The Doctor, the Spinster, and Adventists in Colonial Lands

Historians conference brings lesser-known figures of Adventism to the limelight.

Marcos Paseggi, Adventist review
The Doctor, the Spinster, and Adventists in Colonial Lands

“Adventist history is potentially very rich, very textured, very deep, and very wide,” said Seventh-day Adventist world church Archives, Statistics, and Research director David Trim. “It is not the history about just a dozen individuals.”

“They loved God, each other, and the Gospel,”

Trim’s remarks were delivered during the closing discussion at the “Situating Adventist History” conference, an event of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians which brought dozens of Seventh-day Adventist historians, researchers, and professors together for two days of presentations, Q&A sessions, and discussions on Jan. 8-9. Specifically, the second-day activities which took place at the Seventh-day Adventist Church headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, included listening and reacting to scholarly papers on some of those less known but “pivotal aspects,” as they were called, of Adventist early history.

Below is a sample of some of them.

The First African American Adventist Doctor

Douglas Morgan, who teaches at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland, United States, shared aspects about the life and work of James H. Howard (1861-1936), a prominent physician considered in all likelihood the first African American convert to Adventism in Washington D.C. As such, Morgan used Howard as an example of a wider movement that marked the emergence of Adventism as an African American alternative.

“I am interested in how people of African heritage in America found Adventism, fought to make it fully theirs, transformed it ultimately into the nation’s most racially diverse religious body, and came to enjoy better health and accelerated upward mobility in the process,” said Morgan in explaining the rationale of its research.

When Howard accepted Adventism in 1887, there were just a handful Seventh-day Adventists in the nation’s capital. Four years before, he had graduated as a medical doctor top of his class, and was a well-known figure in Washington elite circles.

According to Morgan, Howard felt attracted to Adventism for its “biblical purity,” as he had hopes that its adherence to the gospel of Christ would remedy the racism witnessed in other Christian churches of the time. Howard, who considered himself “more a Seventh-day Adventist than a colored man,” gave his support to the fledgling denomination and did not waver even when some occasional decisions of church leaders did not agree with the equality principles they claimed to uphold.

“Forward-thinking, educated, professional African Americans…saw in Adventism the promise of holistic racial redemption,” said Morgan. “The dissonance they experienced when reality betrayed these aspirations drove some away while others persisted…in faith that the purposes of the God who raised the movement would prevail.”

The Spinster’s Diaries

“Older works in Adventist historiography are largely saints’ tales, full of larger-than-life personalities meant to confirm faith and inspire action,” said the world church Department of Archives, Statistics, and Research assistant archivist Ashlee Chism. But there is more to that, she believes, if we remember they were also people like us.

As a way of putting her money where her mouth is, Chism discussed the life and times of Jennie Thayer, who lived and worked for the church in late 19th and early 20th century as a single woman, assisting in publishing and editorial work. Based on Thayer’s diaries, Chism discussed Thayer’s frustration as she felt cornered into accepting the role of “household drudge,” or on the contrary, being considered “strong-minded,” and “out of her sphere” by some leaders.

“Thayer was an educated, intellectually minded woman who remained unmarried in an era which saw very little of that as the ideal,” said Chism, who suggested that Thayer and other pioneers ought to be understood against the background of their times.

“They loved God, each other, and the Gospel,” she said. “But they also doubted themselves, held contrary opinions from one another, were affected by daily weather, got lonely, missed home.”

Chism believes that as Thayer’s diaries show, a candid discussion of the Adventist pioneers’ joys, sorrows, triumphs, and failures might bring them closer to us. “How can we truly understand our history unless we connect to the people who lived it? she said.

In Colonial and Imperial Lands

Several Jan. 9 presentations placed early Adventism in the context of its mission and growth in colonial lands in Africa and Asia.

In the decades preceding India’s independence from British rule in 1947, Adventist publications used the language of the nonviolent mass movement against colonialism, albeit giving it a distinctive Adventist tone, said Lindsay Chineegadoo, a pastor in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. A survey of Adventist publications reveals Seventh-day Adventists appropriated to some extent the language of “uplift,” a movement looking for economic self-sufficiency, health, and education, said Chineegadoo. In doing so, Adventists seemed to side with the national mass movement, while blending it with the church’s mission.

Also in China, Adventists stood out as persecution against Christians broke out in the 1920s, said Ruth Crocombre, an Adventist historian from Australia. Adventist institutions were hit hard by the anti-Christian movement, but the Seventh-day Adventist Church was the only foreign missionary agency that increased its presence in the country after the persecution started. According to Crocombre, “time of trouble” expectations and the hope for the imminence of Christ’s return moved Adventists to crank up their missionary efforts even under imperial rule.

Non-Traditional Sources

Several presenters emphasized a movement to non-traditional sources of historiographic research. Besides personal diaries, which La Sierra University professor Gilbert M. Valentine called “an important historical source [of]…how Adventism was experienced in everyday life,” presenters discussed oral history, family histories, and other underused sources.

“Let’s go forth and find more of that Adventist history from beneath,”

Ellen G. White Estate associate director Michael Sokupa presented on the importance of oral history in African tradition, and the way it could support the work of Adventist historians. “Traditionally, every community [in Africa] has someone responsible for local oral history,” he said. “It is an invaluable resource, in spite of its challenges.”

In a similar vein, Lisa Clark Diller, from Southern Adventist University, combined several historiographic research elements in her paper “My Adventist Family History: Myths, Oral History, and the Archives.” Diller, a descendant of Adventist missionaries in South America Lilian and Orley Ford, discussed some challenges as a historian in dissecting her family’s history, including assessment of several, often conflicting sources.

In his closing remarks, Trim appealed to Adventist historians to keep the good work he witnessed at the conference. “Let’s go forth and find more of that Adventist history from beneath,” he said. “Let’s write it, and let’s share it.”

Marcos Paseggi, Adventist review