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