The African American experience in Adventism is a complex saga of struggle and survival, protest and progress, retreat and resilience. The encounter of Americans of African descent with White Millerites, later Sabbatarian Adventists, and ultimately Seventh-day Adventists has produced a relationship that is a compelling blend of interest and intrigue that continues to provoke informed as well as misinformed analysis and conclusions. It may include elements or features both unfamiliar and perhaps difficult for all to relate to.
Initially, slave masters were slow, if not loath, to teach the Bible to slaves, but they began to do so when they concluded that Bible knowledge produced better slaves. Africans brought an array of religious beliefs and practices to slavery, including belief in a transcendent, loving Creator God. They syncretized what their masters taught with what they had brought with them. From that
time to now the Black church, which existed during slavery as the “Invisible Institution,” has been the centripetal force in the African American community. No other institution has had as profound or as protracted an impact on the lives of Black people.1 The nineteenth century saw exponential growth and change in America. National geography and economy were dramatically altered, land mass almost doubled, and population almost quadrupled. Optimistic Europeans flooded the
country in record numbers in pursuit of economic opportunities. Unconventionality in politics and religion was common, accommodating Millerism as an attractive alternative to organized religion.
Named for its most public advocate, William Miller, a self-taught Bible student and theologian, Millerism espoused Jesus’ return to the earth to cleanse it in 1844. The Millerite movement attracted a handful of Blacks, including William Ellis Foy, to whom visions were given by God. Ostensibly Foy, fearing prejudice and violence, refused to publicize his visions, though he continued preaching until his death toward the end of the nineteenth century.2 But the Millerite movement was hardly strategic about such sociological specifics as winning Blacks to the cause.
The Great Disappointment sent the Millerites reeling. Many surrendered their faith, but some added their belief in the Second Coming to the Sabbath truth. Sabbatarian Adventists were moderate abolitionists who rejected slavery as a stain on the fabric of the young and growing republic. They believed in the dignity of all human beings, but preferred quiet diplomacy to outright confrontation in combating slavery and prejudice. Adventism would not seriously confront the race issue for many decades. But the ordination of Charles M. Kinney, “Father of Black Adventism,” produced just such a challenge. Born in 1855, when only a sprinkling of Blacks identified with Adventism, Kinney was employed by the denomination shortly after he became an Adventist. In his giftedness Kinney was recommended for ordination to the gospel ministry in 1889. The event was a bittersweet experience that he would never forget. In one account, “church officials” attempted to segregate Kinney’s members at the camp meeting service, changing course only when Kinney and his congregation threatened to leave the grounds in protest.
Shortly thereafter, Kinney began to call for separate services for Whites and Blacks, all for the sake of mission and ministry. Believing that the entrenched prejudice in American society created real and intractable barriers to gospel promulgation, Kinney called for candid and frank conversations about race between Blacks and Whites. He did not want to see the dignity and worth of his people discounted, or to see Whites walk away from religious services because of the presence of Blacks. Ultimately Kinney came to believe that for the sake of Adventist mission, separation should be pursued as a viable and strategic option. Such separation should neither be permanent nor become a monument to alienation.
Adventist Church pioneer Ellen G. White, whose life and ministry continue to be a grounding and guiding influence for the denomination, wrote eloquently about slavery and how people of African descent should be viewed and treated. For most of her life people of color were locked in slavery, Reconstruction, or Jim Crowism. White died just as progressivism, the nation’s dominant political ideology in the early twentieth century, was beginning to wane.
White believed in the inherent equality of Blacks, saying that God’s love does not discriminate on the basis of race, and that the blood of Jesus makes of all people one nation. She stated that there would be no segregated neighborhoods in heaven, and that the denomination’s less-than-vigorous efforts to evangelize Blacks was sinful. Moreover, that the church had received no permission to prevent Blacks from worshipping in White assemblies. She believed that the denomination’s treatment of Blacks left it unprepared for the second coming of Jesus Christ, and that muchwas owed Blacks for what they had experiencedin this country: “The American nation owes a debt of love to the colored race, and God has ordained that they should make restitution for the wrong they have done them in the past. Those who have taken no active part in enforcing slavery upon the colored people are not relieved for the responsibility of making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result of their enslavement.”3
She continued: “Many among the colored people who have been entrusted with God-given ability, who had intellectual capabilities far superior to those of the master who claimed them as property, were forced to endure every indignity, and their souls groaned under the most cruel and unjust oppression.”4
White’s second son, Edson White, was an early leader in Seventh-day Adventist mission to Blacks. His impetus was his mother’s unambiguous counsel, which he felt impelled to put into action. His project to bring the Advent message to African Americans was financed by an educational aid he called the Gospel Primer, and was facilitated on a boat he called the Morning Star. White and his missionary companions plied the Mississippi River from the late nineteenth well into the twentieth century, bringing the gospel to Blacks hungry for truth, enlightenment, and empowerment. The Morning Star would become the headquarters of the Southern Missionary Society, which evolved into the Negro Department of the General Conference in 1909. The brainchild of an innovative thinker who pushed the margins, it represents the first sustained endeavor of Adventists to evangelize Blacks.
Around the time Edson White began traveling the Mississippi promoting the Gospel Primer, Adventists who placed a premium on education established Oakwood Industrial School in Huntsville, Alabama, for African Americans. Ellen White’s influence was key in the launch of the school, which she visited to offer encouragement and inspiration, and included in her will. Today, as Oakwood celebrates 125 years of transforming lives, students from around the world still enter to learn and depart to serve. Breakthroughs and blessings continue to define life at Oakwood, which unashamedly leads with “God First.”
What prompted Blacks to join the Advent movement during the nineteenth century, a period of volatility in which America fought several wars, including a civil war that was sparked by the race issue? Certainly not some overwhelming sense of love and inclusion experienced when they showed up, often uninvited, in White houses of worship. What Blacks discovered from Adventists was truth that uniquely resonated with their mental, physical, and spiritual needs. To a people emerging from the throes of slavery and caught in the clutches of racism, the Sabbath offered a much-needed respite from their daily grind; and the biblical teaching of the second coming of Jesus Christ held out hope of rescue from injustice and oppression. The still-developing emphasis on health in the Adventist Church was an antidote for their physical suffering. In sum, Adventism offered a system of truth and teaching that powerfully appealed to the desire of African Americans for a better life in this world, as well as the one to come.
In 1909 denominational leaders saw the need to create an entity that would intentionally and strategically plan and execute mission to the African American community. The result was the creation of the Negro Department of the General Conference. Black pastors of renown at the time generally supported the move, including James K. Humphrey5 and Lewis Sheafe, the “Apostle to Black America.”6 The first three directors of the Negro Department were White. That changed in 1918 when Black Detroit lawyer William H. Green was elected director, serving until his death in 1928. When Green assumed leadership of the Negro Department, the office transitioned away from the General Conference building, with Green working out of his suitcase
Green’s death gave leading voices among African American Adventists the opportunity to revive an earlier call for the creation of regional conferences.7 The Negro Department had experienced some measure of success with major objectives, facilitating mission among Blacks, thousands of whom had streamed into the urban centers of the North in the early twentieth century. But the development of Black leadership still lagged. Regional conferences were the way forward. They would provide the full participation and self-determination Blacks longed for and sought as their God-given right. Regional conferences would only materialize, however, after tragic defections from the church of such exceptional Black leaders as Lewis Sheafe (1915), J. H. Manns (1916), and James K. Humphrey (1929).8 African Americans have achieved little in Adventism without the intentional and concerted pushes of conscientious souls.9
Ellen White’s statement that Blacks and Whites may worship separately until the Lord reveals a better way has been heard as an oblique affirmation of regional conferences, under what is labeled the “Expediency Doctrine,” which temporarily allows, if not accepts, separate congregations and organizations for mission purposes.10 Though the regional conference phenomenon has sometimes been maligned because of a lack of understanding regarding its rationale and purpose, regional conferences continue to deliver on their promise. They represent a success story of mission to the African America community.
Church Growth and Evangelism: Church growth and evangelism have always been central to the African American Adventist’s understanding of mission and ministry. African American worship services are evangelistic in nature, with every element of the service done with a view to winning souls for Jesus Christ.11 Late-twentieth-century evangelism giants in the Black work include Earl E. Cleveland, whose “Trinidad Triumph” of more than 800 baptisms from a single evangelistic campaign was unprecedented in Adventist evangelism; Charles E. Bradford, the first Black to be elected president of the North American Division; and Charles D. Brooks, the first speaker/director of the Breath of Life telecast. Pitched uniquely to the African American community, Breath of Life is efficiently operated and mission-driven. It builds on other evangelistic initiatives, such as Message magazine, which continues to reach the African American community with the message of a loving Savior. Message is the longest-serving religious journal pitched to Black people in the United States.
Regional Conference Retirement Plan (RCRP): The RCRP stands out as one of the significant achievements in the Black work in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists. Doubts about the value of benefits Black retirees were receiving from the denomination’s retirement fund led regional conference presidents to launch the RCRP around the turn of the century. Though many predicted the venture’s failure, hundreds have been able to retire with dignity as a result of the plan, which today is on a solid financial footing. Construction of a multi-million-dollar, 32,000 -square-foot state-of-the-art facility to house the Office for Regional Conference Ministries (ORCM), the RCRP, Breath of Life, and Regional Voice magazine on the campus of Oakwood University is on the cusp of completion. Message magazine will also have an office in this facility.
Boarding Academy: Pine Forge Academy, the only all-Black boarding high school in North America, represents much more than secondary education. The school casts itself as a beacon of hope that eschews mediocrity and is a feeder for Oakwood University, which builds on its firm foundation. Not unlike many Adventist schools across North America, Pine Forge is facing its share of challenges. Black church leaders are united in their desire to see the school thrive and build on its treasured tradition of delivering quality education to Black youth.12
Office for Regional Conference Ministries: Headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, ORCM is the operational arm of the regional conferences. It is responsible for coordinating the activities and initiatives that regional conferences do collectively, meeting biweekly and at the call of its executive director, currently Dana Edmond. All regional conference presidents and directors of regional affairs in the Pacific and North Pacific unions sit on the Presidents’ Council, which, with the executive director, guides ORCM.
The story of the Black experience in Adventism is far from over. What will the rest of that story look like? What will it bring? One thing is sure: leaders and supporters must be intentional and innovative in crafting the next, as well as every subsequent, chapter of the story. We must do this, Blacks and Whites, with integrity, courage, and understanding, engaging in candid conversations about race—and every other issue before us—as we serve together in our God-entrusted mission of taking the gospel of love to all America and all the world. To be sure, openly and honestly talking about race will be daunting, given that in this country conversations about race have always been difficult and potentially explosive. But we must talk if we are going to succeed in working as one, taking the good news of a soon-coming Savior to the whole world. And we can be assured that our God, who reigns and rules in all history, continues to rule in ours.
1 For a concise history of the institution, see Louis Gates, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (New York: Penguin Press, 2021).
2 Trenchant treatment of William Foy may be found in Delbert Baker, The Unknown Prophet (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987).
3 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Jan. 21, 1896.
5 For a succinct study of James K. Humphrey and his break from Adventism, see R. Clifford Jones, James K. Humphrey and the United Sabbath-Day Adventists (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2006).
6 An excellent study of Sheafe is provided by Douglas K. Morgan, Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2010).
7 “Regional conferences”: administrative units of Blacks led by Blacks in various regions of the country.
8 Calvin B. Rock, Protest and Progress: Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2018), pp. 29-95.
10 R. Clifford Jones, “Until the Lord Shows Us a Better Way: Ellen G. White and the Issue of Regional Conferences,” Ellen G. White and Current Issues Symposium (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Center for Adventist Research, Andrews University, 2002).
12 R. Clifford Jones, “African-American Worship: Its Heritage, Character, and Quality,” Ministry, September 2002, pp. 5-9.
13 Douglas Morgan, Change Agents: The Lay Movement That Challenged the System and Turned Adventists Toward Racial Justice (Westlake Village, Calif.: Oak and Acorn), pp. 242-251.
R. Clifford Jones, dean of Oakwood University’s School of Theology, was president, from 2014 to 2021, of the Lake Region
Conference, Black Adventism’s first regional conference.