On November 1, 1903, 40 years after the formal organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ellen G. White wrote these arresting words to Arthur G. Daniells, president of the church’s General Conference: “Again and again I have been shown that the past experiences of God’s people are not to be counted as dead facts. We are not to treat the record of these experiences as we would treat last year’s almanac.”1
Four decades along “the way in which God has led us,”2 her counsel was relevant and urgent: Don’t discount, set aside, or overlook the experiences and lessons that were absorbed in the beginning of the movement. Both the church’s president and the movement that he served needed to review those lessons, learn from them, and apply that learning to the church’s new era.
Now, as we have recently completed a 150th anniversary for the movement she helped to found, Ellen White’s counsel remains timely and relevant.
The early members of what in the 1860s became the Seventh-day Adventist Church emerged primarily from the existing Protestant denominations and those who had identified with the Advent movement of the 1830s and 1840s. The evangelistic fervor associated with the Millerite movement drew directly on the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, but early Adventists were slow to understand the worldwide nature of the three angels’ messages that they had been called to proclaim. Though Jesus had specifically included “all nations” as the target area for making disciples, most Seventh-day Adventists of the mid-nineteenth century understood that His mandate could be fulfilled by evangelizing the persons from almost every nation of the world then emigrating to the young republic of the United States.
The challenging national situation in which the new church was birthed, however, began to stretch and grow that limited definition, and soon resulted in a commitment among both members and leaders to bring the gospel—in both doctrine and life—to people of every race, ethnicity, language—and place. As they absorbed the lessons of the ministry practiced by Jesus, they began to trace an unmistakable model of inclusivity and outreach.
According to Jesus, the goal of true ministry was to serve those who were poor, brokenhearted, captive, blind, and oppressed (Luke 4:16-21). This mission statement of Jesus, when linked with the messages of Revelation 14, Isaiah 58, and Isaiah 61:4, provided the earliest Seventh-day Adventists with an evangelistic and ministry blueprint that of necessity included persons of all backgrounds, many of whom were minorities in the mostly European culture of the United States. As Adventists came to understand it, the legitimacy of the movement’s prophetic role depended on its inclusive ministry to all the groups in society—those considered mainstream, as well as those considered to be minorities and marginalized.
A careful study of the first four decades of the church bears out that the progress in evangelism and soul winning among minorities required intentional effort and leadership prioritizing. Outreach to and among social and racial minorities was never something that could be taken for granted: fallen human nature is not naturally inclusive. Church leaders soon discovered that serving as Jesus did required focused energy, execution, effort, and endurance.
Four Bible passages that often surfaced in early Adventist periodicals and literature, including the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald (now the Adventist Review), helped to provide an outline and blueprint for the work among minorities. Each passage articulated a principle that itself became a mandate:
Matthew 28:19, 20—The Inclusiveness of the Mission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Revelation 14:6—The Content of the Message: “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (ESV).3
Isaiah 61:4—The Objective of the Movement: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (ESV).4
Isaiah 58:6, 7—The Practicality of the Strategy: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him” (ESV)?
Despite the growing theological and philosophical consensus among early Adventist leaders, plans and efforts to initiate work among minority groups did not emerge as a carefully outlined strategy. The general objective—to spread the gospel whenever possible to whomever possible—initially seemed to preclude a coordinated focus on specific racial and language populations.
One pressing social issue quickly began to bring the new movement’s mission strategy into clearer focus, however. The defining social issue in the United States during the 25 years immediately following the disappointment of 1844 was slavery—its immoral character, vast economic power, and its entrenchment in American politics and governance. Even had so many early Adventist leaders not carried their antislavery commitments into the new church, the necessity of developing evangelistic and compassionate ministries to Black America would have required their attention and their action. The tenacious phenomenon of heritable slavery brought the matter of ministry to America’s most identifiable and mistreated minority into sharp focus, and placed it squarely on the church’s agenda.
The great national debate over slavery that raged from the 1840s through the close of the Civil War in 1865 provided a platform where the mind-set—and struggles—of early Adventists on the subject of human rights issues and minorities became obvious.
Fascinatingly, the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist movement were unequivocal in their opposition to slavery, and based their opposition on both biblical and human equality arguments. Early Adventists were unanimously against slavery, and many early Adventist leaders preached and wrote against slavery, and were involved in the antislavery and abolitionist work.4
Joseph Bates (1792-1872), an American seaman and Second Advent minister, was one of the founders of the new church, and is credited with helping to convince James and Ellen White of the validity of the seventh-day Sabbath. He was an ardent abolitionist and compassionate supporter of those who were oppressed and marginalized.
Uriah Smith (1832-1903) was a former Millerite Adventist who became a well-known Seventh-day Adventist editor, author, and minister, including almost a half century of service to the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Smith was unrelenting in his assault on the moral depravity of the institution of slavery, clearly linking the sin with the evils of racism.
Ellen G. White (1827-1915), believed by Adventists then and now to be a “messenger of the Lord,” with her husband and Joseph Bates acknowledged as one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was one of the most outspoken leaders speaking and writing against slavery. Basing her argument on the principle outlined in Deuteronomy 23:15, she urged that Adventists should violate the Fugitive Slave Law of 1854, which demanded the return of a runaway slave. In 1859 she wrote: “The laws of our land requiring
us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law.”5
In the aftermath of the Civil War, which she identified as a divine punishment on the United States for allowing “the high crime of slavery,”6 Ellen White was the foremost proponent of ministry to and for African Americans, and specifically included financial support for that ministry in her will.
The needs and opportunities for American Blacks were never far from Ellen White’s attention. At the beginning of the 1890s she launched a stream of articles, letters, and messages concerning the Black work, including a letter from Australia addressed to “my brethren in responsible positions in America”: “The colored people might have been helped with much better prospects of success years ago than now. The work is now tenfold harder than it would have been then. . . . After the war, if the Northern people had made the South a real missionary field, if they had not left the Negroes to ruin through poverty and ignorance, thousands of souls would have been brought to Christ.”7
Ellen White understood the unique opportunity Adventism presented for a people group who had endured American slavery for almost 250 years. The very system of truth advanced by Seventh-day Adventism—a wholistic emphasis on spirit, mind, and body—offered both support and opportunity to millions in whom the wider culture had never made an investment. Each of Adventism’s key doctrines was uniquely suited to address the needs of a people so recently freed from bondage.
None of this should suggest, however, that the young movement did not struggle with issues of inclusivity and racial equality. Like many American abolitionists, many early Adventists were convinced that slaves should be free citizens, but were not yet ready to live alongside them or worship with them. It is doubtful that the young Adventist Church would have moved to a racially progressive perspective in its early decades had it not been served for its first 50 years by a remarkable collection of leaders among whom there was clarity on the issues of human freedom and equality.
It is instructive to note the public profiles of the General Conference presidents who served and led the Seventh-day Adventist Church in that era. Their collective experiences and advocacy related to African Americans ensured that the church would preserve and advance the issues of human equality with which it had begun.
The first president of the newly formed church in 1863 was John Byington (1798-1887), a staunch abolitionist activist. In the 1850s Byington is reputed to have operated an Underground Railroad station on his farm in Buck’s Bridge, New York, assisting dozens of escaped slaves as they made their way toward freedom in Canada. He was also known to entertain African Americans and Native Americans in his home.
James Springer White (1821-1881) served three separate times as GC president, and was elected in total to 15 one-year terms. White was an abolitionist and antislavery writer who used the journal that he founded, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, as a potent weapon against both the institution of slavery and its defenders. He and his wife, Ellen, were known to befriend, assist, visit, and stay with African Americans in their homes. James White deftly guided the new denomination to its antislavery stance, and at the session when he was first nominated as General Conference president, the following action is on the record: “Resolved, That a field is now opened in the South for labor among the colored people and should be entered upon according to our ability.”8
John Nevins Andrews (1829-1883) led the General Conference for two terms as president (1867-1869). Considered by many scholars today as the early denomination’s leading theologian, he too was an abolitionist and prolific antislavery writer and author. Andrews’ articles and editorials in the 1850s and 1860s excoriated the United States government as the apostate “lamblike beast” of Revelation 13, in part because of the government’s toleration of human slavery. Andrews also provided Ellen White with a history of African Sabbathkeeping while researching his landmark volume, History of the Sabbath.
George Ide Butler (1834-1918) served from 1871 to 1874, and again from 1880 to 1888 as General Conference president, elected no less than 11 times to that role. While not as well known as other early church leaders on issues of human equality, Butler’s contribution to racial equality can be seen in the fact that the young denomination in the post-Reconstruction era did not imitate the broader societal consensus to treat newly freed African Americans as second-class citizens.
Ole Andres Olsen (1845-1915) became General Conference president in 1888, while then serving the church in Norway, and held that post for nine years. His tenure proved to be a pivotal era for increased ministry to American Blacks. Ellen White delivered her groundbreaking message on the work among Black people, “Our Duty to the Colored People,” in 1891, and the necessity of outreach to Black America was discussed at several General Conference sessions during his presidency. Olsen and the church editors, especially Uriah Smith, saw to it that the writings and letters of Ellen White from Australia about the Black work received high visibility.
During this period the work for American Blacks in the South realized significant progress under the leadership of Ellen and James White’s son, Edson White, who with Will Palmer founded the Southern Missionary Society. This pioneering organization later was merged into the Southern Union Conference (1901) and did extraordinary work in developing the work in the South through the means of the Morning Star steamboat, a missionary school it helped to plant, and the Gospel Herald (1898), later to become Message magazine (1935). Significantly, the Oakwood Industrial School (now Oakwood University) was established in 1896 by the General Conference at the urging of Ellen White. Ole Olsen was personally involved with selecting the site, and helped to direct General Conference funds to purchase the land.
Olsen’s tenure as General Conference president was also noteworthy for the development of Adventist outreach in the Caribbean, and expansion in southern Africa. African American minister Charles Kinny also became a prominent preacher and evangelist during Olsen’s administration.9
The sixth General Conference president had personal experience of fighting against slavery. At age 17 George Alexander Irwin (1844-1913) volunteered for the Union Army during the Civil War, where he was placed with the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Irwin was captured by Confederate forces near Atlanta, and endured captivity at the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia during the balance of the war.
Arthur Grosvenor Daniells (1858-1935) served six terms as the church’s world leader for a period of 21 years (1901-1922). Though Daniells himself was too young to have seen service in the Civil War, his family knew the cost of opposing slavery: his father died while serving as a Union physician and surgeon in the Civil War. During Daniells’ lengthy tenure as General Conference president, the Negro Department was established, and the work among Southern Blacks flourished, building on the foundation laid in the preceding 20 years. Rapid expansion of the church’s worldwide outreach programs resulted in Blacks and members of many races and ethnicities hearing the Adventist message for the first time. Talented ministers of a wide variety of ethnic groups were developed and encouraged.
Through the efforts of Adventism’s spiritual and organizational leadership, the development of outreach to Blacks in the American South became
a model of how the Seventh-day Adventist Church could work with diverse groups around the world, addressing their needs while preaching the gospel. Just as Jesus intended, in every age and context, the gospel has offered a message of hope and healing for people groups who were oppressed and marginalized. Such ministry may not be widely popular: early Adventists working among Southern Blacks were frequently vilified and targeted. But the commitment they made to persevere provided the church with a crucial model for extending its work to “every kindred, tribe and nation.”
Delbert Baker is a vice president of the general conference of seventh-day adventists. He previously served as editor of message magazine and president of oakwood university. His column, transformation tips, appears each month in the adventist review. This article is based on a presentation he gave in april 2013 at the 150th anniversary celebrations of the organization of the church’s general conference. Subsequent articles in this series will focus on how the church’s work developed among other minority groups, ethnicities, and races.