Adventist History, Herstory, and Ourstory: Towards a Peoples’ History of the Origin of Black Adventism
by Maury Jackson and Sydney Freeman | 21 October 2018 |
Because one of the authors socializes with people more concerned with Black Lives Matter than the Annual Council of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, it surprised him to hear that the delegates at the meetings dressed up in nineteenth century costume, parading around as early Millerite Adventist pioneers. He could not help but wonder what costume the African delegates would need to wear to be true to form. The sound and image of those clanging of shackles would really be newsworthy! Most Christians would rather see the costumes of Cardinals at an ecclesiastical enclave than getups pretending to outfit models of colonial times and values. America was a victim of colonial powers, after which it has become a colonizer; that is, it has learned to appropriate other people’s stories and dominate narratives about an imagined common origin. We must not overlook the real possibility that the “original sin” in the founding of America, i.e., racial subjugation and imperial expansion, may also have infected one of the first indigenous White majority denominations that emerged on its soil. While most of the major European denominations transplanted from across the Atlantic, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is indigenous to this land.
We, the authors, feel the need to begin by offering a few clarifying comments. There is no such biological entity known as a race of people. We have no markers that determine one race from another: not genotype, not phenotype, and not complexion. History does, however, document the transatlantic slave trade and the people of African descent who, as a result, became the focal point of bondage in America. The dark complexion of a minority African people in a majority European colony signaled that there was no hiding place over here. Like it or not, Negro people, Colored people, Black people or African Americans comprised the social group who suffered oppression on the basis of their socially constructed racial identity. If we accept the identity of African Americans: not to describe a biological racial group, but as a cultural description, of a people with a precious heritage, then we hit upon a starting point. How did we arrive at this point in Adventist history, where the image of colonial costumes insensitively whites out the complexed and contingent origins of the Advent movement?
The initial point for tracing those racially insensitive symbols, ideas, and practices, which are latent in the privileged culture of White Adventism, begins in the dismissal of much earlier African captives’ Advent hope. Millerite Adventism has a citation failure. Its primary religio-cultural source material was slave religion that morphed into Black Christianity. The Advent movement in the western hemisphere began much earlier than William Miller.
We argue that the Great Advent Movement, in fact, did not begin with the Millerites, but rather its beginnings in this nation go further back, and is discovered in communities of enslaved African who awaited the return of the promised deliverer. In claiming this, we also seek to challenge African American Adventist theologians and all Adventist historians to rethink the ways in which we teach and research our history. We contend that future scholarship by these theologians should reconceptualize the origins of our history and move towards the development of a theology that is consistent with both our community’s Blackness and true Adventist heritage.
Adventist theologians of African descent bear the greatest guilt in failing to tell the real story of the Great Advent Movement. So, we want to begin by turning the surgical knife toward our own generation of Black Adventist theologians. James Cone writes about Malcolm X and his critique using the metaphor of the surgical knife:
Although Malcolm identified whites as the ones most responsible for the suffering of blacks, he did not absolve the victims from responsibility. He often appeared more angry with blacks for accepting exploitation than he was with whites who he claimed were responsible for it. His reference to the truth as “sharp,” “like a two-edged sword,” was applied primarily to blacks. “It cuts into you,” he told them. “It causes you great pain, but if you can take the truth, it will cure you and save you from what otherwise would be certain death.”
We need to diagnose pathologies: socio-pathologies and ideological pathologies. Our normative source is found in our sacred story as African Americans and as Adventists. But what is that story? Who has told it to us? Have they told all of the story or only a part of it?
The religion of Christianity has two parents: Hellenism and Judaism. In the same way, recent black theologians have come to realize that black Christianity also has two parents: African traditional religions and biblical apostolic faith. The late James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology, notes that “Our denominational histories could hardly stand the test of critical scholarship, for they were written from the perspective of a particular ecclesiastical history and for the purpose of glorifying its leaders.” Black Adventist ecclesiastical leaders and theologians have for too long embraced strategies of accommodation, assimilation or separation.
This critique is reminiscent of Carter G. Woodson’s charge that “Negros are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African.” This also resonates with Frantz Fanon who wrote of the French Caribbean people that, “The Black schoolboy in the Antilles, who in his lessons is forever talking about ‘our ancestors, the Gauls,’ identifies himself with the explorer…” This critique is the surgical knife. Do we have the courage to make the incision? Can Black Adventists theologians engage in transparent self-critical reflection? Are we able to re-imagine our theological roots? Here is a fact: first and foremost, we come from a people whose faith was nurtured in the womb of the “invisible institution” better known as slave religion. Have Black Adventists embraced black religion? We don’t mean have we embraced Black liturgy. If we intend to understand a Black Adventist theological identity, it takes more than reciting the joys of our expressive musical worship tradition.
To re-imagine our theological heritage requires our ideological liberation. The metaphor of liberation can be socio-political, or it can be cultural. We might add: liberation can also be theological. The courage to fully embrace the Black American theological heritage signals the difference between “what it [means] to be a Black Christian as opposed to what it [means] to be a white Christian in blackface.” We are grateful that white Adventist Christians tell the story of the Advent movement, but we also have a story to tell too; that is, one that goes further back than the Millerite movement. African American Adventists would abort the important development of a black cultural identity by allowing themselves to be seduced into some mythical universal Adventist theological heritage. Again, Frantz Fanon offers an apt warning:
There is a drama there, and the black intellectuals are running the risk of being trapped by it. What? I have barely opened eyes that had been blindfolded, and someone already wants to drown me in the universal? What about the others? Those who “have no voice,” those who “have no spokesman.”…I need to lose myself in my negritude, to see the fires, the segregations, the repressions, the rapes, the discriminations, the boycotts. We need to put our fingers on every sore that mottles the black uniform.
A people cannot shepherd an Adventist Christian communion, if they are not free to affirm their own cultural encounter with the Christ of the Advent. As we tell our story let’s remain respectful of each other’s ways of telling the story of our shared Adventist hope. This is true even when their way of telling it sounds so different than the way we imagine it to be. And yes, respect also means challenging the telling of the story, but doing so in the unmistakable spirit of Christ’s love.
So, what should we revisit in the story? How do we resource the Black religious tradition to help tell the story of Adventism? We have had a good deal of discussion about our political battles for ecclesial parity. The late Dr. Lorenzo H. Grant has well documented the patterns of institutional racism. He also notes the decision of Black Adventists to opt for organizational accommodationism. The question for the new generation of Black Adventist theologians is “how much theological accommodationism remains because of our failure to challenge the story of our theological roots?” Nearly a decade after Grant wrote his thesis, Calvin Rock wrote,
Since the theological contours of Adventism have been provided by white and not black theologians, it is not surprising that Adventism’s political perspective has little relevance for the minorities within its membership…Black Seventh-day Adventists have basically two options; they can accept a foreign word (God’s word to white theologians) as His word to them, or they can find (hear) the Word as it relates to them specifically. Such a Word is what black theology is all about. Black Seventh-day Adventists must come to understand that there is no such thing as “plain theology” or a theology which comes to one unconditioned by the hearer’s social and political perspective.
Included in these attempts to rethink and recast our theological roots in Adventism is Dr. Delbert Baker. His study of William Ellis Foy joins the bolder tradition of those voices who have attempted to revisit our theological roots. We need more voices today. What assumption must we respectfully challenge as we rethink the theological roots of the Adventist story?
We should challenge the Eurocentric basis of Uriah Smith’s eschatological misreading of the land in John’s Apocalypse. Smith advances an argument about the second beast of Revelation 13 that completely ignores the genocide that took place in this land with respect to the native populations. He says of the land beast:
…it symbolizes the United States. Another consideration pointing to the locality of this power is drawn from the fact that John saw it arising from the earth. If the sea, from which the leopard beast arose (Rev. 13:1), denotes peoples, nations, and multitudes (Rev. 17:15), the earth would suggest, by contrast, a new and previously unoccupied territory.
We are sure that the scores of millions of natives in the western hemisphere who died through war, disease, and enslavement were unaware that this territory, new to the European explorers, was unoccupied. We should challenge, respectfully and in Christian love, the Eurocentric basis of early Adventist eschatology (an eschatology that was born during the height of the transatlantic slave trade).
We should also challenge current Adventist historians’ misdirected focus on the social milieu of restorationism/primitivism as the theological context of Adventist identity To begin at this starting point is to direct scholars to look for the future developments in the movement that would eventually involve and include Black converts. Black Adventist theologians and historians should problematize the notion that Black Adventism began when Edson White started a traveling school for Blacks on the Mississippi River. The narrative subtly implies a White savior mission complex instead of acknowledging the agency of Black religious communities long before the Millerite movement emerged.
There is a real failure of religious historians, in America, to recognize Richard Allen as the person who carries the true spirit of the reformers. The fog of distortion lifted for Cone when he wrote, “I began to think that what Richard Allen, the founder of the AME Church, did during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was as revolutionary as what Martin Luther did in the sixteenth century.” Maybe the focus of the social justice contributions offered from the “silent institution” of slave religion provides a better starting place for Black Adventist theologians to work from! Social justice was the real hope of the first Adventist community in the western hemisphere.
Again, we should respectfully challenge the notion that William Miller and his movement reclaimed the lost doctrine of Christ’s return? We know from the hymns of Isaac Watts and the writings of Bishop Ussher that the pre-millennial expectation of Jesus’ return predates William Miller by centuries. What is less known is that the hope of a pre-millennial return of Christ was sustained in the hearts of the enslaved community of Christ’s oppressed disciples. Richard Allen’s pre-1801 hymn entitled Spiritual Song is a positive indication that Black Christianity continued to treasure the doctrine of the return of Jesus, even as it smoldered in the haze of antebellum America. Furthermore, it was this doctrine that served as a catalyst for their exuberant and expressive worship. Members from the African American religious community contributed to the ethos of the Second Great Awakening, even before there ever was a Millerite movement. Bishop Richard Allen’s words to his hymn: Spiritual Song indicates a theology of the return of Jesus. He composes the first stanza:
Good morning brother Pilgrim, what marching to Zion…
Feel you a desire that burns like a fire,
And longs for the hour that Christ shall appear.
The tenth stanza continues this eschatological theme:
Our time is a-flying, our moments a-dying,
We are led to improve them and quickly appear,
For the bless’d hour when Jesus in power,
In glory shall come is now drawing near,
The theology in the Spirituals served as the real impetus for the reemergence of the doctrine of the return of Christ. This hope remained in Black Christians because of these captives’ unquenchable thirst for divine justice. It is very possible that the dark complexion of a minority African people (in this majority European colony) signaled that there was no hiding place over here. Nevertheless, they sang about an All-Seeing God, who watches the deeds of humanity and they knew they were not the only ones subject to the gaze of another. So, they sang:
Dere’s no hidin’ place down dere,
Dere’s no hidin’ place down dere,
Oh I went to de rock to hide my face,
De rock cried out, “No hidin’ place,”…
Oh de rock cried, “I’m burnin’ too,”…
I want to go to hebbin as well as you,”
Dere’s no hidin’ place down dere,
- My colleague sent me a screen shot of a tweet attributed to the account of Dr. Jesse Wilson who wrote “It’s kinda hard for me to get serious about the Unity document when the GC admins look like extras from Django. It’s PROBABLY not a good idea to dress in post-Civil war costumes one day and criticize social justice the next…” posted October 13. ↑
- Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 258-59. ↑
- Ian F. Haney Lopez, “The Social Construction of Race,” in Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, ed. Richard Delgado (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 194. ↑
- Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 128-129. ↑
- James Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or A Nightmare (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1992), 98. ↑
- Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1907), 107. ↑
- James Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going? (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984), 62. See also Henry H. Mitchell, Black Church Beginnings: The Long-Hidden Realities of the First Years (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), chapters 1 &2. ↑
- James Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going? (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984), 60. ↑
- Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), chapter 3. ↑
- Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (Chicago, IL: African American Images, 2000), 1. ↑
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks trans. Charles Lam Markmann, (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), 147. ↑
- James Cone, For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going? (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984), 62. See also, James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986), 112. ↑
- Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., “Protestant Ecclesiology” quoted in Dwight N. Hopkins and Edward P. Antonio, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology (Cambridge, UK: The Cambridge University Press, 2012), 188. “…it is not surprising to see that he [the white man] identifies himself with the Negro: white ‘hot-jazz’ orchestras, white blues and spiritual singers, white authors writing novels in which the Negro proclaims his grievances, whites in blackface.” Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks trans. Charles Lam Markmann, (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), 177. ↑
- Martin Weber, Who’s Got the Truth: Making Sense out of Five Different Adventist Gospels (Columbia, Maryland: Calvary Connections, 1995). Lest one be mistaken by the myth that there is only one Adventist theology, Weber details the theological varieties of five different Adventists theologians—represented are: Morris Venden, George Knight, Jack Sequeira, Ralph Larson, and Graham Maxwell. ↑
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks trans. Charles Lam Markmann, (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), 186-187. ↑
- Lorenzo H. Grant, “The Origin and Development of Black Conferences in the Seventh-day Adventist Church” (M.A. Thesis, Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1976). ↑
- Calvin B. Rock, “Institutional Loyalty Versus Racial Freedom: The Dilemma of Black Seventh-day Adventist Leadership” (Ph.D., diss., Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, 1984). ↑
- Delbert W. Baker, The Unknown Prophet: Before Ellen White God Used William Ellis Foy (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing, 1987). ↑
- Uriah Smith, Daniel and the Revelation: The Response of History to the Voice of Prophecy—A Verse by Verse Study of these Important Books of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association, 1897), 573. ↑
- George R. Knight, A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-day Adventist Beliefs (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000), 30-37. ↑
- James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986), 27. ↑
- ibid. ↑
- Kenneth L. Waters, Sr., “Liturgy, Spirituality, and Polemic in the Hymnody of Richard Allen” The North Star: A Journal of African American Religious History Volume 2, Number 2 (Spring, 1999) ↑
- James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 92-96. ↑
- Ibid., 94. ↑
Dr. Maury Jackson serves both as Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion at La Sierra University in Riverside, CA. He researches, writes, and teaches in the area of practical theology. He studies the practical arts of preaching, worship leadership, religious education and the church’s pastoral vocation to the larger community, i.e., reconciliation of communities that struggle with racism, sexism, classism…etc.
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.