By Benjamin Baker  |  19 November 2018  |

I was pleased to see the article “Adventist History, Herstory, and Ourstory: Towards a People’s History of the Origin of Black Adventism” by my friends and brothers Sydney Freeman and Maury Jackson. I’d like to respond here to their call for a reassessment and reconceptualization of black people’s origin in Adventism by sharing an update on the ongoing project of discovering and documenting these origins. Permit me to move from a very wide view of Adventism, to a narrower one, sharing items in point fashion, divided into three sections: African Adventism, Black Millerites, and Black Pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism.

African Adventism

  • Jesus, the Lord and Savior of all Adventists, was spared from the murderous machinations of a mad monarch as an infant by hiding in Africa. This safe place in Egypt for the Gospel Incarnate was a divine indicator of the essential role Africa would occupy in hosting the gospel for the next two thousand plus years.[1]
  • As a child Jesus read of an African woman in the Neviʾim and Ketuvim, today’s I Kings and II Chronicles, in the scrolls. Sheba, the queen of an empire encompassing parts of today’s East-Central Africa, travelled more than one-thousand miles to learn from Solomon of the wisdom that we now read in Proverbs. Jesus stored Sheba’s epic quest in His mind to use later in His ministry to show how people should relate to Him, God’s only begotten Son. He would proclaim, “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.”[2] This African woman was the ultimate seeker of truth, and she will not only be among the redeemed, but will have a prominent role in the last judgment, her faith a standard which God uses to evaluate humanity.
  • Simon, a man hailing from Cyrene (today’s eastern Libya), was by Jesus’ side during His most grueling hour, as He was in the very act of saving doomed humanity.[3] Of Simon and his sons Alexander and Rufus, Ellen White writes: “Simon had heard of Jesus. His sons were believers in the Saviour, but he himself was not a disciple. The bearing of the cross to Calvary was a blessing to Simon, and he was ever after grateful for this providence. It led him to take upon himself the cross of Christ from choice, and ever cheerfully stand beneath its burden.”[4] An African participated in real time in the saving of humanity, and his sons, believers already, saw the realization of their faith from just yards away.[5]
  • Africa prominently features in Acts, Luke’s account of the rise and expansion of the early church. After Christ had risen and ascended, on that first Pentecost—one of the most important days in Christian history—among those present at the outpouring of the Holy Ghost were visitors from Egypt and Libya.[6]
  • An angel directed Philip to a sacred rendezvous with a treasurer to Candace, queen of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian not only has a scroll of Isaiah, but is reading aloud a prophecy of the Messiah. The Ethiopian man had visited the temple in Jerusalem to discover the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy, but was confused and unconvinced by the erroneous interpretations of the priests and scribes. It didn’t take much of Philip explaining for the Ethiopian to recognize the truth and exclaim, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” He was baptized, Philip disappeared, and the Ethiopian treasurer went back to his country and shared the good news from his influential platform.[7] “Through his conversion the gospel was carried to Ethiopia, and many there accepted Christ, and came out from the darkness of heathenism into the clear light of Christianity.”[8]
  • In the post-Acts age, Africa assumed an outsized role in the Christian church for numerous centuries. Many of the giants of early Christianity, the “Church Fathers,” hailed from North Africa, which was a center for theology, philosophy, education and culture. Several prominent historians have dubbed North Africa “the Bible belt of early Christianity.”
  • Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril were all natives of Alexandria, Egypt. Cyprian and Tertullian were from Carthage, today’s Tunisia. Augustine (354-430 AD), arguably the greatest figure in Christian history and widely held to be the among the most influential minds in the development of western philosophy, was born in Numidia (modern day Algeria) and lived there most of his life. His prodigious writings, particularly Confessions and City of God, have shaped Christianity for more than a millennium and a half.[9] Just as notable, Martin Luther, the inaugurator of the Protestant Reformation, cited Augustine as a primary inspiration behind the motto sola scriptura, which emphasizes the centrality of the Bible. This is, of course, the professed basis of Seventh-day Adventist life, mission, and doctrine.
  • In its first 500 years, many of Christianity’s influential movements sprung from African soil, including Egyptian Gnosticism, the catechetical school of Alexandria, monasticism, and Donatism. There were three popes from the Roman African Province, Victor (189-199), Militiades (311-314) and Gelasius I (492-496). Africa also produced numerous heroic figures that were martyred for their faith during this period, notably the Madaura and Scilli people, and Perpetua and Felicitas. In the modern age Africa has primarily been considered a destination of missionaries; but during this period Africa was a leader in training and sending out missionaries.[10]
  • Ethiopia in 331 made the Orthodox (Christian) Church its national religion.[11] During that same period Christianity became the ascendant religion of the Roman Empire during Constantine’s reign and in Rome reverence of the seventh-day Sabbath was phased out in place of Sunday. Yet the Christian church in Ethiopia continued to observe Saturday in line with the Scriptures. The subsequent epochs that saw the founding, rise, and spread of Islam, and the descent of Europe into the Dark Ages, effectively isolated Ethiopia from European Christianity. The Great Controversy speaks at length on the faithfulness of these Ethiopian Christians.[12]
  • Yes, while Europe as a whole was in darkness, an entire African empire was steadfast to God’s holy day. Contact with Rome did not lead to the Ethiopians receiving Christianity or greater light, but to a corruption of their Christian purity. Once the Roman influence was overthrown, they reverted to keeping the fourth commandment. This certainly turns on its head the notion of Africa as a “Dark Continent.”[13] Black Seventh-day Adventists knew of this Abyssinian-Sabbath connection and were rooting for Ethiopia during the Second Italian-Ethiopian War.[14]
  • On the westside of sub-Saharan Africa another empire safeguarded and perpetuated the knowledge and observance of the fourth commandment which the world had largely forgotten and forsaken. The Akan of Ghana, prior to European contact, held to a Supreme Creator God (Onyamee or Onyankopon) who was, and still is, referred to as Onyamee Kwaame, “God of Saturday” or “Saturday God.” Remarkably, without the guidance of the Bible, the Akan passed down origin myths that closely align with the Genesis account of creation and the fall. The Akan have for many hundreds of years acknowledged Onyamee Kwaame, and worshiped on and reverenced His seventh-day Saturday, which is said to belong to Him. Due to the spread of the Akan in the vital southern region of Ghana, the Saturday God is a widespread fixture in the national culture.[15]
  • Francis I.U. Dolphijn, the first Ghanaian (an Akan) to embrace the Seventh-day Adventist faith, stated the following in a letter published in the Adventist Review of March 1, 1890:
  • I am in faithful hopes that the work of S.D. Adventists will make rapid advancement on the Gold Coast [Ghana], especially to those under the thickness of heathenism, as the Bible (Saturday) Sabbath is readily understood throughout the Fantis, and the whole Gold Coast. Even the heathen take or assume the question upon themselves thus: “How was it that God is worshiped on Sunday and not on Saturday? for God is not called by Sunday (male) name, but that of Saturday, and it is very inconsistent or absurd to call a man by a different name when sitting or walking along, and he will not answer you while knowing that he is not called by that name.” And this is generally known, that no West African illiterate person or idolater can in any place or at any time, offer a libation on any respect with an attribute without mention of Saturday, the last day of the week, so prominently blessed by God, the Creator of all things in existence.[16] Additional evidence attests that reverence for the seventh-day Sabbath was a spiritual link between the Akans and Seventh-day Adventists and was a factor in the success of Adventism in southern Ghana.[17]
  • Half a continent away are still more evidences of the preservation of God’s truth in Africa. The Lemba, a Bantu ethnic group native to Southern Africa (Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique), hold that they are descendants of the biblical Jews, and practice various ancient Hebrew rites, most notably priestly functions, circumcision, clean/unclean food distinctions, and the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. Recent DNA testing has borne out that the Lemba are indeed descendants of the priestly caste of Aaron, elder brother of Moses. Many of the Lemba practice Christianity along with Judaism.[18]

Black Millerites

  • Although kept practically voiceless and largely illiterate, there is abundant evidence that enslaved blacks looked for the soon advent of Jesus. Here is Frederick Douglass’ reaction to the Leonid Meteor Shower of 1833, later touted by Seventh-day Adventists as a key augur of the parousia. At the time, Douglass was a 15-year-old slave in Talbot County, Maryland.

I witnessed this gorgeous spectacle, and was awestruck. The air seemed filled with bright descending messengers from the sky. It was about daybreak when I saw this sublime scene. I was not without the suggestion, at that moment that it might be the harbinger of the coming of the Son of Man; and in my then state of mind I was prepared to hail Him as my Friend and Deliverer. I had read that the ‘stars shall fall from heaven,’ and they were now falling. I was suffering very much in my mind. … I was looking away to heaven for the rest denied me on earth.[19]

Douglass’ daughter, Rosetta Douglass-Sprague, would become a Seventh-day Adventist in Washington, D.C. near the close of the century.

  • Intriguingly, eschatological language and imagery was most prominent in slave rebellions, linking earthly freedom with the heavenly variety. Most famously, Nat Turner suffused his righteous rebel rhetoric with apocalyptic language from the Bible, primary evidence that the parousia and its antecedents were so real to slaves as to make their imminent fulfillment credible. From the Confessions of Nat Turner:

And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me—For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew—and as the leaves on the trees bore the impression of the figures I had seen in the heavens, it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.[20]

  • Joseph Bates actually preached the Millerite message to enslaved blacks on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1843. His memoir contains perhaps the only account we have of black captives receiving the Millerite message, and, aside from the outdated imitation of black speech, is worth sharing in part:

The people came out to hear, and listened attentively, particularly the slaves, who had to stand at the back of the white congregation and wait until they had all passed out.

This gave us a good opportunity to speak with them. So we asked them if they heard what was said.

“Yes, massa, ebery word.”
“Do you believe?”
“Yes, massa, believe it all.”
“Don’t you want some tracts?”
“Yes, massa.”
“Can you read?”
“No, massa; but young missus or massa’s son will read for us.”

In this way distributed a good number of tracts, with which we had furnished ourselves from Elder Himes in Philadelphia. They seemed delighted with the advent hymns. They heard Brother Gurney sing the hymn, “I’m a pilgrim and I’m a stranger.” One of the colored men came to our lodgings to beg one of the printed copies. Brother Gurney had but one. Said he, “I’ll give you a quarter of a dollar for it.” Probably that was all the money the poor fellow had. He lingered as though he could not be denied. Brother Gurney then copied it for him, which pleased him very much.

When we closed the meeting, the white people remained seated and silent. The poor slaves stood behind, gazing and waiting for their superiors to move first. There sat the lawyer who had so faithfully warned the old women not to be scared about the preaching of the end of the world. He, and one or two others, had been taking notes of our subject. We sang an advent hymn, and exhorted them to get ready for the coming of the Lord, and dismissed them again.

Still they remained silent and immovable. Brother Gurney exhorted them faithfully, but they appeared as if they had not the least desire to leave the place. We felt fully satisfied that God was operating by His Holy Spirit. We then sang another hymn, and dismissed them, and they began slowly and silently to retire.

We waited to have some conversation with the colored people. They said they understood, and seemed much affected.[21]

  • Despite the reality that the vast majority of African Americans were enslaved during the entire Millerite Movement (1831-1844), and there was only a paucity of blacks in New England where the movement was the largest, there was a sizable contingent of black Millerites.

William Miller wrote to Joshua Himes in 1840:

I had set my heart on this, to see and to hear Brothers Jones, Litch, Ward, Cole, Himes, Plumer, Millard, Burnham, French, Parker, Medbury, Ayres, Smith, and others. Yes, and then to see those private brethren, too; Br. Shaw,–ah, I can see him smile; Br. Nichols–I feel his benevolent shake of the hand; and Br. Wood, too–but I cannot name them all. Those colored brethren, too, at Belknap St. with Christian hearts; Heaven, I hope, has stamped them as its favorites. Oh! I had vainly hoped to see you all, to breathe and feel that sacred flame of love, of heavenly fire; to hear and speak of that dear blessed Savior’s near approach.[22]

Joshua Himes reported great success among blacks in Baltimore, among the converts a distinguished black clergyman:

Many of the colored people have received the doctrine. One of their most efficient ministers has embraced the doctrine in full, and will devote himself wholly to the proclamation of it. The people of color will therefore have a congregation, where the Advent doctrine will be fully proclaimed.[23]

Josiah Litch, an important Millerite leader, describes the reception of an African American audience to Advent teachings in Signs of the Times, underscoring its appeal to them:

The glad tidings of the coming of the Lord, is received with the greatest joy by the poor colored people, as being the only hope they have of deliverance. Whenever the subject of the Lord’s coming is named to them their eyes sparkle with joy; it is, you may be assured, a far more welcome sound to them, than to their rich lords. O what an hour of interest to them, when the trump of Jubilee shall sound, and the servant be free from his master. All efforts at emancipation before that hour are perfectly vain and futile. As long as human nature is what it is, and the love of power which is now inherent in the human breast, exists, slavery will exist. But, “The year of Jubilee is come.” Thanks be to God. “Be patient, brethren, for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh,” is the only comfort I can give the slave.[24]

  • Black Millerite ministers included William Watkins, John W. Lewis, Charles W. Bowles, and William Foy.
  • William Ellis Foy (1818-1893), an African American minister from Maine, was the first Millerite prophet, preceding Ellen Harmon. Foy received four visions on things eschatological and heavenly, three of which can be read here in his own words.[25] Foy lectured to thousands of Millerites on his visions, with Adventism’s first historian John Loughborough writing of him:

These visions bore clear evidence of being genuine manifestations of the Spirit of God. He was invited from place to place to speak in the pulpits, not be Episcopalians only, but by the Baptists and other denominations. When he spoke, he always wore the clergyman’s robe, such as the ministers of that church wear in their services.

Mr. Foy’s visions related to the near advent of Christ, the travels of the people of God to the heavenly city, the new earth, and the glories of the redeemed state. Having a good command of language, with fine descriptive powers, he created a sensation wherever he went. By invitation he went from city to city to tell of the wonderful things he had seen; and in order to accommodate the cast crowds who assembled to hear him, large halls were secured, where he related to thousands what had been shown him of the heavenly world, the loveliness of the New Jerusalem, and of the angelic hosts. When dwelling on the tender, compassionate love of Christ for poor sinners, he exhorted the unconverted to seek God, and scores responded to his entreaties.

His work continued until the year 1844, near the close of the twenty-three hundred days….[26]

Loughborough, in fact, saw Foy as the sole prophetic harbinger of Christ’s epic movement from the holy to the most holy place of the heavenly sanctuary. The teenaged Ellen Harmon attended Foy’s lectures with her family, and states that “it was remarkable testimonies that he bore.”[27]

  • Sojourner Truth frequented Millerite gatherings, and, according to her biographer Nell Irvin Painter, experienced among the Millerites a rebirth into the person that would became a symbol:

I suspect that Truth was closer to the Millerites in June 1843 than she indicated when she dictated her Narrative in the late 1840s. Millerites having acquired a reputation for folly in the wake of the Great Disappointment of 1844, by 1849 she may have marked her distance from the Millerites. But others, including many who identified themselves as Millerites, saw her as one of them. However strict a Millerite she may have been, it was with the Millerite message that she began the process of making the woman born Isabella into a symbol called “Sojourner Truth.” What she stood for then was the need to come to Jesus before the second advent, before the end of the world.[28]

  • William Still, Underground Railroad architect, mentions hearing William Miller preach in 1844 in his classic The Underground Railroad.
  • Charles Fitch was as outspoken in the cause of abolition as he was of Millerism, the Liberator describing him as a “fiery abolitionist” and some saying that he was “outGarrisoning Garrison.”[29] The famous call by Charles Fitch to come out of Babylon in 1843 was partly based on Protestant’s role in black enslavement:

We need not stop to show how the language applies to Catholicism. The justice of the application is sufficiently obvious. But how is it with Protestant Christendom. How is she occupied? Is she not engaged, for her own aggrandizement, in every species of merchandise ascribed to Babylon, even to slaves and the souls of men? The spirit of oppression reigns, in greater or less portions of the leading sects, unrebuked; and a man may sell or buy his fellow-man, and then sit at the communion table, or even minister at the altar of God, and by the mass of Protestant Christendom go unreproved.[30]

This sermon was the foundation for the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s identification of Roman Catholicism and apostate Protestantism as Babylon.

Black Pioneers of Seventh-day Adventism

  • Eri L. Barr (1814-1864) was a vital pioneer of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Born to a free African American family in Reading, Vermont, Barr was a Millerite believer in the 1840s who later accepted the Sabbatarian Adventist message in 1852. He quickly became a leading voice in the fledgling movement, one of only a dozen ministers, which included James and Ellen White, and Joseph Bates, the latter of whom Barr partnered with on preaching tours. Barr also partnered with Frederick Wheeler and J.N. Andrews, the tandems making believers across the Northeast. The Whites sat under Barr’s preaching on several occasions, and James White stated that Barr was “much beloved” while Ellen White pronounced him a man “to be depended upon.”[31] Barr was a ubiquitous contributor to the Adventist Review, called and chaired several “general Conferences,” and was among early Adventism’s most successful soulwinners.[32]
  • Many blacks heard and accepted the Sabbatarian Adventist message. While on a preaching campaign with Joseph Bates, Eri Barr reported of a meeting in Berlin, Connecticut, attended by “a colored preacher from Upper Canada [probably Toronto]” who was “lecturing in the State of Connecticut, to obtain means to ameliorate the condition of our oppressed countrymen, escaped from the slave power of our boasted land of freedom, who have found a refuge from their cruel bondage in the British dominions. When about to leave he declared himself fully settled in the belief of the Sabbath of the Lord, our God, and said he should teach it. He was supplied with a few such books as he desired, and said he should pass through Rochester, N. Y., on his way to Canada, and call at the office for the Review.”[33]
  • The family of William and Eliza Hardy were also important pioneers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Accepting Sabbatarian Adventism in 1857, the black family from Gaines Township, Michigan, organized and expanded the work in their area. The Hardy home was a destination of sustenance and succor for the first General Conference president John Byington, James and Ellen White, and John Loughborough. During the 1860s and 70s William Hardy’s influence expanded simultaneously in the newly organized Seventh-day Adventist Church and the wider community. In 1872 he was elected the county supervisor for Gaines Township and served as a delegate to Republican county conventions, distinguished as Michigan’s first African American to occupy public office, and the first Adventist elected politician. Eugene, William and Eliza’s son, is purported to be the first African American high school graduate in the state of Michigan. Eugene went on to study law, while one of his other brothers, William, attended Battle Creek College. The Hardys are only now being acknowledged as one of the charter families that helped birth Adventism. [34]
  • Elias and Henrietta Platt of Bath, New York, were early Sabbatarian Adventists, most likely converting to the faith in 1851.[35] Greater research is needed on the Platts, but it is now known that they were active abolitionists, strong financial supporters of Adventist missions, and, like the Hardys, opened their home to James and Ellen White. James wrote of them in the Review:

We formed a happy acquaintance with Bro. and Sr. Platt who kindly entertained us much of the time we were in Bath. We were delighted with the order, and good behaviour of their dear children. We do not design to flatter; but as an orderly family, where children are trained as they should be, is so seldom found, we cannot refrain from mentioning this case. We hope to hear that the entire household is devoted to God, observing all his commandments.[36]

When White gave this update several of Elias and Henrietta’s children were in their late teens, and White was alluding to them when he remarked that he hoped to hear they were observing all the commandments.

  • Thanks to the wealth of information now available on the Internet, the names of at least 25 black Sabbatarian Adventists have been discovered. This seems to be only a small percentage of the actual number.[37]
  • Even before the Seventh-day Adventist Church had officially organized in the spring of 1863, the Adventist message had reached Africa.[38] In 1861 Stephen Haskell met and talked at length with Hannah More, a Christian missionary who had served in Sierra Leone from 1851 to 1857. From the conversation and the literature that Haskell gave her, a seed was planted in More’s mind. When she returned to West Africa—this time Liberia—she would begin practicing the new faith. A letter from Hannah More from Cape Palmas, Liberia, appeared in the Adventist Review stating that she and a colleague were keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. She writes, “Your people may now consider that you have whole hearted Seventh-day Adventists here, waiting with you for that blessed appearing…”[39] In the February 7, 1865 issue, the Review editor noted that More “has been thrown out of her employment as a missionary on account of keeping the Sabbath.”[40] Bill Knott, who did his PhD dissertation on More, claims that More “convert[ed] and plant[ed] Seventh-day Adventist congregations along Africa’s west coast—a decade before John Nevins Andrews and his children sailed for Europe [in 1874].”[41]
  • It should be briefly stated here that the plight of Africans in the United States was essential in the development of Adventist doctrine and eschatology. One example is Uriah Smith, J.N. Loughborough, and J.N. Andrews’ citation of black slavery as proof that the United States “spoke as a dragon” and was the lamblike beast of Revelation 13:11-18.[42] Further, the Civil War, which Ellen White repeatedly insisted was a war over the enslavement of blacks, was a primary catalyst for the organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in May 1863.

The following is just a sample, a beginning, of the black origins of Adventism. Obviously much more work is needed, as this is an ongoing project that is worthy of a lifetime of attention.


Footnotes:

Benjamin Baker, PhD, is the creator of blacksdahistory.org. The picture accompanying the piece was taken circa 1920 at the West Street SDA Church in New Bern, North Carolina, shared courtesy of Oakwood University Archives.

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