The Birth of a Denomination, Part 2: Black Adventists in the Early Years
by Sydney Freeman, Jr., Ph.D., CFD, COI
Authors Note: This article, the second of three parts, is an excerpt from sermons delivered at Moscow Seventh-day Adventist church in Moscow, Idaho in February 2016, and Bethany Seventh-day Adventist church in Montgomery, Alabama in February 2015. Read part 1 here.
The early contributions of people of African descent to Christianity includes Bible personalities like Uriah, Queen of Sheba, and Simon of Cyrene. History also shows us amazing African civilizations and kingdoms such as Ethiopia, Nubia, Kemet, and Aksum, and the great contributions of African people to mathematics, science, art, language and culture. Although some of these civilizations and contributors may not describe God in the same way that we do, as Elder Charles Bradford former president of the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church found out in research that he turned into a book titled, Sabbath Roots, there were Africans that had been celebrating biblical concepts such as the Seventh-day Sabbath and proper dietary laws for hundreds of years before there was an Adventist church.
The long presence of the Falasha, a group of Sabbath Keeping Ethiopians…kept the Sabbath quite strictly, the Falasha also observe Hebrew dietary laws and keep certain fest days. What is striking is these Ethiopians, Black Jews, hold to a form of Judaism that was dominant in King Solomon’s day (p. 89)
Ethiopia is documented to be one of the first Christian nations. According to Adrian Hastings, noted biblical scholar and theologian, the Old Testament of the Bible was translated from the Hebrew to an Ethiopic text and New Testament was translated from the Greek before the end of the 5th century as referenced by Elder Bradford in Sabbath Roots. As we can see God providence has been with those of African descent from the beginning of time. Even during the period in which historians call the dark ages.
The Early Denominational Years
The next part of the movie would chronicle the many experiences and contributions that Black people have contributed to our church, the Seventh-day Adventist church. From William Foy, to whom God first gave two visions regarding Christ’s second coming and righteousness by faith. And this came before Ellen White was given the same visions to proclaim, as part of the genesis of our church.
This would be an important segment of the picture. Because when I was growing up in Adventist church schools I was taught that William Foy denied the call to spread the message that “tribulation, judgement, and heaven was awaiting those who were faithful to God.” Dr. Delbert Baker former Vice President of the General Conference, Ellen White scholar and author of the book The Unknown Prophet found after 25 years of rigorous research that that was not the case. Many would not have accepted his message in the early 1800’s because he was a Black man.
However, his message was a precursor to the work of Ellen G. White, who was but a teenager at the time. According to chapter 16 entitled “Passing of the Baton” in Baker’s book, in December of 1844, in a meeting in which Ellen White shared one of the first visions that God gave to her, William Foy was in attendance and confirmed that God had revealed the same messages to him—which was actually one of the first confirmations of Ellen’s visions.
Ellen White, one of the great founders of our denomination, was very outspoken regarding race relations in our church. George Knight, considered the preeminent historian and founder of the Adventist Studies program at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews, wrote an authoritative book on our church history entitled Organizing for Mission and Growth: The Development of the Adventist Church Structure. On page 145 he writes,
Beginning in the 1890’s and continuing into the twentieth century, a resurgence of White racism produced an increasing amount of racial segregation. The move toward segregation in the larger culture affected Adventism in the sense that the denomination began to develop separate Black congregations in areas where previously churches had been to some extent racially integrated.
In Testimonies to the Church Volume 9, Ellen White writes, “Where demanded by custom or where greater efficiency is to be gained, let the White believers and the colored (African American) believers assemble in separate places of worship (p. 206).” In 1908 the year that this quote was published, J. K. Humphrey, a charismatic Black Adventist preacher from Harlem’s first Adventist congregation suggested at the General Conference Session that African-Americans needed their own representation in Adventist leadership. By 1909 a talented Black Adventist pastor and lawyer by the name of William Green agreed to serve as the director of the newly established North American Negro Department.
Knight also states in his book, “In the 1930’s and 40’s Black Adventist in Washington, D.C., including those who worked at the General Conference could not eat at the denominational cafeteria, send their children to the nearby Washington Missionary College, or become a patient at the Washington Sanitarium (p.148).” All the while African Americans were among the most faithful tithe payers and saw some of the most growth in baptism in that period.
Some often ask why in the Eastern and Southern parts of the United States there are two sets of conferences in the same states. Some that are led by Black leadership and others are led generally by white leadership. This began with a tragic event in 1943, when a light-skinned Black Adventist woman by the name of Lucy Byard was denied treatment at Washington Adventist Sanitarium once the doctors learned that she was Black. She died while being rushed to a hospital for African Americans. The African American leadership of the church organized, demanding that they have an opportunity to place themselves in the position to be treated as equals and respected as human beings. And between 1944 and 1946, five conferences were established and led by Black leadership.
Although some share the belief that the Adventist Church and society have changed since then, and that therefore there is not a need for Black led conferences, Benjamin Baker, Adventist historian and managing editor of the church funded Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists wrote in his book, Crucial Moments, “Under the auspices of regional or Black conference leadership, Black membership in the United States has mushroomed to approximately 300,000, with $150 million tithe base. With the exception of the North American Division, the annual tithe from regional conferences exceeds the total tithe of any other division in the world field (p. 139).” So even with all the many struggles within our church God has blessed African Americans to be a blessing to the church. And the contributions of African Americans are an indispensable of part our church history.
Bradford, C.E. 1999. Sabbath Roots: The African Connection. Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association.
Knight, G.R. 1999. A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventism. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association.
White, Ellen G. 1948. Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9. Mountain View, Ca.: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
Baker, B. J. 2005. Crucial Moments. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association
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.