March 2012

Black Seventh-day Adventists and Theology


The mother of Seventh-day Adventism was the Millerite Movement.  Millerite leaders were staunch abolitionists; indeed the cause in the United States is said to have begun in Joshua Himes’ Chardon Street Chapel. The doctrine of the second advent was seen as the fountainhead of all reforms, and the appearance of Jesus became the ultimate answer to the vexing problem of the peculiar institution of chattel slavery.

One young Millerite named Ellen Harmon received her first vision shortly after the disappointment of 1844.  While relating it to an audience on one occasion, a black Millerite minister named William Foy exclaimed that he had been shown the same thing.  Indeed, from 1842 to 1844 the teenaged Ellen Harmon and her family attended Foy’s lectures in their hometown of Portland, Maine, Ellen in fact sitting next to Anna Foy, William’s wife.  Years later Ellen White confirmed Foy’s brief prophetic career, saying it “was remarkable testimonies he bore,” and saying that she possesed the pamphlet of his visions.  White’s debts to Foy have been an unacknowledged and unremarked upon aspect of her eventful life.

The African American experience shaped much of Seventh-day Adventist theology, and specifically eschatology.  One strong example of this is early Adventists’ identification of the United States as the lamblike beast with the dragon speech from Revelation 13:11-18. The proofs of the USA as this eschatological villain were arrived at because of the nation’s dragon-like treatment of blacks in slavery.

The Civil War, a conflict White and other Adventist thought leaders insisted was primarily fought over slavery, forced the Sabbatarian Adventists to officially incorporate, and further shaped their relationship to the American republic, stripping away a façade of an overly righteous Christian nation.

In widely published writings before and during the War, White employed the main architect of black theology: the exodus of the children of Israel. She stated unequivocally that just as God freed the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, so God emancipated blacks from American bondage. 

The issues of military service and participation in the War over slavery forced Seventh-day Adventists to develop a framework of disposition to government. Indeed, the SDA church’s position as a minority and somewhat marginalized denomination in a country that promised freedom of speech and religion but often overstepped these bounds—recall Adventists being imprisoned in the 1890s for violating Sunday Blue Laws—somewhat mirrored the positions of African Americans.

Some scholars have posited that the church’s organization and incorporation in the early 1860s and the emancipation of black captives from 1863-1865 were providentially simultaneous. One black SDA historian points out the relevance of SDA doctrine to the newly freedman:

  1. Slavery destroyed self esteem-the Scriptures informed of personal acceptance and meaning in Christ.
  2. Slavery separated families-Christ as Saviour provided a Brother and security, and a large and powerful family.
  3. Slavery exploited ungodly desires—salvation offered reformation and eternal life.
  4. Slavery encouraged abuse—stewardship nurtured health and wholeness.
  5. Slavery discouraged positive values—godly standards taught a positive lifestyle.
  6. Slavery bred hateful revenge—the sanctuary encouraged trust in God’s judgment.
  7. Slavery forced continual labor—the Sabbath facilitated physical and spiritual rest.
  8. Slavery ridiculed faith—the Spirit of Prophecy focused on providence and protection.
  9. Slavery fostered spiritualism—the state of the dead teaching pointed to the resurrection.

10.  Slavery cultivated hopelessness—the Second Coming promised deliverance.

However, the Adventist church was slow in reaching out to African Americans after the war.  But from this neglect Ellen White developed a distinct prophetic theology.  Drawing on the incarnation of Christ, she identified the earthly Christ as being in a similar condition as blacks in the American South.  She averred that genuine Christianity recognized no color or caste, and that it was SDAs duty to meet the physical, educational, mental, and spiritual needs of blacks.

Indeed, White sought to spur the church to engage in black missions, I believe, from the renewed Christological focus of 1888.  Jones and Waggoner, the enduring icons of the Minneapolis Session, were very vocal about black civil rights.  In an intriguing twist, the modern debate over the meaning of 1888 righteousness by faith was resuscitated with Robert Wieland in the 1950s when he applied his version of the message to his missions in East Africa.

As blacks began accepting the SDA message, racial tensions and problems that demanded attention and resolution inevitably began cropping up. 

On a church organizational and governance piece, blacks have had an uphill battle in influencing church theology because leadership positions in broader Adventism were often withheld from them.  And so blacks had to influence broader Adventism in oblique and indirect ways.

In 1909 a Negro Department was formed in the General Conference.  Around this time a sophisticated and brilliant SDA minister named Lewis Sheafe was challenging the church’s de facto segregation policies.  In the 1930s the charismatic and controversial James K. Humphrey left the denomination because of its racial limitations and opportunities, and conflicts with white leaders.

In the mid 1940s regional, or black conferences were officially organized, church governmental policies buttressed, I believed, by theology.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a movement among black Adventists to establish black unions.  In the 1990s black Adventists on the West Coast pushed for regional conference there.

Black Seventh-day Adventists are known for producing powerful preachers—one thinks of Cleveland, Brooks, Bradford, Pearson, Black—but what about theologians?  Indeed, can preaching be separated from theology?

Black Adventists, to be sure, have contributed to the larger theology of the SDA church and Christendom, and here these will be sketchily summarized.

William H. Green, the inaugural secretary of the aforementioned Negro Department, held degrees in theology and law from Shaw University, and in church papers treated on the role of race in Adventist theology.

F.L. Peterson, uber-Adventist pioneer—he was the first black to graduate from Pacific Union College, the first to publish a book in the denomination, the first to serve as secretary of the Pacific Union Colored Department, to be elected secretary of the General Conference, and the first black vice president of the General Conference—published a book on salvational theology in 1934 entitled The Hope of the Race.  The volume’s thesis was that Jesus Christ was the only answer for the plight of black America, and he commended the SDA package as a resolution to the considerable problems of black America.

E.E. Cleveland, author of 15 books, would reproduce this theme many times over in his written work, and see its principles yield amazing returns in his evangelistic endeavors.

The Jesus of Adventism, a Brother and Savior Who freed blacks from a cruel bondage, gave them power to love their oppressors and endure the rigors of Jim and Jane Crow with Christian dignity, the Jesus who interceded for them in the Sanctuary, and would soon return to end all earthly woe, was the exact kind of God that African Americans required, according to Peterson and Cleveland.  This is a distinct contribution that only black SDAs could make to Christian theology.

Owen A. Troy Sr., was the first SDA of any color to earn a doctorate of theology, ThD, which he earned form the University of California.  Troy influenced Adventist theology in his post as associate secretary of the General Conference Sabbath School Department in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the early 1990s longtime and beloved SDA administrator Charles Bradford performed a singular theological service to the Adventist church by beginning the Sabbath in Africa Movement.  This research group has brought to light and made accessible the Christian heritage and legacy of Africans—particularly in the preservation of the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment.  Bradford drew the inspiration for this group from John Andrews and Ellen G. White, who presented Ethiopian Sabbath-keeping as exemplary.

Other blacks that have influenced SDA theology and of which unfortunately I only have time to mention are Drs Calvin Rock, Frank Hale, Roy Adams, Bertram Melbourne, Randy Maxwell, Walter Douglas, Pedrito Maynard Reid, Mervyn Warren, Keith Burton, and Samuel Koranteng Pipim; and, I must add, Hyveth Williams, who has forced the church to evaluate its theology of women’s roles.

In summary, blacks have significantly influenced SDA theology, their experience in America shaping the formation of church doctrines; by challenging the church’s Christianness in the area of loving and accepting individuals of different races; church policy and structure; liberation theology, Christ as the sole answer for the human plight; Christian heritage; and the roles of marginalized peoples.

As the world SDA church membership is now more than a third African and overwhelmingly non-white, people of color will most likely emerge as heavy influencers of SDA theology in the future.

-Benjamin Baker