James K. Humphrey (1877-1952)

James Kemuel Humphrey was born in the parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, on March 7, 1877.  He attended elementary school in the parish and graduated from Colbert College, where he distinguished himself as an exceptional student and eloquent speaker.  On December 19, 1900, he married Viola Anderson of Kingston, Jamaica, embarking shortly thereafter on a career as a Baptist minister. 

Always painfully aware of the plight of people of African descent in the “New World,” Humphrey left Jamaica in 1901 to visit Africa.  On his way there he stopped off in New York City, where he was converted to Adventism by a Seventh-day Adventist layman named J.H. Carroll.  A former Catholic, Carroll had been won to Adventism by Stephen Haskell, an Adventist pioneer, and was facilitating home meetings in Brooklyn, New York, when Humphrey entered one day.  The encounter altered Humphrey’s plans and changed his life.  Struck by the simplicity and logic of what he heard, Humphrey joined the Seventh-day Adventist church, walking away from the Baptist ministry, itself a significant step.  He aborted his trip to Africa, deciding to remain in New York City, where his wife joined him the following year.

In 1903 Humphrey, not Carroll, was chosen to lead the small group of Adventists that had grown out of Carroll’s labors, a testament to Humphrey’s extraordinary organizational and leadership skills.  A gifted musician and reputable scholar, Humphrey had innate charisma, a quality that contributed in no small way to the almost hypnotic effect his presence and words had on people.  Humphrey stood over six feet tall and was lean all his life.  His lithe frame, however, was not his most distinguishing feature, but the way he grew and styled his hair.  Parted to the left and heaped up to the right, Humphrey’s hair was snow white from his late forties onward, which exerted a somewhat mystical pull over people.

When Humphrey assumed the leadership of Carroll’s group in 1903, it consisted of ten people.  The following year, Humphrey began to function as a licensed minister in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and he was an ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister in 1907.  That year, he was invited to serve on the Executive Committee of the Greater New York Conference and on the Executive Committee of the Atlantic Union Conference some time later.  When the North American Negro Department of the General Conference was established in 1909, Humphrey was appointed as one of the members of the Executive Committee.

Humphrey’s meteoric rise in the Adventist Church continued through the 1910s.  He was chosen as a delegate from the Atlantic Union to the General Conference Session in 1913, the first of many times he would serve in that capacity.  Yet Humphrey could not lose sight of the challenges the race issue presented the SDA denomination.

Humphrey continued to hold tent revivals in New York City, and by 1920 his church, the First Harlem Church, had about six hundred members.  Humphrey was asked to serve in more leadership positions in the Greater New York Conference, and by the end of 1922, four Black churches were in the Greater New York Conference, all of them under the supervision of Humphrey.  The delegates from his church were often the only black delegates in the Conference Sessions.

First Harlem continued growing so well that no building in Harlem was large enough to accommodate the burgeoning congregation.  So, on January 1, 1924, Harlem Number Two was launched.  Within the year its membership was 125.  Humphrey’s evangelism continued to spawn new churches, and his influence among the black work in the Conference was dominant.  His influence was not confined to African Americans however, as evidenced by his various leadership roles accorded at the Greater New York Conference Sessions.

Humphrey wanted to leave New York, and petitioned church leaders to relocate him several times.  He was turned down, however, because of the black work in New York was thriving because of his efforts.  Humphrey was still distressed over the race issue.

Humphrey was asked to preach at the General Conference Session of 1922, certainly the high point in his ministry.   In his sermon Humphrey related the incident of a brother encouraging him to leave the SDA church because of the way that blacks were treated in the denomination.  Humphrey stated that he flatly refused the brother and would never leave God’s church.

Humphrey baptized over 300 persons between 1920 and 1927.  The First Harlem Church was the largest SDA denomination in the Greater New York Conference and Humphrey was pastoring both it and its daughter church, Number 2.  A part of Humphrey’s vast appeal was that the gospel he preached was social as well as theological.  Humphrey wanted Black people to be empowered economically and spiritually, so he began to promote a self-enhancement program called the Utopia Park Benevolent Association project (Utopia Park).

Utopia Park did not sit too well with Adventist church leadership—it was in violation of Adventist church policy, and Adventist church leaders learned about the project in a roundabout way because Humphrey failed to brief them on the project up front.  When church leaders sought to get full details of the project from Humphrey, he balked, and when he refused to alter his plans at the request of church leaders, Humphrey was stripped of his ministerial credentials.  Humphrey’s Harlem congregation, which almost unanimously stood in solidarity with him, shortly thereafter was expelled from the SDA denomination.  Subsequently, Humphrey established an independent Black religious organization, the United Sabbath-Day Adventists, which was comprised of most of his former members.  Today it is commonly held that the Utopia Park affair was a catalyst for Regional (Black) SDA Conferences.