Seventh-day Adventism was racially integrated throughout the first decades of its existence, a fact underlined by the recent discovery of a second African American minister who served the growing movement in the 1850s and 1860s. John W. West was born into slavery in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 25, 1816. He was later sold into the Deep South and lived in New Orleans for several years.1 Early in life, he developed kyphosis, a condition usually caused by degenerative disc disease, or osteoporosis, and for much of his life he was known as “a little hunchback slave.”2
When a slave, he converted to Christianity at the age of 23, in September 1840, and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. According to West, a few weeks after his conversion he “felt it duty to go and call sinners to repentance, and to tell what the Lord had done for [him].” His class meeting soon recommended that he be a class leader (which granted him membership in the Quarterly Conference) and his class leaders’ meeting later advocated that he be granted a license to exhort. “This was granted me,” West explained, “and I increased in faith, and God carried on His work in adding souls to His people.”3 As the slave mission continued to grow and West increased in his ministry, his presiding elder granted him a preaching license in 1851, authorizing him to preach regularly in New Orleans.4
About 18535 West attained his freedom and lived the rest of his life in Smithfield/Peterboro, New York. The details of his liberation are unknown, but in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald he related that “God, through His divine providence, had brought [him] out of the great southern Sodom . . . and landed [him] safe on free soil in the State of New York.”6 In the early twentieth century John N. Woodbury, a longtime resident of Peterboro, stated that Gerrit Smith brought West to Peterboro.7 Smith was a radical abolitionist and well-known philanthropist who “spent tens of thousands of dollars purchasing the liberty of slaves,”8 so it is possible that he purchased West’s freedom. However, Smith was also heavily involved in the Underground Railroad and additional documentation reveals that West may have escaped from New Orleans. The eminent author and statesman Horace Greeley knew West personallyand stated that he was “once a preacher among his enslaved brethren until he became a fugitive.”9 Thus West possibly escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad through the direct assistance of Gerrit Smith.
Gerrit Smith was a leading social reformer and three-time U.S. presidential candidate. In the early 1840s he joined the Millerite movement, and he and his wife, Ann, “faithfully read the Midnight Cry.” In “January 1843 Gerrit wrote to its editor, Joshua Himes, to say that its message ‘has become the uppermost subject of our thoughts.’”10 After experiencing the Great Disappointment, Smith was also led to accept the seventh-day Sabbath. Though he never joined the Sabbatarian Adventist movement, he knew several of its members personally.11
Shortly after his conversion, West met James and Ellen White. West told them about his ministerial experience and his deliverance from slavery.
Smith regularly entertained Millerites and Adventists on his estate,12 but West remained the closest to him. West had not been a Millerite, but within less than a year of his liberation he joined the Sabbatarian Adventist movement.13 In November and December 1853 Samuel W. Rhodes and George W. Holt itinerated through Madison County, New York, and were in Peterboro on several occasions.14 Rhodes (and possibly Holt) had known the Smith family for many years, and it was probably through their efforts that West converted.15
Shortly after his conversion, West met James and Ellen White.16 West told them about his ministerial experience and his deliverance from slavery. The Whites were impressed by West, intrigued by his story, and apparently asked him to share his experience in the Review and Herald. West began to correspond with James White after their meeting in mid-February and his brief autobiographical account eventually appeared in the Review in September 1854.17
Since West had served as a Methodist preacher, he soon joined the ministerial ranks of the Sabbatarian Adventists. However, because of his disability, he never itinerated, as Adventist ministers typically did. Rather, Gerrit Smith allowed Sabbatarian Adventists to regularly meet in the Free Church that he had built in Peterboro. In November 1854 West explained, “I rejoice through the help and providence of God that a way has been made by which we can have a seventh-day Sabbath meeting in Peterboro. The arrangement has been made to meet in the Free Church in the afternoon of the day at 1 o’clock, every Sabbath.”18
West ministered primarily to White congregants in Peterboro, including the Parmalee and Hostler families. James A. Parmalee was particularly close to West, and the two formed a close friendship. The two men were about the same age, and when Parmalee died unexpectedly on November 15, 1854, West eulogized him in the Review, stating, “Our dear Bro. Parmalee, who was with us at our first meeting, and with whom we have convened so often on the Sabbath, now sleeps in Jesus.” After exhorting his readers to “live the life of the righteous,” as Parmalee had done, he expressed his longing to “keep God’s Sabbath [with his friends] in the New Earth.”19
The Hostlers also deeply respected West. Because of his disability, West remained very poor, and he received the Review through the kind donations of fellow Adventists. Aware of his condition, James White called on Adventists to support West directly, and Benjamin Hostler was among those who did so; it was Hostler who paid for West’s Review subscription during the last years of his life.20
Though not a Seventh-day Adventist, Gerrit Smith regularly listened to West preach and found him to be a powerful orator with a melodious voice. Smith regularly invited him to “lead in singing at the [non-Adventist] class meetings at the Free Church.”21 So deep was Smith’s respect for West’s ministry, in fact, that he referred to West as “the Dominie” (Latin for “the minister”). This epithet endured, and his contemporaries respectfully addressed him as “Dominie West.”22
In addition to his ministerial service, James White and Uriah Smith published several of West’s letters to them in the Review. In his letters West often exhorted Adventists with a pastoral tone. “Let us all begin to trim our lamps that they may give a clearer light to the world, and let us be more than ever determined to fight against receiving the mark of the beast,” he urged. The signs of the times indicated that the end was near, and this made West’s “heart rejoice to think and know that our redemption draweth nigh.”23 In response to a series of articles in the Review on attaining holiness of the heart, West encouraged his readers, “Suffer me to say to you, dear brethren and sisters, from experience, that keeping the heart with all diligence is the only possible way that we can overcome.”24 Though unable to travel on a preaching circuit, West spoke to thousands of readers through the Review.
Horace Greeley referred to West in the New York Tribune as Gerrit Smith’s “protégé” and stated that those who had “been guests of Gerrit Smith [would] remember” him.25 This statement reveals much about West’s life in Peterboro. After Smith rescued him from slavery, he also provided him with a home and business on his large estate.26 In his small store West sold groceries, Smith’s abolitionist publications, and other paraphernalia; worked as a cobbler; and mended textiles.27 Since he resided on Smith’s estate, West regularly conversed with Smith’s numerous visitors, which included many of the nation’s leading reformers, such as Greeley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Like Greeley, these reformers likely knew West personally and recognized that he was part of Smith’s abolitionist circle.
In 2011 artist Hugh C. Humphreys featured Dominie West in his National Abolition Hall of Fame painting Come Join the Abolitionists. The painting depicts an imagined abolitionist meeting in Peterboro about 1850. Humphreys describes his painting as an imaginary day in Petersboro that begins and ends with West, who is prominently featured in the foreground. West is clothed in ministerial garb, and Humphreys imagines him shouting to the people, “Come join the abolitionists.” Viewers are then drawn to listen to Frederck Douglass, Gerrit Smith, John Brown, and others who denounce the evils of slavery and racism.
Humphrey’s imaginary day ends with West preaching from Psalm 121, reminding his audience that “God protects this holy place, this Peterboro” because its people do not tolerate racism. In this way West, through Humphreys, reminds the painting’s contemporary viewers of the ongoing need to fight for justice.28
On Christmas morning 1868, on his fifty-second birthday, John “the Dominie” West died (of unknown causes) in his store.29 Horace Greeley wrote his obituary for the New-York Tribune, and because many prominent Americans knew and respected West, it was reprinted in numerous newspapers throughout the country, from Massachusetts to California.30
Gerrit Smith arranged for the burial and marked his grave in the Peterboro Cemetery with a large marble tombstone. Numerous tombstones in this cemetery state that the deceased was born a slave but died a freeperson, and West’s marker is among them. However, his tombstone stands out for two reasons: First, Smith inscribed the words “the Dominie” below West’s name, indicating his ministerial prominence in the community. Second, near the bottom of the stone, Smith inscribed: “deformed in body, but beautiful in spirit.” This epitaph honored West by testifying that he overcame the obstacles he faced in life. Not only did he overcome slavery, but he triumphed over the physical limitations of his body by keeping his heart focused on his Lord and Savior.
Kevin M. Burton is pursuing a Ph.D. in American religious history at Florida State University.
Many Adventists are aware that Joseph Bates, one of the cofounders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was an abolitionist. Nevertheless, historians and biographers have not previously sought to ascertain what kind of abolitionist Bates was, or document how he participated in the movement.1 Bates was a radical Garrisonian abolitionist. Unlike some abolitionists who were committed solely to the immediate abolition of slavery and had little interest in the fate of Blacks after that, Bates was also an outspoken advocate for equal rights for the oppressed.
Though there were many notable antecedents, historians often attribute the rise of the immediate abolition movement (“immediatism”) to William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), who began in 1831 to publish The Liberator, a weekly paper in Boston dedicated to immediatism. Garrison insisted that true Christians could not support the national government or established churches because they sanctioned slavery through law and fellowshipped with people who upheld the “peculiar institution.” Garrison’s broad-based peace platform also included promotion of pacifism and equal rights for Blacks and women.2 Bates actively supported all of Garrison’s reforms and defended all of them publicly.3
Joshua V. Himes, a close friend and colleague of Garrison’s, convinced Bates—also Himes’ close friend—that Garrison had the right solution to the problem of slavery. But immediatism was a radical scheme in antebellum America, and most Northerners scorned Garrisonians and sometimes inflicted violence upon them. After working closely with Garrison for three years, however, Himes was convinced that it was worth the risk to follow Garrison, because he “fearlessly and faithfully” exposed the sin of slavery and exhorted Americans “to an immediate repentance.”
Joseph Bates’ views were not exceptional among his Millerite or Sabbatarian Adventist peers. Rather, his radicalism provides a window to catch a glimpse of the worldview of early Adventism.
In February 1835, as Bates became attracted to immediatism, Himes encouraged him “to support Mr. G. in all his efforts to disenthral [sic] and elevate the colored race.”4
On April 23, 1835, Bates and about 40 other abolitionists in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, organized the Fairhaven Anti-Slavery Society (FASS). Bates was also a cofounder and elected officer of the Bristol County Anti-Slavery Society (BCASS), and an active member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, supporting it financially and serving as a delegate to annual meetings.5 FASS was organized, according to its constitution, “for the avowed purpose of effecting the immediate and total abolition of slavery” and recognized “the people of color, both bond and free, as members of the same human family, entitled to the protection of the same just and equal laws.” Bates, therefore, ardently advocated equal rights for free Blacks in the North as well as the immediate abolition of slaves in the South.6
Anti-abolitionists in the Fairhaven-New Bedford area responded a few months later. The “very large and respectable” crowd of anti-abolitionists dwarfed the smaller FASS, and when they gathered in New Bedford’s Town Hall on August 22, 1835, they professed to detest the “evil of slavery” but objected to immediatism because it might sacrifice “the rights” of “the White population,” endanger their “domestic safety,” or “impoverish” them.7 As Bates later recalled, the FASS “drew down the wrath of a certain class of our neighbors” who “denounce[d] us in very severe terms. . . . Threats were often made that our meetings would be broken up, &c., but fortunately we were left to go onward.”8
Bates was an advocate for women’s rights and advocated for their right to participate politically, including his wife, Prudence, who was a cofounder of the Fairhaven Ladies Anti-Slavery Society (FLASS) and served as vice president and executive committeemember.9 When Northern White men began to oppose women acting politically by petitioning Congress, Bates and the BCASS responded directly: “That woman, when she pleads for the oppressed, and labors to meliorate and relieve their condition, acts worthy of herself, and of her high duties as an intellectual, moral, and accountable being.”10
Bates also worked with radical abolitionists within the Christian Connexion. In the fall of 1836 he united with Himes and 19 other Connexionist leaders at the Massachusetts Christian Conference on Slavery. This conference convened in New Bedford to condemn churches and members for supporting slavery. These men resolved that it was their “sacred obligation” to “proclaim the holy displeasure of heaven against all unrighteousness” and firmly declared their “unqualified reprobation of every palliative, excuse, or apology, which may be urged in extenuation of this sin” of slavery. In doing so, they responded to Christians—North and South—who used the Bible to defend slavery.11
On June 5, 1841, Bates also led his own congregation on Washington Street to reestablish itself as a staunch abolitionist church. After chastising non-abolitionist Christians for their support of slavery, the church made a resolution that “we cannot receive to our fellowship, as a chairman or christian minister, a slaveholder, or an apologist for slavery.” Their resolutions were published in The Liberator.12
In the fall of 1839 Joseph Bates joined the Millerite movement.13 That same year he was elected president of the FASS, and his responsibilities and activities in the abolition movement increased.14 Though previous FASS presidents did not undertake the task, Bates initiated annual petitioning campaigns among the male citizens of Fairhaven during his first presidential term. On January 1, 1840, he began to circulate petitions and send them to the Massachusetts State Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate.
Many of Bates’ petitions have been destroyed, but surviving documentation reveals that he petitioned for the eradication of the gag laws that forbade discussion of slavery in Congress, protestation that Texas and Florida be admitted as slave states, for the abolition of the interstate slave trade, and extinction of slavery in the District of Columbia. Though all of these issues were critical, Bates placed himself at the extreme end of the abolitionist spectrum when he petitioned that the United States recognize the independence of Haiti, that the New England “Jim Crow” segregation laws be eliminated, and that the interracial marriage law in Massachusetts be abolished.15 These petitions demonstrate that Bates’ believed in the equality of Blacks, their capacity to govern themselves (a fact that almost all White Americans denied), and his concern for international injustices.
Joseph Bates’ views were not exceptional among his Millerite or Sabbatarian Adventist peers. Rather his radicalism provides a window to catch a glimpse of the worldview of early Adventism. Other Adventists expressed their political views by signing abolitionist petitions and voiced their radical political views in sermons and in print. Along with other leaders, Joseph Bates helped forge a biblical understanding of social justice that should be remembered and applied to our lives each day as we live and share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit of our radical pioneers.
Kevin Burton is writing his dissertation at Florida State University on Adventist involvement in the abolition movement, and is an instructor in the History and Political Studies Department at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.