by Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr. | 6 February 2019 |
Earlier this year as I was checking my Facebook statuses, I saw that a colleague of mine had posted a message about the need to study the U.S. presidency of Andrew Johnson in light of our current political and societal climate. Johnson had previously served as the vice president to Abraham Lincoln before Lincoln was assassinated, after which Johnson became president.
As I began to study more about the differences in policies and administrative styles of the two presidents. I began to wonder: if the Civil War ended in 1865 and the Reconstruction era began during that same time and lasted until 1877, what was the role of the Adventist church during that period? I knew that 1844 was the year of the Great Disappointment, when William Miller and his followers, aptly named the Millerites, predicted the date that Jesus would return to this earth. So, I wanted answers to these three questions:
- Where was the Adventist church during this period? Had it been formed?
- If so, what was the contribution of African Americans to the church during that time period? And what was the state of race relations at that time?
- What can we learn from that time period and other periods in our nation’s and Adventist church’s histories that can inspire us and help us to not to repeat the mistakes of the past?
My colleague’s post alluded to the need to study our past to inform us about how we should make decisions regarding our future. Ellen White is famously quoted as saying “we have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”
Background: the First Reconstruction
So, what was the Reconstruction period? and why was it important? The first Reconstruction took place during the years of 1865-1877, commencing directly after the North had won the Civil War. It was President Abraham Lincoln’s desire prior to his assassination to bring the United States together, so he helped develop the Reconstruction plan in 1863 that forbade states from engaging in the practice of chattel slavery. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, and Lincoln was killed a week later. Congress proposed and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery soon after.
Assuming the role of president after Lincoln was Andrew Johnson, his vice president. Although Johnson initially vowed to support the abolition of slavery, he soon turned course. He encouraged Southern states to pass Black Codes that reversed many of the civil liberties recently gained by freed African Americans. He went on to oppose the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided citizenship to African Americans. Johnson’s leadership was a dark period in our country. He is ultimately viewed as one of the most controversial American presidents because of his stances against the federally guaranteed rights of Blacks and his strict adherence to constitutionalism.
However, there was another side of the Reconstruction period. Blacks became very active in political life, including more than 2,000 holding local, state and national public offices. Sixteen African Americans served in the U.S. Congress during that period. Six hundred of those 2,000 elected officials served in their states’ legislatures and many more served in local political offices. So just as African Americans were beginning to achieve their rights as full citizens within the United States, their privileges were undermined and snatched away by President Johnson.
So where was the Adventist church during this time period? The church was officially established between the years of 1860-1863.  This was just two to five years before the first Reconstruction period commenced. That means that simultaneously as our church was being established in the United States, our country was going through a major political and cultural shift.
It was in February 1860 that James White raised the question of incorporating property on behalf of what we now call the Seventh-day Adventist church. He, along with his wife and fellow church founder Ellen G. White, pushed hard in that year for establishment of a legal incorporation of a church name. An early church pioneer, David Hewitt, is credited with coming up with the name “Seventh-day Adventist” and making this recommendation at a meeting in Battle Creek, Michigan, on October 2 of the same year. And the organization and establishment of local state conferences and the General Conference happened in the two subsequent years.
Adventist historian Benjamin Baker wrote that Ellen White received a series of visions starting in 1861 where she describes the Civil War as a punishment from God to both the North and Southern states for the sin of enslaving people of African descent.
Ellen White stated that God allowed the conflict to continue for an extended period of time to let each side know of his displeasure. None would escape His judgment on slavery. America tried to pretend that the main issue of the war was not chattel enslavement of a whole race. But Ellen White stated succinctly that God would not let the North obtain victory until they acknowledged that slavery “alone…lies at the foundation of the war.
The North acted very piously in regard to the war. The government made appeals for fasting and prayer. They claimed that they were acting righteously in the matter and that God was on their side. But Ellen White said that these calls were a “an insult to Jehovah. He accepts no such fasts.” Baker writes, “Why? Because slavery was not made the primary issue of the war. Once Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that slavery was the issue, on January 1, 1863, Heaven began to facilitate the North’s victory.”
This is a history that we rarely talk about. And it is similar to the approach that the church currently takes on issues of injustice. We encourage members to fast and pray, but just as Ellen White said, it is an insult to just fast and pray without acknowledging the wrongful atrocities that are going on.
Ellen White was not speaking only to those who were in the South. She was speaking also to those in the Northern states who may have had few interactions with Black people on a daily basis, and were indifferent to the plight of those of African descent. There is little record of members of the Adventist church in the mid- to late-1800s engaging in the abolitionist movement, after Mrs. White’s visions in the early 1860s.
There is little record of Adventists speaking out on behalf of Black people until 1891, a full 30 years after that first set of visions when White, now aged 63, spoke at that year’s General Conference Session. In her message, “Our Duty to the Colored People,” she declared, “Sin rests upon us as a church because we have not made a greater effort for the salvation of souls among the colored people.” Two years later in 1893 her son Edson took up the torch to evangelize Black people in the South, namely in Mississippi. Ellen White’s stance is biblical, for Luke 4:18-19 says,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”
The Second Reconstruction
However, that was not the only Reconstruction period in American history. Although Congress passed a Second Reconstruction act on March 23, 1867, to clarify who was to enforce the new laws of the land, President Johnson did not honor or enforce the measures within the Second Reconstruction act. So, between 1878 and 1948, Blacks continued to struggle to gain the rights that the Constitution promised them. Lynchings were still commonplace and Blacks were not treated equally. However, through self-determination, and with those unselfish or selfless white people who were committed to doing right, the tide began to change for African Americans, particularly after World War II.
The Second Reconstruction period, a name coined by the historian C. Vann Woodward, is the period that is otherwise referred to as the Civil Rights Movement. Blacks had served in the war, and Blacks were beginning to demand equal rights. President Roosevelt signed an executive order that created a fair employment practices commission, which charged the commission with helping with enforcement of prohibiting racial discrimination in companies and unions related to national defense. This led to an 300% increase in Blacks serving in federal government. Various legislative and court victories took place during that period, including the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, which determined that separate educational facilities “are inherently unequal” and violated the Equal Protection Clause stipulated in the Fourteenth Amendment.
Other important legislation which happened during the Second Reconstruction period includes
- The Civil Rights Act of 1957, which established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for two years and created a civil rights division in the Justice Department.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act corrected loopholes in its predecessor and was far-ranging and extensive in scope. It, 1) addressed public accommodations, and 2) outlawed discrimination in programs receiving federal aid.
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it a crime to impede a citizen’s ability to vote. Sixty percent of all southern Blacks were registered to vote by 1969, and by 1975, 1.5 million African Americans were registered to vote in the South.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1968, legislation that provided equal housing opportunities, outlawing discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. In addition, it provisioned punitive action against violent or intimidating acts.
So, what was the state of race relations in the church during the Second Reconstruction period? Ashamedly, we were no different than the world. Separate conference structures for Blacks were founded in 1945 to 1947, the same time that the civil rights changes began to take hold in the country. The Bible says in Romans 12:2, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Here, though, we Adventists did not lead the way but followed the trends of the world.
In chapter 6 of George R. Knight’s book on the refining of the church’s structure he says that Blacks were blocked from leadership within the church. Talented Black leaders were relegated to just serving in leadership positions in Black churches and conferences. Knight writes:
That would begin to change in the 1960s, propelled largely by the civil rights movement in the larger culture rather than by concerns of racial equity from within the denomination. It was only until 1965, the same year that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. That the general conference “voted a statement of human rights and stipulated that “membership and office in all churches and on all levels, must be available to anyone that qualifies, without regards to race.
Just as things move forward there is always a backlash, or what one political commentator termed a “whitelash.” This calls me to ask the question, “Was Adventism ever great? And if so for who, why and how?”
After Lincoln helped emancipate the enslaved people of African descent during the First Reconstruction period, there was a rollback of progress made in the preceding reconstruction led by President Andrew Johnson. Some scholars call that period the Redemption period. The same thing happened in the 1970s, termed the Second Redemption. This period was characterized by more conservatism on the part of the federal government, and several Supreme Court decisions that weakened the scope of civil rights reforms, especially in the Northern states.
The Redemption period particularly hurt poor Black families, as redlining policies kept Blacks in housing conditions that were deplorable. Terrible schooling policies did not enable students to have access to high quality education because rules and laws were made to determine where you went to school based on the property taxes you paid on your home. Many Black families lacked the financial and social capital to overcome those odds. Overpolicing of Black neighborhoods decimated these communities. The so-called “war on drugs,” which later was admitted by political operatives to be a war on the urban poor, was heard as a dog whistle by that population, which was crippled by it.
The Adventist church was generally silent about these atrocities that were happening to the Black poor in America. How does the Adventist church say it’s great when it was willing to send aid to foreign countries but has done little to speak out publicly to support poor African Americans and the distressed in America? The Bible says in Jeremiah 22:3:
I, the Lord, command you to do what is just and right. Protect the person who is being cheated from the one who is cheating him. Do not ill-treat or oppress foreigners, orphans, or widows; and do not kill innocent people.
The Third Reconstruction
More recently we entered what has been coined as the Third Reconstruction. This commenced with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.
However, in this period limited gains were made specifically for African Americans. The Third Redemption started as soon as the Third Reconstruction commenced. And new leadership has come in with the mantra of “Making America Great Again.” Many people in the African-American community would ask, “Making America great again for who, for what, and why?”
Consider this text from Exodus 16:3:
The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death
In the biblical story of Moses and the Israelites, they left Egypt after they had been delivered from bondage and began their trek to the promised land. Soon thereafter they began to murmur and complain. And like many of us, they began to glory in “the good old days.” But our reminiscing is not grounded in scriptures such as Romans 12:13, where it says, “Share your belongings with your needy fellow Christians, and open your homes to strangers.”
Or Deuteronomy 15:7-8 that says:
If in any of the towns in the land that the Lord your God is giving you there is a fellow-Israelite in need, then do not be selfish and refuse to help him. Instead, be generous and lend him as much as he needs.
What are the parallels in the Adventist church? Has there been a redemption period? From 1999 to 2010 Jan Paulsen served as the president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. During that time period two African Americans were elected to serve as General Vice Presidents, Dr. Ella S. Simmons in 2005 and Dr. Delbert Baker in 2010.
However there has also been a backlash here. Baker was removed from his role in the last General Conference Session. This backlash did not impact the Black community alone. Women who have committed their lives to ministry have had their callings by God questioned. And conferences that have supported these servants of God have been threatened with being disbanded.
I want to emphasize that as a church we must not engage in revisionist history and use alternative facts. We must ensure that we pass down our true history so that we do not make the same mistakes that we made in the past. Psalm 78:4 says, “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” Any good deeds that the Adventist church has done have not been because of itself, but because of God’s grace and mercy. The two main points I want to conclude this essay with are:
- History does repeat itself if you are not intentional about making a change for the better and
- We can only do better with God’s help.
As we know, the history of our church is not perfect. Let us do our own introspection to ensure that our thoughts and motives are pure. Let’s continue to ask God how we can bless others outside of ourselves and our immediate environment. But understand that for the country to be truly great, it takes all of us supporting each other.
- Ellen G. White, Life Sketches, p. 196. ↑
- James M. Campbell & Rebecca J. Fraser (2008), Reconstruction: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. 15. ↑
- History.com Staff, Black Leaders During Reconstruction, Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/black-leaders-during-reconstruction ↑
- George R. Knight, Organizing for Mission and Growth: The Development of Adventist Church Structure, p. 48. ↑
- Ibid, p. 52 ↑
- Benjamin Baker, Crucial Moments, pp. 30-31. ↑
- Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1. p.257. ↑
- Ibid, p. 31. ↑
- The Bible. Good News Translation, American Bible Society, 1992. ↑
- J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. ↑
- History.com Staff, Black Leaders During Reconstruction, Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/black-leaders-during-reconstruction ↑
- The Bible. King James Version, Public Domain, 1987. ↑
- George R. Knight, Organizing for Mission and Growth: The Development of Adventist Church Structure, pp. 152-153 ↑
- Ibid ↑
- The Bible. New International Version, the International Bible Society, 2011. ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Ibid ↑
Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr., is an associate professor at the University of Idaho. He serves on the Board of Directors of the American Association of University Administrators, which honored him with the “2015 Emergent Leader of the Year” award. He is managing editor of the Journal of HBCU Research + Culture, and is founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education.