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Charles Kinny (1855-1951)


The preeminent figure among black Adventists in the early 1880s, to the time when Edson White reached Vicksburg in 1895, was Charles M. Kinny. Most of what Adventists learned about the progress of the church among blacks during these years they learned from Kinny's regular articles in the Review and Herald.

Church leaders looked to Kinny to develop the best methods of evangelizing black Americans with the Advent message. When Kinny wrote to D. T. Jones, the General Conference secretary, asking whether he should concentrate on preaching, Bible readings, or colporteur work, Elder Jones gave him a free hand to experiment and determine for himself what the best methods would be. “Your success or failure,” he wrote, “will largely shape the policy of the General Conference in planning for the work among the colored people in the future.”

Charles M. Kinny was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia, in 1855. He was ten years old at the end of the Civil War, and as a young man he worked his way west to the rough and ready town of Reno, Nevada. It was there, in 1878, that he attended a series of evangelistic lectures by J. N. Loughborough. During these lectures Ellen G. White visited Reno, and on July 30 she preached to Loughborough's crowd of 400. Kinny never forgot that sermon. He accepted the Seventh-day Adventist message and was baptized on the last day of September 1878. One of the seven charter members of the Reno church, he was elected church clerk and secretary of the Nevada Tract and Missionary Society.

We have no clues as to how Kinny had been educated up to this time, but it is surprising that a young man of 23 would immediately be thrust into such a responsible position. The choice proved a good one. Kinny was a meticulous record keeper and statistician. He was a clear writer and a zealous advocate of his newfound faith. He wrote quarterly reports for the Review, telling of the progress of the Nevada Tract and Missionary

So promising was Kinny's work that local church members in Reno, together with the California Conference, sent him to Healdsburg College (now Pacific Union College) in California from 1883 to 1885 for further education. Mrs. White was living in Healdsburg at this time, and Kinny must often have heard her speak during his college years.

In 1885 the California Conference sent Kinny to Topeka, Kansas, to begin work among the black people there. He started on the first of June, and by mid October had canvassed a third of the town with Adventist books and tracts.

In 1889 Kinny was working among the black believers in St. Louis, Missouri. The church in St. Louis had been organized two years earlier and by 1889 numbered more than 50. Many, if not the majority, of the members were white, but there was a growing interest among blacks, especially after Kinny's arrival.

It was here, in St. Louis, that Kinny apparently made his first contact with race prejudice in the Adventist church. He wrote nothing about his experience in St. Louis for the Review, and his letters for 1889 have been lost, but we do have the letters written to him by D. T. Jones, General Conference secretary at that time. In Jones's letters we have fairly good evidence that Kinny was strongly protesting the prejudice he faced in St. Louis. Jones did what he could to encourage his colleague. Kinny's encounter with race prejudice in the St. Louis church is particularly interesting because Ellen White visited the city shortly after he left, and she too observed the problem. In 1891, in her appeal to the General Conference Committee for a more aggressive work among black people, she recalled her experience in St. Louis to point out racism in the Adventist denomination.

In the spring of 1889 arrangements were made for Kinny to go to Louisville, Kentucky, to take up the work begun there by A. Barry, a former Baptist minister. Calls for black workers were increasing by now, but A. Barry had been sent to Canada, leaving Kinny as virtually the only black Adventist minister in the United States.

Kinny's Louisville work represents his coming of age as a pastor-evangelist. On October 5, 1889, he was ordained the first black Seventh-day Adventist minister. On February 16, 1890, the Louisville Seventh-day Adventist church was organized, the second black Seventh-day Adventist church in the world.  In August of that year Kinny went to work with the first black SDA church, at Edgefield Junction, Tennessee. This church had been organized seven years earlier in 1883, and Harry Lowe, a local member, had been granted a ministerial license to watch over the little group.

From Kinny's letters during this time emerges a picture of a lonely but dedicated pastor, moving from place to place in Kentucky and Tennessee, encouraging a family here, preaching in a courthouse there, debating with a Methodist minister somewhere else. Kinny labored directly under the General Conference and sent a weekly letter to the General Conference secretary, reporting his movements and work. Kinny did not complain of loneliness, but certainly his work often discouraging. He was unmarried at this time, and his labors were often extremely difficult.

Charles Kinny was invited to attend the 1891 General Conference Session in Battle Creek, Michigan. It was at this session that Ellen G. White delivered her famous address, “Our Duty to the Colored People.” Kinny also delivered a talk at that conference, outlining steps he thought necessary to bring success to the work among black people.

The response on the part of the white church at first was slow, but Kinny's work seemed to blossom after the 1891 GC. On June 13, 1891, he organized the third black SDA church, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. A year later, after nine months of work in New Orleans, he organized the fourth black SDA church there. Two years later, on September 15 and 16, 1894, he organized the fifth church among black Seventh-day Adventists, in Nashville, Tennessee.

At the 1891 GC Session Kinny had asked that a dedicated white minister be sent to the South to labor among blacks fulltime. By 1894, this request was granted. As the Nashville church was being organized by Kinny, a riverboat loaded with white Adventists was heading down the Mississippi for Vicksburg. Edson White was captain, and for the next half dozen years he would come to be spokesman for the work among black people, doing exactly what Kinny had suggested, giving his whole time to them, building up the various branches, developing native talents, educating them, and getting them into the work.

Meanwhile, Kinny was not inactive. He continued in the ministry until 1911, when, because of his wife's illness, he retired. Kinny, always looking out for black Adventist interests, was known to be the pioneer of the black (Regional) conference concept. He lived to the age of 96, dying August 3, 1951, at the Riverside Sanitarium in Nashville, Tennessee.

Perhaps there were other black ministers who, in better times, made more converts than Charles M. Kinny, but no one faced the lonely task he faced, and no one pioneered the work as he did. He can unquestionably be honored today as the founder of black Adventism.

-Ron Graybill