February 2011

When a Black Man was Nominated General Conference President

In 2008 Barack Obama, an African American, was elected to the presidency of the United States of America by a decisive margin.  Not only the first black but the first person of color to hold the highest office in the nation, such an outcome was unthinkable to millions in the U.S. and around the world because of America’s turbulent history of systematic racism toward blacks and ethnic minorities.  Sadly, the leadership structure in Christianity has reflected the discouraging trend of the nation, largely excluding people of African origin from positions of authority.  This is true of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, as is evidenced by the need for the creation of separate black conferences in the mid-1940s.  Yet there was a precedent in the denomination for Obama’s victory—and 18 years in advance at that. 

 Race Relations and Leadership in Adventism

Race relations in Adventism has historically been, and remains, a stormy subject.  By the early 1940s the church boasted a sizable African American population, but was failing to address their unique needs and was discriminating against them on all levels despite blacks yielding a sizable portion in tithes and offerings.  Adventism's response to these public inequities and injustices was the forming of distinct black governing structures known as Regional Conferences.  These were designed to be operated and administrated by blacks to address the concerns of Adventism's growing African American constituency.

Over 65 years have elapsed and Regional Conferences endure.  African Americans have held leadership positions in non-Regional Conference, however.  A few have served as vice presidents of the General Conference; president of the church's largest divisions; president of the church's largest conferences; and chairpersons of important church boards.  There has not yet been a black General Conference president though, despite the diversification of the worldwide Adventist church and the overwhelming influx of Adventist converts in Africa.

What many Adventists do not know, however, is that a black man was nominated to the presidency of the General Conference.  The year was 1990, the place Indianapolis, Indiana.  The 55th General Conference was destined to be historic.  The church was engrossed in debates over woman's ordination, tithe appropriations and conference structure.  On top of these potentially incendiary issues were the church’s efforts to remain relevant to its youth; adjust to a new demographic due to explosive growth in developing countries; address an emerging conflict between western and non-western Adventism; and meet the realities of a new decade.

The Nominating Dilemma

By the Indianapolis session in 1990, the incumbent General Conference president Neal Wilson had held the chief post for twelve years yet chose to submit his name for nomination once again.  Highly respected by the constituents, the church made significant progress under Wilson’s leadership.  He was especially supported by delegates outside of the North American Division—particularly Europe and Africa.  After the General Conference nominating committee took several ballots, two names emerged as frontrunners: Neal C. Wilson and George W. Brown. 

George Brown was born on January 11, 1924 in the Dominican Republic to an Antiguan father and Dominican mother, and spent his early years between the two islands.  His native language was Spanish and he was a third generation Adventist.  Earning his bachelors degree in Theology from Caribbean Union College in 1948, he served as a pastor and evangelist for a decade.  In 1952 Brown married Carla Charmes of Suriname and the couple had four daughters.  Brown earned a masters in Systematic Theology and doctorate of Divinity from Andrews University and was the president of the University of the Southern Caribbean.

Assuming the presidency of the Inter-American Division in 1980, for a decade the multilingual Brown provided extraordinary leadership, at once conservative and progressive.  The Division experienced unprecedented growth during this decade and adapted with innovative structuring and programs.  Brown was known for his adroitness at reconciliation and unification and for spiritual leadership.  His tenure as president was undoubtedly formative for the modern Inter-American Division

The delegates at the Indianapolis General Conference Session had a decision to make between five more years of the esteemed Neal Wilson or a new leader in George Brown.  Many saw Brown as reflecting the diversity of the new church and the ability to unify the different segments divided over the issues at hand.  The delegation voted decisively for Brown, 130 to 81 for Wilson.  The church had made a statement: It wanted change.

Time for a Decision

After the vote a messenger was immediately dispatched to find Brown so he could conference with the chair and secretary of the nominating committee.  The 211 voting delegates were asked to stay in the nominating room so that the choice would not be broadcasted before Brown was notified.  It took some time to find the nominee, but finally Brown was located and the chair, Robert Folkenberg (then president of the Carolina Conference), and secretary, Benjamin Reaves (then president of Oakwood College), broke the news to Brown and urged him to accept.  The 66-year old was stunned.  He asked for a day to think it over and promised to have an answer on Friday by 5:00 p.m.

Brown and his family went to a private place to talk the matter over.  Brown describes this as "the most excruciating experience I have ever had."  He was honored that the church thought him the man to lead it into the next decade, but he had serious life issues to consider.  He was nearing seventy years old.  His beloved wife of nearly forty years was ill.  If he accepted the presidency, he would have to travel a great deal of the time, which meant he would be away from his wife.  Additionally, Brown felt he could only serve one five-year term if he accepted the position, and the church needed a younger leader who could serve at least two terms.

In prayer and deep thought for much of the night and morning, Brown was pressured from all sides for him to accept.  He was approached everywhere by Adventist leaders—in the hotel lobby, along the convention halls, on the street.  He would be the first man of color, the first non-American white to hold the position.  He could unify the church and set it on track.  Why not accept the nomination and just serve one term?  "There was no end to the pressure," Brown remembers. 

The Breakthrough

During that gauntlet of a day of prayer and pondering, Brown reached the conclusion that God was not leading him to accept the presidency.  When he realized this, he recalls that a peace came over him and he could not be moved by any arguments or suggestions to the contrary.  Brown announced his declension to the committee before 5:00 p.m. on Friday as he had promised.  Robert Folkenberg dismally reported to the nominating committee: "A nightmare of nightmares has occurred.  Elder Brown has decided not to accept."

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This critical episode in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist church, now more than two decades old, has been largely forgotten, or was never even known of by the majority of members.  However, it is important to keep in mind that the Seventh-day Adventist church nominated a black man to be the president of the world church 18 years before the United States nominated a black man for its highest office.  Although quiet and often overlooked, the 1990 Indianapolis General Conference Session was a watershed event in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist church.

-Benjamin Baker