interest. With the agreement of their local Methodist pastor, they continued to participate in their local congregation but now as “Seventh-day” Methodists. In 1858, after Adventist evangelist Waterman Phelps persuaded them of the inadequacy of infant baptism, the families decided to be baptized and join the Advent movement.

In December 1858 Ole Olsen, now thirteen, was baptized and joined his parents’ new church. Worship services were held in the Olsen home or in the neighborhood schoolhouse. After considerable internal community debate, reflecting similar discussions in Battle Creek, the Sabbath-keepers decided, in 1861, to formally organize themselves as a Seventh-day Adventist church. Ole Olsen, along with his parents, were charter members. In 1864 the congregation of about thirty-five erected a meetinghouse on a plot of land made available on the Andrew Olsen farm. 2

Andrew and Berthe Olsen3 were more interested in how to raise their children to be committed to the Christian faith than in pursing wealth. Farm life was therefore framed by regular morning and evening family devotional periods in the home, with exhortations on good character and a special emphasis on opening and closing Sabbath worships.4 Ole Olsen and three of his younger brothers became Adventist ministers, and one of his sisters, Anna, married a minister, and they labored as missionaries in South Africa.5 Andrew D. Olsen (1855–1890) became president of the Dakota Conference (1885–1886) and then the Minnesota Conference (1887–1888). Overwork in coordinating the General Conference of 1888, held in Minneapolis and thus in his conference territory, weakened his immune system, and he died of consumption in 1890.6 Brothers Martin M. Olsen (1855–1940) and Edward G. Olsen (1856–1931) both accepted appointments to work in Denmark and Norway for extended periods in pastoral ministry, conference administration, and in education. They returned in later life to minister again among the Scandinavian immigrant communities in the United States. Another brother, Albert J. Olsen (1857–1931), served in the church’s publishing work in the southern United States as a colporteur director.7

Ole Olsen benefited from the local elementary schools around Oakland, but his secondary schooling was more limited. During the winter of 1864 he attended the Milton Academy connected with the Seventh Day Baptists in Milton, about twenty miles from his home. He returned again in the winter of 1869, by which time the institution had become a college with its own state charter. Olsen’s parents were anxious that their children not be negatively influenced by their schooling, and the Seventh Day Baptist school in Milton had a good reputation for piety. For the most part, however, education was not a priority for Ole. He enjoyed dairy farming and at twenty-one rented a property to start farming on his own.

Marriage and Early Ministry (1868–1887)

In 1868 Olsen married Jennie Nelson (1843–1920), a fellow Norwegian émigré from a neighboring Adventist church. By this time he had also saved enough to purchase his own farm. Jennie Nelson, the eldest daughter of a family of twelve, had migrated at the age of eighteen from her home at Sogndal on the west coast of Norway to Whitewater in southern Wisconsin. Her older brother and other relatives had preceded her. Two years after her arrival in America she attended Adventist evangelistic meetings and was baptized by Isaac Sanborn, whereupon she became acquainted with the Norwegian community in Oakland and the Olsen family.8 At the time of his marriage Ole Olsen was venturing into lay preaching at his local church. The experience encouraged him to further develop his speaking gift, and in mid-1869, after the birth of the couple’s first child, they joined Sanborn in his summer evangelistic tent meetings not far from their home. The following year they did the same with another Wisconsin evangelist, David Downer. In 1871, at the age of twenty-six, Olsen was given a license to preach. He found success with his own first independent evangelistic campaign, following which he made a commitment to enter full-time ministry and sold his farm. Two years later the denomination ordained him at the age of twenty-eight.

Despite having only twelve months’ experience in full-time evangelistic work, Olsen was invited in 1873 to become the president of the Wisconsin Conference, which included eight Danish/Norwegian congregations. His language skills and nationality were a distinct advantage, and because the presidency was largely a part-time job, it gave him opportunity for continuing his evangelistic labor. After a two-year term at church administration Olsen felt the need of further education, and in 1876 he took a year out for English language and rhetorical studies under Goodloe Harper Bell at Battle Creek College (recently opened with a largely secondary-level curriculum). On his return to Wisconsin, Olsen served a further four years as president before being invited to take the same role in several adjacent conferences: Dakota (1880–1882), Minnesota (1882–1884), and Iowa (1885).

During these years of early ministry, four children were added to the Olsen family, only two of whom survived into adulthood. Alfred (1869–1960), the firstborn, became a physician and gave many years to sanitarium work in England and in North America. Nathan died in infancy, and ten-year-old son Clarence succumbed to a childhood disease when the family was in Europe.9 Mahlon (1873–1952) became a teacher of English, earned a PhD degree in 1909, and became a prominent Adventist educator. During these early years, Olsen’s wife, Jennie, called upon to endure privation and long absences by her husband because of his work, suffered an episode of sunstroke followed by a nervous breakdown, from which she never fully recovered. In spite of poor health for much of her life, she was treasured for the care she continued to give her family.10

Olsen enjoyed much evangelistic success among the Scandinavian immigrant communities and established many new congregations. During the 1880s he also became increasingly prominent in general gatherings of the church. He was elected to the General Conference Executive Committee in 1884 and served as chairman of three important standing committees at the 1885 General Conference Session.11 In late 1885 Olsen was requested to go to Europe to assist in the rapidly developing work in Scandinavia. He arrived in early 1886 and spent the next three years there. Fellow Scandinavians John and Anna Matteson, commencing in 1877, had built church membership from zero to about 700 in the eight years of their pioneering leadership. Managing complex new institutions like a publishing house and pastoring independent-minded urban church members required abilities beyond those Matteson had in his skill set. No specific position was assigned Olsen, and it did not seem the wisest or the fairest thing for him to seek to replace Matteson. Olsen’s gracious diplomatic skills and his ability to live with this significant role ambiguity enabled him to work alongside Matteson and bring needed strength to the leadership team. He became involved in evangelism, served as a valued consultant at Council meetings, and spent much of his time recruiting and training colporteurs and lay evangelists. Pervasive, crippling poverty in Norway at the time made colporteuring and evangelism difficult, and growth was slow. During this time, the Olsens experienced the added sadness of losing their ten-year-old son Clarence to a childhood disease.12 But Olsen persisted with his evangelistic programs, enlisting the help of his brother Edward. They eventually succeeded in establishing churches beyond Christiana, the Norwegian capital (now called Oslo). In June 1887 Olsen formally organized the Norwegian Conference with about 200 members in four churches, at Europe’s first camp meeting held at the coastal town of Moss.13 Olsen was elected the first conference president. He briefly returned to America in August of that year to arrange for the education of his two teenage sons and to attend the November General Conference session in Oakland, California before returning again to Scandinavia.

General Conference President (1888–1897)

When it became clear toward the end of the General Conference session of 1888 that George I. Butler’s health, autocratic leadership style, and rigid, polarizing theological viewpoints had disqualified him for further General Conference leadership, delegates quickly had to look for other candidates.14 Sharp theological disputes had factionalized delegates and many others in the church’s ministry. The kind of candidate needed was someone who was neutral to the dispute and who could be accepted by both parties in the task of reunifying the church. Ellen White, who had recently observed Ole Olsen’s more winsome diplomatic leadership style during her two-year stay in Europe, recommended his name to the nominating committee. The fact that he was not a delegate at the disputatious 1888 session was considered an advantage.

Olsen did not receive notice of his election as president until sometime after the session was over. Given the circumstance surrounding the 1888 session, he did not think himself particularly suited to the newly onerous role of president and assumed the office reluctantly. “It is indeed unfortunate that the General Conference has come to this that such a poor stick as I must be chosen as its president,” he commented to W. C. White, who had been pressed into service as interim president.15 Because he was detained in Europe on important issues, six months passed before Olsen arrived in Battle Creek to take up his new duties.

Olsen’s first years as General Conference president were unavoidably focused on trying to reconcile the theological factions in the church that had developed around soteriology and prophetic interpretation. In this endeavor he gave much time to supporting Ellen White’s own intensive effort to bring about harmony and agreement among church leadership and to rebuild leadership confidence in her charismatic ministry. He led out in ministers’ meetings and revival meetings and involved himself in a vigorous visitation program around the churches and camp meetings.

Another of his first priorities in office was to foster the development of new clergy education programs that were initiated by W. W. Prescott, the education secretary for the General Conference. Olsen ensured that foreign language groups were also cared for. Camp meetings in the northwest area always included separate meeting tents for the growing number of foreign language groups, but more were needed. Olsen arranged for a short series of combined winter schools for Scandinavian, German, and French workers to be held in Battle Creek in 1889 and 1890 in conjunction with Prescott’s Bible Institutes. Olsen’s younger brother Martin served as a preceptor of the fifty students who attended these. Then, when Prescott led out in the establishment of Union College in 1891, Olsen ensured that Scandinavian and German departments were incorporated as prominent, permanent features of the academic program and the North Hall dormitory was designated for foreign language students. Olsen presided at the college opening.16

Even before he had assumed the General Conference presidency in Battle Creek, Olsen was aware that, due to its rapid growth and the complexity of its institutional expansion, the organizational structure of the church was becoming inadequate and unwieldy. He had chaired committees at the previous session in 1887 seeking to provide wider administrative support to the “overburdening” of the presidency. At the time, the General Conference presided directly over thirty American conferences and directly employed workers in eleven designated domestic and foreign mission territories. There were a dozen institutions (publishing, educational, and medical) to supervise, and within each conference and mission were additional layers of quasi-independent organizations coordinating various outreach, educational, or health ministries, each replicating the governance, administrative, and electoral processes of the conferences themselves. The span of administrative oversight had become too wide, administrative processes too complex, and the exercise of decision making too narrow at the top.17

In 1887 Olsen had spoken in favor of an administrative mechanism between the state conferences and the General Conference, but his committee had been unable to convince the delegates. The 1888 session succeeded in introducing four non-administrative districts in North America that might liaise and coordinate but not actually manage matters. Olsen persuaded delegates to expand the system to six in late 1889 when he was re-elected as president and the elective term of his office was lengthened to two years. A suggestion that the quasi-independent entities be re-engineered into a more efficient system was too threatening. Even the discussion was expunged from the session minutes.18 In March 1891, when Olsen was elected for a third term, he proposed that the districts be strengthened through the appointment of full-time administrators and granted the right to hold their own legal property, but this too seemed threatening and the idea was shelved.19

During his second term in office, Olsen learned from Ellen White about the difficulties she was experiencing in getting her book The Great Controversy marketed and distributed by the church’s publishers. The issue was to constitute a major perplexity of his presidency. Ellen White had invested heavily in getting the volume revised and set up in printing plates and was paying 7-percent interest on her loans. With a lack of take-up on the book and a reduction in the royalty rate imposed by the publishing house, she had found herself in severe economic distress. The officers and associates in leadership that Olsen had inherited when he first took up the presidency seemed unsympathetic to her problem. When Ellen White wrote some sharply critical letters she wished Olsen to read to his executive colleagues, he mastered the content of the instruction and then sought to educate his colleagues on the issues through his own leadership and communication style instead of reading the letters aloud to them. He then published them as a collection of testimonies for his colleagues to read privately. Hearing about this three years later, Ellen White was indignant at what she saw as Olsen’s evasion of duty and consequently sent a further letter of sharp rebuke to him, this time ensuring that the circle of his colleagues was copied.20 She urged him not to rely on these commercially oriented colleagues.

Alternative skilled personnel, however, were not readily available. Furthermore, Olsen could only exercise so much control over leaders who not only had a commitment to the mission of the institutions they led but also a fiduciary duty to ensure their financial viability. This problem was to underlay much of the tension that developed between Olsen and Ellen White during ensuing years and would trouble his presidency. Further problems surrounded the establishment of the General Conference Association (GCA), which served as a general overarching legal body for holding General Conference properties and related institutions. The GCA was chaired by the strong-willed Review and Herald publishing house chief executive, Archibald R. Henry. This created additional constraints on Olsen’s exercise of influence. Ellen White, who in 1891 had been asked to go to Australia for a short stay similar to her to earlier visit to Europe (1885–1887), felt called to remain there through the 1890s. During this period she began to write critical letters to Olsen more frequently.21

The stresses of trying to lead the rapidly expanding church in the midst of such complexities and with such strongly competing interests and loyalties swirling through the organization brought Olsen to the point of a nervous collapse in 1892. Overseeing educational expansion (Union College in 1891 and Walla Walla College in 1892), attempting to resolve conflicts between the college and the sanitarium in Battle Creek, and battling extreme approaches to national religious liberty problems advocated by A. T. Jones had exhausted Olsen’s emotional resources.22 He determined he would not accept a further term in the presidency.23 Ellen White, alarmed at the prospect, instructed him that he could not step aside “until someone shall be raised to take up the work.”24 Reluctantly, he allowed himself to be elected for another term in February 1893. Delegates at the session, however, still did not allow him to reduce the demands on the presidency by strengthening the role of the administrative districts that had been organized in 1888 and 1889.

Olsen’s extended visit to New Zealand and Australia and then on to South Africa in late 1893 and early 1894 gave him time to recover emotionally and also to make progress on governance issues. During year-end meetings in Melbourne, local leaders W. C. White and A. G. Daniells, with Olsen’s encouragement, established an “ecclesiastical body to stand mid-way between State and Colonial Conferences and the General Conference.” White and Olsen had discussed the issue previously. The entity, created with its own constituency, was called a “union conference” and given administrative oversight of the work in the Australasian region.25 Although the initiative met with some resistance back in America, it soon proved its worth and in 1901 became the keystone for wider organizational reform in the church.

Olsen’s third term in office was greatly complicated shortly after his election by a severe global economic recession that lasted for four years. The drop in church offerings created extreme financial perplexity for Olsen and other church leaders. Workers were obliged to take painful salary cuts, and book royalties were reduced. Olsen found himself more reliant for technical, legal, and financial advice on publishing leader A. R. Henry and treasury official Harmon Lindsay. The dependence became more acute because institutional management was becoming more complex as it adapted to the rapidly evolving corporate law system in America at the time. Henry’s financial genius had rescued Union College from collapse at its birth, and he had turned the Review and Herald Publishing Association from a loss-making institution to a surplus-generating one in 1892. But his aggressive business methods and abrasive personality were problematic. Olsen consented to an increase in salaries for publishing house executives, which seemed reasonable in view of the large size of the institution and the increasing complexity of their task. But this step did not seem wise to Ellen White, earning Olsen another severe rebuke for lack of judgment.26

In Australia during 1894 and 1895, Ellen White felt impoverished by the recession, restricted in her access to funding, and frustrated by the constraints on mission expansion. Ill-health, insomnia, and anxiety about the increasing inadequacy of the church’s organization to cope with growth caused her to worry about the strategies Olsen was adopting in Battle Creek and about the new people he was moving into leadership. Her anxieties focused on people rather than on the systemic problems which were not easy to solve. As a result she wrote increasingly frequent, sharp letters of criticism to Olsen and his colleagues.27 She could not understand why personnel changes could not be made more readily and felt that Olsen was not responding to her counsel appropriately. She saw the future in increasingly dark hues. By the end of 1894 Olsen, unable to make the personnel changes Ellen White had urged, resolved that he should not stand for office again in 1895 and suggested that W. C. White as president would know better how to implement his mother’s advice.28 But out in Australia, W. C. White was also overloaded and experiencing burnout, and his election to the presidency was out of the question. Consequently, in February 1895, Olsen was elected for a further two-year term in spite of his strong advice to the nominating committee to look for another.29 Increasingly he formed a partnership with the experienced and deeply spiritual W. W. Prescott, his education secretary, whom he had decided he ought also to quietly groom as a possible successor to the presidency.

Intensified economic difficulties confronted Olsen with an empty General Conference treasury in mid-1895, leading him to request estimates from his colleagues for expenditure for the forthcoming year. He also began to see the need to systematize church finance. This was the first time an annual budgeting approach to church finance was implemented. Strong convictions about the imminence of the Advent had previously made such an approach seem unnecessary, perhaps even as evidence of a lack of faith.30

Constrained by the legal protocols of stock associations and by stockholders with personal, vested interest in financial sustainability, Olsen found that influencing affairs in both the publishing house and the college became a major challenge. Debates over educational mission and curriculum at the college became more intense and involved faculty and board in conflict. The sanitarium and publishing house were now large, complex institutions, and it became increasingly difficult for Olsen to attract competent managers who were thoroughly Christian in their business ethics and not infected by the spirit of the age. The culture of centralized business monopolies and the “kingly power” concepts of much-admired tycoons shaped the business ethos. Under pressure from Ellen White, Olsen replaced Henry and Lindsay through forcing their resignations, but stockholders protested, and Henry filed a lawsuit against the publishing house alleging libel against Ellen White. The men Olsen managed to persuade the stockholders to appoint in their place were often not any better than those they replaced. Many problems were systemic. Ellen White criticized more severely, and Olsen felt it unwise to explain himself and the complexities of the situation, though he felt some explanation could be made. He pointed out to W. C. White, with some exasperation, that although he had written “a good deal” in explanation of the general problems, it was “only a small Portion” of what he might have said had he continued the letter.31

Aware of his inability to satisfactorily address the underlying systemic problems and to meet Ellen White’s expectations, Olsen indicated in late 1896 that he would not be available for re-election at the forthcoming 1897 session to be held at Union College in Nebraska. The highly contentious March 1897 session was marked by much earnestness on the part of the delegates to do the right thing and much confusion about what they thought the right thing was. They ended up bypassing Prescott, whom Ellen White hoped would replace Olsen, electing instead George A. Irwin as president. He was a leader with a much lower church profile and came from beyond Battle Creek. During the session’s last tense days of electoral confusion and conflict, in highly irregular actions originating from the floor of the session rather than through the nominating committee process, Prescott, who had been appointed to Europe, was at the end switched to England, and Olsen was appointed as president of “the European Conference.”32

Overseas Assignments (1897–1909)

In spite of Olsen’s appointment to Europe, there was a more immediate need for interim leadership assistance in South Africa following the General Conference, which resulted in Olsen making only a brief stopover in Scandinavia before proceeding to the African continent. The Foreign Mission Board had requested that he plan to spend “several months” there. By September, Olsen was formally serving as president of the South African Conference, and he was responding to evangelistic opportunities opening up in the north, in the Kimberly region, where work was beginning among the national indigenous populations. Olsen had conducted classes for nationals and had baptized several. South Africa requested that Olsen stay on and make that conference his permanent field of labor.33 After spending twelve months in South Africa, however, the needs of Scandinavia again took priority, and Olsen moved back to Europe in late 1898, where he took up his role as president of that field. The Christiana publishing house was beginning to encounter serious financial and legal difficulties, and by the end of 1899 needed large-scale church loans to avoid bankruptcy.34 Olsen’s leadership during this crisis secured the needed finance from the General Conference and avoided a feared loss of credibility for the church in Norway.

The general systemic organizational confusion prevalent in the church affected Olsen in late 1899 in uncertainty over which organizational entity should be paying his salary. It was agreed that for the time he spent in the Scandinavian Conference he should be reimbursed by that field, but for time spent in other parts of his European field the Foreign Mission Board should reimburse him. This called for detailed records. And then there was uncertainty as to whether surplus foreign conference tithe should be paid directly to the General Conference or to the Foreign Mission Board, which had to pay overseas ministers’ salaries. This was less clear.35 Olsen thus had practical experience of numerous organizational inadequacies to bring to the 1901 General Conference session in Battle Creek, which finally took steps to reframe the church’s structure. Olsen participated prominently in the 1901 meetings and, drawing on his own painful experience, provided significant pastoral support to George Irwin, who was not re-elected to the presidency and whose reputation and self-confidence suffered collateral damage as a result.36

With the appointment of A. G. Daniells to General Conference leadership in 1901 and his insistence that W. W. Prescott be brought in from England to assist him, O. A. Olsen was appointed to Great Britain as mission leader. His first duty was to host a meeting of the European General Conference in London in May 1902. Thirty delegates attended. Then the task of implementing the 1901 reforms authorizing the adoption of the union conference system world-wide also became a priority, even though the British membership was relatively small—992 in twenty-two churches and companies, with a workforce of thirty-eight, nineteen of whom were ministers. Olsen worked with A. G. Daniells at a camp meeting in Leeds in August 1902 to set up the British field as a union conference with five sub-units recognizing geography and ethnicity. Conferences were established in South England and North England and missions for Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.37 Olsen was elected as British Union president, and in the following year he succeeded, against much opposition from E. J. Waggoner, in having a formal constitution adopted for the conferences. Not long afterwards, when Waggoner returned to the United States, Olsen was also asked to carry the role of president of the South England Conference.38 By the end of his service as leader of the work in Britain in 1905, membership had grown to 1,635, an increase of 64 percent.

Olsen also supervised substantial expansion and strengthening of the institutional programs that had been initiated earlier by Prescott. In January 1902, the British church opened a formal educational program at Duncombe Hall Missionary College in North London with an American, Homer Salisbury, as the principal. The next year the program moved to Holloway Hall, and then in 1904 to Manor Gardens near Holloway Hall. Olsen also placed sanitarium and health clinic work on a firmer basis with the opening of a new sanitarium at Caterham in the Surrey hills, in May 1903, Olsen’s physician son, Alfred B. Olsen, who had obtained his British medical qualifications in 1901 and had successfully launched the Good Health journal, was named the director. In November 1903 the sanitarium added a nursing school, and the institution grew steadily under Dr. Olsen until his return to America in 1919. By then the Caterham Sanitarium was being crowded out by urbanization, and further development was impractical.39 Other health outreach programs initiated during O. A. Olsen’s term included a clinic in Belfast and a small sanitarium in Leicester, also opened in 1903.

During Olsen’s term of office in the United Kingdom he also ensured that the publishing work was strengthened. In 1901 he persuaded a former Battle Creek publishing house manager, British-born W. C. Sisley, to return to London to take charge of the printing office. Sisley’s skills as a manager and as an architect helped facilitate the development of the church during this period. Olsen seems to have not been aware, however, of the simmering theological dissent from one of his American evangelists appointed to Wales, Albion F. Ballenger. After he presented his ideas to a General Conference session in America in 1905, Ballenger’s ministerial credentials were revoked.

At the 1905 General Conference session in Washington, D.C., Ole Olsen experienced a major geographic relocation when he was appointed to the presidency of the Australasian Union Conference, replacing George A. Irwin, who had been transferred back to a vice-presidency at the General Conference. It was a difficult transition because Irwin had been much appreciated throughout the Australian field.40 Olsen moved to his new home in Burwood, the suburb in Sydney where the union office was located, in September 1905. His new field, though geographically larger and more complex than his previous assignment, counted only 3,772 Sabbath keepers and a total work force of 186. His supervision extended over a vast oceanic area, and much of his time was given to traveling among the conferences and to the Pacific island mission fields, counseling workers and encouraging growth. Again, Olsen’s emphasis was growth through literature ministry and evangelism. By the end of his four-year term of service in the South Pacific, the number of Sabbath keepers had grown by 22 percent to 4,597, and the workforce had grown by 46 percent to a total of 252. Annual tithe giving had increased by 58 percent from $47,634 to $75,551, and annual Sabbath School giving had doubled from $5,423 to $10,436. Early in his term Olsen supervised a significant organizational advance for the church in the South Pacific with the creation of the Australasian Conference Association Limited. This legal organization enabled the union conference, for the first time, to hold property in its own right and to receive legacies, bequests, and other donations.41

Foreign Department Years (1909–1915)

When Ole Olsen left Sydney in April 1909 to attend the General Conference Session in Washington, D.C. he expected to return to Australia, and made temporary arrangements for administration during his absence.42 Delegates at the session, however, decided that with his international background and multilingual skills there was a greater need for his services in America, and he was assigned to take responsibility for the Foreign Department of the General Conference. During the first decade of the century, approximately one million new immigrants were arriving in the United States each year, and, according to Olsen’s 1913 report to the General Conference, 46 percent of the U.S. population at the time was composed of the foreign born and their immediate descendants. This was a population of between thirty-five and forty million. For the first time the church was assigning a full-time General Conference budget to the work of reaching immigrant communities in the United States. The church now had almost 200 foreign-language congregations in the country, and Olsen was to take on the role of overseeing these and the work of four regional immigrant coordinators of the major language groups.43 Olsen never had the opportunity to return to Australia. Jennie, who had earlier traveled to Europe to visit family, joined him, and his personal effects were apparently dispatched to him by others some time later.44

By 1909 Union College was experiencing overcrowding, and it was thought that better provision for the training of foreign-language workers for the large immigrant communities could be made through the establishing of separate language institutions for each group. At the Annual Council in October of 1909, therefore, a decision was taken to close out the foreign language programs at Union. Olsen was charged with overseeing the establishment of a seminary for Danish and Norwegian students at Hutchinson in Minnesota, a seminary for Swedish students in Chicago, and a similar institution for German students in Missouri at Clinton. All opened their doors on September 27, 1910, and year by year thereafter witnessed expanding though small enrollments. South Lancaster Academy took responsibility for a smaller French language program a little later, and a Russian language program was also later launched at North Dakota Academy. Increasingly Olsen found himself needing to locate and train workers for other expanding groups as well, including Italians and a range of eastern European ethnicities.45 Olsen also gave his energies to fostering the development of adequate foreign language literature for the immigrant communities. He found this work posed different challenges compared to his previous administrative roles. This department had no executive or administrative power, which meant that his skills of communication and persuasion in a consulting and advising role were more critical to the success of his work. He had to persuade local conferences to implement new programs and employ any specialist ministerial personnel.

At the 1913 General Conference session, Olsen was appointed as a vice-president of the North American Division Conference, newly established with its own constituency and legal base. He continued to carry responsibility as general secretary for the Foreign Department across the division territory.46 Much of his work still focused on facilitating the development of evangelistic endeavors among immigrant communities. He saw the outbreak of war in late 1914 as creating new tensions in America but also new opportunities. He spent the last weeks of that year visiting among new Russian churches in North Dakota and then arranged for the commencement of new work among the Italian, Slovak, Hungarian, and Romanian communities in Chicago.

His multiple assignments and heavy visitation and preaching schedule wore at his health. Toward the end of January 1915 he fell ill while traveling and was admitted to Hinsdale Sanitarium in Illinois, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. On January 29, at the age of seventy, he succumbed to a heart attack. His last major article promoting the work that was central to his life and reporting on the advancing immigrant work in Chicago was published posthumously.47 Funeral services were held both in Chicago and in Takoma Park. He was buried in Rock Creek cemetery in Washington, D.C.48


Ole Andres Olsen gave forty-four years of full-time ministerial service to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Almost thirty-eight of those years were in executive leadership roles, including eight years as president of the General Conference. His international background and his multilingual skills made him an exceptionally valued leader whose counsel was often sought. His service involved living for extended periods in five different countries, while his ministry extended across many international and cultural barriers with ease.

Historians have noted that in situations of conflict Olsen was not an aggressive, strongly assertive person but by temperament was gentle and gracious. He was “a naturally cautious man who valued patience and forbearance over condemnation and harshness.”49 I. H. Evans reported that it was widely said of Olsen that “in all the positions of trust he filled, he never made or knew an enemy.”50 His calm and diplomatic leadership style was particularly suited to the polarized post-Minneapolis climate in the church. His leadership of the General Conference during a period of difficult systemic problems arising from rapid growth and inadequate structural flexibility in the 1890s confronted him with intractable problems, but nevertheless he initiated a number of innovative firsts that helped lay the groundwork for later, more radical reforms. Olsen was “never known to throw discouragement upon an advance move,” noted Evans, who had worked with him closely for more than twenty-five years.51 His fostering of mission among foreign language groups and different ethnicities left a rich legacy to the church.


Archival Sources

Presidential correspondence. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Archives. Silver Spring, MD.

Ellen G. White Letters and Manuscripts, Ellen G. White Writings, EGWE.

White Estate Incoming Correspondence, EGWE.

Chilson, Adriel D. Trial and Triumph on a Western Frontier. Elko, NV: Heritage Publications, 1976.

Dunton, Hugh I. “1902-1918: Wars and Crises,” in The Story of Seventh-Day Adventists in the British Isles 1902-1992. Grantham, UK: Stanborough Press, 1992.

Evans, I. H. “Elder O. A. Olsen.” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 25, 1915.

Helgesen, Kjell. Da Adventismen kom til Norge. Royse, Norway: Norsk Bokforlag As, 2015.

Kress, D. H. “Mrs. Jennie N. Olsen obituary.” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 15, 1920, 29.

Lewis, T. G. “Albert Olsen Obituary.” Lake Union Herald, August 12, 1931, 13.

McVagh, C. F. “Edward G. Olsen Obituary.” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 30, 1931.

Ochs, Daniel and Grace Lillian Ochs. The Past and the Presidents: Biographies of General Conference Presidents. Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1974.

Oliver, Barry D. SDA Organization: Past Present and Future. Berrien Spring, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009.

Olsen, Andrew. “A Brief Sketch of the Life of Andrew Olsen.” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 10, 1908.

Olsen, M. Ellsworth. A History of the Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists. Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1925.

Olsen, Mathias Martin. Memories and Experiences, unpublished manuscript, translated by Dyre Dyreson. Center for Adventist Research, 1978.

Olsen, O. A. “Andrew D. Olsen Obituary.” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 9, 1890.

———. “Bertha Olsen obituary.” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 17, 1879.

Onsager, Lawrence W. Oakland: The First Norwegian-American Seventh-day Adventist Church in America. Mauston, WI: Lemonweir Valley Press, 1985, Accessed July 23, 2018.

Schwarz, Richard W. and Floyd Greenleaf. Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Nampa ID: Pacific Press, 2000.

Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia. Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1976.

Valentine, Gilbert M. The Prophet and the Presidents. Nampa ID: Pacific Press, 2011.

Wheeler, Gerald. “Olsen, Oles, Andres,” The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2013.

Whidden, Woodrow W. E. J. Waggoner: From the Physician of Good News to the Agent of Division. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2008.


  1. Lawrence W. Onsager, Oakland: The First Norwegian-American Seventh-day Adventist Church in America, (Mauston, WI: Lemonweir Valley Press, 1985), 4. Some sources mention the birthplace as “Skogen,” supposedly near Christiana, but this appears to be an error from a misreading of Kristiansande. The gravestone at Oakland Cemetery, Wisconsin gives Berthe’s birthdate as November 23, 1824, as does her obituary. O. A. Olsen, “Bertha Olsen obituary,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 17, 1879, 127. Other sources suggest 1823 for her birth year.

  2. Onsager, Oakland, 14, 21.

  3. Berthe is sometimes called Betsy.

  4. Onsager, Oakland, 26. M. M. Olsen, Memories and Experiences (unpublished manuscript, Heritage Room, James White Library, Andrews University), 3, 4, 6.

  5. Onsager, Oakland, 28.

  6. O. A. Olsen, “Andrew D. Olsen obituary,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 9, 1890, 599.

  7. C. F. McVagh, “Edward. G. Olsen obituary,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 30, 1931, 28; T. G. Lewis, “Albert Olsen obituary,” Lake Union Herald, August 12, 1931, 13.

  8. D. H. Kress, “Mrs. Jennie N. Olsen obituary,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, April 15, 1920, 29.

  9. Daniel Ochs and Grace Lillian Ochs, The Past and the Presidents: Biographies of General Conference Presidents (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1974), 82.

  10. Kress, “Mrs. Jennie N. Olsen obituary,” 29.

  11. Gilbert M Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents (Nampa ID: Pacific Press, 2011), 349.

  12. Ochs and Ochs, The Past and the Presidents, 82.

  13. Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook 1888, 327; M. Ellsworth Olsen, A History of the Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1925), 359.

  14. Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents, 66.

  15. O. A. Olsen to W. C. White, letter, December 20, 1888, EGWE.

  16. M. E. Olsen, Origin and Progress, 688; Everett Dick, Union: College of the Golden Cords (Lincoln, NE: Union College Press, 1967), 37, 38.

  17. Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents, 73.

  18. A. T. Robinson, “An Autobiographical Sketch in the Life of A. T. Robinson” (1947), Center for Adventist Research, Andrews University, Berrien Spring, Michigan.

  19. Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents, 74, 75.

  20. Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies, Series A; Ellen G. White to O. A. Olsen, letter, November 26, 1894, EGWE

  21. O. A. Olsen to W. C. White, letter, February 1, 1892, EGWE.

  22. A helpful discussion of the difficulties associated with organizational expansion is found in Richard W. Schwarz and Floyd Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Nampa ID: Pacific Press, 2000), 250–266.

  23. O. A. Olsen to Ellen G. White, letter, October 6, 1892, EGWE.

  24. Ellen G. White to O. A. Olsen, letter, November 25, 1882, EGWE.

  25. W. C. White to O. A. Olsen, letters, December 21, 1892, May 8, 1893, EGWE; Barry D. Oliver, SDA Organization: Past Present and Future (Berrien Spring, MI: Andrews University Press, 2009), 105.

  26. Ellen G. White to O. A. Olsen, undated but about July-August, 1894, Letter 55, EGWE; Schwarz and Greenleaf, Light Bearers, 248, 249.

  27. Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents, 85–114. A more detailed discussion of the context of Ellen White’s correspondence with Olsen during this period is found in Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents, 304–337.

  28. O. A. Olsen to Ellen G. White, letter, January 2, 1895; O. A. Olsen to W. C. White, letter, January 3, 1895, EGWE.

  29. “General Conference Proceedings,” General Conference Bulletin, February 27, 1895, 373, 374.

  30. Schwarz and Greenleaf, Light Bearers, 247.

  31. O. A. Olsen to W. C. White, letter, April 18, 1895; O. A. Olsen to Ellen G. White, letter, April 24, 1895, EGWE.

  32. “Fifteenth Meeting of the Conference,” General Conference Bulletin, March 5, 1897, 288; “Closing Part of the Fifteenth Meeting,” General Conference Bulletin, March 8, 1897, 317.

  33. Foreign Mission Board Minutes, March, 17, December 5, 1897, General Conference Archives (GCA); M. E. Olsen, Origin and Progress, 488.

  34. Foreign Mission Board Minutes, December 18, 1899, GCA.

  35. Foreign Mission Board Minutes, July 26, 31, 1897; December 14, 1899, GCA.

  36. “Life Sketch and Funeral Service of Elder G. A. Irwin,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, June 5, 1913, 544; Valentine, The Prophet and the Presidents, 201, 202.

  37. “Summary of Statistics of Conferences and Missions for the Year Ending Dec. 31, 1901,” General Conference Bulletin, First Quarter 1902, 597. See also Hugh I. Dunton, “1902-1918: Wars and Crises,” in The Story of Seventh-Day Adventists in the British Isles 1902-1992 (Special Souvenir Messenger) (Grantham, UK: Stanborough Press, 1992), 8–10.

  38. Woodrow Whidden, E. J. Waggoner (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2008), 246–256.

  39. M. E. Olsen, Origin and Progress, 369; see also “Lost Hospitals of London,”, accessed July 7, 2018.

  40. O. A. Olsen, “To Our Brothers and Sisters in Australasia, Greeting,” Union Conference Record, September 15, 1905, 8.

  41. O. A. Olsen, “Australasian Conference Association Limited,” Union Conference Record, June 14, 1909, 8.

  42. O. A. Olsen, “Recent Labors,” Union Conference Record, May 17, 1909, 8.

  43. “Report of the North American Foreign Department,” General Conference Bulletin, May 20, 1913, 52–59.

  44. O. A. Olsen, “The Late General Conference,” Union Conference Record, August 9, 1909, 7.

  45. “Report of the North American Foreign Department,” General Conference Bulletin, May 20, 1913, 54.

  46. “North American Division Conference, Fourth Meeting,” General Conference Bulletin, June 1, 1913, 218.

  47. O. A. Olsen, “A Forward Move in the Foreign Work in Chicago,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 11, 1915, 17. See also “North and South Dakota,” January 14, 1915, 16. A short piece appreciating the ministry of the Review written and mailed on the day he was taken ill was also published posthumously. See “A Real Feast,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 18, 1915, 24.

  48. Untitled paragraph, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 25, 1915, 24.

  49. Schwarz and Greenleaf, Light Bearers, 249.

  50. I. H. Evans, “Elder O. A. Olsen,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, February 25, 1915, 15.

  51. Evans, “Elder O. A. Olsen,” 14.


Valentine, Gilbert M. "Olsen, Ole Andres (1845–1915)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Accessed June 18, 2024.

Valentine, Gilbert M. "Olsen, Ole Andres (1845–1915)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Date of access June 18, 2024,

Valentine, Gilbert M. (2020, January 29). Olsen, Ole Andres (1845–1915). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved June 18, 2024,