Lewis C. Sheafe (1859-1938)

Born in 1859, Lewis C. Sheafe was Adventism’s leading black minister during the formative years of the denomination’s work among African Americans around the turn of the twentieth century. After graduating from Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., in 1888, Sheafe gained wide recognition for eloquence as a Baptist preacher and civil rights orator in Minnesota and Ohio.

Sheafe accepted the “present truth” of Adventism after receiving health care at Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1896. His first six years as an Adventist preacher were devoted to itinerant ministry, mainly in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina, during which he gained a reputation not only as a powerful preacher but also as a gifted vocal soloist. The General Conference granted him credentials as “the colored delegate” at the 1899 session. At the 1901 session in Battle Creek he was both given prominent preaching assignments, and called upon to render several vocal solos. In 1902 he became the first black minister to serve on the board of the Oakwood school in Huntsville, Alabama.

Sheafe’s greatest contribution to the Adventist cause came in Washington, D.C., where his successful evangelistic campaigns, beginning in 1902, led to the addition of approximately 200 members, both black and white, and to formation of the denomination’s first predominantly black urban congregation, the People’s Church in December 1903. Conflicts over racial justice, especially involving the denomination’s educational and medical work, led to the withdrawal of the People’s Church from the denominational connection in 1907, though the congregation remained Seventh-day Adventist in belief and practice. Tuberculosis proved fatal both to Sheafe’s daughter, Clara, in December 1907, and his wife, Annie Howard Sheafe, in February 1908.

In 1911, Sheafe married an Adventist school teacher from Florida, Lucy Whetzel, and after years of off-and-on discussions, reconciled with the denomination in 1913. He transferred to Los Angeles, where his evangelistic efforts led to establishment of the Berean Church and brought to culmination work that led to another new congregation in Watts. However, conflict along racial lines once again resulted in his separation from denominational work. The following year, Sheafe briefly joined with another successful black Adventist evangelist, John W. Manns in Savannah, Georgia, in forming a new denomination, the Free Seventh Day Adventists. He soon parted ways with Manns, and returned to the People’s Church in Washington, D.C., which had once again become an independent Adventist congregation. In 1926, Sheafe and the People’s Church affiliated with the Seventh Day Baptist denomination.

Sheafe took up chiropractic medicine in 1922, but also remained active in ministry, despite declining health, until just before his death in 1938. In a long, varied and turbulent career animated by the twin goals of radical faithfulness to biblical truth and racial uplift, Sheafe’s most enduring legacy stemmed from his work in Washington during the first decade of the twentieth century, with the description of a newspaper editor in 1902 perhaps his most fitting epitaph,”noted apostle of Seventh Day (sic) Adventism.”

-Douglas Morgan