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.
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
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.”